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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Buttery Beers of New England

Tuesday last, Sally and I caught a six am flight from Portland to Portland. I recommend it to anyone interested in novelty. We were traveling unexpectedly and it wasn't a trip for pleasure. Nevertheless, I did manage to track down a beer here and there, and this is the piece of the trip I wanted to share.

When you breathe the air of beer geekdom, you necessarily end up with a skewed view of the larger world of craft beer appreciation. As craft brewing got started, there were distinctive regional preferences in the places I knew about--the Midwest, the Northwest, and a little later, New England. But reading the blogs and talking to beer geeks has given me an impression of a nationalization of tastes. You hear a lot about imperial beers, hop bombs, sours, and farmhouse ales. But these styles are, of course, not the norm. My trip to Maine confirmed that regional tastes do still exist.

New England has a lot in common with old England--or has had, anyway. You find lots of the traditional styles, including lots of sessionable bitters. (Try to find those in Oregon.) They are minor-key beers made with muted hopping--and very often, with English hops. (They love their Fuggles--or Willamettes in a pinch.) And what was really surprising: they like a dollop of diacetyl. Somewhat early in the trip, I had a Gritty's Pub Style, a 4.5%, 20 IBU bitter. Now, Gritty's has a variable reputation, so when I found the diacetyl in Pub Style, I figured it was unintentional. But then I had two more classic bitters and they both had diacetyl, too.

In each case, the levels were modest. By the time I sampled a Shipyard Export--a strong bitter--I was certain this was intentional. The levels are low enough that the vast majority of people don't notice it (even on BeerAdvocate, only one person among recent reviewers remarked upon it, and favorably at that). Generally speaking, diacetyl, a buttery compound produced during fermentation, is a no-no. On the West Coast, it's always considered bad. I suspect this harkens back to the old days of rapid growth in craft brewing, when it was common to find butter-bomb beers. It's easy enough to eliminate the problem; yeast reabsorbs diacetyl, so as long as you're not trying to rush beer out to the market, it's self-regulating. Historically, though, it's not always frowned upon, and in caramelly bitters, it's far from objectionable.

My ah-ha moment came with that Shipyard. I was at J's Oysters on the waterfront in Portland. (Put that on your list of must-visit restaurants. It's a legendary place that has a slightly gone-to-seed quality but features absolutely perfect, fresh fish at reasonable prices. Plus you can sit outside and soak in the environment.) We ordered the Shipyard and an Allagash White. With our first course of raw oysters, both beers were fantastic, but they did different things. The Allagash played on the briny qualities of the fish, while the Shipyard ensconced it in sweetness. Sally had fish chowder, and here was where the Shipyard sang. It married perfectly with the cream and brought out some of the character of the haddock. The Allagash, by contrast, was too tart and dry--it classed with the cream.

Beer has the versatility to blend in with local culture. It can harmonize with local foods and lifestyles and become a part of regional identity. Although there are some interesting similarities, the two Portlands are really quite different. Stripped of their context, I would have found the three bitters slightly underwhelming. But in Portland, especially when coupled with local food, they were a delight. An example that appreciating a beer may involve more than just the contents of a pint glass.


  1. I have served a great deal of cask ale and we never considered diacetyl to be an expected trait. To be sure it is a challenge to deliver cask ale absent the buttery mark. If it is ease you desire, stick to keg beers. When properly done cask ale should be fresh and flavorful, but also mature--and that means free of diacetyl.

    As it happens, I'm sitting in a New England bar and have just choked down a cask beer redolent of butter. The food hid it to a certain extent and I am being gracious to my hosts, but I would never have another such pint voluntarily.

    Cask ale is fashionable, but often done horribly. Do not mistake "intense" and "novel" flavors for desirable flavors. Good cask ale requires a great deal of knowledge, talent and patience. Few have what it takes to do it well. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is.


    Ray Daniels

  2. With all due respect Ray, he never mentions cask ales. I always thought a touch of diacetyl is allowable in low-gravity british ales.

