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Monday, October 31, 2011

Sam Calagione and the Other 99%

There's a great little interview at the blog DCist with Sam Calagione, who apparently channels his inner Jeff Alworth. Or maybe I regularly (and unwittingly) channel Sam. Among the nuggets I found especially satisfying:
[B]eer people are cool people in general. We say our industry is 99 percent asshole free. So I probably do forget one of every hundred names of the person who was underwhelming. But everyone's so nice in this industry so I look forward to seeing them a second time.
Comment: It's smart to say 99% about anything, just to keep a little daylight available. But I do think this will change as the industry moves from being animated almost exclusively by people passionate about beer to containing a mixture of those people along with others who just want to make a buck. For the moment, Sam's right--it is an incredibly likable group of people.
But the women I know don't want to be separated from the beer loving populace, in general. They want to be part of it.... I know tons of women who are way huge hop heads, and love dark, roasty beers. So I worry it perpetuates a stereotype that women's palates are less attuned to the more aggressive flavors in beer.
Comment: This is one area in which craft breweries are decades ahead of macros. Of all the ways in which the "craft" and non-craft side differ, I'd say the biggest and most important is the enthusiasm craft breweries have in welcoming women.
I always have Saison Dupont in my house. I turned on my friends, who are not necessarily beer friends, who live in Lewes, the town I live in, to be excited when we pop a few corks of Saison Dupont. So that's definitely a favorite of mine.
Comment: Anyone who loves Saison Dupont has unimpeachable taste in beer. It will be one of my highlights when I visit Europe to tour the brewery, which I'll do, rather poetically, on Thanksgiving day.
I play on an adult hockey league team. And every week it's one of my teammate's job to bring a 30 pack of cheap, cold cans of lager. And whatever one it is, whatever brand it is I look forward to having it. There's nothing like that light lager for refreshing after a hockey game. There's really not any other occasions in my week where I'm craving that kind of beer. But I'm a beer geek, not a beer snob. And all beer is good. And there's a time and place for any kind of beer.
Comment: This will probably shock 120 IPA fans more than anything else Sam could say. There are lots of light lagers I still buy and enjoy, too, and it's nice to see a defense of them. Every summer, I drink a fair amount of Pacifico, which is certainly not a highbrow tipple. I recently had Sapporo for the first time in years and was reminded how much I love Japanese lagers. And I'll never turn down a Singha Beer ("Singha Beer, don't ask no questions; Singha Beer don't tell no lies").

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Guild Publc House Closes Today

My friend Jesse Cornett started the Guild Pub a bit under a year ago. It was a cool place with a great vibe, always had an excellent selection of the best local beer, but was, unfortunately, awkwardly located. The confluence of main roads has the virtue of putting lots of cars in proximity to your pub, but it cuts what would otherwise be a neighborhood pub off from its neighborhood. Parking was a problem, as was the largely commercial district to the west, which offered no base of walk-in traffic. I expect the Little Depression didn't help matters, either.

So Jesse's closing the doors this weekend. Today's the last day, and to add bittersweetness to the occasion, it's also his 36th birthday. To celebrate, he's selling Oakshire's Ill Tempered Gnome for $2 a pint and $5 for a growler. The growler deal extends to Vortex IPA or Natian's Old Grogham. $5. You can pop in now for the growlers, and the pub opens for regular business at four.

Here's Jesse on the closing:
After nearly a year in business, we’ve realized that we’re unable to continue the business if we’re going to have the lives we value.

I’ve joked many times that the MPA I earned in grad school doesn’t stand for Master of Pub Administration. I miss the ability to work to support causes that help the public good and look forward to returning to my passion, regardless of whether I remain in the private sector or return to the public realm. Molly does great work supporting those in need and our closure will mean that she can have greater focus and less distraction.

Warm Regards,
Jesse Cornett
Cheers, brother, may you rebound quickly and look back on this as a fantastic experience.

Friday, October 28, 2011

New Beers: Ninkasi and Widmer

A new season means a new tide of seasonals, and they have been washing up on my doorstep with delightful regularity (I mentioned the scrumptious Redhook Winterhook already). For consideration today, Ninkasi's new Imperiale Stout and two from Widmer. With alacrity, since I know many of you resist reviews....

Ninkasi Imperiale Stout
I have spent three years trying to like Oatis, Ninkasi's longtime oatmeal stout. It is well-loved by many trustworthy stout fans, and I consider it a strange personal failing that I don't enjoy it more. (An overwhelming roast bitterness spoils the experience.) The new Imperiale, sold in the seasonal 22-ounce four-pack with Total Dom, Believer, and Sleigh'r, is the stout for me. The modern world of imperial stouts is one of unnecessary excess--gargantuan beers soused in bourbon and thick enough to lose a race with molasses in pouring speed. It need not be so. A stout brewed at 8-10% without bourbon-aging can actually be a beer of balance and subtlety, and so it is with Imperiale. With a grist of eight malts (including flaked and roasted barley), Imperiale achieves a layered palate that I absolutely swore had a dollop of rauchmalt. Nope, it's the roast, vamping as smoke and giving the beer a satisfyingly antiquated quality. Lots of plum and dark fruit, too, of the kind found in aged beers. But since I got the smoked malt bit wrong, I won't assert that the brewery's been letting this beer ripen. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised, either. An excellent stout.

Widmer O'Ryely IPA
You have to hand it to Widmer: they like what they like. And what they like are Nelson Sauvin hops, which the brewery embraced a few years back and have become sort of a house character. They are intense hops that run a continuum from fruity to musky and they're as difficult to ignore as a sweaty linebacker: you like 'em or you don't. I don't, so there you go. O'Ryely is the third in the series of Rotater IPAs, and a definite departure from the old-school Falconer and new school X-114 (made with Citra). What I will say is that the rye malt adds a welcome earthiness that does cut back on the musk. If you're a fan of Nelson Imperial IPA, you'll enjoy his little brother, O'Ryely.

Brothers Reserve Lemongrass Wheat Ale
The newest entry to the boxed, one-time-only Brothers Reserve series is a nicely experimental beer made with muscat grapes, lemongrass, and champagne yeast. The aroma and initial taste suggests a wheat wine, but then the grapes arrive, sweetly, sending the beer off in an entirely different direction. To my tongue, lemongrass doesn't taste like lemons--it's a more herbal flavor, a light complement that doesn't overwhelm a beer. Where the beer didn't thrill me was in its wet, heavy finish. The use of grapes, so sweet already, in a delicate, wheaty ale, tend to amp up the sugars. The thick alcohol notes accelerate the effect. I wondered what a version of this brewed to about 5% would have tasted like--or a version without the grapes. It's an interesting beer, and one worth investing ten bucks in, but its conceptual promise may leave you wishing for a version 2.0.

Widmer also sent me Brrrbon, the barrel-aged version of Brrr, but it's really not for me. I was never a fan of the base beer, which is in a style I'm also not a huge fan of, and bourbon-barrel aging it (a practice with which I've developed a love-hate relationship) didn't help matters. There's a reason they're bringing it back though: most people disagree with me. So go enjoy.

