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Monday, March 31, 2014

Zen and the Art of Appreciating Simple Beers

There's a famous Zen verse that goes: "First mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.  Then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers.  Finally, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers."  The insight has to do with the Buddhist concept of the two truths, but it can also be understood more simply.  At first, we accept the nature of rivers and mountains because we haven't thought deeply about them.  Once we do, we see that they are not as we thought.  However, once we see their true nature, then we understand their essence and "rivers are rivers"  once again.  It's a circle, but we arrive back at our starting point with a transformed view.

I would like to posit a similar lesson with beer appreciation.  A while back, Stan quoted from a post by blogger Eric Sturniolo, who described the process of developing a palate as evolutionary, with a beginning point of mass market lager and an end point of Westvleteren.  This prescription is as old as craft brewing, though the "evolved" state--Eric called it an apex, as if reaching the mountaintop--is particular to the times. 

It's a paradigm that assumes beer styles exist in relative quality.  Style x is superior to style y, so as one becomes more sophisticated in the way of the beer world, she will naturally grow to enjoy x.  In this prescription, "x" is almost always the more intense beer.  Belgian abbey ales are more intense than light lagers and therefore naturally and innately superior.  When you look at how beer geeks rate beers (compare beer x to beer y), this is borne out by mass acclaim.

But, going back to the koan, I'd describe this as the "rivers are not rivers" phase of beer appreciation.  In the pursuit of intensity, the beer drinker begins to narrow down the range of beers that can be considered sublime.  Whereas a novice might go to Munich and fall in love with hellesbier, to the beer geek, such products are trifles unsuitable for the serious palate.  For the geek, "hellesbier is not beer."

The true apex of appreciation is the ability to locate the sublime in any style (not, of course, any beer).  This means being able to pick up a glass of helles--or English mild or Belgian bière de table or even a characterful mass market lager (of which, admittedly, there are not a great number)--and find the flavors as pleasant and satisfying as when you heft a barrel-aged imperial stout.  It is possible, but not if the only flavors you can appreciate are intense.  You have to fine-tune your palate to appreciate the difference between a helles that has dull, simple malt flavors and one that has rich, fresh, and complex malt flavors.  The presence of subtle esters, the gentle scent of a particular hop, the weft and harmony of all these flavors working together.  It's not the kind of gesture judges make in a competition to reward one beer in a reviled or discounted class--the best of a lesser bunch--but the actual deep pleasure in the beer itself.  

It has helped that I traveled the world and tasted beers in several different countries.   In places like England, Scotland, France, and Germany I found serious beer people committed to styles Americans have long ago "transcended."  Travel challenges certain prejudices one wasn't aware he possessed.  But those are intellectual discoveries.  At the end of the day, to really grow to love a hellesbier is a private journey of experience.  You can't know it intellectually.  It dawns on you in the moment, as when I drank an Augustiner Hell in Munich and something changed in my experience of pale lagers.  

Beer appreciation is not linear; it's circular.  First you love beer naively, out of a simple joy.  Then your head gets filled with a bunch of crap about what's "good" and you begin disliking beer out of a blind prejudice.  Finally, you come back to appreciating beer for its own nature.  (And conversely, that appreciation makes you aware of how many intense beers are badly made and lack the harmony and integration that are the hallmarks of a good beer in any style.)  It may be facile to put it his way, but what is blogging but not facile?  Until you can appreciate all beer styles, your journey of appreciation is not yet complete.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mikkel v. Jeppe

In case you missed it, this is an incredibly fascinating story of Mikkel Borg Bjergso and Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso.  They are twins, gypsy brewers, and founders of (sort-of) Denmark-based Mikkeller and New York-based Evil Twin.  And they hate each other.

There is a ton of fuel here to feed any passionate fire you may have about craft brewing.  Both men say things that do not necessarily make you love them:
Jeppe’s affability notwithstanding, he was full of bravado when it came to discussing business. “I wanted to change the beer scene in New York,” [Jeppe] said. “I wanted to show New York how to do it.”

For Mikkel, brewing has become primarily a discursive activity. “I get inspiration from tasting beers, food, coffees and wine, and from talking to people who have different ways of thinking about flavors and aromas....”  Mikkel draws up detailed instructions for these fabricators to follow — specifying malt quantity to the milligram, mash schedule to the minute, bitterness to the I.B.U. — and the first time he tastes his own beer is usually when the brewer sends him a shipment and an invoice. “I don’t enjoy making beer,” he says. “I like making recipes and hanging out.”

But then there are passages like this that allow you to glimpse the baby in the bathwater you were just ready to toss:
One of these was 3 Fonteinen, a venerated brewery in Beersel not much larger than an auto-body shop, where we arrived the next day. The head brewer was Armand Debelder, who has known Mikkel and Jeppe for several years and calls them “very special both.” 
The piece, by Jonah Weiner in the New York Times Magazine, is one of the best beer reads in forever.  Don't miss it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Beer Styles in Their Native Habitat

I am a bit more than a month out from turning in my manuscript on the cider book and, as a consequence, blogging has been thin and will get thinner still.  (Perhaps you noticed.)  Indeed, yesterday I had no time to blog but I did spend ten minutes in a Twitter debate which, thanks to short time, I'm about to recycle as blog content.   Wheee!  (This is one of those times when I point out that you get what you pay for.)

