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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lucky Lab Big Beer Fest

Qimby Beer Hall, 1945 NW Quimby St.
Friday, February 28th and Saturday, March 1, from noon to 10 p.m. 

Although I've essentially given up blogging about events (too many!), I will direct your attention to one this weekend: the Lucky Lab Big Beer Fest at the Quimby brewery.  Ben Flerchinger has been curating a big beer fest at the Lucky Lab for a number of years now (the name "barley wine" seems to come in and out of the title), and it's always worth a look.  What makes it interesting is not just that big beers are the focus, but that Ben stores various vintages and pulls them out later on.  Of the fifty-odd beers he has in hand, only ten are from 2013.  He's got one from 2008 and 15 are 2010 or earlier.  Each year before sending out the line-up, Ben does a round of QA to make sure his kegs still contain potable potents, so you're not wandering into a crapshoot. 

You can see the full line-up here

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oregon Beer Sales 2013

Update.  Here's the entire list (pdf) from the OLCC.

I have had a fairy Data-mother for the past nine months who has been sending me an Excel spreadsheet with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission's beer sales numbers.  It is pretty darn interesting. Before we delve into the details, let's get a global picture of what we're dealing with.

In 2012, Oregon brewers produced 1.3 million barrels of beer.  (Every brewery in Oregon is what we would call by a regular definition a "craft" brewery--the eldest of which is 30-year-old BridgePort.)  Of that, they sold 483,400 barrels, or 37.3%, of it in Oregon.  The OLCC numbers just cover the portion that Oregon breweries sell at home. The two largest breweries account for a third of all Oregon's sales, the four largest make half the beer, and the ten largest account for nearly 70% of the sales.  So while Oregon had around 150 breweries making beer last year, almost all the beer sold in Oregon was made by just a fraction of them.  In all, consumers bought 13.4% more Oregon beer in 2013 than they did a year earlier.

(For whatever reason, the Oregon Brewers Guild has slightly different numbers than the OLCC is currently reporting out, so if you're reaching for your calculators, know that the 483,400 figure is higher than the figure quoted by the OLCC.)

All right, you ready to see some numbers?  Let's start with the top ten:
Brewery - total barrels  (% of Oregon sales) (Position in 2012)
1. Deschutes - 90,242 (18%) (1)
2. CBA (Redhook/Widmer/Kona)  - 80,032 (16%) (2)
3. Ninkasi  - 46,070 (9.2%) (3)
4. Portland - 28,944 (5.8%) (4)
5. Full Sail - 24,342 (4.9%) (6)
6. Bridgeport - 23,721 (4.7%) (5)
7. 10 Barrel - 16,101 (3.2%) (8)
8. Rogue Ales - 14,492 (2.9%) (7)
9. Boneyard Beer - 12,685 (2.5%) (10)
10. Oakshire - 7,952 1.6%) (12)

There wasn't a lot of movement in terms of the ranking from 2012, but 10 Barrel (86.2%), Boneyard (69.6%) and Oakshire (36%) had astronomical growth while Widmer (-9.4%) and BridgePort (-4.1%) were heading the wrong direction.  In fact, if you look at which breweries had the largest growth in barrel terms, you find some pretty big growth:
1.  10 Barrel Brewing, 7453 more barrels in 2013 than 2012
2.  Boneyard Beer, 5207
3.  Ninkasi Brewing, 4229
4.  Portland Brewing, 3630
5.  Breakside Brewery, 2507
6.  Oakshire Brewing, 2104
7.  Pfriem Brewing, 1593
8.  Crux, 1319
9.  Base Camp Brewing, 1285
10. Gigantic Brewing, 827
What about the biggest drops?  Also illuminating, though less dramatic:
1. CBA (Redhook/Widmer/Kona) -8298 barrels in 2013 compared to 2012
2. Bridgeport Brewing, -1023
3. Deschutes Brewery/Mountain Room, -899
4. Hop Valley Brewing, -817
5. Silver Moon Brewery, -574
6. Deschutes Brewery, -384 (I believe the Bend brewpub)
7. Hillsdale Brewery, -348
8. Terminal Gravity Brewing, -340
9. Phat Matt's Brewing, -279
10. Crystal Ballroom & Brewery, -110 
The final numbers I'll leave you with are from some of the breweries that attract the most beer geek chatter (guilty).  You can go ahead and compare them to those on the top list--you'll see that the overlap is inexact.  In other words, setting BeerAdvocate on fire is not the same as selling a ton of beer. 

12.    Double Mountain Brewery, 7570 barrels in 2013
15.    Ft. George Brewery, 5922
21.    Breakside Brewery, 3178
26.    Burnside Brewing Co., 2398
29.    Pfriem Brewing, 2077
33.    Crux, 1701
41.    Gigantic Brewing, 1404
46.    Block 15, 1201
47.    Flat Tail Brewing, 1199
60.    Upright Brewing, 924
69.    The Commons Brewery, 771
90.    Hair of the Dog Brewing, 496
122.    Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, 166
145.    The Ale Apothecary, 60.4


Monday, February 24, 2014

I HAVE A MINOR COMPLAINT: Why no pitchers?

