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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Beer Tasting Is Subjective

Note: I'm away from my computer for awhile, and I'm re-posting some of the more interesting items from recent years. The one I'm posting today actually had an amazing influence on my appreciation of how different individual palates are. Also, the links appear dead, but the point is still valid.
Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine you assembled a list of a city's best beers. Then you polled a bunch of people to find the consensus of which of these they would recommend. Here's the experiment part: how many of those beers would have high levels of agreement--say 75% or more?

I would have guessed you could get at least a couple beers in every style--essentially broad agreement on the "best beers." Well, Matt Wiater at Portlandbeer.org actually did this, and guess what: not much agreement. Of the top 15 beers, only two met my hypothetical standard. Mostwere recommended by only a bare majority of people. Mirror Pond, for example, surely one of the more famous, beloved, and best-selling beers in all of Greater Beervana, managed a recommendation from only 50% of the people.

So who were these half-wits? Bloggers, mainly (including me).

The lesson is clear to me: there is no "best" of anything. "Bests" are reserved for track meets, where you can actually measure performance. In beer, the master is the taster. What's best is what your tongue likes. I tend to think we can talk about some general standards of quality, but specific beers?--clearly this isn't so easy to figure out.

So the next time (and there will be a next time) we get in a spat about a specific beer, we should recall this lesson. Different strokes, folks. And ain't it nice we have so many breweries to serve these different tongues?

Friday, July 30, 2010

What Sours a Beer?

In yesterday's post about Devil's Kriek, Samurai Artist sparked a conversation about the souring properties of brettanomyces. Since sour beers are becoming more common, it's a timely discussion. Sourness may be tart and clean as in a Berliner Weisse, dry and austere as in some lambics, our face-puckeringly intense, as in some Flemish reds. These different qualities come from different microorganisms, and it's worth spending a post mentioning a few of the biggies.

My source material here is Jeff Sparrow's Wild Brews, which I recommend highly for anyone interested in a deep understanding of sour beers. Let's start with a pithy opening from the start of his fourth chapter, "Beer-Souring Microorganisms." Here, he describes the actors that create the funk:
"Four dominant types of microorganisms commonly ferment and acidify wild beers: brettanomyces, lactobacillus, pediococcus, and saccharomyces. Sever other important players also merit a mention, including acetobacter, enterobacter, and various oxidative yeasts."
Now, in this next pithy passage, he describes the particular nature of the funk those actors produce:
"The acids most important to wild beers include lactic and acetic acid. Acetic acid, present in copious amounts in vinegar, is sharp, pungent, and greatly increases the perception of sourness. Lactic acid, found in spoiled milk, is less objectionable and contributes a 'tangy' character, sometime perceived as 'sweet' by brewers in contrast to other acids."
(There are actually a host of other acids that contribute flavor like caproic acid, which Sparrow says gives a "goaty," "sweaty," or "zoolike" character. But you can read his book if you want the full monty.)

Brettanomyces
This wild yeast inspires the most awe and fear among brewers. It will eat anything, including dextrins and sugars that other yeasts find unpalatable, achieving nearly 100% attenuation. (Brewers joke that it will start eating the glass in a bottle if you leave it long enough.) Attenuation is the percentage of available sugars a yeast will eat. Wyeast's Northwest ale yeast, a non-brettanomyces yeast, attenuates at about 70%, for example. Brett will produce both acetic and lactic acids, but the former only under certain circumstances. There are at least five species of brettanomyces and many strains within each. The most common is brettanomyces bruxellensis, named for a strain from Brussels.

Lactobacillus
Lactobacillus is a type of bacteria that gives Flanders beers (red and brown) their character, as it does to some German ales like Gose and Berliner Weisse. It is not a major player in lambics, however--the lactic there comes from pediococcus (see below). As the name suggests, lactobacillus produces lactic acid. Lactobacillus is far more finicky than brettanomyces, preferring warm temperatures, a low-oxygen environment, and low levels of hop acids.

Pediococcus
As alluded to above, pediococcus is the beastie that gives lambics their lactic, not lactobacillus. This is mainly a function of the life cycle of a lambic. Pediococcus ferments in beer with little or no oxygen; likewise, it gives off no carbon dioxide. In a lambic, the pediococcus kicks in after 3-4 months when, fascinatingly, the wort is exceptionally sour as a result of early enterobacter production. The pediococcus begins when the lambic warms up, creating "long strands of slime" on top of the wort. You can drink the beer at this stage, but it's oily and known as the "sick" stage. But from the sickness comes the lactic, and eventually, the slime is reabsorbed as the brettanomyces begin gobbling up everything that's left.

The upshot? "Sour" isn't a fixed flavor. Different beers have different compounds and acids that contribute characteristics that define style. Brewers have very different attitudes to the kinds of sour beers produce. When I was at Allagash last year, Jason Perkins and Rob Tod described their efforts to cultivate native brettanomyces. On the other hand, Ron Gansberg doesn't want brett in his brewery; he's a lactobacillus man. Matt Swihart is a brett man, but is he only a brett man, or will future batches exhibit the character of other funky bacteria? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

By the way, Sparrow reproduces a lot of very cool graphs he got from Raj Apte, and you can find those at Raj's site. One I particularly enjoyed is a graph showing the waves of activity in lambic fermentation, particularly in the first year. Click on it to see an enlarged version. You'll find more cool stuff if you follow the link to his site, too.


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PHOTO: Cantillon casks, Thom's Beer Blog / link

Rise of the New Regional Breweries

Note: I'm away from the computer for a few days, and so have re-posted some of my favorite items from recent years. Today's post was occasioned by the In-Bev purchase of Anheuser-Busch. I have added an update below the post.
When I was a kid, my cousin--whom I idolized in the way an eight-year-old inevitably does with a 20-year-old cousin--used to name his dogs after beer. He was a farmer out in Eastern Oregon, and there was something about driving tractors that was irresistible to the young city slicker (from that vast metropolis, Boise). I never stopped to consider why he had a lot of dogs, but maybe the life of a farm dog isn't always a long-lived one. In any case, the reason he thought it was cool to name his dogs after beer companies was because there were a lot of regional beer companies, and they had identities. It wouldn't occur to a young man to name his dog after a brewing company now, but in the era of "I seen 'em" and "Raaaaai-neeeeeeir Beeeeeeeer" and "Blitz Country," it made perfect sense. His St. Bernard "Oly" was my favorite.

I am reminded of all of this as I consider the demise of Bud, the last of the independent American brewing titans. Now all we have left are "brands"--labels on cans all containing the same, indistinguishable pallid product. Breweries are gone, replaced by "plants," just as faceless as the beer they make. I suspect there's still a little pride in Colorado of Coors and in Milwaukee of Miller, but it must be a vestigial, nostalgic pride. There's nothing about Miller that says Milwaukee anymore--the association is purely reflex memory.

On the other hand, a lot of growing craft breweries have become pretty big deals. Boston Beer Company is now the largest independent brewery in the US. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium probably fit the standard of "regional brewery"--something like a million or more barrels. Maybe Widmer does, too. Deschutes and Full Sail are now in the top 20 (.pdf)--certainly not out of spitting distance. (There is a massive drop off from the top 3-4 to the next few, to be sure, but these companies are gaining.)

It's interesting to think of these, rather than the regional breweries ascendent back in the 60s (Ballantine, Hamm's, Blitz-Weinhard, Schaefer), as the next cohort of regional American breweries. We're still in the mode of thinking of them as "micro." But really, if the sale of Budweiser tells us anything, it's that the macros are looking like dinosaurs, while the erstwhile micros are creating broad regional markets that might well carry them into the future as major players. It's hard to imagine that Budweiser's pre-eminence will continue. They've held it for decades, but in business, no one stays on top forever. Ask GM.

