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Friday, June 29, 2012

What's a Pub?

I'm really backed up on my blogging here--a fact you might find queer since the blogging has been so slapdash lately.  But let's dance around that and get to a topic raised by Ted Sobel, who dates his first visit to a pub to 1991--long after he'd been enjoying the smoky shadows of the poorer drinking holes of upstate NY.  I expressed confusion in comments, and he writes:
The first comment from my previous post came from a noted Portland beer blogger who had visited England for the first time back in November, and got to experience his first pubs. Or, was that first visit to the Raleigh Hills McMenamins the first? That's the question; do we have pubs here in America? What is a pub? Is it OK to use it as a familiar synonym for a bar or tavern or a restaurant that brews beer (brewpub)?
Thanks to that trip I took, I understand the distinction Ted's making.  For Ted, there is a platonic ideal of a pub, and it can be found, plentifully, on every other corner in every town on the Island of Great Britain.  It looks roughly like this:

Additionally, the circulatory system of these buildings must run with living cask ale.  I suspect Ted would allow apostasies like pizza or charcuterie in a qualifying establishment, but they should properly serve fish, fried deeply with a side of chips.  Meat pies, like are available at the Jack Horner above, also permissible. This would be a "proper pub."  Few exist in the United States.

Instead, we have a motley assortment of bars, taverns, and, lately, brewpubs.  Walk the streets of an American city and the places you'll find (scattered further from one another) often look like this:

These are the old-school bars, and they still greatly outnumber new-school places.  You find icy cold beer in them, fake wood paneling, pool tables, and video poker machine (at least around here).  There are upscale bars where you can get cocktails, a few craft beer alehouses which look like brewpubs, which themselves look, usually, like restaurants.  You almost never find cask ale, though fish and chips have made the transition quite nicely.  The experience, as I can now attest, is wholly different.

But this is actually a cause for celebration.  The places people drink beer reflect the character of the country they're drinking them in.  The British create lush, loving environments for their drinking, a reflection on the unambiguous emotion they feel for their national drink.  In Belgium, beer is no less a ritual, but it's a different one.  Food is involved and, far more often than in British pubs, women.  There they drink their beer from bottles.  I have been furiously reading about Ron Pattinson's many journeys to Franconia and the Czech Republic, and will this November be able to experience how those countries drink beer.

The US is a puritan country.  Drinking beer remains a slightly disreputable act, and that's why pubs close in on themselves and offer no windows to see the shameful acts inside.  The shift to open-air drinking brought about by craft brewing is family-oriented and far more public--a welcome change.  But like so much in the US, it becomes an expression of "lifestyle" and acquires the trappings of a Sunset Magazine article.  We still haven't developed ritual or created spaces devoted to the act of drinking that express a wholesome relationship to the devil's water.  Perhaps that will come.

In any case, when you're in a Belgian cafe, an English pub, or an American bar, you're in a place where the country drinks.  Enjoy.

Now, just because I have this picture on my hard drive, I offer you a picture of Ted in his native environment.  He is accompanied in the photo by the Beeronomist and Ann Wedgwood of England's Hardknott Brewery.  That's former blogger Stonch's pub, the Gunmakers.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Gone Fishing

I may get back around to blogging today, but at the moment I'm preoccupied by the morning's massive news.  There's an NBA draft today.

What'd you think I meant?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Weekend Events

I am normally bad about mentioning the myriad beer events happening in any given week around Oregon, but this weekend such a wave hit that I feel compelled to highlight three good ones. 

Friday, June 29  

Breakside Brewer’s Dinner at Wildwood, 6:30pm
This is one of Paul Kasten's regular offerings at Wildwood, but for this iteration, he as the especially food-oriented Ben Edmunds as his partner.  As one example of the pairings on offer, lets start with course one, a strawberry and asparagus salad (with basil, spring onion, champagne vinaigrette, goat cheese, and saba) paired with solera-style wild ale. Asparagus is notoriously hard for wine sommeliers to handle, but I bet Paul and Ben have it dialed in

$65 includes food, beer, and gratuity. Contact Shelly Jones ( // 503.225.0130) for seats.

The 3rd Annual Roscoe's Summer Beer Summit, 4 pm to close
Roscoe's has put together another stellar lineup for one of their mini-fests, and this one will be peopled by some of the brewers of the following beers:  Logsdon (Kili Wit), Dogfish Head (Festina Peche), 10 Barrel (Raspberry Sour Puss), Amnesia (Goldie Hops), Anchorage Brewing (Galaxy White IPA), Upright (Offen Weisse), Stiegl (Grapefruit Radler), Elysian (Yuzu's Golden Ale), Fort George (Spruce Bud Ale), Full Sail (Berliner Weisse), The Commons, and more.

8105 SE Stark, event info here.

Saturday, June 30th

Crux Fermentation Project Grand Opening, 5pm to 11pm
Crux is the project of Larry Sidor, the man who helmed Deschutes through the last several years of incredible growth and product expansion.  If you're in or near Bend this weekend, stop in and say hi.    
Here's a bit from the press release--and notice the bit about the "christening":
We're turning our parking lot into festival grounds for this all-out, family-friendly event. Take a tour of our brewery and Tasting Room, enjoy a delicious BBQ and get jiggy with live good-times-dancing music. ...  At 8pm, we’ll hold a special toast centered on the brewhouse christening. And, the community is invited to play a special part. Everyone’s invited to bring an object that will be placed in a special metal box to be sealed and affixed to the deck of the brewhouse forever. This object needs to fit in a slot measuring 1/4" by 2". It can be a medallion, coin, note, photo, or token, that either represents you or your wishes for this new brewery. With this you will forever be a part of the Crux brewhouse and influence the soul and the sprit of each brew we produce.
50 SW Division Street, Bend, info here.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Oregon's Nation-Leading Craft Beer Consumption

The annual Oregon Brewers Guild report for 2011 came out today, and it is full of the usual very positive numbers--lots of growth from lots of craft breweries.  I would like to highlight one stat, though, that is pretty amazing:
15.8 percent of the 2.712 million barrels of all beer - both bottled and draft - consumed in the state were made in Oregon.  For draft beer, that percentage is even higher, with Oregon breweries producing an estimated 42.8 percent of all draft beer consumed in the state. 
Now, Oregon doesn't have any industrial brewing plants--100% of our beer is from craft breweries*--so this means all 16% of that locally-brewed beer is "good" beer.  But it understates the total good-beer total.  Oregonians also drink quality imports and craft beer from around the country.  It may not push us all the way to 20%, but we're getting close.  

