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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Beer and Words Go Together

Although I haven't read a complete novel since June 2011 (I finished half a Graham Greene), making that the longest period of time since I started reading them at age 7 or 8, I still pine for them.  A few years back, looking for speedy, uncomplicated reading, I discovered Inspector John Rebus.  He's one of the indelible figures in crime fiction--a crusty man who does exactly one thing well while making a hash of 27 other things.  He smokes too much, eats badly, and--relevant to our interests--drinks too much.  Ah, but he drinks well.  He's forever darkening the door of an Edinburgh pub, sometimes in the middle of the day, sometimes the middle of the night.  His favorite beer is Caledonian's Deuchars IPA.*

The author is Ian Rankin, and he visited Portland on Monday night.  Rankin is a fixture in his home town, though he readily admits Rebus is more famous there.  He loves pubs as much as Rebus, and Deuchars, too.  In fact, I was delighted when I visited Caledonian a year back to see that they'd made a beer named for Rebus, which must be the nicest homage a writer can have.   I was delighted also to see that Portlanders asked Rankin no fewer than three questions involving beer or pubs.  The rain was pouring and I wished he had agreed to come to a pub instead of the Beaverton Powell's (!), but ah well, it was cool either way.  

Incidentally, a brewery should come out with a line of beers named for famous fictional characters. Salander Wild Ale, Wallander Bitter, Harry Hole Malt Liquor--and those are just for mining crime fiction.  You could go on for years...

*An absolutely lovely beer, but not anything Americans would recognize as IPA. It's all of 3.8%, pilsner-pale, and perhaps 25 IBUs strong.  But they're well-placed, lemongrassy hops, and the beer is a delight to drink on cask when you're sitting in Edinburgh.  I would love to beam in this very minute and spend several hours nursing a family of them.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Drinking With Dad Law?

With thanks to commenter Jack, this is a really fascinating development in Colorado:

DENVER — A Colorado proposal to allow people between 18 and 21 to drink alcohol with their parents is up for its first review.

The so-called “Drinking With Dad” bill from a Republican senator would allow parents to buy alcohol for their children at Colorado bars and restaurants if they were 18 and older but not 21 yet.

Sen. Greg Brophy is planning to introduce the bill on Wednesday. He says he thought of the proposal because he and his wife recently took their daughter to dinner to celebrate her 20th birthday, and she couldn’t have a drink with them.

A similar law exists in Wisconsin.
I had no idea.  A good idea?  Something Oregon legislators should take up?

Fermentation Sciences at OSU

I have been to a lot of very cool beer places.  Many of them have strata of beeriness, one packed on another over time.  The Brussels area, various places in Bohemia.  None, though, can compete with Munich.  It is in the heart of barley-growing country and just down the road from the Hallertauer hop fields.  Three styles were invented or strongly associated with the town ("inventing" dunkel--I won't go there).  It is absolutely loaded with famous breweries: Spaten (where helles and marzen were first brewed), Paulaner, Augustiner, Hofbrau, and nearby are Ayinger, Andechs, and Weihenstephen.  Speaking of Weihenstephen, there are two brewing schools there, too--it and Doemens.  In Germany, all roads lead to Munich.

I don't want to get too boosterish, but Oregon is starting to lay in a few layers of bedrock itself.  I was reminded of another in an email from Oregon State pointing me to a webpage they recently finished to promote the Fermentation Sciences program.  It used to be that if you wanted to get a undergrad degree in brewing, it meant heading to Davis.  Now you have OSU as an alternative, and it's nothing to sniff at.  The university has wisely put Tom Shellhammer out in front--as one of the world leaders in hop research, he's a pretty attractive draw.  You have hop fields nearby, the campus has its own little brewery, and of course, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting another brewer in the nose.

No place in Oregon is about to eclipse Munich anytime soon.  But if you wanted to Munich-ize your region, you'd do what we're doing here.  Over time, you'd see large breweries emerge, see agriculture respond to the brewing industry (including, as in Hood River, the farming of wild yeasts), see schools dedicated to teaching brewing, research done to support it, and a very broad base of local culture consuming it. 

So far, so good.

Monday, January 28, 2013

BridgePort Takes a Rye Turn

I'm beginning to think Jeff Edgerton likes rye.  When he replaced Karl Ockert as BridgePort's brewmaster, he brought in a new slate of beers that included Kingpin--now a stalwart--which had among its selling points the inclusion of rye.  Now comes Smooth Ryed*, a single-hopped pale/IPA with 10% malted rye. 

Rye is a funny grain.  It is invariably described as "spicy," but in real-world situations you may get tannic, minty, soapy, or wheat-like.  I have not made a careful enough study to know how breweries evoke these different flavors--rye comes in various forms and can be used in the mash in various ways.  But whatever they're doing, it seems to result in different flavors.  I enjoy the spicy, minty, and wheat-like, but I'm not so hot on the soapy and I hate the tannic.  Picking up a bottle of rye beer is like spinning the roulette wheel.

Breweries have been using rye forever, but it seems like it has lately become even more the trend.  (Rye whiskey is having a moment as well, so maybe there's something to that--or maybe Sierra Nevada's Ruthless Rye is the culprit.)  It can be brewed dark, hoppy, sour, or light--or combinations of the above.  Jeff seems to like the way it interacts with hops, and in both Kingpin and Smooth Ryed I get an astringency that dances very close to the overly-tannic line.  They do frame the hops, and in the Centennial-bomb that is SR, this isn't a bad thing.  Smooth Ryed is a seriously juicy beer, more energetic and less severe than Kingpin.

