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


Monday, October 28, 2013

Passages

In 1983 I walked into a little record store in Salt Lake City, where I was marooned for nearly three very unpleasant years in high school.  Not only was SLC a Mormon town, then, but it was also one of the most allergic to anything but mainstream culture--a more enforced by Mormons and non-Mormons alike. I recall the day was sunny and the store suffused with light. My friend Steve and I thumbed through the stacks looking for something new until we came across a white album with the single image of a garish banana. The art was a double-entendre I would only later appreciate. Intrigued, we asks the bushy-bearded clerk what the story was.  His words are lost to the ether, but he encouraged us to drop the five bucks and listen.

Steve and I took it home and cued up the first track. We chose side two because the first song, "Heroin," sounded cool. As the first notes of Lou Reed's languid guitar trickled out, our minds grew three sizes. In a place as dark and repressed as 1980s Salt Lake City, stories of New York's marginal folk were like a beacon. Yes, better places exist. Places alluring not so much because white junkies trawled black neighborhoods, but because there were artists writing about them and making sounds so outré they may not have been music.  Get through high school, that record told me, and the world is yours.

Lou Reed died yesterday, as all old rockers must. His ouvre was full of meditations on death (he and his Velvet Underground partner, John Cale, made an obituary record for the artist of that obscene banana, Andy Warhol.)  I don't suppose he was surprised when death came. Today I'm off to New England to check out cideries for a new, still-must-remain-undiscussed, project I'm working on. (Blogging will be light at best.)  If any artist can be said to have smashed into to trajectory of my life to send it spinning off into new directions, it was Lou (and Cale). Would I be in this airport without his intervention?  Who can say. It's nice to think so, though, isn't it?

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Better History of American IPA

Source: Ron Pattinson
It was never preordained for the United States to develop an industry of 2500 independent breweries by 2013.  It took the extraordinary work of a vanguard of pioneers to till the soil and make ready the flowering to come. Among that handful of important figures, few stand taller than Charlie Papazian, and we rightly hold him in high esteem.  But he isn't a great historian of brewing, and his current blog post about IPAs gets a ton of stuff wrong.  It's a problem precisely because he's held in such high regard by so many people.  I don't want to do a point-by-point dissection of the post (though use the opportunity to read Martyn Cornell's multi-post exegeses on IPAs if you're feeling hazy on the history). 

Instead, I'd rather tackle the heart of Charlie's argument and make an important global point about brewing history and America's role in it.  
The second reason why hoppy beers have become popular in the USA is that successful American craft brewers have learned how to use new, modern and innovative techniques to extract the complex characters of American hops...  Not until the last decade of the 20th century did American craft brewers really perfect their methods to infuse maximum and varied hop character into their beer.
This is just wrong.  Beer has brewed on this planet since before civilization (making dating its origins tricky), but probably in the neighborhood of eight thousand years.  In that long time, brewers have made exactly three watershed discoveries.  Just three!
  1. They learned to malt grain.  Again, we're pre-history here, so it's all murky, but archaeologists have found evidence of a proto-beer made from unmalted barley and wheat.  (They call it "gruel beer.")  It was very weak because humans hadn't yet figured out how to unlock the sugary potential of the grain kernel.  By the time the Sumerians and Egyptians were writing about beer, they had.
  2. They figured out how to use hops.  For seven thousand years, brewers tried to balance the sweetness of fermented grain with myriad spices.  Eventually someone--probably a monk--figured out that if you boil wort with hops in it, the resultant beer will last a great deal longer.   Because hops are very strongly flavored, it took centuries for the innovation to become a standard practice.
  3. They figured out the microbiology of yeast.  Brewers knew about yeast, but they didn't know what it was or exactly how it worked.  Pasteur taught them that it was a biological process and within a few decades, they had learned how to control souring microorganisms in a way that had eluded brewers for 7,850 years.  Some ignored the information; most did not.
That's it.  One of the things you realize if you pore through the records of old beer is that nothing is new.  If you've been brewing for a few years and an idea occurred to you while you were showering one morning, go ahead and assume that it had passed the brain of another brewer in the centuries before you picked up the mashing fork.  Not only are we not brewing unusual beers now, we're brewing stuff that looks incredibly tame by the standards of the old brewer.  Those guys brewed weird.  They made titanic beers; they made tiny beers.  They made beers with tons of hops--and beers with very few.  They made light beers, dark beers, wheat beers, sour beers, beers with beans and eggs, beers with chimney soot.  They boiled some of their beers for 18 hours and others they didn't boil at all. 

The United States, if we keep our eye on the ball for the next century, may well become an important brewing country.  If we manage the trick, it won't be because we've done something new, it will be because we've done something well enough that it has developed its own contours and lines.  It will have become distinct and identifiable.  People will taste a beer and, as when they sample a cask bitter, helles lager, or abbey ale, know the country from which it came. 

IPAs look to be a good candidate for part of that development.  They have particular characteristics (though ones that are in a state of flux) that make them a cohesive group.  They have begun to capture the attention of the population.  But let's not kid ourselves: strong, hoppy ales are hardly new.  It wasn't our cleverness or modern techniques that made them take off.  We have great hops here, vivid and varied, but great hops have been in use, in different countries, for nearly a thousand years.  It takes an equal measure of hubris and historical ignorance to think we've invented something new.  (Sort of like how Europeans "discovered" America.)  We have found a style that harnesses local ingredients and expresses our flavor preferences, and we've stuck with the style for about a decade.  All good.  But we have more work to do.

Be leery of claims about America's import in the brewing world.  Few endeavors have a longer history or have been practiced by more people over the millennia.  It is an exciting time to live, and thanks to technological advances and a shrinking world, more styles of beer are available to Americans than have ever been available to one nation before.  But we didn't invent those styles or the methods of brewing them and, even when we can maybe fool ourselves into thinking an idea is new, it's best to start with the assumption it's not. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Buy This Book: Pete Dunlop's "Portland Beer"

Portland Beer by Pete Dunlop
American Palate/The History Press, 142 pages
$20 

I don't think anyone who has visited Portland doubts its place in the pantheon of good beer cities.  Its status is far too nascent to offer comparisons to historic centers like Munich and Brussels, but now, in 2013, it has precious few rivals.  You may ask yourself: why?

History is a funny thing.  In the moment, world-historical events may not seem world-historical (did contemporaries realize what fruit Rosa Park's bus ride would bear?).  We tend to retroactively designate one moment to stand in for what were, in the event, a long series of smaller causal happenings.  And because things happen incrementally, we sometimes forget how remarkable they are.  It is the job of historians to look at end points and snake their way back through time to answer the question of how we got here.

In what will become the definitive narrative for years forward, Pete Dunlop lays it all out.  When we scan the current beer scene, what we see--the fifty Portland breweries, the seeming established reality of craft beer--is actually only the denouement.  The real story begins far earlier, almost as far back as the founding of the city.  It was in 1845 that Bostonian Lovejoy and Mainer Pettygrove flipped their coin to name the city; seven years later, the town of a thousand had its first brewery.

The period between the birth of Liberty Brewery and the sale of the Weinhard Brewery to Pabst in 1979 is largely untrod territory, but critical in understand why Portland is now Beervana.  My favorite chapters in the book describe the period following Prohibition through the 1970s, as the city's brewery struggled to stay solvent in a world of mass-production and -distribution that ultimately swamped it.  It reads like an elegy not just for Blitz-Weinhard, but a city that was once the pride of the Northwest but was slipping into second-rate status.

