Blogs will save us.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Future of Blogging

It occurred to me over the weekend that January marked my ten-year anniversary of blogging.  I'm spending this week considering the changes I've seen in that epoch of technology. (And I'm almost done with this indulgence!)


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Time was the world was starved enough for beer content that the blogger merely had to write a post about the most recent beer he'd tasted.  Readers!  Back in the halcyon days of about 2009--beer blogging was trailing trends in other subjects--bloggers sorted themselves out among type: the reviewer, the gossip, the tracker-of-events, the homebrewer, the garbage scow of random info (my niche).  In order to get a sense of all this stuff, you needed to traffic several blogs.  If you were interested in national trends, you trafficked a few more.


The need for these sources died out a year or two back, as the internet got better at organizing information through social media.  There are now tons of ways to get info--Facebook and Twitter, and sites like Reddit, BeerPulse, and BeerAdvocate.  There's no reason to seek out info about events or reviews, no point in visiting sites that just repeat information.  We all now have ways of sorting our social media to receive the information we want.  Three or four years ago, there were dozens of very active beer blogs around the country (and a good 15 in Oregon).  Many have been abandoned or have gone nearly still.  As a blogger, I get why: what's the point of spending time on a blog people have abandoned for Twitter?


There is one very large exception to this rule: the expert blog.  Sites like those hosted by Ron Pattinson, Martyn Cornell, and Stan Hieronymus are more than relevant.  They are in many ways the backbone of the entire social media superstructure.  Social media feeds on content, and there's more than enough of pseudo-content we all despise.  Modern online media has inclined in this direction where they produce listicles, slide shows, and random "what's-the-best-IPA"-type pieces.  These drive traffic, but they are obvious padding.  What we really want to see are meaty topics discussed deeply.  Experts can put these out, but obviously not in the volume the internet requires.  Collected together they do a better job.


What I've found is that every post I write generates clicks.  But some are almost self-defeating.  If you sucker people into a click for a fiber-free post often enough, people quit clicking.  If, however, you try to make sure the content is original, unusual, and interesting, people will read.*  Even this post, which I know is going to be interesting to only 2.3% of the people who start reading it, is at the very least not the kind of thing you read everywhere.  I've never been interesting in a focused way like Martyn and Ron, but among the detritus of a garbage scow, you do find the occasional gem.

Blogs will survive, but over time a higher percentage of them will be written by experts who depend on massive, social-media generated traffic when they put up one of their relatively infrequent (but fascinating!) posts.  For new bloggers, it is both a warning and an invitation.  If you have special insight and information on a topic, social media will help you find readers, probably quickly.  If you are writing more general stuff from a layman's perspective, the sledding may a lot tougher than it was even a few years ago.




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*There is the question of audience.  Beervana, for example, had an almost exclusively local readership.  People wanted to read about Northwest beer.  Then I started writing a book about the beers of the world and quit covering Oregon beer very closely, which I believe drove some people away.  German readers might care what Hans-Peter Drexler and Matthias Trum have to say, but fewer Oregonians do, so my posts about Europe, while in many cases not uninteresting, were not well-directed to a local audience.  I do hope to get back to more local content in a few months.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bud Watering Down Its Beer?

Post updated; see below.

In the bizarre news of the day, try this on for size:
Credit: Willy Volk
AB InBev’s St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch Cos. routinely adds extra water to its finished products to produce malt beverages with significantly less alcohol content than displayed on its labels, violating state statutes on consumer protection, according to a complaint filed yesterday in federal court in Philadelphia. Similar lawsuits were filed in federal courts in New Jersey and San Francisco. 
Of course, the plaintiffs have the goods on St. Louis, right?  Ummm...
It’s unclear in the complaints how the plaintiffs determined the alcohol content was less than stated. [Attorney for the plaintiffs Josh] Boxer said the complaints are based on information from former workers at some of the company’s 13 U.S. breweries.

“On information and belief this is a corporate policy of AB to intentionally short the alcohol content,” Boxer said in a phone interview. “We believe this is a corporate policy that comes from AB InBev and trickles down.” 
This seems totally preposterous.  The upside to such a venture is a very minimal cost saving, the downside could be brand-jeopardizing.  Furthermore, a lab can determine who's right in a snap.  That the plaintiffs haven't done this seriously undermines their credibility.  But here's what it really sounds like to me: high-gravity brewing.  That's when a brewery makes a high-gravity wort and later adds water to bring the alcohol content to a particular level.  It's common at big breweries (though I haven't toured the A-B plant in St Louis yet--I hope to!--and don't know whether they use the technique).  I have been wrong so many times I shouldn't make statements like this, but: I'd put a lot of money on Anheuser-Busch to win this in a laugher.

