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Friday, March 30, 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Retro Gone Too Far

Pabst-itis gone wild:
Adrian Grenier, star of HBO's "Entourage," has teamed up with a Portland designer and two local homebrewers to bring back a way of drinking beer not seen since the era depicted in another cable hit: "Mad Men."

Over dinner at downtown Portland's Clyde Common in 2010, Grenier and former Nike designer Justin Hawkins got to talking about flat top beer cans, the metal cans your dad would open by puncturing two holes in the top with a steel opener called a churchkey. Popular throughout the 1940s and 50s, the flat top disappeared in the 1960s with the invention of the pull-tab.

On Monday, Grenier and Hawkins' brewery, Churchkey Can Co., canned its first batch, a pilsner recipe developed by Portland homebrewers Lucas Jones and Sean Burke. Hawkins says Churchkey's beer will pop-up in Portland beer shops and bars -- including Southeast Grand Avenue's Dig A Pony -- by early April. A recyclable steel churchkey is included with each six pack.
I fear this is a marketing idea in search of a beer. In an age of micro-computing and digital innovation, the young folks have fallen ever more nostalgic of a time of steel and factories. Breweries have used that nostalgia in an effort to sell regular, modern cans--which come on lines vastly cheaper than comparable bottling systems. I get that; you make a virtue out of necessity. But the cans sucked. They required you to use an opener, and this resulted in sharp edges and, if I understand history correctly, could contribute to a metallic taste. They were made of much heavier steel, which was a waste of resources (no idea how the current cans are made, but they are steel). There was a reason cans evolved: the new ones are better. It's like going back to old-school refrigerators because they looked cool.

This looks like yet another case of Sally's rule: beware a company selling packaging, not beer.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How Breweries Serve Monks

The Sainte Marie du Mont des Cats abbey in France has played an interesting role in the history of brewing. In 1831, monks from Mont des Cats (which my mind really wants to translate "mountain of cats"--it's not) joined a hermit and founded Sint Sixtus in Wesvleteren. Fifty years later, fearing repression from the French government, the abbot sent an envoy to scout a possible location to land should they have to pack up and flee quickly. That monk located a sheep barn in Koningshoeven in the Netherlands that somehow struck his eye as ecclesiastical.

Add another six score and ten and look at those two monasteries and how they relate to brewing. In the case of La Trappe (Koningshoeven), the brewery is operated by a secular brewery (Bavarian, a Dutch company despite the name) inside the walls and is regularly derided (I think unfairly) as the most commercial Trappist. They were even booted from the club for awhile. On the other hand, at Westvleteren, the monks seem to do everything they can to inhibit sales. Customers have to go to the monastery but they are limited in the amount they can buy. Although the demand outstrips production by probably ten to one, the Westvleteren monks will not step up production.

In both cases, the monks subscribe to the same religion, the same order, and the same, strict, sub-order. They are monks, which means that even within the Church they have a particular orientation toward religious practice. And yet they have chosen nearly opposed models for the way the breweries will serve their missions. I realize I've wandered from beer here--it's the old religious studies major in me--but I find this fascinating. Trappist monks are a severe lot--they have chosen to remove themselves from society in order to focus on their relationship to God. Their order demands strict adherence to rules that are nearly 1500 years old and enforce the circumstances to support and protect this mission. Beer, on the other hand, is the most worldly of beverages. It's a social drink, a drink of the masses, a drink more than any other of the world. The reasons it made sense to brew in 850 AD are not so relevant now. (They don't grow their own barley, malt it, or need beer as a safe alternative to deadly water.) Yet here they are, brewing beer.

Monks are seriously on the decline. Twenty-somethings aren't signing up, and these famous monasteries house just a handful of monks. I wonder what the future holds, and how, if the monks fail to replenish their ranks, we may lose Trappist beer altogether. Anyway--

Update. Reviewing my notes for Orval, I was reminded of their system, which is slightly different than either Westvleteren or La Trappe. At the outset, the monks set up a private company to operate the brewery, but all the shares were held by the monks themselves. Indeed, the purpose was to help fund the construction of the monastery. They built the brewery within the monastery's walls, but they've never worked in the brewery (though they oversee all aspects of the business). The brewery is enormously profitable for them. They can take 45% of what they earn and wholly support maintenance of the abbey--the other 55% goes to support charitable organizations. The first brewer was a German, the second a Belgian with experience brewing in England, and the result is a dry-hopped mixed-fermentation beer of singular design.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Are You Afraid of Heights?

