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Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Holiday Ale Fest Reprieve

Update.  John Foyston has a great piece about the fest in today's print edition of the O.  Go have a look.

Update 2.  I see that they're pouring Hair of the Dog Jim, vintages '08 and '09 at 2pm today.  I've attached a video of Jim hijinks from fests past down at the end of the post.

I've given myself the day off tomorrow to go to the Holiday Ale Fest, that event featuring the best beer and worst crowds of the year.  I've just pulled up the details for the fest and had a gander.  What I notice immediately is the heavy emphasis on stouts this year.  Of the 45 regular beers, 14 are porter/stouts (they're all big boys, so the style name is a matter of preference, not distinction).  Red ales and old ales (four each) are also well-represented, and surprisingly so.  Nobody brews old ales.

When you're looking at a list of beers, you have no idea which ones are going to be winners.  The barrel-aged raspberry tripel with roasted chestnut flour may suck and the unassuming porter may be the best beer at the fest.  What you can identify are the most interesting beers.  They are these:
  • Bison/Logsdon Cocoa Bretta.  What happens when you combine a chocolate stout and a brett-aged saison?  Sounds a bit like combining a hurricane and Miami to me, but we'll see.  (Interestingly, not on the website.  So maybe we won't see after all.)
  • Firestone Walker/Barrelworks Wild Merkin.  This is apparently an experiment to see what happens when you combine the two most disparate types of beer you can think of.  They came up with oatmeal stout and gueuze.  Well, stouts were once a sour beer.
  • Speakeasy Payback Porter.  Spiced like chai.
  • Commons Boysen. Okay, not so crazy--Belgian dark with boysenberries--but alluring.
  • Walking Man Santa's Little Black Homo.  CDA* spiced with cinnamon and allspice.  Also known as Alworth's Nightmare.
Lots and lots of interesting looking beers.  I want to give Gigantic special notice for Old Man Gower's Holiday Tipple, which is, I assume, a reference to Mr. Gower the druggist who almost accidentally poisoned someone until George Bailey noticed and stopped him.  Later, in the alternate, wish-I-had-never-been-born version of Bedford Falls Pottersville, George finds Gower, now a drunk and derelict since George wasn't there to save him.  What that has to do with the story Van and Ben tell of their beer I can't quite piece together.
"The recipe for this malty, caramel holiday beer was passed down to the brewer by Old Man Gower. According to the brewer, "It was Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. An old man said to me, 'Won't see another one.' And then we sang a song, The Rare Old Mountain Dew. I turned my face away, and he told me about this brew."
Anyone who has been and would like to guide me to must-try beers, I'm all ears.

*In case you missed the Amazing War for Cascadia (TM), go here first, then go here and finally go here.  It's uber fascinating. To get the full texture of the spleen--yes, Canadians do vent spleen--read the comments. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fifteen Chapters in Seventeen Weeks

Having completed various stints of travel, I sat down today to see what remained on The Beer Bible front.  It's worse than I thought.  In my brain, I had a more leisurely stroll through the final chapters before this project is due in May.  In fact, it's going to be a sprint.  I had a similar scenario last year, and it was a seven-day-a-week slog.  Although I love blogging and do it for pleasure, I anticipate things will bottom out here until about April.  It means I will be holed up, not visiting pubs/breweries or responding in a timely fashion to emails or reviewing much beer or tweeting or Facebooking reliably.  I won't be entirely off the grid, but it's probably best to plan as if I am.

See you in April--

Monday, November 26, 2012

What I Discovered in Maine

Post now updated with pics!

New England is known for beer and has one of the most well-developed craft brew scenes in the US. (Vermont and Maine are in the top five most-breweries states per capita, New Hampshire is 11th, and even populous Massachusetts is 22nd.) But there's beer culture and then there's beer culture. I learned on Saturday night just how advanced Maine is.

There's a little town near the New Hampshire border called Lovell. It's got a thousand people and is nowhere near any center of real population. Portland's over an hour away, and nearer towns include Paris, Berlin, Norway, and Poland--big names, but tiny populations. When you get to Lovell, there's a certain unmarked turn you can take onto a dirt road that leads , after a short drive, to an old farm. This is Ebeneezer's, a pub apparently famous among the beer intelligentsia but unknown to me.

The owners decided to try to recreate a Belgian pub, from the tchotchkes on the wall (here manifesting mainly as very cool breweriana) to 35 taps and dozens more bottles to moules frites on the menu. They did a fine job--call it White Mountain Brussels. The show-stopper and te reason to visit is the tap list. I was staggered to see TWO offerings from LoverBeer and another from Baladin--breweries most beer geeks haven't heard of. (LoverBeer only makes 500 barrels a year.) They had classic selections from De Dolle (Arabier), Silly, St Bernardus, and so on, a nice mix of styles and colors--and keep in mind this is just draft. Belgian breweries don't do much kegging, and of what they do, not a lot comes to the US. Beyond that, there are bottles aplenty, the rival of any bottle shop. The ambiance is great--cozy farmhouse--and I'm told they scatter tables outside during the summer.

I'm not convinced it's the best pub in America, as BeerAdvocate has done: the food isn't to the beer's standard, and the beer is insanely expensive. Nine bucks a pour for draft, and bottles drifting from the mid teens up. Cantillon was priced at $40 a bottle. That's higher than anyplace I've ever seen.


This is middle-of-nowhere Maine. I know there are tourists around; Maine is a three-season destination for vacationers. But there's no way a pub this far off the beaten path can survive without locals, and locals willing to pay a huge premium for the experience of having a Brussels pub nearby. It's amazing. I can't imagine a pub like that surviving in a similar place anywhere else.

