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Friday, August 30, 2013

Happy Labor Day

I'm taking a break from the blog for the weekend. Hope your holiday is filled with sunshine, family and friends, an of course, lotsa good beer.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Oregon Hop Harvest

Each year I look over my shoulder and see that the rest of the country is gaining on us.  Oregon is no longer such a rare and special beer place.  Other cities have dozens of breweries, great alehouses, gastropubs, and so on.  And a few are even near a field or two of hops.  But exceedingly rare are the cities a mere 45 minutes from a major hop-growing region.  (Even Seattle is over two hours from Yakima.)  We have come to revel in this proximity.  Each year, buses of hop tourists ferry down to the fields to gape in wonder.  (Today Ninkasi is taking a busload down.)  On Monday, the good folks at Full Sail packed us into two buses provisioned with ale and lager and down we went to Sodbuster Farms where owner Doug Weathers was our host.

Below are a few choice pictures from the day.  John Foyston has some more (including one of me that is unusually not terrible).  I'm loading a short video onto Vimeo that I'll post when ready.  [now live.]  Enjoy--







Now that's a field of dreams.


They're Cascades, in case you were wondering.


The professionals know how to grow 'em big.


No finer table garland. The lunch was excellent, too.


Easily the most impressive part of the tour is the hop kiln.
Two feet deep, the size of a football field--can you
imagine the aroma?


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tonight: Lucky Lab Hop Harvest

Lucky Lab Hop Harvest
Tonight, August 27, 4pm onward
 915 SE Hawthorne (on the back patio)

There are a number of elements that give Beervana it's particular flavor, and an occasionally overlooked one is the sense of community and collaboration. This happens at the brewery level, where brewers share information and tips about recipes and methods. But it also connects beer drinkers directly with breweries through collaborative projects and events. In Portland, the line between brewer and drinker is murky.

The Lucky Lab's annual "The Mutt" fresh-hop ale is the quintessential metaphor for this sense of community and collaboration. The brewery picks their own hops and solicits donations from gardeners around the Rose City. Beginning at four pm, volunteers wade into the pile of bines and began shucking. When they're done, the baskets go into a beer called "The Mutt"--for the hoppy parentage of the beer is always a vast, mutable tapestry of hop strains.

If you have extra hops, drop them off any time today (with apologies from the blogger for the short notice). And if you want to help harvest--the zymurgical equivalent of a community barn-raising--be there at 4 pm to start plucking. It's happening at the patio of the Hawthorne Lab (915 SE Hawthorne), and I can absolutely guarantee a good time.

Monday, August 26, 2013

"A Surprisingly Fruity Note Which Lingers on the Tongue"

Two of my very favorite comedies of all time came from the brains of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright (and are channeled, winningly, through the boulder of Nick Frost's body): Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.  When they added a third leg to the stool with World's End, I bellied up to the bar.  I would put it a notch below those first two (or perhaps it's just that this one is shot through with a melancholic sense of reality the others lacked), but it's got added pleasure for the beer geek. 



Off to tour the hop fields today, so don't expect a lot more content.  I'll try to tweet photos of lupulin pornography along the way, though, if you're interested (@Beervana).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Your Friday Time-Killer

Bryan Roth gets the week's gold star for best use of technology and regionalism.  This is the teaser:



What does it mean?  You must go read his whole post [link fixed], which is quite fascinating.  I'll give you a hint--it relates to this post of mine from last week.

The Summer of Lagers

Lagerfest
White Owl Social Club, 1305 SE 8th
Sat-Sun 11a to 9p
$20 = mug & 10 tix
Adults only


There haven't been this many lagers in Oregon since Weinhard bit the dust.  I don't know what Jung would say about it, but I know there's something in the collective unconscious.  I go to Germany and the Czech Republic, develop some kind of persistent lager itch, and glory be--brewers back home offer dozens of chances to scratch it.  If you have not, like me, been hoovering up these fine tipples, you have an excellent opportunity over the weekend: Lagerfest, an inaugural effort at showcasing some of these little lovelies.  You will see over to the right a list of the beers (click to enlarge), and therefore observe that it's long enough that even if you have been hoovering, there's plenty of reasons yet to go.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Junior Ethnographer Visits Sasquatch Brewing

I made a rare foray into the deep west side--beyond downtown--a couple weeks back and visited Sasquatch Brewing.  For grid-brained east-siders, it's in that tricky spot where the snaking Capitol Highway splits in half, and if you are in the wrong lane, you're in Hillsboro before you you get a chance to backtrack.*  If you're in the right lane--which is actually the left lane--you come almost immediately on one of Portland's newest brewpubs, the diminutive Sasquatch. 

A tight fit for brewer Charlie Van Meter. (Source)
I have seen domestic kitchens larger than the brewery, which peeks over the dining room's hind quarters.  It's apparently a 7-barrel system, but I suspect quantum physics were needed to get it in that space.  No matter, owner/brewer Tom Sims gets it to do the job.  I tried six of the nine beers on tap, and they were all well-balanced, polished, and accomplished beers.  The lineup is almost exclusively classic brewpub favorites--Anglo-American ales from the quite pale to hearty stout--though the best beer may be a strong Belgian Blonde that has lots of white grape to stone fruit esters and a dangerous smooth drinkability. 

As I was drinking through the lineup, I noticed something.  Production breweries like The Commons, Upright, and Cascade can afford to make beers that target a particular niche--through the magic of distribution, they can get their beers to their scattered fans.  A corner brewpub like Sasquatch doesn't have that luxury.  It needs to make beer that appeals to the broadest group in the half-mile radius around the pub where most of the clientele live.  As a result, brewpubs are almost perfect little reflections of what people drink. 