To put this in context, only 14% of Britain's beer is ale--everything else is what we'd call industrial lager.  Belgium is at about 30%.  The US consumes 195 million barrels of beer a year; if the country consumed the same amount of craft beer as Oregon, that would make craft beer a 31-million-barrel industry--three times the size it is today.  To riff off the day's earlier post, this is why I'm not worried.  There's nothing sacrosanct about pale industrial lager, and nothing particularly unique about Oregon's love of good beer (though I won't admit that on the record--Beervana rawks!).  If you take our state as a model, there's a lot of room left to grow.

*Craft brewery is a fraught term, but in Oregon's case every brewery has been founded since 1984 and is by any reasonable definition a part of the US craft beer movement.

Big Beer Gets Bigger: InBev Buying Out Modelo

InBev, the world's largest beer company, is in the process of acquiring the 50% of Modelo, the 7th largest, it doesn't already own.  This is just astounding:

The world’s top five brewers already control almost half of the global beer market, leaving remaining players such as Molson Coors Brewing Co. to scratch out smaller deals in emerging markets or defend themselves against a takeover....  AB InBev, based in Leuven, Belgium, has led the spree, spending more than $70 billion to snap up dozens of brewers. It was formed in the $52 billion 2008 takeover of Budweiser maker Anheuser Busch Cos. by InBev NV, the biggest of the decade. AB InBev controls 18 percent of the global beer market, while SABMiller has 9.8 percent. (My bold.)
In the US, the deal would give InBev 56% of the market (up from the 48% it currently owns).  Of course, InBev's appetite for consolidation has provoked the other giants to start snacking as well:
Carlsberg A/S (CARLA), the world’s fourth-biggest brewer with a 5.6 percent market share, has said it’s looking to buy assets in Asia.... SABMiller bought Foster’s to expand in the mature market of Australia. Molson Coors agreed to buy StarBev LP for 2.65 billion euros ($3.3 billion) in April, moving into Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. 
Though not always with success:
Heineken, the world’s third-largest brewer with 8.8 percent of the market, also has said it’s interested in emerging-market assets. The brewer bid for Cerveceria Nacional Dominicana, the Dominican Republic’s biggest beermaker, Reuters reported March 27, citing unidentified people with knowledge of the matter. AB InBev ended up agreeing in April to buy CND for $1.24 billion. 
Amazingly, InBev is apparently eyeing SABMiller as well, though the Modelo deal will apparently slow down that deal. 

Since it's cheap blogging to just just rip off Bloomberg, I'll add a bit of analysis.  I think, counterintuitively, that this isn't a sign of strength in the world of big beer.  The market for commercial pale lagers (or whatever you want to call them) is in remission in mature markets.  These companies are scrambling to snap up other breweries because they've already plateaued in their home markets--or more often, have begun to decline.  Seizing a share of the growing market for pale commercial lagers in Asia and South America makes good sense, but it's an admission of how bad things are in Europe and North America for those companies. 

As a good beer fan in the US, it doesn't bother me in the least to watch the international blood bath over who's going to get to sell declining brands.  (Though Grupo Modelo's dominance of the Mexican market, where they inhibit craft brewing, is troubling.)  Indeed, this period of global consolidation is happening in the midst of a renaissance among small breweries.  So pass the popcorn and let's enjoy the show.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Ciders on the Horizon?

For the second year in a row, I was unable to attend Saturday's Portland Cider Summit.  Regrettably.  (I was unable, but I bet others skipped it because of a deluge that produced .9 inches of rain.  Ah, June!)  I know, I know--we are all probably suffering from a little "artisanal fatigue."  Artisanal beers, liquors, and wines have all enjoyed long and fruitful runs.  Ciders remain a decided dark horse in the crowded field of handmade alcohol.  In a way, though, the region may be more suited to them than it is to wine and maybe even beer--apples are among the favorite fruits in Oregon and Washington. 

Photo credit: Culinate.
I admit to near complete ignorance of ciders (though I have tried my hand at making one).  I know that they played a large role in the nutrition and entertainment of North American settlers, that they were so fundamental to rural life that they were explicitly exempted from Prohibition, and that there are different traditions of cider-making from the rough, still Basque ciders to the refined, effervescent French ones.  (Britain, as usual, plays an important role.)  I know that some are sweetened and therefore terrible, while some are unsweetened and as tart and complex as--and not entirely dissimilar to--straight lambic.  I also know that the Pacific Northwest is on the vanguard of the American craft cider revival. 

I probably won't spend a lot of time in study between now and the third annual Cider Summit--I've got that other project to consider.  I may spend a little.  Over the weekend, I decided to drown my cider-summit-missing-sorrows in a bottle of Pear Anthem--a line of Wandering Aengus.  Despite the name, it's not a perry (cider made of pears), but an apple cider with a minority of pear.  A lovely tipple, quite dry and tart--leaning in the direction of Brussels, if you want the truth--with floral blossom notes and something spicy underneath.  Ciders may have flavor elements that remind one of wine or lambic, and this one had both.

Man cannot live by beer alone.  I recommend a trip to the store for a cider to shake things up, palate-wise.  A change of pace is a good thing.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Adios, Mighty Dirt Dog

Photo credit: Boston Globe.
Every dynasty has its sunset, most after the final championship.  In 2004, the Boston Red Sox ended the curse and won their first World Series in 86 years.  It maybe wasn't a proper dynasty--they only won one more Series--but considering what came before, we'll take it.  That members of that team--Pedro, Derek Lowe, Curt Schilling, Jason Varitek, Mark Bellhorn, Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar, Trot Nixon, and Manny--are all gone.  Even Tito's gone.  You could argue that as long as David Ortiz remains with the Sox, the era hasn't ended.  But really, today it did.