Then there are the indispensable chapters on the early craft breweries, including the quirk of the failed, bottle-only Cartwright Brewery and the keen preference it sparked among later craft breweries to stick with the draft market.  The chapter on the brewpub bill corrects long-held misunderstanding about how the fight moved through the legislature.  And finally, most of the later chapters focus on the founders--a critical capturing of that oral history while the principals are around to tell it.

I was writing about beer for some of the history covered in the book and--full disclosure--Pete interviewed me and I'm quoted in the book.  And it's obviously a topic I'm deeply interested in.  But my own connection aside, I encourage everyone to get a copy--those who like beer but live outside of Portland, those who don't like beer and do live in Portland, and of course, the hordes who live in Portland and love beer.  It's a wonderful story wonderfully told, relevant to the Upright-only beer geeks as much as to the beer-neutral Portlander interested in her city.  It's a story about beer, but it transcends it.  It is a story of a place and how culture evolved there--a universal tale.  And one you should read.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Future is Now

I have been thinking a lot about cider lately.  When you approach one fermented beverage with the mental framework from another, you can be in for a surprise.  For example, in Britain, to be called "cider" a product must contain 35% apple juice.  Thirty-five percent!  Large brewing conglomerates like AB InBev have been excoriated as the worst kind of corporate criminals by "craft beer" fans, but they don't peddle a product that is only 35% beer.  Beer is beer.

Nevertheless, they do excoriate.  The Brewers Association has done a great job of promoting the notion of "crafty," the imposter beer made by breweries owned by the wrong entity.  Or even beer made by breweries only subtly tainted by a connection to the wrong company (see Brothers, Widmer).  It has been pretty easy to hold this line because most of the breweries in America are still owned by people south of 70 years old.  But soon, very soon, that will change.  And those elderly gents or their families will sell their breweries.  Behold the latest example:
As European interest in American craft beers begins to mirror the mania for them stateside, the Duvel Moortgat Brewery of Belgium on Thursday announced a deal to buy the Boulevard Brewing Company, a craft brewery in Kansas City, Mo.
Because this deal involves a small brewing conglomerate that makes a mere 700,000 barrels a year (less than Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and Boston Beer) and involves small, groovy Belgian breweries like La Chouffe and Liefmans (as well as Ommegang), it's BA-kosher.
As defined by the Brewers Association, a craft brewer must produce no more than six million barrels a year (a lower limit was dropped when the Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams, exceeded it). Any ownership stake by a non-craft alcoholic beverage company must be less than 25 percent. Otherwise, a brewery cannot be a voting member of the association.
Whew, no InBev taint. 

Kosher.
But the writing should be on the wall.  In recent years we have seen Anchor and then Goose Island and now Boulevard transfer from family hands to those of others.  Each one is instructive of the challenges these 2500 American family breweries will face in the coming decades.  The Hall family decided to sell Goose Island to AB InBev--the kind of sale that has been popular in brewing for centuries.  Fritz Maytag sold Anchor to investors who have taken it forward as a private concern--unconnected to other brewing enterprises.  And now John McDonald has sold to a consortium of small Belgian breweries.  In each case you can see how the wishes of the founder may be more or less honored in the decades to come.

But the notion that these are anything other than breweries going through an inevitable and ancient churn--that Goose Island, because it is now owned by InBev, became "crafty" while Moortgat-owned Boulevard is straight "craft"--should be easy enough to spot as the fraud it is.  Or put it another way.  When you find someone calling something "beer" that only has 35% beer in it, let me know.  I'll help assemble the tar and feathers.  Otherwise, carry on.

Monday, October 21, 2013

John Harris' New Joint (Ecliptic Brewing) Opens Today

Ecliptic Brewing
825 North Cook Street
Mon-Thurs 11a to 11p, Fri-Sun, 11a to midnight
Twenty-five years ago, John Harris decamped from Portland and the McMenamins still-tiny empire to Bend to create the beers for a start-up called Deschutes.  His first three were Cascade Ale, Bachelor Bitter, and Black Butte Porter.  Soon he'd brew up Mirror Pond, Obsidian Stout, and Jubelale.  After a few years he came back to Portland to work for Full Sail down at the RiverPlace brewery and stayed there twenty years. Anyone who stays at a place twenty years looks to be settled in, but last year John caught us by surprise.  He was leaving Full Sail, he said, and starting his own place.

John Harris is sciencey.  A few years back he printed up a bunch of t-shirts with molecules on them of alcohol and caffeine.  He has what looks like abstract art on the walls of the new place--but turn out to be magnified beer.  His real passion, it turns out, is the distant, not the magnified: the stars.  The name of the brewery refers to the path of the sun, and his first beers have names like "Procyon" and "Arcturus"--names of stars.

In the movement of heavenly bodies, there is a circularity, as littler objects spin around bigger ones.  I therefore found the selection of the first three Ecliptic beers to be exactly appropriate: a pale, a porter (not quite on tap), and an IPA.  John has circled back to his roots, and for those wishing to reflect, subtly reminds us of what a huge influence he's had on the flight path of American brewing.

The Place
Ecliptic is at the southern end of the Mississippi neighborhood, 352 yards from Amnesia Brewing.  It looks out, if you keep your eyes cast upward, over the buildings of downtown.  It's one of those perfect locations for a brewery--an industrial space right on the edge of a vibrant neighborhood close in to downtown.  The building is a huge warehouse (huge), and the spacious pub has been carved out of just part of the space.  It is modern and architectural, with touches that echo the space theme--lights that hang like planets from the ceiling, wall designs of famous star constellations.  I expected it to be really noisy, but the ceiling is so tall that noise just keeps on rising, with nothing to reflect it back on the hard surfaces far below.  From one end of the pub, you can see the brewery through glass walls, but even that is deceiving.  While the brewery is adjacent to the pub, there's tons of space out beyond it for bottling lines, fermenters, barrel rooms--whatever catches John's fancy.

The Brewery
Brewers never have piles of money laying around.  When they decide to go out on their own, they have to raise money and moderate their desires for ultramodern, copper-clad systems.  This is true even for an old hand like John Harris, and so he stretched his dollars by picking up odd equipment here and there.  He had originally picked up the original kettle from BridgePort, a fantastic historical piece that unfortunately needed more work than it was worth.  So instead he found a kettle made by JV Northwest, that wound up in Japan.  He also located BridgePort's second mash tun, which somehow ended up at Dogfish Head.  Other pieces come from Bear Republic, BridgePort, a California BJ's--and possibly elsewhere.

He'll do standard single-infusion brewing, making unfiltered beer in what promises to be a variety of styles.  (A pale lager is conditioning now.)  Eventually he'll do some barrel-aging and has a corner of the unfinished warehouse in mind.  If you think back to the beers that were available at the Pilsner Room over the years, you have some sense of the variety he may have in mind. 

The Beers
Honest pints!
At the moment, he has two non-collaboration beers on tap, a pale (Procyon or Little Dog Star) and an IPA (Arcturus, Guardian of the Bear).  The pale is more a small IPA (5.9%, 60 real IBUs) and finished out bone dry: 1.006/1.5 P.  That gives the hops even more pop, and this will be the beer for the folks who want bitterness.  The Arcturus also have tons of hops, but with its bigger base and higher finishing gravity (7.4%. 75 IBU), the perception is less bitter.  It's not all the way to the sweet IPA, but with a "C-hop constellation," it definitely nods in that direction.

