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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Sour" Beers, Craft's Dark Secrets, and Yeast--Three Interesting Stories













August is reliably the deadest month on the calendar. The excitement of summer has passed, but no one wants to confront all these Oktoberfest releases the marketing people are trying to promote. True to form, this August started slow, but there have been a few recent articles out there that piqued my interest. I think you'll have thoughts as well.

1. The New York Times Botches "Sour" Beers
Eric Asimov, the wine writer for the Times, has offered more misleading, confusing information about beer to more people than anyone on earth. I know he's an astute guy with a great palate, but for some reason, beer is so far beneath him he can't actually be bothered to report it properly. Last week he did a round up of "sour beers," and made a predictable hash in framing it. I don't mind particularly that he combined every tart style, from gose to lambic, in one category. In sensory evaluation, it's fine to blend categories of like beers. But then he writes this, and my patience evaporates:
Many of these characteristics are a result of a brewing process seemingly derived as much from wine as from beer, in which the beers are aged in barrels after fermentation. As they rest, they undergo additional transformations as bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus interact with the beer, contributing lively acidity as well as tart flavors and increased complexity. Some are vintage dated.
And:
My guess is that few commercial sour-beer brewers choose to allow the sort of spontaneous fermentations that shape Belgian lambics. More likely, they are inoculating their brews with selected yeast strains, including brettanomyces, anathema to winemakers as it can be the source of funky flavors great and small. If unwanted in wine, it can be great in beer styles like gueuze, a Belgian blend of young and old unflavored lambics.
Ugh. To make explicit the crimes here: 1) in the first paragraph, he conflates the production of beers like gose (kettle soured) with barrel-aged beers. Goses (and most Berliner weisses) do not spend months in barrels. People are confused enough about this already; there's an entire debate raging about the cheat of making "quick sour" beers that's fueled entirely by ignorance about style and technique. Asimov inadvertently feeds this. 2) In graf two, he reveals that he's never even bothered to pick up a phone to inquire how the beers he's evaluating are made. Are some breweries inoculating while others are using spontaneous fermentation? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  It's a mystery!

(Asimov's favorite beer was Cascade's Kriek, and he loved it. He also admired a Logsdon beer. So I can't be too disappointed in him, I guess.)

2. Craft Beer's Dark Secrets
An article on Thrillist has gotten a ton of attention as an anonymous insider ("someone who's worked in the industry for six years and currently works in marketing for a well-known brewery") dishes on all the terribleness happening in craft. I have seen it reposted quite a bit with nods of acknowledgement. (Stan, for example: "Many of the points are valid. That some are less valid does not invalidate the story.") It's a pretty long laundry list of stuff, so I'll skip trying to pull representative quotes. A lot of the observations are anodyne or wrong (competition is increasing; consolidation is happening; there's a bubble), but there are others that are more serious and potentially accurate: working brewers get paid badly; the beer world is sexist; jobs in beer are hard and pay badly.

The big problem I have is that we have no idea from where these "secrets" emerge. The beer industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, and it follows that individual experiences vary widely. Some breweries are great to work for, while others are Dickensian hell. What does this tell us about "craft beer?" General, anonymous statements supported by anecdote are rumor, not fact or even reportage. I would bet my life that there are dark secrets in craft brewing--we already know about pay-to-play, as one example--and I would love to read a serious report, backed by numbers and on-the-record accounts. This is not that report--reader beware.

