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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Whipped Cream and Stout

Last night Sally ordered cake.  I'm not a cake guy, but a glass of stout for dessert seemed like an excellent idea.  Off to the side of Sally's cake--the far side in this picture--was a dollop of whipped cream.  I idly scooped it off the plate and tried a sip of the stout.  Amazing.  Not that a serious beer aficionado like me would ever recommend such a thing, but you could actually serve stouts with a whipped cream head, ala Starbuck's.  Could.  Apostasy and all that, but...

Monday, July 30, 2012

Czech Treasures?

In October I return to Europe for what will be part two of a dream journey through the legendary breweries of Germany and the Czech Republic.  After Czech, I head to Italy to survey what is by all accounts the most interesting new scene on the planet.  (Cantillon's Jean Van Roy, apologizing, said he felt it exceeded the US.)  So far I have the first leg coming together: landing in Dusseldorf and visiting Uerige; zipping south for Kolsch country; down to Kelheim to see Schneider; back north to Bamberg and Franconia; and finally to the cradle of Munich.  Italy also looks to be coming together--or looks, anyway, like it will come together when I start matching breweries and dates.

In between is the Czech Republic, which remains a bit of a cipher to me and most Americans.  We know Pilsner Urquell and Budvar, of course (those are on the list mos def).  We know Prague.  But here's a little test: name me five Czech breweries.  I've spotted you two, but my bet is that you'll find it very hard to fill out the list.  The truth is, one of the world's greatest brewing country remains mostly hidden from American eyes.

I will be very fortunate to have the estimable beer philosopher, (Pivní Filosof) Max Brahnson, do a little pub-and-brewery crawling with me when I'm in Prague.  I've also studied his Pisshead's Guide to Prague to bone up on my vycepni pivos and my tmaves (since I'm working in Blogspot and am lazy, all diacritics have been left in the cupboard).  Because, of course, there's a lot more to Czech beer than just "Bohemian pilsner."  (There is, in fact, more to the Czech Republic than just Bohemia.)  All of that will be enormously useful to me.

But since we do know so little, and since I'm still waiting for my copy of Evan Rail's now somewhat outdated Good Beer Guide to Prague, I'll throw this out to the hive mind.  What small treasures, invisible to American eyes, await me if only I know where to look when I visit the Czech Republic?  I'll be in a car, so it doesn't have to be in a big city. 

Help me, hive mind!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

OBF (Liveblogging?)

In a few moments, I will begin walking with the ceremonial parade that is the kick-off of the Oregon Brewers Festival.  In this moment, I have every intention to try to put the iPhone to use and do some liveblogging, but you never know.  The spirit of the OBF is not one of diligence and labor.  In any case, if you're down at Tom McCall Waterfront Park on this lovely Portland day and see me, say hi--

1:23pm  #Fail. Actually, it's AT&T, which has me on the E Network. Spotty blogging to follow. However, a couple beer notes. Big winners: White Light/white Ale, which instantly gets cred for VU reference. Despite what the program says, it's made with white pepper and malted wheat (Flat Tail's Dave Maliave said). It rocks. Occidental's Kellerbier is sublime. I also really liked the Gigantic hop bomb Dynomite is old-school huge.

1:54pm (Yes, that last sentence was gibberish.) Uinta's Hop Notch is very nice.

9:22pm Ah well, you didn't really want any liveblogging anyway, did you? 

I made it home safely at least, and after a fine meal at House of Louie.

OBF and the Modern History of Oregon Brewing

The marvelous John Foyston is in fine form in what amounts to a fantastic recap of the craft era in Oregon, and how that ties into the Oregon Brewers Fest. 

Thirty years ago, Portland had a large regional brewery, Blitz-Weinhard, which made undistinguished mass-market lagers -- and the first hint of things to come, in the form of Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve. The city's first microbrewery, Cartwright Brewing, died young. It was padlocked for unpaid taxes at the end of 1981 and its equipment and inventory auctioned off, says beer historian Fred Eckhardt.
A generation ago, pioneer craft brewers tried to persuade tavern owners to buy funny beers brewed in tiny breweries in reused dairy tanks, beers that they or their customers had never heard of and which cost twice as much as a keg of Bud or Blitz. "There were times," says Rob Widmer, "when they'd look at me as if I wasn't speaking English." 
 A must-read for anyone who is either too young to have witnessed it first-hand or was somewhere else.  John identifies the key factor in an overlooked part of craft brewing: the importance of regional breweries.  What are the best places for beer?  Denver, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Wisconsin.  What did they have in common? Regional craft breweries.  Other cities are now catching up, but the founders were where the idea of local beer hadn't already become an inconceivable concept.  To understand Oregon beer, you gotta know Blitz Weinhard.

