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Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Postscript: Michael Ash, 1927-2016

We received some sad new yesterday afternoon via Twitter. Michael Ash, the creative mathematician who pioneered nitrogen dispense systems, died on Saturday.

I had the chance to meet Mr. Ash in Dublin on March 24, where he was being honored for his achievements. (It was the reason I was in Ireland.) I'll have more about his career in a future post, including some audio quotes I recorded in March. Here's a bit of the biography (edited for brevity) the brewery prepared for his visit.


Michael read mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge and was awarded a triple first in his studies – top scholar that year in Cambridge. Between 1948 – 1950, Michael was allowed to reduce his national service conscription by teaching Maths at a University (other than Oxbridge). He taught at Bedford College. Up to the end of World War Two, the Guinness Company had a policy of recruiting only first class honours science graduates from Oxford or Cambridge. Michael was the first non-brewer to be recruited into Guinness.

It was in this role, he led a team of over 20, and their primary role was to seek to improve the shelf life of bottled Guinness. However, Michael felt that the real prize was in developing a proper system for Draught Guinness and began dedicating his time to the ‘Draught Problem’.

The rise of lagers available on draught, especially in the UK in the 1940s and 1950s, was encroaching on traditional Guinness sales, and Michael felt that there was a great opportunity for Guinness, should the stout be available in Draught format. However, the essential problem was with the gas. Carbon dioxide was used to pressurise kegs of bitter and lager, and it was easy and effective for everyone concerned. Guinness, though was too lively to be draughted with carbon dioxide alone.

Of the 20 plus men on his Sample Room team, he could only afford to assign 2 people to work part-time with him on ‘Daft Guinness’ as it became known with the Park Royal Brewery. Michael talks about working weekends and late nights over a long period of time to eventually come up with a nitrogen gas solution. 

He worked hand in hand with Eric Lewis, of Alumasc, who supplied Michael with prototype after protoype of metal kegs with different experimental gas chambers.  The fact that nitrogen is an inert gas meant that they bubbles lasted longer and were smaller. The right amount of nitrogen, created the ‘surge’ and allowed for a controlled, creamy head that lasts for the whole pint.

The eventual solution was a ‘mixed gas dispense’ system. Known initially as ‘The Ash Can’, The Easy Serve Cask was a self-contained, two-part keg, with one chamber full of beer and the other full of mixed gas under pressure.

Having seen the possibilities, [the company] was in a hurry to get Draught Guinness out into the market place, and he demanded that it should be launched in 1959 – the year of the Guinness bicentenary.  At a board meeting of 9 December 1959 – Viscount Elveden (later 3rd Lord Iveagh)  reported that about half the draught Guinness outlets had now been changed to the Easy Serve system, and the changeover of the remainder should take place by mid-January 1960.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Dusting Off an Old Manifesto

We are entering the week of the Craft Brewers Conference, when a huge amount of energy will be devoted to this theoretical netherworld called "craft beer." It follows a week in which Stone's Greg Koch announced he'd be dumping $100 million into "real" breweries. Or something. Oh god, I grow weary of all this. Titans are arguing about which purity tests to apply (Greg Koch has A LOT more in common with the Busch family than he does with me.) And all of these titans will be appealing to your emotions to get you to buy the right brand, and it's starting to feel awfully tawdry.

What should a good drinker do? Six years ago I wrote a post that got very little traction, but which always struck me as the right answer. Consumers want good beer and a system that supports diversity. I think you should ignore all the blather about craft and consider my old manifesto. It looks even better to me now. Below I've reprinted an edited version, with a few additions in italics. Since I wrote this post, I've traveled the world and learned a bit more about beer, but it all convinces me I was right in the first place.

Buy local, buy good, drink on tap.

