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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Other Downsides of Consolidation

Lorenzo Mendoza greets and kisses worker at his shuttered brewery in Caracas, Venezuela. He's trying to boost morale. Mendoza is the chief executive of Venezuelan food giant Empresas Polar, which was founded in 1941 and is now the largest private company in this socialist country. But Polar has come upon tough times. Many of its processing plants are running at half-speed, and thousands of employees have been furloughed since April, when all four of the company's breweries were shut down by a barley shortage. The government controls access to foreign currency, and Mendoza says it has refused to provide the dollars Polar needs to import barley, which doesn't grow in Venezuela's tropical climate.

The problem, of course, is this:
For Venezuelans who want to unplug from all these problems by popping open a beer, that's no longer possible. Polar used to produce 80 percent of Venezuela's beer, and now the supply is rapidly drying up.
Venezuela needs more breweries!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Remembering the Ethnographer Michael Jackson

Memorial Day is supposed to be reserved for the war dead, but since I'm a pacifist and a provocateur, I'd like to discuss a different deceased person. To my knowledge, Michael Jackson never served in the military. There are a few curiosities about his life, but mainly Jackson was a writer. That's what he was known for in life, and that's what he is remembered for. In fact, now nine years after his death he is still the most famous writer on the subject of beer, and still the most authoritative. This causes no small level of indigestion among current writers, but we just have to suck it up. Jackson was the first to break through as a beer writer, and the one who created the conceptual framework we now use to think about beer. Fortunately for us, he was a great thinker, a better writer, and the concepts he set down 40 years ago should be serving us very well for another forty (and possibly 140).
The man rocked a groovy head of hair. (Note the Weinhard's)
I couldn't find the source of this picture, incidentally.

On this Memorial Day, I'd like to praise Jackson for an element of his influence that doesn't get much attention at all, but which is easily the most important. 

Jackson was fundamentally an ethnographer. He wasn't a brewer and he wasn't an historian. He called himself a journalist, but his biggest contribution was understanding beer in the context of the culture in which it was brewed. He might have approached beer from the sensory perspective, as much wine writing does, or he could have gone out to breweries and described the beer they made, like a simple journalist. Instead, he did this:
The tradition has died out on the eastern side of Brussels, though the beers in blended form are still served in the cafes of Jezus-Eik to strollers in the forest of Soignes on a Sunday afternoon. Today's production area is on the western side of the city from Anderlecht to Schepdaal, Beersel, Lembeek, and beyond.

Bruegel lived on this side of Brussels, in its Flemish Old Town, and wandered in the the villages of Payottenland. The church in The Parable of the Blind is clearly Sint-Anna-Pede, between Itterbeek and Schepdaal. Nor, 400 years later, would anyone fail to recognize the Flemings of The Peasant Dance or The Wedding Feast enjoying a beer in one of the many cafes of the valley, probably within sight of Brussels' skyline.  In The Wedding Feast, beer of a strawy-russet colour is shown being decanted from the type of stoneware crock still often used for Lambic today. The same crocks feature in The Peasant Dance. There are similar images in the paintings of the aptly-named artist Brouwer, who came along in the next century, and no style of beer features more pervasively in Flemish popular art, literature, and folklore than the Lambic family. (Nor, arguably, is any theme more central in Flemish culture than the brewing and consuming of beer of any kind.)
Jackson situated beer in a place. He demonstrated how it was an expression of the culture of the people who made it. That passage I quoted from comes from probably his most impressive work, Great Beers of Belgium (my copy is the third edition), and it really highlights how he brought meaning to the glass of beer we drink. The thing that fueled the American brewing revival was how people fell in love with beer, and Jackson's culture-rich writing was one of the main vectors of that romance.

His work does not exist without controversy; mention him among a group of writers or historians, and you'll quickly hear "he got a lot wrong."  He probably did. (Though such is Jackson's stature that I've never seen anyone with the temerity to write a 14-Biggest-Things-Jackson-Got-Wrong article.) When I was in grad school, my favorite professor, a linguist, offered me the most important piece of real-world information I ever received. Paraphrasing him: "As scholars, we create the theories our students will disprove." That's the way of scholarship. You take the incomplete information you have and you build theories. More information inevitably comes, and the theory has to be revised or discarded. Of course Jackson got some things wrong in 1977. This indicates not shoddy work, but old work. What's remarkable is, after forty years, how much still stands up.

I return to Jackson regularly, in part because he is now a fantastic historical source. He carefully documents a lot about ingredients and methods he encountered over the past four decades. Breweries love to talk about "tradition" and "continuity," but things change. I have on more than a few occasions quoted Jackson to breweries and asked them if they still make beer that way, or of those ingredients. He may have gotten some history wrong, but beer he documented--now part of our history--is invaluable. Even more--culture has changed. The context of the beers he described in 1977 or '87 or '97 has changed. In some cases hugely, in others very little. That distance tells us a lot.