Before 1970, there was a lot more parity between the major breweries. In 1950, Schlitz was "king," but just by a nose. They produced only 7% of the nation's beer and the top ten brewers only made 38%. A-B was king a decade later, but they still only produced 10% of the country's beer. And there were a still a lot of regional independents:


RANK BREWER BARRELAGE
1Anheuser-Busch, Inc.8,477,099
2Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co.5,694,000
3Falstaff Brewing Corp.4,915,000
4Carling Brewing Co.4,822,075
5Pabst Brewing Co.4,738,000
6P. Ballantine & Sons4,408,895
7Theo. Hamm Brewing Corp.3,907,040
8F & M Schaefer Brewing Co.3,202,500
9Liebmann Breweries2,950,268
10Miller Brewing Co.2,376,543

Total Barrelage Of All U.S. Brewers in 1960: 87,912,847 barrels.
Top 10 Brewers' Percentage of Total U.S. Barrelage: 52 percent.

I don't have the numbers for Budweiser, but it has long accounted for about half the beer sold in the US. If the brand erodes here, as Coors and Miller's have, Americans will be drinking more of something else. In another 20 years, we may see Boston Beer on top, with Bud relegated to second, Miller and Coors perhaps off the list. It's not inconceivable that eight or nine of the ten largest US breweries in 2025 are what we now call "craft breweries." I mean, it's already beginning:
  1. Anheuser- Busch Inc.
  2. Miller Brewing Co.
  3. Coors Brewing Co.
  4. Pabst Brewing Co.
  5. Boston Beer Co.
  6. D.G. Yuengling and Son Inc.
  7. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
  8. New Belgium Brewing Co. Inc.
  9. High Falls Brewing Co. (Genesee)
  10. Spoetzl Brewery
The brewing world has always been marked by vicissitude, even when things appeared static year-to-year. But now we may be in a very serious moment of change that will require us to rethink what we mean by "micro" and "macro."

Interesting times.

Update. Since I posted this, we've had some movement on the top ten list. Have a look at Brewers Association's list from this April:

1 Anheuser-Busch InBev St. Louis MO
2 MillerCoors Brewing Co. Chicago IL
3 Pabst Brewing Co. Woodridge IL
4 D. G. Yuengling and Son Inc. Pottsville PA
5 Boston Beer Co. Boston MA
6 Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Chico CA
7 New Belgium Brewing Co. Fort Collins CO
8 Craft Brewers Alliance, Inc. Portland OR
9 Spoetzl Brewery (part of Gambrinus) Shiner TX
10 High Falls Brewing Co. Rochester NY

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Bud American Ale: the Triumph or Demise of Craft Beer?

Note: I'm away from my computer for a while, so I'm re-posting some of my favorite items from the past years. Enjoy--
I finally got my hands on Bud's American Ale, which seems simultaneously to be: 1) over-compensation for a company that's no longer American, 2) an acknowledgement that new products, not just new ads, are the only way to grow in the US market, and 3) a legitimate beer.

Let's start with the third point first. This is a real craft beer, not just a marketing gimmick. Bud has made a beautiful amber ale with a nice caramel malt note and a lightly citrusy hopping. They have dry-hopped it with Cascade hops (whole hops, apparently). I wouldn't call it a transcendent beer, but if you did a blind taste-test with this beer and several other craft ambers, I suspect it would finish in the middle of the pack. It is, for example, Fat Tire's superior--by quite a margin. I'm not a huge fan of ambers, but if I went to a party and this was in the fridge along with Corona, Widmer Hef, and Fat Tire, I'd be happy to grab the Bud Ale. And I'd enjoy it, too.

It's not surprising that Bud has made a good beer. I don't doubt that if Bud wished, its brewers could instantly produce a dozen excellent beers, and probably a world-class lager or six. The best, most well-trained brewers in the world work for Bud. They don't brew world-class beers because they don't wish to, not because they can't.

Three questions spring to mind: why a craft beer, why an amber, and what does it spell doom for craft breweries?

The answer to the first question seems obvious. While the macro market is flat or in decline, the micro market continues to grow and grow. The US beer market continues to grow slowly, but all the growth is in the craft segment. Bud can continue to buy up smaller breweries piecemeal to get a part of that growth, or take the plunge with their own brand and try to bring the market under the Bud name.

Okay, so why an amber? No doubt there's an easy, flip answer--the focus groups liked it best. (And actually, I bet they did. I bet Bud tried a bunch of ales and came up with this one. I would have loved loved loved to have been among the focus groups so I could see what was in the mind of the giant.) But it also makes sense. If you want to build a market for ales, you want to actually brew an ale. The craft market has proven the enduring popularity of the style, particularly as an introductory beer for new ale drinkers. It's nothing like Bud. Amber ales are especially fruity and ale-y. They exhibit a sweetness totally unlike light lagers--and which totally beguiled an early generation of Oregonians. Add a little dry-hopped Cascade citrus, and you introduce drinkers to the flavor of hops without risking turning people off with bitterness. If you want to create a market by priming the palates of for ales, this is a great way to go.

All well and good, but does it spell doom for craft breweries? If Bud makes a great (and cheaper) amber, will people quit drinking Full Sail's? I would love to hear the beer-economist reflect on this question, but my sense is that it's just the opposite: Bud can reach 100 million consumers who will never otherwise consider a craft beer. And once they've begun drinking Bud's ale, they may well enjoy Black Butte Porter or BridgePort IPA or Roots Heather. If Bud's experiment is successful, they will expand the market for craft beer--one they won't ever be able to dominate in the way they dominate the single-product macro market.

I love that Bud has made a serious beer. It looks to me like a trojan horse that millions of Americans may unwittingly invite into their refrigerators. And once dry-hopped ales get in there, they may never leave.

Update. Maureen Ogle points out an obvious analogy (one I nevertheless missed) to the scenario above: the Starbucks phenomenon.

Thoughts When Smoking Was Banned

Note: I'm away from computers this week, and so I'm re-posting some of the more interesting pieces from past years. On January 1, 2009, Oregon banned cigarettes in bars. I posted this reminiscence. 18 months on and I find I have less nostalgia than I expected.
The first time I ever inhaled the dense, smoky air of a bar, it was my father's. It was a little place called GJ's or G and J's below the sidewalk level--like a speakeasy--in the basement of Boise's venerable Idanha Hotel. In a long life in which my father earned a living with his hands, this was the brief period in which his his true calling came to flower. The bar didn't last more than a few months, as I recall (and I recall it dimly and perhaps improperly) because while Dad was great with people and knew how to fill a joint, he sucked with money. It was the early-mid 1970s and I was maybe six or seven years old.

Bars occupy physical space, obviously, but we go there for their psychic terrain. Bars are simultaneously refuges from reality and monuments to it. You could get a beer at a restaurant, but you go to a bar for the intimacy, the darkness, the camaraderie, the viscous air. This was imprinted on me as a boy in GJ's. I never visited during the evening; I was there playing on the floor while sun slanted in through the open door, Dad's Winston curling lazily amid the motes. I don't know if Jim Croce was playing in a loop the times I visited, but somehow the world of Leroy Brown intersected perfectly with GJ's.

A very decent part of my late youth (not all of it post-21) was mispent in bars like the Yukon and the Bear Claw. Friends and I learned how to play adequate bar 8-ball and we drank bottomless pitchers of whatever was most cheaply pouring: Biltz, Hamm's, Rainier, whatever. It was like pretend-adulthood, where big men might knock your teeth out and older women might go home with you at the end of the night, even though none of that ever really happened. You woke up in the morning with a coating of scum in your mouth, your hair stinking of cigarettes, and you felt older somehow. And alive.

As I got older, bars were less like pretend-adulthood than a touchstone. Microbrew replaced Hamm's, and flat screens replaced mounted TVs, but the other ornaments of bardom stayed the same. The essential nature of bars haven't changed a whole lot--you go to a place like the Yukon and it looks like it did in 1988 or 1968. Things change, but not bars. Or not until now, anyway.