Last week I mentioned the sad fortunes of MacTarnahan's/Portland Brewing, which has been casting around for decades to locate its voice.  BridgePort has had similar troubles at various times over the years.  Since Jeff Edgerton has taken over the reigns, though, BridgePort has become a more cohesive line.  Kingpin and Smooth Ryed are closer kin to the flagship IPA--along with pre-Edgerton Hop Czar--than were beers like Ropewalk and my beloved ESB.   They are also tacking a lot closer to where the beer geek lives than to whatever a marketing person might think the masses want.  Smooth Ryed is a burly 6.3% with 55 IBUs of zing (and with tons of late-hopping, it seem hoppier than that).  The rye is a further step in the direction of character instead of compromise.  An interesting development.

(Full disclosure: BridgePort sent me a sample of Smooth Ryed.)

*Horrible name.  You really need the image of the motorcyle on the label to jog your mind into reading it as "ride" rather than "wry-ed."  Smooth Ryde would have been better, but actaully, quickly abandoning the play-on-word concept would have been the best of all.  It's so bad I wonder if the name itself jeopardizes the beer.  For some reason rye causes breweries to make puns, and they should probably consider knocking it off.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Hastening Death of Grampa's Beer

Mintel, a food and drinks market research firm based in London, released a remarkable report this month on consumption patterns of American beer drinkers.  It's the same company that offered this eye-opener in a report from two years ago:
Only a modest percentage of beer drinkers say they prefer domestic craft or microbrew beers, but an impressive 59% say they like to try them, and 51% would try more craft or microbrew beers if they knew more about them.
This factoid exposes the key mental mistake most of us hold: Americans regularly drink both craft beer (using the term advisedly) and regular tin-can lagers.  Think of it this way.  There are actually three groups: those who drink only craft beer, those who drink only tin-can lagers, and those who drink both.  It's not a binary choice.

With that I bring you Mintel's newest findings, again eye-opening:
  • Craft beer accounts for $12 billion of a $78 billion dollar beer market (15.4%), and craft's growth should rise 50% in the next five years.
  • A quarter of American beer drinkers drank more craft beer in 2012 than the year before.
  • Craft has an even larger share of the draft market, at 22%.
  • Over a third (36%) of Americans regularly drink craft beer, and over half of millennials (under 35) do.  
  • Interestingly, only half of craft beer drinkers are interested in locally-brewed beer, and just a quarter in drinking beer where it was brewed.  (Mintel puts those in positive terms, but they seem far lower than I expected, so I'm flipping the emphasis.) 
  • And from my perspective, one of the most important findings is this one: “Despite the variety of beer releases created by craft breweries, craft beers are not yet everyday beer choices for most drinkers due to a lack of understanding about their taste profiles.  An additional barrier is lack of knowledge. Craft brewers need to focus on education through tastings and classes that inform consumers about the differentiation in flavor between craft beer and other alcoholic drinks.”
Imagine reading this if your business model depended on selling tin-can lagers ("legacy beers"?).  The young generation doesn't like your beer, and the older folks are sadly not immortal.  It's a structural trend a funny new Super Bowl ad is not likely to change.  (Though you notice that beer ads all feature young people now, not weird old farts arguing in taverns?  Guess why.)   Finally, one of the main reasons people don't drink your competitor's beer is because they don't understand it--which means things are only likely to get worse faster.  You're stuck with old drinkers who regard your product as the familiar, safe tipple.

For some years, I've been predicting that the seemingly inviolable hegemony of tin-can lagers is not so.  But it feels like predictions about global temperatures from the 1990s.  All the new data suggests that things are happening way faster than anyone realized.  If I were to make a prediction for the next five years, it would be that the landscape of what we consider "mass-market" beer is going to go through the first tectonic shift we've seen since the 19th century.  That may be premature--it could happen after 2020, say--but I would be shocked if it didn't happen by then.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Heading in Opposite Directions, MacTarnahan's and Breakside

We begin today's post by turning it over to the economist Joseph Schumpeter:
The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.
The truths of Schumpeter's observation (referred elsewhere, delightfully, as "Schumpeter's gale") are evident in the fortunes of two breweries, both with big news out this week.  The first comes from one of the shining new stars of the Oregon brewing scene: 
New Breakside brewery/taproom opens Jan 30.  From nanobrewery to microbrewery with a 30 barrel system in three years, Breakside Brewery’s new location is proof the craft beer producer has no intention of slowing down. The new 7,000 square foot facility opens Wed., Jan. 30 just behind Bob’s Red Mill in Milwaukie and features a tasting room with 24 taps. 
The second from one of the aging veterans of the first days of craft brewing (no link):
An exciting change for Portland’s beer scene is quickly taking shape. The company that brews the beloved MacTarnahan’s Amber Ale and other craft beers is going back to its original name and will once again operate as Portland Brewing Company, beginning in February 2013.
Schumpeter's thumbnail description nearly perfectly describes what's going on here.  American brewing has, in the aggregate, been very good for new breweries in the last 30 years.  But despite the overall health of the herd, there have been some pretty spectacular die-offs.  Indeed, when you look back at that first decade of microbrewing, you see how the game turned out to be  high-risk, high-reward.  When you look at the largest American breweries today, among those founded after 1980, most of the largest were founded in the late 70s or 1980s.  Early success gave those breweries a huge advantage.  You see that in Oregon, too, where the biggest breweries--Widmer, Deschutes, Full Sail, and Rogue--were all founded before 1990. 