3. Yeast, the "God Particle"
Jason Notte has another excellent piece out, this time on the yeasty Dave Logsdon (founder of Wyeast Labs as well as the yeast-forward Logsdon Farmhouse Ales). You should go read the whole article, but one graf jumped off the page to me. This is Logsdon talking about his spontaneous program.
We’ve let those go spontaneously and haven’t tried to isolate and identify them. I don’t see a need to anymore. After spending a career in a laboratory, one of the things I wanted to do was get away from the strict, stringent protocol that was necessary. Even though we have a lab here and do our testing and stuff, it’s done on a more as-needed basis than a controlled management. With the 10 strains we do manage, I’m experienced enough to know what the right protocol is. 
I have written about this before, but there's something very, very different about inoculating wort with wild yeast and letting beer make itself spontaneously. The end results, so similar a NYT columnist can't distinguish them, belie the huge act of will it takes to get out of the way and let nature take its course. Dave has spent a career corralling and controlling yeast. It's a testament to the life transition he experienced when he put down the test tubes at Wyeast and installed a coolship. It may look like an obvious step, but I think it was anything but.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Beervana Podcast Updates and Upgrades

Although it's podcast 27 for Patrick and me, today we debut at our new home on All About Beer. (I heard some chatter about it being called All About Beer On-Air, which I love, though perhaps that moniker didn't stick.) What this means, for the literally tens of you who subscribed to our old feeds on iTunes/Google Play/Soundcloud is that you need to resubscribe at one of the new locations: on  SoundCloudiTunes, or Stitcher.

We're pretty pleased with today's podcast, because it represents our effort to bring more voices into conversation. For this episode, we spoke with Alan Taylor about Zoiglhaus Brewing, the culmination of five years' effort. We wanted to hear from Alan what it takes to found a brewery in the second decade of the new millennium. Alan explored many possible sites before landing on this one; what did he consider in terms of neighborhood demographics, location, and so on? How did he settle on a format and theme, and what considerations went into that? We asked about details like working with the city, designing, buying, and installing equipment, and creating the kind of pubby feng shui that will bring the community in to drink beer.

And of course, we talked about beer. Alan trained in Berlin and made Berliner weisse one of his specialties. We drank the version he makes each year for summer, one that is a year in the making, and learn why brettanomyces is an absolutely essential ingredient to getting the "typical" Berliner weisse flavor profile. (Brewers Association, please take note.)



Please listen, subscribe, and support us in this new endeavor. Thanks!


Friday, August 19, 2016

On Perfection

An article in the NY Times Magazine got me thinking. The subject of the piece is Michelangelo's David, which may in time--like all things--collapse into dust. But what caught my eye was not the fascinating backstory of the statue nor the nature of the physics that threaten it, but writer Sam Anderson's description of the statue's perfection:
When I first saw the David in person, the only word that came to mind was “perfect.” Why hadn’t anyone ever told me he was perfect? I was 20 years old, exhausted, unwashed, traveling for the first time ever, ignorant of almost everything worth knowing. “Perfect,” I know now, is not a terribly original response to the statue, nor a very precise one, but in that moment it filled my mind. It felt like a revolution — urgent, deep, vital, true.
And then a bit later:
I stood there in my filthy Birkenstocks feeling a sense of religious transcendental soaring: the promise that my true self was not bound by the constraints of my childhood — by freeway exits, office parks, after-school programs, coin-operated laundry rooms at dingy apartment complexes, vineyards plowed under and converted into Walmarts, instability, change, dead dogs, divorce. No. The David suggested that my true self existed most fully in some interstellar superhistorical realm in which all the ideal things of the universe commingled in a perpetual ecstasy of harmonizing trumpet blasts. If such perfection could exist in the world, I felt, then so many other things were suddenly possible: to live a perfect life creating perfect things, to find an ideal way to be. What was the point of anything less?
Curiously, Anderson details all the conventional ways in which the statue is not perfect. That's actually the point of the article: "The seed of the problem is a tiny imperfection in the statue’s design" (my bold). The marble itself is pockmarked in places, and one of David's arms was once knocked off and reattached. What Anderson's describing is an artistic and aesthetic perfection, one with such power as to impart a religious experience. He ignores the tangible imperfections and instead locates a mystical perfection beyond the physical object.