We also have the issue of the new Jubelale, with its reformulated recipe. But that deserves a post of its own.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Deschutes' New Brewmasters

Clarification: Jon Abernathy, master of all things Bend, tweets:

Deschutes Brewery has promoted Cam O’Connor and Brian Faivre to two newly formed brewmaster positions. The two, who have been instrumental in the development of such game-changing brews as Hop in the Dark, Red Chair NWPA, Gluten Free Ale, the soon to be released Chainbreaker White IPA, and others, were chosen for their abilities to both innovate and lead.
Good choices. Actually, I don't know Brian, but Cam seemed like an obvious choice. He worked in the brewery and was putting out really exceptional beers in the Deschutes mode. I think we'll see lots of continuity here. As a long-time admirer of the brewery, I am quite pleased with this news.

Cam was the first brewer at the Portland pub when it opened in 2009, has been responsible for crafting many of the exclusive experimental beers served there. He has also worked on labors of love like Hop in the Dark, which wasn’t released formally until it had gone through 22 rounds of tinkering. He joined the company in 2004 after spending a couple of years with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Cam holds a bachelor of arts in biology with a minor in chemistry, and has completed the University of California Davis Master Brewer Program.

Brian has been with Deschutes Brewery for five years and worked in various roles in the brewing department, most recently as assistant brewmaster for production technology. With a background in computer science and software development, Brian brings this precision to the brewhouse - optimizing recipes and developing operating procedures. He holds a bachelor of science in computer science and has also completed the University of California Davis Master Brewer Program.

The Coming Craft Beer Boom

Have a look at the graph below, provided by the Economist magazine. It reflects the spending habits* of people during the current "little depression," and the results are predictable. Where people can avoid spending, they do (click to enlarge):

This includes, of course, alcohol, which is down more than 15% in real terms. Those who follow the craft beer market may understand instinctively that this is good news for the industry. Craft sales have continued to enjoy double-digit growth right through a recession in which beer sales fell. The Economist characterizes it this way:
During the good times of 2003-06 consumer spending rose by 8.2%. In that time, Americans boozed more and bought more cushions: spending on alcohol and household furnishings increased by 19% and 13% respectively. Contrast that with 2007-10 when spending on these items fell by over 16%.
So, when the economy comes back and people start spending more on alcohol, sales should spike even more.

I think it's even better news. I have no reason to think that the trend observed by the Economist didn't affect buyers of craft beer. True, they may be wealthier, and their spending may not have fallen as steeply as the population as a whole. Still, during hard times, people spend less when they can. So why did the craft segment continue to grow? Because it was adding more customers. Individually, people were buying less; as a group, they were keeping growth humming along.

That two-fold effect should result in an impressive and more stable bump when the economy comes back--which is yet another reason I'm not particularly worried that there are too many new breweries coming on line. If anything, the health of the craft market may be understated. (Input from real economists welcomed.)

*The Economist: "Between 2007 and 2010, average annual consumer spending per unit—defined as a family/shared household or single/financially independent person—fell by 3.1% to $48,109. Average prices over this period have risen by 5.2%, so real consumer spending has fallen by almost 8%."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The French Connection

Brains are funny, faulty things. Take, for example, mine. It knew that I planned to make a trip to Britain and Belgium, and so my brain dutifully locked in these coordinates, booted up Google maps, and began helping me plan my trip. At some point late in the process, one of the technicians that resides there happened to notice that France is right there next to Belgium and one of the more interesting French breweries, Thiriez, is a mere 20 kilometers from where I'll be staying in Watou. Thus did I scramble to include not only Thiriez but Castelain and St Germain in my plans. Whew.

Which got me thinking. If you scan the materials on style, you find damn little reference to France. Here's what it says in the Oxford Companion to Beer, in the section penned by Phil Markowski, who wrote the excellent book, Farmhouse Ales: "Considered the only widely acknowledged French contribution to specialty brewing, Biere de Garde..." And indeed, I find no fault in this sentence--biere de garde is the only widely acknowledged French style. It is by no means the only style brewed in France, though, and this is the problem.

(For the purposes of this post, let's pretend that the style biere de garde is a coherent one that might actually refer to a range of similar styles. I don't think that's true, but let's leave the quicksand of style debates to another post.)

Have a look at the range of beers produced at just the three breweries I'll be visiting (France now boasts hundreds):
  • Thiriez. A blond and an amber in the biere de garde class, a hoppy pale (the fields at Poperinge are just a few miles down the road), a black ale, a Flanders red.
  • Castelain (aka Ch'ti). Two blonds in the biere de garde class, an amber I won't try to characterize, an organic pale, and various browns and wheats.
  • St Germain (aka Page 24). A session blond, wit (maybe), three biere de gardes, a rhubarb beer, and a chicory beer.
The ratings sites shoe-horn these beers into various styles or use biere de garde as a catch-all. Yet while I've tried only four of them, I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is just lazy. If adding black malt to a beer gives you a wholly new, Brewers-Association-certified style, the idea that there's only a single indigenous style in France strikes me as improbable. Some of these are lagered, some made with lager yeasts, others not. The variation among just the few beers I've tried has been substantial. My guess is that, like so many other places in the world the evolution of brewing styles has outpaced old categories in France.

Of course, this is why visits are so valuable. I'll have a chance to talk to the brewers about their beers, their philosophies, and their methods. I won't really have a chance to dig deeply into French brewing this trip, but even speaking with three brewers can be revelatory. Thank god the old brain woke up in time that I didn't miss the opportunity.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Honest Pint Project is Dead; Long Live Honest Pints!

Not super long after I started this blog, I stumbled into the thicket of unregulated glassware sizing. Mentioning the crime of the cheater pint, I inadvertently sparked a great outcry. This led to an online petition, some local press, and ultimately, a half-assed advocacy campaign to bring transparency to glassware sizes. Miraculously, the Honest Pint Project led to some amazing things:
Alas, I was always the wrong champion for this endeavor. It needed someone with real moxie and drive. I imagine where we'd be if, say, Angelo, Ezra, or the Beer Wench had stumbled onto it as I did. Cheater pints would be a thing of the past. The project was important enough that it deserved someone like them.

Anyway, the website is about to go dark. The lease on runs out on November 1, and my silent--and very important--partner and I have decided to let it go. As bad as I was before about crusading against cheater pints, at least I used to feel guilty about it. Now, as my life has taken a different direction, I don't even have the time to feel guilty. It was a noble project, but died, as they all do, from inattention.

Raise a pint--an honest one, please--to the Project this week. It was good while it lasted.