The thread started with this post at Focus on the Beer arguing that hoppy sour ales are a burgeoning regional specialty of Colorado:
Every brewery strives to have a unique style that helps define them.  Certain regions of the country are known for influencing unique styles of beer.  Granted, this does not mean they were the inventors or even originators of a style, but due to the unique and popular nature of the beer in that region, the names stuck. 

So, what is Colorado’s regional style?... It’s a merging of the last big popular style (IPA) and the current/upcoming style (sours/wild ales), and we’re on the forefront of this new trend in brewing. We propose to call the style: Colorado Wild IPA, a tour de force of hoppy bite and sour pucker playfully captivating our taste buds in balanced harmony.  
We are forever attempting to associate places in the US with certain styles of beer.  But for regional style to mean anything, it must include enduring popularity.  For about 18 months, the city of Portland was home to something like four local goses (well, more than that, because Cascade was making four).  Was this a "regional specialty" or a fad?  Go try to find a gose now.  No one is claiming it's a regional Portland specialty.  (I one-linered back to the Twittersphere, "When hoppy sours are as common in CO as helles in Bavaria, then we can talk.")

But then Stan Hieronymus reminded me that there is something typical in Oregon: cloudy beers.  They are so ubiquitous that I had just misplaced the information.  That is actually a recognizable local feature of Oregon beer that is unique to the region.  (And that's mostly just an Oregon thing, not a Pacific Northwest thing.)  Cloudy beers are as common in Oregon as hellesbier in Bavaria.

(And that led Dave Marliave and I down a rabbit hole that got us arguing about the nature of kvasnicové pivo and ... well, that's what happens on Twitter.)

So after this meandering and unenlightening ramble, I leave you with a question.  Oregon has cloudy beer.  Probably this hoppy sour thing is a bit early to designate as regional style, but I would argue that Colorado does have a particular take on the IPA, which is thick and cakey and super caramelly.  Are there others?  Criteria: must be widespread and particular to a region and a trend that has lasted more than five minutes. 

Any candidates?

Friday, March 21, 2014

Style Ontology and the Everyman Rule

One of the constant, unanswerable questions in the universe of beer concerns style.  A gueuze and a pilsner are obviously different beasts, and noting the history, national tradition, and methods of each helps us understand them.  But what about the difference between a German pilsner and helles?  Or, since it has been a topic on the blog this week, Irish and English stout.  One of the blog's best commenters, Daniel Warner, characterizes the thorny issue beautifully in this paragraph:
It's not really a historical question, but one of ontology. Does changing brown for patent malt change the essential nature of a porter? Which is to say, a dark beer of the style made in the UK, made like most UK beers of a combination of UK-style pale malt and cereal adjunct, with UK style top fermenting yeast and UK-style hops. All beers made in the region are made using similar styles and methods, so the "Irish" type is at best a subtype, and one I'm not convinced exists, given that brown malt was phased out almost entirely over the next few decades. [My bold.  Incidentally, "ontology" is concerned with the nature of being.]
There's actually a lot more, including a nice contribution from the Beer Nut.  I won't re-litigate the arguments here--you can go have a look and see where you fall on the (unresolvable) debate.

Source: Beer Growler/Juliano
It reminds me of a dimension to this discussion I've often wanted to include.  The question of style shifts before our eyes depending on what criteria we happen to be using at the time: history? brewing methods? ingredients?  They're all relevant, and depending on what style you're arguing for, you can make a case that a style exists based on a particular criterion.   To help cut through some of the over-considered haze, I'd like people to consider the everyman rule:  If you sat a random person in front of two beers, could she tell the difference?  This is not meant to trump any of the other ways of thinking about beer, just to clarify them.  A random person isn't going to be able to distinguish between a German pilsner and a helles.  Or Dortmund export.  On the other hand the everyman rule would, I think, support a difference between Irish and other kinds of stouts (even if we had to run it as a thought experiment in mid-19th century Dublin).

It's relevant partly as a check against hyper-geekiness.  When you spend a lot of time studying, brewing, and drinking beer, you tend to see subtle differences as gaping chasms.  But I spend a lot of time drinking beer with non-beer geeks, and I sometimes have the emperor's-new-clothes experience when I'm attempting to justify how one beer is meaningfully different from another.  To beer geeks, yes, the distinction between San Diego IPA and Portland IPA has meaning.  To everyone else, this is pointless hair-splitting.  Unless we want beer to become a tangled world of byzantine complexity, it's wise not to ignore that view.  The everyman rule is a good check on over-thinking style.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Beer Sherpa Recommends: Elysian Bramble On Saison

Portland Farmhouse and Wild Ale Festival
Saturday, March 29th 11am-10pm & Sunday, March 30th 11am-9pm
Saraveza, 1004 N. Killingsworth in the Bad Habit Room
More info

The beguiling saison, so seductive in its contours, so alluring in its possibility.  The stripped-down saison is a marvel of flavor.  With just pilsner malt and a modest gravity one can, through the wonders of farmhouse yeast, coax enormous character out of the beer.  And what character!  It's suggestive of fruit, spices, herbs, and flowers--any or all of the above.  For a number of years now, brewers have detected in these flavors the invitation to accentuate.  Why not add real fruit or spice or flowers to enhance the native qualities?  It's an unavoidable instinct; I have been gripped by it myself.

