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Friday, January 31, 2014


From time to time, you hear someone refer to "pear cider."  Given that many American ciders are now made with other fruit, I suppose you could say that a cider made with some portion of pear juice is a pear cider. But the stuff made wholly from pear juice: that's perry (or, in France, poire).  

It's a pretty rare beast in the US, either available only as an import or something made from eating pears.  But in England, many of the traditional cider makers also make perry. Indeed, the one late pressing I happened to witness was of pears at Hecks in Somerset. (The aroma of pressed pears is sweet and lush. If you could bottle the scent, you'd quickly get rich.)

Like apples, perry pears (they're always called "perry pears," never just pears) are grown because they contain the sugars, acids, and especially tannins that make a good perry.  Because of their rarity at home, I have rarely even had them. That was rectified in my swing through England, because the cideries all had more than one available.  They're more rare in Normandy, but still roaming about. In fact that Calvados you love may well contain a small amount of pear. 

Perries are the red-headed step-children in the cider world--neglected and misunderstood, an afterthought. But some cider makers are devoted to them and produce beverages as elegant and complex as cider. Indeed, Tom Oliver recently won best in show for a perry at a national contest where they were outnumbered by ciders three to one.  

Oliver's perries are elegant and finely-wrought little creatures, characteristic as much for their pillowy softness as their flavor. I noticed it on our first pour, of the Draft Perry. The word that sprang into mind was "meringue"--both for the bright flavors and mousse-like texture. Red Pear Cocktail perry had a poached pear flavor and light delicacy.  (Both completely concealed their alcohol spines.)  By contrast the bottle-conditioned medium had tons of tannin, a bit of herb in the nose, and a touch of blue cheese. It reminded me more of Mike Johnson's perries at Ross-on-Wye; those have a sturdier farmhouse quality, with burnished tannins (they seem softer in pears than apples), more alcohol warmth, and a hint of wild yeast. Those who love smacking tannins found in English ciders would approve of them. 

Norman poire is to perry what Norman cidre is to English scrumpy--a lighter, sweeter, bubblier tipple. Pears naturally tend toward sweetness, not only in sugar content but pear flavor. In Normandy, where the philosophy is sweet and effervescent, they can seem almost evanescent in the mouth. I was surprised to find, however, that in a side-by-side pairing with different courses, the poire consistently matched and usually exceeded its counterpart, a cider. 

There's an adage among orchardists: "pears for your heirs."  Perry pear trees take a long time to begin producing (15 years), and even then they are harder to harvest. Cider makers say perry is harder to make, too; the flavors are more subtle and fermentation is for some reason more finicky. This may account for the reason there are fewer perries on the market--and I despair that perry pears will ever grow in our neck of the woods. (Though, positive note: in Rngland perry is now so popular that they're putting in acres of new fruit.)  But they are worth trying to track down.  They are not just a curiosity, but a wonderful beverage in their own right. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Txotx Season in the Basque Country

Each fall, Basque cider makers start filling enormous wooden vessels full of fresh apple juice. As in England and France, traditional cider making is all-natural: the apples are ground and pressed, and nature takes its course. The difference, of course, is that the cider that begins pouring out of these vessels in January is sharp and acidic.

One of the reasons I delayed my cider tour until the year's bitterest month was to enjoy the start of Basque cider season, which began a couple weeks ago. It's called txotx (the tx combo, common in the language, is pronounced "ch," so txotx is something like choach), but the season includes far more than just fresh cider.  Txotx is a ritual. 

The heart of cider country is Gipuzkoa, the bastion of Basque culture and language. (The Basques are spread across seven states in two countries in the lush hillsides of far Northeast Spain and the French Pays Basque that includes Biarritz.)  Donostia is the population center--the Spanish name, San Sbastian, is often defaced on street signs--but the capital of cider is ten minutes south in Astigarraga. It's a town of 5,000, but the hills are covered with apple trees, supplying perhaps a dozen or more local cideries (it depends on where you draw the line).  In the small area of Gipuzkoa, there are over fifty. 

The first place we visited was Sarasola, where I got an initial taste of txotx. But that was lunchtime. We got the full experience last night at Isastegi, a few miles further south. During the months of txotx season, all the cideries open their doors and serve a massive four or five course meal. You eat right in the barrel room, and periodically someone will holler out "txotx!"--the call to the barrels, or kupelas in Basque. Although anyone can sample from the kupelas at any time, txotx is real a community celebration and the best way to do it is together. One by one people hold out their glasses as a small font of cider arcs out. Basques believe the best way to drink cider is by "breaking" it; that is, allowing gravity to send it crashing into the side of the glass, momentarily aerating it. You only collect two fingers in your glass. The aromas rise, and you drink it while there's still a froth on the surface.  Any left over you dump down the drain. (This apparent apostasy is actually good sense; "txotx" will ring out all night and the prudent pace themselves.)

