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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Beer Tax Discussion on Tap?

The Oregon gubernatorial hopefuls are about to begin debating. This is of little interest to most people, but I will be watching to see if the beer tax rears its head. You never know...

Update. About 45 minutes in, the candidates mentioned it obliquely. Chris Dudley (R), says he wouldn't raise taxes on "alcohol" (question phrased that way from the audience). John Kitzhaber (D) didn't mention taxes, but says he's opposed to axing the OLCC. There you have it.

(I hate the OLCC, but I'll still vote Doctor John.)

The Appeal of Fresh Hop Ales

I was speaking to a reporter for the Yakima Herald-Republic yesterday about fresh hops. Saturday, Yakima hosts its annual Fresh Hop Ale Festival--an occasion worthy of a little local press. (Saturday is also the Hood River Hops Fest, the South-of-the-Columbia cousin; kudos to anyone making the swing to compare Evergreen and Beaver State ales that day.) I was pleased to be consulted.

Thinking about it a bit more, I think there's more to the appeal than just the flavor fresh hops impart--even if that flavor is enough to drive certain people wild with joy. As everyone knows (and as some beer geeks now lament), the West Coast is hop mad. I sometimes think drinkers here find the soul of beer in the essence of distilled hops--not just the bitterness, but the kaleidoscope of flavors and aromas they offer. For hopheads, the fresh hop season is a kind of communion, when the ripened cones can be used to produce even more elemental flavors. That the season is fleeting--and the fresh beers, too--makes it all the more prized.

I'm not a huge fan of the grassy, sometimes vegetal qualities of fresh hops, and yet I love this season. The new hops are out, and with them, the fresh hop ales. It is a celebratory moment, and I get caught up in the excitement, too. The next few weeks ought to be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Miracle Mile

Time for a little profit-taking. Although this blog is called "Beervana," I try to limit the amount of chest-thumping I do with regard to its objective superiority as a beer mecca. Such histrionics are bad form and not particularly edifying to those outside our cloud-soaked hop heaven. Nevertheless, objective superiority does call for certain admissions at times--journalistic, cold-eyed appraisals of just how superior this place really is.

Everyone knows Portland has a lot of breweries. More, apparently, than any city on earth. We drink more pints of craft beer than any city in America. We have 719 beer festivals a year (roughly). No data on such facts exist, but my bet is that more styles of beer were brewed in Portland in the past year than in any city in the world. Amid these Ripley-like Amazing Facts, let me add another: the Miracle Mile, a short jaunt (.9 miles, actually) that takes a person to the doorstep of four breweries. The route takes you from Hair of the Dog (recommended tipple: Adam) to Rogue's Green Dragon (try the rotating brewery special, but don't ignore the 50 import and craft taps) to the newly-opened Cascade Barrel House (Apricot Ale) and finally, if you're still upright, for a nightcap at the Lucky Lab (Super Dog). Can any other city match this speed--four breweries a mile? Can they match the quality of beer along our own Miracle Mile? No. I haven't done a study, but no.

That's why we call it Beervana. Unashamedly. If you haven't had the pleasure, please, come and check it out.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cool Alan Sprints Vid

The Oregon Travel Network (Travel Oregon) has put together a very cool little video featuring Alan Sprints. It shows him indulging one of his less-famous passions, cooking. If you look carefully, you'll see that he's doing that cooking out at the new brewery, too. Have a look:

Honest Pints on Bainbridge and in Chattanooga, TN

I have gotten behind on my Honest Pint certifications, so without further ado, here are three places. The Terminal Brewhouse is our first in Tennessee. As you can see, they serve beer in imperial pints, and get this: the regular price for one of these is just four bucks. Maybe beer is just less expensive in the Volunteer State. Stop in for a dunkelweizen if you're in the area.

The Terminal Brewhouse
Certified Purveyors of an Honest Pint
6 East 14th Street
Chattanooga, TN

The next two places are owned by the same folks and are situated on beautiful Bainbridge Island and appear to be located just a block away from each other. Pick your pleasure:

Harbour Public House

Certified Purveyors of an Honest Pint
231 Parfitt Way SW
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

Pegasus Coffee House
Certified Purveyors of an Honest Pint
131 Parfitt Way SW
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

Monday, September 27, 2010

Cascade Barrel House First Look

In just a couple hours, Cascade Brewing will officially open the doors to the new Barrel House on Tenth and Belmont. They unofficially opened last week--and the difference between these two states appears to be a press release. Sally and I walked over (yes, walked!) on Saturday for a quick peek.

My analysis of the place follows two tracks. The first concerns beer; for the last couple years, trying to find Cascade's sour ales has been an Easter egg hunt of random opportunity. Even at the Raccoon Lodge, you couldn't reliably find certain beers. The Barrel House is the solution to this problem, and the menu contains ELEVEN sours (five other taps are given to regular beers--a nice idea, because not everyone is willing to take a walk on the sour side). I have managed to miss Ron's amazing meat-of-the-apricot-pit Noyeaux all these months--but finally had it on Saturday. Most of the beers come in 8-ounce goblets and set you back plus or minus six bucks, but given that many of the beers took more effort than a standard vintage of wine, I consider this a bargain. So, from a beer perspective, they could be serving these out of the back of an old mechanic's building and I'd be happy to visit.

That takes us to the second track--the Barrel House itself. If you took the Raccoon Lodge's general architectural vocabulary and transmuted it to Southeast Portland, you'd have the Barrel House. It's in an old industrial building, but the interior has tall ceilings with exposed rafters--an urban lodge. Barrels are used throughout, as table tops, table bodies, and bar decorations. Along one wall are comfy-looking booths (full when we arrived, as they probably always will be); the rest of the space has beer hall-style tables and benches. Lots of light streams in, both through large windows and the open garage door walls, de rigeuer for any inner-Southeast locale. It is half-way between wine bar and pub in feel, and I think this is a good target: I hope to see serious wine fans come in and see just how un-beery beer can be.

There's a small food menu, but it's not totally up and running and I only had hummus--we can look into that in later posts. I saw Preston Weesner, who's apparently been helping Ron with blending, behind the bar. Art Larrance, who deserves massive kudos for taking this expensive gamble, was also enjoying a tipple. Good people, good location, good space and amazing beer. Very auspicious.

The grand opening kicks off at 11 this morning. Go have a look.

Cascade Barrel House
939 SE Belmont

Here are a few iPhone pics to get you in the mood. For a better look, have a gander at Matt Wiater's predictably stellar photos.

The interior has a spacious layout with beer hall seating and lots of light.

Barrels are used as architectural elements and as decor throughout the building. These two tables are choice sipping stations.

Barrels again at the bar--and a hiding barkeep. (He likes to be in photos as much as I do.)

Red and black blood--Sang Rouge and Sang Noir.

The outdoor seating is a mite spartan--that's Morrison beyond, but webfeet will take their sun whenever it comes.

Barrel-top tables and a nice, long stretch for running (if you're two).

Peeking in from Tenth Avenue.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

We Drink Pabst to Stick It to the Man

Oh man, I feel a brand dissection coming on:
The resuscitation of Pabst Blue Ribbon offers the best example of how subtle the Don Drapers of today can be. P.B.R. went from a beer known for being cheap and bland and in seeming terminal decline in 2001, to a brand known for being cheap and bland that has increased sales by over 25% since 2008, in spite of raising prices in the middle of a recession. That’s on top of a roughly 60% increase in sales between 2001 and 2006, due to a stealth marketing campaign astutely analyzed by Rob Walker in his book Buying In.

