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Friday, March 29, 2013

From Whence the Name "Beervana?"

This blog is called Beervana, as is this town and, sometimes, this state.  The name is actually a registered trademark of the Texas-based Gambrinus Corp, which is the worst thing one can say about it.  But where did the name come from?

Marc Zolton.

I actually first learned of this at Don Younger's wake, where I met Marc.  In 1994, he was writing for Willamette Week, and the paper decided to put out an insert celebrating the city and its beer.  They called it Beervana.  Willamette Week picks up the story:
Making the guide was all a ton of fun, says [Audrey] Van Buskirk. Sure, they had to call the library to get information. But when they weren't slaving over a wax gun, they were hanging out and drinking. "We were just all really good friends," she says. "We went out together all the time. Marc Zolton, who wrote a lot of it, was really into beer and got us all excited about beer."

Marc Zolton, as it happens, randomly ended up at our 2013 Beer Guide release party at Green Dragon. He confirmed Van Buskirk's general account of the time. "But I think I'm the one who came up with the word 'Beervana,'" he says. "Pretty sure that was me."
You can see the whole insert here (pdf).  

I owe a debt and a thanks to Marc for coining the word.  When Audrey hired me three years later to write the beer column for the paper, I happily used the word to promote our city's fine beer.  I once owned and of course, in 2006, appropriated it for this blog.  The name has entered the public domain and I hope no one associates it with me personally (and I hope they don't associate it with BridgePort even more).  If anything, you should recall Marc when it comes to mind.
Indeed, I think we all owe Marc an additional thanks for the name.  It has been fantastic PR for the state's good beer, a name that reinforces Oregon's primacy in the craft beer world every time someone utters it. He may not have intended it to become a permanent fixture in Portland's self-image, but it has.

On behalf of everyone, thanks, Marc!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Tale of Two Fests

Spring Beer and Wine Festival
Friday and Saturday, March 29 & 30
Oregon Convention Center, noon to 11pm

Farmhouse and Wild Ale Festival
Saturday and Sunday, March 30 & 31
Saraveza, 1-10, 1-9pm

Ezra Johnson-Greenough has within his heart a devilish nature.  This latter-day Art Larrance has assembled a new event this weekend called the Farmhouse and Wild Ale Fest.  It is scheduled for the same weekend as that old hound of Portland fests, The Spring Beer and Wine Fest.  If he's trying to make a point, he's not doing it very subtly.  The point is made: times have changed.  One of these events shows us where we've been, one shows us where we're going.

Where We've Been
I recall one of the earlier Spring Beer Fests--probably around 1996.  It was relatively small, but nearly every booth was manned by the brewer and/or owner (which in those days usually meant the same man).  I was introduced to Caldera and Walking Man there, that's where I first met Pelican's Darron Welch--those kinds of discoveries were common.  The year I have in mind, the guy I met was Dan Carey from New Glarus.  It was pretty cool because I was in Madison at grad school when New Glarus opened.  Carey, a Wisconsinite who did apprentice brewing in Germany, debuted with a slate of stellar lagers.  But he didn't bring a lager to the Spring Beer Fest and, indeed, hadn't started New Glarus to brew lagers.

His real brewing inspiration came when he made a discovery while he was living in Germany.  He and his family were vacationing in neighboring Belgium and found a funny little brewery near Brussels.  "We went to Lindemans brewery," he told me recently.  "René Lineman was there and it was sort of a rustic farmhouse brewery.  He was very open and he showed us around, showed us how he brewed the beer and we thought it was just cool."

Carey lived in Portland and worked at JV Northwest in the 1980s, where he "took some stainless steel out of a scrap pile and built a little 15-gallon pilot brewery." For six years he tried to develop a beer like he'd tasted in Belgium, and when he'd finally mastered it, that's when he opened New Glarus.  When he finally unveiled Wisconsin Belgian Red, he made sure to bring it back to Portland so the old town could get a taste, and it debuted at the Spring Beer and Wine Fest.  It created a massive sensation, just like it did nationally.  (So far as I know, Carey gets credit for introducing the first serious wild ale to America.)  And that's when I met Dan Carey and tasted what would become one of the more important American beers brewed in the 1990s.

The Spring Beer Fest was the place to go to learn about new breweries and interesting new beers.  It was the place you could actually speak to the brewers in a tasting-friendly environment, not the mosh pit the Oregon Brewers Guild had already become.  But of course, craft beer wasn't the same big business venture it is now, so organizers had to include wine and a potpourri of weird vendors hawking things like vinyl siding.  It was okay; you just hung out in the brewing area.  Who knew, maybe you'd find the next Dan Carey there.

Where We Are Now
Things have changed. I just finished a little shorty section in The Beer Bible talking about festivals, and it took everything I had not to just talk about Oregon.  We have fests for winter ales, for fresh hop ales, for fruit beers (Ezra again), for Belgian beers, for barrel-aged beers--for damn near any kind of beer you can think of.  (At some point, Mighty Mites will rise from the ashes, and all will be complete--but that's a different post.)

Now we have fests as individual as the beer scene.  Sometimes we like a big-ass celebratory fest like the OBF or Holiday Ale Fest, but sometimes we like to have a specialized, curated fest where all the beers are placed as intentionally as flowers in an ikebana arrangement.  Two decades on, if you want to find the next Dan Carey, you're much more likely to find him at Ezra's gig--where his last name will be something like Kahler, Pfriem, Logsdon, or Arzner.

This year's Spring Beer Fest has the same vibe as did the one a decade ago: beer, wine, weird vendors (no vinyl siding!).  It also has chocolate, cheese, distilleries, and ciders--which is all cool.  And for the first time in years, I can say that the beer list actually has lots of interest.  It has always been a place for little breweries from the hinterland to come pour their beers, and this year you can find Boring, Heathen, and Rusty Truck there.  (There's also a full line up of various (MillerCoors labels like Batch 19 and Leinenkugel.)  But there's a really ad hoc feel about it--very different from the carefully-selected beers pouring at Saraveza. 