Is he looking for the perfect beer?
Perfection is a weird concept. It suggests both an empirical and  subjective quality. Like a perfect ten in gymnastics, it's the way we attempt to codify in concrete terms our certainty of a surpassing aesthetic triumph. The perfect moment, the perfect man/woman, the perfect job. It's a self-defeating concept, though, because there's no way to actually measure the subjective, which is by definition a judgment based on non-quantifiable criteria like taste, opinions, or feelings. And that unverifiability is exactly why we want to have a concept like perfection. Calling something perfect is the act of desperate hyperbole, when we try to end an argument with the maximal rendering of judgment.

The reason "perfection" is a paradox is because the elements that compose it are always open to debate. We can't arrive at perfection because we can never agree to the rules of debate. I mean, when I look at David and see that bizarrely mannered tuft of pubic hair riding David's junk like a pair of furry chestnut burrs, I have a hard time moving on. And because perfection suggests a Platonic ideal, one which is so manifestly obvious that even a philistine like me can see it, David must not be perfect. In these matters, the doubters get the final veto.

In art, the idea of perfection is thrown around a lot. Maybe this has to do with the money involved. If you just spent a half a billion dollars on a Van Gogh, you don't want anyone telling you it's not perfect. In lower forms of expression--beer, let's say--perfection is generally considered a quality to aspire to, not one to attain. I've seen this over and over again. In homebrewing competitions, no one gives out a 50, the highest score. You're lucky to get a 40. It seems like the reasoning is encouragement: no matter how kick-ass your bock is, the theory goes, there's always got to be some room to make it more kick-ass. Homebrewing is a journey, and a natural 50 would abruptly end things at the summit. Best to think there's another, higher mountain beyond the one we're just about to crest.

When I sat in on the tasting panel at the Widmer Brothers brewery a few years back, they rated the beers on a five point scale. Four was the maximum any beer ever received, which seemed odd to me. I assumed five would represent the best quality the brewery could produce, since they were evaluating the beer before it shipped. Nope, four was the highest score I heard that day. I asked about that and they said five was reserved for a truly exceptional beer, one that, like Anderson's David, truly deserved the title of "perfect." They had never encountered such a beer but, like hopeful Sasquatch-hunters everywhere, wanted to believe one existed.

I sometimes use perfect casually (so please don't dig around the archives to disprove the following clause) but I've abandoned it as a useful concept. Whether we're talking about beer or art, perfection is a unicorn. We can describe it in rich, vivid detail, but no one has ever actually encountered it. Worse, the existence of this fictitious state denigrates the excellence we find occasionally in the real world. We hold open the possibility that there's something better than a Usain Bolt hundred-meter dash, or a 1966 Jaguar E-type roadster, or a Saison Dupont, but in pining for the impossible, fail to apprehend the real genius in front of us. The notion of "perfect" is what leads to hundred-dollar bottles of Cantillon and a veneration of mythical "whales" (or worse, "whalez"). There are a staggering amount of exceptional beers out there, more than the earth has ever seen, and settling into their enjoyment seems like a far better use of time than waiting interminably for perfection to come along.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Amazing Predictions

Maine writer Josh Christie was perusing some old archives today and tweeted out two fascinating articles that illustrate why we should regard current doomy proclamations with some skepticism. They date to the 90s, and were written in a now-defunct weekly. Article one (1994) poses the compelling question: with four Portland (ME) breweries, can the city absorb yet a new one opening up?
"That's a lot of new brewing capacity, considering local beers still account for only 1.5 percent of beer sales in Maine. And if the growth curve starts to level off, LaCharite and his competitors could end up fighting each other to survive."






















 Five breweries??? Mon dieu!--it's a bubble!