Let's look at Sasquatch's line.  They have a brown, a stout, and that Belgian on the one hand.  On the other, it has five or six beers, depending on how you count, that are versions of American hoppy ales: Oregon Session Ale (4.7%), which has quite a bit of Willamette hop zest, Healy Heights Pale (5.6%, 46 BUs), OR-7 Amber (6.6%, 45 BUs), Woodboy Dry Hop IPA (6.8%, 74 BUs), Red Electric IRA (6.7%, 70 BUs), and Moby Dick IIPA (10.2%, 90 BUs).  When a person sits down, she thinks: what variety of hoppy paleish beer am I in the mood for?  A light sipper?  A medium-strength powerhouse?  A titan?  If she has proclivities within this field, she may tilt one way or another.  Like caramel?--try the amber.  The most hoppy?  IPA.  Session beer?  Start with the OSA and go to the pale.  And so on.


The point is this: Oregonians like hops.  Two thirds of the beers on offer fit into a pretty narrow band of styles and flavors.  No doubt more than two thirds of the sales are of those six beers.  You've got to have a few choices for the oddballs (like me: although I enjoyed the session a lot--natch--my favorite was the Belgian, with a close second to the very silky mocha-like stout), but mainly you're trying to accommodate people whose tastes are finely tuned among this narrow band.  This is quite different from what brewpubs were serving one or two decades ago, when you would always have seen a wheat, probably a fruit beer, two or three varieties of black beer, and only a couple hoppy beers. 

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*I kid.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Death of a Tavern

The Black Cat Tavern died over the weekend.  It was somewhere north of 70.  When England loses pubs, it makes the national news (and apparently has for decades).  Those institutions are a part of the fabric of society, and they are often splendid, wood-paneled, fire-heated old spaces in historic buildings.  When they close, a neighborhood mourns.

Old American taverns have a much different status.  We were a drunken, frontier country and taverns--especially those out on the western fringes (like Oregon)--were often dangerous places that did side businesses in opium and prostitution.  They helped beget Prohibition, which had lingering effects in the Depression era that followed. Taverns had a marginal status, and cities didn't want them in proper neighborhoods.  Breweries were busy separating themselves from saloon culture and "evil" liquor, too.  From its very earliest days, Anheuser-Busch offered its product in special corked bottles, and after prohibition, canning allowed breweries to continue to promote home consumption.  Breweries didn't show drinkers at a cozy pub--they showed them enjoying the beer at home.

Unlike English pubs, American taverns have always been located in cheap, often provisional buildings.   They often had no windows, boarded up windows, or at best small windows--not so patrons couldn't see out, but so respectable people couldn't see the evils within.  Craft brewing has had a fantastic influence on drinking culture in the United States, and even more so in Portland.  The McMenamins have been busily buying up some of the city's most interesting properties.  Brewpubs are airy and well-lit, children friendly.  The old taverns like the Black Cat are throw-backs, places for canned beer and cigarettes in an age when it's illegal to smoke and people want better beer.  They have been going through the same kind of attrition English pubs have, but there's no nostalgia for them, no mourning the loss.

I spent many a fine evening in what we now call dive bars in my youth--and I spent quite a few in the Black Cat in my twenties.  I'm not entirely sure that it offered anything today's twenty-somethings can't find in better brewpubs and ale houses, and I don't know that these taverns serve any useful purpose.  The Black Cat's owner is tearing the old building down to make way for "a four-story building with street-level  retail and 21 apartments."  This is the fate of taverns as their neighborhoods become less fringey and the land begins to have real value.  (Look at that picture of the Black Cat--the building's a wreck.)  Of course, if you did spend any time in those old places, you can't help but feel depressed when one comes down.  Over the course of the rest of my lifetime, I suspect most of them will be plowed under--and few newspaper articles will lament their loss.  It's a better beer world we live in now, but still.  But still.

__________________


About two years ago, as a way of clearing my mind while working on The Beer Bible, I would walk around the city.  I've always loved the bizarre architecture of old taverns, and I started snapping photos with my phone on those walks (a practice I've continued).  I'll put a few of those below the fold so you spend a few minutes in your own nostalgic reverie.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Cider Saturday: Mass Market Ciders

Cider Saturday is an irregular, ongoing feature in which I poke around the exploding world of cider.

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On Thursday, I joined Morgan Miller, a cider export most of us know more as a Ninkasi guy, and Jeff and Erin Smith, owners/cidermakers at Bushwhacker's.  I was there gathering deep background on the world of apples and cider making, and in the course of our chat, we sampled a lovely English cider from Hogan's, a French basque cider from Bordatto (which tasted a lot more French than Basque), and a Pommeau, which is a blend of calvados apple brandy back-sweetened with apple juice. 

And, while we were chatting, we got off on the subject of mass market ciders--or what Morgan calls "draft cider."  These are the brands like Strongbow in England and Woodchuck and Angry Orchard here in the states.  I only really started drinking ciders seriously a couple years back, and like any newbie, I had no idea what ciders were supposed to taste like.  As Jeff pointed out, they are conceptually very easy to grasp: fermented apple juice.  This leads to expectations of an appley flavor and after you've worked your way through a few supermarket varieties, you might start to expect vibrant effervescence and a fair amount of sweetness.  They are to ciders what Budweiser and Coors are to beer--sweetish products engineered to appeal to a broad market.  Like so many newbies exposed to a mass market product, I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to be tasting.

Like any product, mass market ciders have particular features that distinguish them from traditional ciders.  (I prefer "mass market" to "draft cider," which misguides the mind to ignore the supermarket, where the vast majority of these guys reside--at least in the US.) Although traditional ciders are about equidistant between beer and wine from a sensory perspective, mass market ciders slide into the slot occupied by mass market beers--easy drinking, sessionable drinks. They're fizzy, taste like supermarket apples, and end with a soda-sweet kiss.  They differ from traditional ciders, which are drier (sometimes very much so), balanced liquids with tannins and acids, sometimes funky yeast character, and which may be still or have champagne-like effervescence. 