Old man vents spleen.  Just as my aged forebears raised a gnarled
fist against neighbor children everywhere, so too shall I roar
ineffectually about small matters.
All aboard, all aboard JB Alworth's Fantastic Flying Time MachineTM!  Today we'll set the dial back 25 years and visit a gentler Portland, a time when men wore flannel unironically and the blogger was a dashing 21-year-old with a luxurious mane of chestnut locks.  We can pick a tavern at random--in those days brewpubs were rare--and park ye olde time machine behind that dumpster there.  After we pick our way through the VWs and Pintos, we find ourselves at the door of a window-free building, preparing to enjoy a night out on the town and MOTHER OF GOD, what is that toxic cloud!?  Oh, right!--smoking.  Ah, thems were the days.

Things are worse than I remembered.  The fashion--hoo boy, the fashion.  I had sort of forgotten the shoulder pads, day-glo pink, and mullets.  There's a melancholic warble of Bob Seger on the juke box ... oh man, let's get this over with.  As we make ourselves through the blue haze, there it is, on that table over there.  As if glowing from the inside, a beacon of light in this dark age, a pitcher of beer. Sure, it's an eight-dollar pitcher of Hamms, but focus.  I'm pointing out the vessel, not the liquid.

You see it?  All right, let's get the hell out of here.

Only hardcore nostalgics will recall fondly most of the elements of that scene, and yet I fear we have thrown the pitcher out with the mullet.  You can now get any flavor of beer ever conceived, but good luck trying to get it in a pitcher.  I get that breweries and pubs won't want to be handing out 64 ounces of barrel-aged barleywine, but what about the house stout?  On Saturday, while hanging with friends at Ecliptic, one of us old-timers asked if they had pitchers.  Nyet.  He frowned and shook his head sadly, as geezers do when they find the world has changed for the worse, and invested two minutes in a half-hearted rant.

But he's right!  You can keep the Seger, the shoulder pads, the smoky bars with bad beer--but can we at least have the pitchers back?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Cider Saturday: Achievements in Natural Fermentation

Ten days ago, Cider Riot made its debut.  That's Abram Goldman-Armstrong's new project and, full disclosure, I ponied up $25 for the Kickstarter to help him launch the cidery.  The main event was Everybody Pogo, a dessert-fruit hopped cider that will constitute the largest portion of Cider Riot's sales.  (Though Abram is no doubt more excited about 1763, made with tannic cider fruit, and Burncider, which if memory serves, will be to cider what The Mutt is to fresh hop ales.)  Ciders made with eating apples don't have a ton of complexity, but Everybody Pogo is quite nice.  It's got a rocky, mineral quality and a nicely dry finish.  Abram used Goldings to hop it, hoping to draw out a fruitiness that other citrus-hop ciders don't have.  American Goldings can sometimes tend toward citrus anyway, but these add a lovely marmalade note.

But what really caught my attention was the undercard, a ciderkin made in collaboration with Reverend Nat's.  Ciderkins are are just cool to begin with--a historical curiosity in which the pomace (pressed apple pulp) is rehydrated and pressed again to create a low-alcohol cider, akin to small beer.  But the really cool thing was this: they fermented it naturally.

In my wanderings across Europe, every traditional cider maker I spoke to in England, France, and Spain let their cider ferment on its own.  No yeast, no fussing with the temperature: press and go.  Americans are just loath to do this.  I asked Abram about it because I know he is so committed to making ciders with the character of West County ciders.  He gave me an answer I've gotten used to hearing: it just seems a little dangerous. 

And maybe it is; I am not a cider-maker.  But you can't argue with results.  That ciderkin was absolutely vivid with flavors and aromas.  In fact, it smelled almost exactly like the Basque ciders we slurped for four days around Astigarraga.  The flavor wasn't quite as fecund and tart--probably because the yeast had less stuff to work with--but it was strongly reminiscent of the Basques.  There was a bit more spice and earthiness and it had less body and a lighter presentation--natch--but otherwise it seemed very closely related.

It was actually made at Reverend Nat's, so I sent Nat West an email about how they made it.
This batch was made from White Oak fruit [note: this is the fruit that will go into Cider Riot's 1763]. Abe pressed the apples over about two days then delivered the spent pulp to me. It was all English and French bittersweets and bittersharps, maybe seven varieties. I transferred the pulp to a big plastic macrobin and watered it down until it looked something like freshly ground apple pulp, stirring it a lot. Then I dropped a sheet of plastic on top of it and put it in our cooler for about 36 hours. Then we pressed it again. Wild ferment, no sulfites anywhere along the way. Sitting on the pulp helped release pectin and tannins. And some fermentation happened while in the macrobin. It was really smokey bacon shortly after fermentation, the most I've ever smelled, but it went away almost completely after a month in aging. 