But the instinct is usually foolsgold.  Those amazing flavors come from the alchemy of fermentation, and they emerge clean and well-articulated when there's nothing to get in their way.  Once you start loading the kettle up with enhancements, though, you usually spoil the very thing that inspired the creativity.  Subtraction by addition.

But not always.  I'm a saison fiend: if a saison is on the menu, it's always the first beer I try.  On my recent trip to Seattle, I wandered past the Elysian outpost by the football stadium.  I scanned the menu, and eyed Bramble On with mild trepidation--but it was a saison, so there was no real choice in the matter.  I am pleased to report that not only was it one of the best saisons I've ever tasted, but one of the best beers.  An absolutely spectacular saison.

So what did Elysian do right?  To begin with, its saison rusticity remains intact--even though it was a fruit saison, the esters shone through.  At 5.6%, it was a small enough beer that the elements remained in balance.  Blackberries are hard to work with--they have a lot of acidity and their flavor can be dodgy.  Here that worked to the beer's advantage.  The berry flavor was quite subdued (and the beer was dry), but they added a lactic-like tanginess.  I don't know anything about how it was made, but there seemed to be a hint of funk, as if kissed by wild yeast.  Finally, it has an earthy note underneath that gives it depth and structure (the blackberry seeds?).  You should always have at least a pint before rendering judgment on a beer; sometimes first impressions deceive and by ounce 9 you're starting to hate the beer.  With Bramble On, the opposite happened.  By the last drop, I was sorely tempted to get a second.  But I was in Seattle for beer drinking, so I passed. A decision I regret to this day.

Portlanders will get a bite at this luscious apple come the 29th, for it will make an appearance at the Farmhouse and Wild Ale Fest at Saraveza.  There's a ton of interesting-sounding beer there, but do yourself a favor if you go and try the Bramble On. 

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular 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.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Guinness is Irish, and So is America

Two points connected tenuously by a holiday.  The first comes from a post at The Economist (hat tip with more at the recently-enlivened Beeronomics), wherein the title says it all: "Why Guinness is Less Irish Than You Think."  The writer can only muster a couple points to justify this Monday fodder (a blogger knows filler when he sees it): 1) Arthur Guinness was, 250 years ago, pro-British and 2) the giant corporation has many connections to London.  The first one is especially lame, existing merely to give the thin post at least two points.  The second one isn't much better, and the lead-in sentence is a good example why: "The beer the company has become most famous for—porter stout—was based on a London ale, a favourite of the street porters of Covent Garden and Billingsgate markets."

In terms of beer history, that's roughly like saying American-style ales don't exist because they were based on English bitters.  It's true that Dublin's breweries embraced porter (along with every other brewing country in the 19th century--porter was the first international style).  But they changed it.  London porter was made with brown malt, a rough, smoky old product that pre-dated Daniel Wheeler's method of roasting malt black.  In London, they continued making porter the same way, but Dublin dumped the brown and substituted it with black malt, splitting the line.  Then, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, Guinness began using unmalted roasted barley in its grist, bringing the recipe to its modern standard.  One of the reasons Guinness hopped the Irish Sea was to conquer England, which it did, eradicating porters and stouts from the island, at least for a time.  The Economist gets causality backward here.  (I don't care if you love or hate Guinness, but it is the most well-known brewer of a style that is uniquely Irish.)

Now, to segue awkwardly into the related topic: the strange spectacle that is the United States turning Irish for one day.  Our good friend The Beer Nut regularly points out that whatever this cultural affectation that we have in the US is, it's not Irish.  Fair point.  I have an Irish-born friend who told me she was mystified when she arrived in America and met people who said they were Irish.  She asked where they were from and they would say something like "Chicago."  It would have been someone with a grandparent from Belfast.

I understand that from a European perspective this seems bizarre, and until I visited Europe, I was in total agreement.  Now I think its the Americans who have things right.

History is not a tangible thing.  It's the story we tell to explain ourselves.  It's why Orwell's 1984 is so profound--the entire narrative hangs on his famous sentence, "He who controls the past controls the future."  It's a lot easier to control that past when there are remnants of it sitting in your home town.  If you happen to have, say, extant Roman or Celtic artifacts in your town, it gives form to the stories.  I grew up in one of the most recently-settled parts of the US (by Europeans, anyway), and we used to treasure our hundred-year old water pumps and wagon wheels.  You work with what you have.

