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Tuesday, December 31, 2013


One of my best tipsters, BB, sent me this piece from McSweeney's.  You want 2013 distilled?  Here you go.
Roland—three cubicles over? The programmer with the cheek beards? He’s one crazy beast. Brews a nasty 70% ABV stout using water from the toilet tank. He plays Sabbath to it throughout the brewing process. He calls it Lucifer’s Bungsauce. He also brews a smoked alligator jerky-infused porter. It’s not for every palate, but for the last five years running at Company Brewfest, he’s won the Aggression category, hands down.
Last Brewfest, Logan, the new guy, offered Roland a plastic cup of Bud. Roland dumped it out on his shoes, pissed in the cup, and handed it back to Logan. The sensitivity trainers were all over him for that. 
There's way, way more of it--all just as wholesome and delicious.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Year in Review

Note: post has been edited slightly for clarity.

Ecliptic, one of 500 new breweries in 2013.
What year is complete without a year-end review?  BuzzFeed has more or less made us all despise these things, but I've been doing year-end recaps since long before the ubiquity of click-baiting listicles, and by God, I plan to keep up the tradition.  (Completists may like to peruse the old posts from 2011, 2010a and 2010b, 2009, 2008a and 2008b, and 2007.)  So without further throat-clearing, let's get right to it.  Here were the trends and developments I thought were most interesting.

Good Trend: Lager's Triumphant Return
As recently as a few years ago, I was pretty sure no one on the West Coast was going to be able to give away lagers.  Full Sail got the ball rolling, but their line of lagers seemed more like a brewing cul-de-sac rather than a blazed new trail.  The presence of the LTD series and Sessions appeared to be the exceptions that proved the rule, not a new trend.  But by last year, signs of a lager renaissance were becoming insistent, and this year, lagers were everywhere.  Not only did lagers return--there was even a lager fest--but they were really good.  Standouts included Breakside's Float and Pilsner, the pilsners from the Commons and Upright (the latter an early trendsetter), Ninkasi's Bohemian Pils, and possibly my favorite, Hop Valley's Czech Your Head.

Bad Trend: Price Spiral
In the very competitive Portland market, the prices on standard beer has remained mostly flat for years.  We can thank Bill Night for his steady work in making those figures available.  (In 2009, a six-pack set you back $9.09 and now you have to pony up just $9.50.)  But in that four-year period, specialty releases have become a much bigger part of the brewing calculus, and prices on those beers has really spiked.  Beyond Beervana, where competition is lighter, prices have spiked even more.  You can see the effect of that at bottle shops, where fairly standard beers from other parts of the country are often ten bucks a bomber.  Specialty releases are even more expensive, and as Alan has pointed out a million times, this feels more like gouging than compensation for spendier processes like barrel aging.  (If Frank Boon will sell me a bottle of his Mariage Parfait for less than ten bucks, why should I be paying $20 for an American brett bomb?)

Good Trend: Cider Comes of Age
It's weird to talk about the emergence of a beverage that has been around longer than the country, but until 2013, cider was on no one's radar.  Mass market cider was at the end of cooler next to the alco-pops and good luck trying to find it on tap.  This year, cider finally seeped into our collective consciousness.  It's in nearly every restaurant or pub I visit, and nearly always in the form of an all-juice "craft" cider.  (I know this is different outside Portland, where if you see a cider, it's likely to be Angry Orchard.)  One of the breakthrough products was Two Towns Rhubarbarian--the first cider I heard people talking about and using as an example of what "good" cider could be.  It was such a good year for cider that it even started appearing at beer fests.

Ambiguous Trend: New Breweries
When historians look back on 2012-2013, they probably won't remember lagers or ciders so much as the explosion of new brewery openings.  This is a continuation of the trend that started last year, when more than 400 new breweries opened up (!) and continued on this year.  The numbers aren't in for 2013, but the Brewers Association thinks there might be as many as 500.  I am still unconvinced this is the sign of a catastrophic bubble, but there is at least one thing to worry about.  For the first time in a long time, production brewery openings are outpacing brewpub openings.  (The stats are slightly unclear--what would you call Ecliptic, which opened as a brewpub that bottles beer?)  There is plenty of room for craft beer growth, but supermarket shelves only have so much real estate.  Will there be a shakeout in the next five years?  With 900 breweries opening in two years, I guess we're running the experiment in real time.

Troubling Trend: Too Many Beers
The market within the craft beer segment has changed dramatically in the last five years.  Once breweries were able to build up a single brand or two build their brewery around it.  The explosion of choice has created a kind of manic ADHD scramble for the new, however, and now breweries regularly make dozens of different beers.  Breakside made a hundred, but even old stalwarts like Widmer Brothers and Deschutes made dozens.  I've mentioned feeling personally overwhelmed by the choice, but there's something more than personal preference at work here.  Selling to a promiscuous consumer base is touchy business, and godspeed to those breweries--particularly the bigger ones--who are trying to find what the public wants next.

Good Trend: Permanent Market Realignment
I don't think there's any doubt that the beer market is permanently altered.  Each year, the market for mass market lagers declines--sometimes precipitiously--and each year the craft beer segment expands.  At this point, China is the battleground for growth among the industrial giants.  Locally, their growth strategy involves getting some of that craft money.  Mass market lagers won't disappear, but they're headed for a long decline.  Meanwhile, the biggest of the little guys--Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, New Belgium--are borrowing a page from the industrial playbook and opening new breweries.  This will further push hoppy ales into the mainstream, hastening the decline of the various lights and lites.  There is an equilibrium some decades in the future, and it includes a healthy share for all-barley ales. 

Ambiguous Trend: Changing Media
I'll go out on a bit of a navel-gazer.  This will be the first year I don't do the Satori Award.  It's partly due to the fact that the changes is brewing have made it obsolete--breweries don't really think in terms of permanency anymore.  But it's also because blogs themselves are no longer particularly relevant in the discussion of beer.  When I started this blog in 2006, there was a bit of utility in offering my reviews and opinions about beers.  It's amazing to think about, but Facebook didn't launch as a national site until that September, and Twitter didn't exist.  Social media as such was limited to things like blogs, which offered a chatty alternative to newspapers.  But in the few short years since then, everything has changed.  No one really looks to blogs to help them navigate niche worlds anymore.  Opinion is so ubiquitous we are instantly tired of it.  In an environment saturated with people oversharing, a blog looks like grandpa's old-timey Facebook page.

There are a lot of opportunities for bloggers to do new and interesting stuff.  But we need to rethink the blog.  Once, we were the BuzzFeeds offering our listicles as an alternative to newspapers.  It's quite possible the reverse is happening: now newspapers don't offer in-depth reporting anymore, so it may be up to citizen bloggers to do that.  I've always tried to do long-form blogging with actual reporting (such as I am able to do it), and this blog may morph ever more in that direction.  I only posted 210 times in 2013, the lowest number since 2006.  If I can break myself of old habits, I may try to do more of the long-form stuff.  We shall see.

Whatever 2014 brings, I hope it is fresh and tasty, just like my favorite beers.  Happy new year to you all--

Friday, December 27, 2013

I Have a Minor Complaint!

New Feature!
Old man vents spleen

As I enter the "honored citizen" phase of my blogging career, I think it's time to start reaping some of the benefits.  New for 2014* will be the feature "I have a minor complaint!" (or perhaps I HAVE A MINOR COMPLAINT).  Just as my aged forebears raised a gnarled fist against neighbor children everywhere, so too shall I roar ineffectually about small matters. 

The offending door, blurrily off to
the left in the far background.
To get things started, today's complaint concerns that wind tunnel Laurelwood calls a pub.  For those unacquainted with the facility, it has a rear entrance that opens into what amounts to a chute that empties out onto the bar.  On cold winter nights, when you've settled down with, say a nice gose to watch the Blazers beat the Clippers in overtime, it's damned irritating to have people constantly blasting you with arctic air.  Laurelwood, one of the most successful brewpubs in the US, could easily install a vestibule to prevent this or, if they were going the cheapskate route, at least put up some heavy curtains to slow the gales. 

[Raises fist in air.]  Arrgghh!

*Unless, due to encroaching senescence, I forget all about it.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Premium Craft?

In the midst of this relaxing and ruminative week, I am spending most of my time away from the computer and internet.  Of all the weeks of the year, this one offers the most opportunity for corporeal human contact and I'm taking advantage.  For you digital types, here's the post of the week: Pete Dunlop on the increasing stratification of the craft beer segment:
There's nothing new about stratification in the beer industry. It dates as least as far back as the 1950s, when heavy advertising split macro brews into premium and popularly-priced brands....

Not that long ago, you could walk into your favorite bottleshop and be pressed to find more than a few $10 bottles of beer. Try that today. You'll have no trouble finding bottles priced at $10 or more. In fact, you'll find plenty of $20 bottles, largely unheard of a few years ago. This reality is supported by Brewers Association numbers, which show that craft beer dollar growth exceeded volume growth by 2 percent in 2011 and 2012. Any bets on 2013?
Also, for those of you looking for that corporeal contact, I highly recommend Roscoe's 7th Anniversary Summit, beginning at 2pm tomorrow.  Lots of special beers plus that lovely laid-back Montavilla vibe.  8105 SE Stark, Portland.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Never Talk Politics or Taxes at Christmas

Do it a day and a half before. 

This has been percolating for a long time, but it is perhaps gathering strength.  (Since Congress is frozen by trench warfare, maybe a tax cut that benefits small businesses principally clustered in blue states is just the ticket.)
At issue is a tax that the federal government assesses on a few products like beer, wine and gasoline and gets included in the price. The excise tax on beer is $7 per barrel for the first 60,000 barrels and $18 per barrel on anything above that. A barrel is a standard unit of measure in the beverage industry and contains 31 gallons of beer.
The Small Brew Act, co-sponsored by 136 House members, would reduce the levies to $3.50 per barrel on the first 60,000 barrels of beer, and to $16 per barrel on 60,000 to 2 million barrels. The current $18 rate would be retained on production exceeding 2 million barrels, under the measure.
DeFazio tours the OSU Fermentation
Sciences Lab. I believe that lanky gent
to his right is the illustrious hop
researcher, Tom Shellhammer.
If you don't follow politics, this is a fantastic way to introduce yourself to small-bore regional horse-trading.  It's not really an issue that cuts along ideology: it cuts along geography.  
Making the case for the nation’s 2,700 microbreweries is the House Small Brewers Caucus, founded in 2007 by Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat, and Greg Walden, a Republican.
Since this would lower the tax burden for 100% of Oregon's breweries (though in different degrees), both congressmen are high on it.  Who is not high on it?  Congressmen with large breweries in their states:
The two beer giants, Belgium-based Anheuser Busch-InBev, the maker of Budweiser, Corona, Beck’s and Stella Artois, and Chicago-based MillerCoors, whose parent companies are headquartered in Denver and England, have put their political muscle behind legislation that would halve the excise tax for all brewers, regardless of size.
The BEER Act, introduced in May by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., has eight co-sponsors. A House companion, filed by Iowa Republican Tom Latham, has 72 backers.
The  economics are pretty obvious.  It's more expensive to make beer in smaller amounts, so tiering the tax structure does something to remove the advantage of very large, efficient breweries.  That means the price of a sixer of Budweiser and Ninkasi creep closer together at the grocery store, which is of course great if you're Ninkasi.  The question is: should Washington be artificially leveling the playing field?  This is a purely philosophical question.  Or, if you're a congressman, a regional one.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Rediscovering Old Friends