Youk is gone

The great era of the Red Sox in the aughts will be remembered for the idiots and the dirt dogs, and chief among them is Kevin Youkilis.  The hardest working man in baseball and perhaps the most unlikely star (Michael Lewis called him "Euclis, the Greek God of Walks" in Moneyball), he didn't look like a ball player and he had the weirdest stance in baseball.  But for those reasons, he was always one of the most beloved members of the Red Sox.  Youk was having a rough year and he's had injury trouble lately, so there were business reasons to make the trade to Chicago.  Still, I can't imagine there's anyone in Red Sox Nation who doesn't feel that the earth has just shifted under our feet.   I mean, Brandon Roy and now Youkilis?  Change sucks.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Style, Method, or Tradition?

There is nothing so necessary and inadequate in the conceptual terrain of beer as "style."  Or contentious.  Something is necessary because beer is so diverse--we can't have any meaningful sense of "beer" if we don't distinguish among the various products produced across Europe and, lately, parts of the new world.  (It's not an especially old concept and for a history of the issue, I will refer you to instructive posts here  and here.)  But style stymies: the structure is neither as precise as its defenders wish but also far too detailed. 

I'm supposed to chat with some homebrewers tonight, and I've been thinking of why "style" fails, and I think it's because it captures only one dimension in what should be a more complex taxonomy.  Forthwith, I'd like to offer a new structure, with examples.  When thinking about what makes a category of beer worth carving out from the herd, it's useful to consider not only style, but brewing method and regional tradition.  Take saison and biere de garde, often lumped together as "farmhouse ales."  Speaking as a matter of regional tradition, this makes all kinds of sense--they come from a single source.  But in terms of style, it's absurd; biere de gardes have evolved into something closer to lagers, while saisons have clung to their rusticity.
  • Method.  Some categories of beer are distinctive because of the way they're brewed.  British and American ales are often constructed identically in the brewhouse, but when the former are pulled from fermenters a shade before terminal gravity and packaged in casks, they become quite different from the latter, force-carbonated in kegs.  Similarly, Belgians make tons of beers designed to go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle.  
  • Tradition.  The best example here is the (tiny) group of beers people have called oud bruins, Flanders brown, Flemish red, or (the worst) Flemish red/brown ales. The beers don't really share a style, and they certainly don't share a method, but the reason people try to group them is because they do share a tradition.  Until the past few decades, brown ales were the standard in Flanders, though every brewery had a different method of producing them.  As they have slowly died out, we're left with a disparate collection that don't look or taste a hell of a lot like each other.  Yet it still makes sense to group them together because of their shared regional tradition.
  • Style.  For the most part, styles are an effective framework.  When we say kolsch or cream ale, we know what we're getting. Styles have been built on the chassis of method and tradition, and are usually decent enough proxies. 
Where styles fall down is when they're stripped from tradition and method.  If American breweries have erred in picking up the beers of other countries, it's that they think only of the finished product.  Styles encourage this kind of thinking.  Like varieties in an ice cream shop, the only thing that distinguishes a lambic and a stout are flavors.  It leads breweries to do things like dump lactic acid in Berliner Weisses.  The product may have the superficial appearance of the style, but lacks the character and complexity you'd find in a beer made by a brewery using methods specific to the style.  That beer may fool a punter or even a judge, but it's not actually the same beer as a Berliner Weisse made with souring microorganisms.  If you only care about the way a beer tastes, fine.  If you care about what the beer is, you have to think a little more deeply.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nice Cans

The latest entrant into the canned market: Hopworks.  By coincidence, Bloomberg posts a "Chart of the Day" showing that, thanks to craft beer, cans are back on top in American packaging.

Click to enlarge.  Source: Bloomberg.

I'm not totally sure how I feel about the trend.  As far as pure aesthetics go, cans suck, and it turns out I'm fairly persuaded by aesthetics.  What do you think?  Is the cans trend remotely interesting to you?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Hard Road From Concept to Bottle

Andrew Theen, writing in the Oregonian, has an illuminating piece on the difficulties starting a new brewery.  He looked into the project Alan Taylor--the talented, German-trained former Widmer brewer--and partners have been working on for well over a year now.  They have the talent, the business plan, and the support of the city of Hillsboro.  What they need is a building:
Taylor, experienced in both small and large-scale operations, has a clear idea of what they want. They plan on producing 6,000 to 10,000 barrels per year, along with bottling and distribution, paired with a 190-seat restaurant -- think along the lines of Hopworks Urban Brewery or Laurelwood Brewing Co. in Portland.

"It's hard to find a restaurant, industrial mix in the 8,000- to 10,000-square-foot range," Taylor said. 
Definitely worth a read. Relatedly, Pete Dunlop has noticed the trend of more production brewing, rather than brewpubs, in the Beaver State and has thoughts about what it means.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Outside the Beer Geek Bubble

I was the recipient of an unexpected junket this morning/afternoon.  A friend won a Twitter contest to watch the Ireland-Italy football match* aboard a bus that roamed the streets of downtown Portland.  Why?  It's in no way clear.  One of the boons was the pleasure of hanging with serious celebrity Cobi Jones, one of most accomplished players our country has produced.  The whole thing is a promo by Fox Soccer, who parachute into one of eight cities, conduct the event, and then blast back off to LA.  (After our event, we were guiding people to Powell's to kill time before the flight home.)

That's Smithwick's in the background.
All of this is background for the part of the story I think you'll find more interesting.  The day started beautifully--in Kell's Pub in downtown Portland.  It's the kind of place that would make The Beer Nut pull out his hair.  A Diageo pub, you get Smithwick's, Harp, and of course, Guinness.  They have pen-and-ink Samuel Becketts and Sean O'Caseys on the wall along with historic Guinness adverts.  Lots of worn wood and exposed brick.  Despite this, it's a great old building and a warm, gracious space.  They invited us early so we could eat a hearty breakfast.  I learned Guinness is a decent replacement for my usual black coffee. 