For the time being, there are no flagships or steady beers.  John is getting used to the new system and he's going to let popularity decide which beers stick around.  He's got collaborations with Gigantic (TicWitTic, a tart wit) and Widmer (Half-Mile Pale) to round out the current offerings.  The wit, incidentally, is quite a lovely beer.  It's just 3.9% and was kettle-soured to pleasing--but far from challenging--acidity.  But I would like the 3.9% beer best, wouldn't I?

The Food
I'm going to have to punt on this one.  The chef, Michael Molitor, comes from Pazzo, and John really wants the food to be a major calling card.  "The beer will bring you in, but the food will bring you back."  The menu will rotate seasonally every six weeks and the goal is to be one of Portland's best restaurants--John's keen to crack the top-100 best restaurants list, a feat (and not a big one) no brewpub has ever done.

I had a taste of duck wings and an Gem State finger steaks (Molitor is from Idaho) and the duck wings in particular were very nice.  But looking over the full menu, it looks pretty pub-grubby to me--a state of affairs John said he wanted to transcend.  Of course, you could have burgers and fish and chips and still make the list of top restaurants--but they would have to be especially well-done and probably a bit unusual.  I had neither, though, so we'll have to put that aside for the moment.

The Upshot
I figured any new brewery by John Harris would be well-conceived and well-executed.  He got a brewery and pub installed in just a few months and has a primo location, so things are so far exactly in line with my high expectations.  The beer, despite being brewed on a new system, is as polished as you'd expect from a guy who helped found Beervana now nearly thirty years ago.  Definitely put it on your short list of places to check out.

I'll add more pics below the fold.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Advice to the Brewers Guild and Oregon Brewers

It is time to take down my list of 2013's fresh hop beers, shelve my memories of the piquant flavor of Solera's Chubby Bunny, and look forward to the season of darker, stronger potions.  But not until I throw out one last fresh hop post: a request to the Oregon Brewers Guild and Oregon Brewers to spend the next few months preparing for the 2014 fresh hop season.  It is not only one of the most interesting times of the beer calendar, but also the most under-utilized. 

How could Oregon utilize fresh hop season?  We don't have to run a thought experiment but instead turn our attention to Beaujolais in France. 
At one past midnight on the third Thursday of each November, from little villages and towns like Romanèche-Thorins, over a million cases of Beaujolais Nouveau begin their journey through a sleeping France to Paris for immediate shipment to all parts of the world. Banners proclaim the good news: Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé! "The New Beaujolais has arrived!"
There are a lot of ways in which the analogy is inapt: Beaujolais Nouveau is an inferior product released early because keeping won't do it any good.  ("Its charm is its innocent, not-quite-wine character," says Karen MacNeil in the Wine Bible.)  But fresh-hop beers, made well, are rare and exceptional--you could say almost the reverse, that they are the pure, innate essence of beer.  The wine can be bottled and sent around the world, but to truly get the experience of a fresh hop beer, you need to have it within days of its release. 

All of which means that to enjoy a fresh hop season, you have to go to the hops.  There are only two states in the US equipped to handle large-scale commercial production, and they join just a slight few others across the globe (England, Bavaria, Bohemia, New Zealand).  I encourage Oregon brewers to think a lot bigger and harness the moment to focus attention on what we do here.  How?  Here are a few suggestions:
  • Start promoting it.  This is a huge opportunity.  One of the big problems in promoting Oregon breweries is that most of them don't distribute very far; they don't need to, since Oregonians happily lap up all the beer they can produce.  But it means people elsewhere have a dim sense of the beers we brew.  Making fresh hop season a destination akin to (if not on the scale of) Munich Oktoberfest and Beaujolais Nouveau season gives people a reason to come to Oregon--and a reason only one other state can match.  
  • Collect accurate, up-to-date information.  I tried my best to keep track of the fresh hop releases, but come on, I'm a detail-challenged blogger.  The Guild should set up a special website that has release dates of all the fresh hop beers and their details. 
  • I'm an "ambassador" for Travel Oregon and regularly get questions from visitors coming to Portland, the Coast, or Bend.  For those heading to Bend, the answer is a snap: go download the Bend Ale Trail app.  There should be a fresh hop app, too.  The app would incorporate information about which beers were pouring, which hops they used, and which pubs and breweries you could find them at. And since you're collecting info for the website, it's a snap to keep the app up-to-date.
  • Bring the hop farms in on the action.  The brewers in Oregon have established great relationships with hop farmers in the Valley.  We know the names of Gail Goschie, John Annen, Doug Weathers and others because breweries visit their farms at harvest.  Highlight the terroir of the hops in the beer by identifying the hop farms and their hops.
  • Tasting event focal-points.  The heart of the summer beer season is the OBF, the sun around which all the other events orbit.  I'm not sure that there needs to be a similar huge fest for fresh hop beers, but there need to be more opportunities to enjoy these as a group.  Fresh hop farmers markets?  A fest in a hop field in the Willamette Valley?  Fresh hop feasts?  One day in Hood River and a short evening and afternoon in Portland just isn't enough.
  • Finally, bring journalists to Oregon to cover the event. You gotta get the word out.

This is one of the most interesting things happening in beer anywhere.  Beer people who are constantly on the lookout for new things would have a ball spending a long weekend in Portland in late September. It's the kind of spectacle that supports all the brewers, irrespective of size or fame.  It not only helps strengthen the Oregon brand, but could create and define it.  (And creating a brand out of a collection of breweries connected only by location is no easy feat.)  Finally, fresh hop season brings people into a state whose beers they may have heard a fuss about but never had a chance to really experience. But with a little organization and effort, it could bring an order of magnitude more people here, with attendant benefits for everyone from brewers and publicans to hop growers and hoteliers.  The moment, like fresh hops themselves, is ripe for the picking.  Don't miss another year's opportunity.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Double Mountain's Matt Swihart on Fresh Hop Beers

When I was canvassing brewers about fresh hop beers, Double Mountain founder/brewer Matt Swihart sent me the following comments.  They're so interesting and insightful I asked Matt if I could post them as a guest post and he agreed.  Here it is.

Guest post by Matt Swihart

Matt at the release of Devil's Kriek, made with cherries
from his farm.
There is an amazing movement in the brew world that has been happening for the last several years. Starting with the fine folks at Sierra Nevada, brewers have been going into the hop fields at harvest, pulling freshly picked cones off the vine, and racing them to the breweries to use in the brewing process prior to the hops going into the kiln at the hop farm.

The reason for this arduous process is to grab all the fresh aroma of a freshly picked hop and losing nothing in the drying process. Let me back up a tad. Hops are grown on an 18’ string on a trellis system and when they are ready for harvest, the flowers (cones, buds, whatever you call them) are pulled into the hop picker (giant buildings with crazy rube Goldberg apparatus) to remove the cones from the vines, and then transferred directly to a drying building or kiln. At harvest, the fresh cones are rich with oils, resins, and moisture that are the heart and soul of beer, beer flavor and aroma. The Northwest IPA and West Coast pales simply do not exist without hop flavor and bitterness. Unfortunately the high moisture and oil content at harvest also starts to break down and physically compost once the vine is cut. The kilns bring the moisture of the cones from somewhere in the 80% range down to 9%.  The drag is with the drying process some very interesting aroma and flavor compounds are lost, hence the goal of using the hops prior to kilning. The competing goals of maximizing fresh hop aroma without introducing the vegetative, composting breakdown of high moisture hops begin at harvest.

