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Friday, June 28, 2013

Monastic Brewing Comes to Oregon: Mt Angel's Benedictine Brewery

When I first visited Mount Angel Abbey last summer, the monks had already been considering a new brewery for a year.  In the beer world that looks like glacial pace, but Mount Angel is a Benedictine abbey, an order that date back nearly 1500 years.  Throughout the centuries, monks have survived wars, plagues, financial collapses, and they didn't do it by acting hastily.  When the Oregon monks began considering a source of revenue to replace the old press they once ran, they wanted to give it a full vetting.

The Benedictine monks, like the Trappists, trace their origins back to the Rule of St. Benedict in 529.  (The Cistercian and Trappist orders were formed by monks who had stricter readings of Benedict's rules.)  The Rule was actually a set of guidelines drawn up to govern monastic life.  Among the larger effects, it exhorted monasteries to be self-sufficient and monks to be industrious (and cheery). Furthermore, it encouraged an outward focus of welcoming guests.  They had to produce their own food and beverage and offer it to guests who visited.  In the monastic boom that developed particularly under Charlemagne, monasteries took up brewing and at one point there were six hundred making beer across Europe.  Beer-making is a very old monastic art.

After a long period of deliberation, the monks at Mt Angel agreed unanimously to join this old tradition.  It's an especially good fit for the abbey, which owns land on which hops are now grown commercially.  They're still some ways from having actual beer, but they've gone through the decision-making and permitting process and are now ready to start assembling the brewery.

In the nearly two years of deliberation to date, they've spoken to a number of people in the Oregon beer industry for guidance.  They invited Stan Hieronymus and me to the abbey.  (I had hoped Stan, who literally wrote the book on monastic brewing, would get to break the news, but he's swamped in Philadelphia--that's him second from right in the upper photo.)  The monks have sampled lots of beer.  When Stan and I were there, we got to sit in on a meeting where they considered how a "brand" would work, and how a beer might help communicate their mission.  I haven't been privy to most of the conversations, so I assume a lot more than that has happened as well.

Since they haven't built the brewery yet, questions about the beer are still preliminary and provisional, although the current thinking runs like this:
  • They were originally considering a 15-barrel brewery, but are leaning instead toward a smaller five-barrel system.
  • The beer is liable to be at least informed by the Belgian tradition, but "tailored toward Oregon" in the words of Chris Jones, the Director of Enterprises of the abbey.  Jones, who's not a monk, has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a monastery brewery in Oregon.  He and the monks believe the beer should reflect both the monastic tradition--strongest in Belgium--as well as the Oregon brewing tradition (and I think "Oregon" can be read at least shorthand for "hoppier than Chimay").
  • They will have a standard stable of beers--perhaps starting with a dark and light one to begin with--and have some seasonals as well.  They will begin the process of recipe development soon, and the monks will guide selection.  In the meeting I sat in on, all the monks expressed a strong desire to have the beer be exceptional--it's a kind of ambassador to the world.
  • The brewery will go in a building known at the abbey (for reasons no one knows) as "the Fort."  There will be a tasting room; at least in the short term, Mt Angel is planning to go with the Westvleteren model of selling beer only at the abbey.  This is another reason it needs to be a beer Oregonians will like.
  • Monks may or may not brew the beer themselves, though there's at least one monk who has homebrewing experience.  
  • Don't expect beer for a year, maybe more.  (Unlike a commercial enterprise, this isn't the only activity on the monks' plate.  Mt Angel is, in addition to a monastery, a seminary.)  All in good time.
 I hope to have much more for you as this all develops.  Tomorrow the abbey is hosting the 7th Annual Festival of Arts and Wine, where they will go public with this news.  The monks will be auctioning the first tangible item from the enterprise--a sweatshirt with the brewery logo.  If you happen to be in the neighborhood, stop by and congratulate them.  Folks at the abbey are happy to answer questions and if you aren't in Mt Angel tomorrow, you can send inquiries to benedictine.brewery(at) 

There aren't very many monastic breweries in the world.  For the past year or so, I've been really excited by the prospect that Mt Angel might become the newest. It will be a bit more time before we get to go buy our first crates, but we can move it from the "prospective" column to "actively happening."  Very cool news. 

"The Fort" at Mt Angel Abbey.  Perhaps in a couple years
they'll call it "the brewery."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Numbers of the Day: 17 and 47

The post has been updated below.

The Oregon Brewers Guild put out a press release today with the latest stats and figures on the state's beer industry.  It charts the ever-upward trends that now come to seem rote: 1.3 million barrels of beer brewed, up 11%; nearly one gross breweries operating 174 facilities in 59 cities; fifty-one breweries in Portland.  But what did leap off the page were these figures:
More than 17 percent of the 2.79 million barrels of all beer — both bottled and draft — consumed in the state were made in Oregon. For draft beer, that percentage is even higher, with Oregon breweries producing an estimated 47 percent of all draft beer consumed in the state.
Oregon-produced beer is all "craft" (admitting that the word has little real use)--or better yet, none of the beer made in Oregon is mass market lager.  The Guild helpfully points out that nationally, craft beer has only a 6.5% share of the beer market.  To put the 17% figure in context, the market for ales in Britain is currently just 14%.  You can also see the place of craft beer in the drinking ecosystem of Oregon: when people go out for a pint, they're drinking "craft" beer at an astounding rate--well over 50% when you consider the national craft and imported beers Oregonians are drinking alongside the local beers.

I have really tried to ratchet back the tub-thumping when it comes to writing about Oregon, but these are the kinds of stats that illustrate how mature our market is becoming.