As a sort of addendum, I ate last night in the Jolly Drayman in Bethel. It is an absolutely wonderful evocation of a British pub. Not a kitschy echo to remind yanks of their week in the Cotswolds, but a place for people who want a cozy pint in the kind of space British toss off with a shrug (but seem beyond the ken of most Americans). A nice selection of a half dozen beers and a cask engine. Again, a great experience, and one the people of Bethel (population 2400) are very fortunate to have. Not many towns that size do. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gobble Gobble

I am happily burrowed into a warm house in chilly Maine, a turkey roasting, pies baking, and of course beers chilling. Good times. May your day be merry and relaxing, too.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Consolidation Watch: North American Breweries Sold

And the snowball that is Pyramid/MacTarnahan's/Magic Hat continued to roll along gathering new owners:

KPS Capital Partners, LP ("KPS") announced today that it signed a definitive agreement to sell its portfolio company, North American Breweries Holdings, LLC ("NAB" or the "Company"), to Cerveceria Costa Rica, S.A. ("CCR"), a subsidiary of Florida Ice and Farm Company, S.A., for $388 million in cash. NAB is one of the largest independently owned beer companies in the United States and the owner of a diverse portfolio of brands including Labatt, Genesee, Seagram's Escapes, Magic Hat, Pyramid, the Original Honey Brown Lager, Dundee and MacTarnahan's. NAB operates four state-of-the-art breweries and seven retail locations located in New York, Vermont, California, Oregon and Washington.

I'd like to write more, but I'm on the road (New England for the holiday) and Google's latest version of the iPhone blogger app is absolutely unusable. But please discuss. This is big news--at least at the level of augury. We're seeing the ghost of breweries future, I think.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hopping in the Saddle with Lucy and Ellee

A troika of local writers, beer and bike lovers all, have collaborated to create Hop in the Saddle, a guide to Portland's beer by bike.  Well, of course they did.  What two activities more define Portland than bikes and beer?  To Portlanders busy peddling to the next beer fest (see pic below of a recent Cheers to Belgian Beers), the two go together like coffee and stout.  But that's Portlanders.  To the rest of the US, where bikes are for kids and beer is yellow fizz, the concept is strange.  It's not the kind of project you pitch to Random House.  Indeed, in an era before DIY communications, Hop in the Saddle would have been a non-starter.

Fortunately, we do live in a better time, and so I asked the two authors, Ellee Thalheimer ( Cycling Sojourner: A Guide to the Best Multi-day Tours in Oregon) and Lucy Burningham (you may recall her amazing NYT story about fresh hops) to describe the project and how they approached it.


Ellee begins describing how the project began: "Lucy was my editor for Cycling Sojourner. I wanted to have a brewery tour by bike in my Portland section. We didn't have room in the book, but it occurred to us that there could actually be a whole book on that subject only." Lucy adds, "that Ellee and I have been friends for a long time, and we’ve always shared an interest in riding bikes and writing (we met because we’re both Lonely Planet authors). We’ve been on all kinds of rides and adventures together in Portland and beyond. It seemed natural that we’d work together on a writing project someday, especially one that included bicycles."

Here I mentioned that I knew how hard it is to attract the attention of remote publishers both to the interest and potential market of a project like this.  Ellee and Lucy felt they understood the book's potential far better than a traditional publisher could. 
Ellee doesn't sugar-coat her opinion of publishing. "Traditional publishing is a broken, antiquated, slow-moving beast." She goes on: "Traditional publishing would consider this a micro-targeted readership probably. It seems these days they consider anything that will sell under 15,000 copies to not be viable. But I consider Hop in the Saddle's readership as a niche market, and I think there's a difference." Lucy describes the market: "When we came up with the idea for the book, I immediately knew we could market it beyond a micro-targeted readership of bike/beer fanatics. We’ve got one important thing going for us when it comes to expanding our readership: the city of Portland. People love this town. They love thinking about living here (if they don’t already), fantasizing about visiting and deconstructing the lifestyles of those of us who are lucky enough live here (hello Portlandia and The New York Times’ travel section). I think people elsewhere in the U.S. and even internationally will buy this book to get a taste of two of our city’s most important and defining cultures: bikes and beer." 
One way they launched the book was through a Kickstarter campaign.  I asked about that.  Ellee said the model isn't only--or maybe even mostly--about money.  It creates community.
"Kickstarter functioned in the same way, except our funders were our excited readership. To get things done, you have to creatively make it happen. The kickstarter didn't just fund us, however. It created a community around the project and was an excellent marketing tool." Lucy continues, "Not only did Kickstarter help us fund the printing costs for the book, by far our largest line item, it functioned as a marketing tool for the book and contributed to a nice amount of pre-sales. But I agree with Ellee that the model really helped us create a community of supporters who will still be rooting for us well after they’ve received their 'rewards.' I still feel humbled by all the support we received."
With a traditional publisher, all you have to do is produce a manuscript.  Ellee, Lucy, and graphic designer Laura Cary had to do everything.  Constraining or liberating?
They were in agreement on this point. Ellee first. "I feel liberated. In general, author compensation is not fair comparable to the high-level work they do. We had a great idea, innovative approach, and a fabulous team. If the book does well, we will actually reap the reward, not to mention the world will be a better place for our project. The fact that we as authors can be closely connected to our own success is a great feeling." Lucy: "Insanely liberated. I’ve been a writer and journalist for a long time, so I’ve spent my career writing for established publications, which informs my writing in everything from word counts to audience and voice. With this project I knew that if I wrote about the best food and beer in this town with total honesty, I’d be doing an important service in the best way I knew how. Like I said above, I think this book will appeal to a larger audience. With that audience in mind, I felt empowered to make the tough choices on what to include in the book (we ended up including 20 of the city’s breweries, for example, instead of the 50 existing). I wrote this book thinking about someone who travels to Portland for the first time from say, Japan, for the Oregon Brewers Fest. I hope Hop in the Saddle will help them get on a bike, which is the best way to explore this town, and find reliably fantastic food and beer."