Of course, a different kind of bar emerged in the 1980s. With brewpubs came windows and light and children. And fresh, smoke-free air. This has been a natural evolution. In my own lifetime, I've seen restaurants go from all-smoking to having a runty, non-prime, non-smoking section (as if currents of air respected symbolic borders) to having a runty, non-prime smoking section to, finally, non-smoking restaurants. You used to be able to smoke inside office buildings, stores, even airplanes (which in retrospect seems like madness). Now I can go weeks without ever encountering the scent of burning tobacco.

Tomorrow all bars will be smoke-free. When I ran my poll asking who supported this new law, most everyone did, smokers and non-smokers alike. Yet a sizeable minority of non-smokers, about 30% of you, weren't so excited by the idea of the ban. No doubt they'll enjoy going to a place like the Horse Brass and actually smelling their beer rather than the air, but still they oppose banning cigarettes. Why?

If I may speculate, I think what they'll miss is the aspect of the psychic terrain cigarettes contribute. It's fine for a brewpub to go smoke-free. The mood at a place like that is different. But take smokers out of the Yukon, and what happens to the atmosphere? The debate over the ban tends to revolve around drier issues of public policy, but to me the real loss is something more emotional. It's not actually the end of the world for smokers to step outside a bar for a smoke--if that were the only consideration, I think we'd all agree it wasn't much of an imposition. But the real effect will be the permanent loss of that psychic space we all grew to love. We're losing that touchstone bars have offered our whole lives.

Things change. We'll survive the transition to smokeless bars. But those of us old enough to remember will miss them nonetheless. It's a moment to acknowledge and, perhaps, lament.

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PHOTO: BBC

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are Flavorings the Future? Probably

Note: I'm away from my computer for a while, so I'm re-posting some of my favorite items from the past years. Enjoy--
A thought experiment. Imagine that you sat down at a pub to try the new, say, Ninkasi Hopposaurus and were stunned by the aroma--a piquant blend of passion fruit, black pepper, and sea breeze. The flavor is even more amazing: the hops have a quality you've never encountered before--lavender, white tea?--and the body is rich, lustrous, like creme brulee. You wonder how they did this. A new variety of hop, oats in the grist, maybe something more exotic? And then you learn the truth: it's actually a combination of chemical compounds, labda8(17) and gamma-decalatone, added by a flavorist from Cincinnati.

This is what ran through my mind as I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago, "The Taste Makers" by Raffi Katchadourian.
"More than half of Givaudan's business--which generates nearly four billion dollars in revenue a year--is built on deceiving our senses when we eat. The consumption of food flavorings may stand as one of the modern era's most profound collective acts of submission to illusion. When you watch a movie of look at photographs or listen to an iPod, you tend not to forget that what you are taking in has been recorded and re-created for you in some fashion....

"Placed in the context of art history, the flavor industry today would be in its modernist phase, somewhere in the waning days of Cubism, for even the most outlandish flavor concoctions take direct inspiration from the real world. Whereas a perfumer can invent commercially successful aromas that are totally nonrepresentational--a Pollock in a crystal bottle--the flavorist must still respect the deeply held conservatism that people tend to hold when it comes to putting food in their mouths. Snapple's use of kiwi-strawberry flavoring in a juice drink may seem unusual ... but we can imagine that the flavor is authentic--that it captures some platonic gastronomic truth."
Apostasy, surely. Treating beer like the latest energy drink is unthinkable, even if it is just to draw out the flavor of hops--even if it just uses some synthetic molecules discovered to be resident in hops. This would take us back to the bad old days of additive-rich, taste-poor macrolager from the 1970s.

Actually, I doubt it. As the article later points out, citrus flavor has already been added to beer (presumably Miller Chill or Bud Light Lime) chemically. Is it really such a long step before Sam Adams or Dogfish or Widmer give it a whirl? And really, if they did, so what--isn't that more or less the history of beer, anyway?

Beer and Additives
You can get alcohol by fermenting malted grain in water, full stop. You don't need gruit infusions or hops. But unspiced beer is undrinkable. So to balance things out, brewers started dumping stuff in. We know that the original debate about additives is at least 500 years old--when Bavarians decided that any spice more exotic than hops (water and malt okay; the later inclusion of yeast came only after brewers discovered its existence) was verboten.

But okay, in the modern era, we're not so Reinhetsgebot. Organic additions are kosher: coriander, cherries, even chocolate. We're still on all-natural footing. What then to make of hop pellets and hop oil?--they're not exactly a natural product. You don't just find hop oil pooling out there in the fields. Still, it's naturalish--no petrochemical juicing or anything unseemly like that.

But what about synthetic hop oil, made to be identical, molecule by molecule, to regular hop oil. Or just synthetic alpha acid, again, molecularly identical to organic alphas. Would that be all right? The line becomes quickly unclear.

And anyway, haven't we already strayed pretty far from "natural?" Barley has been genetically trained to be perfectly suited to brewing. It has gone through generations of training, straying pretty far from the original genome that the first Egyptians used. Hops? Is there even a single native strain used in brewing? If it's okay to tinker with the molecular biology of a plant, why not just skip the biology altogether and go straight to the molecule?

Human Perception
In a certain sense, there's no reason we shouldn't tweak flavors to suit our preferences--it's the same process that got us to food in the first place, except in reverse (we don't evolve to enjoy food, we make food evolve for more enjoyment). Here's a delightful passage from the article:
"Flavor is a cognitive figment. The brain fuses into a single experience the results of different stimuli registered by the tongue, nose, eyes, and ears, in addition to the memories of previously consumed meals. For reasons that are not fully understood, we perceive flavor as occurring in our mouths, and that illusion is nearly unshakeable, as is made clear by our difficulty identifying, with any reasonable specificity, the way each of our various senses contributes to the experience....

"Taste receptors are blunt instruments. With taste alone, one cannot distinguish a grape lollipop from a watermelon one; coffee is like hot water with a bitter aftertaste, and Coke a bland sugary solution. The limits of taste are unsurprising when one considers its evolutionary purpose. Our biological progenitors, living in the wilderness, needed to know only what was worth eating and what wasn't....

"Smell is a more supple and primordial sense, and its centrality is evident in the way the human brain is arranged. Our forebrains evolved from tissues that once focussed on processing smells, and there are three hundred or so olfactory receptors in the nose. When we taste or see or hear something, the information must pass through the thalamus, a kind of relay station in the brain that allows us to attend to different aspects of perception.... Smells, for the most part, are fed directly from the nose to the 'presemantic' part of the brain where cognition does not occur and where emotions are processed."
Flavor is not like sound or shapes--things our senses can perceive directly and about which we can find wide agreement. Instead, it is a nested experience that has the capacity to transport us experientially miles and decades away. In Harold and Maude, Maude owns a machine that can emit aromas. But it's purpose is really to recreate experience:
''Snowfall on 42nd Street!'' Harold inhales. ''What do you smell?'' she demands. ''Subway?'' he asks. She nods. ''Perfume. Cigarettes.'' He coughs . . . then there's a pause. With quiet wonder, he says, ''Snow.''
Beer is not separate from other foodstuffs. We hold an almost Hindu-like view of purity and pollution around the nature of "natural" ingredients, but this is cultural, not innate. If a brewery could evoke not just the flavor of 18th Century England with a version of Entire Butt Porter, but the experience of Victorian England?--it would do it in a heartbeat. Maybe that kind of transformation isn't possible, but subtler evocations are. We already do a pretty fair job of summoning an image of "green" with our native, hoppy beers, what if we could just add a bit of the experience of a fern-floored, old-growth fir forest in for added measure?

Now it is just the macros using the latest flavor du jour to hawk cheap beer. But flavorings could be used to a higher purpose. When the Belgians began dumping weird adjuncts into their beers, the Germans rejected it as a corruption, but the Belgians were just following the flavor. Now we revere their concoctions. Synthetic flavorings are now considered a pollution. But one day? They will probably define what we think of as world class; and from that distant vantage, they'll look back on our crude "natural" beers the way we look back on those infected, burnt beers people made in Medieval Europe.

