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Friday, February 24, 2017

The Beer There: Olde Mecklenburg (Charlotte, NC)

Periodically--too infrequently, if you want my opinion--a friend of the blog will feel inspired to send me beer from their distant location. When breweries send me beer, I make no promises to review or ever even comment on them (though I will drink them; I'm not a halfwit), but when a person spends hard-earned cash to purchase and send beer from a brewery, my hard and fast rule is: always review them.

Today we have three beers sent from Daniel Warner, who lives in the far Carolinas (I use the plural because while I believe he lives in South, he regularly drifts to North). Daniel and I have developed an e-bromance over our shared love of German and Czech beers, and one of his go-to breweries is Charlotte's Olde Mecklenburg. They make not a single IPA or cucumber sour; in fact, the only beer not drawn from the German oeuvre is a Baltic porter--which is not much of a heresy as those things go. This is interesting if not quite unheard of--our own Occidental and Heater Allen follow the same prescription. What is unusual is their success with this model:
"OMB started to build a dedicated following that’s never really stopped growing. Today, in a new, larger space that features a spectacular eight-acre German-style Biergarten, a state-of-the-art 60-barrel Brewery (largest locally owned craft brewhouse in the state), and a dine-in Brauhaus."
That says ... something about North Carolina, though I'm not sure what. Even Urban Chestnut has conceded hoppy ales to their customers, and St Louis is about as lager-friendly as you're going to find. And to add further intrigue to this mystery, their flagship beer is an altbier. What in the blue hell? North Carolinians, I do not get you.

All right, enough with the anthropology--let's move on to the beer.

Copper (altbier)
The flagship, I hate to say, would not be mistaken for a Düsseldorf alt. It looks like one: its a gorgeous beer, with a deep copper and perfect clarity that seems to make it almost glow from the inside. But in flavor profile, it's distinctly American, with a slightly syrupy caramel note offset by rather sharp hopping. In Düsseldorf, the alts are characterized by a downy softness and even in the hoppy Uerige, the bitterness is rounded and lacking bite. The real key to a altbier is a minerality that I believe comes from hardened water; Daniel obscurely believes this to be a function of the yeast (feel free to debate that in comments); whatever, it ain't here. It's a nice beer, but a bit too bimodal for me--thick caramel offset by sharp hops, rather than a harmony between the two.

Capt Jack Pilsner
This is an interesting and unusual pilsner. It has a surprisingly sweet malt note up front, and this is balanced by pretty assertive hopping. I don't recognize the malt, which is more candylike and less grainy than is common. It is perfectly clear again--I'm beginning to get a sense of the house preference here--and pale as January sunlight. Olde Mecklenburg gives zero info about their beer, so I'm left to guess at the last element--a touch of diacetyl. I would guess this is an intentional homage to Plzeň, and it is both nicely integrated and subtle. But that's only a guess. Definitely a cool little beer and unusual, which is what you want with a style that can seem generic if handled badly.

Hornet's Nest (hefeweizen)
One should always save the best for last--and this was my fave of the three. I forgot to rouse the yeast and it had of course settled, so I got just a haziness rather than dense cloudiness. (User error.) I was also surprised at the low level of effervescence, which is far lower than the Bavarian examples. These are quibbles, however--it's a wonderful beer. Very spicy and almost absent banana, which is my preference. I speculated that they don't use the Weihenstephan yeast, which produces banana like a Panamanian jungle, but Daniel replied that he believes they ferment very cold, which would suppress ester production (the banana comes from isoamyl acetate. The spice is, additionally, intriguing in its complexity. There's definitely clove there, but black pepper and something that reminds me of apple tannin. It has the soft, fluffy mouthfeel you want and expect. It is, over all, a wonderful beer and my fave of the lot.

Based on photos, the place looks like a spectacular, very German, beer hall and it will be my first stop if I ever make it to Charlotte.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Understanding Hop Aromas and Flavors


We have a very special episode of the Beervana Podcast for you this week, and I want to tease it by quoting from a section of the interview. Patrick and I visited the labs and brewery of Tom Shellhammer, who is a professor of fermentation science at Oregon State University and one of the world's leading hops researchers. Before we did the interview, he took us around his labs, stopping at one point in front of stacks of small bottles containing aroma compounds found in hops. He uses these in classwork as a way of giving students a pure, condensed version of these aromas. We took a whiff of the "stone fruit" and "catty" bottles.