The menu for txotx season has been fixed since the 1960s. Before that, when this region was almost completely rural, the locals would bring their own food. Now, they come only with an appetite. The first course is an omelette made with cod and rustic bread. Traditionally, there weren't even chairs--people stood around tables.  But at some places, like Isastegi, they still don't use plates. It's family style--you just grab a crust of bread and your fork and dive in. The next course is cod, either prepared in a famous sauce called pil-pil or served with green pepper and garlic. The main course is a huge hunk of beefsteak barbecued bloody rare.  Finally, dessert is cheese and walnuts with an apple or quince paste. In some cases, it seems like the feast begins with a sausage course--because, presumably, the other four might otherwise leave you feeling peckish. 

Cider is meant to accompany food. In every restaurant we visited, it was always available, and about 60% of the time people chose it over local Rioja wine. Basque cuisine is hearty and salty. To my palate, it's the salt that harmonizes with the sharp Basque cider. Salt somewha neutralizes the acidity, and more subtle fruit and tannin notes emerge. Not everyone agrees it's the salt, though--at Isastegi they believe it's the "protein" (umami?) that draws out cider's flavors. 

Whatever it is, the Basque food definetly serves cider well. I would go <i>almost</i> so far as saying you need to salty food to fully appreciate Basque cider. Probably not, but I would certainly encourage the pairing just in case. 

If you do find yourself in what the Basques call Euskadi (Basque Country) between mid-January and Easter, txotx is a must-see event. Sarasola sees 20,000 people come through their doors for it, and more-remote Isastegi 6,000. Attendees are mostly locals (many of whom go back and back), and it feels like you're witnessing a very particular bit of Basque culture. It's not really a tourist event, though tourists are welcomed with broad smiles. Don't expect to hear anything but the rat-a-tat fire of Basque (certainly no English), but it hardly matters. The menu is set and there's really only one word that matters. You'll hear it with increasing frequency throughout the night. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

In Normandy

If you're familiar with American cider-making, the English tradition is pretty straightforward. Nearly all American cider makers pitch yeast, but otherwise, the contours are familiar. French cider making takes you another step (or three) into the unknown. 

French ciders are comparatively weak, ranging from less than three percent (doux, sweet) to about five (brut, dry).  They are all sweet by comparison, though on the stronger end the tannins offer plenty of balance. And they're effervescent, with a pop of the cork reminiscent of champagne. 

They achieve this by the strange technique of keeving ("defecation" in French, so I'll stick with the English). I have been trying to wrap my brain around descriptions I've read, so was glad to have Guillaume Drouin walk me through his process. Everything proceeds as normal through the pressing stage. Drouin has several dozen varieties of apples, all of them unfamiliar to my ear (especially as it rolled mellifluously from his tongue), but mainly bittersweets  They are collected at three times from late September through December and pressed: then begins the interesting stuff. 

After grinding the apples into a pulp, they are macerated--or left to sit for a period of time. This is said to soften the tannins as the pulp oxidizes. (You'll forgive me if I get some of the science wrong here--I haven't had a chance to review the tape and am working from memory.  I believe something happens enzymatically to the pectins as well.) Not everyone agrees that it works, but Guillaume, who trained as a winemaker before returning to Normandy, has tried it both ways and is convinced maceration works. 

Once the juice is pressed, he chills it to 46F / 8C and sends it to the fermenter. Then the magic happens. The pectins (I think) rise, forming a "brown hat" that steadily compresses.  The cider maker tests the chapeau by climbing to the top of the fermenter and poking it with a stick, testing the resistance. When it's ready, They rack the clarified cider from the bottom of the fermenter until the hat descends fully. 

Thereafter, Guillaume works to stress the cider, keeping it cold and racking it over and over again, forcing the yeast to repopulate. If the temperature rises above 52F / 11C, he will chill it again. Eventually, the yeast essentially gives up, coming to a gravity of the maker's choosing. The cider starts with a gravity of 1052-1056 (it depends on the sugar content of the apples) and will finish as high as 1025. A "dry" cider is 1012-1015. (In England, dry ciders range from 0.098 to 1005). 

As with Belgian beer, the cider goes through a refermentation in the bottle. Guillaume expressed exactly the same sentiments as the Belgians: without this stage, the flavors won't develop and mature. 

I spent an afternoon with Cyril Zangs, who doesn't use keeving to make his cider. Like other French cider makers, he does naturally condition his ciders. He also practices the peculiarly French technique of "disgorgement" used to make champagne--though this seems to be unusual for cider. 

In disgorgement, the cider is fermented on its side, so the yeast collects lengthwise. Then the bottles are placed in racks, arse-end up at about a 45 degree angle. Gravity slowly pulls the yeast to the neck. Over the course of weeks, the bottles are regularly rotated a quarter turn or so to encourage the yeast down the bottle. They have to go slowly so the powdery yeast is helped down by the heavier yeast and doesn't drift off in solution. At the end of the process, there's a little plug of yeast in the neck. 

This is when the cider make disgorges it--opening the cap so the plug is blown out. They do this in winter, when the cider is sluggish and cold, so there's not a huge loss of carbonation. They take one of the bottles to top off the others, cork and cage and they're done.  M. Zangs claimed not to make typical French cider--and he doesn't. His ciders are drier and finished like champagne.  On the other hand, the way he makes cider seems uniquely French. 

I encourage you to go buy a bottle of whatever French cider you can find. They share some similarities no matter how different they are. The apples are of a place. I can't exactly describe them, but you'll begin to recognize their character. The nose usually contains a bit of refined wildness, a waft of fromage. The body is mousse-like but delicate with bubbles. Altogether different from Engliah cider, but somehow familiar. 

Photos: Drouin fermenters; old Drouin press; Zangs cidery. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Naturally Fermented

Cider is not like beer. In so many ways. I was a bit cavalier when I dove into cider making, reasoning that knowledge of one fermented beverage gives you a leg up on another. Consider me chastened. 

One of the most interesting discoveries in my cider-is-not-like-beer files is fermentation--obstensibly the one element that should be similar. The first thing to know is that, while cider is made up of easily digestible simple sugars, it lacks nutrients that beer has in abundance. That turns out to be a good thing, because it means cider makers can inhibit yeast, drawing out fermentation times. That in turn means cider that has retained subtle fermentation flavors and aromas. Fermentation can take weeks or months given the right circumstances. 

One of those circumstances is cold.  Yesterday afternoon I was standing in a gorgeous old warehouse for Cyril Zangs' cider. Here in Normandy so many of the old half-timbered buildings survived the 17th and 18th centuries that you can find them empty and available to rent--to, say, house your fermentation vessels. The weather in here (and the cider country in England for that matter) is very much like Portland's: near freezing at night, highs around 40-45 F.  That means cider ferments throughout the winter at these temperatures. Traditional cider makers prefer to use ambient temperatures to chill fermentation--so far I haven't encountered anyone yet with chilled tanks (though they all expressed a wish to get them sometime).

And here's what's amazing to the beer guy: the yeasts stay active.  Part of it is the volume; even at winter temperatures, a vat of cider will probably stay above 40 degrees. And if the temperatures do drop low enough, the yeast just go dormant. Fermentation begins again once the cold snap ends.  The cold is perhaps the biggest aid to a cider maker--it inhibits the really nasty characters and allows the cider to develop to its full potential. 

I have so far visited five traditional cideries and whether Norman or English, they have the same attitude--the less they interfere, the better the cider is for it. I wonder if American cider makers could trust the process enough to just press the fruit and wait?  An uninsulated barn or warehouse anywhere in Oregon or Washington would do.  But not-doing can sometimes be harder than doing. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

In Herefordshire

The first stop on my cider odyssey is Herefordshire (English pn: HAIR-eh ford sheer) which, for those of you who don't have your Engliah counties memorized, is the the west, snuggled up next to Wales. Among cider nerds, Somerset is often invoked as the mystical center of English cider-making, but Herefordshire probably has more claim. This is the home of the famous cider pioneer, Bulmers, which is now generally spat out as an insult. It wasn't always the case, though, that the world's first industrial cider-maker was associated with lowbrow stuff. And it's not incidental that the Bulmers got their start in Herefordshire: this is where the apples are.

It's also where a number of the most-respected small-production cider makers work their craft. I have spent the last two days with two of them: Mike Johnson of Ross-on-Wye ciders (where, word to the wise, a B&B is located, just steps from the cider cellar, where Mike will pour you a taste or fourteen), and Tom Oliver of Oliver's Cider and Perry. 
As with any craft, cider makers each have a philosophy. I wondered, before arriving: do they tend to clump together philosophically, like the alt brewers of Dusseldorf and lambic brewers of Brussels?  My sample size is too small to count as definitive, but it was interesting to find real philosophical similarities between the two men. 

Both make their ciders naturally, which is to say without adding yeast, and left to ferment naturally in ambient outside temperatures. (That means the apples that come to press in September star fermenting warmer than those that linger til December.)  Both eschew technical fussiness--when I asked questions like "what's the pH?" Tom gave me a wide range with a shrug and both said they don't really care.  The cider takes care of itself, they believe. Both also make and are committed to perry (fermented pear juice). And perhaps most tellingly, both use the word "soft" a lot. 

English cider comes largely from bittersweet apples. The bitterness comes from tannins, which can be quite aggressive. (Their individual flavors are as varied as hops--some woody, others spicy, others tea-like and so on.)  Neither man likes them to have a harsh edge, and throughout the process they do things to sand them down to a smooth, supple bitterness.  Tannins are more pronounced in young fruit, so they wait until it's very ripe--they fear green apples more than rot--and sometimes let the apples sit awhile. Very slow natural fermentation (six weeks to six months) helps preserve flavors; chemical reactions are slow and the subtle aromatics aren't blown out by roiling carbonation from the kind of vigorous fermentation you see in beer. Then the ciders rest, and this seems to be the most important part. Depending on the variety, they may condition up to two years. Tom also encourages malolactic fermentation, which further softens things. 

The effect is most obvious in the dry still ciders they make. They are bone dry--gravities as low as 0.998. You'd imagine the lack of sugar and those tannins would create a very sharp, intense cider, but that's not the case. So much of the subtle flavor and aroma compounds remain that the palate is fooled into thinking some of the fruit notes are sweet. The bitterness becomes integrated with those flavors and is often so "soft" you don't realize how many tannins there are until that lip-smacking astringency alerts you after your swallow.

The other thing that really struck me--and this is partly because I'm a beer guy--is how much Mike and Tom follow their cider's lead. In brewing, you want as much control over the process as you can get. In Hereford, they let circumstances guide them.  The apple harvest is unpredictable and they work with the fruit they have. Since they ferment naturally, they work with the ambient temperatures around them. They take gravity readings, but they also just watch to monitor fermentation. And the cider is ready when it's ready. They taste as they go along, waiting for all those variable to line up to give them soft, complex ciders.


Photos (from top): (1) Tom Oliver's barrels, in what was formerly a building devoted to processing hops; (2) the cider cellar at Ross-on-Wye; (3) when the ghostly hands deflate, the cider has stopped fermenting. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Putting Britain in a Box

A week or so ago I tweeted a request for pub recommendations in Bristol.  Actually, I asked which pubs were "cool" and got a lesson in transcontinental slang use.  Rephrasing, I asked for recommendations on the "best" Bristol pub.  The two-headed Cornish blogger (and book-writer!) Boak and/or Bailey suggested the Grain Barge--the place I will go for my birthday repast and pint.

A cool London pub, but by whose definition?
The whole exchange reminded me that whether we're calling it cool or best, the way Americans and Britons think about British beer is decidedly different.  Americans, when we think of England, imagine a scene somewhere between Dickens and Orwell: dark, wood-paneled pubs with a fire crackling in one corner and four old guys sitting at the bar in tweed driving caps nursing dimpled mugs of garnet mild.  Our minds conjure cask beer engines and low-alcohol bitters when we think of British beer, and the picture is frozen there.  The joke that British ale is warm and flat is, to the fan of these nostalgic evocations,is  actually a promise.  We can get damn near any kind of beer in the world in America--but good cask ale, served in 300-year-old buildings, is not among the general offerings.  For many of us (guilty!), the nostalgia is Britain.

People who actually live in England don't pine for our sentimental scenes.  In 2011, the only time I've ever visited the country, Fuller's John Keeling told me that ale then accounted for just 11% of all beer sales.  You go into an average pub, and you'll find lots of draft "extra-cold" lagers, and maybe two or three handles of cask (usually one vacant from disinterest).  You may actually see an old guy at the bar in a driving cap, but he'll probably be drinking a lager.  When I struck up conversations with these guys, they were always mystified that I liked cask ale.

British beer geeks have always had cask ale at hand, in a range that would look scandalously small to Americans.  For decades they saw the cold lagers and the same two or three types of cask ale.  So it's of course no surprise that they are delighted to find robust IPAs, saisons, and stouts starting to fill up specialty pubs.  To them a "good" pub is a place that attends to the beer and offers a decent selection of styles.  Cask ale is fine, but (regular, American-style) keg beer is, too--and it may dispense a lathery hop bomb of 6.5%.  Ask for a recommendation of a good pub from a British beer geek, and that wistful midcentury image in your head will not spring immediately into hers. 

The Grain Barge, for example, is a pub located on a boat in Bristol's harbor.  It is operated by the Bristol Beer Factory, a brewery that makes traditional cask ale but also hefeweizen, Belgian strong, stout, and American-style IPA.  If you spend much time reading the British blogs (as I do), you see a lot more interest devoted to beer from places like Bristol Beer Factor, The Kernel, Thornbridge, and so on than you do to the old CAMRA-extolled cask ales that come out of Victorian tower breweries.

The point--which probably could have been made Tweet-short--is this: Americans have a far greater interest in keeping Britain in its old cask ale box than Britain does.  Things are changing, and we Americans need to update our expectations and definitions.  "Good" doesn't necessarily mean what we think it does. 

Post Script: For those living outside the Western US who are not 35-55 years of age "cool" just means "good."  It may have once evoked Vince Guaraldi, but them days is long past. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

News You Can Use

Today, for reasons described in the first bullet point below, you get a newsy/newsish roundup.  They are nevertheless items of real, if perhaps small, interest, so read on.

To Europe
On Friday I decamp to Europe.  I will be there exactly two weeks, traveling through Herefordshire and Somerset, Normandy, and the Basque country to learn about cider.  I will blog on the road, in that loose and scattered way one does when confined to spotty wi-fi and an iPhone.  What you'll miss in elegant turn of phrase and deep insight--hallmarks of this blog*--you'll get in immediacy and foreigness.  Anyway, that's the plan.  I've done my best to locate cider talk on the weekends to avoid losing my beer-centered (and titanic*) readership, but this is going to be two straight weeks of cider. Give it a look anyway and see if it's interesting.  Expect the first post from Bristol over the weekend.

About that Craft Beer Bubble
Okay, this is a red flag.  From a press release by the Brewers Association today:
At the end of December, the Brewers Association counted 2,722 brewing facilities in the US, an increase of almost 400 from the end of 2012....   It is interesting to note that 2013 marks the first year since 1987 that microbreweries outnumbered brewpubs in the country.
The number of breweries is interesting but essentially meaningless.   The United States could easily accommodate thousands of brewpubs scattered across the nation's cities.  It cannot accommodate too many thousands of microbreweries, though, because there are a finite number of grocery shelves and tap handles in the world.  Microbreweries, according to the Brewers Association definition, make less than 15,000 barrels but sell at least three-quarters of their beer off-site.  Those 1,376 microbreweries might only be able to produce 2 million barrels of beer--1% of the market--but they run into a bottleneck when they send them off-site.  A stat to watch.

Peter Austin is Dead
A small item from across the Atlantic caught my attention:
THE founder of Ringwood brewery Peter Austin – widely credited with saving the microbrewery movement in the UK as well as introducing it to America and popularising it worldwide – has died aged 92. 
In the US, we tend to think of ourselves as sole inventors of craft brewing, but Austin's name should be put next to Fritz Maytag's and Jack McAullife in the official history of the brewing renaissance. 
Mr Austin set up the famed brewery in 1978, aged 57. He came from a brewing family; his great-uncle was a brewer in Christchurch and his father worked for Pontifex, which was the leading brewing engineering firm in the country....
In 1982 Mr Austin hired Alan Pugsley to train to brew and work with him on brewery start-ups.  They installed more than 120 breweries in 17 countries, including Siberia, China, Nigeria and South Africa. The equipment for the Siberian brewery was lost in the Russian railway system for two years before finally turning up in Dudinka. 
Roger Protz also has a lovely remembrance.  

A New Era of Beer Writing Dawns
Okay, it actually dawned when Evan Rail published Why Beer Matters as a Kindle Single.  It matures a bit more with the release of a new Kindle book by good friends-of-the-blog Alan McLeod and Max Bahnson (aka Pivni Filosof).  I haven't read it (see item one of this blog post), but I've scanned it and what you will find in between its digital covers is not typical.  Beer book writing is being driven ever further in the Sunset Magazine direction favored by publishers (soothing words about an indescribably delicious world depicted in deep-focus color photography), so weird oddball books have zero chance of being published.  The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer is a weird oddball of a book--a rant placed inside a fiction.  It may not be getting universal acclaim, but credit Alan and Max with following their bliss.  If you want more writers to do that, consider spending the four bucks on their book.  It will encourage others. 


Monday, January 13, 2014

When Naming Goes Awry

An interesting email in the inbox this morning.
I was at Beermongers about a month ago and saw that Hop Valley had a beer on tap called "Mouth Raper IPA."  I had always known that beer as "MR IPA" or "Mr. IPA," but apparently the real name is--according to the bartenders there at Beermongers--Mouth Raper.  That's what it says on the keg and that's what it says on the bill of lading (according to said bartenders).  
I sent Hop Valley a tweet asking them to verify the name, but received no response.  In hindsight, I think my tweet was more accusatory instead of inquisitive, but the fact is they never responded.  

So my question is as follows:  Am I right in thinking this is totally inappropriate and insensitive?  Are Oregon craft brewers past the point the where they have to be crass or tasteless when naming their beers?  
Taking a quick cruise around the internet, I found enough evidence to confirm that this is the real name of  the beer.  I think it's pretty clear that the brewery gets how controversial it is, which is why it was so hard to track down in the first place.  To answer Oregone's question--yes, it is totally inappropriate and insensitive.  Undeniably.*  Given that this is a brewery with a beer called Double D Blonde, they probably need to pay special attention to the way they think about and depict women.  (And here's a handy rule of thumb: if you would be uncomfortable explaining the name of a beer to your seven-year-old daughter, maybe it's not a good name.)

On the other hand, I think it's worth acknowledging that we don't want to got too far down Outrage road.  Although Mouth Raper is an incredibly boneheaded name, you can see how they got there.  Trying to communicate the sense of hop intensity, they used a term without thinkinh about how wildly offensive it would be to many people.  In some cases, breweries use provocative names to drum up press, and sometimes they use them because they don't realize how provocative they'll be.  Back-of-the-envelope math puts the number of US beers somewhere in the 30,000 to 50,000 range.  Some of those are going to have ill-conceived names.

What should you do when you inadvertently learn you've used a racist, sexist, or religiously offensive name for your beer?  Dump the name and apologize.  What should we as beer drinkers do when a brewery dumps an offensive name and apologizes?  Accept it and move on.

