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Friday, April 29, 2016

Multimedia Friday

Last night, John Harris addressed a packed house at Ecliptic to comment on his 30 years as an Oregon brewer. I mentioned briefly why those 30 years are going to be hard to beat (he is, to use a metaphor from a different field, a first-ballot hall of famer), but I wanted to relay something Sally told John and I yesterday. She was talking to her business partner and mentioned John's anniversary. "Wow," he told her. "He taught me how to drink good beer." When Devan came to Oregon, he like so many found Deschutes Mirror Pond and was ushered into beer. There are tens of thousands like him.

Here's John speaking last night. If you don't know John, this is a pretty perfect introduction to his personality. (I'm pretty sure the young woman to his left is his daughter.)

And, to close out impromptu Pilsner week with a trip to the Czech Republic on this week's podcast. Patrick and I survey Czech beer and what makes it tick. As I have said a number of times, and which I repeated on the podcast, I think the Czech Republic is my favorite beer country, and it's partly because the beer there is far more varied and interesting than Americans know. With clips from Budvar's  Adam Brož, we walk through the reasons it's so fantastic. Give it a listen on Soundcloud our iTunes (we've submitted it to Google Play, so look for it on android, too.)

Have a good weekend--

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Modest Proposal: Oregon Pilsner Cup

As this pilsner thing bubbled up unexpectedly this week, it revived an idea I've been toying with for a few years. Four or five years ago, as Oregon started to be fertile ground for these really good, classic pilsners, I thought it would be cool to do a blind tasting with the brewers who made them. My inspiration was more journalistic. I thought it would be fun to have them discuss pilsners while tasting them, and from that session I'd get a sense of why they had returned to this classic (and un-American) old style.

I didn't manage to get around to it, though, and then more and more breweries started making them. Now there are, off-hand, eight examples I really like (Arch Rock, Breakside, Buoy, The Commons, Ecliptic Spica, Heater-Allen, Occidental, pFriem, Upright Engelberg). If I'm in a pub and any one of these beers is on tap, I almost certainly order it at some point. Hop Valley apparently discontinued its great Czech Your Head (also a great name), and it looks like Ninkasi has, too. Then there are others like Widmer's PDX Pils that I've never tried. There are even helleses like Zoiglhaus Lents Lager and Ninkasi Helles Belles that are pretty close to the wheelhouse. Add all this up and you've got something approaching a score of great pale lagers.

There oughta be a competition.

I'm terrible at implementation, but I'd love these wonderful little beers--perfect standards of counter-programing in hoppy, aley Beervana--to get more attention. They aren't braggy beers, and they are misunderstood. The people who prize them form a kind of secret society. And yet making them isn't easy, and it takes more time and is more expensive. Breweries who put in the effort do it for the love of these beers, and I feel that love. So someone (obviously not me) should arrange a Pilsner Cup to select Beervana's finest. A good blind-tasting like Willamette Week implemented for its beer awards this year would produce a credible winner. I for one would be fascinated to see who would come out on top. I don't know that I could make a call myself.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Makes a Good Pilsner?

No, they're not pilsners; I claim poetic license.

After I posted a link to my Sherpa recommendation for Block 15's Gloria! pilsner on Facebook yesterday, Jonathan Aichele added his own link--and promptly sparked 397 furious comments. He directed us to a blind tasting the Oregonian did with Oregon pilsners that resulted in the selection of ... an infected one as Oregon's finest. (Verbatim tasting notes from the "winner": "is this infected?," "good, clean fun," "tart, gose-y," "not very pilsner-y.") This demonstrates that, while style sometimes blinds us to a beer's true nature, ignoring it while comparing beers doesn't make a lot of sense, either. It's like selecting a schnauzer as the best tabby because you don't like cats.

Which leads us to an obvious question: okay, smarty pants, then what is a good pilsner? In anticipation of yet another pilsner-related post for later this week, I'm really glad I asked.

Pilsners Generally
Pilsners are pale lagers that originally came from--spoiler alert--Pilsen (or Plzeň in the Czech), Bohemia. In the United States, we say there are two variants, Bohemian and German, and this is dead wrong. These are actually separate beers. German pilsners have evolved on a separate track from the Czech line and bear Bavarian hallmarks. (German helles is far closer to German pils than the later is to Czech světlý ležák--what we now call Czech pilsner.) Nevertheless, the entire category, as European lagers, do share some similarities that are very distinct from the American tradition, and they're important.