As we spoke about the catty scent, Tom referenced a class of compounds that have started to get more attention--thiols. These are sulfur-containing aroma compounds in hop oil that are responsible for both the deeply tropical aromas in many recent hop varieties, but also aromas some of us find objectionable (sweat, onion, garlic). Here's Tom, in a quick-and-dirty transcript from the podcast:
Thiols are a class of chemical compounds that have sulfur in them. So that sulfur part is what makes the compound a thiol. Not that all sulfur compounds are thiols, but a thiol has sulfur in it; that's the key component to that. Myrcene and linalool don't have sulfur in them. Myrcene is a hydrocarbon. [Describes the chemical structure.] Linalool is an oxygenated version of that, so it's got an oxygen component in it that does things to its functionality and its solubility. Hydrocarbons as a class tend to be more woodsy, herbal, and somewhat floral. They oxygenated versions of these things like linalool and geraniol tend to be floral and fruity. And then we move to this thiol class.

The hydrocarbons make up to 75 to 90% of the hop oil, the oxygenated fraction makes up almost the rest, and then less than 1% are these sulfur compounds. Tiny, tiny amount. But the thing about them that make them so important is the aroma-detection thresholds of these things are three to four, maybe five, orders of magnitude lower than these other compounds. With myrcene, you need about 300-500 parts per billion. Sounds like a small amount, but not quite a part per million. And the thiols, their aroma thresholds are parts per trillion. A little goes a long way with a thiol.

The thiol compounds can be stinky like onions and garlic but they can also be potent tropical fruity, citrusy, but also animal-y, stinky, sweaty/BO. 
One of the reasons some people absolutely love hops like Summit and Nelson Sauvin is because they're getting the fruit. But I am apparently hyper-sensitive to thiols, and I get the onion and sweat.

This podcast, I'm pleased to say, is filled with gems like this. (It's part one of our visit down there. Next week we go to the test brewery at OSU and join the head brewer there, Jeff Clawson. Hop talk continues as we sample beer students made in the brewery.)  Definitely give it a listen:


Finally, if this all seems irresistible to you (and how can it not??), Tom and Jeff Clawson are leading a two-day course in Portland for those of you who'd like access to some of the content he presents in his coursework, but who don't have the time or money to take a class in Corvallis.
Our Origins of Beer Flavors and Styles workshop is an experiential sensory course that will guide you through the brewing process from raw materials to finished beer. Through hands-on instruction, participants will learn how the main raw materials used in brewing process (malt, water, hops, and yeast) impact beer flavor and aroma. Participants will work through standards and exercises with the goal of highlighting how each of these materials impacts beer flavor. Guiding tastings, focused with a historical lens, will also walk participants through on how these raw materials have impacted beer styles historically overtime. Over this two-day course, participants will evaluate 8 beer styles and over 35 beers.

Friday, March 17 - Saturday, March 18, 2017
If memory serves, a part of the class will involve those little glass vials of hop aromas. Soon you, too, will be able to distinguish thiols, hydrocarbons, and oxygenated hydrocarbons from one another. Follow this link to register.

Monday, February 20, 2017

How Doomed Are We?

Raptor of death.


Pete Dunlop has an excellent but alarming post in which he warns:
AB is quietly implementing a plan designed to bury independent craft brewers. And they might just pull it off...

You might not know it, but the High End kicked ass in 2016, a pretty lousy year for craft beer. The High End's growth rate hit 32 percent, easily trumping the craft segment's single digit growth. Bigly. Every High End brand grew and they're all showing continued growth into 2017.
High End is of course ABI's portfolio of erstwhile American craft breweries (Goose Island, Elysian, 10 Barrel, Breckenridge, et al).  His post led to a spirited debate on Facebook in which two camps formed: 1) we are so screwed, and 2) don't overreact; it's not as bad as it looks. Since you know me as a man of subtle and restrained opinion, I will refrain from identifying my own camp. Rather, I'd like to point out a few variables to consider as you decide which team you'd like to join.

