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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

An Honorary Satori (Plus Other 2015 Highlights)

Back when this blog started, 3,633 days ago*, I used to do a year-end award for the best new beer released that calendar year. I managed to keep it alive through 2011, when the sheer force of new releases overwhelmed me. In 2012 I gave a sort-of Satori to Occidental Brewing for excellence in lager beer, and general overall awesomeness. Since then the Satori has been dark...

Until now.

It's certainly not that things have gotten easier. It's now so impossible to keep up with beers--so much so that the New School declared Occidental, my 2012 Satori winner, the second-most "most underrated brewery."  The winner, absurdly, was my 2009 Satori winner, Upright Brewing. Apparently we can not only not keep up with new breweries, what to speak of new beers, but now we're losing track of beloved existing breweries. But I digress.

This year I wanted to make special note of a new brewery here in town that should quickly jump to the top tier of must-see stops on a visit to Beervana. That brewery is Culmination, which opened over the summer. I haven't seen such a confident and sure-footed debut of a new brewery since--well, probably since Upright. Brewer Tomas Sluiter had toiled for years at Old Market Brewery, making beer for folks who had fairly pedestrian tastes. For special events, he was sometimes given the green light to make something to age in a barrel, or ferment with wild yeast, but I don't think too many people expected him to be harboring such ambitious goals.

All that time making golden ales and porters gave Sluiter the time to envision a truly adventuresome lineup, and when Culmination launched, it had an impressive array of yeast-forward beers designed to please palates. I've never seen fewer than three saisons on tap, in all colors of the beer rainbow. There's usually at least one wild ale on tap, and generally a spiced ale or two. Of course, he also dabbles a bit in hops, and it's here where he made perhaps the biggest impression. His regular IPA is in fact fairly irregular--and has become my favorite hoppy ale in the city. Euphoric IPA is made with Brettanomcyes (the chalkboard inevitably says "Brett IPA," and I bet half the people ask--"who's Brett?"), but most people would be unaware of the yeast's contribution. In the manner of modern IPAs, it's incredibly tropical, with layers of fruity flavors and clouds of citrusy aroma. The strain of Brett he uses accentuates this, but you don't have to know it's there. What you find is a deeply pleasurable, approachable beer. The Satori is typically given to a beer, so consider Euphoric IPA this year's winner.

I've been very impressed with his saisons, as well, and the black saison is a perfect winter beer. He also has a penchant for dark ales--no longer particularly popular, but personal faves of mine--and treats like the recent chocolate stout were good, old-school fun. From top to bottom, the beer list has been impressive.

Culmination has been getting a lot of press as one of the best new breweries this year, which is an accurate but understated compliment. Culmination is one of the best breweries in Portland, and if you haven't checked it out, do so at your earliest convenience.

A lot else happened in 2015, and here are a few of the highlights

Kurt Widmer
At some point I hope to have a proper post up about the influence of one-half of the titular Widmer Brothers. Kurt announced that he was going to retire this year, concluding a 31-year run with the brewery he founded. It opened within months of BridgePort in 1984, and quickly became a part of the fabric of the city. Despite those 31 years, Kurt is still relatively young, and I hope he enjoys his well-earned retirement, with our many, many thanks.

Honest Pints
For a very brief moment, it looked like honest pints might become the law of Oregon. Didn't happen.

Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA
Traveling around the country was a useful perspective-giving exercise. I learned many things, but one was relevant to Oregon. Basically, no one beyond a buffer of a state or two away has ever tried Oregon beer. Rogue is very like the only beer a, say Wisconsinite, will ever have encountered. This I knew. What I did not know is that Deschutes has begun pushing ever further out, and in many of the more beer districts, riding the success of Fresh Squeezed IPA. I saw it on tap throughout the Midwest. Here in Oregon, we have gotten used to these fruit-juice IPAs (the "fresh squeezed" of the title). We are still a few years ahead of other states, and so this is a radical beer in far-flung markets. Not surprisingly, people rave about it. It's the kind of beer that hints at the huge potential of hops to go beyond bitterness. It's a great beer and a great ambassador for Oregon.

