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Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Future Battlefield is "Local"

A couple of days ago in Pittsburgh, Donald Trump sounded a theme that seems to suffuse, like the scent of smoke, every corner of our world. “It is the consequence of a leadership class that worships globalism over Americanism ... As a result, we have become more dependent on foreign countries than ever before.” Voters in the UK felt their country had lost its sovereignty and chose to leave the EU. Politicians from Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn to Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders argue for more local control. I'm sort of joking, but only halfway, when I point out that there's a similar mood in beer: people have adopted a new skepticism to big breweries, even when "big" may be a craft brewery from a neighboring state.

I identified one data point for this trend yesterday when the Oregon Brewers Guild released statistics for 2015. Today we have more. Lagunitas' Tony Magee, in the midst of a world-conquering push that includes new brewery openings and a partnership with Heineken, today unveiled a go-local initiative. As with everything Magee writes, there's a lot more light and heat than clear explanatory prose, but the upshot looks not terribly different from AB InBev's own High End portfolio of craft breweries. In a far clearer and less self-congratulatory post, Michael Kiser and Matthew Curtis describe what's going on:
Announcing on his blog yesterday, Lagunitas founder Tony Magee reveals that he has purchased stakes in three US craft breweries. These are Moonlight Brewing Company of Santa Rosa, CA, Independence Brewing Company of Austin, TX and Southend Brewery and Smokehouse of Charleston, SC. The latter of which will be turned wholly into a Lagunitas branded brewpub.

Magee also commented that his company, which sold a 50% stake to Heineken last year for a reported $500m, is to open two ‘non-profit fund raising community rooms’ in Portland, OR and San Diego, CA.
(It's a wonderful piece: go read it.) They continue:
Citing the new brewpubs from Goose Island and 10 Barrel as examples of his competitors working the “local” angle around the country, Magee seems compelled to follow in their footsteps as he has in the past — but puts a different spin on it. As much as he derides his largest competitors, he tends to follow their lead often, as he does with his efforts to consolidate distribution and control store shelves and retailers' buying behaviors by creating recommended "shelf sets." But in this case, Magee is nervous about watering down the Lagunitas brand by appearing to do the same things that Goose and 10 Barrel have. So it’s through these local brewery acquisitions that Magee hopes to earn local relevance and growth, which positions him in a role more akin to AB-Inbev than Goose Island in his own metaphor.
And the final data point I'll offer is the quick and steep decline of national independent craft brands like Sierra Nevada Pale and Sam Adams Boston Lager as well as large brewery craft brands Blue Moon and Shock Top. All of this is happening even while growth in non-mass market lagers continues to be robust.

And now we come back to Trump, globalization, and localism. We have entered a moment in beer where quality and availability has reached a point of saturation. For decades, most markets had deficits in one or the other category. If drinkers wanted a quality beer, they often had to turn to a Sierra or Sam Adams. That's no longer true. In nearly every town of any size, you're going to be able to buy tasty, well-made pale ales, IPAs, and amber lagers. In another era, you might have valued Sierra Nevada's pale as much as your local brewery's, but we're not in that era. All things being equal, people seem to be gravitating to local beer--at least within the craft segment.

The big breweries know this, which is why everyone from ABI to Constellation Brands to Lagunitas/Heineken has been investing in local brands. The big craft brands also know this, and they still appear to be developing a strategy for how to handle it. Pay attention to this word--"local"--because it will define beer over the next half-decade or so. (At some point we can assume the word will be drained of all meaning, like "craft," and the battlefield will shift.)


I suppose I should use this occasion to direct your attention to my manifesto, which keys on this very point: Buy Local, Buy Good, Drink on Tap.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How Big Will Craft Get? Oregon's Numbers are Suggestive

The Oregon Brewers Guild released the latest juicy batch of beer consumption and brewery statistics for the state, and it is as ever quite fascinating. Let's start with a few of the topline numbers and then jump into some thinking about what they mean.
  • 22% of the beer consumed in Oregon was brewed here--and with the exception of 10 Barrel, these all conform to the general sense of "craft breweries."
  • 63% of draft beer sold in Oregon is brewed in Oregon. (63%!)
  • The amount of Oregon-brewed beer consumed in Oregon increased 11% in the past year, even while...
  • The amount of beer brewed in Oregon increased only 3.5%.
  • Oregon had 206 brewing companies operating 246 brewing facilities in 72 cities at the end of the year.
  • Portland has 65 breweries and there are 95 in the metro area.
Lets break all this down a bit. The Oregon Brewers Guild is not concerned with craft beer, it's concerned with Oregon's breweries. As such it does not try to gather stats for "craft beer," which would include some portion of imported beer and craft beer made in other states. To make the Guild's stats consistent with the Brewers Associations', you'd include craft beer brewed in other states. Let's be extremely cautious and bump the "craft" share of the Oregon market up from 22% to 25% then. How does that compare with national stats? Oregon's market is twice as large: nationally, only 12.8% of beer sold is "craft."  The US market for beer is roughly 200 million barrels and if the country drank beer at Oregon's rate, that would put it at 50 million barrels.  

That's good, but the stats that most interested me were these: Oregon's consumption of craft beer--already the highest in the nation--continued to grow at an 11% clip. But its production only grew at about a third as fast, at 3.5%. Most of Oregon's beer production comes from just a handful of breweries--breweries that sell regionally or nationally. While breweries like Deschutes, Craft Brewers Alliance, Full Sail, and Ninkasi sell a lot of beer locally, they sell way more of it out of state. We can take this to mean that they're having a harder time selling their beer in growing markets outside Oregon.