The Emergence of Craft Tiers
 Until pretty recently, when you went to the grocery store all the beer in the craft segment (hereafter "craft beer" for brevity) was about the same price. Some sixers might be on periodic discount, but this was a retailer decision. Not too long ago, we saw the emergence of an upper tier of beer that was noticeably more expensive and shortly thereafter, a tier of cheaper craft. This was inevitable, as brewers began to segment and find sales in different pockets of the craft segment.

Guess where ABI's High End products mostly live? Sure, Goose Island still has a giant barrel program, but they're all about mainstreaming Goose IPA as the national mass market IPA. They do this through the efficiencies of their giant plants and distribution network, and they use it to drive down costs. The margins get thinner and thinner, but that's okay so long as the volume's going up. But most craft brewers will stick to the middle tier or gravitate to the upper tier. I've already talked about "mass craft," and when we look at Pete's numbers, we're seeing an explosion within that segment.

Retailers Follow Customers
There are no end of stories about the ways in which big companies attempt to pervert the market. In the 90s, Bud initiated a power play against craft beer by demanding its distributors only sell their products--something it toyed with again recently. Pay-to-play rumors are ubiquitous, and more than a few turn out to be real. Most recently, I have heard a rumor this week that Kroger, which owns a substantial amount of Portland's grocery outlets, was going to start radically paring back their 22-ounce offerings, apparently a sop to ABI.

I have no doubt that ABI will use its increasing might to control things at the distribution and retail level--they've done it in the past, and it is a great way to increase market share. There are many legal mechanisms for this kind of thing, which is exactly why we have antitrust laws. But here's the thing: retailers service customers, not manufacturers. Big breweries will try to limit the offerings on the shelves, but retailers aren't going to sacrifice business just to please a big partner. In competitive markets like Oregon's, it would be bad business indeed for a grocery chain to limit the sale of locals in favor of a giant section that includes Goose Island, Devil's Backbone, and Four Peaks. The reason AB's distributor-loyalty program collapsed in the 90s was because customers wanted variety and Bud couldn't provide it. 

Don't Over-value Current Trends
Humans can't help themselves. We over-value current trends. If you Google "craft beer sales" and limit the search to 2013, you find article after article trumpeting the unstoppable juggernaut that is craft beer. (Sample title: "Craft beer sales to triple within 10-year period, says research group.") In those heady years, everyone was writing the obituary of ABI.

Today we're seeing similar numbers from the High End (32% growth!), and our minds begin to accept that as a stable trend. Likewise, we hear that some of the bigger craft breweries had years of stagnation or decline, and that also seems stable. Never mind that craft grew at something like 7% overall, which is a much more impressive figure, given the size of the segment, than the High End's growth spurt on its much-smaller base.  Indeed, you'd sort of expect ABI's brands to get quite a jump-start given 1) that many of them were relatively small to start with, 2) ABI has a nationwide network and the might of the biggest beer company in the world, and 3) ABI appears willing to exchange profit for growth, at least in the short term.

______________

On Facebook, I argued pretty strongly for one of the camps (doomed vs not doomed). The truth is neither I nor anyone else can see into the future. Pete thinks the market is headed in the direction of mass craft, and that the number of drinkers who want high-quality locally-made beer is going to lose out. I'd bet against it, but I wouldn't bet much. 

Still, I do think nearly all of the analysis is a reaction to current trends. So far, we have seen no brand in the craft segment grow over a couple million barrels (I think that's roughly where Blue Moon is, but they're pretty secretive about those numbers). It's easy to grow at 50% or even 100% when you're making 100,000 barrels of beer. But where's the ceiling? If I squint hard enough, I can see a world in which Goose IPA stops all comers in their tracks. But that takes an awful lot of squinting. I wouldn't bury craft just yet.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Oregon Breweries Get Political

