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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.


  1. You have dissected the matter completely. You have revealed a gustatory illusion the equivalent of this:

    So, now, try the same thing with cask ales of various levels of carbonation and skill to see if the "real" is as meaningless as the "craft"!


  2. I think it is hard to draw the line between craft and not craft. I don't think it has to do with too much automation (Chuckanut) or too big a size (Sierra Nevada) or good vs. bad Quality; frankly, there are lots of small craftbreweries that make sub par beer.

    To me, the term is most useful as a historical movement to discribe the revolution (resurgance?)of smaller breweries in a post-prohibition environment. We are now in a post-craft environment in which there is a wide variety of buisness models and ownerships in addition to a great depth of beer styles and experimentation.

    Some of the biggest take aways for me are: 1. local drinking 2. flavor-forward styles and experimentation 3. cultivating a general open-ness on the part of consumers to try new things. Though these might not be so with every drinker in every circumstance, but those alternatives exist, for the most part, should you choose to accept them.

  3. I hope your goal is to point out how silly it is to rally around "craft" beer instead of just demanding good beer from producers of every size. If so, I agree, but what a weird way to get your point across.

  4. Vasili, that may be the best definition yet.

  5. They're homebrew!
    Great comment vasili.

  6. Bill, I'll happily take "weird," though sometimes I think you suffer differences in blogging approaches intemperately. But take heart!--I will reveal the brewery and my point tomorrow.

  7. @Jeff, intemperance is definitely one of my finer qualities.

    @Vasili, I agree with everyone else, great comment. Craft isn't a category, it's a moment in time, now past.

  8. Vasili's point about us being in a "post-craft environment" makes perfect sense to me. When great beer is produced by big and small breweries, we're simply talking about quality. The term "craft" is outdated.

  9. I like an occasional fruit beer now and then, but should I be worried about this trend of every sour being aged with fruit? I think the fruitiness and sourness of wild yeasts (or just non Saccharomyces) and bacteria really stand up well on their own.

  10. I'll leave the discussion on craft beer to you more learned types, but here's my guess for which brewery:


  11. Clearly you got some beers from Upright. Nicely done. The first one you describe is obviously Fantasia.

  12. So the term "craft beer" is out, eh? What do we call it then?

  13. I can't wait to go back to Portland and visit some post-craft environment breweries.

  14. To me craft refers to whether or not it was "crafted." It has to do with the amount of care and attention put into the process by an actual craftsman.

    Beer is on a spectrum from pure craft on one hand (homebrew) and commodity on the other (interchangable macrobrew lagers).

  15. @timdogg: I agree it sounds silly to refer to a brewery as a post-craft brewery, and I wouldn't recommend using my clumsy terminology if you do come for a visit, but at the same time I stand by the sentiment, that these posts have helped me form, I.e., the category is not quite as neat to categorize as when it began several decades ago. What seemed like a clear contrast, craft vs. macro, is rather grey, even the most inclusive definitions that try to spread a wide umbrella, and are advocates for the segment have to exclude breweries like Widmer that clearly fit into my gut check for what craft would be. To my mind, the revolution won and we can accept it as the new norm. You could definitely think that drinking in Portland, where any dive bar will have pale ales, IPA, porter for the most part from different breweries. Maybe we can just call them all breweries and move on?

    BTW, I think it is ridiculous to think that large breweries don't pay attention to process or use poor ingredients or anything of the like. If it were not for those breweries endowing brewing schools, funding research and technology around raw materials and quality control, the technology and facilities would not be in place to get small brewers as good quality materials and education. All brewers now reap the rewards of a lot of hard work with suppliers and research into fermentation science that the older breweries invested in. Folks like Emil Christen Hansen don't work for free! Lab equipment doesn't grow on trees! You gotta build a brewing empire to make that stuff happen. Even if you distain the beer, don't fool yourself into thinking that highly trained people who have forgotten more then you and I will ever know about beer, don't know or care about quality. Not pointed at anyone in perticular, I just sense suggestions that they lack skill or competence.

  16. Vasili:

    Post-craft environment - I love it: The End of History in Beer! I am surrounded by Oregon undergrads and they are now native to craft beer. The world of beer is changing rapidly.

    Macro-brewers: I agree, they got to be where they are because of exceptional skill and management. Ridiculous to think they became brewing empires due to brewing incompetence. The cumulative effect of their popularizing one style of beer has been to define what beer is narrowly for a few generations. This is unfortunate but not their fault. Besides, part of the joy of craft beer is expanding the horizons of macro lager drinkers.