As to Mouth Raper: the ball's in your court, Hop Valley.

*I could devote an entire blog to the hermeneutics of offensive speech.  Indeed, I suspect there are hundreds already in existence.  Discussions about offensive speech generally lead to bad place and hurt feelings, so you'll pardon me while I skip the "why" part of the rape-is-offensive post.  Think of your mothers, sisters, and daughters when you consider the term.  If you want to think very deeply about offensive speech, start reading Ta Nahisi CoatesThis article isn't a terrible place to start.

 Update: No, not about Hop Valley.  I finally got around to reading this post and realized (again!) that it needed a light edit.  I promise to learn.  But of course, I've been promising that for years.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Cider Saturday: The Press

This is a pretty lame little video I made on Tuesday at Eola Hills Winery, where Kevin Zielinski was pressing apples.  I didn't really get any video of the apple pulp going into the press, so you see still photos.  The press is a large steel cylinder, too, which makes it not so photogenic.  But hey, it's only 75 seconds long, so have a look anyway.

Friday, January 10, 2014

They Grow Tetchy

Is the honeymoon over?  Every few days we get stories of breweries butting heads:
Last month, Tony Magee, owner of California's Lagunitas Brewing Company, sent out a series of Tweets that took exception to the release and marketing of a new brew that directly encroaches on its turf. The brew in question is Samuel Adams' Rebel IPA, a “West Coast Style” beer that’s not unlike Lagunitas’s most popular beverage. What’s more, Magee said that Koch and the Boston Beer Company was crossing the unspoken craft brew line by putting Lagunitas and other brands in the crosshairs.
“Learned that SamAdams’ Rebel IPA marketing plans incl specifically targeting our biz as well as other craft IPA. Flattering & sad, it is,” Magee wrote in one Tweet. “BB specifically told our distribs in common that they were going t TAKE r tap handles everywhere they could,” he explained in another. “That’s a directed attack … Imagine someone threatening your children…”
Today it's two Oregon breweries, and they're battling over the Apocalypse: 
The news that Apocalypse Brewing Co. has renamed itself “Opposition Brewing Company” is making the rounds now that it has become official. The change stems from a lengthy trademark dispute with fellow Oregon brewery, 10 Barrel Brewing Company, which has a beer named “Apocalypse.”
There follows a long and aggrieved statement by Opposition about the dastardly behavior of 10 Barrel.  "Indeed, at least in the short run," they write, "David does not always defeat Goliath and your small local brewery could stand up no longer to a corporate giant."

I bring this up as a kind of echo to my earlier post about Goose Island.   What we're seeing is the maturation of the craft beer segment of the market, one that has a peculiar and particular self-image.  For decades now, craft breweries have been largely collaborative and craft brewing has seemed like a wonderful little collectivist world--everyone helping one another.  It wasn't faked, either--outside the job, brewers hang out together, take vacations together, and do genuinely like each other.  The market has been in a long, durable period of growth, and breweries didn't experience competition as one of their significant challenges.  It was more like a footrace, where companies had their own personal records they were trying to beat.  But that is a kind of peculiar thing in the business world--ultimately, breweries are not collaborators, they're competitors.

I don't know that we're exiting the collaborative phase yet, but these skirmishes are only the beginning.  The craft breweries with national ambitions are going to begin to encounter the same issues Miller, Coors, and Anheuser-Busch have faced for decades.  National markets are difficult to attain, and even more difficult to maintain.  It's pretty clear Stone, Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, and New Belgium aren't all going to be able to sell IPAs in every market--where they'll be competing against local IPAs, too.  There will be winners and losers. 

The battle over names is likely to be a really big deal, too.  That's one of the problems when you have 2500 breweries and each of them is making twenty beers.  It is literally a rule of trademark law that breweries must protect their marks or lose them, so lawsuits (or cease-and-desist letters) over common names like Apocalypse are going to be the norm.  It does create strange situations where the language of craft brewing--the little guy taking on the giant--gets recast so that even relatively little guys like 10 Barrel play the role of overlord.  Probably not good PR for anyone.

Can craft brewing retain its collaborative bonhomie in a market that gets tighter and more crowded?  Probably the better question is, how long can it retain its collaborative bonhomie? 

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Goose Island Challenge

One of the most interesting recent developments in beer was AB InBev's 2011 acquisition of Goose Island.  Until then, multinational beer companies had been trying to penetrate the craft segment with stealth labels like Shock Top and Blue Moon.  These beers were mainstreamed to appeal to the fat center of the American palate, and have long been drummed out of the "craft beer" fraternity for their middlebrow flavors and disreputable, hidden parentage.  For any number of reasons--the beer itself, the subterfuge, the stain of ownership--these beers could be distinguished from "real" craft beer.  (Full disclosure: I think Blue Moon is a respectable witbier and while it is certainly doesn't have the most character, I've had many worse examples by "craft breweries.")