In Oregon, our minds colored by the brewing industry, we tend to think of local as the marker of not-mass market.  But you can find Oregon and Washington ciders that are a lot more like Woodchuck than Hogan's. 

As we chatted, I probed a bit to find out how mass market ciders differ in terms of craft.  Jeff pulled out a Strongbow's as we discussed them.  Strongbow's is one of the least interesting ciders I've ever tried--it's lightly fizzy and bland, with very little apple flavor or sweetness, just a cheap-lager tinniness and a flaccid, watery finish.  For a beverage that couldn't be simpler--squeeze the apple, ferment the juice--there are a lot of ways to make ciders.  In the industrial process, big companies start with juice or juice from concentrate and do a version of high-gravity brewing where they take a concentrated form of the juice, ferment it out, and then water it back down for the right abv.  They adjust flavors by adding acids and sugar.  They usually "back-sweeten" these ciders, as well.  That's a process where the finished cider is pasteurized after fermentation and then has fresh juice added in to make it sweet and give it that apple flavor.  Because dessert apples are mostly sugar--no tannins or acids--they ferment out and give you alcohol without a lot of flavor.  Back-sweetening is a way of making the cider sweet and appley. 

As we talked, I happened to glance at the ingredients on the Strongbow can and found this: "Fermented apple juice or apple juice from concentrate, sugars, water, malic acid, ascorbic acid, sulphur dioxide (to preserve freshness and act as a sulfiting agent)." 

Some of the giveaways for a mass market cider are the flavors of Jolly Ranchers (very sweet, tinged with an artificial fruit flavor) or a "cooked" or stewed flavor.  I have found them to have a watery flavor as well--something you mainly notice only in contrast, after you try real ciders made from whole fruit.  It's probably not worth going on a campaign here against these products--like anything made for a national market, they are industrial products engineered for consistency.  There are no doubt really good reasons for using concentrates and additives, and you end up with a product that tastes like it's made that way.  But try a Strongbow next to a Wandering Aengus or Two Towns and just let your taste buds tell you the difference.  See if you can spot the way whole fruit tastes and feels in the mouth, how the flavors are more integrated and vibrant. 

We're in that period of cider making that corresponds to about 1987 in craft brewing.  There are a lot of products out there, and they vary quite a bit.  Things will come to coherence eventually, but in the meantime, it's very much the case of caveat emptor.  Train your palate and it will guide you.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Major Milestone: Five Years for Brewers Union Local 180

I've got a pitch for you.  Wouldn't it be a great idea to found a cool little brewpub in the heart of the Oregon Cascades?  It would be ideal if the town had fewer than 4,000 people and was at least 45 minutes from any town of any size.  And wouldn't it be cool to brew only low-alcohol cask ale?  I know: let's start it in the middle of the worst recession in 75 years in a town that subsists largely on tourism.  Sold!

Somehow, when Ted Sobel wrote up the business plan (I suspect on a beer mat deep into a session of cask bitter), he didn't catch any of the subtle red flags and charged ahead, anyway.  I'm so glad he did, because his singular vision, even five years later, remains a singular vision.  Lose Brewers Union Local 180, and we lose all his idiosyncratic pursuits.  In particular, his tireless promotion of proper cask ale--the kind we need a whole lot more of.  Ted:
They say it takes three to five years in the BEST of times. It hasn't been so, something having to do with an economic downturn or some such thing. There were dark moments in the first three years when I just wanted to chuck it. Cash flow was poor in this diminutive and isolated mountain town. Then slowly in the fourth year we started to get caught up on the back bills and got the Oregon Department of Revenue and the IRS off our backs. In the fifth year we made some needed improvements and repairs to the kitchen, cellar and walk-in cooler and started staffing up a bit to cover the increased traffic. This is the first year that I've brought in brewery assistance and had double help in the front of the house during the peak hours on the weekends. While it cuts into the cash in a big way, it improves the customer experience and allows me a little time away. To plan. To scheme. To have a pint or two in someone else's pub.
I'm so glad you made it, Ted.  Oregon is much the richer for having Brewers Union in our midst. (Fans should go read that whole post, because there's some heartening news for Portland-area fans of his beer.)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

When IPAs Didn't Exist

It's difficult to remember that there was an era BIPA (before IPAs,) but man, was there ever.  I've been doing a little research and I dug out Jack Erickson's Brewery Adventures in the Wild West from 1991.   It's a fascinating little time capsule that goes a long way to shaking my revisionist memory.  I was attempting to find out when exactly the IPA thing really got going, so I looked at his listings for the breweries and beers they made along the West Coast.  Together, the three states had 99 breweries in business by then.  Erickson listed the beers brewed by each brewery, coming up with a total of 235 of them (some breweries didn't yet have beer out, or didn't have regular lines).  Of these 235 beers, would you care to guess how many IPAs there were?

Three.

Sierra Nevada had been making Celebration for some time, and by '91, Bert Grant had had his IPA on the market for a few years, too.  The final entrant was from Rubicon in Sacramento, a brewery that has lived 26 under-the-radar years.  (Rubicon was known for IPA, winning gold at the GABF the first two years the category existed, in 1990 and '91.) That's it.  There were a ton of amber ales, porters, pales, and stouts (in roughly that order), but hops were definitely not the thing.

