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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Cider Saturday: Finnegan Cider

On the crisp Friday I visited Josh Johnson's orchard in Sherwood, I didn't realize it was his day off.  Finnegan is a cider currently made from apples from the Skurdahl orchard just down the road, but in a glade protected by deer fencing, Johnson has planted 2,000 of his own trees.  On the other four days of the week, he holds down his day job as a neurologist.  He has Fridays off (sort of--during my visit he was still taking calls), and those are his orcharding days.  As we talked cider, he was freeing his wee saplings from graft tape.  One tree at a time, down a long row.  I scanned orchard-to-be: lots and lots of rows.  I expect he returns home tired each night.

If you're an American and you want to make cider, you have two options: buy the juice from an orchard or plant your own.  The former has much to recommend it, particularly the part about not waiting a half a decade before your trees have begun to bear.  But for the patient, the latter approach offers, aside from long days, more control and a reliable source of fruit.  Josh is a quiet, reflective guy who seems to have the temperament to wait.  I wondered if there was any connection to being a doctor that made for a good grower and he thought there might be.  Other doctors, he noted, make wine.  Being a doctor does lend to caring, he noted and then likened his trees to his children.  “I worry about them, I think about them all the time, I want to be gentle with them and help them grow up and be successful adults.” 

The idea is that the whole orchard will go to a single blend for his cider.  The Skurdahl's have one of the few orchards with cider apples in Oregon, and Josh likes the depth of flavor that comes from a blend of apples.  “If you make it from one variety or two, it’s just not going to be as interesting as if you make it from a bunch of different varieties.”  He's planted a broad range of familiar varieties: Kingston Black, Dabinett, Roxbury Russet, Foxwhelp, Michelin, Golden Russet, Yarlington Mill, Ashmead’s Kernel.  The idea that each year, as the seasons and conditions conspire to produce different apples and different configurations of the blend (Michelin yield weak one years, strong the next), his cider will have the annual variability of wine.

As we talked, wine kept coming up.  Josh actually began making wine first, adding cider later--now about twelve years ago--and it seems to remain his main template.  He likes the way tannins and acidity blend with apple sweetness--like wine.  He likes how cider complements food--like wine (though he ventures "I think it's better than wine").  And he even hopes cider will follow the trajectory of wine, where people went from drinking uninteresting, mass-market stuff to appreciating sophisticated wines with depth and complexity.

Finnegan comes in three types, but they differ only by sweetness.  Dry is fermented out to a final gravity just a notch below water (0.999), Semi-Dry to 1.005, and Semi-Sweet to 1.010.  “I just made cider that I liked to drink ... cider that has some residual sweetness, good carbonation, and is relatively clear and no artificial carbonation.”  That's what you find in a bottle of Finnegan.  I love dry ciders, so my fave of the bunch is the Dry, which has a wonderful structure and lots of tannins.



Amazingly, Josh would love to make the cidery (named after his wife, Colleen Finnegan) his full-time job.  I was so startled by this fact I asked him what it was about cider that engaged him so much.  I'm not sure I ever got a good answer; leaving neurology to pursue cider-making is ... uncommon.  But he did tell me a story about one of his first encounters with apples. “It was in California, in this place in the Sierras and they were pressing apples. I remember having this strong sensory experience—just the smell of those apples being pressed, and the fall, and being in the mountains.”  When he started making cider again, he kept “coming back to that, the smell and flavor of apples.”  Could that be enough?  I'll have to ask the next time I visit.  After an hour, I had to let him get back to his trees.

Friday, November 29, 2013

How Green is Your Beer?

For black Friday, we go green.  Via John Foyston comes the news that breweries can now track their environmental impact via a program designed by the Institute for Environmental Research and Education in Washington state.  Not only that, but they can list the details on their labels:

The eco-labels, produced through the Earthsure Brewers software, show "life cycle assessments" also known as Type III Environmental Production Declarations....
"The (information is) displayed in a similar manner like the nutrition label on food," said the IERE's Colleen Barta. "Links are used to help consumers understand what the impact categories mean."
The labels report footprints in the carbon, water and energy realms. In Oregon, Hopworks Urban Brewing and Fort George Brewery have adopted the labels.
The labels list a bunch of highly technical and obscure stats which meant nothing to even a greenie like me.  So I tracked back to the IERE's original definitions (pdf) and had a look.  Not only do Fort George and Hopworks plan to use the labels, they actually helped develop the criteria, which are comprehensive and deeply involved.  The include all environmental impacts (air pollution, water and chemicals use,) of the entire life-cycle of beer, from barley field back to cow field with the spent grains.  For example, "it includes transportation of chemicals and seed to the farm and application of fertilizers and pesticides, and any emissions on the farm (e.g. N2O emissions from nitrogen fertilizer)."  If a brewery uses, say, coffee in one of its beers, those ingredients are subject to the same standards.  It includes the footprint at the maltster, the footprint of packaging manufacture, delivery and transportation costs--in essence, every conceivable jot of energy used to make a pint of beer.  The list of impacts goes on for pages, and the whole IERE document is 35 pages long.