Then we piled on the bus.  Now, given that this bus has no distant connection to beer, and given that it stayed well within the confines of Beervana, you'd expect the most macro beer would be what?--Widmer Hef?  Wrong.  Those LA boys had the bus full of Bud, Bud Light, and Modelo.  When they ran out of beer (as, inevitably, they were destined to do in this town), I hollered "buy better beer!"  The poor Fox employee--who, god bless him, was at work--looked a little stricken.  What possibly could I have meant?  He came back with Heineken.

Two things.  First, Bud Light is irredeemable.  I actually enjoy a decent macro.  That Modelo did me no harm.  Bud Light, though, has nothing to do with beer.  It's fizzy and sweet without expressing the slightest hint of actual malt.  By comparison, Heineken is a gorgeous, deep and resonant beer.  I gave it an appreciative hoot.  This, however, brings us to the second realization: for normal American males, this was the entire vista of beer: Bud Light to Heineken.  Modelo is, along with Corona and Pacifico, the exotica that counts as "imported."

Cobi Jones, in the scarf, at far left.
American consumers still overwhemlingly drink macro lagers.  Sports are infused with beer, and credit the bigs: they've made canned lager synonymous with loyalty, manhood, and good times.  Outside the beer geek bubble, you should expect no more than free, flowing lager.  It's a good reminder.  To even quibble is sort of douchey hipsterism.  Rarely does the real world penetrate the reality of Portlandia, but trust Rupert Murdoch's Fox to deliver the coup de grace. 

Incidentally, they actually showed us the Spain-Croatia game, which sputtered and shorted with every bump in the road--just as reported.  In the battle of the Catholics, Ireland lost, predictably, to the Italian club (it has the same number of people as Washington State).  Cobi called the Portland-LA game last night, though, so he had some fascinating analysis of MLS.  Bad beer, good times.

(Stay in the bubble.)
*That's soccer game to you yanks.

Update.  A possibly incriminating photo documenting the event below the fold.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Now Available in Swedish

My Svenska's a bit rusty, but I think the translation means "Beer Tasting Box."  Anyone who sees this in Stockholm and snaps a pic gets my undying gratitude...


Oh, and while we're talking Toolkit, I would like to direct your attention to UncommonGoods, where Stephanie, Jessica, and Rebecca took Öl Provarlådan for a spin.  They followed the instructions perfectly, had a great time, and possibly even learned something about beer. In any case, they got great photos:

If three lovely young ladies joyfully brandishing this product don't make you hasten to go buy it, I doubt there's little in this world that could move your cold heart.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Score One For San Diego: White Labs Opens Tasting Room

As an inveterate homer, I am loath to even acknowledge the existence of White Labs when we have Wyeast here in Oregon.  But today I come not only to acknowledge the yeastery, but praise it. For this is rockin' cool:
White Labs Pure Yeast and Fermentation announces its White Labs Brewing Co. Tasting Room officially opens this Friday, June 15.
 (That's today, incidentally.)  It's a magnificent concept: 
The White Labs Tasting Room, unlike any other, offers a continuously-rotating menu of 35 taps pouring experimental beers brewed on site.  Instead of crafting the same pale ale that is always available, White Labs instead may feature ten different pale ales simultaneously, brewed to the exact same recipe, except for the yeast. The following week, beers on tap might include a similar number of stouts, Pilsners or IPAs.
Photo by Yelp member April M.

For example, you can have a gander at the current taplist, which at the moment features two IPAs (English and regular*), hefeweizen, red, and mild.  I have myself wanted to run these kinds of experiments in the home brewery, but it would require a lot more organization that I normally manage, and would add a lot of time and effort to a batch of beer.  If I lived in San Diego, I could just go down to the tasting room, lay down five bucks, and glean the same info.  (Not that I would cop to it, but probably the brewery at White Labs produces more consistent beer for comparison purposes than I do.)

San Diegans, go down and sample a flight for me, will you?  I shall live vicariously through your reports.

*A joke for our English friends.

The Original Hop Revolution

One of the more interesting chapters in brewing history is the ver-r-r-y slow shift from sweet ales spiced with gruit to hopped beers.  The first time anyone mentioned using hops in beer was 822, when the abbot of a French monastery wrote about it.  It would be something on the order of three hundred years before hopped beer enjoyed any kind of popularity, though.

It's not hard to see why it would have taken so long.  For one, hopped beer is hard to make.  In order to get the full benefit, brewers have to boil the hopped wort for an hour or more.  Gruit beer may not even have been boiled; why would brewers have gone to the trouble to collect and burn wood when they could extract the flavor from spices without a long boil?  (Brewing, a domestic chore until the monks took it up in the seventh century, was little-documented.)  When brewers started working with hops, they wouldn't have understood this feature, and it would have posed technical challenges.  Perhaps more importantly, the flavor of gruit beer and hopped beer is quite different.  It's clear this was the main barrier.  An acquired taste, people initially rejected the new product wherever it was introduced.  In Britain, the last frontier, locals managed to stave off the stuff until the 1500s. 

The reason hops won out was not aesthetic, it was biological.  The Hanseatic towns of Bremen and Hamburg were the first to perfect hopped beer, and they had a huge market advantage: their beer kept.  They could brew it, ship it to Amsterdam, and even then it would outlast beer brewed locally.  Until the introduction of hops, beer had a shelf life of days before it would curdle into vinegar.  Hopped beer was still saturated with wild yeasts, but fewer, and the hops delayed the souring process.  Hops made it possible to ship beer and turned it into a regional commodity--and therefore a commercial one.

I recount all of this history because a thought occurred to me that I wanted to bounce off you--for you are collectively smarter than I.  Breweries long avoided brewing in summer because the wild yeasts were too virulent to make decent beer.  Until as late as the 19th century, lots of breweries quit making beer in the summer because of this.  Of course, beer was hopped, so it would keep long enough that people could drink beer throughout the summer.  Here's the question, though: before hops, there's no way beer would have kept throughout the summer.  Wouldn't brewing have been a strictly seasonal pursuit?  If so, it's no wonder it remained a domestic chore, not a viable commercial activity.  Am I missing something?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I Wonder Why We Abandoned the Practice of Purifying Beer With Pig's Feet?

