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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Craft, History, and Widmer Broats

Last night, the Widmer Brothers hosted media to launch a new beer--Oatmeal Porter. I was not at that event, but you can read about it here and here. In the service of tying together three threads of conversation, let me tell you why this beer is interesting:
Joining the two year-round Series 924 offerings, Pitch Black IPA and Nelson Imperial IPA, this rich porter was brewed with custom-toasted oats made specifically for Widmer Brothers by Briess Malting of Chilton, Wis. The oats, which have appropriately been dubbed “Bro-Oats,” contribute to the beer’s velvety mouth feel and distinct nutty flavors.
Once upon a time, breweries used to malt their own barley. This had one or two virtues and many drawbacks, not the least of which is that half of them burned their breweries to the ground thanks to overheated kilns. The virtue, of course, was individuality. A brewery could malt barley however they wished, which in turn led to more variety. (Specialized malteries made far better, more consistent malt in the aggregate, and it is a far better system now.) Having maltings companies specially treat or malt grain is a fascinating return to some of the character of old.

That in turn got me thinking about this issue of "craft," which is the many-headed hydra of internet beer debates. Thanks to the history of American beer, the concept is tethered with a titanium chain to brewery size: big national lager breweries uncraft, little ale breweries craft. Easy peasy. (Proponents of the "handmade" argument of small breweries are, in the main, unfamiliar with how sophisticated brewing has become. We have come a long way from wood-fired kettles, baudelot coolers, coolships, and hand-cappers. Breweries are marvels of modern tech. But that's a different argument.) But this doesn't make sense.

To the extent we say anything at all about craft breweries, what we're talking about is the beer. The craft is in the attention to flavors and aromas rather than dollars and cents. If a brewery spends a lot of time thinking about an interesting recipe, testing it out, finding the right ingredients, and even having those ingredients specially (and I have to assume not cheaply) made, does it really matter what size of mash tun the beer is made on?

I have no idea whether this is a good beer, but I applaud the time and effort the Brothers (or rather their team of able brewers) put into it. They've raised the bar for what a brewery can to do add its own, unique stamp on a beer, and if we're very lucky, it will become a trend.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What To Do In the Event a Waiter Spills a Tray of Beer on You

German Chancellor Angela Merkel demonstrates:

Note the way she barely acknowledges the sensation of beer and glassware cascading down her back. A flip of the hair, a gracious smile. And then, soon after, a toast as if nothing untoward has affected the evening's fun. Perhaps the Greek debt crisis has inured her to petty distractions. In any case, well done.

Monday, February 27, 2012

That's a Lot of Beer

I still defend the use of "craft brewery" as applied to Boston Beer (Sam Adams), but "micro" it is surely not:
Now, Boston Beer is tied with Pennsylvania-based D.G. Yuengling & Son as the largest American-owned brewer. Both companies shipped about 2.5 million barrels last year.
It's always hard to wrap your head around brewery size, but here are few benchmarks. When it closed down, Henry Weinhard was making about a million barrels a year. The largest ale brewery in Britain, Greene King, makes about 700,000 US barrels. Brasserie Dupont made 12,500 US barrels in 2011. Boston Beer is brewing something like one in five of every craft beer made, depending on whom you include (Yuengling, for example, is generally not included.) All the breweries in Oregon brewed just over a million barrels in 2010. Boston Beer accounts for over 1% of all beer sales in the US--and there are 1700 breweries.

There's no reason to think it couldn't get ten times that big in the next two decades. The idea that a craft brewery must always remain small and that the macros will always have dominance--it's time to give that one up. Craft brewing is big business.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

If the Oscar Nominees Were Beers

Yet another time-killer while you listen to Julia Roberts babble to Ryan Seacrest. (Some movie descriptions stolen from Moviefone).

The Descendants
The movie's about a man who loses his wife while negotiating a deal that would turn over a huge parcel of pristine Hawaiian land to developers. George Clooney plays the lead, the descendant of an old land-owning Hawaiian family.

The beer: Primo, a brand that was originally brewed in Hawaii in 1897 but which has dubious Hawaiian credentials.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Moviefone: Based on the novel by author Jonathan Safran Foer, director Stephen Daldry's post-9/11 drama follows the journey of a nine-year-old boy as he attempts to solve a family mystery. Two years after his father is killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks, the curious boy discovers a mysterious key hidden in a household vase and begins an exhaustive search for the matching lock.

The beer: None. Nine-year-olds shouldn't be drinking beer.

The story of a young boy trying to survive in a Victorian-era Parisian train station is hijacked by director Martin Scorsese's love of old movies.

The beer: Au Baron Cuvée des Jonquilles. A rough approximation of what the beer of the time would have tasted like--without the 18-hour boil times and coolships.

Midnight in Paris
Owen Wilson is a dreamy writer who finds a curious node of time travel that allows him to strike up friendships with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Salvador Dali in the 1920s. Gertrude Stein edits his novel and he falls in love (as one would) with Marion Cotillard, who pines for the Belle Epoque.