Anyway, go read it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Future of Beer

Stephen Beaumont has an interesting post that got me thinking.  He sussed out an Advertising Age article describing the panic that has forced the cabal of macro brewers to huddle about saving their product:
According to Ad Age, new BI chairman, MillerCoors ceo Tom Long, hopes “to bring energy and ideas to the many programs and plans that tell the story about beer being the right choice for consumers and retailers alike.”
Uggh, what dismal corporatespeak.  The big breweries then go on to mis-analyze their own situation:
The scope of the new effort is unclear, but there seems to be a consensus that beer needs to emphasize its positioning as the beverage of "moderation," which Anheuser-Busch VP-Marketing Paul Chibe said "gives it a distinct advantage" over other booze options. 
Wine and liquor aren't the problem--big beer is.  When you look at the long history of brewing, the wholesale dominance by a single style is totally unprecedented. It’s even more bizarre that it happened during this amazing period of market freedom.  Offering customers one flavor was unsustainable ("welcome to Baskin-Robbins Single Flavor; can I get you some vanilla?"), but this isn't the problem the big companies have identified: no, to them, it's the encroachment of chardonnay and gin.

If they're smart, the bigs will instead think of making chocolate and maybe even strawberry.  Take the example of Blue Moon.  Keith Villa started brewing craft beer for Coors and now Blue Moon is the best selling ale in the US [edit: I'm speaking of Belgian White here, not the entire line]. That brand alone sells well over a million barrels a year. (Even by the standards of the bigs, nothing to sniff at.) Villa didn’t backward-engineer it, though; he brewed a standard witbier and found a market halfway between Bud and craft beer drinkers (discovering, indeed, a market made of people who never drank either one of those). It helped to have the muscle of Coors to put it on supermarket shelves around the country, but it sold because it was a different, interesting, and pretty tasty product.

But the big companies keep trying to peddle the same old crap in new packages and wonder why people are reaching for something else.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

OBF By the Numbers, 2012 Edition

Traditions attract traditions.  One generation ago, the Oregon Brewers Festival launched into sub-orbit on the foam of over-heated kegs.  On Thursday, the 25th edition of the fest will definitely shoot for the stars.  We have on this here blog our own tradition of summarizing the beast in numbers (I guess the shift to royal "we" is to acknowledge the London Olympics).  Here we go...

Years since inception: 25
Total beers: 84 (86 in 2011)
Total breweries: 82 (86)*
States represented: 14 (14)
Percent Oregon: 52% (53%)
Percent California: 15% (19%)
Percent Washington: 8% (10%)
All Others: 25% (17%)
Percentage of attendees from Oregon: 44

Ale to Lager ratio: 12 to 1 (8 to 1)
Total styles (by broad category): 28 (34)
IPAs: 26%, 21 total (17%, 15 total)
__- Standard IPA: 15
__- Double IPA: 4
__- CDA: 2
Belgian styles: 15% (16%)
German/Czech styles: 13% (17%)
By style:
__-  Pale: 8 (NA)
__- Witbier: 6 (2)
__- Abbey: 4 (NA)
__- Pilsner: 4 (4)
__- Stouts and porters: 3 (7)
__- Kolsch: 3 (3)
__- Gluten-free: 2 (NA)

Beers using spices/adjuncts: Lots (19%)**
Fruit beers: 17% (10%)
Organic beers: 7% (N/A)

ABV of smallest beer (tie, Beer Valley and Full Sail): 4% (4.3%)
ABV of largest beer (Double Mountain Goliathon): 11% (10.3%)
Average ABV: 6.2% (NA)
Beers below 5.5% ABV: 31 (34)
Beers above 7% ABV: 24 (27)
Fewest IBUs in Fest (10 Barrel Raspberry Crush): 4 (0)
Most IBUs at the Fest (Dunedin Chronicle): 125 (103)
Average IBUs: 39 (N/A)
Beers between 0 and 40 IBUs: 53 (51)
Minimum years in a row 21st Amendment has brought Watermelon Wheat: 0 (10)***

*Sort of.  Some breweries got in multiple beers under different banners (Widmer, Omission as an example)
**Not every grain bill was available.
***After a decade, the streak is over!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Defining "Gluten-Free"

Oregon has weirdly become ground-zero in the battle over what it means for a beer to be "gluten-free."  It seems pretty obvious, doesn't it?--no gluten.  As always, the meaning of words depends on which lawyers you consult (pdf):
[The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)] has also received inquiries from brewers and importers who wish to make label claims about the gluten content of malt beverages fermented from malted barley and other gluten-containing grains. In these cases, industry members claim that they have used various processes to remove most of the gluten from their products, and that the remaining gluten is at low levels (usually below 10 ppm). It also has been suggested that the distillation of mashes fermented from grains containing gluten in the production of distilled spirits products removes most of the gluten from such products. Finally, other products may be crafted in a manner that significantly reduces the gluten content of the finished products.