Richard Unger's Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Penn, 2004) is one of my favorite books about beer.  As I turn my attention to Germany and lagers, I have found it indispensable as an overview of the literature.  Plus, it has passages like this, referring to technological advances during the renaissance:
"Brewers resorted to a number of options to eliminate impurities and unprocessed vegetable matter.  They tried a pig's or ox's foot but also burned salt, clean sand, ground oak bark, and the more modern option of dried fish membranes as finings to make for a clearer beer.  Bruges brewers skinned the feet of oxen and calves, boiled them to get rid of the hooves, and then hung them along with other items like berries or an egg, in a bag in the brewing kettle."
I just wonder if we haven't all been a little hasty in dispatching with the use of feet and eggs in the purification of our beer.  (Eggs, it turns out, were a regular feature in brewing across Europe during the late middle ages and renaissance.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Straight Outta the Foeders: Blending With New Belgium

My excursion through the old breweries of Belgium was both intoxicating and alarming.  It was a joy to see traditional practices still retaining viability in a brutal modern marketplace--but alarming to see how few practitioners still remained.  On Monday, I got acquainted with New Belgium's wood-aging program at a symposium for PDX Beer Week.  It was heartening to see a brewery pick up where so many in Belgium have left off. 

This is the second year New Belgium has been doing these symposia, and they manage to serve as a crash course in Blending 101 and even a pretty fair virtual tour.  The first part of the evening is devoted to a slideshow narrated by the married team of Salazars--brewer Eric and blender Lauren--from the brewery.  It's not the immersive experience you get by visiting the brewery, but it ain't bad.  After a brisk journey through the brewhouse, they turn to the cellar where the real action happens.

New Belgium's wood program is pretty amazing.  The importance of wood in the care and nurturing of wild yeasts is critical, and a feature that distinguishes certain beer styles.  As beer ages in wood, oxygen enters the slightly porous container and feeds a chemical process where alcohols are converted to acids and esters (among other, sometimes less savory, compounds).  You can't make lambic or the Flanders style characterized by Rodenbach without wood.  Indeed, it's not easy to make some of these beers in anything less than very large wooden tuns (foeder in Dutch, foudre in French) because the flow of oxygen has to be just right.  In large vessels, where the surface area is low (far lower than in wine barrels) and the oak staves thick, the oxygen just worms its way in molecule by molecule.

New Belgium's foeders.  Photo by Todd Gillman.

Over the course of the past decade plus, New Belgium has quietly been picking up massive foeders ranging in size from 60 hectoliters to over 200--with a preponderance at 130.  They've managed to score them the same way the Belgians did--by scooping up cast-offs from wineries.  There's a pleasing quality of symbiosis in the arrangement, because after a certain number of years the wine will no longer pick up oak tannins--which is exactly what wild-beer breweries want.  After the wood character is gone, they're perfect for lambic and tart Flanders ales.  Amazingly, these old tuns will last decades; Rodenbach still has three that date back to the 1830s. 

Apparently now there's a bit of a run on them in the American market as other breweries try to score their own--but New Belgium has already gathered quite a trove.  After the a new set of foeders arrive, they'll have 3200 hectoliters of capacity--a massive quantity compared to other breweries, but just a drop compared to the brewery's total capacity.

New Belgium makes two beers to put in the foeders, Oscar, a dark ale with a grist very similar to 1554 lager (14-15 Plato) and Felix--get it?--a slightly stronger (17 Plato), light-colored ale.  Listening to Lauren talk, I heard this familiar echo that came all the way from Roeselare.  New Belgium's process isn't exactly like Rodenbach's, but the fidelity to wood-aging and acidification sounded so much like what Rudi Ghequire told me.  This isn't too shocking; New Belgium's Peter Bouckaert came to Fort Collins from Rodenbach in 1996.  The program that would result in La Folie--really the only example of a credible commercial Flanders red/brown I know outside Belgium--began a year after he arrived.

In Rodenbach's process, the foeders are filled and left to ripen for roughly two years.  Batches of old beer are blended together to form a "mother blend" which is then blended back with young beer.  New Belgium does something more along the lines of a solera project.  Lauren, who is the principle blender, samples beer from each foeder and takes notes on what she finds.  She then creates a master blend of different proportions of each foeder--30 hl from Foeder 1, 60 from #2, 70 from #3 and so on--leaving the foeders partly full.  Eric replenishes them with fresh beer and they let them ripen further until its time to make a new batch.  So each foeder may have a more aged or younger character, depending on when it was last replenished and by how much.

Incidentally, Peter used tons of different bugs in the original inoculation, including strains of pediococcus, lactobacillus, and brettanomcyes.  This is similar to Rodenbach as well, but the proportion of brett is a lot higher at New Belgium.  (Another funny parallel.  Rodenbach used to supply all the area breweries with their yeast, a practice they finally curtailed when Palm bought them in 1998.  New Belgium did, too, until other breweries started gathering accolades for the beer made with their yeast.)  I can imagine style Nazis complaining that La Folie is too funky with brett to be considered authentic.  Hogwash.  This is the beer New Belgium wants to make, and the brewers and blenders relish the brett character.  (American in general seem more tolerant of brett than Belgians.)

The last thing we did at the symposium was try a blend of our own beer.  New Belgium had racked off four firkins from Foeders 2, 7, 8, and 14.  We all got samples of each and did our best effort to mix up a master blend.  La folie ("the madness") indeed.  It's a whole different post, but I'll say this: blending is hard.  I would say that the skill of a good blender is an order of magnitude rarer than the skill of a good brewer.  (Let's not even speak of bloggers.)  You have to have an exceptional palate and a talent for understanding how the flat, warmish beer you're swirling together will taste when its carbonated and chilled.  I once watched Ron Gansberg begin the blending process for his sublime Apricot Ale, and what he came up with tasted kind of raw and harsh to me.  Somehow Ron could understand the language that beer was speaking and knew what that blend would ultimately taste like.  It was probably Flemish. 

A great time, and one I'd encourage you to experience if you ever have the chance.  Most beer events are high on the sensual aspects but low on educational ones.  This was high-fiber larnin.  We could use more of them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

At Least This Post Involves a Pub

When I saw the story, I had intended to write an exegesis on the question of pubs, outrage, and national character, but this seems a lot more entertaining.