In any case, it's Memorial Day. So here's my cheers to Jackson. Hope he's well, wherever he is--

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Strength of Regional Breweries

If you wanted to characterize brewery trends the in mid-teens, you could say "the rush to nationalization." Big, regional breweries are pushing out to establish a national footprint, many have begun to open far-flung facilities to make this possible, some are joining forces with other mid-sized breweries, and still others are selling part or all of their stake to multinational breweries. Everyone is thinking that the window to establish national craft brands is closing, and only those who get in now will be competitive. Being national seems like an obvious move. I wonder, though, if being a regional power isn't a smarter play?

Ninkasi's big tanks.
Curiously, this isn't the first rush to nationalize. At the outset, some breweries raced to become national brands, no doubt working on the model created by Budweiser and Miller et. al. Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Pete's Wicked, Rogue--these brands quickly shot out over the landscape. What they soon learned was that it was very hard to maintain a national network. Larger breweries, which have established distribution networks, relationships with large retailers, sales teams, and so on, do this very well. Little guys don't have the money, volume, or connections to build 50-state networks while brewing 50,000 barrels. In the 1990s, beer went through a re-set and breweries retrenched and focused on local markets.

Yesterday I visited Ninkasi for the first time in years, and while I gaped at all the recent growth, I chatted with founders Nikos Ridge and Jamie Floyd about business strategies. Ninkasi has always been focused on establishing a firm foothold in the Pacific Northwest, and while I don't think they would foreclose going national, that seems to be their near- and middle-term focus. While we were talking, I began to muse about the role of the dominant regional brewery in the future beer ecosystem.

Regional breweries have always existed. Even in the worst days of consolidation, the Yuenglings and Schells survived by cultivating a loyal following near their home base. There are also examples across Europe of the strong regional player. In Oregon, the Blitz/Weinhard brewery survived well into the craft era (1999), selling a million barrels of beer in the Northwest. Indeed, where you have strong local breweries, they often far out-sell national competitors. Because, even when national brands do have good national networks, they can't outcompete brands with a home-court advantage.

Ninkasi is a good example of a strong regional brand. Most of the production is sold in Oregon, and nearly all of it is sold in the Northwest. They do very well in Portland and Eugene. It's easy to imagine Ninkasi growing to a quarter million barrels of beer based on sales on the west coast alone. New Glarus has managed to grow to be the 27th largest brewery in the US by and they only sell beer in Wisconsin. (Rogue, which sells nationally, is the 41st largest. Ninkasi is 43rd.)

The market is poised to nurture these kinds of breweries, too. Because the national market is getting so tight, building a base near home will be easier, cheaper, and more stable. It allows breweries to cater to local preferences and respond to local trends. Customer engagement is easier when your footprint is five, rather than fifty, states. And given that the craft segment is likely to continue to grow for the next decade or two, breweries can continue to grow themselves without becoming predatory.

It also occurs to me that these forces will make maintaining national brands a constantly-challenging prospect. If the entire country is chunked up by strong regional players--imagine fiefdooms dominated by Brooklyn, Bell's New Glarus, SweetWater, Abita, Harpoon, Victory, Great Lakes, etc.--the national brands will be fighting against locals everywhere they go. That was the reason consolidation happened in the first place--it was easier to buy regional brands than out-sell them in local markets.

The idea of being a 5m-barrel national brewery must be enticing to ambitious breweries, but shooting for 500,000 barrels and regional dominance might make more sense in the long run, especially if you want to remain an independent.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Why Are We Magnetized By Beers of the Past?

On Monday, archaeologists revealed evidence of a 5,000-year-old Chinese brewery. It got picked up quite broadly and for good reason--it's pretty cool. (Follow the link if you missed it.) What was odd was that I had just returned from a junket to Copenhagen, where the Carlsberg brewery was unveiling their own project involving old beer--recreating an 1883 beer they found in their extensive cellars. Over the past couple decades, breweries and archaeologists have made a cottage industry of recreating lost beers, and we are always, without fail, magnetized by it. Serious question: why?

One of the actual
The Carlsberg experiment was a case-in-point. Conceptually, it was very cool. The brewery found these old bottles and realized they dated to a period of bottle-conditioning. (I got to take a trip down to one small part of the cellars and came across a different box of dust-encrusted old cage-and-cork bottles of very distant vintage. They're apparently laying all over the place.) Even after 133 years, they managed to rouse the yeast enough to get it to propagate, and they decided to make a beer from it.