Back in the 1970s, Charlie Papazian founded the Association of Brewers--and the more well-known American Homebrewers Association--as advocacy groups for fledgling brewers. The mission grew out of the particular circumstances of that time and place, and was, for at least a decade, clear, accurate, and important. There were two categories of beer: insipid, tin-can beer and handcrafted, artisanal beer. The former had eaten its own, stamped out diversity and quality, and was busily consolidating itself into a single, monolithic product where the only distinction could be found in the color on the label. The latter cared about beer, brewing history, and beer styles, not money. The Association of Brewers therefore had an easy task: support the little guy, support good beer, support independence. It was a moral as much as business crusade.

Unfortunately, breweries can't easily be divided into good beer/bad beer, big/little, and independent/multinational. The brewing industry is a market, and markets grow like amoebas. Trying to contain them in boxes is of no use. And markets are by nature amoral. I have no particular interest in how American breweries organize themselves politically. This manifesto is designed not for brewery owners, but beer drinkers concerned with creating an environment that fosters a healthy market for good beer. It is designed to create the conditions for the production of good beer and a sustainable market. It could also be said to be a blueprint for how Beervana became Beervana, how Bamberg became Bamberg, and how Prague became Prague. These things, rather than a series of ever less explicable categories of being, are what we want to nurture.

Buy Local
Show me a town where the beer drinkers are avid fans of good beer, and I'll show you a town with local breweries. It makes sense, right? If locals are buying your beer, you're inclined to make them happy. But it's not just small breweries that have this effect: look at the great brewing regions, the areas around Portland, Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia--have or had large, regional breweries located nearby. Beer is local. If you have a beer city, it means you have beer people. If those beer people buy locally, they'll have access to good beer. Good beer is fundamentally a product of culture; a dialogue between the people who drink beer and the people who make it. You find good beer where you find good beer culture, and you only find good beer culture in places where beer is made locally by a number of breweries.

The Brewers Association has focused on the independence, but this misses the point. Markets require masses. Towns with breweries have those masses. The problem with consolidation in the 60s and 70s was that local brewing culture died out--vast swaths of the country, lacking any local beer, drank whatever was cheapest, further fueling consolidation and turning beer from a product of local culture into a generic commodity. It's counterintuitive, but even bigger regional breweries help smaller ones flourish because they make the market even that much bigger. You don't have to be xenophobic about it, but spare a copper or two for the local guy(s).  And of course, when you're traveling, drink local wherever you happen to be, to..

(Buying local also helps communities, and is a source of local wealth and prosperity.)

Buy Good
Of course, it's not enough to only buy local--consumers have to demand good beer. Rather than descending into a long philosophical dispute about good, let's use the Judge Stewart rationale: we know it when we see it. Minimally, it's a beer brewed with quality ingredients and attention to style. The reason we should support good beer--whether or not it comes from a small brewery--is that this creates the market for good beer. If consumers always eschew the good for the cheap, they'll get the cheap. If they spend a bit more and buy the good, they'll make it possible for breweries to continue to brew the good. And round it goes.

Buying good creates the environment for local culture to flourish. The commodification of beer creates a generic blandness. Buying good encourages breweries to offer more enticing offerings. What we've seen in the US in the last decade is a race to the top, as breweries use techniques like late-addition hopping to create a new style of hoppy American beer (which is anything but cheap) and embrace techniques like spontaneous fermentation, kettle souring, and barrel-aging. In communities that develop a taste for one of these techniques, local styles may emerge. That has been the history of beer style for 10,000 years.

Drink on Tap
You can buy many of the world's greatest beers in bottles. You can buy brewery-fresh local beer in bottles. But from time to time, you should go to your neighborhood pub and plunk down a five spot on a pint (an honest pint, naturally). The brewing ecosystem is large and diverse. If we don't support pubs, we fail to support the incubators of beer culture. Seeing others in a public space, sampling different kinds of beers, talking with your local publican (who may be the brewer)--these things are the fertilizer for healthy markets. When people go to pubs, they support local beer and local business. More importantly, buying on tap means that the communication between the brewer and the drinker is direct and transparent; it's the basis of that responsiveness that leads to local culture. Markets respond to product trends; publicans respond to people.

