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Monday, September 28, 2015

The Essence of Style

People who read this blog know well enough what a beer style is; it's the label on the bottle--"stout," "gose," "IPA"--that tells us what kind of beer we should expect to find inside. It's the thing we fight about when the Brewers Association releases its annual judging guidelines, the quality that helps us assess whether a beer has been well-brewed or not. But if you think more deeply about style, you will come to see that it is actually a fascinating story that comprises the origins and development of that style as inflected by national brewing tradition, cultural preferences, ingredients, and even things as seemingly unlikely as war, famine, and taxes. Other fermented beverages like cider and wine are reflections of place. Beer is a constructed beverage, more like food, and beer style is akin to the cuisines of the world: they reflect the people that brewed them.

If you went around to the countries famous for their brewing traditions and asked them to serve you a "dark beer," you'd get very different things in each country. In Dublin you'd get stout (natch). You might get a mild in England. In Belgium, they might serve you a very strong, dark ale. In the Czech Republic you'd get tmavé or černé, and in Germany you might receive a dunkel lager. If you told the story of any one of these beer styles, it would take you through all those elements I described above. Irish stouts, now 4% session beers, started out as strong, soured brown porters in London. How they migrated from one city to the other and became so radically transformed takes you through malting innovation, preference migration, the effect of taxes, and more.

In action.
I mention all of this, because it's the lead-in to a talk I've been giving at my book events for The Beer Bible. Karen MacNeil's precursor book The Wine Bible, was arranged around region, as befits a beverage dependent on terroir. My book was arranged around style, and in it you find several dozen fascinating stories about their slow development over the past five plus centuries. It makes sense for me to start at the place of style, which gives me the chance to tell some pretty entertaining stories. (Beer is chock full of entertaining stories.)

As you may know (sorry about all the social media promos), I'm in the middle of a national book tour, and I think you'd enjoy spending an hour and a half chatting beer if I happen to come through your town. (The Q&As have been fascinating, too.) I know I'm a wholly unreliable source on this, but I think we've been having quite a bit of fun at them. Beginning Saturday, I'm on the East Coast, so have a look and see if I'll be in your town.

Saturday October 3, Grey Lodge Pub, Philadelphia
4 - 5:30 pm. | Event details here

Sunday October 4, WORD Bookstore Jersey City, NJ
4 - 5:30 pm. | Event details here

Monday October 5, Sixpoint Brewery, Brooklyn
7-9 pm. | A ticketed event--buy tix here

Wednesday October 7, Sam Adams, Boston
6-8 pm. | Event details here

Thursday, October 8, Longfellow Books, Portland, ME
7 - 8:30 pm. | Event details here

Saturday, October 9, World Beer Festival, Durham, NC
Afternoon and evening events | Event details here

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In Britain: Cask Ale v. Craft

Last night, I was at Boulder Beer for a book event, and I had an interesting chat with brewmaster David Zuckerman. He'd recently been to England and was startled by the amount of American-style ale he found. (Quick and dirty definition: stronger, many more hops.) Like me, he loves a 3.8% bitter, and was concerned that these beers are slowly being put out to pasture in favor of what the English call "craft beer." These are makers of what looks a lot like the standard American taplist, including non-English styles (which Americans love) like saisons, strong stouts, wild ales, and full-flavor lagers. They sell these, controversially, in bottles and kegs, like Americans do; there's even a term of art called the "craft keg" which has been the subject of heated debate.  All of this has injected a huge amount of excitement into the British beer market, and beer geeks in the cities regard old-school cask like something grandpa drank. So, if you're like David and me and enjoy grandpa's old cask bitter, is this cause for worry?

By happy coincidence, London writer Pete Brown just announced the release of the latest Cask Ale Report. The story it tells is more complex than you might imagine, but it leaves me feeling hopeful. The most important piece of context in understanding British beer is recognizing that the vast, vast majority of it is mass market lager. Ales were supplanted a generation ago in their native country, and most Brits drink the same crap the rest of us do. So instead of thinking of things in terms of craft versus cask, it's worth considering ales versus lagers. Craft and cask have a lot more in common with each other than either has in common with Stella Artois and Carlsberg. According to the report, cask accounts for just 17% of sales in pubs, and if you add keg ale into the mix, it goes up to between 25-30%.

The fascinating part of the report illustrates that the lines between craft and cask aren't actually as clean as we imagine. Pete Brown:
Cask ale and craft beer are not the same - and neither are they totally separate. There's a significant overlap between the two.

