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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cider Saturday: How Angry Orchard is Made, an Interview with David Sipes

No matter what you think of the ciders of Angry Orchard, you must contend with them.  The current explosion in cider has been fueled in large part by Boston Beer's apple division, and America's understanding of cider is being shaped by Angry Orchard's flavor palate.  More than one out of every two ciders sold in the US is made by Angry Orchard, and last year the company sold 8 million cases (or roughly 58,000 barrels) of cider. 

Source: Shenken News Daily
Cider makers are required to divulge precious little about their process or ingredients, and I have long wondered how Angry Orchard is made and of what.  By chance, the cidery contacted me and asked if I'd like to do an interview with Angry Orchard's cider maker, David Sipes.  I attempted to glean the answers to those questions, and you can have a look and see how well they've been answered.  (The one most people are probably most interested in--whether or not Angry Orchard is made of all juice or is strengthened with sugar and watered down--was the one question he did not answer.)  The interview was conducted via email.

I. Fruit/Juice. You guys are making a TON of cider. Where does your fruit/juice come from? The website lists a range of sources, including Norman cider fruit. Is it concentrate, juice, or do you have orchards (or a mixture of all three)? I know you use different blends for different products, but could you describe generally the blends you come up with for, say, your Crisp Apple and Traditional Dry (% sharps and bittersharps, % dessert, % bittersweet)

1. Where does your fruit/juice come from?
David Sipes: "We’ve been experimenting with cider making for a little over 15 years and have found that apples from different countries, including Italy and France, and certain regions in the U.S., including the Pacific Northwest, contribute to making great hard cider. It really depends on the cider that we’re looking to create as to what apples we use. For our Cider House Collection, Iceman and Strawman, and our core collection – Crisp Apple, Apple Ginger and Traditional Dry – we use a blend of Italian and French apples. Green Apple is our first year-round nationally available cider that uses American Apples. We also use American apples for our seasonals, Cinnful Apple and Elderflower."

"We found complex and unique apples from historic orchards in Italy and France. In Normandy and Bretagne, France, farmers have been growing cider apple varieties unique to cider making for hundreds of years. Unlike ordinary apples, the bittersweet apples from France used in Angry Orchard impart tart and tannic characteristics and tend to look gnarly and unattractive – serving as inspiration for the Angry Orchard name. In the southern foothills of the Alps in Northern Italy, the Aldo Adige region (or Südtirol in German) well known for wine production, we found that the flavor profile of the culinary apples is much like grapes, unique to the terroir of the region. Blending the French bittersweet apples with the Italian culinary apples creates the balance of tannin, acidity, and apple sweetness unique to Angry Orchard hard ciders like Crisp Apple and the Cider House Collection."

"Certain regions within the United States, such as the Pacific Northwest, share characteristics – rich soil, ample sunshine and water – with the apple-growing regions of France and Italy. Our cider makers found that the fruit forward, less tannic and mild acidic qualities of the juice from culinary apples from Washington State, coupled with our yeast and fermentation process created the right aroma, body and flavor for our newest Green Apple cider. American culinary apples also contributed to the creation of our limited release hard cider seasonal styles, Angry Orchard Cinnful Apple and Elderflower."

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Bomber Bubble?

If you keep your eyes cast upward as you hike the wooded forests (or cities) of Oregon, you will occasionally see an ancient tree that appears dead at first glance.  But then you spy one small branch with glossy, green leaves.  That's more or less what's become of one of my favorite blogs, It's Pub Night, on which blogger Bill Night has managed just four posts in 2014.  Ah, but what posts.  This week he updated his Portland Beer Price Index, the leafy branch he has sworn to keep alive.  (And he's only barely managing it, having missed the first quarter's report.)  Nevertheless, Monday's results were most interesting:
  • 6-packs: $9.66, down 3 cents (Q1: -.01, Q2: -.02)
  • 22-ounce bombers: $5.54, up 30 cents (Q1: +.30, Q2: -.00)
Bill has data going back five years now, and that gives us a pretty decent sense of what's been happening in the market.  (Although Bill's numbers are based on Portland prices, the trends should be interesting to everyone in the country.) If you look at the long-term trend, prices tend to bounce around.  Surprisingly, they go down as well as up.  If you look at the results from any single quarter and try to extrapolate out, doom is liable to follow.  You can also make mistakes if you compare trendlines between any two categories over a short period (bombers down 9 cents, sixers up 12 cents--the bomber market is collapsing!). 

Nevertheless, I am prepared to stride boldly toward the doom and ask a question: are we approaching a bomber bubble? 

Several factors are at play here.  For one, bombers are a fantastic deal for breweries.  They retail, on average, for 25.2 cents an ounce; six-packs fetch just 13.4 cents.  Or to use Bill's other fantastic innovation, the equivalent six-pack cost for a $5.54 bomber is $18.13.  So long as people are buying bombers, breweries are happy to earn nearly twice the value on a barrel of beer.  But equally important, bombers allow a lot more participants to enter the grocery-store market.  A great many of the Portland-area brewpubs use mobile bottling for 22 ounce bottles, and some grocery stores have divided their beer aisles nearly in thirds, with equal portions devoted to mass-market beer, craft sixers, and 22s.  Breweries make more money, and consumers have greater variety with this surfeit of bombers.  But therein lies my worry.

Psychologically, a big bottle that retails for nearly half the cost of six small bottles sort of seems like a decent deal.  It also facilitates sampling from more local breweries.  But there is a ceiling here.  Who among us hasn't taken a few bombers to the cash register, only to discover we're dropping $25 on three or four bottles?  (And then sigh disappointedly when we find they contain fairly average beer later that evening.)  At what price does the bubble burst?  $5.75, $6, $6.50?  I am not quite so foolish as to wander into the doom of that prediction, but I can say confidently that there is a price.  And the faster the price rises, the quicker the bubble will burst.