Update.   I had an exchange on Twitter that reminded me of an important point these numbers reveal.  When we see that 17% of the beer market is craft (actually, the non-mass market is more than 20% with imports and beer from other states), we may think of this as shorthand for a discrete group--17% of beer drinkers are craft-beer drinkers.  This is where the 47% figure is a useful antidote.  In Oregon, a ton of people drink non-mass market beer.  When that Bud drinker goes out to a decent restaurant, he's probably drinking a Mirror Pond.  That twenty-four-year-old at Freddy's with the sixer of Pabst probably drinks a fair amount of Ninkasi.  As weird as it may seem to some beer geeks, the reality is that a lot of people don't think of mass market lagers as "swill."  It's just beer, and sometimes they like it.  Sometimes they like IPA.

It's why the notion of a low ceiling for craft beer is misguided.  There's no reason Oregon won't one day be a majority-craft market, and part of the reason is because the people drinking both the mass-market lagers and craft beers will be the same people.

Update to the update.   Oh, and I see that the Beeronomist has further analysis.  He hones in on the pub market as a point of focus.

Cologne for a Day

One of the most interesting beer cities in the world is Cologne, Germany.  It has its own beer style, kölsch, but that only begins to express things.  For the most part, Cologne only has kölsch.  Coming on 30 years ago, the local breweries got together and decided to define kölsch.  According to the Kölsch Konvention of 1985, the beer must be a pale, top-fermented beer. It must be “hop-accented” and filtered, brewed within a gravity range of 11º to 14º Plato (1.044 – 1.053).  Finally, it must be served in a 20 cl cylindrical stange glass. Now, when you stop into a pub, that's what you get.  It's possible to find other beer, but the ubiquity of the local pale ale is astounding.  Keep in mind that this is a modern European city, and there's nothing making the locals fall in line and drink just this one style of beer--except tradition and pride.

When you go to a pub in Cologne, a waiter will strafe your table carrying a tray of glass vials by a sturdy handle.  If you have no beer, he'll ask if you wish one and plunk a glass in front of you and make a tick mark on your coaster.  If you already have a glass, but it's getting low, he'll plunk a glass on your table and tick the coaster.  In only rare circumstances will you have to crane your neck to look for a waiter for a refill (in three days in the city, it never happened to me). 

Next weekend, from 11 am to 9 pm, Prost! (4237 N Mississippi Ave) becomes a little enclave of Cologne, replete with three varieties of German kölsch, stange glasses, and proper trays.  If a trip to Germany is not in your immediate plans, I recommend stopping in to get a flavor of authentic Cologne culture. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Does Oregon Have Too Many Breweries?

That title is a provocation, so I won't string you along.  The answer's no, but with an asterisk.

Ted Sobel's influence?  Santiam Brewing does cask ale.
When I first started writing this here blog (early aught six), there were maybe a hundred breweries in Oregon.  That's a lot, but a great many of those had been around years or decades.  (Just to give you a freaky sense of how different things could have been just that recently, this was the period before Ninkasi existed.)  The concept of "nanobrewery" didn't really exist.  The pace of brewery openings was such that a reasonably-engaged beer geek could hope to keep up and familiarize herself with all the newbies. 

That's just not possible now.  I know because I talk to Brian Yaeger, who has been tasked by Stakepole Books with doing just that.  He's writing a book on Oregon Breweries, and the publisher wants it to be comprehensive.  That means that poor Brian is off to the far reaches of the state (a region greater in size than the island of Great Britain) every time a homebrewer decides to convert his half-barrel brewhouse into a commercial venture.  I'm one of those dinosaurs who still gets a paper copy of the Oregonian*, and in today's edition there was an advertising insert for Oregon Craft Beer Month. Brian has an article in there where he talks about the valley's thirty breweries.  Thirty breweries?  What in the blue hell?
In the Corvallis area alone, beer-loving Beavers fans can choose from 10 breweries....  Not to be outdone, Ducks fans will find 12 breweries in the Eugene area.  [I'd link to this article, but of course there's no online edition.  But hey, that switch to online publishing is a great idea, Oregonian--you totally rock the internets!]
Brian reviews Falling Sky, a brewery I've at least heard of (their beers come north for fests) but also Santiam and Agrarian Ales, which I had not.  As I read Brian's article, I realized I had a lump in my stomach that was equal parts anxiety and embarrassment: how do I not know about these breweries? I've had that a lot lately.  Recently I was sailing south on 101 and looked up to see a brewery I'd never heard of: Seaside Brewing.  Uggh, anxiety and embarrassment.  On reflection, though, I see that it's time to give that up.

We have to abandon our old mental models.  It's just not going to be possible to keep track of  openings when the breweries are getting ever smaller and the openings ever more rapid.  There are 463 Oregon wineries, and nobody knows all of them (except maybe the people who are paid to keep track).  The brewing scene is headed in that direction.  A lot of these new breweries have opaque business models that may rely more on just having a brewery for the sake of having a brewery--selling fifty barrels a year is totally cool with the owners.  Many just want to serve their local communities and have no grand plans to expand.  If you happen to find yourself in that town, it'll be great to stop in for a pint.  But otherwise, we'll be content to just keep up on the splashier larger breweries (you know, the seven-barrel giants) and those in our neighborhoods.  We have to give up the idea that we'll know every brewery in our state.

And that's just fine.