The beer. Absinthe.

The Help
Moviefone: "Based on one of the most talked about books in years and a #1 New York Times best-selling phenomenon, 'The Help' stars Emma Stone ('Easy A') as Skeeter, Academy Award-nominated Viola Davis ('Doubt') as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny--three very different, extraordinary women in Mississippi during the 1960s, who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project that breaks societal rules and puts them all at risk. From their improbable alliance a remarkable sisterhood emerges, instilling all of them with the courage to transcend the lines that define them, and the realization that sometimes those lines are made to be crossed--even if it means bringing everyone in town face-to-face with the changing times."

The beer. Foothills Sexual Chocolate, another product that makes you feel very uncomfortable about how race is being treated.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, manager of the hapless Oakland A's as they try to build a competitive team from the money they find under couch cushions. Pitt relies on the brain of doughy Jonah Hill to deploy math and solve the problem.

The beer. Session Lager. A cheap, working-class beer that outperforms much more vaunted rivals and is tasty on a hot day at the ballpark.

War Horse
Moviefone: "From director Steven Spielberg comes 'War Horse,' an epic adventure for audiences of all ages. Set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War, 'War Horse: begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets--British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter--before the story reaches its emotional climax in the heart of No Man's Land."

The beer: I don't know, but good god give me a lot of it so I can stomach this dog of a movie.

The Tree of Life
An incomprehensible, wandering epic from Terence Malick the critics were too embarrassed to admit they couldn't understand. After Brad Pitt raises him with koans of manlihood, Sean Penn heads out on a search for life's deeper truths.

The beer: Sierra Nevada/Dogfish Head Life and Limb.

The Artist
A nouveau silent film, no doubt just the first in Hollywood's latest trend, in which a French silent film star is laid low by the rise of the talkies.

The beer: It's 1929, so: a homebrew.

Friday, February 24, 2012


As I labor on this @#&%! book, I have had time for little else. One thing I have been doing is getting out and taking brisk walks to clear my head. At a certain point on one of these walks, I happened to cruise past Vern on Belmont, which I paused to regard. There is something about taverns that really appeals to me--especially old taverns that pre-date craft beer. They are architecturally interesting buildings with distinctive personalities. In an age of chain restaurants, the corner tavern is as singular as the barfly sitting inside at the corner of the bar. Enormously evocative, they suggest cheeriness or desperation, community or loneliness--sometimes all at once. In a gentrified, boutique world, they are hardscrabble refuges for a cynics or romantics--or again, those who are both all at once.

I snapped a pic of the Vern* and put it through my iPhone app Camera+. It enhanced that impressionistic, evocative quality of the pub, and so then I had the idea of capturing more of them. As interesting as any one tavern is, taken together, they create a beautiful sense of place and time (neither of which do we seem to regularly inhabit). It's a good way for me to clear my brain before I get back to the computer.

I've got the initial set over here and I'll post some below, too.

*For non-Portlanders, Vern or The Vern is a tavern properly called Hanigan's. Sometime in the 80s (I think), the lights illuminating the sign's "T" and "A" burned out, leaving "VERN" and thereafter charming all who saw it. The name stuck, and good luck finding people who know to call it Hanigan's. That's Vern in the first picture.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hey, PR People!

A genius primer as valuable in Portland, OR as it is in Cornwall, UK. Points 5d and 7 I endorse with special enthusiasm, and to point 7 I would add that New York restaurants should not invite me to their events unless they include plane fare.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

New Belgium's Social Media Strategy Was Wise After All

Since I assume most of you (sanely) don't read the Facebook page to this blog, you may have missed the stiff rejoinders I received in response to yesterday's post. (Thumbnail: New Belgium's spending real money on a social media campaign, and I questioned its value.) Dave Selden, whom you know as the media titan behind 33 Beers wrote this:
I work in advertising and have for about 15 years. I have specialized expertise in digital marketing, so I feel pretty well-qualified to comment on this. I can tell you this is a perfectly reasonable and well-advised spend. A one-day shoot for a big beverage company (including beer) television commercial could easily cost $250K, and wouldn't include any actual media buy - just the cost of having cameras, crew, lights, permits, actors, a team of Clydesdales, writers, directors, etc. And then you've got post-production ... If you don't have that kind of money, TV is out, out, out (unless you're Old Milwaukee, but I digress ...).