So now we get back to that label and its obscure measures.  In some cases, the term's meaning is easy enough to figure (water use), but the numbers aren't.  In other cases, like "Eutrophication," the whole thing is meaningless.  They do provide definitions for each measure.  For example:
8.4 Eutrophication is the overgrowth of biomass caused by the anthropogenic release of nutrients, particularly fixed nitrogen and phosphorus. Eutrophied water bodies show early effects in te rms of species distribution and toxic algal blo oms, and ultimately as algae decompose eutrophication causes oxygen depletion leading to fish kills. Large portions of the world’s water bodies are subject to eutrophication seasonally. Most causes of excess nutrient releases are agriculture, human and animal wastes, and combustion processes. Beer and all food products contribute to eutrophication.

8.5 Ecotoxicity represent direct effects of releases of toxic materials organisms. It is anticipated that toxic materials will be emitted during the production and application of pesticides and fertilizers and during the transportation of ingredients, packaging and beer in packaging. These shall be evaluated using the Usetox, latest version, as expressed in the TRACI model

Unfortunately, although IERE describes each dimension, it doesn't give a scale to judge whether, to use Hopworks' example, 1.2 CTUs of toxicity is good or bad. Perhaps that's on the way--it will be critical if these labels are going to communicate anything to the public. Even this step is praiseworthy, though.  Breweries have been among the best citizens in terms of monitoring their environmental impact.  Any effort to quantify that impact and make the data publicly available is impressive--it shows breweries are willing to put their performance under scrutiny.  Fort George and Hopworks get special credit for working to create the definitions.  Good on you, folks--

Monday, November 25, 2013

Overleveraged

The TV show Leverage is now streamable on Netflix.  This isn't particularly newsworthy except that in the first episode of season five the A-Team, err, team, has relocated to Portland.  And into the BridgePort Brewery.  It's surreal to see them walking through the old rope factory, "BridgePort" signs everywhere.  One of the characters has purchased it and is dabbling in the brewhouse with a recipe he found online.

It's not good television, but there you have it.

It's quite possible that if you've made it down here to paragraph three, you're wondering why this is such a lame and wandering post.  Well, me too.  I went away for the weekend and expected to come back refreshed.  Instead, I'm even less bloggy.  Dunno how long this may last, but if I find that a random comment about a television show is the best I got, I may not be posting a lot in the next few days.  What the hell--it's a holiday weekend.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Gone

I'm out of town this week, and actually have been since Sunday.  Yesterday's commentary came via the magic of scheduled posting.  I'm not only gone, but out of internet range, so enjoy a week of silence.  I'll be back on Monday--

Monday, November 18, 2013

Imports Again: Why You Should Drink 'Em

After my post last week about the delights of beer from foreign lands, I hafety considered a follow-up to explain why imports are worthwhile.  Alan has forced my hand:
So, unlike Jeff, I do not counsel you to get your daily serving of beer classics like the bran that's more and more in my diet.
First off, lets just dispense with the "classics" debate.  That word didn't appear in my post nor did the exhortation to drink beers because they had some status.  No, the point was to drink foreign beer because they taste good and more than that, because they're different from American beers.  This is a fact that escapes some Americans.  We brew all the world's beer styles here, but Americans brew in their own way.  We don't have to, but mostly we do. 

Source: Roger Protz
Take Westmalle, the example I was using earlier.  The monks make it exclusively with pilsner malt but also more than 15% sugar in the wort.  This is a pretty typical Belgian approach--simple malt bills that start with pilsner malt and usually include sugar.  Americans may use pilsner malt, but a lot will start with American two-row.  Many will layer in various specialty malts for color and subtle flavor (this is also typical).  Most will use nowhere near the amount of sugar Belgians do, if they use it at all.  Westmalle ferments cool for a Trappist monastery, but some monks let their temps get well into the 70s and Westvleteren lets it rise to the mid-80s (they use the Westmalle yeast, interestingly).  I have almost never encountered an American brewer who is comfortable letting fermentation go past the low 70s--it just goes against their grain.  Finally, Belgians almost always do a secondary fermentation in the bottle, the single most distinguishing feature of Belgian brewing.  Some Americans bottle-condition, but it's rare. 

Westmalle is a really basic beer.  Pilsner malt, sugar, uncomplicated hopping.  Yet you will find precious few Americans who make it the same way.  If what you've been drinking is stuff from the US called "tripel," it's a different beast than what the Belgians make.

We could go down the line.  Americans don't use Bohemian floor malts, very few use first-wort hopping, and almost none use decoction--three habits that are ubiquitous in the Czech Republic.  Americans don't use sugar when they're making English styles, and almost none of them risk commercial doom by brewing them at English strengths.  (I nod now toward Oakridge with respect.)  And on and on.