Old brewing logs are great about some things and bad about others. Recipes from the era made it easy to replicate the water, and they went to a seed bank for old varieties of barley, which they had floor-malted at a distillery. (Later, to give the malt the proper 1880s color, they kilned it a bit more.) Hops were more of a mystery. They had some evidence of the provenance--Hallertau--but nothing about the variety or alphas. They decided to use Hallertauer Hallertau and guessed at the bitterness. It took a couple years to get everything in place, and the brewery went into high drive to celebrate its release. You can see a video they put together here, along with a cameo by Martyn Cornell. And of course, they flew me and dozens of members of the media in from all over the world to try the beer.

They finished it off in a wooden barrel for a week--though strangely, an unpitched wooden barrel, which would not have been typical of the day. We were given a tour of some of the technical facilities in Copenhagen (the main brewery is no longer located there) and then joined the brewery for the big unveiling.

The night before, Pete Brown made an obvious point that I think eluded the brewery. They'd set up sort of a no-win situation. Either the beer was going to be sublime, which was the ostensible expectation, or it would be a dud. If it were a dud--well, that's obviously not good. But if it were sublime, it would cast an odd shadow over the brewery's 21st century beers. Carlsberg, which is run by a foundation that diverts some profits into technical research, has a heavy R&D bent. The project itself, whatever the beer tasted like, was going to be interesting as a science experiment. I'm sure they learned a great deal. (Not the least of which was that 133-year-old yeast is still viable.)

But on the big day, we tried the beer and .... Well, care to guess? Here's a picture:

And here's the ceremony:


Guesses? Guesses? It was ... all right. And now we come back to the the question from the top of the post. The beer had an antiquated quality. It was brownish and heavy, quite sweet and undercarbonated. Pale lagers were in the midst of taking over the world, and they were replacing old brown beers. And they were replacing old brown beers, presumably, because they weren't as tasty. We always romanticize the past, thinking that industrial precision and agricultural manipulation have surely brought us to a benighted state. And that's not entirely without merit--heirloom apples taste a lot better than giant supermarket fruit.

But I think it's wrong with beer. I've had the opportunity to sample a few recreations, and they always taste weird and un-modern. Attenuation was terrible, so they're usually heavy and sweet. I don't think recreations tend to capture the microbiological capriciousness of old beers, either. Technology has given us the tools to make the beer we want now, and much more ably and precisely than at any time in the past. The idea of time-traveling through our tastebuds is alluring, but it's foolsgold. I'm convinced the past didn't taste very good.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Danish Hay Beer--and Lots of IPAs

Four weeks ago I received an email about visiting Copenhagen to try a beer made with 133-year-old yeast at Carlsberg brewery (and on their dime). Two weeks ago I actually had travel plans, and a week ago I got on a plane for Denmark. All of which is to say I didn't have a huge amount of time to prepare for the trip. (One of my first surprises was learning Denmark's not on the euro.) My knowledge of Danish beer extended as far as Carlsberg and Mikkeller, and in the two weeks of preparation, I developed the tiniest of inklings that there was something called "New Nordic" out there. Could it apply to beer?

The phrase comes from new Nordic cuisine, pioneered by Noma restaurant's René Redzepi and Claus Meyer. You may have heard the name Noma before--it was regularly voted the best restaurant in the world (though I think they've slipped to third or so recently, the poor bastards). New Nordic cuisine involves a hyper-local, seasonal approach, and the Noma chefs were famous for foraging their ingredients. (As with any movement more than a few minutes old, it has also been declared passe.)

The "hay" beer--and the sole example of New Nordic
brewing I discovered in Denmark.

And indeed, the notion has been extended to beer. Elements of New Nordic beer seem to revolve around the presence of local ingredients, the absence of hops, and something to do with local yeast. It's an odd way to invent a tradition--coming up with the concept first, and then hoping something tasty and commercially successful might emerge from it. This is not typically how beer styles are born, and put me down as a doubter that it will work in Denmark, either. I managed to get to a couple of good beer bars and two Mikkeller outposts, and in the 120+ taps I saw, only one could be called New Nordic. It was a beer made my inoculation with hay (possibly the one Martyn described in the link at the top of this paragraph). It was funky, tart, hazy, headless, and flat--a nice beer, but strange.

Beer and cuisine are in many ways similar--they are constructed by people. They reflect culture, history, and place. When talking about this similarity, I often point out how France and Germany have extremely similar climates and agricultural products--but wildly different cuisines. Much like German and French (or better still, Belgian) beers differ wildly. But they are dissimilar in other ways. Beer is a lubricant as much as a consumable. We drink it in part for the flavor, but at least as much for the effect. Beers that are weird, strongly-flavored, and demanding only rarely become pub faves, and even more rarely in the modern era. We like beers that we can enjoy but which don't interrupt the conversation. Hay beer seems at best a longshot to displace Carlsberg. Or, it turns out, the other beers that seem to be rising in popularity.