I think we're seeing this reflected in recent stories about slowing sales for the big flagship brands even as the craft segment continues to grow. The craft segment is changing and becoming more local even as many big brands are expanding and trying to grab a piece of that ever-expanding pie.

I used to think Oregon was a cultural anomaly and that our progress in developing beer culture would not be replicated elsewhere. But I started thinking that when craft brewing had a 4% market share and Oregon was at 12%. Oregon is likely always going to be one of the national leaders in craft beer consumption and production, but it isn't anomalous--it's just ahead of the curve. And it's growing. What proportion of the national beer market will the craft segment on day occupy? At least 25%, I'd guess--and possibly well north of that.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Incredible, Shrinking Glassware


 An article by Fritz Hahn over on the Washington Post highlights a phenomenon to which I have been insensitive: shrinking glassware. (If I search my mind, I see that a dimly-dawning inkling of this phenomenon is present, but fetal.) Since I'm quoted in the article, I might as well comment on it.
But where craft beer is the focus, the pint is under threat. In the area’s beer bars and beer-focused restaurants, it has become next to impossible to find anything served in a 16-ounce glass. Go into ChurchKey, the Sovereign, Pizzeria Paradiso, City Tap House and RFD, and the scene resembles that notorious Budweiser ad: Guys swirling craft beers in snifters, pinkies aloft, because there’s no way to hold the stem of a nine-ounce snifter without your pinkie automatically popping out.
Hahn runs through some history of the pint and then comes to the key point.
The truth is, bars like smaller glasses because they create the illusion of lower-priced beer.... At Pizzeria Paradiso, at least a quarter of the beers sell for $5 and $6; the difference is they come in 12-ounce glasses. “Our goal at Pizzeria Paradiso has been to make craft beer more accessible, and that starts with the pricing,” says Fernands. Deciding to set beer prices by the ounce “allowed us to pick up more esoteric and expensive stuff, because we can put it in a smaller glass.”
Long ago, I made a quixotic charge at bringing clarity to glassware sizing by promoting the Honest Pint Project, and at the tail end of the article, Hahn mentions me and this. But what he's talking about is actual a new and different phenomenon. The Honest Pint Project was an effort to get publicans to serve a pint when they called a beer a "pint." What Hahn's identified is something else--keeping prices down by shrinking the size of the package. This has been going on for years in food packaging, and it makes sense it would come to beer, as well. People go to the store or pub and they expect a unit of goods to be roughly a certain price. Raising that price means the customer buys less, so if you can fudge the size and keep the price low, voila!--you've raised prices without alerting your customer.

If you buy a sixer of beer for ten bucks, you're getting your beer at about 14 cents an ounce. If you buy a pint of beer for five bucks, you're getting it for a bit more than twice that--31 cents. But if you buy a "glass" of beer, you have no idea how much you're paying.
Five Dollar Glasses
Imperial Pint - 26 cents/ounce
US Pint - 31 cents/ounce
12-ounce glass - 42 cents/ounce
8-ounce snifter - 63 cents/ounce

Six Dollar Glasses
Imperial Pint - 31 cents/ounce
US Pint - 38 cents/ounce
12-ounce glass - 50 cents/ounce
8-ounce snifter - 75 cents/ounce

Seven Dollar Glasses
Imperial Pint - 36 cents/ounce
US Pint - 44 cents/ounce
12-ounce glass - 58 cents/ounce
8-ounce snifter - 88 cents/ounce
 To the punter, the difference is a buck or two a pour. To the publican, it's a good deal more than that. If a pub pours imperial pints, the retail value of a standard keg at six-dollar pints is $619.50. If they're pouring US pints, it's $744. If they're pouring 12-ounce glasses, it's $992. Kegs come in different sizes and prices, and often publicans have to charge and arm and a leg. I'd love it if the US just backed away from standard pricing. I've never understood why you pay the same amount for a 4.5% kolsch as you do for a 7.5% IPA, which has twice the malt and many times the hops. If we got used to paying different amounts for a glass of beer, we'd be better consumers.

And in any case, it's worth at least thinking like better consumers. Imagine if a $6 US pint were a standard measure. This is what you'd expect to pay for the following measures if pricing were linear:
Imperial pint: $7.20
12-ounce glass: $4.50
8-ounce glass: $3.00
I actually love smaller glasses. I'd prefer it if ten-ounce glasses were offered everywhere, at roughly linear pricing. That would set me back about $4 a glass, and I could have four in a sitting for a reasonable price. Better yet, if pints of low-abv beer were cheaper, I'd buy more of those, too. So consider this a vote for both--cheaper small-pours and different prices per beer. There, it's only Monday and I've already solved your worst problems.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wait, There's Corn Sugar in My IPA??

When I posted a link on Facebook to the hop-degradation piece I did earlier this week, Pete Dunlop wrote:
No mention of the corn sugar, huh? Hmmm.
And then a few minutes later, in response to another question...
I don't have an objection to this post or to the use of dextrose. I just think it's important for people to understand how dextrose is being used in their fancy IPAs. I've discussed it with Jeff. I'm baiting him to write about it.
Well, consider me baited, Pete. 


Sugar is Kosher
It turns out using sugar is a somewhat under-discussed widespread practice, so let's discuss it. I think we should begin with the obvious question: who cares? The reason Pete even brought it up is because the use of sugar in beer was originally and ignorantly tarnished by craft brewers who considered its use purely a way to save money, with the added bonus of making the beer taste cheap and thin. In fact, sugar is a big part of the brewing traditions in Belgium and Britain, and it's used to enhance those beers. 