But part of America's history is our European heritage.  If your family has lived in Dublin for ten generations, you get to call yourself Irish.  If your family lived for ten generations in Dublin and then moved to New York, do you lose that history?  The Irishness that Americans celebrate is different than Irish Irishness, but it's no less real or authentic.  Our ancestors arrived on this continent ten or a hundred or 500 years ago (and that includes most Native Americans, who at this point have histories as fragmented as my own), but that's not when their history began. 

So I say put on your green shirt, go hoist a pint of Guinness (or better yet, a Porterhouse Plain, if you can find it), and offer a sláinte or three.
The beer the company has become most famous for—porter stout—was based on a London ale, a favourite of the street porters of Covent Garden and Billingsgate markets. - See more at:
The beer the company has become most famous for—porter stout—was based on a London ale, a favourite of the street porters of Covent Garden and Billingsgate markets. - See more at:
The beer the company has become most famous for—porter stout—was based on a London ale, a favourite of the street porters of Covent Garden and Billingsgate markets. - See more at:

Friday, March 14, 2014

Fraud and Growth in the News

Two news items of note this week, in case you missed them.  The first would have been a signature case-in-point for my old campaign, the Honest Pint Project (RIP), and although that effort is over, the message remains relevant.  Behold:
For years, thousands of hockey fans and other arena-goers in Idaho have paid $4 for a "small" beer, served in a squatty plastic cup, and $7 for a "large" beer, served in a taller cup. According to a lawsuit filed this week against CenturyLink Arena in Boise, the cups hold the same amount of beer, despite their apparent differences.
The fraudulent glasses.  Source: Yahoo.
The part of this story I love the most is the exquisite response by the stadium's management. It should be studied by students of public relations as a classic in the "how to mess up a response to scandal" genre.
It was recently brought to our attention that the amount of beer that fits in our large (20-oz) cups also fits in our regular (16-oz) cups. The differentiation in the size of the two cups is too small.
When evidence of you blatant fraud goes public, you probably shouldn't compound the trouble with blatant lies.  The problem, as everyone who was defrauded knows, was not that the "differentiation" between the two cups.  It's that management used differently-shaped, same-sized cups to defraud their customers.  Good thing someone "brought it to their attention."  We are way too litigious generally, and this isn't a war crime, but CenturyLink Arena deserves to lose its shirt over this one.

In our second story, from the Denver Post, we have the following story:
When the guiding lights of American craft brewing met last weekend at the St. Julien Hotel in Boulder to sharpen their vision and undoubtedly drink a lot of good beer, the suggestion was raised that craft brewers should try to claim 20 percent of the U.S. beer market by 2020.  By the end of the meeting, the Brewers Association board had revised the organization’s mission to reflect that goal.
The article goes on to discuss how realistic the goal is, quoting various luminaries including our own Beeronomist.  Count me among the believers.  From 2005 through 2012 (the last years for which we have numbers), craft brewing has never grown less than 5.8% a year, and that was during the depths of the recession--and five of the last eight years have been in double digits.  The Brewers Association member breweries are currently picking up about a percentage point a year, a figure that will grow as the base grows.  Add into that the loathed "crafty" beers and the craft beers BA doesn't track (CBA, Goose Island), and I think it's easy enough to see how you make the goal. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hop Bursting (Part 2, How the Brewers Do It)

This is a follow up post.  To read the first part go here.

Yesterday we discussed the newly en vogue technique dubbed "hop bursting," wherein a brewer uses very few early-addition hops (or none).  Instead, she dumps in loads and loads of late-addition hops, partly to eke out a few IBUs, and partly to saturate the beer in juicy aromas and flavors.  All well and good, but as a practical matter, how does one do it?

First Wort and Mash Hopping
I turned first to Ben Edmunds, who made three different versions this winter (including possibly the first titular "hop burst" beer).  He and the Breakside brewers approached it in a quasi-scientific way, keeping several of the variables constant (malts and hops differed, but the water, IBUs, and ABV were identical).  I would expect nothing less of them.  In all cases, they used either a first wort hop or mash hop addition.  (Ben observed, correctly, that "I imagine there are some folks who think that First Wort or Mash hopping would knock these out of the 'hop bursted' category."  No doubt they will--but as I think we'll see, that is almost certain to become standard at the commercial level.)  In mash hopping, you put the hops in with the mash where they don't get to boiling temperatures and don't go on to the kettle.  In first-wort hopping, you throw the hops in while the beer is coming over from the lauter and then heating up to a boil--it's standard in the Czech Republic.  In both cases, breweries believe the hopping is gentler and milder.