Interactive as a medium is far more targeted (less wasteful) and in general, a cheaper buy. So if I didn't have a 7, 8 or 9 figure budget, I would definitely focus on the interactive medium, and Facebook as a channel would be at the top of my list. On a much more direct level, my beer-tasting books have been linked to from New Belgium's Facebook feed and I saw an immediate and very large spike in orders that I could quantify in dollars (but I won't for modesty's sake). It wasn't $250K but it wasn't 1K, either. That was from them linking to me from one post to ~70,000 fans. Imagine what the value of that hyper-targeted audience is over a week, or a month, or years. They don't sell beer online (which would allow them to directly tie spend to return), but $250K seems like a great investment from where I'm sitting.
Kari Chisholm, who has for a decade made a living trying to influence people on the internet (he was into social media before we had a term for it) agreed:
Yeah, I'm with Dave here. $250k should translate to roughly 250,000 fans on Facebook. Over the long term, that's much more valuable than $250k on TV ads, which could disappear in a whiff over a weekend. The advantage of Facebook is that once acquired, you can communicate long-term with those fans. And for beer specifically, it's such a whim-of-the-moment product, you really need to be top-of-mind every single day. If you can't advertise like Budweiser, then other tactics must be brought to bear.
After a bit of back-and-forth, Dave expanded his thesis
Well, a "like" is valuable to a marketer in a purely tactical sense, the consumer has agreed to be marketed to. Brands that I like start to appear in my news feed, just as yours do. So that $1 spend to get the customer is more like an investment. It allows me the marketer to talk to (and uniquely with Facebook, WITH) my current and prospective customers at will. I'm not bound to a magazine's publishing schedule or a TV budget.

I can literally talk as much as I want. As with a friendship, you generally want it to be two way, and make sure you're adding value to the relationship. Many brands use Facebook to invite people to exclusive events, give away schwag, etc. How does that all translate to dollars? We tend to spend more time (and money) with the people and businesses we have relationships with. Seeing a brand's messages mixed in with my friends helps humanize and strengthen those messages, and does so in a place I generally consider to be a safe place, in a way that TV or radio just aren't.
A day later, I'm more or less convinced: New Belgium has spent its money wisely. Perhaps a better lesson is for small brewers to whom ten grand is a king's ransom, but useless in traditional ad markets. By Dave and Kari's logic, it would be a good use of limited funds.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Limits of Facebook

All of this just seems wrong:
According to Ad Age, Colorado's New Belgium Brewing recently commissioned a survey of its Facebook followers in which it determined the average New Belgium Facebook fan spends $260 per year on the brand. That translates to $50.7 million annually — or roughly half the brewery's sales each year.

Not a bad return on what New Belgium tells Ad Age was a $235,000 investment it made on its social-media presence last year "mostly dedicated to Facebook, including both app development and advertising."
Really? Over two hundred grand on Facebook--just to get a story in the USA Today confusing correlation with causality? It gets worse: New Belgium is planning on dumping another $200k into promoting a new beer launch on Facebook. And this is just sad:
New Belgium ... has managed to best the larger craft brewers with 211,000 fans. Not bad for a brew that is available only in 28 states and Washington, D.C.... Its fan base compares with 138,000 for Boston Beer's Sam Adams, and 134,000 for Sierra Nevada, both of which have national distribution.
Here's a real statement of causality: New Belgium has apparently spent over a dollar for every "like" on their Facebook page. No wonder they're leading the pack. But will any of this translate into actual beer sales--or even a big enough sales bump to justify the expense? Let's just say I find it implausible. (Even this morning I encountered yet another in a long line of studies showing the real-world limits of social media.) While it seems to make good sense to have an active social media presence for the small minority for whom that's important, "liking" a brewery on Facebook is not the same as selling beer. Just saying.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Toward Better Beer Taxonomy, or, a Fool's Errand

Alan McLeod has a post on that perennial question: are styles just more hassle than they're worth? (His actual words: " at what point do beer styles become so diversified as to be useless?") While recognizing right out of the gate that it's a question with no definitive answer (or twenty, take your pick), I'd like to piggyback on the question with a few thoughts.

I'm supposed to be writing a book, the structure of which is based on style. Actually, it didn't have to be, but the virtue of styles are evident the second you consider writing a book about beer based on something other than them. One could re-invent the wheel--group them by broad type or region--but then all the people who already use style would wonder what the hell you were talking about. And of course, breweries in most countries use style to sell their beers. For better or worse, we have to play the cards we're dealt.

I'd also put in a word in praise, too. Beer styles been around as long as beer has been around. Both the Sumerians and Egyptians had different types of beer, and I suspect that per-civilized proto-Sumerians probably distinguished between types of gruel-beer, too. Having something to name beers is really helpful. The difference between lambic and Flanders-style wood-aged beers is not incidental, even if they're both tart beers. Alan suggests that gradations can become too fine (agreed!), but they could obviously get too coarse, as well.

The difficulty is that styles shift and change over time, and sometimes, they're not well defined in the first place. I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what to do with saisons and biere de gardes. The fashionable trend is to group them in the genus Farmhouse ales. It's not a terrible decision--they were once a single style that branched, and the regions they're brewed border one another. Yet for the person arriving fresh and new to good beer, they don't appear to have anything in common. Biere de gardes are a lot more like Scottish ales or bocks than saisons. There are a bunch of other rustic-style ales that aren't saisons per se, either, but which have more apparent connection to them in terms of yeast character, rusticity, and so on. (I grouped saisons with other rustic beers and gave French beer its own chapter.)