But it was also high risk.  Breweries like Pete's Wicked skyrocketed and then collapsed.  Others, like Portland Brewing [MacTarnahan's] and Pyramid stumbled badly after the market re-set in the mid-1990s.  Redhook and Full Sail are two examples of breweries that nearly went the way of Pete's but finally flourished, but Portland and Pyramid fall into a separate, depressing cateogry, sort of like zombie breweries.  I have no idea how much beer the newly re-olded Portland Brewing makes, but if it weren't for that gorgeous facility they have, the brand would have died a long time ago.  Brands are fungible; brewing plants retain their value. Two months ago we learned that in yet another buy-out, Portland would be acquired by a Costa Rican company. That's not how Art Larrance and Fred Bowman drew it up when they founded the brewery 27 years ago.

Contrast that with the more modest risk/modest reward ventures of post-shakeout craft breweries.  They're among the safest businesses to start (at least in Oregon), and few fail.  On the other hand, most don't get huge, either.  Ninkasi is the rare example of a quickly-growing new brewery, and I'd put Breakside into that category.  Going from three barrels to thirty is a huge jump--rare in the 21st century.  Collectively, though, the dozens of small breweries create quite a force.  They are "revolutionizing the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one." 

Is rebranding enough for a brewery dependent on a generation-old amber ale?  PBCo (as the employees used to call it) are reviving the elephant-themed IPA from the old Alan Kornhauser days, but is an IPA enough?  It sure doesn't seem like it.  What are you more excited about, Ben Edmunds' next concoction or a new "brand" from a tired old brewery?  The gale blows...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Future of Beer

Look here (hat tip, Adam Nason):
MillerCoors domestic sales to retailers declined 1.1% in the quarter on a trading day adjusted basis. Premium light brand volumes were down low single digits, as low single digit growth in Coors Light was offset by a mid single digit decline in Miller Lite. The Tenth and Blake division saw double digit growth driven by Leinenkugel’s and Blue Moon. Economy volumes were down low single digits.  Domestic sales to wholesalers were down 1.4% in the quarter compared with the prior year.
This is exactly where the craft versus crafty debate comes from.  To borrow a phrase from a different sector, we have seen "peak lager."  Large multinationals may cannibalize one another, but the overall barrelage of thin industrial lagers is going to continue to decline--and probably quickly.  So wise companies are doing what MillerCoors have done and sign onto the growth segment in ales.  It's the new reality.  Does that mean we are striding boldly into a future where good beer rules the day and big companies have to compete on the merits of flavor, or one in which all that is good and true and tasty will be blotted out by consolidating Wall Streeters who will leave us with only crappy ales? 

Time will tell...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Getting to Know a Beer

The view south from the Astoria Column.

In very rare cases, I order the same beer twice when I go to a pub or restaurant.  Almost always this is the result of poor selection.  If there are beers I haven't tried on the menu but suspect might be tasty (an ordinary circumstance), I feel duty-bound to try them.  This means that I very often pass on a beer I like a great deal.  Fully 78.3% of the time I pass up a beer I know I like, I end up with the lesser one.  It is a huge downside to blogging about beer.

Over the weekend, I was in Astoria under staggeringly blue, warm skies to celebrate my continuing obsolescence.  (Extreeeeeeeemly late 30s if you must know.)  Because I was on a celebratory vaction, I abandoned all regular duties and indulged my native instinct to pursue that which I like rather than that which is novel.  So after less than an hour in town, it was off to one of my fave breweries, Fort George.

Thinking of possibly the annual "North" beer or maybe an 1811 Lager, I decided to at least sample on of the one-off experimental beers, brilliantly named Java the Hop.  It was a coffee IPA, exactly the kind of beer for which I was preparing such adjectives as "abomination" and "horrible miscalculation."  But miracle of miracles: it worked.  The coffee was more an aromatic note than flavor, and the hops were ratcheted way below usual Fort George levels.  Thus did the beer harmonize in a completely unexpected manner.  I always know I like a beer when I think about it the hours or days after I last tried it.  So it was with Java the Hop and, after a day at the beach sunnier and warmer than many I've experienced in June, Sally and I headed back to Fort George.  And then we had another sunny day tromping through the forests around Astoria and another evening at Fort George.  (I should note that Sally was not forced their against her will on account of my birthday trump card; she suggested the third return herself.)

In any case, the point of all this is to say that if you really wish to know a beer, it's not enough to have four ounces or even a pint.  You need to try it on different evenings, in different settings, in different moods.  Only then will you learn its secrets--and your own.  Was it really the beer you liked or the novelty?  Was your mood so good you'd have enjoyed used dishwater, or was it really the beer?  How well does the beer wear?  What more did you discover in the beer after you've tried it on day two or three?  What did you lose?

I am happy to say that Java the Hop remains a remarkable discovery, one I continue to think about even now that Fort George is no longer handily located just down the street.  It will actually come to pain me in coming months and years to think about it because, as a one-off, it will probably disappear from the surface of the planet without a goodbye or longing glance back.  It will reside only as an itch in my brain.  But that's a good thing.  Now I properly gotten to know Java the Hop I, at least, will remember it fondly. And it's also a good reminder that the ADHD attendant with beer geekhood comes clothed in a massive blind spot.  Like bad lovers, we hook up with beers for a few moments, stimulating our adrenal glands before moving onto the next pint for another hit.  This mode may offer pleasures, but they're necessarily different than taking a beer our on several dates and really getting to know it.  You can fall in lust with a beer after a pint; to fall in love you must get to know it more slowly.