Buy local, buy good, drink on tap. Do these things, and good beer will continue to be brewed in your neighborhood. After all, isn't that's what we're really after? 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Multimedia Friday

Last night, John Harris addressed a packed house at Ecliptic to comment on his 30 years as an Oregon brewer. I mentioned briefly why those 30 years are going to be hard to beat (he is, to use a metaphor from a different field, a first-ballot hall of famer), but I wanted to relay something Sally told John and I yesterday. She was talking to her business partner and mentioned John's anniversary. "Wow," he told her. "He taught me how to drink good beer." When Devan came to Oregon, he like so many found Deschutes Mirror Pond and was ushered into beer. There are tens of thousands like him.

Here's John speaking last night. If you don't know John, this is a pretty perfect introduction to his personality. (I'm pretty sure the young woman to his left is his daughter.)

And, to close out impromptu Pilsner week with a trip to the Czech Republic on this week's podcast. Patrick and I survey Czech beer and what makes it tick. As I have said a number of times, and which I repeated on the podcast, I think the Czech Republic is my favorite beer country, and it's partly because the beer there is far more varied and interesting than Americans know. With clips from Budvar's  Adam Brož, we walk through the reasons it's so fantastic. Give it a listen on Soundcloud our iTunes (we've submitted it to Google Play, so look for it on android, too.)

Have a good weekend--

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Modest Proposal: Oregon Pilsner Cup

As this pilsner thing bubbled up unexpectedly this week, it revived an idea I've been toying with for a few years. Four or five years ago, as Oregon started to be fertile ground for these really good, classic pilsners, I thought it would be cool to do a blind tasting with the brewers who made them. My inspiration was more journalistic. I thought it would be fun to have them discuss pilsners while tasting them, and from that session I'd get a sense of why they had returned to this classic (and un-American) old style.

I didn't manage to get around to it, though, and then more and more breweries started making them. Now there are, off-hand, eight examples I really like (Arch Rock, Breakside, Buoy, The Commons, Ecliptic Spica, Heater-Allen, Occidental, pFriem, Upright Engelberg). If I'm in a pub and any one of these beers is on tap, I almost certainly order it at some point. Hop Valley apparently discontinued its great Czech Your Head (also a great name), and it looks like Ninkasi has, too. Then there are others like Widmer's PDX Pils that I've never tried. There are even helleses like Zoiglhaus Lents Lager and Ninkasi Helles Belles that are pretty close to the wheelhouse. Add all this up and you've got something approaching a score of great pale lagers.

There oughta be a competition.

I'm terrible at implementation, but I'd love these wonderful little beers--perfect standards of counter-programing in hoppy, aley Beervana--to get more attention. They aren't braggy beers, and they are misunderstood. The people who prize them form a kind of secret society. And yet making them isn't easy, and it takes more time and is more expensive. Breweries who put in the effort do it for the love of these beers, and I feel that love. So someone (obviously not me) should arrange a Pilsner Cup to select Beervana's finest. A good blind-tasting like Willamette Week implemented for its beer awards this year would produce a credible winner. I for one would be fascinated to see who would come out on top. I don't know that I could make a call myself.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Makes a Good Pilsner?

No, they're not pilsners; I claim poetic license.

After I posted a link to my Sherpa recommendation for Block 15's Gloria! pilsner on Facebook yesterday, Jonathan Aichele added his own link--and promptly sparked 397 furious comments. He directed us to a blind tasting the Oregonian did with Oregon pilsners that resulted in the selection of ... an infected one as Oregon's finest. (Verbatim tasting notes from the "winner": "is this infected?," "good, clean fun," "tart, gose-y," "not very pilsner-y.") This demonstrates that, while style sometimes blinds us to a beer's true nature, ignoring it while comparing beers doesn't make a lot of sense, either. It's like selecting a schnauzer as the best tabby because you don't like cats.