Avoiding the torture of trying to DEFINE craft beer, it's possible to look at beers on a beer by beer, style by style basis and say 'that one is definitely craft' and 'that one definitely isn't'. Among everyone obsessed with trying to define craft, it;s hard to imagine anyone arguing that, say, Magic Rock High Wire is not a craft beer, or that John Smith's Smoothflow is craft beer. So by looking at the market one brand at a time, analysts CGA Strategy have compiled (an admittedly subjective) list based on ingredients, beer styles and brewers so that craft can be measured even if it can't be defined. With me? Good. On that basis, we can show that:

  • Craft beer has grown by 533% in five years and now accounts for 8% of total on-trade ale
  • Cask ale is by far the biggest format of craft beer
Much as in the US, this nebulous category of "craft brewing" has been great for the beer industry. It's appealed to young people, brought a new population to beer, and helped create all those downstream positives like fests, good beer pubs, and interest among chefs and good restaurants. If you look at a company like Fuller's, you see how craft has help transform their line of beers, giving them a chance to dabble in styles the old cask fans would never have appreciated. And that in turn has helped goose sales for traditional cask breweries willing to expand their horizon.

The other thing you're seeing is cask, the dispense-system, being appropriated by craft breweries as a platform for other types of beer. Until a decade ago, "cask ale" wasn't a term that pointed only to a method of brewing and dispense, but styles. Cask meant the same five styles of beer that have been brewed for generations. Pete didn't make predictions about the future, but his report hints at evolving trends. Here in the US, we've already seen that the term "craft" is rapidly losing any meaning. If ales continue to claw back market share from mass market lagers in Britain, I suspect the distinction between craft and keg will also lose any meaning. You'll have good beer, sometimes served on keg and sometimes served on cask. And then you'll have generic mass market lagers.

Beer has been evolving since the Sumarians first made it 8,000 years ago, and it is in a moment of rapid change. Sometimes that means beloved beer styles fall by the wayside. (RIP jopenbier!) Maybe mild ale will be a casualty as British palates look for stronger, more flavor-forward ales. But I suspect there will always be a market for sessionable cask ales in English pubs.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Difficult Post

Credit: Angelo De Ieso
As many of you have seen, a few days ago the Oregonian severed its relationship with longtime beer writer John Foyston. There are two issues here, and I'd like to focus on the second, less-examined one. But first, the background. (Full disclosure: John started covering beer for the Oregonian a couple decades ago, just a bit before I started a column at Willamette Week. I've known him all that time and consider him a friend.) Here's what the O wrote on Wednesday.
In several instances over the past month, Foyston lifted passages from press releases, industry Facebook pages or brewery websites and submitted them under his byline. We also found one example where he copied verbatim an old beer review posted by a contributor to a craft beer site. 
I'll let you click through for the full details. The real issue boils down to his decision to lift descriptions about beer from BeerAdvocate. That's a very serious journalistic breach, and the Oregonian couldn't overlook it. (Whether John deserved walking papers is another matter.) John posted on Facebook about the issue, taking full responsibility and offering apologies.
I cut-and-pasted and modified some beer descriptions in an unpublished story on 25 favorite beers. Fair enough, that's a violation of journalistic ethics and I freely admit it.... No excuse. Guilty as charged. I shouldn't have done it. 
On the surface, this has the appearance of a cut-and-dried case of plagiarism, and we know the penalty for such crimes is a death sentence. So John got the ax. I'd like to leave his culpability aside, though, and discuss the Oregonian's culpability in all this. John offered no defense for his actions, but he did offer an explanation (this is the part I ellipsed out of the above quote): "Perhaps the crime is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the deadline was moved up three weeks from the end of September to right before I was leaving on a 10-day motorbike trip after Labor Day, thus eliminating the chance to reacquaint myself with beers that I hadn't had in the last year." 

No matter what you think of Foyston's actions in this episode, it's worth pointing out what has become of the Oregonian. Like so many dailies, it was owned by a media conglomerate (Newhouse) that had no idea how to handle the internet age. At first, the paper invested heavily in expensive stories that won awards (including Pulitzers), but not readers. As subscriptions, ad, and classified revenues declined, they decided to scrap in-depth stories and dump expensive senior reporters and editors. They eliminated beats that (presumably) weren't driving ads or readership, and basically quit doing local public-policy reporting. If it's happening in City Hall, for example, the O is mute about it.

In those regular purges, longtime salaried reporters were given a choice to continue along as freelancers, making a fraction of the money they made as staff reporters, or piss off completely. John decided to stay with the paper and continued covering beer. (Look under the byline; if it says "special to the Oregonian," that means the writer is freelancing.) Then, a couple years ago, the O made changes that have turned a once-worthwhile news organ into a clickbaity mess.

Anderson told his staff The Oregonian would deliver papers to subscribers on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. On the remaining days, the paper would publish only a street edition, saving millions of dollars in printing costs. Anderson also announced layoffs; almost 100 of the paper’s 650 employees lost their jobs. The cuts fell disproportionately on the newsroom: As many as 49 reporters, editors, designers and photographers—nearly a quarter of the remaining news staff—will be gone by Sept. 27.
The paper adopted a new strategy based on all the worst trends of internet news.
But the kind of news Oregonians get will change. The Oregonian’s newsroom is already under enormous pressure to write stories that draw hits on the website—often at the expense of in-depth reporting that reveals what’s actually happening in the community....  Staffers say the newsroom has become obsessed with a program called, which measures real-time Web traffic, shows which stories are getting the most hits, and identifies where readers click after finishing those stories. 
In short, in order to address its own gross mismanagement, the Oregonian adopted this strategy: 1) fire expensive, experienced reporters and hire inexperienced, cheap ones; 2) demand reporters post as much content as possible, including in-progress story fragments (something something "developing the narrative" something); 3) base job evaluation on web clicks and, most importantly, 4) abandon serious (read: slow and expensive) shoe-leather reporting. They also fired editors who had oversight of story direction and who edited finished pieces.

Reporters are 100% fungible and survive one week to the next based on how well their stories seem to be moving traffic. You can imagine what kind of product this approach produces. The current version of the Oregonian is a disgrace. The online edition is an unreadable hodgepodge of unedited story fragments and repostings of clickbait from other sites. Reporters "generate content" on random stuff that happens to be going on--or something they found online. There are a few reporters doing actual journalism, but it's no surprise that when a big story breaks, it ain't the O doin' the breakin'.

This is a terrible way for John to end a much-lauded run as the central voice covering Oregon beer. He's done great work, and I have complete confidence that this episode is the outlier--which makes it all so unusual and shocking. But the guilt-pointing finger shouldn't stop at John's face: the Oregonian bears a lot of responsibility in this for creating an environment that doesn't value real news and demands writers publish early and often--no matter how crappy that "content" is. It's easy enough to can John and move along, but something's rotten at the heart of the Oregonian, and that's not going away anytime soon.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The (Too) Invisible Men: Importers

I knew when I wrote the Beer Bible that it would have errors, and I hoped none of them would be too serious. My blog posts regularly have errors; there was no way a 644-page book was going to be born unscathed. One thing I didn't anticipate was making an error in the acknowledgements--and it's a big one.

Craig Hartinger offering a toast to Samuel Smith's last spring
at the Craft Brewers Conference.

Among the most important--and least heralded--heroes in the craft beer renaissance were importers. Americans were wholly ignorant of world brewing traditions back in the 1970s and '80s, and as breweries started making new, full-flavored beers, they had to educate consumers about the beers they were trying to sell them. American craft breweries have in the past decade developed their own vernacular, but at the outset, they were reproducing European styles. The best way to teach people about those styles was pointing them to the breweries who had already mastered them. Enter the importers.

They formed that knowledge bridge that was a critical precursor for the development of craft brewing. We started hearing words like "stout" and "doppelbock" and "abbey ale" and we wondered what these beers tasted like. It wasn't that we didn't trust our local breweries, it was that we wanted to go to the source first. Like tuning forks, those first imported beers we drank allowed us to set the pitch of our palates. Even today, we refer to classic styles by referencing the European breweries that make classic examples.

When I started writing The Beer Bible, I went to importers to act as liaisons to those breweries--and also to guide and educate me about the national traditions they represented. In my acknowledgements, I mentioned some of those folks, but not one of the most important: Craig Hartinger at Merchant du Vin. Craig stopped in at the Seattle book event, and the recognition of this failure crashed in on me. I can't believe I failed to mention him.