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Update.  With a hat tip to Stan, let me direct your attention to Alcohol Beverage Testing News, an independent lab run by Gary Spedding--a former director of laboratories at Siebel--who's been doing those labs I wondered about.  Because of A-B's famously rigorous standards, Spedding has used Bud as his control beer.  He writes:
Also for calibrating our alcohol instruments Bud goes in after calibration to see hopefully 5.00% abv. pretty much on the nose. Not so recently. Now as low as 4.94% after slipping from 4.98% earlier in the year.
and
The Bloomberg article talks of other acquired brand changes for ABInBev and we have also noticed this with other classic beers in the giants stable. The article may have hit the nail or the King fair and square on the head. They relied on sensory perceptions of patrons but analytical parameters can confirm their suspicions. I think, from our early findings that it already has. 
I love how I my hubris was almost instantly exposed, but I love even more how it shows the value of blogging, even in the benighted era of Twitter dominion.  Thanks, Gary!

The Blogger Versus Hive Mind

It occurred to me over the weekend that January marked my ten-year anniversary of blogging.  I'm spending this week considering the changes I've seen in that epoch of technology.

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Okay, imagine if you will, a time in which information was managed by corporate gatekeepers.  In this distant dystopia (Y2K), there were lots of things in the world we didn't know anything about.  Let me rock your world.  As the new millennium dawned, we staggered forth without the light of Wikipedia.  Imagine that.  Never mind being able to Yelp the best Thai restaurant within 2 miles of our present location--we couldn't find out totally basic information, like what that rule is called when someone inappropriately invokes Hitler as an analogy for a minor crime (Godwin's law).  We were truly lost souls.

Into this world, the blogger swaggered like a little god.  She was the usurper, the destroyer of gatekeeping.  She challenged the conventional wisdom of how things were covered and perhaps more importantly, which things were covered.  This was the gatekeeper's secret, hidden power. If a newspaper decided to cover subject X in their paper, the dictates of dead-tree media meant they couldn't devote column-space to Y.  The blogger reported subject Y.  Equally as radically, the blogger was an integrationist.  Gatekeepers never had to show their work; they reported the news in that clinical Voice of God style, pretending to inhabit a Platonic plane of pure objectivity.  Bloggers, on the other hand, linked stuff.  They did the same things reporters did (the good ones, anyway), but they allowed the reader to check their sources in real time.  They were responsive to readers and used them to create dialogue--another radical departure from the MSM's purely didactic model.

For about two years, from the start of 2003 through the end of 2004, blogging upended the way we thought about information.  We went from an "experts" model to a "citizens" model.  This wasn't only a media phenomenon, experts were really under the gun then--think of the failures leading to 9/11 and the debacle of the Iraq war was unfolding in front of us.  The experts who had access to information had failed us (both media and government), and there was a battle for control over who should control information.  Bloggers by dint of not being experts had a kind of instant credibility, and for a short time, everyone was really keen to hear what they had to say. 

(Although my lens is heavily tinted by the colors of politics--the blogging I was doing at the time--this dynamic was happening in every realm.  Citizen bloggers, with new-fangled digital cameras, were becoming instant paparazzi and challenging the entertainment press; sports bloggers were covering teams with the kind of obsessiveness the fans recognized and enjoyed, etc and so on.) 

In the mid-aughts, bloggers reached detente with the MSM and actually became mainstream.  I remember getting my first press invite to a beer event in 2006.  It helped that I had previously worked for the MSM, but pretty quickly bloggers across the city were treated as regular media.  And why not?  As information moved from dead trees to the internet, stories about a brewery were accessed by a different gatekeeper, Google, and it didn't matter if the story appeared on beervana.blogspot.com or nytimes.com--Google would find it. The distinction between blogging and reporting, by about 2008, was so small that it almost became an academic point.*

Where things really took a turn away from the citizen blogger was by the late aughts, as software developers began to harness the power of hive mind.  The problem with information had inverted itself; no longer was their too little information, guarded by a few powerful gatekeepers, now there was way, way too much information.  Developers figured out how to turn that into a wonderful tool for crowdsourcing.  One of the constant questions in an information-saturated environment is "which?"  Which car is best, which new band is best, which restaurant is best?  Bloggers lost their privileged places as ratings sites took over.  We had demonstrated that citizens' information is as valuable as experts', and thereby made ourselves (mostly) obsolete.  Most bloggers don't mess with reviews anymore, and this is why.  (I have been tasting a whole bunch of new beers and will buck convention soon with some reviews.) 

People now like to read things in very short, digestible bursts and they do it on sites like Reddit and Twitter.  They scan a stream of voices, looking for the one that interests them.  Well over half my traffic now comes from referrals from these kinds of sites.  The habit of slowly going from blog to blog looking to see if there's anything new there--what kind of nonsense is that?  The blogger will tweet and Facebook when she's got new content for me to see.  Or I'll see it in RSS. 

