If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.


Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dave Logsdon's New Joint: Logsdon Farmhouse Ales

When the very rich go to parties, their arrival is hailed by the announcement of their name (anyway, that's how it happened in class-conscious movies of the 1980s, where I gathered most of my information). So it was with with a brewery from Hood River, which has for months been just a name tantalizing for two of its three nouns: Logsdon Farmhouse Ales. Ales, okay, leave that aside. Farmhouse? I recently asked a famous beer writer what his five favorite styles were and he said "saison." A man after my own heart, and it seems, a brewery as well. And Logsdon? Well.

David Logsdon is perhaps the most important figure in Oregon brewing you never heard of. He's one of the first gen brewers, and a founder of Full Sail. This solidifies him as one of the pioneers, and, once we get a Oregon Brewing Museum, will earn him a bust alongside Dick Ponzi, Fred Bowman, Kurt Widmer, and Brian McMenamin. But more importantly, he founded Wyeast--notably, two years before Full Sail. The importance of Wyeast is somewhat lost in the great tradition of northwest brewing, but it goes to show how steeped in beer we actually are. It is at the center of American brewing, so much so that when you ask a brewer which yeast he uses, he's likely to give you the Wyeast four-digit code. The range of beers now produced in America is made possible in no small part because Logsdon went out and wrangled up authentic strains from classic beers around the world.

All of which makes it very good news that the name is about to arrive as a full-time, operating brewery:

Working with brewing partner Charles Porter, Logsdon has been pulling together the permits and equipment to produce about 3,000 barrels a year at the family farm off upper Neal Creek Road....

They are commonly referred to as “saison” beers, and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales will share that name in its branding. Logsdon plans to release two beers in late April or early May — a Seizoen (a traditional malty beer, with a lighter, hoppy profile that will finish dry and crisp), and a Seizoen Bretta, which features additional yeast that adds fruity notes and more acidity, plus a “farmyard” flavor — woody, earthy.

(Let's see, "Bretta," I wonder which variety of additional yeast that may be.) The piece I quoted from, in the Hood River Biz Blog, is full of cool info, like:
  • “'We got label approval this week, and seven tanks of beer have been filled,' Logsdon told me on Saturday out side the barn that houses his brewing equipment and bottling line. Bottles will feature a crowned cap covered in local beeswax... 'We’re probably the only brewery in the United States that’s a farmhouse making farmhouse ales,” Logsdon says.'”
  • “The operation has been set up as a cooperative, so other brewers can use the equipment to create their own brands, and share proceeds. Porter, with experience at four other brewers, hopes to create his own beers under his own label at some future date.“
  • The brewery will be organic (certified by Oregon Tilth) and will go the extra mile and use organic hops.
Finally, there's this amazing detail, from the extremely elusive company website:
We also are starting our nursery of sharbeekse kreik (cherry) trees brought over from the small Bam's orchard located in East Flanders. This is an arduous task of strict government quarantine, inspections and regulatory compliance. We intend to harvest our own fruit for our upcoming lambic style and tart red beers.
(Their facebook page seems a little livelier--go give them a little sugar.) So far, 2011 is shaping up to be a very good year.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Goose Island Deal

Post Updated!

On Monday we learned of a tiny bit more consolidation in the beer world: Chicago's Goose Island was leaving Craft Brewers Alliance for the InBev borg:
Chicago's premier craft brewery, Goose Island, is selling itself to distribution partner and minority owner Anheuser-Busch InBev N.V. for $38.8 million and replacing its brewmaster.

Anheuser will purchase a 58% stake for $22.5 million and the remaining 42% stake from Portland, Ore.-based Craft Brewers Alliance for $16.3 million. Anheuser already controls a third of CBA.

Almost every blogger worth his salt has weighed in on the deal, and remarkably, the chorus is mostly in tune. Far from gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts, we get this kind of analysis:
  • Since everybody else has an opinion about what the Goose Island sale means I’ll be honest and type, I don’t know. (Stan Hieronymus)
  • What happens if AB-InBev keeps Goose Island beers at the same quality but lowers the price? Would they be any less craft if that were to happen? (Alan McLeod)
  • Does the casual beer drinker care that Goose Island is now owned by Anheuser-Busch? I doubt it. (Brady Walen)
By coincidence, I happened to re-post an item on Sunday about the difference between craft beer and craft breweries. For thirty years, Americans acknowledged no distinction between the two: first you described a craft brewery (small and independent) and then you could point to craft beer (the product of a craft brewery). It's a facile definition, but a durable one. What I find most interesting about the sale of Goose Island is a tacit acknowledgement that the two are indeed separate. To the extent people are bothered about it, it's because they worry Goose Island's beer will change. It's a watershed in the way we think about beer. Americans are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of good beer, and as a consequence, they have a more subtle understanding of the business behind it.

Other Thoughts
A couple other things to note. First is the announcement of the new brewmaster at Goose Island: Brett Porter. Incumbent brewmaster Greg Hall (founder John's son) will step aside, apparently by his own wishes. Brett's a long-time Oregon guy, brewing first at MacTarnahan's (back when it was Portland Brewing) and then at Deschutes in Bend. Unlike some of the outsized personalities in brewing, Brett's low-key and flies under a lot of people's radar. He's a helluva brewer, though--he designed some of MacTarnahan's best (if fleeting) beers ever--and Goose Island is fortunate to have him. Brett, an urbane guy who likes the artistic offerings in larger cities, is lucky to have landed in Second City.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that this is good for our hometown brewery, too. A little note in the Motley Fool last month had me worried. It reported that Craft Brewers was cash-poor and $19 million in debt and recommended against investing. (The Motley Fool is an investment advice site.) According to the reports on this deal, Craft Brewers stands to get a windfall of over $16 million. I sent a note to the brewery after seeing the Motley Fool piece, and they assured me things were cool there. Their assurances and my business ignorance were enough to reassure me, but this has to make things even cooler.

Update: Maureen Ogle, who literally wrote the book on American beer history, has one of the best pieces on this deal I've seen. I regret I didn't put it in the main body of my comments.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pimp Your Stout (A Survey of Cool Bottles)

When American craft breweries first started putting their beer in bottles, they opted for a couple standard varieties--the longneck or the squat, ugly "legacy" bottle. Over time, breweries collected little piles of coins and decided to invest in more interesting bottles--as exemplified by Redhook's cool new examples. Even more than labels, bottles can offer a distinctive touch to a packaged product. Who among us hasn't picked up a St. Peter's just to admire the flask shape?

There's another element to this, too. Homebrewers are constantly on the prowl for a great bottle. Qualifications include attractive shape, embossing, and the absence of distinguishing marks. Deschutes' bottles are a great example: tall and patrician with clean lines and broad shoulders adorned with epaulets of hop vines. Put your stout in this bottle and you can borrow some pride from Bend.

For today's post, I thought it would be fun to have a gander at classic bottles, some good for homebrew, some good--but not for homebrew. I envision a time when many American breweries have their own bottles. They could take notes from some of these. Trappists are out in front:

Westmalle has a classic form and the iconic neck embossing that so beguiled the folks at New Belgium that they followed course. Not perfect for homebrew because of the name, but nevertheless a great bottle.


Chimay's smaller bottles are unique in form, and include the embossed name of the Abbey. Tres classy--though again, too specific for the homebrew.

Moving along, we come to the swing-top offerings, which are always fun for amateur bottlers. They're fun for everyone, actually--who doesn't like a cool swing-top? So far, the only local brewery to go for this style is Captured By Porches--and you pay through the nose for the privilege.

Far cheaper are the many German breweries that use swingtops, like this Hirschbrau. You can pick these up for three or four dollars--full of tasty lager.



