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Friday, August 29, 2014

The Steady Morphing of "Craft"

I have a sense that an emerging theme of blurring lines is going to play a major part of my blogging over the next few years.  It's the slow mutation of what we would have formerly called "craft" beer into something that looks a lot like mass market lager--if not in type, then certainly in branding approach.  The latest example is Austin Beerworks and the 99-pack they released to great attention this week. 

Have a look:

This isn't identical to the kind of ad you'd see during a random Seahawks game, but notice how closely it sidles up to that form:
  1. Pitched at a mass audience ("light, balanced, refreshing," "a beer for anyone")?  Check.
  2. Young people enjoying beer in nature? Check.
  3. Inexpensive?  Check.
  4. Conforms to Sally's rule ("beware a company selling packaging, not beer").  Check.
There are a few cues to the brewery's craft provenance, as well--beards, quirky comedy, irreverent images (in a brief cut, you'll see a shot of two cans recently employed in shotgunning).  In all ways that matter, though, this is effectively a little guy doing everything possible to grab some of that may-be-shrinking-but-still-gigantic mass market.  Huge brewing conglomerates are working very hard to enter the craft segment, and the little guys are trying to hop into the mass segment.

The lines blur on...

Update.  This has sparked entertaining discussions on both Twitter and Facebook.  Because, you know, blogs are nearly a dead medium.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Drink This Beer: Walking Man Memorial Fund ISA

Shari Landers was a woman I would have loved to meet.  Here's a tiny bit of her story:
She became the first woman pipefitter in Louisiana, as well as a welder, carpenter, pot farmer, crypt caretaker, small business owner, Kool Aid mom, longshore-woman, Bering Sea fisherwoman, a life long purveyor and connoisseur of the finest drugs, and an amazing mother. Her nonconformist disposition made her an outlaw in the Hunter S. Thompson sort of way (as well as the normal outlaw kind of way) leading her to many adventures throughout her life. She held a “DIY" attitude close to her heart and it allowed her to accomplish anything she set out to do no matter who or what stood in her path. Shari’s spirit had her hitch hiking across states when she was 10, deported from Canada when she was 12, and building a cabin in Alaska when she was 13.
Does she sound spectacular or what? 

Sadly, Shari died of cancer last month.  Her son is James Landers, the Head Brewer at Walking Man, and he's asking for a little help on medical bills left over from the last weeks of her life.  To help pay them off, Backwoods Brewing donated ingredients for a beer made at Walking Man called Memorial Fund ISA.  You can buy a pint at either location, and a dollar  of the cost will go to help pay the bills. 

I can't think of a more wholesome beer to spend you money on--

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: Beer Britannia by Boak and Bailey

Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer
Jessica Boak & Ray Bailey
Aurum Press, 298 pages

Considering the long history of British brewing, most historians have focused on London or Burton and their respective great eras of brewing.  Few have turned their attention to the most recent forty years, a depressing time when ales lost out to lagers and breweries consolidated and collapsed by the legion.  But it's possibly the most dynamic period in Britain's brewing history, and certainly one of the most interesting--and these are the decades Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey consider in their engrossing new book, Brew Britannia.

The narrative they tell is equal parts straight history and ethnography.  The events are fascinating because they're so English. (The title of the book is slightly misleading; this is really a story about England, and nearly all the protagonists are English or live and brew in England.)  The story starts out describing the activities of two different citizen groups, both devoted to preserving some part of English life that seemed imperiled by the churn of modernity.  The first didn't have a huge impact on the course of events, but the second, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), did.

For the first time, I finally understood the context that gave rise to CAMRA and the effect it had in English life.  And, given that the switch from ales to lagers continued to plug along unabated through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, CAMRA's impact really does seem to mostly cultural.  They did not so much restore real ale as they did change a nation's understanding about it's place in society.  If cask ale did not displace lager, it at least came to be seen as local, as English--a powerful shift that may have at least allowed it to survive.

Boak and Bailey then describe how small breweries started popping up in the 70s and 80s.  Americans who (like me) imagined this development paralleled the US microbrewing trend of 1980s will discover they are mistaken.  Again, the contours of this story are entirely English.  The first small breweries made cask ale.  It would take a couple decades before breweries started making the stuff we think of as "craft beer," and yet even that part of the story is particular to the situation in the UK.