In article two (1998), the thesis is that craft beer microbrewing has become too boring. This isn't exactly the same as the complaints we hear today--though IPA weariness is similar--but it illustrates that complaining about what looks like a stable situation in beer is pretty foolish. Don't like things now? Give it five minutes.
"Most of the supermarket survivors fall into the traditional categories of the tried and true: pale ales, wheat beers, lagers. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Many of these brews taste just fine. Some of them are personal favorites. But after more than a decade of innovative brewing, the spirit of imagination seems to have seeped out of the bottles. There are too many beers with taste profiles that are all too familiar. Even worse, there are too many beers with too little taste. Just as it's tough to tell Bud from Miller from Coors, it's slowly becoming more difficult to distinguish among the micros."






















I can only imagine what a boring landscape awaits this city two decades hence, after the imminent demise of microbrewing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Vignette #1

Nick Arzner, Block 15

“I literally think about beer all the time. I have a list on my phone of ideas, and those ideas can come from wherever. They can come from even a name; if I think it’s a good name I’ll build a beer around it. It can come from an ingredient; I’ll build a beer around that. It can come from [events]. People ask me to do an anniversary beer; it can come from them. I look at some breweries, they say, ‘I’m a lager brewery,’ or ‘I’m a Belgian-style brewery, I won’t do hoppy beers’—I don’t know why you’d limit yourself to that. I dunno, I just really just like beer. I like all styles, I enjoy drinking all styles of beer.”


Monday, August 15, 2016

When the Original is the Outlier

Beer styles, like grammar, are at best uneasy agreements about what is considered "typical." English grammar comes with so many asterisks, exceptions, and disclaimers that it seems to have been invented solely to thwart non-native speakers. Beer styles aren't as bad as that, but the curious fact remains that in several cases, the original, classic example of a style is out of step with all the other beers that followed. Schneider's weisse is substantially darker than is considered typical; Dupont is hoppier, more stripped-down (no exotic grains or spices), and more phenolic than most saisons; and Pilsner Urquell is far less attenuated and in possession of far more diacetyl than would be accepted in any other pilsner. Which is why when I came across this "pilsner showdown," I was amused to see poor Urquell coming in 23rd of 24 pilsners sampled:
A reference pilsner entered the showdown, and thankfully wasn’t in a green bottle. We thought it looked great, like a bar of GOLD!! Smelling it, we caught diacytel. While that’s to style when it’s “restrained” we thought it was not restrained at all and it really put us off the beer. Matt successfully nailed it and called the beer, but the off flavors put the whole group off enough to rank it one of the lowest in the showdown.
It even fared more poorly than several lightstruck examples. The indignity!

Diacetyl factory.













Truth is, writers of style guidelines don't know how to handle Urquell. This is the "Bohemian-style pilsener" entry from the 2016 Brewers Association style guidelines, the one used to judge beers at the GABF (bolds mine):
Very low diacetyl and DMS aromas, if perceived, are characteristic of this style and both may accent malt aroma.... Very low levels of diacetyl and DMS flavors, if perceived, are characteristic of this style. 
The folks judging pilsners may well have been looking at these very words while they sampled Urquell, because one thing is for sure: the diacetyl note* in that beer is not "very low." It's huge and aggressive, and because Urquell, a světlý ležák (12° beer), is so under-attenuated--it's just 4.4% ABV--that diacetyl really comes through as sticky and sweet. Budvar, by contrast, is also a 12° beer, but it's 5% ABV. 

Writers of style guidelines have never known what to do with this, because breweries typically don't like their beers to taste of diacetyl. And no one would roll out a beer like Urquell now--it's just too weird and un-pilsnery. Indeed, German pilsners, which form the far more common template for international pale lagers, are specifically prohibited by style guidelines from having diacetyl. In my two trips to the Czech Republic, I managed to sample maybe two dozen pale lagers. I would not therefore forward myself as any kind of authority, but within that sample I rarely encountered diacetyl, and never anything like what you find in Urquell. The Czechs are very deferential to the first pilsner, and my guess is that they don't want to appear to be aping the original.