    Steve Jabs

  3. Ray,

    As anon notes, I didn't have these beers on cask (which was, sadly and surprisingly, not as available as I'd hoped). In fact, the Gritty's came from a bottle. This is another reason I attributed the diacetyl to brewer intent.

    It could be coincidence--I could have had three poorly-made beers. But because each one had the same low level of diacetyl, I had to consider the likelihood that they were made that way intentionally.

    It also raises a fascinating question, one I ask regularly and one with no answer: when we talk about style, are we talking prescriptively or descriptively? I would say the levels of diacetyl I encountered were beyond what taxonomists (whoever they are) would describe as appropriate. On the other hand, many new styles or sub-styles are "inappropriate" versions of existing styles. Like grammar, you can say something's wrong until everyone does it, and then you have to rewrite the rules.

    The jury's still out on the phenomenon, but once I put away my skepticism, I found myself quite enjoying the beer. A dollop of diacetyl can be quite nice. If this is a local New England expression, I'm totally behind it.

    By the way, thanks for stopping by and commenting. You class up the joint.

  4. By the way, for those of you who don't recognize Ray's name, here's a bit of background: Cicerone, books.

  5. If you don't know Ray's name, you don't know Beer.

  6. Jeff, like other flavor compounds yeast make, diacetyl is a function of specific strains and the stress upon them. Some strains will do it at relatively high temperatures (mid 60s), some strains won't do it at all, no matter how much cold you throw at it. There are several lager strains that won't throw off diacetyl even at 50 degrees. In most cases diacetyl won't clean up with any speed at the low temperatures that typically cause it to be produced (which is why many lager producers ferment very cold, like below 48 degrees, and then raise the temperatures afterwards to 60ish degrees, to get a head start on months of yeast conditioning).

    In the case of west coast beers, the strain de rigeur is Chico, the Sierra Nevada strain (aka the most common American micro yeast strain). Among other characteristics (one of which is that it is a bottom fermenter), it rarely produces diacetyl, even with very low temperatures. It rarely produces any other kind of yeast flavor, for that matter.

    The case of new england is very specific to how their early micros were set up, by a fellow from England who was essentially replicating the Ringwood system, complete with yeast. Ringwood is a fairly famous strain too, and ultimately comes from Yorkshire, an area of the UK with a particular yeast terrior (probably because of very unique "Yorkshire squares"). It's a true top-fermenter and top-cropper, and will throw off diacetyl in small amounts even in the mid-high 60s. If you raise the temp then it gets very fruity.

    Ringwood is such an unapologetically English strain, most American micros raged against the (comparatively few) Ringwood breweries in the 90s. The dominance of Chico, the pretentious wankers like Ray Daniels (who make allowance for yeasty "off flavors" only in Belgians) and the prevailing tastes of Chico-dominated microbrew consumers all worked together to scrub any trace of "English" out of most of these beers. Most of the ones with national prominence, like magic hat, have neutered their beers for the retail market.

    I guarantee if you asked those smaller breweries what they were using, it'd be some strain like Ringwood. But I would put a good bit of money on Ringwood itself.

  7. Not surprisingly Daniels is also wrong about cask ale (even if it wasn't the issue here). Done right it will exacerbate the characteristics of the yeast you used. With chico that characteristic is "absolutely none." Most british strains, if done like british cask ale--primed, and then tossed in a cellar at 52 degrees for a month--are going to vomit both diacetyl and acetaldehyde. Different other regional strains within the UK will give you a different mix.

    It's absolutely regional and often varies from batch to batch as the yeast mutates (and Ringwood is famous for both diacetyl and its ability to be reused long after Chico would be considered "too mutated). It is an heirloom yeast in the truest sense, the same way Chico is an unabashedly industrial yeast--a yeast strain created by and used for mass-market, homogenized, industrial beer manufacture.

    This is, of course, what Daniels is devoted to, and what he has a vested interest in supporting. What good would a "cicerone" be if all beer was local?

  8. And where ever would uneducated beer drinking savages be without "civilizing" forces like self appointed beer-Popes like Ray Daniels?