It does a few things. Because sugar is easily digestible by yeast, it thins a beer and adds crispness. This is a huge benefit in stronger Belgian ales. If you brew an all-barley beer to eight or ten percent strength, it will be both heavy and sweet. There are just too many unfermentable sugars in barley to get really attenuated beer. Let's take Duvel at not-quite random. It's a burly 8.5% beer, but it is incredibly lithe and drinkable. In fact, the name is a reference to that ease of drinking; like a Devil, it coaxes you into over-indulgence. Brewers at Duvel do a multi-step mash to get the most fermentable wort possible, but they also add sugar, perhaps 15%, and this pushes the beer to a finishing gravity of 1.5 Plato (1.006), which is astonishing. A regular pale ale will finish out at 3 Plato (twice as sweet), and an all-grain 8.5% stout might finish at 5 Plato--more than three times as sweet, and with a dense body. 

In British ales, sugar does something like the opposite--it allows very light ales to express their ingredients cleanly and clearly. Since a cask bitter or mild is made with so little malt (these beers are in the 3-4% range), they can't pack much flavor punch. By adding sugar, it lifts them up and exposes them a bit more. Hops are always perceived as stronger in thinner beers--it's why Belgian ales so rarely have much hoppiness--and in cask ales, that means those lovely East Kent Goldings really pop.

Sugar can even add its own flavor component. British brewers use a form called "invert sugar," where the sucrose molecule has been cleaved into glucose and fructose—two highly-fermentable forms of the sugar molecule. In Britain, invert sugar comes in a range of colors and can, in beers like stouts and milds, add color along with high fermentability. I interviewed local homebrewer Bill Schneller for my forthcoming book, because he's a big fan of invert. He told me, "You just can’t get the flavors of invert from crystal malts. [Invert gives you] richer color, different dried fruit flavors than crystal alone, plus a drier, easier-drinking beer than if you use all crystal malt. It adds complexity and flavors you just can’t get anywhere else."

What's Dextrose?
There are lots of sugars out there, and they'll all work in a beer--sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose (of course), and so on. Some of them are disaccharides like sucrose and maltose, composed of two monosaccharide molecules (like fructose and glucose). Dextrose is a starch-derived monosaccharide that comes from, ta-da!--corn. It's chemically extremely close to glucose. 

We have this second bias, probably a good one, against corn sugar. Even the phrase "corn sugar" can be easily turned into an epithet. But the use of corn in beer is not only old and completely respectable (I commend you now to Stan Hieronymus' forthcoming Brewing Local, which will fully and permanently exonerate our only native grain), but it's something even the Belgians do. Indeed, in many breweries you'll find this little side-vessel that you might mistake for use in decoction, but is in fact called a cereal cooker because it mashes corn. No less than Rodenbach does this. You want to tell Rudi Ghequire his beer uses cheap additives? Good luck with that. 

Dextrose is the most common sugar used in modern IPAs (I think), but I wouldn't bet even a nickel that it's the only sugar. Either way, it's fine.

Sugary IPAs
Okay, so now we come to the point of all this: do American brewers regularly dump corn sugar into your IPAs? You bet they do, and good thing. This is no secret. When I interviewed Vinnie Cilurzo for The Beer Bible, he readily described why he used sugar in the grist of Pliny the Elder when he first made it 13 years ago:
“If you want to know the difference between it and a barley wine, it’s got 3.5-4% crystal malt in it.  So having a low level of crystal malt you really let the hops come through.  They’re not being muddled by the caramel character of the crystal malt.  Also, we’re using a lot of sugars in the fermentables, dextrose sugar, so it’s drying the beer out and giving the beer a nice light, dry body.  Super crisp, but really dry yet really bitter.  And like you said the malt just lays the foundation and it’s just there to keep the hops in check without being sweet, malty, biscuity.  It’s a real simple malt bill and the hops are the shining star in that beer.”
That is about as clear a description of why brewers do this. When you're making an American IPA and you want a bit of caramel malt for sweetness, which can inflect hop flavor, you don't want to add unnecessary body. That's especially true if you're getting up there around 7% or more, when it's impossible to keep the sweetness and body at bay without sugar. The whole thing about American IPAs is that they're a vehicle for all the flavors and aromas of hops. Everything else--water, yeast, and malt--is there just to serve the hops. Sugar is invaluable, just as it is in strong Belgian ales, in this regard. 

So enjoy your IPA and know that it is in very good beer company. Corn sugar's fine!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bringing Us Together Through Beer

I spend about half my internet time reading about politics, and this is shaping up to be one of the grimmest, most divisive elections in my lifetime. But then I run across something like this and I think: "There is hope." That hope is beer.
OHIOPYLE, PA.- Judy and her husband Phil, who is in his 29th year of service in the military, along with three other couples who ventured from Pittsburgh to attend an annual craft beer festival held on the fringes of the Pennsylvania state park, all sat in folding chairs, waiting for the event to begin.

They were three hours early, the second in line and well stocked with sunscreen, bottles of water, string cheese, beef jerky, cold beers and a very happy state of mind. “We come for the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the music, the beer of course, it’s just a very good vibe here,” she said.
The article goes on to describe the couple and their political leanings and surfaces the rawness of the campaign. But I have a hunch that if I'd been standing next to them in line, we'd all have been happy to steer conversation straight back to the beer. What's that? Trump or Hillary? Actually, let's talk about IPA or pilsner.

Yes, that's much better.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Engineering an IPA That Lasts


This has been in the inbox for far too long, so let's have a look at it now. Grant Golden sent me this question, and it is the key that opens a box of fascinating information.