I'll keep watching Bill's PBPI--when the price of an average bomber drops thirty cents, that'll be a sign the bubble is bursting.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

IPA Versus Helles

The pubs opened their doors at 8:30 am in Portland this morning for what could be billed as the beer cup--Germany versus USA in the World Cup.  A tie or win gets us out of the first round.  It's also a pretty good match between beer giants.  If both teams make it through, they'll join Belgium in the field of 16--along with France and the Netherlands.  Of the great beer powers to enter the World Cup, only England is currently out of contention.  Okay, back to my trusty Univision stream.  (Fifteen minutes in, under a torrential downpour, Germany is looking very good.  Gulp.)

Update.  Nil-nil at the break.  As a lifelong sports fan, I have grown to appreciate the ways excitement and tension build in different sports.  Although I'm not a serious soccer fan, I love the way in which a tied game--at least in big games--produces an experience almost like a horror film.  It's a palpable sense of anxiety that comes with anticipation.  Even a goal by the opposition relieves it--just like you finally relax when the killer bloodily lops off a teenager's head.  No other sport does that.

Update 2.  We lost, 1-0.  Frowny face.

Update 3.  We advanced to the sweet 16 thanks to a win by Portugal--the team that prevented us from advancing in the final 20 seconds of the last game.  Smiley face. IPAs and helleses all around.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Pints Helles

We come now, tentatively, incrementally, languidly, into the warmer months.  (As I write this, a charcoal batting of clouds clings to the city like a death shroud.)  As we do, we come to the season of session beers--light, balanced, refreshing.  I know some of you will allow me to pry your cold, dead fingers off your bottles of IPA only ... well, never.  Happy drinking.  For the rest of you, I have a perfect suggestion that functions simultaneously as a liquid aeroplane: the wonderful new Helles from Pints.

The unassuming helles bier is like a good friend--so comfortable and relaxing that you sometimes forget to take notice of it.  But when you do, you will find mighty properties hiding in plain sight.  Helleses are popular throughout Bavaria, but they evoke the town of Munich especially.  I had been making my way slowly south by the time I finally made it into some of the truly mammoth beer halls of Munich and drinking a good deal of helles along the way.  But there's a special enthusiasm for helles in the city, and I watched with wonder as relatively slight (and others who were not so slight) slugged back liters of the stuff.  They were especially avid in the Hofbrauhaus which, sad to say, has the worst helles in Munich.  If you happen to visit, go there for a quick half liter so you can shake hands with the ghosts of the place, but then depart hastily for the nearest Augustiner.

Or you could just go to Northwest Portland and have a pint of Pints' Helles.  (Sorry, no liter maßkrug for you.)  Helles, for as simple as it is in appearance, is a balancing act of real difficulty.  The elements are not shouty; they whisper.  But that doesn't mean they aren't distinctive.  It took a trip to Bavaria for me to understand German malt--and therefore malt itself--and the liberal sampling of helles biers.  Base malts can contribute so much if you let them.  In helleses, the bready malts communicate fresh-baked loaves, warmth even.  They are soft and round.  In middling helleses, the hops are absent or nearly so, but this is wrong.  They should lightly spice the beer and enhance the malt's flavors and aromas.  All of this is true about Alan Taylor's Helles at Pints--and I'm not surprised that a German-trained brewer knew what to do.

I would take a growler to the pub so that you can take home what amounts to roughly two liters of this summery potion.  If you split it with someone else, while you're watching the squirrels steal your cherries, say, you'll have just enough for one proper Munich measure.

"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, June 23, 2014

A First Taste of Benedictine Brewery's Black Habit

A few dozen Oregonians are going to get to try the first version of Benedictine Brewery's first beer, called Black Habit.  If you want to be one of the lucky few, you have to zip down to Mount Angel Abbey between 1 and 5 pm next Saturday (June 28) for the Festival of Arts and Wine.  Just 130 cases were brewed, and they'll only be sold by the case. 

Benedictine Brewery, for those of you who may have missed the news, is a very slowly developing project of Mount Angel Abbey.  Monks at Mount Angel have been working to find a place at the monastery to house the brewery while working simultaneously on recipe development.  Over the course of several months, the monks, in collaboration with folks from OSU and professional brewers, have worked up this initial beer.  The brewery's not in place, so they collaborated with Coalition to produce this first batch--which is still an iteration or two from final.  The monastery's Chris Jones calls it a "prototype," because they're still fine tuning the elements. 

The abbey brewed an initial test batch and then went into yeast trials, brewing versions that used different yeasts in fermentation and bottle-conditioning. The Abbey plans to follow a commercial model typical to monastery breweries and have a stable line of beers, so they have to get the specs exactly right.  What they're shooting for is a beer that is complex but approachable.  When you think of dark abbey ales, you think of sweetish strong beers.  Mount Angel is shooting for something a little different.  They want the malts to show more malt and spice (rye was a part of at least one batch), and the yeasts to give a bit of rusticity.  It's strongish (7.8%) but not crazy strong.  It borrows elements from dubbel, saison, and Oregon hoppiness. 

I feel like we ended up exactly what we were shooting for by bringing out some subtle flavors and esters from the yeast, blending that with a dynamic grain bill and finishing it with a healthy dose of Oregon hops.
A 12-bottle case of 22 bottles (eventually they'll be 500 ml) will go for $84, which works out to $7/bottle. 

The monastery's own brewery is getting closer.  They've decided to locate it at an old barn on the property--different from a place called "The Fort" they had chosen earlier.  The Fort would have required a lot of seismic work, so the barn it is.  Jones says brewing could be underway in eight months time, but I wouldn't bet on it.  The work of monks seems to unfold more slowly than even they anticipate.  But things are moving along. 

In the meantime, Jones says, "we’ll do this one-time special event [this weekend's Festival] and Father Martin and I are cranking out prototypes and beer experiments on the new 10 gallon stainless pilot system."  I may have to see if I can sit in on one of those brewing sessions.  Witnessing a monk crank out experimental beer is something I'd very much enjoy.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Big Brewers Making Specialty Beer: Lessons from MillerCoors

Multinational beer companies hire the very best talent they can find, and the brewers and chemists at Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors certainly have the experience and knowledge to brew any beer in the world.  But there's a real question about whether or not they're any better poised than craft breweries to compete purely on the basis of quality.