The small business Sally works for hosted their annual holiday party on Wednesday, and one of the beers in the cooler was Anchor Porter.  First brewed 41 years ago (!), it has all the curves and contours of a classic American beer.  Look at the ingredients: two-row, caramel, chocolate, and black malts, hopped with Northern Brewer.  So much American beer is built on this chassis of two-row and caramel malt--it's like an early blueprint.  In the 1970s and early 80s there weren't a ton of hops available, and Northern Brewer was a common choice because of its versatility.  You could put it in nearly any kind of beer and coax flavors that hinted at English, German, or Belgian styles.

(There's an old and increasingly irrelevant debate about whether Anchor should be considered America's first craft brewery.  Because the brewery dates back to the 19th century and came into its modern form in the 1960s, people often consider it separately from the craft movement that began a decade later.  But if you consider where that movement began--Northern California--and how the beers were constructed, it's a little hard to ignore Fritz Maytag's San Francisco institution.  Certainly, Jack McAuliffe hadn't ignored it when he started what some people want to call the first "true" micro, New Albion.)

But I don't drink it because it's quaint and reminds me of bygone days (there's Liberty Ale for that).  I drink it because it remains one of the best porters in America. It has wonderful depth and complexity.  That caramel malt, so often overused, gives it a velvety richness and a touch of sweetness up front, but then the experience shifts as the dark malts kick in like French roast.  There's even a bit of tanginess on the edges of the tongue with the final swallow.  We often talk about how dark beers "warm" during the cold months.  It's obvious and undeniable, but it doesn't actually make a lot of sense.  At 5.6%, Anchor Porter doesn't have enough alcohol to warm, and I don't know why sweet-roast flavors evoke warmth for us any more than bready-grainy pilsner malt should.  But they do.

I chatted with people who drank wine or IPAs and thought: man, you're really missing the mood of this cold, near-solstice night.  But I didn't encourage them to drink the porter instead; I wanted to hoard them for myself.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reinheitsgebot, UNESCO, and Beer Culture

Today, NPR did a segment on the recent news that Germans want to put Reinheitsgebot on the UNESCO world heritage list.
It would join the Argentinian tango, Iranian carpet weaving and French gastronomy, among other famous traditions, that are considered unique and worth protecting.
To give the piece a bit of zing, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson went to  Berlin for a dissenter.
One opponent of the Reinheitsgebot is Johannes Heidenpeter. He brews ales without following the purity law and sells them to patrons at an indoor market in Berlin's popular Kreuzberg neighborhood.  Heidenpeter claims that limiting his brewing to the centuries-old law restricts creativity. He says, "Why shouldn't I include coriander or berries if they improve the taste?"
The requisite copy mounted at Paulaner in Munich.
Germany is a big country, so it's not shocking that Nelson was able to find someone to take issue with Reinheitsgebot--and a young brewer who makes modern, international-style craft beer was not a bad choice.  (“I’m influenced by the American scene in a way.  The problem with the German beer industry is that they always refer to their history. We need to look sideways, not backward.”)

Sometimes you know too much.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with the story.  I don't see a single error.  And yet, I'm aware of some relevant details I wished she'd added.  Like:
  • It's really a Bavarian law.  Brewing traditions differed broadly in the North and South where the peoples resided in different countries.  In Northern Germany, the brewers made really bizarre beers with no fealty whatsoever to Reinheitsgebot.  They stuffed their ales with tons of non-compliant bonus ingredients.  Brewing to rigid standards was a weird thing the lager-makers in Bavaria cared about.  It didn't become a German law until the Bavarians insisted on keeping it during unification in 1871.  Since this is a discussion about cultural artifacts, it's not actually that surprising that a Berlin ale-brewer now feels the law isn't such a hot idea.  That's a cultural artifact itself.
  • It has huge currency among Bavarian brewers.  It's their north star.  I probably walked into a brewery in Bavaria that didn't have Reinheitsgebot mounted somewhere prominently, but I don't recall it.  Brewing traditions emerge by mutual acclaim, and nowhere in the world is there an agreement as universal as Reinheitsgebot.  (I saw it mounted in most of the northern German breweries, too.)  The UNESCO designation is designed to honor culture and tradition and there's nothing in the beer world more deserving than Reinheitsgebot.
  • It has profoundly affected the way beer is brewed.  Brewing to Reinheitsgebot in the modern era is a pain in the ass.  German brewers can't easily fiddle with mash pH, carbonation levels, clarity, and a host of other issues the way brewers elsewhere do.  Take carbonation.  It's not mentioned in the law, so no force carbonating with CO2 from an outside source.  Unless, of course, you harvest the CO2 produced during fermentation--that's part of the beer and so kosher.  You can't unnaturally acidify a mash, so you have to either use a weird process to make your own acid or use acidulated malt.  The list goes on and on.  It is in one sense silly and unnecessary, but in another it's exactly the kind of thing that happens in every country.  British brewers wouldn't dream of using beet sugar--but Belgians do.  Even Germans are abandoning decoction--but Czech brewers must use it if their beer is to be called "Czech beer."  National traditions don't always make sense, but they create the conditions for distinctive beer.  
  • You can brew beer without using Reinheitsgebot.  You just can't call it beer.  And, as Heidenpeters Brauerei illustrates, people do.
I don't actually have a dog in the fight--whether UNESCO calls it a world heritage practice or not, is pretty (sorry) small beer.  But the idea that it is not one of the most important, durable, and influential traditions around?  That just ain't so. It is, and will remain so, whether or not UNESCO gets involved.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Well, That's Settled: The Best IPAs

A few weeks back, Thrillist's Dan Gentile contacted me to help him assemble a best-IPAs list.  It's out now with the hopeful title "The Definitive Top Ten IPAs."  My guess is that "definitive" is going to be a hard sell--but this is actually an interesting list.  Gentile asked us all to submit our own top tens and then he assigned point values to each of our beers (ten for number 1, nine for number two and so on).  There were nine of us, meaning we each had 55 points to distribute, and any one beer might have scored as highly as 90 points.  There was a mathematical elegance to the results.  We collectively came up with 45 beers (out of a possible 90) and the winner also scored 45 of the possible ninety.

Click to enlarge.
If you selected any nine beer geeks at random, you would come up with a different list.  Or nine different brewers or nine different cicerones or nine different writers.  There are seven million IPAs out there, and we have very particular individual tastes.  Leave the list aside, though, and look more closely at the results--therein lie the lessons.  Four of the nine of us fingered Russian River Blind Pig as the best beer.  Bear Republic's Racer 5, meanwhile, didn't make anyone's top three list, but picked up enough points to come in sixth.  We may have differed over our favorite IPA, but when it came to filling out the ballot, Racer 5 was a gimme.

Eight of the top ten beers were brewed in California.  That's staggering dominance of the category, and I think it's a pretty accurate reflection of the state of things nationwide.  When I was making up my own list (see the end of this post), I didn't include anything west of Hood River.  On Facebook, some folks lobbied to have Bell's there.  But while Bell's is a classic beer and a fine IPA, I could easily find twenty other IPAs I like more.  Ten years ago we might have debated about who makes the best IPAs, but that argument was long ago settled.  Everyone looks to the west now (including Europeans).  If you look at the bottom of the list, there are also some surprises.  Stone IPA got but two points--either a ninth place showing from one voter or two tenth-place votes.  And New Belgium Ranger was dead last with a single point.

Notes on My List
I knew when I turned in my list that numbers two and three were long-shots to make the final list.  Double Mountain Vaporizer had a chance, but it was slim.  Lambrate Gaina had no chance at all--and probably no one who reads that article will ever have even heard of it.  Which is, of course, why I threw it on the list.  There are great IPAs made outside the US--but more than being great, they're different.

Lambrate is this wonderful little brewpub in Milan.  Founded by friends who have a buoyant attitude about brewing, they make Italian beers that reflect their personalities.  Italy does not do intense.  Hoppy beers are subtle and layered; sour beers are tart and toothsome, not lacerating.  In the case of Gaina, the hops were so fruity I literally asked what kind of fruit they had used to make it.  The flavors fell somewhere between apricot and strawberry.  No fruit--all hops.  Later I found another hop fan in Bruno Carilli when I visited Toccalmatto in Fidenza, Parma.  He also coaxed amazing flavors from his beers--but more perfumy and exotic, with lemon-mint and bergamot. 

Oh, and I would have included any IPA from genre had I put this list together--and my original number 1 was Russian River Pliny the Elder, the best hoppy beer in the world.  So I subbed in Blind Pig as a nod to Pliny's brewer.  (Plus, Blind Pig is excellent.)

Here's my list.
1. Russian River Pliny the Elder Blind Pig (California)
2. Lambrate Gaina (Italy)
3.  Double Mountain Vaporizer (Oregon)
4. Bear Republic Racer 5 (California)
5.  Van Eecke Poperings Hommelbier (Belgium)
6.  Thornbridge Jaipur IPA (England)
7.  Gigantic IPA (Oregon)
8. Green Flash Le Freak (California)
9.  Toccalmatto Re Hop (Italy)
10.  Deschutes Chainbreaker (Oregon)

Friday, December 13, 2013

American Trappist Ale

Now available:
Beer probably isn’t the first thing to come to mind when you think of the word “monastery” – but since receiving official recognition on Dec. 10, Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., will become the first American brewery to be manned exclusively by Trappist monks.