Boak and Bailey did scads of research and talked to tons of people in assembling the book.  The arc of Brew Britannia is told through the stories of scores of individuals--activists, beer drinkers, and brewers--which makes it a hugely propulsive read.  We've enjoyed a number of good beer books in the last few years, but none can touch Brew Britannia in terms of pure entertainment.  If you have even the slightest interest in English beer, you'll really enjoy it.  (Even people who are interested mainly in American craft breweries will find it interesting because of the contrast it offers to our story.)  And for people like Ted Sobel (and me), it is an absolute must-read.

Addendum.  As I read the early chapters, marveling at the way the English seem to naturally form clubs and campaigns, I wondered why we don't do that here in the US North America.  The Brewers Association has effectively seized the space occupied by CAMRA in the UK, and they have taken it in a very particular direction.  It's not that CAMRA is a flawless organization (in fact, it's got so many problems that CAMRA-bashing is something of a national pastime), but it is a consumer organization.  They do not represent the interests of the breweries, but the people who drink beer.

If we in the US North America formed our version of CAMRA, I doubt we would spend so much time obsessing about who owns which brewery, seemingly the sole concern of the Brewers Association.  In framing the conversation in the UK, CAMRA in some ways invented English beer--or at least the idea of it.  If consumers made an American-beer advocacy group, what would they focus on?  I don't have any ideas, but it would not be the issues that so interest the Brewers Association.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Budweiser Ironies

A couple weeks ago, Pete Brown posted a wonderfully nuanced piece about Budweiser--both of them--in London Loves Business.  He argued that the two Buds were about as well-made as any on the planet and that, while you may not enjoy the American Bud, you could not doubt its quality.  He's correct. As sensory experiences go, American Budweiser is not a particularly thrilling ride.  (When I visited the St. Louis plant, brewmaster Jim Bicklein took me to the cellars, where we had a zwickel from the huge conditioning tanks.  On every previous occasion when I've been offered a tank-fresh pour, I have found depths and delights in a beer I missed in the store-bought incarnation.  I held my breath and sipped the cool, sparkling lager through a skiff of snowy head and ... it was just Bud.  Very, very fresh Bud.)  But the brewing process is exacting and there are no shortcuts.  It is intentionally unthrilling.  (And millions of drinkers like it that way.)

But what really caught my eye was this paragraph:
One of the most famous battles in Beerworld is the epic David and Goliath tussle between the world’s biggest brewer – Anheuser-Busch Inbev – and the small, state-owned Czech brewer Budweiser Budvar. In 1876 Adolphus Busch stole the name Budweiser from the town of Ceske Budejovice – or ‘Budweis’ in German – and over the ensuing decades agreements were reached about who had the rights to the name in various parts of the world. When the Czech Republic disappeared behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War the American brewer tore up the arrangements it had agreed to and made American Budweiser the world’s biggest beer brand. 
There are a few stories about the Budweisers, and this is the one only a fraction of beer drinkers know.  It is not the one they tell in St. Louis.  However, even this version isn't exactly right.  The real story is much more interesting and filled with irony.

Jim Bicklein at the brewery in St. Louis
The town of České Budějovice [pronounced, roughly, ches kay bud ye-oh vit sa] is located in the south of Bohemia.  Bohemia being located in the Czech Republic, you will not be surprised to learn that the people there speak Czech.  But this also the crossroads of some very important empires, and in centuries gone past, the region was controlled by a German-speaking population, who called it Budweis. Beer brewed there, as it has been since the 13th century, was therefore either Budějovický or Budweiser—literally, beer of the town of Budějovice or Budweis.  Fast forward to the period following the success of Josef Groll’s 1842 pale lager in Pilsen.  Other Czech breweries began making pale lagers, too.  The Civic Brewery in the town then called Budweis was one of them.  A supplier to the court of King Wilhelm II, the lager earned the nickname “the beer of kings.”  Ring a bell?      

By the 1860s an enterprising American brewery, enchanted by the idea of Bohemian beer, decided Budweis’s were the best.  It was no easy task to make those kinds of beers in the United States, but Adolphus Busch of the Anheuser Brewery had managed to do it and in 1876 debuted his own Budweiser beer.  Busch was selling beer for twenty years under the Budweiser name before a new brewery opened back in Budweis as a rival to the older, German-owned company.  This new brewery, the Joint Stock Brewery, was one of a wave of new Czech-owned businesses to spring up as a part of the Czech National Movement of the late 19th century.  Eventually that brewery became known as Budějovický Budvar.    