I'm not sure there's a "best" here.  But the Spring Beer and Wine Fest has the feel of an old Alice in Chains hit, while Erza's rocking a Lumineers vibe.  One plays large venues, one plays to a more core audience.  They are very different beasts.  Since I am an old man and can look back over the beautiful expanse of our now-kinda-long history, it all has a nice melody. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Meanwhile, In Macroland...

This whole article is a fascinating document.  It's good antidote to the feelings of hubris that arise in those moments when you feel like everyone in the world drinks Pliny the Elder.  I'm going to do some cheap blogging here and just clip sections that left my chin hanging.  The bolding is mine, for emphasis:
[B]rewers are dedicating fewer dollars to reach him as the "subpremium" segment declines. Instead, beer marketers, on a quest for fatter profit margins, are encouraging drinkers to trade up to pricier line extensions such as Bud Light Platinum or new concoctions like Redd's Apple Ale.*
In the face of stiffer competition from craft beer, Miller gives you Apple Ale.  A different philosophy than the craft breweries are using.
Brewers are advertising economy brands less: Measured-media spending on the five largest low-end brews -- Natural Light, Busch Light, Busch, Miller High Life and Keystone Light -- fell to $6.9 million last year from $22.4 million in 2011, according to Kantar Media.
That's less than a third of what they spent a year before.  Amazing. Come to think of it, though, it has been awhile since I've seen a Keystone ad.
Trevor Stirling, a beverages analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, said "Consumers are much more likely to "brand' themselves by what they drink, be it a quirky, heavily hopped IPA, or a "sophisticated' Stella; whereas Natty Light and Beast Light have, if anything, negative brand badging."
If you think you understand the beer market, you have to wrap your brain around the idea that Stella is considered sophisticated and that the bigger companies think in terms of concepts like "negative brand badging." 
Despite the competition from crafts, economy brands are not giving up on younger drinkers. A-B InBev's Natural Light, which targets college-age consumers, is seeking to stand out with new "stubby" bottles, dubbed "Fatty Natty," rolling out nationally. MillerCoors is targeting hipsters with its Hamm's brand via grassroots marketing. 
This is probably the only play left--doing a Pabst--but how many times are twenty-somethings going to go for the faux retro cred thing?

So there you go: intel from the front of the macro wars.  It's a whole different world. 
*No, I was not aware of the existence of this product.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Homer Simpson Was Right

Archeologists at Simon Fraser University up north have come to a tentative conclusion (which I've bolded for your benefit below:
It has long been speculated that increasing demands for cereals for the purposes of brewing beer led to domestication in the Near Eastern Natufian cultures. While the question of whether cereals were being used in beer production is an important issue, it has remained a difficult proposition to test. We present some new perspectives on traditional brewing techniques relevant to this issue, on archaeological remains, and on the paleoecology of the Near East. Taken together, these observations provide more compelling circumstantial evidence that makes it increasingly likely that brewing of beer was an important aspect of feasting and society in the Late Epipaleolithic.
Well, no duh.   Archeologists have long been building that case.  As Alan notes, the press has been on this like brettanomyces on lambic, inevitably implying that beer created civilization.  I can't read the paper, but based on the abstract, I'd say they were a heap more circumspect.  "An important aspect" is not "caused."

But I'd like to associate myself with Alan, who points out that "civilization" wasn't so hot for the 99%.  He highlights the lovely slavery aspect, but that is by no means all.  With "civilization" came many great changes.  People's diets went from being rich and varied to being monotonous and boring--and probably sickening, too.  To embrace domestic farming, people had to give up all that leisure time they had after they had hunted and gathered.  Before farming, these savages had relatively flat social structures and were far less prone to oppressive patriarchy.  There were no overlords and underlings, no kings and vassals.  It is true that they lacked a steady supply of beer, but that supply was critical after they settled down, for life had become such a hellscape for so many (hauling massive stones to build tombs--fun!) they needed the beer.

It's pretty much exactly the opposite of what this guy says in the New York Times.  (Appropriately, he botched the landing, going with a cliched quote Ben Franklin never said.)  I, however, will stick my landing, for I turn to that great sage of the late 20th century, who actually did say this:

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Mallard Man

Sweet 'do, ugly team.
Source: Denny Medley
Now that the mighty fighting Wisconsin Badgers have made an early exit, I can focus all my energy on the more athletic, entertaining Oregon Ducks. (Wisconsin alums who happen to be fans of basketball find their loyalty challenged when rooting for the Badgers. They do not play the beautiful game. They barely appear to be playing basketball. Lacking grace and athleticism, they apply the tools of Greco-Roman wrestling--headlocks, half-nelsons, leg clamps--to their graceful, athletic foes. It's a travesty, really, an offense against the sport.)

The Ducks, by contrast, are all kinds of athletic. As an added storyline for those who haven't been following along, one of their stars is Arsalan Kazemi, all the way from Isfahan. I understand he's the first Iranian to play Division 1 college ball in the US, and he's quite the talent, too, with a Kevin Love-like ability to get to the rebound. (He had 17 in the round one game.) It starts at 4/7pm, so crack an Oakshire or Ninkasi and get your quack on.