Despite the contention of several industry members that some currently available tests can measure the gluten content of malt beverage products, pending the issuance of a final rule by FDA, TTB takes the position that these methods cannot be used to substantiate a specific claim about the gluten content of products fermented or distilled from gluten-containing grains, such as “gluten-free” or “x ppm gluten,” because the methods have not yet been scientifically validated to accurately measure the gluten content of fermented products. [Bolding mine]
This matters, because the newest, most high-profile entrant to the world of gluten-free brewing is Omission, from Craft Brewers Alliance, made from regular barley with regular barley malt by removing gluten during the brewing process.  Smaller players like Harvester (who instantly sent out a press release touting the ruling) make beer with grains that start gluten free, and stand to gain a lot by how the government defines this beer category.

Interestingly, it's not the TTB that has final say in this, but the FDA.  And the FDA is currently considering wording that would define "gluten-free" in this narrow sense (the agency doesn't believe it's possible to accurately test for the presence of gluten), with language that seems to be directed right at Omission:
FDA proposes to define the term "gluten-free" to mean that a food bearing this claim in its labeling does not contain any one of the following:
  • An ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has been processed to remove gluten, if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food
Of course, that 20 ppm standard is what Omission has targeted--and to be fair, is the European standard.

So there you have it.  I am wholly ignorant of the science in the debate--is any gluten too much?, can you measure gluten accurately?--but it seems like some people with Celiac disease favor the more liberal ruling.  It'll be interesting to watch this develop.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sumerian Beer Bubbles Again

Sumerian beer, just because:
Great Lakes Brewing Company has enlisted the help of historians, scientists, and archaeologists in order to brew a historically accurate version of what is believed to be the first recorded beer recipe from ancient Sumeria. The project is spearheaded by co-owner Pat Conway, who was inspired by a visit to the University of Chicago, his alma mater.
I'm long past believing projects like this can accurately replicate the beer as it would have tasted five millennia ago--but that doesn't mean I don't endorse the exercise.  And Great Lakes is doing it right:

Credit: Smithsonian
Large porcelain vessels were created by pottery students at the University of Chicago, and the brewers have opted to use sunlight and wooden tools for the malting and mashing of the brew....

GLBC Field Quality Specialist Bridget Gauntner describes one such roadblock she encountered during this project, “Obtaining a yeast sample from the Middle East has been difficult.” The brewers originally enlisted an archaeologist to collect yeast samples during his travels, but he was unable to get the sample past customs. “We decided to instead experiment with initiating fermentation using the bappir (barley bread) as our yeast source,” Gauntner said. Trial and error were important elements of the initial brewing experiment. Portions of the finished beer were examined by GLBC brewers and lab technicians who hope to use what they’ve learned to inform and improve their second attempt in the fall.
There's not a huge amount of information here to assess the process, but the goal isn't really about the final beer--it's the exploration and discoveries that come from trying to follow ancient practices. 

By the way, if you've never had a look at the Hymn to Ninkasi, this might be a good time to have a look.  It's essentially "The Joy of Homebrewing" circa 1800 BCE (with poetic and religious overtones). 

Hat tip to Ashley for alerting me to the story.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Is the International Beer Fest Out of Gas?

I will be attending the Portland International Beer Fest this weekend because it is located in the dappled sunshine of the North Park Blocks and there are so many beers that even a curmudgeon can find a half-dozen excellent pours. 
That said, I become ever more more disenchanted with what was once far and away my fave fest.  Every year, the selection goes down and the prices go up.  This is not only inexcusable in a moment when there's more good international beer in the US than ever before (places like Apex and Bazi consistently have impressive draft imports) , but especially when you compare it to other international fests like this one.

The beer list is disappointing.   It is larded with a large number of familiar brands (Chimay, Lindemans, Sam Smith's, Schneider, Spaten) and has incredibly bad coverage of emerging countries: Italy (1), France (0), Norway (0).  Denmark and New Zealand have a few entrants--good!--but in past year Danish beer set you back 4-6 bucks for a 4-ounce pour.  We'll see how it looks this year.  The total number of actual international beers (83) is now running behind domestics (93).  Oh, and those American entrants, which I've raved about in the past?  The selection is likewise unspectacular.  Lots and lots of regularly-available pours there. 

So to you.  Has PIB run out of gas?  Are you even bothering to go this year, or would you rather hang out at Apex instead?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Beer will kill you or, uh, make you healthier

Scanning the headlines today, I see two amusingly contrasting stories.  First, from Britain
The UK Faculty of Public Health, which represents some 3,300 public health specialists across a wine range of disciplines, says the dangers of alcohol are so great that tobacco-style health warnings are needed.