Because I've been buried in my own work, I haven't seen the book yet--but I'm really excited by the project.  Traditional publishers have an important role left to play in book publishing.  But the truth is, they've never been very good at projects like this.  What makes a book like Hop in the Saddle good is its individuality, the fact that it's not made for a mass audience.  Lucy and Ellee, acting as their own champions for the project, get to make all the decisions about what to put in the book based on what they think will make it a good book.  There's a way in which it sucks to be a writer now--the days of big contracts and expense accounts are gone.  But the flip side is that writers get to follow their bliss.  This is the best recommendation I can imagine for Hop in the Saddle, and why it will be on my Christmas list this year. 

Reward their effort and pick up a copy yourself.  Also, Ellee and Lucy will be speaking about and signing copies of their books at Powell's on November 29th at 7:30.  That's not a bad place to pick up a copy, either. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Damned Green Bottles

On my recent trip to Europe, I managed to collect several bottles of beer.  Mostly these were rarities not available in the US, but I devoted precious space to beer widely available here--Budvar.  I wanted it partly for the bottle, but also so Sally could enjoy a beer that came on a jet rather than on a slow boat from Europe.  Bottled Budvar is pasteurized, but still, fresh is best.

You have read the title of the post, so you know where this is headed.  The beer, packaged in an admittedly attractive green bottle, was skunked.* None of this is shocking: that's what happens to beer in green bottles.  When I visited Budvar, brewer Adam Brož shook his head sadly when the subject came up.  It is, as with all breweries that use green bottles, out of the brewer's hands.  Marketing types think that green bottle is so pretty they just can't be bothered about what it does to the beer.

What is shocking--to me, anyway--is the fact that Budvar gets skunked in the Czech Republic.  Americans are so used to skunked European lagers that many consider it a part of their character.  It had never occurred to me, though, that natives are also getting skunky beer.  It's one thing to sell crap to silly Americans, but Czechs presumably know what Budvar tastes like.  Surely this is an outrage?

In any case, consider this a plaintive cry to all marketing types working in the beer industry: kill the green bottle before it kills your beer.  This is unforgivable.

* Beer takes on a skunky flavor when exposed to light, a chemical reaction resulting from the decomposition of certain chemical compounds in the hop’s isohumulones.  Clear and green bottles lead, almost inexorably, to lightstruck beer.  It is one of the most incomprehensible practices in the brewing world--like selling unrefrigerated milk. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday in Pictures: Cologne

Today's picture dump includes a few choice shots from the lovely city of Koln/Cologne.  Enjoy--

Many breweries keep a "library" of recent releases so they can track their beer and refer back to a particular shipment in case of complaints.  This is Reissdorf's. 

I was on my third glass of Fruh--you can tell by the tick marks left on the beer mat.

In Cologne, waiters carry trays around and replenish empties.  This works when 90+ percent of your beer (or all of it) is a single type.  Not recommended for a place like Apex.

German beer halls are just vast.  This is Gaffel.

They're called "stange" glasses, and every brewery has their own version--but they're always 2cl.  (At a euro eighty a pop, you can really tear through your budget with these little guys.)

If you ever go to Cologne, ascend the stairs at the Dom.  Spectacular.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday Outsource Blogging

First, close to home, Ezra surveys the growler landscape.  You may be surprised to learn that growlers are the subject of HEATED CONTROVERSY.  Go see why.

Second, Boak and/or Bailey visited a BrewDog pub in Bristol.  I want to quote from their visit to this "shiny, new, and in the ‘organic corporate’ style pioneered by sandwich-chain Pret a Manger" which they say "certainly isn’t a pub."  Already you can see how things differ in the US and UK: that sounds exactly like a US pub.  Now consider what they found on their visit:
Beer was priced as we expected, with our favourite Punk IPA at (if we remember rightly) £4.20 for two halves, and tasted just as delicious as it does from the bottle....

Around us were students who’d ordered ‘whatever lager you have’, drawn, we guess, by the coolness of the bar rather than the beer; middle-aged men who wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Wenlock Arms; and parties of thirtysomethings not yet especially into beer apparently there for an experience. In case you were wondering, they’re the people who buy the super-strong beers in spirit measures at £6 a pop. From where we were sitting, they got their money’s worth, talking animatedly, swapping glasses, and finding much to marvel at: ‘It tastes just like sherry — I wouldn’t think it was beer if I didn’t know.’
See if you can spot the differences to your average pub-going experience in Portland.

Finally, I take you to the story of how Portland Center Stage, owing to reviews the found insufficiently sycophantic, have cut off the Portland Mercury.  Alison Hallett comments:
I can't say I'm hugely surprised by this—I'm often very critical of PCS' shows and of artistic director Chris Coleman, and it has long seemed a strange aspect of my job that I'm basically invited into peoples' homes in order to criticize the decor. Theater reviews potentially benefit companies in two ways: Publicity and promotional materials. PCS is presumably confident enough in their publicity apparatus at this point that they no longer feel they need the boost that coverage and listings in the Mercury provides, and there are enough websites these days that'll write glowing reviews in exchange for free tickets that sifting through my reviews to find the one sentence they can put on a flyer probably just doesn't make sense. The era of newspaper critics leveraging influence for access is over—companies no longer need to rely on a cranky critic to mediate their relationship with the public. At this point we're just very opinionated vestigial limbs.
(Wee backgrounder: Portland Center Stage is the big dog of theater in Portland, but has a the reputation of putting onartistically cautious, middlebrow productions.)   This is just a momentary reminder of the appropriately distant role journalists should have with the subjects they cover.  It obviously applies to beer, too.  The situation is a quarter-turn different when people covering beer don't also receive money from the breweries, but the dynamic is similar.  I will say that no brewery has ever behaved this badly to me for unfavorable reviews (which I do hand out from time to time, or did, when I was reliably doing reviews).