The fascinating part of the history is that the claims and counter-claims the two companies hurl at each other are generally founded in fact.  As it happens, Adolphus Busch did find inspiration for his beers from Budweis and did spirit away both the type of beer and the name.  But it’s also true that he brewed his beer before Budweiser Budvar even existed.  He did also apparently appropriate “the beer of kings” and turn it into “the king of beers”—one of the most valuable corporate slogans in the world.  (Budvar disputes the history of “beer of kings.”)  But the brewery that inspired Busch is no longer in existence.  And in the most wry of ironies, neither company has a clear historical claim to the name Budweiser: Busch obviously borrowed and rebranded it with absolutely no connection to the town or people; on the other hand, except as a valuable trademark, why would the people of České Budějovice want the name?  Budvar remains state-owned and is an artifact of the Czech National Movement.  “Budweis” was the name the city has abandoned.      

Pete points out that the dispute hasn't exactly been terrible for Budvar.  Picking a fight with the world's most famous and popular brands has its upside.  But the real story is actually more interesting, and the clean lines of the narrative a bit more smudged. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Well, this is embarrassing

It looks like it's been a week since I posted, and peering into my crystal ball reveals that the coming week is going to be just as bad.  It's not the usual doldrums of August, but rather a thicket of unexpected activity that has kept me off the site.  A week from now and things should start getting back to normal.  (I may--may--have some very cool travel blogging coming up, too, but it is not final enough to announce.)

In the meantime, I offer you this actually-pretty-fascinating article about beer at baseball stadiums.  If it convinces me of anything, it's that the hegemony of mass market lagers has come to an end.  A tease:
The average Major League team this season is offering 50 different beers from nearly 25 breweries.
And reference that suggests Seattle and Portland are not identical.  
About 70 percent of Safeco Field’s 700 beer handles are devoted to “good, quality craft beer,” according to Steve Dominguez, the general manager of Centerplate's operations at Safeco Field. Sales of craft-style products crush those of domestic-style mass market beers, by a ratio of about 4-1. The stadium bought three cask engines this year to allow for cask-conditioned ales throughout the stadium, and they offer a hearty list of 22-ounce craft bombers from breweries like Pyramid, Oskar Blues, No-Li and Rogue.
The whole article is well worth a read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Morning News, Heat Wave Edition

As the mercury climbs for the latest in a series of heat waves (this is going to be an interesting hop crop), and hot on the heels of the news that Bear Republic may have to relocate because of persistent drought, I find my blogging energies dwindle.  But never fear--news marches on without me.

1.  Bud Establishes a Crafty Unit in Chi-town
I, perhaps alone, am fascinated to see how the two remaining American giants plan to tackle a tricky future.  Americans are drinking less beer overall, even while the craft segment explodes.  That means ever falling sales of mass market lager.  AB InBev's latest move?  Lean on Goose.
The brewer, whose U.S. headquarters are in St. Louis, will establish a new Chicago outpost to oversee premium craft and imported beers, which have been a bright spot in the overall sluggish U.S. beer industry.
Mainly, it seems like a marketing move, which is probably not going to be a long-term solution.  It's hard for bigs to sell beer in the craft market, and the obstacles can not be surmounted by a bigger PR wing.  

2.  Craft Breweries Expand Beyond Beer
In a doomy Bon Appetit article, Sam Calagione warns, "there's a bloodbath coming."   The answer would not shock executives in St. Louis: diversify!
On the fest circuit, Lagunitas runs the roving Beer Circus, and New Belgium operates the whimsical, bike-focused Tour de Fat. For its recent brand expansion, Pennsylvania’s Victory recently unveiled a lineup of cheese spreads, as well as ice creams concocted from its unfermented beer. “Strategically, that broadens our brand impact,” says cofounder Bill Covaleski. “It puts our flavors and brands in places where they’ve never been.”
Beer ice cream?  Who's crafty now?

