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Friday, September 30, 2011

What Distant Northwesterners May Be Interested To Know About the GABF, Part 1

It's always fascinating when your expectations meet your actual experience in a dark alley. Experience always wins. Coming into the GABF, I had on my Portland beer goggles, which as we well know completely blur our understanding of the rest of the country. Perhaps you wear the same goggles as I, and will benefit from experience-by-proxy.

1. Huge. I have always chafed with parochial slight at the GABF's claim to be the biggest beer fest in America--when in fact the Oregon Brewers Fest is. I'm prepared to change my opinion. The Colorado Convention Center is the size of four airplane hangars, and it's filled with hundreds of breweries offering thousands of beers. The place is so large that I got lost in the aisles looking for beers. The breweries are helpfully arranged by region, but it took me three hours to find the Northwest. The worst thing is you have to really parse your decisions, not only among which breweries to try, but which of their five beers to sample. One nice thing is that they pour beers in one-ounce increments, so you can sample broadly. There are no tickets, so if you want more than an ounce, you just get another pour. And finding people? Forget about it. I saw Angelo entering the fest, let him get out of eyeshot assuming I'd see him again, and never did. Here he is, in my last sighting of him:

2. They don't covet the beers you covet. There are some badass breweries at the fest, as you would expect. I was delighted to finally get to sample broadly from Jolly Pumpkin's line (flipside of the many-decisions downside is that if you want to really sample a particularly brewery's beer to get a sense of it, you can; with the OBF, you don't know if the beer you're tasting is representative). I scoped out New Holland and dropped by Boulevard for a pour of Brett Saison (and saw Steven Pauwels). Getting these beers was no problem. Some breweries had insanely long lines, but they weren't the ones I expected. New Glarus, which has a totally standard lineup, had a line of 100 people before they even started pouring beer. All their beer was gone by nine. (Great brewery, but it was still bizarre.) A Michigan brewery I'd never heard of called Short's was packed. The Venn diagram overlapped at Cigar City, which I also wanted to check out. Here's that crazy New Glarus line:

3. They give the NW a "meh." Because the fest organizes the breweries by region, I was able to see the relative activity by region. The South seemed to be getting the most attention, and the East Coast in general seemed to be popular. The Northwest was getting surprisingly little attention. Toward the end of my evening, I went over to taste some of the Washington beers I've missed--Chuckanut and Black Raven. In our region, these breweries are getting big attention, but that's just the thing: in our region. I've come to think of the Northwest as a little bubble, mostly sealed off from the rest of the country. This did nothing to disabuse me of the notion. (The Chuckanut, by the way, was seriously fantastic. Regular commenter Jack R is my brother in pilsner, and he would love theirs. The Helles, too, was sublime.)

I'll keep posting on what I see here, which I have no doubt will include more minor epiphanies. I leave you with the obligatory Charlie Papazian shot, which is sadly slightly out of focus (the light was horrible).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hop Varieties Cheat Sheet

Fresh hop season is upon us again, and sadly, the good folks in Hood River have scheduled the premier festival this Sunday--when I'll be returning from the GABF. But in the very likely case you won't be in Denver, you should shoot down the Gorge. (Full details here.)

As a public service, I'm reprinting my hops varieties chart for you to consult during the Fest. No real research has been done into the flavor and aroma these hops contribute when wet, or how their constituents (oils and acids) vary when wet ... or really much of anything. But we can at least compare the wet versions to the dry versions, and so here are the details on standard hops.

  • History. Amarillo was discovered growing on Virgil Gamache Farms as a wild hop cross.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Described as a “Super Cascade” with pronounced citrus (orange) and tropical fruit character. High in beta acids and a good aroma hop. (alpha acid: 8-11% / beta acid: 6-7%. Total oils 1.5-1.9 ml.)
  • History. A super-high alpha hop with principally Zeus and Nugget parentage released by SS Steiner in 2006.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Not much available on this new hop, which is described in generic terms as "fruity" and "floral." (alpha acid: 14-17%% / beta acid: 3-5%. Total oils 1.6 - 2.4 ml.)

Brewer’s Gold
  • History. A British bittering hop developed in 1919. Both Brewer's Gold and Bullion are seedlings found wild in Manitoba. It's an English/wild Canadian cross. Many modern high alpha hops were developed from Brewer's Gold.
  • Flavor/Aroma. It has a resiny, spicy aroma/flavor with hints of black currant and a pungent English character. (alpha acid: 8-10% / beta acid: 3.5-4.5%. Total oils 1.6-1.9 ml.)

  • History. The first commercial hop from the USDA-ARS breeding program, it was bred in 1956 but not released for cultivation until 1972. It was obtained by crossing an English Fuggle with a male plant, which originated from the Russian variety Serebrianka with a Fuggle male plant.
  • Flavor/Aroma. The most-used Northwest hop, with a lovely mild citrus and floral quality. (alpha acid: 4.5-7% / beta acid: 4.5-7%. Total oils 0.6-0.9 ml.)

  • History. Centennial is an aroma-type cultivar, bred in 1974 and released in 1990. The genetic composition is 3/4 Brewers Gold, 3/32 Fuggle, 1/16 East Kent Golding, 1/32 Bavarian and 1/16 unknown. Akin to a high-alpha Cascade.
  • Flavor/Aroma. One of the classic "C" hops, along with Cascade, Chinook, and Columbus. Character is not as citrusy and fruity as Cascade; considered to have medium intensity. Some even use it for aroma as well as bittering. Clean Bitterness with floral notes. (alpha acid: 9.5-11.5% / beta acid: 3.5-4.5%. Total oils 1.5-2.5 ml.)

  • History. Another of the recent proprietary strains, Citra is a relatively high-alpha dual-use hop that can be used either for bittering or aroma. Purported parentage includes Hallertauer, American Tettnanger, and East Kent Goldings.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Lots of American citrus character, but tending toward tropical fruit. (alpha acid: 11 - 13% / beta acid: 3.5 - 4.5%. Total oils 2.2-2.8 ml.)

  • History. Chinook hops were developed in the early 1980s in Washington state by the USDA as a variant of the Goldings Hop.
  • Flavor/Aroma. An herbal, smoky/earthy character. (alpha acid: 12-14% / beta acid: 3-4%. Total oils 0.7-1.2 ml.)

Columbus/Tomahawk/Zeus ("CTZ")
  • History. The breeding nursery from which these varieties were bred contained 20-30 female plants from which seeds were gathered. Exact parentage is unknown.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Hops have a very distinctive skunky/marijuana flavor and a sticky, resinous flavor. (alpha acid: 14.5 - 16.5% / beta acid: 4-5%. Total oils 2-3 ml.)

  • History. Crystal was released 1993, developed in Corvallis a decade earlier. Crystal is a half-sister of Mt. Hood and Liberty.
  • Flavor/Aroma. A spicy, sharp, clean flavor. It is not complex like Cascade but offers a clear note when used with other hops. (alpha acid: 4-6% / beta acid: 5-6.7%. Total oils 0.8-2.1 ml.)

First Gold
  • History. A dwarf hop developed in England derived from a dwarf male and a Whitbread Golding variety.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Similar to Goldings--spicy and earthy. (alpha acid: 6.5-8.5% / beta acid: 3-4%. Total oils, 0.7-1.5 ml)

  • History. Traditional German hop from Hallertau region. One of the classic “noble hops” originating in Germany’s most famous hop-growing region. Many cultivars.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Pleasant herbal character with an excellent bittering and flavoring profile. US Hallertau exhibits a mild, slightly flowery and somewhat spicy traditional German hop aroma. (alpha acid: 3.5-5.5% / beta acid: 3.5-5.5%. Total oils 1.5-2.0 ml.)