In the United States, we commonly build beer from a foundation of generic two-row pale malt--a "base malt"--so generic its variety isn't even mentioned, and layer on specialty malts for flavor. In both ales and lagers, yeast plays a diminished role. In ales particularly, hops are the diva at the center of the performance, and the other elements are supporting characters. Pilsners, by contrast, sing in harmony, with three actors playing equal roles:
  • Aromatic, flavorful base malts. Pilsners are made with basically one malt, and yet they have  incredible malt character. This comes from the base malts, which are prepared in such a way at the malthouse that they produce distinctive aromas and rich flavors. Dozens of malthouses are scattered across Bavaria, and they prepare the pilsner malts differently, accentuating different characteristics. Some tend toward honey, others grain, others rustic breadiness. In the Czech Republic, the malts may even still be made in traditional floor maltings, and in any case, the strain of barley--as in England--plays a big role. (Many breweries favor either Moravian or Bohemian-grown malts, too.) Again, the Czechs are looking for unique aromas and flavors that come just from these malts. Because no specialty malts are used for flavor, the base malts have to be distinctive.
  • Delicate herbal hops. Continental hops are not uniform, but they do share a kind of delicacy that's critical to a pilsner. Those malts need to shine through, so the hops have to add a dose of flavor and aroma without overwhelming them. European hops aren't so strongly flavored, so even when used to produce high levels of bitterness, they don't overshadow those malts. Ideally, they'll harmonize with malt flavors, too, so that the honey or bread play nice with the black pepper or tarragon coming from the hops. 
  • Clean, crisp yeasts. Lager yeasts don't contribute fermentation characteristics like phenols and esters--they let those malts and hops shine through transparently. What they do add is a smoothness of palate and, particularly, a crisp snap at the finish that makes these among the most moreish of all beers. 
Sladmistr David Mares at the Ferdinand brewery/malthouse.

This tripartite balance point is essential to the style. There are a lot of ways to make great beers, but the thing that makes pilsners work is when all of these elements are expressed simultaneously. It is often said that pilsners are the hardest beers to make because they don't hide anything. I think that's wrong. They're the hardest beers to make because each of these elements is subtle, and when you're trying to make them sing in harmony, the slightest off note is immediately evident. They test a brewer because she must find a way to take three delicate elements and bring them together so that they wow a drinker. When it works, it looks like magic.

Regional Differences
A quick word on why German and Czech pilsners are not really the same style. It is true that in 1842 and for decades thereafter Bavarians were the ones leading the lager renaissance in Bohemia (Josef Groll, who brewed the first pilsner, was Bavarian). But that was a long time ago. Two world wars and a cold war interceded, and the two countries spent the 20th century brewing separately. Germany's tradition followed technology, while the Czech tradition, for long decades imprisoned behind an iron wall, languished. Qualitatively, this means German lagers are more refined and polished. They're often thinner of mouthfeel and drier. Czech lagers are more assertive and fuller. There are reasons for this.
  • Decoction mashing. This old German technique is mandated by law for any beer that wants to be called "Czech beer." Many Bavarian breweries still do it, too, especially in the countryside, but it's getting less common. Decoction mashing is used (now) to create melanoidins that help build richness. Think less of the process,though, and more of the result--that richness. This isn't a priority in German pilsners, but it is in good Czech ones.
  • Hopping rates. In the US, basically the only distinction we acknowledge between Czech and German pilsners is that the former uses Saaz hops. They're basically the marker for Americans. And important they are! But there's also an issue of intensity. That richness that builds up with the malts can withstand a bit more bitterness, and Czechs take advantage. In neither tradition does late- or aroma-hopping play much of a role, but the Czechs do something interesting to create a "softness" to their hopping...
  • First wort hopping. This is a technique where you put the hops into the kettle while the beer is coming in from the lauter tun and being raised to a boil. It is said to create a delicacy, a softness to the bittering that helps keep all the elements in balance, even with stiff bitterness. I suppose there are breweries in the Czech Republic that don't do this, but I didn't encounter them. Conversely, I've never heard of a German using the technique. (Which doesn't mean none do, but.)
  • Other oddities. Some Czechs do other funny things from time to time, too, like using open fermentation, using long boils, and conducting extra-long lagering. These things can probably be found in farmhouse breweries and rustic village breweries in Bavaria, but that's the thing--they're rustic. In the Czech Republic, breweries like Budvar still do weird things like lager their beer for three months. It's considered normal.
We don't get many Czech pilsners in the US and the ones we do--Budvar and Urquell--are regarded as slight oddballs in the Czech Republic. So you may have to take my word on this one. Side by side, the differences between a Czech and German pilsner are anything by incidental.

These are pilsners--or rather, světlý ležáks.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Block 15 Gloria Unfiltered Pilsner

If you're a certain kind of drinker, the name Block 15 evokes one of the state's buzziest of hoppy buzz beers, Sticky Hands (currently scoring a titanic 4.43 on BeerAdvocate). If you're a different kind of drinker, it might call to mind Super Nebula, a stout (4.18). Or maybe you like yourself some balanced, sophisticated wild ales, in which case Block 15 makes you think of Turbulent Consequences Peche (4.39) or Golden Canary (4.26). To me, Block 15 has always said saison, which is why I included Ferme De La' Ville Provision (4.14) in The Beer Bible. In other words, Nick Arzner's little Corvallis joint does a lot of different things very well.

Add pilsner to the list.

Gloria, or as the brewery styles it, Gloria!, is named for Arzner's mother-in-law but, curiously, began life as Glo. The earlier incarnation was an unassuming and uncelebrated golden ale (3.49). Arzner himself must have felt some ambivalence, because it didn't merit her full name. So, over time, he slowly transformed the beer in increments from that timid golden ale to a distinctive, full-flavored pilsner. "No one complained, either!" he proclaimed triumphantly as he relayed the story. That's hard to believe, because Gloria joins a growing list of truly stellar Oregon pilsners that is absolutely glowing with flavor (sort of like my tricked out photo above). I can't imagine anyone confusing it with a golden.