The beer, labeled “The Spencer Trappist Ale,” is to be brewed exclusively within the walls of the monastery. Founded in 1950 by members of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, commonly known as Trappists, Saint Joseph’s Abbey has roots that reach far back to monks who fled France during its revolution at the end of 18th century.
This makes nine Trappist monasteries altogether, scattered now across four countries and two continents.  In addition to St. Joseph's/Spencer, there are the Belgian Trappists (Achel, Chimay,  Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Westmalle) and one each in the Netherlands (La Trappe) and Austria (Stift Engelszell).  It looks like they're going for just one beer, characterized by the monks this way: “Inspired by traditional refectory ales brewed by monks for the monks’ table. Spencer is a full-bodied, golden-hued Trappist ale with fruity accents, a dry finish and light hop bitterness.”  I assume that means Belgian-like, but it's hard to say.  (The Austrian and Dutch monasteries make Belgian-style beers.)

Be interesting to see what it tastes like.

Update.  In case you're not a comment-reader, note that two breweries were approved by the Trappists on the same day.  The other is the second Dutch abbey, Zundert.   That makes an even ten.  Huzzah!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Kill Me Now: Latest Update on the Beer Bible

Just spoke to my editor at Workman and learned that they're now thinking a Spring 2015 release for the Beer Bible.  For those of you scoring at home, that's two years after I turned in the (admittedly elephantine) manuscript.  But I know no one's scoring at home since you've all long forgotten about it. 

Okay, who's in the mood for a nice cider?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Century Mark: Breakside's Unsettling Milestone

The folks at Guinness no longer record alcohol-related feats (an irony, given that the man who founded  them, Hugh Beaver--real name--was a brewer), but I wonder if Breakside might not qualify for "Most Industrious Brewery."  In the course of one calendar year, the busy little brewery managed to produce one hundred different kinds of beer.  That's not a hundred batches--a hundred beers.  (The mad scientists continued to prepare Breakside's regular line all the while.)  Sometime this weekend, I believe, the centurion will be identified and released.

Source: The Rian Group
It's a harmless enough milestone.  Many of those beers were like the spray of distant stars in the forest sky--too many to count or consider, and always secondary to the familiar figures of Orion and the Bears.  I sampled a few of them, but I was drawn back to the brewery throughout the warm months for the pilsner and Dortmund lager that glowed so brightly all summer long.  Broad experimentation didn't come at the expense of my faves.

But I am for other reasons unsettled by this development.

Let's rewind the tape.  Back in the dark days before craft brewing, there was effectively one style of beer available in the US.  Beer drinkers therefore distinguished themselves by selecting one brand and sticking with it for years--or a lifetime.  As there were Ford and GM men, there were Bud and High Life men.  Craft brewing came as a corrective to this sorry state, offering--joy!--some variety.  Breweries in the 1980s and 1990s had a flagship, a regular line, and perhaps a seasonal or three.  Any brewery that made ten different beers in a year would be considered flighty and unfocused.  Half that was more like it.

Breweries in the aughts discovered the delights (and lucre) of specialty beers, and enjoyed buzz and press when they managed to attract beer geek attention with an Abyss, Dark Lord, Heady Topper or Hopslam.  Which of course begat more specialty beers.  And then flagships and regular lines began to sag.  I was gobstruck this year to see the Widmer Brothers replace Drifter with Alchemy--pale for pale--just four years after Drifter's release.  Drifter was one of the best-selling new beers nationally in 2009 (and that includes the big breweries), but it wasn't enough to keep the attention of novelty-seeking beer fans.  I was so struck by it that I met with Rob Widmer to discuss the changes in the brewing biz.  "Young drinkers now are so promiscuous,” he told me.  "Whatever it is and however good it is, no matter what product it is, once they’ve had it, the shelf life is incredibly limited.  All their lives it’s been ‘that was great: what’s new, what’s next?’”

As good as Float (the Dortmund) was--easily on the short list of my faves of the year--the best beer I had at Breakside in 2013 was a tmavé, a Czech-style dark lager.  It actually began life as an Irish stout, but through some happy accident or another ended up getting lagered.  It was a dead ringer for some of the tmavés I had in the Czech Republic last year.  (When I visited Budvar, brewer Adam Broz agreed that his tmavé had a malt bill that looked a great deal like an Irish stout.)  Of course, that beer was one of those little, distant stars, already long extinct by the time you see it.  There wasn't much of that lager left, and the brewers had no intention of making it again.  Pity the drinker who fell in love with one of the more obscure of the 100.

This is the dilemma for the modern beer drinker.  Choice is again the problem--though now we have too much of it.  We have neither the stomach space nor time to be sampling from the dozens of beers made by dozens of breweries ever year.  And to that limited stomach space, we now have to decide to commit old reliables or role the dice on a new frolic that may be a gem or a dud.  (Praise be to breweries that offer linear pricing and half pints.)  God forbid you should fall in love with a beer--in the current churn, who knows how long before it gets dumped for something new.

I realize we have much more serious problems to consider with things like global warming, congressional gridlock, and twerking scandals.  Still, this seems like at the least a minor issue to consider.  And what are blogs for except considering minor issues?

Your thoughts?  Is the beer bounty unalloyed good or does it throw a long, dark shadow across your beer drinking sessions?

Update: Weirdly related headline of the day: Boulder Beer ends distribution of Planet Porter, the oldest craft brew in Colorado (the U.S.?)

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Photos of the Year

Each year since 1978, Alan McLeod has hosted a beer photo contest for the holidays.  The past two years I had scads of European brewery photos and cashed in for the win in 2011 with a Cantillon/koelschip pic.  Totally unfair.  I would have disqualified myself.  Fortunately, Alan did not, and I will go on my merry way for the next few decades as a happy loser.  (Unless I snag the "worst photo" some lucky year.)  You should totally enter the contest.