Big rebounding muscles.
Source: NY Daily News.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Jim Koch Tries to Control the Past

"'Who controls the past' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'"  
--George Orwell, 1984

In today's edition of revisionist history we have trailblazing craft brewer Jim Koch, who surely has a trove full of boasts he can dip into as the need arises.  So why does he fabricate others?
I wanted to create a beer revolution in the United States in the same way Samuel Adams created a political revolution. Our Boston Lager was the first time America had tasted rich, flavorful, fresh beer. 
Sam Adams was an early microbrewer, but it wasn't the first--not by a long shot.  People who had been enjoying Anchor and Sierra Nevada for a few years would have been surprised to learn that it wasn't rich, flavorful, and fresh.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Mad Scientist(s) in Milwaukie

It makes a certain kind of perverse sense that the new outpost for Breakside Brewing is located in Milwaukie, just south of Portland in Clackamas County.  (Founder Lot Whitcomb named it for the other Milwaukee, though he apparently never lived there, which is odd.)  Milwaukie is the anti-Portlandia.  It is aggressively normal.  People live in or move to Milwaukie to get away from the single-estate coffee roasters, microbreweries, tattoos, and urban infill of the big city.  So the most outre place to locate your new boundary-crashing brewery is, of course, Milwaukie.

Which is where I sampled beers made with everything from fennel pollen to cedar tips last Friday.  Brewing with weird ingredients is no longer weird, but no one has embraced it as enthusiastically as Ben Edmunds (and now he has a team of style-benders to assist his alchemy).  Last week, in what was largely a failed experiment to understand the idea of "good" beer, I had in mind potions like Cedarbaumbier, an American wheat beer made with wild-foraged cedar tips and no hops.  The beer tasted like forest.  Actually, it tasted like thuja plicata, the mighty Western red cedar, my favorite of all trees in the world.  No plant has had a more important impact on the Pacific Northwest than this not-cedar (it's actually a cypress), which was used for centuries in everything from art to homes to extracts.  An incredibly aromatic tree, anyone who has walked in the old forests of Oregon will have encountered this giant (I believe it's second only to the redwood in size).  Doug firs are more common, but cedars are iconic.  So a glassful of cedar, sweet, resinous, perfumed--something halfway between a cleaning supply and a shake shingle.  How to assess?

When I was still in college, ignorant but curious, I received some folk wisdom from a friend that has served me well.  We were looking at an abstract painting by a friend of ours, and had no way of assessing it.  He said, "I always want to see if someone can draw something realistically before I judge their abstract stuff.  If you can do proportion and angle, I'll trust you to do abstract."  This holds with beer, too.  Amid the savory stouts  and cardamomy Belgian pales Ben and Sam Barber were slapping in front of us, they were also serving classics: pilsner, dunkel, tmavé, Flanders tart.  They've introduced a pale since my last visit that is absolutely saturated in hop goodness, but has something like only 35 IBUs.  The dunkel and tmavé might have been served in Munich and Prague, the Flanders tart, though kissed by bourbon, was very much a brother to Rodenbach (they use the Roselare yeast, but only after, like Rodenbach, completely fermenting out a regular beer).  The pils is already a regular beer and big seller--though truthfully the IBUs put it partway into the Northwest tradition.

I guess I'm just going to have to get with the program.  The truth is, I loved the Cedarbaumbier.  I'd like to try a pint--or better yet two or three--just to see how the experience evolves.  My favorite beer of the flight was a saison made with fennel seeds and pollen.  I know that it will be a bridge too far for some folks--fennel divides people--but it was an inspired combo.  Fennel is a bit like anise, but also earthy and woody.  In both intensity and type, it has a great deal in common with the phenolics you get in some saison yeasts.  You could taste the yeast's work and you could taste the fennel, but they met in the middle in a way that was impossible to tease apart.

Some of Ben's first batches of beers tasted like experiments.  Over time, he (and his cohorts) have grown more and more able to take weird ingredients and make a beer that tastes intentional.  Cedarbaumbier is hard to rate on the good-bad spectrum, but by the "is this what you were shooting for?" metric, it felt like a bullseye.  The new tasting room is a great place to sample from the full spectrum--they've got everything there (21 beers on our visit).  The place is a bit hard to find, but persevere and trust that the funny little industrial park is the right place.  Seems like Fridays are a good time to see the brewers manning the taps.  That's handy, because you will almost certainly like to inquire about the weird beer.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The French (Gastronomic) Connection

Photo: Alexandra Boulat/AP
I begin now the arduous task of writing about food and beer in the book, easily the subject I'm least qualified to write.  I mean I eat, but food?  An ignorant fool.  So I've been boning up on some theory, and in a book called Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor by French food chemist Hervé This, I encountered this fascinating passage (shortened somewhat for brevity):
"In wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape an odorant molecule has been found whose effect is registered only when the enzymes in saliva have separated it from its precursor.  A few moments are needed, then, for the aroma to be perceived.   In 1995, Philippe Darriet and Denix Dubourdieu  discovered a molecule a boxwood or broom note.  Significantly, this simple moecule, whose skeleton is composed of only five carbon atoms, contains a sulfur atom.  Additionally, they observed that the frequency with which this precursor is transformed into an odorant molecule depends on the strains of yeast responsible for fermentation."
There's not a lot more detail to be found, so it's difficult to know how much (if at all) this might be applicable to beer.  But the idea that the perception of aroma or flavor (the two are strongly related) depends on chemical reactions that happen with the application of the taster's saliva--this is fascinating.  When I hold beer in my mouth, flavors and aromas do emerge, but this may well be from warmth, which volatilizes aroma.  It would be hard to tease the two effects apart from a sensory perspective.  But I love the idea.

Update.  The internet is like a little god.  You stand in its dim light and pose your question.  It is only a little god and therefore often remains mute.  But sometimes it answers, and this time it said to me, "hop glycosides."  I swear it spoke in the voice of Stan Hieronymus:
Looking beyond the lupulin gland, and compounds that mostly evaporate during a vigorous boil, led to the discovery of glycosidically bound flavor compounds in hops that contribute to the complex aroma and flavor matrix....  Unlike essential oils some of these glycosides survive the vigorous wort boiling process.  Combined their parts are odorless and nonvolatile, but various yeast strains cause individual cleavage of glycosides, freeing the aromatic component and adding to what is called kettle hop flavor....