Gloria! is made with Czech floor-malted barley and is hopped with Saaz and Mt. Hood (a descendant of Hallertauer bred for "noble" characteristics). Despite all the Czech cues in its DNA, though, it's not like any Czech lager I tried. The malts add only a very subtle sweetness and almost no density (they're often thick, rounded, or even cakey in the Czech Republic)--more like you'd find in a German pilsner. The hops lack that distinctive tang of Saaz (you might describe that characteristic Saaziness as something other than tang, but you get my point) but are nevertheless assertive and delish. Instead of tang, they have a nice snap up front and an herbal, lemony flavor. What I liked most was the character of the yeast, which was so crisp and clean I thought I felt it scrubbing the grime right off my teeth. I believe it is this quality that earned Gloria its exclamation point.

I was heartened to learn that this beer is headed for the canning line, so there's even a chance you might encounter it down the road. (Oh, you non-Oregonians? No, you're probably screwed. But at least Portlanders can hope!)
"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.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Cheers to Duke Wilhelm IV

Photo by Jeff Quinn for All About Beer.

Today's the big day. On April 23, 1516, the Duke of Bavaria, Wilhelm IV, issued what would only much later come to be called the Reinheitsgebot, or the “purity law.” I'm going to link again to an article I wrote for All About Beer, which may be the best article I've written (and it's about as good an article as I can write). It's a deep dive into the law and reveals a lot about it that isn't commonly discussed. It starts this way:
Originally, though, that element was downplayed—it’s just the third stipulation: “in all our towns, marketplaces and the whole of the countryside, that beer shall have no other ingredients than barley, hops, and water be used and employed.” When you read the full document, running about 320 words in translation, these 27 don’t appear to be the main point. The first two stipulations regulated prices, capping what a publican could charge, particularly during different seasons. There was also a fourth provision, again about pricing, and a comment at the end where Duke Wilhelm reserved the right to change anything in the law during grain shortages. 
In other words, the original decree had a lot more to do about money than consumer health. Indeed, even the restriction on ingredients was only partly driven by the wish to banish the use of unhealthy additives from beer (though the practice was common at the time). Wilhelm was also concerned about protecting the food supply, and limiting brewers to barley freed up the wheat crop for bakers—which also helped keep the price of bread more stable.

Even the part we think we understand is generally misinterpreted. In detailing the allowable ingredients, Wilhelm does not specify yeast, which has caused modern writers to assume he didn’t know about it. Not only is that wrong, but it leads us to miss an important element of the Reinheitsgebot’s logic. Matthias Trum, the sixth-generation family owner of Bamberg’s famous rauchbier brewery Schlenkerla, explains how we should actually understand that famous omission.

“The yeast is in fact not mentioned; that is correct.” Trum, who studied history while earning his brewing degree at Weihenstephan, points out that brewers of the day were well aware of yeast’s existence. “In the Middle Ages, they had a profession called the ‘hefener,’ so they knew exactly. The purity law lists ingredients, right? Yeast I put in there and I get more out of it. I harvest the yeast at the end and I put it into the next batch. And that was actually the job of the hefener.” It’s actually hard to imagine how they couldn’t have known about it. Why? Because after you brew, you end up with a fluffy layer of stuff at the bottom of the fermenter: “Zeug.  Zeug was the German word, which is ‘stuff.’ The hefener’s job was to harvest the yeast from the batches, to press out as much remaining beer as possible, which was sold at a low price to the poor, and then the yeast was added to the next batch. You started with a smaller amount of yeast and then you ended with a bigger amount of yeast.” An ingredient, Wilhelm’s logic went, was something that stayed in the beer.
There's a lot more at the link, so click through and read the whole thing. And of course, raise a pint to this amazing, ancient human tradition. (It predated the start of the Protestant Reformation by a year.*) Just its continued existence is staggering.

*Do not talk to me about Jan Hus, you damn pedants.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Toasting John Harris' Thirty Years

John Harris' 30-Year Anniversary Fête
6 pm, Thursday April 28th
Ecliptic Brewing (825 N. Cook St)

We've reached the stage of maturity in American brewing when each year brings a raft of milestones for one of the founding brewers or breweries. I comment on very few because just surviving doesn't count as much of an accomplishment on its own. There are some exceptions, and John Harris, who will be celebrating his thirty years as a professional brewer next Thursday, is certainly one.


Let's trot briefly through the highlights. In 1986, he started his brewing career at the McMenamins, got a couple of years experience, and then joined Gary Fish to help launch a little start-up brewpub in Bend called Deschutes. In those early years, John gave the world Cascade Ale, Bachelor Bitter, Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond, Obsidian Stout, and Jubelale. He came back to Portland to work for Full Sail at their RiverPlace brewery, and stayed there twenty years before starting his new solo venture, Ecliptic, in 2013. More than any other brewer, his fingerprints are all over Oregon beer.

In the press release to mark the event, John included this invitation, which has a delightful little allusion in it:
I started Brewing in April of 1986 at the Hillsdale Brewpub in Portland. It has been a long strange ride!

I am very proud of all my years making beer for a living. I have created many beers over those years but there is one I am linked to more than any other. I brewed a special beer, Reflection Nebula Pale Ale, to celebrate this 30 year milestone. I invite you to join me for a beer to celebrate on April 28th at 6pm.

What would you likely see your reflection in? A mirror, you say? I think we can connect the dots well enough.

No brewer more deserves a victory lap than John, and this one is open to the public. I expect it will be a mob scene, because I know more than a few people who speak sotto voce in reverence when they catch sight of John--as if the pope had just walked by. And they're sort of right.  I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wonder and Humility

Last week, Patrick and I sat down to record a podcast on tasting beer. (Give it a listen!) The simple idea was that, in blind-tasting our way through a few beers, we could illustrate how much your eyes, noses, and tongue will tell you about the beer you're drinking. Beer's many flavor and aroma compounds can easily bewilder, and it takes years of sampling to find your way through their thicket. I've led tastings where we sample a beer and break it down, and for people new(ish) to beer, it can be revelatory. Being able to connect flavors to ingredient and process creates a map that drinkers can use with any beer--a rosetta stone that demystifies all that complexity.

Is Fred about to listen to his beer?

But in deciding to do the tasting blind, we revealed another truth to beer: so much of our "knowledge" comes from things that we don't learn through our eyes, noses, and tongues. I'd asked Sally to buy some beers for the experiment and prepare them for us. We didn't coordinate about anything--style, brewery, country. Stripping away all those cues left us with only our senses, and that's a surprisingly naked experience. You want to reach for the bottle to see what the brewery says about the beer. Our second bottle was a saison by Bend's Crux Fermentation Project. It had a lot of clovey phenolics and a touch of banana-y isoamyl acetate. I looked at the cloudy liquid in the glass and wondered whether it was a saison or a slightly offbeat Bavarian weizen. I had no crutch to lean on, though, so I just settled further into the experience. Not knowing let me get to know that beer on fresh terms.

Even more remarkable was the experience of bottle three, a beer we had already reviewed on the podcast. It was my favorite beer of the flight, and such a curious experience! The aromas were richly malty, with layers of cocoa, nuts, toffee, and chicory. The flavors were if anything more varied. There was a fragile layer of roastiness floating on top of the palate, and it gave way to a buffet of malty goodness underneath. There was a vanilla/butterscotch note so pronounced we were pretty sure it had been bourbon-aged. Amazingly, the beer was light and delicate, and as you swallowed, it disappeared with a satisfyingly crisp snap.

It turned out to be Black Boss, which we sampled for the porters and stouts podcast (one of my favorites). In that case, I condemned it because I found it wanting as a porter. And indeed, when we blind-tasted it, we agreed it wasn't a porter. The roast is far too subtle. It was a ruby color, very bright, with an ecru head and, poured into a Rodenbach glass, did a decent enough visual impersonation of Roselare's finest. But my impression of the beer as a bad Baltic porter clouded my judgment about the beer itself. What I "knew" about Black Boss prevented me from experiencing something much more obvious and accessible. Absolutely every time I do a blind tasting, I find myself re-learning the lessons of humility, and this was a prime example.

Recently, Bryan Roth wrote a great post about bringing ears into the equation and listening to your beer. Fred Eckhardt used to exhort drinkers to listen to their beers, too. Like Bryan, he meant it partly literally--you can hear a head collapse, he pointed out--but Eckhardt was a bit of a mystic. He meant it poetically, as well. We "know" so much about beer because of what the label tells us, what its reputation is, what our previous experience has been, and what style it was brewed to. But this isn't knowledge, not really. When Fred told us to listen to our beers, he was saying, "put everything else aside." Every beer will tell you about itself, if only you stop to listen to the story.

Real knowledge is naked experience, untroubled by extraneous details. We so often foreclose the possibility of discovery because we already have the answers, the knowledge. If we know a beer is a well-regarded dubbel from a famous brewery in Belgium, we mold our experience (subtly, unintentionally) to fit that knowledge. We lose the opportunity for wonder. We can't meet someone we already know.

Periodically I have an experience that reminds me of these truths. Afterward, in the few days when I can remember to recapture my wonder and humility, I marvel at the experience and pure pleasure of a pint of beer. This is one of those moments. I better have another beer soon.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Of Culture and Business