‘Alcohol is a dangerous drug, and the more you consume, the more the dangers increase,’ [Professor Mark Bellis, the FPH’s spokesman] said. ‘The important thing is for people to understand those dangers....  Anyone who promotes alcohol as beneficial just demonstrates the need for these sorts of warnings.’
The bold is mine, and I highlight it as a gorgeous segue to this piece, called Ten Healthier Beers:
Feeling guilty about knocking a few back? It might be time to stop! Beer consumption has been shown to help protect against heart disease and lower the risk of hypertension with moderate consumption.
As rational adults know, alcohol can be both healthy and dangerous.  Lying about this fact seems a poor place to start a public health campaign.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Can Americans Learn to Speak Flemish?

Ezra has a nice update on Oregon's latest brewery--Pfriem (see his backgrounder of the brewery here).  The brewer behind the project, Josh Pfriem (pn freem), is introducing a line of beers that includes an IPA and four Belgian-inflected beers.  It comes on the heels of the Crux opening, where Larry Sidor mentioned that his true love was Belgian ales.  The Commons, née Beetje, Solera, Upright, Breakside, Cascade Barrel House, Block 15, and Flat Tail all have strong Belgian connections, and some are in the direct lineage.  And that's just Oregon; add some of the stellar work being done at Russian River, Allagash, Destihl, the Bruery, New Belgium, Jolly Pumpkin and many more, and there is a definite trend toward Low Country brewing.

As an inveterate beer geek, I love it.  Belgians make wonderful, antiquated, oddball beers that are the washed rind cheeses of the beer world.  Their depth and complexity open up a world of flavor a standard pale-and-caramel-malt hop bomb can't approach.  Connoisseurs love them, but they remain inaccessible to casual fans.  A familiar story: Beckett is loved by the uber-bookish and Truffaut by the cinéaste, but the average fan prefers Larsson or Cameron.

Every form of expression--including food and beverage--runs a continuum from simple, broad, and accessible to complex, narrow, and difficult.  Rare is the person who appreciates either Époisses de Bourgogne or le bourgogne de Belgique on first sample.  If he ever gets there--a dicey proposition--it comes after some sampling and discussing.  Even in Belgium, the people who drink lambics, tart Flanders ales, or saisons are quite rare.  Collectively, the entire markets for these beers is smaller than the output of a brewery like Sierra Nevada.  And Belgian breweries have an advantage: these beer styles are old and traditional and therefore culturally familiar.  In the US, the same styles just seem bizarre and out of context.

How many beer geeks are there who love Belgian strong dark ales and saisons?  How many more can be manufactured?  We're running a real-world experiment to find out.  I hope the answer is "boatloads."  Fingers crossed.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Meet the New Brewery: Crux Fermentation Project

Let's deal with the name first.  Two of the words are relevant, "crux" and "fermentation."  The first refers to the location of Bend's newest brewery, which, despite being located in a funny little industrial park just outside the downtown core, is actually in the dead-center of the city (behold map at right).  The second word refers not just to beer, but other fermented edibles, which will ultimately be a part of of the whole experience. 

But what most people care about is the the thing that is nowhere mentioned in the title, the brewery, which is the crux of the whole fermentation project, right?

Crux is the much-anticipated new project of Paul Evers, Dave Wilson, and Larry Sidor--who until late last year was the brewmaster at Deschutes.  While there, Larry oversaw one of the most remarkable line-extensions in recent memory, including beer geek icons the Abyss, the Dissident, and the Black Butte XX series and regular faves Chainbreaker, Hop Henge, Hop in the Dark, and Red Chair.  That's enough to put you in the Beervana hall of fame, but before that, he worked at Olympia and at SS Steiner, the international hop grower.  Safe to say Larry has the most experience of any founding brewer of a recent start-up.  With his latest move, he completes his transition to ever smaller breweries offering ever more freedom.  At Crux, he was able to start from scratch and build a brewery exactly to his specs. 

The Brewery
Mash tun, kettle, lauter, l-r.
I was surprised to find a relatively small brewery in the old Aamco transmission shop the owners have repurposed as a brewery and pub.  Many brewers--especially old hands who have cleaned out their share of mash tuns--don't like wee systems.  They're labor-intensive and hard to scale up in the happy circumstance of spiking sales.  So the ten hecto system Larry installed, though gorgeous, caught me by surprise.  But looks deceive.

The three gleaming copper vessels actually constitute "the third most-sophisticated system in Oregon," according to Sidor.  I visited during the grand opening and so didn't get a chance to delve deeply into the operations, but these little babies are fully automated and can churn through eight batches a day.  Made by a German company and mirror polished in Japan (the interiors are stainless, natch), they create a gorgeous visual tableau as you sit in the pub. 