Oregon legalized it. Almost nothing changed.

Kettle Souring
Rarely does a brewing technique deserve special attention at year-end best-ofs. But this year we must acknowledge the debt the brewing industry owes to kettle souring, that process of acidifying a wort with a lactic fermentation and then using the soured mash in beers like gose, Berliner weisse, and dry-hopped sours. All three of those styles were hugely popular in 2015--gose grew the fastest of any style, Berliner weisse the third-fastest--and follow a trend led by brewers here. In April, Gigantic's Ben Love, The Commons' Sean Burke, and Breakside's Ben Edmunds gave a talk on the process at the Craft Brewers Conference, illustrative of how well-established the practice has become here. It's a great, natural way for breweries to use lactic acid to acidify beers exactly the degree they wish. You can tinge a saison with crispness or make a Berliner weisse screamingly tart--and everything in between. Expect this to become a universal, common practice in the US in the next decade.

Some Guy Released a Book
You may have heard about it. 

You couldn't end a round-up of the year's activities without noting the trend toward consolidation within the craft-brewing segment. Just a quick glance at a list of the largest U.S. breweries demonstrates what's happened. The three largest US beer companies are still makers mainly of mass market lagers, but half of the next eight—all one-time craft breweries—are partially or entirely owned by large multinational beer companies. To add a cherry on top, Reuters recently reported that employee-owned New Belgium was courting a buy-out suitor. (Which goes to show that employee-owned companies may be especially vulnerable to buy-outs; earlier in the year, Oregon's employee-owned Full Sail sold out to a private equity firm.)

None of which should really bother us. I would expect that consolidation will continue to proceed apace. Anheuser-Busch InBev's strategy is to create a network of "craft" brands that it can use to create a national all-ABI family of products. That will streamline business at both the wholesale and retail levels. But there's little reason to think that it will damage the market or make good, experimental beers harder to find. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, big companies are going to be emulating the craft brands, trying to make the edgy, experimental beers that craft drinkers want. Remember the old cliche, which fits the moment perfectly: Bud couldn't beat 'em, so they joined (or bought) 'em.

That's it for 2015. Onward to 2016 . . .
*Look for special 10th anniversary blogging in the new year.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Good Beers 2015

This past year was an odd one for me--a good portion of the best beers I tasted came from breweries beyond Oregon. I spent six weeks on the road, traveling to 24 cities in 18 states (plus DC), and managed to drink a beer or four at each stop. What I enjoyed is illustrative of what's available in American craft brewing right now. We can't really hope to keep abreast of the beer scene anymore, with upwards of a hundred thousand different brands being made last year. (Rough math: if the 3,800 breweries last year made an average of 26.3 different brands--which sounds about right--we had 100k beers in 2015.) The best we can do is sample and hope to have found a few big winners. Here are mine.
  • Block 15 [forgotten name] saison. One of my first events was at Block 15, at their new Taproom outside of town. It's a great facility and they pour a nice selection of the kind of beers I think of when I think of Block 15--saisons, sours, barrel-aged beers. I had a couple beers that evening, including a summery saison that was kissed by Brettanomcyes. Delicate, fresh, tropical, and it drank way underneath its heft. I was reminded why I think this is one of Oregon's best breweries.
  • Russian River Beatification. In Corte Madera, I had a wonderful event at Book Passage, in which the bookstore had four beers available for tasting. My event became that tasting, which included a porter, two IPAs, and Russian River's Beatification--the batch that hadn't even been released to the public yet. About halfway into the first beer--Russian River--I realized I could talk about the beer from the point of view of what the dominant ingredient contributed, and people were wowed to learn how much yeast can do for a beer. 
  • Fremont Interurban. The Book Larder in Seattle arranged to have growlers of Fremont Brewing. I am ashamed to say I'd never had Interurban IPA. Vivid, Northwestern, sessionable--a great beer.