Over the weekend, the Asheville Citizen-Times published a fascinating analysis of how the deal to lure Deschutes went sideways. If you're interested at the intersection of public policy and business, it's a great piece. But beyond general lessons, there are some particularities that jumped out at me. There were so many moving parts, it's hard to know what tipped the scales in Roanoke's favor, but it looks like culture played a dominant role. Consider:
  • "The beer culture fit well with what the outdoors tourism officials were trying to promote, said that city’s economic development director, Wayne Bowers. 'We’re on the Appalachian Trail. And the Blue Ridge Parkway comes right through town,' Bowers said." All you have to do is pick up a bottle of Deschutes to understand how central the outdoors is to the brewery. It's embedded very deeply into their DNA.
  • Asheville sold Deschutes' first-choice site, but Deschutes stayed engaged because Asheville is such a beery city. 
  • On the one hand, Deschutes was dealing with this from Ashville: "Republican Commissioner Joe Belcher later would say that his problem with the arrangement was bigger than the land purchase. Belcher said he was opposed to alcohol in general due to 'a deep personal and religious conviction.'" 
  • And if some in Asheville didn't love beer, Virginia was going all out for the deal. The state launched an online campaign that Virginians could participate in, and they got the governor involved in the courting process. And then there was this, which cracked me up. "Those intangibles also included ... the discovery that Haymore and Deschutes President Michael LaLonde were fellow 'Deadheads....' It was in the middle of one of the Dead’s most well-known tunes 'Franklin’s Tower' that McAuliffe got the handshake from LaLonde that he wanted, Haymore said."

If you're planning for the next few decades, brewery location isn't a casual consideration. You're stuck with that very expensive property. The natural environment, beer culture, and cultural mores of the city and state will play a huge role in whether the brewery succeeds. One might imagine that sweetening the pot with a few million dollars would make the decision easy, but against these long-term considerations (and an $85 million price tag), location and culture has a lot more to do with it.

East to West?
It's a little surreal to read about how much two states (and South Carolina was an early contender, as well) wanted Deschutes. I absolutely cannot imagine an Oregon city working with local businesses and the governor to try to score a new, say Dogfish Head, Boston Beer, or Yuengling plant. For one thing, Oregon has invested on the front end. The state already brews well over a million barrels of beer a year (not clear whether this stat includes CBA or not). By encouraging breweries with a good regulatory environment, self-distribution laws, and low taxes, Oregon has already developed five of the top 50 largest breweries in the US. Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina have developed none.

But of course the bigger thing is that Oregon has such a strong self-identity as a brewing state. We don't import breweries, we build them. We don't drink beer from elsewhere (for good and mostly bad), we drink Oregon beer. I suppose Dogfish Head could set up a brewery here for distribution purposes, but it's hard to envision a scenario outlined in the Citizen-Times playing out here.

All beer is local. That's starting to make things confusing, but only to a point.

Update (9:41am). I meant to add this point. A few people on social media have made the point that one reason for the west-to-east migration of breweries has to do with population densities. West Coast breweries are moving east because that's where the people are, and it's why we're not seeing the reverse. That's true to a point--but only a point. There are a lot of people in the NE, but they're not a giant market. Yet. One of the reasons West Coast breweries grew so fast (fourteen of the fifty largest US breweries) is because there are a lot of people here drinking those beers. Deschutes and Widmer Brothers sell 200,000 barrels of beer in Oregon alone--three times the amount all New Jersey breweries made last year.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Of Tart IPAs and Podcasts

For this Friday, before I follow the course of the mighty Columbia to the sea, I leave you with some tasty morsels for the weekend. First up: a brand new pod! On this week's episode, Patrick and I walk through a beer tasting to illustrate just how much you can learn about the ingredients and process from your senses alone. It is of course also available via iTunes.

 As a side comment, I'll add that I think the most valuable lesson people can learn about beer is distinguishing among the flavors contributed by malt, hops, and yeast. Old-timers sometimes forget how mystifying these flavors are to the uninitiated.

Next we go All About Beer, where I discuss a beer that really needs a new name. It's a further evolution on fruity IPAs, but uses a dash of kettle-soured acidity to add structure:
Let’s go back to the juiciness of ripe fruit. What makes it taste like it does is not just the sweetness and distinctive flavor, but acids. Even in fruit we don’t think of as tart, the fresh, “alive” qualities come from a foundation of acidity that firms up the flavors and sweetness. A few breweries have discovered that adding just a touch of acid to a standard IPA has the effect breweries were going for when they started adding fruit—it makes them seem somehow more fruity.
But don't call them "sour" or "tart" IPAs, which is totally misleading. And, based on the scores of comments on AAB's facebook page reacting to the link, viscerally offensive. (But would it kill people to actually click through and read an article rather that just responding mindless to the links that flash before their eyes? Apparently.)  Go have a look.

And finally, I leave you with this photo, which I just liked.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hagiographies and Game Theory

I have two random little bits here that don't amount to posts by themselves--but with a bit of baling wire and a squint we can make them appear to demonstrate some larger point. Bear with me. (Don't you always?)

The first random bit comes from The Atlantic, in a post about elections and game theory by Andrew McGill. He uses the following example to describe the way delegates may behave in the GOP convention, but that's immaterial for our purposes. He writes:
In 1936, the economist John Maynard Keynes invented a beauty contest. In examining why stock prices fluctuate, he suggested the metaphor of a newspaper pageant, where readers select the six prettiest faces from 100 photographs. But only people who picked the most popular choices would win.