This year, Alan's only letting us send five pics.  Five!  Impossible.  I pulled out the bone saw and tore into the patient, but even unimaginable gore could not take me down to five.  So here are the three I couldn't exclude but also couldn't exclude.  My other entries will appear at some point in the next month over at The Good Beer Blog.  I wouldn't call them better, just more likely to appeal to the judge (purely speculatively).

Mt. Angel Abbey, which is adding a brewery, with hop
fields in the background.

Willamette Valley hop fields.

Jim Bicklein, the master brewer at Anheuser-Busch's
St. Louis brewery.  Gorgeous facility.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Aesthetics of Flavor

A day chilled by arctic air and a dusting of snow (in Portland, anyway) seems the ideal moment to settle in with a cup of hot, black coffee and begin stroking our chins.  Today's philosophical discussion: the aesthetics of flavor.  (See here for a discussion of the concept of aesthetics.)  In my effort to learn about the nuances of cider, I've been looking as deeply as possible into the various compounds that might appear, giving the different national traditions their characteristic flavors and aromas.  These may include those present in the apple or made during fermentation.  ("Cidery aroma" was fairly recently isolated as "the dioxane resulting from condensation of acetaldehyde with octane-1,3,-diol.  The diol itself is a relatively unusual alcohol that is known to be present in apples and pears in a glycosidically bound form..."  As one example.) 

But all of this takes us back to a more elemental question: what should cider--or anything--taste like?  It turns out this is a question philosophers have been considering.  Naturally, they've turned their focus on wine, the most haughty and overrated of all the fermented beverages, but it will do in a pinch.  It turns out that for some philosophers, even wine is too lowly a subject for proper discourse.  Roger Scruton, for example, makes this argument:
"Philosophers have tended to regard gustatory pleasures as purely sensory, without the intellectual intimations that are the hallmark of aesthetic interest.  Sensory pleasure is available whatever your state of education; aesthetic pleasure depends upon knowledge, comparison, and culture.  The senses of taste and smell, it is argued, provide purely sensory pleasure, since they are intellectually inert.  Unlike the senses of sight and hearing, they do not represent a world independent of themselves, and therefore provide nothing, other than themselves, to contemplate....  It was important for Aquinas, who distinguished the cognitive sense of light and hearing from the non-cognitive senses of taste and smell, arguing that only the first could provide the perception of beauty."
If you're a Buddhist, this may seem a bizarre distinction.   To Buddhist philosophers, all senses are inert--it's only the nearly-simultaneous action of the mind that makes them appear to have "cognitive senses."  But let's stick with the western canon.  Recently, another philosopher, Cain Todd (yes, those names are in the correct order), mounted a spirited defense of the aesthetics of wine. I will not quote lengthy passages from his paper.  Instead, very briefly, what Todd argues is that contra Scruton, wine appreciation very much does depend on knowledge, comparison, and culture--"strong normative standards of evaluation and interpretation."

In other words, we appreciate wine--or beer, or cider--because we have a collective set of standards against which to judge it.  This is why, in art, a painting by Mark Rothko (a Lincoln High grad) can be judged aesthetically in the same manner a Warhol, Hopper, or Kandinsky can: we have standards and norms against which to judge them.

 This is obviously the case with beer, wine, and cider.  As with art, the norms evolve and change.  An artist producing an abstract piece like Rothko's in Italy in 1600 would not probably have found an appreciative audience--much as pop art in the mode of Lichtenstein or Warhol is now considered derivative, if it's considered art at all.  But there are norms, clearly, and we debate them all the time.

In this framework, you could easily argue that beer has the most sophisticated aesthetic framework of any beverage.  Context is critically important.  In a cask bitter, a sour note is considered an off-flavor, but it's central to a lambic.  Nearly every flavor or aroma compound that is appropriate in one style is considered a fault in some other.  This is where I'd add a plank to the argument.  When considering flavor, these norms don't emerge randomly: they take into account the consideration of harmony and balance.  A cask bitter finds harmony and balance among the qualities of bready malts, zippy hopping, and round low-carbonation.  Gueuzes, on the other hand, are effervescent, tart, and hop-free.  One can blend the styles easily enough, but that also risks disturbing the aesthetic balance.

In the world of beer, this is pretty intuitive stuff.  It's much more interesting when we consider cider which, in America, is going through a period of testing and change.  There is so little traditional tannic-rich cider fruit in the US that people are experimenting broadly with different techniques and ingredients.  Some of these will come to be normative: hopped cider has a very good chance of becoming at least a regional style.  Some will vanish.  And when that happens, the norms will have shifted again. 

But aesthetics of flavor?  Obviously.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Notes and Updates on the Holiday Ale Festival

Day one of the frosty Holiday Ale Festival is in the books.  Day two, less than an hour from opening, looks frostier still.  (It's 29 degrees as I write this.)  That makes for a lovely time under the tents, but don't depend on those heaters getting the temperature up to 68.  They strain to keep it pleasant, but there are pockets where it never really warms up.  (When the outside temperature is the normal 45, the inside can sometimes get steamy.)