    It seems to be an American fixation in telling people which flavors CAN and CANNOT be in beer. This is part of what leads to the death of regional flavors and the homogenization of beer that we've seen - something that craft beer was the answer to.

    I enjoy a hint of diacetyl in some beers but it really depends on the amount and the beer. Just like sour or bacterial flavors that are often flaws, it's another tool in the brewers chest AFAIC.

  9. I have vacationed in Maine on several occasions and I learned on my first trip to always bring my own beer with me on future vacations. I rarely came across something that I liked diacetyl or not.

  10. Daniel and anon, what gives with the personal attacks? I'm not inviting you to detail your animus toward Ray, just hoping that you an try to remain collegial.

    Daniel, I would LOVE to hear more about that "fellow from England" and his influence over New England breweries. Any sources you could point me to would be most welcome.

  11. Hello everyone,

    The "fellow from England" to which the poster refers is inevitably Alan Pugsley, the British Johnny Appleseed of the Ringwood yeast strain.



  12. I believe Daniel Warner refers to one Alan Pugsley who consulted with many early craft brewers on the East Coast. He's mentioned in Sam C's "Brewing Up a Business" among other places as I recall.

    Pretty interesting story how one guy you've never heard of shaped so many beers. I think he's still around. Might make a good story for the book? (congrats on that by the way - it's pretty huge)

  13. I brewed an imperial red ale using Ringwood ale yeast in a collaboration with Ska Brewing in Colorado. It ended up intensely fruity, and I've wondered why, so this is interesting. Blame the yeast. I liked the beer quite a bit, though.

    I'm all for sessionable bitters. Actually, Calapooia in Albany makes a fine one.

  14. Andy and Flagon, muchos gracias. That's definitely news I can use.

  15. Several winters back I explored the bottled craft beers available to me in SWFla. I came to appreciated the buttery, apple peel character associated with Ringwood yeast utilized by Alan Pugsley [and Fred Forsley] at Sea Dog Brewing Co. [Portland, Maine] and Shipyard Brewery [Bangor, Maine].

    The buttery diacetyl is particular notable in Shipyard's - Tremont IPA. An interesting variant; not a favorite taste.

  16. Andy and Flagon are right, I sent you an article, Jeff, that I hope you can find a way to reprint (as the original source is gone). Or at least recreate and use in your book.

    Sorry for snapping earlier. I admit I have a quick trigger for style prescriptivism, and am far more interested in unique regional characteristics than in some kind of enforced monoculture.

    Ringwood is an interesting yeast that only really expresses itself when open fermented. Because of its tendency to mutate, White Labs' Ringwood strain is not a top fermenter anymore, at least according to Chris White. Something to do with geometry of conical fermenters.

    There are other seasonal strains being cultured that have Yorksire characteristics, including Wyeast West Yorkshire, purportedly from Timothy Taylor, one of the most award-laden CAMRA breweries; and White Labs Yorkshire Square, purportedly from Samuel Smith (one of the only breweries still using traditional Yorkshire Square fermenters). They make incredible milds especially.

    These yeasts are, unfortunately, rarely used by anyone but homebrewers.

  17. I'm not sure I'd agree with diacetyl always being considered bad on the west coast, Rogue for example has a pretty big fan base and often show quite a bit of diacetyl.

  18. Daniel Warner called someone else a "pretentious wanker"?? Oh, the irony.

  19. No diacetyl here. WY1968 and bat guano finings does the trick.

  20. Jeff,
    You need to come up and visit Foggy Noggin Brewing in the Seattle area, we are making these beers everyday just a bit to the North.

  21. Otter Creek in Vermont used to make a Helles Alt (maybe they still do? I live in PDX now...) that was a butter bomb. I'm sure it's not true to style but it fit this particular beer, and it's one of the few from the east coast that I miss here in beervana.

  22. Pugsley may have been the one to spread the Ringwood strain but I thought I read that David Geary originally brought it (and Pugsley) over.