Tomorrow I'll discuss what kinds of blogs remain valuable and why.  But for today, I wanted to leave you with the sense of what it's like blogging in 2013 as opposed to 2003.  The world has changed, the way we consume information has changed, and media has changed.  Blogs have not changed--not much, anyway.  Trying to elbow your way through the cacophony is a completely different challenge than trying to muscle your way past a gatekeeper.  My traffic is as good as it ever was, but in the flattening of the information earth, there is a diminution that happens to us all.  We are little nodes now, pixel flashes that are but one tiny piece of an immense picture of information we consume daily.  It's a really, really different world.  More on that world tomorrow. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go tweet this post so you can find it. 
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*The consequences of all these changes, profound, would make a great book.  I'll spare you.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Ten Years Blogging

I was chatting with Sally over the weekend about Reddit and the future of media when it occurred to me that I started my first blog over ten years ago, on January 10, 2003.  In a catastrophic oversight, I missed an opportunity for an timely bout of navel-gazing.  Instead, I'll indulge in a tardy bout instead.

It's a little hard to date the birth of blogs.  The form itself is hard to define.  People have been keeping journals since scratches-on-the-cave-wall days, and the internet has been around since the 1980s.  The blog as a medium of communication, where a writer used it to talk to people she didn't know, goes back to the late 1990s and really got going in the early aughts.  The first time I encountered the word "blog" was in Doonesbury in 2002.  But what really got me interested was a Paul Krugman column from December 2002 when he cited a blog in writing about the Trent Lott incident. It was absolutely amazing--a columnist for the New York Times quoting a random dude who'd been harping on the Senate Majority Leader.  Random dude!

In the history of print, the guy who controlled the press (or radio towers) controlled the dialogue.  The internet, just about a decade old at that point, made it possible for individuals to begin publishing for free.  Starting a blog didn't mean you immediately had the world hanging on your every word--but they could hang, if you were interesting enough.  In 2002, the media landscape was little changed from the 1950s.  You had newspapers, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather on the nightly news (Fox existed, but it wasn't yet Fox), radio, and weekly magazines like Time.  We had no YouTube, Twitter, or Reddit, RSS existed, but nobody knew how to use it.  Google was just a search engine.  Blogs were the Neanderthals of communications media--they were the first expression of the "democratization" of the internet people had been touting for years.

My first three blogs were political (Notes on the Atrocities and the cleverly-named Oregon Blog in 2003 and BlueOregon in 2004).  I started this blog in January 2006.  Over the years, blogs have changed--the subject of a future post in my indulgent week of metablogging--and they have diminished greatly in importance.  Co-opted by the media giants they once threatened, blogs run by random dudes are now in quick decline.  Politics and beer are actually decent places to keep a blog going--constant fodder--but we've long passed the golden era.

I, however, am far from bitter.  When I started blogging, I was doing research at PSU in a field I wasn't trained in.  It was a great job, but not a great fit--writing has always been more in my wheelhouse.  For years and years, friends mocked my bizarre hobby (rightfully) and wondered why I could possibly be wasting my time doing it.  The real answer is that the blog format abets obsessives like Alan and I, whom (speaking for myself), would either be blogging or sending out massive, unsolicited emails to friends.  It gave us something to do.  In my case, it also helped when I was pitching my book--when the editor at Workman saw Beervana, she thought I might be a good fit for their idea to do a Beer Bible.  A win for obsession!

But really, ten years on, I blog because I can.  I hope to be around another ten, riding the blog train into complete obsolescence.  I hope you keep reading.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What Can We Learn From a Ten-Year Vertical?

On Sunday, Bill Night treated a flock of roving beer geeks to a ten-year vertical of Deschutes Jubelale--a period corresponding to his arrival in the Beaver State.  As Bill learned, NW winter warmers aren't ideal for long-term aging.  At less than 7%, they don't hold up like imperial stouts and barley wines.  But as anyone who has begun a home-cellaring project also learns, eventually you tend to let beers languish too long, and then you have a basement full of suspect old beer.  Turning his cache into a teaching moment, Bill thought it would be interesting to taste the decade of beer in one titanic vertical.

Aging Beer
So what happens to aging beer?  According to research on the subject (pdf), beer contains hundreds of molecules that

"originate from the raw materials (water, malt, hops, adjuncts) and the wort production, fermentation and maturation processes. However, the constituents of freshly bottled beer are not in chemical equilibrium. Thermodynamically, a bottle of beer is a closed system and will thus strive to reach a status of minimal energy and maximal entropy. Consequently, molecules are subjected to many reactions during storage, which eventually determine the type of the aging characteristics of beer."
Oxygen is the main agent of change, and it reacts with various compounds in the beer to produce different compounds over time.  From a sensory perspective, this means that bitterness declines as sweetness increases and there is a slow formation of caramel or burned-sugar flavors.  Oxidation, the flavor of paper or cardboard (wet paper and cardboard in the more offensive cases), and staling also steadily increase, though the rate depends on oxygen.  If the beer is bottle-conditioned, you may get autolysis (when yeast cells rupture), which tastes like soy, meat, or brine.  Another flavor, which researchers used to call "ribes"--it refers to black currant leaves, but means "catty"--flourishes for a time and then diminishes.  Beer picks up some wonderful flavors too--the point of aging them.  These are rich sherry- or port-like rounded flavors, a sense of luxurious depth, along with dark fruit notes.  My guess is that different types of beers go through entirely different processes depending on the type and amount of hops, dark malts, yeast cells, alcohol, and so on, but here's a classic diagram of what happens to light lager.



