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Friday, July 22, 2016

The DOJ Clips AB InBev's Wings in Merger

I'm really getting tired of business news, aren't you? I'm going to try to talk about it less in the future. But when a $107 billion merger of the two largest beer companies in the world is approved by the US Department of Justice, clearing a path for a titan that will control a third of the world's beer production, I should at least acknowledge it in passing. And the news is actually good.















In its approval, the DOJ did two things that will ensure ABI's position in the US doesn't improve much. I was really dreading this merger, and I still think it's going to have malign effects on the world market. But in the US? Not so much. There were two issues here, control of the US market and distribution, and the DOJ addressed both (the full ruling is here).

Spin-Off MillerCoors
As expected, ABI has to spin off MillerCoors as a part of the deal. DOJ: "The settlement requires ABI to divest SABMiller’s entire U.S. business – including SABMiller’s ownership interest in MillerCoors, the right to brew and sell certain SABMiller beers in the United States and the worldwide Miller beer brand rights." This is not unexpected, and has been an acknowledged assumption about what it would take to get the deal past US regulators.

Restrictions on Distribution
More importantly, the DOJ puts strict limits on what ABI can direct its distributors/wholesalers to do, and how many distributor/wholesalers they may own. The press release doesn't detail these, so I'll turn directly to the ruling for the language. Here is the DOJ on the amount of the wholesale market ABI can directly control. "Defendant ABI shall not acquire any equity interests in, or any ownership or control of the assets of, a Distributor if (i) such acquisition would transform said Distributor into  an ABI-Owned Distributor, and (ii) as measured  on the day of entering into an agreement for  such acquisition more than ten percent (10%), by volume."

And here they are on the question of whether ABI can demand certain measures of loyalty from their independent wholesalers. "Defendant ABI shall not unilaterally, or pursuant to the terms of any contract or agreement, provide any reward or penalty to, or in any other way condition its relationship with, an Independent Distributor or any employees or  agents of that Independent Distributor based  upon the amount of sales the Independent Distributor makes of a Third-Party Brewer’s Beer or the marketing, advertising, promotion, or retail placement of such Beer."

The second condition is especially important. Recently ABI had instituted the Voluntary Anheuser-Busch Incentive for Performance Program (VAIP), which incentivized loyalty among its independent distributors. (Why they rolled that out when the merger was pending is anyone's guess. Seems hopelessly clueless to me.)

The DOJ's stipulations were stringent enough that even the Brewers Association, the trade organization that represents small breweries, gave it a qualified thumbs up. All of which means you can safely return to ignoring this issue and just enjoy your fine pint of ale.

One last note. Interestingly, despite having made it over this regulatory hurdle, the merger may not go forward after all--in part thanks to the Brexit.
The takeover of the London-listed brewer has come under scrutiny in recent weeks as a drop in the British currency has reduced the relative attractiveness of the all-cash offer aimed at most SAB shareholders. A source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday that the company’s board was weighing the terms of AB InBev’s offer, amid rising shareholder disquiet.
Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fill in the Blanks

Introducing the Buy-out
[ _______________ ] announced today an agreement to acquire a majority interest in
[ ________ ]-based [ __________ ] Brewing Company.

Expression of Delight in Finding the Perfect Buyer
“Bringing  [ __________ ] on  allowed us to get to know each other better and realize the incredible potential of becoming a majority-owned partner with  [ __________ ] ,” said  [ __________ ] ,  co-founder and vice president of brewing development. “With  [ __________ ] 's dedication to helping us grow and their passion for creating high-quality craft beers, we knew it would be the perfect partnership. We look forward to continuing to create innovative beers to share with beer lovers nationwide.”

Anodyne History of the Acquired Brewery
[ ________ ] founders Buckowski and John Cochran set out in 2002 to craft beers unlike any that were available in the [ ________ ] at the time, choosing [ ________ ] as home base because of its distinctive culture and shared appreciation for music. The 84,000-square-foot brewery and 100-barrel brew house creates year-round and seasonal beers including [ ________ ], [ ________ ], and [ ________ ].