When Bud bought Goose, though, it turned the arguments sideways.  Not only was Goose Island one of the more respected Midwestern craft breweries, but AB InBev invested heavily to allow the brewery to, for example, build the largest barrel-aging program in the US.  It appeared that, contra expectations, Goose Island was not going to build its reputation on a national campaign for 312 Wheat, but by competing head-to-head with the most lauded of the beer geek breweries.  The Shock Top arguments wouldn't work against Goose Island, so the only thing left was wondering whether St. Louis would be exerting subtle efforts to dumb down the beers (a charge I have heard many times since 2011).

A couple months ago, Goose Island sent me four of their barrel-aged beers (Halia, Juliet, Gillian, and Lolita), and it was with this critique in mind that I sipped them.  They run a similar continuum, all brett-aged in wine barrels with fruit additions, brewed in a range from 7.5% to 9.5%.  The brewery packages them in heavy, capped champagne bottles.  It's an extension of the Belgian line that began with Sofie and now runs to ten beers.  Most of them are barrel aged with wild yeast.  So: 1) are they good, and 2) are they dumbed-down?

Let's take the second question first.  It's not inconceivable that a large brewery would try to tempt the beer geek with a boozy specialty beer--Blue Moon has already done it.  They have a Vintage Ale Collection that is a pretty close analogue to the Goose Island range--Belgiany, strong, aimed at the upscale market.  The beer geeks give it a "meh," and not because it's Blue Moon.  These are beers aimed squarely at the Blue Moon drinker--not the Consecration market.  Beers like Proximity are gentle, made with nothing wild, and light-bodied--easy-drinking big beers. 

Goose Island's beers are nothing of the sort.  They are big and aggressive.  Of the four, three had enough brettanomyces to wake the dead.  The fourth, Lolita, was plenty tart, but had quite a bit of bright raspberry flavor and residual sweetness.  They are perfectly typical of what I don't like about American wild ales (except Lolita, which I enjoyed).  Wild ales have followed hoppy ales into the realm of punishing.  Rather than use wild yeasts to accentuate fruity flavors and add a bit of tartness, breweries like to amp up the acid and dryness to lacerating levels.  Part of this is the way wild yeasts behave in oxygen-porous wine barrels, but part of it is the American preference for volumes that go to eleven.  In a fist fight, Juliet could beat the hell out of most challengers.  The beer geeks agree, awarding these high scores on BeerAdvocate: Halia, Lolita, and Gillian 92/100 and Juliet 94.

The first question is a lot harder.  There was a moment when I was sitting in Drie Fonteinen in 2011 sipping an Oude Geuze (the one at right, in fact) when I had an epiphany.  I had been in Brussels for 24 hours and I'd sampled gueuzes (objectively the finest style on earth) from four breweries.  It wasn't that they were new to me, but the force of having them all in such a such a short period: I realized that while they had very strong flavors--each different--they were harmonious.  There was nothing searing about them.  The brett in these beers was balanced by the complex esters and acids developed over years of barrel aging.  Harmony and balance, far more than intensity, is what I value.

But that's not what the American beer geek values.  Intensity is a marker of authenticity in the US.  Intensity is a sensory marker for the ("off-center") irreverence only small, independent breweries can muster.  What fascinates and delights me is that Goose Island has decided to take this marker as a north star.  An arm of Anheuser-Busch Inbev is seeking to out-irreverent the little guys, at least in the glass.  In business, and especially in the self-congratulatory Silicon Valley, "disruptive technologies" are those which are designed to topple the market dominance of an established, outdated tech.  One story some craft brewers tell is that they are insouciantly  "disrupting" the old norms of the beer world.  Their maverick ways--you know, like selling hoppy IPAs--will radically change the beer world forever. 

But the truth is that the most disruptive brewery in America right now is Goose Island. 

Note: post edited lightly for clarity.  I don't know why I don't do that before I hit "post."

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Cider Saturday: Farnum Hill Ciders

Always be wary of single-origin histories.  When someone tells your, for example, that one dude invented porter in London in 1722, exercise skepticism.  History usually involves many players and many precursor events.  You are now well-armed to dispute what I'm about to tell you: Stephen Wood and Louisa Spencer are largely responsible for reviving American interest in traditional cider.  No cider-maker is an island, and I'm surely giving short shrift to some important figures, but as single-origin histories go, this one is tighter than most.

The story begins in the apple orchards near Lebanon, New Hampshire, where Steve Wood started working as an adolescent in 1965.  He went off to college and bounced around a bit before coming back in the late 1970s to take over the orchards.  This was not a particularly great time to be an apple-grower, though, because apples were starting to become an international commodity.  Family farmers could not produce technicolor, wax-dipped giants as cheaply as apple conglomerates from Washington State and elsewhere, so they began to wonder about other ways of staying solvent.  (I heard a pretty similar story from Kevin Zielinski at EZ Orchards.)