Green Town

As often as possible, I like to take the old Felt bicycle out for a spin in the late afternoon. When I was working downtown, I rode main roads through light industrial areas, but now I can take the bike paths the  City of Portland has routed through residential neighborhoods.  In the past two months, I have observed a fascinating phenomenon related to behavior and weather.

For those unfamiliar with the climate of the Pacific Northwest, a thumbnail.  The band west of the Cascades, running from Northern California through Canada, spends about six months under heavy clouds.  We don't get a ton of real weather--highs above 90 and lows below 30 are infrequent--and migrants from Chicago or Southern California laugh at our vulnerability to heat or cold.  But ours is a psychological test--the unrelenting monotony of gray skies and dampness is what gets you.  Chicagoans, mocking in February, are usually pulling their hair out by June.  (On Friday, Portland enjoyed a high temperature of 56 and a low of 53.  Highs and lows are often separated by fewer than ten degrees.)  It is also a feature of our climate that during transitional months like May and June, the mornings will be chill and cloudy, but the sun will finally rally to break through and provide a glorious afternoon and evening.

Which brings us back to my bike ride.  I often wait for the clouds and drizzle to pass (or, more often, I leave when I see they won't clear out) so that I'm gliding through the city's neighborhoods from four to five o'clock.  On sunny days, I've been amazed at the aroma that wafts through those neighborhoods: the sticky green incense of burning marijuana.  It doesn't matter if I'm passing through Laurelhurst or Cully, the scent's the same.  We go from Portland to Kingston in about twenty minutes.

Now, I assume that there's a similar relationship with that other sticky Portland intoxicant, IPA, though I can't detect it as I'm riding my bike.  If Google could somehow invent a device that measured the consumption of beer--and since we're fantasizing, why not add in beer style--I suspect it would skyrocket during sun breaks.  If other people are like me, I suspect that's peak pale-IPA time, too.  Golden beer and golden rays--they seem to be made for each other. 


Monday, June 11, 2012

Beer's Implausible "Miracle Molecule"

This sounds great...
Scientists have discovered that a hidden vitamin in beer and milk called the "miracle molecule" may prevent obesity.  A new study found that nicotinamide riboside (NR), a molecule found to indirectly influence the activity of cell metabolism, could play an important role in preventing weight gain and diabetes, improving muscular performance and providing other "extraordinary health benefits," according to a Switzerland-based research team.
Until you consider this: 

Thus the important disclaimers: "However, researchers said that the molecule is extremely small and difficult to reproduce. 'At the moment, we can't even measure its concentration in milk,' [study author Carles Canto] warned. 'So it's impossible to know how much you would have to drink to be able to observe its effects.'"

I'm guessing the value of this extremely small molecule is offset by the large dose of calories you chug with every pint of IPA.  More study is needed.

Photo credit: Belly Blubber Blasters

Friday, June 08, 2012

What Do We Call Big Beer?

In comments to my post on the rise of Asia as a beer market, an anonymous commenter wrote this:
I object to calling these organizations conglomerates instead of brewers.

A conglomerate is an entity who's various enterprises are not related. Example: General Electric. Owns TV stations, manufacturers jet engines, offers financial services, manufacture oil equipment.

AB InBev and SAB Miller, by contrast, are more or less exclusively focused on the design, manufacture, and sale of beer. They are highly specialized, with massive expertise in the beer industry. They are practically the precise opposite of a conglomerate.

You many not personally be fond of their methods, or their products, but they are brewers, and to call them otherwise is simply inaccurate.
Let's take that last paragraph first, because it's instrumental to how we think about this issue.  I would argue that large beer companies are categorically different from smaller breweries.  These companies manage large portfolios of products that they manufacture in industrial plants.  They produce a variety of beer that varies little by brand or region, which makes it very easy to create new brands, sunset others, all on a massive scale.  Small breweries are associated with single brands and are not optimized to produce consistent beer in large quantities.  (As with all things, things get fuzzy in the middle.)  I say they are categorically different because the production methods and products of large industrial breweries, whether we're talking about Dutch Heineken, Mexican Modelo, or Chinese Tsingtao, are very similar to one another and very different from cask ale breweries in England, saison breweries in Belgium, or weizen producers in Bavaria.  They're optimized to make interchangeable light lagers, and as they acquire and sell brands, that's exactly what they do.

This distinction is far from unique to beer.  Most food and drink markets have an expensive, artisanal end and a mass-produced, industrial end.  In a very real sense, they're not the same markets.  It's true that Kraft and Rogue Creamery are both in the cheese business, but the people buying American cheese by the slice are never going to spend eight bucks a pound on Oregonzola--and vice versa.

I don't think anyone doubts that many (most?) big beer companies produce impressive products.  They're extremely consistent and clean--and therefore very hard to brew.  When I was traveling through Britain and Belgium, brewers there made a point of praising Anheuser-Busch to me for their level of accomplishment.  But it's fundamentally a different product than what Frank Boon or John Keeling (Fuller's) make.

Now, as to conglomerate, Wikipedia backs up the definition from the commenter.  I'm not sure if it's a universal definition, but I think it's linguistically useful.  The commenter's right--mostly those companies are in the beer or at least drinks business (like Diageo).  But I also think it's important to realize that in using industrial-scale breweries optimized to produce interchangeable light-lager-type beers, they're a different beast than small breweries.  So what: agglomeration, maybe?

Friday Flick ... and a Mystery, too!

The good folks at Affligem (hard g) recently sent me an interesting package.  It included a bottle of beer and an embossed goblet--naturally--but also a wee cordial and an odd wooden serving tray.  A visual:

There are two mysteries here: what's the purpose of the cordial glass, and what am I supposed to put in that extra hole next to the bottle?  (You may glean a clue to question #1 here.)  Today's Friday Flick--which I shall embed below the fold to give you a chance to consider these mysteries--answers only one.  I invite your solutions to the unsolved mystery--and I'll even send out a copy of the nationally-touted Beer Tasting Toolkit if someone can convincingly answer it.  Have at it.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Fruit Frontier

Venue Update.  Commenters have expressed concern about the size of the venue, and I should have mentioned a key change to this year's event. Ezra and crew were caught by surprise that so many people came to last year's fest, so they secured the block of 7th Avenue next to the brewery to substantially increase the space. 