Then don't look at the trend line for craft beer growth--it's as steep as a Himalayan mountain. From the annual Brewers Association report:
Craft brewers saw volume rise 13 percent, with a 15 percent increase in retail sales from 2010 to 2011, representing a total barrel increase of 1.3 million. In 2011, craft brewers represented 5.68 percent of volume of the U.S. beer market, up from 4.97 in 2010, with production reaching 11,468,152 barrels. With 250 brewery openings and only 37 closings, the BA also reported that 1,989 breweries were operating in the U.S. in 2011—an 11 percent increase from the previous year.
A few things to add context:
  1. Craft beer is a narrow definition and does not include all good beer. The Craft Brewers Alliance is excluded, for example. It doesn't include good imports. It doesn't include non-lager beers like Blue Moon or Shock Top, which, however much you may dislike them, are not macro lite beers. So the BA numbers substantially low-ball a more expansive definition of the ascent of "good beer."
  2. Numbers like 13% growth are now routine, but keep in mind that 13% growth this year means more beer than 13% growth would have last year. Here's the absolute growth in barrels by year since 2005: 800,000, 900,000, 500,000, 600,000, 1,o00,000, 1,500,000. Craft brewing has nearly doubled in barrels since 2006.
  3. Overall beer sales declined 1.3% last year, which will hasten the exodus toward Shock Top-like brands. The US may not be a minority light-lager country in the next few years, but long term? It could easily happen.
  4. The BA reported 9,950,000 barrels last year and then revised the total up to 10.1 million. Could be that the growth has been even more pronounced.
The beer world, it is a'changin'.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Beer Goddess Reports

I will confess that part of the reason I took the week off was because I was doing some work with a nonprofit over the weekend. While I was gone, Lisa Morrison ("the Beer Goddess (TM)") reported both the name of former Deschutes brewmaster Larry Sidor's new brewery (Crux Fermentation Project) as well as this bigger scoop:
Change is in the wind for Full Sail’s Portland-based brewmaster John Harris. Harris says on Monday, he told his Full Sail bosses, Irene Firmat and Jamie Emmerson — along with the other employee-owners of Full Sail — that he was leaving the brewing company to pursue his dream of opening his own brewpub in Portland. Harris says he will work at Full Sail through April.

Harris says he has raised “about half” of the money he feels he needs to set sail with his dream, already has found brewing equipment and is now looking for a space.
Harris is, of course, the brewer who started at McMenamins in their earliest years, was the founding brewmaster at Deschutes (Mirror Pond, Black Butte, Jubel), and then spent fifteen plus years at Full Sail.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Toxic Beer Syndrome

It is Sunday night as I write this, and barring some remarkable incident, I expect to hit "post" tomorrow morning. I'm taking the week off. I've had to spend too much time thinking about beer lately. For the first time in six years writing this blog, I am just tired of it. I may actually enjoy a beer in the next week--I hope to--but I won't blog about it.*

Meantime I'll leave you a picture of Portland's diviest of dive bars (more here if you're in a mood), the Pirate's Cove on Sandy Blvd. (Click to enlarge, which I recommend for the full experience.) It was originally called the Sandy Jug because, if you shape your pub like a moonshine jug, you're pretty much not into subtlety. When I stopped by to snap this pic, a guy tried to sell me scratch lottery tickets out front. I declined, and for good measure, waited for him to disappear back into the tavern before I took the shot. It's wrong to judge people, but he didn't look like the kind of guy who wanted his picture taken. I believe it does a nice job of capturing toxicity, so.

See you next week--

*Unless, of course, I do. Bloggers are shifty and unreliable, so I wouldn't trust this statement if I were you.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Newsy Bits

Great news from the New School: Double Mountain is expanding and will be bottling by the end of summer:
The building next door is 5,000 sf, and the plan we're working on calls for about 25% of it to be dedicated to extra taproom seating, along the windows on Fourth Street. We'll also convert our garage space into full-time taproom space, and expand our kitchen, too. The other 75% of the new building will be used for packaging and warehousing. We've put money down on a new 12-valve bottle filler from GAI that will be arriving from Italy in a month or two, and we're getting an automated keg line as well. Our goal is to have the expansion/remodel and new equipment installation completed by the beginning of the summer tourist season, with bottles to follow sometime later in the summer.
Very good news indeed. Incidentally, the Double Mountain fifth anniversary bash is this Saturday at the brewery. They somehow scored the Meat Puppets as musical guests, which is an amazing blast from this geezer's past.

