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Friday, September 28, 2012

Hop Varieties Reference Guide

As has become the tradition around fresh hop season, I'm printing out a guide to the hop varieties you're likely to encounter in your travels.  There are a few things you should be aware of:
  • Fresh hops behave differently than dried hops.  The flavors and aromas described here refer to the dried hop standard--what you get with a wet hop only your nose and mouth can tell you.
  • Hop strains don't all taste the same.  Saaz grown in Yakima do not taste like Saaz grown in the Czech Republic.  Even strains grown in Yakima and the Willamette Valley taste different--never mind newer plantings that are springing up across the country.  The flavors and aromas listed below are general characteristics, not gospel.
  • Some hops were developed by hop companies and are therefore proprietary strains.  This doesn't affect their quality at all, but it's an interesting feature in the hop-growing landscape.  As hop fever becomes the norm in the US, companies are racing to produce ever more exotic and tasty varieties (many of which find their way into test batches at places like Widmer and Russian River).  I've marked the proprietary strains in blue.
  • If you read carefully, you'll notice that sometimes hops are described as being crossed with "unnamed" hops, which is just what it sounds like.  They have designations like USDA 65009-64034M (that's one of Crystal's parents).  It's different from "unknown" hop, which is more like it sounds--there is a lot of unknown parentage out there.
  • In December, Stan Hieronymus's treatise For the Love of Hops will be out and no doubt demonstrate how crude my guides have been.  But since it's not December yet, enjoy!
Ezra has a full list of the beers/hops you'll find tomorrow in Hood River.
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Aurora
  • History. A high-alpha hop sometimes called the "super Styrian," though it is actually a cross between Northern Brewer and an unknown Slovenian hop.  Developed in the 1970s.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Descriptions vary widely from spicy and earthy to tropical/pineapple. (alpha acid: 10-12% / beta acid: 4-5%. Total oils 1.1 - 1.8 ml.)

Amarillo
  • History. Amarillo was discovered growing on Virgil Gamache Farms as a wild hop cross and is a proprietary strain owned by Yakima Chief.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Described as a “super Cascade” with pronounced citrus (orange) and tropical fruit character (it can get seriously juicy). High in beta acids and a good aroma hop. (alpha acid: 8-11% / beta acid: 6-7%. Total oils 1.5-1.9 ml.)
Bravo
  • History. A super-high alpha hop with principally Zeus and Nugget parentage released by SS Steiner in 2006.
  • Flavor/Aroma. A pungent high-alpha hop that tends toward the earthy/spicy side of things (sometimes even minty)--similar to Chinook, but smoother. (alpha acid: 14-17% / beta acid: 3-5%. Total oils 1.6 - 2.4 ml.)

Brewer’s Gold
  • History. A British bittering hop developed in 1919. Both Brewer's Gold and Bullion are seedlings found wild in Manitoba. It's an English/wild Canadian cross. Many modern high alpha hops were developed from Brewer's Gold.
  • Flavor/Aroma. It has a resiny, spicy aroma/flavor with hints of black currant which some folks find objectionable. (alpha acid: 8-10% / beta acid: 3.5-4.5%. Total oils 1.6-1.9 ml.)

Bullion
  • History. There are actually two lineages of Bullion.  The first was an English hop developed in 1919 where an unknown English hop was crossed with a wild hop gathered in Manitoba.  The second was a revival of the original in WA in the 1970s through heat treatment and meristem tip culture.
  • Flavor/Aroma. A pungent and earthy/spicy hop with black currant notes.  (alpha acid: 7-13% / beta acid: 4-9%. Total oils 1.1 - 2.7 ml.) 

Cascade
  • History. The first commercial hop from the USDA-ARS breeding program, it was bred in 1956 but not released for cultivation until 1972. It was obtained by crossing an English Fuggle with a male plant, which originated from the Russian variety Serebrianka with a Fuggle male plant.
  • Flavor/Aroma. The most-used Northwest hop, with a lovely bright citrus and floral quality. (alpha acid: 4.5-7% / beta acid: 4.5-7%. Total oils 0.6-0.9 ml.)

Centennial
  • History. Centennial is an aroma-type cultivar, bred in 1974 and released in 1990. The genetic composition is 3/4 Brewers Gold, 3/32 Fuggle, 1/16 East Kent Golding, 1/32 Bavarian and 1/16 unknown. Akin to a high-alpha Cascade.
  • Flavor/Aroma. One of the classic "C" hops, along with Cascade, Chinook, and Columbus. Character is not as citrusy and fruity as Cascade and more "dank."  Some even use it for aroma as well as bittering. Clean Bitterness with floral notes. (alpha acid: 9.5-11.5% / beta acid: 3.5-4.5%. Total oils 1.5-2.5 ml.)

Citra
  • History. Another of the recent proprietary strains, Citra is a relatively high-alpha dual-use hop that can be used either for bittering or aroma. Purported parentage includes Hallertauer, American Tettnanger, and East Kent Goldings.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Lots of American citrus character, but tending toward mango and guava. (alpha acid: 11 - 13% / beta acid: 3.5 - 4.5%. Total oils 2.2-2.8 ml.)

Chinook
  • History. Chinook hops were developed in the early 1970s in Washington state by the USDA; a cross of Petham Golding and Brewer's Gold.
  • Flavor/Aroma. An herbal, smoky/earthy character that can overwhelm beers with a grating quality.  In late additions, is far cleaner and greener. (alpha acid: 12-14% / beta acid: 3-4%. Total oils 0.7-1.2 ml.) 

Columbia
  • History. A sister to Willamette developed at OSU in the 1970s, it is, like Willamette, a Fuggle descendent.  It missed stardom when A-B chose Willamette instead.  Now enjoying a revival.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Very much in the Willamette/Fuggle lineage--woody and earthy, with a lemon twist.  (alpha acid: 7-11% / beta acid: 3-5.5%. Total oils .5 - 1.6 ml.)

Columbus/Tomahawk/Zeus ("CTZ")
  • History. The breeding nursery from which these varieties were bred contained 20-30 female plants from which seeds were gathered. Exact parentage is unknown.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Hops have a very distinctive skunky/marijuana flavor and a sticky, resinous flavor. (alpha acid: 14.5 - 16.5% / beta acid: 4-5%. Total oils 2-3 ml.)


Crystal
  • History. Crystal was released 1993, developed in Corvallis a decade earlier, a cross of Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Cascade, and an unnamed hop.
  • Flavor/Aroma. A spicy, sharp, clean flavor, citric in high concentration. It is not complex like Cascade but offers a clear note when used with other hops. (alpha acid: 4-6% / beta acid: 5-6.7%. Total oils 0.8-2.1 ml.)

First Gold
  • History. A dwarf hop developed in England derived from a dwarf male and a Whitbread Golding variety.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Similar to Goldings--spicy and earthy. (alpha acid: 6.5-8.5% / beta acid: 3-4%. Total oils, 0.7-1.5 ml)

Hallertauer
  • History. Traditional German hop from Hallertau region. One of the classic “noble hops” originating in Germany’s most famous hop-growing region. Many cultivars.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Pleasant herbal character with an excellent bittering and flavoring profile. US Hallertau exhibits a mild, slightly flowery and somewhat spicy traditional German hop aroma, but "wilder."  (alpha acid: 3.5-5.5% / beta acid: 3.5-5.5%. Total oils 1.5-2.0 ml.)

Liberty
  • History. A cross of the Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, with characteristics similar to those of Mt. Hood, released in the mid-80s around the time of Mt. Hood's release.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Mild and spicy, closely akin to Mt. Hood and Hallertauer. (alpha acid: 3.5-4.5% / beta acid: 3-3.5%. Total oils 1.0-1.8 ml.)