  • History. Another cross of the Hallertauer Mittelfrüher, with characteristics similar to those of Mt. Hood, released in the mid-80s around the time of Mt. Hoods' release.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Mild and spicy, closely akin to Mt. Hood and Hallertauer. (alpha acid: 3.5-4.5% / beta acid: 3-3.5%. Total oils 1.0-1.8 ml.)

Mt. Hood
  • History. An Oregon State University product, Mt Hood was developed in 1985. It is a half-sister to Ultra, Liberty and Crystal. Mt. Hood is an aromatic variety with marked similarities to the German Hallertauer and Hersbrucker varieties.
  • Flavor/Aroma. It has a refined, mild, pleasant and clean, somewhat pungent resiny/spicy aroma and provides clean bittering. A good choice for lagers. (alpha acid: 4-6% / beta acid: 5-7.5%. Total oils 1.0-1.3 ml.)

Mt. Rainier
  • History. Also an Oregon State University product, Mt Rainiers were bred from a variety of plants, including Galena, Hallertauer, Golden Cluster, Fuggles, and Landhopen (?). It was released commercially in 2008 or '09.
  • Flavor/Aroma. An interesting hop that contributes a minty or anise note. (alpha acid: 7 -9.5% / beta acid: around 7%. Total oils- NA.)

  • History. Nugget is a bittering-type cultivar, bred in 1970 from the USDA 65009 female plant and USDA 63015M. The lineage of Nugget is 5/8 Brewers Gold, 1/8 Early Green, 1/16 Canterbury Golding, 1/32 Bavarian and 5/32 unknown.
  • Flavor/Aroma. A sharply bitter hop with a pungent, heavy herbal aroma.. (alpha acid: 12-14% / beta acid: 4-6%. Total oils 1.7-2.3 ml.)

  • History. Bred in Germany in 1978 from English Northern Brewer stock.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Combines qualities of spicy English hops and rich, floral German hops. Excellent, clean bittering and aroma. (alpha acid: 6-8% / beta acid: 3 - 4%. Total oils 1 - 1.5 ml.)

  • History. A triploid hop resulting from a cross between 1/3 German Tettnanger, 1/3 Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, and an American hop (possibly Cascade). The first seedless Tettnang-type hop. An OSU hop released in 1998.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Noble hop character, herbal, floral, but with a little American character. (alpha acid: 5.5-7% / beta acid: 7-8.5%. Total oils 1.3 - 1.7 ml.)

  • History. A propriety strain bred by Yakima Chief.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Simcoe is best characterized as having a pronounced pine or woody aroma. The cultivar was bred by Yakima Chief in the USA. It is sometimes described as being “like Cascade, but more bitter - and with pine.” (alpha acid: 12-14% / beta acid: 4-5%. To2.0-2.5tal oils ml.)

  • History. Sterling is an aroma cultivar, made in 1990 with parentage of 1/2 Saaz, 1/4 Cascade, 1/8 unknown German aroma hop, 1/16 Brewers Gold, 1/32 Early Green, and 1/32 unknown.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Similar to Saaz in aroma and flavor. Aromas are fine, rustic, earthy, and spicy. Used in this year’s Full Sail LTD 03. (alpha acid: 4.5-5% / beta acid: 5-6%. Total oils 0.6-1.0 ml.)

  • History. Summit is a recently-released super-high-alpha hop variety. It is a dwarf variety grown on a low trellis system. Because the low trellis is not machine harvestable, these hops are picked by hand in the field.
  • Flavor/Aroma. Strongly pronounced orange/ tangerine aroma and flavor. A favorite hop of Rob Widmer and used in recent releases (W ’07, Drifter). (alpha acid: 17-19% / beta acid: 4% - 6%. Total oils 1.5 - 2.5 ml.)
  • History. An older US-bred hop with Fuggles parentage.
  • Flavor/Aroma. A classic earthy/spicy hop with great versatility. (alpha acid: 4-6% / beta acid: 3.5% - 4.5%. Total oils 1 - 1.5 ml.)

Information assembled from the following sources: Beer Advocate, Brew 365, Hopsteiner, Yakima Chief, Winning Homebrew , Global Hops

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Massive Collapse IPA

Although certain of you strongly disdain my habit of infrequent sports posts, they will continue to dribble out, infrequently. Today's topic is the incredible collapse of the Boston Red Sox--home team of all Portland bloggers, the heart of baseball, personification of all that is true and good. As I write this, they are leading 3-2 over the woeful Orioles while the devil Rays (not Devil Rays, mind you) trail 7-0 to New York. If those trends hold out, all is saved. If they reverse, all is lost. And if both the Rays and Sox win or lose, they go to a tiebreaker (with more potential for all losing or all saving.) What's the story? History:

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team has ever missed the playoffs after holding a lead of eight games or more in September. The Red Sox could be the first -- with a game to spare.

At 83-52, the Red Sox entered September with the best record in the American League. They had a 1½ -game edge over the New York Yankees in the AL East and a nine-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays for the wild card. gave Boston a 99.4 percent chance at the postseason when the month began.

It is by any measure it is one of the most spectacular collapses in sports history, and I don't think any Sox fan is surprised. Every year they anticipate this kind of thing and now that it has come, it simultaneously leaves us aghast and comforted. Those two teams who won the World Series. Not typical. This? Typical.

I'm considering a Massive Collapse IPA to celebrate. 297 BUs of pure bitterness. If they make the playoffs, I may knock it back to 203. I will go back to the cringing.

Postscript: And there it is. Paps blew the save in the 9th, a toxic cherry on top of a toxic season. Rays go to the playoffs, Sox go in the history book.


The 30th running of the beers will commence tomorrow at 5:30 in Denver as the Great American Beer Festival gets underway. It's an excellent opportunity to reflect on three decades of (pick one: microbrewing, craft brewing, good-beer brewing) in the United States. Charlie Papazian, the pied piper of good-beer brewing, convened the first GABF in 1982, before there really was a whole lot of good beer. Anchor, Boulder, and Sierra Nevada were in the house; Cartwright and New Albion had come and gone; Hale's and Redhook were just christening new breweries. To get a sense of just how different things still were, have a look at the inaugural program (pdf):

If you click on the photo, you'll be able to read Charlie's own hand-written note in the corner: 47 beers and 24 breweries. Most of the breweries weren't small start-ups and most sold fizzy yellow beer--though oddly, there was a lot of porter at that fest. (It's poignant to page through the list and see how many of the participants were about to end their decades-long run as stand-alone regional breweries and become neglected brands in the portfolios of national conglomerates.) This year, of course, there are scads of breweries, beers, and participants (466, 2400, ~50k).

At the time of the first GABF, small-scale brewing was an almost inconceivable venture. Banks wouldn't give brewers money, small brewing equipment didn't really exist, laws were designed to accommodate large-scale production and distribution, no one knew what ales were ... and on and on. Brewers in that first generation were in equal measures hippies who wanted to make an artisanal product by hand of natural ingredients, counter-cultural iconoclasts who decided to build breweries despite the hurdles, and born salesmen who had to invent the market for their product. Events like the GABF were among the few venues they had to get the word out about their beer.