[Miller chemist Pat] Ting explained that this flavor does not result simply from hydrolyzed glycosides but also from the subsequent bioconversion by yeast and perhaps even enzymes and microorganisms in the mouth.
(As with my Hervé This quotes, I streamlined this one a bit--you'll just go have to buy the book if you want the full quote.)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Brewers Association 2012 Numbers: Ten Percent

The Brewers Association has the latest numbers out on their members' annual performance and, as we've grown used to seeing, they're eye-popping.  The topline results:
  • Member breweries produced 13.24 million barrels
  • BA member breweries now control 6.5% of the market (up nearly a point in one year)
  • BA member breweries earned 10.2% of the retail sales in the $99 billion market, up over a point from a year earlier.
  • Total breweries in the US (not just BA member breweries) increased by a net 366 to 2,403.
Identify the key stat there?  I suspect the brewery total will get the most attention--and it's a gaudy figure.  But it's meaningless: there are over 7,000 wineries in the US, too, but what does that tell us?  Almost none of those breweries will make more than a few hundred barrels of beer, so together they amount to about one Full Sail-sized craft brewery.  The total production soaring over 13 million is more impressive--just two years ago they were still below 10 million--as is that figure about total market share.

But what really catches the eye is the one about sales.  Keep in mind that 10% only counts member breweries--if you look at the total market for non-macro lager it's probably around 15%.  And that is easily enough to put the whole business of selling beer upside down, particularly when you look at the trend line.  As recently as a generation ago, mass-market domestic lagers controlled almost the entire market--97, 98% of it.  Since then, thanks to imports, craft beer, and whatever you want to call that category Blue Moon is in, it has continued to dwindle annually.  And it's now in freefall: in 2011, BA's member breweries sold $8.7 billion of beer.  They took another 1.5% of the market in one year.

Americans' beer tastes are changing, and I don't think there's any doubt but that we've reached a tipping point.  To what is not clear, but the country is not about to revert to drinking only mass market lagers.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Instead of Guinness

It's St. Pádraig's Day today, the one evening when everyone feels compelled to order a Guinness at the pub.  We really don't have a huge range of alternatives.  But the (one, true, Dublin-based) Beer Nut gives us hope
The growth in Ireland's craft brewing scene seems to be concentrating in the north west at the moment: not terribly surprisingly since it's woefully under served with drinkable beer, though it's nice to see that some people at least think there's a market for something different. Tyrone's Red Hand brewery launches its first beer at The Brewer's House this coming weekend, while nearby Poker Tree is expected to be in production later this year, but Donegal has been quietly turning out the ales for a while now.  
He continues on, discussing Donegal and Kinnegar.  Good stuff: go read.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Troublesome Gray Area of Evaluation

Source: xkcd
It looks like I'm going to push this around for one more day.  Yesterday, following a conversation from Wednesday, I wondered aloud about what "good" beer is.  I invited comments and even the responses illustrate how difficult it is to consider the question. We can't discuss "good" until we agree about what the term means.  But let's step back even further--can we agree on what beer is?

The theory of criticism is not new to beer.  One of the more entertaining literary critics is Terry Eagleton, who gets existential on the nature of his subject of inquiry, literature:
There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what anyone might have said or come to say about it.  "Value" is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes.  It is thus quite possible that, given a deep enough transformation of our history, we may in the future produce a society which is unable to get anything at all out of Shakespeare.  [Literary Theory, 1983]
The idea of "literature" is like "good beer"--fiction exists, but literature, "good" fiction, is a subjective, collective construct.  Eagleton goes into an extremely detailed unpacking of this idea, reflecting on how deeply human experience and belief color our subjective evaluations.  He risks sliding into a theory of complete subjectivity--as did some of the "good beer" commenters--but pulls up short (and for the purposes of our discussion, substitute in your mind the words "good beer" when he writes "literature"):
If it will not do to see literature as an "objective" descriptive category, neither will it do to say that literature is just what people choose to call literature. 
Why?  Eagleton acknowledges that literature doesn't exist "in the sense that insects do," but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  We are plunged into a gray area where meaning cannot be measured by empirical means but not dismissed as purely subjective.  The meaning comes in our collective understanding and agreements about what good is.  Because our understanding and agreements (not to mention conditions) change, meaning changes.  What was good in 1962 may not be good now or in 2062.

I don't think this is actually as hard as some of the commenters believe.  We have a number of benchmarks that help us feel our way.  We don't judge beer in a vacuum--we judge it in context.  Style is a huge aid here--it's fine for a stout to be roasty but not a pilsner.  "Good" is relative to expectation.  We have agreements about what should and should not be in a beer based on style.  (Phenols, diacetyl, oxidation--off flavors--are wrong in every case except those in which they're not.)  Once you agree on the general broad contours, then you come to the gray area of aesthetics.  Is this beer "good" relative to style, expectation, and other beers?  Now we're diving into the deep waters of subjectivity.

In 1975, "good beer" did not exist in the United States.  We had bad beer and beer, but no one would have spent ten seconds defending a theory of aesthetics as it related to a can of Schlitz.  After craft brewing, we invented the idea of good.  All the momentum behind craft brewing rested on the idea that there was such a thing as good beer.  We talk about beer, spend $20 on a bottle of beer, write blogs and books about beer, and argue about beer because we all tacitly agree that "good beer" exists.  So to walk up to that line and say, "it's whatever you think it is" is, well, chicken. 