The Vertical
Generally speaking, I was surprised at how well the Jubels held up.  The first five years had the characteristic flavors of age--they were stale, sometimes slightly metallic (I noted "blood" for the '06), and a bit faded.  The aroma was uniformly good--sweet and malty, inviting.  The malt flavors survived as well, and in the '05 I did get a touch of sherry.  There was a minor quality of rough bitterness, and I wondered if this might be from hop's beta acids, which actually increase in bitterness with oxidation.

The '04 vintage illustrated one important fact of aging beer: the cellar-keeper is wholly at the mercy of the bottles, which may have been mishandled somewhere along the line.  That vintage was undrinkable.  It smelled fine, but had a briny, fishy flavor that was as offensive as it sounds.  Did those bottles get to hot at some point?  Was there a problem when they were bottled, or with the actual batch of beer at the brewery?  There are tons of factors that can affect aging beer.  When I was at Full Sail last year, Jamie Emmerson gave me some bottles of stout from the brewery's stash, and he warned that it was always a crapshoot.  Even tiny variances telescoped out over years can make a big difference.  That only one year was bad speaks volumes about Deschutes' quality control.

The latter half decade was in  surprisingly fine fettle.  I was picking up hops in the aroma of each, and they mostly seemed green and piney.  Interestingly, where the first five years were perfectly bright, the '08 and '09 were murky, and the '10, '11, and '12 were bright but had little speckles, perfectly held in even suspension.  They were about the same in '10 and '11, and about half as many in the '12.  I'd love to hear your theories on what those were. 

Bill had us rate our faves but I don't know that he tallied them.  Deschutes retooled the Jubel recipe a few years back, and that was evident in the more roasty recent vintages (another danger of vertical flights).  I think I liked the '08 the best, though the '10, which had the most hopping left, was also nice.  But the real value was observing the chemistry and seeing how the beers changed over time.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

American Weissbier - A Lost Style Ripe for Reclamation

Okay beer fans, riddle me this: what was the key ingredient in 19th century American weissbier?  You'll have to dig out your old copy of Wahl and Henius's American Handy-Book of American Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades* (1902) to learn the answer.  Give up?  Here it is:
The material employed and method of mashing is usually quite different [from German methods].  Wheat malt is sometimes, but not generally, used.  Instead [corn] grits are employed, usually to the amount of about 30%."

Wahl and Henius, however, were not impressed.  The beer was supposed to be like a Berliner weisse, but "undoubtedly the American article could be much improved by employing the materials as well as the mashing method in vogue in German Weiss beer breweries, as grits will under no circumstances yield those albuminoids that give Weiss beer its character, as wheat malt does.  Certainly there seems no reason why American Weiss beer brewers should not be able to procure a good wheat malt."

They continue, noting that it's brewed to resemble lager, but "a brilliant Weiss beer does not seem to catch the fancy of the consumers, who are accustomed to the cloudy, lively article of Berlin fame."
I think this overlooked style was unnecessarily consigned to a hasty grave.  Who out there is willing to reclaim this important part of American brewing history? 

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*Aside from the joy I get at reading "American handy-book," it should be noted that, at over 1200 pages, it might have been handy, but I can't imagine it was light

Monday, February 18, 2013

What's Time Cost?

Again, my busy-ness prevents proper blogging (although this may actually turn out to be an above-par week, so stay tuned), but I pick up a meme in the air.  Max discusses the issue from the cost side:
The beer in question has been aged 4 years in whisky casks. Though 4 years wouldn't have raised any eyebrows in the past, nowadays it is something very much out of the ordinary (with the probable exception of some Lambics), and this alone is enough to this beer quite interesting, at least on paper. Shame about the price, though; roughly, the equivalent of 750CZK for a 330ml bottle. Pfff!
It caught my eye because yesterday I was sitting in Beermongers and the very same idea came up.  Someone noted that a large bottle of Rodenbach (750 ml) went for nine bucks. This is a beer for which 2/3s of the bottle is aged two years in wooden vats before it's shipped across an ocean and a continent.  But domestic beer--some of it not even aged!--routinely goes for $12 now.  And the approach to $20 is not far in the future.  Which takes us to this story (hat tip to a regular reader):
Boulder police have arrested a former Avery Brewing Company employee suspected of stealing more than $15,000 in rare beers.  
Police recovered more than 570 bottles of beer at Dickinson's Fort Collins home, with some of the bottles estimated to be worth anywhere from $200 to $300 a bottle.
Okay first of all: $300?   I'd give you $300 for an original bottle of Pilsner Urquell or, say, one filled with Apple stock certificates, but beyond that, someone's paying at least 10x too much for a beer.  (Fermentedly Challenged has more on beer theft if it's a topic you wish to pursue.)  