Good for the Merc.  They are consistently the most transparent and reliable news source in the city.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Okay, One More: Faux Craft

The stories about beeg beer keep comin', and I seem to find them irresistible.  Today's story, from Fortune, fingers faux craft like Blue Moon.  Greg Koch assumes the dragonslayer's pose:
As a craft brewer, Koch is especially miffed: "Craft brewers are creative. We don't follow trends -- we create them. We specifically went against the mass-homogenized, corporatized business model…. When that very empire, the multinational conglomerate, starts giving the impression to unsuspecting consumers that they're a part of our world, of course that's offensive. 

In response to those that say that it doesn't matter who makes a beer, Koch says: "Did the Milli Vanilli scandal matter? Why were people outraged? The music that people had enjoyed didn't change when it was discovered that an unknown singer was doing the singing. But people made clear that the truth is important and they don't like being duped."
This is a thorny subject, isn't it?  I have no particular dog in the fight.  There are good and bad things about big breweries and good and bad things about small breweries.  Small breweries tend to be more interesting, and their beer does, too--but that's not a given, and it's certainly not intrinsic to size.  And when you have a guy like Greg Koch standing in for the consumer, you elide one very important fact: he's selling beer.  Promoting craft beer is a way of promoting his beer.  These things are not coincidental.

If the Brewers Association and beer geeks have made a mistake, it's in muddying the water between beer and brewery.  It is gospel among certain segments that small is always good, big always bad.  The problem is, lots of small breweries make terrible beer, and a few big ones make spectacular beer.  But because folks like the Brewers Association (also far from a neutral party) promote this paradigm, many are willing to sign on.  I would propose a different theory:

The brewery tracks and beer tracks must be separated.  There are lots of reasons to support small breweries and to castigate (as I have done two days running) big breweries, but we shouldn't be fooled that it is identical to beer quality.  Indeed, while it's important to out faux craft--big breweries only hide their connection to their "craft" brands to hoodwink consumers--there's something very good about the trend.  Good beer is winning.  Big breweries are making more characterful beer because that's the direction the market's headed.

Koch says, correctly "If you want to listen to Milli Vanilli., I suppose that's a choice you get to make. Just know that you're making that choice."  True.  But you should also be aware that when Greg Koch is saying this, he's holding open his coat and showing you CDs of Nirvana.  Caveat emptor.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

While We're Talking InBev, See Today's Washington Monthly

I got a bit of private blowback on yesterday's post, so I should probably be wary about pointing to another anti-InBev screed.  Ah well, caution has no place on a blog.

The following sections are taken from a long article in the Washington Monthly, a left-leaning political magazine heavy on public policy wonkery.  I emphasize left-leaning, because the article takes a certain view--or any way the author, Tim Heffernan, does.  He thinks US beer regulation, which drives distribution through a third-party, works because it's inefficient.  It keeps prices high and makes market dominion hard.  He compares the US model favorably with the British model which he says drives up consumption and has turned the country into an 18th-century style hellscape:
It’s apparent in their hospitals, where since the 1970s rates of cirrhosis and other liver diseases among the middle-aged have increased by eightfold for men and sevenfold for women. And it’s apparent in their streets, where the carousing, violent “lager lout” is as much a symbol of modern Britain as Adele, Andy Murray, and the London Eye. Busting a bottle across someone’s face in a bar is a bona fide cultural phenomenon—so notorious that it has its own slang term, “glassing,” and so common that at one point the Manchester police called for bottles and beer mugs to be replaced with more shatter-resistant material. In every detail but the style of dress, the alleys of London on a typical Saturday night look like the scenes in William Hogarth’s famous pro-temperance print Gin Lane. It was released in 1751.
So okay, you may not like the set-up.  But the meat of his argument involves consolidation of beer companies at the mass-market end of things and does echoes the points raised in yesterday's post.  Like:
Prior to the 2008 takeover, Anheuser-Busch generally accepted the regulatory regime that had governed the U.S. alcohol industry since the repeal of Prohibition. It didn’t attack the independent wholesalers in control of its supply chain, and generally treated them well. “Tough but fair” is a phrase used by several wholesale-business sources to describe their dealings with the Busch family dynasty. Everyone was making money; there was no need to rock the boat....