Last week, I had a rare opportunity to see what happens when a large brewery "unleashes" its brewers to make any beers they want.  In the case of MillerCoors, these are small, specialty-arms of the company that look just like craft breweries: the Sandlot, AC Golden, and the Tenth Street Brewery and Miller Valley Brewery (both in Milwaukee).  I was pretty psyched to see what their brewers could produce, and the line-up, which included six beers, four of them 8% and higher, was intriguing.  It is essentially the reverse of turning craft styles into commodity beer--it's when giant breweries attempt to make the kind of specialty beer that will never become mainstream.   The results were surprising and illuminating, and here are the lessons I took away from the experience.

Lesson 1: Good Beer Is Really Hard
I don't care how badass you are or how many letters follow your title: it's really hard to brew beer that is complex yet balanced, characterful yet drinkable.  You don't just whip up a world classic because you want to. 

Let's start where I started, with Sandlot's Wildpitch Hefe Weizen (4.4%). It was properly cloudy and had a light clove aroma.  But a sip revealed a problem: the malts were wrong.  It of course employs wheat, but that's only half the battle.  Wildpitch was thin and hollow, not soft and round.  A good weizen depends not only on wheat, but the aromatics and flavor of German malts, usually pilsner.  This beer, which was so thin it almost had a cidery quality, bore the telltale signs of American two-row.  One of the brewers, Addison Horine, was on hand and he confirmed the malt bill.  Nice yeast character, more clove than banana (as I prefer), but that wasn't enough.  

That experience was typical.  Like so many one-off craft beers I've tried over the decades, the beers had some fine qualities, but none cohered into excellence.  The others:
  • Frederick Miller Chocolate Lager (5.5%), made with cocoa nibs.  Sally called it, accurately, a liquid Tootsie Roll.  It was well made, but tasted and smelled like Hershey's chocolate syrup.  Pleasant enough, but it didn't really taste like beer.
  • Tenth Street Fragrant Fire (11.9%), a bourbon-aged "rye wine" made with Sichuan peppercorns, tien-tsin peppers, and Chinese mustard seeds.  A strange melange that I actually  enjoyed.  The whiskey and spice harmonized in an odd but pleasing way (though they didn't please Sally)--sort of like a gingery rum cake.  A worthy experiment.
  • Tenth Street Big Eddy Stout (10.5%), a blend that had aged in bourbon barrels one and three years.  The base beer was slightly thin on the palate, but suitably velvety and only inflected--not saturated--in bourbon.  But here's the really shocking part: it had quite a bit of brettanomyces.  Nowhere in the description did it mention this, nor in my discussion with the MillerCoors people.  I assume it was a wild infection people were just pretending didn't exist.  (In fact, it was a fairly interesting flavor element.)
  • AC Golden Brewing Goldenator Doppelbock (7.8%).  The brewery proudly talked about double decocting it, but this beer was a disaster.  It had no malt character--more American malts?--and punched under its weight.  But what really shocked me were the esters--tons of them.  In a blind tasting, there's no way I would have guessed it was supposed to be a lager.  Bocks work because, despite having lots of malt sweetness, they are lager-clean and ester-free. 
  • Sandlot Nine Inch Ale (9.3%), a double IPA.  A strange bird that everyone was promoting.  Double IPAs are typically brewed thin so that the malt doesn't interfere with the hopping, especially tons of late-addition and dry-hopping.  This beer was the reverse; a heavy, sweet beer balanced by thumping bitterness and only a trace of aroma and hop flavor.  More like an old-school American barley wine, and pretty far out of step with where modern IPAs are heading.
In sum, none of these beers was a world-beater (though I thought the Fragrant Fire was noteworthy), and one was infected.  I have no doubt that the brewers could eventually dial in most of these beers if they worked on them (though barrel-aging, as Tenth Street demonstrated, is inherently uncontrollable).  But being well-trained professionals does not make it any easier to walk up to the plate and hit a home run, especially with weird styles you've never brewed before.  It takes a lot of time and effort to make exceptional beer.

Lesson 2: Big Breweries Don't Know Specialty Beer
Making production beer requires a brewer to put his attention on consistency.  When I visited the Budweiser brewery in St. Louis, I came to understand the overwhelming focus on this element of brewing.  It's a critical skill if you're making millions of barrels of mass market beer, but it doesn't serve you well when you start pulling out the boubon barrels and Sichuan peppercorns.  Specialty beer--the styles we associate with craft breweries--has intense flavors.  Craft breweries who regularly deal in 50 IBUs have developed a different focus: how to make intense flavors harmonize.  As weird as it sounds, I think that if MillerCoors wants to make really tasty specialty beers (double IPAs and spiced ales and barrel-aged stouts), they should probably send their brewers off to apprentice at craft breweries.  It's one thing to make very consistent light lagers; it's quite another to manage a barrel room.

Lesson 3: Big Breweries Need to Bone Up on World Styles
The problem with three of the six beers on offer were partly or wholly an issue of not understanding the style.  Doppelbocks need to be smooth and malty, but they also need to be alcoholic, have malt flavors and aromas, and be clean so as not to cloy.  Double IPAs are a meditation on hops.  Weissbiers should have billowing malts.  Failing to understand these qualities isn't important just because I'm a style Nazi.  It's important because there's a reason those beers are brewed the way they are--those qualities make the beers work.  If you understand them inside out, it's possible to start riffing and deviating from the standard profile.  But you gotta understand the basics, first.

Lesson 4: Big Breweries Are Not Poised to Compete at a Micro Level
Okay, I didn't get this from tasting the beers, but in talking to Addison and Lisa Zimmer.  I was surprised that these one-offs weren't more widely available.  When New Belgium or Dogfish Head do a specialty one-off, they send kegs around to key markets.  Why wasn't MillerCoors doing that with these beers? 

It's because MillerCoors has as much trouble scaling down as smaller breweries have scaling up.  They have national relationships.  They work with very large distribution chains.  They do publicity and advertising on a mass level.  Trying to figure out how to scale things down and put these beers in certain bars with small-bore whisper campaigns is alien to a company MillerCoors' size.  These small breweries are great for R&D, but they're not ready to compete head-to-head with Upright or even Russian River.