Abe came over and we tasted it to consider adding anything like sugar, AJC, fresh juice or citrus and he didn't like any of our additions so we just carbed and kegged it.
Sounds easy-peasy.  Natural fermentation doesn't require a ton of work, but it does deliver a ton of flavor.  Nat and Abram are two of the young vanguard of cider-makers who are really pushing to make high-quality, artisanal cider (which is in some cases traditional, some cases not).  There was very little of that ciderkin available, and it's all gone now.  But the experiment was a thumping success, and I hope we can expect to see more in the future.  (Indeed, Nat's will have a different ciderkin made with cider fruit, cold-pressed coffee, and orange zest called "John Adams's Breakfast Tankard"* out very soon.)

Kudos to them both--

*John Adams extolled the healthful value of cider and began every morning with a tankard of same.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Parsing "Consolidation"

Goldman Sachs recently looked at merger trends in the brewing industry, finding that consolidation is up nearly 50% from just ten years ago.  There are two detailed pie charts at the link, but I've simplified them here to illustrate the point:

The ten largest beer companies controlled 43.2% of the market a decade ago, but now they have cornered nearly two-thirds (64.9%)--powered by AB InBev's 20.6% share.  The Goldman Sachs economists acknowledged that this is a big spike in consolidation.  In their patois, the "top 5 companies represent more than 50% of the global market versus 32% for the top 5 players in 2003, and the industry’s HHI has risen to 725 in 2013E from just 276 in 2003."  But here's the really weird thing: that means beer still remains well below the level of consolidation of other industries:
"HHI" stands for Herfindahl-Hirshman Index, a common measure of industry concentration.
"The U.S. Department of Justice generally considers HHI levels of 1,500-2,500 to be consistent with moderately concentrated markets, and levels above 2,500 signifying high concentration," explain the Goldman analysts.  "Global Beer measures as considerably more fragmented than the other industries in our study."
When you look at pie charts, this seems counter-intuitive, but it makes all kinds of sense when you look at tap handles or grocery-store shelves. Because it wasn't so long ago that the choice of beer styles was so poor, our minds tend to conflate choice with ownership.  But from the consumer's point of view, there is far more fragmentation both of styles and companies.  When you visit your local, you'll find several taps, including at least one or two that we'd call craft beer (though in worse pubs that slot may be occupied by Blue Moon or Shock Top).  It wasn't so long ago that "variety" meant both Bud and Miller.  It's the same in grocery stores.  Even in the most remote places unsullied by craft brewing, you'll find a bigger selection of both brands and styles that you would have a decade ago--and way, way more than a generation ago.  And this isn't just true in the US--it's happening across the globe. 

Consolidation is happening because large companies have been aggressively snatching up the biggest companies in places like Asia and Eastern Europe.  Whereas 10-20 years ago, the big national brewery in a place like Ukraine would have been locally-owned, now it's a part of the Heineken or AB InBev empires.  When you look at international numbers, the consolidation reflects those changes.  (And this is one reason why it will be hard for breweries to get too much of the global market.  In Ukraine, for example, Carlsberg, AB InBev, and SABMiller have divided the spoils.) 

In the part of the global market that's on the leading edge of change, however, fragmentation is the norm.  For customers, that ensures that choice, at least for now, is also the norm. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Beer Sherpa Recommends: Solera Kriek

Boilerplate for this feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Hidden away in a town of 266 souls, 87 miles east of Portland, is one of the state's best brewers, Jason Kahler.  He toils away (happily, it seems) at the picturesque little brewery of Solera, in the shadow of Mount Hood, where he makes a pretty amazing variety of beers.  Currently on tap, for instance, are an IPA, Scotch ale, two wild ales, and two farmhouse ales (a brunette and a blonde).  Solera's brews rarely make it down the mountain, so finding one on tap is a rare joy--and joyful I was to find the Kriek at the pub called Beer on Southeast Stark.

Jason has a particular affection for wild ales, evident in the brewery's name.  In brewing, a solera is a barrel a brewer feeds periodically with fresh beer.  Inside, a tiny ecosystem flourishes, populated by all kinds of fascinating and unique characters.  It's the system New Belgium uses for their wild ales, and it's the system Jason used to make the Kriek.  I now turn over the description to him:
The 2013 Kriek was made a bit differently than the 2012 version. A similar malt bill of German pilsner and wheat malt was used. Absolutely no hops. I was lucky enough to find couple Ballentine cherry trees (sour pie cherries) in the middle of a Bing/Rainier orchard. My friend was going to cut said trees down and replace them w/ a more marketable cherry, but we agreed to keep them so long as I buy the fruit every year. The wort went through our Solera-style Lacto tank for a couple weeks before being racked onto the cherries. From there it went through a spontaneous fermentation. After a few more weeks I pitched some Champagne yeast to dry it out completely. From there it sat in that state on the fruit for 6 months at ambient temperature. I have another batch that was put in a wine bbl w/ Brett. Clausenii., this will be bottled in 750 ml champagne bottles soon.
I did a bit of poking around, and I think that cherry's official name is actually Balaton, a descendent of Hungarian varieties bred in Michigan.  (I guess that tidbit is for the fruit nerds out there.)  In any case, the beer is tart.  Straight out of the tap, with the sugars suppressed by cold, it's electric.  With warmth, the aromas and flavors unfold and the sugars begin to soften the tart blast.  That lactic gives it a pure sour note that harmonizes with the acid in the tart cherries, so it's a little difficult to see where one begins and the other leaves off.  The aroma is lush and warm--on a damp February day it's a pleasant memory of summer.  There's no funk in it; if you like Ron Gansberg's variety of sour, you'll like this Kriek.  But be advised: non-sourheads need not apply.  This Kriek is for tart-lovers only.