A few other notes
The $5 designated-driver wristband.
The food situation is not great--and if you're a vegetarian, it's pretty terrible.  I'd advise you to eat beforehand and just snack while you're there.  There is water, but you have to go to the Northeast corner of the main tent, near the exit, to find it.  These are huge beers, and you really, really need to stay fed and hydrated.  A four-ounce pour of a 10% beer (common here) is the same a shot of whiskey. If you drink your first batch of 10 tickets, you may well find yourself in trouble, so beware.  To add insult to injury, the Fest is for some reason charging designated drivers five bucks just to get in.  For those good eggs willing to tag along to give your drunk self a ride home, this is a harsh penalty indeed.  Non-drivers should maybe pool their dollars and pick up the tab.  (Note to Fest: knock that off in the future.  You want designated drivers, especially when your beers are so boozy.)

The beer
The main event, of course, is the beer, and as usual they're pretty amazing.  Bière de noëls devide people, so it's harder than usual to make recommendations.  How do you feel about spice?  What about smoke?  Where's your sweetness threshold?  Depending on how you answer these questions, your mileage will vary.  I have always had a rocky relationship with spice, and so tried nearly no beers that used them.  On the other hand, I love smoked malt, so I was out sniffing for the smell of char.  Over the course of six hours, I had a full pour or neighborly snort of just 15 of the beers, so my sample size is also limited.  However, all those caveats noted, here were the ones I liked:
  • Alameda Long Beard's Baltic Porter.  One of those smoky beers, and one of two or three that vied for my fave.  Baltic Porters are simultaneously smooth and intense (they're usually lagered), and a vivid, almost sour roast note is typical.  Alameda puts a spin on that with the smoke, and it really works.  Deep, resonant beer.  So many winter beers are meant to be drunk by the snifter, but I could have easily tucked into a pint of this.
  • Cascade Cherry Diesel.  A very well-made cherry stout, meaning tons of roast battling tons of cherry.  The two tango in the way cherries and chocolate are famous for doing, and the effect is similarly decadent.
  • Elysian Doom.  I confess I was attracted partly by the name, forgetting that I was getting an IPA (maybe the only one at the fest?).  It's exceptional.  A head like mousse and incredibly rich, super tasty hopping that blasted through my tired palate.  It was my nightcap and I'd like to try it again fresh.
  • Ninkasi Single.  By contrast, I kicked the fest off with this beer.  A little titan--a mighty mite?--with a substrate of esters that harmonized nicely with spicy/herbal hops (Saaz?).  Also one of the best beers I tried.
  • Old Town Pa Rum Pum Pum Pum.  Also late in the day, so my faculties were diminished.  It seemed to have a wonderful harmony between the rum barrels and burnished maltiness of the old ale.  
  • Pints Hibernator.  A lovely weizenbock that functions as a perfect palate-refresher.  Lots of phenolics and spice that help enliven a tongue battered by alcohol and sweetness.
I also enjoyed BridgePort Honey Porter, Deschutes Yule Goat (though it was pretty brett-y), Fort George Hogfather, Golden Valley Santa's Smokin' Bock, and Hopworks Kronan the Barbarian.  Just four misses: Base Camp White Squall (balance was a touch off), Laht Neppur St. Dorothy's Peach Cordial Ale (too sweet), Mazama Mazamanator (too strong and too fruity for a doppelbock), and Viking Winter Squash Porter (a braggot that was actually really good except the spicing threw me off--I'd love a version without spice).

I saw a bunch of people there I wish I'd spoken to more (like Suds Sister, Matt Van Wyk, Ritch Marvin, Pete Dunlop, Sanjay Reddy and several others).  What is it with fests that make it hard to talk to everyone you'd like?  Here's hoping I get another bite at the apple; I'm planning for a Saturday foray too.  See you there?

Monday, December 02, 2013

A User's Guide to the Holiday Ale Fest

Pioneer Courthouse Square
Wed-Sat, 11a to 10p, Sun 11a to 5p
Initial tasting package (required): $30, includes mug + 10 tix
Additional tix $1 apiece
No minors, no pets


I want you to just luxuriate for a moment in some names you'll find this Wednesday at the Holiday Ale Fest:
  • The Scut Farkas Affair
  • Oud Freakcake
  • Hogfather
  • Yule Goat
  • Gargantua
  • Doom
  • Hibernator
  • The Twerking Elf
The point is, brewers love love love winter.  They make and sell most of their beer in the summer, but it is the dark wet months, when yule logs crackle, when they get to turn their ids loose.  I just did a scan through the list of "standard" pours at this year's Holiday Ale Fest (those you'll find on the main floor at all times), and not a single one is a regularly-brewed offering.  Not one!  If you pine for a Wassail or even Abyss, this is not the fest for you.  If, on the other hand, you want to see what happens when a brewery ages an oud bruin in Maker's Mark barrels with cranberries, figs, dates and raisins, you're in luck.  This is the first rule of the Holiday Ale Fest: bring your good cheer and have fun.

HAF is one of the best events of the year--and arguably the first "modern" beer fest.  It's a curated affair where beers have been specially brewed in service of a theme.  In this case, that theme is impressionistic, which adds to the fun.  A brewery might think nothing says noel like a German weizenbock while another thinks it means an abbey single.  Many, of course, believe it means a barrel-aged beer made with odd ingredients like marshmallows, panty hose (seriously, I think), and turnip honey (Oakshire, Slanted Rock, and Viking Braggot).

Many of those oddballs are going to be lumps of coal, but along the way these experiments will yield the occasional gem.  This leads us to rule number two: sample broadly and share information.  There's no reason more than one member of your party has to endure a train wreck--or should be hoarding the good stuff.