Thirty years on, there's a whole new generation of brewers. What's fascinating is the altered landscape that informed their decision to become brewers. They didn't grow up in a world of cheap, bad beer. They didn't pass around bottles of Ballantine while telling stories of the strong beers of Europe. They grew up in a world of good beer. By the time they started drinking, they knew what IPAs were. So, instead of trying to invent an industry, they came in looking to push it further. Here in Portland, most of the new breweries are the ventures of young people (I won't try to broadcast that truth out and say it's the case everywhere, but I wouldn't be surprised). Their craft beer is not the craft beer of the older generation. To them, barrel-aging is not a radical innovation, but just the way things are done. They don't think of saisons as exotic. Amazingly, most don't even hate the macros--that battle ended a long time ago.

The GABF will be a perpetually evolving festival, reflecting the trends and mores of the brewers participating in it. It will have to stop growing at some point, but it won't stop changing. I'm psyched to finally see the great fest with my own eyes--and maybe when I'm Fred Eckhardt's age, I'll look back at this event and smile at how quaint it was back in the dark old days. Wouldn't that be nice?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Are You A Savvy Shopper or Satisfied Sipper?

In Katherine Cole's Oregonian column today, she interviews Mike Veseth, the Wine Economist, about his new book, Wine Wars. One of her questions involves a breakdown of the wine market by buyer interests--something I think might be highly relevant to good-beer drinkers. I'll link back to one of Veseth's blog posts from 2008 wherein he breaks down the typologies and percentages:
  • Overwhelmed (23% of consumers): Like to drink wine, but overwhelmed by sheer volume of choices on store shelves.
  • Image Seekers (20% of consumers): Are just discovering wine and view it as a status symbol.
  • Traditionalists (16% of consumers): Enjoy wine from established wineries and think wine makes an occasion more formal.
  • Savvy Shoppers (16% of consumers): Shop in a variety of stores each week to find best deals and enjoy shopping for wine and discovering new varietals on their own.
  • Satisfied Sippers (14% of consumers): Don’t know much about wine, just know what they like to drink and typically buy the same brand.
  • Wine Enthusiasts (12% of consumers): Entertain at home with friends, and consider themselves knowledgeable about wine.
Broadly speaking, I suspect good beer's clientele fall into the same categories. What's interesting is that the largest group, the overwhelmed, buy the least amount of wine, while wine enthusiasts and image-seekers buy the most. The goal, obviously, is to flip the overwhelmed, with all their potential purchasing power, into enthusiasts. (The "image seeker" category has an unnecessarily derogatory title. In the beer world, I'd call these "craft newbies" or something like that.)

Folks like Brady Walen, now off to his new job as Marketing Communication Manager at Craft Brewers Alliance, are no doubt keenly aware of trying to appeal to all the different segments of the potential market. It's good for the "enthusiast" (aka "beer geek") to recognize that breweries aren't just selling to them but broadcasting on several channels when they sell their beer. Anyway, good stuff.

How Does Bend Support So Many Breweries?

OPB radio's David Nogueras has an absolutely terrific piece about the Bend brewing scene. (Follow that link so you can listen to it, which is the more enjoyable medium of consumption--or click this link to download it.) He interviews a raft of people for the piece, including Larry Sidor and our man in Bend Jon Abernathy. In a five-minute piece, Nogueras manages to get listeners up to speed on the constellation of issues revolving around Bend and beer.

But the most interesting part is a section where he answers a question I've been asking a lot lately: how in the world can such a small city support so many breweries?

"I think there is but I think you can’t say we have 80 thousand people. I think you need to go talk to Doug and say how many visitor’s do we have coming though in a year," [Sidor] said.

Doug is Doug La Placa. He's the President of Bend’s tourism bureau, Visit Bend.

"Bend receives over 2 million individual tourists a year," La Placa said.

Ah ha: it's the tourists. Of course, whether two million tourists and 80,000 residents can support 47 breweries* remains an open question. One we'll see tested real time.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Best New(ish) GABF Category: 14b, Fresh Hop Beers

As you may know, I'm not a huge fan of the ever-widening range of new beers styles judged at the GABF. Blackberry brambles spread more slowly. And yet one category--sub-category, really--is very cool. Lodged in category 14 (experimental beer) is a subcategory for fresh hop ales.

There are a couple reasons this style is a real boon to the fest: for one, while it's not exactly an American invention, commercially speaking, it's really Amero-centric. Here in the Northwest, probably half the breweries make a fresh hop beer--orders of magnitude more examples than anywhere else. Since there aren't so many truly American expressions in brewing, we should really ride this horse.

Second, the GABF is perfectly scheduled to take advantage of these beers*. [And see yet another update here**] Fresh hop ales have zero shelf life. That green, leafy quality that defines the style comes only from just-plucked hops, and it has the life cycle of a gnat. Whatever it is in fresh hops that give these aromas and flavors doesn't last. If the GABF were in July, you couldn't really do this category. But early October is the perfect time--in fact, you could actually really play up the harvest hop beers. The only criticism I have of the style category is that it isn't a stand-alone. Give it a few years.


Deschutes Fresh Hop Mirror Pond
Speaking of fresh hop beers, I got a bottle from Deschutes of a beer I like to think of as the current owner of the Bill Night endowed chair of fresh hop beers. For Bill, no beers are as sublime as fresh hopped ones, and of this group, Fresh Hop Mirror Pond is king. (Given that each year is different and by necessity pretty much a one-shot deal, I understand this designation may be revoked.) In the case of this year's batch, Deschutes, working with Goschie Farms, went to OSU to find the original root stocks Cascade came from (they call them "heirloom" hops). It raises a separate, but perhaps digressive point: how has the strain changed? We'll leave that until another time.

In any case, the beer rocks. It has a vivid nose, alive with the green fresh hopheads demand. It's a vibrant, spritzy interpretation, not the least bit composty or strange. The quality of fresh hops is not for everyone; they're so green you get an almost weedy intensity out of them (this, I believe, would be considered among fresh hopheads a desirable quality). This beer has it in spades. No mistaking it as a standard pale. It's loaded with flavor. Although I am generally not a big fan of fresh hop beers, this one is in my wheelhouse. It tastes like a freshly-picked flower, still warm with the rays of the summer sun.

*Update: In comments, DJ Paul makes a really good point: "Beers that are to be judged have to arrive in Denver by the first week of September. Therefore the beers have to ship by late August and these Fresh Hop Beers are usually not ready by this time." It seems like there might be a possible fix to this; I'll ask around when I'm in Denver.

**Updated further. Tweet from Daniel Pollard at Pelican: "@Beervana the BA offered an exception to the beer due dates for Fresh Hop beers. Lots of us had harvest related delays to deal with."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Your Odds Vary at the GABF

This decision confronts every brewery when they start drawing up their list of beers to send to the GABF: which styles should we compete in? A gold medal's a gold medal's a gold medal, but the odds of winning it vary pretty dramatically. Consider these categories from the 2010 fest, their entries, and your odds of winning--assuming all the examples are super tasty:
Category 14, Gluten free beer, 13 entries, odds of winning: 7.7%
Category 47, American-Style India Pale Ale, 142 entries, odds of winning: .7%
This means a brewery is exactly eleven times more likely to win in the gluten-free category as in IPA. Put another way, you could fit eleven of the gluten free categories into one IPA. The flip side, of course, is that for the brewery to win IPA (or pale ale, 109 entries, .9% chance of winning), the bragging rights are impressive. For a year, your brewery gets to declare itself America's Best IPA--no small shakes in a country with two million different IPAs. (Interestingly, the claim to have the best gluten-free beer isn't terrible, either; that category is an important and growing one, and most of the gluten-free beers available aren't so hot.)