“It is not a case of choosing which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks are the prettiest,” he wrote. “We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.”
This got me thinking about my rumination on what makes a "great brewery." Whenever we're examining something largely subjective--the best Texas swing band, which color to paint the bedroom, breweries--we're always looking over our shoulder at what the gal next to us thinks. In matters of aesthetics the currency is taste, and nothing is ever so negotiable as that. So, like Keynes' pageant models, we tend to add the opinion of the masses into our calculation. In arenas like wine appreciation and art collecting, it's hard to see much driving prices except the view of the masses. We like to associate ourselves with admired things to burnish our own prestige, so it's easy to see how certain beers and breweries seem to enjoy a reputation not entirely consistent with their actual production.

Which brings me to the following video clip, which is "journalism" in its most fawning. The object of this piece is Jim Koch and Boston Beer, and I'm guessing the folks in Boston Cincinnati and Breinigsville are tickled to death. [Stan Hieronymus tells me, "Since Schaefer built it in 1972 - and when Stroh owned it and then Diageo - it has always been referred to as the Fogelsville plant," not Breinigsville.] They could hardly have produced a more hagy hagiography if they'd put this together themselves.

And how does this clip relate to Keynes' beauty contest? Because breweries are spending increasingly more time trying to convince you that they are the Van Goghs and Cote de Nuits of the beer world. They know that to convince you they make the best beer is only a part of the battle; they also want you to think that's what everybody else believes. And getting CBS to do pieces like this is really, really valuable in that regard.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Devils Backbone (VA) to AB InBev

Update/Upon Further Consideration (10:48 am)
The one category of interest that these acquisitions bring to mind has to do with strategy, future acquisitions, and timelines. How many breweries does ABI need to complete their "High End" portfolio? What do they plan to do with these beers? How will the US strategy unfold as ABI pairs the High End brands with the flagship mass market lagers? All interesting stuff. We have begun to suspect that ABI is looking to knit together a portfolio of regional breweries, so looking at the map might suggest where they're headed next. We know that they tend not to purchase very large breweries--50,000 to 100,000 seems to be the range.

Another piece I'd add to the calculation is flagship brands. Devil's Backbone is known for lagers and their flagship is the Vienna Lager. They've been buying a lot of breweries that are known for IPAs, and that causes a logjam stylistically; Devil's Backbone doesn't compete with them. I'd bet this is more than a passing consideration for ABI moving forward.


This is getting to be a boring novel in which all the chapters repeat. There's nothing to say that hasn't been said in the earlier chapters (see: 10 Barrel, Breckenridge, Four Peaks, Elysian), but if you want details, go here for the press release. Funari reports that they brewed 95,000 62,000 barrels last year [with projections for 95k in 2016], which puts them in that ABI sweet spot.

But the news does give me the opportunity to post my updated map of ABI holdings. So there's that.

Monday, April 11, 2016

What Makes a Great Brewery?

Over the weekend, a discussion broke out on Facebook that led, as discussions often do, down a little side alley away from the main topic. It got me thinking. In the beer world, we spend countless hours discussing "bests." Beers get the most attention, but breweries get a lot, too. (The Facebook discussion started out with this post about people lining up for hours just to buy a brewery's beer.) The debates, inevitably, come to tears or smears because no one agrees about the definition. And there's the rub--and opportunity.

It occurred to me that I have some criteria for what makes a top tier brewery. I'm talking here about the crème de la crème--the Duponts, Schenkerlas, and Sierra Nevadas. Some of them are so famous no one disputes their membership in this rare club, but most are not. When you survey the breweries of a country like the US, where there are so many of them and many are so recent, how would you distinguish the best from the rest--particularly lacking that agreed-upon consensus? (And the truth is, we should probably throw that out as well.)

Are these people waiting outside a great brewery?
Credit: Jon Urch

I haven't toured the world anywhere near as extensively as some people, but I have drifted around a bit. As a writer who's supposed to bird-dog the good breweries and guide people to them, it's not just an academic exercise. As I've traveled, I found myself relying on a set of criteria that seems to work pretty well. Like all considerations of "best," it ultimately runs aground on the shoals of subjectivity and tautology (a good brewery is one that makes a lot of good beer!). But it does rough out the important categories that define greatness. Which breweries qualify will always be a personal judgment, but I think these are the criteria against which greatness should be judged. Note that a great brewery has all of these:
  • Consistent excellence. First, the beer has to be excellent across the entire line. Not every beer has to be a world classic, but the whole line should be accomplished and consistent.
  • An exceptional beer. It must also have at least one exceptional beer--that evanescent "world classic" or whatever terrible term we use to describe it.For my purposes, it should be unique and original, not just a good example of a well-known style. The kind of beer that sticks in your head both because it is so good, but also because its unlike anything out there. It doesn't hurt if it's the standard for a style, either. (Until about a decade ago, there weren't many American breweries that met this standard.)
  • A unique voice. Next, the brewery must have a distinctive "voice." Talented brewers can reproduce beers they've tasted elsewhere. Making a line-up of quality ales is a function of craftsmanship, and it's critical but not sufficient. I also want the brewery to offer a vision for their beer. When I taste a Schlenkerla, a Dupont, a Fuller's, I know the beer. This is an under-appreciated virtue, and possibly the hardest mark to hit.
  • Bonus: continued originality. The final criterion is really extra credit, a fixture of modern brewing. I appreciate it when a brewery is able to continue to create new and original beers along with the established classics. I would not mark Westmalle down for failing to do this, but I admire it when breweries like Schneider do. And with young, new-world breweries, it is almost a requirement. It's why Sierra Nevada, for example, continues to stay out in front.
I would guess that there are no more than a couple hundred breweries out there that meet my standards for "great"--and maybe only twenty or thirty in the US.  There's a tier below this that is much larger, though still small considering the tens of thousands of breweries in the world. In that group you'd have breweries that might have an exceptional beer but are inconsistent, or which have great standards but lack anything truly exceptional, or the ones that haven't yet found their voice.