Update. I just got an email from someone interested in carrying the HPP forward. I'm totally cool with that. Email [the_beerax(at)yahoo(dot)com] if you also wanted to be included. Perhaps more hands means a lighter load.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Latest Outrage From DC: $7 Pints of Beer

Before I get into the substance of today's post, a brief program note. In a little less than two weeks, I'll be headed off to Europe for nearly a month, visiting something on the order of two dozen breweries. As a consequence, I'm not doing any of the normal blogging about Oregon and Portland I'd like. Brewpublic just celebrated three years with a typical Angelonian bacchanalia, breweries are busy releasing new seasonals, and events stack like cord wood in the ol' Google calendar. I apologize for this breach and assure you that I'll be back on track with the Holiday Ale Fest--which starts the day after I return.


I'm not totally sure what to make of Tammy Tuck's 3700 word inquiry into a simple question at the Washington (DC) City Paper. She describes the joy of buying beer for $4-5 a pint in San Francisco (also typical for Oregon and Washington) and then describes what it's like in the District:
Yet, in Washington, where drinkers can now sample D.C.-brewed beers for the first time in 50 years, even the local brews aren’t particularly cheap. DC Brau Public Ale costs $6 on draft at The Big Hunt. At Tonic in Mt. Pleasant, the price is $7. The local brewery’s second effort, DC Brau Corruption, runs $6.50 on draft at both Meridian Pint and ChurchKey. All this for a brew that doesn’t even have to cross the District line!
The subject of the piece is captured in the slug: "Why is craft beer so expensive in Washington?" What follows is a strange journey through an alternate craft brewing world where Tuck's informants lead her to passages like this:
One of the biggest factors in how much you pay for locally made beer is the scale of production. Each of the District’s breweries is technically operating at a “nano” level, meaning the amount of beer they make is minute, even compared to others defined as microbreweries.

“We have a 15-barrel system while a much larger brewery like Flying Dog makes 50-barrel batches,” DC Brau’s Brandon Skall says. “We have to brew three times to accomplish what they do in one brew.”

Chocolate City’s seven-barrel system is even smaller, producing just 30 or 40 kegs a week. “As small as we are, we can’t afford to drop the prices of our kegs right now,” Irizarry says. “If our volume were to grow significantly, if we were to jump up to 100-barrel fermenters, I could more easily guarantee that the price will come down.”

(Good reporting can sometimes result in bad information. It's preposterous to call a 15-barrel brewhouse a "nano," as anyone passingly familiar with craft brewing knows, or to suggest that such a system is so inefficient as to cause prices to spike 50%. But that's what the local brewers apparently told Tuck. The article includes a series of similarly bogus justifications for customer-gouging.) Ultimately, she arrives here:
It’s outrageous to have to pay more per pint than suds-sippers in super-pricey San Francisco. No matter what the excuse—the kegs are too damn heavy, the rent is too damn high—there’s no justification for the significant price discrepancy between such comparably expensive and sophisticated cities.
A magnum opus on beer pricing, and we come up with no real explanation. My guess is this: craft beer is in its novel, exotic phase in DC and there isn't a huge amount of competition. As a consequence, the small group of consumers who are supporting the local breweries are willing to shell out a huge premium on a price of beer. If the market were healthier, bigger, and more competitive, those prices would drop like a stone.

Take, for example, Portland, Oregon's. Thanks to the work of Bill Night, we have excellent data over the past two years to see how prices have changed. Every three months, Bill assembles the Portland Beer Price Index to see how prices have changed for various packages of beer. He began in the fall of 2009, giving us two full years of data. In that first tabulation, Bill found that the average price of a pint of beer in Portland was $4.27. In last month's report, the price was up to $4.33. Two years, 1.4% increase--that's stability. The reason, of course, is that if a pub hits you up for five bucks a pint, you're going to consider very carefully the prospect of wandering two blocks to the next pub, where a pint's $4.25. No doubt every pub would love to make seven bucks a pint, but you would be out of business in a month if you tried.

At a certain point, the DC market will mature to the point where there's enough supply that pubs will compete on price. Pints will dip to five, five and a half bucks. DC is an expensive city where a lot of people have expense accounts, so probably it's never going to get as cheap as it is on the West Coast. In other words, it's basic market dynamics. The solution, as with all things, is to make and drink more beer.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Blogspot Still Eating Comments

Apparently they're aware of the problem:
We're investigating reports of users not being able to comment on IE8/9 from the embedded form. We hope to have a fix out shortly, but in the meantime we encourage admins to switch to either the full-page or pop-up forms which should be working without issue.

Thanks for your patience, and we'll make sure to update this post as soon as we have more info.
I have made the change they recommend.

Friday Flick: The Beer Hunter in Belgium

As Bob Massey, the man who posted an old, slightly dodgy VHS-transfer of Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter series from the 80s on Vimeo, put it: "I am posting this as a public service until I am told by the powers that be to remove it." In other words, it's probably an illegal reproduction, so watch in now. This episode is called "The Burgundies of Belgium." Enjoy!

The Beer Hunter - Burgundies of Belgium from Bob Massey on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

When Brewpubs (Don't) Expand

As prepartion for my trip to Europe heats up (T minus 16 days and counting), I've got little time to write meaty blog posts. Fortunately, others have no such constraints. A nice bit of accidental synchronicity today in posts from Ezra and the Beeronomist. (Hmm, that sounds like a potential sitcom on ABC.) First, riffing on an article in the Washington Post, Patrick writes:
The brewpub model is the escape, if you will, from the tyranny of economies of scale. From what I can glean, most brewpubs do about 75% of their business in food, can keep beer prices reasonable by cutting out the packaging, distributing, retailing and associated costs and margins. The brewpub is the model of choice, in my view, for the homebrewer-going-pro in that it allows for lots of flexibility and creativity. The problem with this business model is that you are in the business of a restaurant first, and the restaurant business is incredibly hard and tiring and easy to muck up. Smart owners (see, e.g., Block 15) get experienced restaurant managers to handle the food side and concentrate only on beer.
Patrick goes on to warn that expanding into production brewing may upset the innate equilibrium of a brewpub's business model. Right on cue, Ezra has a long post about Block 15's specialty line of barrel-aged beers that are in the works. But lest you worry (or in my case hope) that Block 15 is trying to expand by sending packaged beer to the Portland market, he reports:
Unfortunately after the Portland release party for La Ferme De Demons at Belmont Station on Wednesday, October 26th, the supply of Block 15 will dry up outside of the pub until sometime next year. Not that there is much of it in Portland to begin with. With the continuous stress of balancing the house year round production with bottles, seasonals, and a barrel program, rather than expanding or pushing more beer out, owner Nick Arzner plans to concentrate on keeping the high quality at the pub up to standards first and foremost.
You should click through to read both posts, because they contain much more info than I've mentioned here (and sort of bent to my will to bring into this post). Good stuff.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tips for the Belgian Traveler?