Until the past five years, when turnip-and-beet beers started to be greeted not with derisive laughter but serious interest and consideration, I felt I had a pretty good theory of "good beer."  I could tell you what it was and defend it.  But now we have, as a culture, begun to value beer differently.  When someone hands me a glass of beer brewed not to a standard style that has weird, unfamiliar ingredients in it, I find my theory bereft.  There is a way to evaluate the beer, but we haven't yet gotten to Eagleton's definition--"value means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes."

We don't actually have to write down the theory.  Literature does fine with out literary theory, and "good beer" will thrive without a blogger building the beautiful architecture of an aesthetic model.  I'm having more a crisis of confidence.  Presented with a weird beer, I wonder: is "liking" it enough?  Surely there's more to it.  But what?

But what?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Open Thread: What's "Good" Beer?

Last night, the estimable Brian Yaeger opened the inner sanctum of his vast collection of aging beers for 3/13/13 and we sampled from those north of 13% ABV--and one that was only 11% but which was a 13th anniversary celebration beer.  Now, you fill the bellies of beer fans with enough 13% beer, and pretty soon the conversation turns philosophical.  In our case, we discussed the nature of beer criticism and what's useful and not, but came to a thorny issue: what's "good" beer?

We were trying a bottle of five-year-old Epic Ale from long-dead Roots at the time, and it was a glorious mess.  Over-carbonated, unbalanced, some odd flavors, perhaps a bit sweet.  But it was intense and had much good about it, too.  Definitely fun to drink.  Was it good?  How about a beer made to hit perfect perfect sweet-spot of saleability: a 6% IPA with 50 IBUs of flavorful but generic hopping, filtered bright as a glacier spring.  Sells tons but gets no geek love.  Good?  Let's say you're sitting down in front of a turnip-and-beet beer.  How do you assess "good?"

No answer is wrong, but some are more right than others.  Your thoughts?

Update.  Let's try this again.  In comments, Max the beer philosopher says that good beer is the beer he likes.  This is the purely subjective view.  No beer has objective standards, and therefore we have the ease of making a pure sensory evaluation.  That's a short and uninteresting discussion.  Instead, imagine a scenario in which your non-beery friend (spouse, father, brother-in-law) asks you to recommend a beer in a style you don't admire.  He trusts your wise counsel, beer geek that you are.  You understand that he's making a request for you to evaluate beers you explicitly do not like in order to make a recommendation.  Subjectivity is off the table.  How do you determine which beer is best?

You could extend this to the point where you are imagining what your critical method for critiquing beer is--that's what I'm driving at.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Beer Bible Update

Sometime Monday or yesterday--I didn't happen to notice--I passed the 200,000-word mark on the Beer Bible.  Word counts never mean anything to people, but page counts are hard to assess.  In my current cheater pagination, it's about 650, but if I do it honestly, it balloons to over 750.  I probably have something on the order of twenty thousand more words to go--another 50-60 pages--and the book is due on May 1, a deadline I have every intention of making.  (Never missed a deadline yet!)  I have one more fun chapter to write (beer and food) and one more fun trip to take--St Louis, to see the home brewery of Anheuser-Busch.  And then ...

It's a strange thing to write a book.  I can't speak for anyone else, but in my own case, it has been the experience of extreme tunnel-vision.  Beer, beer, beer, beer.  I dream in beer.  Someone will mention something and I think: that reminds me of [some story about beer].  I do my very best to remind myself that this is an interior experience, and that to everyone else these matters are of (rightly) little import.  It will be fascinating to emerge on May 2 from this weird cocoon, blinking in the sunlight, and be out of a job.  From incredible tunnel-vision to unemployment.  What whiplash that will be.  I'm trying to let that future self remind present self that he's got a great job and he should enjoy himself.

The bad news is that Workman has slated the publication for Fall 2014.  Talk about delayed gratification.  I guess we'll all be waiting a good long time for it to ripen, like Budvar.  Anyway, 200,000 words, fifty days--these are the relevant numbers of the moment. Back to my hole.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Old American Bocks: A Study in Change

The 20th century was not kind to style diversity in the United States.  Lagers were in ascent even before Prohibition, and then industrialization and mass production after the great experiment continued a trend toward homogenization.  A few styles did survive, though.  One was bock.

Styles change for lots of reasons--war, taxes, trade, and trends--but one of the most powerful agents is other styles.  When marzenbiers first entered the Munich market in the 1840s, they had to contend with the dominant style, dunkel lager, and so were on the dark side of amber.  Over the years, dunkel lagers lost market share to those pretty pale lagers that swept the globe, and now marzens have followed fashion and are now on the pale side of amber.

The same thing happened in the US.  With the arrival of lagers and especially pale lagers, other styles did their best impressions of the king.  We had cream and steam beer, sparkling ales, extra pale lagers, and so on.  Bocks, which ranged in color from the pilsner-pale to porter-brown, were always strong and rich.  In Germany they are by law starkbiers--or strong beers.  As America was turning to very light-bodied, low-to-medium alcohol pilsners, bocks were finding themselves out of step with the trends of the day.  So they started to slim down in an effort to appeal to the modern market.

When I was writing about bocks for the book, I had to contend with that tiny remnant of a style that had evolved to fit older tastes.  Call them old American bocks, I guess--Shiner, Huber, Genessee, and Yuengling.  They range in strength from 4.4% to 5.5%, and three of these four are 5.2% or lower--in many cases weaker than standard American pale lagers (Budweiser is 5%).  Obviously, nothing stark about that.  But they are a kind of uniform dark amber, and I think that's what once communicated strength.  It's hard for younger drinkers to imagine, but back in the 70s and 80s, people reflexively assumed dark beers were strong.  Guinness, people would regularly tell you, was a titan.

