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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Beers of New England -or- Is the US Becoming Less Regional?

Travel posts are always hard. Most of my readership lives on the West Coast, so it matters little what amazing beer I drink when I'm in New England. Anyone who happens to have access to the beer I discuss, however, doesn't need my Johnny-come-lately evaluation. So rather than just going through the beers, let's put it in context: how are the beers of the East Coast evolving with regard to those on the West Coast?

I first started visiting New England in the 90s, and the beer I found there was different from West Coast beer. It was more traditionally English--the beer styles were mostly English and brewed at English strengths and with English-inflected spicy hopping. This may have been because I was influenced by the especially British Maine breweries, Gritty McDuff's, Shipyard, and Geary's. But even in other regional breweries, where Cascade hops were deployed, the overall character was much more toward balance and drinkability. Harpoon IPA, one of my faves, is a modest 5.9% and 42 IBUs (all Cascade). This struck me as totally appropriate--New England has much about it that reminds me of old England, and so I was pleased to see the beer did, too.

This complemented my experience from earlier in the decade, when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. There, craft breweries produced a whole lot more lager, and their ales were lighter and less fruity than the West Coast examples. Again, appropriate for a region settled in large measure by Germans.

Fast-forward to 2010. This year my brewery sample size was just two: Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire and Sunday River Brewpub in beautiful Bethel, Maine. However, my brother-in-law also brought up quite a selection from his area, near DC. That gave me a slightly broader sense of what was happening on the East Coast. What I observed led me to wonder if we weren't beginning to see a nationalization of craft brewing.

Let's start where I did, at Portsmouth Brewing. It's the lesser-known half of a New Hampshire duo that also includes Smuttynose. The latter is a production brewery, the former a brewpub, and both are fairly venerable by craft standards (16 and 19 years). For some reason, I've never stopped in at Portsmouth Brewery, despite passing through the city every visit to New England. That will change. The place is an absolutely perfect pub--lots of character, warmth, and charm. When you think of pub, this is the place that comes to mind. It also boasts a pretty amazing beer list and well above-average food. (I had the mussels, a house specialty. They come in a traditional preparation or a curried version. I went curried and was shocked and delighted when they delivered the plate containing 4-5 dozen.)

The beers vary, but here's what was on tap when we visited: a blonde, IPA, imperial IPA, dunkel gose, smoked dunkelweizen, and oatmeal stout. (They also had some Smuttynose beers.) Oregonians, ask yourselves: doesn't that sound familiar? These beers were perfectly consonant with the varieties being brewed on the West Coast. Moreover, they were very well made.

The gose was less lactic but saltier than Oregon versions--a nice alternative and it seemed pretty authentic (sour mash, no lacto). The smoked dunkel was strange--hand crab apple smoked malt was sharp but clean (no meaty flavors) and melded nicely with the surprising phenols from the weizen yeast. The IPA was vibrantly bitter but one-dimensional, while the double IPA was multilayered and accomplished. (Van Havig would have liked the aroma, which was identical to tinned pineapple.) The huge winner was the oatmeal stout, with 30% oats in the grist. It was served on nitro and the head was mousse-like. And not in the sense that it evoked mousse--it was seriously thick and full of substance. It had a bit of roast and slightly vinous quality. Amazing beer.

So, to recap: two IPAs, two experimental beers, a blonde for the beginners, and a stout. Tres West Coast. (In another national trend, they release an imperial stout in bottles in March called Kate the Great and it produces a scrum before selling out in minutes. The brewer here, Tod Mott, seems to favor stouts.)

Well, fair enough. I suspected I'd just stumbled on one of those rare, exceptional breweries, and they had the qualities that mark all great breweries: broad interests, clever insights, and fun, experimental beer. But then we traveled on to Bethel, Maine, where the local is Sunday River Brewpub. It's located just down the hill from a ski resort and gets lots of business in the early afternoons, as ski bums come in to whet their whistles. A far more common type of pub, it features a regular line-up with just a few rotating specialties, and these seem to recur.

The regular beers include the flagship and my fave, a nicely-balanced, spicy IPA. I nodded sagely--a classic New England IPA. Except they also have a "NW-style" pale and a double IPA. (Also an alt and a porter--and my in-laws all drank the porter, which illustrates what I knew, that they are good and wholesome people.) The pale wasn't great--it was a bit worty and the hops were overstressed and weedy. The DIPA was a monster, though--10%, and hopped such that it would take no crap from anything brewed out here. So, to recap: three hoppy beers, an alt, and a porter. Again, Oregonians, see anything familiar?

One should be cautious about making broad generalizations based on such scant info. But what the hell, let's be incautious. I was dumbstruck to find Portsmouth pouring a gose. This is among the most recent of the Portland trends, and here it is in New Hampshire, too. Imperial IPAs, once scorned and derided by brewers elsewhere, have become standards--even, obviously, in staid New England.

One of the things that had protected regions from outside influence was an insularity both among breweries, but also customers. But twenty years on, customers and breweries both encounter lots of cross-fertilization from other regions of the country. This is probably both a function of the maturation of consumer palates, but also reflects the desire of brewers to experiment. It may just be the way of things, but I lament it a little. Finding a gose is cool, but when you're really looking for, say a cask bitter brewed with Fuggles, it's a little disappointing not to find it. On the other hand, things change. Maybe these are just fads and customers will demand a return to the types of beers New England made when I first started visiting.

Either way, I plan to research the trend.

Who Wants to Try Some Beer From 1936?

Really? I don't believe it:
However, like Highlander, there can be only one, and that one is Jeff Alworth. Jeff's entry was posted after the deadline, and so his win is sure to upset a few people, not least Matt Lovatt who submitted his entry 4 minutes before the competition deadline. To add further insult to injury, Jeff didn't even email me to tell me about his contribution, it just popped up in a Google alert (come on, we all have Google alerts on our names don't we?).
That's Zak Avery, who recently held a contest to see who would take home a 1936 bottle of Coronation Ale from Greene King. The idea was to get folks to wax poetic about beer and time and then select a winner. I didn't manage to get my post done on time, but liked the topic enough to write about it anyway. And miracle of miracles, I was apparently granted an extension on the assignment, and was rewarded with this beauty:

The back-story is fascinating. Back in January 1936, Edward VIII became the King of England, following the death of his father, George V. Apparently it was customary for breweries to offer special beers celebrating the event, and so Greene King whipped up Coronation Ale. However, scandal burned through Buckingham Palace as it emerged that the new king planned to marry--prepare yourselves--an American divorcée. Such were the politics of the time that this threatened to bring down the government.

Yes, amazing as it may seem to our American minds, the mostly-ceremonial position of hereditary monarch does actually have some swing in Britain--and had more so then. The Prime Minister would have resigned and sent the country into a crisis. Edward had a decision to make: the lady or the throne. He rather admirably chose the lady (though he apparently harbored less-admirable pro-Nazi sympathies, so maybe this was all for the best). He ruled only 325 days and was never formally coronated, and so Green King's cellar of special beers sat, unlabeled, for 74 years.

If, somehow, Zak thinks he can get me this beer, and if he does, I plan to do something big. As I mentioned in my winning post, beer is a product of time and place, and stands as a historical document. This isn't just any 74-year-old beer, it's one wrapped up in political intrigue and international politics.