Then, after eliminating everything it could at home, the new regime turned to squeezing more out of its increasingly nervous partners, the wholesalers. And, today, with only one remaining real competitor, MillerCoors, the pressure it can put on its wholesalers is extraordinary. A wholesaler who loses its account with either company loses one of its two largest customers, and cannot offer his retail clients the name-brand beers that form the backbone of the market. The Big Two in effect have a captive system by which to bring their goods to market. 
Heffernan goes on to describe some pretty rough tactics InBev used on distributors in Arkansas, and how InBev has skirted the law in California and New York.  I can't actually verify any of this and would of course welcome corrections.  Even if the truth is less dire, I don't think it takes a lot of imagination to envision a world where InBev also owns Modelo and SABMiller--that would surely be catastrophic to competition and would certainly make control of "independent" distributors more likely.  The thing is, except for stockholders and managers at InBev, there's really no one who benefits from monopolies.  It's just bad all around.  Let's hope federal regulators see the danger and nix any further InBev mergers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Production of Soulless Beer

The phrase "craft beer" is rightly denounced for its imprecision.  It's hard to say what craft beer is or how it differs from non-craft (size, ownership structure, quality or type of beer?), but this extraordinary article in Businessweek illustrates exactly what it is not--cripplingly soulless beer from which every extraneous cent has been wrung:
For a number-crunching manager like [InBev CEO Carlos] Brito, an old, family-run company like Anheuser-Busch provided plenty of opportunities for cuts. He laid off approximately 1,400 people, about 6 percent of the U.S. workforce. He sold $9.4 billion in assets, including Busch Gardens and SeaWorld. AB InBev also tried to save money on materials. It used smaller labels and thinner glass for its bottles. It tried weaker cardboard for its 12-packs and cases. The old Anheuser-Busch insisted on using whole grains of rice in its beer. AB InBev was fine with the broken kind. “Our purchasing of rice has to do with how fresh the rice is, not whether it is whole or broken,” says Vallis.
In a telephone interview from Munich, Willy Buholzer, AB InBev’s director of global hops procurement, cheerfully insists that the company still brews the traditional way with Hallertauer Mittelfrüh. He says the reason that AB InBev stopped buying it was that it has a surplus. “We just have too much right now,” Buholzer says. “We need a break for a couple of years.”
A former top AB InBev executive, who declined to be identified because he didn’t want to get in trouble with his old employer, tells a different story. He says the company saved about $55 million a year substituting cheaper hops in Budweiser and other U.S. beers for more expensive ones like Hallertauer Mittelfrüh.
And of course
So much cash flowed in that by 2011 the company was able to pay down early a significant portion of the $54 billion it had borrowed to finance the Anheuser-Busch takeover. This triggered $1.3 billion in stock-option bonuses for Brito and 39 other executives that year.
The whole piece is a must-read, but--spoiler-alert--as the story unfolds, writer Devin Leonard takes it to its obvious conclusion.  The modern InBev is a shark that makes money by snacking on new acquisitions and wringing savings from them.  That's what motivates InBev's appetite for Modelo and why industry watchers think SABMiller is in their sights as well.  As Leonard points out, the man running the company, Carlos Brito, doesn't make and sell beer, he acquires beer companies.  If you happen to like beer in the portfolio Brito covets, this isn't good news.  (The article details violence done to Beck's and Bass, in addition to Budweiser.)

I don't know exactly how we should think about "good beer" and "macro" or "industrial" beer.  But I do know that we should think very poorly indeed about breweries mishandled like this.  It's a debased, degraded product and it's offered with contempt to consumers.  If you have friends or relatives who still drink Budweiser, forward them the article and tell them to switch to Yuengling or Sam Adams instead. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Very Green Beer: Coloradan THC IPA

That didn't take long:

A beer that will get you drunk and high sounds like a lethal combination, but it could be bubbling up in your neighbor’s garage.

With the move by voters to legalize adult marijuana possession, cultivation and sales in Colorado as part of Amendment 64 Tuesday, the likelihood of pot beer is out of the question for commercial brewers, but already in the works by homebrewers.
If you Google around awhile, you can see past experiments.  Apparently it's not the easiest thing to do (flavor problems, dosage problems), and if you live in Colorado or Washington, the point seems moot anyway.

On the other hand, this story (which also came via Beer Pulse) suggests that there may be financial possibilities in exotic experiments:
Hair of the Dog Brewing founder and owner, Alan Sprints, shared the news on Facebook that the total yield for two 375ml bottles sold through a silent auction (two separate lots) was $4,525.56. The higher of the two bids was $2,368.73, approximately $187 per ounce of liquid.
Dave's an eisbock, and a damned strong one at that. But it contains no active ingredients beyond ethanol.  Imagine if it were iridescent with weed. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday in Pictures: Dusseldorf

I have a nice cache of pictures from my most recent Europe trip (the ones I posted real-time came off my phone), and I thought it might be nice to post them on Sundays.  First up, Dusseldorf.  (Earlier blogging here and here.)

Uerige's Michael Schnitzler



Look again: that stained glass in is Uerige's pub.

Friday, November 09, 2012

"Softness in the Widmer Brothers Brand"

Craft Brewers Alliance (Widmer, Redhook, Kona, Omission) recently released their Q3 report, which was mostly a mixed bag.  There were lots of bright spots, including Kona's performance and the release of Omission, but then there's this:
Depletion growth estimate of 6% to 8%, reflecting the continued strength of the Kona, Redhook and Omission brands offset by softness in the Widmer Brothers brand.  Previous guidance was 8% to 10%.
This just mystifies me. Kona is a solid label, and their seasonals are exceptional--but their regular offerings like Longboard Lager are pretty pedestrian beers.  Redhook has a similarly pedestrian line of beers augmented by specialty beers that sometimes (but not always) wow.  Widmer, on the other hand, is one of the most innovative brands in craft brewing, and I could survive on nothing but their 23-beer line-up this year if I had to.  They throw a lot of experiments on the wall, and some don't stick.  It would not stun me to learn that Kill Devil didn't fly off the shelves.  But the rotating IPAs, the fruit gose, the really lovely oatmeal porter--and on and on--these were fun, wonderful beers.  So why the market softness?

I sometimes like to fancy myself an astute observer of the beer market.  Sometimes I think I understand which beers will sell and why.  But then I read a report like this and am reminded how hard the beer biz is, especially when you're dealing with the mass-craft market.  (CBA has already brewed 550,000 barrels of beer this year.)  If you're a 5,000-barrel brewery, I think the success calculus is a lot simpler: make excellent, distinctive beer.  When you're a 500,000-barrel brewery?  No clue.

Sages of the beer biz, please comment if you can help 'splain this for the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

What We Know About Beer

I have seen many wonders. The vaults of Rodenbach, a German coolship.  Parti-gyle brewing in London, a brewery's floor maltings near Prague.  Spontaneous fermentation by grape in Marentino, Italy.  I have watched cherries crushed and fed into a beer in Hood River, and tasted the first IPAs in an international revolution.  But what I have not witnessed is staggering.  I visited 51 breweries in Europe--and was forced to miss thousands of others.  Literally thousands.

In all of this, I had the rare opportunity to appreciate what I didn't know, and what no single person ever can.  The beer world is so big that no single person can begin to fathom it.  A comment by regular-reader Mike reminded me of how fraught this ignorance can be, and how difficult it can be to talk about a thing so big that we can't ever really know it wholly:

You wrote: "There and at other places, like Birrificio do Como which I visited today, they make real lagers in the German mode" and mentioned lagering time of 4-8 weeks.

While it may be true that some German breweries lager for only four weeks, most of the good ones (particularly in Bavaria), lager longer - eight weeks and longer.
This is almost certainly wrong. I visited five breweries in Bavaria and none lagered their beer that long.  Of the 51 I visited in Europe, I know of only two that meet Mike's standard--Budvar and, oddly, the French biere de garde producer Castelain (Ch'ti).  Of the breweries I visited, four weeks for a standard 12 degree beer is an adequate lagering time.  (For strong beers, many breweries do extend aging times.)  The thing is, there are 1300 German breweries, most of them in Bavaria, and leaving aside the question of "good" ones, who actually has the data on this?  I suspect it doesn't exist.  Maybe there's a German-language book that catalogs Bavarian breweries and has run a tally, but it would surprise the hell out of me.  For one: why would anyone gather that piece of information?  Therefore I say "almost certainly" because it's the hedge you have to give when you don't know.

There are a few general areas of knowledge in the beer world, like history, brewing techniques, aesthetic and technical aspects.  To the extent anyone's an expert on one, it's just a part of one domain, and she is likely no more knowledgeable about aspects of the other two.  Our beloved historical bloggers know a great deal about British brewing history and, in Ron's case, German, but how well do they know Czech or American history--never mind the chemical behavior of alpha acids, say, or the way to properly care for and nurture foeder-aging red ale?  Jean Van Roy is a legendary brewer, but I wouldn't trust him to expound on the methods of making cask ale.  Stan Hieronymus is now the greatest generalist in the subject of hops, but does he know ... actually, never mind.  He probably does.  That's the one guy who may know everything.

But the really amazing thing is that there are certain types of information that no one has, like the subject of Mike's comment.  Another example: I relied heavily on one source to understand the history of Belgian beer--Georges Lacambre's famous treatise from 1851.  But there are no doubt dozens of places where his generalizations about the breweries he described were slightly off.  He may have failed to notice common practices or over-emphasized the ubiquity of other practices.  When you read beer books now, you see a bunch of styles mentioned--all those Lacambre discussed.  But even he acknowledged that there were dozens more that he wasn't mentioning.  History is pieced together by the fragments we have, not those that got lost.

Anyway, I should wrap this up.  I mention it all because the act of visiting breweries is invariably humbling.  It causes you to touch that vast ignorance.  There are so many different ways of doing things, different ingredients to do them with, and different philosophies about how they should be done that it's impossible to capture them all.  (Like Lacambre, I have to winnow.)  The result is averaging, smoothing, and making general statements that we hope are true.  Almost certainly, some of them won't be.

Mea culpa.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

It's a Wrap

I meant to post this yesterday, but election day seems just as good. I'm back in Beervana under comfortably gray skies, and thinking back to the last three+ weeks. Here's what I see.

Length of trip: 23 days
Countries: 3
Towns slept inn/hotels: 14
Breweries toured: 14
Breweries visited: 27
Beers sampled/drunk: unknowable (100+)
Planes: 3
Trains: 5
Automobiles (excluding cabs): 2
Total distance traveled:
- once arrived: 3,227 km/2005 mi
- all together: 22,970km/13,975 mi
Colds contracted: 1

These numbers nearly repeat my 23-day, 3-country visit last year, so you could roughly double them to get a sense of what my trips have been like. (Even I am staggered to think I traveled 4000 miles on the ground to tour 36--and visit 51--breweries.)

I still have some in-country travel to do--I think pilgrimages to Chico and St Louis are in my future--but today, as I sit typing this in one of the prettiest, most-pleasant corners of the world, I am happy to be off the road.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Final Thoughts From Como

I'm on a plane heading back to the US in the morning (which is to Oregonians 2am), and I'm beyond tired. Just to make sure I put a final period on things, let me revise briefly my comment yesterday about the German influence.

One of the most prominent breweries is Italiano, an old veteran and the main proponent of the German school. There and at other places, like Birrificio do Como which I visited today, they make real lagers in the German mode--decoction, proper lagering (at Como they do 4-8 weeks).

There are differences. Both Como and Lambrate (influenced by Italiano) make fruitier lagers, fermenting around 54 degrees. In Germany, it's almost as if they're allergic to esters (except in weizens, where the stoke them). I think Italians are used to strong flavors--I have been offered (and accepted!) about 46,000 cups of espresso--and so they don't strip their beers down, they adorn them.

Di Como is actually a brewpub, and the biggest in Italy. The talented brewer, Andrea Bravi, has an impressive kit to work with--including a sizable bank of tanks to age his lager. And for me, the stop was absolutely critical to try at least one chestnut beer. If Italians have anything solely theirs, it's chestnut beers. The species is in the same family as oak, and the nut, more starchy than oily, is similar to an acorn.

There is no style of chestnut beer, and the brewers all treat them differently. Bravi uses them in the mash. Once they've been roasted over a beech fire, they're ground into flour. It's dense stuff and gums up mashes, so he sticks with 20% and augments with chestnut honey. They contribute two things: a slight roasted-nut flavor (shocker, that), but also a silky viscosity, a bit like oats but gummier.

The pics:
1. Andrea Bravi
2. A view into fermentation from the pub.
3. Malthus is the name of the beer; in this photo, the helles (Marilyn, because it's blond) is flanked by chestnut beers.
4. My 46,001st espresso.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Parmesan Formaggio, Prosciutto, and Toccalmatto Birra

I hope you gathered that I'm in Parma now. This is one of the richest veins of brewing, with Ducato, Panil, and the place I visited today, Toccalmatto. Founded by Bruno Carilli four years ago, it has risen to that top layer of high-profile breweries (and thus came to my attention).

The more I see of Italian brewing, the more I see of three clear points of reference: Belgium, the US, and Germany. Of these, Germany is the least, expressing itself mainly as familiar styles--weizen, Kolsch, pils, and helles. From the US and Belgium, brewers borrow method. Like Belgium, Italy is bottle-based; breweries bottle condition their beer in warm rooms. (In the US, even when they do bottle condition, breweries rarely treat the process as a second fermentation that adds depth and character to the beer as they do in Belgium. And Italy.) However, Italian breweries hop their beers like Americans, and I'm not just talking dosage. They like lots of late--addition hops and dry-hops. (Belgians also often use sugar, which thins the beer and makes hops harsher and more violent. The Italians don't use sugar.)

Which brings us to Carilli. His first two beers were an American-style pale (Re Hop, or hop king) and a saison Sibilla). These are his two main tracks, but they blend in process. There's a third, smaller influence--England. His system looks more English than American and he's made a bitter and mild to boot.

In a lot of ways, toccalmatto looks pretty American in the surface. Scanning his line would bring nods of recognition from Portlanders. But the beers don't taste American. He uses US hops, but relies more heavily on Australia and New Zealand. A lot of people equate the "new world" strains, but as someone intimately familiar with American strains, I am here to tell you that that's just wrong. In Oceana, another saison, he gets a distinctive bergamot flavor--more Asian than American. I also picked up a flavor I couldn't adequately explain in several of the beers--my inadequate description is mint--but definitely nothing that comes from US hops.

He's got a barrel-aging program and here too there are differences. No bourbon; instead, rum, Scotch whisky (Caol Ila), and of course Italian wine barrels. He's aged a barleywine in the whisky barrels (Stray Dog) and it is spectacular.

I could say a lot more about Bruno, but it's near the end of my trip (home Monday), and I'm running out of gas. How's this: great beer, not exactly like anything out there, and you have to come to Europe to drink it (for now).

The pics, with captions.

1. Bruno at a fermenter.
2. Ancient rum barrels.
3. The filter that often doubles as a hopback.
4. A few of the beers.

Friday, November 02, 2012

From the Mind of Teo Musso

Baladin today. If you've heard of Italian beer at all, you may have heard of Baladin. The man heading the show is Teo Musso and, imagine in your mind the charisma of Sam Calagione, the pioneering stature of Ken Grossman, and throw in a huge dash of creative ferment, and that's Musso.

Teo entered the beer biz in his native Piozzo (less than a thousand souls) back in 1986 when he opened a pub with 200 types of beer (bottles, largely). This is pretty remarkable--even now, beer is a very niche thing. Yet there, in the remote (but spectacularly beautiful) corner of Piedmont, the townsfolk of Piozzo were drinking some of the world's finest beers. Over time, Musso began talking to Belgian brewers about starting his own venture, and with some converted dairy equipment, he launched his brewery in 1996.

But it was more than a brewery. It was an integrated expression of Teo's vision: he designed the distinctive fonts and artwork and even the unique bottles--from the start (now Italy easily leads the world in cool bottle shapes). He had the vision of a circus, more medieval Italian than creepy clowns, and that's how the original pub is decorated. The used to have a tent over a courtyard to the side of the building, but as they expanded and grew, they had to put in a permanent roof--but Musso designed it to look like a tent.

He continued to add components like Casa Baladin, the hotel I stayed in last night (and paid for, full disclosure), and Open Baladin, pubs that recall Musso's first, with dozens of Italian craft beers available. (When he open his brewery in 1996, he only sold Baladin "a huge mistake," he said--it cost him 60% of his business.)

Eventually he built a production brewery down the hill from Piozzo (which has all the artistic flourishes you see in all his buildings). He has a barrel-aging project going on, also using wine barrels like LoverBeer, but liquor barrels as well. He has dabbled with exotic ingredients and was committed to food pairings from the start. In fact, one of his early marketing strategies was to deliver beer to restaurants he admired unbidden, asking them to see what people thought. (Apparently more than a few went straight tithe chefs' stomachs.)

His most amazing project is just under way: agriculture. Musso bought over 200 acres of land for grains (mostly, but not exclusively, barley) and two separate fields for hops. Ten American varieties at one site, and Mittelfruh and Hersbrucker in the other. They are definitely the first hops in the country, and if grain production and malting happen in Italy, none of the brewers I've talked to use local malt.