As a category I would say they had a distinctly ... American quality. At none of the places I visited (Fermentorum, Taphouse, Warpigs, or Mikkeller) did I find a taplist that would have looked even slightly unusual to the American eye. IPAs were very popular, as were various tart ales and saisons. Even when the beer style in question was nominally European--a gose, for example, it was invariably prepared in the American fashion, with limes and mint or something un-German. In fact, you'd be much more likely to find a straight up weizen or helles in Portland than the four pubs I visited.

My own sense of cognitive dissonance started at Warpigs, the joint project of Mikkeller and Three Floyds. It is self-consciously modeled after an American craft brewery. They brought in Kyle Wolak from Indiana to run the brewery. They installed a Texas barbecuer. And they brew lots and lots of very modern, super juicy IPAs (plus a few familiar favorites like Zombie Dust and Alpha King). When we got the tour, our guide Jacob Alsing told us that they "wanted to bring an American brewery to Denmark."


I was prepared to chalk that up as a one-off, but going to the 61-handle Taphouse had the effect of confirming rather than dispelling the sense.  Even asking for a "characteristically Danish" beer left the bartender scratching his head. He pointed to local breweries, but couldn't find another beer that had a Danish streak. Finally, at Fermentoren on my last full day (beer list here), I had a nice kettle-soured tart made with vanilla and just accepted that the mood of the moment is American. Maybe this is not surprising. Danish craft brewing isn't much older than a decade, and if you were to time travel back to 1990, you wouldn't find too many beers in America that seemed American. We did have beers like Sierra Nevada Pale, though, and these suggested a future in which our vivid IPAs would be so impressive they would be brewed by Americans in Copenhagen.

Which, come to think of it, may argue for the hay beer after all. Let's check back in twenty years and see if the New Nordic has become old hat--and hay beers are the wave of the present.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Greetings From Copenhagen

A photographic tour of my trip junket* thus far.


At War Pigs, a joint venture of Mikkeller
and Three Floyds.
 (More after the jump.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

For Father's Day: The Beer Bible

Winner of a 2016
IACP award!
Dad is so hard to shop for. He basically doesn't want or need that much, and what he does want or need he's already purchased. Except! There is one item dads everywhere love--The Beer Bible. I kid around, but the truth is, this book has been a big hit with many fathers. I've heard about it on Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon. I've signed many copies for fathers. My own father loves it. (This may not seem like much, but I think the last book he read was in 1962.) He was genuinely surprised to find how much interesting info is in it. For awhile there, he was telling me interesting facts he'd picked up, as if I was unaware of them.

So please, consider visiting one of the finer online or brick-and-mortar retailers and pick up a copy for dad today.

As a bonus, I am happy to sign copies for those nearby or passing through Portland. Kitchen Kaboodle has some signed copies available, but if you're trying to buy one remotely, you'll have to call--their online site doesn't have them listed. Also, in a couple of instances, I have signed copies remotely by creating and scanning an inscription and sending it digitally. More than happy to do that, too. Just email and we'll get it done.

Dad will love it, I promise!

Monday, May 16, 2016

To Copenhagen

This afternoon I will hop on a flight to Copenhagen. My first stop is Chicago, where Stan Hieronymus joins me to get on an SAS flight to Europe. We and a number of other writers have been invited by the Carlsberg brewery for the following event, paid for entirely by Carlsberg:
Recently, scientists at Carlsberg Laboratory made an extraordinary discovery in the old cellars of Carlsberg in Copenhagen, Denmark. They discovered a very old Carlsberg bottle that surprisingly still contained living yeast cells. They grew and analysed the cells, and, as it turns out, the bottle was one of the very first beers brewed with original pure yeast dating back to 1883.

Presently, the scientists and brewers at Carlsberg Research Laboratory are re-brewing the world’s first quality lager in the most authentic manner by using the exact same ingredients, recipe and brewing techniques as used more than one hundred years ago. On May 18, 2016, the special brew will be ready, and for the first time in more than a hundred years, men and women will be able to taste beer, that not only is the forefather to most lager beers today, but also represents a ground-breaking beer discovery. 

The beer is brewed to celebrate Carlsberg Research Laboratory’s 140-year anniversary. Carlsberg Research Laboratory is home to some of the most extraordinary discoveries of the past century, ranging from Professor Dr. Emil Hansen’s method for purifying yeast to the discovery of the pH scale, the structure of proteins and the synthesis of enzymes that enable low temperature clothes laundering.
I saw a list of invitees, which numbered 17, but I don't know how many of them will actually be in attendance. I've finagled an extra day at the brewery so I can do some further interviews and tours in hopes of putting together an article for All About Beer. We touch down on Tuesday and it's wheels up on Friday, so I will see very little of Copenhagen nor get to delve into the local beer scene. But not none of it. I'm told Stan has hatched a plan to visit War Pigs when we land, and I'll tag along.

