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Monday, August 24, 2015

A Sour, a Porter, and an IPA Walk Into a Book Signing...

On Friday, I had the great pleasure to visit Book Passage, a fantastic independent bookstore in Corte Madera (Marin County), just north of San Francisco for a Beer Bible-related event. And thanks to their wonderful pre-planning, I learned something incredibly valuable.

Pouring Beatification.
To make it a fun and memorable event, they had arranged to have some beer on hand for tasting: Russian River Beatification and Pliny the Elder, Lagunitas Little Sumpin' Sumpin', and Anchor Porter. I decided to incorporate the beers into a little presentation about the book. As I've been going along, I've been focusing on the nature of "style," and how it comes together as a result of a tangle of interesting factors (history, national tradition, ingredients, technology, war, and law). Having four beers there meant we could go through them and I could tell the story of the style as we went. Plus, it game me an opportunity to describe beer tasting and what to look for.

We started out with the Beatification, which is Russian River's spontaneous beer roughly in the gueuze style. The crowd was composed mainly of novices and intermediate drinkers, so I saw a lot of surprised looks with the first sips. I was describing how lambics have been made, and the effect of wild yeast, and at some point I mentioned that basically everything we were tasting came from the fermentation. Again, surprised looks.

The next beer was Lagunitas, and I mainly described the American practice of brewing, focusing on the way we have developed for exhibiting hop flavors and aromas. (If you're interested in a deep dive about that, listen to our podcast on Session IPAs.) I pointed out the flavor elements, but because there's a fair amount of caramel in it, I talked mainly about older-school IPAs and the development of the American oeuvre than I did on the flavor components.

Photo by Patty Stanton.
It was when we got to Anchor Porter, and I was mentioning that basically all the flavor there came from the malt, that I realized what a great line-up Book Passage had solicited. One beer's flavor came exclusively from fermentation, and one almost exclusively from malt. The last one, Pliny, gets almost all of its flavor from hops. For people who have been drinking craft beer sporadically or who don't brew or spend times on the blogs, this was absolutely revelatory information. Flavors in beer can be so strong, and in many beers, they are a melange of several sources. Having three beers where the sources were singular really demonstrated how variable beer is--and helped the people there begin to decode its flavors.

If you have people in your life who are a little interested in beer but not especially knowledgeable, I recommend buying three bottles of yeasty, malty, and hoppy beer and walking them through these flavors. (Something like a low-hop bock might be better than a porter.) It's quick, easy, and very useful.


  1. The couple of times Boak and I have run tasting sessions for general audiences (it was fun, but we aren't natural performers...) we used Bavarian wheat beer, a strong malty best bitter, and Oakham Green Devil to illustrate the point you make above, while passing round samples of each ingredient. People just absolutely loved rubbing hops between their fingers; 'Smells like weed!' was the most common response.

  2. Having ingredients on hand is a great idea. (Hops don't actually smell like weed, either, but whatever. I know that's what people always say.)

  3. This could be the foundation of a compelling argument for navigating beer by flavor and dominant ingredients rather the BJCP or BA style. I'm thinking this is a useful metric in bars and restaurants, where many consumers have little understanding of historical style, and instead can more confidently select beers based on their expected flavors. I like how a section highlighting, say, malty beers can encompass a wide breadth of styles and history, while minimizing the intimidation of choosing something seemingly unfamiliar.

  4. I tried to diagram the dominant ingredient for each beer style: