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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Farmhouse Ales: More State of Mind Than Style

Farmhouse ales are the most inscrutable creature in the beer bestiary.  They can be strong or weak, pale or dark or more likely, ambrée.  They may have spices or not, be hoppy or sweet, be made with bunches of oddball grains or just pilsner malt.  They are everything all at once--but does that mean they are nothing, stylewise, too?  Tomorrow I'll be discussing a visit I recently had to The Commons, essentially a saison house.  It seemed like a great time to explore this "style" and see if we can come to some clarity.

The Olden Days
If you go back far enough, all beer was made on the farm.  Before specialization, brewing beer was a domestic activity, slapped together with whatever was on hand.  Eventually, maltsters and brewers and gruiters began to specialize as commercial brewing emerged.  Farmers never abandoned beer, though, and in the 19th century, they were still pretty common around Belgium.  We tend to romanticize rusticity, and when we think of farm-fresh products--pies on windowsills, plump loaves of bread, buttermilk, rich sausages--we imagine them as the highest quality.

It was not really so with beer.  Farm breweries were crude affairs that got used rarely.  Farmers malted their own barley and added unmalted grains in whatever amounts they had on hand.  They weren't trained brewers and didn't practice the art much.  The beers they made were "rustic" in the sense that they were made with undermodified malt on obsolete equipment by people who were in the best of cases part-time homebrewers.  The beer was unrefined, and that means in most cases not especially good.  A lot of it had to be actively bad.

Farmhouse Not Necessary
Modern saisons are revival beers.  They date back to the post-war period, when small Belgian breweries were trying to compete with more sophisticated products arriving from Britain and Germany.  They were made strong and bottled to communicate a kind of sophistication, and, to convey that, breweries had to clean them up and make them presentable.  What survived of the old tradition--and the lineage narrowed to just a few breweries--created the general blueprint for what we now call saisons.

Modern saisons embody that romantic notion we hold of farms.  Quality, for sure (among gourmands and beer geeks, saisons are très haute), but also intensity.  Products from the farm are made at the height of ripeness and express distinctive terroir; they aren't shipped, don't suffer the indignity of being stripped down or refined.  Saisons have those qualities, too--the inverse of highly-processed, factory-consistent beers.  The word "rustic" means "from the land," and in a saison, you should locate at least something of the farm.  Like:
  • Interesting grain character, which could mean a wheat softness, a silkiness from oats, or the nuttiness of spelt. In American saisons, why not a bit of corn?
  • A hazy appearance that might come from a variety of causes—grains or starches, hop matter, or yeast. When breweries started to be able to make perfectly clear beers, it was a signal to the customer that there were no infections or quality problems. A bit of haze suggests handmade ales of the pre-filtering age.
  • A spiciness that may derive from actual spices or come from hops and fermentation. 
  • A crisp, refreshing dryness.  Effervescence, minerality, hops, and/or yeast character may figure into the equation.  Most rustic ales have a vinous character that comes from their highly attenuative yeasts.
  • Finally, and non-negotiably, a pronounced yeast character.  "Rustic" can almost be read as code for untamed yeasts and the wild, fruity or spicy compounds they produce.  

Call Them "Rustic"
When I was putting together my chapters for The Beer Bible, I had to deal with the taxonomy of saisons and bière de gardes.  Having shared a distant history, they are often lumped together.  Anyone tasting a saison next to a classic bière de garde will wonder: these are similar, how?

It was WWI.  Prior to that horror, the area bordering Belgium, the Nord/Pas-de-Calais region, made saisons indistinguishable from Belgium's.  The war cut right through that region--if you tour the great bière de garde  breweries of France, you'll see memorial after memorial--destroying all the breweries and preparing the soil to accept the seed of lagers afterward.  Because lagers became the standard, ale breweries adapted their own style to match, and a classic bière de garde has much more in common with bock than saison.  These ales are silky, sophisticated, and extremely clean--and are lagered or "garded" in the manner of lager.  They are nothing to do with rustic.

Conversely, there are also plenty of rustic beers out there that we don't call saisons.  One of my absolute favorites is Kerkom's Bink Blond, which has a cakey malt depth leavened by assertive, rosemary hops and tangy yeast. Orval is one of the best examples, hiding in plain sight.  (When I visited Brasserie Dupont, Olivier Dedeycker told me he'd just put a case in the cellar for private consumption.)  Caracole, with a wood-fired kettle, is another.  For this reason, I think of this realm of beers as "rustic ales" rather than saison (which nobody understands) or farmhouse (which focuses, wrongly, on the place, not the beer).

It's the Yeast
Temperature gauges for the fermenters at Dupont.  The lowest
 is roughly 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the highest 95.
Ultimately, the thing that makes a rustic ale rustic is the yeast.  Brasserie Dupont makes the world's signature saison, and it is made with no spice and nothing but barley in the grain bill.  What it does have is immense yeast character--sometimes zingy and citrusy, sometimes herbal to spicy (variability is no liability for rustic ales).  It gets this flavor from a yeast that is tended by Dedeycker's wife, a microbiologist.  Famous in the brewing world, it works by rising to unthinkable temperatures in Dupont's shallow, square fermenters.  That's where the compounds of flavor--fruity esters and spicy phenols--emerge.  The yeast is available from Wyeast, but few breweries bother using it--the idea of letting a beer rise to blood temperature freaks most brewers out.  Yet if the yeast doesn't go that high, it will fail to produce the rustic character and usually stop working before all the wort's sugars are eaten.  It's a hothouse yeast.

Other breweries use different yeasts and get different flavors.  Blaugies has a hint of wild in its beer, an electric current of balsamic running down the middle of things.  When I can get it, I love Jandrain-Jandrenouille, which is a tropical fruit fiesta, keyed by lychee.  Brasserie Thiriez, a brewery just on the French side of the border, makes both standard bière de gardes and rustic ales.  His yeast (the "French Farmhouse strain from Wyeast) lends a peppery flavor in which I sometimes identify fresh celery and parsley. 

Breweries sometimes use actual wild yeasts to enhance their saisons, and that's fine, too.  But even the regular, un-wild rustic yeasts are actually a bit wild.  Modern brewing has evolved to remove yeast character, allowing the malt and hops to express themselves cleanly.  Even in American ales, this is more or less true--the "Chico" strain so common in the US does little more than add a bit of gentle fruitiness.  Rustic yeasts are untamed and natural.  They produce strain-unique compounds that give each rustic ale a distinctive house character.  They are particular, identifiable. They vary so much that you really just have to sample broadly if you want to get a sense of their nature.  And that, I can guarantee, is about the most pleasant work you'll find in this life or the next.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Magic of Compound Growth

The Brewers Association put out a report about mid-year growth among its members today and it will elicit yawns from most.  And why not?  Same old, same old:
During the first six months of 2013, American craft beer dollar sales and volume were up 15 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Over the same period last year, dollar sales jumped 14 percent and volume increased 12 percent.
During the first half of 2013, approximately 7.3 million barrels of beer were sold by small and independent craft brewers, up from 6.4 million barrels over the first half of 2012. 
This is so routine most people won't bother giving it a lot of thought.  It's been much the same for the last ten years: 
The Brewers Association estimates 2005 sales by craft brewers at 7,112,886 barrels up from an adjusted total of 6,526,809 barrels in 2004, an increase of 586,077 barrels or 8.1 million case-equivalents.  [The organization] reported craft segment growth of 7.2 percent for 2004, a year in which wine (2.7%), spirits (3.1%), imported beer (1.4%) and non-craft domestic beer (0.5%) all reported substantially smaller growth rates.
For a decade, growth has plugged along between the middle-single to middle-double digits, offering these monotonous gains.  But if you look at the real barrels involved, you see that they're starting to look something other than boring.  In 2004, breweries made 6.5 million barrels in all; in the first half of 2013, they made 7.3 million barrels.  This is the magic of compound growth.  When you start out with a small base, ten percent growth looks fairly linear for the first few years.  But because it's compounding--growing ten percent on top of the year before--pretty soon it starts to shoot up sharply.  If we run the little experiment, starting with 6.5 million barrels and increasing that by 10% a year, we come to a chart that looks a whole lot like what actually happened.  For fun, I've extended it out so you can see that if current trends continue, in a few years' time this will amount to pretty hefty barrelage:

Will that growth rate continue?  Who knows.  In about year 13, this segment would occupy 10% of all beer sales in the US, assuming (and I do) that the total market doesn't change much.  (It's been roughly 200 million barrels for a quarter century.)  At some point, the rate flattens out and you start seeing a more "normal" healthy growth of 1-3% a year.  It's hard to guess when the rough plateau will arrive.  I wouldn't bet on it coming super soon, though, were I a betting man.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Brewing News of the Bizarre

In the political world, the longueurs of summer are the time when, lacking the anchor of legislative activity, paranoia and conspiracy become unmoored and float up among respectable conversation.  It's called silly season.  I wouldn't have thought the same thing happened in the beer world--until I scanned through my news lists and  Beer Pulse this week.  Now I wonder...

1. Weird Canning Story #1
We go to the unlikely source at Wonkblog for our first oddity: the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs is hording aluminum in order to drive up prices, driving up the cost of producing a can of beer. 
Here’s the trick: Three years ago, Goldman bought a bunch of warehouses around Detroit and started paying traders extra to bring their metal there rather than anywhere else. The longer it stays, the more rent Goldman can charge, which is then passed on to the buyer in the form of a premium.
This is, as all things Goldman touches, perfectly legal--and just as immoral.  Imagine if the commodity at hand was, say, broccoli or flu vaccine.  Neato!

2.  Weird Canning Story #2
You recall Churchkey, the retro-hipster beer company Entourage star Adrian Grenier launched last year?  It has fallen on hard times:
[S]ix months into production, the company hits a snag and is forced to pull all of its freshly made beer from the marketplace.  The idea was to revive the flat top steel can, a package that hadn’t been used in the beer industry in more than 50 years. But quality control issues and what Hawkins described as “bulging cans” forced Churchkey’s founders to halt production last October.

“The integrity of the beer was being compromised,” Hawkins said. “The canning line wasn’t as efficient as we needed it to be, the pressure inside the can was too high and we ultimately had to pull the beer off shelves.”
This makes no sense to me. What about the canning line could cause the packages to bulge?  Must this not be a problem with the beer?  And if it's a problem with the beer, shouldn't that be easy enough to fix? 

3.  So Cynical My Head Hurts
Newcastle, that punky independent brewery from Northern England, got a good one off on ole Budweiser.
Newcastle posted a photo across its social media accounts on Monday mocking Budweiser’s new “Bowtie” can. The photo is part of a series called #NoBollocks, mostly geared to tear down traditional big beer marketing.
Introducing the new, #Newcastle bow-tie can. It’s our regular can with the sides pushed in. Innovation! #NoBollocks
Ha!, that's so funny!  Except that Newcastle is an international Heineken brand no one in England actually drinks.  You can call it "meta," I call it cynical.

4. Call it "Reinheitsgebot Plus"
I doubt this will shock many of you, but the big breweries use additives in their beer.  Newcastle, for example, uses caramel color.  A ton of breweries use corn syrup.  It's so not shocking that I was shocked to see a non-beer person recoil in horror.  She has the shocking expose:
But, Guinness beer also contains isinglass, a gelatin-like substance produced from the swim bladder of a fish. This ingredient helps remove any “haziness,” solids, or yeast byproducts from the beer. Mmmmm… fish bladder sounds delicious, doesn’t? The sneaky thing this beer company does like many of the companies mentioned here today is create an illusion of using the best ingredients when in actuality what they tell you publicly on their websites is a complete farce. 
Actually, not so sneaky: fish bladders have been used for generations to clear the haze in cask ale.  The writer is especially interested in GMOs and got MillerCoors to "admit" the use of corn.  It is actually newsworthy, I suppose, to wonder if the corn in the corn syrup in the Lite beer came from GMO crops, but I doubt very few beer drinkers were rocked by the news that Miller and Coors use corn.  But it does reveal how we can forget to communicate basic facts about beer to those who don't swim in these waters each day.

5. You Can't Drink 13,958 Beers
Sometimes I stress that I'm not keeping up with all the new beer releases.  Whoo-boy, am I sure not keeping up with the new beer releases:
A single TTB agent currently approves all beer labels, Hogue said. The TTB has approved 13,958 individual beer label applications since October of last year.
The story is actually more about the process of getting beer labels approved, and it's really fascinating. If you've ever talked to a brewer about getting labels approved, they describe it as an experience half-way between Kafka- and Dante-esque.  The sixth circle of bureaucratic hell.  Now we know why.

That ought to hold you for awhile.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Beer/No Beer: A Curmudgeon at the Oregon Brewers Festival

The hop-garlanded OBF cask with beer this year from
BridgePort.  (Blueberry, natch.)
There are some absolutely spectacular beers at the Oregon Brewers Festival this year.  I started out with a pour of Kaiser Pilsener, the special beer Jürgen Knöller brewed up to celebrate Bayern's 25th anniversary last year.  An intense blast of noble hops with a polished malt base--and we're off.  Upright's impressive Kolsch followed and then the smoked helles from Widmer and the Collaborator project, another really impressive effort (and the prettiest beer at the fest).  A little later the twin Dortmund exports from trailer 5, Occidental and Breakside.  The former was more a helles, emphasizing grainy malts, while Breakside's was a good example of what I imagine enthralled Germans half a century ago.  It was a truly spectacular beer and my fave of the beers I tried.

You can see the theme there: I was going for the low- and mid-alcohol, low-impact German beers to get started.  I was there with a clutch of friends, and we had staked out a prime table in the shade of a large tree by the river.  For the most part, my friends had taken a different approach and were going for the exotica.  I was cradling my precious Breakside when one of the friends handed me a pour of Peaches and Cream by Fearless.  The aroma: pure peach.  The flavor?  Even peachier.  I detected nothing in the liquid that betrayed the art of zymurgy.  Sort of off-handedly, I declared it "not beer."

This is an old dispute.  The nature of beer is change.  One generation's abomination is another generation's cherished tradition.  Indeed, in some countries, the cherished traditional beer from the neighboring country is an abomination.  It's almost impossible to defend the idea of a fixed identity for "beer" when you have styles as divergent as pilsners, porters, and lambics.  We're well into the realm of subjectivity here, right?--so I should get with the program and just enjoy the damn beer. 

A circus of the bizarre continued parading across my tongue: spicy gazpachos like Elysian's and Dunedin's; Gigantic's literal juicy IPA (Old Town's Bolt Minister: "It takes like a Christmas Tree, with juice"); Laht Neppur's peach entry; (weirdly) innumerable blueberry beers (though props to Boulder for a very nice, beery take); Oakshire's crazy 26-ingredient beer that included Oregon grape*; Widmer's Thai-spiced lager.  They were so weird that we continued my game.  With each new specimen, we sniffed and sipped and rendered a judgment: beer/no beer. 

I am no longer going to stand on my porch and shake my fist at you damn kids to get off the lawn.  Put whole pies in the beer, whip up meat stouts, shave the dog and harvest the yeast from his fur: it's all good.  When you read medieval accounts of beer, you realize this is a time-honored practice.  The ancients liked to brew with beans and bark, eggs, hallucinogens, and the residue of coal seam fires. I am in no position to call BS. 

And yet, and yet.

There is something illuminating about tasting a beer like Breakside's or Bayern's and comparing it to one of the cold soups on offer.  I like beer.  The flavors that come from the fermentation of malt and hops are pleasant to me.  It's hard to make them harmonize perfectly and when a brewery manages the trick, it's like watching a crisply-executed give-and-go.  A fundamental play in basketball, but not so easy to pull off and very satisfying when done properly.  When you start dumping random flavors into beer (and I use the word "random" advisedly), you start to obscure the beer. Maybe a fermented peach drink is heavenly, but it doesn't taste anything like beer. You may call it pleasant, but I call it "no beer."  Hand me the export, please.

*Not a grape.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Ultimate Beer Geek's Guide to the OBF

In just about 24 hours, the Oregon Brewers Festival kicks off its 26th incarnation.  The great lot of you will either have been to this fest or another, similar fest, and so will know the basic advice (go early, stay hydrated, begin with low intensity beers and move up, take public transportation or have a designated driver, eat).

If you're reading this blog, though, it's because you're interested in the beer, not the boozy primal-screaming aspects of the fest--you know your saison from your session and your Chinook from your Centennial.  You will be examining your program with the knowledge that stomach space limits you to a dozen or so of the 84 beers in a session.  In past years, I've offered guesses at the beers I thought would be tasty and batted about .300--fine for a major leaguer, not so great for a beer drinker.  So instead, I have sifted through the beers and organized them by elements interesting to the beer geek.  Beers like Full Sail Session Black--a mainstay in the Alworth home--get no attention.  You know Full Sail Session Black. 

What follows is essentially my own organization, broken down into categories that I'll be thinking about as I'm wandering the grounds tomorrow.  I hope you'll find it useful, too.  I've mentioned forty beers, but you'll know how to navigate through the categories.  Note that all listed breweries contain the location by trailer (1-12) at the fest so you can easily locate them.

Festival Changes
There are a lot of changes at this year's OBF.  Two of the biggies: it begins tomorrow, Wednesday the 24th, not Thursday as in recent years; those iconic opaque, chunky mugs are gone.  For the first time, the OBF will have glasses, and also for the first time, the pours will be just three ounces.  (As recently as 2003, they were twice that.)  Another loss--reportedly temporary--is the buzz tent, which contained curated rarities and vintage pours.  Don't spend a lot of time wandering around looking for it.

Apparently they've also rearranged things so that on the south end, the beer will be on the river side of the park, allowing for seating under the trees on the city side.  [Edit. Or not.  The industrious Chris Crabb contradicts Art on this point.] And while I can't find it on the website, host Art Larrance has described a sobering-up station somewhere on the grounds should you find that you've gotten out over your skis booze-wise.  Finally, props to Art and the crew for limiting each brewery to a single beer (Cascade and the Rac Lodge; Rogue and Buckman). 

All right, now to the main event...


Hops For the Discerning Palate
You will not strain yourselves to locate hoppy beers at the Fest.  Although they are less prolific at this year's fest, they still amount to more than one in four of OBF's offerings.  As such, you may wish to prioritize.  I offer these suggestions.
  • Bravo hopsBoundary Bay (6) has a single-hopped beer made with Bravo, a high-alpha variety released just a few years back.  Bravo has Zeus and Nugget parentage, and is described as earthy/spicy but with a tangerine chaser.  
  • M hops.  Mosaic and Meridian are having quite a moment.  Should you wish to check out the buzz, BridgePort's Long Ball Ale (10) has Meridian while Stone's Delicious IPA (9) uses Mosaic (and El Dorado--see below)--though at 116 IBUs, it may not have the subtlety to reveal any hop character.
  • El Dorado.   Another interesting new-hop beer comes from Speakeasy (8).  Bittered with Columbus, but finished and dry-hopped with El Dorado, Tallulah should be an interesting experience.  Surly's OverRated (2) IPA also has a touch of El Dorado, though they may be overwhelmed by Centennial and Chinook.
  • Cluster hops.  The old man of American hopping, Clusters were once pretty much the only game in town.  If you want to taste their rough, American character, Double Mountain's (7) single hopped Clusterf#ck is the beer to try.
  • Hoppy lagers.  One of the most interesting developments at this year's fest is hoppy lagers, including a troika that will be high on my list: Epic Hop Syndrome (7) uses Calypso, Crystal, and French Aramis hops while Cornelius Pass Roadhouse's Silvercone (9) goes for traditional NW hops, and Base Camp's (6) flagship In-Tents Lager uses American hops and wood-aging.
  • Gin Beer and juice. Two years ago, Alameda and Breakside made a splash at the fruit beer fest when they added fruit juice to IPAs.  It's a surprisingly winning combination.  At this Fest, Gigantic's & Juice (5) combines grapefruit, pineapple, and tangerine to pop the citrus.

Germany Rising
One of the coolest things is seeing real fidelity to the German tradition--German malts and hops, rational hop levels--and this year's Fest has an impressive selection. 
  • Dortmund Export.  Not one, not two, but three exports will be pouring.  This once-obscure style was once the king of Germany.  In its heyday, export had two-thirds of the market share in Germany, and as recently as the sixties had half of it.  They were more more robust than hellesbiers, fuller-bodied than pilsners, and had hopping levels about midway between those styles.  You may try examples by Breakside (6), Occidental (5), and Old Town (1)--and you should try them all!
  • Helles.  I would nominate this as the most obscure style in American brewing.  It's really hard to find a helles of any kind.  The soft, grainy pale lager is religion in Bavaria, and I encourage you to taste the sacraments from Montana's Wildwood (7) and the Collaborator Project (2).  The latter is an example of a Bamberg smoked helles. (No idea if it is the yeast alone, as in Schlenkerla's version, that adds smoke.)
  • KölschesCascade Lakes (10), Upright (9), and Wild River (2) are bringing kölsches--but I'd put special attention on Upright's.  This is a pretty common style in the US now--weirdly--but it's also a perfect summer beer, so don't overlook Köln's finest.
  • Pilsner.  Okay, this is a Czech style, but I'm shoehorning it in.  There are some very tasty offerings in this batch.  First, from Bavarian Jurgen Knoller's kettle comes the burly 40 BU, decoction-mashed Bayern Kaiser Pilsener (7).  Second is Hop Valley's Czech Your Head (4), a spectacular beer I've been enjoying this summer.  (Bonus props for the Beastie Boys allusion.)  Ninkasi (5) rounds out the offering with Bohemian Pils--not Sterling Pils that has been in stores recently--a pretty straightforward 12 Plato beer with Hallertau and Saaz.

Amber Waves of Grain
An amazing fact: there are nearly twice as many wheat beers at this year's fest (16) as IPAs (9).  I wouldn't over-interpret this fact: IPAs are not about to enter a decline.  Breweries have started to realize that they have a hard time standing out in a category that includes twenty or thirty beers, and also that hot summer days aren't the best way to showcase boozy, hoppy ales.  Light wheaten ales are far better matches for the weather. 
  • Tart wheats.  One of the most intriguing selections in this year's fest comes from Old Market--Dilution of Grandeur (6).  It's described as a "spontaneously-fermented" beer--though that can mean many things.  It's also got four different types of fruit.  Although I have my doubts, it will be well worth a token to find out what they've come up with.  More reliable is Burnside Marionberry Berliner Weisse (5), a perfect summer beer.
  • Fruit wheats. There are a ton of these, but some are old standbys.  I have my eye on Boulder's (9) made-for-the-OBF Pump Up the Jam, using Oregon blueberries.   Ice Harbor (3) has blended Bavarian and American yeast strains in a tangerine beer.  I'm not actually sure if Hopworks Two Tickets to Pearadise (9) is made with wheat, but it also looks intriguing.   (The 'Couv's West Highland [6] also has a Mango beer with no wheat.)
  • Witbiers.  Wits are so last decade, and yet the two offerings stand out.  First is pFriem's (8), in case you haven't had the chance to try it, and next is Dogfish Head Namaste (10), made with orange slices.  Finally, you could give the cherry wit from 13 Virtues (1)--née Philadelphia's--a look just to see if the new facility is making cleaner beer.
A Bit of Belgium
One of the slight disappointments is how few Belgian-style beers there are this year.  Of interest are a couple of interesting saisons: Prodigal Son's (1), which uses a blend of yeasts as well as long pepper, and Maui Brewing's (8), which uses lemongrass.  Also, Deschutes (9) has a Belgian IPA for your inspection.  Aside from the wits, that's really it.

And then we have the oddballs.  Trend-spotters will note that out-of-category beers have become the bread and butter of craft brewing.  Some work, some don't, but very often even those that don't work are worth trying for forensic purposes.  A few of the most exotic:
  • Oakshire 26 (4) gets the gold star for ambition.  Brewed with 26 ingredients, including herbs, spices, and honey, it is liable to have plenty of flavor.  Not bitterness, though--it was of course brewed to just 26 IBUs.
  • Dunedin (2), all the way from Florida, brings a rustic beer made with pepper, grapefruit peel, and coconut.  I have great confidence those selections were intentional.
  • Elysian Oddland (10) is aptly named: pear, cardamom, and cumin are added to a pretty hoppy beer that the brewery describes as "spicy sweet."  All right then.
  • Mt Shasta Skip and Go Naked (6) is made with sun-dried strawberries and ginger.  Strawberries have so much water they often don't add a lot to beer; I'll be interested to see what happens when they've been sun-dried first.
  • Natian Erbal Tenacious (3) has the spice bill of a gruit--with 36 IBUs of hops to boot.  Elderflower, grains of paradise, lemon myrtle and lemon balm are the botanicals.
  • Widmer Eye of the Thaiger (2) continues the brewery's exploration of nonstandard lagers.  Thaiger is essentially a helles (pilsner and Munich malts, Hallertauer hops, 22 BUs) spiced with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and ginger.  
  • Rogue's (10) beard beer also makes an appearance--if you can get over the ewww factor.  (The yeast purportedly comes from brewer John Maier's beard.)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Oregon Brewers Fest By the Numbers

 As surely as the Oregon Brewers Festival arrives each year, so it is accompanied by the Beervana OBF By the NumbersTM. Aside from inertia, there's a reason to run this exercise each year.  One can see, sort-of statistically, what the trends are for the year.  (I was doin' OBFBtN when Nate Silver was still "Poblano," I tell you--where's my ESPN contract?)  So what do we see this year?  IPAs are way down--thankfully!--and fruited beers, especially fruity wheat beers are up.  In fact, for the first time ever, fruit beers outnumber IPAs.  Brewers seem more interested in German styles and lagers this year than ever.  (The year I went to Germany and wrote obsessively about these beers.  Hmmm ... coincidence?)  The arms race for hops took a year off, as well.  Although the average IBUs barely budged, 69% of the beers have 40 IBUs or fewer.  Strong beers are also way down--a very good trend for a fest that has 20,000 people screaming simultaneously in 85 degree heat.

But enough of the blather.  Without further ado, I give you the full rundown.

Years since inception: 26
Total beers: 84 (84 in 2012)
Total breweries: 82 (82)
States represented: 12 (14)
Percent Oregon: 57% (52%)
Percent California: 14% (15%)
Percent Washington: 14% (8%)
All Others: 15% (25%)

Total styles (by broad category): 28 (28)
Lagers: 13 (12 to 1)
IPAs: 14% (26%)
__- Standard IPA: 9
__- Double IPA: 1
__- CDA: 2

By style:
__-  Fruit Wheats: 10 examples (NA)
__-  Pale: 9 (8)
__- Witbier: 3 (6)
__- Pilsner: 3 (4)
__- Cream Ale 3 (N/A)
__- Dortmund Export 3 (N/A)
__- Hoppy Lager 3 (N/A)
__- Kolsch: 3 (3)
__- Gluten-free: 2 (2)
__- Abbey: 0 (4)
__- Stouts and porters: 0 (3)

Beers using spices/adjuncts: 14, 17% ("lots")
Fruit beers: 16, 19% (17%)
Belgian styles: 12% (15%)
German/Czech styles: 18% (13%)
Totally weird beers: 15% (N/A)

ABV of smallest beer (Burnside Marionberry Berliner Weisse): 3.5% (4%)
ABV of largest beer (Terminal Gravity Craft Malt Liquor*): 10% (11%)
Average ABV: 6.0% (6.2%)
Beers below 5.5% ABV: 32 (31)
Beers above 7% ABV: 14 (24)
Fewest IBUs in Fest (three-way tie): 8 (4)
Most IBUs at the Fest (Stone Delicious IPA): 116 (103)
Average IBUs: 38 (39)
Beers between 0 and 40 IBUs: 58 (53)
Minimum years in a row 21st Amendment has brought Watermelon Wheat: 1 (0)**

*Not a malt liquor.
** The streak starts anew.  Until last year, 21st Amendment had gone a decade sending WW.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Oregon Brewers Festival Reducing Pour Sizes

Niki Ganong (probably more well-known to beery types as Suds Sister) noticed a disturbing change in this year's OBF: pour sizes are smaller:
For $7, you will now be buying a 12.8 oz. glass (down from 14 last year), which can be filled for four tokens.  The one token taster size is now three ounces instead of four. 
Look: inflation is real.  This pricing scheme has been in place at least since 1991--my first fest.  If organizer Art Larrance had kept the price consistent with inflation, we'd now be paying $1.71 for each token.  At those early fests, people knew they were paying a premium to get a pour at OBF--you could easily walk a block to a pub and find a cheaper pint of beer.  We were willing to pay that premium because we had access to beer we'd never seen before.  The price for a pint of beer at the fest last year was equivalent to $4--below the average price you'd pay a pub.  I have no problem with the Fest raising prices; indeed, I've been shocked to see, year after year, that they haven't gone up.

This is a really bad solution, though.  The result is almost certainly going to be longer lines--which was already the Fest's biggest problem.  If you reduce the amount of a pour, you reduce the amount of time people can stand and sip, share, and chat with friends, and the more time people will be forced into long lines.  I get that the fest wanted to maintain the elegance of the buck-a-token system.  Fine.  Charge a five-dollar, one-time entry fee.  That's more transparent, addresses the money issue without adding to the lines, and preserves the token pricing. 

Brace yourself, this year is going to be an interesting experiment.
No more plastic cups.  For $7, you will now be buying a 12.8 oz. glass (down from 14 oz. last year), which can be filled for four tokens.  The one token taster size is now three ounces instead of four.  The shorter taster pour is the result of new OLCC rules that apply to all beer festivals in the state.  The law does allow for full pours at beer festivals to be up to 16 ounces, so you can blame the OBF itself for the full glass shorting. - See more at:
eer festivals in the state.  The law does allow for full pours at beer festivals to be up to 16 ounces, so you can blame the O - See more at:
No more plastic cups.  For $7, you will now be buying a 12.8 oz. glass (down from 14 oz. last year), which can be filled for four tokens.  The one token taster size is now three ounces instead of four.  The shorter taster pour is the result of new OLCC rules that apply to all beer festivals in the state.  The law does allow for full pours at beer festivals to be up to 16 ounces, so you can blame the OBF itself for the full glass shorting. - See more at:
No more plastic cups.  For $7, you will now be buying a 12.8 oz. glass (down from 14 oz. last year), which can be filled for four tokens.  The one token taster size is now three ounces instead of four.  The shorter taster pour is the result of new OLCC rules that apply to all beer festivals in the state.  The law does allow for full pours at beer festivals to be up to 16 ounces, so you can blame the OBF itself for the full glass shorting. - See more at:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Is Anyone Going to the Portland International Beer Fest?

Note: Sometimes when you drop a picture in a Blogger post, it garbles the text.  When you post-n-go, as I did, you miss all the people telling you that your text has been garbled.  Sorry!  All better now.

A long, long time ago, PIB rocked.
PIB comes to town tomorrow for its annual three-day stay.  I have always enjoyed the venue more than any other in town, but as imports become more widely available, the draw diminishes each year.  The line up is   not terrible (though it's also not great)--lots of the standards plus a few oddballs, but very little in the way of real international exploration.  But I fear the extortionist pricing that has become SOP for the fest.  (If you're not a link-follower, that previous one will take you to one of my rants about a $4 pour of Orval--when a full bottle can be had a the grocery store for $6.)

Especially since it ends just three days before the OBF, I'm unlikely to attend.  Anyone out there in geek land want to make a compelling reason why I should?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

I Am Only Gathering Strength

Yesterday at about two in the afternoon, a black cloud rolled overhead and deposited a few corpulent drops of rain into the backyard where I sat typing.  Thunder storms are as rare in Portland as snow storms, so I spent three minutes delighting in the prospect that one might be on the way.  Nope.  The cloud moved on and the quarter-spots dried.  Back to the bug-free, temperate sunshine of Oregon.

Which is to say: I'm in first gear.  Blogging may happen or it may not.  I've got a project on the horizon that's going to get me moving again, but not until August.  Meantime, I'm drinking some nice beer and watching the clouds pass overhead. 

See you at the fests--

Monday, July 15, 2013

July's Cool Fair Maiden: Berliner Weisse

In the swelter of July, as the days stretch long and the nights stay warm and muggy, we reach for replenishers, refreshers, and slakers.  A quintessential summer beverage is lemonade, which our cells recognize as a natural source of electrolytes.  A touch sweet, tart, and crisp.  It cools, it restores.  There is a beery equivalent no less able to restore on a hot day than a lemonade, but it was once nearly extinct and certainly unknown in the US: Berliner Weisse.

Among all the styles in Germany, it is one of the most celebrated.  Napoleon likened it to champagne, and writers rhapsodized about its several virtues. One florid example:
"Berlin is the city of all others where the kühle blonde ['cool fair maiden'] is obtained in the greatest perfection, and where bier-stuben offering no other beverage to their frequenters abound. The beer is drunk by preference when it is of a certain age, and in perfection it should be largely impregnated with carbonic acid gas and have acquired a peculiar sharp, dry, and by no means disagreeable flavour." (Henry Vizetelly, Berlin Under the New Empire, 1879)
Over the centuries, there have been many incarnations of this style.  In some accounts it was made with smoked malt, and over the years brewers made it a variety of different ways.  By the 1970s, the beer had become fairly debased and Berliners were adulterating it with sugary syrups.  Here's Michael Jackson describing what he found there in 1977:
"'White' is a particular misnomer for a beer which is usually drunk either red or green. However delightful they may find the beer itself, visitors from other countries are apt to be shocked by these colors, but Germans are frequently surprised at the thought of drinking a Berliner weisse without a schuss (a dash or raspberry juice) or Waldmeister (essence of woodruff)."
Unlike the red and green Berliner weisses, though, the midcentury beer was a more impressive beast--extremely lean of body, hugely effervescent and quite sharp on the tongue.  A weird beer for which the 1970s had no use--but which is exactly the kind of beer in which modern eyes again see a cool, fair maiden.  And so it has been reborn in the US in all its tiny, powerful splendor.

The Nature of the Funk
To the untrained tongue, a Berliner weisse seems all lactobacillus.  That's the bacterium that produces the sharp, slightly citric tartness you find in yogurt (hence the name).  This is what dominates the flavor of a Berliner weisse, and I have always found it to be a pure, clean note that bespoke no other souring microorganisms.   However, I first got wind of another, secret agent when I read a post by Ron Pattinson a few years ago.  When he had a chance to taste very old Berliner weisses, he found he could taste the barnyard, bone-dry brett character in them, too. 

But is brett important to the flavor profile of Berliner weisse?  I turned to Alan Taylor, my go-to source for all things German.  Alan picked up his brewing degree in Berlin and also brewed there before returning to Oregon.  He's currently at Pints, where you can find his own example of a Berliner weisse on tap now.  His answer? Brett is critical to building complexity in the style, but it does so by working with the lactobacillus.  In typical fashion, he sent along an Excel spreadsheet that had a ton of technical information detailing the differences among Berliner weisses made only with lacto, those with both lacto and brett, and those with just brettanomyces.  Alan comments:
"One of the reasons to have Brett in there early is that it helps to amplify the amount of acids and esters produced. Looking at the chart I attached, you will see that Kindl [lacto-only] has a lower pH, but doesn’t have nearly the level of acids in the beer. Brett on its own also doesn’t create the levels of the mixed pitch. [Lactobacillus and brettanomyces] synergistically create a much more complex beer."
He mentioned that, contrary to my experience, a Berliner weisse that uses a mixed pitch produces acetic acid (the type of sour compound you find in vinegar).  "The acetic brings something along the lines of a Rodenbach note to the beer, which I find appealing."  Finally, beers with brett produce more esters:
The ethyl acetate and ethyl lactate levels are significantly higher in the traditional product. Those esters are being created by the interplay of acid production from the bacteria and the Brett. converting those to esters. As you see, Brett. alone can’t create the levels that the [mixed] has.
And indeed, the mixed pitch produces five times the amount of ethyl acetate (the ester that tastes like pear or apple) and 20 times the amount of ethyl lactate (an ester that can taste vinous or like coconut).  In both cases, the esters are just at or slightly below the threshold for flavor, but their presence creates layers of depth.

I recommend heading down to Pints and getting a pour of Alan's Berliner weisse.  He began with a lactic fermentation and then did an alcohol fermentation with ale yeast.  Normally that's when he would have added the brett, but in this case he waited until after primary alcohol fermentation (for logistical reasons not worth mentioning).  Because you're looking only for ester production from the brett, it only takes four weeks to develop.  Those characteristic "brett" flavors would eventually come out--but long after it has served its primary function.  That's why it's difficult to detect it there.  I tried to focus in on the fruity aspects to attune my palate--a process that may take a few more glasses.

How Tart?
Yesterday afternoon I judged homebrew at the Portland U-Brew and Pub and we had a Berliner weisse in the flight.  The question arose: how tart should it be?  I think there is no right answer here, at least by historical standards.  The brewing methods were very different over the decades.  But if we're looking at the pre-debased 20th century examples, I think the answer is: pretty damn tart.  The chart Alan sent along put them at a pH of around 3--roughly the level of orange juice.  Because there is very little sugar in a Berliner weisse, though (unlike orange juice), that tracks as pretty tart.  (Water is 7.)  Sometimes you'll find Berliner weisses that have been made by sour mashing, and to my palate, they just don't have the pop you get with a full lactic fermentation.  After all, this is why Berliners started adding sugar syrups--it was a really tart style.

(As to Berliner weisses in which the zing comes from chemical grade lactic acid added after fermentation?  The less said the better.  At worst, lactic acid has an unnatural chemical flavor and at best it's a wholly one-dimensional note.  Because there was no fermentation, the lactic acid lacks those critical esters that give a beer depth.  You don't have to be a trained taster to detect pure lactic acid either.)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Synthetic Yeast on the Horizon: Mary Shelley Would Be Proud

The scientist builds the creature from a boneyard of parts, removing from it the frailties of natural life, finally breathing into it the flicker of life.  Nope, not Frankenstein's monster, but Saccharomyces cerevisiae--beer yeast.
The international project adds to work to create the first ever synthetic life form, by building a bacterium genome from scratch.
It will be the first time a genome has been built from scratch for a eukaryotic organism, the branch of the evolutionary tree that includes plants and animals. 
The notion is to make it more resistant to its own waste (ie, alcohol), presumably to aid industrial breweries in things like ever better high gravity brewing. 
"Clearly there are strains of yeast that are highly resistant to alcohol, but they all die off as the alcohol gets higher, so making more alcohol resistant strains will be very useful for that industry in terms of cost value," [said Professor Paul Freemont, from the centre for synthetic biology and innovation at Imperial College London]
It will inevitably be hugely controversial.  Who's going to want to drink Frankenstein beer?  But my sense is that the only real commercial purpose in trying this is efficient beer-making, which means it will be a part of an industrial process to create inoffensive mass-market lagers.  I suppose there could be super-high-alcohol beers in the offing, too, but they're a novelty product at best. 

Good, wholesome beer is a product of particular fermentation conditions, including a diverse array of yeast strains.  If you like IPAs or saisons, I think there's no reason to fear.

The Incredible, Indispensable Puckerfest

When Carl Singmaster and the folks at Belmont Station launched Puckerfest in 2006, they were trying to figure a way to maximize the utility of an abandoned keg of Cantillon.  In its first year or three, Puckerfest showcased a mixture of rare beers from Payottenland and early wild experiments happening across the country.  Soon the emphasis shifted home, boosted by the inaugural Devil's Kriek--Double Mountain's wild ale made from brewer Matt Swihart's own cherries.  Now the week of Puckerfest is almost wholly a showcase of local wild ales--a testament to how much of this kind of brewing is now happening in Oregon.  The West Coast is famous for hops, but perhaps we should be known for making some of the more impressive examples of subtle, sophisticated tart, sour, and funky beers.

I wonder if Puckerfest is at least partly responsible for the interest--both on the brewer and drinker side--because it is such a good showcase.  Each day one or two breweries gets center stage, and they bring a lineup of their best stuff.  Often it's a keg that has been squirreled away or a beer that is debuting there.  In the best tradition of Beervana, the brewers are on hand to discuss their beers.  (And who can  resist Double Mountain's annual appearance, when Matt doles out orchard-fresh cherries to go along with Devil's Kriek?)

This year's lineup is once again a daily must-try:
  • Today, Friday.  Block 15 (Corvallis) and Cascade (Portland)
  • Saturday.  The Commons (Portland) and De Garde (Tillamook, see below)
  • Sunday.  Trinity Brewing (Colorado Springs, CO) and Upright (Portland)
  • Monday.  Flat Tail (Corvalis)
  • Tuesday. Logsdon (Hood River) and Schooner Exact (Seattle)
  • Wednesday.  Double Mountain (Hood River) and Solera (Parkdale)
Trevor Rogers and Linsey Hamacher,
De Garde Brewing
At least one name on that list is probably unfamiliar to you--De Garde Brewing from lovely Tillamook, Oregon. They debuted in March (Ezra, of course, was on the scene) with the intention of making rustic and spontaneously-fermented ales.  I've been waiting to see what they've come up with, and I have to wait no more than another 24 hours. For the full run-down on the specific beers the breweries will be pouring and the times the brewers will be on hand, go to the Puckerfest website.

One final, important note.  When you go, take your greenbacks: Puckerfest is cash-only.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

This Year's GABF Comes with an Asterisk

Note: post has been updated below.

Wow, what a debacle:
On Tuesday, the Brewers Association opened brewery registration for The Great American Beer Festival. Each year, the registration list fills up within days. Last year, it only took two days for 580 breweries to sign up. This year, however, it only took less than two hours for 600 breweries.

Complicating this year’s registration were server issues, something that has become quite common with limited events.
I don't know that I have a lot to add to this except the pretty-obvious observation that things are soon gonna have to give.  Each Spring the Brewers Association proudly announces the hundreds of new breweries that opened in the US, and each autumn they announce the "best beers" in the country--even though this year only about a quarter will even have had the chance to have their beer judged.

They may have to move from an "open" model of competition to an "invitational."  The crapshoot model accomplishes no one's benefit.

Update.  In comments, Vasili Gletsos, brewmaster at Laurelwood, offers a wonderful solution to all this:
Maybe move to a model similar to what they do for their National Homebrew competitons? Have a series of Regional Competitions that advance to nationals.
Yup, that's the answer.  Regional judging could be accompanied by small regional events as well, which would certainly be a boon all around.  Brewers Association?

Monday, July 08, 2013

The Bubble Versus Mature Market

Last week, Time posted an article that asks the familiar question: is the craft* market saturated?  (I know--I was shocked Time still existed, too.)  I was happy to tweet it and let it go--until Alan posted related thoughts yesterday.  Well, two makes a meme, and memes need feeding.  Here are my meaty bits:
  1. It's really important to distinguish between brewpubs and breweries.  Yes, there's a point at which the supermarket shelves become too packed to admit yet one more brewery's packages, but brewpubs are another matter.  If the US had ten thousand of them and they averaged 500 barrels a year, that would amount to all of 5 million barrels--or 2.5% of the beer sold each year.  We can handle that.
  2. Paul Krugman, who is more reliable than me on these matters, describes a bubble as "a situation in which asset prices appear to be based on implausible or inconsistent views about the future."  A brewery bubble would be a situation in which the overall capacity of all the craft breweries were radically higher than the actual number of barrels required by the market.  
  3. A mature market, by contrast, is one that has reached a state of equilibrium.  In beer terms, that would be a situation in which the number of barrels of capacity equal the number of barrels of demand.  In order to grow, breweries would need to cannibalize each other.  That sounds bad, but it happens to be the definition of a healthy market.  Presumably, people would quit buying crap beer and buy more of the good stuff. 
The craft beer segment has been expanding at some shocking amount for a decade (mid-single digits to low double-digits.  Every year.)  You would therefore expect a ton of new brewery openings.  But it's also true that at some point, the market will hit equilibrium.  For awhile, this will cause widespread gnashing of teeth and breweries used to amazing growth will feel like a collapse has arrived. Most craft brewers have never seen flat sales or a market that wasn't growing.  It will be deeply unnerving.

But I don't see any evidence that the capacity of craft breweries is so outstripping demand that we're in a bubble.  Can anyone point to such evidence?  Anyone?  See, no bubble.  At worst it looks like some places might finally be approaching a mature market.

We'll survive it.