For what it's worth, in Jennifer Trainer Thompson's The Great American Microbrewery Beer Book from 1997, things hadn't changed that much.  Thompson cataloged only bottled beer, and listed a total of 182 from 37 breweries.  Number of IPAs?  Eight.  Grant's and SN Celebration plus Buffalo Bill's Alimony Ale, San Francisco Brewing Shanghai IPA, Full Sail India Ale, Oregon Ale (a short-lived contract brewery) Oregon Original IPA, Big Time's Bhagwan's Best IPA, and Pike IPA.

It's difficult to imagine a time when hops weren't the center of American brewing, but even the not-very-old don't to have to imagine.  We just have to remember.  Still, it doesn't seem like things were that barren just 15 years ago.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bend May Have Too Many Breweries

I have argued, and will continue to argue, that there aren't too many breweries in the United States.  There is no craft beer bubble on the horizon.  But now our man on the Bend street, Jon Abernathy, reports that in addition to the twenty extant breweries in Central Oregon, five more on in the works
So, these additions put Bend and Central Oregon at 25 breweries by year’s end (assuming all goes as planned and paperwork is signed, etc.), though even then there’s still potentially on the horizon: three off the top of my head which have been mentioned are the Brew Shop/Platypus Pub‘s (small) brewpub, the “Old Mill Marketplace” brewpub, and a possible rumored brewery at Brasada Ranch Resort out by Powell Butte (between Bend and Prineville). Plus there’s a bunch of other potential names I’ve been discovering lately that I will be following up on (but may only be names and nothing else).
But 25! That puts Central Oregon at nearly half of the number of breweries in Portland (51 at last count) and who knows where the current rate of growth will put the region by the end of next year.
Let's do a little math.  As you probably know, there are a number of people who are already spooked about the number of breweries nationwide which, for the sake of round numbers, we'll put at 2,500.  That works out to a per capita total of one brewery for every 120,000 men, women, and children in this great land.  (They're obviously not distributed evenly, but that's a statistical quirk itself: the places with the greatest density are generally those with the healthiest craft beer markets.)  By comparison:
Country ... per capita
Belgium - 91,000
Czech Rep. - 81,000
UK - 63,000
Germany - 61,000
Austria - 50,000
Now, if we're being extremely generous and including the entire tri-county region in our population total (Deschutes, Crook, Jefferson), we come up with 150,000 souls.  That works out to a per capita brewery total of one in 6,000.  Considering what happened to real estate just a few years back, I'm beginning to think there's a bit of a gold-rush mentality in that old frontier town.  Surely that's not sustainable.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mighty Mites Fest Makes Its Triumphant Return

How about something completely uncontroversial?  This Sunday, as a part of the Hawthorne Street Fair, the Mighty Mites fest makes its triumphant return.  Some of you may recall that a couple years back, I helped organized the first edition.  Fest organizing is not really my strength, so it was headed to oblivion until Ezra Johnson-Greenough stepped in to revive it. 
The Mighty Mites
Sunday, August 18, 11am - 7pm, $10, all ages welcome
Hawthorne Street Fair
SE 32nd Place and Hawthorne (in front of Bazi Bierbrasserie)
Entrance to The Mighty Mites is $10 and includes a cup and 4 tickets. Each ticket is good for a half pour of any session beer and dditional tickets cost $2. Full pours just two tickets.

I'm going to repost the introduction to the concept I wrote two years ago.  I'll put the current (but still incomplete) taplist below the fold.  Hope to see you all there--

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mighty (adj): possessing might; powerful.
mite (n): a very small object or creature.
I am a fan of small beers. However, unlike many of my fraternity, the reason isn't because I particularly care about long sessions in a pub. For me, the reason is purely aesthetic: small beers taste great. Aesthetics is something we don't often apply to beer, but we should. We should approach each beer with an eye toward a kind of artistic mark of perfection and say: how does this beer perform against an ideal? In this way, best bitters are not judged ill because they lack the roasty heft of an imperial stout.

Beer geeks are generally pretty good about this, except when it comes to beers that ring in at under 5%. They are then dismissed as lesser substances, like diet soda, skim milk, or frozen yogurt. (And indeed, in America the small beer has been roughly treated--it's often a throwaway beer aimed to appeal to Bud drinkers.) Yet a small beer by its nature is not a compromise. It exists as a fully-formed beer, ready to be judged on its own merit.

Many small beers are vivid with flavor. The virtue of small beers is that they have less molecular density; the flavors have room to unfurl and blossom in the mouth. Certain styles have taken full advantage of this: Bavarian weizens have remarkable complexity (and are just psychedelic, period); Irish stouts can be sharp and intense with roast and hop bitterness; Berliner Weisses are so sour that Berliners developed the practice of cutting them with sugar syrups. And on cask, British ales reveal flavors you can never find on regular taps, sometimes with such bell-like clarity you feel you've found a fourth dimension of beer. Unlike heftier beers, the flavors in these little ones are distinct, particular, and knowable.

With this in mind, Ezra has curated the tap list to help nudge along passion for wee beers.  I'll put the current list of beers--and one cool session cider--below the fold.  As you can see, they are most alluring.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Why Americans Don't Make "Lambics"

Note: Post has been updated.

I sparked a mild fracas on Twitter* yesterday when I responded to a tweet with this:


Americans are the great appropriators, though, and people started making the point that many styles have origins in other places and we still use those style names when we make the beers in America:



It's true.  An even better case would be kolsch, which has a European PGI and which the Germans take very seriously.  Americans blithely brew kolsches without the slightest thought about how the style relates to place.  And because I'm an American, I'm generally sympathetic to this view.  There are two good reasons we shouldn't call anything outside Payottenland a lambic, though.