And what about longevity? How do we compare breweries that have been making great beer for decades or centuries with ones that have been making them for months or a few years? It's a good question, and one I've never settled on. Greatness is not a permanent achievement. Once-great breweries can and do go into periods where they're making mediocre beer. But it's also important to establish a track record of quality. I might put an asterisk next to a young brewery that had a great year with the mental note to check back and see how they manage after competing in the marketplace for a few more years.

Your thoughts?

Friday, April 08, 2016

I HAVE A MINOR COMPLAINT: Don't Take that Glass!

It's been a long time since a cranky old man has vented his spleen on this blog--far, far too long. I shall now rectify this terrible oversight.

Today's whinge begins with a prose portrait. Imagine if you will the following scene. You are sitting in a pub or restaurant and in front of you sits a delicious glass of beer. It is perhaps your last beer of the evening. (This is deck-stacking, but I'm ranting so stay out of the way.) You have taken a shine to this beer, and the more you drink, the more greedy you get. You consider offering your pub-partner a swallow, but it's just too good. That kind of generosity is for full glasses, when you have enough to spare. Bit by bit you lower the level, savoring ever longer-lingering mouthfuls of fine ale. (Or lager, yes, but please, don't interrupt.) The amount of beer gets dangerously low, and you start taking ever smaller sips to preserve the beer. At a certain point, you leave just enough so that it will suffuse your sensory apparatus with a long, lingering aftertaste that will take you out into the night and, possibly, follow you into your dreams.

And then, at that moment, a waiter strafes the table and snatches the glass without even slowing down. "Wait!--" Nope, it's too late. That last swallow is headed for the drain. And there you sit, despairing, like a child whose ice cream has fallen off the cone.

I grant that the above scenario may seem far-fetched to you, but it happens not-uncommonly to me. And it happened last night at La Buca, a nice little Italian restaurant nearby (where, it must be admitted, the waiters are not so clued into the whole beer etiquette thing.) Perhaps I'm weird. Perhaps this behavior is aberrant enough that anyone engaging in it should expect to have his glass whisked away as a kind of penalty for lollygagging. But dammit, I paid for that glass of beer, and as a consenting adult, I should be able to do anything with it I damn well please, including lollygagging.


Thank you for your attention.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Beer There (A Brand New Feature???)

A few weeks back, something remarkable happened. Eric Samuelson, a beer fan who lived for a time in Oregon but who relocated to the DC area, sent me a package of beer. For no particular reason other than he wanted me to try some of the good beer he was tasting there. I would very optimistically love this to be a regular feature. I encourage everyone from around the country--nay, around the planet--to send me your good, locally-brewed beer. And, if you do that, the least I can do is offer a few comments on what I've received.  (I don't expect it. I would be a lot of money against it. But you never know. Email me and I'll give you my mailing address.) All right, then, onto the beers.

Patrick and I reviewed two of these on the Beervana Podcast--Cigar City Hot as Helles and Port City Optimal Wit. Since I received the package, Cigar City has sold out to private equity, anticipating Eric's comment ("Enjoy it before they get acquired by ABInbev.") It is not a DC-area beer ("I just had it sitting around and it fit in the box") and it was the least impressive of the batch. A helles lives and dies by malt character. If there isn't a subtle symphony of flavor, it's just a boring little lager, and I guess I'd put this beer in that category. The malts were sweet, and generically so. We've got another Port City down below, so I'll mention Optimal Wit with it.

On the wings of Armageddon  (DC Brau)
This was the beer that precipitated the care package. Eric comments, "I think this is the DC area’s version of Heady Topper or Pliny the Younger." DC Brau used the Falconer's Flight hop blend exclusively in the beer. My notes: "Wonderfully fruity aroma--orange, mango, and something slightly dank/savory. Pretty thick mouthfeel. Lots of flavor, not a ton of bitterness. Strong hoppy beers have a strange acidity that seems to singe my mouth." It seems like a wholly worthy member of the crowd of sticky modern hop bombs, though I didn't personally love it. That's not surprising since I love only a tiny number of these kinds of beers. They strike me as too intense, too crowded, as if an addled writer kept using the same page of notebook paper to write a novel. But you'd probably love it.