Magnum
  • History. Bred in 1980 at the German Hop Research Institute, Magnum is a cross between American Galena and an unidentified German hop.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Mild and spicy, closely akin to Mt. Hood and Hallertauer. (alpha acid: 10-13% / beta acid: 5-7%. Total oils 2.0-3.0 ml.) 

Meridian
  • History. A newly discovered hop originally mistaken for Columbia.  (Great story here.) 
  • Flavor/Aroma. Highly aromatic, fruity and lemony.   (no stats yet available on this new strain.)


Mt. Hood
  • History. An Oregon State University product, Mt Hood was developed in 1985, a yet another cross with Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Early Green, and an unknown hop.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Mt. Hood is an aromatic variety with marked similarities to the German Hallertauer and Hersbrucker varieties. It has a refined, mild, pleasant and clean, somewhat pungent resiny/spicy aroma and provides clean bittering. A good choice for lagers. (alpha acid: 4-6% / beta acid: 5-7.5%. Total oils 1.0-1.3 ml.)

Mt. Rainier
  • History. Also an Oregon State University product, Mt Rainiers were bred from a variety of plants, including Galena, Hallertauer, Golden Cluster, Fuggles, and Landhopfen (Polish). It was released commercially in 2008 or '09.
  • Flavor/Aroma. An interesting hop that contributes a minty or anise note. (alpha acid: 7 -9.5% / beta acid: around 7%. Total oils- NA.)

Nugget
  • History. Nugget is a bittering-type cultivar, bred in 1970 from the USDA 65009 female plant and USDA 63015M. The lineage of Nugget is a majority (5/8) Brewers Gold, with Early Green, Canterbury Golding, Bavarian and an unknow hopn.
  • Flavor/Aroma. A sharply bitter hop with a pungent, heavy herbal aroma. (alpha acid: 12-14% / beta acid: 4-6%. Total oils 1.7-2.3 ml.)

Perle
  • History. Bred in Germany in 1978 from English Northern Brewer stock and an unnamed German hop.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Combines qualities of spicy English hops and rich, floral German hops. Excellent, clean bittering and aroma. (alpha acid: 6-8% / beta acid: 3 - 4%. Total oils 1 - 1.5 ml.)


Santiam
  • History. A triploid hop resulting from a cross between 1/3 German Tettnanger, 1/3 Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, and an American hop (possibly Cascade). The first seedless Tettnang-type hop. An OSU hop released in 1998.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Noble hop character, herbal, floral, but with a little American zest and wildness. (alpha acid: 5.5-7% / beta acid: 7-8.5%. Total oils 1.3 - 1.7 ml.)

Simcoe
  • History. A propriety strain bred by Yakima Chief.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Simcoe occupies that space between pine and grapefruit, and can swing either direction.  (alpha acid: 12-14% / beta acid: 4-5%. To2.0-2.5tal oils ml.)

Sterling
  • History. Sterling is an aroma cultivar, made in 1990 with parentage of half Saaz and a quarter Cascade parentage with an unknown German aroma hop, Brewers Gold, and Early Green.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Similar to Saaz in aroma and flavor. Aromas are zesty, earthy, and spicy.  (alpha acid: 4.5-5% / beta acid: 5-6%. Total oils 0.6-1.0 ml.)

Summit
  • History. Summit is a recently-released super-high-alpha hop variety. It is a dwarf variety that can be grown on a low- or regular-trellis system. Because the low trellis is not machine harvestable, these hops are picked by hand in the field.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Strongly pronounced orange/ tangerine aroma and flavor, though it can taste oniony to some palates. (alpha acid: 17-19% / beta acid: 4% - 6%. Total oils 1.5 - 2.5 ml.)

Tardif De Bourgogne
  • History.  Unknown Alsatian French lineage--possibly a landrace species dating back to at least the 1970s.
  • Flavor/Aroma. No information. (alpha acid: 3-5.5% / beta acid: 3-5.5%. Total oils .5 - .7 ml.)


Tettnanger
  • History.  One of the classic noble variety of hops, originally a landrace species from the Tettnang hop-growing region in Germany.  The parent hop of a family of related species as well as numerous more recent crosses.  
  • Flavor/Aroma. Classically smooth hop with delicate floral and spice notes.  (alpha acid: 3-6% / beta acid: 3-5%. Total oils .4 - 1.1 ml.) 

Willamette
  • History. An older US-bred hop with Fuggles parentage.
  • Flavor/Aroma. A classic earthy/spicy hop with great versatility. (alpha acid: 4-6% / beta acid: 3.5% - 4.5%. Total oils 1 - 1.5 ml.)

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Information assembled from the following sources:  SS Steiner Yakima Chief, Freshops,  Global Hops, USA Hops, IndieHops

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Twenty Five Years of Full Sailing

Although craft brewing dates back to the 1970s, the years before 1985 saw relatively few new arrivals.  In 1985, the country had just 105 breweries total (five in Oregon)--a few more than it had in 1980.  In 1990, though, it jumped to 286.  It was during that period that Full Sail came into being--officially, a quarter century ago today.  It followed the defunct Cartright, McMenamins, BridgePort, Widmer, the McMenamins, and Portland Brewing (and of course, Henry Weinhard).  I tend to recall that being a time of amazing growth in the industry, but even by the end of the decade, only Oregon Trail (also 25 this year), Deschutes, Rogue, and Wild River would be in existence.  Full Sail, the first Oregon micro outside Portland, was one of the key founders of what would become Beervana.

We'll trot through the highlights in a moment, but since I'm an elderly gentleman with actual memory of these times (I actually started sneaking into McMenamins the same year Full Sail was founded), I thought I'd pull up the wayback machine.  It is difficult in a time when people know specific hop varietals to imagine a time when people didn't know the difference between lagers and ales.  That time was 1987.  Breweries had the unenviable task of selling people a product they were unfamiliar with.  Even the idea of "ale" required a moment of song and dance.

In my little world, Full Sail was the first brewery to embrace the hop.  It is difficult to imagine it now, but Amber seemed like rocket fuel.  One of the theories about craft beer was that it couldn't be too aggressive or too weird.  Ambers had the virtue of a sweetish caramel backbone to soothe the fears of the uninitiated, and they were a big deal.  Full Sail's, though, was not a sweet bomb--it had quite vivid hopping.  That alone illustrates how different things were.  I recall sitting in the back yard of a friend drinking Full Sails, one after another, marveling at how good our fortune was.  A little later on, the brewery started making a beer called Equinox ESB, which was almost iridescent green in its hoppiness.  (In my early days as a beer writer, I called it Oregon's best hoppy ale.)

Here's another odd fact: in 1987, none of the Oregon breweries were bottling their beer.  Full Sail had the distinction of being the first--not with Amber, but a beer called Golden Ale.  (Breweriana geeks take note.)  Full Sail took occupancy of the old Diamond Fruit cannery (abandoned 15 years earlier) and installed their brewery, including a wicked little bottling line.  That little speedster did six bottles a minute--but it was the second fastest line in the state. The brewery was a rather optimistic 15-barrel set-up, though, and this positioned the brewery to grow.

After Golden Ale came Imperial Porter and Wassail (interestingly, Jubelale was one of Deschutes' first beers, too--Oregonians are drawn to winter beers).  Amber, the brewery's fourth beer, didn't come until 1989, but it debuted with a splash.  Not only was it an instant hit in Oregon, it won the gold in that year's GABF.  In that era from the mid-80s to the mid-90s--call it BIPA, before IPA)--two styles of beer dominated sales, hefeweizen and amber.

(The story of American amber ale is worthy of its own post, but for now, let this thumbnail suffice.  In a geography marked out by colors--golden, pale, brown, black--amber was an obvious invention.  The beer itself is really just a pale ale, but in the US, the two styles forked.  Pales are lighter bodied and hoppier, ambers thicker and sweeter.  Pales highlight hops, ambers find a balance point closer to the malt, but always with characteristic American hopping.  You could say American amber is really just a strong bitter, but because of its density and those hops, the two styles don't taste all that much alike.)