In any case, thanks to Zak for spreading the wealth, and thanks to all the entrants who got their submissions in on time. Please don't kill me if ever we should cross paths. I'll buy the first round--

Monday, November 29, 2010

Good to Get Back to Oregon

I love New England and was a little sad to leave. The days were crisp and snowy, the nights filled with a cornucopia of beers brought up from the DC area by my brother-in-law. I could have stayed for weeks. But we flew home via Dallas, and I was reminded that not every place is Beervana. (My momma taught me that if you don't have anything nice to say about the hometown of a former President, note it in a short parenthetical and move on.)

I have lots of remedial blogging to do, and it will commence tomorrow. In the meantime, I was greeted by a link that warmed my frozen heart: Ninkasi's Believer is tearing it up in Wired Magazine's beer bracketology. (Session Black is hanging in, too.) That's Satori Award-winning Ninkasi Believer.

All is right with the world--

Great Moments in Beer

Always late to the party--that's my trademark. I had meant to throw in my contribution in Zak Avery's amazingly generous competition to win a pre-WWII bottle of Greene King. Alas, the competition expired three days ago. That's no reason not to take Zak up on his challenge, however:
To enter the competition, all you have to do is write something about beer and time, up to a maximum of 500 words.
Here goes.

Let us imagine Berlin in the the 1800s. Lots of horses and men with exotic facial hair. Poorly lit. Fragrant. And then there's this: 700 breweries producing Berliner Weisse. Seven hundred. In England at the same time the popularity of porters was such that it rebounded south, provoking the development of schwarzbier (that's one origin story, anyway, and we'll rely on it for the sake of this post) and west, where the Irish took it in a different direction. Goses, newly popular in America, were once wildly popular in Leipzig where they were considered the hometown style.

And so on. Porters yet thrive, but Berliner Weisse is on life support and goses have already died out once. Examine the history of brewing styles and you see the steady march of cultures. Weather, agriculture, laws, wars, technology, commerce, and taste trends all shape the types of beer that have been brewed and the reasons those types appeared.

What interests me in all of this is not just history, but the current moment. Something like three pubs close each day in Britain, while a new brewery opens perhaps once a week in the US. Portland, Oregon boasts 36 breweries, tops in the world, and this may represent either a high-water mark, or the midway point in a 50-year trend. (Thirty-six is fewer than 700.)

Or take gose, the dead style that was revived with a couple recent German examples. American breweries have taken up the gauntlet, and now the style is common enough that I discovered yet another example by chance in Portsmouth, NH. BeerAdvocate lists 24, 19 from the US. Will this style find commercial success and, if so, where?

I have a strong sense that the US is experiencing a rare flourishing in brewing history, when things are unsettled. Rare is the moment when gose could credibly become a mainstream beer, but now is such a moment. Perhaps the moment will last a century, perhaps just another few years. That bottle Zak offered is 73 years old. Let's imagine the world in another 73 years, as our descendants regard a bottle of beer from this era. What will that world look like? What will the popular styles be? Will there be more or fewer breweries in the US?

Who knows--maybe beer will be extinct, another luxury sacrificed so people can still grow precious food grains in a globally-warmed world. I can't really imagine what it means that there were 700 Berliner Weisse-producing breweries, and maybe this time will be just as inconceivable. In any case, it's a safe bet that nowhere on earth have so many styles been brewed at one time in one country. A 73-year-old bottle of American beer from 2010 could contain nearly any style of beer known, and that is perhaps the strongest comment on our current era. Enjoy it--

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saturday at Sunday River

I write from beautiful and wintry Bethel, Maine, where I'm enjoying an IPA at the

Sunday River Brewing Co. They have a pretty tasty alt and porter as well, but the flagship is the standout. (A few snowflakes are falling lazily down--whether it's evident in this photo remains to be seen.)

A couple days ago, Sally and I drove through Portsmouth, NH--where there is a fantastic brewery and possibly the best oatmeal stout I ever tasted (key: 30% oats in the grist). On nitro, the head was thick enough you could float a brick on it.

I'll write more--but all in good time. Now I have a football game and this IPA to attend to.

Update. The snowflakes are no longer lazy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Versions of what we call Thanksgiving have been celebrated for thousands of years. Harvest festivals, feasts--these must be as old as civilization itself. Even our particular habit of offering thanks is hardly new; in the high-mortality, season-by-season existence of the old days, offering thanks was nothing special. Cool, no Black Death this year!

This makes it the most univeral of holidays, moored to no specific culture or religious tradition--and maybe the most American. At least in our current version of the Thanksgiving story, we tell the fable of Europeans and Native Americans breaking bread in cooperation. It's an immigrant story, and a story of proto-democracy. It is a template for the national myth.

Since, by habit, we cite our specific thanks, let me make that mine. No one gets to claim Thanksgiving or mentally exclude others. It's one of the very few times of year when the identity of "American" muscles others out of the way. I'm thankful for the moment to enjoy my whole country, north to south, red to blue.

That and the beer. But I'm always thankful for that.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sorry, Charlie, They Are Industrial

At some point, I’ll review Beer is Proof God Loves by Charlie Bamforth. He’s an eminent scholar of brewing, but based on this book may have missed his calling: he’s a born blogger. So, in the spirit of his blogginess, I will milk the book for a couple posts before I get to the formal review. Today’s riff stems from Bamforth’s confusion about how to refer to multinational breweries. Confused because he first argues this way (in both the text and a footnote):
Many of the [brewing students at UC Davis], it must be said, are intent on the craft sector, however mistakenly regarding the big guys as corporate America, and some of them naively buying into the notion of “industrial beer.” [This] reprehensible term [is] sometimes employed by a thoughtless few in the craft sector to describe the products of the largest brewing companies…. The bigger brewing companies adhere to the very highest quality standards and are just as unlikely to use process aids as are smaller companies.
And then one page later, he offers this anecdote cum observation:
I was dismayed to hear a little while back of one chief executive saying that only a tiny proportion of his employees really mattered to him, because they represented the difference between success and failure. It straightaway put me in mind of my old boss, Robin Manners, chief executive of Bass Brewers and grandson of the company’s erstwhile chairman. He said to me one day, “Two things matter to this company, Charlie: One is people, and the other is quality. And if you look after the people, they will ensure the quality.” What a contrast.
And yet one page further:
The simple reality is that business decisions, especially in publicly-owned companies, are made on the basis of the bottom line and no consideration of tradition or status quo, unless it satisfies a marketing strategy.
And finally:
On November 18, 2008, the acquisition of Anheuser-Busch by InBev … created one of the top five consumer products companies in the world and a company producing around 400 million hectoliters of beer annually, with the next biggest competitor, SAB-Miller, standing at 210 million hectoliters.
Teasing apart the differences between, say a 5,000 barrel craft brewery and a 50-million barrel multinational corporate brewing company has been sabotaged by history and Bamforth, a Briton (see p. 177, footnote 17) is caught in the crossfire. There are a few issues, so lets tease them apart:

1. Corporations vs small business
A corporation is a legal entity and as far as I know, the term doesn't have anything to do with size. "Corporate" is shorthand in the US to mean "large company" (either private or public). There is no way, under any definition, for anyone to conclude that Budweiser InBev (or whatever they call the beast), a "top five consumer products company" is not corporate. It just is. I think what trips Bamford up here is the naked hatred many Americans have for corporate beer. This is an artifact of American consolidation, for which there is no analogue in British brewing. We watched as local breweries were gobbled up by bigger breweries--always resulting in less consumer choice (not to mention ripping the hearts out of drinkers who watched their local breweries dismantled). By contrast, as Bamforth documents, as late as 2000, Bass had just 25% of the British market, and number 2 Whitbread 16%. It was possible to see big breweries succeed in Britain and not associate this with violence done to the product.