Which leads us to an obvious question: okay, smarty pants, then what is a good pilsner? In anticipation of yet another pilsner-related post for later this week, I'm really glad I asked.

Pilsners Generally
Pilsners are pale lagers that originally came from--spoiler alert--Pilsen (or Plzeň in the Czech), Bohemia. In the United States, we say there are two variants, Bohemian and German, and this is dead wrong. These are actually separate beers. German pilsners have evolved on a separate track from the Czech line and bear Bavarian hallmarks. (German helles is far closer to German pils than the later is to Czech světlý ležák--what we now call Czech pilsner.) Nevertheless, the entire category, as European lagers, do share some similarities that are very distinct from the American tradition, and they're important.

In the United States, we commonly build beer from a foundation of generic two-row pale malt--a "base malt"--so generic its variety isn't even mentioned, and layer on specialty malts for flavor. In both ales and lagers, yeast plays a diminished role. In ales particularly, hops are the diva at the center of the performance, and the other elements are supporting characters. Pilsners, by contrast, sing in harmony, with three actors playing equal roles:
  • Aromatic, flavorful base malts. Pilsners are made with basically one malt, and yet they have  incredible malt character. This comes from the base malts, which are prepared in such a way at the malthouse that they produce distinctive aromas and rich flavors. Dozens of malthouses are scattered across Bavaria, and they prepare the pilsner malts differently, accentuating different characteristics. Some tend toward honey, others grain, others rustic breadiness. In the Czech Republic, the malts may even still be made in traditional floor maltings, and in any case, the strain of barley--as in England--plays a big role. (Many breweries favor either Moravian or Bohemian-grown malts, too.) Again, the Czechs are looking for unique aromas and flavors that come just from these malts. Because no specialty malts are used for flavor, the base malts have to be distinctive.
  • Delicate herbal hops. Continental hops are not uniform, but they do share a kind of delicacy that's critical to a pilsner. Those malts need to shine through, so the hops have to add a dose of flavor and aroma without overwhelming them. European hops aren't so strongly flavored, so even when used to produce high levels of bitterness, they don't overshadow those malts. Ideally, they'll harmonize with malt flavors, too, so that the honey or bread play nice with the black pepper or tarragon coming from the hops. 
  • Clean, crisp yeasts. Lager yeasts don't contribute fermentation characteristics like phenols and esters--they let those malts and hops shine through transparently. What they do add is a smoothness of palate and, particularly, a crisp snap at the finish that makes these among the most moreish of all beers. 
Sladmistr David Mares at the Ferdinand brewery/malthouse.

This tripartite balance point is essential to the style. There are a lot of ways to make great beers, but the thing that makes pilsners work is when all of these elements are expressed simultaneously. It is often said that pilsners are the hardest beers to make because they don't hide anything. I think that's wrong. They're the hardest beers to make because each of these elements is subtle, and when you're trying to make them sing in harmony, the slightest off note is immediately evident. They test a brewer because she must find a way to take three delicate elements and bring them together so that they wow a drinker. When it works, it looks like magic.