Bonus pic 1: the view from Saddle Mountain.

Bonus pic 2: white forest, or the birches
of Saddle Mountain.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

New Belgium Now Employee-Owned

Fascinating news from Fort Collins:
It's true, we are. Up to this point (well, December 28, 2012) the employees of New Belgium owned 41% of the total company. The controlling share was owned by our co-founder and CEO, Kim, and her family. Well, we bought it. As of December 29, 2012 the employees own the whole she-bang. New Belgium is now 100% ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). 

The attached press release also mentions that the future workers in the new North Carolina plant will also be owners.  I've always run hot and cold with New Belgium's beers, but as a company, they make incredibly good citizens. 
Photo: Tracy at The Slow Life.
New Belgium has one of the greenest facilities in the world, and they have long been a leader in supporting charitable activities.  Now that they have hundreds of co-owners, we can add great labor relations to the checklist.

The idea of American "craft-brewing" has always had a quasi-ethical component to it--one I mostly abjure.  It's easy enough to get lost in the weeds of ethics when you're talking about fermented barley juice, particularly when you're trying to use those ethics to carve out special places for those with purportedly superior qualities.  [cough]Brewers Association[cough].

On the other hand, there's absolutely no reason not to celebrate those breweries that really do make an effort to make the world better for their customers, their workers, and their communities.  Full Sail went ESOP in 1999 and is also incredibly green.  England's Adnams actually turns their waste into biogas.  Breweries are really quick to sponsor charity events--Deschutes has been a leader on this score, but you could run down the list and find brewery after brewery participating--often with little fanfare--in charity events.  We can endorse these fine practices by drinking their beer, and I am all in favor of that.  This may be a good excuse to go find a Tart Lychee. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Louis Pasteur Did Not Discover Yeast

Yesterday I posed a question about the discovery of yeast.  The question sprang to mind thanks to the coincidence of reviewing my discussion with Schlenkerla's Matthias Trum and reading and article by Rob Symes called "Yeast" in the current Taps Magazine.  Symes was discussing Reinheitsgebot and explaining how it was "truly remarkable for one of the ingredients it omits."
The omission wasn't purposeful.  It wasn't until the 1800s that Louis Pasteur (yes, the father of pasteurization) discovered the role yeast performed in fermentation.
This is an inaccurate, but almost ubiquitous statement.  I googled "beer yeast discovery" and they blossomed like mushrooms after a spring rain:
"Without knowing its role or its existence, men have always used yeast."  (Lesaffre yeast)
"The German Beer Purity Law of 1516 - The Reinheitsgebot, listed the only allowable materials for brewing as malt, hops, and water. With the discovery of yeast and its function in the late 1860's by Louis Pasteur, the law had to be amended." (John Palmer, How to Brew)
"Until the mid-19th century brewers knew very little about yeast. To make good beer they had to rely on ancient practice. With the aid of a microscope, Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast was responsible for beer fermentation in 1866."  (Christopher White, Brew Your Own)
And so on.  If you think about this for more than five minutes, you realize it can't be true.  When you brew, you get gobs of stuff boiling off the top of your fermenting wort and lots of "stuff" pooled in the bottom afterward.  The single-celled organism is invisible, but in the billions they are quite a sight.  We also know brewers regularly re-pitched that stuff centuries ago.  Matthias Trum and I got off onto a long, interesting digression about brewing history in which he illuminated much about the German guild system for me.  (He focused on brewing history when he was a student at Weihenstephan.)   He pointed out the obvious and then added:
“About the yeast and the purity law. The yeast is in fact not mentioned, that is correct. You have, again, to put yourself in the mind of a medieval brewer. In the middle ages, they had a profession called the 'hefner.’  So they knew exactly. The purity law lists ingredients, right? Yeast I put in there and I get more out of it. I harvest the yeast at the end and I put it into the next batch. And that was actually the job of the hefner.”
I made my “stuff” point and he continued:  “Zeug. Zeug was the German word, which is stuff. The hefner’s job was to harvest the yeast from the batches, to press out as much remaining beer as possible, which was sold at a low price to the poor, and then the yeast was added to the next batch. You started with a smaller amount of yeast and then you ended with a bigger amount of yeast.”
Indeed, we have records of brewers using yeast from long ago. Richard Unger documents this in his indispensable Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance:
As early as the mid-14th century, a Flemish recipe book mentions adding yeast to beer, and it seems likely that already by 1300 brewers were using some of the foam skimmed off the top of the fermenting beer from the last brew to start fermentation with the next one. By the 16th century, brewers commonly added yeast to wort from cultures which they kept separate and which they controlled and maintained. 
And indeed, it had to be that early, because that's roughly the time when lagering began--a process not possible without knowledge of the function of yeast.  He continues, making the point:
In 1420 a brewer in Munich got permission to use yeast that fell to the bottom and regulations from Nuremberg suggest that bottom yeasts which had been identified and to some degree isolated were already in use in the fourteenth century. 
Pasteur's role was observing the organism and explaining why it produced sour beer.  (He was a big fan of bottom-fermentation and lagering.)  It was a watershed.  But humans, which even a thousand years ago were pretty clever beings, had a pretty good idea of what was causing the beer to ferment.  My guess is that monks were the first to really develop a theory of yeast--they were the first great brewing innovators--but whoever it was came many hundreds of years before Pasteur.

Monday, January 14, 2013

When Was Yeast Discovered?

I have a most interesting response to this question from Matthias Trum, the sixth-generation Weihenstephan-trained owner (and--little-known fact--grad of Bamberg U with an econ master's degree) of Schlenkerla.