Alex Wipperfürth, who consulted for P.B.R. during those years and has written a book that draws on his findings, describes P.B.R. customers as engaging in “lifestyle as dissent” and “consumption as protest” – embracing this seemingly forlorn beer as a kind of expression of “no future” solidarity. P.B.R. succeeded by willfully keeping its marketing efforts as neutral as possible, to perpetuate the beer’s underdog image.

Buying P. B. R. is not much of a form of dissent, in comparison with, say, marching across the bridge at Selma or smuggling in food to Anne Frank, but it is dissent nevertheless. As Walker observes, buying the P.B.R. beer brand, owned by a large holding company, is hardly a way to strike back against corporations – but it is a way to protest against the phony hilarity and brand saturation of conventional marketing. Incredibly, Pabst marketing whiz Neal Stewart shaped his unconventional campaign by reading Naomi Klein’s 2000 book No Logo. After finishing Klein’s impassioned protest against the pervasiveness of corporate brands, Stewart concluded, "Hey, there are all these people out there who hate marketing – and we should sell to them."

Seriously, I think I'll do a brand dissection on PBR this week--a long overdue treatment. My house is almost done--just a little finish work on those boards in-between window lights--and so blogging depth and quality should pick up a bit. I definitely want to get back to the brand dissections, too.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sourheads Rejoice

Once was a time when I used to get emails from Ron Gansberg. He used to invite me out to Beaverton to roam the barrels in his ever-more-crowded brewery. That was when he was an obscure sour-beer brewer in a land that barely appreciated his regular beers. When I was roaring around with him, I'd say, "Man, you should really get a taproom over on the East Side where people will appreciate you."

Now he has. The Barrel House is unofficially open for business (939 SE Belmont). My email? It seems Herr Gansberg has gotten too big to mess with wee bloggers. I was pleased and mollified to see that in the description of beers, one of the laurels mentioned was the Satori for Apricot Ale.

Speaking of Cascade, Paul Kasten over at Wildwood plans to host a seven course (!) meal with a corresponding number of Gansberg's sour beers. More on that later, but save the date. I was blown away by his menu when he last did one of these, with Pelican.

The Adjunct That Dare Not Speak Its Name

On yesterday's post, Average Bill (aka Bill Schneller, famous local homebrewer) added an important caveat to my observation that adjuncts are back in vogue. They are, he agrees, except for a biggie:
One big adjunct is missing from your list: sugar. It's still underutilized and reviled as a "cheap" ingredient by too many brewers and craft beer drinkers. The biggest flaw in most US made "Belgian" beers is the lack of adequate enough amounts of sugar which is why the US ones tend to be sweeter and less attenuated than the real thing.

And even though the early models of most US craft beers were English beers, most US brewers have never bought into using sugar in English styles. But, according to Ron Pattinson's research, English beers between 1880 and 1960 averaged about 15% sugar. And it wasn't done as a cost cutting move (since during the Wolrd Wars that 15% sugar cost as much as the rest of the entire grain bill). It was used both for flavor and to ensure consistency since malt varied from year to year. Sugar manufacturers actually made specific products just for brewing. But ask most US brewers about sugar in a standard strength beer and they'll look at you like you're crazy.
This is totally true: sugar continues to carry the taint of an unwholesome ingredient. Looking at other beer drinkers, I think there's another element to it, though. Many American beer drinkers don't cotton to sugared beers. There's something about the lightness of body or the attenuation Bill mentions--it rubs them the wrong way. This is less the case with robust Belgian ales, though even there, the flavors sugar alcohol contribute seem to delight American palates less than the heavy, malt-sugar flavors from all-barley strong ales. Beer is local, of course, and it seems like sugar is a bridge too far. Habaneros, okay. Sugar? Nuh uh.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Adjunct Nation

Let us climb into the wayback machine and travel to that distant time of 1990. Many of you will have been too young to drink then (half the population was 17 or younger at the time), and probably the rest of you were drinking Hamm's. The Americans who had discovered craft beer resided in that fiery, fundamentalist stage of the just-converted. In their backlash against additive-laden tin can beers, they were Reinheitsgebot-curious, allowing exemptions for wheat, say, but little else. Breweries dabbling with fruit and honey were regarded with suspicion, if they were regarded at all. Other ingredients were dismissed with a sneer as "adjuncts." It was an article of morality.

Ah, how things have changed. I haven't run the numbers, but my guess is that something north of 75% of the brewpubs around town have a beer on tap with some formerly-suspicious contaminant. Last week, I stopped in to Laurelwood and discovered their Bay Laurel Pale. Last night, I moseyed over to Coalition for a pint of maple porter--one of my new fave beers. Ales adulterated with chocolate, coffee, pepper, herbs, and fruit are so common they don't even register as something to consider. The change has become so complete that even corn and rice make their way into beer--the two grains no brewer would ever have considered using twenty years ago.

Historically, of course, adjuncts were ubiquitous. Read through descriptions of some of the crazy English or German styles, and you realize that at one time, a barley-hops-water-yeast beer would have been an austere curiosity. The use of other ingredients seems more natural and obvious when you think about it; while malt and hops offer fair diversity, if a brewer wants to draw out certain notes, why limit himself to just these ingredients?

When brewers first used spices in their beer, they were considered gimmicks. Many times, that was the goal. But brewers have learned how to use a pinch of this and a dash of that the way a chef does, and the results are generally quite good; they add subtle notes that fill out the flavor profile.

Take Laurelwood's Bay Laurel Pale. I asked for a taster first, because I was worried the bay leaves would overwhelm the beer. Rich in essential oils--particularly eucalyptol--bay leaves have a dangerous menthol-like quality. But brewer Chad Kennedy essentially dry-hopped with them, and this quality is more suggestive than acute. I ordered Laurelwood's Space Stout chicken to comfort me during that false autumn we were having last week. The Bay Laurel Pale went brilliantly with it--an autumnal tour de force.

As for Coalition's Loving Cup Maple Porter--you can tell just from the idea that it's a winning combination. The darker amber grades of maple syrup are caramelized in a manner also directly on the continuum of malt flavors. Coalition's porter features that note along with the light aroma and flavor of maple. It's a dry porter--nothing oversweet about it--and the maple adds just depth and flavor. A perfect combination (and it will be a perfect winter beer).

My guess is that we're just seeing the latest stage in an evolution. In cooking, chefs are often reluctant to divulge their secret ingredients. Brewers are a bit more exhibitionist, and include all the salient details of recipe and craft. I could imagine a time, however, when breweries were less forthcoming. If I ask a brewer, "Is that cardamom I'm tasting?", they are happy to let me know. Perhaps in another twenty years (when I'm way, way past the median age), I'll just see a twinkle in her eye and get a shrug instead.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Beer Trend Boomlets: Actually, I'm Cool With Them

What's more common: "new" craft beer fads or the blog posts complaining about them? The latest comes from the estimable Lew Bryson, who has earned the right to whinge. He selects Belgian IPAs for his rant du jour:
It's just so freakin' American craft brewing. Take a familiar category of beer -- maibocks, brown ale, porter, or in this case, Belgian pale strong ales (a beautifully, broadly, Belgian category, admittedly, in which few are just like another) -- and hop the shit out of it, then proudly hold it up as A New Beer! Ta-daaaa! Never mind if it's freakishly sweet, or that the hop flavor clashes with the yeast character, or that every other brewer is going, 'Yeah, I gotta make me one of them' and the "style" becomes a glut (crap-ass sour beers, anyone?). Not to mention that American craft-brewing has become so influential -- a GREAT thing, overall, and very satisfying -- that Belgian brewers are doing it, with very varied results.
A few things spring to mind. First--and almost every blog post about craft brewing could begin with this caveat--these "trends" happen only at the far fringes of the brewing industry. Most beer drinkers don't even know what an IPA is. And even most craft beer drinkers will never have tried a Belgian IPA. To become fatigued with the style is to admit that you spend a lot of time trying the newest releases. Fair enough: but you (by which I mean we) are statistical outliers. Almost no one will feel your pain.