On November 5 I fly to London, where I will begin a two-country odyssey that will take me north to Edinburgh, then to Belgium, and then back home on November 29th. (I hope to keep blogging at each stop, probably briefly but with more multimedia than usual.) I've scheduled stops at around two dozen breweries, including some of the bigs (partial list: Fullers, Greene King, Rodenbach, Dupont, Orval) as well as some of the less-known. I will tour some of the great brewing regions, and am excited to see the museums in Burton and Poperinge (hops). I've even lucked into a guided pub crawl in London (where I'll be joined by a certain American cask ale brewer thanks to amazing, uncoordinated synchronicity).

Even the process of setting up the trip has been hugely illustrative of how different beer regions are. Britain has many more massive breweries and, owing to its huge market, is focused far more on the domestic end (in this way, it's like Oregon). Belgium has dozens of wonderful artisanal breweries, but a small domestic market dominated by pilsner (70%, according to Tim Webb). So they depend enormously on exports.

The British leg of the trip is quite tightly scheduled. In Belgium I've got more freedom to roam. Since I know a great many of you have traveled there before, I thought I'd inquire: have you had transcendent experiences you'd like to share? Must-see pubs or restaurants I'd be fool to miss? Of course, I've been researching this already, and my copy of Good Beer Guide to Belgium is already dog-eared so I'm not going in cold. Still, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Oxford Companion to Beer -- Juggernaut or Dud?

Note: I have edited the post for accuracy.

The Oxford Companion to Beer debuted this month to fairly brisk sales (it's the number two beer book on Amazon behind Palmer's How to Brew). It weighs in at over 900 pages, runs roughly 700,000 words--War and Peace is only three-quarters as long), and features the work of over 150 contributors. Mario Batali gets the key cover blurb: "If scholarly detail and accuracy for brewing is your thirst, this book will be your definitive go-to over and over again." With the imprimatur of Oxford University Press and a $65 price tag, that's what editor Garrett Oliver hopes it will become.

Oliver is the founding brewer at the Brooklyn Brewery (a fact that will later become relevant), and has lately moved into the "foremost authority" category--bolstered by writing and media appearances.

Noah Webster first started publishing dictionaries in 1806, but it wasn't until 35 years later that his completed masterpiece finally saw print (and, in turn, blew a hole in the world of letters). Reading Oxford Companion to Beer has the feel of peeking over Noah's shoulder in about 1825. It's an almost staggering document. It's probably literally five four pounds, and the dense, very sparsely-illustrated columns of text run along through such arcana as ale pole, drauflassen, and Saladin box. There are deeply technical scientific entries, biographies, style descriptions--well, every category you can think of that's even distantly related to beer. A casual glance suggest that this really is as comprehensive and definitive as the publishers hoped.

The problem is that while the categories are all represented, they are made up of some extraneous information, some essential information, and lack other information for reasons unknown. Take the category of brewery. Obviously, not every brewery on the planet warrants a mention. But doesn't the fifth largest American craft brewery? It's Deschutes, and it gets none. The 25th, Rogue, does get a mention, though. I started comparing the list of the 50 largest American craft breweries to the list in the book. The further west of New York the brewery was located, the less likely it was to be in the book. Notable exceptions omissions include Widmer (top ten), Bell's (8th), Alaskan (12), Stone (14), Full Sail (18), Summit (20). Perhaps not by coincidence, the editor's own brewery, Brooklyn (16), is included.

I questioned my own judgment here--bias runs both ways, after all, and Pac Ten guys always complain that the New Yorkers neglect them. But then I looked at the "brewing regions" Oliver deemed critical to our understanding of beer. It mainly includes countries and a few key cities or regions (Burton Upon Trent, Flanders), but also four five American cities/boroughs. They are: Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. If your inner researcher is tingling with anxiety, join the club.

Anxiety mounts when you see that Horst Dornbusch is the associate editor and a major contributor to the work--or, at least it does if you're a regular reader of Ron Pattinson's. I will punt on Dornbusch's qualifications because everything I know about the man's work I read in critique of it (akin to understanding my blog through the writing of Doc Wort). Still, it gives one pause. As a consequence, I find myself flipping to the back of the book to see whether I should trust the entry or treat it like I would Wikipedia. So on the acetaldehyde entry, I see "Bev Robertson." Flip, flip, flip: "professor emeritus of physics, University of Regina." Okay, probably good. Bottle sizes is handled by Martyn Cornell--reliable as Portland rain. Brettanomyces, a fave of mine, is given to Chad Michael Yakobson, whom the books describes as "owner and brewer of Crooked Stave Beer Project." Huh. No idea. (I did some research, and the former Odell brewer seems quite knowledgeable.)

And this is the problem. If you're concerned about the authority of each entry, it detracts mightily from the utility of an all-in-one reference guide. Alan McLeod believes this is just fine--the book works as a conversation-starter. But that's what we have bloggers for. If you're going to shell out $65 for a reference book, you want it to be definitive. Hell, if I want some guy spreading misinformation, I can get it for free on my own blog. I purchased the book (it's actually only $38.50 on Amazon) because it's still better than anything out there. It has entries by Tom Shellhammer about hops--and he really is the foremost expert in the field. Pete Brown is in here, and his prose sings, as are historians Cornell and Pattinson, and great journalists like John Holl and Jay Brooks. (There are notable omissions, too, like Stan Hieronymus and Maureen Ogle--who talk about it here.)

But it feels like beta version stuff. A real editor needs to go through, weed out the detritus, add in the important omissions, and clean up the mistakes (crowd sourced here) and release the truly definitive work everyone had in mind when this idea was still germinating.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Beer Tales: St Johns, Portland

Last Friday night, Sally and I drove out to the St Johns Theater to catch the 7:30 showing of 50/50. We drive out to St Johns for movies because (1) it's not a Regal-owned cinema, which means we don't have to pay a premium to be assaulted by ads, (2) it's a nice theater and I like to support independent businesses, and (3) they have several tasty draft beers. So there we were, tix in hand, surveying the tap handles. One was a beer called "Clutch," in what appeared to be the New Belgium font. I inquired. The server told me it was a sour brown ale--which provoked the guy in front of me, departing the counter with a full pint of IPA, to groan with regret. Turns out it's a Lips of Faith series beer, and the theater had scored a mighty coup to get a keg.

All of this probably seems like an average Friday night to those of you who are unfamiliar with the neighborhoods of Portland. But St Johns, while it does boast some interesting culture (Plew's Brews, Vinyl Resting Place), is a place studded with far more old-school cigarettes-and-Hamm's bars like The Wishing Well and the Bluebird. Of course, the smokers are now on the sidewalks, sometimes in clusters larger than those still inside.

It's geographically separate from the city, located about ten miles north of downtown Portland, in the peninsula formed by the convergence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. At about the 6700 block, a large, tree-lined rail line bisects north Portland ("the cut"), and it seems as definite a marker of place as the two rivers that mark the other boundaries. It's far poorer than most neighborhoods (23% of the population live below the poverty line) and the median price of a house was $180,000 last year--compared with $319,000 in the heart of the Beermuda Triangle (SE Portland, Buckman neighborhood).