  • A typical blackboard, this one at Ale Yeah! in Decatur, GA (note gose).

  • Revolution What the Helles. I made a special trip out to Revolution when I was in Chicago, and on the whole I was underwhelmed. (Top to bottom, Goose Island, where my event was, had more accomplished and daring beer.) But they had a helles that saved the day. It wasn't particularly authentic, but it was just perfectly made in terms of balance and pleasure.
  • Urban Chestnut [forgotten name] corn lager. This was an evocation of a classic American pale lager made with corn, and it showed how well corn works when people are trying to make a good beer with it. Supremely crisp, but with a hint of sweetness, all of which made for a perfect platform for zingy little hops. 
  • Schlafly Lemon Basil Gose. Gose was the big surprise on my trip: I would estimate that at least 75% of my stops had one on tap. My fave, and perhaps my favorite beer on the trip was Schlafly's gose, which had a perfect savory-tart-sweet balance point. It was in so many ways not like beer--it was like a beery Gatorade on a hot day--and yet I couldn't imagine anyone not liking it. I loved it.
  • Other Half Brett IPA. I managed to get half a glass of this elixir as the keg blew, and it was one of the highlights of the trip. Other Half is the beer geek's choice in the Empire state, and they really had this beer dialed in; it was all sticky tropical fruit and deep aromatics. I suspect no one knows what the "brett" meant, but I bet they love this beer. 
  • Hidden Springs Berliner Weisse. Tampa, Florida, unexpectedly had a fantastic beer scene. My event was at Hidden Springs Ale Works, which was just a few months old. Nevertheless, the brewery had already dialed everything in. The IPA could have come straight from Portland, but what really caught my eye was the tropical-fruit Berliner (there was more than one fruit and I forget which ones). Even in November, when I visited, the city was 85 degrees. What you want is something like this that can both impress with its intensity, but also slake a mighty thirst.
  • Ardent Single Hop IPA. In Richmond, VA, I did another guided tasting at Ardent Craft Ales, a wonderful newish brewery there. As I was talking, I got off on an IPA jag (I was supposed to be talking about saison) and the brewery folks ran back and got tasters of an IPA so people could see what I was talking about. They brought out one of their single-hop IPAs (they did a long series), and I think it was with El Dorado. Whatever the reality, it was a perfect example of the (new) American penchant for late- and dry-hopping beers to tease out insanely intense flavors and aromas. 
  • Fullsteam Wild Sacch beer. In Durham, NC, the Fullsteam Brewery is trying to isolate a wild Saccharomyces strain to use as a house yeast. We generally think of Brett when we're thinking wild, but standard Sacch start out that way, too. The beer they had made was a session ale that had something of a saison and something of a kellerbier in it. Crisp but slightly funky, hazy, and rustic. 
  • Atlas Brew Works Home Rule Lager. Maybe it was just because I was tired and that point a bit sick, but my last stop, which I enjoyed with my brother- and sister-in-law, really hit the spot. Lightly sweet, a bit cakey, and laced with just enough herbal hopping to keep it interesting, Atlas was a perfect final beer for the trip.
I also had great beer at Boulder, New Belgium, Goose Island, Yazoo, Magnolia, and at various pubs in Brooklyn (things got a bit away from me there), but those are the ones that really stood out. It has become pretty easy to find good beer in this country of ours. You no longer have to be in a town like Portland to do it.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Thanks For a Lovely Year

Yesterday as I was idly scanning through Twitter while attempting to endure the assault of pre-movie ads at a Regal Cinema*, I came across this little gem:

It hadn't occurred to me until that moment that my book would be playing a bit role in people's Christmas mornings across America or--more meaningfully--that people would actually be excited to receive it. As so often this year--as I trotted around the country hawking my book, as I read (mostly positive) reviews, as I received well-wishes from friends and family--I found myself flush with gratitude.