As for the elements of these trend boomlets that seem to most offend, I say "who cares?" Yeah, Black IPAs have probably been brewed for centuries (under many names)--as have hoppy Belgian ales. There's not a lot new under the sun. Yeah, they're accompanied by hyperbole and hype. So are all beers--it's a business, right? With 20,000 beers available in the market, what's surprising about a bit of hype? Yeah, they don't always seem like improvements on pre-existing styles. Lew doesn't like Belgian IPAs, I don't like Cascadian Dark Ales (but we both love sessions!), but so what? I don't really love bocks, either. That doesn't make them illegitimate.

Toward the end of his post, Lew observes: " I understand that this is how we progress, that the good succeed and the bad simply suck, and that every beer is not meant for me, but..." No buts, Lew. Just leave it there.

Oh, and as to which are more common, the offending styles or the blog posts complaining about them--blog posts, obviously. A brewery puts out, what, 20 beers in an active year? I write hundreds of posts a year. I gotta have me fodder. A bit of complaining is an easy way to go.

Which reminds me--you know what I really hate ... ?

Beer Versus Ganja in California

Let's say you earned millions of dollars a year ferrying a mildly intoxicating malt beverage around the highways of California, keeping that state famously mellow. How would you feel if a bunch of hippies were trying to pass a law to make legal another less toxic and less addictive relaxant? "Welcome aboard, boys!", right? Not quite:
The California Beer & Beverage Distributors is spending money in the state to oppose a marijuana legalization proposition on the ballot in November, according to records filed with the California Secretary of State. The beer sellers are the first competitors of marijuana to officially enter the debate; backers of the initiative are closely watching liquor and wine dealers and the pharmaceutical industry to see if they enter the debate in the remaining weeks.
(Those who read beer blogs would have spotted a mistake in this paragraph: distributors are not exactly "beer sellers." They are the middlemen who take the beer from the brewers and give it to the retailers.) As it happens, Stone and Sierra Nevada were caught in the crossfire: as nonvoting affiliated members, they weren't aware and didn't endorse the CBBD's political contribution. (And are apparently trying to do serious damage control.)

I wouldn't make too much hay about this. The CBBD's donation of ten grand is merely symbolic in a state where a single candidate may spend $150 million dollars on a statewide race. But it will do nothing to endear the already-unpopular beer distributors with Golden State potheads.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

This Doesn't Sound Like Fun

See if you can identify the event:
Brewers travel from all over the country (and the world) to attend the festival and promote their craft. But as many, many brewers have expressed to me, both this weekend and at past festivals, they don’t really want to spend a lot of time on the festival floor because it tends to devolve into a semi-drunken shit show, especially at the weekend evening sessions. Seasoned festival veterans long for the brief moments in between the raucous screams that accompany the near-constant dropping of glasses (many of which are now done on purpose). Many brewers simply don’t bother to attend the sessions because they have no role to play and the scene isn’t about their talents and what they do for a living.
That's the GABF, though Oregonians are forgiven for mistaking it for the OBF. That's Andy Crouch, who has a quite a long and interesting post on the fest.

Relatedly, Doc Wort suggests the GABF travel to different cities every year, a proposal I heartily endorse. That would really undermine the frat-party quality, because you'd have a new crowd every year--one comprised mainly of first-timers. It would also do a lot to advance the stated goal of the Brewers Association--to educate Americans about craft beer. It would be logistically more difficult, but it seems like an industry of this size could manage to pull it off.

Update: Brewpublic offers the local perspective.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The GABF and the Meaning of Medaling

Ah, the Great American Brewers Festival, whose medals always glow shiniest on brewery trophy walls. Our love, our bane. Does any fest fill beer geeks with more ambivalence? On the one hand, it has the most credibility of any awards-granting fest in the US--ensuring that any beer receiving an award is a good one. On the other hand, its very credibility conceals selection biases: the only beers that win are those entered--and of the 1,600 American breweries, fewer than a third enter beers. As a consequence, we have a hard time relating to the meaning of a winning beer,

Add to that the innate capriciousness of judged events. Enter a beer one year and it may win gold and then strike out thereafter. To take one example, did the quality of Mirror Pond really increase this year; or were the judges just off their collective rockers in past years when it didn't win? Of course, the truth is that, in a competition with dozens of beers, the palates and moods of the judges will select almost randomly among a smaller--but still substantial--group of potential medal winners. Excluding the pro-am competition, 3,448 beers were entered for judging. Coming up with medal winners from that vast group isn't totally random, but let's just say that among the 3,211 non-winners are a few decent beers (and future gold medalists).

Another issue: as a parochial blogger, I dislike how Colorado always takes home truckloads of medals, while Oregon (and particularly Washington) get a relative snub. True, we know from past years that Colorado breweries enter in far greater numbers--and therefore have lower winning percentages--than Oregon, but gaudy numbers impress more than statistical contextualizing. So this year, Colorado takes home 41 medals, more than doubling up Oregon (19) and clubbing Washington like a baby seal (7). (And I wonder, darkly, why the Colorado-based host organization gives no information this year on which breweries entered, preventing me from scoring win percentages for 2010.)

And what to make of style explosions? This year's competition features 79 categories, for a total haul of 237 medals. The chances of winning owe a lot to, well, chance, but that doesn't mean I won't get a flood of press releases trumpeting wins this week. Over two hundred medals a year, every year, thousands in total. After a certain point, what does it say that a beer has won a medal? What does it say that a beer never has? Does seeing a medal-draped trophy cabinet tell a visitor anything about a brewery?

So here we are on Ambivalent Monday, happy to celebrate the winners, but also wondering: yes, but what exactly should we make of all this?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

GABF Results: Oregon

Last night, a friend of mine who is now brewing for Trumer called and jubilantly announced that beer he brewed had struck gold at the Great American Beer Festival. Even if the beer you brew was designed eons ago in lands far, far away, it's still exciting to see your handiwork honored.

Oregon had good reason to feel pleased, taking home a grand total of 19 medals--though just three were gold. Special nod to multiple-winners Deschutes (gold, two silvers, bronze), Barley Brown's (gold, two silvers), Pelican (gold, two bronzes), Bend Brewing (silver, bronze), and Widmer and Rogue both picked up a pair of bronzes. Other interesting tidbits: Barley Brown won in the inaugural Black IPA category, staking a claim for Cascadians everywhere. Also, I was pleased to see a few lagers in the Oregon winner's column--pilsners and bocks. Who says the Beaver state only brews ales?

Anyway, here are the winners. Full list is here.