(It led to bizarre myths, like the one that said that bocks were produced by scraping the dregs off the bottom of the barrel.  Modern brains, familiar with the brewing process, don't even know what that means.  I certainly don't.  But I think it goes to show that anything that wasn't pellucid and straw-colored was suspect.  Look at grandpa's crazy dark beer--eww!)

But now these beers are trapped on a vanishing island of misfit styles--too weak and insipid to attract people who want a real bock, too old-timey and "strong" for people who want a lite beer.  Their market must consist of a dwindling number of old drinkers who remember the beers fondly.  I suppose they could be rehabilitated via retro nostalgia (the funny old goats on labels are poised to beguile), but as an extant style, my guess is it's not long for this world.  Go get your Shiner Huber Bock [see comments] while you still can.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Brewery Video as Branding

One other thing I meant to mention in that Sixpoint post yesterday was the staggering success the brewery had in getting out the 3Beans video.  It's been seen by 270,000 people.  Breweries have been trying to use video as a part of marketing and branding for about half a decade, but they've never really taken off.  New Belgium has nearly a hundred videos that have collectively been viewed only 414,000 times.  Sierra Nevada has eight videos that have been viewed just a paltry 11,000 times.  (And they have some pretty cool ones, too (though I think, admittedly, that these were posted on the website not as Youtube videos and probably got a lot more views).  As far as I can tell, Deschutes, which produced a racy music-vid type promo (great song by the Cave Singers)--controversial, lauded, and risky--that almost no one saw (Youtube, Vimeo).

So how is it that Sixpoint pulled this off?  Why haven't other breweries been able to capture that same kind of brand lighting in a beer bottle?

Update.  Gary Fish and Jason Randles, commenting in tandem, report that the Deschutes video was indeed more widely-seen than it currently appears.  Here's why (from Gary):
I just thought it described many of our customers in a more adult way (for adult beverages) As for the viewership, because of the boob shot, You Tube took the video down, so we produced a version that is more pg. But You Tube had reset their counter. Altogether, there were over 185,000 views of the video.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Brooklyn, Beans, and Portland, an Intercontinental Tale

Some time back, I got an email from Brooklyn, where ten-year-old Sixpoint is located*.  I get a lot of emails from breweries that don't distribute in Oregon, and usually they go straight to the round file--but this one was different.  It was a story about a beer brewed with beans.  Intriguing.  Back in the very olden days, beans were pretty common ingredients in beer (everything was common--including, in one source I've seen, chimney soot).  It turned out that 3Beans was a slight cheat--Sixpoint used cacao and coffee beans along with Romano beans, the real McCoy.

But it turned out to be even more interesting.  The coffee beans came from Stumptown.  (Given that Brooklyn and Portland are often twinned in the minds of Americans as the east and west hipster capitals of America, there's some real harmony there.)  Even more interesting, the tale involves a superstorm and a trip back to the actual Stumptown to procure the final ingredient.  As one of my irregular Friday Flicks, I'll post a video of the beer.

Sixpoint sent me some of the 3Beans and, bonus, also sent Righteous Ale, Sweet Action, and Resin.  I'm always fascinated to see how trends are evolving in other parts of the country, so it was fun to see what they were making.
  • 3Beans.  Essentially an imperial stout, very rich and creamy.  Lots of chocolate and coffee flavors in a dessert-like presentation.  The Romano beans obviously didn't contribute much in the way of flavor, but I did wonder if they contributed to the texture. 
  • Righteous Ale.  A burly beer with a rustic rye maltiness but a smooth hopping that had lots of melon in it (I'm gonna say honeydew).  It's a key flavor in the Resin, too, and I wonder if the yeast may not be contributing an ester that helps make the flavor pop.  
  • Sweet Action.  Sometimes classified as a cream ale, and not without reason.  The original cream ales were brewed stronger than more debased later versions, and this has lots of smooth drinkability.  I can easily imagine a beer like this from 125 years back.  The hopping is gentle but full, and the whole presentation is very nice.  A strong effort.
  • Resin.  One of the better double IPAs I've tried, Resin is not painfully bitter.  Rather, the incredible density of the beer (the thickness suggest an all-malt bill, no sugar) mutes the bitterness so the aromas and flavors--again, honeydew--come out.  I found the beer continued to open up until I got it almost to room temperature.  Probably 60 degrees is ideal.
The brewer at Sixpoint, Jan Matysiak,is a Weihenstephan-trained German brewer, and I can really taste the impulse he has toward balance in these beers.  I don't know how representative Sixpoint is of the greater Empire/Garden State region, but these are four very solid beers.  If you're out east, try to find a pint.
*Apparently the beers are brewed in Pennsylvania, though the brewery maintains a small space in Brooklyn where they do test batches and store kegged beer (evident in the video).  It's a subject of some controversy

Update.  I forgot to include this photo.   Sixpoint is incredibly advanced in terms of branding, and their packaging illustrates why.  They're incredibly attractive little cubes.  Their regular beers come in 16-oz cans, and specialty beers in 12-ouncers.  But to maintain a similar profile on the shelf both are the same height--the smaller ones are just skinnier.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

All the New Beers

The release of new beers has an unpredictable quality.  Some years it seems like breweries collectively stand pat, while in others they issue a torrent of fresh suds.  This year is shaping up to be a torrent.  No single beer tells much the tale of the market, but if you look at them collectively, you can start to get a sense of where things are headed.  Saisons had their day, tarts, black IPAs, gluten-free, and organics.  So what's new in 2013.  Cue the ray of sunshine and the angelic choir, because it appears to be session ales. I have been flogging the joys of small beers for half a decade, and even, in one bright, shiny moment, helped to get a festival of sessions off the ground.  So obviously I'm psyched about this boomlet. So let's have a look at what's out there. 