When I arrived, the first batch was six days old and still in the fermenter.  It's going to be one of the regular beers, a chewy, vivid hoppy beer--one of those hybrid session ales that's green with hop flavor and aroma but not high octane.  But my sense is that Larry's heart lies elsewhere--closer to, say, Brussels.  Later in the day, when the three owners christened the brewery, Larry smashed an unnamed Belgian strong dark ale.  Indeed, when I asked him about what he liked to brew, that's the kind of beer he mentioned.  Crux will obviously brew a wide range, but I look forward to some of those Flemish-accented treats.  For added versatility, he installed a room with three open fermenters in which he'll be able to whip up weizens, saisons, and other rustic specialties.  The idea is to use it with successive yeast strains, brewing several beers, then giving it a serious scrub-down and starting anew with a different yeast.

The Place
Despite it's geography, Crux isn't exactly in the middle of things.  Bend's downtown is just north, and you cross over into an industrial neighborhood that is on its way to gentrification.  To get there, though, you drive through the redeveloped area and past the $725,000 townhouses and keep going until you've passed a derelict warehouse (strangely filled with bikes ala the zoobombers) and out into the real industrial flats. When you reach the end of the road, you keep driving, straight into the parking lot of Crux.  I will confess to finding the location a bit desolate, but things improve markedly when you set foot inside the building.

The design would not be out of place in Southeast Portland: a converted industrial space with warehousey soaring ceilings, skylights, and spacious vistas.  In front of you is the wide bar backed by a window peeking in on conditioning tanks, highlighting the building's spaciousness.  The attention to detail is impressive.  Copper kettle vent tubes serve as lighting, and at the end of the bar, the kitchen entrance is concealed by a collage of different-sized fir post ends.  The tables are made from reclaimed wood and even the sign out front was made from an old piece of salvaged sheet metal.

The brewery is at the building's north (or left-hand) end, and the kettles and a row of fermenters create a natural visual barrier.  You can wander over and take in the equipment, which will impress the uninitiated as well as advanced-stage beer geeks.  Despite the show-room quality of the copper vessels, Larry managed to draw on his connections to wheel and deal for odds and ends from breweries throughout the city.  He even has the old grain mill from his days at Olympia.  (Someone from Boneyard, a brewery named for its scavenged equipment, called it "more boneyard than Boneyard.")  You should pay special attention to the open fermenters, which ought to be attractive when full, and the large hop back Sidor fashioned from dairy equipment.

Despite its less-than-central location, I imagine it won't take long for Crux to become one of the pivotal stops along the Bend Ale Trail (for which, conveniently, there's an app). 

Since I only tried one beer, green at that, I can't actually speak to the brewery's central purpose.  I consider it a small leap of faith to assume good beer is on the way.  If I was forced to identify a complaint it would be the name, which seems fussy and overly high-concept--but that just goes to show how far down the list I'd have to reach.  All signs say it will be a fantastic new addition to a city already lousy with great breweries.  If you're in Bend anytime soon, check it out and report back.  It may be awhile before I can do a follow-up.

As always, more pics below the fold.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cervecería Minerva and the Promise of Mexican Craft Brewing

Let's try a game.  I say "Mexican beer" and you say ...?

"Minerva," right?  No?

There is a tiny craft beer movement in Mexico--even "micro" makes it sound bigger than the statistical error it appears to be.  Collectively--collectively!--all the craft brewers in Mexico account for just .008% of all beers sold.  So the fact that I have been able to try three beers from Jalisco's Minerva brewery makes me one of the very special few.  (Follow that link if you want a backgrounder on Mexican beer).

All of which makes my comments on those three beers pretty much useless to you.  You have a better chance of getting your hands on Westvleteren.  Nevertheless, if you're still reading, the idle thought may have crossed your mind: is Mexican craft beer any good?

Minerva is.  It's not amazing, but it's solid.  I've tried Blanca, Rila, and Imperial Tequila Ale, and they all clock in at quite respectable.  The Blanca is apparently a collaboration beer with homebrewers (or other small craft brewers?) and not a part of their regular line-up.  As the name would suggest, it's a witbier, made with coriander, tangerine peel, and star anise.  A pretty nice example, with delicate spicing and a soft, bready base.  Very light at 4.5%, but I imagine that would be just about right under the Jalisco sun.

Rila is a red ale, more in the mode of an Irish beer or, perhaps, an ale-y evocation of Vienna lager.  It has a curious provenance (translation courtesy of the Goog):
Guadalajara's Minerva Brewery, along with the group Collective Bikla Make Beer, launched the first special beer for the cycling community in the country.  RILA is a seasonal product developed jointly by independent brewers and local cycling groups with the aim of promoting beer culture.
The bottle we had was a touch old, so the flavors had gotten slightly oxidized.  Seemed otherwise like a fine if prosaic beer. 