2. Ingredients
Charlie also objects to this belief Americans hold that industrial beer is tainted with nasty ingredients. Let's leave aside the adjuncts. (Rice, Bamforth argues, is chosen for "certain quality attributes" and is actually "more complicated to use" than barley. I personally agree--rice is a natural grain and no less worthy an ingredient than any other. The "attributes" it contributes, however, and the reasons these attributes are prized by industrial breweries, are not uniformly admirable.) I don't have any reason to believe that industrial beer is currently adulterated with additives, nor that it was back in the 70s when nearly all products were (emulsifiers and stabilizers and enhancers and so on). But that's what people believe, and they believe it in part because when massive American conglomerates began consolidating in the 70s and 80s, the beer got blander and more tinny tasting. That's what happens when you're focused purely on the bottom line.

3. Industrial v hand-crafted
I have long looked for an adjective to use to distinguish between that 5,000 barrel brewhouse and the 50-million barrel one, ultimately settling on the value-neutral "industrial." Massive brewing companies can and do produce world-class beers and, as we all know, tiny breweries can and do produce drain cleaner. But, when you're brewing beer in vessels large enough to supply a small town with water for a week, you're working on an industrial scale. Every single brewery I have ever toured has done its damnedest to reduce the "hand" part of the crafted. Grain, kegs, and cases are heavy. Hand-bottling and labeling is extremely slow. To the extent they can streamline things, they do. Industrial breweries have just done this on a very large scale. Often, it allows them to hire skilled workers who get union wages. (When Henry's closed, 200 union jobs were lost.) So use "big" and "small" or "industrial" and "craft," or nomenclature of your invention. But at least recognize that brewing is largely an industrial endeavor.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Incidentally, I'm in Boston

And I'll be headed to Maine tomorrow. I considered trying to track down a brewpub, but you know, there are cooler things in Boston. Sally and I went to the North End for Italian and then to the 70-year-old (and therefore mis-named) Modern Pastry for cannoli. Plus we paid homage to the revolution, which I have a hard time resisting. Blogging will continue as normal, but commenting here and elsewhere will be slow.

We parked next to the Boston Garden and paid a guy who was dressed head-to-toe in Red Sox paraphernalia. His accent was so think it was only occasionally recognizeable as English.

Paul Revere's wooden house, built 1680. Gives me hope that ours (1925) will survive my lifetime.

Revere, with the Old Church in the background. ("One if by land...")

From inside the Old Church, looking to the courtyard.

Never mind the beer, take the cannolis.

Review: "Yeast" by Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff

Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation
Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff

Brewers Publications, $19.95
Beer books can be divided generally into two huge categories: brewing and appreciation. I wish it weren't so. Everyone who appreciates good beer would do well to pick up a few key books on brewing, just to have a sense of how things works. Yeast, the latest from Brewers Publications, is a case in point. Although it has way more technical information than an appreciator needs (and even most homebrewers), it has the kinds of explanations of the brewing process that you can never find in books solely about flavor and styles. So, for the person who wants a deep understanding of the way their beer tastes, understanding how it was brewed and what effected its flavor are essential. I would recommend Yeast to pretty much anyone--though admittedly, the non-brewers would probably hate me for it.

It's a bit of a funny book in that it's aimed at both the small-scale professional and the advanced homebrewer. The writers, White (founder of White Labs, a yeast manufacturer) and Zainasheff (a homebrewer) oscillate between providing information for commercial-scale brewing and advanced homebrewing. Since I only aspire to advanced homebrewing and am not a commercial brewer, it's not clear to me how well they split the difference--though obviously, combining the audiences makes more sense for book sales.

In any case, you will learn everything about yeast, from the chemical composition to the behavior under every imaginable circumstance, in this book. You'll learn about attenuation, flocculation, inoculation rates, temperature, and the compounds yeast produces. It's designed to be a reference, so you skip past certain parts and re-read other parts. About eighty pages of the book describe how to set up a lab and what you can do in it; maybe one day I will need to know that, but I was happy to just thumb through.

I could go on and on, but this one is a no-brainer: buy it. Everyone should have a copy on her shelf.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Roscoe's Black Friday Beer Summit

Okay, this is something I can totally get behind. While the hordes are rampaging through the malls this Friday, the wise among us will be sipping good beer. Roscoe's has a great event planned: sort of a mini Holiday Ale Fest. Sixteen beers, including some fairly obscure ones:
Some of the breweries and holiday beers featured will be: Amnesia (Sleigh Jerker), Deschutes (Forest Park Strong Ale), Cascade (Dark Day Winter IPA), St. Bernardus (Christmas), Kulmbacher (Eisbock), Double Mountain (Fa La La La La), Collaborator (2009 bourbon barrel aged Floodcraft), Fort George (Drunkin' Pumpkin), Oakshire, Hopworks, and many more. We will have 5 ounce tasters available.
Black Friday Beer Summit
Friday-Saturday, Nov 26-27, 2pm to close
8105 SE Stark

I will be in New England sipping different beers that day, so you'll have to go in my stead.

Brand Dissection: Ninkasi Brewing

In the fifth part of this ongoing series, I consider Ninkasi Brewing's brand. If you want to read previous editions, follow this link.

Ninkasi has only been around since 2006, but it's already become one of the state's larger breweries. Co-founder Jamie Floyd was not new to either brewing or brewing in Eugene, having been with Steelhead for years before opening Ninkasi. (The other co-founder, Nikos Ridge, has a background in finance.) Floyd calls their approach the "Chico strategy" (after Sierra Nevada) to become the city beer of a smaller community and expand from there. Check. Now Ninkasi is expanding out, and actually sells more beer in Portland than Eugene. The brewery just installed a new 30 60-barrel system and has a new bottling line and lots and lots of capacity to grow.

The Name
Ninkasi is an obvious choice--so obvious I was amazed Floyd found it free of trademark. The name refers to the ancient Sumerian goddess of brewing, documented in a famous 4000-year-old hymn. But surely someone had already snatched it up? Someone had--Fritz Maytag, whose Anchor Brewery had used it for their Sumerian Beer Project. But, over the course of 15 years, the mark expired, and Floyd and Ridge were the first ones to discover its availability. It's a classic name, like Gambrinus, the patron saint of brewing. Interestingly, Floyd says it has the dual virtue of still being slightly obscure ("a lot of people think it's Japanese")--familiarity to beer geeks, intrigue to those outside the loop.