Merchant du Vin was one of the first importers to expose Americans to the very best of European brewing. Among the breweries they import are Ayinger, Orval, Rochefort, Samuel Smith, Traquair House, and Westmalle. Craig helped me arrange tours at Ayinger, Orval, and Rochefort--and most amazingly, the extremely reclusive Samuel Smith's. Over the past five years, I've regularly turned to him for information, advice, or a connection to one of his breweries, and he has always replied (usually within the hour) with good cheer and great information. Writing the Beer Bible was an exercise in asking for help, and there were a handful of people who made the book what it is. Without their help, it would have been a substantially diminished product. Craig Hartinger is one of those folks.

Importers don't get the appreciation they deserve, and I hate that I have compounded this oversight by neglecting to mention Craig and Merchant du Vin. So until the second edition comes out, let me say it here: thanks, Craig.

Postscript. The success of local brewing has not been great for importers. Why bother with an English IPA when you can get 213 of them right here at home? Or even a doppelbock or abbey tripel? The reason, of course, is because they taste different. The United States has developed its own palate, and now when we make versions of these beers, they're further and further distant from their inspirations. It's a wonderful surprise to revisit some of these grand old beers. So do yourself a favor and go pick up an Ayinger Celebrator, Orval, Rochefort 10, Samuel Smith's India Ale, and Traquair House Ale. You will thank yourself.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Of Fresh Hops and Buyouts

I'm trying out the phrase "guerrilla podcasters" to describe Patrick's and my crude production values on the latest pod. We recorded live at Breakside's Milwaukie brewery--a production facility that was in full roar. We were there because Ben and Co. had on a couple fresh hop IPAs for us to sample as we discussed fresh hop beers for the podcast. This is one of those things that may seem old hat to Pacific Northwesterners, but is in fact almost entirely unknown outside our little hoppy bubble. I think the content is very good, even if the audio is a bit rough. Ben Edmunds stopped by to discuss his very unusual fresh-hop technique using nitrogen. Good stuff.

Next I alert you to my latest in All About Beer.
But beer companies? They are organs of commerce, however wonderful the brewers and publicans they employ may be. We feel good about beer, so we place that good feeling on the institution of private businesses. And in many cases, that feeling is well-placed. Breweries are collections of humans, after all. When they make good beer and create a wonderful space to enjoy it, they rightly earn our loyalty. But they’re also businesses, and sometimes their owners decide to sell to different owners—and then we have to make new judgments all over again.
And finally, if you're in Seattle tonight, come by the Book Larder and listen to me discuss The Beer Bible, take questions, and sign books. 

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

3,000 Blog Posts

Let us take a moment to acknowledge a milestone: this is my 3,000th post on Beervana. It precedes another milestone--my 10th anniversary on the blog--by about four months. I was a sprightly 38-year-old when the blog started, and now I am a beleaguered 47-year-old (I'll turn 48 two days before this blog turns 10). Over the course of those 3,000 posts, the blog has received 13,852 comments (4.6 a post--not bad) and some millions of page views. (I used to use SiteMeter, but it crapped out on me for some reason; Google's analytics only go back to May of 2010, and since that time, I've gotten 2.2 million.)

In the intervening time, social media has appeared and displaced blogging as favored platform for discussion. Print media, which originally eschewed online content, has now co-opted the space blogging once occupied in both high form (with well-reported long-reads) and low form (the word "clickbait" didn't exist when I started this blog). One therefore imagines that there are a good deal fewer blog posts in my future than there are on the archives. But, until I figure out what, if any, future this site might have, I'll keep plugging along.

Feel free to blow your noisemakers and raise your pints.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

An Anchor Brewing Anniversary

Exactly a month ago, Anchor Brewing celebrated 50 years since 27-year-old Fritz Maytag purchased the almost-defunct Anchor Brewery in San Francisco, saving it and an American beer style from oblivion. I have been remiss in acknowledging the milestone, because while I don't think Anchor qualifies as the spark that ignited what we now call the craft beer revolution (it took twelve years until the next American brewery was founded), it is nevertheless an important institution on its own, unique merits.

Credit: Anchor Brewing.
Until sometimes in the 1990s, the United States was not much of a brewing country. Like so many other nations, we built it on the chassis of Bavarian lager brewing, slowly debasing it over the decades. We managed to embellish this tradition into a few minor styles, and among these San Francisco's steam beer is easily the most interesting. It is also a form of debasement, but in this case one that led to interesting, full-flavored beer. The shortcut that produced steam beer wasn't intended to weaken it in flavor or strength, but was a necessity of frontier brewing. It's a perfect example of the way styles emerge or evolve, and steam beer is an authentic American expression--if not one that fell very far from the Bavarian tree.