Of course, the Grolsch is a classic. Not great for labels, and you have to keep it out of the sun, but it has the old-timey feel homebrewers prize.



The best of all are the stoneware swingtops of St. Sebastiaan. A few Belgian breweries use faux-stoneware, but St. Sebastiaan is the real deal. Not a cheap way to go, but you can slowly build up your collection.

Now we come to some of my fave standards, including one or two that may stump you. These sleek fellas are sans label, and I will offer a gold star to the person who can identify them all in comments. Sadly, a gold star is likely all you'll get, but it's something. I have a couple bottles of (C) floating around, but I could only locate one from my bottle collection for the photo. The rest are from my regular rotation.

A.


B.


C.


D.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Got a Book Deal (and What it Means for the Blog)

Sharp-eyed readers have noticed that beneath my attractive title bar there is no longer a quote from Sunset Magazine about how great I am. Instead, we have the new tag, "blogs will save us." There's a reason for this.

Back in January of 2010, the clock ran out on the federal grant that funded my research job at Portland State University. As I had already creaked past 40, I decide to take a shot and see if I could get paid to write. Trying to publish a book is a painful and humbling task. First you write a proposal for a book--easier than writing the book itself, but no trifle. One of the key elements of the platform is a newish concept called "author platform"; your renown or, crassly, the number of customers you can be expected to pre-deliver. Thus do you do things like post quotes about how great you are on your blog.

With the proposal and your platform, you move to the first elimination round and attempt to attract the attentions of an agent. Lots of rejection here. But all you need is one win. If you're successful, you go to the second elimination round, where your agent goes to publishers. Interestingly, the book I was offered was not the one I pitched; the publisher already had an idea for a beer book and was looking for a writer when my agent came along with our proposal.

What followed was a marathon that culminated last week, in the 53rd week of negotiation, as I wheezed across the finish line. Mostly, anyway. My agent and the publisher are now hammering out the contract details, so I can't actually talk much about the book yet. (My agent: "You can announce that your agent has entered into final negotiations ... and that you will let your readers know more as soon as the negotiations are complete and the contract is signed.")

The most delicious aspect of landing the book is that this blog was chiefly responsible. Bloggers take a lot of hell for their self-indulgence and/or obsessions, and I was not exempt from that. Yet when we submitted my book, the folks at the publishing house read through Beervana and decided my voice was a good match. I feel like a member of the Rebel Alliance who has managed to score a direct hit against the Empire. So, blogs will save us--or anyway, they've saved me.

There are two relevant facts about the book deal: 1) the publisher will actually pay me--and pretty well--to write the book, and 2) it's a big-ass project. I fully expect this to affect the blog. Ironically, I probably won't have as much time to blog. I'll try to keep the old jalopy active and interesting, but no promises. On the plus side, I'll be doing some traveling and seeing some breweries that should be as new and interesting to you as to me. I won't let the blog die, but it may catch a two-year cold. I'll do my best.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

What is Craft Beer?

In comments to yesterday's post about the abundance of choice, we got into a discussion about the definition of craft beer. It's been a couple years since I posted on this issue, but I find--suprisingly--that my view hasn't shifted at all on the matter. It also seems timely, coming as it does on the last day of the Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco.

___________

In the Budweiser American Ale thread, Alison asks, "I am curious as to how you define "craft beer?" As I was writing that Bud post, I wondered briefly if I should define my terms, since I was clearly using a variant definition. There's an official designation* by the Brewers Association that craft breweries are "small, independent, and traditional." In general use, that's probably close enough.

But that definition only describes the brewery, not the beer. The Brewer's Association is a guild of craft breweries, and they're more concerned about their membership than a subjective description of beer. I think we can make a distinction between craft-brewed beer that is concerned only with the beer, not who brews it, and that was the definition I was using in the Bud post.

My working definition of craft beer hews to a "functionalist" model of the definition of art. Monroe Beardsley offers this: "An arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character." Craft beer is that which is brewed with a goal of "aesthetic character."

Many writers and brewer have noted that technically speaking, brands like Budweiser and Coors are incredible beers. Yet the intention of these products is not aesthetic, it's commercial--these companies are concerned with their beers' saleability.

Aesthetic character doesn't comment on the accomplishment of a given beer, but I think it's a more honest guide because it gets at the nature of the beer in the glass rather than the brewery. On the far edges, beers like Hair of the Dog's Adam and PBR are obvious. It's impossible to regard Adam as anything but a serious foray into aesthetic experimentation; it's equally impossible to regard PBR as anything but a commercial product. But I think these examples also clarify things at the center, too. Someone mentioned Blue Moon earlier. Leave aside who brews it--is it a beer that could credibly be judged against other white ales? It is. To me, that qualifies it as a craft beer. What about Fat Tire (to use my bête noire)? I find it so substandard and so perniciously commercial that I have a hard time thinking of it as craft beer. To me, it's the economic engine that allows New Belgium to brew the more interesting, niche beers in its lineup.

By this definition, Bud American Ale is a craft beer. The only thing that could eliminate it from consideration is its brewer. Bud clearly went to the same effort to brew it as Oregon's breweries do when they make their craft beer. Bud's intention was to make a beer of aesthetic character. Does it matter that they've brewed it because they believe there's money in well-made craft beers? No. How could it--every brewery wants to sell their beer.

This is a moment when we can use brewery size as a proxy for dividing commercial and craft beer--but it won't last. Craft breweries will in years or decades be huge companies, perhaps one or two rivaling the "legacy" light-lager companies. And of course, many small breweries make bad beer. Size and good beer don't have a lot to do with each other. Craft beer must be defined by something other than the size of the brewery that produces it.

___________
*That is, they produce less than 2 million barrels a year, control more than 75% of the company, and brews all malt beers or "beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Deep Thought Friday: On Choices

It's a slow Friday morning, perhaps because almost everyone in the good beer world is in San Francisco for the Craft Brewers Conference. Looking for a little content fodder, I found an interesting couplet from Jeff Linkous and Lew Bryson. The topic is choice, and whether the staggering selection of beer is detrimental to the market. The thrust of the inquiry goes like this:
  1. Choice is great unless there's so much that it leaves consumers with a nagging feeling that they're choosing an inferior beer when something truly tasty is available.
  2. As a consequence, they go back to the well for the beers they know are winners.
  3. Moral: too much choice can be a dangerous thing.
Let's unpack this a bit. How much choice is there really? It is true that there are upwards of 15,000 different beers brewed in the US right now (1700 brewers ~ nine beers per)--but most of these are made by brewpubs. Go to your local grocery store, and if you're lucky you'll find 20 craft products. (Recognize that not all grocery stores have the selection of your local Portland New Seasons.) The biggies will all be there: Sierra Nevada Pale, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, New Belgium Fat Tire, Widmer Hefeweizen. These, not by unrelated chance, are also the best-selling craft brands in the US--along with Blue Moon and Shiner Bock. Regions matter, so depending on where you're standing while looking at these beers, you might see Bell's or Brooklyn or Lauganitas, too.

We could run the same thought experiment for the average bar, again acknowledging that places like Bailey's represent a vanishingly small portion of the draft market. Ultimately, not a huge amount of choices.

The craft market is small, but the number of people who drink craft beer is actually massive: 59% of beer drinkers, according to results in recent study. Most of these people drink a few of the major national brands and not a whole lot else--they are probably relatively untroubled by the tyranny of choice. A small number of these--ten percent, twenty?--are avid beer fans. they drink the 14,900 niche beers that aren't regularly sold in supermarkets. They are fanatics for choice and will choose a new beer, no matter how low the likelihood that it is tasty, just because it's new. They are also untroubled by the tyranny of choice.