This year at least two of the beers from Mighty Mites (Oakshire's Little Smokey and Breakside's Grisette) are entered in the session beer category, which last year had 30 entrants (3.3% chance of gold). Not bad, not bad at all.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Entering the Post-Craft World

Yesterday I offered you reviews of four beers and asked if they were "craft" or not. Many of you instantly smelled a rat--and rightly so. That was the point. I hadn't exactly worked out the wording of this post to explain it, but no matter. Vasili Gletsos, the peripatetic brewer now manning the kettle at Laurelwood, did my work for me:
To me, the term is most useful as a historical movement to describe the revolution (resurgence?) of smaller breweries in a post-prohibition environment. We are now in a post-craft environment in which there is a wide variety of business models and ownerships in addition to a great depth of beer styles and experimentation.
In the middle part of the last century, technology and business conspired to rob the United States not only of nearly every beer style, but most of its local breweries. They were replaced by faceless behemoths that churned out beer in quantities inconceivable to the human mind. This had the virtue of dropping prices to almost nothing as efficiencies of scale and advertising budgets equal to the GDP of Paraguay doomed regional breweries. I could go on for a few more sentences here, but you know this story well already.

The corrective came in the form of a band of pirates who were interested in wrecking the machine of industrial brewing and creating space for the return of small-batch, artisanal brewing. To the extent there was a revolutionary impulse, it was that these businesses would compete on the bases of quality and flavor, not price. So began a correction that has, three decades on, radically altered the beer industry.

Unfortunately, there was a conceptual fault to this development, one located in the phrase "craft brewing." It led innocently to an idea that there was something called "craft beer." But beer is beer. It's either made with the highest quality ingredients and processes or it's not. It's either a brilliant interpretation of style or it's not. The matter of who owns the brewery is a strange abstraction.

The beers I reviewed yesterday came from Goose Island, a brewery wholly owned by Anheuser-Busch, which is itself owned by an international brewing conglomerate--one that makes those quaint American macros of the 70s look like pikers. The beers were, in order, (1) Mae (unreleased), (2) Juliet, (3) an unreleased stout, and (4) Madame Rose. As I was thinking about the review, I groaned with the expectation that someone would slag the brewery for selling out or dumbing down or whatever. (Even before the A-B purchase, certain craft nazis avid beer geeks held the brewery in great suspicion because it had the indecency to sell a huge amount of light wheat ale.) So I thought: why not head them off at the pass?

Vasili's right: we've entered a post craft world where even the meaning of craft brewery is fraying--never mind the idea of "craft beer." We're sort of stuck with the nomenclature of "craft" because it helps differentiate segments of the market--even while, admittedly, it introduces its own confusion. My recent posts about the craft brewing segment are a case in point. Still, as educated beer drinkers, we can avoid being fooled ourselves. We can admire and wish to support small, local breweries (and I do, hugely, on both counts); we can criticize breweries that make dumbed-down beer filled with cost-saving adjuncts to appeal to a mass audience. But at the end of the day, beer is beer, and we're going to have to get comfortable judging what's in the glass separately from who made it.


Also: Alan has thoughts on the subject.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Is This Craft Beer?

Several weeks back, a brewery sent me samples of four beers. As usual, I have been slow to work my way through them and get to a review, but here we are. In a twist, though, I'm going to review them without naming the beers or the brewery. Why? Because we've lately been trying to define craft beer, and I'm wondering if you can do it without certain pieces of information concerning the ownership structure. In other words, does the craft live in the beer or the owner? (I should mention that two of these beers are experimental and have received no commercial release, so don't let that fool you.)

Note: Now that we've run the experiment, I'll include the names of the beers below for posterity. The brewery is Goose Island, now owned by In-Bev. Which doesn't really answer the question, does it?

Beer 1, Sour Peach Saison (Mae, unreleased)
This beer started life as a saison, though I found no evidence in the archaeological record. Because, to the base saison were added peaches and brettanomcyes--and those elements manhandled the beer and squashed whatever character might have come from previous yeasts. The peach flavor is light and delicate, but the beer is pretty sharply sour. The result is a beer that's less in balance than detente, with the acetic sour notes battling the sweet peachiness. Ultimately, the sour wins. Sour heads will love it, but regular beer drinkers might find it crosses the line.

Beer 2, Sour Fruit Beer (Juliet)
The second beer is an American sour, brewed to no traditional style. It is built on an idiosyncratic recipe that incorporates rye and Munich malt into what might be an otherwise familiar blond ale. The rye is useful in adding depth to the palate--and I also wonder how it stands up to the brettanomyces, which are added to the Cabernet barrels the beer is aged in. (Hypothesis: rye may offer studier snacking for the wild yeasts.) Beer 2 is finished with blackberries in the barrels. The beer is punch-colored and perfectly bright, with a head of uniform bubbles--akin to cider that form and dissipate. The aroma is a mixture of tart, wild yeasts and an earthy berry note. The flavor evolves from a straight, berry-infused lactic taste to something with a touch of acetic, and then a long, dry brett finish. It's a dusty, not funky, tart. The berries provide flavor and, as the beer warms, gentle sweetness. Balance is impressive between fruit and funk, and the brett at the perfect stage of dryness. An accomplished, tart, and lovely sour.

Beer 3, Imperial Stout Aged With, errr... (unreleased stout)
Blogger error. I took notes on this beer somewhere, but they're lost to me now. It was a barrel-aged beer that was aged with my mind wants to say vanilla bean. Or something. What I do recall is that was too much sweetness for my palate.

Beer 4, Sour Ale With Cherries (Madame Rose)
The brewery suggests by calling this a "Belgian style brown" an oud bruin, but I think this is misleading. It's a darkish sour beer, but it's not really brewed to style. That's fine, because it was an exceptional beer on its own merit. Rather than brown, it's a very deep amber/bronze with red highlights (the brewery calls it crimson, but that stretches things a bit). It has a lush cherry nose inflected by just a bit of sour, musty brettanomcyes. Made properly, sour beers pull a lot of flavor and aroma from fruit, almost like the captured, distilled essence, without becoming sweet. Beer 4 manages that perfectly. Balance is added by a milder acidity--bretty, but not aggressive--and some tannins. There's a bit of the soft maltiness remaining as well. (Suggestive that it's best not to age this beer.) The brett provides depth and dryness, but it's not a challenging beer. It is complex and approachable, with malt, fruit, and tartness balanced in an effervescent, lush beer. My favorite of the bunch.
All right, you got it figured out?

Update. I should have mentioned that I planned to reveal the brewery tomorrow--with, of course, some commentary.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Have a Pint, Save the Economy

Fascinating piece in the New York Times Economix blog on the "beer recession."
Europeans are saving money by drinking at home rather than in pubs, which is costing jobs in the hospitality industry and depressing tax revenue, according to the study by Ernst & Young, which was paid for by the Brewers of Europe, an industry group.

The shift to home consumption has a disproportionate effect on unemployment, because 73 percent of jobs associated with the European beer industry are outside breweries. They are found instead in bars, hotels and restaurants.
The magnification means that an 8% decline in pub sales works out to a 12% decline in beer industry employment. The figures were worse in Greece, where a five-liter decline in consumption led to a 15% crash in beer industry employment. The lesson is, as always, the same: drink your beer.

Evolving GABF

Note: Post has been updated.

In about a week, the 30th edition of the Great American Beer Festival kicks off in Denver--and the first that I'll be attending. We've come a long way in three decades. Those early GABFs were all about promoting American craft beer--or maybe more pointedly, the idea of American beer. In 1982 only a vanishingly small number of people even knew about the phenomenon, so it made sense to showcase American craft breweries.

Pretty early on, though, organizers wanted to turn the fest into the premier event for beer judging. They invited international judges and awarded gold medals to "world-class beer[s] that accurately exemplifies the specified style, displaying the proper balance of taste, aroma and appearance." The GABF was interested in more than promoting American beer--it wanted to encourage breweries to make beers as good as any brewed in the world.