3. They Could Have Save a Lot of Time
...and just asked a beer geek.  Instead, researchers actually did the work to prove that you can't taste the differences among light beer brands (.pdf).
 Participants were then asked to consume the beers at home, and rate each of them. Some of the six-packs had beers with labels, while others were unlabeled. When the beers were labeled, participants rated the beers differently, and as expected, they rated their favorites higher than other beers. When unlabeled, however, participants showed virtually no preferences for certain beers over others. In the blind tasting condition, no beer was judged by its regular drinkers to be significantly better than the other samples. In fact, regular drinkers of two of the five beers scored other beers significantly higher than the brand that they stated was their favorite.
But Boneyard fans already knew that.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

McSorley's, 1940

One of my regular tipsters, BB, was taking advantage of the New Yorker's momentary open archives when he found this remarkable article from 1940 on McSorley's Old Ale House in 1940.  McSorley's had already been open 86 years (it's been another 74 and the place is still open).  It's a fly-on-the-wall story, panning around the old place and zooming in from time to time on a few historical photographs.  It gives you such a rich sense of a different time.
It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register. Coins are dropped in soup bowls—one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves—and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox. It is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years. 
[John McSorley] patterned his saloon after a public house he had known in Ireland and originally called it the Old House at Home... In his time, Old John catered to the Irish and German workingmen—carpenters, tanners, bricklayers, slaughter-house butchers, teamsters, and brewers—who populated the Seventh Street neighborhood, selling ale in pewter mugs at five cents a mug and putting out a free lunch inflexibly consisting of soda crackers, raw onions, and cheese; present-day customers are wont to complain that some of the cheese Old John laid out on opening night in 1854 is still there. Adjacent to the free lunch he kept a quart crock of tobacco and a rack of clay and corncob pipes—the purchase of an ale entitled a man to a smoke on the house; the rack still holds a few of the communal pipes.
There's even a word or two about the ale, like:
In warm weather he made a practice of chilling the mugs in a tub of ice; even though a customer nursed an ale a long time, the chilled earthenware mug kept it cool. Except during prohibition, the rich, wax-colored ale sold in McSorley’s always has come from the Fidelio Brewery on First Avenue; the brewery was founded two years before the saloon. In 1934, Bill sold this brewery the right to call its ale McSorley’s Cream Stock and gave it permission to use Old John’s picture on the label; around the picture is the legend “As brewed for McSorley’s Old Ale House.” During prohibition McSorley’s ale was produced mysteriously in a row of washtubs in the cellar by a retired brewer named Barney Kelly, who would come down three times a week from his home in the Bronx. On these days the smell of malt and wet hops would be strong in the place. Kelly’s product was raw and extraordinarily emphatic, and Bill made a practice of weakening it with near beer. In fact, throughout prohibition Bill referred to his ale as near beer, a euphemism which greatly amused the customers. One night a policeman who knew Bill stuck his head in the door and said, “I seen a old man up at the corner wrestling with a truck horse. I asked him what he’d been drinking and he said, ‘Near beer in McSorley’s.’ ” The prohibition ale cost fifteen cents, or two mugs for a quarter. Ale now costs a dime a mug.
In the centre of the room stands the belly stove, which has an isinglass door and is exactly like the stoves in Elevated stations. All winter Kelly keeps it red hot. “Warmer you get, drunker you get,” he says. Some customers prefer mulled ale. They keep their mugs on the hob until the ale gets hot as coffee. 
But mostly, it's a snapshot of the past taken in 1940--a glance at what a New York alehouse might have looked like in 1920 or even, possibly, 1890.  It's a long article, but very much worth the read.

McSorley's in 1937.  There's the onions on the bar and the stove--
sans warming beer--and the earthenware mugs. [Source]

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Gigantic IPL

Yesterday's post was, I suppose, a bit of a distraction on one point.  Although I used Gigantic's newest beer to illustrate a wholly unrelated point, I didn't much discuss the beer itself.  Now to rectify that oversight.

Very often, you come to understand a beer the less you know about it.  The Green Dragon, where I sampled the Gigantic, has a great taplist that, perversely, gives the drinker zero information beyond a name.  They don't even list the ABV. That leaves you with nothing else but your nose and mouth to figure out what you're drinking. It makes a session a bit more random, but when you find a gem, it also happens to make the experience more rewarding.

When IPL arrived, I was startled at its appearance, which might have passed in a line-up of Blue Ribbons.  It is pale.  Nothing India about that.  But then, lifting it toward my nose, I caught a plume of the aroma, which was very India indeed.  There's a sweet, fruity underlayment and then something that first seems like pine but drifts toward the Alien OG.  The effect of the appearance and aroma produced a kind of dreamlike discontinuity.  The strange pleasures continued as I added my tongue to the mix.  IPL is a very delicate beer, with little wisps of malt and no perceptible alcohol (turns out it 5.6%).  And amazingly, the hop intensity, though sunshiny and resplendent, did not overwhelm the rest of the beer. 