You may still find it at Beer, but if not, you're going to have to act like your own sherpa and head toward the mountain.  It could be worse: this is what you'll find out the back door (courtesy of Angelo).

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Making of an IPA

Nearly three years ago, the Widmer Brothers launched a clever project: rotating IPAs, a new one every quarter or so.  Everybody loves IPAs, and everybody loves the next IPA even more.  So why not rotate them?  Apparently even variety can become predictable, though because a couple weeks ago the Brothers released a full-time year-round IPA called Upheaval.

This is a fascinating development.  Any time a national brewery decides to release a new year-round beer, I start looking at the tea leaves.  What does the beer say about where the market is headed?  Given that this is an IPA, what does it say about where the style is headed?  It's pretty clear that at least for the next few years, all the growth and excitement is focused on IPAs, so when a brewery puts a new brand on the shelves, they're putting down a bet about where things are moving.

A few years back, Deschutes released Chainbreaker, which was revealing in a ton of ways.  It combined the two most popular ale styles--IPAs and witbiers--and the result was by no stretch of the word an IPA.  (It's just 5.6%.)  But it illustrated that the letters "IPA" have enormous valence, and putting them on a beer helps sales.  Deschutes recently announced that they were bumping Fresh Squeezed IPA to a regular offering (that's three IPAs in the standard line), another revealing decision.  Last summer I wrote about how I thought Fresh Squeezed was a great example of a new trend in IPAs toward sweetness--and this seems to verify the popularity of that trend.

So what can we learn from Upheaval?

What It Is
Widmer Brothers is not making a big deal out of this, but it kind of is: Upheaval has a grist nearly identical to Hefeweizen.  Hefe has 43% wheat in the grist, while Upheaval has 40% and a dab of caramel malt.  2014 is the brewery's 30th anniversary year, and I personally wish the brewery were doing a bit more to highlight this intentional homage (more on that at the end of this post).  Widmer Hefeweizen, while ill-named, was a revolutionary beer.  European wheat beers are all made with interesting fermentation or spice character.  When Americans started using wheat, they did something different, using it to accentuate the American-ness of their beers--clean, soft backbones that allowed the hops to express themselves.  Hefeweizen had 30 IBUs of Willamette and Cascades and was in fact a wheaty pale ale.

Upheaval has bales of hops (Alchemy blend plus Chinook, Simcoe, Brewer’s Gold, Willamette, and Nelson Sauvin), but they lean very heavily on late-additions to pump up the aroma and flavor.  It is a burly 7% and pretty dry (3P/1012), but the wheat really saves the day.  It provides a softness that helps bridge the gap between the hop levels and attenuation.  The brewery tested the beer at 85 IBUs, but it doesn't taste anywhere near that bitter to me.  It's cloudy, perfumy, and sessionable.  It is also--and this is key--recognizably a Widmer beer.  That may be partly due to the Alchemy, but I think also the Nelson Sauvin, which are sort of a house hop on Russell Street.  

Cloudy, soft, a focus on hop flavor and aroma, and a lot of alcohol: all those qualities seem consonant with the trends in modern IPAs.

Branding Flavor
It was that flavor that really got me thinking.  Widmer Brothers uses a proprietary hop blend called Alchemy in nearly every beer they make, at least for the bitter charge.  If you want a really good sense of what it tastes like, try Alchemy Ale, which only uses that blend.  For most people, it has a fairly recognizable mixture of flavors, ranging along the citrus to pine continuum, but to me there is a pungent undertone that suggest overripe tropical fruit (passionfruit, durian).  It's not a passive melange, either--you (or at least I) know it when you encounter it. 

Back when I first started writing about beer, BridgePort was trying to dump their cool wildlife series (Pintail, Coho Pacific, Blue Heron) in favor of a "brand identity."  They went to a standardized label and called their beers by style (instead of a name like Pintail, they used "porter" or "amber").  The incredibly avid PR woman was sold on the idea that this would make it easier for people to bond with the brewery so that they could always welcome a BridgePort no matter what style was pouring.  (Or something--it didn't make sense at the time, and I was aghast that they were dumping one of the best brands in beer.)  The problem, of course, is that people don't drink breweries, they drink beers, and they pick and choose with blithe disregard to what brewery makes a particular beer. 