The fact that Americans don't make much of an effort to make perfect reproductions of foreign styles is a testament to the steady development of an American tradition.  We brew the way we brew.  When an American whips up an "English bitter," she actually makes an American-English bitter.  It probably has an English yeast strain and maybe one or two English hops, but it will be a 5% beer made with American malts and served on regular CO2 taps.  When she makes a tripel, she'll make similar decisions based on the expectations of her customers and her own preferences.  It will be hoppier, use less sugar, use different malts, and likely not be bottle-conditioned. 

And so if you want to know what a Belgian tripel tastes like, you gotta drink a Belgian tripel. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cider Saturday: 33 Mugs of Cider

Publishing mogul Dave Selden has recently introduced a new ratings guide in the "33" series that is near and dear to my heart: Cider.  This is not merely because I have lately turned my attention appleward, but because of two elements included in 33 Mugs of Cider that I think will do a great deal to educate drinkers.  Here, have a look:


That flavor wheel there on the right has cider-specific terms like tannic and acidic (and also "sweet," the third of the holy trinity, though sweetness is obviously not unique to cider).  If you've ever had an English or French farmhouse cider you know tannins; if you've dabbled in the lambiclike Basque ciders, you know acid.  (Boy, do you know acid.)  This will be a handy reminder to observe the structure of cider as you taste it.

The second cool feature is to the left of the wheel (you can see it if you click on the pic): the "bubble meter."  This is a clever way of illustrating another important dimension to cider.  They may be wholly still, like most wines, or as bubbly as champagne.  Since a lot of beery types are checking out ciders, this is a good reminder that not all ciders have those 2.5 volumes of beer you're used to encountering.

You can pick up copies at the website.

Bonus.  As with most of these (solid-product cigars a notable exception), Dave added a bit of cider to his ink, so if you're really desperate, give it a lick.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Weekend All-In-One Guide

I tell you what, when we fall back after Halloween, there's no longer any pretense that we have exited the light.  Into the darkness we go, but fortunately, that means into the thick of winter beer season with all its attendant releases, fests, and events.  As much for my own benefit as yours, here's an omnibus post to try to capture at least a good portion of them.


Events

Bailey's 4th Annual BelgianFest 
Saturday, November 16
2pm to Midnight
Bailey's Taproom, 213 SW Broadway

Lots and lots and lots of amazing looking beer.  It's tomorrow, so step lively. 


Mustache Bash
Thursday, November 21
6pm to 9pm
Portland Brewing, 2730 NW 31st

A niche event for those with handlebars, but I give it the shout-out to a brewery that's working to find its local groove again. 


Drinking Beer For Angelo
Sunday November 24
5pm to 9pm
Bad Habit Room (Saraveza), 5433 N. Michigan

All beer donated to support the health care costs of our good friend Angelo de Ieso.  Includes a silent auction and super-rare Cascade beer tasting. 


Holiday Ale Fest
Wednesday December 4 through Sunday December 8
Times vary
Pioneer Courthouse Square

The dark yin to sunny OBF's yang.  Big beers, big crowds, and big fun.  Put it on your calendar and pick a day to revel.



New Releases

There are so many new releases happening I can't keep up.  I'll mention a few that caught my attention here, but feel free to add to the list in comments.  I'm happy to update the post.  Deschutes brings out the eighth (!) edition of The Abyss (11%/86 IBUs), this year with vanilla bean and cherry bark.  Tomorrow night, Coalition is launching their own imperial stout Bring Out the Imp (8.5%/ 70 IBUs).  An imperial CDA called Duffy's Counterpunch (7.5%/82 IBUs) is the latest "brewer's share" from Full Sail, and its author, Stephanie Duffy, is a beautiful stand-in for Rosie the Riveter.  Block 15's wonderful Figgy Pudding is on the horizon, but brewer Nick Arzner is warning people not to cellar it.  (The wild yeasts down there in the Willy Wonka cellars may have gotten a mite too feral.)  Oakshire recently released their 7th Anniversary Ale, a soured Baltic porter aged on cherries.  All the classics are coming out as well (Brrr, Jubel, Wassail, Vinter Varmer, and more), but one of my faves is now in cans--Hopworks Abominable Ale.  Finally, Widmer has a troika of bourbon-aged Brrrs: regular (just bourbon-aged), Vanilla, and Ginger. 

Holler with additions and I'll put 'em up.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

New Book: The Pocket Beer Guide by Beaumont and Webb

The Pocket Beer Guide
Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb
Sterling Epicure, 320 pages
$15

Over the course of nearly two decades, Michael Jackson published a slim volume called, in slightly different wording, The Pocket Guide to Beer.  It was first released in 1982, which marked almost exactly the moment in history when the world's stock of breweries had reached their nadir.  To pad the guide, he dutifully reviewed all beers, from Grain Belt to Rodenbach.  (Henry Weinhard: "a clean, fairly light body.")  As new editions continued to come out--seven in all, by several different publishers--they got progressively more cheery, if harried.  By the time the last edition came out in 2000, poor MJ probably regretted he'd ever started the thing in the first place.