When I left, Teo offered me any beers I wanted. Suitcases being a confounding limitation, I confined the haul to two, and the one I was most interested in was Nazionale, a 100% Italian-sourced beer.

The photos require a bit of explanation:

1. Example of Teo's strange ways: he's experimenting with music and fermentation. Using speakers suctioned to the side of fermenters, he pumps music in, thinking the vibrations will affect yeast activity. It's not a joke, either; he hired a sound engineer and is doing experiments with different kinds of music.
2. Teo and his Mom--they live just two blocks from the pub and the old, now converted, chicken coop is where Teo does some barrel-aging.
3. The pub
4. When we were at his parent's house trying some beer from barrels, Teo started rooting around behind the family tractor. After awhile, he pulled out an experimental ten-year old bottle of beer made with local grapes. A while later he went back in and found another! (If you're ever in Piozzo, look in dark corners--you never know, maybe Teo has squirreled away some beer there.)

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Mr Toad's Wild Italian Brewery Ride

Note: post cleaned up slightly. (iPhones are hard.)

I have been in Italy 26 hours and have visited two breweries in two towns and am now at location three, ready for a morning chat with Teo Musso at Baladin. I did Lambrate no justice last night, and I worry that that's going to be par for the course. Let's see if we can't do a little remedial work.

Italian craft brewing started in the relatively recent year of 1996, when five different enterprising spirits started breweries--including Lambrate (and Baladin, too). It was a modest joint venture of three friends which later grew to five, starting with a 1.5 hecto system (that's a barrel and change--glorified home-brewing). They put the brewery in a bustling part of Milano called Lambrate, and next to the brewery was a gorgeous little pub.

Over the years, the system went in increments to 5, 10, and its current size of 20 hectos. They moved the brewery out of the pub and into a neighboring space. Following this pattern, every time they grew, they found another chunk of space in one of the buildings. Now it's a honeycomb with the malt room here, the brewery there, the office upstairs, the lab down the way. (The rooms are joined by courtyards, which makes the whole thing actually *look* charming as hell--though probably the brewers curse.)

They make American inflected ales and lagers that are fruitier and stronger than their northern neighbors (except the helles, which is very much in the Fort George 1811 mode--in other words, not a helles). America has a substantial influence here, not just in hop varieties, but intensity. (America, which came to craft brewing long after we'd lost the memory of characterful diversity, is analogous. There's no "Italian" style of beer and no customer expectation, so they can just follow their bliss.)

The final piece is that from the start, the folks behind Lambrate wanted their beer to be drunk with food. Their little pub couldn't really meet that goal, so last year they opened a restaurant where the beer and food can be showcased. The beers came first, so the chefs have to build the menu around them.

There were some real standout beers. My favorite was Gaina (guy EEN ah, I think), a pale ale that used American hops to create the fruitiest, non-fruit beer I ever had. Strawberries and apricots, but they fade into more recognizable hoppy bitterness at the swallow. They do an imperial porter/stout made with smoke malt that is versatile with the menus (meat and porcini mushrooms dance with it gracefully). The helles, too, is a fantastic session.

From Milano, I drove toward Marentino to the southwest (near Torino), skirting the spine of the Alps. (The green rolling plains look, at a distance, like West Bengal and the white Alps, which shoot up vertically, like the blade of a serrated knife, look positively Himalayan. Stunning.) Morentino is less a town than a slightly more congested part of the countryside, and LoverBeer is tucked into a house along a row looking out over grape yards.

But inside that house, Loverier (from which the brewery takes its un-Italian name) is making wild ales, including one with a very Italian provenance. It's called BeerBera, another play on words, and refers to Barbera grapes (which actually grow down the road 50 (?) kilometers, not across from it. The novelty is so obvious it seems like this should be more common: he inoculates his wort solely with fresh, yeast-covered grapes. And not just a few; they make up 30% of the sugars.

Loverier makes only soured beer. He invested in two substantial wooden fermenter/aging vessels (17 hectos) made by a cooper nearby who usually sells them to wineries. He has cultivated a native population of yeasts in there (all four--brett, pedio, lacto, and regular sachharomyces), and a lot of his beer spends some time on that wood picking up some character. But he also sometimes pitches regular yeast first or, in one case, uses wild yeasts from Wyeast. (Obviously, I immediately pointed out it was from Oregon.)

His range includes an amber, a non-spontaneous version with Barbera grapes, an Oud bruin, and one of my favorites, a fantastic sour made with local wild plums (golf-ball-sized). They have such a short window of ripeness that you actually have to pick them off the ground. It captures the ripe aromas and flavors so well I think I would recognize the fruit if I ever found a fresh one rolling away from a tree.

All his beers are characterized by a light tartness--even though none spend less than several months ripening (a three-year vintage is in the works; 16 months or thereabouts is typical). The BeerBera is amazingly wine-like, though the varietal is specific and unfamiliar to me. Halfway between satsuma and strawberry. Absolutely unlike any beer I've tasted.

I was hugely impressed with what Valter was doing. His beers definitely achieves a character that puts his beers among the most accomplished in the world. (He's been experimenting with wild yeasts a decade, but the brewery was only founded in 2009.)

The business model is a work in progress. Sixty percent of the beers come the the US (though not to Oregon that I've seen)--but on his ten hecto set-up and with the huge aging time, he can't be making even 500 hl a year (I stupidly forgot to ask) His wife, the money part of the business, confessed that they see back less than five bucks on a $20 bottle. But obviously, as long as they're committed to this kind of beer, they have to sell it for a premium. (Wish I had some scintillating advice for them.)

After I left Valter, headed further south to gorgeous little Piozzo, and after that I'm off to Bussetto to see Birricio del Ducato. The sprint continues....