Final Thoughts
The blending of the markets--craft and mass--is beginning, but it will be a slow process.  There are always going to be customers for truly exceptional beer, and smaller breweries are in a better position to produce it.  Big breweries have a lot more resources to bring to brewing, but if they want to compete on quality alone, I don't think this is going to do them a lot of good.  I am slightly melancholy about the prospect of "commodity craft," but more and more, I'm convinced that in the sphere of exceptional beer, it will always be the little guys who dictate the terms of the conversation.  They live and breathe this stuff, and when you're making beer, that's what you've got to do to make it the best.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

When Craft Beer Becomes a Commodity

Last month, the folks at BridgePort Brewing launched their 30-year anniversary by highlighting a very specific part of their history--the brewery-defining flagship IPA.  The version of history offered by the brewery wasn't so much a way of celebrating the past as hawking beers in the present, though.  So last week, I celebrated a shadow anniversary with three of the brewers who helped build the BridgePort: founder and long-time master brewer Karl Ockert and early brewers Ron Gansberg, now brewing tart ales at Cascade, and Matt Sage, currently of Indie Hops.  (John Foyston, Pete Dunlop, and Morgan Miller were in attendance as well.)  It was in one sense just a way of having a few writers get the rest of the story, and understanding the richness of those thirty years.

But excavating the past often leads people to start thinking about time in bigger chunks and in turn to pondering what lessons it holds for the future.  At the moment, brewery openings are exploding and established breweries are growing at astronomical rates. Matt, Karl, and Ron had all lived through a similar period in the 1990s, when investors rushed into the market to capitalize on a fad.  A lot of poorly-conceived and poorly-made beer flooded the market and put the growth of craft beer on a decade-long plateau.  The question arose: are we seeing a repeat? 

There were a few jokes, and then Karl said he felt like one of the big changes was that beer styles were done.  "People brew to flavor, not style."  He added, "sessionability is coming back; beers will be brighter and lighter." Morgan Miller, who most recently worked for Ninkasi and has been involved in the beer business for decades, suggested that there would be more regional styles.  Ron agreed, and added that beer would start to reflect local climate more--the beer in Arizona and Florida would diverge from the beer in Oregon.

Then things started to get interesting.  Karl pointed out that as competition increased, consumers "were going to get more cost sensitive."  He observed how we're starting to see tiers develop, with some craft breweries like Portland/Pyramid carving out a niche with less expensive beer.  And as more breweries expanded nationwide and started opening regional plants, craft brewing was starting to look a lot more like non-craft brewing.  Then Ron said something I've been thinking about a lot lately:
"We're going to see a blurring of the specialty beers and commodity beers.  Where we try to hold the line on specialty, the big guys are going to try to drive that to commodity."
For centuries it's been possible to make beer in large quantities.  The "mass" was a lot smaller than it is today, but breweries in Bremen and Hamburg figured out how to make in in quantities large enough for international shipping in the 1200s.  The industrial revolution allowed for truly massive breweries in the late 18th century, and the notion of a "commodity beer" has been with us since.

A commodity is a mass-produced item that is interchangeable with others of its type: agricultural and mining products are typical examples.  Smith farm potatoes do not compete with Jones farm potatoes in the market: they're all potatoes and priced alike.  In commodities, sellers compete mainly or exclusively on price, not brand or quality.  Beer is one of those products that has a commodity dimension and a craft dimension, and the two oscillate in prominance.  The dominance of the commodity beers of the 1970s, for example, sparked the craft revolution.

It goes both ways.  If the over-commodification of beer can spark a craft revival, it can go in reverse, too.  Beer is a simple pleasure and historically has been hugely sensitive to price.  There will always be a large number of consumers who want a decent beer--any decent beer--so long as the price is right.  When Karl brought up tiers, he was pointing out how price and quality shape markets.  And here's the thing we are going to soon have to come to terms with: there's no reason craft beer is immune from commodification.  In fact, it's already happening.  The rise of witbier is real-world example: Blue Moon is the single biggest ale brand in the US, and along with Shock Top, has pushed witbier pretty close to the commodity line.

There's no reason to think this couldn't happen with other styles, too.  IPAs, so long the symbol of craft beer's rebellious image, is a perfect style for commidification.  It's strong enough that it would travel and last well, and could be easily replicated in different plants.  Eventually--probably soon--we'll see mass-market IPAs.  When Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors have their own mass-market IPA labels, what will happen to Stone, New Belgium, and Ninkasi?  The pendulum has long swung back and forth between the extremes of bland commodity beer and expensive, small-batch artisanal beer.  There is no reason to think American craft brewing has stopped the process.

To bring things full circle, the whole BridgePort incident is in a way a metaphor for this future.  A once-unique, local brewery has been stripped of all character except that which will serve to sell a certain type of beer.  In making BridgePort all about hops, Gambrinus has taken a (certainly inadvertent) step toward commodification.


By chance, I was invited to try a sampling of some of the "crafty" beers of MillerCoors last week--a different kind of preview of the coming beer attractions.  That experience was also laden with interesting discoveries, and  I'll describe what I found there tomorrow.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Further Few Words on Ingredients

Last week, I supported the idea that breweries, like food producers, should have to list their ingredients.  The proposal on the floor isn't even a labeling law: the activist raising the question wants breweries to voluntarily list their ingredients on their websites.  I'm still mystified that this is a controversial proposal, but it is.  Aside from being tweaked by the Food Babe--the activist in question--the only real objection I can see runs along these lines:
What's "in your beer" is, well, four or five ingredients. What goes into the MAKING of that beer is another matter altogether. 
and (from comments to my post):
I don't think we need disclosure, for one thing, what is an ingredient? All these things are value judgements. Should butter list ingredients, milk, hamburger meat? If we list the cereal components of the mash, need we say whether insecticides were used to help grow those cereals? Do we say what trace elements of minerals are in the brewing liquor? Where does it end?
With respect to Gary Gillman, a great commenter who wrote that second comment, this is not a great argument.  Beer is no different than food, and when policy makers wrote the labeling laws, they had to confront the same issue.  It was necessarily incomplete and could be subjected to exactly the same criticism.  Indeed, a years-long war is being waged about whether consumers have a right to know if their food is genetically modified--because current rules don't make producers reveal that information.  Current rules also do not reveal to consumers know how their food was grown or processed.  It's easy to game the system.  If you use lab-grown isoamyl acetate to flavor your banana candies, it's an "artificial ingredient" but if it comes from, say, fermenting beer, it's "natural." 