The last one was the most interesting--Imperial Tequila Ale.  It was aged in barrels formerly containing anejo tequila.  Minerva isn't the only brewery to attempt this--Cucapa Brewery was the first to try it with their barley wine.  Unfortunately, it seems tequila offers only subtle character, and I had to really work to detect anything at all (and it may have been my imagination doing the detecting).  An otherwise quite tasty, malt-forward strong ale that stood easily on its own, un-tequiled legs.  It does make me think: might this experiment not work better with a much lighter beer?

The upshot is not so much a review of beers as a review of one brewery's attempt at craft brewing.  If Minerva is at all representative, Mexican craft brewing shows a lot of promise.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Key Events During Oregon Craft Beer Month

Oregon Craft Beer month is now underway--to less fanfare than usual.  Perhaps this is the inevitable result of every month looking like craft beer month in Oregon.  Nevertheless, there are a few important events to put on the calender, and they are these:

World Beer Congress, July 28-August 1
For some reason, this event has been flying a bit under the radar, and yet it is a big-ass deal.  The congress only happens every four years, and this year it'll be in Portland from July 28-August 1. A lot of the events are not for Joe Beergeek (Beer Canning and Double Seaming Technology), but there is one thing that might attract your attention: Beer Steward Seminar.  This is a program designed in part by our own Karl Ockert, who writes: "It is aimed towards educating the beer professionals who handle, sell and promote good beer and we have trained almost 1500 wholesalers, retailers, brewers (and beer writers) in the 18 months since we started."  I've written about this before, and I am psyched to attend the session and see what they've come up with.

Puckerfest, July 13-19
Belmont Station's annual ode to tart kicks off on Friday (just as I leave town for the weekend--@#$%!!).  I alert you particularly to Friday the 13th, when Oakshire's Skookumchuck makes a showing and Saturday, July 14, when Cantillon--now rare--has its day.  The schedule is here, and truth be told, every day is going to be a winner with rare, lovely beers. 

PIB (July 20-22) and OBF (July 26-29)
Forces of nature about which oceans of ink have been writ.  Note the dates and the beers: PIB and OBF

Saraveza's Imperial IPA Fest, July 22
Beyond the title, which mostly says it all, I give you a few of the more exotic entrants: Block 15 Blockhead, Deschutes Jedeye, Fort George Bad Juju, and Ninkasi Babylon.

Fred Eckhard's Beer and Cheese Tasting, July 24
The twentieth annual, at Flanders Rogue at 5 pm.  Call 503-222-5910 for deets.

For the full list of events, check out the Oregon Brewers Guild.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Ancient Steinbier--Irish Edition

This is very cool:
Moore is taking me to visit an unexcavated fulacht fiadh (pronounced FULL-ahk FEE-add), or fulachtaí fia in plural, the most common type of prehistoric archaeological site in Ireland. Better known as a “burnt mound” in the neighboring United Kingdom, where they are also found, there are nearly 6,000 recorded fulacht fiadh sites dotted around Ireland alone...  Although commonplace and easy to identify, the fulacht fiadh remains enigmatic. There is no consensus among archaeologists about what they were primarily used for. Various theories—such as cooking, textile production, bathing, and Moore’s personal hypothesis, a type of ancient microbrewery—have all been proposed.
Photo: Declan Moore and Billy Quinn
When we arrive at the site, Moore shows me the basic features of a fulacht fiadh—a horseshoe-shaped mound of soil and rocks surrounding a depression big enough to park a small car in. Surrounding the troughs are U-shaped mounds made of stones. These mounds can reach heights of more than six and a half feet, though on average they are roughly three feet high, and made of sandstone or limestone. Neither rock type is typically found close to fulacht fiadh sites, indicating that the Bronze Age Irish chose the stones deliberately.
According to Dennehy, the mounds likely cover hearths where the stones, which show evidence of heat-cracking, were fired. The cracking also provides strong evidence that after being heated, the rocks would be placed in the troughs to heat water. “The stones that were heated and shattered during this process were discarded nearby,” Dennehy explains, “gradually accumulating to form the mound surrounding the trough.”