This year, as a stocking stuffer, you may once again select a copy of The Pocket Beer Guide.  Jackson and Running Press are gone and in their stead are Canadian writer Stephen Beaumont and British writer Tim Webb (though Webb's specialty is Belgium).  They are the team who recently brought us the World Atlas of Beer.  While the relationships are not particularly transparent, Webb and Beaumont (from the press release) "have [also] collaborated with top international contributors."  There are thirty in all, including a few familiar names like Evan Rail, Max Bahnson, Lisa Morrison, Stan Hieronymus, Joe Stange, and John Holl.  It seems both a sane and liver-preserving way to attempt to taste enough beers to recommend 3,000 from around the globe.

Except for its shape (this one is wider than Jackson's), the book follows the established format.  Breweries are summed briefly, and a selection of their beers ranked from ★ ("dependable quality but unexciting") to ★★★★ ("one of the world's great beers, a champion"), with the always slightly mystifying ★★ → ★★★ as a safe punt.  They've even adopted Jackson's incredible verbal economy in putting together each entry, condensed for brevity.  Here's a typical entry:
BRUERY, THE
Placentia, California

Brewer Patrick Rue punned on his name to create his brewery's moniker and quickly earned a devoted following for his oft-quirky ales.  Spicy-yeasty and faintly tart Saison Rue ★★☆ and peppery, pearish Mischief ★★☆ headline the core beers; while Autumn Maple ★★★, brewed with yams and complex with sweet maple, spice, and yam flavors, and lightish, quenching dryly tart Saison de Lente highlight the seasonal offerings.  
I was enjoying reading along, particularly through the Belgium section, where (presumably) Webb exercises enormous restraint issuing stars.  Remembering Stan's wonderful post on how few beers Jackson ever rewarded four stars, I nodded as I saw all the beers that got passed over for this rightly-rare laurel.  (Orval, Cantillon, Boon, De Dolle: nope nope nope nope.) There were exactly four to achieve the trick: Rodenbach Vintage, Blaugies Saison de l'Epeautre, Saison Dupont, and Rochefort 10.  You may think this is low--and I do.  In seven editions, only 19 beers got the highest mark in each one, and six were Belgians.  I'd have included Orval and a gueuze (though it would have killed me to have to select one), but hey, I think Webb erred on the right side of exuberance.

If there's a fault in the book, it's the very thing that probably made it possible.  When Jackson was writing the Pocket Guide, it was idiosyncratic in the way humans are and the ratings were always arguable--but at least they were consistent.  You lose that with multiple writers. 

Because I know the American West Coast so well, I glanced through the sections on California (presumably Jay Brooks' bailiwick) and the Pacific Northwest (Lisa Morrison?).  The brewery numbers are similar--32 California breweries were included, along with 33 from the Northwest (which includes Alaska and Hawaii).  But either California is blessed with a lot more good beer, or Jay and Lisa didn't use the same rating criteria.  In California, three-star beers seem to be the norm; sixteen earned three and a half, and four--the same number as Belgium--got a perfect mark.  Three stars were hard to come by in parts north, and across four states not a single beer was good enough to be considered "a champion."  Just seven got three and a half stars. 

This isn't a fatal flaw, though and I have few other complaints.  The book's greatest strength is its breadth, which while not absolutely complete (rustic African and South American breweries are not included, and emerging regions like India and Southeast Asia are largely skipped) does include Lithuanian farmhouse breweries and a nice description of European breweries outside the usual five.  All in all, a great effort. 

Finally, I have to give Webb (again, I'm assuming) a special award for most amusing, astute, and irreverent review of the year.  It goes to show how much information--and personality--you can pack into a hundred words.  Here's his entry on Westvleteren.
A low-production brewery in West Flanders that has been afflicted by adulation, with the scarcity of its beers being mistaken for magnificence.  The only one that uses whole hops is the skillful, light, rustic Blond ★☆ with its intense floral aroma and just enough grain; Extra 8 is a licorice-edged, strong dubbel that improves grudgingly in the cellar; and Abt 12 ★☆ is a dark, intense barley wine that used to grow with keeping but less so now.  Special releases for a supermarket chain and US importer were unlikely to have been brewed here exclusively.
There are similar gems scattered elsewhere.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Imports and the Modern American Beer Geek

On Saturday night, I spent a few hours with a bunch of beer geeks at an undisclosed location in East Portland for an evening of bottle-sharing.  Owing to the large number of Midwestern transplants, there were a lot of New Glarus, Goose Island (pre- and post-), and Bell's floating around, plus a Three Floyds or two.  In what I thought was a remarkable display of generosity, one nice gent snagged an old cobalt bottle of Sam Adams Triple Bock from his cellar for our tasting pleasure.  All in all, an excellent adventure.