Dunno how much blogging I'll do from Denmark, but I have scheduled a couple posts. Until next time--

Friday, May 13, 2016

Widmer Brothers Hefe at 30: A Reconsideration

This is the first part of a pair of posts on the legacy of Widmer Brothers Hefe. For the sibling post, an oral history of the beer, go here


The City of Portland officially declared May 15 "Hefe Day."

On Sunday, the Widmer Brothers are throwing a party at Pioneer Courthouse Square to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of their flagship, the venerable Hefeweizen. It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of this beer in the history of its hometown. In the early days of craft brewing, breweries had a hard time convincing beer drinkers to switch over to the heavier, more full-flavored ales they were selling ... until Hefeweizen came along.

It became the city's first breakthrough beer, and in the late 1980s, everyone in the city wanted to hold a tall, curved weizen glass of the cloudy orange liquid, garnished ostentatiously with a lemon slice. In most cities, it took years--often decades--to reach that tipping point where craft beer was an accepted, popular drink. Thanks to Hefeweizen, Portland made the transition by the time Nirvana was first playing Satyricon downtown.

That MTV-era success launched both Widmer Brothers and their strangely-named beer, and both became giants in craft brewing. But it also dated them as surely as shoulder-padded power suits and synthy new wave music. As with any multi-generational phenomenon, Hefeweizen now carries with it the weight of all those impressions that have accumulated over the decades. It's interesting to speak to people who encountered this beer at different times; those who know it from the 80s have entirely different impressions than those who came across it later (see here for more). Those impressions seem to contain as much of the mood of the industry at the time as they do of the beer itself, for good and sometimes ill.

I began my own reconsideration of this beer within the last decade, and particularly when I had to write about it in the Beer Bible. When Kurt and Rob decided to call it a "hefeweizen," they plunged us into a netherworld of stylistic confusion, a legacy with which we're still contending. But, leaving aside the name, the beer turns out to be more interesting, unusual, and influential than we give it credit for--especially us old timers--and it's actually better positioned now than it has been in decades. If you strip away all that history, it looks surprisingly contemporary. And for the first time, it may also be poised to exchange its status of "old" to that rare category of "classic."

"American" Bones
For the past few months, we've been enduring a weird little boomlet in very cloudy IPAs that supposedly come from New England. Oh really? Cloudy beers have been pretty popular here in Oregon since 1986, when Widmer Brothers first launched Hefeweizen. In fact, if you look at the bones of Hefeweizen, it has all the hallmarks of what we have come to think of as the classic American style.
  • Cloudiness and rusticity. In 1986, that cloudiness was the most potent rebuke to industrial lagers Portlanders had ever seen. It said, without words or PR gloss, 'this is not your father's Lucky Lager.' That visual cue has been a part of Oregon brewing ever since, though the valence has changed as hops have come into the picture. Haziness is now associated with the addition of bales of hops, and when an IPA is absent at least a shimmer of haze, many drinkers regard it with skepticism. As craft beer gets ever larger and more industrial, that haze becomes a more potent proxy for artisanal. This is all something Rob and Kurt learned in 1986.
  • Late hop flavors. American wheat beers have become their own thing. Made with neutral yeast, they accentuate the soft breadiness of the grain and are brewed to be drunk in twos and threes. This style really flourished in the Midwest, where beers like Bell's Oberon and Three Floyds Gumballhead have become perennial favorites. Hefeweizen is not actually a member of this group. It's really a pale ale, featuring a lovely layer of citrusy American hop flavor. The Widmers were certainly not the first to feature the bright notes of Cascade hops, but they understood how well it worked with a beer highlighting a citrus smack. 
  •  Sessionability. The life-cycle of craft beer has come back to where it started. Beer was a sessionable drink, and people rarely sat down to drink just one. As craft beer evolved, beers got ever more intense, pulling the focus away from sessionability. Ultimately, drinkers started coming back around to sessionable beers that were full-flavored but not so intense they resisted having a pint or three. Hefeweizen, which combines light hoppiness with a layer of soft malts, is a perfect session beer, and has the complexity even beer geeks admire.
If you look at where American beer is right now, Hefeweizen looks remarkably contemporary. It even predicted the move to fruit. That slice of lemon, once derided by purists as a gimmick, doesn't look at all out of place in a world where grapefruit IPAs are the hottest trend. Go pour out a Hefeweizen and then grab another old-time craft standard--a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, for example--and pour that out for comparison. Which one seems more in keeping with the mood of 2016? Not that strange, heavy, bitter old IPA, that's for sure.