I will add this, though.  Let's say a barrel of beer is worth $100 to a brewery.  Of that barrel, let's say the ingredients cost an average of $10.  (These are fake figures.)  Now, let's say it takes the brewery three weeks to get the barrel from the grain mill to the bottle--that's the standard economics of a bottle of ale.  A second barrel of beer costs the same amount to make, but it's barrel-aged.  It spends an additional 18 months ripening in the brewery.  How much is that time worth?  This is one element I think people sometimes fail to include in their cost-calculators.  Because in the time it takes to get that 18-month-old beer to market, the brewery will have been able to use the same equipment to put 26 barrels of regular ale to market.  The wood, the tank space, the refrigerant--all those things add money to a bottle of aged beer.

What's it worth?  Whatever the customer will pay.  What's it cost?  Probably more than the average drinker guesses.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Time To Go A'Zwickeling

On Saturday (tomorrow), one of the more distinctive events in the annual beer calendar visits Oregon: Zwickelmania.  It is the day when you are invited to mosey around the innards of breweries, partaking here and there of beer pulled straight from the tank (zwickel [v]: when a brewer sprays himself with beer from a conditioning tank in an attempt to fill a small container with a few ounces of fresh, fresh beer).  If you love beer, you should try to get inside as many breweries as you can, because for some reason it is fantastically entertaining inside them.  Ask questions, too, for the answers are always interesting and usually surprising.  And no beer tastes better than beer straight from a tank.

Full Schedule here.

Also on Saturday, Double Mountain celebrates its sixth birthday [whoops, that's in March, sorry!] and Fort George celebrates stouts with the Festival of the Dark Arts.

Uerige's Sebastian "Basti" Degen zwickeling some
Sticke alt in Düsseldorf

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A New IPA Glass From Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head

Update.  I started out the post with "facts."  Alan McLeod did some digging and exposes the fraud behind this whole sorry affair.  The good thing is that I no longer have to feel bad about hating these glasses.
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First the facts, ma'am:
In April, the Bavarian glassmaker Spiegelau will release the world’s first glass designed specifically for India Pale Ales, whose hops-heavy brewing process gives them an especially pungent, fruity aroma. Designed in collaboration with Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada--two craft brewers known for their IPAs--the unusual glass features wave-like ridges toward the bottom that help bring out the beer’s flavor. “As you’re tilting your glass against your face, it creates more resistance to the liquid, which pushes more carbon dioxide gas and hop aromatics out of the liquid and into the balloon-shaped chamber of the upper glass,” explains Dogfish founder and CEO Sam Calagione.
It's the brainstorm of Spiegelau's Matt Rutkowski, whose thinking on glassware produced what can only be described as the ugliest champagne glass on earth--to which the IPA glass bears a family resemblance.  Well, never mind, tasting panelists at both Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada independently agreed that of 12 different designs, this one was the best.  The new glass also earns kudos from MBAA's Karl Ockert as a flavor-maximizer. 

Thoughts
There are those who believe glassware affects a beer's flavor and those who don't.  I am in the believer camp.  I have experienced an aroma-deadening effect in the shaker pint as compared to an identical beer poured into a tulip pint.  (The English nonic pint is fine, but not as nice as the tulip.)  Beer glasses can affect the behavior of a beer, as when a hyper-carbonated Belgian is poured into a goblet, allowing the head to dissipate as the beer enters the glass, or a weiss vase, which encourages a lovely, thick head.  Furthermore, we know that flavor is actually the play of complex inputs in the mouth and nose, including nerves in the mouth that sense pressure and viscosity, retronasal aroma, and the brute sense of taste from the taste buds.  To the extent glassware can affect aroma and texture, it will affect perception of flavor.

I am also a huge fan of branding.  Even if glassware had no effect on flavor, I'd love the differences in vessels--the tulip glasses that evoke Belgian beer, the steins of Germany, and hell, even our terrible shaker pints, which are so classically American.   Dimpled mugs, pokals, pilsner flutes--they all suggest a beer and a place.  Wonderful.

But this IPA glass fails on one of the most important dimensions--appearance.  It's just embarrassing.  I have really tried to love the Sam Adams glass, another engineered vessel that uses every trick in the book to boost flavor.  Like the IPA glass, though, it's faintly ridiculous.  There's a kind of technical fussiness, blind to the realities of aesthetics, that results in really visual absurdity. The IPA glass looks like a creation of Dr. Seuss--and not in a good way.  Curves are nice, but these are childish--they don't flow elegantly, they bulge foolishly, like the bubbles protecting the Michelin man.