So while it's true that listing ingredients does not provide full transparency, that seems like a pretty poor argument to shrug and say we should have no transparency.


Incidentally, Alan has a great post on the ingredients brouhaha that I encourage for anyone who has even a passing interest in the controversy.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Cider Saturday: Ciders to Sample at the Summit

Portland Cider Summit, June 20-21
Friday 2pm - 8pm, Saturday, noon - 6pm
Fields Neighborhood Park at NW 10th/Overton
Full details here

Next weekend (actually Friday and Saturday), ciders from 42 cideries will be pouring at the (4th?) annual Cider Summit.  There's a new location, so aim toward the Pearl, not the South Waterfront this year.  (Brewvana is doing their cool shuttle again, too.)  I didn't count the number of ciders, but safe to say you're not going to be able to try them all--or even one from each cidery.  Although I haven't tried them all, either, there are a few I think you should try.  At the very least, they will help you get a sense of the breadth of American cider-making.

The French Connection
Oregon has a minor specialty in French-style ciders, anchored by the extraordinary Cidre made by Kevin Zielinski at EZ Orchards in Salem.  If you want to get a sense of the tradition, go try the Cidre Bouché by the Norman maker Dupont.   Cidre bouché means "cider under cork," implying a champagne-like effervescence.  You'll find funky blue-cheese notes, rich tannins, and a silky, sweet finish.  Then try EZ Orchards Cidre, made in the same way with French cider apples.  You'll see the family resemblance, buy you'll also taste the difference brought by Oregon terroir.  I get it mainly in the yeast--Kevin's ciders are less funky.  Pete Brown, the English author of World's Best Ciders, said it often surpasses ciders in Normandy.

Also have a look at a new maker I only discovered a couple months ago: Baird and Dewar.  Located in Dayton, in wine country, Zeb Dewar and Trevor Baird are fruit growers and wine and (home) cider makers.  They naturally ferment Baird and Dewar Farmhouse Cider and bring it to sparkling effervescence.  It doesn't have quite the complexity of EZ Orchards, but is tilted more toward acid than bitterness and so offers a nice counterpoint.  Naturally-fermented ciders are very rare birds in the US, and I think it's not entirely coincidental that they come from Oregon.

Taste the Tannins
You will have ample opportunity to try wild and wonderful experiments with fruit and spice infusions, but cider made from tannic cider apples is pretty hard to find.  The US just doesn't have a lot of acreage.  The Cider Summit is a great place to find ciders made from these complex apples and see how sophisticated ciders can be.  A few I highly recommend:
  • Bull Run Powerhouse Dry.  This is a great cider to start with.  It has nice tannins, but they're balanced with acid and a touch of earthy funk.  
  • Cider Riot 1763.  I haven't tried Abram Goldman-Armstrong's first commercial run of this cider, but I did get to try a similar small-batch homemade version.  Lip smacking.
  • Finnegan's Dry.  Josh Johnson makes a kind of modernist cider using a winemaker's approach, and he has fantastic apples.  They express themselves best in Dry, which is wonderfully woody and earthy.  No funky yeast notes, just apple.
  • Wandering Aengus
 I haven't yet tried the lauded Alpenfire ciders (Organic Pirate's Plank Dry and Spark! Semisweet)  Traditions (2 Towns) Amity Rose, Dragon's Head Traditional from Vashon, Island.  Although they're not sending Northland Traditional, I'm also interested in trying the probably-not-tannic ciders of Olympia's Whitewood Cider.

Tart Ciders
Not everyone likes lip-smacking bitterness--they like lip-smacking acidity.  The United States has more acid fruit, and so acidic, vinous ciders are more common.  This is actually the American tradition going back to colonial days, when the most well-regarded ciders were made with local crab apple hybrids like Hewes Crab.
  • Farnum Hill Dooryard.  Steve Wood is the godfather of American cider making, and Dooryard could be called his "special blends" line.  He takes a pinch here and a splash there until he finds a palate he loves.  Some are still, some are sparkling.  Farnum Hill inclines toward acid, though, so expect a bright, vivid cider.
  • Sarasola.  If you've never had a Basque or Asturian cider, sidle over to the international table and blow your mind with Sarasola.  Almost pickle-juice tart, with an earthy underlayment of funk, it's like nothing else.
  • Wandering Aengus.  Like Farnum Hill, James Kohn and Nick Gunn at Wandering Aengus like acid.  If you want to really blow your mind, try the Wickson, named after the tart apple that is also a staple in Farnum Hill ciders.  But any of the Wandering Aengus ciders will get you to the tart lands.

Pommeaus and Ice Ciders
You also have an opportunity to sample some of the more obscure species of family ciderus, and you should avail yourself of them.  Ice ciders are amazing, intense ciders made from fermenting juice concentrated by the winter freeze.  They are made mainly in Quebec, but a notable American ice cidery is located 8 miles south in Vermont: Eden.  They will be pouring their flagship, Eden Heirloom (Calville) Blend.  You must try it.

Pommeau is a different beast, but sort of similar.  They are made by blending Calvados (apple brandy aged on oak) with fresh apple juice.  Originally, farmers in Normandy made them to preserve fresh juice--at 18%, the liquor killed the juice's active yeast.  Pommeau, along with Calvados, now have a protected AOC in France, but Americans are making some brandy-juice blends (which they probably shouldn't call pommeau, but that's another post).  I haven't had any of the American versions, but I will probably give a few a try: 2 Towns / Traditions Pommeau, Finnriver Spirited Apple Wine, and Tieton Wind Cider.

I'd like to recommend some of the flavored American ciders--they are an indigenous expression and have already begun to change the way people think about cider--but we're running long here, and I know you'll focus on those, anyway.  But don't completely ignore the more traditional ciders.  Even if you return to your peach pippin, I think your understanding of fermented apple juice will deepen if you try some of these suggestions. 

Further reading.  If you want a deep dive on some of these ciders, I've been writing about them for the past year: ice ciders, the climate of ciderFarnum Hill Ciders, Finnegan Cider, American cider, EZ Orchards, Wandering Aengus, French cider, English cider, Basque cider.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Should Beer Be Required to List Ingredients?

Update: Commenters have made the point that a bottled-on date would be even more useful than ingredients.  I completely agree, and I'm actually working on a piece about that now.

 This meme has been floating around for the past few months:
An online petition to change that — asking Anheuser-Busch and Miller Coors to post their beer product ingredients online — is being spearheaded by influential food blogger and nutritional activist Vani Hari, creator of

At issue: It's the Treasury Department — not the Food and Drug Administration — that regulates beer. So the beer giants are not required to post ingredients on their labels or on their websites. [FoodBabe creator Vani] Hari says even though the law doesn't require it, consumers have a right to know what's in the beer they drink. And she wants the beer giants to post it on their websites.
Hari has been on the case for awhile and when her concerns first surfaced, they were uninformed and attracted some sniggering.  On the other hand, I see absolutely no reason why we shouldn't know what's in our beer.  Most people won't care, and some people will be incensed by uncontroversial ingredients (like Hari's objection to isinglass).  Others will (correctly) complain that listing ingredients like corn won't reveal whether it's GMO corn, and still others will (correctly) note that ingredients don't reveal the whole picture about how beers are maltreated.  And yet all of those quibbles are beside the point.  The only reason breweries would oppose this is to conceal what they're putting in your beer, and that seems reason enough to compel them to reveal all.

Sunlight is good.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Versatility of Corn

You may recall that a year ago I went on a bit of a corn jag.  I was rounding the final turn on the Beer Bible and it led me into the fields of the new world's native grain.  I considered how the neighborhoods inhabited by corn beer went from respectable to distressed; I discovered American weissbier; I sampled authentic chicha illegally smuggled in from Peru.  Typically, my momentary enthusiams fail to spark much interest and they slip into the ghostlands of the decaying internet archives.  Corn, however, was intriguing enough to capture the attention of an Ohio homebrewer, who tucked into the subject with more sustained attention than I can usually manage.

He sent along the results of many trials and I've been working my way through them.  Along with obscure annotated bottles, he included a concordance to help decipher the bottles, but I confess I couldn't really line everything up.  (Further descriptions at his blog here, here, here, here, and here.)  And, since you will never have a chance to try the beers, it doesn't matter overmuch whether I knew exactly what I was drinking.  More interesting is what I learned from the sampling.

Most of the beers were modeled roughly on the old Wahl and Henius American weissbier description, and used 30% flaked corn, 20% wheat, and 50% old-timey six-row barley.  He used different yeasts and fiddled with some sour mash and wild inoculation (to sometimes mixed effect*).  But what comes through as you try one after the next is how versatile the grain is.  In one beer, I picked up the classic beer corniness--ala Miller--but this was the exception.  One of the beers was made with the 3711 French farmhouse strain, and it was spectacular.  Belgians use corn a lot anyway, and it thinned out the body in a Belgiany fashion.  It also added a particular kind of rusticity to the palate--almost like cornbread.  It didn't have that processed corn flavor of Miller; it was fuller, more wholesome and natural.  Another of the beers had what tasted like an abbey strain, and it exhibited classic abbey character (it might have been the Duvel strain).  It was clarion, roiling, aromatic, dry, and champagne-like.

They didn't all work.  One of the beers was cloudy and produced large, soapy bubbles.  When Wahl and Henius wrote about American weissbier, they observed that "grits will under no circumstances yield those albuminoids that give Weiss beer its character, as wheat malt does."  By albuminoids, they mean the chunky and chewy stuff that characterize a good weizen, and they could have been writing about this one.  It was watery, thin, and characterless.  In other words, like any ingredient, corn will not redound uniformly to a beer's success.

While I was on my corn theme, I sent out a plaintive call for more brewers to experiment with this lovely grain.  It still retains a whisp of the old taint of cheapness--though the Brewers Association has finally officially ended its jihad against America's grain--and I think this is why you still find it less often included in a recipe than, say, cucumber.  Nevertheless, I renew my call.  Corn is a great grain and can add not only flavor and character to certain styles (Belgians more than German weizens), but has the undeniable virtue of being a local grain.  There is nothing so authentic and traditional as local, so why don't more American craft breweries use it?

*On Friday, I had some friends over and we started sampling.  The very first beer we pulled out had been made via sour mash, and it was easily one of the most offensive substances I have ever encountered.  It was putrid, but while the brewer described the aromatics as "garbage and sweaty feet," I got an undiluted smack of baby diaper.  So far as I can tell, that comes from wayward pediococcus, but I'm not an expert on infections.  I admire the brewer for sending this along all the way from Ohio for purely forensic purposes, but a warning label might have been in order: it took five minutes for the air to clear, even after we'd dumped it down the drain and flushed with water.  Ah, homebrew.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Cider Saturday: Cider Summit Primer, Part 1

The Portland Cider Summit is just two weeks away, and it has, as usual, an impressive line-up.  We're still in early days with cider-drinking, but last year was a watershed in the transition from obscure niche beverage to the mainstream.  At least around Portland, rare is the pub or restaurant that doesn't have at least one tap devoted to fermented apple juice.  Still, I find that while many people enjoy a nice pint of cider, it still remains mysterious to them.  For this week's Cider Saturday, I'll outline some of the basics and next week look at some of the more interesting ciders to try at the Summit.

Consider National Tradition
There are three very important cider-producing regions, and they make very different kinds of cider: England, France, and Spain.  French cider is rich and silky, highly effervescent, and complex.  Traditional makers use an old process called "keeving" that strips the fermenting juice of nutrients so that the yeast goes dormant.  It means they can produce very sweet ciders without risk of bottles exploding.  French makers use bittersweet apples to give their ciders a burly tannic structure to balance the sweetness.  With wild fermentation, there are often blue-cheese aromas and flavors along with a forest-floor earthiness.  At the fest, you can try one of the classics by Dupont or our home-grown version by EZ Orchards (the one called Cidre).