One thing occurred to me the next day as I thought back through the beers I tasted: only one was an import.  That bottle, also incredibly rare (I don't even know the benefactor), was a '97 Samichlaus.  But beyond that, nada.  No Cantillon, no Westvleteren.  No vintage Orval, no Mikkeller.  No Aventinus. 

This may well have been an anomaly, but I don't think so.  We are now so awash in beer that it's impossible to keep up with what's happening in our home town--what to speak of across the sea.  The dictates of an ever sharpening novelty curve mean breweries don't just release a handful of specialty beers each year, they release dozens.  There are anniversary beers, barrel-aged series, wild yeast programs, and on and on.  Lots and lots to keep up with.

I recently brewed a tripel inspired by Westmalle--the most American of the abbey ales.  It's both hoppy and not especially fruity, a distant cousin to our double IPAs.  I recently mentioned Westmalle to a few people and they all give me a blank look.  None had had Westmalle's version--definitely one of the most important extant beers in Belgium's long history.  (I direct you to Stan Hieronymus's excellent Brew Like a Monk for more.)  I understand that we all have patchy coverage of the international greats--but no one having tried Westmalle?  Amazing.

So I encourage you to celebrate mid-November by picking up a bottle of something foreign.  Remind yourself that other countries not only brew great beer, but they do it differently.  We can try to recreate a Cantillon with our wild ale programs, we can dry-hop a saison and brett-age it like Orval, but like everything else in life, there's no substitute for the original.  Don't become too insular, dear beer geek: there's a whole world of amazing beer out there.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Hair of the Dog's Place in History

Alan Sprints (L) with Bill Night and John Foyston at FredFest
Nearly every year now there's an important anniversary.  Deschutes is concluding their 25th and BridgePort is gearing up for their 30th, with Widmer Brothers to follow.  These are all great opportunities to think about a brewery's past, and I enjoy seeing old photos of young and rakish mustachioed brewers standing around old warehouses full of salvaged dairy equipment.  This Saturday Alan Sprints will host a bash at his newish digs in the Fruit District to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hair of the Dog.  But in this case, we may think less about the brewery's own history than its place in history.  In many ways, Hair of the Dog was the first modern brewery, a 2013 brewery back in 1993 and an emanation of the future to come.

You have to shake yourself out of your 2013 mindset and go back to a different time.  Kurt Cobain had less than six months left to live; Bill Clinton was in the first year of his presidency and none of us knew the name Monica Lewinsky.  Frazier was just debuting on TV and Sleepless in Seattle was a big hit on the big screen (Seattle was having its Portlandia moment).  In the beer world, things were very different.  Although craft brewing already had 15 years under its belt, the beer landscape was still in its beta stage, one it would soon leave permanently behind.  In the mid-1990s, there were almost no IPAs on the market (even as late as 1997, only about 4% of the beers were IPAs).  If you pull out old guidebooks to the craft breweries of the day, the overwhelming majority had the same slate of English-derived styles--pale, amber/red, porter, stout--plus a few wheats and goldens for good measure.  (On the East Coast, a few breweries specialized in lagers, but these were the anomalies.) There wasn't a lot of diversity yet, and an extreme beer was a 7% winter warmer.

Alan Sprints and his then-partner Doug Henderson opened the doors to what was then an unprecedented business model based on obscure, strong styles of beer.  They began with Adam, inspired by a long-extinct style from Dortmund, Germany.  Whether or not it is much like the old adambiers (it's probably not--those were brett-soured--but it's closer than Alan is generally given credit for), it was, for 1994, almost inconceivable to most beer drinkers.  Barley wines existed then, so 10% beers were not unheard of, but this was unlike anything we'd encountered--smoky and dark, more tawny port than beer.  It was followed by Golden Rose, a Belgian strong ale in a time when no one knew anything about Belgium.  And these two were followed by Fred, of course, another titan and a direct precursor to the super hop imperial IPAs that people would only begin to make a decade later.

Source: Hair of the Dog
This unorthodox approach is now common now, even typical.  You can build a brewery on niche products.  In 1993-94, it was a whole lot harder.  There was a loyal (if small) cadre of homebrewers who loved what Alan was doing, but the market was focused on beers like Widmer Hefeweizen.  A weird, smoky strong ale was well outside people's expectations.  Distributors didn't understand it and didn't work hard to sell it to the retailers who also didn't understand it--and besides, you couldn't keep wheat and fruit beers on the shelves.  It didn't help that these were bottle-conditioned products offered to a town that at that time was all about draft beer.