Regional Differences
A quick word on why German and Czech pilsners are not really the same style. It is true that in 1842 and for decades thereafter Bavarians were the ones leading the lager renaissance in Bohemia (Josef Groll, who brewed the first pilsner, was Bavarian). But that was a long time ago. Two world wars and a cold war interceded, and the two countries spent the 20th century brewing separately. Germany's tradition followed technology, while the Czech tradition, for long decades imprisoned behind an iron wall, languished. Qualitatively, this means German lagers are more refined and polished. They're often thinner of mouthfeel and drier. Czech lagers are more assertive and fuller. There are reasons for this.
  • Decoction mashing. This old German technique is mandated by law for any beer that wants to be called "Czech beer." Many Bavarian breweries still do it, too, especially in the countryside, but it's getting less common. Decoction mashing is used (now) to create melanoidins that help build richness. Think less of the process,though, and more of the result--that richness. This isn't a priority in German pilsners, but it is in good Czech ones.
  • Hopping rates. In the US, basically the only distinction we acknowledge between Czech and German pilsners is that the former uses Saaz hops. They're basically the marker for Americans. And important they are! But there's also an issue of intensity. That richness that builds up with the malts can withstand a bit more bitterness, and Czechs take advantage. In neither tradition does late- or aroma-hopping play much of a role, but the Czechs do something interesting to create a "softness" to their hopping...
  • First wort hopping. This is a technique where you put the hops into the kettle while the beer is coming in from the lauter tun and being raised to a boil. It is said to create a delicacy, a softness to the bittering that helps keep all the elements in balance, even with stiff bitterness. I suppose there are breweries in the Czech Republic that don't do this, but I didn't encounter them. Conversely, I've never heard of a German using the technique. (Which doesn't mean none do, but.)
  • Other oddities. Some Czechs do other funny things from time to time, too, like using open fermentation, using long boils, and conducting extra-long lagering. These things can probably be found in farmhouse breweries and rustic village breweries in Bavaria, but that's the thing--they're rustic. In the Czech Republic, breweries like Budvar still do weird things like lager their beer for three months. It's considered normal.
We don't get many Czech pilsners in the US and the ones we do--Budvar and Urquell--are regarded as slight oddballs in the Czech Republic. So you may have to take my word on this one. Side by side, the differences between a Czech and German pilsner are anything by incidental.

These are pilsners--or rather, světlý ležáks.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Block 15 Gloria Unfiltered Pilsner

If you're a certain kind of drinker, the name Block 15 evokes one of the state's buzziest of hoppy buzz beers, Sticky Hands (currently scoring a titanic 4.43 on BeerAdvocate). If you're a different kind of drinker, it might call to mind Super Nebula, a stout (4.18). Or maybe you like yourself some balanced, sophisticated wild ales, in which case Block 15 makes you think of Turbulent Consequences Peche (4.39) or Golden Canary (4.26). To me, Block 15 has always said saison, which is why I included Ferme De La' Ville Provision (4.14) in The Beer Bible. In other words, Nick Arzner's little Corvallis joint does a lot of different things very well.

Add pilsner to the list.

Gloria, or as the brewery styles it, Gloria!, is named for Arzner's mother-in-law but, curiously, began life as Glo. The earlier incarnation was an unassuming and uncelebrated golden ale (3.49). Arzner himself must have felt some ambivalence, because it didn't merit her full name. So, over time, he slowly transformed the beer in increments from that timid golden ale to a distinctive, full-flavored pilsner. "No one complained, either!" he proclaimed triumphantly as he relayed the story. That's hard to believe, because Gloria joins a growing list of truly stellar Oregon pilsners that is absolutely glowing with flavor (sort of like my tricked out photo above). I can't imagine anyone confusing it with a golden.

Gloria! is made with Czech floor-malted barley and is hopped with Saaz and Mt. Hood (a descendant of Hallertauer bred for "noble" characteristics). Despite all the Czech cues in its DNA, though, it's not like any Czech lager I tried. The malts add only a very subtle sweetness and almost no density (they're often thick, rounded, or even cakey in the Czech Republic)--more like you'd find in a German pilsner. The hops lack that distinctive tang of Saaz (you might describe that characteristic Saaziness as something other than tang, but you get my point) but are nevertheless assertive and delish. Instead of tang, they have a nice snap up front and an herbal, lemony flavor. What I liked most was the character of the yeast, which was so crisp and clean I thought I felt it scrubbing the grime right off my teeth. I believe it is this quality that earned Gloria its exclamation point.

I was heartened to learn that this beer is headed for the canning line, so there's even a chance you might encounter it down the road. (Oh, you non-Oregonians? No, you're probably screwed. But at least Portlanders can hope!)
"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Cheers to Duke Wilhelm IV

Photo by Jeff Quinn for All About Beer.