Mirror Pond, Deschutes - Classic English-Style Pale Ale (29 Entries)
Turmoil, Barley Brown's - American-Style India Black Ale (53 Entries)
Kiwanda Cream Ale, Pelican - Golden or Blonde Ale (55 Entries)

Shredders Wheat, Barley Brown’s - American-Style Wheat Beer (23 Entries)
Gluten Free, Deschutes - Gluten Free Beer (13 Entries)
Cherry Baltic, Bend Brewing - Aged Beer (30 Entries)
Wowzenbock, Deschutes - German-Style Wheat Ale (29 Entries)
Disorder Stout, Barley Brown's - American-Style Stout (27 Entries)

Hefeweizen, Widmer Brothers - American-Style Wheat Beer With Yeast (43 Entries)
Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Rogue - Specialty Beer (23 Entries)
Deranger, Laurelwood - Imperial Red Ale (43 Entries)
Drop Top Amber, Widmer - Ordinary or Special Bitter (47 Entries)
Bachelor ESB, Deschutes - Extra Special Bitter or Strong Bitter (42 Entries)
Bridge Creek Pilsner, Silver Moon - Bohemian-Style Pilsener (42 Entries)
Shakespeare Stout, Rogue - American-Style Stout (27 Entries)
Maibock, Ram Restaurant and Brewery (Salem) - Bock (36 Entries)
McPelican Wee Heavy, Pelican - Scotch Ale (34 Entries)
Outback X, Bend Brewing - Old Ale or Strong Ale (38 Entries)
Tsunami Stout, Pelican - Foreign-Style Stout (33 Entries)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Overrated Breweries

Just in time for the GABF, Denver's Jonathan Shikes offers his take on the six most overrated breweries in the US:
  • Dogfish Head: "I have yet to find a Dogfish beer that didn't involve a grimace."
  • Russian River: "Pliny the Elder is a great beer, but it's not any better than half a dozen other IPAs in Colorado alone, let alone California."
  • Brooklyn Brewery: "They have a great reputation, but maybe that's because New York has so many people and is starved for in-state craft breweries."
  • Goose Island: "The beers ... remind me the selection in Colorado in 2000."
  • Bear Republic: "I can think of a dozen IPA that are more balanced and more flavorful than Racer 5."
  • New Belgium: "The world seems to crave Fat Tire, and that is fine. But I've never met a real craft-beer lover who drinks it."
Bold--and amusing--comments. (He's dead wrong on two of my favorite beers, Racer 5 and Pliny, and shows that the Colorado palate is just different than the West Coast palate.) Now, does any blogger have the courage to do the same for Oregon? Yes! Behold my own six-pack of overratedness:
  • Cascade Brewing. Another gose? Do we really need another gose?
  • Hopworks. Mostly attractive to cyclists because of the rich parking opportunities.
  • Upright. Make me a "Fourteen" and then we'll talk.
  • Full Sail. Come on, John Harris, what have you done for us lately?
  • Hair of the Dog. The world wants to know: when will you make a "Jeff?"
  • Brewers Union. Give this damned cask thing a rest, will you?
Someone had to do it.

Follow-Up: Why Drink Organic Beer?

On yesterday's post about the USDA's plan to allow beer called "organic" to be made with conventional hops, Nate MC made this comment:
I'm still trying to figure out why Organic seems to be equated with better, but I have seen no proof of this anywhere. Everything has been anecdotal evidence of a kind of halo effect that makes it seem like a premium product.

Can someone shed some light on why consumers should care about it?
This is an excellent question. The organics movement has long been animated by a group of people who invest in it values and ethics not everyone shares. For some people, industrial farming is in itself an evil and all its fruits tainted. It is therefore reasonable to wonder if the push toward organic beer is a manifestation of this larger agricultural critique.

In comments further down the thread, Matt Swihart from Double Mountain brewing noted that organic barley isn't a huge departure from conventional barley "in that conventional farming of barley requires very little pesticide and nitrogen use. Organic barley and conventional barley have very similar environmental footprints...." So organic malt doesn't advance the ball much.

Hops, on the other hand, are a heavy user of chemicals to treat both pests and disease. This varies by hop strain, and those without much US parentage are generally more vulnerable. Local hops are more resilient--which is why the organic farm in Ashland grows Cascade. But more importantly, crops grown in a monoculture attract the very blights and pests that make the pesticides necessary. Organic growers use strategies that break up monoculture. When I was on the hop tour in the Willamette Valley, Gayle Goschie pointed to a nearby field of flowers that provided predatory insects to combat aphids. The upshot is that organic hop farming eliminates the use of lots of chemical pesticides.

I can't speak to how much organics affect beer quality and taste (though proponents, like Alan Sprints at Hair of the Dog, say it makes better beer), but reducing the reliance on pesticides is reason enough for me. Because hops are such a big part of the equation, I hope the USDA reverses itself and considers "organic beer" to require the use of organic hops.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

USDA Deals Organic Hop-Growers a Blow

I received an email about a disturbing development for organic hop growers. Patrick Smith of Loftus Ranches in Yakima wrote a blog post detailing the situation:
On September 3, 2010 the Handling Committee of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (“NOSB”) dealt a massive blow to the fledgling United States organic hop industry and the American Organic Hop Grower Association ("AOHGA") in voting 6-0 to recommend that hops remain one of only 3 whole crops on the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances” entirely allowed in non-organic form to be used in the production of a product labeled "organic."
This needs a little unpacking. In order to be certified organic, food needs to include mostly organic materials, but may contain a tiny amount of conventionally-grown ingredients. This is the case with beer; to be certified organic, beer can be made with conventional hops. For beer geeks, this has always been puzzling, given that hops are such a critical element in beer and one of only two crop ingredients in the finished product. But so it is.

The decision isn't final yet; the "Handling Committee" mentioned above has made this recommendation to the full NOSB. If they accept it when they meet next month, it will effectively codify the rule allowing conventional hops in organic beer. The implications for the hop-grower are bleak. Patrick explains:
Like many organically grown agricultural products, organic hop production is considerably more expensive than non-organic hop production. Consequently, organically-produced hops are priced higher than non-organically produced hops of the same variety, giving brewers an immediate incentive to work around the system and use non-organic hops in their organic beers.... It’s not surprising then that the market for organic hops is mostly non-existent. Organic hop producers are currently growing organic hops because they believe in the principle of organic production, but because there is no significant market for their product, the growers have consistently lost money while hoping that someday there will be a market for organic hops.
In other words, if a beer can be certified organic with conventional hops, why would a brewer pay extra to buy organic hops? The implications for the organic hop-farmer are obvious. For those who want 100% organic beer--including organic hops--this is also a major blow. I encourage you to go read Patrick's full post, which has more information and a richer description of the plight of organic hop growers.

To add one editorial comment: this isn't necessarily the end of the story. Even if the NOSB decides to follow this course, consumers have the final word. My suspicion is that almost no one realizes that "organic beer" is made with conventional hops. To the extent organic beer has a market and a receptive audience, it almost surely has a market for fully-organic beer. It's my hope that brewers will continue to purchase organic hops and help publicize the the issue. The market will reward brewers that go above the standard, and advertising the fact that certain beer is 100% organic will raise awareness on this issue. I am a supporter of organics and hope that a market develops for beer made with organic hops. The craft beer community may have to make it happen on our own. So: hop growers, continue to grow organic; brewers, buy those hops; and consumers, join me in buying that beer.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Too Many Beers

Over the past week, I've been working my way through a review copy of Andy Crouch's new book, Great American Craft Beer. The goal of the book is to offer a survey of American craft beer and includes a long section of beer descriptions organized by categories--I'll explain it more when I do a review. As I always do with these things, I ran a quick reliability test: under Double IPAs, Pliny the Elder; Black Butte with the porters; Ommegang Hennepin among the saisons; and Cascade in the American Wild Ales (the Cuvee, though, as dark horse selection). It all checks out. I have no reason to doubt that Andy's done a fine job selecting these beers and that, among all the style categories, one couldn't quibble with more than a tiny fraction.