*Though not for much longer

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Few Words About Cider

Cider fest: cool location.
We're in the midst of Oregon Cider Week, with events continuing on from the cider fest over the weekend (click the link to see what's happening).  I know this is a beer blog, but I'm going to start covering cider more often.  For one thing, I really like ciders, which offer an excellent point of variety.  But I also think ciders are going to begin to find more and more tap space alongside craft beer.  They fit in a continuum occupied in part by beer.  Indeed, the more I learn about them, the more I find really fascinating overlap.  The traditional way of making cider is au naturel--without adding yeast.  When you taste some of the acidic Spanish and blue cheesy French ciders, or get a whack of phenols from English ciders, it puts you strongly in mind of wild ales and especially lambics and gueuzes. 

Last night, Greg Hall--erstwhile brewer at Goose Island--hosted a private event to introduce people to his new project, ciders made from Michigan apples.  I buttonholed him for a few minutes to ask about why a Siebel-trained brewer with a generation of experience brewing beer would switch to cider.  He offered some interesting insight.  In a word, place.
 "Apples are much more like wine grapes.  But [unlike grapes] apples grow everywhere--different apples grow in different places.  I think in ten years the cider market in the US is going to be like the wine market in France where you come up to the NW and you're drinking ciders made from NW apples; in the Great Lakes they're different.  In Virginia they're different.  There's even a guy in Texas making cider with local apples.

"For beer drinkers, there's the appeal that it's very drinkable like beer, but it's lighter-bodied and you can go with that local thing. Portland is a great example. Everybody wants to know where their chicken came from, right? We can tell people where their apples came from. The local terroir appeals to them."
Greg Hall of Virtue Cider
The Pacific Northwest is one of the most apple-centric parts of the country, and we've taken to ciders in a big way.  The interesting thing is that we haven't yet scratched the surface in terms of the kinds of ciders that could be made here.  Oregon and Washington are known for their eating apples, not the tannic cider apples that give English, French, and Spanish ciders their structure.  Cideries like EZ Orchards, where ten years ago Kevin Zielinski planted French apple varieties, are just beginning to produce very complex, rich ciders that beckon drinkers to what the future may hold.  In much the manner of craft beer, American cider-makers are happy to experiment and throw in other fruits.  Northwest cideries have pioneered dry-hopped ciders, which meet beer drinkers half way.  (Craft Brewers Alliance have seen the future and are working with growers in Walla Walla to make Square Mile Cider, including a Galaxy dry-hopped version.)

Back when America was an agrarian country, ciders were ubiquitous--far more popular than beer.  We're not headed back to that time, but ciders have a way of scratching an itch no other beverage can.  I will always drink more beer than cider, but I hope to be drinking a lot more cider than I used to.  I hope you do, too.
To how many fests can you commute by tram?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Drink More Cider

I'm going up Saddle Mountain today, but you should go to the Cider Summit (I'll be there tomorrow). A person cannot live by (liquid) bread alone. However, I may stop into a brewpub I didn't even know existed until yesterday--Seaside Brewing.  So that's beery.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Ground They Touched

I retired a pair of shoes today, reluctantly.  They were Merrells, a brand to which I had not been previously acquainted.  They presented themselves to me on the discount rack and with their easy crossover appeal--good for the road, good for the trail, good enough for the public--I bought them two years ago.  Aside from the fact that they lasted through two years of very hard walking, I felt a moment of nostalgia when I thought about where they'd been.  They were brand-new when I took them around London 18 months ago, and in them I moseyed up to the bar for my first pint of cask bitter.  I hadn't actually realized they were waterproof, but the November weather gave me a quick lesson.  Maybe you've heard of The George in London?  I met Pete Brown there when he was still writing Shakespeare's Local.  Here I am expressing my American displeasure at the institution of the monarchy.

The shoes took me up the wall that encircles York--parts of which were built by the Romans.  They took me further north to Edinburgh, a heavy city gray with stone and cloud.  (They took me into a pub there where I had the worst curry of my life.  Patrick, a subject of the Queen, looked at me in amazement and asked what the hell I was doing.  I told him: the empire.  He said: yes, but Edinburgh.  He was correct.)  They took me next to Belgium, to the streets of Brussels, which are painted--to those with the eye to notice--with brettanomyces bruxellensis.  Later I stood next to fields of Brussels sprouts, smiling.  Up the bell tower I went in Bruges, and along the sides of those sublime canals.

A year later, they took me to Rhineland and south to Bavaria.  I spent three days rambling up and down the hills of Bamberg, stopping in at intervals to whatever cathedral or brewery happened to be handy.  I'm not sure which the town has more of.  On to Munich, the sun around which the beer world orbits, where they took me over the Isar and in and out of beer halls the size of stadiums. 

They took me to the land of pilsner next, where I hiked on and off bumpy trains and around old villages.  On a cold night after the season's first snow, I hiked up the hill in the center of Prague.  (Later, Max taught me a great deal about brewing and beer-drinking in the Czech Republic; principally, that quantity is a virtue not to be ignored.)

They took me to Italy, a country I felt had to be over-rated.   That was until on my first morning, as the clouds cleared, I looked out my window and saw the Alps.  A country that has both good beer and cheese and ready access to coffee is my kind of country, and I even had rare facility with the music of the language. 

They also took me up and around a number of beautiful rocky coasts and mist-draped forests in my own piece of heaven here in Oregon.  To a riverbank in Maine.  Up and down the aisles of the Great American Beer Fest.  (Fests, they saw a few.)  They even took me down some interesting streets in places like St Louis.