Today's the big day. On April 23, 1516, the Duke of Bavaria, Wilhelm IV, issued what would only much later come to be called the Reinheitsgebot, or the “purity law.” I'm going to link again to an article I wrote for All About Beer, which may be the best article I've written (and it's about as good an article as I can write). It's a deep dive into the law and reveals a lot about it that isn't commonly discussed. It starts this way:
Originally, though, that element was downplayed—it’s just the third stipulation: “in all our towns, marketplaces and the whole of the countryside, that beer shall have no other ingredients than barley, hops, and water be used and employed.” When you read the full document, running about 320 words in translation, these 27 don’t appear to be the main point. The first two stipulations regulated prices, capping what a publican could charge, particularly during different seasons. There was also a fourth provision, again about pricing, and a comment at the end where Duke Wilhelm reserved the right to change anything in the law during grain shortages. 
In other words, the original decree had a lot more to do about money than consumer health. Indeed, even the restriction on ingredients was only partly driven by the wish to banish the use of unhealthy additives from beer (though the practice was common at the time). Wilhelm was also concerned about protecting the food supply, and limiting brewers to barley freed up the wheat crop for bakers—which also helped keep the price of bread more stable.

Even the part we think we understand is generally misinterpreted. In detailing the allowable ingredients, Wilhelm does not specify yeast, which has caused modern writers to assume he didn’t know about it. Not only is that wrong, but it leads us to miss an important element of the Reinheitsgebot’s logic. Matthias Trum, the sixth-generation family owner of Bamberg’s famous rauchbier brewery Schlenkerla, explains how we should actually understand that famous omission.

“The yeast is in fact not mentioned; that is correct.” Trum, who studied history while earning his brewing degree at Weihenstephan, points out that brewers of the day were well aware of yeast’s existence. “In the Middle Ages, they had a profession called the ‘hefener,’ so they knew exactly. The purity law lists ingredients, right? Yeast I put in there and I get more out of it. I harvest the yeast at the end and I put it into the next batch. And that was actually the job of the hefener.” It’s actually hard to imagine how they couldn’t have known about it. Why? Because after you brew, you end up with a fluffy layer of stuff at the bottom of the fermenter: “Zeug.  Zeug was the German word, which is ‘stuff.’ The hefener’s job was to harvest the yeast from the batches, to press out as much remaining beer as possible, which was sold at a low price to the poor, and then the yeast was added to the next batch. You started with a smaller amount of yeast and then you ended with a bigger amount of yeast.” An ingredient, Wilhelm’s logic went, was something that stayed in the beer.
There's a lot more at the link, so click through and read the whole thing. And of course, raise a pint to this amazing, ancient human tradition. (It predated the start of the Protestant Reformation by a year.*) Just its continued existence is staggering.

*Do not talk to me about Jan Hus, you damn pedants.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Toasting John Harris' Thirty Years

John Harris' 30-Year Anniversary Fête
6 pm, Thursday April 28th
Ecliptic Brewing (825 N. Cook St)

We've reached the stage of maturity in American brewing when each year brings a raft of milestones for one of the founding brewers or breweries. I comment on very few because just surviving doesn't count as much of an accomplishment on its own. There are some exceptions, and John Harris, who will be celebrating his thirty years as a professional brewer next Thursday, is certainly one.


Let's trot briefly through the highlights. In 1986, he started his brewing career at the McMenamins, got a couple of years experience, and then joined Gary Fish to help launch a little start-up brewpub in Bend called Deschutes. In those early years, John gave the world Cascade Ale, Bachelor Bitter, Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond, Obsidian Stout, and Jubelale. He came back to Portland to work for Full Sail at their RiverPlace brewery, and stayed there twenty years before starting his new solo venture, Ecliptic, in 2013. More than any other brewer, his fingerprints are all over Oregon beer.

In the press release to mark the event, John included this invitation, which has a delightful little allusion in it:
I started Brewing in April of 1986 at the Hillsdale Brewpub in Portland. It has been a long strange ride!