Or take Irish ale, that poor, neglected style. It dates back 1,500 years--"red ales" were mentioned in the sixth century, no doubt quite a bit different, but part of a single lineage. Yet thanks to the success of stout, there are almost no commercial examples left. Among those that are, tell me exactly how they are distinguishable from other British session ales? Heritage isn't enough to sustain a style if it appears to have vanished in the wild.

I hate to say it, but Rodenbach-style red ales and oud bruins are also on serious life support, too. They've more or less been collapsed into a single style, and there are only a few breweries that still produce the style in the authentic barrel-aged fashion. If Rodenbach went out of business, could we say the style really still existed commerically?

The converse problem involves the proliferation of Frankenstein beers that glue borrowings of various styles together to make beers conforming to no style. Your IPAs made with saison yeast and peaches--that sort of thing. We shouldn't declare a new style every time the idea for a new beer crosses a brewer's mind. On the other hand, if everyone makes a black IPA, at a certain point we're just going to have to accept the damn thing.

Styles are provisional, like grammar. We have to try to keep a semblance of order and be a bit schoolmarmish about enforcement, beating back the worst offenses. But at a certain point, the barbarians will overrun the gates, and then we have to let it go. Businesspeak and imperializing we can resist, sentences beginning "hopefully" and black IPAs, probably not. So it goes.

I am willing to entertain your own style pet peeves, however, particularly if they're entertaining.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Coming to a Supermarket Near You: Austrian Trappist Ale

Thanks to a heads up by Jay Brooks, there's this fascinating news about a potential eighth Trappist monastery. He dug around a bit and found this info:
The monastery of Engelszell Stift has filed an application and expects to be notified of the ITAs decision in 4-5 weeks. According to, the Engelszell Stift monastery was “founded in 1293 and needs financial input to recover the old paintings, fresco’s and paintings” and has decided to start a small brewery to raise the necessary funds. It is located a little over 120 miles from Munich in Austria.
I did a bit more digging and came up with this (Google Translate at work, so):
The brewery plant has a capacity of 15 hectoliters (= 1500 liters) per brew. The only top-brewed [ie, ale] stout [strong ale, probably] reaches an alcohol content of seven to ten percent by volume and has an original gravity 18 to 22 degrees. Engelszell is brewed in the early light and dark Trappist beer.

Interesting. But especially interesting is this:
As the Trappist beer is extremely popular in America, a majority of the production will be packed in containers that go to the American market.
Most Americans are unaware of how dependent Belgian specialty ales are on exports. When I visited Dupont, De Struise, Rodenbach, and Cantillon, I was startled to learn how much of their production goes to foreign markets (a quarter to nearly all, in the case of De Struise). The US market is one of the most important--though with rising connoisseurship in places like China, maybe not for long.

In any case, it's remarkable that a monastery would look at this information and decide to build a brewery based on exports. We tend to think of Trappist monks as incredibly hidebound, making beer in a lineage that dates back to Carolingian Europe, when 600 monasteries brewed beer. But these aren't Lenten repast ales for the monks, they're purely commodities entering an international market. The function--to support the monastery--is the same as those monasteries in 800 AD, but the mode is far different.

Now, the real question: is the beer any good?


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Again, Opinions Differ

From the famed scientist Louis Figuier, from his famous 1860 Les merveilles de l'industrie, ou Description des Principales Industries Modernes (The marvels of industry, or Description of Key Modern Industries). Not so big on the lambics:
"Belgian beers [he was referring to "lambicks" here] do not have yeast pitched and are fermented spontaneously by the grace of God. Being left to themselves, a final, slow fermentation continues, not at a low temperature, as with German beers, but at ordinary temperatures, and are products of chance and the whim. If a few Belgian beers deserve their reputation, most are sour, the wort quickly turns from alcoholic fermentation to the acid fermentation, so that, when consumed, they have already lost much of their alcohol and changed into acetic and lactic acids. Let us therefore pray that the German method, that is to say bottom-fermentation, penetrates the Belgian brewery and reform its old processes."
Three things. First, this is a Google Translation, so the hinky language should not necessarily be blamed on Figuier. Second, Figuier had a strange sense of what happened to alcohol in wild fermentation. Third, his prayers were eventually answered, but fortunately, not completely. Belgium is awash in lagers, but a few breweries still depend on whim and chance.