But you first.  When was brewing yeast discovered and how do we know this? 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Influential Beers

Martyn is hosting a delightful salon over at his blog on the nature of influential beers. He has assembled a list of the top 20 which is probably as good as any.  (Since "influential" is a moving target, we're never even going to agree on the rules of the game, much less the entrants; however, Martyn does a great job of walking through beer's rich history and making a nice case for his selections.)  I was going to skip it, but there's a minor theme about whether certain "sui generis" beers like Pilsner Urquell, Schneider Weisse, Guinness, Orval, and Saison Dupont should qualify.

About Guinness, Martyn writes, "I really don’t think Guinness is influential: it’s so sui generis, it’s just carried on being itself, without influencing anybody."  In comments, Ace makes a similar case against Schneider: "Why did you choose schneider over Weihenstephaner? Schneider’s hefe is unlike any other hefe, and actually comes closer to being a Dunkelweizen. Weihenstephaner’s hefe is considered the gold standard of all Bavarian hefes."

My minor addition to this debate is that beers that appear sui generis may be the most influential of all.  A beer like Pilsner Urquell is never copied identically.  Breweries were enchanted by pilsner, but they deferred to the original.  Even today, Czechs think of pilsner as a beer, not a style.  That's very much the case with Schneider Weisse, too.  A hugely important beer that kept the thin thread of weizen-brewing alive.  When, several decades ago, breweries finally started seeing a market in wheat beers, their versions referred of course back to Schneider's.  That they didn't use the same amount of dark malt doesn't mean Schneider is less important.

And you can go on: Guinness so dominated the segment of black ales that no one could be roused to challenge it.  Now dark ales are among the most popular and important of the ales brewed.  It's a little early to see if saisons will continue to survive and possibly flourish, but if they do, they will all bow in the direction of Tourpes while never attempting to imitate that beer.  Orval?  Yeah, I think it's the one sui generis beer that really is sui generis.  I'd have to agree there.

Anyway, go have fun at Zythophile, which is at 68 comments and counting.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Czech Lagers in Hood River

Update.  Scroll down to look at the comments where Full Sail's brewmaster, Jamie Emmerson, comments on his background and technique.

The world of Czech lagers is mostly hidden to Americans.  We know of "Bohemian pilsners" and assume that's all there is to the country that invented the world's most famous style.  But the Czech Republic has a brewing tradition as rich as Germany's and if you have the good fortune to visit, you will find more than golden lagers there.  The thing we know as pilsner is called "light lager" in the Czech Republic--světly ležák ("pilsner" is reserved for the beer made at Urquell).  But you'll also find things called tmavéčerné, and polotmavé in hues ranging from light amber to black.

The Czech system for producing beer runs along two axes--strength and color.  On the one side you have beers of different strength categories based on original gravity (they've changed, so old hands need to update their vocabulary): stolní (table beer up to 6° P), výčepní (7° to 10°), ležák (11° to 12°), and speciál (13° +).  On the other, the definitions run from pale to black: světlé (pale), polotmavé (half dark), tmavé (dark), and černé (black).  Anything on one side may be matched to anything on the other, so you could have strong pales or table darks--or anything in-between.

This all seems academic to the average American, though, right?  When was the last time you saw a tmavé in the grocery store? It might have been more recently than you know.

Several years ago, Full Sail's James Emmerson tried a Czech tmavé and had an epiphany: it would be the perfect style to compliment Session Lager.  "When I had the tmavé, to me that was the yin to Session’s yang, just a perfect beer to pair with the all-malt helles, which is what Session is."  And thus was born Session Black, a stealth tmavé.  I was working on a chapter about dark lager and I called Jamie up to talk about Black, which I knew was inspired by the Czech dark.  I was surprised to learn that Session Fest and the current LTD seasonal--LTD 06--are also Czech-inspired, and that Full Sail has quietly been brewing up a portfolio of Czech beers.

When Session Black was released, I described it as a schwarzbier--and was later corrected.  Last week I called and asked Jamie what he saw as the difference was between German dark and black beers and the Czech versions:

The difference between a dunkel, schwarzbier, and tmavé style is the Munich dark being really malt forward in that Munich malt character. The schwarzbier being drier with that roast character. And then the tmavé was an interesting balance, with that roast being subdued and that malt-forward character wasn’t so surrounded by the Munich malt character. Maybe it’s a different brewing philosophy. The Czech beers in general have a really nice creaminess that [is] different than say the kind of malt character that came from a Munich beer
For my money, that last point is really the key.  Czech beers are made with very different malts than German beers.  Czechs use floor-malted grain that is less modified than German malts.  Most larger German breweries have abandoned decoction (though it's more common in Franconia and Bavaria), but it's typical in Czech breweries.  The combination of the less-modified malts and decoction create that creaminess--a quality that runs through all the Czech lagers I tried.  He agreed:

Certainly when you’re using the kind of malt they’re using, it lends itself more to decoction than the kind of malt we’re using. The degree of modification here does a lot of the work for you, but it takes away some of the opportunities as well. The challenge for us it to use American malts and specialty malts to try to recreate those flavors. Is it the same? Probably not—but it’s pretty close. 
Full Sail first released Session Fest last year, and it is probably the country's only regular-rotation polotmavé.  Emmerson: "No roast in it all all—it’s all caramel malts, Munich, and pale malts. It’s got that same kind of creamy mid-palate again. After bringing the Session Black, then, the idea of a polotmavé for Session Fest was a natural."