Fruit Basket (Champion)
Eric comments that it is, "well regarded, but I thought it was only OK." My notes were similar. "A well-done fruit IPA, with the actual fruit flavors (orange and grapefruit juice, "citrus" zest) fading more towards bitter rindiness. The zest provides a dry, bitter finish, but otherwise the fruit my be hidden. A bitter spine. Nice but not sublime." 
One comment I'll make here interstitially is that the above two beers are good examples of why the designation "West Coast" no longer has any meaning. They are typical of the beers I found around the country last fall. Basically, the American interest in hops has become universal, and we're all making them the same way now. And please do not mention Vermont.

Vienna Lager (Devil's Backbone)
Eric's comment: "DB makes wonderful beer in general and this is their standard bearer." I agree about the brewery; it's one I admire a lot, and they're cited in the Beer Bible. But I've been underwhelmed by this beer, and was again. My tasting notes: "Beautiful amber-copper. Toffee malt aroma. A bit too sweet, and the malt character is generic. I would like a distinctive flavor in these malts, and a drier, crisper finish." Like helles, this style depends on distinctiveness in those subtle elements. The brewery uses several malts, and that may actually be the problem: with fewer, the flavors might shine through more brightly.

The last two come from Port City, and they were the two best beers (by my lights) in the pack.

Optimal Wit (Port City)

Eric's comments: "This is my neighborhood brewery. They have a great line up; this is on tap everywhere around here..." I don't have notes--listen to the pod!--but it was really superb, dominated by crisp freshness, and only accented by spices (as opposed to being oppressed by them). It contains grains of paradise, and I hate grains of paradise. Usually. The spice is so strong it's almost always overused. Clearly, though, when used in the right amount, it can be great.

Colossal Five (Port City)
Eric hadn't tried this yet, but said it was getting great reviews. I see why. It is their fifth anniversary beer, an English-style old ale. My tasting notes. "Wonderful aroma of stewed fruit with a bit of toffee. Smells like 19th century London kitchen. Bread pudding. Great malt character; sweet, but leathery. Very rich. Lovely beer." This was one of those rare and wondrous beers that shakes you out of analytic objectivity and puts you into a mood of poetry and metaphor. You are searching for flavor descriptions and find your mind wandering off into smiling reverie. I would love to have a steady supply of this beer--and I'd love to see what it would taste like if inoculated with a bit of Brettanomyces Claussenii. Really exceptional beer.
Thanks for the beer, Eric! And thank all of you future participants in this ongoing series.

(Hey, you can't blame me for trying.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Future of Beer is Hiding in the Footnotes

For decades, folks in Denver have been tracking the growth of craft beer and the size of American craft breweries, and each year the Brewers Association releases figures on both. This has become an increasingly difficult exercise in recent years, however, because many of the flagship breweries making craft beer have changed their organizational structures to better compete in the marketplace. And that puts them outside the Brewers Association defintion.  According to the revised definition, the Brewers Association says a craft brewery is "small, independent and traditional." (I'd have liked an Oxford comma in that definition, but that's a different debate for a different time.)

Craft beer is, tautologically, beer made by craft breweries. But 2015 was the year that brewing broke "craft beer." The once-elegant dichotomy between craft and noncraft, fraying at the edges since the formation of Craft Brewers Alliance, was shattered with brewery acquisitions, mergers, sales of minority stakes, and mission creep into non-beer products.

As usual, April heralds the annual Brewers Association list of largest breweries. The most startling element of this year's tally is how many breweries have a small letter appended after the name. Those footnotes connect to a description of the compromises and deviations from the pure essence of "craft brewing" each brewery has taken. (I'll include the entire, extremely long list in the first comment below this post.) In other words, these are in some sense all "crafty" breweries. And even with all those footnotes the BA elided some of the changes by failing to notice sales of minority stakes--which I've addressed by adding an asterisk.

So, of the largest 25 breweries in the United States, how many unambiguously meet the definition of "craft?" Six.

Brewing Company
Anheuser-Busch, Inc (a)
MillerCoors (b)
Pabst Brewing Co (c)
D. G. Yuengling and Son
Boston Beer Co (d)
North American Breweries (e)
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co
New Belgium Brewing Co
Craft Brew Alliance (f)
Lagunitas Brewing Co (g)
Gambrinus (h)
Bell's Brewery, Inc (i)
Deschutes Brewery
Minhas Craft Brewery (j)
Stone Brewing Co
Sleeman Brewing Co (k)
Ballast Point (l)
Brooklyn Brewery
Firestone Walker (m)
Founders Brewing Co*
Oskar Blues Brewing (n)
Duvel Moortgat USA (o)
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery*
Matt Brewing Co (p)
SweetWater Brewing Co*

This is not a list of the largest American breweries, it's an obituary for "craft brewing." It demonstrates that a mature market is not one in which the big players are "small, independent and traditional." No amount of fiddling with the definition will ever repair this breach, either--because "craft beer" won. It has become mainstream and is in the process of entering the mass market. And companies that make hundreds of thousands of barrels of beer a year need to use all the advantages size affords. So of course "craft breweries" now look a lot like "macro breweries." The difference between the former craft and macro segments never had anything to do with beer, it had to do with size.  The absurdity of a list that has to include a 300-word footnote to account for all the complexity in a market makes this reality explicit. We have entered the post-craft era; welcome to the future.

Craft beer is dead. Long live beer.