"I was wondering if there is any chance you might be interested in writing about or even just shedding some light on what about Breakside's IPA woos judges in almost every major beer competition in the states. I think it is a solid built-to-style American IPA, however, I just can't see how it continues to shine through and dominate when there is a plethora of other very, very well-constructed IPAs out there."

As it happens, I've discussed this with Breakside's brewer, Ben Edmunds. In the months before Breakside won GABF gold for its flagship IPA, the brewers had set about re-engineering that beer so it was more shelf-stable. What people love about the best IPAs are their fresh hoppiness, which is that combination of aromatics, flavor, and bitterness and how those elements play off the malt bill and (in some cases) fermentation characteristics. One of my favorite quote comes from a technical paper on aging beer, and the writers put it this way: "However, the constituents of freshly bottled beer are not in chemical equilibrium. Thermodynamically, a bottle of beer is a closed system and will thus strive to reach a status of minimal energy and maximal entropy." 

The entropy happens faster in IPAs, and the qualities that make the best ones so good are also the qualities that dissipate the quickest. When you put an IPA in a bottle, you have a very narrow window in which it will still taste as it does on tap at the brewery, and then it begins to go through a change. If you haven't prepared the beer for how it's going to taste at 30, 45, and 60 days as it goes through those changes you're left with an empty, hollow space where the flavor and aroma used to be. Here's Ben on that process:
“You have 20 days of brewery freshness and then it begins to degrade. If you bottle condition, you might buy yourself a week. But by day 30 you’re dealing with a fundamentally different beer than you had at day one. When you’re building these beers you should know what that beer will taste like at day 30. You can lament that ‘oh, it doesn’t taste like it used to.’ But knowing what that oxidative curve is and what those flavors will be is really important. Some hop aroma and flavors that oxidize are more pleasant than others.” 
There's no research into the process Ben describes, and they've been approaching it through trial and error. One of the reasons Breakside's various IPAs do well in contests is because they taste better when flights are finally poured out for judges, weeks after brewing, than other beers. That's because the brewery isn't just trying to make the best IPA at day 15, but one that is still toothsome at day 90--which requires an entirely different recipe. Other breweries that ignore the changes their beers go through may be disappointed in contest results, but they're essentially being graded on different beers than they sent.

As we spoke, Ben described the sensory change their Wanderlust IPA goes through (it's not their flagship, which is just called "IPA") by way of description.
“If you take Wanderlust as an example, the first fifteen days is all Mosaic and then it goes through this adolescence and between day 15 and 30 and what’s happening is this weird interference with Mosaic dropping out, but around day 30 the Amarillo starts to come forward and it becomes this new beer around day 30. When you have that beer from day 30 to 45, it has a little bit of tropical dankness, but essentially all that Mosaic character is gone and it becomes more bright, citrus peel, marmalade. I like to think how a hoppy beer is going to last on a shelf, and I don’t mind it going through this evolution.” 
He added that in their experience, some hops have "more legs" than others. Not surprisingly, they're some of the classics--Cascade and especially Centennial. Amarillo are good as well. 

So there you go. Commercial breweries have different sets of challenges depending on when and how they sell beer. If you're a brewpub that can move a flagship IPA through the pub in a month, you don't have to think about this stuff. If you're sending it out in bottles, particularly if you're sending it throughout the country, you have to consider what violence age and oxidation will wreak. Or, I suppose, if you're sending it to Denver to win a medal in the IPA category.

Monday, June 20, 2016

And the Next IPA is . . . ?

Each year the homebrewing magazine Zymurgy polls its readers about their favorite beers. The results are in most ways no more interesting than the average Thrillist article. What do you care if a bunch of people you don't know say Bell's Hopslam is better than Lagunitas IPA? What is notable is how thoroughly IPAs dominate the list. Here's the top ten (of the list's top fifty):
1. Russian River Pliny the Elder
2. Bell’s Two Hearted Ale
3. The Alchemist Heady Topper
4. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
5. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA
6. Founders Breakfast Stout
7. Three Floyds Zombie Dust
8. Bell’s Hopslam Ale
9. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
T10. Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA
T10. Stone Enjoy By IPA
Humans are generally blind to their own culture. But if you want a mirror in which to examine your own weird ways, Americans, I give you this list. It's true that homebrewers are just one group among beer fans, and if you polled the American public, you wouldn't come up with this list. But as beer fans go, homebrewers are a great subgroup. They're not just avid fans, they're avid fans who know a lot about different styles of beer. Polls many times reflect the ignorance of the respondents. Ask a thousand Americans about how to handle, say, the Yazidi crisis, and you'll come up with a majority who select one answer category. That doesn't mean more than four of them have ever heard of the Yazidis. Homebrewers are a reflection of the most knowledgeable group of beer drinkers in America. If you were looking for a new trend in brewing that might refute the dominance of IPAs, it would be among this group. Gose? Zero beers in the top 50. Saisons? One. Wild Ales? Two. Hoppy American ales? 37. (Big black ales are a majority of the non-IPAs.)

I noted this trend a couple years ago, and tracked down a list from the first poll Zymurgy ever did back in 2003. Only half the top ten were hoppy ales then, and just two of what we'd call IPA or IPA-adjacent beers today (Sierra Nevada Celebration and Stone Arrogant Bastard).