In conclusion, we should probably write style guidelines that say things like, "if your pilsner is awash in what seems like inappropriately slicky, buttery diacetyl, we'll consider it a fault unless the sample came from Pilsner Urquell." Splitting the baby and saying it's okay in low levels accounts for neither the way diacetyl appears in Pilsner Urquell (where it's massive) nor in most other pilsners (where it's absent). Otherwise you end up in a situation where people are eliminating the original pilsner from pilsner competitions because it's not brewed to style.

___________________
*Diacetyl is slick on the tongue, a bit full, and tastes like butter or butterscotch. It's so buttery, in fact, that it's commonly added to foods to make them taste like butter.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Awkwardness of Middle-Aged Breweries

As a gentleman now past any reasonable definition of "young," I am sensitive to ageist derision. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that once you've been around awhile, you do get stuck in your ways. You can start to look a bit fusty. And so it is with breweries. The ultimate reward for building a successful brand that stretches out across some or all of our broad country isn't public admiration for your portfolio of stable, popular brands. No, it's yawns. In the craft beer biz, the question is always, "what have you done lately?"

This became a topic of discussion on Facebook and Twitter earlier in the week following my post about Sam Adams. To the thesis "the flagship brand needs to be refreshed," I don't think I heard a single voice say, "no way--it's a perfectly current classic!"  And this is just the problem. The successful old-school breweries (let's say pre-1990) all became successful because they built up a popular brand. Sam Adams had Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada had Pale, Widmer had Hefeweizen, and so on. It's very hard to keep a beer exciting for 30+ years. The best breweries can do is try to transition these older brands into a "classic" slot and hope to keep the brand of the brewery alive and vital.

One of the reasons I declared Boston Beer doomed was because as a brewery it does not seem vital. The brewery does have a barrel program, but it's pretty anemic. They still roll out the Utopias from time to time, but it's been a long time since beer geeks swooned over anything but its price. The recent nitro line was curious at best--a fifty-year-old package dispense system is not exactly the cutting edge. Meanwhile, one of the main trends in craft beer right now is lagers, a concept Boston Beer should absolutely own, but they seem to be missing the boat.

Contrast that with Sierra Nevada, which is one of the most active and interesting breweries in the country right now. Their core lineup is as always anchored by Pale Ale, but they've added a great pilsner (not missing the current trends), a gose, and two IPAs, Hop Hunter and Torpedo, which use innovative new techniques to produce vivid hop flavor. (Sam Adams' Rebel series of IPAs seem, by contrast, pro forma at best). They have managed to serve both their tradition--they exalt in it, in fact--as well as trying to remain current with the styles and techniques that are driving new sales.

And that's without mentioning the incredibly successful Beer Camp project, which makes this venerable grandfather of craft beer look anything but stodgy. It not only integrates them into this vital world of brewing they've honestly sort of outgrown, but allows them to both be a leader and a participant in building the notion of "craft" (which, admittedly, is a lot more spin than reality these days).

It's a difficult trick to pull off. Most of the middle-aged breweries have had their share of failures and miscues. You don't want to end up looking like the dad who's dropping middle-school slang into conversation, but you also don't want to just slowly go to seed. And so far, we really only knows what this looks like for breweries in the middle-thirties. Imagine what they'll look like when they're truly middle aged (like me).

As a final, related thought, it seems like that in one of these decades pretty soon we're going to see the failure of some large craft breweries. Maybe they won't outright vanish, but like regional breweries following Prohibition through the 1970s, they might get absorbed into a giant corporate entity, become mere SKUs in a company's bottom line, and eventually mostly fade out. When I came of drinking age in Oregon, we had brands like Lucky Lager and Heidelberg that soon vanished. Could Bell's or Rogue go the way they did? Eventually, some will.

Anyway, this rumination has been brought to you by Metamucil and old farts everywhere....

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Year Ago

A year ago today, sometime around 8pm, I stopped into Powell's Books in downtown Portland and located The Beer Bible on the "new releases" shelves. To my joy, there was only one copy left. Not bad for the first day of sales!