James Emmerson and Irene Firmat (courtesy Full Sail)
In the 90s, Full Sail's fortunes swung wildly.  It was one of the mid-sized breweries that dropped a lot of money into a huge expansion, building a 210-barrel brewhouse in 1995.  That was at the moment the market was oversaturated with beer, lots of it made badly by opportunists trying to cash in on "microbrew," and Full Sail stumbled.  In the late 1990s, Full Sail survived a takeover bid by Vijay Mallya, the Indian beer magnate, and became employee-owned.  Those were grim times not just for Full Sail, but everyone in craft brewing.  Watching Mallya circle the company like a vulture for months seemed like a metaphor for the industry. Of course, Full Sail persevered and managed to restructure as an employee-owned company.  That, too, seemed metaphoric, and soon Full Sail and the industry would be humming again.

Other highlights:
  • In 1998, following a visit by Macallan's master distiller, Full Sail began their barrel-aging program.  For those of foggy memory, that was quite early.
  • In 1999, Full Sail brewed their first fresh hop ale (also very early).
  • In 2005, the brewery released Session Lager, a pretty radical move for a craft brewery--but a prescient anticipation of where the market was headed.  They added Session Black in 2009.
  • In 2006, Full Sail continued its lager experimentation with the LTD series.  (For old timers like me who remember the brewery's early days, the lager development was really unexpected.)
  • Began the Brewer's Share program in 2008, again anticipating the interest in seasonals and offbeat beers.
  • Installed a mash filter in 2010.  This may be insider baseball to some, but for brewing nerds, it's pretty amazing.  Read about it here.

The mash filter.
Breweries are, in the aggregate, very good corporate citizens.  Full Sail has always been a leader in that sphere.  They're one of the greenest breweries around and have won several awards for their sustainability.  Thanks in part to the mash filter, they now only use 2.5 gallons of water for every gallon of beer they make, well below the industry standard of about 7 to 1.  They're not only employee-owned, but also regularly cited as one of the best places to work.  It is part of the nature of craft breweries to be generous and collegial with one another, but Full Sail goes even one step beyond that.  When head brewer Matt Swihart decided to open Double Mountain literally a stone's throw from Full Sail, he was encouraged and supported by his erstwhile employer.  I think it's no coincidence that Hood River (pop: 7200) has eight breweries in or nearby the town.  Another alum, Jason Kahler, recently opened Solera in Parkdale just down the road.

I've been rattling on for quite awhile here, so I'll stop.  Feel free to add your own memories, additions, and thoughts in the comments.  And if you're near the Horse Brass or in Hood River tonight, consider joining one of the celebrations.  They'll be kicking things off at 5pm in the Tasting Room in Hood River, and have a big line-up of beers, including the new anniversary doppelbock, at the Brass starting at 6pm.

John Harris joined Full Sail in '92 and left this year.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

We Are All Children of Pattinson and Cornell Now

By my count, the latest book in the Brewers Publication styles series, IPA by Mitch Steele, is 39% historical material.  The pages are festooned with familiar graphs--well, familiar to anyone who makes this place a regular stop.  In case any wankers like me were going to get all OCB wiki on them, Brewers Publications made sure this quote was placed in the press release: 

This will be an excellent addition to the literature on IPA.
Martyn Cornell, author of Amber, Gold, & Black: The History of Britain's Great Beers
And you find 29 separate entries under various Hodgson-related topics, which will put certain minds at ease.  Martyn and Ron have permanently changed the way we write, talk, and think about beer.  Not bad for a couple of bloggers.  (Blogs will save us.)

Willamette Week's Big Fail

Many newspapers and magazines have an institutional voice, and although I worked for Willamette Week for three years I never got theirs. Media criticism is tiresome, but WW's epic "President of Beers" project serves as such a rich metaphor that I have to wade in. 

First, the set-up:
Willamette Week acquired a craft beer from all 50 states to figure out which state has the best flagship beer. We then assembled a team of 12 beer tasters who blind tasted each beer in random order, then independently rated them on a scale of 1-100. We averaged the scores to elect the President of Beers. 
How did we determine the flagship? Mostly, we picked the largest brewery in the state’s signature brew. Sometimes we went with the best-known beer from the state or a beer that represents the spirit of the state. These aren’t the “best” craft beers from each state—they’re just a little taste of the state in liquid form.
WW is now busy reporting the results, from the worst beers to the best.  (Full disclosure: I was invited to be on the panel of tasters but wasn't free the day they did it.  Further disclosure--I used to write a beer column for WW, but back in forgotten mists of time.)  The idea is actually intriguing--and certainly worthy enough topic for driving sales (or clicks).  I was drawn in enough to start reading.  Of course, I mistakenly began by failing to get the point, though, foolishly engaging the selection criteria. For example, I noticed that:
  • Yuengling, PA's choice, isn't a craft brewery;
  • Boston Beer, the MA selection, is not brewed in MA;
  • It's just harsh and wrong to saddle WA with Mack and Jack's.
I could have gone on and on (in addition to the states I mentioned, TX, ME, and MO were all bizarre picks--and we're only through 28 states) , but I threw those as examples to WW's Martin Cizmar, who responded to my complaints this way: "I honestly think any 'serious' discussion about what beer was picked is pretty stupid, unless someone is arguing that there is some other beer that really defines the people and place better. It's pretty simple: We picked beers that tell a state's story in beer form. It's supposed to be fun."

So this is exactly where I don't get WW.  On the one hand, it's just supposed to be for fun (read: no criticism), but on the other, they seem to be taking it pretty seriously.  (Spoiler alert: they're even flying the winners to Oregon, which my keen powers of induction tell me means Oregon is not the winning state.)  They went to a hell of a lot of trouble to track down beers from every state, but apparently no trouble at all to figure out which beers they should be trying to track down.  But the thing I really don't get is the extreme hostile/defensive prose stylings that I guess are supposed to track as comedy.  Such as this comment on the state of Georgia:
The very contradictory state of Georgia, home to OutKast, the Indigo Girls, Chick-fil-A, Michael Stipe, Tyler Perry, the Duke boys, and a bunch of redneck motherfuckers. [bold mine]
WW has always struck me as that high school striver a notch below the sanguinely popular who works far too hard to look like he's not trying.  Unlike Portland's other alt weekly, the Mercury, which joyfully embraces D&D and old people, WW is too scared of looking uncool to embrace anything someone else might think is uncool.  Instead, it picks on the weak and overcompensates with extreme statements (potty language!) like the one above.  It's painful to watch. 

I will throw a bone to John Locanthi, who wrote some of the entries.  (So did the ever good Yaeger, but he needs none of my praise.)  He hits Fat Tire right on the nose:
This crystal clear, pale amber ale comes with a sweet, malty aroma. The deceptively light appearance masks a full-bodied beer that coats your throat and mouth. Fat Tire doesn’t have a strong flavor—it isn’t particularly hoppy, and only vaguely sweet—but it lingers, long overstaying its welcome.
I've seen no buzz about the series, which is another element of the fail, but if you've had a gander, your thoughts? 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Roundup of Items You Will Find Fascinating

I've been working on my headlines--did that one grab your attention?  (The product is the same old crap, but exciting headlines is an objective improvement.)  I have the firm intention to do a bit more blogging on some of these, but best I apprise you of them in the meantime.

1.  Full Sail's 25th
Full Sail was one of the pioneers of Oregon craft brewing, and they celebrate their quarter century on Thursday:
It's been 25 years since we brewed up our first batch of beer and to celebrate we have crafted “25,” a pale doppelbock to celebrate this special occasion: the brewery’s 25th anniversary. The Full Sail crew invites you to join us in toasting to “25” in Hood River on September 27, 2012 at our Tasting Room &; Pub at 5:00pm. At 6:00pm the celebration will continue with a toast and tapping of “25” and a showcase of Full Sail beers at Portland’s iconic Horse Brass Pub, a place that helped nurture and grow craft beer and Full Sail for the last 25 years.
I will definitely be blogging about this one, but put the event on your calendar.