When making our fresh hop beers (Killer Green with Brewers’ Gold, and Killer Red with Perle), we try to minimize the time from picking until the brew kettle. Over the last several years, I’ve seen the composting oily fraction of wet, undried hops happen right in front of my eyes. It is imperative to loosely pack your undried hops and get them into a kettle within hours of harvest. In Hood River, we are about 90 minutes from Sodbuster farms, so we send our truck about the same time as mash-in. The hops arrive back at the brewery typically minutes from use in the first brew. If we are making multiple brews, we refrigerate the hops as soon as possible, or make multiple trips to the farm. I recall a few years of trying to be more efficient, pack more hops into a truck and store them cold prior to usage. Hops with higher oil content have started to heat up as soon as a couple hours after picking. On a Brewers’ Gold run a year back, the hops turned orange and heated almost hot to the touch deep inside the hop bins and you could visually see the oil and moisture being driven off the hops, even though they were in a cooler at 33F.

I think it is those situations where the stinky, vegetative, musty aromas pop up in some wet hop beers. From my perspective, you simply can’t use non-dried hops more than 12-24 hours after picking, unless you can spread them out in a cooler, and keep ‘em cold.

In the brewing process, we use the wet hops in a couple of locations. We still use pellets in the kettle for bitterness, but add a nylon bag (dry hop bag) stuffed with fresh hops late in the boil for flavor. Where the Killer beers get most of their character is when we add the largest charge of wet hops to our hop back. This maximizes the flavor/fresh hop aroma into the wort with minimal chance of picking up bitterness. It allows us to use 4-5 lbs of hop/bbl and get the flavor we want.

We’ve then dry-hopped with traditional hops and/or also dry hopped with wet hops on various years. I  found the most pleasing Killer Beers to have a little of both. With that method, you can have the best of both worlds, using various forms of hops (pellets, wet hops, dried cones) to make the best beer possible. For the killer green and red, our usage is roughly 4 lbs/bbl wet hop and about 0.5 – 1 lb/bbl traditional hop.

The process changes a bit every year as we experiment with how to keep that great field aroma of the hop into the glass. There is no nobler endeavor.

Matt Swihart has been brewing since 1994.  Before founding Double Mountain Brewery with Charlie Devereux in 2007, he brewed at Full Sail, ultimately becoming assistant brewmaster there. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On Making a Good Fresh Hop Beer: the Brewers Speak

Fresh hop season is now mostly in the rear-view mirror.  There are still some fresh hop beers floating around, but we're now six weeks out from the harvest, a good long since the hops came off the vine.  The best beers have already blossomed and faded, putting 2013 in the books.  In my unofficial tracking of things, fifty-one breweries and two cideries used fresh hops to make 91 beers and two ciders.  My guess is the actual number is safely north of a hundred beers, but it's very difficult to keep track of such a fluid and evanescent moment.

Fresh hop beers have been around twenty years, but I don't think that breweries actually figured them out until just three or four years ago.  I first started writing about them in 2007, just about the time fresh hop beers started becoming a mass phenomenon, with many breweries making them.  I awarded a Satori (best beer of the year) to Full Sail Lupulin, a fresh hop beer, but it was an outlier.  A lot of my experiences were along these lines:

"The bitterness was notable, but it didn't taste like hop bitterness, but like ... well, like a pot of boiled weeds."

".... a slightly off aroma that you might charitably call "cabbage." As it goes down the gullet, and particularly after it warms in the glass, "garbage" or "compost" spring more quickly to mind."
That quality of decomposition was especially notable and prevalent.  It was the element I once used to separate the good from the bad, and the percentage in 2007-2009 probably wasn't much better than 50%. Winners on the level of Lupulin were extremely rare.  The excitement of fresh hop season and the postcard images of breweries at the hop fields made for a feel-good season, but not necessarily great beer.  For years I was a skeptic.

But lo, in the last couple-three years, breweries really started dialing it in.  The number of breweries making compost beer dropped precipitously, and those vivid, green flavors I found in Lupulin were everywhere.  Perhaps as many as ten percent of the beers really rocked me back--they seemed both extraordinary and authentically novel.

So what changed?  I inquired with a group of brewers that really seem to reliably produce excellent fresh hop beers to see what they had to say.  What were their methods.  My working theory is that using fresh hops throughout the boil--once seen as the only "true" method--added too much vegetable matter and created the compost note.  I couched my question from that perspective and found some agreement.  Here's Laurelwood's Vasilios Gletsos:
"When I moved to Mactarnahan's/Pyramid/PBCo, I didn't have the flexibility to use fresh hops on the hot side [the kettle], so I devised a plan to add them in secondary/conditioning tanks. We did this as whole flower breweries (Deschutes or Sierra Nevada before torpedo) do: stuffed into mesh bags and tied them to the bottom of the vessel (in our case, since we didn't have tank hooks, we cleaned up heavy chunks of stainless and tied then to that). This gave the best, "Fresh Squeezed" flavor I have ever gotten from fresh hops. A beautiful mix of peach fruit cup with a touch of tea, and an unparalleled horticultural mouthfeel (if that makes sense)."
But wait--not so fast!  I also spoke to one of those "whole flower" breweries, Deschutes.  (Most breweries, especially larger ones, use pellets, which are more compact.)  Brewer Cam O'Connor does use them on the "hot side" for some of their fresh hop beers:
"This hop addition happens in the hot wort, usually in the kettle or in the hopback, where wort is transferred onto the hops. The impact we are looking for here is a nice juicy in-your-face hop aroma and flavor without a lot of vegetative flavors. Hop Trip and Chasin freshies are both made using the hot side hop additions." 
But he agreed that "cold-side" fresh hopping has its place, as well.
"This method is very similar to traditional dry hopping except you are using fresh/wet hops to dry hop the beer in the bright beer tank. The impact from this method is usually potent in aroma and flavor and can pick up some of the vegetative qualities from the fresh hop. We make some of the pub beers using this method. It is very difficult to do on a large scale so the pubs work very well. Fresh Hop Mirror Pond is made using this method." 

You note that Cam mentioned picking up a "vegitative note" even in the bright tank? Vasili agreed and offered a recommendation:
"Don't leave it on the hops too long (48-72 hours seems good) before racking it off, which limits contact with the vegetal matter and may be contributing to the [unpleasant] flavors."
Writing for Gigantic, Van Havig added a point I'd never considered--oil content.
I think it really all lies in hop choice. The higher oil hops seem to make better fresh hop beers.  This makes intuitive sense, of course. But it really is the case that you have to start with the right raw materials. After that, I think boiling is a bad idea. It extracts things you don't want, and potentially drives off oil.  So late additions - hop back generally - is where it's at. When we make them, we add a little bit of a known Bittering hop at the start of boil, and then ALL of the wet hops go in the hop back.  We use a lot - 200+ lbs for 15 BBLs. If we need to "touch it up" with dry hops, we use a light hand (1/4 lb / bbl or so)."
Another factor Double Mountain's Matt Swihart points out is how dangerously perishable fresh hops are. 
I think it is those situations where the stinky, vegetative, musty aromas pop up in some wet hop beers. From my perspective, you simply can’t use non-dried hops more than 12-24 hours after picking, unless you can spread them out in a cooler, and keep ‘em cold.
One of main issues, he points out, resonates with Van's point about oil content:
Unfortunately the high moisture and oil content at harvest also starts to breakdown and physically compost once the vine is cut.
Which suggests that the sooner they get into the wort/beer, the better.  (This gives Oregon brewers a real advantage--Portland-area breweries are 45 minutes from the hop fields.)  I'll have a full guest post from Matt tomorrow that gives one of the best descriptions of the care and tending of fresh hops I've ever read.