I tried to order another pint but, no shock to me, the keg had blown.  We're stuck in the middle of one terrible long sunny nightmare*, and this was an amazing tonic.  It looked and behaved like a helles, but had the aroma of an IPA and the flavor of a vivid pale ale.  I would have liked to test its durability, but I can say that it performed very well over the course of a pint.  I expect it did just as well over two or three.  Get it while the sun still shines.

*To Portlanders and hairy black dogs, weather over 90 is painful, and we've endured weeks of the stuff.

"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, August 04, 2014

How the Word "India" Came to Mean "American"

Last week, I ordered a pint of Gigantic's new beer, IPL, sight unseen.  I was at a pub that listed nothing but the name.  A few minutes later, the waiter dropped a glass of something pilsner-pale and conditioned-clear in front of me.  I had assumed--correctly, it emerged--that the name of the beer stood for "India Pale Lager."  The beer in front of me had almost nothing to do with IPA, though.  Indeed, I later discovered that Ben and Van (brewmaster and master brewer) also call it a "Northwest pilsner," and it's a lot closer to a pils than anything to do with English or American ales.  It's 5.6%, has a pilsner malt bill, and is, not unimportantly, a lager.

During that same session--possibly just after the arrival of the Gigantic--one of my friends complained that IPA no longer had any meaning at all.  He ticked off the various offenses against a once-knowable style: black IPAs, white IPAs, lagered IPAs, session IPAs, fruit IPAs.  (He actually ordered a rye and double IPA that night.)  It had nothing to do with the original IPAs and has devolved into little more than a marketing gimmick, he argued reasonably.

As someone who has complained about this very phenomenon, I should have been sympathetic, but here's the thing: to the average drinker, slapping the word "India" on a label communicates a very specific, easily-understandable meaning.  It's shorthand for "saturated in the flavors and aromas of American hops."  Gigantic IPL, for all the ways it wasn't an IPA, instantly met the expectations I'd had--it was decadently perfumed and soaked in Simcoe and Citra hops.

Beer taxonomists and history prescriptivists miss this truth that is so obvious to the casual drinker.  The qualities that separate the 19th century English originals--or the middle 20th century English or even late 20th century American versions--from these myriad permutations (Belgian, black, imperial, etc.) are vast.  But that's because there's now a contemporary definition and it does a pretty good job of characterizing things.

Until something like thirty years ago, the hoppy beers typical in American brewpubs today did not exist.  There were hoppy beers, but they didn't have the kind of hopping Americans now use--which is partly a function of the method but mostly a function of the hops themselves.  And those qualities, begotten by vigorous kettle hopping and profligate late and dry-hopping of American hops, is what "India" (or "IPA" or "IP-whatever") now refers to.  It's sort of like the catch-all term "Belgian," which means anything with vivid yeast character but can be applied to any imaginable style (except, I suppose, lagers).  One of the great revelations of my foreign travel was to see that this shorthand was well-understood by breweries in the UK, Italy, and the Czech Republic.  "American IPA" or "American-style" always meant super-hopped with American hops, whatever the beer style.

I've stopped overthinking this.  Breweries want customers to know what the beer is going to taste like.  If they attach the word "India" to it--whether it is just a hoppy pilsner or witbier or stout--customers know what they mean.  It's pedantic to insist that there's something wrong with how this artifact of language has evolved.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Cantillon Adds New Building; Will Double Production

This is flying around Facebook, and for good reason.  Below is the text of what Jean Van Roy (a non-native English-speaker) posted a few hours ago:
Dear Friends,

Great news, Cantillon is expanding.

Since last year, we are looking for a new space and we got it.  The new building is located at 300m far from the brewery and, as you can see on the picture, it welcomed till the sixties a Lambic blender, Brasserie Limbourg. The new space is big enough to dubbel the Cantillon's production.  

Because we can't disturb the balance between new and old Lambic in our blend, we will increase the production each year to finally dubbel it in the four next year.  The wort, brewed at the Cantillon's brewery, will be transfered the day after the coolling and will matured for years in the new location.  As you know, we need at least two or three years to produce a beer. In this way to work, the next production increasing will take place during the season 2016-2017.

The building will be at our disposal next October, more news will follow.

The Van Roys (including Jean's father, Jean-Pierre) have been fierce protectors of lambic's heritage, and have a small museum in their current brewery.  (And in fact, their current, ancient brewery is a museum itself, of sorts.)  That they managed to find a building that once housed a blendery must by a huge source of satisfaction.  Cantillon has all but disappeared from American shelves, so with luck, maybe we'll see a bit more in a few years.