The article then describes how the archaeologists did a bit of applied study and brewed up a batch of stone gruit ale.
Using malted barley donated by a local brewer, they stirred it into the hot water. After 45 minutes, the grains were converted to a sugar syrup called wort, which was transferred into special replicas of Bronze Age pots. Yeast was then added, as were elderflower, juniper berries, and yarrow for flavoring, and the brew was left to ferment for three days. (Moore and Quinn note that windblown yeast would have triggered natural fermentation for Bronze Age brewers.)  Moore and Quinn converted nearly 80 gallons of water into 30 gallons of ale that was copper in color and had a smoky flavor.
Much as is the case with the Marryn Dineley's hypothesis about neolithic brewing in Skara Brae on Orkney Island, the Irish example has dissenters:
Members of the Irish Archaeobotany Discussion Group, however, expressed doubt in Moore and Quinn’s theory, again pointing to a lack of accompanying evidence at fulacht fiadh sites. “Such large-scale processing of cereals would leave a regular trace in the archaeological record, perhaps in the form of uncharred, malted grains at waterlogged sites,” the group wrote in a letter responding to the Archaeology Ireland article.  
I have no dog in the race, except that I like the idea of neolithic brewing and see nothing especially implausible about it.  Some archaeologists have argued that beer started with "gruel beer," a proto state where wetted, crushed grain reaches mild fermentation.  From this, eventually, people learned to use sprouted grain and then figure out malting.  The "eventually" is key.  Humans even of the distant vintage we're talking about were clever.  Had they come across gruel beer, it's hard to imagine that in the span of years or decades they wouldn't have figured it out.  So really, all you need to look for is gruel beer to hypothesize that real beer wasn't far--in archaeological terms--behind.

And anyway, it's more romantic to think of beer's roots delving ever further back into human history.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Beer or Church?

I wouldn't be a respectable blogger if I didn't periodically blatantly rip off someone else's content, repackage it slightly, and trundle it out for you, would I?  (I need to get a few more back-handed compliments about the blog to post at the masthead--this kind of thing does wonders.)  (Also, it's worth noting that my traffic sucks--you damned Oregonians got one look at the sun and quit your homes and computers--so a bit of recycling seems timely.)  (This is just one more parenthetical because you need three to have a series.)

Without further ado:
So in honor of the 4th of July, we selected all geotagged tweets[1] sent within the continental US between June 22 and June 28 (about 10 million in total) and extracted all tweets containing the word "church" (17,686 tweets of which half originated on Sunday) or "beer" (14,405 tweets which are much more evenly distributed  throughout the week). See below for more technical details[2] or just go straight to the map below to see the relative distribution of the tweets in the U.S.
Fascinating! If you click and enlarge the map below and look very closely, you can see how Oregon counties break out:

Those tagged "much more beer" include predictably beer-saturated counties of Multnomah, Deschutes, and Lane, with surprises Marion and Lincoln showing up.  There's only one "much more church" county in the state: Clackamas, which may explain why the southern suburbs are so brewery-poor.  Oregon tilts in favor of beer 20 counties to six--a rout.  Interestingly, neighboring Idaho, which most would consider more churchy than beery, is even more impressive--16 to three, with no "much more church" (and four "much more beer") counties. 

There's another, more statsy map involving something called the Moran's I test for spatial auto-correlation which is also interesting, but you'll have to follow the link to see what that's all about.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Story of American Beer

I've spent the past year reading the history of beer in Belgium, France, and Britain and traveling to those locations.  In York, I stood on the city walls, portions of which were built by the Romans, and the next day visited Samuel Smith's, which has barely updated their system since the 19th century.  In Belgium and France I was reminded of the world wars every time I was shown a copper kettle dating to 1920 (none from before that survived wartime plunder).  It was an eye-opening experience for an American to experience the European sense of history through brewing.  Traditions stretch back into the distant past--and even when they don't, they're reworked so they appear to. 

Americans are comparatively unmoored.  Our traditions come from immigrants who brought them over in a suitcase.  But to the children who inherited them, they were stories no more real than Disney movies.  I was in Bend over the weekend, and like so many small towns in the mountain West, Bend highlighted its meager history everywhere.  I walked past a parking lot where a home built in 1917 had once housed some city ancestor.  When your history begins in the last century, anything that came before can feel like myth and legend.

American brewing reflects this.  For centuries, it was an immigrant's drink.  The English brought it over in boats when locals found they could not brew it well.  (See Washington, Geo., small-ale-brewer, for an example.)  Locals pretty much didn't touch the stuff.  In 1763, New England alone had 159 commercial distilleries, yet were only 132 breweries in the entire country in 1810. By 1830, the US had 14,000 distilleries, towns tolled a bell at 11 am and 4 pm marking “grog time,” and the per capita rate of consumption was nearly two bottles of liquor a week for every drinking-age adult.

Update.  Alan McLeod has a post riffing on the above paragraph, and it prompted a rich discussion in comments.]

We only started drinking beer when another wave of immigrants, the Germans, brought it in the 1840s.  Their lagered beer, in a time when no one understood the mechanism of yeast, was clean, tasty, and popular.  We enjoyed a flowering of brewing in the following decades--German beer, brewed by immigrants.  It was stubbed out by the great puritan experiment of Prohibition, which also says a lot about America.

The consolidation after Prohibition was classically American: out with the local, the distinctive, the (tenuously) traditional, in with the demands of commerce and efficiency.  We were not alone in this regard, but the fire of consolidation roared more easily for the lack of memory and tradition as a cultural backstop.