I will hand it to Ezra Johnson-Greenough: he has a flair for drama.  Last year when he launched the Fruit Beer Fest, the native Portlander selected the moments after the city's most sacred (and profane) rite ended.  As drowsy early-risers returned from the Rose Festival's Grand Floral Parade, many walked past Burnside Brewing, where the Fruit Fest was just beginning.  This year, Ezra has swaddled the fest in the activity of Portland Beer Week, making it the signature event.  Fortunately, it's not just another overhyped niche fest--it easily raced to the top tier of last year's best events, and it looks to actually be better for year two.

It's good because Ezra curates the beers, working with the brewers to come up with a diverse range of beers that stretch the boundaries of what we think of as fruit beers.  This year's taplist includes sours, Berliner weisses, IPAs, saisons, stouts, wits, weizens, and lots more.  Used to flavor these beers are coffee cascaras (cherries), lychee, oranges, currants, huckleberry, pomegranate--plus usual fruit like cherries and raspberries (and more).

Saturday and Sunday at Burnside brewing, further details here.  We may even have decent weather.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Big Beer's Future? Asia

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal featured a piece on how MolsonCoors is belatedly trying to catch up with multinational titans.  The company recently picked up StarBev (you know, the guys who own Noroc and Kamenitza) and will become the world's 7th largest beer conglomerate.  (These entities aren't "breweries" in any meaningful sense.)  But here's the thing I found interesting.  After the usual names, InBev, SABMiller, Heineken, and Carlsberg, there are some interesting names on the list: China Resources Enterprise and Beijing Yangjin.  Indeed, four of the top ten are Asian companies.

This is remarkable. The WSJ article says analysts predict 5% growth in the Chinese market over the next few years--and I would call that a conservative estimate.  But even at that rate, the growth will be staggering.  The Chinese market is only in its infancy.  Almost no one drinks beer there, and yet it's already the world's biggest market. With five percent (compounding) growth on top of the world's biggest market, buckets of money are just lying around for the enterprising multinational.  Europe's market is mature and the population stagnant, and the North American market for big beer is shrinking.  For major breweries, the Chinese market represents horizons available nowhere else in the world.  I wouldn't be surprised to see six or seven Asian brands on this list in a decade.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Dread Amazon, Part Two

A couple of months ago, I mentioned the alarming case of the Justice Department's attack on five book publishers at the behest of Amazon, or as David Carr put it: “the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ‘N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead.”  Because you were all clamoring for a follow-up*, here it is.  I will excerpt two paragraphs that I found especially pithy [ellipses theirs]:
The Independent Publishers Group, a principal distributor of about 500 small publishers, recently angered Amazon by refusing to accept the company’s peremptory demand for deeper discounts. Amazon promptly yanked nearly 5,000 digital titles. Small-press publishers were beside themselves. Bryce Milligan of Wings Press, based in Texas, spoke for most when, in a blistering broadside, he lambasted Amazon, complaining that its actions caused his sales to drop by 40 percent. “Amazon,” he wrote, “seemingly wants to kill off the distributors, then kill off the independent publishers and bookstores, and become the only link between the reader and the author…. E-book sales have been a highly addictive drug to many smaller publishers. For one thing, there are no ‘returns.’… E-book sales allowed smaller presses to get a taste of the kind of money that online impulse buying can produce. Already e-book sales were underwriting the publication of paper books-and-ink at Wings Press…. For Amazon to rip e-book sales away is a classic bait-and-switch tactic guaranteed to kill small presses by the hundreds…. There was a time not so long ago when ‘competition’ was a healthy thing, not a synonym for corporate ‘murder.’ Amazon could have been a bright and shining star, lighting the way to increased literacy and improved access to alternative literatures. Alas, it looks more likely to be a large and deadly asteroid. We, the literary dinosaurs, are watching to see if this is a near miss or the beginning of extinction.”  


Jacob Stevens, the managing director of Verso, the distinguished independent press spawned by the London-based New Left Review, says of Amazon: “Having our backlist instantly and immediately available has so far outweighed the problems. For me, the problems become worse as Amazon moves from ‘just’ being a big player in selling books to vertical control of entire sections of the industry. It all gets a bit Big Brother. It’s easy to imagine Amazon muscling existing publishers out of the picture altogether and inviting authors and agents to deal directly with them. What would that do for the richness and diversity of our culture?”
"Vertical control" is an important phrase.  As the article details, Amazon has now entered the world of regular book publishing.  This means they can now cut out the meddlesome publishers who had the audacity to demand they, Mighty Amazon, pay the going rate for corporeal books.  Since Amazon has already cornered 60% of the digital market with Kindle, they've cut out the meddlesome bookseller as well.  They are now in a position to produce the content and sell the means of reading it (on proprietary machines).  Or, if you're really a damned luddite, they will still deign to sell you a dead-tree copy on a site they've managed to keep largely sales-tax-free.  Production, distribution, and retail all under the same roof--and with a few anti-competitive perks just to hasten the deaths of pesky competitors.

The genius of capitalism lies in the healthy function of the market.  Companies compete for our dollars by producing excellent goods at cheap prices.  Amazon finds this tiresome.  Vertical control is so much easier to manage than all that meddlesome competition. 

*I have interpreted the dead silence in this case as rapt interest.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Early 20th-Century Burton, Brief Return

On Friday, home brewer extraordinaire Bill Schneller sent me an email about a special beer pouring at the Firkin Fest over the weekend: Burton ale to evoke the style as it was made in the 1930s, recipe by Bill, brewing by the Green Dragon (Buckman) brewery.  I had planned to skip that fest in very mild protest (it's a huge missed opportunity and offends my love of cask ale).  Fortunately, the Green Dragon continued to pour beers after the fest, and so I went and grabbed a pint last night.  Rare is the opportunity to try a Burton; doubly rare is the opportunity to drink it fresh on cask.