So here's a question I have: if the GABF is judging world-class beers, where are the beers of the world? I understand the "A" in the acronym, and it makes sense that the principal goal of the GABF will be celebrating American beer. But I also wonder if it shouldn't be a bit more inclusive. How do these world-class American beers fare when actually judged in blind panels with world beers? Are we better at some styles than others relative to examples in Europe and beyond?

No rush. Thirty years isn't that long in the scope of things. American brewing is evolving, though, and I expect the GABF will have to, as well.

Update. I should have made mention of the World Beer Cup in this post--as some commenters have and as Barbara Fusco did in an email to me this afternoon:
The most recent World Beer Cup (in 2010) was, at the time, the world’s largest-ever commercial beer competition. (The 2010 and 2011 GABFs subsequently eclipsed that record.) In 2010, 642 breweries from 44 countries and 47 U.S. states vied for awards with 3,330 beers entered in 90 beer style categories at the World Beer Cup. The 2010 World Beer Cup presented awards to brewers from 19 countries ranging from Australia and Italy to Iceland and Japan, along with the United States. Awards were determined by an elite international panel of judges hailing from 26 different countries.
Charlie Papazian started the WBC in 1996 to essentially accomplish what I was talking about in this post--but in a slightly back-handed way. Among American beer competitions, the GABF is by some margin the most respected and celebrated. Adding a separate competition is fine (though the WBC is dominated by American breweries, which won all but 64 of the 270 medals awarded), but all eyes are on the GABF. I'd like to see international competition there eventually.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Where Do the Imports Come From?

If you're a beer geek, you pine for beers from places like Belgium and Italy. Of course, you like a nice German or Czech lager or the occasional British bitter, too. But do your preferences mirror import sales? They do not. I was glancing through the annual Beer Institute numbers and was surprised to see which countries and regions were the main players in the market--and which weren't.

To contextualize it a bit, 13% of American sales are imported, for a total of roughly 27 million barrels (2.5 times the amount of craft beer). If you think about it a minute, it will occur to you that the biggest importer is Mexico (50.4%). Canada, at 10%, is number three. Care to guess who's number two? Well, you don't have to--your eye has already glanced at the list below. A bit of discussion follows the numbers.
By Country
50.4% - Mexico
20.6% - Netherlands
9.9% - Canada
4.5% - Germany
4.1% - Belgium
3.1% - Ireland
3.0% - UK
0.8% - Jamaica
0.7% - Italy
0.4% - Poland
0.4% - Czech Republic (1k fewer than Poland)
2.1% - All others

By Continent/Region
60.3% - North America
2.2% - Caribbean, Central America, & South America
37.1% - Europe
0.7% - Asia
0.001% - Africa
The Netherlands commands a 21% share of imports? That's a lot of Heineken. Conversely, the Diageo borg (Guinness, Smithwick's, Harp) sells relatively little. Give me the two countries and the two numbers and I would have reversed them (preference bias). Belgium looks fantastic until you consider Stella Artois--so don't think this number is based on Cantillon Iris. Britain, no matter what you consider, looks terrible. How is it we get and drink so little good British ale here? A travesty. Finally, are you as shocked as I am that Poland, with no serious national brand (apologies to Zywiec, Boss, and Okocim), outsells the Czech Republic, with Pilsner Urquell?

Worth noting: Mexico, buoyed no doubt by Grupo Modelo (Corona, Pacifico, and Modelo), only had about a quarter of the much smaller import market 15 years ago. In 1994, Mexican breweries sold only 1.6 million barrels; in 2010 they sold 13.6 million. That's where the real action is.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Feng Shui of Pubs

On Saturday afternoon, Sally and I strolled through the early evening of a false Autumn toward Belmont Street. If I ever am forced to live anywhere else, I'll remember days like that one--cloudy and spitting rain all day, but so half-heartedly that the total rainfall measured just a tenth of an inch. It's the kind of weather that makes me want to go to a pub--not just any random pub, but a nice one that feels warm and inviting. A place with the appropriate Feng Shui.

We ended up at Circa 33, a place that has quickly zipped to the top my list for places with perfect ambiance. It's built like a cave, with the windows on Belmont standing in as the mouth. At the far back is a spectacular bar glittering with bottles. The light comes from overhead, but the main part of the pub stays in the shadows. It therefore has the perfect mixture of light and shadows. The menu is excellent and surprisingly cheap and there are a dozen rotating taps of local and international interest on tap. Perfect.

When I first started my pub-going life in the late 1980s, America was just emerging from a very dark period in which the tavern was not a particularly homey place to visit. Our Puritan streak relented enough to end Prohibition, but taverns were still no place for decent folk, so they were free of amenities like windows, decent food, or decent beer, children, and women. (Yes, that is an exaggeration.) Examples included the stalwarts I visited not irregularly along Milwaukie Avenue (Bear Paw, Yukon), in St Johns (Blue Bird, Wishing Well), and many points in between. For the cocktail set, there were definitely upscale redoubts that did have good food, windows, and women--but of course, no good beer. Your choices for good beer and great vibe were limited to, say, the Horse Brass.

It is a delight to live in a period where pubs are now as varied and individual as the people who create them. Think of Apex, Bailey's, the Widmer Gasthaus, a McMenamins pub, Grain and Gristle, Victory Bar: all different, all sporting specific visions of feng shui that will appeal to different people in different degrees.

Americans don't really do their beer drinking in pubs anymore--just 10% of all beer sales are draft, a number that hasn't changed appreciably in 30 years. I'm not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg--but it's no surprise that by 1981 no one felt inspired to head down to the corner tavern. But maybe the change in pubs will change the culture toward drinking in pubs, too. In 2004, just 9% of beer sales were on draft, and now we're up to 9.6%. Britain is chagrined to learn that draft sales have fallen to 50% there--a catastrophe I could really learn to live with. With pubs like Circa 33, maybe we can shoot for double digits.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sales of Craft Exceed Domestic Premium in the Pac NW

Last week, I began what will be a short series of posts on a presentation Dan Wandel made for SymphonyIRI that looked at sales figures and trends for craft beer sold at supermarkets (post 1, post 2). Today I'm going to highlight the last slide Dan showed us. It's a graph of two segments of the beer market, domestic premium and craft beer. It was a complex chart going back 2 1/2 years and split between Oregon and Washington. I've reproduced a detail of the slide showing the past year's sales in Oregon. Washington's looks roughly the same.

In April 2010, craft beer briefly outsold domestic premiums, then fell behind again. But in October, craft passed domestic premium again and hasn't looked back. It's worth adding a bit more context to fully understand these numbers. Keep in mind that Symphony/IRI only tracks supermarkets, not specialty retailers like Whole Foods and New Seasons--where craft beer massively outsells domestic premium. It also doesn't capture draft sales. In other words, the company tracks sales in the place most favorable to the domestic premiums like Bud and Coors.

The other thing to acknowledge is that the NW is way out in front of everyone. The point in preparing the slides is to illustrate craft beer's potential nationally based on their actual numbers here. We tend to think that craft beer will never supplant national light lagers, but these figures show they can.

One final point. In his presentation, Wandel sometimes included A-B's Shock Top and Coors' Blue Moon in the craft segment and sometimes he didn't. But no matter what segment you put them in, it's worth noting that they sell more than any single craft brand. (At the blogger's conference, I asked Blue Moon's Lisa Zimmer how many barrels that brand sold, and I think she said 1.7 million. That's about 10% the size of the entire craft market.)