2.  Capturing the Craft
John Cizmas and Larry Kozial are traveling the West Coast and stopping in on dozens of breweries (two at current count) in a project to look at the lives of brewers, both in word and picture.  "The goal of our project wasn't to visit the 'best' breweries or the largest breweries. It was to capture what it means to these people to brew beer and be a part of the beer community."  Follow the link to see more.

3.  President of Beer
Willamette Week is doing a running series on the "flagship beers" of every state, which they blind-tasted with a group of Portland beer luminaries.  More to come, but if you haven't seen it, surf over and orient yourself.  It is, if nothing else, great blog fodder.

4.  New Maltings in the Evergreen State
Cool
Beer is only as good as the ingredients that compose it, and Skagit Valley Malting LLC says those ingredients should come from right here at home. The new malting company is working with grain researchers to develop barley suited to the Northwest and looks to be who microbreweries will turn to for premium beer malt. A test batch receiving hops, courtesy of Andrew Ziegler (above) Friday at the Kneading Conference West in Mount Vernon, brought together many of the parties involved the company's creation. "The barley was grown in the valley by John Roozen. It was created by the breeding program at Oregon State University, tested by Washington State University researchers in Mount Vernon, and malted by us. And the hops came from Bayview," said company founder Wayne Carpenter. "Every ingredient came from here," Carpenter said. "It's kind of cool." The malting company is scheduled to start moving equipment into a 11,745-square-foot facility at the Port of Skagit's Bayview Business Park on Dec. 1. Carpenter said the facility should start to fill large orders of malt in the first quarter of next year.
5.  Ezrablogging with a Bill Night Chaser
Alan might not call it journalism, but I call it news: Ezra on the new fresh hop pils from BridgePort and the new brewery, Sky High, in Corvallis over at the New School.  Also, Bill's begun to swing back into blogging action, no doubt aroused by the aroma of fresh hops in the air.  Also note the latest Portland Beer Price Index info is live.  At some point, Bill may get tired of doing the PBPI and we will all be the poorer.  I have found it immensely interesting.  For example, last month prices seem to be spiking after a long plateau, but this month, they've dipped again.  (If you look at the chart, it looks like prices jump during summer.)

Monday, September 24, 2012

And Yet I Do Think It Matters If Monks Brew the Beer

To bring this miniseries on blind tasting to a conclusion (see here and here for earlier installments), let us reverse directions.  One thing about a blind tasting: all beer is equal in the glass.  No million dollar ad budgets, no beer geek hype, no pretty labels to seduce us.  We know what our tongues tell us.  And so a beer made by the monks at Westvleteren (one of the monasteries where monks have a hand in the brewing) gets no special treatment when compared against, say, a large commercial American brewery.  The virtue of the blind tasting is that it exposes hidden biases you use in evaluating a beer that are unrelated to the information your senses provide.  Most people have a firm conviction that they are judging only what their senses hand them, but blind tastings demonstrate the contrary.

Does it then follow that we should ignore extraneous information about a brewer?  If beer X tastes the same as beer Y, does it matter that X was brewed by monks in a monastery and that Y was made in a large beer factory in St Louis, Missouri?  I would argue that there is more to a beer than its sensory components and that knowing something about a beer can make it more enjoyable.  Pleasure and enjoyment is made of a whole lot more than nerve endings, so why should we be suspicious of enjoying beer for reasons beyond what our senses tell us?

Leave the monks aside.  Take instead one of my favorite Belgian breweries, Brasserie Dupont.  It may very well be possible to make a beer as good as Dupont's, with depth and rusticity and unique character.  But Dupont is a brewery greater than the contents of its bottles.  The long-time family owners have only very reluctantly updated any equipment or process.  Its mash tun, dating to 1844, lasted until 2008.  The water still comes from the well and the kettle is still fired by an open flame.  The family had a maltings on site until 1986.  The yeast dates to the 1920s.  For Olivier Dedeycker, the current master brewer, saison isn't just a style of beer the brewery happens to make.  It is a tradition that goes back generations.  When I crack a bottle of Dupont, I can't separate the unique flavors from my knowledge of this remarkable history.  It is one of the thinnest of threads that links us to rustic brewing, and the beer has the quality of living history.  If in a blind tasting I found a different saison preferable (and I think I would prefer Boulevard's Tank 7 along purely sensory lines--though that's a testable hypothesis!), it would in no way diminish my appreciation of this beer.

Other beers that I can't separate from their story include Sierra Nevada Pale, which only has thirty odd years of history but tastes like the blueprint of the American craft brewing scene.  What was a premonition in 1979 inside Ken Grossman's head has become a multibillion dollar market.  Fuller's, which keeps alive the tradition of parti-gyle brewing and makes the first beers I understood as authentically English.  Or here's an interesting one--while I should revere Pilsner Urquell for its history, it's actually plucky Budějovický Budvar that captures my attention.  I believe I enjoy it better than Urquell, but I also admire it as a company more, so how much is that coloring my opinion?  (Drinking a glass is a bit of a "screw you" to A-B, and that enhances my pleasure.)  I'll actually be visiting both breweries next month, so it will be interesting to see how first-hand knowledge of the breweries change my views.

Unique among the beasts, we have brains able to consider abstraction. More than that, our brains pretty much fuse abstraction and sensory information.  This software/hardware fusion isn't a bug, it's a feature.  Take our sense of smell.  As human brains evolved, the part that processed smells was located in the prefrontal cortex--the region associated with the highest cognitive functions. Humans have fewer smell receptors than dogs, for example, but we have gigantic processors. The neurobiologist Gordon Shepherd (Neurogastronomy) believes this makes humans unique in our ability to create and process the sense of flavor. 

There are other factors associated with our sense of flavor and the enjoyment we get from it: buried emotional memories, sometimes unlocked by scents, mood, satiety, and influences of thought, memory, and visual cues.  The judgment we make about a beer is a mixing bowl into which we pour all these elements, some noticed, others deeply subconscious.  The mixture that is our judgment seems purely rational and measured--the 91 points out of a 100 we give to a beer.  It's not and can't be--we are not scientific instruments.  (We're actually far more subtle and complex.) 

All of which brings me back to this place of "yes, but."  Blind tastings are fantastic for helping reduce the number of inputs so you're dealing with few subconscious factors in a beer tasting.  But: why would anyone want to reduce the joy of a good beer to just the flavor components?  One thing I didn't mention about that tasting we did a couple weeks ago.  After we learned the identity of the beers, we still had portions of each bottle left over.  We went back, now armed with the knowledge our senses gave us, and sampled the beers again.  Our brains processed and calculated and the mixing bowl spun.  We continued to discuss the beers, and as we drank more of them our appreciation deepened.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Further Lessons of Blind Tastings

This blog post may have the appearance of navel-gazing, but then again, I'm being redundant.  ("Your blog actually has some merit."  It's the "some" we emphasize around here.)  Although for the most part this little blog lives in a quite corner of the internet, untroubled by waves of attention or traffic, it is actually connected to the world wide web, and from time to time one of the posts go viral.  My Westvleteren versus the world post of Monday was an example.  Traffic rocketed to nearly 400% on Monday and doubled the next three days, buoyed by retweets and links from Reddit and Beerpulse

This was surprising to me, but perhaps it shouldn't have been.  One thing about the beer geek community is that we take ratings very seriously.  This is beautifully American and democratic.  We assign to the commons the task of assessing quality and ratings are prima facie evidence of a beer's merit.  Actually, I think everyone has an uneasy relationship to ratings--we know they have value somewhere in between the 0%-100% range, and fight about where to place the figure.  The debate is between those who highball it and those who lowball it.  So naturally, the comments (here, on Beerpulse and on Reddit) tended to follow that debate.  On the one hand:
You mean people's perceptions of beer often matters more than how much it actually tastes?  Entirely unsurprising. I think the essential thing to take away from that article is that there really isn't that much difference between great beers at a certain level - Westy 12 isn't honestly that much better than something you can get for less than fifteen bucks at any decent liquor store. But obtaining Westvleteren 12 is so much more of an experience for people that it colors their enjoyment.  (via Reddit)