Elements of the Brand
Back when I first started writing about beer, BridgePort had just changed their line-up from the old, iconic nature labels to one of consistent brand identity. A PR woman told me at the time that they wanted to get away from beer branding to brand branding. The idea was that people would just order a "BridgePort," ignoring the style of beer. It alerted me to just how hard that is. Breweries are known for certain beers--rarely does the brand permeate the full line-up. With Ninkasi, that's not true.

Everyone knows what Ninkasi beer is: hoppy. There are variations on a theme, but most of the core lineup features pale beers of vibrant hoppiness. For this, Ninkasi has earned the enmity of some beer geeks (a minority), but from a branding point of view, it's impressive and rare. You can just order a Ninkasi and have a good idea of what you'll get. (When I visited the brewery last week, they had a Berliner Weisse on draft at the tap room, and Floyd agreed with a laugh when I said I bet his customers were shocked when they tasted it.) This may not be the direction every brewery wants to go, but for Ninkasi it works: they're delighted to be known as the hophead's beer.

Interestingly, Floyd and Ridge decided not to use goddess iconography. There's no visual reference to the goddess, just the name. Instead, the logo is a starburst pattern surrounding the Ninkasi "N."
"The logo itself is based on an Egyptian revival mirror that used to hang in my house. All the original branding was done by me and my ex-wife [Brianna Jackson]. She's a graphic artist by profession and so we created a lot of that stuff together. We wanted something that was modern but timeless and had a Middle Eastern feel to it. It said a lot without really having to say a lot."
The rays of the logo are echoed in some of the labels as well--Radiant and Maiden the Shade. Although Floyd didn't mention it, this seems like a nod--perhaps unconscious--to the crunchy vibe of Eugene. There's a strong streak of tie-dye running through the city, and Ninkasi channels it in subtle ways.

Since Ninkasi doesn't do images, the brand relies on colors. Each label has a strong, clear field--almost like a flag--which is pretty much the only thing that distinguishes one beer from another. This intentionally stark scheme emerged as a way for customers to distinguish beers by looking at the tap handle, and Floyd likes the way it makes Ninkasi stand out on grocery shelves, too: "But when you walk up to look at a row of bottles, you see a blur of things, they don’t come out. In some cases our beers are next to each other, and in some cases they are separated by style--so it's easy to identify them." (I can speak to how easy they are to spot, too; I'm colorblind, and a lot of colors are muddy and indistinct--Ninkasi's have pure, saturated colors.)

Two of the beers are homages to heavy metal bands--which I've already written about (Maiden the Shade and Sleigh'r). I have wondered what this says about the brewery's tastes, and Floyd confessed that there were lots of resident metalheads there. But even these are part of the brand--Ninkasi has a side interest in promoting local bands and has even toyed with the idea of producing music. (Apparently they're big supporters of music in Boise, Idaho--which based on my youth there, could use it.)

Interestingly, the first beer Floyd ever brewed (at Steelhead) was called Starchild for the messiah figure in Parliament Funkadelic's mythology. So the link to music goes way back. Let me be the first to request that Dr. Hoppenstein be the next homage--funk's far cooler than metal. (Take it up in comments.)

Brand Success
Ninkasi's brand is consistent and distinctive, two clear markers of success. You don't mistake a Ninkasi label on a grocery shelf. But brands also reflect a company's identity, and the Ninkasi brand does a good job here, too. Ask ten beer fans what they think of Ninkasi, and I doubt you'll get a neutral opinion from more than one. The brewery knows what it's doing, and it doesn't wander in the weeds searching for direction. The brand is similarly confident and direct. I don't doubt that there are some who don't like it, but everyone recognizes it. In an increasingly crowded field, that's maybe the most important sign of success.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Deschutes Dissident, 2.0

Ah, the wild yeasts. They impart an intense, sour flavor, so we think of them as "wild" in a subjective sense. But although strains have now been isolated, they remain wild in the more accurate sense: they are feral and untrained. Put them in your beer and you take your chances.

From outward appearances, the first edition of The Dissident went just as planned. That beer was a rousing success, debuting as a lush, fruity beer and maturing into an intense, deeply layered beer. Version two point oh appears to have been more cantankerous. I didn't track the number of times I heard official or unofficial mention of release dates, but they began long before Deschutes finally settled on November. One can only imagine that the brewers were zwickeling samples off barrels and cursing their naughty brettanomyces for not getting on with the show.

So today, when I encountered the 2010 vintage, I wasn't surprised that it was a markedly different beer. Keep in mind that we must compare the just-released beer with the just-released beer of 2008. Here's what I wrote about it:
The aroma is not as funky as Liefmans--there's none of that skanky brett, but rather a sweet chocolate and sour cherry-accented nose. As it opened up, the astringency of the sour diminished a little and the cherries muscled their way in. It is a lovely and approachable beer. I find the three major notes of the beer come together in very nice harmony. The body is creamy and rich, with malt notes contributing a brown sugar/biscuit base. Onto this are balanced the twin flavors of tart/sweet cherries and the sourness of the yeast and cultures.... The result is a beer that is neither heavy nor overly sour.
This year's version is almost none of those things. Even before I put my nose in the tulip, I could smell the leather of the brett right away. There's a bit of chocolate, too, but mostly brett. The palate follows suit. In '08, the wild yeasts hadn't completely dismantled the sugars, but in this one, they're well on the way. It is thinner and far drier, and the malt and cherry notes have given way to that austere quality brettanomyces eventually produce.

I was surprised to see that this version is listed at 10.5%; the '08 was 8.8% at release. If Deschutes used the same recipe, that would be a huge difference. Perhaps the brewery felt the '08 was released too green, but I suspect not. That beer was so lush and complex--and it was so nice to try it "green" (to the extent barrel-aged beer can be) before watching it evolve. Also, the unpredictably late release date also suggests there was a reason they didn't put it out earlier. (Wild yeasts don't do the same things twice.)

It's very difficult to compare this beer head-to-head with the '08; they're quite different. This beer, with its more advanced brett character, will appeal to fewer people. The more sour a beer gets, the more people it loses. On the other hand, sourheads may appreciate this vintage more.

You have to go try it; as always with sour ales: your mileage may vary.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Pictures from the Eugene-Corvallis-Oakridge Swing

In swanky slideshow format. I will have lots more commentary to come, but in the meantime, Patrick has a brief rundown of some of the highlights.



Brewers Union

Block 15

The Dissident, Four Loko, and Figgy Pudding

As I enjoyed one of the most packed 36 hours of brewery touring in many moons, the world continued to spin on its axis. Babies were born, Blazers were lost for the season, and rains hammered down on the City of Roses. Plus a few more noteworthy happenings. I direct your attention to these:

1. Deschutes FINALLY Releases the Dissident
There may be no better named beer in the Deschutes' line-up than the wild Dissident. It adheres to no schedule; it puckishly thwarts promotion. But, after an extra few months, it seems the brewers have decided their bad boy is finally ready for his debut. (Most beers are ladies; the Dissident, I think, bears the unruly mark of a y chromosome.) I strongly encourage everyone to get to one of the Deschutes pubs to try the beer now. In it's "green" manifestation (a wholly relative characterization), it will exhibit more fruit and sugars. Then buy a bottle or three and throw them in the basement. Over the coming months, the brettanomyces will get busy and start drying the beer out, making it more austere and refined. There aren't so many landmark beers in the world, but the Dissident qualifies. I would put it among just a handful of the most accomplished American sours.