Some people get freaked by the idea that the macros are co-opting craft beer, and to a certain extent, so am I. The silver lining, though, is that craft is now the tail that's wagging the dog. Macros see charts like the one in this post, and they see the writing on the wall: Americans are increasingly rejecting light lagers. People have been looking at SymphonyIRI's numbers on macros and seeing staggering five-year declines in domestic sales: Budweiser -30%, Miller Genuine Draft -51%, Old Milwaukee -52%, Michelob -72%. The trends are unmistakable: light lagers, though still the dominant player in beer, will continue an inexorable decline in the years ahead, replaced by more flavorful ales. Just look at what's happening in the Northwest.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Medium-Shallow Thoughts on Sierra Nevada, Plus Even Shallower Thoughts on Other Matters

I don't like to pick on commenters, for I get most of my pleasure in writing this blog by chatting with people in comments. But something Shawn said stuck in my craw:
Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams really aren't 'craft beer', though. By the legal definition they are, but not by any honest, realistic definition. Of course the 'most popular' are going to be the most widely distributed.
The definition of "craft" beer is one of no little controversy, but can we agree that there's no definition that eliminates Sierra Nevada, makers of some of the finest beer on this or any other planet? Everything about Sierra Nevada bespeaks quality, from their processes to ingredients to recipes to quality control.

Okay, I guess there's one way to critique the brewery: size. Ken Grossman does not stand over a three-barrel mash tun with a wooden canoe paddle. His beer is brewed in industrial-sized tanks with the help of lots of technology. Some people feel that you can't craft a hundred-barrel batch of beer (or whatever Sierra Nevada's is); somehow, the volume prohibits it. The Brewers Association made a similar connection when it declared that craft breweries had to be small and independent, until the independent breweries grew--and now you don't have to be small anymore.

The problem with this of course, is that it means that every small brewery is a craft brewery, no matter if they turn out delicious beer or pond water. (And everyone who loves good beer has had the pond-water experience at some little brewery or another.) Brewery size and beer quality are not correlated. Good beer is good beer, no matter which system it's brewed on or who owns it.


I commend you to this hilarious, exquisite post from Alan, wherein he writes, among other things:
On the nose, there are notes of petroleum jelly and brown crayon. In my mouth, it is not the beer of yesteryear but a reasonably moderately soft slightly rummy middle with acrid burnt toast finishing beer. Bitter like a bit of white grapefruit set alight by a bit of damp cocoa pod coaxed into flame by a bit of gasoline. There it is - that tang of the plastic and cat sick on the carpet taste that I recall but, to be fair, it is very neatly tucked into a corner. Hardly notice it at all.
You'll have to click through to discover which beer he's writing about.


More beer-and-Obama news.


A titanic rant against Budweiser. (A huge amount of wrongness contained therein, but the misinformation and bias sort of adds to the fun.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Deep Thoughts: Novelty Fatigue

Bill went to the Beermongers' second anniversary bash, rich with rare specialty beers, and was surprised at how low the attendance was. He posed an open question (with probes, like any good researcher should) about why that would be. With 24 hours of consideration under my belt, I have a hypothesis: we're suffering from novelty fatigue.

Used to be (like, five years ago) that specialty, one-off beers were rare birds. Most breweries hadn't started a barrel-aging program, and seasonal releases were good for variety, but they weren't particularly exotic beers. When a brewery did release something strange and special, beer geeks flocked to check it out. Beer fests accelerated the phenomenon by giving breweries an opportunity to highlight rarities and special beers. Breweries started developing barrel programs.

Fast forward to 2011. There has been an event like the one at Beermongers nearly every weekend of the spring and summer (sometimes more than one), and breweries are the font of dozens of one-off beers every month. The thing is, mostly these appeal to beer geeks. And, while there are lots of beer geeks, there aren't an infinite supply. We can only drink so many new beers. I know from my own habits that this is a process of selection. Devonshire White Ale, yes. Double gin-barrel aged wit, no. This fest, yes; that one, no. It's not that I'm not interested in all these beers and fests, it's that I can't enjoy them all. So I skip some--and in truth, most.

One other observation. While I do like one-off beers, I actually like beers that stay around even more. I like to get to know a beer over time, and I still mix up new beers with old standbys in my rotation. When I try new beers, there's something satisfying in knowing that it won't be the last time I get to drink it. One-offs have their place, but ephemera begs to be considered dispensable, and I succumb to that impulse.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Best-Selling American Craft Beers

Last week, I began what will be a short series of posts on a presentation Dan Wandel made for SymphonyIRI that looked at sales figures and trends for craft beer sold at supermarkets. In that post we looked at the best-selling styles; today we look at best-selling brands.

As with last week, I've reworked the data a bit to take out some of the best-selling SKUs tracked by SymphonyIRI: Sam Adams Seasonal (No. 3), Sam Adams Variety Pack (No. 5), Sierra Nevada Seasonal (No. 9) and New Belgium Seasonal (No. 12). (In the case of seasonals, several beers share the same SKU and are sold at different times of the year; variety packs, obviously, include more than one beer.) The remaining eleven account for 28.5% of all the beer tracked by SymphonyIRI--a sizable piece of the pie given that the company tracks 253 IPAs alone. In fact, the top four account for nearly 20% of all sales.

Here are the top ten, and the percentages indicate the total proportion of the entire craft segment that beer controls. The eleventh beer is Magic Hat's Number 9, at 1%.

When I looked at this list, my eye was attracted to Sierra Nevada's Torpedo--and then I realized something about this list. Only Torpedo is a recent brand. In fact, the next newest beer is Sam Adams Light, released a decade ago.
Sierra Nevada Pale (1980)
Sam Adams Boston Lager (1984)
New Belgium Fat Tire (1991)
Shiner Bock (1913)
Widmer Hefeweizen (1985)
Sierra Nevada Torpedo (2009, bottle)
Sam Adams Light (2001)
Redhook IPA (1995)
Kona Longboard Lager (1998)
Deschutes Mirror Pond (1992ish)

Clearly, it helps to have a jump on things. To see just how consistent these beers have been, have a look at Stan Hieronymus' report from four years back. And yet, despite this consistency, it's not like there's no movement. Not all these beers are headed in the same direction or at the same rate. (And no, I have no idea if these reflect year-to-year variation or are indicative of larger trends or volatility.)
Sierra Nevada Pale_______0.9%
Sam Adams Boston Lager___0.0%
New Belgium Fat Tire____-4.5%
Shiner Bock_____++++++__11.1%
Widmer Hefeweizen_______-9.5%
Sierra Nevada Torpedo___59.2%
Sam Adams Light________-15.1%
Redhook IPA______________4.5%
Kona Longboard Lager____45.5%
Deschutes Mirror Pond____3.5%
In some ways, it's easy to overthink these stats, though. Deschutes is the fifth largest craft brewery, but only cracks the list at number ten. What does this tell us? That Deschutes' production includes a pretty diverse line of beers that sell well. Is that good or bad? Probably neither, but interesting. By contrast, New Belgium has a huge tent pole beer in Fat Tire.

More to come.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sage and the Nomenclature of "Spiced Beer"

Over the weekend, I finally got around to drinking some of the Deschutes-Boulevard White IPA.* It's a bit different from the version that was pouring when I tried it several weeks ago, and also different from the different version available in the Portland brewpub. But it is very closely related and shares the key ingredient they both featured: white sage.