Here are the three different hop schedules they tried:

1) First wort Hop, 15 min addtn, 5 min addtn, whirlpool addtn, 2 x Dry Hop
2) Mash hop, whirlpool addtn, 2 x dry hop
3) Mash Hop, 20 min addtn, whirlpool addtn, fermenter hop, dry hop
Their conclusions?
  1. Two dry hops (or a fermenter hop and a dry hop) create aromas that are almost never achieved with a single dry hop, even if the single dry hop quantity is doubled.
  2.  Mash hops seem to provide more residual hop flavor than first wort hops; hop utilization (and bitterness) from first wort hopping is significantly higher than from mash hopping.
  3. Varietal and quantity of hops still seem to be more important than any particular sequence of late kettle addition hops.
  4. All of these beers had a danker, "fresher hop" flavor than beers where we used more classic "flavor additions" at 30 mins.

"Different" Bitterness
As you can see, Ben was finding different qualities in the flavors and aromas depending on how the hops were used.  One of the theories about hop bursting is that it provides a "softer" bitterness.  There are so many different elements that go into our perception of hoppiness that I'm skeptical of this claim.  Zach Beckwith at Three Creeks in Bend Sisters is, too.  His comment:
At Three Creeks we have been playing with hop bursting in a number of beers over the last 5-6 months.  In my experience the notion that eliminating the bittering charge creates a "softer" bitterness is unfounded; more accurately I would call it a "different" bitterness, more of a late hitting, lingering bitterness.  I attribute that to the use of massive quantities of the new school hop varieties that more often than not have alpha acid values at 10%+.  My two cents is that at least with our beers we've had the best results with our Hodag CDA where a maltier backbone seems to minimize that "different" bitterness.  I have incorporated a "modified" hop bursting in our Raptor Rye IPA with great results, simply reducing the bittering charge.  I would also like to mention that Stone may not have invented hop bursting but Mitch Steele has popularized it recently with his IPA book and a recent Zymurgy article on the subject.  A key component Steele points to is using a great number of varieties as well as quantities of late hops.
If you didn't read that whole paragraph carefully, let me draw your eye to the last sentence, which echoes Ben's final point about varieties.

Foam Stability
Finally, I'd like to give the last word to Mitch Steele, Stone's brewmaster.  In comments on the original Facebook post, he acknowledged Stone's inspiration for Go To IPA. 
Hop Bursting is a term and process that homebrewers developed a few years ago. We take much inspiration from homebrewing, many of us at Stone are/have been homebrewers. And lots of commercial brewers use this technique--though they may not call it that. I think for certain beers, it really works.
We had a further private exchange, and I asked whether there were any bittering hops in Go To and he mentioned a small amount of first wort hops.  These aren't used so much for bittering, though, as to keep foam down in the kettle.  As I was doing my Googling, I found this reference several times.  It may well be that homebrewers can get away with no early hops, but on a commercial scale, this may be a problem.  Since the definition is still forming, I'd suggest being a little loose about whether or not mash, first-wort, or even standard bittering hops disqualify a beer from being called "hop burst."  The goal should be to produce a sensory effect, not adhere to an arbitrary standard.  In other words, the proof is in the mouth, not the recipe.

(And if you'll forgive me one parenthetical indulgence, I'll add my own two cents.  Based on my own experience with my pale, mash hopping seems to accentuate that saturated quality of flavor the most, but it's pretty easy to overshoot it and end up with a beer that tastes like orange juice.  I do like a little touch of bittering stiffness in there to round things out.  My preference is mash hop plus a dash of bittering hops, then come in strong at 20 minutes.  I will try Ben's dual dry-hop this year.  Please feel free to share your own experiences in comments.)

Thanks all--I don't know about you, but I am a smarter man today than when I started the week.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Introducing "Hop Bursting" (Part 1, History)

(See also Part Two, how the brewers do it.)

I owe Stone Brewing an apology.  Last week the brewery sent out a press release to go with its new release called Go To IPA.  It included a passage that seemed like PR babble to me, with a piece of jargon added on top like a cherry:
"To achieve these glorious hop qualities and still maintain a low ABV, a technique called 'hop bursting' was implemented. This contemporary approach involves infusion of a massive amount of hops during the final phase of the brewing process to coax out the robust flavors and aromas of the hops."

Since there's nothing new about adding a massive amounts of late hops (it is, indeed, almost obligatory in 2014), the idea that this was something contemporary or that it needed a new name seemed like PR gloss. I (unwisely) mocked Stone for trying to drum up excitement over a standard practice (but wisely did it only on Facebook).  In short order, hive mind tipped me off that the term "hop bursting" didn't originate with Stone and had a real if elusive definition.

I did a bit of Googling.  It turns out that hop bursting is not the act of merely adding a lot of late-addition hops--it's only adding late addition hops.  No bittering hops at all.  It's a homebrewing technique that apparently dates back about a decade.  The earliest reference I can find is Jamil Zainasheff, who adds this introduction to an article he wrote back in '05 for Zymurgy: "I hadn't heard of what people call 'hop bursting' at that time or I would have mentioned it in the article. In this article I describe the process of massive late hopping (or hop bursting) and it includes a great recipe called Evil Twin." I consulted Stan Hieronymus's For the Love of Hops and he confirms that it bubbled up from the homebrew-o-sphere.  