To give you a sense of the kind of place it is, before the movie, Sally and I popped into Du's Teriyaki, which was manned by a single guy. He took the orders, went back and cooked the food, then served it and bussed the tables. At a little after 7, a buddy of his dropped by and he turned off the "open" sign so he could take a break and eat himself.

All of which is to say that, walking into the theater, I'm always pleased to see several great craft beer choices. They rotate seasonally, so you might get a nice pilsner in the summer and stouts in the winter. But one of the primo kegs in Portland? I wouldn't have expected it. But there it was, at $4.25 a glass, same as all the others. The market for good beer continues to spread further and further out, well beyond the upscale crowd in the inner core. It's not a yuppie tipple. (Roscoe's, out near 82nd in the other direction, is another case in point.) I couldn't be happier. In fact, it was such an unexpected surprise that Sally and I went back the next day to catch a showing of The Guard.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Deschutes Hop Trip 2011: Nice

Deschutes sent me three bottles (twelves this year, not twenty-twos) of Hop Trip, one of 37 fresh-hop beers they make (Bill has details). I usually muscle through fresh-hop beers because I love the idea. This beer, made with fresh Crystals and what must be a decent pop of bittering hops, requires no muscling. Lots of caramel in the malt, and lots of pine-to-ganja character in the nose and lively palate, which seems stouter than the 38 IBUs listed by the brewery. Quite a festival for the tongue. I tip my hat in the general direction of Bend, Oregon. Would it insult you if I said this was a fresh hop beer for those who don't like fresh hop beers?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday Flick: Adnams of Southwold

In just a shade under a month, I will be in Britain visiting a series of breweries for The Beer Bible. On November 10th, I'll be at Adnams, which is not only a famous family-owned brewery (I'll get to meet Jonathan Adnams, Chairman of the brewery), but also one of the greenest breweries in the world. They have pioneered a technology that converts spent grains into bio-gas (the bioenergy anaerobic digester). Today's flick is a tour of the brewery, including their green tech. It's a bit slickly corporate, but worth a look. Enjoy--

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Comments Trouble?

I received a disturbing email today from a regular reader who noticed his comments disappearing. He wondered, quite reasonably, why I was deleting them. This is disturbing because in over five years of blogging, I have never deleted a non-spam comment (definition of spam: touting a commercial product)--including his. Then this:
Huh. Read my message from a couple of minutes ago first, but: I just went back into the blog again and my most recent comment, which I thought had been successful, had disappeared, and the comment count, which was at 10 last time I checked, was back down to 9. Curiouser and Curiouser.
I have no idea what's going on, but if this has happened to you, email, will you? (Or try commenting, though that may be a Kafka-esque trap.) Uggh.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Kickstarting a Brewery: Short Snout

A little while back, I mentioned an oddity about how nearly all the breweries in the Portland metro area are located in the city. Suburbs have none or very few. Last week, I was alerted to a project to help correct this issue--Short Snout's Kickstarter campaign. Kickstarter is a site that puts people with money together with people who need it for creative projects. A project is open for a certain amount of time; if it fails to meet its goal, donors don't give their money. It's a quasi-nonprofit model, because the donations don't earn donors an ownership stake. It's like public broadcasting--you give because you value the project.

Short Snout has a goal of $15,000, and they've raised just over $3600 with about a month to go. No donor has pledged more than $250 [this turns out to be inaccurate--see comments for more.] The project:
Over the past few months, there have been a lot of conversations about how Portland, OR is home to an amazing 40+ breweries, all within the city limits and how the surrounding suburbs could only lay claim to a small handful. It is my quest to help change this, and bring craft beer back to Milwaukie. Short Snout Brewing will be a 1.5 barrel brewery focusing on unique flavor combinations…Blackberry Sage Porter, Harvest Wheat (an American style wheat made with Riesling) just as examples….and high quality, hand crafted beers all based out of Milwaukie, OR.
I'm not necessarily promoting Short Snout, but I find the kickstarter idea interesting. Short Snout isn't the only brewery soliciting funds this way: Broken Bottle (Albuquerque), Whip It and Rogness (Austin, TX), Turtle Stone (Vineland, NJ), Penthouse (Covina, CA), and Flatrock (Napoleon, OH).

Looking through those listings, I'd say the success rate is going to be low--very low. But the idea isn't inconceivable. If you live in an area bereft of local beer (or, I suppose, are a pug lover), tossing a Ben Franklin into the hat isn't such a huge expense. Short Snout looks to have a decent shot. I'll keep an eye on it and let you know how it goes.

Redhook's Latest Sorties: Blueline Series ESB and Winterhook

I remain fascinated by Redhook's ever-evolving beer and branding strategies. In the last couple weeks, I've gotten two beers from the venerable Seattle brewery: a recreation of the original ESB for the Blueline series, and the old standby, Winterhook. We'll address these beers in due course, but we must also contend with an item tucked into the Winterhook package, sans explanation:

Yep, santa tie. Okay, moving right along...

Blueline Series ESB
This beer takes a little explaining. Way back in 1981, when Paul Shipman and Gordon Bowker were trying to cobble together a brewery, they secured an "ale" yeast strain from (if memory serves) the University of Washington.* It was, however, not a pure strain. I never had the pleasure, but early craft drinkers described it as "banana beer," suggesting that isoamyl acetate was at least one of the by-products of fermentation. That the first brewery was located in a former transmission shop and had less-than-state-of-the-art equipment probably didn't help. They had a hard time finding a market for the beer, especially since Bert Grant was putting superb ales into the Seattle market at the same time. They tried to muscle through with the beer, even styling it as "Belgian" after Michael Jackson said it reminded him more of low country beer than an English bitter. Ultimately, they fazed out the banana beer and started making normal ales.

Says the brewery of the re-creation: "Redhook’s second release in the Blueline series is a highly modified version of ESB that replicates the flavor profile of Redhook Ale in the early 80’s, lovingly referred to by Seattle locals as 'banana beer.' To bring out this unique flavor we fermented using a yeast strain that highlights these spicy banana notes."

All of which got me very excited. This is a great homage to the company's history, and now, thirty years later, a measure of the change in American craft brewing. Thirty years ago, consumers didn't even know Belgium brewed beer; now they know what it's supposed to taste like. We have come full circle. (The cap, for the sharp-eyed, is also a nice throwback touch.) Sadly, unlike the crew at the New School, I found the new old ESB damn near undrinkable.

The problem is clashing elements. The Belgian lineage and dark malt character suggests a dubbel and the nose was promising--reminiscent of Chimay Première (red label), it has an earthy breadiness with interesting yeasty phenols. The palate, though, is gratingly harsh. One problem are the 65 BUs; they clash mightily with the yeast-forward quality of the beer. (In Karl Ockert's new classification system, it's a beer at odds with itself--both hop- and yeast-dominated.) The yeast is banana-free, but expresses a lot of phenols. They come off as metallic/medicinal to me, and the aftertaste is a combination of sharp hopping and chemical bitterness.