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Photo: Vanier College

Good Beer Cities

Note: I am away from the computer for a few days. Below are some of my better entries, re-posted for your amusement. In today's installment, I was ruminating on the question of a good beer town--perhaps following the last silly row with Asheville, NC.
Beer is local. In the middle ages, breweries depended on local agriculture and water for ingredients, and these limitations created the distinct styles we now celebrate. In the modern era of globalism, breweries are no longer restricted; a good brewer will have traveled the globe and tried hundreds or thousands of foreign beers, all of which inform his own styles. But even with globalization, beer is local. We have other limitations. The beer you'd wish to drink in the heat of Phoenix, the gloom of Oregon, or the elevation of Santa Fe differs. Our regional and ethnic history contributes to the styles we admire. Finally, local ingredients, even in the age of globalism, can definitely play a role in creating regional styles.

So a city should have a unique beer culture if it's a "beer town." I've got or have had relatives scattered across the Mountain West, and while cities like Boise and Salt Lake have local brewpubs, they're as generic as Applebee's. These are not good beer cities, however good an individual brewery may be. Ask yourself--what's an "Idaho beer?"

A good beer town should have not only the ready availability of distinct, local beer, but a public clamoring for it. I like to check out little Mom and Pop grocery stores to see what beer they stock. In a beer town, they will have a decent selection of micros and imports. I look at the taps in hole-in-the-wall bars and also upscale bars. In a beer town, they'll both have some decent selections. I look to see whether there are regular local beer events--festivals, tastings, brewing dinners, meet-the-brewer events, that kind of thing. You only have those events if the public is demanding them. Are there taprooms in the city that feature a slate of a dozen or more exceptional taps? How many of these places are there? Have some of the local upscale restaurants, influenced by the brewing scene, begun to feature beer along with wine? Here's an especially potent test to run. If I go to a city, can I find any place with a Belgian beer on tap (Stella excepted)? A city can't call itself a beer town if the answer's no.

Looking for the "best" beer town is a fool's errand. Portland, a city of a half million, is clearly the most saturated environment for beer. That's in large part a function of it being the right size--too much smaller and it wouldn't have a critical mass to support all the activities, and too much larger and you'd find a population with more varied interests. Surely there are as many good places to get a pint in San Francisco but, owing to its size, the level of saturation is necessarily less. We can't identify a "best" because it's never going to be an apples-to-apples comparison.

It is possible to identify "good," though. I'd look at some of these indicators I've mentioned. Strip away local boosterism, and there are sadly fewer good beer cities in the country than we'd like. Fortunately, the number is getting larger by the decade, not smaller.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Session Phenomenon

Note: I will be away from the computer for a few days--probably through Sunday. Rather than just leave the site idle, I've dug around and found some old posts I liked--probably a lot of you won't have seen them the first time. In today's edition, I considered Full Sail's Session. At the time, I was ambivalent, but no more. Session rocks. The thing about "two breweries," though, that's still true. Enjoy--
It was just one week ago, as the Beer Goddess and I were sharing an LTD 03 at the Brewers Games, that I first heard about Session Black. In the span of that time, everyone's heard about it: Full Sail had separate launch parties in Hood River and Portland, and there's yet another release cum meet-the-brewers at Saraveza next Thursday. And today John Foyston has an in-depth article in the Oregonian's Business section. It's a hell of a lot of heat and noise for what we must admit is surely a modest product.

And so here's the question--is it too much noise?

A Brilliant Idea
Releasing Session was a big gamble for Full Sail. So far as I know, no other craft brewery had or has attempted anything like it. The idea was born in 2004, during that period following the 90s shake-out when it appeared that the hearts of the next generation might be lost to PBR. On one side were craft beers and on the other industrial lagers, and the twain never met. What divides them seem as much to do with brand identity and customer loyalty as flavor--if you like a nice IPA and don't mind being seen by your brother-in-law throwing one back at the barbecue, Bud Lite is almost certainly dead to you. But if that fancy bottle and that thick goop inside seem like an unnecessary yuppie affectation--and a damned expensive one at that--you probably aren't about to give up your cooler full of cans.

Full Sail's brilliant stroke was to have a closer look at that macro market and see that it wasn't monolithic. There was the PBR phenomenon. The brand had managed to appeal to younger drinkers not because of its product (obviously!), but because of its downscale authenticity. (Support of indie music helped.) This was the amazing thing. Watch a tattooed 20-something walk up to a beer cooler, and there was a 90% chance he walked away with a half-rack of Pabst.

What Full Sail took away from their study was this: younger drinkers were drawn to Pabst out of a kind of nostalgia for local, regional breweries that had mostly been killed off before they were born. They didn't want micros, which lacked the working-class authenticity of tin-can beer, but neither did they want faceless corporate brands like Bud and Coors. Full Sail created Session to hit all the same notes. Even more, they knew it couldn't be called Full Sail. Foyston quotes Founder Irene Firmat:
"That's the way we planned it because we were trying to break out of the boundaries of being a craft beer. If we'd put out Session Lager in traditional packaging and with the Full Sail logo, we would've had a much harder time drawing in new customers who might find craft beers too big and challenging."

Session is available only in bottles and only in 12-packs -- no kegs, quarts, or six-packs. "We're sticking to that," says Full Sail brewmaster John Harris. "If we put out Session in longnecks or had it available on tap, we'd be just another me-too beer. This way, it stands out."
So now Full Sail has the best of both worlds--a beer to compete with PBR, and the impeccable reputation of one of the most storied founding American craft breweries. Here's where I get a little worried, though--is it possible to keep the wall up between the two?

One Brewery, Two Identities
American craft brewing is relatively young. It has evolved in just 25 years from tiny breweries making niche beers to substantial breweries making beers with large audiences. Imagine a line graph in your mind, with barrels on the left side--as that line keeps going up and up, eventually the sheer barrelage will dictate that breweries make more and more mass-market beers. We don't know what that means. Will more and more people buy IPAs, or will breweries begin offering beer that attracts Bud drinkers? Beer geeks tend to think of a future where craft breweries change the beer market, but what if the beer market changes craft breweries? Full Sail is a test case.

The good news is that Session is a good beer, and it looks like Session Black will be, too:
A Budvar schwarzbier (black beer) sipped on a recent trip to Vienna was the inspiration for Session Black, says Jamie Emmerson, Full Sail's executive brewmaster.... The result is a beer that looks black indeed, but is far removed from the thick, malty, roasty beer that lager drinkers fear. "We worked hard to make it a super-drinkable, balanced beer," Firmat says
The worrisome news? Session now accounts for a third of Full Sail's 90,000 barrel production. If we squint and look forward ten years, what proportion will it be? Twenty? Will the "Full Sail line" be a marginal, neglected sideline for a big, regional brewery? Could happen.

Maybe that's not so bad. So long as I can still get a sixer of Full Sail Pale, what do I care how much Session Full Sail sells? In fact, using my future-seeing squint, I can even imagine a day in which Session makes the Pale possible. Things change, and that's not always terrible. Still, worth watching this whole phenomenon to see how it plays out.

[Update. Okay, I'm sitting in the Pilsner Room with a bottle of Black (it's not on the menu). A very nice beer. This is going to please beer geeks even more than regular Session. A fine Schwarzbier, with a sweet, roasty palate. A year-round beer, it will do very nicely for those January Blazers games.]

[Later Update. There has been some confusion about Full Sail's annual sales. I just got an email from Jamie Emmerson. The 90,000 barrels are all Full Sail brands. They do an additional 50,000 of Henry's. All FS brands are up according to Jamie. Also, the Czech style that inspired Session is called--sorry, no proper diacritics--"Tmave." "Not as malty as Munich Dunkles, but not as roasty as Schwarzbier."]