Homebrewers mainly go the full monty, adding no hops to the beer until about the last 20 minutes of the boil.  Because it takes a long time for hops to fully isomerize and add bitterness, the homebrewers add a truckload of late-addition hops in recompense.  One theory holds that these later hops impart a softer bitterness, IBU for IBU.  No one has done a lick of research though, and that theory has the aroma of rumor to me.  I think it's more likely that it tastes softer because there's less real bitterness. 

But is it really a new technique?  To this, I think we may have no quick answer, though I'll share an anecdote by way of hypothesis.  Unbeknownst to myself, I have apparently been hop bursting for a few years.  It's the hallmark of my long-term project to create the perfect pale ale.  The first time I tried it, I used a small sprinkling of mash hops, then came in hard at 20 minutes.  I've experimented by first-wort hopping and using a wee bitter charge, but the 20 minute mega-load is a standard.  Did I invent hop bursting?

I have been contacting a few breweries (more on what they report tomorrow) and Ben Edmunds, who recently made some hop-burst beers, referred me to Barley Brown's, where he said the technique has been in use for awhile.  Tyler Brown's response to my inquiry was instructive:
"To be honest, I don't recall ever hearing the term "Hop Bursting" until just recently.  After looking it up... it resembles some of the techniques we've been doing for years. I once kicked around the thought of doing a "No IBU Ale" where we added hops to the mash, none in the kettle or whirlpool, and then a ton of dry hops. In theory it would be a Zero IBU beer."

"To answer some of your question, a beer we brew: Turmoil, uses half of it's hop bill in dry hop, and out of the the entire hop bill, less than 10% is used early in the kettle. We've been brewing Turmoil for 10 years as of January."

So there you go.  If I thought of this technique myself and Barley Brown's thought of it themselves, what's the likelihood that it really only dates back a decade?  Like so many practices in the art of brewing, one should always be suspicious of claims of innovation.  My guess is that this has been done from time to time across the millennia.  I mean, German brewers used to add chimney soot to beer, so how would this have escaped their notice?

Nevertheless, it's obviously more than PR gloss.  The IPA era extends back about twenty years, and over that period, breweries have gone from hyper-bitter beers to hyper-juicy beers, shifting the moment they added the hops from earlier to later.  Hop bursting describes a technique that is the ultimate terminus of that trend, when no (or very few) early hops are used.  It's a useful term, and I suspect it describes a technique that will come into regular use in the coming years.

In Part 2 tomorrow, I'll describe some of the ways breweries are implementing hop bursting in their beers. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Big Beer Bets on Cider

From time to time, I get to take a surreptitious glance at the Symphony/IRI tracking numbers for beer.  Because Symphony tracks grocery store sales, it's a great way to see what's happening in national trends, especially among the bigger breweries.  For decades now, a portion of big beer's income comes from a slice of marginal products aimed at non-beer drinkers.  A few years past it was hard teas and lately shandies have been popular.  They're all light and sweet--alcoholic sodas--and sold more on the basis of novelty and hype as flavor.  In a few years, the novelty wears off, sales tank, and they look for the next big thing.  Now it's cider's turn.

AB InBev releases Johnny Appleseed next month.
St. Louis-based A-B, the North American headquarters for A-B InBev, confirmed the beverage will launch next year, but more details about the packaging and marketing plans won't be released until early 2014, according to Paul Chibe, vice president of U.S. marketing.

It follows the release of Stella Artois Cidre, which must have been a winner for the company.  Whereas Cidre is positioned (absurdly, but much like Stella beer) as a sophisticated premium product, AB InBev is hoping Johnny Appleseed captures the success of Bulmers a few years back.  They're pitching it as a product to pour over ice.  (You may now shudder.)

MillerCoors, by contrast, is going for the "common man" with Smith and Forge:
TV spots, which begin on March 31, feature a mutton-chopped character named Cornelius who witnesses male feats like boulder-splitting and blacksmithing, while describing Smith & Forge as "strong, sturdy, but not too sweet." At 6% alcohol-by-volume, Smith & Forge is slightly above the average cider alcohol content. Packaging for the cider, which comes in 16-ounce cans, highlights the alcohol content in orange and includes the tagline: "Made Strong."
Actually, they don't seem to be going for the common man at all--they seem to be going for that coveted hipster demo.  Right on cue, the release party was last week in Brooklyn.  (You may now guffaw.)

For what it's worth, these both seem like half-assed responses to a market they don't understand.  Rather than attempting to help strengthen a product line and gain a foothold there--as Angry Orchard has done--these are nothing more than momentary lunges at a trend.  The "brands" (such as they are--more like "the lame ideas we came up with over lunch")  are transparently corporate and risible.  Smith and Forge, promoted by a fake lumberjack, is simultaneously weird (lumberjack?) and skit-thin.

A-B didn't even bother to come up with a terrible image.  They just lamely offer this excuse for a product: "Inspired by a legendary adventurer and storyteller, Johnny Appleseed Hard Apple Cider was created for anyone with a story to tell."   Yeesh. 