But the craft brewery movement was also classically American.   Lacking our tradition, we more easily appropriate others'.  Even in the earliest days of craft brewing, it was nothing for a brewer to put on beers inspired by British, German, and Belgian styles.  It's safe to say that by the 1990s, more styles of the world's beer were brewed in the US than had ever been brewed in any country in the world. And now those styles are being twisted and bent to the wishes of breweries who have no memory of what "traditional" ever was.  The vast majority of Americans, upon encountering, say the Widmer Brothers' Marionberry Hibiscus Gose, will have no idea what a gose is, never mind whether marionberry and hibiscus are typical of style.  So why not throw them in? 

I have also learned in the past year that what Americans do to beer appears like ignorance and transgression to some of those who hold their traditions dear.  And indeed that is one dimension of it.  But there's this, too.  We are a country of people who either left another country or have ancestors who did. They related to those traditions differently than those who stayed--the Germans remained, for example, are accused of being hidebound and unwilling to accept modernity.  Not our Germans--look at Rob and Kurt Widmer.  None of this can be measured on the scale of right/wrong or good/bad.  It's cultural.  And the story of American beer, good and bad, is the story of America.

Happy fourth, everyone--

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

With Modelo, Will AB InBev Have a Monopoly?

The impending merger of Grupo Modelo and Anheuser-Busch InBev has aroused certain anxieties:
[T]he $20 billion buyout of Grupo Modelo, which has an estimated 6% of the U.S. market, would push AB InBev’s share to well over half of all U.S. beer sales....  It’s now the world’s largest brewer, controlling about a quarter of the global beer market with its 200 brands.... The volume of beer produced by the companies would increase from 300 million to 350 million barrels annually with the deal, which would also make the company bigger than SABMiller and Heineken — AB InBev’s two closest competitors — combined.

For the average American beer drinker, the growth of InBev could be bad news. Competition within the beer industry is slowly eroding, and anytime there’s less competition, higher prices are likely to follow.  AB InBev could also decide that it ultimately wants to own fewer brands so it can reduce its marketing costs, and that could give customers fewer mainstream beer options.
I don't know how economists define monopolies, but I'm not particularly concerned about InBev's rapid gigantism.  The danger with monopolies is that, absent competition, they can fix prices or lower quality and the customer has no recourse.  There are several forces at work in the beer industry that make me think this is unlikely.
  • Prices.  Bud's going to have to do a lot better than 53% to affect prices.  Mass-market beer is very price sensitive, and if AB raises its prices on Bud Light, it will give the number two and three beers in the country a big leg up.  (Particularly given that the companies aren't competing on flavor.)
  • Brands.  Yeah, AB could dump Natural Light or Bud Ice or something, but it really doesn't control that many brands.  A lot of InBev's portfolio includes foreign beers that don't sell a huge amount in the US (but do well elsewhere).  And regulators should stop AB from dumping Natty Light?  Nyet.
  • Distribution.  AB's secret weapon used to be a very powerful network of distributors who could control the flow of beer in a city.  That's why Redhook and Widmer originally signed up with AB--to get easy access to markets in other states.  But craft brewing on the one end and market consolidation on the other have weakened AB's distribution.  They are no longer gatekeepers, and even small breweries have access to the market.
  • Changing market.  This is probably the biggest issue.  As I argued earlier, the reason for this consolidation is market weakness, not strength.  People are consuming ever less industrial pale lager, and diversity in the craft market is insane.  If InBev could somehow snap up Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium, it would destabilize the craft market.  But unlike the macro segment, craft beer is very profitable, and these companies have no reason to sell.  They can see the potential five years down the road as well as InBev can. 
Some folks are worried that InBev will keep gobbling up craft breweries, but even this isn't especially worrisome. Craft brewing is a different market.  A big part of its success is born from the fact that consumers believe it's handmade with care and attention.  When InBev bought Goose Island, it didn't buy the brands and shift them to an AB plant; that would have defeated the purpose.  Instead, Goose Island must compete in the competitive craft market, where flavor is paramount.  Investments and growth will give Goose Island a price advantage, but only to a point.  And in any case, this is no model for replacing lost market share.  When AB's brands slide a percent or two in a year, that means millions of lost barrels of beer.  You can't easily replace that with a patchwork of 100,000-barrel craft breweries.

So let 'em merge.  There's no monopoly and no immediate threat to the status quo--which is exactly InBev's American problem.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Christening Crux Fermentation Project

Later today I'll post a "meet the new brewery" segment on Crux Fermentation Project, Larry Sidor's new brewery.  In the meantime, here's a video of Saturday's brewery christening.  Doing the honors are Larry, Paul Evers, and Dave Wilson, the proud new owners of the new brewery.  (Incidentally, it's only shaky for about the first ten seconds.)

Crux Fermentation Project Christening from Jeff Alworth on Vimeo.