I don't expect to ever experience another two years like the last two.  Getting to write about beer sent me to some of the most interesting spots on the planet.  I shared a lot of the beer-specific parts of my journeys, though these weren't always the most interesting or memorable parts of those trips.  Shoes aren't really the kind of things you can get too emotional about, but in a very literal way they were the objects that connected me to these places.  Perhaps a particle of dirt from Piozzo still clings to them.  I have all my pictures to remind me of these places, but the further I get from them, the less they have real substance.  In a literal way, these old shoes were the objects that connected me to those places.  So I stop now and bid them godspeed.  They were good shoes.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What Makes a Beer American?

As we sidle up to Independence Day, I thought it might be nice to think about the good old US of A.  Compared to the likes of Germany and Belgium, our contribution to the world beer canon is ... modest.  It is however, real, a fact I think we sometimes forget.  When I was writing the Beer Bible, I had to deal with a strange collection of oddities that don't fit in neatly with the idea we have about style and tradition--things like the place of corn and Northwest hops and our strange invented styles that we didn't intend to invent (amber ale, "Scotch ale," etc.).  All of that got me thinking about America's role in brewing.

As I traveled the world, I learned that brewers tend to have fixed ideas about how you brew a beer, and these are shared throughout a country.  So, for example, you have single-infusion mashes in British cask ales breweries, and the regular use of sugar--but never beet sugar.  (An abomination.)  In Belgium you have things like cereal cookers and sugar--often beet--and the most important feature, the warm room where bottles rest for a month during secondary fermentation.  German beer is all about the malt, and in the Czech Republic you almost always see a four-vessel brewhouse designed for decoction mashing.  One could say a lot more, but you get the picture.

Brewers also maintain certain national orientations that surprised me, like the way they would go about constructing color and flavor in a beer.  English and Belgian brewers use sugars, including dark sugars, so they might add a touch of these for color.  Their beers tend to be thinner and crisper than beers elsewhere.  That's why, when you try a Belgian-brewed hoppy beer, it's often screamingly bitter: there's not a lot of unfermented crystal malt to sop up the BUs as is the American way.  Germans, though, never use sugar, so they might add color with Munich malt.  They each think about beer differently.  So, how does an American think about beer?  (I'm mainly thinking craft brewers--we'll come around to mass-market brewers later on.)  Below are a few key markers that make Americans stand out in a crowd.
  • North American base malt.  I didn't understand malts until I went to Germany and the Czech Republic.  I should have gotten an inkling of the power of base malts when I went to the UK and Belgium, but I'm a slow learner.  North American barley is a powerhouse of convertable sugar and enzymes, and give you a nice foundation on which to pile specialty malts.  It doesn't have ton of character on its own (unlike those soft German malts and aromatic Czech malts).  Americans get their flavor from specialty malts, especially ....
  • Caramel/crystal malt.  This is the real tell.  Americans love love love crystal malt.  It is versatile to a point, giving beer body and flavors that range from caramel/toffee to dark fruit, but it is also a really obvious component.  I've seen American brewers build, for example, dubbels and dunkels out of crystal malt--things Belgians and Germans would not do.  Probably Ken Grossman gets the most credit/blame: Sierra Nevada Pale is in many ways the ur-ale in America, and it has that rounded body and classic dollop of caramel flavor at its center.  I'd say this is at least as an important marker as vivid hopping--though native drinkers may not realize it.
  • Northwest Hops.  This doesn't need a lot of explanation.  It's the thing we're most famous for, the most obvious and flashy part of our beers.  We like 'em early, we like 'em late, we like 'em dry.  Just yesterday Zymurgy released the results of its latest readers poll, and nine of the ten most popular beers were hoppy.  There are lots of beers brewed in the US, but the beers everyone thinks of as characteristically "American" have our distinctive, citrusy/floral hopping.
  • Strength and intensity.  American brewers aren't minor key kinds of guys. They brew like John Philip Sousa.  Beers are rarely brewed below 4.5% and a good many are stronger than 7%.  When we make hoppy beers, we make damn hoppy beers.  (Some of our beers that aren't supposed to be hoppy are damn hoppy, too.)  Our sours are really sour.  Our imperial stouts are liquid fudge. 
  • Bourbon barrels. Barrel-aging is as old as beer, but bourbon is American.  Proportionally, very few beers spend any time in bourbon, but this is another one of those markers of place.  When a beer has spent time in a barrel, that unmistakable sweet booziness tells you what kind. 
Of course, all of these are generalities.  In a country with 2000+ breweries, you're going to have an example of every kind of beer.  But no one's thinking of the Devil's Backbone double triple-decocted Morana Tmave when they're talking about American beer.

One other noteworthy feature of American beer is brewery set-up.  This is partly a function of our newness--few American brewhouses are older than 30 years.  But that's only part of the story.  Americans like to be able to brew any style of beer, so our kits are optimized for versatility.  Decoction breweries, old-timey single-infusion mash breweries, breweries with cereal cookers--no one bothers with this.  They are purely utilitarian and generic.  (Though the use of hopbacks or other add-ons to infuse beer with hops are becoming common enough that they might stand as an American thing.) 

One of the biggest surprises in traveling around the world was learning that European breweries had a very strong sense of what "American beer" was.  When they called a beer American, they meant these things.  We do make hellesbiers and tripels, but when people say American beer, they mean caramelly, hoppy, muscular ales. And around the world, they do talk about American ales quite a lot--at least in brewhouses from London to Kelheim to Prague, they do.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Quiet Revolution

Last Friday, I joined some of the Widmer gents to try a flight of their latest specialty beer--a collaboration with Cigar City called Gentlemen's Club.  It's a high-concept beer that takes inspiration from the Old Fashioned cocktail.  Cigar City contributed Florida oranges, the Widmer Brothers threw in some Oregon cherries, and the base beer--an old ale--was aged on three woods.  The three versions are available together or separately, and by all accounts are selling well.  The old ale is rich and creamy but only has hints at the fruit contained within.  In bourbon barrels it picks up a lot more of the sweetness, while in rye it gets more spice and heat (the recipe for the beer in that batch was slightly different and used about 4% rye in the grist).  Oak spirals provide a resiny sharpness.  Brewer Ben Dobler had the good idea to do a bit of in-glass blending, and I found that version to be the most balanced of all.