Writing is not a solo endeavor. It is an act of communication, and isn't whole or complete until someone reads the written words. The meaning exists in trust between reader and writer, and both contribute to that meaning. Once a sentence is put to paper, it begins a life that will only be complete when someone else reads it and it becomes transmuted in her mind. The writer never has the final word; the reader does. The text then goes on to live a separate life outside the control of the author. Whether a book becomes beloved, reviled, or ignored is entirely dependent on public, in the thinking and discussing and considering done in the months or years after publication.

I had two books out this year, and one of them has managed to begin living its separate life. (Cider Made Simple--though I think a book equal in quality if not scope to the Beer Bible--may end up in the "ignored" camp.) The gratitude comes because I see all those lovely readers out there giving it that life.

Thanks thanks thanks thanks--it's been a special year.

*I've basically scrubbed Regal from my life, except on Christmas day, when it's generally the best/only theater option available. Christmas-day movies are, for this Buddhist, a tradition going back two decades.This year it was Star Wars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

About Those Ads

Okay, so it looks like I won't be using Google ads on the site. Apparently the content of this blog is too scandalous for the tender souls in Mountain View:
We did not approve your application for the reasons listed below

Drugs, drug paraphernalia, alcohol, beer or tobacco: Google believes strongly in the freedom of expression and offers broad access to content across the web without censoring search results. However, Google policy does not permit the placement of Google ads on sites promoting illicit drugs, prescription drugs, drug paraphernalia, sales of hard alcohol, tobacco, or tobacco-related products. We've found that your site contains content of this nature.
What's ironic is that moments after I started using Google ads, I considered dumping them because one appeared that advertised "Find sexy Thai women" or something, which seemed pretty tawdry. So, for the near future, this gorgeous blog will be unsullied by ads. I'll try to figure something else out eventually. (If you're interested in advertising here, shoot me an email.)

A Holiday-Buying Spree

Wow. The world's largest brewery has, in just five days, added three new breweries to its craft portfolio. Last Friday it was Arizona's Four Peaks. Yesterday we learned that AB InBev had snapped up London's Camden Town Brewery. Today it was Colorado's Breckenridge:

Anheuser-Busch has made a play for a piece of Colorado's craft brew market, snapping up Breckenridge Brewery for an undisclosed sum, officials announced Tuesday.

Breckenridge, which sells its beers to 35 states, is on track to produce 70,000 barrels of beer in 2015. Earlier this year, Breckenridge departed its downtown-area Denver digs for a 12-acre brewery and restaurant in Littleton. The 25-year-old company is Colorado's sixth largest craft brewer by barrels produced, according to The Brewers Association data.
We were playing a little game on Facebook of trying to guess which brewery would go next. It's possible someone might have rung in with Breckenridge (one commenter was on the right track with Avery and Great Divide), but the damn thing happened too fast for a robust sample to gather. I will leave you with the newly-updated map of the Little Buds and their national distribution:

Various comments/questions. (1) Interesting that ABI seems to be focused on blue states (a fact made more obvious by my use of an electoral college calculator to generate these maps)--does this mean North Carolina or Florida is more likely to be the first southern state than, say, Georgia? (2) Some enterprising young journalist (Bryan Roth?) should look to see what the distribution ramifications are in these states. I continue to believe that's a huge part of this equation. (3) Which brewery is next, and (4) how many breweries do you expect ABI to buy stateside before it feels it has collected enough to make a big push into the craft segment?

Monday, December 21, 2015

New for 2016: Ads!