And on the other:
Way too much conjecture in your post. So because you don't like the style and YOU think it's too heavy, etc. (which was stated matter-of-factly, rather than as an opinion) than it's overrated by all those other people? And your explanation is that they like these beers because they are enamored by the association with monks? Weak. Like the guy above says, why should anyone put any stock in the results of your "panel" or treat them as at all representative of other beer drinkers? 
While I obviously align myself with the first (insightful), the second one expresses the view of a majority or large minority of beer geeks.  S/he's arguing, in essence, that taste is objective.  An outlier like me can slag a beer, but who cares what outliers think? We know that the beer is good because thousands of people have agreed it is so.  To suggest the ratings are wrong is to raise the disconcerting specter of a world in which "best" isn't empirical.  Some people really don't want to live in that world.

I don't want to take a side in the debate.  If you take either argument too far, you end up in absurdville.  What I would instead like to say is that the way we think about the question differs profoundly when we're confronted with a half-dozen unmarked glasses of beer.  Every time I do it, I enjoy the destabilizing sensation of not trusting what I think I know, and then learning something different than I thought I knew.  It's a tonic to lassitude and cynicism that comes from being a beer geek, and in an hour's time, a reminder of why I became a beer geek in the first place.  But maybe those lessons aren't transferable. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

First Fresh Hop of the Season

My mom is in town this week with a couple friends, and last night I took the gang to Deschutes.  It was, when we arrived, a glorious 80-degree evening and put was suffused with golden light.  I was trying to give them a good Portlandy-beery sense of the city, and all the uncontrollable factors were really working with me.  And that was before I saw they had Fresh Hop Mirror Pond on tap.

That beer is just spectacular--and also a case study in the evanescence of the genre.  Deschutes bottles FHMP, and it's a pleasant beer by the time you get it home from the grocery store and finally pull it out of your fridge.  A bit more delicate than regular Mirror Pond, maybe, but not a lot different.  On tap, spanking fresh at the pub, though, and it's a revelation.  The beer is nothing but Cascades, so all the aromas that seem unCascadey--mint and hay, a touch of licorice?, lemon--come from the freshness.  Based on the unctuous decadence of the body it feels (not tastes, feels) like the beer is swimming in hop oils.  A mental image pops into mind of a kettle of beer so choked with hops it's green as a pool of absinthe.

The funny thing is, I'm not a huge fresh hop fan--not like some people.  But I gotta tell you, done right, there's almost nothing as rare and wonderful as a just-picked, fresh-from-the-tap, wet hop beer.  You can taste the life.

Incidentally, the Hops Fest out in Hood River is about ten days away (9/29), and by the looks of the taplist, it's going to be good.  More on that soon--but put it on your calendars.  It's one of the good ones.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Westvleteren Versus the Competition -- In a Blind Tasting

About a week ago, I got an intriguing email from Evan Cohan, the mastermind behind Beercycling (more on that in a bit).  He and a select group of invitees would be gathering to do a blind tasting of eight (!) strong dark abbey ales.  Among these would be the famous Westvleteren 12, a beer that is regularly rated the best beer in the world.  How would it stack up in our tasting?

[Nerdly digression.  Strong dark abbey ales are typically grouped in a category called quadrupel by American beer geeks.  There is an intuitive way in which this makes sense, owing to the existence of dubbels, tripels, and even--though far more rarely--enkel (single).  These are monastic designations, and monastic beers are ancient, and La Trappe is a monastery that makes a quadrupel.  So surely the style is ancient.  It sort of is.  Strong, dark beers go back a very long time, particularly in Flanders.  The name, however, was invented by La Trappe in 1991, long after other very strong abbey ales already in production.  I have no problem calling them quads as a class, but it's worth knowing the history.  Especially if you happen to encounter one of those people who does have a problem with the name.)

We met at Bazi Bierbrasserie on a balmy Thursday night and settled in for the tasting.  Evan had concocted a two-step blinding process so that everyone could taste the beers and not know which was which--though we did know in advance seven of the eight beers we were trying (he hid from us that one would be a domestic quad).  We tasted:
  • Westvleteren 12 [BeerAdvocate rating 100]
  • Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue) [95]
  • Rochefort 10 [99]
  • La Trappe Quadrupel (Trappist) [91]
  • Straffe Hendrik Quad [89]
  • Saint Bernardus 12 [99]
  • Urthel Samaranth [90]
  • Ovila Quad [87]
There were, as with all blind tastings, miraculous discoveries.  Of the twelve tasters, nine preferred three beers (three each called them the best): Rochefort 10, Straffe Hendrik, and Ovila (my choice).  Only one selected Westvleteren (and that one, to her shock, was Sally--who was nonplussed when we tried it at the monastery).  When I tried beer #5, I was taken aback by how mediocre it was.  I did ask if anyone liked it and got lots of "no, it's lame" in response.  I can't say the group was unanimous on the point, though we may have been.  That beer?  Chimay.


For what it's worth, there were three standouts according to my tasting notes.  Of the Ovila I noted "Layered yeast character--phenols and spice.  A dry beer with leather, almost oaky.  Light body, but boozy; more balanced than some of the sweeter examples."  I was doing quickie ratings so I could sort them later and gave it five stars.  Two beers got four starts.  Urthel, a brewery that hasn't always impressed me, did that night.  I wrote: "English barley wine.  Less yeast character than others, more body.  Boozy aroma and HUGE booze kick.  Rich, nutty malt."  Finally, the original quad, La Trappe's, also impressed me.  "Very phenolic, rich raisin/date sweetness.  Surprising amount of roast.  Pepper and beets.  Sharp alcohol, medium body."  I expected to admire St Bernardus--I love the brewery's beers, but it just missed that top group, getting 3 1/2 stars.

Strong dark abbey ales have never been my favorite style.  They usually have less character than their little brothers and are pretty sweet and heavy.  Tasting eight in a row confirmed this view.  Yet as a group, only imperial stouts get anywhere near the same kind of love from beer geeks.  I think the romantic idea of monks cooking up pots of heavy beer wins people over.  You can certainly see this in the way they rate them.  Westvleteren is currently rated second among all beers on BeerAdvocate and is RateBeer's highest rated.  Yet in a blind test, only one person thought it was the best of just eight beers in its group.  Two of the three highest rated beers in our group get relatively "meh" scores by BeerAdvocates--but they are not boosted by the luster of monks.  Finally, and I think this is most revealing, Chimay--a "world-class" beer on BeerAdvocate--was demonstrably the least interesting beer at our table.  Without the monkish luster, no love.


This is exactly why blind tastings are so valuable and revealing.  I rarely flog my Tasting Toolkit, but the moment is irresistible.  You don't need it to conduct blind tastings, but it is pretty damn handy.  And you should be doing blind tastings.  I encouraged Evan to continue this and maybe even expand it, and I hope he does.  We had a fabulous time, tasted fabulous beer, and walked away much the wiser.