Working to keep lam
The first is pedantic.  Lambics aren't just a legally protected style (though they are that)--they're a product of place.  It's the oldest extant style on earth (or anyway the oldest that is essentially the same as it was in the 16th century), and one that is bound to the area around Brussels by the particular fauna yeasts [see comments below] that seed the cooling wort.  Moreover, it is a extremely specific product of craft.  In order to preserve that lineage of what a "lambic" is, lambic-makers all agree to produce their beer in specific ways to specific specifications: at least 30% unmalted wheat; spontaneously fermented; hops aged at least a year; in the case of gueuze, the beer must be refermented in the bottle; contain specific compounds like the presence of brettanomyces and absence of isoamyl acetate that affirm it was made properly; must be aged at least a year on wood (or in the case of gueuze, must include one-, two-, and three-year-old blends).

All these things define what a lambic is and should be.  Other breweries make spontaneously-fermented beer in Belgium, but unless they're in Payottenland and make it to these standards, they don't call their beer lambic.  They are making, both in the letter and spirit of the law, different beers.

The second reason is actually the one that convinces me, though.  It's not pedantic or supercilious, as the first one is usually thought to be.  Lambic is certainly one of the hardest beers to make in the world (and for my money the very hardest).  It has nearly disappeared at least once, and despite the wild ale revolution in the US and Italy, isn't an especially robust segment of the Belgian market.  When I visited Cantillon, I encountered owner fourth-generation brewer Jean Van Roy up to his elbows in a whirlpool, trying to extract hops from wort as it went to the kettle.  He had already been working for six hours and his day was nowhere near done.  The Van Roys, along with a handful of other families in Belgium, have continued to make this beer the old way, no matter how much of a bitch it is, and seemingly, no matter how small the market got.

Amazingly, when they finally started to find an export market in the US, folks like the Van Roys were happy to receive US brewers and tell them their secrets.  Brewing days are open at Cantillon.  You can ask Jean any question you like; you can film every minute of his brew and write extensive notes.  You can take this information home and brew your own beer to his exact specifications.  And you can do this all with his explicit blessing.

All he asks is that you shouldn't call it lambic.  In the long, lean decades of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, his family toiled to keep the tradition of lambic-making alive.  Their brewery contains a small museum that tells the story of this lineage and illustrates how the brewery fits into it.  It is the tradition of lambic-making, and now that the style is enjoying a bit of a renaissance, he'd like you to remember this long tradition and what it means and has meant to his family (and the families of the other lambic-makers).  When you think of lambic, think of the beers these brewers have kept alive in this little corner of the world for so long.  It's not a huge request.

In America we make wild ales or spontaneous ales.  We don't make lambic.


Update.  Since this post has been discussed broadly on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and at least one other blog, I'd like to add two more points.   I made the first one, but extremely obliquely.  It's that wild ales are different depending on where they're brewed.  They're spontaneously fermented: that is, wild yeasts floating in the air seed the wort.  You can do spontaneous fermentation anywhere, but you'll get different yeasts.  In lambic land you get brettanomyces bruxellensis--named for the city of origin.  When Rob Tod started making spontaneously fermented beer at Allagash, he had his brett culture looked at and found it was unlike anything anyone had seen before.  (Brettanomyces portlandensis?)  The wild ales Ron Jeffries makes in Michigan are different.  Lambics are beers principally defined by the yeasts, and it is therefore literally impossible to make spontaneously-fermented beer taste the same if you make it in a different place.  This is (in addition to the stuff I mentioned above) why it's different from a lot of the protected European names, which actually can be pretty easily replicated elsewhere.  Lambics are wild ales from Payottenland.

The second point has to do with why I care about this.  Apparently I've been a little vehement on the issue.  (I have!)  It's because the style very nearly died out in the 1960s and 70s. When I visited Frank Boon, he explained the sad fate of many of the beers during that time:  "Forty years ago, this was a time when breweries were closing and all the local styles were disappearing. Everywhere in Belgium. Louvain white disappeared, Peeterman disappeared, [ascot beers] disappeared. In the 1950s and 1960s. If gueuze had disappeared in the 1960s, nobody would ever have imagined to make such a beer."  Other Belgian breweries have very often stolen names.  They used "Trappist" to describe beer that had nothing to do with monks.  They took kriek and gueuze and faro and used it on beers that had nothing to do with lambic.  In a last-ditch effort to save the style, lambic makers and blenders banded together to get a PGI to protect some of their products.  If they hadn't, I have no doubt but that there would be no lambic today.  Kriek is a cautionary tale.  It was appropriated by other breweries for beers that aren't made traditionally, and now you can find a debased cough syrup product called "kriek" everywhere.  That would have been the way of lambic had they not taken action to protect it.

Obviously, these are all businesses and they all want to protect and promote their products.  But in this case, the word has real power.  If we allow "lambic" to mean "any sour beer," then what happens to the beers that take 12 hours to brew and three years to age?  If I'm vehement, it's because I'm scared to death that my favorite styles of beer will vanish.


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*The discussion proceeded, as Twitter discussions do, in increasingly smaller, tarter fragments.  As more people join the conversation, you end up with tags for other people taking up 100 characters, leaving you with enough space to offer a brief, cutting reply.  Twitter doesn't facilitate discussions, it destroys them.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Reports of Beer's Death Greatly Exaggerated

Let's start with Gallup, which sounded the gong of doom first, one week ago.  Each year they round up a bunch of lushes and ask what they drink, and the results are usually pretty interesting.  This year's edition was no exception:
Young adult drinkers' alcoholic beverage preferences have changed dramatically over the past two decades. In the early 1990s, 71% of adults under age 30 said they drank beer most often; now it is 41% among that age group. There has been a much smaller decline in the percentage of 30- to 49-year-olds who say they drink beer the most, from 48% to 43%, with essentially no change in older drinkers' beer preference.
I started seeing posts like this one from the Atlantic commenting on the findings with shocker headlines like Why Are American Drinkers Turning Against Beer?  Writer Derek Thompson lasers in on the youth trend and tries to get to the bottom of things by talking to unnamed beverages analysts for the poop.  (You can follow the link to see how fresh the theories are.)  Ah, but I have an advantage Thompson lacks: I am old and have been writing about beer for a long time.  This Gallup thing is fun, and long-term trends are valuable, but you shouldn't look at one year, compare it to a year in the distant past, and extrapolate.  (I know because three years ago I trumpeted the finding that young women were flocking to beer and that turned out to be ... statistical noise.) 