When the Dissident debuted, I wrote a post on both the oud bruin style and an extensive review of the Dissident.

2. FDA Agrees: Four Loko Isn't Legal
The Four Loko saga is a fascinating study in the interaction between public opinion and public policy. Caffeinated alcoholic beverages have been on the market for years. The Food and Drug Administration began studying them a year ago, but was pretty much sitting on its hands until a rash of college students started getting sick drinking them after returning to campuses last month. The sick students provoked a media tidal wave (in which I participated), spurring the FDA to issue a ruling yesterday:
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the F.D.A. commissioner, said the drinks appeared to pose a serious public health threat because the caffeine masked the effects of the alcohol, leading to “a state of wide-awake drunk.” After a yearlong review found no conclusive evidence that the drinks were safe, she said, the F.D.A. decided the caffeine in them was an illegal additive.
The lesson is that government is responsive to public policy. This is either good or bad, depending on your disposition and the issue at hand. I found the whole thing fascinating. Drinks like Four Loko won't be on shelves much longer, so if you want to a souvenir of this moment in beverage history, get down to stores fast.

3. Block 15 Releases Their First Bottled Beer, Figgy Pudding
Corvallis' Block 15 brewing is one of Beervana's best-kept secrets. Nick Arzner's beers are so popular in Corvallis that they don't regularly make it to Portland. This is actually a very good thing, owing to the fact that the good people of Corvallis have suffered from a relative dearth of breweries. In that spirit, Corvallisians (Corvallisers? Covallites? Corvallipudians?) will enjoy the overwhelming home-field advantage when Figgy Pudding is released in corked, 750ml bottles tomorrow. Only 64 cases were bottled, and if we're very lucky, a case or two will make it north. Your best bet is to send Corvallis friends and kin down to the brewery tomorrow.

As it happens, I was in the sprawling, Willy Wonka-like cellar of Block 15 just yesterday, where I tasted Figgy Pudding. I would describe it as an English old ale, though at 11%, it's a hair stronger than most. Here's the brewery description:
“Our holiday offering brewed with English pale and specialty malts and molasses. Matured 3-4 months in freshly emptied brandy barrels and conditioned with mission figs. Gently spiced with the world’s finest Ceylon cinnamon and whole nutmeg.”
With sweet beers, the difficulty is not tripping over the line into cloying. (I made a poor old ale last year called "Old Codger" that failed the test.) Figgy Pudding is exactly what you hope for: it's sweet, but rich and long. Aging beers take on a sherry-like note (when they age well), and casking these on brandy was a brilliant stroke. The brandy adds that aged quality, as it draws out the sugars and alcohol from the beer. Nick used a very light hand with the figs and spices--and many tasters won't even notice them. I prevailed upon Nick to sell me a couple bottles (I paid retail!), and I'll take one to the family in Maine and put one in the cellar. I don't have a rating for "good enough to take to the family in Maine," but you get the idea. You might even think it's worth driving to Corvallis for a bottle.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Three Nuggets From the Road

Our tour began at Oakshire, proceeded to Ninkasi, and concluded with Brewer's Union. I learned a vast amount--much of which I will share later. But here's three tidbits:

1. Oakshire makes a small beer from Ill-Mannered Gnome that weighs in at about 3.8%. It is approriately known as Well-Mannered Gnome.

2. Ninkasi's new Krones bottling line is in situ, where it will soon be producing not only 22s, but 12-ounce bottles of beer.

3. Ted Sobel's fermenters, though more modest than Ninkasi's, are square, like Samuel Smith's. His main yeast is also a Yorkshire strain.

Okay, now to Block 15-

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Road Trip: Four Breweries in Two Days

I am finally making the grand tour of the Southern Willamette Valley and Oakridge. The Beeronomist and I have meant to do this for literally months, and it begins today. (In fact, I'm already on the road.) Blogging will be ad hoc and sketchy through tomorrow, but I may have a fascinating tidbit or two to share.

Also, be sure to watch my Twitter feed. That, at least, will be active.

A Four Loko Tasting

Anticipating FDA intervention, the makers of Four Loko have taken pre-emptive action and announced they will drop three ingredients--caffeine, taurine, and guarana. Ah, but before the era ends, I had to taste the Loko. For socio-historic purposes. By chance, when friends and I got together last night, someone else had the same idea, so we tried two flavors: Lemon Lime and Blue Raspberry. A third can of Cranberry Lemonade will remain in my private collection.

I expected Four Loko to taste very sweet and artificial, like alcohol-spiked Kool-Aid. Bad, but in a familiar, semi-palatable way. Was I in for a surprise. First off, as you can see from the photo, Four Loko comes in vibrant, unnatural colors that recall cleaning agents. That's Blue Raspberry, and the Lemon Lime was nuclear green. The aromas are even more unnatural--and powerful. We cracked the Blue Raspberry first, and I was startled when the scent filled the room. It's sickly sweet, but also harbors a chemical undercurrent. The flavor of Blue Raspberry was similar--again, sickly sweet, like Kool Aid. Predictable. But there's a lot more going on, and all of it is bad. A chemical fizz that has the quality of burning.

It was stridently unpleasant, but as a drug-delivery system, not out of the ordinary. (I'd rather sip Four Loko than mess with needles.)

Then we turned to the Lemon Lime, which I assumed (again, incorrectly) would be more palatable. Citrus is both a relatively palatable synthetic flavor, and also good at covering up other flavors. Not in Four Loko, though. The smell was even stronger--and so unnatural that it triggered my lizard brain to mark it as a poison. The top note is Kool-Aid again, though more like a cheap, dollar-store brand. Then comes a toxic underlayment of Mr. Clean, tree car-freshener, and lime Jello all bound up by that acid-like fizz. Absolutely undrinkable.

I have no idea about the effect of Four Loko on the human body, because I had just a couple swallows of each "flavor." Younger and hardier people can test the product for those properties.

Verdict: magnificently unpalatable.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

More on Grätzer

How did we survive before the internets? Before electricity I can understand--whales kept things dimly lit. But before the internet we must have wandered the desert, hoping to stumble by chance upon nuggets of wisdom, like gold. Yesterday, two great comments appeared on my grätzer post from men more educated than I.

First, from Alan Taylor, the Widmer Brothers' resident Germany expert, who has such a precise and scholarly sense of things that he corrected the quote I included (via Pattinson) from Bierbrauerei. Taylor notes:
By the way: A Zentner is actually 50 kg or 100 Pfund, so the ratio of hops to malt is higher than in the quotation you had.
Well, obviously. How silly of me to confuse my kilos and Pfunds.

Next we have Kristen England, the homebrewer I quoted (via Hieronymus), who is one of the vanishingly small Americans to have actually brewed a grätzer. It's quite useful for the homebrewer interested in brewing their own grätzer, a number who include me:
The problem with the beer isn't, surprisingly, the 100% wheat. It's getting the level of smoke you want without mucking up the malt. Meaning making sure it can still convert itself.