It does raise one question: how did lambic survive? In 1860, Europe had dozens of styles destined for the memory hole. If you were to line them up and rank them based on likelihood of survival, lambic would surely have been very near the bottom. Lagers hadn't yet claimed the planet, but as Figuier's opinion demonstrates, lambic even then looked like a dinosaur. It has only been in the last three decades that lambic producers have managed to control the process well enough to put out fairly consistent examples. When I spoke to Frank Boon, he mentioned that the lambics of the 1970s were totally inconsistent.
“But I didn’t realize at the first time that there was a lot of flaws in his beers. Because he only gave us the best bottles. It’s like the old professor said, ‘these old lambic brewers, they sell gueuze like they sell pigs: everybody wants the best meat, but you have to sell the whole pig.’ When customers complained that there was no head on the beer, they said it was proof that there was no additives in it. If it was cloudy, they said see, it’s the proof that it’s unfiltered. If it was foamy, they waited until the winter to sell the beer.”
Yet somehow they remained commercially viable for 15 decades after Figuier wrote his condemnation. Belgium is not like other places.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An Apology to Pubs and Breweries

In the six years I've been writing this blog, I've done my best to pass along event information sent to me by breweries and pubs. I am choosey, but I have tended to highlight events on a regular basis. I've also tried to give public feedback on any beer sent my way.

At this point, I receive at least one email every weekday alerting me to an event or new beer--or new blog or some cool link, invitation to a cool event, or any manner of interesting missives. Perhaps you've sent me one. If you're wondering why I never post the info you've sent me, it's because I've run out of time. About the best I can do is put up a post--and as you've seen, the content tends to be tethered pretty firmly to whatever I happened to be working on that day. I've got a deadline for May 1 that is requiring huge gobs of time, and the blog is suffering (as is my ability to maintain even my incredibly low level of event-participation). Don't expect anything to improve until after May.

I do apologize--one of the joys of blogging is the interaction, of being part of a community of bloggers and beer fans. Things will be back to normal after the first of May.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

So Close and yet ...

There's a French brewery called Brasserie au Baron a stone's throw from Belgium, southwest of Mons. And I mean that literally; it's about a hundred feet from Belgium. As is WAY too common among French breweries, Baron appeared to have no website* and therefore no way to be contacted. This was frustrating, because I wanted to discuss Cuvee des Jonquilles, easily the most pleasantly named beer in the world.

What's very strange is that thanks to modern tech and Google, I can actually look at the brewery. I can drive around the mannered little town of Gussignes, and I can see the river on the banks of which grow the jonquilles that inspired the name of Baron's saison.

It's so tantalizing I can actually peek inside the brewery's window.

I sat there, toggling back and forth with an uncontrollably visceral sense that I might actually be able to catch someone's attention. I can put my nose to the virtual window, but in truth, I am thousands of miles away.

All of which is to say that if you want to have a gander at that rare foreign brewery, sidle on over to Google maps. Chances are you can get a great view.

*As it turned out, as I was toggling around, I happened to notice that on the Google maps page, there was a link to the Au Baron website, so it all turned out fine. Don't know why it wasn't popping up in the search, but I guess technology isn't foolproof.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Irish Bottle Cap: Because No Issue Is Too Small For My Consideration

This is more or less a "huh, lookit that" kind of post, free of any unnecessary information or reporting from the blogger. I had no clue when I bought the beer and I have no clue now. (Though Porterhouse Red was a damn tasty beer.)

1. Most Curious

2. In Action

(If you listen very carefully, you can hear Dropkick Murphys playing, appropriately, in the background.)

3. Dead Soldier

If you have more penetrating thoughts than I on this matter, I invite you to share them in comments.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Beer Tasting Toolkit

Sometime in the summer of 2010, a nice lady from Chronicle Books approached me with an idea for a book. It would be a follow-up to their Wine Tasting Party Kit, a blind-tasting primer for novice wine fans. You know where this is headed, right? Indeed, just in time for Father's Day, Chronicle has released The Beer Tasting Toolkit, which I wrote. Actually, "wrote" is slightly misleading. This is really a box set of materials designed to lead novice beer drinkers through a blind tasting and it comes with a short booklet I wrote. Behold:

About Blind Tasting
I probably don't have to tell anyone who reads this blog this, but blind tasting is one of the most powerful tools we have to understand beer. Once you remove the cues given to you by a bottle of beer--the name of the brewery, the style, the cost of the bottle, the design on the label--you are left with only what your senses can tell you. For those of us who fancy ourselves expert tasters with genius palates, nothing restores the humility like a nice blind tasting. For people new to beer, it helps reveal the complexity of beer. With no cheats available, you have to immerse yourself in the aromas, flavors, and textures of the beer. This heightens experience and allows you to really get to know your beer. It's indispensable to sample beer this way from time to time--you become a much better beer taster.

About the Toolkit
The book/box is really aimed at people who haven't done blind tastings before, but there are some handy features to it even for the experienced. (I'd like to take some credit for these, but that all goes to Chronicle, who thought through the materials and had them made--yet still it's my name on the box. Go figure.) It comes with handy numbered sacks that accommodate everything from a stubby to a 750 ml bottle--though those jeroboams of St. Feuillien are out. This is always the hardest part of a blind tasting, figuring out how to keep bottles secret and not get them confused.