By contrast, I am pleased to say that the Winterhook is not only one of the best beers I've had from Redhook in recent years, but is easily in the running to be the year's best seasonal. For me, winter ales are best when they exhibit some malt warmth, and Winterhook has loads of it. Redhook used pale, Munich, crystal, and chocolate malts with a touch of oats and rye. It produces a richly aromatic nose, at turns bready and nutty, and a similar palate--almost like a loaf of dark, whole-grain bread. The hops add a light spiciness that pull the beer into balance (Northwest balance, anyway). It's six percent, which is on the light end for winter warmers, but it's wise; this is a perfectly moreish beer and it will be hard for most folks to stop at one (or two). Best that it's not 8%.

As for the tie ...
*This history is recounted in Peter Krebs' book Redhook: A Microbrew Success Story, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Don't Call It "Good" Beer, Either

I know the horse is well and truly dead, but I have a few more licks to get in. The subject is this amorphous category we sometimes call "craft" beer even though it's an inadequate and misleading term. What we really care about is "good," but as Tim Webb writes in the September print edition of BeerAdvocate (perhaps the best mag available), this is no improvement:
"The problem is the British fixation, enshrined in CAMRA's policy, on the notion that for a beer to be 'good,' it must contain live yeast."
He adds Reinheitsgebot and the Brewers Association's definition of craft brewery as other definitions of "good." Indeed, we have some fairly well established, idiosyncratic definitions of what it means to be good, don't we? To Webb's three I've add a few more:
  • Small, independent (Brewers Association)
  • Hoppy, strong (American beer geeks)
  • Alive and naturally carbonated (CAMRA)
  • Made with traditional ingredients (Reinheitsgebot)
  • Perfectly consistent and fresh (macros)
  • Cold and "refreshing" (macro drinkers)
  • Popular (all breweries)
Nowhere to be found in this list is a satisfying definition (never mind a universal one) of what good beer is. Webb concludes his article with the obvious: "The closer you come to defining good beer by a technical specification, the further away you move from being able to appreciate it."


Monday, October 10, 2011

The Wrong Beer

This is all terribly wrong:
The makers of Dogfish Head beer love Pearl Jam and their debut album Ten -- both of which turned 20 this year -- so much that they've dedicated a beer to the band.... The brewery describes the beer as a "Belgian-style golden ale [that] is delicately hopped to 20 IBUs and fruit-forward from 10 incremental additions of black currants over a one-hour boil." Which sounds amazing, but perhaps more importantly, the beer is also rock-worthy intense at 7% ABV.
I'll leave aside the inevitable critique that questions the appropriateness of Dogfish Head, a Delaware brewery, making a tribute to a band indelibly linked to a famous beer city across the country. (Or, I guess, not.) The real problem is the beer, which is something perfect for, let's say Tom Jones. Or Serge Gainsbourg. Delicately hopped? Fruit-forward? Has Dogfish ever heard Pearl Jam? Obviously, you gotta go with a CDA here. A roar of screaming hops and deep, troubled dark malt notes.

Delicately-hopped Belgian golden ale with currents. Please.

Oaktober? Oakshire Seizes the Month

The Willamette Brewery was just a toddler when it learned a very important lesson about naming rights and the law: common words have all kinds of legal strings attached. Someone knowledgeable pointed out that if they invented a word, no one could hassle them, and thus did Willamette become Oakshire. I'm thinking the brewery ought to look into putting a mark on "Oaktober," if 2011 is any guide. To wit:

1. Ill-Tempered Gnome release. Matt Van Wyk will be at the Guild on Thursday with the Portland debut of the Gnome on tap--and not just the '11 debut. Apparently, this beer has never poured on draft in the Occupied Republic of Portland. The Guild will have six taps pouring with Oakbrew, including rare Single Batch Series beers. I will test Matt's fealty to reading this blog by asking whether the exceptional Well-Mannered Gnome, a small beer made from Ill-Tempered, will be one of those beers. (Let us know in comments, Matt.) As much as I admire Ill-Tempered Gnome, I have to say that the small beer is one of the best examples of session ales available in all of Oregon. So consider this either a plug a cruelty, depending on whether it makes the trek. Thursday, Oct 13, Guild Public House 1101 East Burnside, 5-8pm.

2. Wildwood Brewers Dinner. The Great American Brewers Festival highlighted food and beer pairings in a special pavillion called "Farm to Table." Just 16 chefs and breweries were invited to attend, and Wildwood's Paul Kasten was one. He demanded to be paired with the Oregon brewery in attendance, Oakshire. The two are reprising the partnership at Wildwood for one of Paul's famous brewers dinners. I have often praised Paul's ability to craft menus to harmonize with beers, so I'll just say: tasty tasty tasty. Friday, Oct 21, Wildwood, 6:30 pm, $65, call Shelly Jones for reservation, 503-225-0130.

At the newly-designed New School, Ezra mentioned that Hellshire II, a barrel-aged imperial stout, will be released in November. A pity; the hat trick would really have been nice for Oaktober.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Future of Beer Writing

The release last month of The Oxford Companion to Beer has provoked a lot of discussion in the beerosphere--pro and, mostly, con. (I haven't seen it yet, but I am concerned that the publisher's comments begin with that inaccurate quote by Ben Franklin.) Start with this review by Alan McLeod and then read Stan Hieronymus' post and the extensive comments thereafter.

I won't try to summarize the discussions except to say that we seem to have finally arrived, now more than four years after his death, in the post-Jackson era. The Michael Jackson era began in the mid-70s and ended with his death in 2007. In that time, he published the definitive guide to world beer (World Guide to Beer and later the Beer Companion), the definitive ratings guide (Pocket Guide to Beer), and the definitive guide to Belgium (Great Beers of Belgium). He played a role in defining style, and he identified the breweries that continue to be considered world classics. The way he thought about and wrote about beer became the template of his era. (That some people regret aspects of his legacy is another matter.)

Jackson, of course, started writing in a very different time. When he discussed, say, Saison Dupont, very few people had ever heard of it, much less tasted it. Now the beer is available at most grocery stores. When people wanted information about beer, they had next to no sources beyond Jackson--though this obviously changed over the years.

Now we have amazing distribution networks that shuttle the beers of the world around the globe. We have hundreds of writers sharing information about beers. We have programs to teach people about beer. And perhaps most revolutionarily, we have the hive mind of ratings sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer coupled with GPS and the larger internet. This last change is key. The Oxford Companion arrives at a moment when very little information is beyond the reach of a Google search. (Based on some of the critiques I'm reading, a Google search may produce more accurate information, too.) All of this was floating in my mind when I read about a Harvard Business School report (pdf)on the impact of sites like Yelp.

For our purposes, I'd like you to look at this graph from the appendix:

Although Yelp tracks restaurants, not breweries and beer, the point is analogous. In this graph, the Zagat/Seattle Times/Food and Wine entries can stand in for a writer like Jackson, while Yelp is the hive mind. If a consumer is looking for information about a brewery or beer, where do they go? In most cases, they'll find the information they're looking for on a ratings site. It won't be as detailed or have the rich context of a Jackson book, but it will be there. You'll get some information and you'll get it fast. In his thirty years of beer writing, Jackson reviewed a monumental number of beers--but probably around 10% of the beers available at any given time.