Then I checked the index to see which Oregon breweries made the list (10) and noticed that the beers of Andy's New England home region seem to be over-represented. Six Connecticut breweries get a mention, but just three from Washington state. In all, Crouch highlights thirty-four New England breweries. Is this a case of bias, or is there another explanation?

Let me make the case for "other explanation." Consider these numbers. As of the end of July, there were 1600 American craft breweries. If we do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, assuming an average of ten beers per brewery, that would mean these breweries produced 16,000 beers in the past year. (With seasonals, one-offs, and special releases, the average is probably substantially higher.) Even in a state like Massachusetts, with a modest number of breweries (38), that's hundreds of beers to keep track of. By these numbers, the West Coast alone produces 5000 different beers--half that in the Northwest.

When you begin sorting beers by style, you have a staggering list to wade through. Any writer limiting herself to six American beers per style is necessarily going to leave out--what, sixty?--good beers. Thanks to the internet, we share a psychic national space. Brewing, however, remains almost exclusively a local or, at best, regional phenomenon. I always have this wish that I could climb the craft brewing mountaintop and survey the entire landscape, comparing all the country's breweries. It's a fool's errand, though. Hell, until last week, I hadn't even tried the beers of our new crop of nanobreweries here in Portland. It's frustrating, but also true: no one person can ever fully wrap his head around the variety of beers brewed in the United States. There are just too many of them.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Organic Hop Farming in Ashland

Oregon Public Broadcasting had a nice piece on a new organic hop grower who's starting up in Southern Oregon:
Steve and Rebecca Pierce, along with their son, Spencer, are discovering the ins and outs of organic farming even as they resurrect a crop that until last year hadn't been commercially grown in Southern Oregon since the late 1980s....

Aphids attacked the first crop, so the Pierces countered with an army of 7,500 ladybugs, which quelled the aphids. Spider mites took their turn this year, sucking chlorophyll from the lower parts of the plants. "You just can't throw pesticides on them," Pierce said. Nonetheless, when chilly weather damaged other types of crops in the spring, the hardy hop variety didn't miss a beat, he said.

It's a pretty small operation--just a few acres--but enough that Ashland's Standing Stone and Caldera have picked up some hops. And old school, too:
Harvesting hops is fairly simple, but labor-intensive. Friends come in handy, and about 25 to 30 showed up, helping cut down the entwined vines, shake the cones loose and sort the flowers, which are dried on a metal screen, bagged in mylar and stored at 40 degrees.
I actually expect this to be the norm of the future--small farms that cater exclusively to micros. The guys behind Alpha Beta are homebrewers and so already oriented toward the zymurgical side of the equation. (Most hop farmers are not.) It should also be easier to produce organic hops this way, too--monoculture creates a lot of the problems that pesticides and fertilizers address; with just a few acres, the crops may be hardier and more robust. Alpha Beta planted Cascades, too, which are more disease and pest resistant.

Anyway, cool.

Surveying Portland's Nanobreweries

I'm used to talking to brewers about their brewhouses. Some of the subtleties are lost on a non-commercial brewer--I have only a general sense of how shape, type, and quality affect different systems--but the basic stuff, like size, is pretty obvious. Or has been, until I found myself listening Eric Surface describe Mt. Tabor's brewhouse. He was using odd figures to describe their growth: 30 (current), 60 (expanding to), 120 (aspirational). I nodded as my brain tried to catch up and when it did, I asked with dawning recognition, "Oh! You're talking gallons, right?" (He was.)

Three of the twenty largest craft breweries are based in Oregon. I had a chance to try five of the smallest last week at the Bailey's/Brewpublic Microhopic fest: Beetje, Breakside, Mt. Tabor, Natian, and Vertigo. You could say that many things distinguish these two categories of breweries, but based on my discussion with Ben Edmonds (Breakside) and Mt. Tabor's Surface and co-owner Brian Maher, you couldn't say it was seriousness. These guys have mini-systems, but their goals are as outsized as any other brewer in the country. I guess it makes sense--you want to compete in Portland, Oregon, you better think you can make good beer.

It is unwise to base any judgment on a single beer, but that's all the breweries were able to send to Microhopic, so I'll run down the list here. I'll include website links--if a beer catches your fancy, you can click through and see if you can figure out where it might be pouring.
  • Beetje: Small Saison. A sessionable 5% or so, this beer isn't that small. But it is a nice saison, with lots of yeast character and a NW-level dose of hops. I found the nose full of sulfur and soap (hard for that not to sound like a criticism, but it's not)--the former from the yeast, the latter perhaps from the hops. A lovely little beer--perhaps not ready to knock Dupont aside, but my favorite of the night. (Jeff's fave a saison!--big shocker there.) | Beetje website
  • Breakside: Texas Brown. The name here has a similar provenance to Cascadian Dark Ale. The style emerged which featured robust hopping backed by a nutty malt base. No doubt this type of beer has been brewed in many places at many times, but Texas is laying claim. Fair enough. More a dark amber than fully brown and topped with a persistent, creamy head. A cola nose with floral hopping. The palate is marked by a sharp astringency which I identified (incorrectly) as roast barley. It has that quality of roastiness that almost reaches around toward sour. Apparently it comes from the aggressive hopping, though, combined with the pretty standard malts (Maris Otter, chocolate, Victory and--I think--crystal). | Breakside website, Facebook page
  • Mt Tabor: Little Bull Stout. This was by far the toast of the evening--literally, it turned out. By the end of the night, Angelo had mounted the bar and stood cheering, "Mount Tay-bor!" I thought it was a bit fudge-like in density. In my own many forays into the stout style, I know that if I use too much dark malts, it will almost seem to ball up in my mouth, so that's the "helpful" comment I made to the brewers. It starts with a vanilla nose and ends with a nice roasty finish, which effectively dries it out. Lots of people were really raving about this beer. | Mt. Tabor website, Facebook Page
  • Natian: Big Block IPA. Natian gets credit for having the best tagline of any nanobrewery: "Brewing (nearly) one pint at a time." It must be so, because after a year of business, the only time I had a Natian was in a blind judging. Their debut at Microhopic was bold, though, and I won't soon forget Big Block. I might have called it "stealth bomber" IPA because of the sneaky hopping the beer conceals. Up front it is richly piny both in the nose and on the tongue. The play of sugar-cookie malts and those hops produce what seems like a very approachable beer. Swallow, though, and--pow!--what an amazing bitter whallop. It is akin to Astoria's Bitter Bitch, one of the bitterest beers around. | Natian website, Facebook page
  • Vertigo: Friar Mike's IPA. This was a strange beer. Even after it had warmed, I could locate no aroma. The flavors were similarly mild, and none articulated in a very clear way. The malts and hops were indistinct, and the most notable quality was a sharp alcohol note. After a few swallows, I found that the hops were creating a resinous slick on my tongue, but without offering a lot of flavor along the way. | Vertigo Website, Facebook page
By definition, nano-brewers don't put a lot of beer in the marketplace. But that doesn't mean they can't find tap handles in some nice pubs and restaurants. Wildwood has contracted with Mount Tabor for two kegs a month--definitely doable, even for the tiniest of breweries. I'm not convinced nanobreweries can survive long-term (the effort/profit ratio seems to narrow) , but that doesn't mean they can't compete. Given the seriousness with which these breweries are addressing their craft, my guess is they won't be nano too long, anyway.