I've done many different types of wood and oak really does work best. Rauchmalt is too smooth and hammy. The oak tannins really dry the beer out and with the hops dries the beer out completely. The cherrywood smoke made it taste like an ashtray.

The BU's are around 40 or so. 2/3 first wort and then 1/3 the last 15min works very well. All low [alpha] % noble which adds a ton of tannin because of all the hop matter that goes into it. You'll be surprised at how clear this beer ends up.

I find that OG+10 = BU works great. I like mine about 1.028 and then 38 BU. Finishes around 1.009. Bone dry.
Thanks, Kristen. this is most useful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch to Merge

Jay Brooks broke some fascinating slash disturbing news this morning: Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch were purchased by Centerbridge Capital Partners. The resulting company, which will include Rock Bottom-owned Old Chicago, will be called CraftWorks. From the press release:
CraftWorks is led by Frank Day and Allen Corey. Frank Day, founder of Rock Bottom, serves as Chairman of the Board and brings over 45 years of restaurant experience to the newly formed company. Allen Corey, an original investor and 13 year CEO of Gordon Biersch, is the President and CEO of CraftWorks and brings over 18 years of restaurant experience to the position....

In addition to these three core brands, CraftWorks also operates a variety of specialty concepts including A1A Ale Works, Big River Grille and Brewing Works, Bluewater Grille, ChopHouse & Brewery, Ragtime Tavern, Seven Bridges Grille & Brewery and The Walnut Brewery.
I shot an email to Van Havig, brewer at the Portland Rock Bottom, to find out if he had any comment. Things are still too early to know too much--and his comments were general and hopeful. Apparently the individual breweries will retain their identities--they're not all becoming CraftWorks.

Color me a little concerned. One of the great virtues of Rock Bottom was the freedom it granted Van. He was responsible for brewing their regular line-up, but he also got to brew the kind of beers local Portlanders admire. Rock Bottom has been active in the Oregon Brewers Guild, and Van is the Treasurer and a former president. Let's hope the new ownership recognizes the value of these things--especially in a city with 36 breweries.

I'll comment more when I have more info.

Meet Grätzer, the New Gose

The newest thing in brewing is ... old things. Last year, we marveled that the very obscure gose style was enjoying a boomlet. But gose is old hat. Having scoured through all extant commercial styles, brewers now appear to be perusing the extinct. Last week, Ben Edmunds offered a beer inspired by an old style called grätzer (which he pronounced "grate-sir"). We'll loop back around to his version in a moment, but first, let's have a glance at the historical style.

Grätzer is actually indigenous to Poland, where it was known as grodziskie. Grätz was the German name for the town Grodzisk, which was, for a little over a hundred years, part of Prussia. But the beer style both pre- and post-dated Prussia, and was in fact still brewed in Poland until the 1990s. Grodzisk was a major center of brewing, and at the end of the 18th Century, boasted 53 brewers.

One of the famous local products in that old-school Beervana was a beer made entirely of smoked wheat malt. The indispensable scholar (and Grätz enthusiast) Ron Pattinson retrieved this information for our edification:
"Grätzer Bier, a rough, bitter beer, brewed from 100% wheat malt with an intense smoke and hop flavour. The green malt undergoes smoking during virtually the whole drying process, is highly dried and has a strong aroma in addition to the smoked flavour. An infusion mash is employed. Hopping rate: for 1 Zentner (100 kg) of malt, 3 kg hops. Gravity just 7º [Plato]. Fermentation is carried out in tuns at a temperature of 15 to 20º C."
--“Bierbrauerei" by M. Krandauer, 1914, page 301.
In brief, the passage highlights a few key points: in addition to being brewed entirely of smoked wheat, the beer is small (1.028; less than 3% ABV) and aggressively hoppy. Although it was fermented cool (60-68 degrees), it was an ale. Also interesting: the beer is hopped during the mash.

Stan Hieronymus, writing in Brewing With Wheat, tracked down homebrewer Kristen England who, after chatting with Pattinson, brewed his own Grätzer. It became one of his favorites. England told Hieronymus, "The amount of smoke and hop in this very low-gravity beer is absolutely massive."

Fascinating stuff, and certainly something that should pique interest in more minds than just Ron Pattinson's. Aggressively hoppy, intense flavors--the style may date back 600 years, but it sounds pretty contemporary to me.

Breakside's Grätzer
The greatest barrier to brewing Grätzers is not incidental: no one produces smoked wheat malt commercially. This means a brewery either has to smoke its own malt or improvise. Edmunds improvised, using regular smoked malt. In fact, his is an all-barley version, employing Munich and pilsner malt along with the smoked. (To head off howls from uber-geeks, he admits the obvious: "this is not an historical recreation of grätzer, but rather a re-imagination.")

Ben studied brewing in German, and when he consulted historical descriptions, found mention of an apple note. Instead of vibrant hopping, he decided to spice the beer to evoke that apple character, and added cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. He also blanched at the historically tiny OG and boosted it to 1.046--leaving a beer of relatively robust 4.4% abv.

The spice dominated the palate, which was light and quaffable, but only mildly smoky. Hops also fell back. It was actually quite a nice beer, but quite a bit different than my expectations.

A Grätzer Revival?
Given the difficulty smoking wheat malt, it's a bit hard to imagine grätzer emerging an even minor trend. Hieronymus cites a collaboration between Yards and Iron Hill where the brewers smoked some of their malt, but so far as I know, no one has made a fully traditional grätzer. Perhaps a nanobrewery will attempt it. In the meantime, it may be that the style remains solely the purview of homebrewers. I'll confess that after tasting Ben's version, I did a Google search to see how hard it is to smoke malt. At 1.028, we're only talking about five pounds--how hard can it be?

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Year of the Woman?

Although I've noticed for a few years that more and more women have become avid fans of good beer, it seems that in the last couple--and 2010 in particular--women have really become major stakeholders. Here's a good example. The new female collective "Ladies of Craft Beer" is one of this year's most active blogs, and yesterday Stevie Caldarola interviewed Deschutes brewer Veronica Vega.

Women bloggers interviewing a brewing woman. Even five years ago, this would have been a pretty remarkable thing--now, not so much. (Cool, certainly; remarkable, no.) Five years ago, the likelihood that the interview was with Teri Fahrendorf, one of the country's first female brewers, would have been pretty high. Teri went on to found the Pink Boots Society, which supports women in the world of beer. The post about Vega caught my eye because it makes at least two women brewing in Bend, which is pretty remarkable. I looked on Pink Boots' list of members and saw that eighteen women now brew professionally or own breweries in Oregon. The list also includes folks like Lisa Morrison, world-famous beer writer, and Megan Flynn, editor and publisher of Beer Northwest.

A decade ago, this was an incredibly male-dominated field. It's still heavily skewed toward men (most of the women brewing in Oregon are assistants), but the trajectory has changed sharply. Next month I'll do my usual year-end review; I'm thinking we may have to call 2010 the year of the woman.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

But If CAMRA Didn't Exist, What Would They Fight About?