When machine-made clear glassware first hit the scene in the 19th century, it helped popularize pale beers.  Why?  Because it showcased their appearance.  Ever since, proprietary glassware had focused at least in part on highlighting the beer itself.  A long, slender pilsner glass is nothing special to look at itself, but it displays the beer gorgeously.  When we drink a beer, our minds are working overtime to affect our sense of flavor, too.  Even the concept of flavor is one more evolved in humans than any other animal, and is a fusion of tons of mental and sensory inputs.  In a laboratory setting, it may be that my mind could filter out the "extraneous" notions of form and shape and verify that the new IPA glass produces the richest flavor.  But in a pub, I'd just feel silly with this glass.  IPAs are quickly becoming the classic American beer and they deserve their own glass.  But not this one.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Evolution of Beer, Munich to Montana Edition

I am back into the interviews.  Today's comes from Jürgen Knöller, who is a Bavarian-born and -trained brewer who has for the last 25 years been making lagers at Bayern Brewing in Missoula.  Every summer I pick up Bayern's Pilsner, and every winter, I look for the Doppel Bock.  I called Jürgen to learn more about the bock and hear what it was like brewing in the US.  The background to that bock, it turns out, is quite interesting.

 “I worked for four different breweries in Germany; of those four three are no longer. The first one was Brauerei Schiff—‘Ship’—and we had a very traditional brewery. We are talking a four-vessel brewhouse with a falloff tank—whatever that is in English—it’s a fifth vessel. It had a cool ship, it was beautiful.
Jürgen Knöller (left).  Courtesy: Panamericana2012
I mean, that brewery did about a quarter-million hectoliters. And what happened was the owner died and the widow couldn’t run it and a brewery from Cologne bought it and they kind of ran it in the ground. The next brewery bought it up and I switched to that brewery and the next one bought this one up and I switched to that one.”

“The next brewery I worked for, it was also a very old brewery, they did a really good one, too. It was from the Roden Brauerei. At the Schiff Brauerei we had Pirator—like a pirate—so we called it Pirator Bock. Anyway, what I did, I took from those two breweries, their doppelbocks. When I was looking at the technology available that I had—basically, what kind of machines do I have and what can those things do? You cannot take a Harley and run Superbike with it. You have to run it like a Harley. So what I did was I looked at the—I still had the formulations and everything of both beers—[and looked at my equipment].”

Here, in the way conversation flows but which is confusing sometimes in transcripts, Jürgen used the example of the Schiff design to explain why he couldn't replicate the process at his new American brewery.
“Some American breweries have a hopjack. Well we had a copper tank, vertical, that had a screen bottom like a lauter tun. All we were using was flower hops—and trust me, I have baled those things, 220 pounds those things, some of them were even bigger—and that was on the fifth story. Oh, and by the way, the brewery was five stories up and five stories down into the cellars. That’s where you’re really lean and mean, running up and down stairs all the time, pushing, and lifting and shoveling all day long. So with all those flower hops, we ran the hot wort over that so the hot break would be on top of the flower hops. Then we were running from there into a [long conjunct German word], next open mash where we were separating out the cold break and cooling it down in the cool ship. Well, the next brewery didn’t have that, but it had some other interesting things.”

“So then I decided, huh, this is what I have to work with for machines, it’s a fixed parameter, how do I get it across that I come up with the same product with what I got to work with? That’s what we did.” 
One of the things I found most interesting was a comment he made at the start of our conversation, which related directly to his formulation of Bayern Doppel Bock:

“I started brewing beer in 1978 as an apprentice; I did my three years as apprentice and got my journeyman’s certificate. I was working for another almost four years and then I got my masters degree. Now, when we were brewing back in those days back in Germany, I mean the Germans have always been the world-champions in efficiency and over the years—well, put it this way: I’m still brewing the German lager beers from 1985. When you go to Germany you have some of the older breweries that still brew the same way, but the bigger ones certainly don’t do anymore. What’s different between our beers here in general is that they’re all probably a little bit stronger, a little bit darker, whereas in Germany they have gotten a lot lighter.”

This is a fascinating phenomenon, and one I've been thinking about in relation to another brewery--Boston Beer.  Jim Koch took his original Boston Lager recipe from an old family formulation that his great, great grandfather used in making Louis Koch Lager.  I hope to talk to Jim and discuss it a bit, but think about how Louis would have brewed, trying to create an amber lager in America akin to those made in Germany with different malts and hops.  It was German beer, sort of, but the shift to the US would have shifted the beer--different malts, different hops, different processes. I don't have any way to determine how closely Jim is able to get to his ancestor's recipe, but these are the kinds of stories that make the history of beer and the evolution of beer styles come alive.

Monday, February 11, 2013

More Bud Blogging

I wish I had more time to post things like Ezra's 25 Most Influential Oregon Beers--or at least join him with a rebuttal list*.  But alas, you get links. 