It is often the fate of the pioneer to struggle to lay the trail for others to follow to greater success.  Other breweries have built empires, but they are in many ways following the mold Sprints and Henderson created two decades ago.  Almost immediately, Hair of the Dog started barrel-aging, acquiring a couple bourbon barrels in 1994.  Although I think it was always off the books, freeze-distilled Dave was a secret legend among friends of the brewery who would sometimes be offered a nip of the 20-something percent beer.  The most important landmark was Fred, which was a watershed beer in American brewing.  Released in 1997, it sounds like a typical 2013 beer: another 10% giant made with rye malts and ten varieties of hops.  Even though Hair of the Dog wasn't selling a lot of beer, it was getting quite a bit of press, and Fred was one of the most discussed beer at its release--not just in Oregon but nationwide. 

There is tons of debate on the point, but I think Hair of the Dog was the brewery that convinced America to go big.  Alan's beers were so unorthodox, so different from anything else happening in the US that they recalibrated expectations--particularly among other brewers.  In 1995, Malt Advocate (now Whisky Advocate) named Adam its beer of the year, precipitating all kinds of interest in the activities happening in that old warehouse by the train tracks in Southeast Portland.  National newspapers and magazines began writing about it, Michael Jackson became an advocate, and it achieved a status something akin to a Dupont or Cantillon (tiny, hard to find, but superlative) among beer geeks.  Alan has never sold a lot of beer, but his influence has been unmistakable.  He's like the Velvet Underground of the brewing world--only 30,000 people tasted his beer in those early years, but they all went on to found their own breweries.  (With apologies to Brian Eno.)

Beyond its place in history, Hair of the Dog rightly gets credit for making some of the world's best beers.  I know a lot of Fred devotees, but my favorite is Adam.  It's a pretty astounding fact that this is Alan's first release.  If I were forced to draw up a list of the world's 20 best beers, I'd quickly add Adam.  The last two autumns, when I traveled to Europe to do research for the book, I packed away bottles to pass out when I arrived.  I chose them for some combination of excellence and American particularity, and again, Adams were among the first to get the nod.  Doggie Claws and Blue Dot are not far out of that top 20.

If you live in Portland and haven't been to the brewery recently, go have a glass of beer.  If you live outside of Portland, make sure to put Hair of the Dog on your itinerary if you manage to come see us.  It's now two decades old, but it's one of the most contemporary breweries in the country.  

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

What's a Label Worth?

When's a dollar not worth a buck?  When everyone begins to doubt it.  Money, in its most basic sense, is a collective agreement about value: we exchange it for hard goods because it stands for something with real, external value.  This is why, on the assumption that the zombie apocalypse is nigh, goldbugs hoard shiny metal (even though the value of that shiny metal is as provisional as the value of a Ben Franklin).

How does this relate to beer?  In a very direct and possibly unsettling way.  First, let me quote from John Foyston's great article about the 20th anniversary of Hair of the Dog.  He cites an anecdote:
Owner/brewer Alan Sprints recently put a dozen 12.7-ounce bottles of Dave, a 19-year-old Barleywine of nearly 30 percent alcohol, up for sale. The price? $1,500 a bottle if you drank it at the tasting room, $2,000 to go. Needless to say, he expected to have them available for a little while, but they all sold in five hours. 
The value placed on that liquid--$118 an ounce--was not purely intrinsic.  There was some combination of extrinsic factors that convinced people to pay such an extreme amount (call it liquid gold).  What they are is not so clear, but when you strip the liquid of them, the value would drop precipitously.  The artist-provocateur Banksy recently demonstrated this phenomenon with his original works:



In case you skip the video, this is the upshot: sold on the street, without the Banksy name attached to them, original works went for 1/500th their actual value. 

I doubt anyone's unfamiliar with the phenomenon, but the Banksy stunt made me stop and think.  At the moment, beer drinkers have set a valuation of "craft" beer that has in many cases been inflated by extrinsic factors.  (It explains why the Brewers Association is keen to popularize their fixed meaning of the term.)  It's not true for every beer in the grocery store, but when you start looking at bombers and special releases, you see that breweries are getting a lot more than the intrinsic value of the beverage--which is often no more than the value of the regular sixer of craft beer.  Like a Banksy canvas, that label means a whole lot to the consumer.

Why is this unsettling?  Because some beer has far higher intrinsic value.  It dawned on me when I stood in one of the 33 vast cellars underneath the Rodenbach brewery. In those gigantic foeders sat ale, aging for two years.  Every bottle of regular Rodenbach had 25% of the two-year-old stuff, and the Grand Cru is made up largely of it.  Yet to Belgians, it's just beer.  Rodenbach competes head-to-head with Stella Artois, a beer that can be made for a fraction of the cost. 

Beer made in small breweries is more expensive than mass market lagers.  Right now, the extrinsic value of "craft beer," small breweries can charge enough to make their business profitable.  If Budweiser makes an imperial stout, they won't be able to charge as much as Deschutes for it.  Right now.  But all that could change.  Beer sits on the borderline between a craft product and a commodity, and it seems like the market swings back and forth.  If people start thinking of even "craft beer" as a commodity and make purchasing decisions solely on price, small breweries will be screwed. 