I am very proud of all my years making beer for a living. I have created many beers over those years but there is one I am linked to more than any other. I brewed a special beer, Reflection Nebula Pale Ale, to celebrate this 30 year milestone. I invite you to join me for a beer to celebrate on April 28th at 6pm.

What would you likely see your reflection in? A mirror, you say? I think we can connect the dots well enough.

No brewer more deserves a victory lap than John, and this one is open to the public. I expect it will be a mob scene, because I know more than a few people who speak sotto voce in reverence when they catch sight of John--as if the pope had just walked by. And they're sort of right.  I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wonder and Humility

Last week, Patrick and I sat down to record a podcast on tasting beer. (Give it a listen!) The simple idea was that, in blind-tasting our way through a few beers, we could illustrate how much your eyes, noses, and tongue will tell you about the beer you're drinking. Beer's many flavor and aroma compounds can easily bewilder, and it takes years of sampling to find your way through their thicket. I've led tastings where we sample a beer and break it down, and for people new(ish) to beer, it can be revelatory. Being able to connect flavors to ingredient and process creates a map that drinkers can use with any beer--a rosetta stone that demystifies all that complexity.

Is Fred about to listen to his beer?

But in deciding to do the tasting blind, we revealed another truth to beer: so much of our "knowledge" comes from things that we don't learn through our eyes, noses, and tongues. I'd asked Sally to buy some beers for the experiment and prepare them for us. We didn't coordinate about anything--style, brewery, country. Stripping away all those cues left us with only our senses, and that's a surprisingly naked experience. You want to reach for the bottle to see what the brewery says about the beer. Our second bottle was a saison by Bend's Crux Fermentation Project. It had a lot of clovey phenolics and a touch of banana-y isoamyl acetate. I looked at the cloudy liquid in the glass and wondered whether it was a saison or a slightly offbeat Bavarian weizen. I had no crutch to lean on, though, so I just settled further into the experience. Not knowing let me get to know that beer on fresh terms.

Even more remarkable was the experience of bottle three, a beer we had already reviewed on the podcast. It was my favorite beer of the flight, and such a curious experience! The aromas were richly malty, with layers of cocoa, nuts, toffee, and chicory. The flavors were if anything more varied. There was a fragile layer of roastiness floating on top of the palate, and it gave way to a buffet of malty goodness underneath. There was a vanilla/butterscotch note so pronounced we were pretty sure it had been bourbon-aged. Amazingly, the beer was light and delicate, and as you swallowed, it disappeared with a satisfyingly crisp snap.

It turned out to be Black Boss, which we sampled for the porters and stouts podcast (one of my favorites). In that case, I condemned it because I found it wanting as a porter. And indeed, when we blind-tasted it, we agreed it wasn't a porter. The roast is far too subtle. It was a ruby color, very bright, with an ecru head and, poured into a Rodenbach glass, did a decent enough visual impersonation of Roselare's finest. But my impression of the beer as a bad Baltic porter clouded my judgment about the beer itself. What I "knew" about Black Boss prevented me from experiencing something much more obvious and accessible. Absolutely every time I do a blind tasting, I find myself re-learning the lessons of humility, and this was a prime example.

Recently, Bryan Roth wrote a great post about bringing ears into the equation and listening to your beer. Fred Eckhardt used to exhort drinkers to listen to their beers, too. Like Bryan, he meant it partly literally--you can hear a head collapse, he pointed out--but Eckhardt was a bit of a mystic. He meant it poetically, as well. We "know" so much about beer because of what the label tells us, what its reputation is, what our previous experience has been, and what style it was brewed to. But this isn't knowledge, not really. When Fred told us to listen to our beers, he was saying, "put everything else aside." Every beer will tell you about itself, if only you stop to listen to the story.