It's been a pretty good year for the book. Sales have been brisk, the Cicerone Program added it to their list of recommended reading, and it won an apparently prestigious IACP award. I try to refrain from flogging the book too much, but allow me to do so on this one-year anniversary. If you haven't picked up a copy, consider doing so. I guarantee that you'll find at least some new tidbit in there you haven't encountered before, and I really do think it's a good reference. (I think this because I have a crap memory for details, and so I end up pulling it out on a fairly regular basis.) Consider buying one for the whole family!

I'd also like to thank everyone out there who said kind words, bought a copy, or was otherwise supportive and kind. I can't tell you how many of you I've encountered, and you've all been wonderful. I hope the ride never ends--

You'd buy a book from this man, wouldn't you?



Monday, August 08, 2016

Is Boston Beer Doomed?

Old-timey.
I've got my nose deep into a long-form piece today, and so I'm outsourcing content to The Motley Fool, which paints a grim picture of the country's largest craft brewery.
The bulk of Boston Beer's sales come from the Samuel Adams line of beer, and those have been declining. The company's Angry Orchard cider and Traveler beer brands were also down in the quarter, only partially offset by sales increases in Twisted Tea, Coney Island beer, and Truly Spiked and Sparkling....

Still clinging to its craft tradition, the company has chosen to primarily develop new offerings in-house through its Science and Alchemy division. Its most recent launch was a spiked sparkling water-flavored beverage. Sam Adams also recently released its Rebel IPA and Nitro projects, but none has been enough to restore the company to growth....

The company's internal efforts to generate growth aren't keeping up. I can understand the desire to stay true to the craft roots, but the company opted to play the perpetual growth game and went public. Shareholders demand profitable growth. It might be time to purchase a small rival brewer or two and plug them into the existing Sam Adams family.
Of all the larger craft breweries, Boston Beer seems to be in the weakest position. A decade ago and more it was lauded for innovation, but that era has long passed. Crappy, brand-eroding flavored malt beverages have distracted the company from its core competency (beer), and owner Jim Koch's commitment to amber lager in an IPA era does not inspire confidence that it will be relevant again anytime soon. I disagree with the Motley Fool on the direction it should take, though. Boston Beer doesn't have the money to compete in the acquisitions game with ABI and MillerCoors. It needs to rehabilitate and extend its own brand and figure out a way to freshen up Boston Lager. And it should definitely quit trying to come up with crappy side products.

Boston Beer looked like a titan as recently as a couple years ago, but it's in real trouble now. It never developed a strategy to compete against smaller, boutique breweries in terms of innovation and quality, nor does it appear prepared to battle the new wave of ABI- and MillerCoors-owned "craft" brands, which are going to be making extremely aggressive efforts to establish their national presence. If I were on team Sam Adams, I'd be hitting the panic button, stat.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Just IPAs on Tap?

This is worth, barely, a Saturday post. I was just emailing with Zach Beckwith, brewer at Three Creeks, and I was inspired to see just exactly how many IPAs were on tap. I used the not-random selection of taplists available in the right-hand column of this blog. I really do need to add some more of our finer pubs to that list, but it should suffice for now. Using an extremely generous definition of IPA (basically anything with notable hop character, including pale ales), here are the number of IPAs pouring at this moment in these pubs in Portland, OR. Most of these pubs do serve cider, and I did not exclude them from the calculation (because if anyone hates the prevalence of IPAs, it's cider drinkers.) Make of it what you will:
  • Apex 21/50 (42%)
  • Bailey's 6/26 (23%)
  • Beermonger's 4/10 (40%)
  • Belmont Station 12/24 (50%)
  • Hawthorne Hophouse 9/22 (41%)
  • 15th Hophouse 9/24 (38%)
  • Horse Brass 26/68 (38%)
  • Roscoe's 7/20 (35%)
  • Saraveza 5/10 (50%)