Sustained Success
It's also worth noting how few beers introduced in the 80s are still on the market. Beer is a commercial product, and breweries can't afford to keep any brand alive for nostalgic reasons. In the thirty years since Widmer Brothers released Hefe, they've introduced scores of beers to the market. They would happily be brewing, say, Drifter Pale Ale now if it were still selling well. But breweries can only afford to sell what people are buying When I spoke to Rob Widmer earlier this week, he mentioned how this phenomenon affected Hefe's predecessor, Weizenbier. It was actually just a filtered version of Hefeweizen, but it couldn't compete with its unexpectedly alluringly cloudy incarnation:
“Backing up even further, there were very few people who appreciated Altbier. We were kind of circling the drain—there wasn’t really any velocity there at all. We introduced the Weizenbier because we realized people wanted something that was a little more approachable. So Weizen really saved us. Originally we hoped to have Altbier, Weizenbier, and Hefe on tap. What we found was that Weizen drinkers, once they discovered Hefe, they just stopped. Over the course of the rest of ’86, we just slowly wound down Weizen. It was bittersweet; we hated to see that Weizenbier go.”

Over the course of thirty years, the craft beer segment has changed radically--and gone through several stages along the way. Each one of those shifts in preferences killed off a certain number of formerly-popular beers. But ever since its introduction, Hefeweizen has been far and away the most popular Widmer Brothers beer, even as other brands in the portfolio came and went. Over the thirty years since its introduction, they've brewed millions of barrels of the stuff. There's never been a time when it didn't account for the lion's share of the brewery's production and sales.

Sometimes craft beer fans are wary of the old. When he was master brewer at BridgePort, Karl Ockert called this the "novelty curve"--that period when a new beer sells well simply because its new. Other industry watchers call it "drinker promiscuity." Popularity is a double-edged sword, though. Everyone's trying to capture that lightning, but holding on to it--that's the trick. One of the reasons Hefeweizen has had this sustained success, year after year, era after era, is because it has a classic timelessness that people respond to.

I will confess that in the 1980s and '90s, I was not much a Hefeweizen fan. It had a status in that era of an entry-level beer. In the '80s, it also had an association with yuppies that warded me off. (For youngsters, yuppies, though very different in class and status, were sort of the hipsters of their day: a lot more people were called yuppies than claimed to be one.) It wasn't until sometime in the 2000s that I rediscovered Hefeweizen, and I was startled by what I found. My own palate had gone through that shift toward balance and subtle complexity, and I discovered what a triumph Hefeweizen was. In the years since, I will occasionally find myself in a place with a mediocre tap list that includes Hefe. I smile as I order it, knowing I've discovered this wonderful gem hiding there among the Stellas and Blue Moons.

After years of seeming like they were vaguely embarrassed by Hefeweizen, the Widmer Brothers have started to give full-throated support to their flagship again. Sales are up. They've even begun extending the brand a bit with beers like Hefe Shandy. (I'd love to see a cloudy, wheaty, late-hop IPA next; it would bear all the fingerprints of its ancestor and be on the cutting edge of the new trend.) My sense is that even beer geeks have come back around to it.

If you survive long enough, you're no longer old. You're classic. Maybe Widmer Hefeweizen has, after thirty years, finally gotten there.

Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen, An Oral History

This is the second part of a pair of posts on the legacy of Widmer Brothers Hefe. For the sibling post, a reconsideration of the beer itself, go here


Good beers that manage to survive any time at all pass from the ownership of a brewery into the hands of a community. They survive because they create a strong impression in people's minds, often associated with key moments in life. I put out a call on Facebook and via email for reminiscences, and they form a rather striking portrait. I've arranged these chronologically, and interspersed among them are quotes from Rob Widmer, whom I spoke to earlier this week. Some of the folks are private citizens and beer fans, others may be familiar to you. But all tell a similar story.