Redhook Audible Ale and Deschutes River Ale
I received bottles of these beers on successive days in the chill of February.  I don't totally understand the superstructure around Audible's release--it has something to do with sports broadcaster Dan Patrick--but the beer is straightforward enough.  A lithe 4.7% beer, it is "brewed for crushability with lots of flavor," in the inexplicable language of the brewery.  ("Crush" apparently means "drink.")  Deschutes River Ale is just 4%, and the brewery even goes so far as to admit it's a session ale--no shilly-shallying around.

The contrast between them is the difference between old-school American craft and old-school English bitter.  While many breweries have shifted with the times, Redhook is a bit of a throw-back brewery, making very clean, bright ales that ignore the IBU arms race.  Audible is much in this vein.  Deschutes, by contrast, is a dead ringer for a nice bitter, with a rounded body, biscuity malt flavor, and bright citrusy-crisp hops (Cascades and Crystal).  I even thought I detected a touch of diacetyl, which brewer Brian Faivre confirmed: "We are targeting a low level of diacetyl, 30-40 ppb, as we feel that it lends a positive flavor attribute to this beer, similar to that nice character found in traditional English style ales."

It will come as no surprise to readers that my palate inclines toward the Deschutes.  Audible is a bit less complex than I would like, and there's a hint of roast in there that puts me off.  Deschutes River Ale, though, is a beer I would love to find on cask in a pub where I could spend a couple hours getting to know it.

Widmer Brothers Columbia Common
The name of this beer is instructive.  "Common" is, of course, the non-trademarked reference to San Francisco steam beer.  They get the hybrid character by using their regular yeast and a lager strain.  (Steam beer was made by fermenting lager yeasts warm in the age before refrigeration reached the wilds of California.)  The Columbia refers to a type of hop bred simultaneously with Willamette.  Budweiser was looking for a domestic replacement for imported hops and a couple of varieties were bred largely from Fuggle stock to grow well in the US.  You know how this ends: Bud chose Willamette, consigning Columbia to the scrap heap of forgotten strains. 

In fact, Columbia Common uses a variety of hops--the Widmers' standard Alchemy blend for bittering, and the sisters, Willamette and Columbia, together in later additions.  For the hop nerd, this is slightly frustrating--I'd love it to be a single-hop beer so I could get a sense of the flavor.  But there's no arguing with the results; it's really a wonderful beer.  I had it at the Rose Garden first, and it tasted really fruity, making me think the hops were quite a bit different from their Fugglish sister.  But in subsequent samplings from the bottle, I've found the "grassy, spicy" flavors the brewery promised.  In fact, the hops are a lot more German in character than English, and I was reminded of some of the helles lagers I had in Bavaria.  It's got a wonderful copper color (Widmer used chocolate malt for color but didn't get any roast, just color), and is a perfectly crushable 4.7%.  I really enjoy this beer and wish it would stick around through the summer.

Other Releases
Not all beers are sessions.  BridgePort has a new chocolate cherry stout called Bear Hug that is every bit as decadent and dessert-like as it sounds.  It comes in a 22 ounce bottle, so I'd be sure to invite a friend along before you pop the cork.  Full Sail has their latest vintage of Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout out.  Every year, the brewery alternates between a big porter and a big stout they age in bourbon casks, and every year the vintage is on one side or the other of excellent.  This year's is spectacular--akin to one they had out back in 2010 (maybe?).  An amazing balance of chocolaty roast blending into vanilla-y bourbon.  Double Mountain has its usual rotation of new one-offs, and I'd like to draw your attention to Project 48, a double IPA that really sings.  For me, double IPAs work best when the sweetness of the malt harmonizes with the flavors of the hops to accentuate bitterness and frame the lush aromas.  It's hard to pull off, which is why so few double IPAs stick around.  Project 48 does that in spades.  I think you probably will only find it in Hood River, but if you're up for the drive, you could do worse.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

What the Brewers Association Did With Adambier and Grodziskie

Update.  When I wrote this post yesterday, Ron Pattinson hadn't commented on the Brewer's Association guidelines.  But he has now, so you should go to the source.

Source: Homebrew Chef
The Brewers Association has decided to include Grätzer/Grodziskie* and adambier as new styles for the purposes of judging in the GABF and other festivals.  This is a curious endeavor.  It's one thing to use guidelines for styles that have a historical through-line; current incarnations represent the best example of what we understand the style to be.  Porter, for instance, refers to a moderately alcoholic black beer with a roasty flavor, not a highly alcoholic, barrel-aged beer characterized by the vinous note of brettanomyces, as would have been the case 200 years ago.  But pick up a style that ceased to exist--especially one like adambier, which went extinct decades ago--and you are confronted with the question of which incarnation to pick.  So what did the Brewers Association do?