It probably won't be good for cider, but it probably won't be too bad, either.  They seem destined for the same dustbin as Shock Top Lemon Shandy and Twisted Tea.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Pyramid at Thirty

What does Seattle taste like?

The old Hart Brewing building in Kalama, WA.
Source: Brewers Association
Last week, Pyramid brewing had a media event to celebrate its 30th anniversary.  That's a big milestone, and by any definition, Pyramid is correctly described as a founding member of craft brewing.  The brewery launched a wheat beer in 1985 (not Hefeweizen, which came in '93, but a recognizable family member) and Snow Cap in '86.  Apricot Ale came in '94.  All those beers were born in Kalama, where the brewery was originally located.  By 1994, it had become a top-five craft brewery and a fixture in the Pacific Northwest.  The brewery still makes those three beers and is still brewed in the Pacific Northwest.  But Pyramid has gone a long way from Kalama.

In 1989, Beth Hartwell, Pyramid's founder (then Hart Brewing), sold the company to Seattle investors.  In 1992, Pyramid merged with Thomas Kemper, a lager brewery, and in 1995 went public.  It was one of the fastest-growing breweries of the 1990s, and added a Seattle brewery and then expanded to Berkeley.  Unfortunately, it was one of those semi-casualties of the 1990s, when a number of breweries get caught up in mergers and expansion, seeming to loose their sense of identity as they raced ahead to capture market share.  A few years later, the mergers continued anew as they bought MacTarnahan's (now Portland Brewing) and were later bought by Magic Hat and then North American Breweries, a collective that included Genesee, Labatt USA, and Dundee.  And then still later they were purchased, as if from an SNL skit, by Cerveceria Costa Rica, a unit of the Costa Rican company Florida Ice and Farm Co.  Seriously

To make things all the more confusing, Pyramid is actually brewed in Portland at Portland Brewing.  Unlike CBA, where Widmer, Kona, and Redhook have separate breweries and brewers, Pyramid and Portland are essentially two brands of the same brewery.  Ryan Pappe, the head brewer, oversees the beer from both lines. There is also a small Pyramid brewery at the Alehouse across from Safeco Field in Seattle, but that's where Kim Brusco, a veteran of Northwest brewing, makes house specialties that never see the inside of a bottle.  Meanwhile, there were PR folks in from Buffalo, NY who had organized and promote the event.

The whole thing is odd--like a brewery having an out-of-body experience.  My relationship with Pyramid goes back to the late 1980s, and I think of it as an old standard.  For four years, though, until the Alehouse brewery opened back up in 2012, Pyramid made no beer in Seattle.  Their presence in Seattle is still somewhat spectral, especially when you add the dislocation of people converging from Oregon and New York.

It's not to say that Pyramid isn't making good beer.  Ryan Pappe has quietly honed the process at the brewery in Northwest Portland, and recent selections from both Portland Brewing and Pyramid have been excellent.  Portland's Royal Anne Cherry Stout and the current Rose Hip Gold are both accomplished and tasty.  If you looked at the recent year-end numbers, Oregonians have quietly been drinking quite a bit of Portland's beer, too.  Pyramid's line is pretty familiar, but they launching a hoppy lager called IPL that is really nice--lots of floral hop flavor and aroma and a crisp, sessionable body.  I'm less thrilled with the spring seasonal, a strawberry saison that is a bit muddled and indifferent.  But hey, different strokes.  Whatever ill you might say about Portland and Pyramid, it won't be about the quality of the beer.

Still, the event was like a tour of the future, and I wasn't sure I understood what it meant.  We have had the luxury for the past thirty years of being able to associate our favorite beers with places.  It's the kind of thing that leads to endless debates about best beer city.  But what happens when breweries start to become disconnected from their home place.  Can they still be considered "local?"  And more to the point, what does "local" even mean?  Is Seattle beer so particular you could tell if it was brewed in Portland?

Stan Hieronymus has been working on a project that tackles this very question. I thought I'd see if he could make sense of this future that looms in front of us.  He agrees that "place" is a tricky thing to define.
The first brewery opened in Louisville/Lafayette (Colorado) in 2012 and now there are six (with more planned). Their total population is about 45,000 and they have easy access to at least 30 other breweries in Boulder County - and then there is Denver....  To use one example in Louisville, Twelve Degree Brewing (as in Belgian brewing degrees) is totally Belgian inspired. Using yeast sourced from Belgium, etc. It doesn't taste "like" Louisville, but maybe it will in 10 years.
He added a little later, "I'm not arguing that I can taste two beers blind and say, 'This one is from Michigan' and 'This one is from Wisconsin.'"

But we do know what Belgian, English, Czech, and German beer tastes like.  Those places have a taste.  They come partly from ingredients, but largely from process and culture.  America has evolved enough that we have a typical range of beer styles (hoppy, low-ester ales usually inflected by caramel malt).  But cities? 