_______________

Speaking of Evan and plugging, let me put in an additional plug for Beercycling.  The concept is right there in the title.  He curates two trips, one in Belgium, one in the Netherlands, and guides 12 people on a bike tour of breweries.  Biking is apparently the way to do Belgium--I literally had a half dozen people ask if I would be doing any biking when I went.  But the real value here is that throughout the ten-day trip, you tour a bunch of breweries.  Every beer geek who loves Belgium really needs to go on a tour.  Americans can make exceptional beer, even exceptional Belgian-style beer.  But what they can't do is show you their ancient breweries and equipment and talk about decades of family brewing.  You can feel the history of brewing when you tour the breweries of Belgium, and it will change the way you think about beer.  So go have a look if it sounds like it's up your alley.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Gerrymandered! Craft Beer Is No Proxy for Political Leanings

Philly's Joe Sixpack:
Remarkably, every one of the 25 most densely brewed states voted for Obama in 2008. Those blue states account for 335 electoral votes - much more than the 270 needed for victory. 
He includes a very professional graph to show how it all shakes out.  The thing is, the metric is pretty bizarre:  "It ranks the states by brewery density - the number of breweries per 1,000 square miles."  It's based on geography, not people, so states are penalized for not having breweries in the middle of pasture land and mountains.  He analyzes: 
What's really important here is the type of beer voters are drinking.  Most American breweries today are microbreweries or so-called craft breweries - small businesses that make handcrafted batches of premium-priced beer. There are about 2,100 of them nationwide, according to the Brewers Association, the highest number since the 1800s....

I know I'll get some argument here, but I'd say that it takes a certain progressive, open-minded attitude - certainly not fundamentalist, conservative values - to even begin drinking craft beer. That's why the Deep South is so far behind the curve in the microbrewing revolution.
Yes, indeed you shall get an argument.  Look, we don't care about square miles.  Sagebrush doesn't drink beer.  If you were really trying to find out how people and breweries related, you'd look at breweries per capita.  And why is this metric uninteresting?  Because Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska are top-seven per-capita states, and states like New York and New Jersey are in the bowels of the ranking.  It is true that the southern states are the least-breweried, but they're also the states where new breweries are cropping up the most.

But really, the indefensible part is that business about the "progressive attitude."  Unless he's talking about progressive Guernseys, I assume he is talking about people.  And the people of the great states of Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming drink a whole lot of craft-brewed beer.

(On the off chance anyone reads this as an endorsement of either party, it's probably important for me to offer the full disclosure that I'm pretty much a communist.  But only on matters of politics, not beer.)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Regulating Liquor: Axing the Government Liquor Store

Part three in The Oregonian's series on Oregon's liquor laws comes just at the moment we learn a little more about what's happening in Washington state, which ended the practice of government-run liquor stores.  The effect?
Liquor sales in Washington are up – way up. That’s according to new figures out Monday on the period after the state’s new privatization law took effect. They show July’s retail sales increased 21 percent over the previous year. And that’s despite higher prices on spirits.
Graphic: Wall Street Journal.
What has been surprising is that, along with the spike in consumption (not surprising--the old "control" model was engineered to suppress availability) Washington has also seen a spike in prices.  That's because, along with privatizing liquor stores, the state also jacked up taxes:
Even before privatization, Washington had some of the nation's highest liquor taxes and fees, at $26.70 a gallon. The national average is $7.02 a gallon, said the Tax Foundation, a research group. Washington state's levies included government stores' 52% markup, a 21% liquor sales tax and a $3.77-per-liter excise tax.

And while those sales and excise taxes remain under privatization, new fees further raised prices: Liquor distributors must pay an additional 10% levy, and retailers another 17%. Distributors also are on the hook for any shortfall to the state if they don't generate $150 million from the 10% fee by April.  (Wall Street Journal)
Washington knew that increasing the points of sale from 328 to 1500 stores would increase sales.  Both to try to put a cap on how much booze people bought and to raise revenues, the state's new taxes will blunt demand (or, as that Wall Street Journal article documents, drive customers to Oregon).  There were other consequences, some intended, some not.

The interests who forwarded Washington's law were big-box retailers led by Costco.  Distributors were the big losers in Washington's law, which allows Costco and other retailers to buy directly from distillers.  But small retailers, who are barred from selling liquor (Costco wrote the law so only stores of 10,000 square feet could sell liquor) were also losers.  Small distillers and vintners may also be losers--big retailers can now use their might to drive volume discounts, which hurt smaller companies that have less pricing flexibility.  There may be other consequences, too, like a further shift away from bars to home consumption, which would make publicans losers as well.

In one jarring move, Washington dramatically shifted the business of booze in Washington.  Voters had a lot of assumptions about what the law would do: they thought it would make booze more accessible--but not too accessible; they thought it would be good for family wineries and restaurants, that it would lower liquor prices, improve crime prevention, and raise new revenues for public services.  The early record is mixed, but it's clear things aren't playing out exactly the way voters intended.

Oregon leads the nation in artisanal beer, wine, and spirits.  We have an archaic liquor control model that has a contradictory mission--selling booze on the one hand while trying to control it on the other.  And we also have lots of big players who stand to make--or lose--a lot of money based on how the laws are structured.  I'd like to see Oregon tune-up the OLCC and potentially get out of the business of selling booze.  On the other hand, it was from within the current environment that our artisanal culture emerged and flourished.  Looking north to Washington, I wonder how small distilleries and wineries will manage.  The key is balancing the interest of producers with retailers (big and little, grocery store and bar).  No wonder no one has managed a complete overhaul in 78 years--it's complex, confusing business.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Regulating Liquor: the Role of Distributor

Part two in the Oregonian's series on Oregon's liquor laws looks at the little-understood middleman in the equation, the distributor.  Most of this article revolves around wine distribution--about which I'm completely clueless--but does touch on the larger system.  Author Harry Esteve rounds up some of the more interesting aspects of the laws:
  • Retailers must pay cash when they receive alcohol, which gives distributors a distinct advantage: they "buy big volumes on credit, then sell it for cash, giving them weeks of float with other people's money."
  • Beer distributors have exclusive territories (eliminating competition), which they can bequeath to their heirs (remember Cindy McCain?).
  •  Retailers can't pick up alcohol from producers--it has to be distributed--and they can't even shift inventory between stores.  That also has to be distributed.
  • Vintners have to ship their wines to Salem for storage until they're taxed and "released" for sale.  Even wine sold at a winery must go to Salem and them come back.
Other relevant facts:
  • "A few decades ago, the number of distributors hovered around 20,000 nationally, with fewer than 1,000 wineries. Today, the United States boasts some 7,000 wineries, while the number of distributors has dwindled to fewer than 500."
  • Distributors have an impressive lobbying infrastructure to protect their status (and their man in Oregon, Paul Romain, is one of Salem's most powerful lobbyists).
Esteve paints a stark portrait, concluding with a quote by grocery lobbyist John LiLorenzo to wrap everything up:  "These are Byzantine rules that have a purpose.  The purpose is to guarantee that a privileged group always makes money, just by being there. That's what this is all about."

I think it's worthwhile to add a caveat or fifteen here.  If we were to start from scratch, would we grant distributors so much power in the alcohol equation?  Probably not.  Some of the laws seem unnecessarily protectionist or baroque--that system of shipping wines to sit in Salem before they can be sold at a winery is astounding.  But there are a few reasons we would keep the distributor in the picture.

Not every country uses distributors.  In England, breweries can own their own pubs and distribute to them.  This has its own unintended consequences.  The business model for breweries pens out if they own their own pubs, but it's much harder if they're selling to pub chains or grocery stores.  Little guys struggle there.  And they have their own tax issues.  In the museum at Burton upon Trent, they show the office of the tax collector that was housed inside the Bass Brewery.  The law was so complex they required a government employee on site at all times.  How do you think that would go down in America?

But beyond that, distributors can help small producers.  It wasn't always the case.  Early in the microbrewing era, small breweries had a hard time getting distributors to carry their product because retailers didn't understand or want it.  But now that equation has flipped.  Even very small breweries find distribution.  There's a reason even little hole-in-the-wall convenience stores have obscure local micros--distributors.  The state of Oregon has also been good to update its rules to adapt to the changing market.  Now breweries can self-distribute if they brew below a certain amount--a figure raised to 5,000 barrels a couple sessions back.  (Hats off to Darron Welch at Pelican who helped shepherd that along.)