I'm going to get things rolling by telling my own story. Widmer Hef--the name I've used for 28 years--was never one of my go-to beers. The doorway into good beer for me was stout, but I happened to live in Portland in the 80s and I had eyes--you really didn't need anything more to be aware of this beer. I first became aware of it in about 1988, the year the brothers installed a test brewery in the B. Moloch restaurant in what is now Southpark. It had already been gaining steam for a couple years, but that brewery, in a downtown location (all the little breweries at the time were in the cheaper, industrial areas), really helped magnetize people. Holding a vase glass of Hef and a wedge of lemon became an early status symbol in Portland. The visual presentation was so distinctive that people really wanted to be a part of it. Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen was astonishingly popular, and took beer from the pubs into the upper echelon of Portland's eateries. It transcended gender. I have very little doubt that one of the reasons craft beer became so broadly adopted was because Hefe crashed through so many barriers so early on.
“It was not long after we started pouring Hefe at the Dublin Pub. It was a Friday night and I was sitting at the bar with Carl Simpson, the proprietor, and he said, ‘I’m going to do something here. Watch what happens—this is incredible.’ He was already using the half-liter weizenbier glasses, so he filled up the four glasses, garnished them with lemon, put them on a tray, and had the waitress just walk around. There were tables full of people, and conversations would stop. When she would walk through, people would look at the tray, they would point, and you could tell how it completely grabbed their attention. By midnight everybody had one of those half liters of Hefe in front of them.”
Rob Widmer
The combination of the look, the flavor, and the approachability made it a big status symbol in the city.
"My own recollection has to do with my racquetball club, where I have now been a member for 27 years. In the early days, they had three taps…Bud, Bud Light and Widmer Hef. We played a lot of racquetball games for beer throughout the 1990s. If you really wanted to go for the gusto, you played for Widmer Hef. It was considered the gold standard. They kept lemon slices in a plastic bin behind the counter for all the folks who ordered pitchers of Hef. Man did that stuff taste great when it was paid for by some poor suckers. Major status symbol when you were drinking Hef while the other chumps sipped Bud or Bud Light."
Pete Dunlop

When he visited Oregon several years back, Stan Hieronymus noticed that haziness was a unifying theme in local beers. One reason is because so many of us were introduced to good beer in the form of that cloudy, yeasty Hefeweizen.
"I first had Widmer Hefe in the fall of 1988. I had moved to Portland to go to college, and we drank a ton of Henry's ale. But the Widmer Hefe was a revelation.  There wasn't another cloudy beer, the flavor seemed remarkable, and everyone would freak out when a keg got tapped. That beer was a huge favorite for everyone all through college - really the preferred keg to buy if you had an extra $20 or whatever it was. I do recall the sort of buzz and excitement whenever you heard that someone had a keg."
Van Havig

"I recall drinking it in the very early 90's and was surprised by the enormous amount of yeast in it. It really looked like a milkshake back then. I had just spent a semester in Vienna (not the Weizenbier capital, mind you) and had enjoyed a few Bavarian Hefeweizens, but wasn't an expert at that point. When I talked with Rob Widmer in 1997 before starting my studies at the VLB, he said they renamed it an American Hefeweizen. That, I thought, was a great addition to the moniker. The yeast load has definitely dropped since then, but it was one of the first fresh and local micro brews I had and it was special."
Alan Taylor

“We have all of our recipes, including weizen. But it was not really a batch of Hefe, it was just weizen. I have the kegging log that shows that when we were kegging that batch, we bypassed filtration and just went direct to keg, and those are the ones that went to the Dublin Pub. So there isn’t really a Hefe recipe. Some we filtered, and some we didn’t, and that was Hefe. That was the thing—the weizenbier was just a bitch to filter and once Hefe really started to go, we were like, ‘this is the greatest thing in the world.’ We could go right out of the tank and into the kegs; it saved us a day. Filtering ten barrels of Weizen was ridiculous, and all of a sudden—boom!—didn’t need to.” 
Rob Widmer

And then of course there's the issue of the lemon slice. Now we regularly add citrus to beer, but back in the 80s, this was seen as a lot of things--innovative, transgressive, gimmicky. It seems now to be mainly recalled with affection.
"In 1992, there was a small beer shop just off campus in Eugene called Taste of Germany. It had mainly imported German beers with one notable exception, this cloudy yellowish beer called 'Hefeweizen' from Widmer Brothers. I had never heard of it, having a naive beer palate. We ordered a pitcher, and the host gave us a small plate of limes... and it was heaven. A cloudy taste of flavor unlike anything I had ever had at that point. A Widmere Hefe with a lime not lemon, to this day, remains my all time favorite beverage."
Dann Cutter
"I remember living in Ashland in the mid-90s. This was prior to Widmer Hef being available in anything but kegs. We would go sit at Omar's on campus and order pitchers, the rims of which would be lined with lemon slices."
Matthew Diment
“I guess it was Carl Simpson at the Dublin Pub [who first garnished with lemon]. Carl was already doing that with our weizen. When we went with Hefe, it just stuck.” After considering it more, he continued, “Well, honestly, I don’t know. Did we start it? I don’t know if Carl started it or if we started it.”
Rob Widmer
It seems that the Widmers' flagship was also something of a siren, calling people to this land of cloudy skies and cloudy beer.
"In the mid-90's I lived in Illinois, a craft beer wasteland. If you wanted a beer in the Land of Lincoln, your choices were macro. Miller Lite and Bud Lite where essentially your options. I chose to avoid beer entirely. Around this time, I visited Portland for the first time on a business trip. While at dinner, one of my co-workers suggested I taste a local beer. I recalled hearing something about Portland having decent beer, so I figured I'd give it a try. I asked the server to surprise me, and she brought back a tall curvy glass filled with what appeared to be orange juice. After attempting to send back the orange juice, she told me it was a beer called Hefeweizen."