In the modern world of American brewing, experiments like this count as revolutionary to anyone who can remember back to the last century.  Leaving aside the world of 1980, the world of 1999 barely had barrel-aged beers, never-mind cross-continental collaborations using local fruits and different types of wood.

But what really caught my eye was a different Widmer Brothers beer that happened to be pouring--Brotha From Anotha Motha.  As you all well know, Widmer grew to be one of the largest craft breweries because of the wild success of their Hefeweizen.  You also know that Widmer Hef is essentially an American pale ale (with tons of wheat).  Naming it Hefeweizen confused this beer with the wheat ales of Bavaria, those characterized by clovey phenols and banana-y esters, not Cascade hops.  It has meant that, for the sake of brand clarity, the brothers have studiously avoided the other hefe.  Until Brotha.* 

Bavarian weizens are not always brewed well--even in Bavaria.  Coaxing the yeasts to produce a pleasant blend of weird chemicals is hard.  Many breweries use the Weihenstephan weizen yeast--as Widmer did--and it has a tendency to throw a lot of isoamyl acetate, the banana/juicy fruit ester.  Many the banana smoothie has that yeast made.

Brotha, by contrast, is a superb beer.  The spice and esters are on the subdued side--I shall resist the urge to talk open fermentation and fermenter shape--but wholly complementary.  It's more pepper than clove, and the banana is limned with citrus.  Perhaps the best part is the full flavor of wheat, fresh and wholesome as in a fresh-baked loaf of bread.  It's the perfect summer beer, and one I would love to see come online as a regular.  I know that's a branding nightmare, but consider this one vote put it out to broader market anyway.

*Apparently Brotha actually debuted two years ago, but I missed it completely.

Monday, June 17, 2013

150 Red Sox Pubs Don't Make NYC a Sox Town

I've got a saison in the mash tun right now, so this is a light blogging day.  I want to direct your attention to a fascinating inter-city dispute between DC and NYC, with the illustrious Garrett Oliver batting clean-up for the Big Apple (hat tip to Jacob Berg).  This weekend, New York hosted Savor, a Brewers Association fest to celebrate beer and food.  (We had several breweries in the house.)  It led to some trash-talking by DC bloggers, which led to the Garrett Rebuttal, which I quote here:
I've had the opportunity to travel all over the world, and I've yet to see anyplace with a better beer culture than NYC. I can walk out my front door in Brooklyn and within a 15-minute walking radius find not only hundreds of great American beers, but also more of the best beers of Belgium than you'd find in a 15-minute walk from Grande Place in Brussels. In a 15-minute walk from the brewery we have Brooklyn Bowl, Gutter, Torst, Spuyten Duyvil, The Diamond, Barcade, Radegast....  Eleven Madison Park has 140 beers on the list. I do not think anyplace else can compare.
And then later...
I think it's great that other city's newspapers have dedicated beer writers. But the best-read beer writer in the world, by far, is the NYT's Eric Asimov, who is the Times' chief wine critic. No one anywhere on the planet even comes close. 
And then even later still (it's amazing he was debating this on a blog)...
DC has its way (and few people love Churchkey more than I do - ask Greg), and we have our way. We find ours equally valid. There are all kinds of culture. I've expressed my respect for yours, so there it is. You don't have to respect ours, but one might expect a reaction when you diss it.
Now, I don't know New York at all--certainly not from a beer perspective.  But I have to say that Garrett's arguments aren't very convincing.  NYC has 8.3 million people--it has tons of everything.  Any member of any niche can say New York has the best culture if they wish to hammer you with stats--the best Thai food culture, the best wine culture, the best pet monkey culture.  Indeed, you could make the argument New York is the best Red Sox city outside of Boston--after all, they've got scores of Sox bars.  This is obviously absurd. 

It raises the question of what "culture" is and whether we should even bother trying to define it.  At least so far as the US is concerned, I think most places haven't gotten there yet, and even those that have (like Portland) need to acknowledge that it's new, unstable, and quite possible evanescent.  You don't have culture until you have generations of history to back it up.  Or at least a few decades.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Is Kona Hawaiian; Is Guinness Irish?

The brewery as I found it in
2008, with my phone cam.
Over at the (one, true, original) Beer Nut, I'm having a spat with the host.  He got his hands on some Kona beer and described it as the "pseudo-Hawaiian Kona range" from Craft Brewers Alliance.  This is factually incorrect.  It's not a line, it's a brewery.  Kona has been making beer on the Big Island for nearly twenty years and, rather than have a company ship a load of bottles deep into the Pacific Ocean, fill them with beer, and ship them back to the mainland, Kona decided to have Widmer contract brew their brands in Portland.  Now: you may despise contract brewing and you may consider this an abomination from the ninth circle of hell.  Fair enough.  But it is not within your authority, even as a well known Irish beer geek, to divest Kona of the land underneath its feet.