Not all spices work well in beer; I would venture to say most don't. Herbs seem to do better (a subtle distinction but hang with me). Whenever a brewer adds an ingredient banned by Reinheitsgebot, she has to decide how much that flavor will compete with or complement the innate flavors in the beer. Spices are intensely-flavored and few have much in common with beer. I love cardamom, for example, but have never liked it in beer. Too sweet, too prominent. Cinnamon in small doses is quite nice--it's a bit woody and tannic and can accent other flavors. Maybe coriander's success demonstrates the point; over the centuries, all other spices have been abandoned.

Herbs, on the other hand, are more gentle, more subtle, and more like hops (itself an herb). Sage is a great example. In these white IPAs, it is a perfect bridge between a stiffer dose of hops and the sometimes aggressive notes of coriander. It's a perfect marriage, and I despair to think that these experiments may never be repeated. I could drink sage beer all day long.

Relatedly, as more an more breweries toss in the odd herb or spice to accent a beer--and many times, we're talking about very subtle accenting--we must contend with a very unwieldly and inelegant style designation: "spiced beer." Or less elegant: "herb or spiced beer." I would really love to come up with something less clunky and misleading ("spiced ale" calls to mind mulled wassail, not a lemongrass IPA). Anyone think of a better name? Something with a bit more poetry and accuracy? Anyone?

*Alan McLeod posted an interesting rumination on the importance of history in beer appreciation, noting in comments "I want the direct immersive experience when I am tasting. I still think beer history is an excellent thing. But it takes away, for me, from the appreciation of the beer if I overlap one with the other." This beer is a good example of why I always want to know more, and why appreciation for me begins with a beer's story. The collaboration between the two breweries began just after Deschutes finished Hop in the Dark, their black IPA.** Larry Sidor and Steven Pauwels wondered, "what would a white IPA look like?" Then they wondered what contributions breweries from their regions of the country might make to fuse regional particularlities into the beer and they came up with Conflux #2/Collaboration #2. To me, the story made all the difference in understanding how you'd get to a beer like this.

**Not only are my footnotes threatening to gobble the post, but I've footnoted a footnote; perhaps the first such instance on a blog. Thank you very much. In any case, I acknowledge the manifold problems with the phrase "black IPA," but I used it in the previous footnote because it obviously leads into the story of white IPA in way CDA*** just wouldn't do.


Friday, September 09, 2011

Beermongers' Second Anniversary

For those of you in or near Portland this weekend, you might consider a trip down to Beermongers, where there will be way more good beer than you can drink.
Second Anniversary Celebration
Sunday, September 11, 12-8PM
SE Division and 12th Avenue
$15 Admission = Souvenir Festival Glass + 7 tasting tickets
Additional Tickets $1 each

Food Provided by: Curbside Grill and Nourishment
I'll add the extensive taplist in comments--Saturday's is now available. But as a teaser, it includes things like: Eel River 2008 Porter, Bend Scarlet Imp Red, Breakside Oude Noire, De Dolle Dulle Teve, and Burnside Bacon Stout. And those constitutes just 1/7th of the full list. For tomorrow. If you're looking to get your geek on, that's the place to be.

America's Best-Selling Craft Beer Styles

A couple of weeks back, Dan Wandel made a presentation about the craft beer sales tracked by his company, SymphonyIRI. They track scan data from supermarkets, big box retailers, and convenience stores across the country. The company doesn't track sales of every store--specialty retailers like Whole Foods and New Seasons, nor mom and pop stores. Nor does it track sales of draft beer, which constitutes a far larger proportion of the craft market than macro (mainly because of brewpubs). What SymphonyIRI does track are sales of packaged beer in the biggest part of the market, and so these numbers are useful in seeing where the larger trends are, separate from all the beer geek noise people like me tend to focus on.

I got to sit in on the presentation (a high-tech phone and Powerpoint presentation via conference call) and found it absolutely fascinating. There's a huge amount of the info that is too fine-grained to interest most folks, but a few data points really jumped off the page. I'll share these with you over the next few days (I just got a copy of the Powerpoint slides).

The first thing I want to look at is style preferences. Depending on how you slice them up, there are probably 30-40 different major styles of beer brewed commercially in the US. But the top three styles account for all craft sales, and the top five for two-thirds. America has a huge amount of variety in the market, but in terms of overall sales, we're really a five-style country.

I'm going to present the numbers a little differently than Dave did, so for those of you who've seen these figures, don't be alarmed. The first and fourth best-selling "styles" are actually seasonals (all the breweries seasonals throughout the year collapsed into one category) and variety 12-packs. Since they're not actually styles, I've pulled them out of the list and recalculated the percentages of the remaining eight styles. Here they are:

There are a couple of interesting addendums to the list. Beer geeks would probably expect to see IPAs leading the way, but this is actually the first time in SymphonyIRI's tracking that IPAs have edged out pales--a leader for years (maybe decades). This is significant because it is so far behind when this phenomenon reached the beer geek world. IPAs have been the most popular style for maybe a decade among the avid fans. This tells me that big trends within the avid base are worth watching as potential future features of national beer culture. As a related note, Wandel added this: in 2010, 177 IPAs were available in supermarkets. Now there are 253, a spike of 43% in one year. Wow.

More to come--

Thursday, September 08, 2011

BrewDog's Ghost Deer--Too Strong to be True?

Somehow I missed the latest gonzo marketing blitz from the lads at BrewDog. (That may be a downside of always keeping the volume at 11.) In July, they announced another super-strong beer called Ghost Deer that came with all the unusual bells and whistles we associate with BrewDog:
Ghost Deer is a 28% fermented beer, the strongest ever fermented beer.... After fermentation it is aged for 6 months in some amazing whisky, bourbon, rum and sherry barrels. There is only one Ghost Deer head and this beer will only ever be available on draft, served in a stemmed glass, direct from the mouth of the deer himself.
That business about the deer is of course literal--it pours from the mouth of a taxidermied deer head. The release was accompanied by one of the brewery's famous videos, which tells the tale of the ghost deer and manages to advance the brand brilliantly.

All well and good. But here's the thing: 28%?? Can this be? If BrewDog has managed to ferment a beer to that level, it would be a towering achievement. They report using three yeast strains to get there, but I've never heard of any yeast that comes close to tolerating that level of alcohol (White Labs and Wyeast strains top out at 18%). Beer has complex sugars that yeasts have a hard time digesting at final gravity, so even if you found a yeast strain that could go that high, I don't see how it could munch through the maltotriose to get down to that level. It seems to me that if BrewDog managed to create a beer of 28% strength entirely from fermentation, it would represent a radical advancement--one far more impressive than taxidermied deer heads.

Any sciencey types out there willing to shed some light on this? Is BrewDog polishing the apple here, or is it really possible to tease 28% alcohol out of the hardest-working fungi in the beer world?

Any Theories?

Give it to Redhook--they're definitely willing to try unorthodox marketing techniques. Take for example the package I got yesterday. The brewery is entering expanding their line in the lucrative 22-ounce bottle market, and so they sent me a Pilsner, ESB, and IPA. That makes sense, but then what to make of this waist-high distressed-steel sign they also tucked in with no explanation. (Click to enlarge; those are the 22s in the picture, to give you a sense of the scale.)

Let's make a game of it. Aside from the obvious--but not quite persuasive--explanation that they sent it to me to get a blog post out of it (there's gotta be far cheaper ways to get press), why did they send it?

I will say this; it's pretty cool. I wouldn't have minded distressing it myself over the course of the next thirty years, but that's a small quibble. As brewery swag goes, it is the largest and most interesting piece I've ever received.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Black Market for Beer, or Good Old-Fashioned Arbitrage?

Note: post has been updated below.