A competing event that looks mighty fine happens at Occidental on Saturday:
This is a bit last minute, but we're having an event to release our barrel-aged doppelbock this Saturday, for which we're also smoking a whole pig that was raised on our spent grains. We'll be pouring the barrel-aged Lucubrator and our regular beers. $15 bucks gets you a glass of the limited edition Doppelbock and a pork sandwich. 6635 N. Baltimore Ave., Portland, OR 97203. 1-6 pm.
Finally, I alert you to an event you can't go to--unless you live in the Bay State or nearby. It's called "The Artisans" and the idea is to feature small breweries from around the world. Looks like the Portland/Seattle International Fests, but the selection is, top to bottom, really impressive. It's sort of the "beer geeks greatest hits" fest. Wish I could go.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nike Fails to Do a Google Search; Makes Guinness Shoes

Well, this is embarrassing--the home town shoe company seems to have committed an international gaffe:
The athletic apparel behemoth is releasing a new version of its SB Dunk Low, a popular casual shoe. It is black and tan-colored. And since we're getting close to Saint Paddy's Day, the shoe has a nickname that is apparently beer-inspired - the Black and Tan.

Brian Boyd [of the Irish Times]: "It has certain historical associations. The Black and Tans were a ruthless auxiliary force of the British army before we became independent in the 1920s. They were responsible for wide-scale massacres, butchering of people. You would not - we don't even - for example, in the U.S. you may go into a bar and asked for a drink called a Black and Tan."
The whole thing is wonderful and strange. First off, the idea of doing a beer-inspired athletic shoe is psychedelic. I have to think that the local beer culture seeped into the Nike campus and infected the minds of the shoe designers there. But that's not all: Nike has a version of the shoe with a tie-in to Guinness. It is, predictably, black, brown, and head-colored (what, beige?). The ultimate in cross-marketing, pulling in beer drinkers, sporty types, and holiday celebrants. Throw in March Madness and you've got the superfecta. I'm not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed. (Actually, I think they're pretty righteous sneaks. "Righteous sneaks"--is that what the kids still call them?)

By the way, while I would fault Nike for being boneheaded enough to let this shoe go out without having done a Google search to find out if "black and tan" meant what they thought it meant, I am going to exonerate them on the following point, voiced by that Irish Times reporter:
It's how the Americans view Saint Patrick's Day and view Irish culture and history. And it's the very fact that some people are saying that these are beer-themed sneakers, that the only way to celebrate a national holiday of a country with a very rich culture and a very rich history and literature, et cetera, is to pour massive amounts of alcohol down your body.
Look, Americans are culpable for an almost infinite number of sins of ignorance against other countries. We regularly insult vast swathes of the globe and should be held to account. But we get to celebrate St. Patrick's Day however we wish. St. Patrick's Day is now, as celebrated in America, fully American. Every culture gets mangled when it comes into the American melting pot, but that is our culture--a hodgepodge of reinterpreted traditions from around the world. So no dice on the you're-doing-it-wrong argument.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

More Synchronicity

Last night, Sally and I shared one of the last bottles of beer I toted back from Europe--Worthington White Shield. Unless you read English blogs, there's little chance you've heard of this beer (though I did write about it once). I love this beer and I've been reluctant to drink it, but I was also determined not to let it go stale--a character flaw of mine.

The occasion was a screening of The Sweeney, a television show you're even less likely to have heard of. Sally and I were turned onto it after watching the English original of Life on Mars. (Which, if you haven't seen it, I can't recommend highly enough. The first season--sorry, series--I would place among the ten best ever made for broadcast.) The character Gene Hunt, one of the indelible figures in television, was modeled on DI Jack Regan. Both are boozing, corrupt, manly figures who seemed to have completely died out by about 1983. In any case, Netflix finally made a few discs available, and it seemed like a nice pairing.

And then, about half-way through the episode, there's a bar fight and the shot flashes on Regan (it's a little convoluted to explain why he's standing in a bathrobe in the middle of a bar fight--but it does give you a sense of the show's flavor) standing in front of ... a Worthington mirror. Amazing.

So anyway, today I'm thinking very deeply about money and later I'm going to go buy a lottery ticket.

Monday, March 12, 2012

On Flavor

It seems like the world operates on a freaky kind of synchronicity such that when I am thinking deeply about a subject, it seems like others are, too. More likely, it's just that I happen to notice when other people are talking about the same things I've been thinking.