He raises a more interesting, existential point in comments, however:
That there is a Kona brewery in Hawaii that produces beer sold in Hawaii does not change the non-Hawaiian origin of the beers I drank. The Budweiser produced in Dublin is also produced in St Louis, but that doesn't make one's pint of it American beer; it makes it pseudo-American beer.
Really?  I wonder how the average beer drinker feels about this.  If you're tippling a Guinness on Saint Patrick's, would you feel cheated and deceived to learn that your pint was brewed on North American soil?  Would you consider it "pseudo-Irish?"  (This would be a big problem for Guinness, though they don't think you'll think it's not real Irish; the brewery proudly proclaims to make it in fifty countries worldwide.)  In many cases, companies make different products for different countries (Mexican sugar Coke versus American corn-syrup Coke), so one might well toss out a "pseudo" if she's feeling saucy.  But if the product is made the same?  AB InBev works very hard to make sure the Budweiser in Ireland tastes identical to the Bud in St. Louis.  Should the customer have to do a background check to determine provenance? It seems like everyone involved would be appalled to think of Dublin-brewed Bud as Irish.

I guess my view on this is clear enough.  What's yours?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Organic Hops Segment Growing, But ...

Post has been updated; see below

This item caught my eye (hat tip, Beerpulse)
But according to The American Organic Hop Grower Association, the total pounds of organic hops produced by their member growers tripled last year, growing from 70,000 pounds in 2011 to 218,000 pounds in 2012. What’s even more impressive? A full 10 percent of the hops grown in the U.S. are now certified organic (around double that of the average crop).
That's astounding.  Too astounding.  I visited the Willamette Valley a couple years ago, and organics were nowhere.   So I did a bit of checking.  In 2012, the US produced 61.2 million pounds of hops.  I'm no math whiz, but my back-of-the-envelope calculation puts 10% of that total at a shade over six million pounds.  At 218 thou, organics make up .36% (a third of one percent) of the market.  Perhaps they meant to say 10% of new hops?  Dunno, but whatever it is, it's not ten percent.

Update. Patrick Smith, of Loftus Ranches, clears up the confusion. (Check the comments for his correction on a raft of other glaring gaffes in the Yahoo piece.)
The Yahoo! report misinterpreted the data point. The correct interpretation is that 10% of US hop farms (by number, not volume) are growing certified organic hops on some portion of their acreage. The correct data point was intended to show that hop growers are responding to the market and getting into, or expanding, organic hop acreage. The average crop in the US has ~5% of its farms growing some organic production. Hops are now double that.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What Brands Tell Us

I have long been waiting to indulge my cider Jones, an itch I started scratching last night at Bushwhacker's Cider.  My experience has heretofore been limited almost exclusively to local ciders, and I wanted to see what the famous regions of the world had to offer: the Basque and Asturias ciders of Spain, Breton and Norman ciders of France, and English ciders.  Sally and I enjoyed a wonderful tannic French pour and then had two Basque ciders--Bereziartua and Petritegi.  The former was sharply acetic--a cider so transmuted during fermentation it was difficult to identify the nature of the source fruit.  The Petritegi was pure funk, a lambic-like cider that had a bit of acidity, full apple flavor, but a lot of cheesy wild stuff.  I loved it.

Afterward I went over to select some bottles for sampling at home and came across an amazing diversity of presentation.  These three bottles come from the three famous cider regions and all cost about the same (seven bucks and change).  These aren't cherry-picked especially--they do a good job of representing the style of their home country's packaging, though each in a slightly exaggerated way.  Have a look and then we'll talk about how they appear to American eyes:

Moving right to left, we have the Basque, French, and English ciders.  What do they tell us?

Credit: Todo-Jaunjo
1.  Spain.  If cider were beer, Spanish cider would be Belgian beer, and Basque cider would be lambic.  It's a very old-school beverage, rife with wild microorganisms that contribute tons of acids and funk.  If you look closely, you can see the lees floating in the bottle--I inadvertently roused them during the photography.  The label itself is a quirky, homespun affair that brings to mind both artisanal handcraft and also a bygone time.
That font is fantastic and reminds me of children's books and the circus.  If you zoom in a bit, you can see the blocky small print, which looks like something that got added on later, perhaps when the company got its first computer in 1988.  And if you look at the funny sketch, you see not just a whimsical rendering of pouring cider, but a particular way of decanting known as "throwing the cider." 

This may be a titan of cider-making, producing millions of barrels a year (though I highly doubt it), but the label says: we are a small, rustic cidery and we make things traditionally and by hand.  The cidery wants you to see the local farm where the apples were pressed, so smell the wood and vapors of the fermenting room, and to imagine the wizened, whiskered master cider maker as he tends his casks like a doting grandfather.

2.  France.  Next we go to France, and find the mirror opposite of the Basque presentation.  It has all the hauteur of a French wine bottle, with a refined color scheme, cursive font, and detailed information about the type of cider and apple varietal.  The company has even hung the crest of nobility around the neck.  You can't see it in this photo, but the neck is wrapped, champagne-style, in foil and covers a caged cork.  This company does not want you to see in your mind's eye anything to do with a farm.  Their product is as polished and sophisticated as any Burgundy, and deserves a place next to the Cassoulet.

3.  England.  I actually have no idea what to make of this bottle, which is like one of those foreign names that means something obscene in English.  To American eyes, it looks like a bottle of Olde English 800 or perhaps a fortified wine like Wild Irish Rose.  Both the Basque and French bottles are wine-bottle sized and corked and colored for effect--Gold Rush is in a clear beer bottle, topped unceremoniously by a plain black crown.  And Gold Rush?  That has specific associations in the US that maybe it lacks in the UK--greed and overindulgence, the kind of thing that buttresses the sense of cheap, strong hooch.  It's a simple label, but not good-simple; one has the impression that someone spent four minutes laying it out.  (I suppose the cursive "cider" is meant to suggest elegance, but it's too slapdash to convince.)