Unrelated addendum. Since Microhopic was being held in Bailey's, it meant there was a raft of other good beer also on tap. I couldn't resist Oakshire's Belly of the Beast, thinking it was the same beer I tried and loved at the Oregon Brewers Fest this summer. Although I am no closer to answering that riddle, I can say that the beer is amazing. Actually, it's green. But it will be amazing when the hops lose their jagged edges and instead draw a clean line around the lovely sweet, rich malts. Even green, I was having a high old time with it.

Update. I forgot to post this photo. In case you're wondering, it's from when Angelo hopped up on the bar to make an announcement. I have another that is more representational, just out of focus (and therefore uninteresting). This was so surreal as to be beautiful. Can you find Angelo?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

And on the seventh day, he brewed

Everyone deserves a day off, and on mine, I will combine a recipe for imperial stout with the yeast strain Double Mountain uses. Since they tend to think of it as the yeast strain of the brothers at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint Remy, I shall call it, perhaps not too originally, Black Monk. It's already a little late in the game for this bad boy to be ready by the time the cold rains fall, but then again, "ready" is such a bourgeois term, isn't it?

In any case, we finally have a bit of traditional September weather--sunny and mild--and I'm going to skip a day of painting. Yay!

On a related note, Golden Dragon was a mixed success. While I have enjoyed it greatly, both my lovely and talented wife and the beeronomist say those Sorachi Ace hops (used without aid from other strains) taste distinctly of dill. And they are therefore not so hot on the Dragon. To me, it's a pretty straightforward lemon note and I can find no dill. I long ago realized that human tongues are varied and able only to pick up a fraction of the flavor compounds present in hops, so this isn't surprising. But I'll through it out to you: Sorachi Ace--dill note? Perhaps they're in the minority.

Friday, September 10, 2010

More Houses-Are-Big Blogging

First: what the hell's up with this weather? After a protracted and icy spring that ended pretty much only with the arrival of July, then October roared in at the end of August. Yesterday was the NFL's season kickoff game, but weather in Portland has hit mid-season form.

All of which sucks if you happen to be trying to paint your 17-mile-long house. (A house that strangely looks like a modest 1500 square feet when you're inside.)

My days are thus spent with desultory morning posts like this one and then hours Sisyphean work on the house. I have actually been doing some nice beer-related things, and posts float inside my head like motes, waiting to make it to the page. But instead, it's off to my paintbrushes. So, another couple weeks and then my usual level of blogging will resume. I hope.

Hi ho ...

Thursday, September 09, 2010

How Accurate Are IBU Figures?

You're in a pub looking at a beer menu. The publican has very thoughtfully given you some data on the beers he serves, including bitterness units and alcohol percentage. If you are an average beer geek, that IBU number is going to attract your eye, and you may choose the beer with the highest number. But does it mean anything?

Let's start with the process of bittering a beer. Hops are used to balance the natural sweetness that comes from fermenting sweet wort. They add bitterness, flavor, and aroma. The bittering agents in hops are known collectively as alpha acids, but in order to make a beer taste bitter, they need to go through a chemical change known as isomerization, which happens during the boil. The amount of alpha acids a hop contains (1%-20%) and the length of time hops are exposed to boiling wort determine how many "bitterness units" a beer contains (IBU stands for "international bittering unit"). Other factors affect the perception of bitterness, like the strength of the beer and the level of carbonation; 50 IBUs will leave a barleywine tasting sweet but make a pale ale puckeringly sharp.

Okay, now back to the pub. Brewers almost always calculate their beers' bitterness. Larger breweries with labs just run a chemical test on their beer. The results they get are measures of actual acids dissolved in the beer. Small breweries, lacking a lab, have to do it mathematically. Computer programs take the several variables (alpha acid content, length of time in the boil, type of hop product) and calculate an expected IBU. In my experience, these nearly always overestimate the actual bitterness a beer will have. This is especially (but not always) true when a beer is listed at having extravagant bitterness. Many times I've tried a beer that is supposed to be in the 80s or 90s and found it light and approachable. My theory is that these programs tend to over-attribute alpha contributions by later additions, so if a brewery puts in loads of hops between 30 minutes and the end of the boil, it will inflate the IBU number, but add little bitterness. (Holler if you have a better theory.)

Given how many people base so much of their decision on the IBU figure, this is worse than a shame--it's a bit of a catastrophe. Hops are misunderstood enough already. Many people like "hoppy" beers, but are at a loss to distinguish between hop flavor and pure bitterness. IBUs only measure bitterness, and are no guide to flavor and aroma. I suspect the average drinker also doesn't know that IBUs are a chemical measure, not a guide to perceived bitterness. So I wonder--does the thoughtful impulse to include IBUs actually confuse people more than it helps?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Microhopic 2 Tonight at Bailey's Tonight

Just in case you forgot, Brewpublic's nanobrewery minifest kicks off in a couple of hours downtown at Bailey's. Portlanders can try their first taste of beer from Beetje and Breakside--and maybe even from Natian, Vertigo and others. (As a program note, the now-defunct Rivergate won't be in attendance, nor, apparently, will Blue House.)

See you there--

Deep Bond between Idaho Mormons and the Beer Industry

Headline of the day:
The story delivers on the promise of that delicious headline, too. Behold:
Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo might seem like an unlikely person to be pushing a bill to cut federal taxes on small beer-makers: A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he abstains from alcohol.

But Crapo's effort, with senators from Oregon, Massachusetts and Maine, illustrates the deep bond between Idaho Mormons and the beer industry.

A few more, each offered without context for maximum comic effect:

  • Church founder Joseph Smith offered this revelation in 1833, "Strong spirits are not for the belly, but for the washing of your bodies."
  • "I've often wondered about the correctness of doing it," said Scott Brown, president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association and a Mormon who grows barley on 5,000 acres near Soda Springs. "But somebody is going to grow it, whether members of the LDS church do."
  • "People will look at me and say, 'You're a Mormon, why do you grow barley?' " he said. "I just don't have a problem with it. I don't think people who drink beer are bad."
I should mention that my family moved to Salt Lake City midway into my sophomore year of high school, and that may have singed me just a bit. In fact, its a good piece of journalism and pretty interesting.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Review: Prodigal Son Brewing

230 SE Court Avenue
Pendleton, OR 97801

Hours: Mon - Sat: 4 - 10pm, Fri: 11am - 11pm; Sun: noon - 9pm
Beers: A range of ales with an emphasis on local grains, especially wheat.
Other Notes: Kids okay; seasonal sidewalk seating available; on-street parking.

Pendleton, Oregon is an unassuming little town. As you approach it on Interstate 84, you see the copses of trees nestled down in pockets between scrubby hills that shroud all but a few buildings with the height to peek out. It's not an ostentatious spectacle, even along a stretch of road where the smallest landmark draws the eye. Yet while Pendleton may huddle low on the high desert, it stands tall in the imagination of the state. City leaders have chosen "the real west" as Pendleton's motto, a nod to the justifiably-famous Round Up and Woolen Mills that share its name. Yet it's also an allusion to a far darker, racier history that's more Deadwood than Dodge City.

Underneath Pendleton's sun-baked streets are a honeycomb of tunnels that for decades housed a shadow city. In that underground warren, cowboys visited opium dens, brothels (eighteen, purportedly), and of course, saloons--thirty two, if the legends are accurate. All of that "bounty" for a mere five thousand souls. It's amazing anyone ever crawled up to street level to see the light of day.

All of which makes the arrival of Prodigal Sun all the more noteworthy: if any city in Oregon needs a brewery, it's Pendleton. A group of locals who had been wandering the land decided it should be so; they returned to their hometown and are prodigal no more--and Pendleton has a brewery it can call its own.