Expression of Delight in Finding Perfect Craft Brewery to Buy
 “The team at  [ ________ ] is so passionate and committed to brewing such terrific beers that we are thrilled to welcome them deeper into the  [ ________ ] family,” said Scott Whitley, president and CEO of  [ ________ ] . “As owners, our job is to work collaboratively with their team to support their continued success with their innovative, award-winning beers that complement our portfolio perfectly.”

Concluding Corporate Statements
[ ________ ]  Company joins other leading crafts in the [ ________ ] portfolio, including [ ________ ] Brewing Company, [ ________ ] Brewing Company and [ ________ ] Brewing Company. For more information on [ ________ ] Company and its portfolio of brands, visit [ ________ ] .com.   The transaction is expected to complete in August 2016. The terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

________________

This was the actual press release of an actual sale that took place today, though the form is so predictable it is 100% interchangeable with any recent or future acquisition. In this case, the acquired brewery was Georgia's Terrapin, and the acquirer was MillerCoors (which had already owned a minority stake).

Carry on.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On the IPA Cutting Edge...

No brewery is doing more to push the evolution of IPAs forward than Breakside. (See here, here, and here for recent discussions.) Well, the evolution continues apace. In a recent blog post, head brewer Ben Edmunds writes about some of the things they've been working on recently:
Back to the Future IPA (aka BTTF) is the third release in our series of rotating draft-only IPAs for the year. BTTF is a departure from the previous two releases in the series: Tall Guy IPA and Rainbows & Unicorns. Those two are beers we’ve brewed a number of times and have more or less “set” recipes. By contrast, Back to the Future is a beer that always changes, both each year and– in this year’s incarnations– each batch.
Since I am a Serious Journalist (TM), I felt that just quoting extensively from that blog post was inadequate. For true value-added content, you need Ben to elaborate on some of the things he mentions in that post--and I'm just the journalist to cut-and-paste the replies he sent to me via email. All kidding aside, this is cool stuff and worth your attention. Even a beer so dominated by a single ingredient can be inflected by other ingredients and techniques. Ben discusses the way flaked grains, water treatments, new hop varieties, and yeast strains can transform an IPA. Read on...













Ben started by noting what the last iteration of Back to the Future experimented with:
Specifically, we used BTTF 2015 to explore some questions we had about the use of flaked grains in IPAs. We also trialed a much softer water profile than we normally use with our IPAs. As with any trial, there were parts of the 2015 version that we liked and learned from, and elements that we didn’t. The things that we liked are now incorporated into many of our other hoppy beers. Both Lunch Break and Tall Guy use a good portion of flaked barley in the malt bill, for example. The hops that we used BTTF 2015– Ella and Azacca– have both found a home in our hop schedules for several other beers, including Hop Delivery Mechanism and Imperial Red.
To which I asked about both the flaked grains and soft water.  Ben comments:
I think there is a lot of emphasis amongst brewers these days, especially East Coast brewers, on flaked grains. They tend to use a lot of wheat and oats. We'll use all three (as well as flaked corn and flaked rice, in other beers) in hoppy beers, but I think we tend to use flaked barley more than the other flaked grains because of its more neutral character. Flaked wheat and flaked oats are great but tend to be very characterful; flaked corn (which we use in our Coconut IPA) and flaked rice (Rainbows & Unicorns) are also great. They all help round out body with some light grain character that allows hops to shine.  

Softer water is still a subject of debate within Breakside. Generally, we have come to favor a slightly Burtonized water profile for most of our hoppy beers. When we first opened, I used a classic Burton ratio (10:1 sulfate-to-chloride) on most hoppy beers. Over time, we've backed off on that in an effort to allow the finish to come off a little softer and let the hop flavor linger into the aftertaste. Most of our core beers are still 5:1 sulfate-to-chloride or higher (Wanderlust, Breakside IPA, and IGA are all pretty Burtonized at 8:1), but many of the new recipes we've worked on go down to the 3:1 range. We have tried a few pub beers with a very soft water profile (no Burtonizing or a chloride-heavy profile), and that gets a little flabby for our own preferences. BTTF uses the 3:1 profile, which, in my mind, optimizes hop flavor and a refreshingly snappy finish.
Water is something I need to address seriously at some point. When I was speaking with Nick Arzner on Friday, he mentioned this issue as well. He'd just done a collaboration with Great Notion. He also mentioned that they go for heavy chloride in their water to soften the palates of their "New England" IPAs. This, Nick suggested, was one of the most important ways these beers were distinguished from West Coast IPAs. 