The problem?  The numbers jump around a lot.  Let's take a look at that young person's stat.  It does seem alarming that only 41% of America's youth prefer beer (though it's still 13% above liquor at number two).  Yet let's look at the totals from the last three years: 51%, 39%, 45%, and now 41%.  You see, it hops around a lot even among the same group answering the question.  The trend is toward more diversity in what they're drinking, but beer still has the lion's share. 

Now, the second panic was sparked by Joe Stange, who wrote an article for Draft Magazine with its own screamer headline about what is inevitably now characterized as craft brewing's "boom": Will It Fall?  Stange gets answers on both sides of the aisle.  Some say craft beer is headed for collapse others say pshaw.   On the one hand, he goes to brewer Dylan Mosley of Civil Live in St. Louis for my vote of the year's best quote: "Seriously? It’s beer. You know how many people drink beer? If I opened a hamburger joint, nobody’s going to be, like, 'Hey, you know how many hamburger joints there are?' They’d be like, 'Sweet! Another hamburger joint!'"  But then he gives beer geek Ashley Fox the final word and she says--doom gong please--"all bubbles burst."

And from that jumping-off point we get the more definitive judgment from Lew Bryson, an old-timer like me who lived through the 90s plateau.  "'Will it fall?' Yes, most definitely."  I wanted to clarify that Lew meant the actual barrelage would fall, not just the growth rate.  He meant barrelage: "It's definitely possible. Denying it is denying historical fact. Everything crashes, eventually."

I don't buy it.

The American beer market is 200 million barrels strong and has held steady at that level for two decades.  Of those 200 million barrels, craft beer, by whatever definition you want to give it, is definitely no more than 20 million barrels, or about 10% of the total.  (Brewers Association numbers, which show the US consuming about 15 million barrels in 2013, skip beers like Widmer/Redhook, Blue Moon, and Schell Berliner Weisse for reasons that have nothing to do with beer.  Americans think of all of those as craft beer.)  Now you have to ask yourself: in a 21st century world where fragmentation is the way of all things--media, pop culture, the arts, and consumables--why would we expect mass market lagers to continue to hold 90% of the market?  Nothing has 90% of any market.

Could the United States manage to support a craft beer segment that was 15% of the total beer market?  What about twenty or twenty-five?  Of course it can.  We have tons of laboratories where the experiments are happening in real time.  So far, in each case, where craft brewing catches on, it grows faster.  No doubt there's a plateau, but places like Oregon haven't hit it yet.  The new, far crappier Oregon Brewers Guild website no longer lists these stats, but I recall that our consumption is around 20% and growing each year.  And Oregon's market keeps growing and getting more crafty.  This makes complete sense: fragmentation begets fragmentation; choice begets choice. 

I challenge proponents of the "fall" theory to muster some data in support of your case.  Can you point to any cases of over-saturation?  All the doomsday stories I read about point to what you actually expect in a mature market.  Things like real competition for tap handles and shelf space--which Stange mentioned.  I've mentioned this before, but I think a lot of the panic comes from a fear that double digit growth won't continue.  Agreed.  That's clearly unsustainable past a certain point.  (In ten years at 10% growth, the craft market would be over 50 million barrels.  That seems far-fetched.)  But a falling growth rate is a far different beast than actual falling barrelage.  To companies used to double-digit growth--or those whose business plans unwisely depend on it--there may be a rude shock in the future.  But that's no collapse.  In mature markets you have business failures.  Maybe breweries who have lived in a nearly risk-free world will get skittish when things tighten up.  But that's not a fall.

___________________
Note: I am aware that Twain actually said "the report of my death is an exaggeration," but if I'd titled this post The Report of Beer's Death Was an Exaggeration, no one would know what I was talking about.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

From Cusco to Portland: Chicha's Epic Journey


A few weeks past, a group of friends boarded planes for Peru and an adventure that would take them up to Machu Picchu and down into the Amazon.  Owing to penury and my own world travel, I had to skip the expedition, but I did impress upon them the need to try Peru's most famous product (if you're an advanced-stage beer geek like me, anyway): chicha de jora

You probably know chicha.  It's the famous corn beer that in ancient times women brewed by using the enzymes of their saliva to convert the raw grain prior to mashing.  A clever, if somewhat rustic, form of malting.  I understand that mostly chicha uses malted corn now (as Sam Calagione discovered when Dogfish Head made it a few years back, chewing enough corn to make a batch of beer takes forever).  Nevertheless, it remains an elemental form of beer--of a type people have been making in South America, Africa, and Asia for thousands of years. 

In traditional beer-making, brewers prepare a simple mash of raw or malted grains, usually in a combination of boiling and steeping, and then let the mixture ferment spontaneously (either strained or in porridge form).  A student named Jeff Renfro described the process of making African sorghum beer on here on Beervana two years ago.  The beers usually ferment pretty weakly--two to four percent--and are served before they've reached terminal gravity so they're naturally bubbly.  Many have a pleasantly acidic tang from wild yeasts, a floury, bready body, and some are spiced or flavored with fruit.  If you want to do some research on this, look up umqombothi (Africa), huangjiu (China), or handiya (India).