What Widmer has done is move toward a set of flavors that say "Widmer Brothers," though, and that's a much deeper level of branding.  There are very, very few breweries in the world that have pulled this off (Dupont springs to mind, some of the Trappists, Fuller's).  I put it to Brady Walen, erstwhile blogger and current Brand Manager at the company, and he agreed.
"One of the reasons we decided to move forward with the Upheaval IPA recipe, as opposed to some of the other popular Rotator IPA recipes, is the fact that this beer an awesome IPA that is distinctly Widmer Brothers. The Alchemy hop blend certainly helps us hit that target, but so does the use of wheat and not filtering it. The visual, aromatic and flavor characters all have signatures of a Widmer Brothers beer. From a brand standpoint, that’s exactly what we’re looking for; we want to ensure that the beer fits the brand and works well within the portfolio. The discussions we had as we developed the beer and the brand revolved around these signatures. They’re all deliberate decisions make Upheaval IPA the best choice for a year-round IPA offering from Widmer Brothers."
Can you brand beers by their flavor?  Should you?  There is a risky downside to this approach: it means you're targeting people who share your palate and alienating those who don't.  The Widmer Brothers are running an interesting experiment.

The Back End
These releases don't happen by chance--there's a lot of overhead to bring them to market, and I assume a fair amount of risk if they fail.  The brewery couldn't give me a figure, but if you think about the associated costs, they add up quick.  Think about all the moving parts; a brewery starts by coming up with the idea and doing test batches, coming up with a name and then designing the packaging, putting it through the TTB process, educating distributors, and doing the PR and promotion at launch.  "Our team across several departments spent a lot of time in 2013 and this year thus far bringing this brand to life," Brady said.  He elaborated:
Upheaval IPA started as a small batch recipe we brewed at the Rose Garden pilot brewery in spring of 2013. We had plans to launch a year-round IPA in 2014 and had considered several IPA recipes for this planned slot in our lineup. The Upheaval recipe, however, was a real standout for us so we decided to pursue further recipe development, test brews, and other R&D to ensure that we could scale up the recipe for production. In parallel, we developed the brand name and packaging internally, and were submitting labels for government approval just as the government shut down in 2013. This delayed our normal label approval process by several weeks, but we kept all of the other components moving forward internally. This beer as part of our portfolio has been about a year in the making. 
There's one other little factoid I found interesting in all this.  The brewery invited a few media types down to Bailey's to try the beer, and Rob Widmer was on hand.  I asked why they were playing down the wheat angle.  He told me (paraphrasing), "Well, there was another Wheat IPA on the market and we didn't want to be confused with it."  He was talking about Shock Top Wheat IPA, a beer apparently so bad it damaged the category.  That confusion may be a problem nationally, but here in Portland, I doubt they'll encounter a lot of confusion.

All of which goes to show that lots and lots of thought goes into these things.  It makes you wonder if everyone sits around the brewery afterward in a low level of panic, thinking "what if no one buys it?"  But then, I suppose there's beer to crack if they get too anxious.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

All the New Beers

Several years ago, the Oregon Brewers Guild launched Zwickelmania as a way of bridging over the doldrums of late winter.  Mission accomplished.  I have been absolutely inundated with new beer releases, and many of them are keyed to release on Z-day.  (Which is cool, because whether you're a rank newbie who has only recently learned that beer is made from barley or an advanced stage beer geek who knows the varying character of Wyeast 3711 when fermented at 65 versus 80 degrees, there's a reason to go check out the Zwickel events.)  I have endeavored to sample as many of these as possible, so here's a quick and dirty rundown.

Oakshire Hellshire IV
The annual release of Hellshire has become a big deal for the no-longer little brewery from Eugene.  It comes along with its own fest, which is studded with tons of beers from around the country.  The centerpiece is Matt Van Wyk's barrel aged strong ale, of which there are but a mere 120 cases.  This year's vintage should be in especially high demand; the 2013 Hellshire took gold in the coveted barrel-aged category at the GABF.

Hellshire is a blend mainly of Very Ill-Tempered Gnomes that were aged in bourbon and rye barrels.  There's some rum-aged barley wine in there and a dab of unbarrel imperial stout.  "We're doing a lot of blending and not worrying about style," he said.  "We grab an old ale, a barleywine, an imperial stout."  I found it curious that Matt blends different styles of beer, but apparently this is a thing.  (More evidence of my slow-moving antiquity.)  It's a slightly murky nut-colored beer with a boozy-sweet aroma.  The booze is gentle on the tongue, though, and the beer has a dessert-like quality, rich with chocolate and caramel.  The liquor tracks more like rum than bourbon to me.

The only way you can be assured of getting a bottle is by heading to Eugene.  Hellshire Day looks to be a treat, though, so the trip ought to be worth it.  All the details are here.

Fort George Java the Hop
A bit more than one year ago, I spent my birthday weekend in Astoria, hiking during the day, drinking beer in the evening.   Fort George was pouring a beer I thought was going to be a disaster--a coffee IPA--but was the opposite.  The nose had lots of coffee with a bit of green hoppy underlayment, but then miraculously, the two harmonized in the mouth.  The coffee only inflected the IPA, which was less hoppy than the usual Fort George beer, and the earthy, aromatic notes perfectly complemented the hops.  Java the Hop is back this year in a can, so you can see the effect.  Unfortunately, this year's batch is not quite as perfectly balanced.  The coffee is a bit too assertive, and the flavors compete in the mouth.  (It is a lot prettier; last year's batch looked like pond water.)  Still, my judgment is affected by expectation, and you should definitely give it a try. 