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PHOTO:

Monday, July 26, 2010

Honest Pints in Astoria

One of the quandaries of the Honest Pint Projects resides in the type of serving vessels available to publicans. One question I regularly get asked is, "but if the HHP requires 16 fluid ounces for certification, doesn't that mean imperial pints?" Actually, no. Behold Astoria's Fort George Brewing, and their stylish Mason jars. A pour to the neck offers exactly 16 ounces, and leaves a half inch for head. Perfecto!


Fort George Brewery and Public House
Certified Purveyors of Honest Pints
1483 Duane Street
Astoria, OR 97103
503-325-PINT


As readers of this blog know, there are many other reasons to visit Fort George, as well. So consider this just the cherry on top.

Program Note

I will be away from my computer for the rest of the week. It's possible I'll do some phone-blogging, but likely not. In anticipation of this, I've scheduled some re-posts from the last couple years of my favorite items. Lots of people will have missed them anyway, so it's a good excuse to do a few days of best-of posting. Enjoy and I'll see you Sunday--

Jumping the Stoat

As a post-OBF palate-cleanser, I turn to the weekend's news that BrewDog has released The End of History, the newest highest-alcohol beer in the world. BrewDog has been competing with Germany's Schorschbräu for the "strongest beer" title, and every week or two, they trade the laurel back and forth. Now we have "The End of History," a beer Alan McLeod (accurately) calls "dada" because it's sold for more than the average Las Vegas mortgage and packaged in a stuffed stoat. Or, if you prefer, squirrel. Let the backlash begin.

At a certain point, one imagines that this kind of hyperactive desire to keep the publicity cycle churning will collapse under its own weight. I believe this is that point. Good luck fellas--holler when you've brewed an actual beer again.

Further comment. I should have mentioned that the beer is 56% (chemical analysis revealed it's stronger than the 55% reported earlier), only 11 or 12 bottles are available (reports differ), and that it costs roughly $1000 per. For those of you scoring at home, that's the same price as Lagavulin 30-year-old, a different Scottish potable. Your choice.

Yet another comment (and video!). It is axiomatic that a blogger's readers are smarter than he (more brains) and as such, I have been won over by commenters. And also this video:



Long live the stoat.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The OBF Parade

The Oregon Brewers Festival begins with a parade, as the ceremonial cask is ushered into the fest for a ritual tapping. Below is a photo essay. I should also admit, sheepishly, that this was the first one I'd attended. It will definitely not be the last. Big fun--


The ceremonial cask.



Portland's mayor, Sam Adams, who leads the parade.



The parade attracts a surprisingly large number of people.



I always obey the exhortations of t-shirts.



The band was playing a kind a mardi-gras polka, which seemed appropriate.



The mayor taps the keg and then everyone in attendance gets a pour. (Free!)
This year's beer was Deschutes Jubel 2010.
That's Fest founder and Raccoon Lodge
owner Art Larrance to Sam's right.



This is Cascade brewer Ron Gansberg. The picture is unrelated to the parade,
but come on, you gotta post that.

Friday, July 23, 2010

OBF First Reactions

It takes a certain kind of person to walk into the Fest with the opening parade and stay through til the taps run dry, and I am that kind of person. There's an adjective that describes this behavior, but you may supply it yourself. In any case, my exploration was fruitful, and I will pass along my discoveries for those of you are yet to visit the Fest.

Duds
Not every beer is going to be a winner, and you have to admire breweries that try something different. Still, honorable failures remain failures, and you shouldn't waste precious stomach space on them.
  • Laht Neppur Strawberry Cream Ale. It wasn't shocking that this beer was treacly, but I was surprised that it was such a muddy, indistinct treacle.
  • Caldera Hibiscus Ginger Beer. The razor's edge between success and failure is the difference between this beer and Caldera's rose-infused beer at PIB--the best I tasted there. Hibiscus Ginger is overly sweet--a few more hops would have helped--and too gingery. All the ingredients are right, but the recipe needs tinkering
Solid Performers
Generally speaking, the beers at this year's OBF are solid. I got very few poor pours, and spent the day nodding appreciatively. These were highlights for me:
  • Boulevard Tank 7 Saison. A complex, slightly edgy interpretation. I like Sofie better, but reasonable people can disagree.
  • Collaborator Sunstone Pilsner. A vividly-hopped, rich pilsner. If this were available in bottles, I'd buy it all the time.
  • Deschutes Fresh-Squeezed IPA. I saved the IPAs for later, so my palate and memory aren't precise, but I was impressed with how multilayered the Citra hops tasted.
  • Goose Island Sofie. The best head at the fest--dense as cream cheese and just as white. Anyone who's at all interested in farmhouse styles should try it.
  • Green Flash Le Freak. Possibly the best hoppy beer I tried, but definitely a lot of Belgian character. Quite a bit of fun, and I'm happy to know it's a bottled beer.
  • Hop Valley Alpha Centuri Binary IPA. I recall this being fantastic, but why? That I don't recall.
  • Rogue 21. This is just a big ol' homebrew, with all the fun and idiosyncracies left in. I might have brewed it. Probably quite a bit how old ales used to be brewed, too. Burly, sweet, rich, fun.
  • Three Creeks Creekside Kolsch. Didn't smell as I expected--a bit of sulphur, not much hops, but on the palate it was pure summer. Crisp, fresh, dry.

Best in Show
My two favorite beers both came from the Buzz Tent. At two tokens a pop, they were major steals. (Keep in mind that the OBF's token prices have never gone up--they have always been a buck, which means the price for a beer has steadily declined through the years. Two bucks for four ounces of rare beer is a deal I'd take any day.) The terrible downside to the Buzz Tent--and one the Fest must fix in future--is that no one knows what the beers are. They have a name and that's it. As a result, my report is incomplete.
  • Oakshire. This was some dark, rich beer aged in a pinot barrel. Man, it was good.
  • Full Sail Imperial Stout. The white board said this was from 1997. 1997! I don't know if that's true, but it was an amazing beer either way. (Sally and I got married in '97, so let's just pretend that was the vintage, what say?)
Bill has some comments; so does Matt. I'll update this post if I see more bloggers weighing in. Update. More: Jason, Beeronomist, Angelo, and Dave.

Did you go? What'd you like?

Also: Matt S, John H, Bill S, Matt W, John F, Van H, Bill C, Lisa M, Dave S, Jason W, Angelo, Margaret, Ezra and anyone else I missed--great to see you all.


Update. John Harris emails to confirm that the Full Sail Imperial Stout was indeed a 1997 keg. A man not given to hyperbole, he described the beer as "beautiful, if you ask me." Agreed.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Buzz Tent

I didn't mention the Buzz Tent in my preview because the beers featured there will come and go unpredictably. The list is here. After last year's overly complex system, this year's will be far easier: anyone can go at any time, and you just have to spend two tokens on a pour. The current list will be posted on a white board outside the tent and you can follow updates via Twitter. His Eminence Preston Weesner has assembled the beers, so they ought to be good.

Oregon Brewers Festival - The Five-Rupee Preview

Note: the post has been updated annotated following my visit to the Fest.

And so it begins.

The Oregon Brewers Festival is perhaps the most famous non-award fest outside of Munich, and it's a force of nature--hurricane or solstice-like celebration, your choice. No matter what beer shows up, if the temperature is below 90, the throngs will arrive. Once the showcase event for craft beer, the OBF has become something more--and less. With no fewer than a half-dozen other serious Portland fests, the Brewers Fest no longer boasts the best beer. And because the season and location has fostered a party atmosphere, beer geeks long ago downgraded this from a "must see" fest to a "if I'm in the mood."