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a venerable old organization that defends the very British institution of cask ale. It was (choose one): a) the salvation of cask ale or b) an officious movement mainly successful at getting a lot of attention. It now (choose one): a) keeps alive an ancient tradition in the face of multinational fizzy lager, or b) does more harm to the cause of craft beer than good.

I haven't any opinion, though the always-convincing Martyn Cornell offers a strong case today. What I do know is that the arguments about cask ale seem to mark British drinking culture almost as much as cask ale does, and every time I see a flare up like this, it amuses and heartens me. I'm too distant to have a dog in the fight; I just like knowing people are still fighting about good beer. I'll worry when the debates stop.

Follow-up: Four Loko Banned in Washington

Last week, I posted a piece about the 12% ABV caffeinated drink Four Loko, wondering why it isn't illegal. Things have evolved in that short time. Since Washington DC has been slow to act on the question of whether booze-and-caffeine drinks are safe, states have just been making the call themselves:
Almost a year ago the Food and Drug Administration started nosing around the companies that combine alcohol and caffeine into drinks like Four Loko.... The regulator still hasn't made a decision about whether it's OK for the drink makers to mix loads of alcohol and caffeine in a single can.

So, a growing number of states are taking action on their own. Washington, where nine college students were hospitalized recently after becoming intoxicated, is the latest state to ban caffeine-boosted alcohol drinks. Michigan and Oklahoma also have done so.
Oddly enough, the OLCC doesn't have the authority to regulate this category of alcohol, so Oregon is unlikely to ban Four Loko anytime soon:

Christie Scott with the OLCC said earlier that the agency can’t ban those drinks because they aren’t funneled through the OLCC the way distilled spirits are.

Christie Scott: "This product on the other hand is a malt beverage, which doesn’t come through the OLCC warehouse. And we don’t have any regulatory authority to prevent that from coming into Oregon."

I expect other states to follow suit.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Discovery Channel's "Brew Masters" Series Is Problematic

On Sunday, November 21, the Discovery Channel is premiering a new series ostensibly about craft brewing called "Brew Masters." Not being a TV guy, I had sort of let this information float at the fringe of my consciousness, that purgatory where I leave facts that probably won't affect me. (Justin Bieber is parked there, too.) But when my mother sent me an email about it, I figured I'd better have a look.


It has that familiar look of a show based around a strong personality who guides you through an unexamimed world. And in fact, it's produced by the company that makes Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations." Our tour guide? Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione. I have long held reservations about having Sam stand in as the de facto spokesman for craft brewing, but mostly have been happy to see the industry get the attention. Personalities are good for that kind of thing.

But Sam has some bad habits, and they are on such glaring display here that I wonder if it will actually be a net negative. Sam's line is that craft brewing is an antidote to macro brewing, a beleaguered underdog that doesn't play by the rules. But this is also the marketing pitch for Dogfish. Discovery posted a clip that highlights this tension. After creating the us versus them argument for craft brewing ("we're up against horrific odds to make ourselves succesful"), Sam goes on to pitch Dogfish as a king among princes. "Usually a brewery will do eight or ten awesome craft beers; I think we're going to do something like 31 different beers this year."

You can watch clips of the show here; the only embeddable clip is the promo:

This highlights a conflict of interest I find really uncomfortable. Sam is not a neutral observer. Sam's a businessman who wants to sell as much of his beer as he can. That's fine, but when he's presented as the objective source of information, he has this enormously valuable platform to pitch his beer.

The first episode is about the making of Bitches Brew, Dogfish's tribute to the Miles Davis record. Apparently the camera follows Sam to Ethiopia where he tracks down Tej--a spiced mead--and back to the brewery where they assemble the beer. Along the way, the jazz people refer to him as the "Miles Davis of beer," and he offers an aw-shucks response. More danger: the beer is thrown together in five weeks so that it can debut at Savor, a beer-and-food event in DC. The camera follows Calagione as he throws the keg in the back of his ancient Dodge pick-up and delivers it to the fest, where admirers praise it in hushed tones.

All of this serves to promote the brand of Dogfish Head, but is it good for craft brewing? Most production breweries spend months developing new beers. They don't put beta versions into the market untried and untested. Judging by the first episode, anyway, Discovery has assembled a long promotional video about Dogfish Head, and I worry that they and their viewers will take this to be an objective view of craft brewing. This isn't some dispassionate story about craft brewing, it's the story of Dogfish Head as told by its owner. Will this be obvious to viewers? If not, that's a problem.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Greatest Beverage in the World: Hot Scotchy (Hot Scotchie)

Those who know me know I am not given to exaggeration. I am a man of vast and unyielding moderation. Therefore, you should pay close attention when I say that there's this old-timey concoction called a Hot Scotchie (or, variously Hot Scotchy or Hot Fat Bastard) which is, objectively, the finest beverage known to man.*

We should probably step back a moment and acknowledge James Horlick before we get too far afield. Horlick, an Englishman, invented a product originally aimed at infants called "malted milk." Eventually, the powdered version of the product became popular among adults, leading to malted milkshakes, malted milk balls, and other malt-based foods. The heyday of malt lasted for the first half of the 20th century, though Horlicks is still quite popular throughout Asia.

I'm not sure why the phenomenon died out, because malt is uniquely comforting. Essentially, it's just dried malt powder, not unlike that which extract brewers brew with: malted grain, mashed and dried. Obviously, it's unhopped and pre-alcoholic. The quality is grainy, like breakfast cereal, sweet and wholesome. It tastes like something your mother would give you to keep you warm and ward off colds--which, in fact, was pretty much what it became.

Now we come to Hot Scotchie, a drink with a history lost to the mists of time. Or at least lost to Google. The concept is much the same. Brewers would draw off a small amount of the mash as it issued from the grain bed, fresh and warm. To this they added a dollop of Scotch. What happens is nothing short of mystical. Mash runnings are very sweet and flabby--there's no definition to the flavors. The addition of Scotch somehow reverses all this. Like an electric current, the Scotch animates the grains so that you can taste them in HD. The Scotch is likewise a very clear note, but not sharp or aggressive. It has all the flavor of a straight shot, but it's floating amid Mom's comforting malted. Insanely beguiling.

The version I had was made with mash from Upright Seven and Talisker. As an added touch, Jacob Grier added a tiny skiff of whipped cream, but this is definitely optional (though also nice). All reports suggest that it doesn't matter what mash runnings you're working with--Hot Scotchie rocks whether the beer in question is a mild or barleywine. In fact, you become more attuned to the variations in batches that way, so say the experienced. However, reports differ about which Scotches to use. Homebrew maven Ray Daniels swears by cheap Scotch, but Grier says only good, single malt, and only something with character--preferably peat. He plans on Ardbeg, an Islay, for the weekend. I'll experiment and get back to you.

Hot Scotchies are, for the moment anyway, mainly the province of homebrewers. Perhaps the odd pro sneaks a pint of wort from an afternoon brew, but I doubt it. The trouble is, unhopped wort isn't an ingredient to which bartenders have ready access. Therefore, in the near term at least, Hot Scotchies are not likely to become commonplace. Fortunately, the US has 1600+ breweries, so perhaps some of them will work with bars, at least on a limited basis, to bring the Hot Scotchie to an unsuspecting public. Consider this my plea.