Ben continued in his blog post discussing the newer hops they've been using.
This year, we’ve revived BTTF in the same spirit, brewing it with combinations of hops that we think have a lot of promise and using this beer as an opportunity for us to explore some “new directions” in making IPAs. Distilling it down to 3 key areas, this year’s Back to the Future IPAs are exploring the following territory: Pairing a new and interesting hop (Topaz, Lemondrop, Idaho 7) with hops that are already beloved (Mosaic, Citra, and Ella). Each batch of this beer focuses on a different combination of those hops. The first batch, which is currently on the market, is heavy on Topaz and Mosaic. The second round of brews will be mainly Citra and Lemondrop. The final batches– the ones that will be hitting the market in August– will use Ella and Idaho 7.
I know that the brewers at Breakside have novel hopping regimes based on whether they think a hop is "punchy" (spiky, sharp flavors) or "soft." I asked him how these new hops behaved.
Topaz is a lot like Galaxy but without the intense stone fruit character; it comes off as a little waxy/petrol the way many Southern Hemisphere hops do, but it has some nice underlying tropical notes. Lemondrop is very citric, as advertised-- kind of like a super Cascade. And Idaho 7 is reminiscent of a softer Centennial-- lots of lemongrass and Fruity Pebbles for me. Culmination uses it a lot in their Urizen Session IPA. I'd say that Topaz is very punchy, Idaho 7 pretty punchy, and Lemondrop soft. 
Finally, Ben talked about the interplay between yeast strains and hop expression. He writes that Breakside is "using a different yeast strain with this beer this year, and it seems to respond to American hops differently than our normal house ale strain." This is not just a matter of the way different flavors inflect each other, like blending colors. There's an actual biochemical process that happens in which hop compounds are transformed during fermentation--an issue I've written about recently. Ben expanded:
I think that the most interesting part of this whole experiment might be the use of a non-traditional "West Coast" yeast, much in the same way that the East Coast guys are favoring English yeasts for their IPAs. There's some real digging to be done about yeast selection and the future of American IPA.
So

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Good, Old-Fashioned News Roundup

Been awhile since so much stuff came along that I felt it merited a round up, but there you have it. (Nothing here about Cleveland, either--I promise.)

















1. Puckerfest!
One of the best events of the year arrives in Portland tomorrow--Belmont Station's annual celebration of sour, Puckerfest. The lineup:
  • Tuesday, July 19 - Breakside (with appearances by Ale Apothecary, Alesong, Boneyard, the Commons, Culmination, Rogue, Upright).

  • Weds, July 20 - Gorge Night, featuring Double Mountain's annual Kriek releases (including a keg you can't even get in Hood River), Logsdon, pFriem, and Solera.
  • Thurs, July 21 - Belgian Giants. Rodenbach Alexander (!) and Grand Cru, Cantillon Iris and Gueuze, Hannsens Oude Lambik, Bockor Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge, and Liefmans Goudenband.
  • Friday, July 22 - Cascade. 
  • Saturday, July 23 - Block 15 & De Garde
  • Sunday, July 24 -  Califorina breweries. Almanac, Bear Republic, Firestone Walker, Green Flash, Lost Abbey, Russian River.

2. Hop Acreage Expands 18.5%
American IPAs are great for beer drinkers--and even better for hop growers. Brewers are now using absolutely crazy amounts of hops when they make IPAs, and that means hop acreage has had to expand to keep up with demand. This is from the Hop Growers of America:
After a 15.4% increase in acres harvested in the US in 2015, a 10.2% increase in 2014, a 10.3% increase in 2013, and a 7.2% increase in 2012, acreage has jumped up once again. For the second year in a row, U.S. hop acreage has surpassed previous records to reach all time highs. With 53,213 total acres strung for harvest in the U.S., that’s a whopping 8,303 new acres from 2015 – a 18.5% increase.
It is whopping, too. In 2004, which looks like a serious low tide for hop-growing, the US grew only 27,742 acres--almost exactly half the acres it grew in 2015. A few interesting notes:
  • Zeus (21%), Willamette (21%), CTZ (18%) and Galena (17%) were the big cultivars back in 2005. There were just 6% of Cascades.
  • Variety was much more pronounced in 2015. The biggest cultivars were: Cascade (14%), Centennial (9%), and CTZ (9%). 
  • Hop acreage outside the Northwest increased 64% and is now 4% of all acreage. Michigan, with 650 acres, is leading the pack.