Yesterday, the President of the United States stood before the press and told them: "We got 306 because people came out and voted like they've never seen before so that's the way it goes. I guess it was the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan." This was for an election in which he received fewer votes than his opponent that happened three months ago. This kind of disconnect with reality has provoked heretofore apolitical entities into action--including a group of Portland beer fans who formed into a group called the Beer Party PDX. On Monday, they host their inaugural initiative:
The Beer Party PDX Launch Event takes place on Monday, February 20 at participating businesses. 100% of the revenue from purchased kegs will go to the ACLU. Participating bars include Bailey’s Taproom, Bazi Bierbrasserie, Beer Mongers, Belmont Station, Imperial, Lombard House, Roscoe’s, Saraveza, The Thirsty Sasquatch, The Upper Lip, Tin Bucket, and Uptown Market. Participating breweries include Baerlic, Base Camp, Bull Run Cider, Burnside, Cider Riot!, Coalition, Crooked Fence, Culmination, Double Mountain, Heater Allen, Machine House, Matchless, Montavilla, New Belgium, Ninkasi, Pfriem, Ruse, The Commons, Three Magnets, Uptown Market, and Vertigo.  
Since Trump's election, the once safely-sequestered world of politics has been aerosolized and released into the environment, where it touches everything. I guess it will have to be a running theme here on the blog, since every week seems to bring another example of the way in which breweries have entered the political fray. As recently as a few months ago, this wouldn't have seemed like a realm breweries would eagerly enter--partisan politics divides, which means shrinking your potential customer base. But as unprecedented as a President who flagrantly lies about an election we all just witnessed, so is the reaction against him. With Beer Party PDX, we're seeing the contours of how they're trying to take a stand without falling down a partisan tunnel.

As far as I can tell, nowhere does the group use the words "Trump," "Republicans," or "Democrats." Instead, it's mission is "to organize members of the PDX beer community in order to effectively protect and promote basic civil rights including voter access, freedom of speech, and equal rights." In regulating political speech, the courts have regularly allowed nonprofits to organize around specific issues but not partisan candidates. It's a line we've come to recognize as separating the inner and outer core of political action. Beer Party PDX's issues are clearly political; they're not partisan. A brewery can far more easily join the political conversation when the discussion revolves around speech, ballot access, and civil rights rather than the President himself.

It's also worth noting that smaller breweries have greater latitude here. Donald Trump managed just 17% of the vote in Multnomah County, where Portland is located. A small brewery with no plans to sell much outside the cities in Oregon doesn't have a lot to lose by speaking out. Larger breweries like Deschutes, Craft Brewers Alliance, and Rogue, which have distribution in many red states, may be more cautious--though it's therefore impressive to see New Belgium and Ninkasi take the plunge and join this event. Not every brewery has leadership with clear political preferences, but among those that do, more and more are speaking out. It's really a remarkable moment.

I'm starting a new label, "The Trump Effect," for these kinds of posts--I have a hunch this is far from the last one.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

How to Tank Spectacularly in the New Market

Update. By some cosmic serendipity, Patrick and I went to Corvallis yesterday to record an interview with Tom Shellhammer--a hops researcher and professor in the Fermentation Sciences program at OSU. As we were touring their test brewery, he mentioned how supportive BridgePort has been, and that Carlos Alvarez had cut them a check for $100,000 to support their projects. This doesn't change any of my analysis below, but it certainly adds an important layer to the BridgePort story.

(l-r) John Foyston, Dick Ponzi, Carlos Alvarez
Over at Willamette Week, Matthew Korfhage has an article about Oregon's tightening beer market. The story is an Oregonized version of one we've seen applied to the national market a number of times over the past couple years. Thumbnail: in a tightening market, it's harder for the biggest players to maintain their barrelage even while small and mid-sized breweries continue to post big numbers. This is, in fact, what you'd expect in a mature market and it's not particularly surprising. Korfhage's case-in-point in the article is BridgePort, which is busy imploding before our eyes--but I think this illustrates a different lesson: in a tightening market, a brewery can no longer make a series of stupid decisions and expect to avoid tanking spectacularly.