If you're looking at these lists and still can't understand what I'm talking about, imagine if this were a German homebrewing magazine. Would you expect to see 82% of the top beers represented by IPA? Of course you wouldn't. Once you chuck light lagers out of the equation, the passion among beer drinkers is starkly clear. For anyone who's spent time looking at the development of beer styles, this makes complete sense, too. In other beer-drinking countries, the national or regional palate narrows and gets more specific, whether it's světlý ležák or abbey ale or kölsch. When we look in the mirror of this poll, our developing culture is staring right back at us.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Draft Beer State of Mind

Bart Watson and I were on the same page. Yesterday, I ran across this data set from My Beer Haul that shows the percentage of breweries in each state that bottle or can their beer. It all comes from internal data, and I can't verify whether it's accurate or not, but based on the brewery counts, it at least looks quite up to date. The national average is 45%. But when you start scanning the state-level data, you see incredibly wide variance. I dumped the numbers into Excel and did a few sorts. I quickly realized that brewery number really affects the percentages (only one of North Dakota's nine breweries bottles or cans--but all of Puerto Rico's four do), so I eliminated states with fifty or fewer breweries. Here's the variance at the top and bottom of the list

States With Highest Bottling/Canning Rates
76% - Massachusetts (109 breweries)
61% - Vermont (54 breweries)
60% - Wisconsin (139 breweries)

States With Lowest Bottling/Canning Rates
32% - Michigan (204 breweries)
29% - Iowa (54 breweries)
28% - Arizona (72 breweries)
There are a lot of ways you could slice and dice these data, and my crude cut-off doesn't capture much of the nuance. Sorting by breweries per capita would be more informative, but that would require me to find the populations of 50 states, and the benefit doesn't justify the effort. The upshot is evident in these numbers: there's huge variation state to state.

Bart Watson, the Brewers Association's economist, posted a highly relevant article yesterday that further illuminates this phenomenon. He finds exactly the same thing.
The first note is that the size of the on-premise beer market varies wildly by state. This is due to a variety of factors: beer’s share of beverage alcohol, overall beer consumption levels, number of on-premise outlets, on-premise culture, consumer preferences and socioeconomic factors.... [T]he variations are pretty huge, ranging from almost 44 pints per 21+ adult in Colorado to 5.5 pints per 21+ adult in Mississippi. 
He then adds another layer, explains it in technical statistics-ese, and summarizes his finding this way:
In crunching the numbers, the size of the on-premise beer market appears to be far more important for brewery per capita numbers than the size of the overall beer market....  In layman’s terms, that means when you know both the size of the draught market in a state and the size of the total beer market, the size of the draught market is a much better predictor of the number of small and independent breweries.
(For you stats folk, his r-squared was a muscular 0.7, which ain't bad.) Watson has three cool graphs, so click through and read his piece.

The Big Upshot: Draft is Good
I have been promoting the maxim "buy local, buy good, and buy on draft" as a guide to developing healthy beer culture, and Watson's numbers back me up.
The data suggest that states where on-premise is more important to the beer market, craft does better in the off-premise. The logic is fairly simply: in places where more beer lovers are in bars and restaurants drinking beer and thus encountering craft, off-premise locations have better sales for craft brewers as well.
So there you have it. Drink on draft and you will create a virtuous cycle that buoys local breweries.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Chafing Under the Tyranny of Mosaic Hops

If you pay much attention to the hops in you beer, you will probably have noticed that Mosaic is one of the most common varieties listed. This is pretty remarkable for a hop released only in 2012. There were nearly 1,800 acres under cultivation in Idaho and Washington in 2015, which puts it out in front of varieties like Crystal and Willamette--and it well more than doubled in acreage last year, so the growth curve is probably going to push it up into Citra territory in the next few years. The reason, of course, is because these are the words people use to describe it:
Specific aroma descriptors include blueberry, tangerine, papaya, rose, blossoms, and bubble gum.
“I really like that you can create sweet, fruity aromas with Mosaic but still have a dry beer. It’s sort of like gewürztraminer in that way,” says Jesse Friedman, co-founder and brewmaster for Almanac Beer in San Francisco.... “It has a big, fruity punch to it,” he says. “It’s tropical, but has a fruit punch note. There’s a little bit of bubble gum in there, some blueberry, but it also has really nice earthy quality. It’s definitely distinct.”
That sounds absolutely delicious. I would love a hop that tasted alternately of rose blossoms, blueberry, or mango. You know what I get? Caraway seed. Mosaic has a very distinctive aroma compound that my palate reads as savory. It's not actually terrible, but there's a reason brewers haven't rushed to make caraway beers. Mosaic is the daughter of Simcoe, and I think that hop is to blame. I don't dislike Simcoe nearly as much, but in my mouth it comes across as far more aggressively piney--it's like pine tar--than it apparently does in others'. That's not precisely savory, but it's related, and is what I think gets carried through in Mosaic. (Maybe it's the thiols.)

As we get ever deeper into the world of designer hops, I think these kinds of mismatches are going to be more common. Some hops seem to read as "true" across palates. They're often the classics--Hallertau, Cascade, Saaz. But others have this Jekyll and Hyde quality. Sorachi Ace track as lemony to many palates, but come across like dill to others. Summits can be juicy and fruity, or taste like onions, garlic, or durian. Nelson Sauvin taste like sauvignon blanc grapes (hence the name), or musky and sweaty. In each case, the alternative flavor/aroma does not constitute a reasonable substitution. (It's interesting that most of the alternate flavors, including caraway in Mosaic, are savory notes.) If you're not tasting the qualities in these hops those who love them are, you probably dislike them.