Update.  Just to underscore the difference between a mature market and a bubble, let's talk about one of the classic examples: housing sales.  At the height of the housing bubble in 2005, there were 1.28 million houses sold in the US.  In 2011, only 306,000 homes sold.  In an average year, the US should be selling around 700,000 homes, if I'm reading the stats correctly.  The craft beer segment was roughly 15 million barrels in 2012.  If it were a similar kind of bubble, we would place the actual healthy market for craft beer at about 8 million barrels, and we could expect the burst bubble to drop sales down to less than four million.  Does anyone believe that's where we are?  Even if the bubble were less severe--as most bubbles have been--does anyone doubt the US can consume 15 million barrels of craft beer a year?

*Yes, "craft" is a terrible name for a brewery, but it's not terrible when referring to the market segment.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Cider Saturday: Tannin, Acid, and Sugar

Although I find it is a contested thesis, I continue to maintain that (wo)man cannot live by (liquid) bread alone.  If Sunday through Friday we sip saison, then let us at least reserve one day for cider.  Surely we can allow this minor dalliance. 

As I get more and more familiar with the beverage, I begin to see how much there is to cider that we might not immediately perceive.  Particularly here in the Northwest, where nearly every orchard apple was planted for eating, we tend to think of cider as a crisp, sweet drink characterized mainly by a light apple flavor.  Because that's what eating apples produce. There's more to it than that.

In the old traditions, cider should actually be a more complex drink.  The humble apple comes in a variety of types, and many of them are, as Abram Goldman-Armstrong calls them, "little gnarly, scabby things" no one would eat.  But these apples are full of important compounds that give a proper cider its holy trinity of balance: tannins, acidity, and sweetness.  Indeed, among these, perhaps the least important is sweetness.  Sweet apples are loaded with sugar, but sugar is easily fermentable, so what you're left with is a neutral beverage.  (Cider makers can "back-sweeten" a cider by adding apple juice back to the fermented cider to give it more flavor--and sweetness.)

But cider apples have tannins and acids that stay behind. Tannins are a group of phenolic compounds that come from the skin and seeds of the fruit (not all phenolics are tannins, but you can look into the chemistry if it interests you) and gives a character that you can feel as well as taste.  Tannins are astringent and drying and contribute to the sense of body.  Sometimes people call them "bitter," but for beer geeks this may be confusing.  They're bitter like kale is bitter.  Astringent is better, because in your mouth, you'll detect tannins when you swallow--your mouth will have a chemical kind of dryness.  Those phenols in the apple, incidentally, can contribute the band-aid/medicinal character you find in some wild and wheat ales. 

My July 4th cider: a Dupont.
Acidity is more obvious--it's the same quality that sharpens the flavors of a Berliner weisse or gueuze.  And while bitter apples have almost no eating appeal, some tart ones, like Granny Smith, do.  The sharpness comes from malic acid--and the horticulturally inclined will recognize "malic" as the genus of apple trees (Malus).  Acidity gives what oenophiles call "structure" to a cider--a refreshing crispness that enlivens the apple flavors. 

Residual sweetness has its place in ciders--tannins and acids are strong players, and they need softening by a bit of the fruit's native sugars.  Even dry ciders will have a bit of sweetness for balance.

One final note.  Rarely will a single apple variety have a perfect balance of all three of these elements.  Blending apple varieties is one of the great skills of cider-making.  In this way, it's a lot like brewing a lambic.  Blending isn't used to moderate or soften a beverage, as in whiskey, but to find richer balance points not available in single varietal or unblended stocks. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

The New Breed of Sweet IPAs

Last night, reclining on the roof of an undisclosed warehouse in the inner Southeast beneath an exploding sky, I poured out a measure of the new Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA.  It's one of the many IPAs out now that harnesses the intense fruitiness of new American hops, in this case Citra and Mosaic.  The name and tagline tell you everything you need to know about the beer's nature: "no fruit was harmed in the making of this beer."

When you have been tasting beer for decades, your mind has a tendency to become enclosed by habit.  IPAs have evolved in increments, from screamingly bitter, mildly grapefruity versions of the 90s to the increasingly aromatic, dank, dry-hopped incarnations in the mid aughts to now, when bitterness is dialed pretty far back in favor of vividly fruity IPAs.  Since it has gone in increments, I have mainly just revised my old mental model to accommodate for new trends.  IPAs are bitter beers rich with aromatics and hop flavor.  The formula may change, but these facts remain the same. 

But last night, one of the roof-sitters--not a beer geek--sampled Fresh Squeezed IPA and remarked: "Wow, that's a sweet beer."

He's right.  Deschutes put 60 bitterness units in this beer, but it has a ton of caramelly body (it's closer in color to Newcastle than Pilsner Urquell) that adds a lot of sugars to the mix.  Layer those intensely fruity new-variety hops on top and you add a level of juiciness the mind tracks as purely sweet.  From a sensory perspective, these aren't bitter beers at all--they are actually sweet. 

Even when the beer is stronger, has less sugars and more bitterness, the purity of the fruit flavors gives these beers a distinctly sweet character.  Boneyard and Gigantic make juicy IPAs that were, in Oregon, the harbingers of the sweetening trend.  Hop-growers have been going crazy bringing new products to the market, and what people seem to love most are the tropical fruit flavors.  (Hops with resiny, dank qualities or piney character seem to be fading, trendwise.)  I saw this in Europe, too, where breweries have more ready access to New Zealand hops, which also have saturated fruit flavors--though they tend toward berry and lychee. 

I was feeling somewhat oppressed by the heavy, ganja-like hopping that was most popular a few years back--those beers were a sensory and alcoholic kick to the head.  These new IPAs, sweet with the sunshine of fruit and often more sessionable, are right up my alley. 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Happy Fourth

May your day be marked by good beer, good friends, and the acrid smoke of that damn neighbor kid's illegal M-80.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Consumer Reports on Craft Beer: #Fail

Consumer Reports, the independent magazine that tests and rates products, has for the first time turned its attention to craft beer.  I am a big fan of CR and have periodically subscribed in advance of car and appliance purchases.  When the magazine's testers have empirical metrics to assess--the actual miles per gallon of a car, the range of features of a refrigerator--they do an excellent job of cutting through the wall of PR you get from the companies themselves.
Source: Consumer Reports

When they turn their attention to subjective measures like the flavors of beer ... not so much.  The magazine took 23 beers, apparently at random, and put them through their rigorous--if wholly clueless--tasting regime.  What did the hardy band of untrained, eager tasters discover?  Oh, things like:
  • "The best ales have intense, complex, and balanced flavors" but
  • "The best lagers are very tasty but not quite complex or intense enough to be excellent"
  • The worst beers "are decent but not as balanced, complex, or intense as the others, and some have off-flavors—hinting of cheese, soda water, or even paint."  One of those worst beers?  Sierra Nevada Kellerweis.  One wonders which off-flavor in that beer caused it to be downgraded.
Americans have Protestant hearts.  Deep down we believe that anyone with a can-do attitude and a little elbow grease can accomplish or figure out anything.  We don't need no stinkin' education or priests to tell us what's what--we're fine on our own, thanks.  There are many ways in which that's a wonderful approach to the world, and it helped people like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs punch through boundaries.  But it comes with a massive blind spot, one exposed when untrained people trying to assess "best" among a widely differing group of beers with no regard to tradition or style. 

I imagine the scene of CR secretly assessing the art at MoMa.  "The best works are bright, detailed, and harmonious, but the worst are monochromatic, muddy, and lack intensity.  We found the Cezanne and Van Gogh paintings to be vivid and descriptive, but the Seurats duller, less lifelike.  One rater compared the lowest-rated painting, a Rothko, to a smudge on the side of his house."