We have to go back a ways to tell the story. BridgePort is Oregon's oldest extant brewery, and was for the first 20 years of its existence synonymous with the city of Portland. Its flagship beer was named after the city's beloved bird (Blue Heron), it had one of the best pubs in the city--a pilgrimage site for beer travelers. It cemented its connection through things like Old Knucklehead, a barleywine that featured a prominent local beer guy on the label. And then, in 1996, the brewery released its IPA, a beer that changed the course of brewing in Oregon. BridgePort was, ten years ago, one of our healthiest; it sold 24,000 barrels in Oregon, making it the third-largest seller in the state.

But it was about that time that the consequences of a decision made a decade earlier started to become evident. In 1995, Gambrinus, a Texas-based Corona importer, bought BridgePort. It took owner Carlos Alvarez a while before he started tinkering heavily with the direction of his Portland acquisition, but the first real danger sign came when he renovated the pub, turning it into a generically upscale restaurant and destroying one of the company's chief assets.

His next step was to begin tinkering with the beer lineup (only one beer, IPA, survives from a decade ago). This was inevitable and smart, and most breweries have followed a similar course. But BridgePort's approach was haphazard and bizarre.* They killed off brands like Old Knucklehead and Blue Heron that had strong niche followings. They introduced a series of random beers that had no native connection to BridgePort's identity. Some were good (Hop Czar), some not (Cafe Negro) (seriously, that was one of their great ideas). They let the IPA languish. The approach seemed to be: let's release whatever's a year out of fashion and hope to catch the dregs of a wave. 

How's that working out? Here's their Oregon sales numbers, via the OLCC:



Three years ago, Alvarez and his executives came up to Portland for a dog and pony show celebrating the 30th anniversary. It was without a doubt the weirdest event I've ever been to. Alvarez was aggressively out of touch with Portland and seemed to go out of his way to emphasize that we were doing it wrong. The restaurant chain Chili's came in for a lot of praise, and that seems to be the model he's attempted to place on BridgePort. He was happy to trademark the word "Beervana" and promulgate the slogan "keep Portland beered," but he seems to dislike anything actually weird. I doubt "Portlandia" occupies a lot of space on the Alvarez TiVo.

In my review of the newly renovated pub back in 2006, I wrote this, rather more hopefully than subsequent events warranted:
But it is not a classic, nor does it reflect anything intrinsic about the brewery or Portland. Styles will change and so, presumably, will the brewery. In ten or fifteen years, as aesthetics have changed, it will have the dog-earred, slightly embarrassing aspect trendy restaurants inevitably acquire. And then Gambrinus can update it. I hope, for the sake of the brewery and the city, that the company recognizes the beauty and history resident in the massive beams that still span the old warehouse and restore some of the old Portland funkiness. That may seem a long wait, but hey--I recall the brewery of 1991, and it doesn't seem that long ago. The beams will still be there.
It turns out that wasn't a one-off; it was a signal of the future direction. And indeed, the pub hasn't aged well.

Craft breweries have to connect to their local market to succeed. There are a few rare exceptions--Rogue sells 84% of its beer outside the state--but even breweries like Widmer and Deschutes depend enormously on local sales. The Texas-based ownership of BridgePort has not just neglected its home market, but seems actively antagonistic to it. Until recently, it was possible for BridgePort to bumble along and still hang onto its local volume, which was basically flat from 2006-2013. But mature markets are not kind to bumblers. Why is anyone going to gamble on a six-pack of ORA (Oatmeal Red Ale) when there are twenty other much safer bets at the store? They're not. The numbers starkly demonstrate this point.

Ten years ago, BridgePort was one of Oregon's best and best-selling breweries. It had the kind of credibility you can't manufacture. It was indelibly connected to the city and seemed to be one of the most stable, reliable breweries in the country. Today it teeters on the edge of failure. If we were running a dead pool now, it would be at or near the top. It's main function now seems to be as a cautionary tale about how not to run your brewery.

_____________________
*Based on conversations with people inside the brewery and direct observation of the way Alvarez treats his employees, I think this comes entirely from San Antonio. I have long admired the work people do at the brewery, who have to turn out quality products in spite of the terrible leadership from above. My criticism is for the decision-makers, not the brewers.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine Sherpa: Love Potion #9



No beer sounds better on paper than a fruit stout--and that's where I first encountered the idea. It appeared in the recipes section of Charlie Papazian's classic Complete Joy of Homebrewing (in print since 1976!), and seemed so obvious. What goes better with cherry than chocolate? Alas, no beer more often fails to live up to our expectations than a fruited stout. I have had maybe five in the last twenty years that were good, but none that fully lived up to the simple obviousness of the concept--until now.