The upshot for me, as basically every brewer is rushing to get her hands on Mosaic, is that I wish there were more of us who got the caraway flavor. It might make them a more specialty hop--as Sorachi Ace and Summits have become. But my sense is that I'm a fairly rare outlier here. Ah well--I can always have a saison.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Mainstreaming of Fruit

Six years ago, Ezra Johnson-Greenough had the rather foresighted vision to launch the Portland Fruit Beer Festival. This was near the dawn of the niche fest trend, when "beer festivals" morphed into things more specific--festivals celebrating cask ale or single-hopped beer or session beers. A fruit beer fest may have been inevitable, but Ezra's, right from the start, gave us a glimpse into the future, when fruited beers would come to be seen as perfectly mainstream.

It's interesting to look back at some of the beers at that first fest in 2011. There were at least two fruit IPAs, a concept which seemed pretty mind-bending at the time. "Hops contribute far more than bitterness; they add flavor and esters, both of which are often likened to fruit," I observed at the time. "Why not take intensely hoppy beers and accentuate their hop-fruitiness with actual fruit?" Or how about Block 15's offering?
Nick Arzner's idea was to brew a pretty straightforward farmhouse ale. After his initial order of guavas failed to ripen, he found puree instead and produced a beer he felt was too flat and one-dimensional. To liven it up, he added 20-25% soured ale he'd had in a barrel for 21 months. The effect is totally misleading though; Psidium doesn't taste like a sour ale. Rather, the blended beer works with the fruit flavors to create the sense of a fruit skin astringency.
These kinds of beers are now commonplace. They're a big change from an earlier era of fruit beers, when the idea was to create something like a flavored malt beverage--a sweet, soda-like beer that would appeal to people who didn't like beer. (It was often derided in classic sexist form as "girly beer.") Ezra founded his fest to illustrate the ways in which fruit could be used to enhance a beer's native beeriness by inflecting flavors already present in it. I won't go far as to say that he sparked the current national renaissance, but he certainly anticipated it. Six years ago, the beer list seemed exotic and unusual; in the 2016 lineup, the same kinds of beers seem far more familiar. We have come to understand how fruit works in beer, and now no one thinks to denigrate it as something inferior to "real beer."

This year, the fest runs three days--today through Sunday--and has a new venue. This year it will be held in the north Park Blocks, which should be a vast improvement over the boiling asphalt postage stamp they'd been inhabiting outside Burnside Brewing the last five years. Full details here.

The taplist looks pretty spectacular, so go give it a look if you're in the mood.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Complete Beer Travelers' Guide to Portland

It's summertime, which means people are starting to flow into the river city. For this week's podcast, Patrick and I give you the lowdown on the best breweries, bars, and restaurants to satisfy your beer tooth. We even give you a guide to Portland's brewing history and offer a couple of good day trips to round out your adventure. Have a listen. (It's also available on iTunes and Google Play.)

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

A Blog Post About Donald, Hillary, Steph, and, Oh, What the Hell, Beer

Back in the late 1980s I stumbled across my first bottle of stout ale, an event that sparked decades of fascination. That may seem like a long time (particularly to the many adults born thereafter), but more than a decade before beer, my first two loves were basketball and politics. I was drawn into both around 1976, the first by Kareem and Dr. J, the latter by stories my mom told me of a peanut farmer who might win the Democratic nomination. I know this is a beer blog, but (wo)man can not live in malt alone--and this is an absolutely banner moment for my first two preciouses. 

Let's start with politics, it being so timely and all. Last night the first woman in US history sealed up a presidential nomination for a major party. At one point last evening, MSNBC posted a graphic of the number of votes for all female candidates for president not named Hillary in US history: 800k and change. Hillary has in her two runs earned more than 30 million. 

Of course, barely anyone noticed that because the GOP primary is the most florid and bizarre in living memory. (Old-timers may cite 1964, but come on, Goldwater had been a sitting US senator for 12 years before he ran.) Without leveling any particular judgments about candidates, I think it's safe to say that the events of the GOP primary--a billionaire and reality-show host beating a slate of senators and governors--were so implausible you couldn't have used them in fiction. No matter what happens in November, the selection of Donald Trump will remain a point of head-shaking amazement for decades. It's the campaign that will launch a thousand poly-sci studies. It's been such good entertainment that come November, I won't know what to read in the morning without my daily Trump campaign news.

Meanwhile, in basketball we're witnessing not only the best season any team has had (the Golden State Warriors are two NBA championship wins from wresting the all-time record from the Jordan-Pippin Bulls), but seeing the Warriors permanently change the game. For the whole of basketball's run, it has been a sport dominated by giants. Plant an oak tree under the basket and give him a couple maples on the wings, and you can compete in any game. High-scoring teams have made runs in the past, but the shooters who do so well in the regular season enter the playoffs and find themselves in the middle of wrestling matches they inevitably lose.

But the Warriors have switched the script. They use a lineup of small sharp-shooters who are so fast the wrestlers can't get a hold of them. They regularly use a lineup in which their "tree," the center, is Draymond Green, a 6' 7" forward who gives up five inches to other teams' centers. They win because the movement of their offense, and particularly of their two guards, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, is so fast and fluid the bigs can't keep up. Now teams who want to beat the Warriors bench their big men and put in the speedsters. The Warriors are illustrating that you can win more easily if you score in intervals of three than two, and when plodding teams put their large lineups in, they get blown out. Because math. Those Bulls-era teams of the 90s put up 10-13 three-pointers per game. Golden State averaged thirty-one this year.