Anchor's greater contribution to American brewing was demonstrating that it could be done on a small scale profitably. I don't actually think Fritz Maytag's beer was what inspired other breweries, no matter how many people want to credit Liberty Ale with establishing the modern pale/IPA. Rather, like so many other San Franciscan immigrants before him, he demonstrated that making good, honest beer on a small scale was possible. It was a proof of concept.

Even though Maytag sold the brewery five years ago, his name will always be written first in the list of brewers who helped reshape American brewing. And it all started 50 years and one month ago.

To add to the celebration, I'm going to excerpt a section from the Beer Bible about steam beer. There are a ton of fascinating stories about beer, and this is just one among many--but the anniversary gives me a good excuse to trundle it out. (And of course, it means I have to plug the book here, too: go buy a copy today!) (Sorry.)

I also had a chance to tour the brewery a couple weeks ago, and those photos are sprinkled throughout. Okay, to the excerpt...


Excerpt from The Beer Bible on Steam Beer
In the second half of the 19th century, beer was really on the move. German immigrants were pouring into North America, dotting the towns of the Midwest and West with new lager, breweries. Pale lagers were streaming out of Bohemia and Austria across Europe. And in America, migrants were sweeping across the continent in search of better lives.

One of the migrants’ prime destinations was San Francisco, where they heard the waters ran with gold. In 1848, it was the small hamlet by the bay, a community of fewer than a thousand souls. But by July 1850, census workers counted almost 95,000—a seething, sweating mass of dreamers and drifters. Franconian entrepreneur Levi Strauss saw them as customers in need of a sturdy pair of pants, and many of his countrymen figured they could use a beer, too. By 1900, the breweries were in place—two dozen at their peak—making a brew the locals called “steam beer.” Taverns bulging with hard-working, thirsty men meant breweries didn’t have the time to make proper lager. They brewed a beer with lager malts, generally (though not always) in the German decoction method, but instead of fermenting cool and conditioning the beer for weeks, they pitched lager yeast at ale temperatures, let the wort finish fermenting in wide, shallow “clarifying tanks,” and packaged it immediately, without any conditioning. The entire process took less than a week.

The origin of the name “steam beer” is obscure, but there are a couple decent possibilities. Anchor Brewing, which has kept the style alive through the decades, believes the name comes rooftop cool ships that steamed as the wort cooled. Robert Wahl and Max Henius, writing in 1902 in their American Handy-book of Brewing, Malting, and Auxilary Trades, put forward this theory: “This beer is largely consumed throughout the state of California. It is called steam beer on account of its highly effervescing properties and the amount of pressure (“steam”) it has in the packages.” Whatever the name’s origin, Wahl and Henius offer a description of what it might have tasted like: “light in color, hop aroma and bitter taste not very pronounced; very lively and not necessarily brilliant.”

Steam beer’s popularity suffered mightily with the arrival of refrigeration in the 1890s, which allowed breweries to make lagers even in warm places like San Francisco. It took a further hit with the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fires destroyed much of San Francisco. A bit more than a decade later, Prohibition came, finishing much of the work the fires didn’t. Following Prohibition, Anchor Brewing was the sole surviving purveyor of steam beer, and it limped along through more setbacks over the course of the next three decades until in 1965, facing bankruptcy, it planned to shut its doors.

That was when Fritz Maytag, who had a bit of his family’s washing-machine money, stepped in and bought a controlling share of Anchor Brewing. He didn’t buy it outright until 1968, and he spent the intervening years learning the brewing art from colleagues like Bill Leinenkugel and studying Jean de Clerck’s Textbook of Brewing. In 1969, he bought new equipment and, armed with his new understanding of beer, retooled the recipe for steam beer. Over the years, Anchor had succumbed to the same cost-saving shortcuts larger breweries had adopted, and Maytag scrapped them all. He went looking for inspiration in the old tradition of brewing steam beer.

Today Anchor makes steam beer in much the way breweries did decades ago. They use wide, open fermenters and a lager yeast strain. Wahl and Henius describe the process of kräusening—adding fermenting wort to finished beer to carbonate—to achieve high levels of carbonation, and Anchor does that now, too. The recipe is simple, just pale and caramel malts and Northern Brewer hops—and that’s likely how the old San Francisco brewers 
would have done it, too. Nothing fancy, just simple, easy beer.

That foaming thing in the wall is a grant. Old-timey stuff.

The "modern" brewery.