The craft beer market has grown by 40% over the past five years--amid the worst recession since the time when you legally buy no beer. I would say that the abundance of choice is not particularly dangerous.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Forward

It kind of sucks that wee Butler, the admirable Bulldogs, must face the juggernaut that is the Wisconsin Badgers. No one likes to see an underdog lose. On the other hand, everyone wants to see Wisconsin win, so something's gotta give.

Go Badgers.

Update: Oy.

Brand Dissection: Redhook's New Look

The two bigs in the Craft Brewers Alliance have both come out with new labels and packaging. For Widmer, it's more an update than an overhaul--the bottles remain the same, but the labels have been tuned up a bit. In the case of Redhook, though, it's a wholesale re-introduction of the brand. Which makes it ideal for my ongoing series of brand dissections (see here for past treatments). Let's get to it.

Company and Brand History
Redhook is gearing up to celebrate its 30th Anniversary (this year, I think, though the company wasn't incorporated until '82 nor did they sell any beer until then). Founded by a wine guy (Paul Shipman) and an ad man (Gordon Bowker), the early days of Redhook are notorious. They got a hold of an infected yeast (or, possibly, a Belgian strain) and their early beer had a lot of strange character--banana, most famously. Redhook had the advantage of being there at the start, though; Portland's Cartwright beat them by a couple of years, but folded, and Bert Grant beat them by a few months.

Novelty carried them forward through the banana-beer stage, and like many of the early breweries they went through massive growth. Within years they were expanding to meet capacity and decided speculatively to build two huge breweries--one in Washington, one in New Hampshire--to produce the prodigious quantities their growth rate suggested they'd need. By the end of the 90s, they were a national brand. Eventually, they hit a brick wall and their numbers, while impressive by craft brand standards have never approached the levels of Sierra Nevada or Boston Beer. They settled into being a big but not huge craft brewery.

The brand followed a similar course, from funky local start-up to glossy, generic national brand. In the early phase, the logo was a major part of the brand. Evocative of the trees and mountains that characterize Seattle, it was framed nicely by rounded labels. As the brewery nationalized, it adopted sleeker bottles that downplayed the logo. They were intellectually interesting: two label strips separated by a raised barley sprig on the bottle. But they were also very neutral and indistinct--a function of being removed from place.


New Look, Old Evocations
The new bottle, as you can see, is a big departure. I spoke with Robert Rentsch, the brand manager for Redhook about what they were shooting for.
"[We wanted to] celebrate our heritage. Reconnect with our roots and be true to what the brand is all about--going back to those early days. We used that as a starting point for all the decisions that came out of that. Our prior bottle was a longneck, and it was a little precious, we thought. We wanted something a little more real."
For anyone who recalls beer brewed in the 70s and earlier, this new bottle is definitely familiar. I thought of the old stubbies I remember from my youth--Heidelberg and Oly. This was intentional:
"When we first started bottling, we were using the old style 'heritage' bottle... We considered that for awhile, but then we looked at some older, stubby-style bottles and that gave us some inspiration. It felt right for Redhook."
For those of you who aren't aware of the Northwest's brewing history, it's relevant. Up until the 1970s, regional brewing was alive and well in the region: Rainier (Seattle), Olympia (Olympia), Heidelberg (Tacoma), Lucky Lager (Vancouver, WA), and Weinhard (Portland). Although most macro now is canned, bottles were one of the central ways breweries distinguished themselves then--since, obviously, the beer was all pretty much the same. Even the sizes weren't standard--Rainier offered pint bottles ("pounders"), while Heidelberg's were just 11 oz. I imagine that an old-timer, seeing Redhook's new bottles--a standard 12 ounces--would smile in recognition. Of course, younger drinkers will recognize the retro feel, too, even if they don't remember the inspirations. It's also a generally pleasing shape--and reminds Sally of a milk bottle.

It is a fascinating irony that the industrial design of midcentury has now become a stand-in for authenticity. That old regional beer was anything but authentic. Yet our nostalgia for a time when Americans made things, when we were naively optimistic about rocketing into the future, is one of the most potent elements in beer design. So by referencing the industrial age--the moment America was furthest from artisanal craftsmanship--now suggests to the modern brain the idea of authenticity. The contrast between this new bottle and the old bottle is a lesson in psychology. One resonates on a subconscious level, one resonates not at all.


Names and Colors
Redhook has long used idiosyncratic labels and names to identify their beer. Some, like Blackhook Porter, had names while others like IPA did not. Some had labels that reflected the family of brands, some did not. When the company went through its last re-brand, it tried creating consistency by adding names, a fact Rentsch acknowledged wasn't a great idea:
"Over the years we had moved in a direction where we were naming all of our beers. So: Longhammer IPA, Rope Swing Pilsner. We were assigning made up names to our beers. We want to go back to basics by just calling it Redhook and letting the brand be front and center."
The new brand pivots off that retro feel and goes for simplicity (itself a retro impulse). Now the four beers in the standard line just have a single name. Redhook's new design uses color to further articulate both the sense of family and individuality. The labels feature spare, monochromatic designs--one color for each variety of beer. The colors of the label continue with that midcentury feel; they're slightly washed out like the color of cheaper wrappers in the fifties. The ESB's red suggests rubber stamp. The fire-engine-red cap, a dollop of brightness, echoes the memory. I can imagine a bottle of soda from 1955 having a cap just like this. Each color plays on the beer inside--red, which has always been the color for ESB, yellow for pilsner, green for the hops of IPA, and copper for Copperhook.

The names--Longhammer, Rope Swing--still appear on the packages, but it wee print. I took from Robert the sense that Redhook may be planning to get rid of them entirely but is just easing them out for now.

Can a Beer Company Become a Brewery?
Perhaps the most important element of a craft beer brand is the beer itself. If the beer is indistinct, the brand will necessarily reflect that. For all its commercial success, Redhook has never had a very distinctive line of beers. This may go back to the beginning, when the vision of the two men who founded the brewery was based on a very crude sense of good beer. Across the decades, Redhook has seemed more like a company that was interested in selling beer than a brewery where good beer is made. This was particularly true when Redhook decided to go national and abandon the hyper-local Ballard Bitter, with the irresistible catchphrase "Ya sure, ya betcha!"--a reference to the Seattle neighborhood's Scandinavian influence.

Over the course of years, the beer varieties changed and morphed, the names changed, and all the while, the beer seemed to be aimed at a generic drinker who didn't want a lot of sharp edges or character. The best brands succeed because they're playing off distinctive beer, though. The brand should embody the character of the beer.

Redhook's current look is a return to place. It is distinctive and interesting (no doubt a few people will be turned off)--you'll notice it instantly on the shelf, and you'll get a fair amount of information about the brewery through the package cues. Redhook has exchanged the generic for something we could one day recognize as "Redhooky." The question is, will the beer live up to the image of an authentic Northwest beer? That's a tall order, and it will require the company to commit not only to brewing interesting, distinctive beer, but to engaging the community. Redhook's CBA partner, Widmer, has gone through a very similar process and it's taken over a decade for the people to begin to see them first as local and second as huge and national. It's a slow process.

Brand Success
I love the new packaging. It's pretty, unique, and very distinctive. (Bonus: the bottles will be great for my homebrew.) But packaging can only provide provisional branding. The brewery has to be active in delivering on the promise of the package. Redhook's new design signals an intent to be proud of its heritage as a Seattle brewery, a grandfather of craft brewing. Whether that sticks as a brand will depend on Redhook.