I think this makes accurate writing about beer more important, not less. Understanding the history, chemistry, and culture of beer is far more edifying than seeing what Dogboy37 from Ypsilanti thought of Bell's Two-Hearted Ale. And yet we will increasingly rely on raters to aggregate and sort information for us. BeerAdvocate is a tool used by an order of magnitude more people than readers of The Oxford Companion.

This post isn't headed anywhere, incidentally, except to note the phenomenon. Jackson didn't write during the age of BeerAdvocate. Writers today do. It is a sure bet that in order to find an audience, books will have deal with this reality and find ways to appeal to folks who are used to finding information instantly online.

Friday Flick: Wells and Young's Re-Release a Venerable Brand

Wells and Young's used the GABF as the opportunity to launch beer that has a lineage going through the centuries and breweries--Courage Russian Imperial Stout. Writer Melissa Cole introduces brewer Jim Robertson. The event took place at Falling Rock in Denver.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Capturing the Brewery: Photography by Matt Wiater

Of Pints and Men

Opening Night: Thursday Oct. 6th, 5:30pm-10:00pm (Show runs through the month of October)

Facebook Event Page
Gigantic Gallery
1720 NW Lovejoy #103

I don't talk about art as much as I'd like on this blog, but this first Thursday (ie, today) gives me a great opportunity to discuss a show at the Gigantic Gallery in Northwest--Of Pints and Men. One of the four people at the show (two artists and two photographers) has arguably been doing more to capture the spirit and flavor of the Portland brewing scene than anyone working in the medium of words. Matt Wiater's photos have that rare combination of beauty and revelation--and I also find in them a fair amount of commentary.

Breweries are a fantastic subject. When I first started thumbing through beer books in the mid-1990s, I was attracted principally by the photos. (Only later did the stories captivate me.) They revealed a strange world that somehow contained both immensity and modernity but also tradition and detail. Matt's bread and butter are photos of breweries and beer, and they are as revelatory about the nature of breweries as any you'll find.

[Roots Brewery]

What I think makes Matt's photos unique is their narrative quality. He largely shoots in black and white, which strips the visual noise from the photos. This allows the compositional complexity to emerge--rarely is the focal point of a Wiater photo ever the whole point. In the corner of the shot of a fermenter, you'll see hoses and buckets, the dribble of water--these are not visual clutter, but evidence of what happens in a brewery. Even a simple piece of equipment, beaded with condensation, tells its own story.

[Deschutes Brewery]

I don't know enough about photography to know what the equivalent of a writer's "voice" is, but in Matt's case, his work is identifiable for its stillness. Even in the middle of a throng of people, Matt's eye is drawn to a point of quiet. When he shows brewers at work, there seems to be something reverential and monastic in their movement.

[Alan Sprints, Hair of the Dog]

Finally--and I think this is what makes Matt's photography especially appealing to those of us who live in Portland--there's a sense of humanity and generosity to Matt's work. In literature, some writers degrade their subjects, while others obviously like all the characters, even their villains. Film directors have a similar relationship to their actors. It can be distance and remove (Kubrick), contempt (Aronofsky), or affection and generosity (Soderberg). Matt is solidly in the Soderberg camp.

[Matt Van Wyk, Oakshire]

[Organic Beer Fest]

The show has its gala kick off tonight, and I hope you can go down and see it. I, unfortunately, have a meeting and will have to drop in later. In my stead, go and tell Matt how great he is (and don't go just because Deschutes will be pouring free Chainbreaker White IPA--that's just icing on the cake); in my case, this post will have to suffice.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

GABF Photos

My pics from the GABF. If you want to read the captions to find out whom you're seeing, you might click through to my Flickr page.

Chuckanut Is All That

In four sessions of the GABF, I ventured to the Pacific Northwest section only once. Why sample beer that's readily available at my corner pub? One trip was necessary, though: despite the fact that they're located just a few hours up I-5, I've never had a chance to try the lagers of Chuckanut. This is a great tragedy, for as I age, I pine more and more for the subtle, spare flavors they offer--all while living in one of the most heavily ale-centric regions of the country. So Chuckanut--two-time winner of the GABF's best small brewery in its four years of existence--tantalizes me from across the Columbia River.

One always wonders, though: is a brewery that weighted with heavy medals really that good? Chuckanut makes (or has made) upwards of two dozen styles (including 13 lagers and a kolsch), and I only got to try four. The old researcher in me wants to acknowledge the sample bias, but based on my admittedly non-comprehensive sampling, the answer is yes.

Will Kemper is one of the pioneers of craft brewing, having founded another lager brewery in Washington, Thomas Kemper, in 1985. Since then, he's been involved in start-ups literally all over the globe (US East Coast, Mexico, Turkey) before finally bringing his experience full circle with another small lager brewery in Washington State.

The lagers he's brewing are brewed faithfully to contemporary standards--no amping up the hops or alcohol content to appeal to local audiences. There are no curveballs, just familiar styles brewed flawlessly. His Vienna Lager won a hat trick by taking gold three years running (it failed to medal this year), but the two beers that wowed me were the Helles and Pilsner. The pils was described as "German," but I swear the tangy, spicy hopping was Saaz. It was a delightfully crisp and clear--balanced by a lightly sweet, grainy malt base. (12.5 P, 5% ABV, 38 IBUs)

The Helles was, if anything more impressive. Pilsners are regarded as the crowning accomplishment of German brewing because they require such attention and have such a tiny sweet spot for success. I sometimes feel the Helles style is even more so. Chuckanut's is in perfect balance, again with lightly sweet grainy malt, softer than the pilsner, gentle spicy hopping, and a finish that was just a degree smoother and rounder than the pils. (12 P, 5% ABV, 20 IBUs)

The only complaint I have is an obvious one: why can't Chuckanut send a few kegs to the Beaver State?

PHOTO: Will and Mari Kemper and the Chuckanut crew accept the award for best small brewery at the 2011 GABF.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Lupulin-Cannabis Connection

British blogger Pete Brown wanders into the thicket of foreign slang when he ponders the word "dank":
Over at GABF last week, I heard people describing hop character as 'dank' - this was a new one on me. I wasn't even sure if it was a descriptor or a new hop variety I hadn't heard of. According to my OED, dank means 'unpleasantly damp and cold', and is of Middle English origin, probably from the Swedish word for 'marshy spot'. And the ever-helpful Stan Hieronymus explained to me that it was being used here to describe a full-on West Coast hoppy character, big on citrus - big on everything - and best exemplified by Simcoe hops.
In this context, dank is only very tenuously connected to its actual, OED meaning. It refers, of course, to ganja. I spent a few minutes scanning the intertubes for an explanation of how a word meaning "damp and cold" became associated with weed, but linguists have been slow to delve into this important matter. My theory: especially strong, rich ganja is heavy and sticky, or "wet."