I would very much like the Beeronomist to comment on this Washington Post article, but in the meantime, I'll do it myself. You are well aware of the issue: reselling "buzz" beer on the internet at an extravagant mark-up. Some breweries, apparently, are apoplectic:
Last month, for example, San Diego’s Stone Brewing Co., whose rare Vertical Epic beers are sometimes listed on eBay for more than $1,000 per bottle, began selling the first beer in its new Quingenti Millilitre series via a lottery system, and Stone has announced that people who try to resell it will be banned from future drawings. “We have involuntarily been a part of the eBay aftermarket for many years,” says Greg Koch, Stone’s co-founder and chief executive. “This is the first time we’ve come out, laid it on the table and said very point-blank, ‘Please, do not resell.’”
Daniel Fromson, who wrote the article, diligently follows the breweries' pique and ventures into the weeds of law and interstate commerce. The conclusion is a kind of moralistic/legalistic scolding of customers who are, in his words, "exploiting" the breweries.

Hogwash. In economics, there's this concept called "arbitrage," which is exemplified precisely in the act of buying underpriced specialty beer from the brewery and reselling it for fantastic sums online. (Here's Patrick using an example from the Portland Timbers.) Usually, people exploit loopholes for arbitrage opportunities. NPR recently reported that people were using a government incentive of free delivery to sell unwanted silver dollars; people were buying them in massive quantities with credit cards to get frequent-flier miles and then just spending the dollars or taking them to banks.

But here's what I don't get: why don't breweries just charge more for their beer? No one's exploiting a loophole; they're buying beer at prices way below their market value and reselling them instantly at their market value. Prices always find a point of equilibrium between supply and demand, and if breweries are going to leave all that money sitting on the table, people are going to capitalize on the chance to snatch it up.

There's a secondary thing I don't get. The article mentions a bunch of the classic beer geek celestials, like Russian River, Lost Abbey, and Cantillon. These breweries attained their status principally by offering beer so good it could command these prices. There's a clear halo effect when you are regarded as producing ambrosia that's very good for business. The whole purpose in creating rare specialty beers--from a business perspective--is to create buzz and bring attention to your product. It creates fanatics who will go online and buy your beer at $400 a pop--which in turn gets you more attention as the Washington Post writes about your beer.

If breweries were honestly losing money on the resales, that would be one thing, but they're not. They sell a product at a price they believe is reasonable and they make a tidy profit doing it. At any point, they could charge more for their beer if they wanted to do it and remove the incentive for people to resell online. For very good business reasons, they choose not to. For one, they keep their customers happy and engaged. For two, they continue to be among the very few breweries in the world that can command those prices on a bottle of beer--a pretty great marketing trick.

Update: Patrick picked up the baton and expanded on this in a more professional manner. It's a fine and careful consideration, and you should read it all, but of course, I'll poach a choice cut for my own purposes.
The fact that these market have arisen suggests that there was a missing market problem: buyers and sellers who would like to transact but for whom there is no forum for such transactions. The most common reason for such transactions is some sort of regulatory constraint. Black markets in command and control economies like the former Soviet Union are a perfect example: shoes are on sale in Moscow, but there is little demand, so buyers buy them and sell them illegally in Siberia and so forth.
You'll have to follow the link to see where he takes it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Has the Pacific Northwest Lost Its Hop Monopoly?

Since I was out not laboring on Labor Day, I missed a potential story hook: the rise of hop farming outside the Pacific Northwest. Colorado, Wisconsin, and New York and New England--and probably elsewhere that I missed, too. These are small concerns and the industry--such as it is--is in the fragile incipient stages. Hop acreage in these states is miniscule by comparison to the Pacific Northwest. (Oregon has 4,600 acres under cultivation and Washington a booming 24,300; Colorado has 75 and Wisconsin and the Northeast similarly measure their acreages in the tens, not thousands.)

Still, these are real numbers. An acre of hop fields produces over 2,000 pounds of hops, so that wee Colorado planting is going to produce around 150,000 pounds of hops. That's not going to go far at Budweiser, but these growers aren't working with In-Bev, they're working with craft brewers:
Hamm said the association is a "loose group" of mostly part-time hop growers who are working toward establishing their own full-fledged operations to supply the state's craft brewers.

Those brewers, like Odell Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, would like to buy as much Colorado-grown hops as possible to support the fledgling industry.

Joe Mohrfeld, Odell's head brewer, said the brewing company has worked with Colorado State University's specialty crops department to obtain hops for its "Hand Picked Pale Ale" and other special seasonal beers.
I'd like to highlight three aspects of this development that strike me as very promising:
  1. Localizing of beer. I have long longed for the return of more traditional modes of brewing, in which local ingredients went into local beer. Until rail, refrigeration, and industrialization (that is, for 98% of brewing history), beer was necessarily local. The beer tasted of the land in which it was produced. Because each agricultural region is unique, different strains will grow better in different places, and the beers will naturally adopt a local flavor.
  2. Terroir. At some point Stan Hieronymus will complete his book on hops, and I'm hoping my understanding of terroir takes a quantum leap. What I do know is that the hops that grow well in Yakima aren't the same hops that grow well in the Willamette Valley, nor do identical strains produce identical-tasting hops when grown in these two regions. What do Wisconsin Cascades taste like? What about New York Willamettes (a bizarre thing to write). Will we see Sauk Goldings?
  3. Local businesses. One doesn't want to overstate the wholesomeness of craft brewing on the jobs market. Given the choice, most people would probably rather clean kegs for Budweiser than a seven-barrel craft brewery: the salary and benefits will inevitably be better. But what craft brewing has done is fragment what had become an amazingly clean, streamlined process of producing beer. This gives thousands of entrepreneurs new ways to enter the market. Thanks to craft brewing, we have new distributors, new alehouses, new events coordinators to run all those fests, and now, new hop-growers. (Which includes, lest I fail to mention in, the burgeoning group of organic hop-growers.)
I'm not sure other regions of the country will ever constitute much of a commercial threat to the hop growers in Yakima and the Willamette Valley. (So the answer to my title is no.) But they can have a substantial impact on the way beer tastes and on the kinds of beers that are in the market. And in that we can happily rejoice.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Your Best Ambers and Reds

I haven't solicited you for your favorites lately, but a long holiday weekend seems like an ideal opportunity to get some opinions flying. The purpose behind these open threads is to find examples in a style I may not know about for possible inclusion in a book I'm working on. (Those of you outside the Northwest become precious resources.) I want to use beers that enjoy at least a regional distribution, mostly bottled examples, and those which are enduring standards and likely to still be sold by the time the book comes out (probably 2013).

American ambers and reds are often collapsed into a single style. Personally, I think this is a mistake. Fifteen years ago, reds were vanishingly rare and ambers were quite popular. The ambers of those days are the ones we still have around--mid-alcohol riffs on strong bitter with a balance point headed toward the malty, but with all that American hop goodness you expect from an American ale. Reds of the day were similar--except maybe they tilted more toward Munich instead of caramel malt. If you look at the top reds now, you see that they've strayed pretty far from the original mark. Now most are more similar to IPAs and double IPAs, though with a different malt base. Reds are less complex, with just a bit of candy sweetness to balance the assault of hops. (At the blogger conference, two of the beers that really impressed me were reds--Cigar City's cedary Tocobaga and Hopworks Imperial Red.)

Of course, you're invited to dispute this thesis, too. I'd be interested to hear your views, especially as they are backed up by examples--examples I can track down and maybe use for the book. The past editions of these open threads have been really valuable--for each style you've directed me to at least a couple beers that will go in the book. So consider this my advance thanks.

I'll be out of town and away from computers through Labor Day, so see you Tuesday--