As with all things brewing, there are different methods and approaches.  Matt recommends using traditional kilned hops in the conditioning tank along with wet hops, while Vasili cautions against it.  (For Matt, the combo is "pleasing" while to Vasili it's "distracting.")  Your experiences may vary.  A consensus seems to be forming around adding the hops later rather than earlier.  In addition, use the freshest possible fresh hops and hops with high oil content. 

After that?  Probably pray to Ninkasi that the crop was good and the oils rich and vibrant.  There's a certain bit of alchemy in the process that makes fresh hop beers a bit of a mystery. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Drink Beer for Angelo

On Thursday night, you should go down to The Commons and have a pint.  There's an event there exactly typical for Portland--beers from the host brewery along with Breakside, Deschutes, Fort George, Gigantic, Laurelwood, Ninkasi, Occidental, Upright, Vertigo and Widmer.  But actually, it's totally unlike anything that normally happens here in Beervana.  The proceeds for the night's swillin' go to Angelo De Ieso, the pied piper of Portland beer.  You surely know his face and probably have spent some time with him.  If so, you know him as one of the most genuinely nice guys in the world. 

Unfortunately, Angelo's had some extremely bad luck.  His friend and co-Brewpublican DJ Paul explains:
Last month while I was in Seattle I heard some horrific news that my friend and Brewpublic’s founder, Angelo De Ieso, suffered through some intense seizures and was in the hospital at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center in Springfield, Oregon. I was able to track Angelo down through his wonderful and caring brother Mario just before Angelo went into brain surgery. The doctors needed to do this so they could do a biopsy on what they found to be a brain tumor. I remembered this call quite vividly as tears were brought to my eyes. How could Angelo be going into brain surgery I asked myself? I just spoke to him a few days prior finalizing some locations for his upcoming KillerBeerWeek. Everything seemed just fine.
After almost 2 grueling weeks in the hospital Angelo was finally discharged still without any knowledge of the results of the biopsy on his brain tumor. Then the time came last week for him to travel back down to Springfield with his brother to meet with his team of doctors to discuss his biopsy results. Dr. Eller informed him of the great news that the brain tumor is benign. However, Angelo will still have a long road ahead of him since he may continue to suffer from future seizures. And with this comes more and more medical and pharmaceutical costs.
It is absolutely unforgivable that anyone should go without health care in the US, but lots of folks fly without it.  Bloggers, for example.  But that's the country we have, and Angelo is one of those folks.  As a consequence, he's $200,000 in the hole.  I doubt very seriously that you can drink enough beer Thursday night to cover his tab, but by god, you ought to try.  You've never had a better excuse.

If for some reason you can't make it to The Commons, go over to this website where you can help defray his costs. 

Angelo and Dr. Eller

Monday, October 14, 2013

Wrapping Up GABF 2013

The 2013 edition of the GABF is now in the books, and the brewers are back home polishing medals or grudges.  Oregon took 25 medals, ten percent of the total, which seems like a nice haul indeed.  But before webfeet get a big head, keep in mind that California took 52 and Colorado 46.  And further keep in mind that the medals are only distributed to breweries who did (or were able) to enter the fest.  Of the 2,500 breweries in the US, only 600 got to enter beers.  When you look at the paltry haul for Wisconsin (5), Washington (4), and Maine (0) three superb brewing states, you can see how the numbers don't show the whole picture. 

On the other hand, medal-winners can take enormous pride.  GABF's blind-tasting is rigorous and no half-assed beers makes it through the juggernaut.  If a beer medaled, it's a very good beer.  So which very good Oregon beers were acknowledged by judges?  The 25 came from twelve breweries, and there were a number of multiple-award winners.  A few notes:
  • The Barley Brown/Baker City Brewing operation is a medal machine: five in all, three of which were gold--including Pallet Jack IPA, entered in the most-competitive category in the competition (252 entries).  The brewery hasn't lost a beat since Shawn Kelso decamped for 10 Barrel.  Congrats to Marks Lanham and Eli Dickison.
  • Nor has Bend Brewing, which lost Tonya Cornett to 10 Barrel, but still picked up three medals.  Congrats to Ian Larkin. 
  • Harvester gets some serious cred for winning gold in the gluten-free category.  Everyone wants to brew a better gluten-free beer, and in 2013, they're all looking to Harvester.
  • Bolt Minister (Old Town) and Dave Marliave (Flat Tail) were first-time winners.  Bolt took gold in the fresh hop category, and Dave took silver in kolsch and bronze in the catastrophically-named American-Belgo-Style Ale.  
  • I don't know if the big breweries entered this year, but it was the little guys who brought home the medals.  In addition to the ones already mentioned, Breakside and The Commons double-medaled, and not-quite-so-wee 10 Barrel, Oakshire, and Pelican also medaled.  Of the big boys, only Deschutes (two silvers) and Ninkasi (1 gold) made the winner's circle.
I'd like to offer a special shout-out to The Commons for their silver in the saison category.  When I suggested it was one of Oregon's best beers, some folks scoffed--other Commons offerings are more complex, they said.  But that's just the point: Urban Farmhouse is an understated masterpiece, with tons of fermentation character highlighted by its small size.  The judges agreed.  Also to Ninkasi, which won, perhaps improbably, for Bohemian Pils.  Jamie Floyd and Co. have demonstrated remarkable fealty to honest lagers over the past few years--despite their reputation as a hop house--and I'm glad to see the judges agreed.  

Of course, congrats go to everyone--

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cider Tasting at Portland Nursery

By the way, if you want to taste Kevin Zielinski's cider, head on down to Portland Nursery from 10a - 5 pm tomorrow and Fri-Sunday next week (Oct 18-20) to try some great local ciders.  It's a buck a token and you can sample from EZ Orchards, Wandering Aengus/Anthem, Reverend Nat's, Finnegan, Finn River, Schilling, and Portland Cider.  Kevin and his wife are pouring, so you can say hi to them, too. 

Wandering Aengus's James Kohn (l) and Kevin Zielinski,
this afternoon at Portland Nursery

Cider Saturday: Among the Trees at EZ Orchards

Kevin Zielinski is one of those guys who's far more well-known more among his peers than the general public.  He is a third-generation orchardist on land located just north of Salem.  His grandfather planted the farm, EZ Orchards, in 1929, and the family has been growing fresh produce ever since.  Locals are far more likely to know the Zielinskis for Harvest Fest and the Farm Market than what must look like a side project to them.  And yet within the cider community, Zielinski commands enormous respect for his coruscating, complex French-style ciders.

Most Northwest cideries do not own their own orchards nor come from a growing background.  In this way they differ from Oregon vintners, who commonly do grow their own grapes.  I often talk to a cider-makers who are quick to say that they wouldn't know how to manage an orchard and are happy to have someone else do it properly.  A couple weeks ago, I took a trip down to EZ so I could hear an orchardist cider-maker talk about the tree and fruit side of things.  You will not be surprised to learn that I found it illuminating.