The Pub
Thanks to Brewpublic's fine interview with the prodigal sons, I know now what I couldn't figure when I visited--that Prodigal Son occupies a former Packard dealership. Thus the main pub is the showroom floor, a large, saloon-like open area with a soaring two-story ceiling. Around the showroom--or pub--are what must have formerly been offices. Here they become private niches to entertain small groups, outfitted in a funky hodgepodge of different styles with thrift-store furniture. One of the rooms even has a movie screen and a scatter of couches in it--like a mini-Kennedy School. In fact, the vibe is actually not far from the McMenamins--a beautiful, restored historic space with lots of little nooks and crannies for exploration--but minus the hippie art. (This is Pendleton, after all.) It manages to capture a bit of old Pendleton, but if you teleported the whole place to 30th and Belmont in Portland, it would fit right in.

The Beer
The brewer, Brian Harder, got his start at Rogue following school at Siebel. He brews what would, to Portlanders, look like a pretty standard ale line-up. In Pendleton, which is uninterrupted Coors country, it might strike locals as more radical. Yet Portlanders would be mighty impressed with the execution--the range bears a distinctive voice; balanced, soft ales that are as approachable as they are accomplished. The softness is the tell, and I was surprised to find the beers this gentle--I figured Brian would have some fairly mineral-rich water to work with. Not so, apparently:
"It's surprisingly soft here. There is a substantial amount of permanent hardness but the temporary hardness varies depending on the time of year. The water department tells me that our city water is 25,000 years old. That is, from the time it rains to when it leaves the tap. I have water reports from the last 100 years and the water has remained relatively unchanged since then. In my opinion, it's good clean water and excellent for brewing.... Sometimes it is best to just let the beer make itself and not get overwhelmed with details like water hardness and pH."
Brian seems oriented in making beer as locally as possible. Pendleton is located in wheat country, and the brewery plans to use it as often as possible. One of their beers also uses rye to nice effect. And then there's this: "A friend of mine is growing hops in the valley and we'll use those for our wet-hop seasonal."

Below is a quick run-down of the beers on-tap the day I visited (excluding the IPA, which had blown).
  • A Beer Named Sue (4.8%, 18 IBUs). I suppose you'd call this is a golden, but that's misleading. Goldens are often throw-away beers, but this was one of the best on tap (and Sally's favorite). I originally mistook the name for "a bee named Sue," because of the sweet honey note that brightens and lightens the beer. It is well-balanced to catch both the bisuity malts and gentle, spicy hopping. A great beer, and probably would be even better on cask.
  • Wheatstock Hefeweizen (5.0%, 20 IBUs). This is the one dud in the bunch. It's well-made, but bland and characterless. Apparently it is the beer identified as the cross-over beer for wheat-appreciating Coors drinkers, but it's nothing to write home about.
  • Veloci-Rapture Rye (5.4%, 30 IBUs). The brewery actually calls this an amber, but I think "rye" is more apt. It is in the same vein as some of the lighter, summer rye ales I mentioned earlier, but has is darker and packs a bit more heft. The recipe uses Simcoe hops (along with Citra, Glacier, and Crystal), and they play on the rye to pull out a distinctive juniper note. Although it bears the softness of the other beers, it's drier, and this also accentuates the rye spiciness.
  • Spendor in the Glass (5.9%, 58 IBUs). An all-Citra beer that did a nice stand-in for the absent IPA. Soft, sunny, and lemony, but not particularly sharp. The listed IBUs seem high to me; rather, Splendor is an easy-drinking summer pale ale.
  • Bruce/Lee Porter (7.5%, 36 IBUs). This is the beer that kept coming back to me in the days after my visit. A robust beer that conceals its strength in velvety-soft folds of chocolate. Roast notes balance the beer, but they play a minor role. It was a hot summer day when we visited, and I could easily have downed an imperial pint of this dark nectar.
With the exception of the hefeweizen, I'd put all of these beers in the B+/A- range, with a possible A going to the porter. I'd like another pint or three to see.

The Food
Call the menu Pub fare 2.0. Like many more modern brewpubs, it has the usual pub grub--fish and chips, burger, sandwiches--and a few interesting additions. Sally had a tasty onion tart and salad and I had sausage and fries. My guess is that it's some of the better food available in Pendleton--but Portland foodies shouldn't expect to find anything ground-breaking.

Overall, a most impressive debut. Pendleton is lucky to have such a great place to hang out--and they're really lucky to have such good beer. Now, I have to figure out how to get Prodigal Son to ship their porter to the Rose City ...

Trouble in CDA-Ville

The thing about popularizing the name "Cascadian Dark Ale" is that you have to get people outside of Cascadia to use it. They're not.

(Though "Cascade Black" seems to meet with more favor.)

Monday, September 06, 2010

"Best" is Not an Objective Measurement

This is a little lazy Labor Day meditation for you. Over the weekend I discovered Stan Hieronymus' post wherein he notes that a future question he'll put to brewers is: "Do you brew beers that are as good at or better than the Europeans have for generations?"

This fascinating question led to 30+ comments and counting, but it also led down a bit of a rabbit hole. Let us unpack. The key phrase in Stan's question is "as good." Without even getting into the myriad implications with which such a question is freighted, we can see we're immediately that we've exited the world of fact and entered the realm of opinion. "Good" is, of course, not an intrinsic, measurable quality; it's subjective. According to Webster, it is related to the Sanskrit gadhya (aspirate that d, everyone), which means "to cling to"--most instructive. The thing we describe as good is that which we cling to. Hold this in your mind for a moment.

In all products, commercial and artistic, there is a very broad range of what we (might wisely hesitate to) call "quality." Velveeta to Oregonzola, paint-by-numbers to Picasso, Busch Light to Orval. But even this is far from objective. Velveeta and Busch Light FAR outsell Oregonzola (an award-winning cheese, by the way) and Orval. The paint-by-numbers people have placed art on more walls than Pablo. For every person you could find who would support a contention that product X is better than Y, you have others who disagree.

The only way to begin to win an argument about quality is to start eliminating judges for the team who disagree with you: only rednecks would choose a lunch of Velveeta, Wonder bread, and Bush Light to Oregonzola, Grand Central olive loaf, and Orval. And of course, those who prefer the former meal would scoff at those who prefer the latter as rubes who'd buy a bottle of dishwater if it was priced high enough.

Now, I know the answer to Stan's question. Many Oregon brewers could easily answer in the affirmative, while brewers in Colorado and Asheville could not. Our brewers easily match those Flemish-tounged devils, and all you have to do is try our beer to see. Only a fool--or a Coloradan--could disagree.

But you might be wiser than I and see that such games are great to play while you're sitting around a table with friends--so long as you don't actually believe you've gotten to some objective truth. The rest of us will cling to our small hopes that we know best.

Labor of Love

Let's imagine an alternative universe. In this universe, the craft beer movement never happened. Americans still drink beer--the rise of craft brewing didn't affect per capita consumption--but they only drink macro lagers. The big debate among beer drinkers is the modern version of tastes great/less filling: no one argues actual flavor.

A sad tale, but I tell it not because that bereft alternate universe is merely lacking in good beer. It is also a universe with fewer jobs--or anyway, fewer Oregon jobs. (I'll leave the economists to calculate how many more people are employed in our universe of craft brewing; it's more, because craft breweries are way more inefficient than macro plants and require more hands--but how much more I can't say.) Oregon breweries directly employ 4,700 people. These are good jobs, too--it's cool to work for a brewery! The industry also supports thousands of other jobs, too, in beer distributorships, hop-growing, pubs, beer magazines, and bottle shops. All of which adds up to a calculated $2.33 billion contribution to the state's economy.