Monday, November 04, 2013

More of This, Please: Music and Brewery Collabs

A week or two back, a tall gentleman knocked on our front door bearing beer and music.  (Note to the world: one way to get a hermit to answer the door is by bringing beer and music.)  He was Eric Nordby of the local band, Norman.  Owing to the fact that I am decrepit, I'd of course not been previously acquainted with the band.  Nevertheless, he presented me with Norman's latest release, Into the Eventyr and along with it a bottle of Calapooia's accompanying beer.  The beer and the CD have the same label and, wonder of wonders, if you scan the QR code on the side of the bottle, it will take you to a free download of the whole album.

The idea was to attempt to reproduce the character of the band in the beer--planned synesthesia, if you will.  I love this idea and have had the experience myself of tasting a beer and thinking of a band.  Music is a big inspiration for brewers, too, who regularly allude to songs, bands, or genres and who regularly have it playing at the brewery.  Matching the two intentionally seems like a perfect endeavor, and a totally Oregonesque one.  This is far from the first time music and beer have tangoed, but the integration has been taken to a high level.  I'd love to see more direct collaborations like this (and see more people showing up on my door with beer and music).

Okay, but: do the beer and band match?  Eric told us that he thought the beer tasted exactly how his band sounded, smooth and mellow.  He likened Norman to the Allman Brothers and when I glanced at the label and saw it ring at in at 5%, it seemed to pass the visual inspection stage.  Then we went on to round two, tickling the ear drums and taste buds.

Norman, the Ale
The label calls this a "Northwest pale ale" and for once, I agree.  It's the color of an amber, but the nose is pure hop saturation.  If I were describing it as a beer, I'd talk about caramel malts and hop varieties, but I allowed my tongue to experience it the way my ears hear music.  It has a heavy, fat sound, garaged-up with the buzz of the amp and the crackle of electricity.  To me, it had a grungy 90s sensibility, harmonic but intense and unpolished.  If I thought of it as a beer, I'd have found the caramel malts intrusive and the hops too raspy--but as a rock expression, that was perfect.  Loud and raw.  In my music mode, I just let the volume rise and swamp me.  Nice.



Norman, the Band
Eric is in the top middle.
I was surprised to find a very different experience when Into the Eventyr ("adventure") rolled out of the speakers.  It's a far softer, more polished sound.  Depending on which song you're listening to, the influences seem to have more with the folk-psychedelia of the sixties--Byrds, CSN, that kind of thing.  On some songs they have really nice vocal harmonies going on, in others its more guitar-accented.  (The final song, Leaving the Valley, does have an badass Allman's guitar thing going on.)  But the music is smooth, layered, and flows like water.  Definitely not garage-basic and raw.  If I switch from music mode to beer mode, it puts me in mind of something like a Bavarian weizen or cask bitter.

But hey, synesthesia isn't an exact science--your experience may vary.  Either way, you should definitely go find a bottle, scan the code, and run the experiment yourself.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Cider Sunday: Reverend Nat's and the Revival of American Cider

"I’m not defining what an American taste is, but an American taste is not English, it is not French.  If you’re trying to create a style or a culture, don’t use other existing styles as your reference point.  Look at what you have on hand here, and what people here are already used to and accustomed to.  No one is accustomed to drinking French and English cider—no one has any idea what English cider is.  We can grow bittersweet apples here, we make ciders with bittersweet apples, but do we need to?  Who says that’s better, that that’s desirable even?  Why go through all the effort?  You’ve got great apples here—it’s still called cider." 
____--Nat West, Reverend Nat's Hard Cider


I don't usually begin my posts off with quotes--nor do I usually post Cider Saturdays on Sunday.  But Nat West, when he's in full preacher mode, can make a person think. About a month ago, I took a spin through his relatively new digs over on a quiet leafy street near Loyd Center (1813 NE 2nd Ave if you want to stop in for a pour).  What I mainly left thinking about--and have been steadily thinking about it as I visited local cideries and ones in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Quebec--is this question of American cider.

Unless you're a close watcher of the burgeoning cider market, you're probably unaware of the nearly existential war taking place to define what cider should be.  The protagonists in this battle run the gamut from the large industrial cideries who want you to think of cider as a sweet, appely frolic to artisanal producers who think cider should be as dry, complex, and sophisticated as a fine Bordeaux.  Tentative new drinkers are caught in the middle, susceptible to the notion that there really is an answer to what cider "should" taste like. 