The Zielinskis used to grow exclusively eating apples, but in 2000 a winemaker approached Kevin with the idea of having him grow cider apples to make French-style cider.  The vintner supplied the scion wood for grafting--twelve varieties of French cider apples.  Wait, scion wood?  Right, let's stop for a bit of botany.  If you take the seed from that honey crisp you love and plant it, a tree will grow that produces entirely different apples--a quirk known as "heterozygosity" in genomics.  Instead, you have to graft the branch that grew your apple onto a new apple tree in order to get the honey crisp, That branch is called scion wood.  Kevin was happy to oblige, and planted twelve varieties of apples, 300 trees in all, on an acre of his land.

A new graft.
The vintner left in 2003 before the trees were producing much volume, but Kevin decided to go ahead and make cider himself.  His first vintage came out in 2007, and he's been refining and expanding ever since.

During my tour, our first stop was at a new field recently switched over to cider apples, using branches from other trees in the orchard.  The trees are grafted in the spring and by fall have knitted together pretty well. What you see in the picture to the left is a bit of residue from the yellow tape that keeps out bacteria and fungus and keeps the sap flowing.  The advantage of grafting is speed: a new tree will take seven years to produce, but a new graft will become productive in half the time.  The initial acre of land has now grown to eleven. 

Kevin decided to stick with French apple varieties and he makes cider in the French method.  We passed trees with names like (and I hope I'm spelling them correctly) Frequin Rouge, Domaine, and Pomme Fatille.  I have a sense orchardists relate differently to their fruit than do many cider makers.  As we approached each new variety, Kevin would light up and describe the qualities of the fruit and the growing behavior of the tree--as if they had individual personalities, like people.  Even when a type of apple was more or less a failure, he'd call it a "curious" tree, as if it were just misbehaving.

The cider he makes is distinctive in that it is made in a way that accentuates the fruit.  The French method borrows from the philosophy of winemaking, which is also Kevin's approach.  “My wine-making interest was in doing spontaneous ferments, a very fruit-sensitive, fruit-aware method of fermentation.  So as I was looking at the way to make cider, I looked at a more traditional or ancestral method.”  Describing the French method is something for a different post, but one of the key features is it involves using no additives at all, including yeast. 

What you taste in an EZ Orchard cider comes exclusively from the apple and its fermentation.  Apple skins are coated with yeasts that spark fermentation on their own.  EZ Orchards produces essentially one type of cider that comes from a blend of the ten different apple varieties.  It takes months of fermentation and conditioning, and is bottled like sparkling french wine with natural carbonation.  (Kevin did recently add his version of a mass-market cider called Hawk Haus that is made with the old dessert variety Jonathans and a touch of Yarlington Mill and crab apple--but it is otherwise produced in the same way as the regular cider.)  Everything is natural.

Coming from the place of an orchardist gives the Zielinskis a particular perspective.  They are used to very long lag times.  Plant an orchard and wait nearly a decade for it to become a commercial crop.  They can look back over the decades of farm life and therefore see everything as a long game. Kevin is in no great hurry to get his cider from tree to bottle, so he can take a year to get out a new vintage.  And when he grinds and presses his apples at a nearby winery and begins the slow process of fermentation and conditioning, he's happy to let the cider mature at its own pace.  “If I’m making cider from fruit, let’s let the fruit be the factor that has the most influence.”  He describes himself as an orchardist, not a cider-maker, but that's not exactly right.  He is a cider maker, too--just one who wants to make sure drinkers are tasting every bit of the flavor and aroma he enjoys from the tree.

A ripe, "water-cored" apple.  Kevin: "the conversion
of the fruit as it ripens and it’s getting laden with juice."


The Zielinski's farm market.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The GABF and You

The Great American Beer Festival roars to life today for the 32nd time, and tons of giddy brewers are converging on Denver to see if their prize stouts and schwarzbiers might take home the gold.  I was reminded of this when I sent out a batch of inquiries about fresh hop beers yesterday--and got bounce-backs and hasty I'll-reply-laters written from airport terminals. 

Nebraska Brewing at the 2011 GABF.
It makes abundant sense why breweries get psyched for this fest: it's the brewers' Academy Awards.  There are lots of other competitions out there, but they're like the Golden Globes and Independent Spirit Awards--cool, but hardly defining.  As more and more exceptionally capable young brewers have set out on their own, the GABF has, if anything, gained importance.  When a brewery like The Commons, Silver Moon, Breakside, or Barley Brown's wins a medal--and they all did last year--it is a huge honor.  In blind tastings, no one knows you only make a thousand barrels.

For the 50,000 people who live in or travel to Denver, the GABF is also obviously a treat.  Denver turns into one giant venue, and on the drinking floor, festgoers have access to the greatest number of American breweries assembled in one place.  For beer geeks, seeing Matt Brynildson or Garrett Oliver cruise by is something like seeing Ryan Gosling on the red carpet.  I've only been to the fest once, but I can happily recommend that everyone try to make their own hajj, too.  It's worth it.

But what if you're one of the 300 million Americans who don't brew professionally and who aren't in Denver?  Every year I try to find a hook, but except for the Saturday announcement of the winners it's very difficult to think why this fest is relevant to anyone not attending.  It's a big party, people have lots of fun and make lots of connections, but this isn't anything we care about, right?  The selfies and celeb shots will start clogging Twitter as besotted fest-goers immerse themselves in the party, but those tweets contain a big dose of subtext: "don't you wish you were here, neener neener?" 

So tell me, wise hive mind: is there really anything of importance for the mass of men outside Denver?  Should the host Brewers Association think about ways to make it possible for more people to get involved--or is it better that the fest is brief and exclusive?  Is it good or bad that the GABF is one of those you-had-to-be-there experiences for attendees only?

(I am and have been for years on the fence about this.)

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Michigan May Make Honest Pints the Law

Because I (and my indispensable friend, Shawn) have passed the Honest Pint Project on to other champions (where it appears to have passed away), I have mostly stayed away from issues related to transparency in glass sizing.  But then Time Magazine goes and writes this:
Two Michigan representatives are raising their glasses to a bill that would make it an “offense” to serve or advertise a pint that contains fewer than 16 ounces of beer... 

The Michigan proposal is just the latest in the movement for state-regulated pint standards, nicknamed “honest pints.” For context, the approximately 20-ounce “Imperial Pint” is the government-regulated standard in the U.K., and those glasses have been specially marked, the Wall Street Journal reported. Stateside, Oregon beer blogger Jeff Alworth has been one of the major advocates, co-founding the “Honest Pint Project” in 2007, where he has catalogued pubs nationwide that serve fuller pints on his website and has lobbied the Oregon state legislature to pass 16-ounce standards — though the bill did fail to pass in the state senate.
(Let me note that I didn't actually lobby the Oregon legislature--my Rep, Jules Bailey, took that up on his own.)

We shouldn't get too excited--this isn't the first time Michigan has made a run at this law.  They tried in 2011 but it was referred to committee where it apparently died. I have no idea whether it has a chance this year, either.  (I may be running this same post every two years for the foreseeable future.  Which I'm happy to do.)  But it has been getting a ton of attention, and that bodes well.  As you may recall, there's really no good reason to oppose such a statute.  On NPR this morning,
Renee Montagne: Which has left opponents crying in their beers.  Come on, they say, "pint" is used generically and business owners complain they'll have to replace glassware that doesn't measure up.