But back to the chicha.  My friends went off, had a grand adventure hiking up to Machu Picchu and learning about the extraordinary history of the region, and afterward landed in Cusco.  That's where my friend Joe began asking about chicha.  A lot of the production is domestic, and finding a glass means looking for locals willing to sell it.  The way you know chicha is afoot is by looking for a particular pole with a cloth on the end.  (In Germany, they have a similar arrangement where people can brew on communal equipment and sell beer out of their homes--it's called zoigl there, and you look not for a pole but the six-pointed brewers star.)  Joe was directed to a restaurant that made it, so he didn't have to trawl Cusco for a pole--and there was some thought that maybe it would be more reliable that way.  When they arrived, they learned the place only had six glasses on hand--which of course they promptly purchased.

Joe, to his enormous credit, pocketed his glass, secreting it away in a thermos.  There's a long story of derring-do that involves carrying the precious cargo down through a portion of the Amazon, smuggling it aboard airplanes (a chicha mule was used on one leg of the flight), transferring it to a Costa Rican rum bottle for added subterfuge, and all the while finding refrigeration to store it in.  Promisingly, when Joe transferred it from the thermos to the rum bottle, it let out a sonic blast of gas--clearly still alive and fermenting along.

Last night the chicha came into my possession and we cracked it open.  When I removed the duct-taped cork from the bottle, I got another champagne-like pop--again, the mark of freshness for any traditional ale.  (And amazingly so, given the adventure that beer had been on.)  It was effervescent enough to rouse a nice head--one sustained through to the end.  There was a layer of yeast on the bottom of the bottle, and the liquid had quite a bit of particulate matter--corn flour, I'm assuming. 

What does chicha taste like?  It's actually quite palatable.  The nose was all tart yeastiness; wholesome, like fresh yogurt.  That was the effect on the palate, too--gentle acidity, but instead of breadiness, the flavor was strongly reminiscent of freshly-made tortilla.  I wonder if in addition to sprouting the corn the brewer didn't also kiln it.  It had an ever-so-slight flavor of crustiness, as if the edge of a tortilla had gotten browned.  It was thick as a milkshake and had a doughy mouthfeel.  Although you can see the little specks of corn floating in the beer, I couldn't feel them in my mouth.  It's instead just full and floury.  Joe confirmed that it was much the same as at the restaurant, but perhaps a bit more tart--predictable, given that it had continue to ferment. 

Big thanks to Joe for making the exceptional effort.  If anyone else is headed out to exotic locations where they make traditional beer, I strongly encourage you to smuggle back a portion for me.  Rum bottles work well.


The smuggler and his chicha.

Monday, August 05, 2013

I'm Willing to Call This "Craft" Brewing

You picture of the day comes from Block 15.



What you're looking at is a fourquet, an old piece of equipment used by continental breweries to stir mashes.  You can see it on labels of old European breweries, particularly those in Belgium.  I imagine the "fork" was a lot easier to wield than a paddle in the olden days, when tax law compelled breweries to make extremely thick mashes.  (Here's an example, from Brasserie St. Feuillien.)  Block 15 had a carpenter friend of the brewery fashion one for their use, and there it is in action.  Although I generally frown on the use of "craft" to describe beer-making, I have to admit this shows at least a deep affection for the art. 

Friday, August 02, 2013

Rustic Urban Brewing With The Commons

The Commons
1810 SE 10th Ave (entrance on Stephens)
Thurs-Fri 5-9pm
Saturday 2-9pm
Sunday 2-6pm


It has been something like three years since I first tasted Urban Farmhouse Ale, a beer Mike Wright was brewing on a glorified homebrew system in his garage.  It is a testament to how fast things develop that even just three years ago, rustic ales were still a bit of a rarity.  Even now, when they're pretty common on grocery store shelves, most of the people I encounter don't really know what to make of them.  Nevertheless, Urban Farmhouse found an immediate audience. From the success of that beer grew a full-size commercial brewery.  Rechristened The Commons, it opened not quite two years ago.

To my shame, I only managed to tour the place last week. It was a proper tour, though, in that I got to ask all the questions I always ask but rarely report out.  Like for example that the brewery uses a single-infusion mash and mash low, 145 degrees, to make a lithe and attenuated beer.  They use simple malt bills, Gambrinus pils and two-row, with not a lot of specialty malts.  The brewhouse was one of first systems built by Practical Fusion, a seven-barrel job that Mike admits actually yields closer to six.  They've already added 15 barrel fermenters and have larger tanks on the way.  The bottling line--wait, are your eyes glazing over?  They are, aren't they?  See, this is why I usually don't report that stuff.  Let's back up.

All about the yeast
If you look through the list of beers made at The Commons, you'll see a few stray styles on the margins, but the brewery is mainly committed to rustic ales.  (Remember that the most famous saison/farmhouse brewery in the world, Dupont, has for decades brewed a pilsner, and has lately dabbled in styles like stout.)  Some more recognizably fall in the saison camp (Urban Farmhouse, Madrone) while others are rustic but dance to their own tune.  A few have been kissed by wild yeast (like Flemish Kiss), but these are perfectly rustic, old school rustic, too.  So what is rustic?  The question interested me enough to write a post about the question--but I put it to the men of The Commons, too.

Midway through a glass of beer, Mike Wright
had to grab a wrench and go fix something.
The life of a brewer.
Each one--Mike, his brewing partner Sean Burke, and Josh Grgas--began talking about the general philosophy of beer.  Mike referenced the way saisons were once brewed on farms to be drunk by farmers while farming.  They were quenching beers, refreshing.  "It's the spirit of farm in terms of consumption"--meaning the communion of drinking together.  The brewery's motto is "gather around the beer," and I take it that the idea is that the beers should be a natural impetus to conviviality.  They should be toothsome enough to encourage sessions of drinking.