Today's synchronicity: flavor. Let us begin with a wonderful book published in December called Neurogastronomy by Gordon Shepherd. Shepherd is neurobiologist at the Yale School of Medicine and an oenophile foodie. This book collects together the scientific thinking to date on the way humans process and construct flavor from what turns out to be a staggering variety of inputs. (Shorter Shepherd: flavor is mostly retronasal smell, humans have evolved, perhaps uniquely to appreciate flavor--we're born foodies--and our sense of flavor is modified by emotional cues, color, hunger, and mood. Our brains are highly evolved to detect and process scent, and it's inaccurate to think of this sense as subservient to sight.)

Every well-read beer geek should have a dozen or so titles in her collection like Tasting Beer, Brewing With Wheat, Amber, Gold and Black, Good Beer Guide to Belgium, and so on. I would place Neurogastronomy on this short list.

On cue, Alan McLeod broaches the topic from another angle, taking the idea of food and beer pairings to task:
One of the main reasons I don't like the idea of matching and pairing is that everything pretty goes with pretty much everything else in the right combination.
This is less a declaration than a paradox: how can everything go with everything else in the right combination? They are interchangeable or they require the right combinations, seems like. But never mind. What's more interesting is the resulting discussion thread, which includes our own Ben Edmunds, and you should go have a look.

Food and beer pairings are my white whale, a topic I intend to pursue maniacally in the coming year. I harbor the idea that it's possible to come up with a system that allows diners to select appropriate beers for their meals. I further harbor the idea that the key has nothing to do with styles and everything to do with flavor elements in beer. Texture, effervescence, attenuation, strength, and taste/scent compounds--somehow these should line up with food flavors. It will never be as simple a prescription as red-wine-with-red-meat (at least a partial fraud, by the way), but it could at least be consistent. Maybe.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Friday Flick(s): Full Sail and Guinness

Today in Flicking, I offer you two good ones. Both are essentially ads, but extremely well-done. In the first, Full Sail has put together a little promo vid about their barrel-aging process (one I discussed here). It's clearly not an objective documentary, you get a nice sense of the brewery. For fans of Barney's ESB, you also get to see the brewer behind the beer.

(Incidentally, when I was at the brewery, Jamie Emmerson slipped me four beers from their personal stash of aging porters/stouts. A few nights back, we tried the '08 Top Sail and '06 Black Gold--both aged in bourbon barrels. These beers age beautifully. The Top Sail was remarkably fresh--not a trace of oxidation--and the flavors had sharp, clear edges. But the '06 was insane. Again, very little evidence of age except in a melding of elements along with the tiniest hint of vinous tartness. If you're buying these for the cellar, you're in for a future treat.)

The Art & Science of Bourbon Barrel Aged Beer from Full Sail Brewing on Vimeo.

Next up, for St. Paddy's, we have a really funny Guinness ad produced, I assume for the English market. When sketch comedy works, it's surreal and sublime. This works. Also, geezers who remember ads from the '70s will appreciate what appears to be an homage to, or at least unintentional resonance with, those old Rainier ads Gordon Bowker put together.

The Most-Discussed Breweries? You Might Be Surprised

I was trying to track down some information on a brewery a couple days ago, and I could find next to nothing when I consulted the Google. This then reminded me of my post last month about New Belgium, wherein I commented on their social media strategy. And these two things together gave rise to a question: if I search for a brewery name, how many results will I get? The result doesn't give you a perfect snapshot of the amount of discussion happening about a brewery's beer (the amount of time a brewery's been kicking around matters, as does its distribution), but it ain't bad. And the results were fascinating. You've probably already scanned down, but if you haven't, stop to guess: which brewery did best?

Methodology. Brewery names are problematic. Kona, for example, gets you tons of results unrelated to Kona brewing. But putting the brewery name in quote marks "Kona Brewing" is also problematic because names like "Rogue Ales" may well never be used on pages discussing these beers. So to clarify things and make them roughly equivalent, I went with the common brewery name and beer and put them in quote marks under the assumption that any discussion about the brewery would include the word beer. So, "Kona beer," "Rogue beer," and so on.

Without further ado, here are the results for the largest craft breweries. A few comments follow.

That percentage in the far right column are the number of results of the max brewery's total. So Boston Beer has about half Widmer's total, Sierra Nevada a stunning four percent of the Brothers' total. Clearly, the correlation between brewery size and Google results is not great. Breweries like Redhook and Lagunitas could really improve getting their name on websites. And MacTarnahan's? Absolutely pathetic. "Beervana blog" gets you 2,400 results. Beervana blog!