There are also tasting notepads, a short-hand guide with key aroma and flavor terms, and of course my booklet. It is definitely for the beginner--those of you who read Hieronymus, Pattinson, and Mosher will find no new material. It's designed to walk people through the basics of style and beer elements and also to offer some blind-tasting suggestions. If you're wondering whether it's for you, I'd say this: for readers of this blog, it may well be a better bet for that beer-curious person in your life. The one who has developed a hankering for the occasional porter or kolsch but isn't sure where to go next.

You can buy the book in a variety of places, but the key here is of course to buy the book. Remember, its use involves the consumption of tasty, tasty beer. How can you go wrong?
Buy it virtuously!
Buy it locally!
Buy it in person!
Buy it cheaply!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Who Will Open Portland's First Food Cart Brewery?

I sense this isn't the final word on the matter, but apparently the OLCC says it's cool to sell beer from a food cart:
Whether food carts can serve Hefeweizen with their hot dogs first came up two years ago, when carts asked the OLCC about regularly selling beer and wine. Temporary licenses, say for festivals, are available under separate rules. The OLCC said it would look into logistics, including asking the attorney general's office for an opinion. Then around last fall -- the OLCC wouldn't give a date -- the office said the OLCC can't deny an annual license to a food vendor just because it's a cart....

Carts are eligible for licenses as long as they stay in one spot and owners show they can control the area where alcohol is consumed. Carts along sidewalks could be limited to closed containers. Though Cartlandia seeks permission to sell only beer and wine, carts could also seek full liquor licenses.
This raises all kinds of questions, many of them economic and social (purview of different sorts of bloggers). But what it raised in my mind was this: for once, I can envision a viable nanobrewing business model. It's possible to buy a brand-new one-barrel brewery for about three grand (right here in Portland, as it turns out), and it looks like you could probably cobble together a decent food cart for another ten.

Fifteen thousand dollars is super rock bottom cheap to get a brewery off the ground. It wouldn't get you very far off the ground, either. You'd be working like a dog all the time and you would have a pretty low growth ceiling. On the other hand, there's no reason to think you couldn't sell a couple hundred barrels or more from the cart, and maybe even a few more barrels to area pubs.

If it turns out that the city and state will allow food carts to sell beer, I can't imagine some enterprising young brewer wouldn't take a gamble. Who will be the first?
Crudely photoshopped picture modified from an original by Yelp user Athena T.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

"Getting" Saisons--and Other Styles, Too

From a man with a name like the beer philosopher, you expect comments like this, rich in ruminative grist:
I just don't get Saisons, and I know it's my problem. I want to understand them and (other than going to Saisonland, which won't happen any time soon) the only way to do that is getting a few bottles and drink them until I get Saison.
Pivní Filosof arrives at the ultimate destination of true understanding--experience. You don't know a style until you've spent sufficient time with it. That means sampling several examples as well as returning to a few beers more than once.

On the day the Brewers Association released their new style guidelines, it's worth spending a paragraph or four on these twin questions of knowledge and identity. I am currently thinking a lot about French ales, the most widely misunderstood categories in beer (when anyone's bothering to understand them in the first place). They are misunderstood both on the level of knowledge (biere de garde is but one expression of French brewing) and identity (biere de gardes are closer in [recent] lineage, brewing, and profile to bock than saison).

Apprehending these twin elements seems to be where we all fall down. History is important, but both more and less so than we think. Less so because it explains how a style got from there to here. If you attempt to understand British, Belgian, or French beer without knowledge of the world wars, you will get the how wildly wrong. This is interesting and illuminating, but it can be misleading. Stories are powerful, and we tend to shape knowledge and identity to fit them. So in the case of biere de garde, we talk falsely about their connection to saison (accurate if this were 1892) rather than the vastly more important 20th century influence of lagers. And since funny spiced wheat ales are the purview of Belgium, we tend not to notice that they are far more prevalent in France. More so because history also has the capacity to correct the faults of crappy history.

Perhaps more important is understanding process. I recall what a revelation it was to read Stan Hieronymus's Brewing With Wheat and learn the mechanisms of banana and clove production in hefeweizen. Not knowing that slender, boozy Belgian ales employ sugar is like putting a color gel in front of a camera lens. You may not know it's there, but it shades your experience.