3. The Price of a Beer
This last one is not much more than a link, but it's a good one. Care to guess how the price of a pint of beer stacks up now to any time in the past fifty years? (Hint: this is one way you don't want to make America great again.) Interesting graph for those who find graphs interesting.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Naive Pleasure

Something's not quite right this summer. There's a sour mood in the air, the feeling of confusion and conflict. Social media has a mean edge. I could be speaking about politics, but the same is true with beer. We have passed out of the fun stage of infatuation and have entered the period Sartre called "the age of reason"--the loss of the simplicity of youth. Or perhaps the scene in the Matrix is a better analogy. The one where Neo is offered the chance to embrace the harsh truth of reality (the red pill), or take the blue pill and slide back into a blissful fiction. Too many of us have eaten the red pill, and we sink into the sludge of buyouts, lawsuits, sales reports, and purity tests.

But these analogies are inexact. The one great thing about beer is we can turn off the discursive mind and slide into the emotional mind. A nice beer on a sunny day, just you and your senses, falling into a blissful absorption of beer. There are many ways to do this--as a drinker, as a homebrewer, or, if you're lucky enough to be a writer, as a kind of motivated fan.














I'm off to Block 15 today to spend some time with Nick Arzner, one of my favorite brewers. We're going to spend some time today discussing his projects, process, and philosophy, and I will have the joy of just listening. (With luck you'll be able to hear part of our discussion, because I'm hoping to get some tape of Nick discussing the art of blending for the podcast.) One of the great things about writing about beer is that you get to hang out with brewers and learn about how they think about and make beer. At some point, I'll need to turn our conversation into something with shape and form, but the conversation itself should be pure pleasure.

We probably need to spend more time rediscovering that sense of naive pleasure that drew us to beer in the first place. There is plenty of drama and conflict in the beer world to sustain a million tweets, but that is decidedly not why I started writing about beer. Summer itself is a time of uncomplicated pleasures--bare skin, dime-store novels, popcorn blockbusters, tall glasses of cold beer.

Happy Friday, everyone--

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Big Change Possible in Massachusetts Wholesale Laws

You may recall that last year Boston-area distributors were caught giving kickbacks to retailers. The repercussions of that incident seem to be rippling through the Massachusetts state house in a serious way:
Massachusetts brewers unveiled a last-minute legislative proposal that would dramatically reorder the state’s beer industry, making it far easier for breweries to switch among distributors that bring their brews to bars and package stores.

The measure, filed Wednesday by state Senator Barbara L’Italien, would effectively repeal the state’s decades-old beer-franchise law, which makes it difficult and expensive for breweries to fire their distributors.... Instead, the legislation specifies that distribution deals would be governed by the same type of private business contracts common in other industries.... Under current law, a brewery is effectively locked into its distributor after six months unless it can prove to state regulators the wholesaler has met one of several conditions — such as violating the law or failing to “exercise best efforts” in selling the beer.
The distributors were incensed, and it's not clear that the bill is going anywhere. Still, it's a sign that the beer market is in flux and there could be seismic changes coming. Indeed:
Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, whose office oversees the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, is also threatening to shake up the industry by launching a task force that will conduct a top-to-bottom review of the state’s liquor laws and regulations. 
It's not actually clear that this would 1) solve the very real problem in which distributors currently act as a gateway for small breweries getting to the market, without 2) damaging them in the process. Distribution is always a weird part of the brewing industry, one nearly invisible to consumers. In states like Oregon, legislators have relaxed the law on self-distribution, so wholesalers have to compete on service if they want to lure little breweries, and that seems to be an effective solution. But each state has slightly different rules, and those rules affect little breweries in different ways. If Massachusetts does pass this bill, it will certainly be something the rest of the US will be watching closely.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Deep Dive on the Claims About New England IPAs (Way Nerdy)