Ah, but I wonder: are things changing? I have complained in years past about what looks like a cartel on brewery selections. The same old breweries were always invited, and the little guys got left out. This year they've tightened things up. Here's just some of the wee folk who got a nod: Natian, Upright, Vertigo, Laht Neppur, Hop Valley, 10 Barrel, Mt. Emily, Three Creeks, Double Mountain, Seven Brides, and Southern Oregon.

But it's in the beer list where hope is kindled for a OBF revival. In past years, you could be forgiven for thinking the OBF was the IPA fest. This year, more than any in memory, there are some delicate, light beers. With 33 offerings at 5.5% or under (and 13 at 5% or under), you can easily turn this into a session fest. IPAs are here, of course, but big beers are rarer; none exceed 10% and only 18 exceed 7%. Mostly what we have are nice, mid-range beers; perfect for a summer day.

So, onto the preview. These things are always fraught with difficulty--do you aim it at local audiences or visiting audiences? I'm excited about beers from Minnesota, but visitors from the Twin Cities may yawn at Surly's Bitter. Those folks want to try beers like Double Mountain's Vaporizer--certainly a delight, but a familiar one to Portlanders. This year I'll go by category and suggest beers that look good in each, and for good measure mention the ten beers I most want to try.

As always, the two most important things to remember are to lay down a layer of protein before you go and stay hydrated. After that, have fun--

Starters
With so many small beers on offer, this category isn't the usual first-beer-and-go. I might well spend half the day with these little guys.
  • The Bruery 7-Grain Saison. A small saison of 5% made with rye, oats, wheat, rice, and corn. It sounds like what saisons would have tasted like if they'd been invented in the US.
  • Caldera Hibiscus Ginger Beer. The name sort of says it all. Brewed specially for the Fest, it will either be a fascinating experiment or something to remember. [Not recommended. The balance is a bit off--too sweet and too gingery. All the pieces are there, it just didn't quite come together.]
  • Collaborator Sunstone Pilsner. The homebrewer/Widmer collaborator project is a German pilsner made with 35% American wheat. Should be both tasty and fun.
  • Laht Neppur Strawberry Cream Ale. Talk to people before you try this, because it may be a horrible travesty. Made with lactose and strawberries. Could also be lovely. [Not recommended. Tends more toward travesty.]
  • Natian Destination. One of Oregon's smallest breweries arrives with an interesting beer--a red sweetened with honey and hopped with Palisades.
  • Surly Bitter Brewer. Made with oats for extra silkiness, a 4% beer with 30 IBUs--just like we like it.
  • Three Creeks Creekside Kolsch. Among the kolsches, this looks most promising: a bit of bitterness from traditional German hops should make it a tasty update on a classic style.

The Hoppy Beers
We may lobby and cajole people to try other "interesting" styles, but at the end of the day, Northwesterners want their hops. There are as usual many, many options--31 have 50 IBUs or more and ten are north of 90. But you can't judge a hoppy beer by its IBUs. Here are the ones that look good to me.
  • Boundary Bay German Tradition Double Dry Pale. That confusing name needs some unpacking. Boundary Bay has for years been making single-hop beers, and this year's is made with newly-introduced German Tradition hops. "Double dry" refers to two infusions of dry hopping.
  • Deschutes Fresh-Squeezed IPA. A single-hop IPA made with Citras. If you're not familiar with this new belle of the hop ball, here's a chance to make her acquaintance.
  • Green Flash Le Freak. A Belgian IPA all the kids are talking about. Green Flash knows hops, so this should be a winner.
  • Hop Valley Alpha Centauri Binary IPA. With no Pliny this year, we have to sub in a late-fest, shattered-palate hop monster. Five hop varieties plus dry-hopping make this look like a good pick.
  • Lucky Lab Summit IPA. This beer, made with obscene amounts of Summit hops, will not be for me. But the orangey (and sweaty) Summits will probably thrill many.
  • Terminal Gravity Single Hop IPA. Okay, single hopping isn't an obsession with me, but these all just seem interesting. The single hop strain in question here is Columbus.
  • Widmer Captain Shaddock IPA. The Widmers always make a special beer for the fest, and the 2010 brew features what may a case of hyper-literalism." Since many hoppy beers have a grapefruit note, the Brothers reasoned, why not actually use grapefruit peels? Or maybe it's transcendent. Worth a pour either way.

The Belgians
This fest features fewer Belgian-style ales than recent years, but here are a few that look mighty tasty:
  • Flying Fish Exit 4. New Jersey's Flying Fish brings their much-lauded tripel, which last year won gold at the GABF. She's big--9.5%--so be careful.
  • Goose Island Sofie. One of the best saisons I've had--and I have frustratingly only had it once. I'll rectify that today.
  • Rock Bottom Oud Heverlee. Flemish Brabant, the "style" of this beer, is actually a Belgian province--and Heverlee is a town in that province. I think Van Havig's pulling our leg here. In any case, the beer's made with tulips and is otherwise obscure. Should be fun.
  • Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse. Boulevard has really been a leader on the farmhouse front, but I've failed to experience their bounty. This is like a bigger version of the Bruery's made with corn and wheat and 40 IBUs.

Local Faves
If you are visiting from elsewhere and want the best of the local beers, here are a few to start with.
  • Beer Valley Leafer Madness (Ontario, OR). You know how Reefer Madness is a cult fave? So's Leafer Madness. Mad hopping, so beware.
  • Cascade Summer Gose (Portland, OR). Ron Gansberg makes many offbeat beers, and I knew one of them would become a beloved local fave. I never would have guessed it would be a gose.
  • Double Mountain Vaporizer (Hood River, OR). These guys know how to make hoppy beers that don't assault but still please the most discerning hophead.
  • Fort George Vortex (Astoria, OR). There are so many good IPAs that this one often gets overlooked. Drink this and you can brag to your friends back in Indianapolis that you had the best Oregon IPA no one's tried.
  • Laurelwood Organic Deranger/Hopworks Rise Up Red (Portland, OR). A style has emerged in the Northwest that is sort of like a stripped down IPA--none of the sweet biscuity malts to interfere with the lupulin enjoyment. These are two good ones.
  • Oakshire Overcast Espresso Stout (Eugene, OR). No, not every style brewed in Oregon has scads of hops. Some have coffee!
  • Pelican Kiwanda Cream Ale. One of the best summer ales available. A great first beer, too.

My Top Ten
It's all well and good to praise and recommend 26 beers as I have done--but I can't drink all of those. I'll definitely try a number of the beers above, plus a couple others. From the list above: Boundary Bay German Tradition, Bruery 7-Grain Saison, Caldera Hibiscus Ginger, Collaborator Sunstone Pilsner, Flying Fish Exit 4, Goose Island Sofie, Natian Destination, Surly Bitter Brewer. There are two more I haven't mentioned that are on my list:
  • Great Divide Hoss Rye Lager. Described as an Oktoberfest, but looking a bit like a roggenbier, this whatever-it-is has caught my eye.
  • Rogue Ales 21. John Maier always brews a new beer for the Fest, and guess how many years he's been doing it? This is an old ale, one of my fave styles, made in the old way with molasses and licorice.
I'll be headed down to the Fest today, so I should be able to update you on some of these beers. Meanwhile, you should mention what I missed or got wrong in comments so festgoers are not lead astray. Cheers and happy OBF--

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Trends at the OBF: 41% Adulteration

The waxing and waning of trends is fascinating to behold, particularly when you adopt the long view. Take fruit, for instance. Shortly after the inception of craft brewing, fruit beers were huge. The popular ones, however, bore a stronger resemblance to wine coolers* than beer, and this led breweries down a dark path. They ultimately died of shame in 1995. But then, Lazarus-like, they started to appear again a few years ago, often flavoring beers like Cascade's sour ales. Some of the sweet ones came back, too, but with more balance and way less sugar. Fruit had gained a measure of respect. As evidence of this, eleven beers arrive at the OBF bearing the blush of juice.