As to identity, I think the senses know, if only we would trust them. If you direct your powers of observation to the experience of drinking a beer, you can learn a great deal. I don't mean this in the sense of diagnostics, like a beer judge, but more on the level of epistemology. My least favorite style of beer is helles bock. When I started writing about beer, I ended up drinking a lot of it. I had to spend time rolling it around my tongue, inhaling it, thinking about it. At a certain point, I "got" helles bock. I understood the intention and the achievement. I learned to appreciate and, on rare occasions, even to crave it.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Say Jandrain-Jandrenouille and You've Said A Lot

I have gotten to the chapter on saisons. Ah, saisons! There is little on this blue dot so purely enjoyable as a good saision--and I've got one for you. Jandrain-Jandrenouille, also the name of a village made from two previously stand-alone villages that even collectively lacks official Belgian recognition. Let's call it JJ. JJ's a new brewery about which very little has been written. The website has a single photo of label art and not a word. The importer has no information about the brewery. The Belgian beer board has a bit more info. Joe Stange seems to be the most knowledgeable, having confirmed that the men behind the venture, Stéphane Meulemans and Alexandre Dumon, do indeed occupy time and space. Apparently they import hops for Yakima Chief, meaning they're not quite making a living at JJ, which, as we'll see, is a travesty. Here is an appropriately blurry photo for the shadowy brewers (courtesy that Belgian Beer Board link):

Their flagship beer is called IV, which is a name even less likely to evoke passion than Upright Four. Perhaps this is intentional, because the beer is delightful. The key to the beer is lychee, which is evident both in the nose and on the tongue. Lots and lots and lots of lychee. It's a hazy, honey-colored beer with only modest effervescence. For those of you who must compare beers to unattainable Platonic ideals, there's a foothold for criticism. The aroma also has touches of floral hopping, and the palate is long and dry, with a touch of quinine and lemongrass. But that lychee lingers even through that dry finish, and then even a little while longer.

Saisons should be characterful, which means they will be distinctive enough to turn folks off. Rusticity means character. I can imagine--I can't believe, by I can imagine--that someone might not like lychee. This beer's not for you. For everyone else: yes. You'll drop thirteen bones on a bottle, but a good beer shipped from halfway across the world is worth it. And this is a very, very good beer.

Monday, February 06, 2012

No Blogging Today

And I blame this endless Portland sun. It is unwholesome and alarming. I'm trying to work on my computer, and it's slanting in at a devilish angle, sending reflected knives of brightness throughout the house. I should be complaining about the long dark nights that lighten only marginally under the batting of slate winter cumulus. It should be 38 and pissing rain. This is Denver-like weather. No good can come of it.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Super Group of Collaboration Brewers Dinners

In pop music, when a bunch of famous musicians coalesce into a new band, it's called a "super group." Next Wednesday, a super group of brewers will be jamming at Laurelwood with the brewpub's executive chef, Aaron Nichols (6:30-9:30, at the main brewpub on Sandy). The brewers are Laurelwood's new man Vasilios Gletsos (drums?), Upright's Alex Ganum (bass, obviously), the still inchoate Gigantic's Van Havig (frontman), and (rhythm guitarist?) Tom Bleigh, now at Hopworks.

The menu:

Amuse: Chicken coronets with preserved lemon.
Beer: Cascadian Pilsner brewed by Van Havig and Vasili Gletsos

Appetizer: Mussel and shrimp soup with lemon grass, kafir lime leaf, fish stock, chilies, garlic, shallot, and Thai spices.
Beer: Thai Wit brewed by Tom Bleigh and Vasili Gletsos

Salad: Blood orange and arugula with red onions, Castelvetrano olives, and parsley.
Beer: Sour Red blended by Alex Ganum, Tom Bleigh, Van Havig, and Vasili Gletsos

Entrée: Smoked pork belly and pomegranate barbequed brisket with potato-chard gratin, and pomegranate demi glaze jus.
Beer: Scottish Ale brewed by Alex Ganum and Vasili Gletsos

Dessert: Grapefruit tart with pecan brittle and Chantilly cream.
Beer: Milk Stout brewed by the Laurelwood Brew Team
There's a bit of six degrees of Vasilios going on here--they're all brewers he's worked with who have gone on to new breweries. Tix are fifty bucks, which is a pretty good deal for this one-of-a-kind collaboration. More info here.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Super Bowl (of Beer)

All right, sports fans, let's go to the tale of the tape. In the blue corner, I give you the dynasty of the aughts, the golden boy quarterback, the irascible coach everyone hates to love--the New England Patriots!* They hail from the Bay State, famous for tea parties and baked beans. They like their clam chowder creamy and they drive like lunatics.

  • Claim to beer fame: The Green Dragon pub, where revolution was hatched.
  • Number of breweries: 42 (rank: 13th)
  • Per capita: 1 in 156,000 (rank: 22nd)
  • Largest brewery: Boston Beer Co. (Sam Adams)
  • Most interesting brewery: Pretty Things
  • Best brewery (arguably): Cisco Brewers (I'll accept Harpoon as well)
  • Secret shame: Clown Shoes
  • Classic pour: Harpoon IPA

And in the other blue corner, I give you the usurpers, the underachievers, the whingers, the team that plays in New Jersey--the New York Giants!** They hail from the Empire State (sort of), the point of origin for everyone from Joey Ramone to Donald Trump. They like their chowder tomayto-y, unless you're on Broadway, where it might be tomahto-y. In Manhattan, they don't drive at all if they can help it.