Update. Well, I see I'm late to the party: Brady posted his thoughts on the new brand yesterday over at the Daily Pull. One thing I would highlight in his post is the copy, which I avoided. Of particular note, the brewery seems to be trying to personify "Redhook" in what can only be called badly misguided. Let's hope that follows the beer names into the dustbin.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Will a Massive Beer Tax Crush British Pub Culture?

I have recently been thinking a lot about the causes and conditions that create beer styles. Ingredient availability and type was obviously the most important historically. But other factors exert a surprising effect, like wars, economic changes, and laws. That last one is especially relevant in the current age, when globalization has reduced the influence of the others. Take for example the news in today's paper, that on Monday, Britain is set to raise the tax on beer by another 7%.
"Later today, the Chancellor George Osborne, is set to announce the new Budget and along with that will be an increase in beer tax of around 7%. The beer duty escalator, set in place by the previous government, is set to lead to an increase of the Retail Price Index (RPI) percentage plus two per cent."
This is just the most recent in what is a shockingly precipitous rise in beer taxes:
"The recent VAT increase, 6p per pint, has followed a 26% increase in beer duty since 2008. With the current high rate of inflation the sector is facing a further 7.1% beer tax increase this month. This would result in beer duty having increased by 35% in three years."

And: "The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) attacked the Chancellor's decision to impose a "damaging" 7.2% increase in beer duty, saying that the average duty and VAT on a pub pint will now exceed £1."

The effects, of course, are catastrophic. In an effort to save money, people are staying home and drinking packaged beer, leading to a failure rate of British pubs in the thousands (currently, 25 close every week). Failing pubs means job losses--ten thousand alone are the predicted result of this latest tax hike.

Bizarrely, it will almost certainly result in lower tax revenues as well, as drinkers consume less. And herein lies the effect of law on beer. For centuries, pubs have played a major role in the life of British communities. Britons have exchanged their passions over the course of time--porter to Burton ale to mild, bitter, and finally lager--but they've never abandoned the way they drink beer. It's not an exaggeration to say that the vibrancy of British beer depends on the primacy of the local pub. Remove it and beware the effect on beer and brewing.

If you look carefully at the dense batting of clouds mounding in the skies, however, you will see one tiny shimmer of silver:

"However the Government does deserve credit for the 50% reduced rate for beers below 2.8% abv. It will act as a spur to innovation in what is a vital UK industry, and over time, should help nudge consumers towards lower-strength drinks.

This is useful because the only breweries producing beer that weak will be local. It further demonstrates the power of law to shape styles. Will we henceforth have a beer called a mild mild? (By offering a boon only to beer barely stronger than Fanta, it also reveals the anti-alcohol agenda embroidered into this whole debate.)

We do not have a surfeit of locations with rich beer culture on the planet. It pains me to see one of the best deliberately trying to abandon a proud national heritage.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nooooooo!

Oy, not this again:
So when the folks over at City's Best Twin Cities (bless 'em) suggested Minneapolis/St. Paul staked a legitimate claim as the country's beer capital, I realized it was time to make Denver's case.
Denver, of course, has a decent case to make, but this one is somewhat weakened by dubiously-spun stats ("our beautiful state ranked as number one in terms of gross beer production -- that's 111 breweries producing over 23.3 million barrels, people") and flat-out factual mistakes (" Denver ... is also ranked ... second nationally in the number of breweries per capita"). Writer Matt Ferner does strike the right note here at the end, though: "Don't bother with the math." Indeed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Craft Brewers Top Ten Million Barrels

The Brewers Association has annual numbers out for 2010--yet another banner year in craft brewing.
The Brewers Association, the trade association representing the majority of U.S. brewing companies, today released 2010 data on the U.S. craft brewing industry. Small and independent craft brewers1 saw volume2 increase 11 percent and retail sales dollars increase 12 percent over 2009, representing a growth of over 1 million barrels (31 gallons per U.S. barrel), equal to more than 14 million new craft cases.
This is pretty remarkable, given that we're still mired in a pretty bad recession during which regular beer sales are in decline. It represents 39% growth over the past five years--again, during that massive recession, and again, as macros faltered.

But actually, it undersells the growth. The Brewers Association touts the barrel totals for 2010 as just under ten million: 9,951,956. But this isn't all craft beer, just the amount meeting BA's idiosyncratic criteria (hence the footnotes in the quoted text). Include breweries like Widmer and Redhook--part of the recent collection of breweries under the Craft Brewers Alliance banner--and it's well over ten million barrels. And that makes the five-year growth more than 39%.

So, great news. Greater even than the headlines read.

A Few Words on Homebrewing

A few weeks back, I received a review copy of Beginning Homebrew, a DVD that walks people through extract homebrewing. It is designed for people with absolutely no experience in brewing, and does a fine job of walking you through the steps, offering a couple variations on standard practices. It also comes with a free instructional booklet that captures the myriad details involved in assembling ingredients, following procedures, and maintaining sanitation. It sets you back twenty bucks, but functions like an experienced friend in the kitchen to walk you through things. Not a bad deal for those who feel overwhelmed by the prospect of brewing.

It got me thinking about homebrewing. No matter which system you decide to adopt, brewing even a single batch of beer at home requires an sizable investment of time and money. Nearly every homebrew store in America has a kit to get you started, and the cheapest run fifty bucks. Add kettles and ingredients and a brewing book and you're almost certainly going to spend at least a hundred dollars on your first batch of beer--and you could spend a lot more. Many people arrive at this moment and wonder--should I take the plunge? You will be unsurprised to learn I have thoughts.


Why Should You Brew?
Before taking the plunge, do a little self-examination. Brewing is like cooking: you don't need to do it to get a good bottle of beer (or plate of food). You brew because you like the process, not the product. It isn't cheap, it's labor-intensive, and it's time-consuming. Hell, it's even a little dangerous.* All of this can be said of cooking, too, and yet millions spend hours in the kitchen making worse food than they could find if they walked down the street the the local bistro.

Are you the kind of person who spends time considering beer recipes? Do you try to figure out which hops offer flavors you enjoy? Do you wonder what a beer with X ingredient might taste like? If thinking about brewing beer stimulates your creativity, brewing beer is probably for you. If, on the other hand, you love the sensual experience of beer but have no interest in recreating those stimuli yourself, you may not be a brewer. If the idea of several hours of work to produce a potentially inferior beer fills you with dread, brewing is not for you. A lot of people who like beer invest their hundred bucks and make a single batch of beer, realizing that drinking beer is a lot more fun than making it.


How Should You Brew?**
Here's how beer is made, in the briefest of nutshells: brewers begin by making a malt tea, bringing it to a boil, and adding spices (usually hops). To this they add yeast and beer results. There are essentially two ways to make that malt tea; they differ in the same way brewing coffee and making instant coffee do. The drip-coffee method involves steeping whole malted grains in warm water and drawing off the liquid (known as "all-grain" homebrewing). This takes longer and you can mess up your proportions. The more foolproof way is to bring water to to boil and add dehydrated malt extract (a method known predictably as "extract brewing"). Nearly every homebrew shop in the country starts you out with five-gallon systems for extract brewing.

Here's my recommendation: try a mini-batch of all-grain brewing. If you are going to be a homebrewer, eventually you'll get to all-grain brewing. (Bakers may start out with Betty Crocker cake-in-a-box, but they don't end there.) If you're not cut out to be a homebrewer, it's better to see what the actual process is like and then cut your losses. The additional bonus is that with a mini-batch, you can avoid spending gobs of money.