Okay, we have the half-dark and dark, what about black?  That would be the LTD 06:   "The černé is one I’ve always wanted to do, and the LTD 6 allowed that, because it’s a much larger beer. It’s very dopplebock-y, but that whole dark-roasted thing at the top created an interesting character to that beer."  If you haven't tried it yet, go buy a sixer.  It's pretty spectacular beer.  The balance between the burnished smoothness of the malt with that twist of roast is fantastic, and it's a perfect winter beer.

Emmerson has also made a strong Czech beer, inspired in part by Budvar's Speciální pivo called Bud (not sold, as you may have guessed by the name, in the US).  Emmerson wanted to create "an homage to the Czech thing of super-simple," and LTD 04 was just pilsner malt and Willamette hops.

Of course LTD 03 was the one beer people might have recognized as a Czech beer--it was a pilsner.  Or, as Jamie probably wished to call it, a světly ležák.

So that's pretty much the full range of Czech beers, and you can find them right here in Oregon.  I still think it's worth that trip to Prague you were always planning on taking, but maybe these beers will tide you over in the meantime.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Brewery Categories Defined

I was typing a detailed comment to Alan's recent thought-provoker and thought, damn, why I am burnishing his blog with all this great content?  That's the kind of generous guy I am.  Alan was discussing definitions of different categories of breweries and came up with this list: nano, micro, craft, crafty, and macro.  I think those are a good way to describe the way North Americans think about beer (possibly with the substitution of "brewpub" for "micro"), but my travels around the globe the last two years have completely scrambled the way I think about beer.  Here's the list I have taken to using, one that I think is more universal in its application:
  • Brewpub/hausbrauerei: a proper pub that brews its own beer.  
  • Production brewery: a brewery that packages its beer for sale largely off-premise.  May have a tasting room, but this doesn't make it a brewpub. 
  • Nanobrewery: a production brewery with a batch capacity of less than three barrels. 
  • Traditional brewery: a brewery that employs equipment or processes to uphold a certain tradition in brewing.  Decoction breweries, tower breweries, breweries with open fermenters, etc.  Not a precise definition, but I distinguish these from modern breweries that have been optimized to make any type of beer.  A brewery doesn't have to be old or small to be traditional, and traditional breweries don't always make good beer.  
  • Independent brewery: Owned singly by one human or a family.  Nothing to do with beer quality.  
  • Industrial brewery: a highly automated and efficient brewing facility designed to produce beer as inexpensively as possible.  Again, nothing to do with beer quality.  They tend to be large, but not all large breweries are industrial and some smallish ones are. 
  • Large brewery: Any brewery with an annual capacity of 300,000 barrels or more a year.  You want to place it at 100,000 or a million?  I'm mostly cool with that.  Either way, it's worth noting that when you look at the thousands of breweries worldwide, only a small percentage of them make even as much as 100,000 barrels.  And a 300,000-barrel brewery is necessarily a pretty damn big facility.

Dubuisson: a traditional, independent production brewery.
Where I think North Americans get off into the weeds is trying to deal with the ownership structure, size, and configuration of a brewery and somehow try to correlate this with beer quality.  That notion is a uniquely new-(beer)-world view.  It sorta kinda makes sense because by 1980 the US had one category of brewery (industrial), and the beer Americans made ran the spectrum from yellow fizzy to slightly lighter yellow fizzy, from uninteresting to poor.  So anything that came after was "craft."  

That's a culturally-specific definition.  It doesn't work in the places we actually associate with beer, like UK, Germany, Belgium, or the Czech Republic.  If you want to make the tentative argument that large, industrial breweries generally make less interesting beer, I think you're on pretty firm ground.  But once you start talking about traditional, nano, independent breweries and brewpubs and tie these to beer quality, you lose credibility.  Some industrial breweries make superb beer, while lots of traditional breweries make pond water.  Many families use their old breweries as ATMs and ignore quality and I know you've wandered into a brewpub somewhere and been handed a biology experiment that someone mistook for beer. 

Finally: the word "craft" is also culturally-specific and therefore useless.  It means different things in different countries.  In the US, people take it to mean breweries established within the last 30-odd years that are relatively smaller than older macro breweries.  There is a strong (and mistaken) presumption of quality.  In Britain, "craft" means something entirely different.  That could be said about Germany and Belgium as well.  There's really no use for the term and I am going on a personal campaign to eliminate it from my own vocabulary. 

None of this is, I suppose, particularly critical.  But over the coming years as "craft beer" loses its meaning here, we'll be looking for a shared vocabulary, and I think you could do a lot worse than this.  Your thougths?

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Forty Liters a Week

Onward and upward.  Today's transcript, the scholarly and funny Matthias Trum, the young, sixth-generation owner of Schlenkerla.  The quote speaks for itself:
“In the Bavarian constitution, beer is still regarded as food and part of the tariff agreement with the brewery workers is that part of the payment is made in beer. Even today.” Me: “So you pay your workers with beer?” Matthias: “Yeah, yeah. They have a certain amount per week—I think it’s something like 40 liters per week, so it’s fairly large—and they get it tax-free, and they get it as part of their pay. Of course these days they sell at least part of it or supply their families with it”
I will leave the math to you.  "Fairly large" is right.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Language of Beer

Anyone who has attempted to speak a foreign language, especially during adulthood, has encountered the phenomenon of language-as-thought:
For example, the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind.” Instead, speakers use only the cardinal directions. They don’t have left and right legs but north and south legs, which become east and west legs upon turning ninety degrees. Among the Wakashan Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a grammatically correct sentence can’t be formed without providing what linguists refer to as “evidentiality,” inflecting the verb to indicate whether you are speaking from direct experience, inference, conjecture, or hearsay. 
Each language is a reflection of the world as seen by the speakers of that language. As I was reading that captivating article (one of the rare New Yorker pieces posted online in its entirety), an analogy occurred to me.  Beer styles are a bit like language.  Of course, culture in general is, too--cuisine, art, religion, all these things have their own vernacular.  Cultures don't possess different hardware, but the software of culture makes one group like unspiced boiled meats and another fiery curries.  I know I often chalk love of different styles up to an unexamined sense of culture: eh, the Bavarians love their helleses, what are you going to do?