(No doubt effects are substantial in other states, as well.)

So on this Labor Day, salute the Oregon beer industry for supporting so many good jobs. Cheers to you--

Friday, September 03, 2010

200-Year-Old Beer

Man, what I wouldn't give for a sip of one of these little darlins: 200-year-old beer found amid bottles of champagne in a shipwreck south of the autonomous Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea:
The newest find came as divers unearthed bottles separate from the earlier champagne find. While lifting a few to the surface, one exploded from pressure. A dark fluid seeped from the broken bottle, which they realized was beer.

All the cargo on the ship -- including the beer and champagne -- is believed to have been transported sometime between 1800 and 1830, according to Juslin. He said the wreck was about 50 meters deep (roughly 164 feet) in between the Aland island chain and Finland.

The cargo was aboard a ship believed to be heading from Copenhagen, Denmark, to St Petersburg, Russia.
Imperial stout? Baltic porter? What myths might it shatter, what posts my Martyn Cornell mine from this discovery? This is a story worth watching...

Is Nanobrewing a Viable Model?

Every year or two a new trend sweeps through craft brewing--some are larger, structural trends; others are small and aesthetic. Some last, some fade. One of the biggest trends of the moment is nano-brewing. For a longer primer on what "nano" means, have a look at Ezra's post at the New School; for our purposes, let's say that nano breweries are less than three barrel systems, usually (but not always!) disconnected from a pub. In Oregon, Heater Allen blazed the trail, and now there are a handful of others like Natian and the newly-minted Beetje. Although they're not much bigger than home-breweries, they compete against Widmer and Deschutes for tap handles.

The upside is pretty obvious: low start-up costs. Small commercial brewing systems can be had used for less than $100k, but can run a lot more than that if you sidle over to JV Northwest for a new brewhouse. One-barrel systems look expensive compared to homebreweries, but are cheap by comparison to 10-barrel systems. For the average person, a nano-brewery represents a conceivable initial investment. The big question I have is: is it a viable business model.

Brewing is hard work and the margins are pretty slim. If you don't own your own brewpub, the way to make brewing profitable seems to be selling a lot--which is why production breweries try to get bigger systems on line. The cost of a unit of beer drops when a brewery gets bigger and more efficient--which makes the profit margin larger. On a recent ProBrewer discussion thread, nano-hopefuls discussed whether the model penned out or not:
So, to calc the P&L stuff, I started off choosing three recipes to launch with. I calculated the ingredients needed to brew one batch of each, and got pricing from suppliers to give me a rough estimate of a cost per batch. I used (arbitrarily) a three month production cycle, and based on my brewing schedule came up with a) ingredients needed on hand per cycle, and b) amount of saleable beer produced per cycle. I then came up with sample sales percentages for new growlers, refilled growlers, and free samples given away at the brewery, as well as sample pricing for the growlers. This gives me a rough idea of income, assuming I sell all the beer produced. I would also be trying to land draft accounts, so I have to build that into my sheet.... My initial findings, after playing with all of this, is a nano is **at BEST** a breakeven operation.
So why on earth would you start a nano-brewery? To go big. Here's that same brewer describing his goal:
The only way this venture makes sense is if I can leverage my tiny production runs to build a brand, build a following, and then expand. It is a proof of concept - a pilot program, if you will, for a production brewery that does not exist yet. Trust me, I'd rather go huge, but I will not put myself in enormous debt and risk my home and personal assets, and I do not want to seek outside investment at the level I would need right now.
I once aspired to make movies, and I recognize this model from that industry: you make a calling-card short and use it to sell financial backers on your idea for a feature. For the DIY brewer with more energy than money, it's a way of getting into the business without taking on a huge amount of risk.

The biggest downside I can see is that small systems are harder to use and more prone to inconsistency. Quality control is a bigger issue. Having a tiny brewery limits the kinds of beers you can make--nothing that requires months or years in tanks or barrels, for example.

But within those confines, is it possible for the little breweries to get started, build a following, and then go big time? We'll see. For a shot in the arm, nanobrewers can look to Rick Allen, one of the early pioneers: his Heater Allen Brewery has made the transition to a regular micro system and seems to be humming along.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Too Early for Winter Beers and Other Comments

Yesterday, as I stood in the Fred Meyer beer aisle, my eye beheld a new arrival: MacTarnahan's Winter Humbug'r. Winter--what the? Much like Christmas decorations, it seems that winter beers arrive sooner and sooner on shelves every year. But September first? The autumn solstice is three weeks off; fruit yet ripens on the trees. Is it too much to ask for winter beers to hold off--oh, I don't know, say, October?

Other newsy bits collected for your convenience...

Tour de Lab
If you were to identify three elements that distinguish Portlandness, you could do worse than beer, bikes, and dogs. The troika are collected together in a cool fundraiser called Tour de Lab. The concept is as pleasing as it is simple: registrants pony up $35 ($55 on the day of the event) and ride a circuit that stops at each Lab outpost (three on the 18-mile Puppy loop, four on the 30-mile Big Dog). All the proceeds go to DoveLewis Animal Hospital. Registration details here.

Brewpublic Presents Microhopic
Bailey's and Brewpublic are hosting an Wednesday evening showcase of 11 of the area's tiniest breweries, including at least one debut--and one adieu? Here's the beer list as announced, though Rivergate has since shuttered its doors.
  • Beetje Brouwerij. Portland's newest brewery (pronounced bay-cha, not the more entertaining beet-jah or beet-jee) is bringing a 5.2% farmhouse ale.
  • Big Horse. Jason Kahler's first Cascadian Dark Ale.
  • Blue House. Blue House? Yeah, it's from Vernonia, brewer Brett Costley is bringing a blueberry wheat.
  • Breakside. After a Coalition-like wind-up, Ben Edmunds finally has some of the beer we've all been waiting for. He's bringing a brown ale.
  • Buckman Village Brewery. The Green Dragon's in-house brewery is sending a chamomile-infused golden ale.
  • Coalition. They're sending their red ale--my favorite until the maple porter came on line. (Which, if you haven 't tried it, is worth a special trip. Great beer.)
  • Migration. The boys from Migration are sending their flagship MPA. As a side note, they will be debuting two new beers at an event at the brewery on September 18th.
  • Mount Tabor. Little Bull Stout, a 7% powerball.
  • Natian. Natalie Laird and Ian McGuinness (Nat + Ian = Natian) are bringing Big Block IPA.
  • Rivergate. I don't know if brewer Brian Frisch has any of the kolsch left from this now-defunct brewery, but that's what's listed.
  • Vertigo. Vertigo Mikes Kinion and Haines are sending Friar Mike's IPA.
As a special bonus, the brewers will be in house. The event runs from 4pm until the kegs run dry next Wednesday, September 8th at Bailey’s Taproom (213 SW Broadway). This should be a cool event--owing to my lameness, there are a number of beers here I haven't tried, and I can catch up in one evening.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Nothing to See Here

Call these the end-of-summer doldrums. Absolutely nothing to discuss. I will try to have a review of Prodigal Son up tomorrow. Meantime, I guess I'll be doing not a whole lot of blogging.

Oh, I guess I should mention Lucky Lab's cool event tomorrow where they pluck fresh hops for The Mutt. Bill has the details.