First up, a fascinating long piece in US News and World Report on the battle between Budweiser (and later InBev) and Boston Beer.  It expands into a discussion of the direction of the beer market and is more thoughtful and researched than most things you'll read.  Sample pithy passage:
Both Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors employ "category space analysts," whose job is to visit a store like 7-Eleven and consult them on the optimal placements of beer on the shelves.
"They are doing the sets, they [say to a store]: 'We can do that for you,'" says Koch. "And then they can take my beer from eye level to the top shelf, which drops my sales rate in half."
One thing I have to admit--when the Brewers Association launched the Craft versus Crafty debate, they struck gold.  A few mooks like me gave a raspberry, but the BA effort has launched tons of friendly media reports.  This one in the US News even has a section header labeled "Big Beer Gets Crafty."

In a related piece, Goose Island announces that more production is moving to Bud plants:

To meet increasing demand from the national launch, 312 Urban Wheat Ale, Honker’s Ale, IPA and the seasonal offerings will be produced at Anheuser-Busch breweries in Fort Collins, Colo. and Baldwinsville, N.Y. Led by Goose Island brewmasterBrett Porter , Goose Island brewers will oversee the production of all the beers at the new facilities....

312 Urban Wheat Ale, Honker’s Ale, India Pale Ale (IPA) and a rotating seasonal selection of Mild Winter, Summertime or Harvest Ale are now available on draught nationwide. Additionally, those same beers will be available in bottles nationwide beginning this spring.
Things are going to be getting mighty interesting in the beer biz in the next five years. 


____________________
*I'm not sure there are 25 influential beers in Oregon's short good-beer history, but if there are, the list surely can't include eight pales and IPAs. 

Friday, February 08, 2013

Is Beer One Market?

Note: If you're not in the habit of reading comments, have a look at the discussion on this post.  It's especially well-informed and interesting.

Which of these is not like the other: craft beer, national-brand light lagers, liquor?  In case you missed it, the Beeronomist reflected on the Modelo/InBev merger, and not in the vague, half-assed way I did.  One of the most important--and largely unexamined--aspects he raises is this:
[You first] have to define the market. By all accounts the macro brewers are losing market share much faster to spirits than to craft beer, so shouldn't you include them when you are measuring the amount of competition?  AB InBev will certainly argue that they should.
For example if a decrease int the price of vodka creates a sizable drop in Bud sales you could make a convincing argument that vodka is a real competitor to Bud and that vodka distillers should be counted as in the same market as ABInBev.
Patrick doesn't say this directly, but implicitly raises this possibility: "craft" beer (broadly defined) may not actually be in the same market as Bud, Miller, and Coors--but those companies could be in a market with, say, vodka or tequila.  I would love to see data on the kind of example he cites.  In a way, I can see how this may actually be true--not just a legalistic excuse.  The motives people have for drinking vodka seem to align more closely with the reasons people drink Bud--and differ from the reason people drink IPA.

There's more in Patrick's post and if you're at all interested in the subject, go have a look.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

It's Not the Water

OPB started teasing a story about beer and water last night that upon inspection this morning is, well, a bit thin:
That claim may have been marketing shtick, but Medford home brewer Steven Wyatt really does believe starting with the right water is the foundation for a great beer. 
“If you speak to any beer connoisseur, they will tell you their favorite beer comes from a region because of the water,” he says. 
So Wyatt hiked to Boundary Springs, headwaters of the Rogue River, and packed out fifteen gallons of water.  His father-in-law, a hydrologist, put the bug in his ear: “The real definition, if somebody said something is pristine. That’s what I think the Boundary Springs headwaters of the Rogue tastes like.”

The irony, of course, is that all of this is marketing shtick.  OPB takes the story in a slightly more reputable direction, discussing water conservation among breweries, but they leave this kind of thing hanging out there:
[Standing Stone brewer Larry] Chase has never heard of anyone hiking and packing out water to brew with, but he says that differences in water quality helped shape the history of brewing and the different styles of beer that become popular in Europe.
No doubt Chase would have also told them that it's completely beside the point now, since breweries have chemical control over their water.  They take stuff out, they put stuff in.  And unlike brewing in the 19th century and earlier, breweries make tons of different beer styles, not limited to those of a single style or within a narrow range of styles suited to their water.