On December 1, I turned in the manuscript for another book. It was an opportunity to think about the next book ... or not. In the near term, I'm going to look for other options, which means I need to earn pennies where I can. I have tinkered with ads once in the past, but abandoned them because we are talking pennies--and because they junk up a blog. Beggers writers can't be too choosy though, so for the near future, you'll be seeing these delightful opportunities featured on the blog. I highly encourage you to click through and explore them to see if, for example, QuickBooks or hipster eyeglasses are right for you. Or at the very least, forgive me for this transgression.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Four Peaks Down

And so it goes.
Anheuser-Busch InBev is buying Arizona's largest craft brewer and brewpub owner, Four Peaks Brewing Co. Founded in 1996, Four Peaks produced 70,000 barrels of beer this year. Financial terms of the sale set to close in the first quarter of 2016 were not disclosed. Four Peaks is the sixth brewer to join A-B's craft and imports portfolio, The High End. The other craft brewers A-B has acquired in recent years are: Goose Island Beer Co., Blue Point Brewing Company, 10 Barrel Brewing, Elysian Brewing Company and Golden Road Brewing. 
At this point, the only game worth playing is guessing (1) what AB's ultimate strategy is, and (2) which states they'll target next. Here's the current state-by-state map of Bud Micros (Little Buds?)--and you can see that Four Peaks marks ABI's first foray into a red state. I do find it interesting that their focus has been on the West Coast.

I wonder if this has to do with distribution complexity. Do these states have more distributors? If so, it would make sense that Bud is using the Little Buds to coax their distributors into dropping independent craft breweries. Any theories?

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Reinheitsgebot RIP?

I am currently finishing up a print article for All About Beer on the subject of Reinheitsgebot--which as many of you know, turns 500 next year. By one of those strange coincidences of the universe, Stone brewing yesterday released its first Berlin-brewed beer. I don't want to step on the thesis of my article, but all this did get me thinking. As I talk to German and German-American brewers about the legacy and significance of Reinheitsgebot in its native land, everyone seems to agree that something's gotta give.

There is a current of change running through the center of the beer industry that is not only changing the way beer is made (in small batches to be sold locally), but the kinds of beer (vivid flavors in place of blander, industrial ones). Germany has been somewhat immune to these forces, both because it already had a robust network of local, small-batch breweries and because Germans have long been proud of the quality and superiority of their beer--thanks largely to the marketing success of Reinheitsgebot. But it hasn't been entirely immune, and small breweries have been opening and making what other countries call "craft beer," often in styles not native to Germany. The introduction of Stone beer will only accelerate the process.

None of this spells the death-knell of Reinheitsgebot necessarily. I've spoken with brewers who feel that it's due for an upgrade for the 21st century. The notion of "purity" isn't impossible to police, but the definition may need tweaking; brewers aren't using henbane quite as much as they used to, and cherries and coriander seem fairly wholesome. There may be some wiggle room. In any case, I guess the upshot of all this is that at exactly the moment we're celebrating this wonderful, weird artifact from the early 16th century, there may be some hard discussions about how much longer it should be embedded in the German tax code.

No doubt we'll come around to this topic again soon enough--

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Two a Day

As I traipsed around the country on my book tour, I found myself regularly saying something like, "there are 3,500 breweries in the country"--usually by way of an excuse for why I hadn't tried a certain spectacular local beer. It turns out I was 644 breweries off. Today the Brewers Association pegged the figure at 4,144. If you're wondering why they've chosen the odd timing of early December to make this announcement, it has to do with a certain historical precedent:
As of the end of November, there are now 4,144 breweries in the country, topping the historic high of 4,131 breweries in 1873.
That official figure from 1873 is somewhat fishy (record-keeping wasn't quite as precise during the Grant administration), but it's good enough for press releasing. The more important stat is in a bullet list within the release, and helps explain how I could be off by so much when I talked about brewery figures:
Brewery openings now exceed two a day.
I was apparently using a figure that was grossly out-of-date: ten months. Is it sustainable? Are we in the midst of a bubble? Questions for another day. For the moment, just rest in that two-a-day stat; the emotional truth of it is startling.

Me, I'm off to the Holiday Ale Fest.