Spanish cider making is all about the pucker.  Makers use tart apples and produce ciders that are still, funky, and often very sharp with acid.  The flavors are a perfect complement to rich meaty dishes or salty seafood dishes--both characteristic of the cuisines of España Verde--green Spain--that band on the northern coast where ciders are made.  One of the Basque makers, Sarasola, will be at the fest, and it's a great introduction to one of the funkiest of all the Basque ciders.

Finally there's the English tradition, and it will be most familiar to Americans because it's more or less the tradition we have imported.  English ciders are, like French ciders, made with lots of bittersweet apples and not much acid fruit.  They may be sparkling or still, sweet or dry, but traditional English ciders are marked by a stiff tannic backbone and lots of classic orchard flavors--blossoms, forest floor, baked apple, earth, and myriad fruity flavors.  In the US, cider makers are quickly planting cider trees to bring these flavors back into American ciders.  Unfortunately, there aren't any English ciders at the fest, but try Bull Run Powerhouse and Cider Riot 1763 and you'll understand the tradition.

Sweet or Dry?
One of the more misleading elements of the cider world is the designation of sweetness.  Left on its own, cider will ferment to dry, leaving only traces of sugar left over.  Makers have ways of sweetening ciders by stopping fermentation, adding sugar back in, or keeving, but there's a problem.  Each national tradition defines "sweet" differently.  In England, a sweet cider is not quite as sweet as a dry French brut--that is to say all English ciders, dry, semi-sweet, and sweet, are sweeter than the average dry French cider.  

Sample around and decide whether you like ciders with a bit of sweetness or not.  Unfortunately, once you learn where your preferences lie, it's a bit hit-and-miss to find ciders that meet them.  One cider maker might think of a 1.008 cider as semi-sweet, while another would call it sweet.  

More and more, people ask, "what kind of cider is it?"  They mean, is it hopped or cherry or pear?  There's nothing wrong with flavoring a cider.  In the Pacific Northwest, we have miles of eating apples, so the apple juice comes from Fuji, Granny Smith and the like.  These apples are to cider what concord grapes are to wine.  It's not that concord grapes would make undrinkable wine, just that it wouldn't have the structure, acidity, and complexity of a good pinot.  The same is true with Fuji apple juice.  So to fill out the flavor palate, cideries have been adding juices and spices to create tastier ciders.  Some of them are really spectacular--Two Towns Rhubarbarian (not at this year's fest), is a great example.

Just as with beer, though, it's worth considering a question: have the flavors been added to make the cider taste more or less like cider.  You can make a beer with vanilla and coffee that tastes like a latte, but then you're in the business of making not-beer.  The more intensely-flavored ciders, with chiles or heavy fruit additions, sometimes seem like they're trying to conceal their cider-ness. 

Consider trying a true perry.  In the Northwest, we have many pear-flavored apple ciders, and these are often very nice.  But cider has a sister made exclusively with pears, and this beverage is known as perry or poire (in France).  Pears have a natural sugar called sorbitol that doesn't ferment, so perries are a little sweeter and silkier than ciders.  They are a related but entirely separate beverage, and you may find you like them even more than apple ciders.  There's a spectacular French poire by Drouin, and Portland Perfect Perry is another to sample.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Four Interesting Things

Stephen Colbert, Powell's, and Amazon
I have occasionally launched sorties of barbed adverbs at the large online bookseller to the north (see here and here), much to everyone's disinterest.  And yet, my warnings were prescient!  Amazon is so big (41% of the dead tree copies, two-thirds of digital)  that it exercises enormous control over what gets published and what price it sells for.  And because of this might, they can punish unfavored publishers, as they have done with Hachette, one of the big five.  (Backstory here in a quick recap.)  Hachette's crime is negotiating with Apple's e-book service.  Amazon is essentially saying: "be a damn shame if someone came in here and took away your Kindle titles" while smacking a thin, nerdy fist into an open palm.

The authors, of course, are getting screwed and hate this, but most authors are voiceless bit players in a grand epic.  But not all of them:

In case you didn't press "play," the upshot is this: Colbert, a Hachette author, is sending his readers to Powell's.  A heartwarming story that might benefit a local retailer--happy Thursday one and all.

How Expensive is Too Expensive?
I, like the next man, enjoy a night on the town with rich food and beer, served to me by the people who made same.  Brewers dinners are fun, indulgent, and occasionally revealing.  So I was intrigued when this landed in the inbox:
As many of you know we will be launching Beer Camp Across America this Summer.  This unprecedented celebration of our collective spirit: 12 different collaboration beers brewed alongside 12 exceptional brewery partners, showcasing the sense of pride and passion shared by craft brewers nationwide. Portland will be lucky enough to get a sneak peak of all these collaborations at a special Beer Dinner at the Woodsman Tavern featuring  Ken Grossman owner/founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. and Jamie Floyd owner/founder of Ninkasi Brewing. The dinner will include six different courses and all 12 Beer Camp America collaboration beers on DRAFT!
Interesting! (And, good god, 12 beers--indulgent.)  But then came the hammer:
The dinner will run $120 per person. 
That's a lot of Hallertauer.  Possibly it's worth it--entrees at the Woodsman run around thirty bucks, and an evening with Ken and Jamie is bound to be entertaining.  But $120?  I'm feeling we're edging toward 1% territory here.

Fruit Beer Fest - This Fri-Sun
I have no information except that it's happening and has, the past two years, had exceptional beers.  Based on the beer list (cool layout on the website, too), it looks to continue the winning streak.

701 E Burnside
Full details here.

Beers Made By Walking
Eric Steen has been doing a cool thing that I've been negligent in discussing.  The notion is this: "Beers Made By Walking is a program that invites brewers to make beer inspired by nature hikes and urban walks. Each walk is different, each beer is a portrait of that landscape. The program happens in multiple cities each year.  "  This summer and fall, the program explores Portland's Forest Park with six breweries (Sasquatch, Hopwork, Breakside, Coalition, Harvester, and Laurelwood).  To quote Eric, "Led by Forest Park Conservancy's Matt Wagoner and local brewers, these hikes will focus on edible and medicinal plants and inspire a series of beers that will serve as drinkable, landscape portraits of Forest Park and the surrounding area."