I would actually love the insight of a native to describe what the gents at Olivers Cider were going for.  It's lost on these Yankee eyes.  Fortunately, the barkeep at Bushwhacker's recommended it or I would never have even have really seen it, much less bought it. For what it's worth, the bottle is fairly typical.  I also picked up a bottle of the acclaimed Burrow Hill, and although the label was slightly better, it came in the clear beer bottle topped by a metal crown.

Unlike beer, which has a similar status in each nation that brews it, cider's varies.  You can see how the countries themselves see their product in these labels.  Spain's is an artisanal tradition, a cultural expression that is unique to place.  For France, cider is part of the exalted culinary tradition.  And in England cider is--well, that's less clear.  But certainly neither something people take instantly to be either an artisanal handcraft nor a mark of high culture.  I will report back next once I've tried all these and let you know what the insides of the bottles tell us.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Fruit Stigma Wanes

Over the past weekend, the third edition of the Fruit Beer Fest visited Portland.  When Ezra Johnson-Greenough planned the first one, his notion was to sever, once and for all, the association between fruit and frou-frou.  Let's not give him all the credit--that association was already weakening.  But anyone who stopped by the Fest this weekend would have been hard-pressed to find those sugary, soda-like beers that gave fruit a bad name in the first place.

It got hot and crowded early, so I bailed by midafternoon, sampling not close to all the beers.  But the ones I had were complex examples of the brewing art.  I think my fave was Deschutes' Currant Event, a slightly tart Baltic Porter made with currants.  The fruit was a perfect bridge between the rich, dark-fruit malts and the lactic tart.  It was creamy but quaffable--even under the sun.  Oakshire's elderberry gose was similarly well done, with a troika of tart, salty, and fruity all dancing in perfect time.  Block 15's Psidium was deeply funky and the Commons spelt-and-currant Bier Royale was a sharp farmhousey treat.  Chad Yakobson was in the house with his all-brett Crooked Stave beers, and the one I had lived up to the billing.  It smelled like it was going to be viciously dry and brett-y, but instead had only a mild yeast character and tons of citrus.

Now all we need to do is reclaim our native grain.  Who's with me on Cornfest 2013?

*The fest has already outgrown its venue.  The little concrete pit that forms the site, the Burnside Brewing parking lot and adjacent section of Seventh Ave, was packed by 1:30 on Saturday.  By three, people had resorted to full pours because wait times were 10-15 minutes long.  As much as I like the central location of the fest, unshaded concrete is a terrible place to drink beer.  I spent the fest huddled with a gaggle of redheaded women under the patch of shade underneath the sole tent there.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

The O on Gluten-Free

Brent Hunsberger has a really nice piece in today's Oregonian on the legal issues surrounding Omission and gluten-free beer.  As you may recall, Craft Brewers Alliance uses an enzymatic process to remove gluten from regular barley-malt beer.  The process removes enough gluten to be considered "gluten-free" by some authorities, but the feds are still deliberating about Omission. 
But scientists say the test doesn't detect all potentially harmful gluten fragments. Recent tests by Canada's public health agency found gluten fragments in beers from Spain and Belgium that use a gluten-removal process similar to Craft Brew's. It's unclear whether the fragments are a health concern, Health Canada spokeswoman Blossom Leung said via email. 
The debate goes on (check the comments for a sample).  One surprising thing Hunsberger noted was this:
Nearly two in 10 adults buys or eats food tagged "gluten-free," sometimes just to support gluten-intolerant friends or family, the market research firm says. 
Twenty percent?  A lot more than a niche market is at stake--that could ultimately account for millions of barrels of beer.  The fortunes of Omission and breweries like Harvester (100% gluten-free; no gluten-based grains used) hang in the balance.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Don't Miss Portland Beer Week

In about--well, actually, right now--Portland Beer Week kicks off at the Northwest Lucky Lab.  There are other events scheduled for today and everything wraps up on Sunday, June 16 (which makes it a beefy, two-weekend week).  There are tons of brewer events, brewers dinners (this one at Wildwood with brettanomyces-only Crooked Stave beers looks like a winner), seminars, fun events, celebrity brewers, and festivals keyed by the Portland Beer Fest on Saturday. 

I have gotten ever more pathetic about event discussion, but the organizers have put together a very nice slate of events and you should definitely have a gander at the calendar so you don't miss something cool.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Americans Are Not Doing It Wrong

George Howell in Dunbar.
After a tour of the gorgeous Belhaven brewery in Dunbar, Scotland, brewer George Howell took me and my peripatetic friend to the pub for beers.  At one point, extolling the simple virtues of session ales from the United Kingdom, Howell pointed out that "when you're out with the lads and you have ten or twelve pints" you want a low alcohol beer.  Ten or twelve pints?  That's nearly two gallons of beer!  Patrick and I snuck goggle-eyed peeks at each other.  I assume Howell's session was several hours long, but still, ten pints of even 3.5% beer and I'm under the table trying to find where I left my mind.