When I first started writing about beer in the late 90s, small breweries had an ambivalent relationship to distributors.  At the time, distribution was a lot harder to get, and little guys like Hair of the Dog were not getting to bigger stores.  Now the opposite is true.  Little guys, who couldn't compete in price wars and quantity discounts--as is now happening in Washington--are happy to have distributors getting their product to market. (I know there are people in the industry who read this blog, and if you'd like to further illuminate the issue, I'd welcome on- or off-the-record comments.)

I doubt many Oregonians think there's nothing to fix in the state's liquor laws.  It's probably time to tinker with the laws governing distribution.  But as with any complex system, the issues aren't black and white.

Monday, September 10, 2012

How Should Oregon Regulate Alcohol?

The Oregonian kicked off an excellent three-part series yesterday on the thicket of regulations that govern the distribution, taxation, and sale of liquor in Oregon.  Every state has its own strange thicket of regulations, all built on certain goals and assumptions, and until very recently, Oregon's seemed to be untouchable.  But then a funny thing happened: the people of Washington state decided to modernize their laws, bringing them more in line with California, and Oregon is now the West Coast's odd man of booze.

The whole series is going to be worth a read, but today I want to tackle some of the issues raised (and not raised) in part one.  Political writer Harry Esteve penned the series, and he used three main informants about how the system works--A to Z Winery in Dundee, Galaxy wine distributor, and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.  (Esteve has written about the OLCC before, and it's worth noting that A to Z has long been an OLCC foe.)  Esteve does a fantastic job of illuminating why a bottle of wine costs as much as it does.  It's not because the winery (or brewery) is getting rich.  It's because so many people get a piece of the action along the way:
Each time it's handled, the price of a bottle goes up. The storage warehouse gets its cut. The state gets its cut. Distributors tack on anywhere from 15 percent to as much as 40 percent or more. And retailers tack on their margin.  On a recent delivery trip, Galaxy applied its markup to a bottle of A to Z pinot gris and then sold it to Safeway for $8.99. Safeway put it on sale for $11.99, a 33 percent markup. 

This is a theme he address more fully in today's column (which I'll comment on tomorrow).  The paper also published a great infographic that breaks down the cost of a bottle of wine by percentage:
  • 2% - Taxes
  • 4% - Bottles, corks, and labels
  • 5% - Winery profit
  • 7% - Grapes
  • 9% - Wine production
  • 18% - Sales, marketing, administration, shipping
  • 25% - Distributor markup
  • 30% - Retailer markup
All of this is fantastic info, and info I'm pretty sure is completely lost on the average consumer when she sees a $30 bottle of Oregon pinot noir made just down the road.   Where Esteve falls down a bit on the job, though, is in buying the OLCC's gilded rationale for its own existence:
Yet it's also one of a dwindling number of states where the government exerts near dictatorial control over an alcohol system designed 80 years ago to prevent the likes of Al Capone from horning in on the trade....

"What's interesting is the OLCC has done such a good job of preventing the abuses that came up during Prohibition," [Cassandra SkinnerLopata, OLCC chair] says. Other countries, and even some other states, continue to see health problems from "adulterated" liquor, including blindness and paralysis. Counterfeit brand-name liquor continues to be a problem, she says. 
 Well, yes, in 1933, Oregon was worried about bootlegging.  But that's not what it was principally worried about.  Here's the full rationale from the 1934 Liquor Control Act that established our system of liquor laws:
(1) The Liquor Control Act shall be liberally construed so as:
(a) To prevent the recurrence of abuses associated with saloons or resorts for the consumption of alcoholic beverages.
(b) To eliminate the evils of unlicensed and unlawful manufacture, selling and disposing of such beverages and to promote temperance in the use and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
(c) To protect the safety, welfare, health, peace and morals of the people of the state.
(2) Consistent with subsection (1) of this section, it is the policy of this state to encourage the development of all Oregon industry.
I have bolded the relevant portions to illustrate the point: the state of Oregon may have been compelled by the 19th amendment to allow liquor sales, but they damn sure weren't going to make it easy.  The OLCC may now see their role as one entirely about law enforcement, but the very clear foundation of the statute is to gum up the production and sale of booze.  Oregon passed its own version of Prohibition in 1916--years before the country did it--and we were still in a mood for restricting alcohol.

This is relevant history, because the OLCC defends its existence on the dubious notion that they're preventing criminality.  But as citizens, we have a right to point out that that's not really why the laws were drafted in the first place.  They were drafted to stifle alcohol sales, and for 78 years they've been doing a bang-up job.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Friday Flick: Hop Harvest

Since we have a minor theme of hop harvesting going on, here are a couple of videos for your perusal.  First up, a promotional vid from the Oregon Hops Commission.  It's a bit long, but actually quite edifying if you can spare 8 1/2 minutes. (The music is weird and there is a minute and a half of blank tape at the end--but it's still worth a look, I swear.):




If you can't spare ten minutes, here's a shorter video by Ritch Marvin that covers the same material in 3 minutes. Ritch, incidentally, won best in show at this year's Oregon State Fair homebrew contest. He picked up the hardware for a Berliner Weisse.  Congrats to Ritch both for making a superior beer and having the good taste to brew a Berliner Weisse (something I fear is beyond my modest brewing talent).

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Lupulin Nouveau Season Arrives in Oregon

Sometimes things right in front of your nose are harder to see.  In Oregon and Washington, the celebration of fresh hops has, dare I say it, almost become routine. It's anything but:
The blogger with hops.
Oregon is home to 120 brewing companies, and nearly 100 fresh hop beers will be made during the hop harvest....  Four Fresh Hop Fests are scheduled across the state in September and October as part of the Oregon Bounty culinary tourism program. Each Fresh Hop Fest will feature original limited release fresh hop beers produced by OBG members. Fresh hop beers are only produced during the small window of Oregon’s hop harvest, which typically takes place from mid-August to mid-September. These once-a-year beers are ready for consumption in September and October and are packed with unique flavors that simply aren’t available the rest of the year. 
Breweries of the Pacific Northwest weren't the first to produce fresh hop beers--that distinction goes, probably*, to England's Wadworth Brewery--but we are unique in the world for turning harvest season into a celebration of a new style of beer.  Despite the abundance of hop fields in England, only a dozen or so breweries have followed Wadworth's lead and make fresh hop beers there.  New Zealand may add a Southern Hemisphere season to the practice, but they still trail us by a few years.  In no other countries do breweries seem to have an interest in it.

Beyond the Beaver and Evergreen states, almost nobody knows what's going on here.  The beers don't travel well, so you pretty much have to drink them in situ, in that small window when they're super fresh.  The season arrives after summer, when the tourists are heading home to put the kids in school and head back to work.

Even among casual beer fans in Oregon, the concept isn't perfectly clear.  In order to understand fresh hopping, you have to know that regular beer is made with dry hops.  Then you have to try to explain how fresh hops affect beer--which nobody actually understands--and, oh, never mind: just taste it.  It's that experience that convinces, and for Oregonians, the experience is right at hand.  But it's much harder to communicate that to people who live further afield.

So as with so much, we in the Pacific Northwest may have to just relish our bounty, knowing that it will go unappreciated by most of the rest of the country.  All of which is to say: don't forget to relish.  The rest of the world has no idea how tasty this beer is.

_______________
*A now-forgotten brewery in the NW may actually have been first.  Michael Jackson wrote an article about Wadworth in September 1993 for the Independent, adding this curious line: "I can think of only one other brewery that has tried making such a 'biere nouvelle,' and that is in the far West of the United States."