Burton Ales
Burton ales go back a very long time.  They were originally brewed in Burton upon Trent in the 18th century for the export Russian market.  They were then brown ales, made at insane gravities--both original and finishing.  When Russia passed a massive import tariff in 1822, Burton's export market dried up and brewers had to figure out how to sell the product to locals for whom the malt syrup was too sticky and thick.  They lightened the beer somewhat--though it never got pale--and reduced the gravities ... somewhat.  The hallmark of Burtons is strange balance point: they are simultaneously packed with residual sugars and hops.  Imagine a beer as thick and dark as Grade B maple syrup (and damn near as sweet) but hopped to the heavens.  It's both sweet and heavy and sharply bitter.
Bill's Burton is in the foreground.

As you would expect, Martyn Cornell is the go-to source for the style:
The recipe ... is absolutely typical of the Burton Ale style: pale ale and crystal malts, brewing sugar for additional extract, caramel, and Special Brewing Sugar, a dark molasses-type sugar, for colour and extra flavour. The result is a sweet, dark, fruity warming beer, just like its few surviving brother beers in the Burton Ale style, which include Young’s Winter Warmer, Marston’s Owd Roger and Theakston’s Old Peculier.
Now listen to Bill's recipe and see how he did:
"[T]he bulk of the invert was demerara sugar that someone there inverted to slightly darker than the Invert No 2 that a lot of these beers used.  Less refined sugars like that tend to burn a tad and can give a little roastiness.  Oh, the grain bill also had about 20% Mild ale malt.  It was 60% Pale (split between Maris Otter and Golden Promise), 20% Mild Ale, 5% dark crystal, and 15% Invert Sugar (about 85% of that was Invert 2 and the balance was the Belgian 160L)."

It was brewed to 1.075 and had 75 BUs of hops--100% East Kent Goldings.  Bill didn't mention amending the water in the first email, but that was clear on the palate, and he confirmed they went about half-Burton on the salts ("I've done full-on Burtonization and it can make the bitterness pretty intense and aggressive.")  I'm long past trying to defend these revivals as "authentic," but I would say Bill did a great job trying to evoke a beer that approximates the experience of a beer from 80 years ago.

So what's a Burton taste like?  For modern palates, it's quite unusual.  One 19th century writer referred to Burtons as "glutinous," and that's what sprang to my mind.  Some beers are sweet and heavy--barley wines, some stouts--but they can't compare with the heaviness and stickiness of this beer.  It was almost gluey.  But then the hops come roaring in and nip the sweetness; it's balanced by having both the malt and hops cranked to 10.  It also had a slight roasty note that, based on the recipe, surprised me (that's what Bill is responding to in the quote above).  A heavy, heady beer.  I could actually imagine modern palates--those who adore extreme beers--shifting just a half step and finding real pleasure in Burtons.

The most important discovery, though, were the minerals in the water.  They add a stiffness, sharpening hops and giving beer a sense of dryness.  When you read about Burtons, you wonder how anyone could have drunk the things.  The key is the hard Burton water--it ties the elements together so that they don't just scream at you but achieve a palatable lusciousness.  A lot is made of the water that came up through the gypsum beds underneath the city, especially as it influenced the development of pale ales.  But to understand the style most associated with the city, this element is critical.  I can imagine that making a Burton out of totally neutral Portland water would result in a sticky, treacly mess.

There's purportedly another cask of this beer left on earth.  I will endeavor to alert you as to when and where it goes on tap.  Anyone interested in the history of beer really should have a pint.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Is This Good?

An exclamation-pointy text came this morning with news that the Beer Tasting Toolkit had been featured in Parade Magazine, that trashy supplement to Sunday papers:

Where's the New York Times when you need it?

Update.  Okay, I guess Jack (in comments) was right: Parade gave this a bump.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Metablog! Blogger Joins a Multi-Blog Discussion on the Future of Blogging

Metablogging is indulgent and unnecessary, and yet, as Alan puts it, "there is no honey sweeter, no creek water cooler, no child's laughter more precious than what happens when bloggers write about blogging."  To bloggers, anyway.  Let us start with Andy Crouch, who kicked off the topic.  He argues blogs are dying:
Perhaps it is my own self-selection, but it seems (and I am largely without empirical proof on this one) that the cause of beer blogging has slowed considerably in the last year or two.

He is, of course, totally correct.  Blogs were an interstitial medium, bridging the gap between paid journalism and social media.  When they came along in the early aughts, they seemed revelatory: random people could actually harness the world wide intertubes and potentially reach millions.  The history of media is the history of controlling the means of distribution.  In a single stroke, blogs eliminated the hegemony of multinational empires.  You could, literally for free, join the New York Times as an organ of the news.  But then: BeerAdvocate, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and their descendants.  In 2012, blogs look as wheezy and creaky as the old farts who write them (with apologies to the young farts who do, too). 

I would, however, caution against an existential crisis.  Because, while BeerAdvocate, Facebook, and Twitter make it very easy for people to share their opinions about beer, the flow of actual information has never been lower.  Take the Portland example.  We have four local papers, but only two make any gesture toward covering beer, and both cover beer a whole lot less than they did a decade ago.  Yet we have something approaching 50 breweries.  A good many of them do something interesting a few times a year to try to catch our attention, plus there are festivals and events happening year round.  Because there is so much happening, we tend to get a constant flow of updates about activity but very little deep information.  I've been trying to add a bit of that with my new brewery reports, but I'm just scratching the surface.   Portland has more blogs than most towns, so together we do manage to cover more, but we have no where near a fully-covered scene.

Alan says it's a seller's market--a good time to blog--and I would agree.  You won't get rich, you won't get a raft of readers, and you will spend a lot of your time doing an activity for which your friends will mock you (except on those rare occasions when you score samples).  But then again, that's how it's always been.  Hold your heads up, bloggers: half-assed reviews on BeerAdvocate and bon mots on Twitter can't replace us.  Someone's got to go out to pubs and breweries and, when they're not navel-gazing in metablog posts, report back what they find.  No one else is going to do it.