New York
  • Claim to beery fame: home of America's first brewery.
  • Number of breweries: 59 (rank: 8th)
  • Per capita: 1 in 328,000 (rank: 40th)
  • Largest brewery: Matt Brewing (Saranac)
  • Most interesting brewery: Captain Lawrence (I'll accept Ithaca)
  • Best brewery (no argument): Ommegang
  • Secret shame: Bronx Brewery (brewed in Connecticut)
  • Classic pour: Brooklyn Lager

We cannot say who will win the Super Bowl, but I award New York the win by decision in the beer bowl. Any state with Ommegang is going to be damned tough to beat. Massachusetts underperforms in New England, and if they could call on the favors of Portsmouth, Geary, and Allagash, the judges would be in trouble.

*Having married into a New England family, I am helpless to resist the Patriot charm. Gronkowski, Welker, Woodhead--I mean, come on.

**But I'm truly a Packer fan, and twice the Giants have eliminated us from the playoffs recently. Peyton's little brother has always bugged me; the guy's constantly got a look on his face that says, "hey, you can't do that, I'm a Manning." And Coughlin always just looks bewildered. Go Pats!

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Tiny Factors and Their Large Effects

This is a bit of an oddity, but I thought you might appreciate it. I was reviewing the recording I made at Brasserie Dupont and found this little nugget I'd forgotten about. It is one of the dozens of examples I heard on my trip of a tiny little observation a brewery had made that affected their beer. The more you think about how many ways there are to do things and how every brewery must make hundreds of decisions in the way they set up their equipment, it boggles the mind.

The topic is how to conduct bottle conditioning at the brewery. After bottling, Dupont lets all of their beer rest six to eight weeks. The question is, bottle up or laying down. Answer: laying down. The speaker is head brewer Olivier DeDeycker:
“It’s mostly important for us to initiate secondary fermentation in this way. If we start the secondary fermentation like so [here he makes the gesture of an upright bottle], we have a totally different beer. The yeast multiplies very differently. Not the same. It seems to be only a small thing, but the impact on the taste is really big. We made different trials, and the conclusion was that we need to continue like this. It’s very difficult to manage [on the bottling line], difficult to automatize. Actually, we put the bottles by hand [on their side] in crates. Next month we have a robot who will put the bottles lying down. We had to wait a long time to be able to buy it.”
I recorded this in November, so presumably Brasserie Dupont, a brewery that was until a few years back using a mid-19th century mash tun, now has a robot to lay its bottles down for secondary fermentation. Modern technology put to strangely antiquated ends.


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Why Everyone's Open and Friendly in America

Two days back (really three, since we trail England by a day already), British writer and blogger Melissa Cole sparked multinational debate about which country's breweries were more open, the US or Britain. In one corner, BrewDog's James Watt, author of the hypothesis. In the other, Melissa and the rest of Britain. She concludes her spirited assault this way:
I also know for a fact that brewers all over the country regularly borrow raw ingredients off each other, seek advice on things that have gone wrong or just ring each other up for a natter about their next beer; I could go on but it would seem pointless in a way because I'm pretty sure it will fall on deaf doggy ears.

What I will say is this though: this is utter, utter rubbish and I would implore you not to listen to it.

The UK brewing industry is not only booming and forward-thinking, it is also fabulously friendly and I feel, quite strongly, that BrewDog owes the industry as a whole a bloody enormous apology.*
I will leave the debate to her comment thread (where James and other brewing luminaries duke it out), but there's some context here that's very important: the US and Britain have very different markets. They are structurally very different--British breweries can own pubs, for example--but also different in terms of development. In Britain's ale market you have new craft breweries competing against venerable brewing institutions. American craft brewing is brand new by comparison with only a couple older, regional breweries in the mix.

But the biggest difference is growth: the American market has been growing in double digits for years now. To fail, a brewery has to make unwise business decisions or produce terrible beer. In an expanding market, competition means fighting for those new drinkers, not protecting your core line. Britain's market is stable and the ale segment is even growing a bit, but at nothing like the rate it is here. Over the past generation, there has been huge churn in British brewing, and it was quite possible to steward your company wisely, make good beer, and fail. In that environment, you're fighting not to see how fast you can grow, but to see if you can survive.

Sometimes we forget these are businesses. They aren't community organizations. If American breweries are open and friendly, it's because their livelihoods aren't jeopardized. If British breweries are more wary, it's because the market is tighter and they feel the sense of competition far more keenly. It's not one big happy family, it's a market. Collaborations are not only fun, they're profitable. At a certain point, America will find equilibrium in its ale segment, and then things will change. There's nothing innately open about US craft breweries; it's the market that's open. Wide open.

*Melissa muddies the water when she brings "friendly" into it. James never said anything about friendly, he said "open." It's not a small difference.