Grodziskie, a fairly well-documented style, was a lot of different beers over the years. This is how BA describes it:
Grätzer is a Polish-Germanic pre-Reinheitsgebot style of golden to copper colored ale. The distinctive character comes from at least 50% oak wood smoked wheat malt with a percentage of barley malt optional. The overall balance is a balanced and sessionably low to medium assertively oak-smoky malt emphasized beer. It has a low to medium low hop bitterness; none or very low European noble hop flavor and aroma. A Kölsch-like ale fermentation and aging process lends a low degree of crisp and ester fruitiness Low to medium low body. Neither diacetyl nor sweet corn-like DMS (dimethylsulfide) should be perceived.
Leaving aside the editing that paragraph requires (did a blogger write it?), I see a few issues.  The Reinheitsgebot comment is sort of salient in that the law wasn't adopted outside of Bavaria until the 20th century, but of course the style lived past 1906, confusing matters.  The kölsch comment is odd--what's the link there besides the fact that we're talking German obergärige (top-fermenting) beer.  But more to the point, where does the overall characterization of the beer--light smoke and hop flavors--come from?   It doesn't conform to any of the descriptions Ron Pattinson--in his usual painstaking way--has discovered.  For example:
Grätzer Bier, a rough, bitter beer, [is] brewed from 100% wheat malt with an intense smoke and hop flavour. The green malt undergoes smoking during virtually the whole drying process, is highly dried and has a strong aroma in addition to the smoked flavour.  (1914)
The starting gravity for that beer was just 1.028.  It's a post-Reinheitsgebot version, however, so maybe BA was thinking an earlier grodziskie.  Let's jump back a half century:
This bright, light, highly effervescent fine wheat beer is shipped far. It owes its peculiarities of the use of willow bark. It has a slight taste of smoke from the drying of the malt with smoke. Mashing is done by infusion, but willow bark is scattered on the cooler, and on the next day it is put into the fermentation vat.  In this way you create fermentation material from one brew to the next. The beer is well mixed and immediately filled into barrels that have a wide bung hole, which is bunged with straw. The beer is delivered to the customer in this state. (1867)
The source mentions isinglass for fining as well, and observes that "the willow bark contains tannin and a well known bitter substance."  Not very Reinheitsgebot!  One thing I'll note is that the older versions Ron found reference to were all hoppy as hell.  Ron also located a reference to modern Polish grodziskies just before they went extinct.  There were three varieties, a small beer, a 12 P beer of 3.5% alcohol (very low attenuation) and a 14 P strength version that was 3-5%, which indicates incredibly poor to just poor attenuation. 

All of which is to say that in over a hundred years of written descriptions of the style, Ron found none that looked like the Brewers Association.  The descriptions he found mentioned lots of smoke, lots of hop, low attenuation, high effervescence, willow bark, bottle-fermentation--none of which are mentioned in the BA's description.   So where'd they get theirs?

This style seems to have made it to the 20th century, but barely, and it seems to go way back.  Here's what the Brewers Association has to say about it (again, with the atrocious editing):
Adambier is light brown to very dark in color. It may or may not use wheat in its formulation. Original styles of this beer may have a low or medium low degree of smokiness. Smoke character may be absent in contemporary versions of this beer. Astringency of highly roasted malt should be absent. Toast and caramel-like malt characters may be evident. Low to medium hop bitterness are perceived. Low hop flavor and aroma are perceived. It is originally a style from Dortmund. Adambier is a strong, dark, hoppy, sour ale extensively aged in wood barrels. Extensive aging and the acidification of this beer can mask malt and hop character to varying degrees. Traditional and non-hybrid varieties of European hops were traditionally used. A Kölsch-like ale fermentation is typical Aging in barrels may contribute some level of Brettanomyces and lactic character. The end result is a medium to full bodied complex beer in hop, malt, Brett and acidic balance.
Again with the kölsch!  (That style is essentially a modern one, and while it's fine if the BA wants to think of all North German styles as kölsch-like, fine, but nothing before 1900 bore much resemblance to modern kölsches.  Lagers didn't challenge them until Dortmund started cranking out the exports well into the 19th century, and so there was no reason that they would "kölsch-like," by which we mean low-ester, lager-like ales.)  But this wheeze aside, I think they got a lot closer to the mark on adambier.  Here's Ron:
Dortmunder Adambier was a strong, sourish top-fermenting beer. Wahl & Henius ("American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades", 1902) has an analysis of the beer performed in 1889. It was around 18º Balling, 7.38% alc. by weight (9.4% ABV) and a lactic acid content about half that of a contemporary lambiek. In contrast to sour beers such as Gose and Berliner Weisse, Adambier, also called Dortmunder Altbier, was heavily hopped. It acquired its sourness much like Porter - through a long secondary fermentation. Bacteria in the lagering vessels slowly changed the beer's character. It needed to be stored for at least a year for this process to take place.
The weird thing about this is that while Weyermann's new smoked wheat malt has recently unleashed a torrent of grodziskies (ten or twelve, easy), who in god's name is making adambier?  Is this really a style we needed to be statted out?  What's next, joppenbier (also Germano-Polish!)?  Cottbuser?

I await your thoughts on this matter eagerly.
*Even the name is dangerously political.  Grätz is, of course, the German name of the town from which the style came, and Grodzisk the Polish.  Right off the bat you may sense the awkward politics.  Prussia, Jews, and the World Wars played a role in the history of the town (I've no doubt language and religion did, too), and I don't even want to think about which name is less loaded.  I'm going with the Polish, because the small town is now located in the Republic of Poland.

Monday, March 04, 2013

"We Are Craft Brewers"

The Brewers Association announced this morning that it was adding grodziskie and adambier to the ever-expanding list of official styles.  (More on that soon.)  I happened to be looking through my notes on an interview with New Belgium's Peter Bouckaert this morning, too, and I found a nice resonance between a comment he made and that news.

Credit: Brewpot
Obscure styles may have some commercial prospects, but probably not.  Yet brewers make them anyway.  When I spoke to Bouckaert, I asked him why New Belgium spends so much money on the foeder program, a project that--in an era when another brewery may be plausibly watering down their light lagers--can't be a huge profit center.  Here's what he said.
“One of the meanings of ‘La Folie’ is that it’s a business endeavor you’re sure to lose money on so we thought that was a great name for it. Why would you overly dry-hop a beer? Why would you do something stupid like that? Why would you make something that is the highest alcohol beer? We are craft brewers. That’s what we do. We are creating different flavors; we are reviving older beers that used to exist and faded away. Maybe there were financial reasons they faded away and that’s a good reason for us not to do it.”
The phrase "craft brewery" has become nearly meaningless in modern usage, but I would agree with Peter that projects like New Belgium's qualify as actual "craft."  That's why you'd brew an adambier or grodziskie, too.