Last week, the ever-busy Jason Notte had a great piece on the rise of niche brewing. This is a point I regularly make to visitors coming to Beervana: one of the things that makes the city so interesting is the presence of breweries that don't make IPAs--like Occidental, Upright, and the Commons (among others). It's a city of diversity. For his piece, Notte chose Great Notion Brewing, which specializes in the fraught "New England IPA" category.
Miller and Dugan had spent years home-brewing and swapping beers with friends across the country before realizing that their brewery’s inspiration had to lie somewhere other than Portland. They were taken with the hazier, fruitier India Pale Ales being made by Northeast breweries including Maine Beer Co., The Alchemist and Tree House.
(To be fair, Great Notion is making a pretty broad line, and their puckery beers are for me their real calling card.)

All well and good. Let's not relitigate this particular debate. My bone of contention comes with a comment Great Notion's James Dugan makes--a pillar on which these types of beers seems to rest. The overwhelming trend in American beers now is toward saturated and intense hop flavors and aromas, not bitterness. Somehow the idea is that the New England IPAs have a greater abundance of these qualities due to their cloudiness. And here Dugan doubles down with some science:
People look at our beers and say: “You have too much yeast in suspension.” What it comes down to is educating people that there is some yeast in every beer — we don’t filter, we don’t fine, we don’t centrifuge — but we cold crash all of our beer, drop the yeast out and then do a heavy dry hopping. We dry hop about two and a half to three gallons per barrel. When you dry hop that heavily, you get hop polyphenols that are basically tannins that saturate beer with oils.

Without protein content from wheat or oats, those oils eventually drop out. What we’re finding to be the defining characteristic of our beers is this marriage of protein and hop oil saturation. What’s happening is that those two are binding. You have this hop oil stuck in suspension and when you pour it into a glass, you’re tasting the hop oil. 
This seemed ... dubious. I set about looking into the science, but unfortunately, the mechanism of hop flavor and aroma hasn't been studied much. For decades, all hop research was focused on IBUs and paid for by big breweries who were trying to get ever more bitterness out of ever fewer hops. The state of the aroma and flavor research is still in the gestation state. I spoke with researcher Tom Shellhammer at Oregon State last year about a project to understand the mechanism of dry-hopping. He described it for me:
“What it’s getting at is, if you’re going to use hops for dry-hopping and make a consistent product batch-to-batch, should you as a brewer hop based upon the mass of hops, or the oil content of the hops—or based on something else?”  
This illustrates how little we understand about these mechanisms. But we understand something. We know some of the constituents of hops, like oils and and acids and prenylated flavonoids (yes, I way out over my skis on that last one), and we have some sense of what they do and don't do. In particular, scientists have focused a lot of their attention on the terpenes like myrcene, linalool, geraniol, and so on that give hops their lovely citrus or floral kick. But we also know that hops are incredibly complex and not only are there many other compounds I haven't mentioned, but even the ones I have aren't inert. Some terpenes, for example are "biotransformed by yeast during the fermentation" into other terpenes. The question at hand is whether proteins enhance and preserve the behavior of hop flavor and aroma, as proponents of New England IPAs believe.

It doesn't really add up. There's no mechanism that I understand that would cause the polyphenols in hops to bond the oils to the proteins in grain. (It's not clear why the hops don't bond to the proteins of barley, which are also present in beer, except I suppose there is less of it.) Polyphenols affect the perceived smoothness or harshness of hop flavor, but they don't appear particularly relevant to that "juicy" quality prized by modern breweries. The thing you're worried about with hop oils is degredation from oxygenation, not dropping out of suspension. Terpenes in oils appear to be susceptible to this as well, and they are also volatile and can escape the liquid. There's really nothing we know that suggests wheat and oat haze is going to affect these hoppy properties.

I shot an email to Stan Hieronymus, the writer who literally wrote the book on hops, to find out if this sounded plausible to him. If he'd like to weigh in on this, I'll let him do so in his own words. The one thing he mentioned that seemed really important was this: we "have to get past thinking about oil and think about compounds," he said. Oils are part of the equation, but they're not the whole kielbasa.