Widmer Upheaval
I'll have more on the making of this beer in a subsequent post, but I wanted to bookmark it here.  Upheaval is the new year-round IPA, and it coincides with the brewery's 30th anniversary.  Appropriately, it has a grist very similar to Hefeweizen, with 40% wheat.  It's a nice way of underscoring the brewery's long history with wheaty American beers.  It's a modern IPA, though, with tons of late-addition hops, and a light, delicate palate.  Widmer has really dialed in their house flavor, so that in-house Alchemy blend lets you know it's a Widmer beer.  I also want to mention that Columbia Common is back out for a second year.  It's small, delicate, and not show-offy, so it's not going to set geek palates on fire.  It's an excellent beer, though, and a great session for, say, watching the Olympics.

Breakside has--shocker!--a flurry of new beers.  Last night, brewer Ben Edmunds was showing off the latest saison, called, with tongue firmly in cheek, Suburban Farmhouse Ale.  (Their friends at the Commons brew Urban Farmhouse Ale.)  Jokes the brewery:
Traditionally, Suburban Ales were brewed in garages and backyards in urban middle-class neighborhoods of America. These beers were born out of expendable income and free time as good commercial beer was readily available and affordable. Our rendition was developed in the spirit of that noble tradition. The beer pours with a copper hue and an aroma of freshly mown grass and old copies of Willamette Week Beer Guides.
Nice. They used the French farmhouse yeast strain and hopped it with Australian Topaz.  Ben said the info they had described the hop as having juniper, "Mediterranean Sea" (because Black Sea is just gross), forest floor, apricot, and a few other strange notes.  The juniper is what really comes through--I thought it was a gin-barrel saison.  You can pick up a bit of the sea too, if you're suggestible and look hard enough.

They also have a barrel-aged strong ale called Elder Statesman made with rye-aged barley wine (80%) and a bourbon-aged strong golden.  It is creamy, rich, and very smooth.  Finally, Breakside has bottles of Caramel Salt Stout, which is just what it sounds like.  They caramelized some sugar and added that to the grist and then dosed it with some salt.  The salt is a subtle but evident note, but the caramel could easily just be a component within the stout.  It works and may be my pick of the three.

That's in no way an exhaustive list.  Alan Taylor has made the old new again at Pints by brewing a bitterbier--you know them as India Pale Lagers--called XL-5 Experimental Lager, complete with "hop stuffing" (dry-hopping); Double Mountain has released their two Krieks in bottles (and they also have a 2.6% small beer at the pub); Gigantic just did a five-cask release of Bang On! with different hops in the casks (though they're probably all gone now); Portland Brewing, doing its best to rally in the minds of locals, has the spring release of Rose Hip Gold; and Abram Goldman-Armstrong's new project, Cider Riot, just released their first cider.  More on that on Saturday.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Bold New World of 2014 Looks Unsettlingly Like 1978

"It's a curious way to launch a product not dissimilar to Coors' Blue Moon or Anheuser-Busch's Shock Top..."
--Ezra Johnson-Greenough, discussing Stone Stochasticity Project
Yes, that object to the left is what
you think it is.
Ezra's comments about the new Stone launch follow an interesting article Stan linked to yesterday, by an Atlantic writer wondering if craft beer has gone too far.  They have a point.  Stone's corporate identity has always threatened to bleed over the thin line separating satire and self-importance, so maybe it's not the best example of craft beer's direction.  The Atlantic piece drives the point home more pointedly: "So is this the future of U.S. beer consumption – a country that stumbles over itself to buy beer made with wild-carrot seed, bee balm, chanterelle mushrooms , and aged in whiskey barrels?"

It go me thinking.  If the craft beer market has become a contest over the most outrageous, has craft beer finally grown up and become its nemesis, mass market beer?  Allow me to demonstrate.
  1. [Debased state]  Beer made with adjuncts and pitched at a mass audience.  Sales driven by slick marketing campaigns and gimmicks with little focus on craft, tradition, or flavor.
  2. [Reaction]  Artisanal beer, made with all-grain grists.  Sales driven exclusively by focus on beer flavor.
  3. [Diversification]  Beers that attempt to explore the full range of world styles.  Sales driven by focus on new flavors and styles.
  4. [Education]  More sophisticated beer styles and more polished recipes based on European standards.  Sales driven by focus on flavor and tradition.
  5. [Standardization]  As consumer palates evolve, favorite beer styles begin to emerge, creating a large market for a few styles (like IPAs).  Sales driven by standard styles.
  6. [Experimentation]  More exotic beers made in a variety of methods with a dazzling array of ingredients.  Sales driven by novelty.
  7. [ ??? ]  Beer made with wacky ingredients and pitched at a mass audience.  Sales driven by slick marketing campaigns and gimmicks with little focus on craft, tradition, or flavor.
Back in the 1970s, Bill Gates infused Microsoft with the ethos of not becoming IBM, a gigantic, unwieldy company that had no capacity to innovate or nimbly respond to new technologies.  In about 1995, Microsoft became IBM.  In the early 2000s, Google used "don't be evil" as a philosophical shorthand for directing the company not to become Microsoft.  (The motto was "a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent.")  Sometime in the last few years Google became Microsoft.