If you have a 12-quart stock pot at home, you can jury-rig a system that will produce a two-gallon batch for less than $100, including ingredients--and you'll have very little extraneous crap left in your basement afterward. The technique I recommend is "brew in a bag," which can be very basic indeed. (I'm not going to go into it here, but I recommend using a cooler with a spigot so you can vorlauf and sparge--but only if you already own a cooler with a spigot.) In this system, you need to purchase just a cheap two-gallon fermenter (I saw a plastic one online for $7), a fermentation lock and stopper, mesh bag, plastic hose, sanitizing solution, priming sugar, bottle caps and capper. Oh, and a homebrewing book--which is critical. With these tools you can produce a crude but serviceable beer that will instruct you far more comprehensibly about what beer brewing is actually like. If it floats your boat, you can expand pretty quickly; if not, very little harm done.

____________
*Early homebrew experience: I had batch three in the bottles in my apartment bedroom. A beer made with the only fruit I could find in the early spring in Madison, WI: mangoes. On the first really warm day of the year, while I was fortunately out of the house, the already overcarbonated beers got even more lively, and about half of them exploded, coating my room in a gluey mixture of beer and glass shards.

**By far the best way to get into homebrewing is to find a friend who already brews. Join her on brewday and watch the process. If you think it looks fun, borrow her equipment or have her walk you through a batch yourself. Not only is this a zero-cost way to get into brewing, but you have a trusted resource to guide you through the process. Failing that, my two-gallon scheme is a cheap fall-back.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Beertickers Screening

A little while back, I mentioned a cool movie called Beertickers. Some of you were persuaded to spend a buck and download it. For those of you who weren't, here's another opportunity. It's showing at the Guild Pub (1101 E. Burnside) on Monday at 8:00 pm. Follow the link above to read about it if you missed that post. (It's a lot of fun.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Bottle-Shop Pub: A Portland Phenomenon?

Last night, I finally made it down to Bottles at 51st and Fremont. It is exactly the kind of place I love--a cozy place with a long, wooden bar. It's the kind of neighborhood pub where people literally greet you when you walk in. They have eight well-selected, mostly local taps and a barbecue out front ("usually done by five, usually out by eight"). It's Carolina barbecue, if that means anything to you. Although this is no time to be dining out of doors, they have a beautiful little tree-shaded patio that I intend to enjoy come about July 5. My love seems to be reflected elsewhere--they're getting the very rare five stars on Yelp.

Oh, they also have a few hundred bottles of beer in coolers scattered around the pub.

Until three or four years ago, you had bottle shops and you had pubs. Then Belmont Station put in the Bier Cafe next to the bottle shop in their swank new digs, and the two started to come together. Lickety-split, now we have a bunch: Saraveza, Hop and Vine, Beermongers, Hop Haven, Bailey's and probably others I'm forgetting.

For a consumer, it's a pretty good set-up. Last night, I was meeting an out-of-towner, and it was nice to be able to peruse some of the state's finest, knowing that I had dozens of choices to offer. This goes double if you want to sample foreign beers. Even pubs like the Horse Brass can't match the selection of a bottle shop. But there's also draft beer and a nice pub environment. (You pay a slight premium for drinking the bottle in situ, but it's offset by the fact that a lot of bottles are cheaper than taps.)

So I'm wondering--is this mainly just a Portland thing? One of those deals where once the example is out there, everyone sees its genius? Folks from other cities/states--do you have these things, too? If not, I've got a new business model to suggest to you....

BrewPubliCrawl

Tomorrow is the second annual BrewPubliCrawl (or BREWPUBLICrawl, if that clarifies things), a 1.5-mile pedestrian brewfest that roams from Blitz Ladd to Victory Bar, with stops along the way at Beermongers, Lompoc Hedge House and Bar Avignon.


Full details are at Brewpublic, including a description of the venues along the Division street beer corridor, details about the event, and a list of the beers pouring at each location. As with all De Ieso joints, it promises to be big fun--and of course, he's got a lot of cool beers lined up, too.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Sacred National Holiday

In bars all across the country, people will be enjoying what I consider to be one of the three or four most important holidays of the year. I speak, of course, of the NCAA college basketball tournament (philistines call it "March Madness.") Those who partake of the sacred rite might remember when NC State defeated Phi Slamma Jamma--and our beloved Clyde Drexler--or when Villanova shot 123% en route to beating the titanic Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas. Or perhaps they recall an acne-splashed, floppy-haired point guard from Santa Clara defeat the mighty Arizona Wildcats. (It was Steve Nash, and they played hack-a-shaq with the wrong kid. He kept draining free-throw after free throw and number 15 beat number 2.) Or Christian Laettner and the perfect game or the Flintstones, or any of a 100 other amazing storylines.

Today we've already witnessed Morehead State (13) defeat Louisville (4) on a buzzer-beating three-pointer.



Princeton, another 14 seed, is still in the game against #4 Kentucky. Whether they win or not, there will be more upsets, more joy, more fun. Of course, the world awaits the 4:30 tip-off of the Wisconsin Badgers as well. Some teams transcend a tournament.

Oh, I guess it's also St. Patrick's Day, too. I just hope the yahoos stick with theme pubs and stay out of the way of serious fans. I will be at an undisclosed location in the NE to watch the Badgers.


Update: This time the buzzer-beater favored the four seed. Kentucky survives a big scare.

Update 2: A grateful nation delighted to the play of the Wisconsin Badgers, despite mild feelings of compassion for the hardy men of Belmont. In the tourney, all wins are kissed by melancholy. Victory by the Zags further compounded feelings of well-being. My brackets are, as usual, trailing early, but the inevitable Kansas-UConn final will confirm my overall sense of good judgment.

Laurelwood is Ten

Laurelwood 10th Anniversary Celebration
Friday, March 18, 5-11 pm
$2.50 pints, live music, new beer releases
Typically, old men like me say things like, "wow, I can't believe Laurelwood's been open ten years already; it seems like they just opened up." (Relatedly: last night Angelo shot a photo of John Foyston and me, explaining, "I want to get a picture of you guys before you die." Hurry!) But actually, this time my reaction is the opposite: just ten years, really? Laurelwood has become one of those bedrock Portland breweries, synonymous with the town. To think that it post-dates the Clinton administration (which to old men like me seems very recent) is hard to believe. But there it is.

To celebrate the event, Laurelwood is releasing a couple new beers which act as a nice metaphor for the event. The first, Workhorse Imperial IPA, is a beer for the moment. The second decade of the 21st century will be remembered for the big beer craze--an imperial IPA is almost a requirement. Enough said.

The second beer is called (at least provisionally) "Big O" Organic Pale Ale. It's a perfect metaphor for a brewery that regularly resists trends. In terms of American craft beer, pale ales are ancient, the least trendy of all beers. At least 73,000 of them are brewed in America. Yet the Big O is stellar; that very rare example of a fresh take on a familiar style. Hopped with Centennial, Cascade, and Fuggles, it has the classic, saturated quality of a Northwest ale--but the hops are mostly flavorful and aromatic, not bitter. They provide bright top notes and make Big O a sunny beer with a bit more zing than you except. One of my favorite beers from Laurelwood was Piston Pale Ale--which they scrapped some years back. Big O is a great--and overdue--replacement.

You could do worse Friday night than stopping by to drain a pint in celebration of this surprisingly young Portland institution.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Kona Brewing: Pioneering Local Beer

As we all know, brewing goes back a long, long ways--perhaps to the dawn of civilization. It goes at least back at least to the Sumerians, over six thousand years ago. In all that time, up until about the mid-19th century, beer was a purely local product. Industrialization, railroads, and refrigeration made it possible for beer to travel. To the people before then, there was no style, only beer--the stuff you could make yourself. Of course, this is how styles evolved--in a small, regional context where the climate, laws, local tastes, and external factors like war dictated what was possible.