I bring this up because Martyn Cornell has an interesting cross-cultural post about a trend Brian Yaeger mentions here--India session ales (ISA).  The post is thoughtful and well-documented in the typically Cornellian way, and the upshot is that the style may have much to recommend it, but it's not for session drinking.  He used Dogfish Head DNA as an example:
While it was less hoppy than 60-minute IPA, at 32 IBUs rather than 60 (and lower in strength, at 4.5 per cent ABV), there was still masses of floral flavour and aroma from both the Dogfish Head addition and the dry-hopping with Simcoe hops the beer had been given in Bedford, so that this was very clearly an American IPA, not a British one. I enjoyed my pint. But I only wanted the one. Palate overload set in after just that single glass. And that means that, regardless of its strength, DNA New World IPA cannot possibly be a session beer.
Matthias Trum in Bamberg
We'll come back around to ISAs in a moment.  But let me tell you about rauchbier.  When I was in Bamberg, Schlenkerla's Matthias Trum explained that you had to drink his rauchbiers up to at least the second and preferably the third half-liter:
"Only as you go through your first two or three pints does the smokiness step back in perception and then the malty notes come out, the bitterness, the smoothness.  So the second Schlenkerla is for you a different beverage than the first one.  And yet the third one is different than the second one.  From the third one on, you have the system running, so to say."
Many people hate rauchbiers and don't want even a mouthful, but in Bamberg they pour them down their throats like water.  (I happily joined them.)

Belgium is a little different, because the variety is such that at a cafe, you are likely not to be drinking a single beer in your session.  You may start off with a gueuze and then head to something lighter with food, and finish up with more alcoholic drinks.  In the US, "Belgian" is an adjective some drinkers deploy only in the negative, to describe any beer that has an abundance of yeast character.  A session of these beers is anathema to them.

I might be able to drink ten of these.
The point of all this is that ISAs are an American thing.  I don't have any doubt that most Brits would find them--and our far more common session ales, IPAs--too assertive for a long session.  Increasingly, American craft beer fans don't.  When I go out with friends, mostly they throw back hoppy beers.  Like rauchbiers, the intense sensations wash over your palate and do overwhelm it; thereafter you adjust, and the other elements of the beer comes out.  For an American, drinking a pint of IPA is just the foreplay for more IPAs--at that point, you can't really go down the ladder, anyway.

But that's what Americans like.  (Or those in the still-small minority who drink craft beer.)  I get that there's a certain amount of disdain around the world for our out-of-balance beers (I'm not a fan of ISAs because they tend to be more out of balance than IPAs).  There's an implicit judgment--not in Martyn's post but elsewhere--about foolish upstarts who don't know what they're doing.  Actually, we do. A love of hops represents the evolution of preference, of local taste.  I wouldn't expect Bambergers to jump on our bandwagon, nor Londoners.  But that doesn't mean we're doing it wrong.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

People Know Less About Beer Than You Think

Credit: Sports Illustrated
Peter King is a sports writer for Sports Illustrated and one of the three or four most-read authorities on American football in the country.  His "Monday Morning Quarterback" is a sprawling recap of the week's events packed with tons of insider tidbits and random observations--a must-read for millions of die-hard fans.  It's a very bloggy, online-only article, and over the years King has added more an more regular features.  In the past year or so, he's added a comment about craft beer at the tail end.  He travels the country and tries beers in whatever city he happens to be visiting at the time.  But he's a layman.  He doesn't study beer except on the hoof, and what he knows about beer comes to him through tongue and nostril.  In this way, I think he's perfectly typical.  But it leads to semi-gaffes like this one, from yesterday's column:
Beernerdness: Copycat Beer of the Week (and I'm not complaining), straight from the Salt Lake City Airport: Wasatch White Label White Ale. Closest thing to Allagash White that I've tasted, and there's a reason. Wasatch White uses some of the same ingredients as Allagash White, including orange peel and coriander. In this case, copying is very good. That's a fine, fine beer, Wasatch. 
The gaffe is evident to the beer geek: since Pierre Celis rebooted witbier in the sixties, coriander and orange peel have become the standard markers of the style.  They didn't start with his favorite beer, Allagash, and if Wasatch is cloning anything, it's Hoegaarden.  But how would King learn this?  Unless he happened to read the menu of a local brewpub somewhere that gave the accurate history (brewpub histories are generally wildly to slightly inaccurate), he'd never have occasion to know the history of his fave beer.

This weekend, I attended an annual work retreat for my wife's business at the coast.  Perhaps two dozen folks of varied backgrounds, most of them average Americans with no special knowledge of beer.  Someone dropped by Widmer and picked up a keg of kolsch, and I saw bottles of Rogue and Deschutes, and cans of Budweiser and Rainier.  I heard a discussion of what constituted heavy and light beer.  (Color.)  I tasted a homebrewed wit that was tastier than the Winema Wit I had at Pelican earlier in the day.  (Though if you're in Pacific City, have the spectacular Belgian stout Grundy Love--which I understand has nothing to do with Ben.)  I talked to a woman who wondered why all beers can't taste like the kolsches she fell in love with in Cologne.  Someone told me she hated carbonated beverages, including soda, but liked Guinness because it was flat.  That led to one of those painful beer geek reveries where I yammered on about nitrogen as I watched her eyes glaze.  She didn't actually care, she was just trying to chit chat. 

I was put in a mind of all of this when I saw Martyn's latest post about the recent arrival of India Sessions Ales--a topic to which I may devote a whole post.  As craft beer becomes ever more popular, we're going to have to remember that most people don't actually care about it that much.  They may think about beer for five minutes in a pub before they order one, and then not think about it again until their next beer.  The debates geeks have about ISAs and CDAs and IBUs are fairly extraneous to the larger world of craft beer--even among people who like Peter King who are fans.  And guys like Peter King--and another guy I read, James Fallows--are liable to be the ones who actually turn the conversation of beer to good beer.  Good beer will survive or perish based on whether people with a casual interest like it.  If I were a brewer, that would keep me up at nights.  It's easy enough to target the geek--he makes his preferences very clear.  But shooting for the casual drinker who doesn't realize where his favorite style came from?  That seems like a far dicier gamble.