More grist for the internet mill.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

In Tasting, Advantage Beer

As the science of tasting becomes more well-understood, we must confront certain uncomfortable truths: in particular, we aren't so great at it. In blind taste tests, people perform no better than chance at distinguishing good expensive wine from rotgut. Hell, even experienced tasters can't distinguish whether a wine is red or white. So it's no surprise that a new study confirms that people stink at recognizing subtle flavors:
A new study by researchers at Penn State finds that when it comes to appreciating the subtleties of wine, experts can taste things many of us can't. "What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different," says John Hayes of Penn State.
(The good news: scientists think this is mostly a matter of training and experience, not a function of faulty taste buds or olfactory nerves.) That quote is from NPR, who had a piece on the new study this morning. As I was listening to it, I was reminded of what a huge advantage beer has over wine in terms of flavor articulation. The difference between a poor-quality wine and a good wine (let's leave price out of it) are a cluster of very similar qualities. The clarity and balance of a pinot noir grape makes a good wine, but you still have to contend with pinot noir grapes.

In beer, the range is orders of magnitude bigger. Part of the thing that makes people lose confidence in wine (aside from the fact that they're gambling with thirty bucks a pop) is that they fear/know it all tastes pretty much the same. If someone suggests to you that there's some blackberry in the glass, sure, you can swish until you find it. It's difficult to feel like you're just faking it. The whole thing can feel like a game of three card monty. Or a modern art exhibit.

Beer, not so much. For one thing, style variation is tremendous. Is there any product with such an expansive range of flavors? But even within styles, tastes are usually pretty easy to distinguish. Put five IPAs in a blind flight and have people taste them, and they'll be able to tell the difference. In beer, blind tasting is heartening for this reason. Unlike wine, the flavors are different enough that even a rank novice would be able to tell. (And trying to conceal a stout among them--good luck with that.) Not every style is as easy, but I don't think anyone would argue that beer is a lot more obvious than wine.

Plug. By the way, you could buy my Tasting Toolkit if you wish to test this hypothesis. It's educational and fun for the whole family. You could even test wine, too, just to see how much more distinctive beer is.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Ghosts of Breweries Past

The 1948 Jimmy Stewart movie Call Northside 777 was, remarkably, the first ever filmed in Chicago. It was based on a real murder case, and producers thought the verisimilitude of the actual Windy City would lend itself to the documentary feel. They were right. Chicago was a gritty, working-class town emerging from the stockyard past but nowhere near the shiny Sears Tower stage. At one point, Stewart's character, a reporter, has to go into the Polish part of town to find a shadowy figure who has gone into hiding. As he roams the real Chicago streets, ducking into bar after bar, he passes these two signs:
(That's him almost obscured in shadows entering the bar.)

As it turns out, Fox DeLuxe and Kingsbury were both real breweries. Fox was a Grand Rapids, MI brewery that survived for just 11 years, while Kingsbury had a much more illustrious life. Founded in Manitowoc, WI in 1847, it was one of those 700-odd breweries that managed to hang on through Prohibition, lasting until 1963 when Heileman gobbled it up. (The name had a zombie life, like so many other American brands, and apparently there's still a non-alcoholic beer that bears the name. Sad.)

As I watched the names flit by, I felt a dual wave of sadness: first that so many American breweries have vanished (I know, the virtuous churn of capital and all that), but second because, by using LA as a stand-in for all other American cities, we have lost these kinds of records. How many more signs might we have of flickering neon breweries if movies had been filmed in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit?

Friday, March 02, 2012

Friday Flick: St. Bernardus (Plus One Events Item)

The Lucky Lab Beer Hall is where big beer fans want to be today and tomorrow for the annual Barleywine Big Beer Festival. Matt Wiater has the full run down.

Apropos of that event, I offer you a brewery-produced virtual tour of the St. Bernardus brewery in Watou, Belgium. It's a bit over-produced, but you get a sense of what a typical traditional brewery looks like. (Elements of it remind me of Rochefort, Dupont, and St. Feuillien.) The brasserie at Westvleteren is one of the most intensely loved by beer geeks, but for my money, St. Bernardus makes beer of equal quality and far greater breadth--and I would probably put Prior 8 in my list of top twenty beers in the world. And hey, it's a good brewery for Lent, too (though not for everyone).