Some people were alarmed by the recent news that AB InBev was buying Long Island's Blue Point Brewing.  This marked another threat to craft brewing, so the fear goes, because it blurs the line between "craft" and "macro."  It's not entirely misplaced.  But the fear I have is that the real threat isn't from the outside; it's from craft breweries that have absorbed the business strategy the big companies had perfected by the 1970s--the very strategy that sparked craft brewing--of focusing on slick marketing and gimmicks rather than the flavor and craft of the beer.

We all become our parents, right?  That could be a problem. 

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: BridgePort Trilogy 1

Here's some rough math.  There are something like 55 breweries in Portland, and around 140 statewide.  At any given moment, those breweries will have on two to--what, six, eight?--specialty beers available.  Let's say four apiece, on average.  That means that at any given moment there are 200+ specialty beers in Portland, and 560 statewide.  Add to that imports and special releases from national breweries, and there are way, way more beers than any human can hope to drink.

When this blog started, I tried to review new breweries and at least gesture toward new releases--an endeavor I had to abandon years ago.  Last night, as I swirled BridgePort's newest release around my mouth, an epiphany struck: what people really want is not reviews of every random beer, but a neon sign pointing to the few among the crowd that really stand out.  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide them to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I do find one that really stands out.  So why not an irregular feature that highlights them?  (I have already inaugurated a recent irregular feature, "I have a minor complaint!", but two irregular features doesn't seem out of bounds.)  I trust you to let me know if this is ill-advised.  So, without further ado, let's get to the new feature.

BridgePort Trilogy 1
For their 30th anniversary, the folks at BridgePort have put together a series of three celebratory beers under the Trilogy name.  At the end of their run, people can vote and the fave will come back as a year-round offering.

The first up does not, on paper, look like a world-beater: a pale ale, just 5.2% alcohol and 40 IBUs.  No wild yeasts, no barrel-aging, no exotica like cold-press civet coffee or epazote dry-hopping.  Just a basic pale, the kind craft breweries were making back in the 1970s.

Ah, but if you really wanted to prove your mettle, if you really wanted to illustrate your mastery over the mash tun, you wouldn't try any of that civet razzle-dazzle, would you?  You'd take the most basic, elemental beer style and attempt to make it fresh and alive.  Wow a punter with epazote and so what; wow him with a pale, now that's a feat.

Last night I was the punter, and I stepped up to a frothy pour of Trilogy 1, yawning.  The aroma, however, roused me.  Trilogy 1 is dry-hopped with Oregon Crystals from Gail Goschie's hop farm.  Crystals are lovely, if understated, hops--all bright and enlivening without being show-offy.  They are stippled with citrus but not marked by it--lavender is as much a part of their DNA as lemon.  In Trilogy I detect something slightly more musky, like the over-ripe scent of Summit, but I can't be sure.  It's a delicate aroma but complex.

The flavor is even more satisfying than the aroma.  As he is wont to do, brewer Jeff Edgerton has kneaded some rye into the grist, as well as a bit of Munich.  There's no spice from the rye, though; it's delicately light and frothy and holds a head as well as any beer I've seen.  The last swallow was half foam.  There's a bit of sweetness to draw out the flavors from the hops, which are mostly clean and bright, but also the mouthfeel is soft and bready, giving it a tactile dimension.  It's not especially bitter and certainly not heavy and dank.  There's nothing going on that's especially flashy or self-conscious.  Trilogy 1 is just a perfectly executed pale brimming with flavor.  You could easily drink this all night long without wearing out your palate or spending a minute bored.  The bottle came straight from the brewery, so it was perfectly fresh--I can't say what might become of this beer if it sits a month in the bottle.  Get it fresh, though, and man, that's one king-hell of a pale.  

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Early Contender for Book of the Year: Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage Beers

Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage Beers
Ron Pattinson
Quarry Books, 160 pages

If you're reading this blog, you probably know Ron Pattinson.  His blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, is a cult hit--the most-scrutinized blog by professional brewers, at least in the US.  I don't speak as often to homebrewers, but I suspect they are big fans, too.  Casual readers ... well, maybe not.  Ron writes about the history of beer, using a voice that makes you feel like you've wandered into the middle of a discussion between two friends at the pub.  Today's post, for instance, begins with this sentence: "Another day, another set of dodgy Milds from the 1920's."  That's typical.

Back in 2007, he started his blog with an admirably clear vision:
Books. I have piles of books. I can provide photographic proof if necessary, but believe me, the piles are just about up to my elbow. I blame the interent. It's just too easy to buy the most obscure publications. Once I have them, I have to read them.