Steve Inskeep: Although there is another option: stop using the word "pint." 
This gives me hope that the tide has finally turned on the notion of honest pints.  When I first began the project back in 2007, people were weirdly combative about publicans' rights to deceive their customers.  As the NPR example above illustrates, there's no hardship except to publicans hoodwinking their customers--they don't want to use "glass" of beer because it is so, well, transparent about the volume.  

I wish the good legislators from Michigan good luck and godspeed.  They are setting an example for the country to follow.

Update.  On Facebook, my link to this post received the equivalent of Marge Simpson's unhappy noise by William Abernathy.  He has a right to make it.  I've written so much about the honest pint stuff that I didn't do a deep dive, but the short version is this: William was my predecessor writing about beer at Willamette Week, and he was the one to both identify cheater pints, name them cheater pints, and call out cheater pubs.  Everything honest pint flows from his original reporting.

33 Beers on the Wall

Many of you remember Dave Selden.  Red Sox fan, blogger.  He went AWOL about four years ago after starting a little side-business selling little pocket-sized beer-tasting books.  I admit that at the time, I thought he was crazy: who wants analog, dead-tree books when you have 79 apps to choose from?  Who uses pencils any more?  But as my lovely and talented wife has noted many times, my ability to understand monitization opportunities is moron-level low.  And so of course 33 Beers became a smash hit.  Dave expanded the line to other potables (wine, coffee, whiskey), edibles (cheese and chocolates) and even smokables (cigars).  He has lately moved beyond the page and gone to the wall.

The United States of Beer, A Tasting Map is essentially 33 Beers in geography.  It's a map of the US, and each state has an entry for one beer, along with Dave's trademarked (though I believe only figuratively) flavor wheel.  It's an object for completists--trying to rate a beer from, say, North Dakota or Alabama may be a chore for ... well, people who don't happen to live in North Dakota or Alabama.  But when I started thinking about filling out other states (Dave sent me a sample poster), I realized that abundance had its own difficulties.  Which beer, for example, would you place in Oregon?  Good luck with that.

I can attest to their quality.  They're printed on heavy-duty paper and have the good design Dave is known for.  The concept is easy enough to grok that you will know immediately if this is a product you or that beer geek in your life absolutely must have.  They sell for $25 and you can go here to order online.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Millennials and Beer

Every fifteen years or so, elders eat their young.  Or rather, elder generations begin breathlessly reporting that the newest generation is comprised of worthless layabouts.  It's as predictable as the sun rising in the east.  Well, now it's the millennials' turn:
A generational shift is reshaping the workforce -- and businesses today are grappling with the changes.  Thousands of baby boomers retire every day in the U.S., while 20-somethings make up an increasingly larger share of the labor pool.  The annual Gresham Economic Summit, sponsored by the area Chamber of Commerce, focused on the trends.

John Carter, chairman of the Oregon Business Plan, said the newest generation of workers aren't interested in the career path that once was the norm. Much of Gen Y lacks the drive that defined older cohorts of workers, he said. "We've raised a generation that believes the only place you break a sweat is L.A. Fitness," he said.
Unknowable
source
It's also easy enough to find articles decrying how stupid the youngsters are, too.  (Google "US students" with "unprepared" or "slipping" and you'll see what I mean.)  Of course, the press have been printing almost identical versions of these stories for fifty years, so take them with a barge of salt.  In reality, the millennials are like every generation, except that they came of age during the worst recession since the 1930s.  And who's stupid fault was that?*

In the world of beer, the effect of these unknowable beings seems to be addressed with a similar level of insight and wisdom.  In one single passage of this Beverage World article about beer trends, we learn all these amazing facts about them (all bullets are cut-n-paste quotes):
  • [M]arketers shouldn’t be putting all of their eggs in the millennial basket to begin with.... They’re coming out of college in a heap of debt, with limited job prospects, thus postponing their financial independence and making them a bit more frugal than the immediately preceding generations. 
  • (That assertion seemed to be somewhat in conflict with what Dorsey would say the next day, that in 2017, “My generation will outspend baby boomers in the U.S.”)
  • Additionally, he talked about the rather ominous sounding “end of men,” where, for the first time in history, women are about to surpass men as the majority of the paid work force. It’s a function, he said, of men “doing so poorly in American society today,” with three times a many men not working today as they did in 1969.
  • What’s more, unlike the younger generation that everyone seems to be focusing on, boomers are a lot more brand loyal, especially when it comes to the value brand segment.  “Don’t forget about the economy drinker,” said MillerCoors’ Long during the beer leaders panel. “The economy drinker is the most loyal drinker of beer…Pay attention to brands.”
  • At the end of the day, how dire the situation is for U.S. beer really is a matter of perspective. As A-B InBev’s Edmond pointed out, in terms of dollar sales, the beer business is still doing better than many other industries out there.
So: after worrying for about ten seconds that the promiscuity of millennial drinkers is a concern, everyone quickly rallies around the idea that after all, baby boomers do really rock because they love good ole brands and "economy" beers and after all things are pretty good anyway so why are we even talking about this?

Unrelatedly, Coors is planning to bust out with new citrus-flavored Light and an iced tea version of its Redd's ale.  See, they're totally rocking it.

In reality, I suspect the millennials are about like every other generation in terms of buying habits.  There is a society-wide trend of fragmentation brought on by niche media, big data, and wide-open international markets.  The era when we sat in front of television sets watching Barney Miller together have passed as firmly as the era when we thrilled to different brands of the same light lager advertised on Barney Miller.  The beer market isn't shrinking, but it's not growing, either.  (Which means on a per-capita basis, beer consumption is down.)  The future is variety, which is confusing to beer companies that have always competed on brand.  Millennials, raised with the expectation of choice, will surely solidify this trend, but they didn't invent it, either. 

___________________
*Not theirs!

Friday, October 04, 2013

Beervana Shutdown!

Following the lead of our powerful and wise leaders, I'm shutting this sucker down.  But just for a day.  I'm off to brew instead--

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Puns are the Lowest Form of Beer Names

pun (n): the usually humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound.   

I used to calculate that there were about 20,000 beers produced in the United States each year--figuring about ten beers a brewery.   Oh, those gentle old times!  I was recently looking at the beer lists of the largest three breweries (Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium), and they will produce a combined eighty-three beers this year--28 each.  So probably, given the spurt of new brewery openings and the inexorable logic of the novelty curve, there are something like double that number.  That means two things: 1) more beer than any human can even comprehend, much less drink, and 2) lots and lots of bad beer names.

The worst are puns.


I was reminded of this when I got an email that Ninkasi (maker of Helles Belles and Maiden the Shade) was releasing their tasty winter sticke, Sleigh'r.  It seems no one can make a rye ale without succumbing to pun--usually with increasingly abstruse meaning.  When I was drinking Smooth Ryed with some friends, not a single one got the joke--they all just thought it was a strange and inexplicable name.  A contender for most blighted by puns are fresh hop beers, where at least half have punny names.  