You can join the walks for free, but you have to register here first.  Go to the website for times and dates.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Style

Americans have generally treated beer style as a branding opportunity more than a description. 
When craft brewers got going in the 80s, designating a style was an impressionistic enterprise.  The problem was that most American brewers didn't know the history and tradition of the styles, and they knew their customers didn't, either.  A "bitter" was meant to evoke some romantic notion of England as much as it was to refer to a style.  I recall encountering pilsners made with pale malt, ale yeast, and American hops.  It's how we ended up with "amber," "red," and smoky "Scottish" ales. 

Over time, we became more educated.  Brewers went off to brewing schools, people traveled, we read Jackson.  Styles became more congruent.  Seeing "pilsner" on a label meant it was probably, at the very least, a lager.  In the 90s and early aughts, breweries generally did a good job of acknowledging national brewing traditions and started making pretty decent facsimiles.

Lately, though, we've gone through yet another shift.  Having learned about styles as they are actually brewed elsewhere, Americans did what we always do--we riffed.  Our lagers are often unfiltered and hoppy.  Our sours are brett-y and very sour.  We started adding the letters IPA to any beer we wanted to flag as hoppy.  Now when you see a style, it may well be impressionistic, but not through ignorance but design.  All of which leaves me wondering what to make of beers that call-out very specific beer styles--and this is made all the more confounding when you have a style that has changed and evolved even in its country of origin.

Case in point.  Over the weekend, I drank a bottle of Crux's Better Off Red, a "barrel-aged Flanders-style red ale."  What exactly was Larry Sidor thinking when he used those terms?  What should I be thinking when I read them?  Let's start with the beer, first, which some people have called "stunning" (and that's just in the wind-up).  It's a pretty beer that falls comfortably in that uncomfortable range of red-brown that has confounded Belgian taxonomists; bright, sparkling, topped with an eggshell head.  A waft of sweetness curled up, only to be bludgeoned by a sledgehammer of brett.  The palate was a bit fractured--I think this is a beer than needs at least six months in the bottle to cohere.  There's a ton of cherry fruitiness and caramel sweetness on the one hand balanced with the beginnings of brett dryness and a bit of acetic marbling.  I suppose one could work his way into a description of "balsamic," but I had a hard time.

My first comment to Sally was: it's not a Flander's red.  But as I drank it and considered the little I knew about the production--barrel aging, mainly (the brewery didn't get back to me)--I started to consider the history of Flanders and reassessed.  It's not a Rodenbach.  (Or Verhaeghe.)  But perhaps the brewery was referring to the older tradition, which allows for almost any possible interpretation.

Ubiquitous History Interlude
If we go back to the time of Lacambre (1840s), we find crazy dark ales made in Flanders by boiling worts insane amounts of time--up to 20 hours.  Pale malts became caramelized and the beer turned brown, the mark, to 19th century Flanderians (Flanderers?), of quality.  Lacambre, a brewer from Leuven, thought they were nuts and said “far from being very pleasant indeed, for it is bitter, harsh and astringent.”  Beers were made differently in each town, and variations abounded, but dark and strong were the characteristics that distinguished the beer. Over the next 17 decades, many tragedies were visited on the region: world wars, artificial cooling, lagers.  The funky old beers dwindled and there are now no more than a handful, all made differently (Rodenbach, Liefmans via Moortgat, Verhaeghe, Bockor, Van Honsebrouck, Struise, and De Dolle). 

Of these, everyone agrees the living standard is Rodenbach, where the beer is made in manner irreproducible anywhere else.  The brewery uses what it calls "mixed fermentation," beginning with a fairly boring wort that is pitched with a mixture of microorganisms that include yeast and bacteria.  They do this in steel.  Alcoholic fermentation happens in the first week, followed by lactic fermentation in the following four.  When I visited the brewery in 2011, Rudi Ghequire told me, "Then we send a nearly bright, young beer to the wood.  The big difference between spontaneous fermentation and mixed fermentation is with spontaneous you send wort to wood and we send young beer.  Beer has an alcoholic protection, so it is less risky."

And it's in that wood where the magic happens.  Rodenbach has these titanic wooden vats (foeders), some of which date back to Lacambre's time, and the beer then ages for two years there.  It develops a classic balsamic flavor through the slow interaction of brettanomyces and oxygen, a combination of dryness and ester production.  The beers don't taste bretty, though--they're much more sharply lactic.  In fact, when we were tasting some beer from the foeders and Rudi picked up a hint of brett, he said, "I'll have to blend that out."

But here's the thing: even Rodenbach hasn't always made beer this way.  Until the 1970s, they used a coolship to spontaneously ferment the wort.  That blend of yeast and bacteria is a descendent of spontaneous fermentation.  They used to share their yeasts with Verhaeghe, De Dolle, Liefmans, and Strubbe and others.  Rodenbach is blended back with young beer in different proportions for regular Rodenbach and Grand Cru--and indeed, these proportions have changed to suit changing consumer tastes.

What Is This Label Telling Me?
I returned to my Crux.  It bore the mark of blending, with older, bretty flavors and cherubic sweet ones.  The label tells me it was aged in wood.  It was more brett and less lactic than Rodenbach and Verhaeghe's Duchesse de Bourgogne, but perhaps these weren't the referents.  But then, if it wasn't the reference, what was the name on the label supposed to be telling me?  Is Crux trying to recall for its consumers the long tradition in Flanders and the town-by-town variability in what could plausibly be called a revival of an older, no longer extant variant?  Or is it just a not-very-close version of Rodenbach or the Duchesse?  If the latter, why refer to Flanders at all--the beer can easily stand on its own, and the fact that it's only a second-cousin to the more famous Belgian beers is unnecessarily misleading.

I know I'm over-thinking things.  I know I should just get with the program, ignore the label and enjoy the beer.  Fair enough.  But then, why did Crux write that description on the label in the first place?  Maybe it was just bait to get some dude to spend WAY Too much time writing about it on the internet.  Mission accomplished.