For me, the proof is in the palate. I still haven't encountered anything different in these cloudy IPAs in terms of hop flavor and aroma than I do in typical (hazy but not milky) modern American IPAs. It's as easy to make a saturated IPA whether it looks like a milkshake or not.  Dugan--and others, apparently--have argued that there's some science going on in these beers that make them especially juicy. Could be! But point me to the studies that demonstrate it, please. Sciencey language doesn't quite cut it alone. (Otherwise hive mind would let me get away with a lot more BS.)

For now, I think these are standard modern American IPAs with a ton of haze. And a special prize to anyone who managed to read through this post to get to that rather modest conclusion.

Monday, July 11, 2016

How Far Will Mass Market Lagers Fall?

There's a (surprisingly weak) piece on the online New Yorker that includes this remarkable comment:
Over the past decade, varieties once thought of as boutique beers, such as I.P.A.s, have exploded in the United States, thanks to the locavore movement. Craft brewing is now doubling in sales, by volume, every five years; today, craft-beer sales make up twenty-one per cent of the beer market, and twelve per cent of the volume. The Brewers Association, a craft-brewing trade group, expects craft beers to have a fifty-per-cent market share in a decade. Since craft brewers use about ten times more hops than megabrewers, the trend has been a bonanza for Hopsteiner and the other big hops companies. [emphasis added]
Let's leave aside that unsubstantiated (and untrue) intro sentence about the locavore movement. The bolded sentence is the real whopper. It's not clear whether he's talking volume or dollars when he refers to the market--even predicting that the craft market will more than double in ten years is a pretty staggering prediction. That would require 10% year-over-year growth for the entire period. For volume to hit that mark, craft would have to grow more than four-fold in ten years time--and someone better at calculating compound growth can run those numbers. [Update. In a tweet, Brewers Association economist Bart Watson confirmed he was misquoted. "No. I think I said something like the high end could get to 50% of dollar sales eventually."]

It is interesting to consider where the floor for mass market lagers is. Rather than just guess at random, let's look at a similar product category: coffee. Much like beer, it was an industry once dominated by a single kind of product and a few large national players. Like beer, a "craft" movement arrived in the 1980s and began gobbling up market share. Like beer, consumption habits vary for younger folks than older folks. Like beer, total consumption is declining even as consumption of good coffee increases. And finally, like beer, people drinking outside the home is on the rise. And what's happening in coffee?
Only about 8 percent of the coffee beans Americans buy are fresh whole beans, which upscale coffee brewers, like Blue Bottle, will tell you is the much better way to buy coffee beans. And ground coffee isn't just outpacing whole bean coffee — it's increasing its lead, each and every year. 
I couldn't find solid stats on coffee, which has no equivalent to the Brewers Association. Coffee is also fragmented in a way beer isn't (espresso vs ground vs whole bean vs pod). But this one teaser graph from Statista is illuminating:

















Folger's and Maxwell House are objectively inferior products. They're made with inferior beans and produce coffee I think most people would agree is marked by harsher flavor notes. This, too, is different from beer. Mass market lagers may be less interesting, but they're not made from inferior ingredients. The difference is subjective. And yet, Folger's and Maxwell House are still rocking it. Why?
But just the opposite is true: People in this country, on the whole, are actually drinking worse coffee today than they have in the past. And the reason appears to be that they value cheapness over quality — and convenience over everything.
This is certainly going to be the case with beer. There will always be a large market for cheap beer, because there will always be a large group who prize value over flavor. (Or, more accurately, a group that prizes value at least part of the time.)

My rough guess, based on business news from the past couple years, is that about 50% of the coffee sold in America is "cheap"--the equivalent of mass market lager. That seems about right. I suspect the number might tick up or down depending on trends, but the low-end market is never going away, no matter how ubiquitous Starbucks seem. At some point in the future, we'll settle on a definition for mass market beer, and it will probably include some flavors and styles we currently call "craft." (Witbier is cheap and easy to make in volume, as one emerging example demonstrates.) By the time the market matures and we have settled on that definition, most of us will think of mass market beer about as often as we think of three-pound cans of Maxwell House now.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Rogue Is Doing Incredibly Interesting Stuff