I get it.  My father was late in his family's birth order, and by the time my grandparents got to him they said (paraphrasing), "screw it--no middle name for you."  Brewers have to come up with dozens of names, one every other week or so, and they get a little overwhelmed.  A pun pops into the noggin, and it both amuses and gives some insight into the type of beer: seems like a good idea.  I chose to call out Ninkasi because I am amused by those names.  All three of the ones I mentioned are triple-meaning puns, referencing not just the style/season in the name, but a favorite heavy metal band.  Matt Van Wyk once named a beer Willamette Dammit and I swooned.  So they're not all terrible.

But I would like to put in a request on behalf of beer drinkers everywhere.  Mind the puns.  Like crystal malt, they are best when used sparingly.  What they offer in amusement they many times lack in memorability.  Sometimes they don't make sense because the reference is too obscure.  Often they require spellings that make rational people blanch.  Sometimes they're just bad.  Name beers after your family, your pets, your favorite salmon species, but beware the seductive allure of the pun.  There's a reason everyone groans when you make a pun in mixed company, and the same is true for beer names.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Some Tweaking Required (All Your Irish News in One Place)

What a strange thing that Americans follow the news from Ireland so closely.  It's got the population of Tennessee and is the size of Maine, but never mind: we love it.  Last week, news came out about a nascent Diageo-created holiday dubbed "Arthur's Day" for the founder of Guinness.  The four-year-old PR campaign seems to have had fairly benign origins:
At 17:59 p.m. today, drinkers will raise a toast to the 18th century brewer, who invented the iconic stout in Dublin. Diageo Plc (DGE), which owns the brand, says Arthur’s Day is a celebration that supports Irish bars struggling after the worst recession in the nation’s modern history.... 
Diageo came up with Arthur’s Day four years ago to celebrate the beer’s 250th birthday. It has since morphed into a nationwide festival every September. The London-based company is staging 500 concerts as part of the event, with bands including Manic Street Preachers and the Script turning up at bars.
If any brewery has the juice to start a new holiday, I say more power to them.  Problem is, the shindig may be too successful. 
Yet this year, the campaign against Arthur’s Day is gaining momentum. In 2012, emergency ambulance calls in Dublin rose by 30 percent from the prior week amid the revelry, the Irish Times newspaper reported.  Emergency consultant Stephen Cusack in Cork described the streets of the city on Arthur’s Day last year as being akin to the “last days of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Whoops.   Part of the problem is that Guinness reportedly hands out free pints at that fateful hour, and it leads to a country-wide kegger, replete with late-night booting in the bushes.  This has led to something of a PR backlash, which sort of defeats the point.  Mayhaps Guinness needs to make a few changes for the 2014 celebration.

Brewbot
Now, since we're talking of news on the distant island, let me draw your attention to the Brewbot homebrewing system, developed by tech nerds in Belfast.  It is a fully-automated homebrew system that you operate from your cell phone.  I am not promoting this so much as regarding it with my jaw on the ground.  What some people won't do for a pint of beer, eh?


Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Politics and Brewing

A little more than twelve hours ago, the US government embarked on a semi-shutdown.  It was purely the result of politics, but that doesn't make the real effects any less real.  Now, despite the fact that I am a known [choose epithet of preference: pinko commie, defeatocrat, liberal], I have attempted to eschew all political discussion at this site.  Politics divide and beer unites, and I don't want the one to sully the other.  Nevertheless, politics does sometimes intrude on the happy world of beer, unavoidably.  Indeed, a fair amount of the beery terrain we now inhabit is a result of politics. 

Source: White Beer Travels
Unlike wine or cider, beer is a constructed potable.  We formulate a recipe and make a product.  There are a lot of ways, both from within the brewhouse and without, to affect the beer that gets made.  I spent two and a half years in Utah, where politics had a decided effect on brewing.  This was the 1980s, as old stalwarts like Wasatch and Squatters were getting their start, and they were prohibited by law from making beer in excess of 4% (or 3.2% by weight).  It forced brewers to learn how to brew things like four percent IPAs and bocks--which they did, admirably.  Now, that law didn't create a national tradition of weirdly low-alcohol beers, but it might have.  Throughout time politics have created weird circumstances that changed the course of beer and beer styles.  I don't expect the current shutdown or even the debt ceiling fight to affect American brewing.  It does give me the opportunity, however, to illustrate how politics have constantly shaped beer.  We may wish to leave politics out of beer, but sometimes politics barges in anyway.

Belgian beer tax.    One of the keys to understanding Belgium’s ales is a bizarre 19th century tax law.  Rather than levy a fee based on the amount of beer produced or the strength of the beer, the government tax was assessed on the size a brewery’s mash tun.  Breweries responded, of course, by using tiny mash tuns--no matter how much beer they were brewing.  To get some kind of efficiency out of their wee tuns, brewers used extremely thick mashes, and after brewers had packed as much grain as they could into the tun, it left little room for water.  As a consequence, breweries had to draw their mash water off and add new water to the grain bed several times for every batch.  When you read 19th century descriptions of the brewing process, it's astonishingly baroque.  The mash regimes took hours.  The legacy of this law is still evident in the turbid mashes lambic makers use.
Flourishing Hoegaarden.  While we're talking Belgium, let's have an example about what happens in the absence of politics.  You may wonder why a town the size of Madras, Oregon is such a famous burg in the annals of brewing.  The reason is this: in the early 16th century, tiny Hoegaarden fell between regions ruled by Liege and Brabant, a tax-free seam that gave it an exporting advantage that lasted through the end of the 18th century.  During that period, beer exports buoyed an energetic collection of hometown breweries—as many as 38 in the mid 1700s. 

Reinheitsgebot.  This most controversial of beer laws has a hugely political backstory.  In the official telling, the Bavarian government enacted it to ensure that beer was free of funky and unhealthful adjuncts.  Less charitably, it can be read as a sop to bread-producers, ensuring bakers had enough tasty wheat to work with.  Because wheat breweries could still get an exemption from the government, there was an element of graft in the whole thing, too, because granting weissebrauerei brewing rights became a form of patronage and a lucrative source of revenue.  "Purity" is probably not the best word to associate with the law.

American Prohibition.  This is a gimme, right?  What was more politicized than a nation banning booze?  It put half the country's breweries out of business and opened the way for the massive consolidation that began in the 1940s.  (There were 684 breweries in 1940 and 229 twenty years later.)

Great British Gravity Drop.  Before the World Wars, Britain was known for strong beer.  (I refer you to the ten million pre-war log books Ron Pattinson has assembled documenting the fact.)  The wars forced the government to ration grain, and beer got weaker.  This was actually much more pronounced in WWI, when average gravities plummeted to just 1.030 (7.5 P).  In WWII, they never dropped below 1.034.  And in between the wars, they rose.  But an interesting thing happened as a result of all those years of low-alcohol beer: drinkers started to like it that way.  It's a legacy that now defines British beer.

The effects of these policies are everywhere evident.  Hoegaarden remains a famous brewing city (though it was touch and go there for a decade).  Germans remain wildly suspicious of adjuncts.  The US developed a monochromatic beer culture based on a single type--which may have actually created the conditions for this crazy brewery revival we now enjoy.  And Brits still think 5% is a strong ale.

We could go on--and perhaps you will, in comments (though I'll watch them closely--go to one of the kajillion politics sites if you have a comment on Obamacare).  The upshot is that beer does not exist in a vacuum from politics.  Today, when we're thinking deeply about what happens when the political system intrudes in our lives, and so it's a nice moment to recognize that legacy in the beer world, too.