Pyramid is firmly in the American tradition.  Their current line-up includes three hoppy beers (all use American hops and caramel malts) and three wheat beers.  It has three beers that go back twenty years or more.  With that heavy emphasis on wheat, you could even make the case that there's a Northwest influence.  I know that most craft fans will place a brewery owned by a Costa Rican company in a different category than one owned by a guy who lives down the street.  For now that's fine.  But in another thirty years (hell, in another five), we're going to have a ton of beer of unknown or murky provenance.  Will we have a solid enough sense of place that it will matter whether Pyramid is brewed in Portland or Seattle--or whether Sierra Nevada is brewed in Chico or North Carolina, for that matter?

Pyramid's 30th anniversary gives us a great opportunity to mull these things over.  And if you haven't had a Pyramid for awhile, buy a sixer of the IPL and see what you think.  It's quite nice.

Full disclosure: Pyramid paid for my visit to Seattle.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

The Brewers Association Evolves

Yesterday morning, the Brewers Association (BA) announced some changes.  This is pretty deep-weeds stuff for most beer fans who mainly care about the beer, but no organization has been more effective in defining "craft beer" or promoting it.  The BA has done an amazing job establishing a clear, understandable vision for craft beer (one that has even affected beer markets abroad), and that vision has been the guiding light for the industry.  So yes, changes in definitions are deep-weeds stuff, but they may also have real-world effects in the way Americans think about beer. 

So what are the changes?  The biggies involve the definition of what a craft brewery is.  We'll get to the changes in a moment, but let's have a tiny recap first.  In the 1980s, when the BA's precursor organization formed, you had two kinds of breweries: large lager-making breweries and flea-sized new breweries that made weird stuff.  The gulf between the two was vast and unmistakeable.  For the first 15 years of "microbrewing," even the largest breweries were by any objective measure still pipsqueaks.  But then they started to grow and the lines blurred.   Taking a new name in 2007, the Brewers Association decided to define their membership as "small, independent, and traditional" breweries.

This definition reflected certain values, but it also provided a blueprint for membership in a world that was getting less obvious with mergers, part-ownerships, and super-charged growth.  The Brewers Association isn't an advocacy group, it's a trade organization representing the interests of its members.  There's always been a genius and structural fault with the definition of "small, independent, and traditional": it's both concrete and aspirational.  By combining values into the qualifications for membership, BA has given itself a dose of emotional energy.  The members feel they embody those values, and so craft brewing has taken on a mission larger than selling beer.  But values are incredibly hard to police, and as brewing gets bigger and more complex, that element will be harder and harder to define. 

But enough preamble.  Here are the changes:


Old: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.

New: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.

Old: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

New:  Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Old: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

New: A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.
The biggest changes come "traditional."  The BA have already revised "small" once, bumping up the definition from 2 million barrels to six in 2010.  (Editorial comment: by no definition in the world is 186 million gallons "small."  That is, for example, five times the size of Budweiser Budvar, an international brand.)  "Traditional," the values element, is of course the most difficult to define, and now they've dumped the part of the definition involving adjuncts--which was silly, but at least made sense.  The resulting language, "beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation," is word salad.  Traditional and innovative are polar opposites. As the notion of "craft beer" has evolved from a sense of recreating traditional European styles to one focused on experimentation, the values bullet point has collapsed into incoherence.  Now craft beer is anything that is traditional or the subversion of tradition. 

The explanation behind that change comes in the press release.  BA has finally come to recognize that the old dichotomy of "all-malt beers" and "adjunct beers" were political categories, not brewing categories.  They comment:
"The revised definition recognizes that adjunct brewing is quite literally traditional, as brewers have long brewed with what has been available to them."
This comes off as a beat-up-the-BA post, but that's not really my point.  The Brewers Association has been instrumental in promoting the idea of local, high-quality beer in the US.  The result of their work has been a massive boon to beer drinkers everywhere.  What I find interesting in these changes is how they reflect on the changing world of craft brewing.  In the 1980s, there weren't very many styles of beers and it was easy to tell the difference between Budweiser and the corner brewpub.  In 2014, the differences are less obvious.  The biggest craft breweries have multiple plants and sell millions of barrels of beer, just like Budweiser.  (Sure, they sell a lot less beer than Bud, but let's not kid ourselves by characterizing them as "small.")  Many craft breweries have complex ownership structures, just like Budweiser.  (Some of them are even owned, wholly or partly, by Budweiser.)  And now breweries make beer out of so many ingredients--ingredients that would have seemed scandalous 25 years ago--that trying to distinguish between part-corn Miler and a part-corn blueberry saison is untenable, at least when you're defining membership.

The real point isn't that the Brewers Association is fickle, but rather that the nature of beer, constantly in flux, means their membership rules are also going to be constantly changing.  The rules trail along, trying to keep up with the changes in brewing.  Because BA is the main mouthpiece of American craft brewing, those changes also signal the evolving identity of American brewing.  And that is always fascinating.

Monday, March 03, 2014

St. Feuillien

Busy today, so I leave you with an image from 2011--the old brewery at St. Feuillien.  Such a gorgeous old place.

Back tomorrow--