The use of barley has gone through a similar transformation. When craft-brewing started, all-barley beers were the mark of quality. To brew with any "cereal grains" was to be tainted with impurity, moral more than zymurgical. Wheat was granted an exception, but still regarded with mistrust. Well, at this year's fest we have nineteen beers employing wheat, five using oats, and two each using rye, spelt, corn, and rice. Yes, corn and rice--the hated, tainted, immoral cereal grains! Of course, these ingredients are no longer tainted, and haven't been for a few years. As craft brewing matures, brewers will use anything to improve a beer, including the use of ingredients that were formerly used to ruin beer.

Finally, we have adjuncts, which were once used only in gimmick beers or witbiers. Now--and I think you have to give some credit to Craig Nicholls for this--they're used the way cooks and Belgians do, to add a hint of flavor. A partial list of the additives in this year's OBF beers:
  • cocoa
  • coffee
  • dried tulips
  • ginger
  • grapefruit peel
  • hibiscus
  • hyssop
  • lactose
  • lemongrass
  • orange blossoms
  • pepper
As a reaction to the corporate adulteration of beer in the 1970s, early craft brewers went for an austere, almost reinheitsgebot-like purity. But we're Americans, foes of hidebound tradition--it didn't take. By my count, of the 81 beers in this year's fest, 33 have been "adulterated" in some way. This is a good trend. The breweries are maturer now, and they recognize that additives can help draw out the essential beeryness of beer. That was the mistake early brewers made; they used additives to transmute beer into abominations.

So, in general, viva la exotica. You just can't have enough pomegranate and hyssop spelt beers.
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*Back in the olden days, wine and fruit juice were combined to make a beverage called "wine coolers" that were irresistible to 16-year-olds. (And possibly 90-year-old women.) After finding one too many peach-breathed youths lying naked on a park bench, the feds finally taxed them out of existence in 1991.

Goose Island at the Summit

President Obama is a man who appreciates a beer. Do a Google image search of "Obama" and "beer" and you'll see a number of images of him brandishing a frosty one. When he visited Oregon during the campaign, there was even a short video clip of him being urged to try an Oregon IPA--a suggestion to which he appeared receptive. Still, he's a typical American, and he appears to like typical beers. At the famous "beer summit," he drank Bud.

So when I saw this morning's headline that he and British PM David Cameron shared beer from each other's country, I figured we'd have a macro reprise. But no! In a display of home-town loyalty, Obama brought Goose Island to the summit:
President Obama paid off a World Cup bet with British Prime Minister Cameron on Saturday with Goose Island 312 beer from Chicago. Though the U.S.-England game ended up in a tie, both leaders paid off their respective bets. Obama and Cameron mentioned the beers after a joint meeting in Toronto, where they are attending the G-8 and G-20 economic summits.

"We are exchanging -- and paying off our debts at the same time -- this is Goose Island 312 beer from my hometown of Chicago," said Obama. Cameron showed off his local brew. "This is Hobgoblin from the Wychwood brew in Witney, in my constituency," he said.
Okay, Obama also demanded that the beers be served ice cold, and winkingly derided British cask ale. And he selected a beer that was as close to Bud as craft beer comes. But still, Goose Island!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Temptation to Corruption

There are good and bad things about social media. Mostly it's good. But as I have learned in the last few weeks, social media offers a tantalizing opportunity for the blogger to corrupt himself for traffic. I was reminded of this yesterday when I started to see a bunch of hits come in off Facebook. Turns out Rogue had linked up my post. Over the course of the day, I'd estimate it juiced my hits by about 25%.

All well and good until you consider that Rogue linked me up because I was praising their beer and pub. Had I disliked Chatoe Single Malt I'm guessing they would have chosen not to direct their fans my way. And there you have it: I toady up to breweries, I get more traffic. Hell, do it enough, I might even get ad revenue!

I may have to institute a second series of awards as a way of building up my corruption antibodies. I'm thinking the "Dismal Malty Substances (DMS) Awards"--sort of like Hollywood's Razzies. In the meantime, readers may have to find their inner Doc Worts and keep us bloggers honest.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to work on a post about how handsome Jamie Floyd is.

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PHOTO: HOMO POLITICUS

2010 Oregon Brewers Fest, By the Numbers

The last few years, I've done an edition of OBF by the numbers--and it often came off as a bit of an indictment. There weren't very many styles, a huge proportion of the beers were IPAs or pale ales, and major breweries were just bringing their same old beers. Ah, but numbers can also tell you when things are looking good. And after a few years of grumbles, it looks like the OBF has begun to shake things up. To kick off week-long coverage of the venerable Oregon Brewers Fest, feast your eyes on these numbers.

Years since inception: 23
Total beers: 81
Total breweries: 81
States represented: 16
Percent Oregon: 43%
Percent California: 22%
Percent Washington: 9%
All Others: 26%

Ale to Lager ratio: 9 to 1
Total styles (by broad category): 27
IPAs: 20% (16 total)
Belgian styles: 12%
German styles: 14%
Pale ale to farmhouse ale ratio: 1 to 1
Other well-represented niche* styles:
__- Pilsner: 5
__- Brown ale: 4
__- Cream ale: 3
__- Bock: 3
__- Kolsch: 2

Beers using wheat: 23%
Beers using spices/adjuncts: 15%
Fruit beers: 15%

ABV of smallest beer (three examples): 4%
ABV of largest beer (Flying Fish Exit 4 Tripel): 9.5%
Fewest IBUs in Fest (Upright Reggae Junkie Gruit): 0
Most IBUs at the Fest (Lucky Lab Summit IPA): 111
Minimum years in a row 21st Amendment has brought Watermelon Wheat: 9

More to come ...

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*Niche styles in the Northwest, anyway.

Monday, July 19, 2010

IPAs and More IPAs: Bell's Two-Hearted Ale

I must be living right, because across the street from me resides a beer fairy. Periodically, he'll leave a bottle on the porch--generally of something unavailable in Portland. Last week, he left me a beer I've been trying to track down for weeks: Bell's Two Hearted Ale.

Two Hearted Ale is a legitimately legendary beer--though like all the early IPAs, the light of its fame shines a little less brightly amid all the newer ones. As far as I know, it's never been distributed out west; all these years people have spoken about it the way kids arriving back from Disneyland used to describe it to us lost souls who had never been. The beer is named for a famous story by Hemingway in the Nick Adams series. Returning from WWII first world war, Nick takes refuge in the Two Hearted River as a way to heal his wounded psyche. One couldn't help but wonder whether Bell's thought the beer contained similar properties--the legend seemed to suggest it. Naturally, I expected it to fall short of expectations--no beer could meet them--but I was still hoping to find a great beer.

Tasting Notes
I had an interesting experience with the aroma. When the beer was freshly-poured, it let off a spritzy, effervescent citrus smell, but it was volatile. Moments later, the aroma softened as it warmed and caramel malt emerged. It has the classic West Coast appearance--cloudy yellow with a sticky off-white head.

The flavor deviates from West Coast beers thanks to the hopping--peppery and sharp, with an herbal/medicinal quality. The body is creamy and the malts are pure caramel--a nice balance for the hops. There's a minerally sharp note whose source I can't identify, but which provides a bit of interest. Of course, as with any IPA, it's the hops that make the beer. In Two Hearted Ale, they're robust but slightly indistinct--stewed rather than bristling with, pardon the pun, bell-like clarity.

I've generally been disappointed with Midwest and East Coast IPAs. It's not that they're less assertive or bitter, but they seem to be less lively, less vital. Two-hearted Ale concedes nothing in this respect, though its character is quite a bit different. The hopping gives it a completely different quality. This is good--regional character is something to celebrate. I wouldn't call it the best IPA I've ever had, nor did I notice any appreciable healing (my sciatica was still there). But it deserves its reputation and is perhaps the best IPA East of the Mississippi. As my dad would say, that's better than a poke in the ass with a broken beer bottle.