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Block 15 has released a seductive treat equal to its billing. Love Potion #9 is a raspberry rather than cherry stout, and melts like a chocolate truffle on the tongue. The challenge to this style is finding the balance, of ratcheting back the flavors so they don't overwhelm each other. The effect of the beer should be decadence; brewers almost always shoot too high, though, finding excess instead. Love Potion succeeds because the intense, silken dark chocolate that floods the mouth is immediately followed by the slightly tart berry. That acidity is key; it adds structure and restraint to the various sweet notes swirling around. The beer is, for its style, dry; another key to success. As you can see, I had a pint, and never did the berry-and-chocolate sweetness begin to collect on my palate. Each sip was an infusion of intensity but never excess, allowing my senses to revisit the sensation of a liquid truffle over and over again. It is almost impossible to imagine that I would not only drink a whole pint of this stuff, but consider going in for a second. But there it was.

This is the beer I imagined when I read about it all those years ago.

________________
"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.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Drive Down the Coast

The view from The Horn in Depoe Bay


The Oregon Coast is slowly filling out its compliment of breweries. In the near future, it should be possible to drive Highway 101 from Astoria all the way to Brookings and get a beer from a brewery in every town along the way. I have driven a chunk of that coast this winter (by far the best time to visit the Oregon Coast) and visited three new or newish breweries. Below are my findings.



Public Coast Brewing, Cannon Beach
Twenty-six miles south of Astoria, you come into Cannon Beach, and one of the first structures you pass is Public Coast, a brewery named for Oregon's law that prohibits private ownership of beaches. It's in a building once occupied by the Lumberyard restaurant, and it follows that place's general vibe and approach, which is to say, upscale mainstream. It's a beautiful space, keyed by the presence of the fermenters and bright tanks that seem to peer in from the brewery. Their height lends an air of grandeur to things.

Public Coast is owned by Ryan Snyder, whose background is in resorts. That's the feel you get here. There's a ton of wood, and the pub goes from cozy and shadowy on one side to bright and sunny on the other, spilling out into a large patio scattered with tables. It is nevertheless a bit faceless, and TVs flicker with sports. The menu is similar, featuring basically burgers and fish and chips. They are muy expensive--I got the most stripped-down cheeseburger with fries and it set me back $15; they can range up to $18 sans fries. They're also fairly average. (The five dollar onion rings are well below average--avoid.) It's not bad food, but nothing to make a special trip for.



The beer, made by erstwhile chef and homebrewer Will Leroux, is more promising. He's got a traditional slate of hoppy beers, but dabbles with experimental projects like a peach wit (perhaps his best beer) and a sour blackberry stout. I presume it's kettle-soured, and it's tart; fruity notes help soften the electric current, and soft roastiness helps offset it. I ordered a pint and quite enjoyed it. For my hoppy selection, I chose a Simcoe-hopped pale ale that had a fair amount of diacetyl, but never mind. These are above-average beers, and a good reason to stop in.

Depoe Bay or ocean view; your choice.


The Horn Public House, Depoe Bay
A horn, spouting.
A hundred and twenty miles south of Astoria you come to Depoe Bay, a rocky crescent that captures the sea in a roiling cauldron of energy. As it has smashed into the lava rock over the millennia, the sea water has carved out channels and tunnels. Sometimes a wave enters one and sends surf skyward through vents in the rock--"spouting horns" in the local vernacular. Since 1951, one of the most popular hangouts in Depoe Bay had been a restaurant called The Spouting Horn. When long-time proprietor Betty Taunton decided to retire in 2014, no one was prepared to take it over, and it closed. In homage, the new brewpub in town, located in the same building, calls itself The Horn.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Vignette #12: Michael Schnitzler (Uerige)

Brewer vignettes feature quotes from brewers I picked up in my travels around the world.