Modern American brewing is slightly odd in that we reproduce styles that emerged in other places. Had brewing started here organically, we wouldn't have had to reproduce what our ancestors brewed in Europe. I've been fascinated by the idea of indigenous American beers, wondering what they might look like and how they would differ from European lineages. Perhaps the best clues are offered by Kona Brewing, which has done more to incorporate local ingredients in their regular beers than any brewery in America. Their three seasonals include locally-grown coconut, Kona coffee, and passion fruit (lilikoi).*

Koko Brown
The newest release is Koko Brown, which has finally made it onto store shelves. It's a fairly standard brown ale--5.5%, 28 IBUs, made with six malts and four hop varieties. The base beer would be an excellent brown, but it has been enhanced by the inclusion of coconut. Kona adds coconut flesh to the mash (which may actually provide fermentables) and coconut essence during conditioning. The result is a beer that is strongly aromatic, almost perfumy, but only mildly coconutty on the palate. The nutty malt flavors blend perfectly with the soft, mildly sweet coconut to produce an amazingly drinkable beer. If it seems conceptually gimmicky, a pint dispels all fears; like Pipeline Porter, Koko is a perfect session ale, and when I've polled people, they have to a person given it very high marks. (It's also one of those beers that appeals almost equally to beer geeks and beer novices, which makes it a great sixer to take to a party.)

Wailua Wheat and Pipeline Porter
Koko Brown is just the latest incarnation of the model Kona beer. The brewery has a great knack for matching flavors that exist in beer with local ingredients. The city of Kona is located on the western side of the Big Island, very close to the famous coffee plantations that borrow the town's name. Kona is a distinctive bean, produced by the unique circumstances of that small growing region (the combination of volcanic soil, sun, and temperature make it impossible to replicate with trees grown elsewhere). Its character is different from the kind you find in most espresso shops in the US. Best at a medium blend, it has a mellow, rounded flavor--not sharp, bitter, or intense like French and Italian roasts. When the brewery made a recipe for porter to go with the Kona beans, they chose a light, mellow recipe like Black Butte Porter. The result is a bright, sunny porter that, like the Koko Brown, makes a perfect session ale.

Perhaps the most interesting is Wailua Wheat, a very simple beer that uses lilikoi (passion fruit) not as a sweetener, but a spice, like hops. Lilikoi are amazing fruits. They look like a yellow egg and have a seedy custard filling that is as intense to eat as a lime. It's so intense that lilikoi is almost always used as a flavoring in other beverages or dishes. What's fascinating is that the flavors are similar to the citrus of hops. I'm still trying to catch up on my understanding of the chemistry of hops, but I know enough to recognize one compound found in lilikoi--linalool, which researchers say gives a hop a "harmonious" citrusy aroma and flavor. (Interestingly, in the Wailua Wheat I had in Hawaii, the citrus character seemed more vivid. I don't know if this is due to the effects of climate--where mild tastes pop more--or the different systems used to brew there and on the mainland, but it's worth noting.)

The three beers are a great example of how local ingredients can--and in my view, should--be included in recipes. The industrial age is an anomaly; beer is local. Recipes should reflect local ingredients. Kudos to Kona for leading the way.

_________________
*These ingredients are not native to Hawaii, which had almost no native edible plants. They have been grown there for over a hundred years, though, and can certainly be considered "local." Coconuts, in fact, were probably brought by the first humans who visited from "nearby" islands. (They weren't that close--just closer than anything else.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mini Brand Dissection: Upright and Four Play

There is little doubt that when Pyramid decided to scrap their iconic labels and adopt their new look--an artistically indistinct, anodyne melange of colors reminiscent of what you'd expect to find on the wall of a doctor's office--the designers thought it was brilliant. They obviously didn't intend people to mock the brewery as a sports-drink wannabe. And thus did the control of the brand pass from Pyramid to the people. It's an iron law: ultimately, the customer gets to decide how she feels about your brand.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I saw Ezra's post about the release of the new Four Play, which features a surprisingly un-Upright-like label. Erza commented:
Jeff, there is no "brand." The 4 year round beers labels are designed consistent but there never has been a guide on seasonal and one-offs and that was purposeful from the beginning that those beers would have no rules. In fact it has been a personal goal of mine that if you hold those labels up next together they all contrast. So this is EXACTLY what I was wanting.
So, here's the thing: there's always a brand. The brand is the image that represents the brewery; it's the visual representation of the brewery's personality. The question becomes, does what you put on the label communicate what you want to say about the brewery?

Brand
If Upright Brewing was a person, it would be the ultimate urbanite: educated, sophisticated, and elegant. The name is a useful symbol--it refers to a musical instrument, which is a functional non sequitur for beer. It suggests jazz, but more than that, it suggests improvisation and lyricism. Of all the music forms, jazz may be the most laden with context; the improvisation requires communication between musicians and a shared understanding of the history, vocabulary, and discography of the form. Great jazz musicians riff on each other in a sly, knowing way. All of which makes "Upright" a perfect name for a brewery that demands a lot from its audience. Alex folds layers of meaning into his beers--like jazz compositions, you find references to the history and lineage of beer styles. They aren't recreations--Upright's not a cover band--they're improvisations.

The label art suggests this. Ezra's comment that variability is the one constant is appropriate: a different label for every new riff. Variability is a huge part of the brand. But there's variability and then there's variability. Discord may suit a composition, or it may damage it. Four Play is discordant: the question is, in a good way or a bad way?

Art and Context
Ezra is a gifted artist and much of his art--especially beer labels--is arresting. I have personally witnessed occasions when people bought beers based solely on his label art. As an intellectual exercise, Four Play makes sense. The double entendre here involves the base beer--Upright's Four--and the phrase foreplay. The connection continues to the beer, which is lush and sensual. The label is intended to evoke this.

I think, for folks like Ezra, Alex, and Gerritt, the meaning of the image is different than it would be for someone like me. They're all in their twenties or very early thirties (corrections solicited), and sexuality is one of the most generational of impulses. For anyone over forty, the photo of a lightly-clad woman in a sexual pose almost necessarily indicates objectification. In popular culture up until about the mid-90s, that would have always been the case. Of course, things have changed and women have taken control of their own images. Within feminism, there's a huge debate about what constitutes objectification (obviously, I'll avoid that rabbit hole). No matter which side of the debate you take, it's clear that context matters.

Message
The problem, of course, is that art and commerce are both communications. To be communicative, they need a sender and a receiver, and the receiver always has veto power over the way they interpret the image. Artists claim this is a type of theft, but it's inevitable. For businesses, the point is more freighted; if the receivers--customers--apply a different meaning than the brewery intended, there can be trouble.

For a lot of folks, a cigar's never a cigar, and beer label with a scantily-clad woman in a suggestive pose means objectification, first and only. (Which is how the discussion played out at The New School.) For those folks, this is going to offend. There's no right or wrong here. In communications, objective reality isn't the point.

Lesson
I don't really have an opinion about whether the label is appropriate or not. I know the people behind the message, and I know that there's no effort to objectify women. (In fact, Upright probably has a higher percentage of women drinkers than any brand in Oregon.) What I don't know is how the label will be received--part of the Upright brand, or a misstep. The 2010 vintage of Four Play had a risque label that to my mind didn't come close to the line of misunderstanding (it also features Ezra's art--a bonus). The 2011 vintage? We'll see.

Bracketology: the Beer Edition

The Washington Post is doing something interesting. To coincide with March Madness--college basketball's single-elimination tournament--the paper is conducting a similar competition of 64 beers. Nothing new there--and in fact, this is the fifth year they've done it. What is interesting is that the bracket quadrants have been broken into general types: malty, hoppy, fruit and spice, and roast.