If I asked you to name the ten breweries doing the most interesting things in the US, you'd probably leave Rogue off the list. In most markets, Dead Guy is the face of the brewery, an ancient beer by US standards, and a pretty boring one at that. When we think of cutting edge, our mind turns to places like Scratch Brewing, Crooked Stave, or pFriem. But you'd be hard pressed to find a brewery as ambitious as Rogue. Consider:
  • Rogue has developed an extensive farm where they grow branded, proprietary strains of barley (300 acres) and hops (42 acres).
  • The brewery floor malts its barley.
  • They grow other crops on their farm, from which they produce mead, braggot, and flavored beers.
  • Rogue has gotten into distilling, and now grow their own corn and rye to make whiskey.
  • Rogue has also started making cider, although it's not clear that they have an orchard or plans to plant one.
And then there's this, which Rogue announced today:
Rogue Ales & Spirits announces the release of 2016 Rolling Thunder Imperial Stout, its first-ever beer aged in barrels made at Rogue’s cooperage....













Rogue acquired vintage French WW II era coopering equipment before knowing where to put it and who was going to make the barrels. Longtime employee Nate Lindquist volunteered to be Rogue’s first cooper and spent a year as an apprentice learning the ancient art form of barrel making. Using Oregon White Oak, Nate assembles, raises, toasts, chars, hoops, heads, hoops again, cauterizes, sands and brands each barrel, one at a time all by hand. At full capacity, he makes one barrel a day. 
This is really fascinating--and the kind of thing I'd normally be all over. Rogue, unfortunately, is perhaps the most secretive brewery in the world (at least now that St. James Gate has opened up a bit). They deliver information pre-packaged with a smile and the unmistakable message: take it or leave it. I've tried to engage the brewery about their produce, but they won't even tell me basic facts, like whether a certain hop is high-alpha or not. Since they have their own marketing team putting out all this material anyway, it hardly matters if I reprint it.

Every now and again it is worth stopping to admire it all--if, necessarily, we must do so at a great remove, without any actual details.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Ex Novo Where the Mild Things Are

No marketing professional was consulted in the naming of mild ale. Who wants "mild?" It doesn't tell you anything at all about the beer (unlike, say, "bitter" or "pale"), except the suggestion that you will be bored by it. It's almost like a warning: nothing to see here, move along.

The only people who want anything mild are those who have seen too much excitment, like for example soldiers following a world war or survivors of overhead bombings. And indeed, these were exactly the people who took to mild back in postwar England. You can't blame them for seeking refuge in a cozy pub and trying to soothe their jangled nerves with something soft and comforting, something mild.

Americans are the opposite of those people. We want thrills and excitement, maybe even a bit of danger. We want novelty, variety, and intensity. We want wild, not mild. And so it is that the little 3.5% dark ales, seasoned with almost no hops and just a hint of nutty or roasty malt, have never found much of an audience here.* I think the main reason is alcohol content, though. You look at the taplist and see a 3.5% beer will cost you five bucks, same as the 7.1% IPA, and you shake your head sadly and order the strong one. It's difficult to argue the math.

But some people reject mild for other reasons--they aren't thrilled by the name, or have found milds to be as boring as their name. To these complaints I offer the finest American mild ale I have ever tasted: Ex Novo's Where the Mild Things Are. It has it all, from a rich, biscuity/nutty malt profile to a sturdy body to a creamy mouthfeel (despite being served on regular draft). And wonder above wonders, it doesn't taste like a low-alcohol beer. You wouldn't mistake it for a double IPA, but neither does it have that hollow spot so often found in weaker beers. It is hearty and satisfying, rich and flavorful, and of course, wonderfully sessionable. A perfect conversation beer, keeping your palate interested and your brain in the game.


















Ex Novo is doing some absolutely wonderful beers, so use this as an excuse to hop on down if you haven't visited yet. (The brisket sandwich is excellent.) They're celebrating their 2nd Anniversary this weekend, so if you wanted to stop by the celebration, you could have that mild then. Or just drop by at your convenience. But do stop by and, despite the name and ABV, try that mild. You'll thank me.

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*I hear all you lovely pedants out there scrambling to get to a keyboard and explain to me that milds don't have to be dark nor weak. True. But since strong milds haven't been brewed in decades and pale milds are rare and confusing, let's leave all that to the side for the moment, what say?

"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.