Back in the late 90s, when the Ewing-led Knicks were at their prime, the game was a dismal mess. Each possession ended up with a clear-out and one guy backing down to the rim to fire up a brick or get fouled. The  Knicks would win games and only score 70 points. The game is more elegant and beautiful now, and teams almost always pass 70 points in the third quarter. The rest of the league has taken notice, and the Thunder almost beat the Warriors playing Warriorball, while the Blazers, a team everyone thought would be one of the league's worst, used it to get into the second round of the playoffs.
There's every reason to expect it to continue. Guys who are 6' 3" like Curry are a dime a dozen. And all those short 15-year-olds are now shooting day and night to be the next Steph, knowing they don't have to wait for divine (or rather genomic) intervention to make them giants. It's rare to witness a revolution--even one so trivial as to happen in basketball--and I'm enjoying every minute. Tip-off to game three of the NBA finals is tonight at 6pm West Coast time.

Amazing times. Oh, right, this is a beer blog--I've got to do my duty and somehow tie IPAs into this whole thing. Easy peasy: nothing is so pleasant as drinking one while watching the Warriors or as necessary while watching politics. See how I did that? Now it's a proper beer blog post.

(Oh, and I didn't even get to the heroics of Big Papi and my Red Sox--that's the kind of year we're having.)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Breakside Rainbows and Unicorns

The city of Portland has been sweltering in a record-breaking heat over the past few days. Our records never impress anyone, but consider that the average Portlander is like a salamander. We require soft, downy clouds, moderate temperatures, and lots of liquid to stay alive. So a 100-degree June day is, to the Portlander, an existential threat. We hiss at the devil sun when it delivers these blows.

On such days, the Portland salamander must watch what he drinks, lest he worsen matters. Beers light in body and alcohol are a must; bonus points go to those limned with acid or fruit, and those that deliver a restorative snap. There are many possible choices out there, but I'd like to direct your attention to Northeast Dekum. One of the finest such beers was on offer at last year's Oregon Brewers Fest, and by delightful serendipity, started pouring again minutes before I arrived at Breakside last Friday. Its return was perfectly timed. What an ideal sunny-day beer.

Rainbows and Unicorns could serve as a perfect argument that the term "IPA" has really come to mean everything and nothing at all. It is just 5.1% and 30 IBUs, both way out of range for an American IPA. On the other hand, it is quintessentially American in its hopping, and in this way makes perfect sense as an IPA.  It is lusciously juicy (El Dorado, Galaxy, and Comet hops) and does seem to have a little bittering fizz to it despite the low BUs, and yet it is light as air, springy, and winning. (The curious malt bill includes Maris Otter and flaked rice.) It's way too intensely hoppy (not bitter, but hoppy) to qualify as a pale ale, too juicy/citrusy to be anything but American. If it's not an IPA, what else is it?

Most importantly, it's the beer the IPA lover wants on scorching days when a 7.5% beer means certain death. It delivers all the flavor you want in a spritely little package. I don't know if it's pouring anywhere but the pub on Dekum yet, but what better excuse to go lounge there, al fresco, in the late-afternoon shade?


"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Friday, June 03, 2016

The Newly-Coveted Cloudiness

Something weird is going on. In the past six months or so, there has been a mad rush to hefeweizen-cloudy IPAs. Not just IPAs with a hop shimmer, but densely opaque, milky beers. It's odd for a few reasons, but mostly because the cloudiness is a visual symbol for a kind of beer marked by intense fruitiness and hop flavor, generally with low bitterness--qualities that don't derive from the cloudiness. (It's also odd because though hazy IPAs have been around for twenty years, the idea of haziness strikes many people as entirely novel.)  But things are getting even weirder:
Along with Fieldwork's help, we've begun looking at some of the beers under the miscrocope and it turns out that some of them are yeast bombs. There are allegations of flour being added to beers. And then there's a possiblity that *when* you dry-hop is a big deal.  

Well, now one prominent brewer has admitted to using flour. 
Follow the link if you want the lowdown--the brewer in question also uses lactose and green apple puree. I have no idea how widespread this is, but I find it absolutely fascinating. It is a perfect example of culture driving beer style development, and it's happening in real time right before our eyes.

Credit: Kim Knox Beckius

The process must have gone something like this. First you have a beer like Heady Topper, which is a grimy, grungy looking thing, but which has this transfixing quality of hoppiness--fresh and alive, with a bigger emphasis on the flavors and aromas of hops than bitterness, which creates a sense of fruit-juice intensity. Fans go crazy. Other breweries make similar beers (though I think nobody's were as murky as those early Headys), using different hop varieties and balancing the flavors, aromas, and bitterness in different ways. Fans go crazy for these, too. In the drinkers' minds, all the visual, aroma, and flavor elements are fused. The look of the beer is taken to be an important element in creating its taste and smell. We know the human mind is a fickle, lying instrument, and no doubt people's parietal and occipital lobes are telling them that those cloudy beers do taste better, dammit. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that ... murk.

Breweries, in turn, make sure to leave the haze in. Since more is always better, and since the conflation of appearance and flavor has already been made, breweries not only do everything they can to goose the flavor of a beer, but also its chunky appearance. And this, of course, confirms the suspicions of the drinker that the chunkier the beer, the more it tastes juicy and delish. Ta da! Now we have the hand of culture guiding things, an unexpected feedback loop that has created strange-looking beers.

When you wander into something so distinctly cultural as this from the outside, it's obvious. I've spent a bit of time following the debate about the haze's import to the flavor and aroma, and found proponents' arguments unpersuasive. Hops may leave a bit of haze, but not chunks or billowing clouds--that comes from yeast cells and protein. And these help create juiciness how? Whether or not there is some thin reed of science supporting this link, it's sundered with the addition of other chunkifying ingredients like flour. This is purely visual--you might as well be dyeing it green. People like the haze because it seems to have something to do with the other things they like.