Context matters.  If you don't understand why a beer tastes the way it does, you're not going to appreciate the flavors you apprehend.  If all you're looking for is complexity and intensity, you're only going to like a small percentage of the beers out there.  But that doesn't mean those are the only good ones.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

A Grab Bag of Tasty Treats

Catching up on the news.  With alacrity, now...

1. Cider Riot launches.
During my first extended conversation with Abram Goldman-Armstrong years back, I learned that he was a child of Yamhill County and its abundant fruit.  In the years since he was a kid, Abram has traveled the world and been associated with the Timbers and beer (his Twitter handle is @BeerAbe), but he recently launched a project that feels like a homecoming--a small Portland-based cidery.  He's actually been making cider since high school, working with both wild seedling apples from home as well as cider apples from the White Oak orchard (a cidery that closed in 2005).  Last night, he shared small-batch versions of the ciders he plans to make this fall, including a crisp, slightly tannic draft cider called Burncider (his cidery is located just off Burnside), a hopped cider called Everybody Pogo, and a rich, tannic cider called 1763--the year of the famous cider riots in England.  (Auspiciously, that happens to be exactly 250 years ago.)

The Northwest is one of the leaders in the national cider revival, but a lot of the products are made with sweet desert apples, the kind made for eating.  Cider apples, though--bittersweet, bittersharp, and sharp--are "the heart and soul of a proper cider."  Abe uses "proper cider" a lot, and he plans to make his dry, in the English fashion.  As a taste of what he hopes to one day make, Abe broke out the last of a blended cider with '07 and '09 vintages made largely with Kingston Black apples.  It was one of the best I've ever tasted--complex with deep tannins, a bit of French-cheesy funk and rustic English skin character.

Abram has a modest Kickstarter going, and if you're at all interested in cider, this is a good project to back.

2. Beer cocktails by Jacob Grier
While we're talking Kickstarters, let me direct your attention to a prospective book by Jacob Grier called Cocktails on Tap.  This project has grown out of the "Brewing up Cocktails" events Jacob hosted with Ezra Johnson-Greenough and Yetta Vorobik.  (You'll recall my amazement over one of their early offerings, the sublime hot scotchy.)  It's going to be an impressive book when completed; Jacob's working with photographer David Reamer, designer Melissa Delzio, and publisher Ellee Thalheimer (whom you'll remember from Hop in the Saddle).

Twenty bucks is like a pre-order on the book, so go check out the Kickstarter.

3. Portland Monthly's beer issue.
I don't totally get the business model for Portland Monthly, but I gather it involves these monthly best-of cover stories (best doctors, best neighborhoods, etc).  This month beer gets the spotlight, and I have to say, hiring Christian DeBenedetti to select the fifty best Oregon beers was a very good move.  No two people on the planet would choose the same fifty, but DeBenedetti's fifty are really tight.  I had to work very hard to come up with even minor quibbles.  If you have friends transitioning into beer-fandom, tell them to pick up a copy and use the list as a guide.  They could do infinitely worse.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Astoria in June

Better than Paris, France.
You may dream of a summer trip to the Champs-Élysées, with repasts of vino and baguette and views of the Seine, but give me a paper plate of Bowpicker's and a pint of beer at the mouth of the mighty Columbia.  Views of the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower?  I prefer to rest my gaze on the majesty of grain barges.  Twice in the past two weeks did I visit Oregon's old town, but the second is the one you'll be interested in: I and a gaggle of writers toured Fort George on the occasion of the release of their 3-Way IPA, a collaboration with Lompoc and Gigantic.

We also got a tour of both breweries--the old wee one you can see at the back of the pub and the new 30-barrel system across the parking lot.  But: breweries.  I could tell you about a cool fitting at the bottom of the grain silo that sends organic malt in opposite directions to both brewhouses, or about the pig-shaped hot liquor tank.  But they're breweries, and one mash tun thrills no more than the next.  I hadn't seen the new canning line, and I admit a fascination with packaging, but again, not a lot to say there.  The rilly big shew, however, was our first glimpse at the new second-floor pub space that runs the entire length of the Fort George building (the brewery shares the first floor with the Blue Scorcher Cafe). 

Fort George Expansion
Fort George has grown in increments since it first opened.  Initially, space included a modest pub and the small brewery.  Then the brewery built an outdoor patio for those many sunny days Astoria enjoys.  Then they began steady expansion that took them to neighboring buildings for storage and brewing space.  But except for that patio, the seating space has not grown. (I kid about that sun thing--Astoria is the most humid town in the US, averages 191 days of rain, 67 inches of it overall, and gets less than a week, on average, of temperatures north of 80 degrees.)  Popping a spiral staircase to the second floor way more than doubles it.

The new upstairs is suffused in light that comes in through three walls that are largely warehouse windows.  You get a better view of the river up there, too.  It's essentially a self-contained separate restaurant, with a different menu and a separate bar.  Whereas you get a pretty standard pub menu below, upstairs it's wood-fired pizzas.  The tables and bars are long and beautiful, and I can imagine that when light is scarce around about January, this will be a great place to be.  One of the coolest features is that spiral staircase; the brewery managed to harvest discarded runners from the last upgrade of the Astoria column.  Anyone who's been up that signature landmark will instantly recognize them.  (There are a batch of photos here.) 

New Beers
We were ostensibly visiting to try the 3-Way IPA, and we each received one as it came off the canning line.  (As cool as it sounds.)  Lompoc, Gigantic, and Ft George all all noted for hops, so I expected a face-melter, but instead, it's more a meditation on the eras of Oregon IPAs.  It's got old school hops (Cascade), more modern hops (Centennial), and new hops (Meridian), all in a milkshake-cloudy solution of sweetish (but not heavy) malting.  A summer IPA.

The beer that won my heart is a different collaboration, Tender Loving Empire Northwest Pale Ale.  Leaving aside the question of this new style appellation (it's just a pale), it's a damned tasty beer.  Sweet with honey malt but spiced with a bit of rye, it's electrified by Meridian, Simcoe, and Centennial hops.  It is very close to bright, a minor miracle for Fort George, is light-bodied and very crisp--so much so that I was fooled into asking whether they'd used the 1811 lager yeast.  (Nope.)  They did can it, I don't know whether you can find it in PDX.  All the more reason to spurn France and head to the Sunset Empire.

Astoria Brewing Expansion
Angelo De Ieso and I did break away from the herd for a stop into Astoria Brewing, which is but a quarter mile away.  Astoria Brewing has been shoe-horned inside a small corner of the Wet Dog Cafe since 1997 ("Pacific Rim Brewery" for the first half of that time).  Some time ago, owner Steve Allen decided to expand, and a new brewery will go in a few buildings down the Riverwalk.

Astoria is a very nice counterpoint to Fort George.  Despite the fact that Astoria's flagship is the aptly-named Bitter Bitch, brewer John Dalgren has interest in beer ranging from sessionable lagers to wild ales--beers Fort George is just never going to mess with.  (If Fort George were a band, they'd be something like the Ramones--boisterous, hugely fun, but totally unmistakable.)  My palate was in slightly rough shape when we arrived to try three subtle beers in a row--a kolsch, very light pilsner, and--on my request--a strawberry wheat ale.  John was actually a bit embarrassed by that last one, but it was actually exquisite.  There are few agricultural products finer in this fine state than strawberries, and he captured their lovely flavor, married them to the wheat, and kept everything dry.  It's a hard beer to brew, and it was really dialed in.

Fort George has definitely captured the imagination of Astorians.  But visitors should not be too blinded by its assets to ignore Astoria Brewing.  Dalgren is quietly making very nice beers a few blocks away.  (And the Wet Dog has the better view.)

John Dalgren (L) and Steve Allen