In Praise of Rogue

Rogue has its critics. Some of the sniping is well-earned (overly pricey beer and food at the pubs, sometimes pretentious hype), but some of it is just a culture clash. Rogue has a national presence, and it dotes less on locals than any other major brewery. But I come today not to nitpick Newport's finest, but to praise it. Two objects draw my honeyed prose:

1. Chatoe Single Malt. Okay, that "chatoe" business is bad--it falls into the "sometimes pretentious hype" category. I'm not sure if they're mocking wine (chatoe, dirtoir) and if so, why, but it's a distracting affectation. The beer, however, is a wonder of restraint. For all its bluster, Rogue has managed to get less attention and credit for its hop and barley fields than it should. Bringing the crops into the line of production makes Rogue not only uber-green, but restores them to an ancient lineage of farmhouse breweries. (I wish they'd highlight the farmhouse aspect rather than using a misplaced wine appellation reference.) The Single Malt is meant to highlight the ingredients, and Rogue boldly does so by offering a 12º P session ale of modest hopping (35 BU). No over-compensation here; Rogue's confident enough in the quality of their ingredients that they display them nakedly.

A wise choice. By style, I guess you could call it a best bitter--Rogue's "Revolution" hops don't even incline you to think they're particularly American. They have a grassy, slightly lemony quality. Together with the gentle, bready malt, the beer becomes crisp and almost astringent. The softness of the malt and spicy/grassy quality remind me a bit of a kolsch. My guess is that this beer will taste best the closer it is to the conditioning tank. It's delicacy must be both fragile and evanescent. I had a pint at the Astoria pub that seemed sparklingly fresh. A very accomplished beer, and a surprising one.

2. The Rogue Astoria Pub. For a town with a population of just 10,000, Astoria has an embarrassment of brewpub riches. Astoria Brewing has one of the best views in Oregon, and Fort George has quickly distinguished itself as one of the better Oregon brewpubs. Rogue's pub, which doesn't have an attached brewery, may well play third fiddle for visitors. A pity. Located in the historic Bumblebee Cannery building, it is literally out in the middle of the river. I've been there in nasty weather, when it's warm and cozy, and sunny weather, when it's bright and airy. Either way, the vast expanse of the Columbia is just outside the window. Inside, the pub has that comfortable, worn feel of an antique pub--even though it's only been open since 2007.

As with all Rogue pubs, it's expensive, but you receive in compensation the opportunity to try some of their rarer, specialty beers. It doesn't feel like a Rogue pub so much as an Astoria pub--a neat trick for a new place. And, as evidence of other good behavior they don't often get credit for, they leave two taps open for Fort George and have a substantial "Fort George Beer Served Here" poster behind the bar. If you're in town more than a night or two, try to work it in.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

PIB Is Showing Some Midlife Flabbiness

Note: post updated with my recommendations after last night's visit.

I had, as usual, a delightful time at the Portland International Beerfest last night. Sally and I were in line by 3:35 and I scored a table in the shade as a base of operation. Although the fest gets more popular every year, it was still mild by OBF standards, and the shade, good beer, and doggy vibe always pleases. Okay, praise doled out, we now move to the airing of grievances. PIB seems to be developing a few bad habits and a friendly intervention or two may help them steer back to the straight an narrow. My complaints:
  1. False advertising. PIB has never had the greatest system for directing drinkers to selected beers. The free brochure has always been a convoluted mess, trying to serve twin masters--drinkers and the distributors who help make the fest possible. The result is that you stare at a beer map written in 8-point font on one page and try to get back to find beer details on another page--which is organized by distributor, not brewery. I've gotten used to this. What was new--and distinctly uncool--is that the ticket prices listed in the brochure didn't always match the number at the tap/bottle. Cantillon's Lou Pepe Kriek was listed as three tokens in the brochure, but six (!) when you finally made it to the bottle.
  2. Declining quality of beers. I mentioned this in my review, but it was more palpable once I was there. The problem is that almost all foreign bottled beers are now at least two tickets, and most are three or four. A lot of these are only average beers. (One of my friends, not a big beer fan, paid three tickets for Lindemans Framboise--a beer that retails for about five bucks a bottle.) If you're going to charge a buck an ounce, you better assemble a stellar list. I found a number of nice beers, but I knew how to look.
  3. Lack of information. This is an ongoing problem, but was highlighted by an email I got from the OBF while I was at the fest. It contained detailed descriptions of all the beers. In past years, PIB did a half-assed job of at least giving descriptions on-line. This year, almost none of the beers had descriptions on-line. The meager brochure was no help, either. It may not benefit PIB's bottom line to spend the money to pay someone to put this together, but it's gross malfeasance to fest-goers. Only a tiny fraction will have had any idea what to expect from most of the beers. This has always been a problem, but I've chosen to overlook it due to the fest's overall strength. I overlook it no more. Pay someone a hundred bucks and put out a decent guide, folks. And get rid of that stupid way of listing beers by distributor.
  4. No Odin's Tipple! This was the final straw. I'd saved my last four tokens for Haandbryggeriet Odin's Tipple, which apparently didn't make it. These things happen, but it was a bad note to strike at the end of the fest. Two other people, incomprehensible brochures in hand, were also standing where this beer should have been, and of course, the poor pourer had no idea what the issue was.
The OBF went through a similar midlife slump, resting on its laurels even as many serious beer fans abandoned it. (They have thankfully rallied.) PIB needs to get its act together or a similar fate looms.


Update. I shouldn't miss the forest for the trees. Here are three nice beers I tried yesterday:
  • Rose Petal Imperial Golden Ale. Honest to god, this was my favorite beer from the fest. It has a magical property. After you swallow, the botanical volatiles coalesce and you get a lovely, rosey aftershock.
  • St Feuillien Saison. fresh and organic. Got the raised eyebrow of surprise when I passed it around.
  • Bateman's Mr. George's Ruby Porter. Have it early because the subtle roasty flavors are delicate and easily crushed by palate-dulling hops and sourness.
Of course, La Folie and Double Mountain Kriek were fantastic, but you probably already knew that.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Tej - Ethiopian Spiced Mead

My sojourn to Astoria has been rich with discoveries, but the richest lode may have come last night when I visited Drina Daisy, a Bosnian restaurant downtown. I was initially attracted by the line-up of beer bottles in the window--a selection from the region almost wholly unfamiliar. The folks on Yelp love the place, so we decided to give it a whirl. Based on a quickie web search, I decided to forgo the beer--Lasko, Karlovacko, and Niksickie. While Lasko, from hop-growing Slovenia, may have been a characterful pils, BeerAdvocate raters dismissed it. The wine list, which featured a bunch of grapes I've never heard of, was far more alluring.

I know wine is generally beyond the ken of this blog (and blogger), I have to direct you to two grape varieties should you see them in the store:
  • Vranac. An important grape from Montenegro. The Vranac at Drina Daisy (unhelpfully labeled only "Vranac" on the bottle) was dense of body and jammy, but not heavy or sweet. It was a gentle wine that ended softly.
  • Blatina. Even better, this wine smelled something like a spicy pinot, but had the color of a Cabernet. It tasted more like Italian grapes though, and had tons of pepper and spice. I don't think I've ever tasted a wine so spicy. A huge winner.
Then, for desert, we continued with exotic liquids. Sally ordered a sweet pomegranate wine and I got Tej, which is actually Ethiopian. It was described in the menu as "hopped," and because it was made in the US, it might have been. traditionally, though, Ethiopians spice Tej with crushed gesho, a form of buckthorn native to Africa. The variety on offer was pretty sweet and quite alcoholic. It was made with a grassy honey, a quality accentuated by the spice. That astringency was critical to balance the beverage. Sally's pomegranate wine was a winner, too. Fruit wines suffer for being over-sweet, but pomegranates are sharp and tart, characteristics carried over in the wine. Tannins from the seeds were evident, too. Complex and satisfying.

Next time you're in Astoria, consider stopping in. Big fun--