Real knowledge is naked experience, untroubled by extraneous details. We so often foreclose the possibility of discovery because we already have the answers, the knowledge. If we know a beer is a well-regarded dubbel from a famous brewery in Belgium, we mold our experience (subtly, unintentionally) to fit that knowledge. We lose the opportunity for wonder. We can't meet someone we already know.

Periodically I have an experience that reminds me of these truths. Afterward, in the few days when I can remember to recapture my wonder and humility, I marvel at the experience and pure pleasure of a pint of beer. This is one of those moments. I better have another beer soon.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Of Culture and Business

Over the weekend, the Asheville Citizen-Times published a fascinating analysis of how the deal to lure Deschutes went sideways. If you're interested at the intersection of public policy and business, it's a great piece. But beyond general lessons, there are some particularities that jumped out at me. There were so many moving parts, it's hard to know what tipped the scales in Roanoke's favor, but it looks like culture played a dominant role. Consider:
  • "The beer culture fit well with what the outdoors tourism officials were trying to promote, said that city’s economic development director, Wayne Bowers. 'We’re on the Appalachian Trail. And the Blue Ridge Parkway comes right through town,' Bowers said." All you have to do is pick up a bottle of Deschutes to understand how central the outdoors is to the brewery. It's embedded very deeply into their DNA.
  • Asheville sold Deschutes' first-choice site, but Deschutes stayed engaged because Asheville is such a beery city. 
  • On the one hand, Deschutes was dealing with this from Ashville: "Republican Commissioner Joe Belcher later would say that his problem with the arrangement was bigger than the land purchase. Belcher said he was opposed to alcohol in general due to 'a deep personal and religious conviction.'" 
  • And if some in Asheville didn't love beer, Virginia was going all out for the deal. The state launched an online campaign that Virginians could participate in, and they got the governor involved in the courting process. And then there was this, which cracked me up. "Those intangibles also included ... the discovery that Haymore and Deschutes President Michael LaLonde were fellow 'Deadheads....' It was in the middle of one of the Dead’s most well-known tunes 'Franklin’s Tower' that McAuliffe got the handshake from LaLonde that he wanted, Haymore said."

If you're planning for the next few decades, brewery location isn't a casual consideration. You're stuck with that very expensive property. The natural environment, beer culture, and cultural mores of the city and state will play a huge role in whether the brewery succeeds. One might imagine that sweetening the pot with a few million dollars would make the decision easy, but against these long-term considerations (and an $85 million price tag), location and culture has a lot more to do with it.

East to West?
It's a little surreal to read about how much two states (and South Carolina was an early contender, as well) wanted Deschutes. I absolutely cannot imagine an Oregon city working with local businesses and the governor to try to score a new, say Dogfish Head, Boston Beer, or Yuengling plant. For one thing, Oregon has invested on the front end. The state already brews well over a million barrels of beer a year (not clear whether this stat includes CBA or not). By encouraging breweries with a good regulatory environment, self-distribution laws, and low taxes, Oregon has already developed five of the top 50 largest breweries in the US. Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina have developed none.

But of course the bigger thing is that Oregon has such a strong self-identity as a brewing state. We don't import breweries, we build them. We don't drink beer from elsewhere (for good and mostly bad), we drink Oregon beer. I suppose Dogfish Head could set up a brewery here for distribution purposes, but it's hard to envision a scenario outlined in the Citizen-Times playing out here.

All beer is local. That's starting to make things confusing, but only to a point.

Update (9:41am). I meant to add this point. A few people on social media have made the point that one reason for the west-to-east migration of breweries has to do with population densities. West Coast breweries are moving east because that's where the people are, and it's why we're not seeing the reverse. That's true to a point--but only a point. There are a lot of people in the NE, but they're not a giant market. Yet. One of the reasons West Coast breweries grew so fast (fourteen of the fifty largest US breweries) is because there are a lot of people here drinking those beers. Deschutes and Widmer Brothers sell 200,000 barrels of beer in Oregon alone--three times the amount all New Jersey breweries made last year.