So for the first four rounds, each beer will be competing against a slate of similar styles of beer. Only when the competition reaches a final four will the styles go head-to-head. These kinds of competitions are never satisfying in the sense of determining good beers--the variables are just too abundant (beer availability and freshness, regional preferences of judges, etc.), and the pool far too small to qualify as a genuine test of quality. (Gaze at the list and you'll see some fun little beers--Abita Turbodog, Full Sail Session Black--that no one would expect to do well in this kind of competition.) The best of them have the capacity to make us think more deeply about beer, though, and in this regard, the Post's competition is beguiling.

It seems to borrow from the dog show process. First beers compete within a general category, then they move to best of show. The final could pit an Irish ale, a Belgian strong, an imperial IPA, and a vanilla porter against each other. Which bee wins this competition won't be nearly as interesting as the very effort to judge such disparate beers against each other. It raises the question about what we mean when we say "best." And that is definitely a worthy inquiry.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Seven Things (Filler Post)

I'm still on the road today and not able to provide the type of rich content you've come to expect. You'll have to make do with a bit of meagre gruel you can blame on the number one beer blogger in America, who tagged me in a kind of beer blogger chain letter. He writes:
The idea is “I’m supposed to write seven things that people might not know about me” and then bestow the same “honor” on 15 more unsuspecting bloggers.
He did, and he tagged me. I will do the seven things dealy, but I will bravely break the cycle and wave my skinny arse in fate's direction. Here goes:
  1. At birth, my last name was Gorostiza. It changed to Alworth when I was adopted a little later on. The name is Basque, and a few years back, a Basque woman told me that surnames tend to reflect local landmarks. Gorostiza apparently means "holly tree."
  2. I hate holly trees.
  3. In December, Chronicle Books will release a little boxed set thingy called The Beer Tasting Toolkit (or something similar). I wrote it. It follows their quite successful Wine Tasting Party Kit.
  4. I have owned three Volkswagen vans.
  5. One of my favorite television shows--which I discovered long after it went off the air--is Veronica Mars. It contains all the things I love: class commentary, highbrow/lowbrow references, witty dialogue, and a hardboiled gloss. Don't believe me? Joss Whedon said this about it: ""Best. Show. Ever. Seriously, I've never gotten more wrapped up in a show I wasn't making, and maybe even more than those [...] These guys know what they're doing on a level that intimidates me." And Whedon, of course, made Firefly, another of my very favoritist shows.
  6. I am so bad at math that I barely graduated from college. You had to pass this basic proficiency test to graduate, and if you couldn't, you had to pass a sub-100 level class (075). I managed to fail THAT, but eventually passed the test.
  7. Ironically, this would lead naturally toward my job as a university researcher responsible mainly for (low-level) stats. Moral: statistics have very little to do with math.
Regular blogging will resume this afternoon or tomorrow.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Jeff in the New York Times

This has absolutely nothing to do with beer, but what the hey--it's likely a unique case, by god, I'm going to mention it.

Yesterday, one of my posts at BlueOregon got linked at the Five Thirty Eight blog:

After Nate explored how important union voters are to the Democratic Party, The Washington Examiner’s Christopher Murray delved into the history of that relationship, asking whether the battle over collective bargaining will cause some “Reagan Democrats” to drop the “Reagan.”

And Jeff Alworth at BlueOregon.com thought the electoral boost that Nate found unions gave Democrats in presidential races would be larger for state-level races, especially gubernatorial elections. His reasoning: “… while Democrats are generally supportive of working people, the connection between a president and a school teacher is quite weak. Not so between a governor and a school teacher.”

I consider that an endorsement of my thesis--at least an oblique endorsement of an idea worthy of further exploration. I'll take it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Underrated Breweries and Your Poll-Winner

On Monday, I proposed a concept: underrated breweries. It requires a little unpacking. When we consider what a "good" brewery is, we are actually applying a composite of several dimensions: quality, innovation, wow-factor, uniqueness, consistency. The dimensions are not weighted equally. If a brewery delivers innovation, big wow-factor, and uniqueness, they earn buzz. If they merely provide quality and innovation, not so much. So, breweries like Upright, Hair of the Dog, and Cascade draw a lot of attention.

I cited Laurelwood as my example of most-underrated, and it handily won in polling. The win was Facebook-aided, though they were leading in the polling from the very start. Perhaps this was a result of my comments, or perhaps because they have several locations and a lot of fans. The Facebook posting is definitely responsible for making their win a gaudy, one however.

A few commenters noted that Laurelwood is big and popular and has won a number of awards, so how could it be overrated? It's a perfect example of a brewery that delivers quality and consistency, but doesn't spend a lot of time on uniqueness, wow-factor, or innovation. In all the years I've been going, though, I've never had a beer with brewing defects, and I've rarely had a lame beer. Laurelwood's line invariably starts at a B rating and goes up. That kind of consistency is very hard to maintain, and it deserves more respect than it sometimes gets. So: respect to Laurelwood.

Now, there's another dimension to this story. The second-place brewery, which produces beer much like Laurelwood's with great consistency and quality, is tiny by comparison: Heater Allen. It's a small production brewery, located well outside the Portland Metro area, and the beers are hard to find. Yet it beat out the likes of Lompoc, Widmer, and the Lucky Lab. Impressive! I wholeheartedly endorse this result and agree with voters--Heater Allen is way undervalued, all the more because it's the only lager brewery in the state.

So, congrats to Laurelwood and Heater Allen, Oregon's most underrated breweries.


Full results, including write in votes, are below the jump:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Events, Events

Just because I'm out of town doesn't mean you can't go to these events:

Meet the Distributors Night
Friday March 11 (tomorrow)
Bottles, 5015 NE Fremont

While meeting the distributor may not draw your lust, these beers might: Upright Four aged in Ransom Spirits Gin barrels, Double Mountain Bonne Idée (saison), Oakshire Heart Shaped Box (stout)--plus others. I still haven't made it to Bottles, but I have looked in when it was closed, and even from the street I could see it had a cozy, welcoming vibe.


Lompoc Releases
Sidebar, 3901A N Williams, from 4pm
Beermongers, 1125 SE Division, from 6pm
Friday, March 11 (tomorrow)

Lots of impressive beers issuing from the Lompoc barrel room on Friday, with two locations for sampling. For St. Patrick's day, Lompoc offers Dagda, an Irish ale that was aged in bourbon barrels a year. That will be at both locations, as will the '09 vintage of Old Tavern Rat, Lompoc's barleywine. The Sidebar will also be pouring Norman Invasion, a merlot-aged biere de garde. Beermongers has Franc'ly Brewdolph (Belgian strong aged in French cabernet barrels), '08 Monster Mash Imperial Porter, and Roggen Roll, an amber rye ale.


Double Mountain Fourth Anniversary Party
8 Fourth Street, Hood River
Saturday, March 12, 2011 noon-11pm

This has all you expect, which means food, music, and 15 taps (including some "rarities from the cellar"), and this, which you may not: a Charlie Devereux-inspired strong called Two-by-Four Anniversary Ale. If you're anywhere near Hood River, you should pop in for a pint; those rarities are worth seeking out.

Inside the Brewpub, There's No Blue or Red

Although I don't always succeed, I try to keep politics off this blog. Beer is a higher calling; before the tap handles, we are all Americans. I'm pleased to see this unifying message is making it to Washington:
Move over, Sam Adams: Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) want to make it easier for craft breweries to produce more beer.