By chance, I had just been writing about Bavarian dunkel lagers, and noticed that Americans on BeerAdvocate weren't smitten.  Not a single dunkel gets a rating of even 4.0.  The analogy of language later presented itself, and I now think it's a pretty good one.  When a culture develops a proclivity for a certain thing, it simultaneously becomes blind to dissimilar things.  When IPA-lovin' Americans get ahold of a dunkel, they don't know what to make of it.  They judge it against their own preferences and, of course, it comes up wanting.  (One can imagine that in an alternate universe where Bavarians dominated a version of BeerAdvocate, the double IPAs and imperial stouts would score dismally.)   But this is the thing--Americans don't speak the language of dunkel lagers. 

How do you learn to speak the language of a different beer style?  Dunkels are a good example.  Ostensibly a style with little range, they could be taken to be an undifferentiated blah style.  Not, however, if you travel around Bavaria and try, say two dozen of them.  Probably ten of those will be undifferentiated blah--that's a pretty standard proportion for any style.  Some will be actively poor, but some will be excellent and, wonder of wonders, as your palate becomes attuned to them, you will begin to understand the differences between these excellent lagers.  They will become vivid to you.  (It really helps if you talk to brewers, too, for they will speak in forceful terms about what makes a good dunkel lager.  It will differ from what the guy down the road says, and it will really differ from what the guy in the next country says.  And in that way, you will further appreciate the distinctiveness of the style.)

I will go so far as to say that if you don't enjoy a style, you're probably not speaking its language.  (Mainly I'll go that far to see if I can provoke some dispute.)  Beers can be bad, but styles not so much.  They have stood the test of time and found converts.  If you encounter a style, you are by definition finding a constituency.  I have spoken to a number of people around the world who don't like American hoppy beers.  It's not that they don't like certain beers; they just think we're idiots who are making a mockery of a fine art.  It's the same thing as Americans who don't speak dunkel. 

So, the next time you feel the inclination to dismiss a style (as I have often wished to do with helles bocks), think of the sea of people who have, for decades, slugged it back joyfully.  What is this strange language they speak, and where do I learn the vocabulary?

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Corn's Fraught Status

Pete Dunlop alerts me to what turns out to be a fantastic article on the question of "craft" beer by Jason Notte in The Street.  It's really worth a read if you're obsessed (as, obviously, I am) by the whole craft versus crafty debate.  But what interested me in this piece was how Notte honed in on one practice the Brewers Association frowns upon:
To avoid some messiness, the Brewers Association points to the fact that Yuengling uses corn in its mix and accuses it of cutting corners and trimming costs. The problem is, as fellow blacklisted brewery August Schell Brewing in Minnesota pointed out, older breweries founded by German immigrants tend to use a bit of corn in their recipes because they didn't have access to two-row barley from home and had to cut into the higher protein found in the native six-row barley. 
If you want the full details on that incident in brewing history, check out Maureen Ogle's indispensable Ambitious Brew.  She relates the fascinating story of how brewers pioneered the use of corn and rice to offset the crap quality of American barley.  It was more expensive, made the beer harder to brew, and was an all around pain in the ass--not a shortcut.  Notte points out that that's again the case, and further dismantles BA's reading of the "adjunct" debate.
Given how much craft beer snobs shriek and howl when it's even suggested that a brewery might change recipes when it expands, one would think they'd welcome a brewery such as Yuengling sticking to its original formula for all these years. Oh, and if they think Yuengling's cheaping out, check the price of corn after the biofuel push of the 2000s and compare it with the price of malt. Nobody's getting a break by subbing in corn....

[I]t takes a huge pair of stones for an organization that came into existence in 2005 to call a brewery that's been in existence since 1829, survived through prohibition and is still family owned "non-traditional." 
The status of character-sapping adjuncts has always been a fraught one.  Because, when it saps character, we hiss.  On other hand, there are tons of way to sap character.  Sugar works pretty well.  French brewers used to use potato starch to lighten their beers.  Of course, corn and rice can add character just as well.  I doubt very much, for example, that Steven Pauwels is using corn in his Tank 7 to save money. Corn is an ingredient like any other.  It is not morally suspect.  And it has been an unfortunate scapegoat in the attempt to come up with a definition of bad beer.  And yet, one can't ignore the fairly recent past and how corn was misused, either:

A railcar full of corn syrup in front of
the old Blitz-Weinhard brewery.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Notes from Budvar

Okay, on to the next style.  Today I'm listening through my transcription of my visit to Budějovický Budvar with brew master Adam Brož and Petr Samec.  It was one of the highlights of all my time in Europe, and easily one of the most edifying experiences (though that's partly because I was so wildly ignorant of Czech brewing).  So here are some of the highlights.

I learned that in the Czech Republic, there is only one pilsner.  Everything else is světlý ležák. Confused?   Here's Adam.