Since the beers are all one-offs no one has tasted, it's impossible to assess them by description alone.  However, there are a few ways to approach them if you want to divide them by category.  Or rely on me to do it for you. 
The Small Beers
Mostly you'll find grandes cervezas (more than half the pours are 8% or higher and 18% are in the double digits), but a few little guys may help lengthen your session.
  • Deschutes Yule Goat (5.4%, a brett-aged brown ale); 
  • Firestone Walker Luponic Merlin (5.5%, hoppy oatmeal stout); 
  • Fish Gingerbread Ale (5%); 
  • Ninkasi Single (5%); 
  • Oskar Blues Black Mamba (5.6% dunkelweizen); and
  • Rock Bottom You'll Shoot Your Eye Out Kid (4.8% helles). 

Straight-up Beers 
This is a surprisingly small group, less than 25% of the whole, and one to which I will direct special attention.  They are those beers brewed to relatively normal styles with no oddball ingredients (and there's a lot of overlap with the group above).
  • Base Camp White Squall (barley wine); 
  • Coalition Shenanigans (barley wine); 
  • Dick's Code 1081 (winter warmer); 
  • Firestone Walker Luponic Merlin, 
  • Fort George Hogfather (I think; it's a Baltic Porter); 
  • Hop Valley The Wolfe (English barley wine); 
  • Mazama Doppelbock; 
  • Migration Big Sipper (Belgian dark); 
  • Ninkasi Single; 
  • Oskar Blues Black Mamba, 
  • Pints Hibernator, and 
  • Rock Bottom You'll Shoot Your Eye Out Kid .

Barrel-aged Beers 
Breweries now cast their nets wider than just bourbon distilleries--this year they used brandy, rum, and wine barrels as well.
  • 2 Towns Naughty and Nice Cider (bourbon); 
  • Bear Republic Santa's Lost Wallet (brandy); 
  • BridgePort Oak Aged Honey Porter; 
  • Cascade Cherry Diesel (Heaven Hill bourbon); 
  • Crux Oud Freakcake (Maker's Mark bourbon); 
  • Deschutes Yule Goat (bourbon); 
  • Eel River Gargantua (bourbon); 
  • Gilgamesh BAHS (bourbon); 
  • Hopworks Kronan the Bourbarian (bourbon); 
  • Lagunitas High West Whiskey Barrel Stout; 
  • Lompoc Revelry Red Ale (whiskey and wine); 
  • McMenamins Mele Kalikimaka Coconut Stout (Hogshead Whiskey); 
  • New Belgium Cascara Quad; 
  • Old Town Pa Rum Pum Pum Pum (rum); 
  • Rogue Big Ass Rye (new oak); and 
  • Vertigo Polar Blast (whiskey).

Sour Beers
Wild ale fans will be disappointed to find only four beers to scratch their itch.  That's it.  However, watch for the special-release beers--there may be a tart or three in that group.
  • Crux Oud Freakcake; 
  • Deschutes Yule Goat; 
  • Lompoc Revelry Red, and 
  • Stickmen Twerking Elf. 

Black Beers
Give me a cold, drizzly night and you better give me a warming dark ale.  This is the fest for dark beer fans.
  • Alameda Long Beard (Baltic porter); 
  • Bear Republic Santa's Lost Wallet (stoutish); 
  • BridgePort Honey Porter; 
  • Cascade Cherry Diesel (imperial stout); 
  • Columbia River Hawaiian Christmas (coconut porter); 
  • Firestone Walker Luponic Merlin (stout); 
  • Fort George Hogfather (imperial porter); 
  • Hopworks Kronan (imperial porter); 
  • Lagunitas (coffee stout); 
  • McMenamins (coconut stout); 
  • Natian McGuinness (imperial milk stout); 
  • Slanted Rock Panty Hose Porter (Baltic porter); 
  • Speakeasy Erotic Cake (chocolate milk stout); 
  • Stone Spiced Unicorn Milk (chai stout); and 
  • Vertigo Polar Blast (imperial vanilla porter).

The Really Crazy Stuff
You want weird?  HAF's got weird.  This brings us to the third rule of the Holiday Ale Fest: make sure you don't burn out on bizarre experiments.  But you should nevertheless try a few.
  • Burnside It Makes Reindeer Fly (weirdness factor: a rye ale made with carrots and raisins);
  • Crux Old Freakcake (weirdness factor: oud bruin made with orange and lemon zest as well as cranberries, figs, dates and raisins);
  • Gigantic The Scut Farkas Affair (weirdness factor: gummi bears);
  • Natian McGuinness (weirdness factor: milk coffee stout aged on Kahlua-soaked oak) (also note, to avoid confusion, that the founder/brewer is Ian Guinness);
  • Oakshire Swiss Mrs. Alpine Alt (weirdness factor: an alt mashed with toasted marshmallows and brewed with cocoa nibs and lactose);
  • Viking Braggot Winter Squash Porter (weirdness factor: a braggot--mead and ale--made with turnip honey and winter squash)

All of those are taken only from the "standard" group.  Each day they're also pouring specialty beers (mostly vintage stock) which add a whole 'nother level of specialness.  You can see the list and schedule here.

I'll be at the Fest on Wednesday and promise to have a quick and dirty reactions post up before the beers pour on Thursday.  See you there--