On Wednesday afternoon Kerry and Crapo introduced the Brewer’s Employment and Excise Relief (BEER) Act, which would cut taxes for microbreweries and on the production of smaller quantities of beer barrels.
Later in this article, DC-based (and Pittsburgh-raised) Poltico blogger Shira Toeplitz observes, "Idaho is not necessarily known for its beer selection, but...." Actually, Idaho has one brewery for every 80,000 citizens--one of the highest concentrations in the nation. Maybe Shira shouldn't offer opinions about the West from way out there in DC.

In any case, cheers to the Senate for joining Peter DeFazio and his bipartisan team in the House of Representatives, who have been working on similar legislation.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Russian River's Elusive Pliny the Younger

I have long wondered about Russian River's legendary Pliny the Younger, a ghost beer of such surpassing rarity that it appears only via single, tiny kegs in lucky pubs immediately thronged with beer geeks no less ecstatic than 14-year-old girls at a Justin Bieber concert.

Or maybe, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, the whole thing is a hoax perpetuated by those who don't want to admit such a beer doesn't exist, to cop to the fact that they didn't actually score a pour. Of course, what with my slow reflexes and advanced hermitism, I was never able to verify one way or another whether the beer exists and, if it does, whether it's worth a damn.

Until last night.

Fortunately, the good folks at Roscoe's were the winners in this year's PtY lottery. Located at 81st and Stark, with the beer tapping at five sharp: the stars aligned for me to do a stealth strike--in and out before the throngs could descend after work. (Congrats to Roscoe's and thanks for the head's up.) And indeed, on a day suffused with the first real light of spring, I finally managed to taste this beer, to test the hypothesis that it granted omniscience, youth, and bliss.

Russian River is justly famous for brewer Vinnie Cilurzo's funky forays into wild ales. It is likewise famous for Pliny the Elder, its imperial IPA. I have many times extolled that beer and would place it in the top five hoppy beers brewed on American soil. The beer is named, aptly, for the Roman naturalist purported to have first identified hops (disputes exist). The beer is a hop lyric, a hoppy bacchanal in a bottle. Whether or not the history is accurate, the evocation is appropriate: to even smell the intensely piny aroma is enough to provoke a hophead to shiver--never mind actually tasting the stuff.

But Pliny the Younger? He was not a naturalist and had nothing to do with hops. A man of moderation and reserve, he is famous for his letters which include passages like this, extolling the virtues of illness to tamp down passions:
Where is the sick man who is either solicited by avarice or inflamed with lust? At such a season he is neither a slave of love nor the fool of ambition; wealth he utterly disregards, and is content with ever so small a portion of it, as being upon the point of leaving even that little.... These are the supreme objects of his cares and wishes, while he resolves, if he should recover, to pass the remainder of his days in ease and tranquillity, that is, to live innocently and happily.
The beer is bigger and hoppier than Pliny the Elder, an 11% "triple IPA" that is "hopped three times more than our standard IPA, and is dry hopped four different times." Look elsewhere for moderation.

Tasting Notes
Let's just say right up front: I'm not a big fan of imperial IPAs. Whenever I taste them, I have the sense of a kind of molecular density, like they're comprised of dark matter. The flavors are so compressed you can't actually taste them individually: it's a wall of force that blasts you back in your seat. (I suppose this is exactly the quality that makes them so popular.) I actively enjoy Deschutes Hop Henge, but few other massive hop bombs.

Nevertheless, I carried to the experience an open mind: perhaps the Younger was just like the Elder, but more so. Indeed, the first impressions were good. As you can see, it's a gorgeous beer, and the aroma definitely has the Pliny family character--a bouquet of pine and juniper, woody and resinous. Ah, but then we encounter the dark matter. One can detect, under the rather violent alcoholic pop, a candy-orange sweetness and those smooth, velvety hops. Yet everything is cramped and compressed. I wondered if it might not do to be diluted a bit--which would of course turn it into Pliny the Elder.

You can only go north so far. Once you hit the pole, you're heading south again. Pliny the Elder is a perfect beer--there's no "more so" to be found. In amping everything up, Russian River heads south. (Obviously, this is a minority view, but that makes it no less correct.) Save yourself the bother and have the Elder: there, friends, lies bliss.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Blogger Update

This is going to be a down week of blogging. I've got a big project going on and I'll be out of town from Thursday to Monday. Since you've come to expect such a (cough) high level of content here, I just thought I'd let you know. Meanwhile, you could vote for Oregon's most underrated brewery if you haven't already done so.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Laurelwood and Other Underrated Breweries

Just working through a backlog of emails here, and I see that Laurelwood is planning an event to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Ten--wow! I still consider Laurelwood a relatively new brewery (which of course underscores the fact that I am a relatively old man). They're having a party in a couple weeks (March 18), and I'll try to remember to flag it beforehand.

It got me thinking. Laurelwood is one of my regular haunts. It has four things I admire in a brewery: proximity (17%), good food (9%), televisions for watching Blazers/Red Sox/Packers (13%), and reliably above-average beer with the occasional homer (61%). Over the years, I've had several beers there of such surpassing quality that they readily spring through my clogged memory of beers past. In short, I consider it easily one of the best breweries in Portland.

Strangely, you don't hear all that much about it among beer geeks. It's a family hangout, and Chad Kennedy doesn't dial up habenero-dandelion saisons or barrel-aged beers. I therefore declare it one of Beervana's Most Underrated Breweries (TM). That, in turn, makes me wonder which others are underrated, which in turn makes me think it's time for a poll.

So here goes, the "most underrated breweries" poll. The idea here is to identify those breweries that don't get their due credit for producing great beers. Media darlings like Upright and Block 15, which in other contexts would be considered underrated, here are not. As the host of the poll, I get to create the list, but I'll leave you a slot to overrule me.


Note to Andy Crouch

Having just read a very long post titled "Another Lament On The State And Future Of Beer Writing And Blogging…" (ellipses his), a thought comes to mind. Let me draw you through its train.

To this comment (highlighted to draw the reader's eye):
A few months ago I got into a fair amount of trouble for some comments I made on the subject and exercise of blogging about beer. And while I had intended the comments to relate to my own experience in the medium and not so much to that of non-professional writers, it struck a particular nerve with these bloggers. Over the last few months I have attempted to spend more time reviewing the work of citizen beer bloggers. The result, sadly, is not a more profound understanding of the medium but a reinforced confidence and parallel to my views on beer writing as a whole. I’ve simply not come across many unique or distinctive voices in this new online community of writers. It tends to be more of the same sort of repetitive and highly personalized content experienced in the wider market of beer writing available to consumers.
I offer this example (highlighting a certain pronoun):

For BA’s 50th issue anniversary, I had originally intended to write about the state of beer writing in the United States but, as often happens, I became sidetracked into a different but related topic area. As the topic corresponded in part to the state and nature of this blog, I figured this was as good a place as any to offer the thoughts.

I often find myself reading books by wine, spirits, and food writers. I have collected hundreds of them and browse a few every month to see how the other half lives, works, and writes. And in truth, despite receiving subscriptions to many of the beer magazines, I rarely do more than quickly flip through them.... [etc.]
While pondering this advice:
Beer writing is often one long, seemingly endless love song to craft brewers despite some obvious age spots appearing in the mirror.... It’s time for beer writers (both professional and enthusiasts) to take the training wheels off their pens, pencils, and keyboards.
And then conclude with this note for the writer of all the above text: irony. And there we'll leave it.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Facebook Reviews

Just a reminder that I'm doing capsule reviews over at the Facebook page for those who care to judge me harshly. Recent comments on: Laurelwood Espresso Stout, Laurelwood Vanilla Porter, Full Sail LTD 5, Redhook Mudslinger, Burnside Sweet Heat, Burnside Oatmeal Pale Ale.