More importantly, as a spoken word, "dank" has much to recommend it: the "day" that starts the word drops the voice into a low register and it continues on to an "ain" vowel that can be strummed to indicate something dangerous and alluring, and finally the terminal "k," which slams the word down on the table like a provocation. I suspect onomatopoeia has more to do with its adoption than the actual vaguely-evocative definition.

Enter hops, humulus lupulus, related botanically to their dank cousin, cannabis. For the most part, the flowers of the hop vine contribute brighter, more floral aromas and flavors. A few, though, particularly in combination (to Simcoe I'd add Columbus/Zeus/Tomahawk), do offer a distinct ganja quality. It's not citrusy; it's deep, heavy ... dank. (Though personally, I hate the repurposing of a word to describe something for which we already have words.)

Pete's post got me thinking about the connection between marijuana, hops, and the West Coast, all of which have direct ties. The Cascadian corridor, from Northern California up to British Columbia, is famous pot country. I have friends from rural Southern Oregon who remember helicopters flying over forest land to find rogue pot gardens secreted deep among the Douglas fir. The pot that grows here has long enjoyed a reputation of quality and strength (I, of course, know it purely by reputation). When you think of famous pothead culture, you think of the West Coast--a phenomenon dating back to the 1960s.

Enter craft-brewed ales, circa 1980. By chance, the hops that grow in this same corridor are also famous for their strength and quality. (Or maybe not by chance. Although some hate the invocation of terroir, we can't help but note that the region is famous for producing two closely related plants--maybe there is something to this after all.) On some kind of unconscious level, perhaps, the region quickly started to embrace intensely-hopped beers. We were already predisposed to this quality. "West Coast" became an adjective to describe it.

I think culture is wrapped up in this, too. On the West Coast, there's something more to smoking pot than getting baked. The old hippie values still persist; mellowness, community, nature. Craft brewing also champions these values. The bridge between the two drugs is a short one, and it's not surprising that we see all kinds of marijuana references in craft brewing. That a word like "dank" would migrate so naturally from one to the other is perfectly understandable.

I have a character flaw that makes me want to draw overly sweeping conclusions from single data points, but I can't help myself: what percent of the rise of good beer--and particularly that element associated with extreme hopping--goes back to the pot culture of the West Coast? I suspect the number is not identical to zero.

Monday, October 03, 2011

What Distant Northwesterners May Be Interested To Know About the GABF, Final Thoughts

Safe and sound and back under the soothing, wet clouds of Portland, my Denver adventure completed. In the manner of Pete Brown, whom I had the pleasure to meet on Friday, here are some final scatter-shot observations about America's national beer festival.

1. The Beer. I went to the GABF this year with a single goal: sample as broadly from as many different breweries as possible. The structure of the Fest was tailor-made for my purposes; samples were poured in one-ounce increments, and breweries were organized by region. This allowed me to finally taste the beer Lew writes about in Pennsylvania as well as delving deeply into the South. If your goal was to really get to know the beer of a few breweries well, the Fest would frustrate; if you wanted to be introduced in passing to a wide number of breweries, it was ideal. I discovered:
  • Cigar City (Tampa, FL). Yes, they're good in that "international extreme" vein.
  • Fat Head's (Cleveland). Stanky, catty IPAs aren't just for the West Coast anymore.
  • Destihl (Champaign, IL). Impressive experimentation with sours.
  • Freetail (San Antonio).
  • Uncle Billy's (Austin).
  • St. Arnold's (Houston). I've long wanted to try their beer, and they didn't disappoint. Great lagers.
  • Sly Fox (Phoenixville, PA). Brewer Brian O'Reilly puts out accomplished interpretations of Belgian and German styles.
  • Yards (Philadelphia). Well-made colonially-inspired beers

2. Wits. IPAs were easily the most common beers at the Fest, but the place was lousy with wits, too. I don't know if this is because they sell well on their own, or because Blue Moon and Shock Top have created a huge market for them. But everyone brews one.

3. Sours. I remember when New Glarus introduced Wisconsin Red--perhaps the first tart ale in America (certainly among the first). Brewer Dan Carey considered its production a state secret and I don't know to this day how he makes it. But the larger secret's out, and now scores--probably hundreds--of breweries funk up their beers. Most use wild yeasts and bacteria, and an increasing number are cultivating spontaneous fermentations with feral buggies. I admire the trend, but someone needs to point out that sour runs a continuum from the pleasant, beguiling tart to the harsh, industrial acetone. After muscling my way through some of the really aggressive ones (nearly always made admirably, with brettanomyces or by spontaneous fermentation), it was a revelation to encounter beers like Ommegang's Aphrodite, a stunning beer that swaddles its gentle tartness in sensual, sweet folds of raspberry sweetness. Like hop bitterness, we must learn to measure sours on a scale other than pure intensity.

4. Chaos. There's much to admire about the GABF. It is the one national event where brewers from around the country come together to celebrate their product. You get to see all the stars and taste all the much-lauded beers. The downside is that the invitation of 450+ breweries means a site of wild chaos. The Colorado Convention center would fill up with 12,000+ attendees, all full throat. The sound of their voices ricocheting off the cement floors and cinder walls was deafening. It's not a particularly pleasant venue aesthetically, either. So aside from the beer itself, the experience is a bit challenging.

5. Information. The one big quibble I have with the way the Brewers Association runs the Fest is the information available on the beers. In both the huge physical program and the iPhone app, breweries were listed alphabetically, and their beers were listed by name only. The beers weren't even identified by style. Typical entry:
Pittsburg, CA
Evil Twin
Evil Cousin
Since you had to fight your way through crowds even to approach each brewery's beer, it was impossible to target breweries based on thee styles they brewed. Ideally, I'd love information about every beer there, including style, stats, and description. At a bare minimum, though, each beer should have been described by style, and the app should have been sortable by style.

6. Cuisine à la bière. The Brewers Association is making a serious push to put beer on the best tables in the land. During the Fest, they held an event called Farm to Table which paired selections from award-winning breweries and well-known chefs from around the country. (Our own Paul Kasten from Wildwood joined Oakshire's Matt Van Wyk.) They held a similar luncheon for the media. Finally, the American Cheese Society had a booth set up to illustrate how beer--not wine--is the Ginger Rogers to cheese's Fred Astaire. (Agreed.)

7. Gold Medal Winners. A handy map.


The GABF is a force of nature at this point, and for four days it washes over the city of Denver in an unstoppable torrent. You either get on or you get run over. I would encourage everyone to go once to see the spectacle. For uber beer geeks, seeing the beerluminaries is a pleasure (meeting Pete Brown and Randy Mosher were among the highlights for me), and the heady experience of being surrounded by all that good beer is enough to make you lightheaded before your first sip. But it's also true that you need to rouse yourself to a state of energy, for the Fest is no place for the timid or weary.