In the early 1980s Steve and Louisa were driving across Herefordshire and started passing through orchards which Steve later learned were devoted to cider-making.  This led them to very slowly, over the course of a decade, to begin to try growing cider apples ("several hundred" varieties in grafting trials beginning in the early 80s) and eventually to become cider-makers.  One thing that characterizes Steve is a mordant sense of humor about the absurdity of an orchardist trying to figure out how to make cider.  “We pushed out a lot of very productive orchards and planted a bunch of inedible apples,” he told me--more than once--usually with a mystified head-shake. 

I visited a couple days before Halloween on a perfectly clear, autumnal day--and, it turned out, the last day of the harvest.  Western New Hampshire looks like what Americans think of as classic apple country, a vision from Thoreau or Hawthorne.  When you round the bend, you see an 18th century clapboard farmhouse and below it an orchard of beautifully gnarled old apple trees.  You don't immediately see the cidery, or recognize it, but it's right there in front of you: the barn.  It's another antique that Wood slightly modified to accommodate tanks and barrels.  In terms of cider feng shui, you really can't top a barn so old the beams still bear the marks of independence-era saws.

The history of American cider is one of early flourishing and a quick and decisive collapse.  Early immigrants, deprived of land that could produce decent barley, were desperate for something to take beer's place.  Apple trees were growing by the early 17th century, and New England, Virginia, and especially the area around Newark, NJ (!) were big into cider.  But within a few decades after independence, it was mostly dead.  (Why?  That's a different post.)  Historians often use the election of 1840 to illustrate how central cider was to American life--that was the year Harrison and Tyler ran on a platform of restoration, with log cabins and cider as symbols.  But it actually illustrates just how far cider had fallen from view.  In old engravings from the day, you see the famous cabins along with barrels of "hard" cider.  Why modify it with the "hard?"  Because sweet, unfermented cider had already displaced the fermented stuff.  Writing in 1869, JS Buell put it this way: “Most people are familiar with the juice of apple under the name cider, while an exceedingly limited number know anything about the wine which may be obtained from the apple.”  By the time Wood began thinking about making cider, it had been obsolete in the US for 150 years.

Reviving interest in cider meant reviving the tradition of American cider-making.  And here is where two of Steve Wood's decisions would be so influential in the future of American cider.  The first decision concerned apples.  I've looked back through the old sources, and it doesn't look like US cider-makers ever really prized the tannic apples that characterize French and English cider.  But Steve did, and they are a big part of what he grows--Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black among others.  As we see new growers planting fruit for cider, those are the varieties people are going for.  That is in part because Steve is happy to send scion wood from his orchard out to anyone who wants to grow it.

“We’ve always given away bud wood. For years it was a couple hundred buds to guys who have fifty trees. A couple years ago we gave out a couple thousand buds and last year I think we gave away maybe 5,000 buds, and this year we gave away 50,000 buds.”

The second decision was in the way he approached the cider-making.  Instead of following one of the European traditions, he consulted vintners instead.  The idea was to use a process that got everything but the fruit out of the way.  (This also reminded me of Kevin Zielinski, another orchardist-turned-cider maker whose focus was squarely on the apple.)  One of the phrases he mentioned again and again was "expression of fruit."  His stripped-down method involves very cold, slow fermentation with a neutral yeast and months and months of maturation.  At first, he tried English methods, but when his ciders produced flavors he'd never encountered before, it occurred to him to get the process out of the way and let the fruit speak.  “Why are we trying to make an imitative cider? This is the USA, godammit—let’s just make something delicious.”

Farnum Hill is by far the most famous American cidery (Google American cider and behold all the  stories written by the national media), and yet it has suffered the fate of the pioneer.  Steve and Louisa have spent two decades spreading the cider gospel, trying to convince people to give their dry, bitter, and tart ciders a try.  You can say they have succeeded: cider hasn't been this big in America since 1825, and the notion of good cider, as complex and sophisticated as good wine, is seeping into the public consciousness.  But Farnum Hill is still a small cidery that struggles to earn money.  Other cideries have taken what they've learned from Farnum Hill's example and are turning the lessons into serious dollars.

It doesn't seem to bother Steve and Louisa too much, though.  Steve is pushing sixty and he harbors no ambitions to become the next Percy Bulmer.

Instead, I think he sees Farnum Hill as a potential bridge from the confused and confusing present, where most people don't know what a good cider is or should be, to a future state when people know and appreciate good ciders the way Oregonians know and appreciate good Pinot Noir.  Right before I left, I asked Steve to define "good" cider from his perspective.  He tends to speak in italics and reel off long, looping mid-sentence digressions.  After a detailed description of the flavors he likes to find in a good cider, he started to summarize what he'd said more and more succinctly.  Finally he said, "Tannin, fruit, acid, and some kind of balance."  He nodded as if to say, 'yep, that's it.'

If, in a generation, this is what Americans expect of their cider, I think Steve will feel like Farnum Hill has done its job.