“Always there is a discussion of the definition of pilsner lager. It’s really difficult to compete with Pilsner [Urquell] because I think that it’s really the style. It became the style of the pilsner type. We are a bit different in this category because bitterness is really fine, the alcohol is a bit higher than the pilsner has. The Budweiser beer is really different. “You will find in Budvar that the bitterness is very mild—not so low—but mild.” (His emphasis.)
Breweries defer to Pilsner Urquell as being the pilsner.  Others make pale lagers, and they seem keen to point to distinctions.

I've been thinking and writing about decoction mashing.  At Ayinger, they installed a new system recently that includes a mash cooker, but they abandoned it.  Too time- and energy-inefficient; a process they describe as old-fashioned.  Budvar takes a different view:
“If you open the Czech brewing books, you will see that the typical process is a two-mash decoction process.  It depends on the beer category you are producing. If you try the lager type, the decoction is very important. We compared decoction versus infusion on the small-scale brewery; always the beer brewed by the infusion process was emptier in its taste—the body was not correct for the lagers. Also the color changed. If you boil during the decoction, you prepare the compounds which cause golden color. So the infusion lagers were yellowish, not so full in its taste.”

The Grant
I became fascinated to see that Czechs are absolutely faithful to a piece of equipment called a grant.  You see it underneath the lauter tun, a recessed pocket with a long array of swan-neck facets and valves.  “These valves served to open or close the lautering manually.  Nowadays it’s controlled by the PC.”  I've seen these still in use in Belgium, but rarely.  The problem, as Brož quickly acknowledged is:  “The side effect is this slight aeration of wort, which is an important thing.”  Really?  Do tell.
“Because sometimes if you open the literature you will see that the oxidation processes are bad for the beer and it’s necessary to avoid them, but there are several articles, especially from Germany, where when the stages in the brewhouse were compared the oxygen was not always bad, especially before boiling with hops. The oxygen has [?] in it in small amounts due to the reaction of polyphenols and proteins. It influences this reaction. So if the sweet wort runs through these valves, a small amount of oxygen is taken in and the reaction between proteins and polyphenols ends well.” 
He believes the splashing of the grant actually improves the beer.

Not just for old breweries: this is the grant in Pilsner
Urquell's state of the art, modern brewhouse.

Brewing Process
On the beer itself, for those who are interested.  It's made with a double-decoction mash (typical in Czech) to 12 degrees P.  All Moravian pilsner malt (though "we call it pale malt," Adam said, laughing), the gold color coming from decoction.  The hopping procedure is interesting.  They use 100% Saaz or Žatec (pn. jha-tetch) hops, whole flower, and the first addition comes as lautering starts  “at the beginning when the bottom is covered.”  Then the second addition comes "when there is a full kettle," and the final addition is at 30 minutes from the end of the 90-minute boil. 

Fermentation and maturation is quite unusual.   “There was a very simple rule: one degree of Plato in the wort means one day of fermentation.  The lager has 12 degrees of Plato and ferments twelve days for main fermentation.”  Budvar then lagers it for 90 days (!), a practice he calls "deep" maturation. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The End of Regionalism [Sports]

Today my beloved (and much undeserving) Wisconsin Badgers play in the Rose Bowl, which as you all know means it's sports post time.  But this is maybe more broadly interesting than me just talking Badgers.

This afternoon's game features a classic match-up: old teams from the former Big and Pac Tens.  Even odds say it's going to be the last one.  Thanks to the abomination that is the BCS, we've had the minor atrocities of Texas and Florida schools playing in the game.  There's one more year under the current rules, and that means about a 45% chance that it will be marred by interlopers next year.  After that, college football goes to a mini-playoff system and although the Rose Bowl is trying to protect the traditional conference rivalry, but the point is now moot.

For one thing, there's no Big Ten and Pac Ten to protect.  We've moved to conference gigantism, and now Rutgers and Utah are part of the these conferences.  Beyond that, the bowls are now very much financial institutions, not sites of college football tradition, and whether the game at hand is the George Foreman Grill Fiesta Bowl or the Rose Bowl Game Sponsored by Oscar Meyer Hot Dogs matters not a whit to anyone.

Back in 1993, while a grad student at Wisconsin, I spent my $36 on season tickets and joined the students in welcoming Barry Alvarez onto the hallowed turf at Camp Randall Stadium with a obsequious bow and the chant of "Barry, Barry, Barry."  At mid-season, we were 6-1 with visits from Ohio State and Michigan upcoming in the Camp.  I remember that October day when Michigan came, and the ecstatic waves of joy roiling the tailgaters as they waved massive effigies of Wolverine players (leading to a dangerous moment, but that's a different post).  As the game wore on, the chants began: Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl.  They continued through the Ohio State game, which was a tie, securing our trip to Pasadena.

I relate this tired history because I experienced the potency of the old Rose Bowl, when the game itself was everything.  National Championships were important, but in those days before the BCS, Big and Pac Ten teams won them at the Rose Bowl.  There was a symmetry and elegance to the arrangement, and it depended on this tight limitation about which teams could play.

College football has evolved beyond those quaint days.  Now conferences are merely vehicles for eyes on TV and post-season jockeying position.  They are no longer entities of place.  The remaining traditions will all come down to games like the Iron Bowl and Civil War between old rivals.  The Rose Bowl that became a multi-decade institution from 1944 to 2001 is gone.  Maybe by the end of today's game, maybe in one year.  So today I will watch partly to bask in the warmth of the last embers of an old tradition.