This is not a unique view about beer--cask ale and Bavarian and Czech lagers perform the same function--so then there's the philosophy of beer, which is "all about the yeast" (I failed to capture which one said that).  Mike originally selected the house yeast after the 2010 Cheers to Belgian Beers event--a farmhouse strain that comes from family-run Brasserie de Blaugies.  Unlike some of the other commercial saison yeasts out there, this one is easier to work with.  It attenuates across a wide range of temperatures (saison yeasts are notorious for crapping out before full fermentation) and doesn't morph with use.

The yeast produces a ton of character, and in primary fermentation produces warm tropical fruit esters.  It's interesting to try Urban Farmhouse Ale on both draft and from the bottle side-by-side.  On draft, when the beer has gone through only one fermentation, it's all mango and lemon-orange.  But The Commons also bottles their beer, putting them through a secondary fermentation in a warm room typical of Belgian breweries.  (Though the "room" is now actually just a corner at the back of the brewery.)  That fermentation adds a lot more spice and herbal/floral notes and even, to my palate, a stony minerality.  The draft and bottled versions taste different enough one could easily mistake them for different beers.

The Beer
It's possible that I've buried the lede here, but the Commons is making an exceptional line and Urban Farmhouse Ale may be Oregon's best beer.  For some reason, breweries think they have to brew saisons big--the vast majority are within spitting distance of 7% or higher.  (I suppose we could blame Dupont, which brews its standard saison at 6.5%).  Yet no style is as tasty when brewed small--the esters and phenols of that rustic yeast come through even in very low-alcohol beers, so there's no reason to brew them strong.  In this spirit, Urban Farmhouse is brewed to drink at 5.3%, yet it has layers and layers of flavor.  As with many saisons, you'll find a lot of variability bottle-to-bottle, but drink several and you'll start to really recognize that yeast coming through.

Enough visitors to The Commons requested IPAs that Sean Burke brewed Madrone, a beer with a bit of hop character.  He modeled it on Italian beers, which often blend the use of Belgian techniques with American hops.  Madrone's got a touch of color and some hops--nothing like an IPA, but they are evident.  The result is a slightly sweet, melony rustic ale.  (And according to reports, IPA lovers can actually be tricked into giving it a chance, usually finding that they enjoy it.)

When I visited, they had a few experiments on hand, including a small saison called Petite Classique (4.3%) made with pink peppercorns and the lush aroma of fresh peaches.  In the mouth, the warming pepper surges forward, the peaches turn out to be a phantom, and the yeast finishes things off with a dry snap.  Kindred is a collaboration with Widmer Brothers using an experimental hop (sexily named X-431) that has a distinctive basil note.  Myrtle goes through a lactic fermentation and is finished off with Meridian hops for a sharply tart beer bursting with fruity orange and tangerine flavors.  Plum Bretta, made with Italian plums, is another of my favorites--lightly tart, full of fruit, excellent balance. 

If you haven't been over to The Commons, don't feel ashamed.  Just go instead.  To whet your interest, I'll throw in a batch of photos below the fold.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

GABF Reconsiders Registration After 2013 Debacle

Perhaps you recall this incident three weeks past:
On Tuesday, the Brewers Association opened brewery registration for The Great American Beer Festival. Each year, the registration list fills up within days. Last year, it only took two days for 580 breweries to sign up. This year, however, it only took less than two hours for 600 breweries.

Complicating this year’s registration were server issues, something that has become quite common with limited events.
When you have a first-come system, you end up with things like multiple branches of the Californian Pizza Port chain getting in while stand-alones from around the country stood with their noses on the glass looking in.  No one thinks that's a great idea.  Now the Fest has a new plan.  From event director Nancy Johnson:

The 2014 GABF brewery will remain open for set number of days, and all interested breweries may enter the competition. The number of beer entries allowed per brewery will be based on doing the math of the number of breweries that registered during the sign-up period and the pre-determined capacity of beers that we can successfully judge that year. 
Here is an example to illustrate:
  • Total number of beers that can be judged = 5,000
  • The registration period lasts (is open) for two weeks; no clambering to enter during one short time window
  • Total number of eligible breweries that apply = 1,000
  • 5,000 beers / 1000 breweries = 5 entries per brewery
  • Thus in this scenario, the competition would accept the first 5 entries from every brewery that entered
  • Let’s say 2,500 breweries entered instead of 1,000: in that case, every brewery could enter 2 beers in the competition. The math would work like that for whatever number of breweries entered (Max. capacity of beers that can be judged – divided by – number of breweries entering the competition)
This is a pretty elegant solution.  It would further democratize the fest and likely spread medals around more evenly.  Firestone Walker and Chuckanut wouldn't walk out with their usual 37 medals each.  (That may cause other headaches for the GABF, like deciding breweries of the year, but one step at a time.)  It would also compel breweries to think very carefully about which beers they're sending, which I suspect would have unexpected and unpredicted consequences.  We'll see soon enough.

As a postscript, the GABF still has other registration woes:
Tickets to the 2013 Great American Beer Festival that were available to the general public were snatched up in a record-breaking 20 minutes Wednesday, causing many fans to vent frustration about scalpers suspected of crashing craft beer's biggest party and prompting more questions about whether the event needs a makeover. 
This is going to be a lot harder to fix, though the folks from Denver could look north for some solutions.  The GABF gets 49,000 attendees in three days, and there's no way to fold space to get more people in the convention center.  But they could, like the Oregon Brewers Fest, add more days.  That seemed to work out pretty well.