Nat West is the perfect guy to reframe the discussion.  There is no cidermaker less dogmatic, less driven by standards and tradition (which makes the use of the name "Reverend" oddly inappropriate).  At the same time, Nat is a student of cidermaking--he loaned me an ancient American cider-making book--and produces wholly traditional products like still Kingston Black English-style cider and a lightly-carbonated version made from cider apples harvested around this time of year.  When I visited, these were the various products he mentioned as we walked around the cidery (in addition to his more standard offerings):
  • A Winter Cider spontaneously fermented with raisins and also made with muscovado sugar and spices.  Made in January and never racked, it sits on its lees and goes through a slow, malolactic fermentation.
  • A cider fermented entirely with lactobacillus.
  • Revelation Newtown Pippin, which starts with a wild fermentation and then is finished with wine yeast.
  • His Revival Dry, the one made entirely with cider apples from the Skurdahl Orchard in Sherwood.
  • A thing called Tepache, which is made by fermenting pulped pineapples and then pressing them (pineapple upside-down cider).
  • His new Cascadia brand of "American" cider using standard Yakima apples. 
Quite a range.

Nat got his start as a home cider-maker, scanning the neighborhood for trees he might access as his annual output grew and grew.  At one point he was making 500 gallons of the stuff a year--the equivalent of 32 beer kegs.  He still wasn't thinking of doing anything other than supplying friends and family at a weekly potluck until he happened across some cider apples from the Skurdahls.  (There are so few orchards with cider apples in Oregon that they're all known to eagle-eyed cidermakers.)  With those apples, Nat started to glean the possibility of cider and a new profession. 

Despite the extremely broad range of ciders he makes, I think it's possible to see a peculiarly American approach--and the influence of brewing.  I was surprised to learn that his flagship, Hallelujah Hopricot, employs Wyeast's French saison yeast (3711).  Indeed, he says it's successful because "it’s a taste that’s enjoyable to a craft beer drinker’s palate."  He also uses lager yeast and an English ale yeast and, when I was visiting, one of his cidermakers was preparing a trial of 14 other beer and wine yeasts. 

I found all of this surprising.  I've now visited a couple of orchardists, and they are intent on having the apple express itself.  Nat likes yeast character to compliment the apple--a zymurgical orientation.   “We try to hit a taste; we pick a yeast for a taste and then we baby that yeast to get the most flavors out of it.  We’re aiming for esters, and we get more esters out of the hot stuff.”  One of the orchardists I spoke to said he actively avoids esters.

It's probably not so surprising that I tend to favor the traditional, English- and French-style stuff--much as I guess most advance-case beer geeks would.  Cider apples impart a range of tannins and acids that impart complexity we love in great ales and lagers.  On my visit, the one that rocked my world was Lorrie's Gold, a memorial cider for Lorrie Skurdahl; it was nuanced, complex, and satisfying.  Before I walked into Reverend Nat's cidery, I would have said it's the one that tasted the way cider should taste.  Now I'm not so sure.  I know that the abominations made with a splash of juice and fortified with fermented sugar water (Nat called them "glucose wine with some apple juice added") are not what cider should taste like.  But ciders fermented with saison yeasts, flavored with apricot juice, and hopped?  I don't know: maybe that is how ciders should taste.  American ciders, anyway.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Why "Craft" is a Meaningless Term

I got an email this morning that caught my interest. Since my flight has been delayed several hours, I find myself with the time to blog about it. The email comes from the consumer research firm Canadean, and in it they proudly trumpet a new definition for "craft beer."  Since they're located in the UK, Canadean notes that "Whilst [the Brewers Association] definition has worked well [in the US], transferring it to other markets can prove problematic."  Indeed. And so this was the solution:
Canadean presents a definition of “craft” beer as a segment primarily made up of Premium and Superpremium priced speciality beers – excluding flavoured beers, super-strength lagers and Stout. This would include products made by microbreweries, but would also encompass products like the Belgian Abbey &; Trappiste Beers; the French Biers de Grade; Premium English Ales; Wheat Beers; and Seasonal Beers.
You see the problems, right?  What do these terms mean: "premium," "superpremium," and "super-strength?"  I sent an email back to Ida Kloster,  who got back to me with these clarifications. 
We define the categories by looking at the prices of beers in supermarkets and/or liquor stores.  We index the price of the leading brand as 100 and then index the price of all other brands relative to that brand.  Premium is defined as being 110 to 149 and superpremium as 150+. We don’t exclude all superstrength beers – and trappist beers are definitely included.  However we exclude brands like Tennents Super and Carlsberg Special Brew, as well as malt liquor in the States. 
This is less the opening of a can of worms than the flinging them around the parlor.  I think the thing that amuses me the most about their effort is the use of strength as a metric. This is a telling cultural artifact, one that highlights the uselessness (particularly in an international context) of trying to define "craft."  Poor Ida even admitted as much: 
The definition is subjective (and has to be) as the whole concept of craft is in the mind of the consumer, and it is impossible to come up with a rigid definition that makes sense.
I couldn't agree more.

(Note: I typed this on an iPhone, so excuse my errors.)