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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Sour" Beers, Craft's Dark Secrets, and Yeast--Three Interesting Stories

August is reliably the deadest month on the calendar. The excitement of summer has passed, but no one wants to confront all these Oktoberfest releases the marketing people are trying to promote. True to form, this August started slow, but there have been a few recent articles out there that piqued my interest. I think you'll have thoughts as well.

1. The New York Times Botches "Sour" Beers
Eric Asimov, the wine writer for the Times, has offered more misleading, confusing information about beer to more people than anyone on earth. I know he's an astute guy with a great palate, but for some reason, beer is so far beneath him he can't actually be bothered to report it properly. Last week he did a round up of "sour beers," and made a predictable hash in framing it. I don't mind particularly that he combined every tart style, from gose to lambic, in one category. In sensory evaluation, it's fine to blend categories of like beers. But then he writes this, and my patience evaporates:
Many of these characteristics are a result of a brewing process seemingly derived as much from wine as from beer, in which the beers are aged in barrels after fermentation. As they rest, they undergo additional transformations as bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus interact with the beer, contributing lively acidity as well as tart flavors and increased complexity. Some are vintage dated.
My guess is that few commercial sour-beer brewers choose to allow the sort of spontaneous fermentations that shape Belgian lambics. More likely, they are inoculating their brews with selected yeast strains, including brettanomyces, anathema to winemakers as it can be the source of funky flavors great and small. If unwanted in wine, it can be great in beer styles like gueuze, a Belgian blend of young and old unflavored lambics.
Ugh. To make explicit the crimes here: 1) in the first paragraph, he conflates the production of beers like gose (kettle soured) with barrel-aged beers. Goses (and most Berliner weisses) do not spend months in barrels. People are confused enough about this already; there's an entire debate raging about the cheat of making "quick sour" beers that's fueled entirely by ignorance about style and technique. Asimov inadvertently feeds this. 2) In graf two, he reveals that he's never even bothered to pick up a phone to inquire how the beers he's evaluating are made. Are some breweries inoculating while others are using spontaneous fermentation? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  It's a mystery!

(Asimov's favorite beer was Cascade's Kriek, and he loved it. He also admired a Logsdon beer. So I can't be too disappointed in him, I guess.)

2. Craft Beer's Dark Secrets
An article on Thrillist has gotten a ton of attention as an anonymous insider ("someone who's worked in the industry for six years and currently works in marketing for a well-known brewery") dishes on all the terribleness happening in craft. I have seen it reposted quite a bit with nods of acknowledgement. (Stan, for example: "Many of the points are valid. That some are less valid does not invalidate the story.") It's a pretty long laundry list of stuff, so I'll skip trying to pull representative quotes. A lot of the observations are anodyne or wrong (competition is increasing; consolidation is happening; there's a bubble), but there are others that are more serious and potentially accurate: working brewers get paid badly; the beer world is sexist; jobs in beer are hard and pay badly.

The big problem I have is that we have no idea from where these "secrets" emerge. The beer industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, and it follows that individual experiences vary widely. Some breweries are great to work for, while others are Dickensian hell. What does this tell us about "craft beer?" General, anonymous statements supported by anecdote are rumor, not fact or even reportage. I would bet my life that there are dark secrets in craft brewing--we already know about pay-to-play, as one example--and I would love to read a serious report, backed by numbers and on-the-record accounts. This is not that report--reader beware.

3. Yeast, the "God Particle"
Jason Notte has another excellent piece out, this time on the yeasty Dave Logsdon (founder of Wyeast Labs as well as the yeast-forward Logsdon Farmhouse Ales). You should go read the whole article, but one graf jumped off the page to me. This is Logsdon talking about his spontaneous program.
We’ve let those go spontaneously and haven’t tried to isolate and identify them. I don’t see a need to anymore. After spending a career in a laboratory, one of the things I wanted to do was get away from the strict, stringent protocol that was necessary. Even though we have a lab here and do our testing and stuff, it’s done on a more as-needed basis than a controlled management. With the 10 strains we do manage, I’m experienced enough to know what the right protocol is. 
I have written about this before, but there's something very, very different about inoculating wort with wild yeast and letting beer make itself spontaneously. The end results, so similar a NYT columnist can't distinguish them, belie the huge act of will it takes to get out of the way and let nature take its course. Dave has spent a career corralling and controlling yeast. It's a testament to the life transition he experienced when he put down the test tubes at Wyeast and installed a coolship. It may look like an obvious step, but I think it was anything but.

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