But, once you've plucked out the juiciest sweetmeat of knowledge, where's the fun if there's no-one in whose mouth to drop it? The solution is obvious: join with the unemployed and unemployable in the blogsphere. Share with my peers the weird bits up crap I've unearthed.
Over the course of 3,175 posts, a clip of 1.3 a day, he has documented the details of those books--plus many more, including brewery log books, that he has dug up since.  He has revealed many truths about old English, Scottish, and German beer styles, helped clarify some misunderstandings, and correct many myths and legends that have gathered like cobwebs over the years.

The problem with 3,175 posts of material is that it's very hard to find succinct information.  I know, because I spent hours poring through Ron's archives as I researched history for the Beer Bible (and, full disclosure, Ron agreed to have a look at some of my history to see I'd gotten it right).  He has collected his posts together in slightly more digestible books--but these have the appearance of a binder full of loose-leaf pages clamped together (I consulted both Scotland! and Decoction! as well).  They lack a through-line.

Now, at last, we have all that Ron has learned distilled down to 160 concise pages.  (Complaint: I'd have preferred, say 300.)  These include fairly detailed history sections followed by--and again, readers of his blog will find this familiar--recipes for five-gallon batches of various historical beers. He describes two methods of mashing for the recipes, a scaled-back, single-infusion mash, and a multiple mashing system as the pre-sparging breweries used to employ.  If you're hardcore, you can learn how to brew like an early Victorian brewery.  He mostly covers British styles, but he devotes a few pages at the end to lost German styles like Kotbusser, Broyhan, Grodziskie, and Salvator (precursor to doppelbock).

The recipes are just delicious, too.  If you flip through and aren't inspired to brew one of these, you're beyond my help.  The picture below captures one high on my list--an 1805 pale stout.  If you look down at the mashing regime, you'll notice something incredibly interesting: the second mash is cooler than the first (they usually step upward).  Why?  Pale stout, weird mashing schedule: enticing.  The book is full of this stuff.  (Sorry the photo's crap.  It does, however, reveal my other complaint--that weird binding.)

You should buy it if you're a homebrewer or if you're interested in brewing history.  And you should especially buy it if you've wished that someone would collect the information from Ron's blog in a concise, easy reference guide. 

Monday, February 03, 2014

When Naming Goes Awry (Follow-up)

Just before leaving the country, I commented on what appeared to be a beer named "Mouth Raper IPA" by Springfield's Hop Valley.  Although I didn't realize it at the time, it amounted to a fire in the hole that exploded about the time I hit Bristol, England.  The women's site Jezebel picked up the story (which I loved, incidentally), as did Eugene Weekly and a number of blogs. In the interest of closing the loop, here's a follow-up.  (Sorry to all who long ago tired of the issue.)

Let's start at the top.  Hop Valley was slow to respond, but they finally did, posting two comments on their Facebook page (1 and 2):
We have a series of draft beers named Mr. Orange, Mr. Black and Mr. IPA. It has come to our attention that an urban myth and street name has emerged surrounding Mr. IPA. We take this very seriously and are sensitive to these issues. Accordingly, we have pulled the product and are instructing our distributors to replace any remaining kegs with other offerings. We apologize for any harm or misunderstandings this has created.
We have not given any of our beers street names. The beer in question’s only name is Mr. IPA, and is part of our pilot series including Mr. Black & Mr. Orange.
This in turn provoked a fair amount of discussion (click through to see what people wrote at Facebook). 

This whole thing is pretty mystifying.  I applaud Hop Valley for the apology, but the whole business about saying the name never existed is odd.  If you click through those links, you'll see a lot of evidence for it.  And if it never existed, why is Hop Valley apologizing, exactly?  And what's a street name? 

I think the discussion the incident provoked was valuable.  For the most part, people conducted themselves pretty well.  I know some people were unsatisfied with the way Hop Valley handled this--and it was, admittedly, not particularly adroit--but let's give them the all clear.  They don't defend the name and apologized, which is good enough for me.  I'll be happy to order up a Czech Your Head the next time I see it. 

Oh, and note to breweries.  If you find yourself in a situation like this in the future, go back and look at how Burnside Brewing handled a similar incident.  That should be your blueprint.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Three Countries in 22 Photos

What follows is not a proper photo essay because my journey through England, France, and the Basque Country took me to some eddies and side-tours not strictly focused on cider. But maybe that's a feature of this post and not a bug. I'll put most of them below the fold so they don't run forever down the page.   They proceed in chronological order and although I took about the same number of photos of each place on my good camera these, on my phone's, seem to be unevenly distributed.  Sorry, Normandie!  Also, I tried not to repeat photos I used in earlier posts about Herefordshire, wild fermentation, Normandy, Txotx season, or perry

The Grain Barge in Bristol had the best tap cider I found, but Ashton
Press, which I liked, is owned by Butcombe Brewery.

Sometimes the hedgerows seemed menacing.