Two unrelated quotes today from Michael Schnitzler, the Weihenstephan-trained owner of Hausbrauerei Uerige. To go with them, I'll show you two photos, one of Michael, and one of the brewery. It contains, as you will see, one of the more unusual anachronisms still in use in Germany.

On Altbier's Health
“In general, the altbier is in bad condition. The smaller breweries are successful, that is not a problem, but if you remove the big breweries that were far more original Düsseldorfer breweries—now Frankenheim for example is with Warsteiner, Diebels is with Anheuser-Busch, Schlösser is somewhere, nobody knows really, then altbier is [not doing well].”

“The former biggest Düsseldorf breweries, they started twenty or thirty years ago to quit brewing in the town. [Real estate] prices are so high that everyone says, come on, it’s not [worth it] to sell beer. Let’s put it out to rent. The same with Munich—it’s even worse than Düsseldorf.  So the breweries were sold to Warsteiner—Frankenheim—to Anheuser Busch; so where is the echte Düsseldorfer brauerei, the real Düsseldorf brewery? That’s the problem everywhere.“



Wooden Casks
(It is typical to find altbier served from wooden casks perched on the bar; I asked about this.)

“It is just the traditional style of presenting the beers in a nice way. We tap it manually and then we put the barrel on the bar; this is the special way we do it, but there is no fermentation; there is nothing for the taste.”  (They're lined.) He went on to tell the story of why all the casks only have red-painted metal bands when once they came in all different colors. “Now every barrel has a red ring [metal band]. A couple of years ago we had a green one, a yellow one, something like that.  Nobody knows why. The regular customers they saw the barrels with the green ring on it and said, “oh no, we cannot drink this one; the red [ones] have the best beer.”

The coolship at Uerige. They also use a baudelot chiller.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

In Defense of Clarity

I like bright beer and I cannot lie...

What humans prize is inversely proportional to what is common. Is this a need to desire what others don't have? Do we have a gene that tells us the rare is useful to survival? Whatever the reason, it's an iron law, and one we follow, in the manner of self-parody, back and forth across the decades.

Take for example the industrial age. Machines allowed us to make objects of perfect lines and proportions--by the millions. Where once we made crude cut-shank nails and left saw marks on our wood, now we make perfectly straight and measured boards and hold them together with machine-made nails that will last centuries. At first, these innovations were greeted with greed: dispensing with the evidence of the human hand was a way of transcending our own imperfection. Eventually, of course, mass-production reduced costs and made these products ubiquitous. Soon our ardor cooled. These once-perfect objects began to seem cheap and disposable. When the artisanal movement emerged as a reaction against the impersonal factory age, products again revealed the makers' hand--and made customers' eyes gleam with desire. Where once we saw imperfection, now we see character and personality.

Which brings us to brewing. The very idea of "craft beer" is a reaction against mass-produced factory stuff. There's a lot of romance involved with this (almost entirely false) dichotomy between craft and industrial, but it is powerful. The more a beer can be tied to images of barns, a sea of swaying barley stalks, and a brewer deep in a mash tun with a canoe oar, the more we can attach that romance to it. In the glass, however, a beer is a beer is a beer. Some may be good, some bad, but it's impossible to look at a glass of beer and know the size of brewery it came from.

I'm pretty sure this is where the current fetish for cloudy, hazy, milkshakey beer comes from. It's a visual cue that says: I am craft. A perfectly brilliant beer not only looks like something that comes from a factory, it is in many ways the product of decades of technical improvement. Most of what causes haze is not desirable in beer, but a lot of it was unavoidable or at least hard to remove in centuries past. Lager-brewing was prized in part because the process produced a bright beer that stood as testament to the brewer's skill. Any beer that was perfectly bright would be likely be free of infection and age. In a real way drinkers could see the quality.

Over time, though, that clarity became associated with lackluster flavor. People began to imagine that the brewer was intentionally trying to filter out anything tasty. To people drinking modern ales, a bit of haze represented the flavor a brewer left in the beer. And, if a bit of haze suggests more flavor, a beer perfectly opaque with chunks must have the most flavor, you feel me?

Patrick, overcome with lust.