And guess what? There's absolutely nothing wrong with weirdness like this. Half of the classic styles we revere are products of cultural weirdness. After a period of outlaw apostasy, these styles become codified as standards, and we add them, like precious gems, to our canonical collection. Hefeweizen with isoamyl acetate and clove phenols--absolutely critical to style. Witbier with coriander--mandatory. Irish stout and roasted barley--yes and yes. Of course, these are actually all preferences, agreed upon after the fact. There is no law demanding they be so, except the ones we put in place after canonization.

I have no idea if the cloudy thing is here to stay, but if it is, there's really no reason why breweries shouldn't add flour or lactose--or who knows, pumice and ash. In fifty years, we'll be describing that flour as a regional quirk that is critical to developing the characteristic mouthfeel that accentuates the juicy flavor profile. Style guidelines will stipulate that only wheat or barley flour may be used, because quinoa or spelt flour would just, you know, be weird.

I guess what I'm saying is, viva la weirdness. This is how things develop, and it's a good thing.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Why I'm Not a Beer Geek

Note: post updated below.

Yesterday, on the discussion-resistant platform of Twitter, I had a choppy exchange about the nature of the beer geek. I argued that I wasn't one, and Nick concluded, "Hilarious to think that a guy who writes books about beer and travels the world to explore rare styles denies being [a beer geek]." (New motto!: "Providing inadvertent hilarity since 2006 .") Let's take it off the Twitter and break this whole thing down. I have lately noticed quite a deviation in my own behavior and that of many other beer fans, and it seems worth a paragraph or seven of exploration.

If "beer geek" is a general category identifying anyone who knows what a session IPA is, then I and anyone reading this fit the bill. I think that's Nick's point. Until ten years ago, that was a useful category because the number of people drinking good beer was relatively small. We were already a subculture. But now a majority of beer drinkers are at least sometime "craft" (read: anything but mass market lager) drinkers. Which means this use of beer geek would mean most people who drink beer, and would therefore be drained of any real meaning.

Even more to the point, there's a big difference behaviorally, and this is where I've noticed it. A subculture of super-fans has developed, and they behave in distinctive ways. They spend a lot of time pursuing new beers and are very trend-sensitive. They are the first adopters, lavishing love on beers like "New England IPAs" (right now), kettle-soured beers (last year), or fruit IPAs (2014). They are hugely promiscuous in their fandom, trying to taste as much beer from as many breweries as possible. They have strong opinions about the best breweries and beers and organize them into tiers of coolness, much like music fans. They dream about landing ultra-rare, usually vintage beers ("whales"). They'll stand in line for hours to get a bottle of the latest, coolest beer--or even drive to Vermont so they can stand in line for hours to get one. They avidly record their activities on various social media apps and ratings sites. When they travel abroad, they want to drink as many different beers as possible, and may go to six pubs in an evening. This is the person I think of as a beer geek.

It lines up pretty closely with the way people describe geeks in other subcultures, too. In fact, people have drawn a distinction between nerds and geeks to give the term extra valence:
Geeks are “collection” oriented, gathering facts and mementos related to their subject of interest. They are obsessed with the newest, coolest, trendiest things that their subject has to offer.... Nerds are “achievement” oriented, and focus their efforts on acquiring knowledge and skill over trivia and memorabilia.
We don't regularly use the phrase "beer nerd," but I guess it would, in Nick's words, describe a guy who "writes books about beer and travels the world to explore rare styles." I'm definitely far more nerdy than geeky. But there's another dimension here that goes back to the behavior bit, and it's the one that makes me think I'm not a beer geek--and maybe only nerd-adjacent. Beer is unlike sci-fi or just plain sci in that it has an attendant culture and context of use. And this gets to where my interests lie.

There is a group whose main engagement with beer is social. I've wandered into this life of writing about beer, but I don't objectively like beer more than I like basketball or politics, and had things gone a different way, I might now be writing a post about the difference between a hack and a wonk. I could give up beer, the beverage, more easily than I could coffee. By far. But what I'd find very hard to give up is the simple pleasure of sitting with people in a pub and enjoying a pint. In that context, I like a good beer, but it isn't the central feature of the outing. This view is far more prevalent in pub-going countries, where people regularly drink a lot of beer over the course of a year. But the term "beer geek" just doesn't fit. They're beer drinkers, and surely beer lovers. But not beer geeks.

There are other subgroups within beer fandom (the historians/scholars, the homebrewers, the style nazis, the low-information drinkers), but if I had to identify my tribe, it would be the pub-goers. This has given rise in the past five years to conversations that peter out after I confess I haven't tried some new beer or been to a newly-opened brewery. (And by newly-opened I mean since 2010.) It means I end up defending low-status beers in conversations with mystified geeks. Weirdly, it also means that some of my beery interests--an old European brewery I've visited, some weird technique a brewer told me about--are met with glazed eyes by bored geeks. The rise of this kind of beer geek is fairly recent--super-fans didn't exist in enough density to coagulate into a subculture until maybe ten years ago. But now beer geekery is a full-fledged subculture, and its rules, values, and membership mystify me. I am not a beer geek.

This post has spent 24 hours percolating through social media, and there's a vein within the chatter I'd like to respond to. The idea with the post was to point out that a new subculture within beer has developed. I don't think semantics matter here--whether that or another subculture, or even the whole of beer fandom, gets called "beer geek" isn't really the point. The point is more that there now are many different currents within the beer-enjoying community and I feel somewhat out of step with some of them.

I'd like to add that, although I don't see myself as a beer geek in the way paragraph three describes them, I have nothing against those who are. Fandom is like anything--your preferences may vary. I have much more in common with whale-hunters than I do with Bud Light drinkers. We don't need to play our expressions of fandom against one another.