For generations, breweries across the country have used the purity of their water to sell beer.  (It's not limited to North America, but I don't think any place took to the levels we did.)  It has become an unshakable belief, now, one repeated on radio stories.  "Rocky Mountain Spring Water," "Land of Sky Blue Waters," and my fave, Oly's artesian series from the 70s and 80s:


There's not great crime here, except that OPB just perpetuated that old myth.  It would have spoiled a fun, evocative little piece, but one sentence discussing 21st century brewing would have been better journalism.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Quiet Reliability of Ayinger

I have been working on lagers for the past six weeks, slowly making my way through pale, amber, dark lagers and this week, bocks.  A feature of the book I'm working on is called "the beers to know," which includes a selection that typify the type I've just been writing about.  Every time I get to that section, I buy a bunch of European lagers, look through my travel notes, and study ratings sites like BeerAdvocate to see which small breweries around the country I should be looking at.  And every time, Ayinger is there at the top.  Their beers are among my faves, and they're beloved by the people, too.  For a number of reasons, I don't put a lot of stock in the ratings sites, but have a look at how well Ayinger does; below is a list of the various styles and where Ayinger ranks among all beers of that style brewed in the world.  First is BeerAdvocate, second RateBeer.
Hefeweizen: 6, 8
Dunkel lager: 3, 3
Doppelbock: 1, 1
Export: 2, 16
Maibock: 13, 1
Marzen: 8, 1
Dunkelweizen: 3, 4
Weizenbock, 5, 12
When you click through these styles, you see a lot of familiar names near the top--Augustiner, Andechs, Weihenstephan, Schneider.  But Schneider doesn't brew lagers, and most of the Bavarian lager breweries don't brew any wheats beyond a single weizen.  Ayinger, with all-Bavarian ingredients, open wheatbier fermentation, and a modern eco-brewery, plays both fields.  I don't often hear them discussed in the hushed tones reserved for Augustiner and Schneider--who certainly earn their respect.  Leave aside the ratings, which are obviously problematic, and go with what your senses tell you.  I think you'll conclude that Ayinger is surely one of the best Bavarian breweries. 

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Most American Day of the Year

What do other countries think of us on Super Bowl Sunday?  What does it say about a culture that the biggest non-holiday event of the year involves sitting around "man caves" in suburban America to watch a four-hour sporting event?  Even that we call it, with no apparent self-awareness, the "Super Bowl" (or even worse "Super Bowl XLVII") says something, doesn't it?  There is a certain late-empire grandiosity to the whole affair that is slightly odd.  But every culture has oddness, and this one is fairly harmless.
Obviously.

For my part, I'm half-way through the mash of my annual pilsner--or better yet, světlý ležák.  (We'll see if it's actually a ležák--I have a horrible time hitting my efficiency.  But a světlé Výčepní is cool, too.)  My erstwhile brewing partner is now bumming it in Brazil, so I'm on my own.  Each year we mix it up a bit and this year instead of using Sterling hops (a better approximation of Saaz than US Saaz) I'm going with German.  Steinbart's had Tradition and Hersbrucker, so that's what we're going with.  I also added a half pound of wheat, on the slim justification of head grains, but mainly because I tend to put at least half a pound of wheat  in every recipe.

When I was in Prague, I told my tour guide, Max Bahnson, about this beer.  I'd been to Pilsner Urquell and Budvar already, and he was deepening my understanding of Czech lagers.  Since we were on a two-day odyssey, I'm not sure precisely when the moment came, but I remember what happened next.   I proudly mentioned that we call our pils Velvet Revolution.  His nose wrinkled and he shook his head.  "It's too obvious," he said.  "A Czech brewery would never use that."

Obvious.  Isn't that exactly what you'd expect from a couple of American homebrewers?  Go Niners!

Friday, February 01, 2013

Big Beer, Monastic Beer, Irreverent Beer

Beer news of the world:

1.  How big is too big?
If the Department of Justice has its say, this is:
For more than a decade, the world’s biggest brewers have been swallowing competitor after competitor as they grapple with slowing growth in many markets. Now, the Obama administration wants to cut them off.
The Justice Department on Thursday sued to block Anheuser-Busch InBev’s $20.1 billion deal to buy Grupo Modelo, the Mexican maker of Corona beer, saying that the merger would cement Anheuser-Busch InBev’s control of the market and enable it to continue to raise beer prices. Grupo Modelo is the third-biggest beer company in the United States.
 I'm with the DOJ.  It's not just the size of the beer companies themselves--you have to consider the influence they would wield over hop and malt suppliers, distributors, and retailers.  Half the US market is enough InBud.  Let Modelo go.


2.  Engelszell Stift gets its button.
We were alerted a year ago to the news that an Austrian Trappist monastery had applied for official designation as a Trappist brewery.   I checked back a few times to see if the International Trappist Association had approved, but it's apparently a slooooow process.  (Monks have never been known as speedy deciders.)  I'm not sure when the approval happened--I must have missed the ITA's tweet--but they're in.  Update your records--there are now eight certified Trappist breweries.


3.  Revelations does not mention beer.
This cracked me up: yesterday Double Mountain released a new beer called White Rider of Conquest.  The description:
Revelations, Chap. 6:1: And I saw when Coughlin opened one of the beers, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. 6:2: And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a beer; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, with his Ale. 8.7% ABV, 29BU
The actual text is sadly less interesting.  Coughlin, incidentally, is Matt, a DM brewer.  I believe the text, however, was amended by devilish Matt Swihart.