Portlanders have a great opportunity this weekend to try a Hot Scotchie at the Hop and Vine, and I encourage them to avail themselves of it. Others should either take up homebrewing or try to arrange for Hot Scotchie tastings in your town. No one should live a life without having had one.

*Most of this is expansive exaggeration. I am a serial hyperbolizer, and I wouldn't recommend ordering a Hot Fat Bastard unless you know the bartender. But Hot Scotchie: yes, the finest beverage known to man. Objectively.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Beer Civilized Humanity--the Link Grows Stronger

For some decades, beer boosters have liked to claim--on thin evidence--that it was their pursuit of beer that caused humans to take up cultivation of grains, leading inexorably to civilization. That thin evidence, along with the nature of the boosterism, has caused me to regard the claim with hearty skepticism, but maybe the boosters were right all along. (Sort of.)
However, sites in Syria suggest that people nevertheless went to unusual lengths at times just to procure cereal grains — up to 40 to 60 miles (60 to 100 km). One might speculate, Hayden said, that the labor associated with grains could have made them attractive in feasts in which guests would be offered foods that were difficult or expensive to prepare, and beer could have been a key reason to procure the grains used to make them. "It's not that drinking and brewing by itself helped start cultivation, it's this context of feasts that links beer and the emergence of complex societies," Hayden said.

The brewing of alcohol seems to have been a very early development linked with initial domestication, seen during Neolithic times in China, the Sudan, the first pottery in Greece and possibly with the first use of maize. Hayden said circumstantial evidence for brewing has been seen in the Natufian, in that all the technology needed to make it is there — cultivated yeast, grindstones, vessels for brewing and fire-cracked rocks as signs of the heating needed to prepare the mash.
In light of this, perhaps my recent horror at Four Loko needs to be put into the proper context: humans love to party, and what's a party without beer?

Beer Cocktails--Gimmick or Revelation?

I guess the idea of beer cocktails is not new; after all, boilermakers have been around since--well, probably since whiskey was invented. But the use of good beer and good liquor to create culinarily interesting cocktails, this seems to be a new thing. In Oregon, where micro-distilleries are only slightly outnumbered by craft breweries, it is almost an automatic union. And,this Saturday you will have a chance to try six beer cocktails at Brewing Up Cocktails (6pm, Hop and Vine). But still I wonder: is all this just a gimmick?

From the mixologist's side, maybe not. I am not remotely a cocktail guy, and sitting at a preview Friday with press who were, I recognized how they differ from beer geeks. Beer is, of course, a final product. The recipe is decided by the brewer--it arrives to you fully-formed and ready to drink. Beer criticism involves judging the craft. Cocktails are a lot more like cooking, though--you judge not the craft, but the recipe. Ingredients matter, but they're not definitive. After our first cocktail, I confessed: "I have no way of judging this." Said everyone else, almost in unison, "Well, did you like it?" So for the alchemist, beer is just another ingredient to throw into the cocktail.

From the beer geek's side, maybe so. One of the cocktails is this crazy blend of Oak-aged Yeti from Great Divide and bacon-infused bourbon. To add to the extreme-sports feel of this drink, the rim was coated in bacon crumbles and powdered sugar. Later, Jacob, Ezra, and Yetta, hosts of the event, brought out the remainder of the Yeti bottle, and we got to finish it off, straight. The difference was illustrative. In its native form, Yeti is half way between a liquid and a gel. It is so dense you can float a quarter on the surface. Add a bit of bourbon, though, and it becomes a light, dark substance of little distinction. The whole of that cocktail ("Son of Furburger") may be an unqualified success as a cocktail, but to this beer fan, it seemed like a minor blaspheme.

I think the jury's out, and I think the answer may never be more than relative. However, I'm willing to keep my mind crow-barred open long enough to be persuaded by argument and examples. For those interested in the event, here's a rundown of the offerings:
  • Tea party cocktail. An autumnal mixture of rum, chamomile liquor and cider. Thumbs up.
  • Wassail. The traditional rendering, made with Deschutes Jubelale, dry sherry, brandy, and spices. A huge fave of the crowd, but not one I loved.
  • Defusion. Like an Irish car bomb, but made with a whipped concoction of Ninkasi Oatis that tops the Jamison like a cappuccino. Tastes a lot like an Irish car bomb, which may or many not please you.
  • Son of Furburger. See above.
  • Lover's Quarrel. Saint Germain and a Jolly Pumpkin sour. The beer was in such short supply that we didn't get to try it.
  • Hot Scotchie. This beverage was so transcendent that it may have changed my life permanently. It gets its own post, probably tomorrow.

Updates. Christian DeBenedetti offers a treatment of the beer cocktail and is more impressed. Also, at the New School, Ezra will spend the week running through a description of each of the cocktails at this weekend's event.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

On Brewing Experiments, a Dissenting View

Last week, I commented enthusiastically on Breakside's recent offering of five versions of a porter, each with one different adjunct. Vasilios Gletsos, MacTarnahan's brewer, added a comment I'd like to share.
I'm probably getting lost here at the end of the comments section, with all the excitement and all, but I wanted to suggest that this kind of thing happens at commercial breweries all the time, as part of the R&D process. It is just that the decision is typically made by the brewer before releasing the beer about which one is best.

Also, what is 'best' can also have different criteria. Like for yeast: how does it perform in the cellar?, flocculation, attenuation, longevity, and of course flavor profile, among many other questions.

We often trial different hops in our standard brews or quantites of spices, etc. What is unique here is that Ben is presenting the beers and letting the public decide for themselves. I would personally feel uncomfortable putting out a beer if I thought some other example worked better.
I have no doubt that Vasili speaks for lots and lots of commercial breweries here. A brewery is in the business of offering the very best product it can; beta versions may work for software, but not beer. Fair enough. I wouldn't expect to see a brewery's work as it's hammering out a new recipe (although Deschutes regularly releases in-development recipes to beer at their brewpubs).

What Breakside did is a little different. Ben used a recipe that was already excellent--it didn't occur to me to ask, but I assume he was pleased with it. With that recipe, he made four variants that used a single different ingredient. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see. Take MacTarnahan's for example. It's a beer made exclusively with Cascade hops. It would be absolutely fascinating to see the brewery do a few other versions that used different hops--everything else being identical (process, IBUs, etc.). It'll be a cold day in hell before they do it, but I'd love it. (Or, if you prefer, Mac's with different English and American ale strains.)

There's no right answer. One thing I've learned in talking with scores of brewers over the years is that they all have definite ideas about what they're doing--and these ideas are in no way identical. So I'll put Vasili in the "no" column. Any other takers?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Yet Another Super Meta Navel-Gazing Post About Beer Blogging

Again, I have a strong belief that almost no one who reads beer blogs cares about the navel-gazing of beer bloggers. So feel free to move along. But, since Stan and Alan and Andy have gone so meta here as the beer bloggers conference starts, I've got to weigh in. The truth is, there are a lot of beer bloggers now, and they have a lot of different reasons for blogging. My opus below--but I'll put the whole thing below the drop down menu to spare the innocent bystanders.

Click here if you really want to read on...