This post, now already five hundred words long, is not actually about taking sides. I don't dispute that there's something strangely attractive about the most cloudy beers--they're like an orange milkshake topped by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. (It's no wonder Bavarian weissbiers have been rolling along for four hundred years.) Rather, I'd just like to put in a plug for clarion, haze-free beers.

As a matter of aesthetics, the perfect beer is somewhere between gold and ruby, luminously vitreous, and stippled by a cascade of pinpoint bubbles. I also like darker beers that appear opaque until you hold them to the light and see that brilliance within, like light refracting through a jewel. It's a secret the brewer's hidden for the careful drinker to discover. Anyone who's brewed so much as a batch of homebrew knows that clarity is hard, and so the mind naturally wants to see it as a symbol for good process. I don't mean to praise clarity through that lens, though. A bright, coruscating beer is a gorgeous thing on its own. People who know nothing about beer can stop to appreciate its beauty. Remove beer entirely from all context--if it's bright and limpid, it's as gorgeous as a mountain lake, something anyone with eyes can appreciate.

Incidentally, that beer at the top of the post is a pilsner brewed by Grain Station out in McMinnville. I took that picture at the end of the year and have been meaning to get around to writing this post. It was such a gorgeous beer, so elegant and lovely, and it's stuck in my mind for six weeks now. (It was also very well made and tasty--sort of a hybrid Czech and German pils.) I guess my message here is not to be too blinded by lust for cloudy IPAs that you cannot stop to admire the captivating beauty of a perfectly clear beer.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Remember to Shoot Video, Breweries

(l-r) Angel Marquez, Ray Widmer, and Kurt Widmer

Over the past month, I have been interviewing people for my current project about the Widmer brothers. Their story arc spans thirty-odd years, but a good chunk of that has happened at the current facility (in different forms) on North Russell Street. As a consequence, a lot of the attention has been paid to the years just before and after the brewery was founded, in an era now preserved chiefly by memory.

One person who has emerged as a critical figure in the story is Ray Widmer, Rob and Kurt's father. He had just retired when they started the brewery, and it was really a three-man show in the early days. Rob joked that they couldn't have hired anyone because they were working so many hours that after the first day they wouldn't have come back. Of course, fathers stick with you.

The first brewery was, as they all were, a cobbled-together system of dairy equipment and castoffs from other breweries. It was not purpose-built, and so everything had to be coaxed to work properly. Ray was the genius of improvisation. He had grown up on a farm and was used to jury-rigging solutions as they arose. There are many tales of his applied ingenuity, but one I kept hearing about over and over was a keg-filling system he'd created. It was inevitably described as both effective but also as something that looked sort of crazy in a Rube-Goldberg kind of fashion. It has served in many tellings as the symbol of what Ray did for the brewery in those first years.

Ray at the keg-filler he designed.


To my delight, I have been able to see footage of video shot at the time. The whole operation is revealed--the filler, the way the swing-arm worked, the process of bunging after the keg was filled. Even better: there's Ray manning the machine. It's 30-year-old footage, and so was shot on blurry video--but you nevertheless feel like you're in the room with them.

There's an hour of raw footage from shoots over the course of the first decade or so of the brewery. It's remarkable to see the brothers as young men. As the brewery has grown, Rob and Kurt have begun collecting a gravitas that came from success; in these earlier videos you get a flavor for the more casual, humorous time they had as DIY brewers when it wasn't clear they were going to be around in a month, let alone thirty years. Listening to people reflect on those times, you can intuit some of this; on video you can see it plain as day. They are absolutely priceless.

Let that be a lesson to anyone who has a brewery today. Film it. Pull out your phone and record the routine activities that seem so unremarkable now. People tend to want to stage things or stand in front of the camera describing them. Better to get out of the way and just let the camera eavesdrop on a day in the life. Do it every few years. One day, when you're older and want to remember back, you'll find those scenes to be the most striking and revealing. You may even find people on the screen who are no longer with you. It's a wonderful way to capture a moment in time, and believe this old man--eventually they do pass, and memories grow scarcer. (And of course, transfer it to computers, hard drives, thumb drives--many places. Decades have a way of winnowing material.)