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Mass Versus Elite Criticism

On the internet, we are all critics.  Want to know which restaurant to go to?  Yelp it.  Which beer?  BeerAdvocate can tell you.  We have developed a culture of reward, where preference isn't even binary--you can "like" something, but not dislike it.  We may infer opprobrium, but we can't express it.  Worse, we have subtly shifted what it means to offer critiques of something.  In crowdsourcing our criticism, we submit to a subtle form of mass appeal: the top-rated imperial stout on BeerAdvocate gets a 4.61 rating; the top helles just 4.11.  If you rely on raters of the site, you will be steered away from the unpopular styles, like the popular kids speaking ill of the unpopular. 

In the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn thinks deeply about artistic criticism.
For all criticism is based on that equation: KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.) Like any other kind of writing, criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for, and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste. In the end, the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in—a new TV series, a movie, an opera or ballet or book—hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.
I think this is right.  Sites like Yelp and BeerAdvocate have real utility.  As someone who relies on Yelp in unfamiliar cities, I've managed to nearly eliminate wandering into bad restaurants.  But this isn't the same as criticism.  When I first started investigating beer seriously, I picked up a book by Michael Jackson, the first and still most eloquent writer on the subject of beer.   Mendelsohn, in talking about the role of the critic, captures it nicely, and explains why I loved Jackson:
By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way.
As readers, we agree to at least entertain the opinion of critics, which has at least the flavor of submission.  But a good critic will give her readers the tools to disagree.  This is one of the central virtues of the sole critic--the elite critic--over mass criticism found online.  A critic may give a bad review, but by showing her work, the reader can make a secondary judgment.  With an aggregate score, you're left with the gnawing worry: but what if it's really good, just not popular.  After all, they canceled Firefly after just one season and Two and a Half Men is still on the air.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Spare a Toast for the Keg-Haulers

Credit: Virtual Tourist
Today we celebrate that most-beleaguered figure in the American economy, the worker.  Labor Day emerged in the 1880s out of the conflict of the gilded age, that 40-year period following the Civil War marked by massive wealth inequality and the growing concept of economic justice.  Labor Day was originally an overtly political concept, where newly empowered workers asserted their political muscle.  

It was an ugly time.  The police often acted as troops for the robber barons and industrialists, beating, imprisoning, and blacklisting striking workers.  This was the era of the infamous Haymarket Square riot.  Ultimately, the industrialists would win, and labor would have to wait decades to amass power anew. One of the workers' small victories was Labor Day.  Oregon was the first state to make it official in 1887, and Congress made it a national holiday in 1894.

Craft brewing isn't a major engine of employment in the US, but it's a valuable one.  According to stats collected by the Brewers Association, the industry directly employs over 100,000 workers (5650 of them work in Oregon). The Brewers Almanac, which calculates jobs a little differently--and includes large brewery and craft brewery jobs--puts the overall figure for brewery employment at a million.  And then you have subsidiary jobs like distributors, retailers, and hangers on like me, all of who indirectly make a living off suds.

Not all of those jobs are lucrative, and a lot of them involve very hard work.  Even brewers, who occupy the most glamorous roles, have spent thousands of hours scrubbing and toting steel, usually beginning at indecent hours and sometimes in rainforest-like heat and humidity.  I'm not sure how the economists and bureaucrats categorize brewing, but it is essentially industrial manufacturing, and the men and women who work for breweries have those coveted jobs in an ever-declining segment.  The money they earn is taxed in America, spent in America, and supports further economic activity in America--all very good things. 

Labor Day gives us an opportunity to look beyond the IBUs and see the hard, sweaty work that keeps the taps flowing.  People like me tend to talk a lot more about the creative process behind beer and the aesthetics of the final project, but every time I visit a brewery, my actual experience is how hard the work is and how energetic and lively the people doing it are.  So pints up to the brewery workers of America--you work very hard, and I can't thank you enough for it.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

White House Homebrew (With Video)

And at last, we have the recipe. On Wednesday, I asked whether it would be beer-geekorific or not, and I think we must conclude "not."  (They're extract brews and pretty pedestrian.)  There are actually two versions, a wheat and a porter, and both look a great deal like the first two recipes of any homebrewery.  But actually, before I reveal them, you should watch the following video, which also has the awe and excitement that mark the first time brewing a beer.  The American Homebrewers Association should immediately begin using it in promotions:




And now to the main event, the recipes.  Homebrewers may comment about where they are impressed or appalled, and what advice they might give to the White House about stepping it up to the next level.

White House Honey Porter

Ingredients
  • 2 (3.3 lb) cans light unhopped malt extract
  • 3/4 lb Munich Malt (cracked)
  • 1 lb crystal 20 malt (cracked)
  • 6 oz black malt (cracked)
  • 3 oz chocolate malt (cracked)
  • 1 lb White House Honey
  • 10 HBUs bittering hops
  • 1/2 oz Hallertaur Aroma hops
  • 1 pkg Nottingham dry yeast
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar for bottling
Directions
  1. In a 6 qt pot, add grains to 2.25 qts of 168˚ water. Mix well to bring temp down to 155˚. Steep on stovetop at 155˚ for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, bring 2 gallons of water to 165˚ in a 12 qt pot. Place strainer over, then pour and spoon all the grains and liquid in. Rinse with 2 gallons of 165˚ water. Let liquid drain through. Discard the grains and bring the liquid to a boil. Set aside.
  2. Add the 2 cans of malt extract and honey into the pot. Stir well.
  3. Boil for an hour. Add half of the bittering hops at the 15 minute mark, the other half at 30 minute mark, then the aroma hops at the 60 minute mark.
  4. Set aside and let stand for 15 minutes.
  5. Place 2 gallons of chilled water into the primary fermenter and add the hot wort into it. Top with more water to total 5 gallons if necessary. Place into an ice bath to cool down to 70-80˚.
  6. Activate dry yeast in 1 cup of sterilized water at 75-90˚ for fifteen minutes. Pitch yeast into the fermenter. Fill airlock halfway with water. Ferment at room temp (64-68˚) for 3-4 days.
  7. Siphon over to a secondary glass fermenter for another 4-7 days.
  8. To bottle, make a priming syrup on the stove with 1 cup sterile water and 3/4 cup priming sugar, bring to a boil for five minutes. Pour the mixture into an empty bottling bucket. Siphon the beer from the fermenter over it. Distribute priming sugar evenly. Siphon into bottles and cap. Let sit for 1-2 weeks at 75˚.

White House Honey Ale

Ingredients
  • 2 (3.3 lb) cans light malt extract
  • 1 lb light dried malt extract
  • 12 oz crushed amber crystal malt
  • 8 oz Bisquit Malt
  • 1 lb White House Honey
  • 1 1/2 oz Kent Goldings Hop Pellets
  • 1 1/2 oz Fuggles Hop pellets
  • 2 tsp gypsum
  • 1 pkg Windsor dry ale yeast
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar for priming
Directions
  1. In an 12 qt pot, steep the grains in a hop bag in 1 1/2 gallons of sterile water at 155 degrees for half an hour. Remove the grains.
  2. Add the 2 cans of the malt extract and the dried extract and bring to a boil.
  3. For the first flavoring, add the 1 1/2 oz Kent Goldings and 2 tsp of gypsum. Boil for 45 minutes.
  4. For the second flavoring, add the 1/2 oz Fuggles hop pellets at the last minute of the boil.
  5. Add the honey and boil for 5 more minutes.
  6. Add 2 gallons chilled sterile water into the primary fermenter and add the hot wort into it. Top with more water to total 5 gallons. There is no need to strain.
  7. Pitch yeast when wort temperature is between 70-80˚. Fill airlock halfway with water.
  8. Ferment at 68-72˚ for about seven days.
  9. Rack to a secondary fermenter after five days and ferment for 14 more days.
  10. To bottle, dissolve the corn sugar into 2 pints of boiling water for 15 minutes. Pour the mixture into an empty bottling bucket. Siphon the beer from the fermenter over it. Distribute priming sugar evenly. Siphon into bottles and cap. Let sit for 2 to 3 weeks at 75˚.