With a few sips, the seeds of my beer journey were planted, and I have the Widmer Brothers to thank for it. Widmer Hefeweizen has always held a special place in my heart because it was my first good beer. It was unlike anything I ever tasted."
Sanjay Reddy

"My first taste of Widmer Hefeweizen came from a 6 pack I purchased from a convenience store in Washington D.C. Seeing a Portland brewery on the shelf, while picking up snacks, was a landmark moment for me. This was during my nascent years as a beer drinker. At the time, as an east coaster, all beers from the west coast seemed exotic and were presumed to be superior. The limitations of distribution in the early 2000s meant that I had few occasions to drink west coast beer. I returned to my friend's apartment. We sat on his porch and drank the beer straight from the bottle. I recall the seed of moving to Portland being planted in my head on that day. I wasn’t savvy enough to appreciate the construction of the beer, or its legacy. But I liked it, and bought another 6 pack before I returned home to New Jersey. The Hefeweizen provided a distraction from the beers I was exposed to at the time. It didn’t taste what I thought of as ‘German.’ It wasn’t laden with crystal malt. But in the beer I was able to capture an essence of something changing. It was intriguing enough to get me thinking about something beyond what’s inside the bottle."
Josh Grgas 
I had my first Hefe in 2002 in Pittsburgh, PA. It was fantastic. I worked at a bar that was on the forefront of supporting craft beer, and it really was life changing.

"One of my favorite memories I have was when Rob and I delivered an hours-old keg of Hefe to the Dublin Pub for the kickoff of the first 100 Days of Hefe celebration. I had the honor of donning Kurt's leather apron, and the signature red carnation that the brothers would take to each delivery in the old days. We loaded up the old Datsun and made the (slow) trip to the Dublin, where Rob pulled the keg-unloading move with the tire he had done thousands of times before (I think there is video somewhere. I'll try to find it, or maybe Brady has access to it). It was a special experience that I'll remember always, and the beer that flowed after we tapped that keg was the best tasting Hefe I had ever had (and I've had a lot of Hefes)."
Aaron Burget (who left Pittsburgh and ended up working at Widmer for a time)
And since no story is complete without the alternate view, we go to a drinker who came to this beer knowing what the word "hefeweizen" meant. With predictable (and fairly common) results.
"I remember being very excited to taste my first Widmer Hefe back in 2002. Having grown up watching my grandpa get home delivery of Maisel's hefe by the case and drinking it leisurely in the garden on summer days, I couldn't have been more stoked to return to my birthplace and begin feeding those olfactory memories (of beer!) from childhood."

"So when I got my first beautiful looking pint in the classic Hefe glass (and tossed the lemon slice away), I took a big strong sip ... and exclaimed "bleaugh! What is this crap on tap?" Thus my introduction to something called 'American style Hefeweizen.'"

Mark Bunster
You may wonder why I buried the negative recollections--and I'm sure there are some. But perhaps people decided this was the moment to praise this icon of American brewing rather than bury it. In any case, no one sent me an unkind word.

Please feel free and invited to share your own stories in comments. Prost!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Four Best Beers in the WORLD

Clickbaity? You betcha! Nevertheless, you won't hate yourself for listening the the latest Beervana Podcast, which also celebrates our first full year as podcasters. In addition to Soundcloud, it's available on iTunes and Google Play. Enjoy--

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Bud (err, "America?") Loses Its Voice?

Sometimes my powers of observation are, well, what's the opposite of incisive? Let's go with comically misguided. Just yesterday I wrote: "AB InBev and MillerCoors are a part of giant international conglomerates, and this fact is well-known among customers. (They used to feature heavily patriotic ads, but have had to back off them for more anodyne spots.)" So what big announcement do we read today?
The company has kept the same can you already know, but when you look closely, you’ll realize that it has swapped out its own name, "Budweiser," for "America." That’s right, Budweiser has renamed its beer America for the summer. "We thought nothing was more iconic than Budweiser and nothing was more iconic than America," says Tosh Hall, creative director at the can’s branding firm JKR.

(That article on Fast Company is a piece of work, and if you're looking for a satisfying hate-read this afternoon, give it a look. Sample sentence: "So Budweiser is going to potentially ingenious, potentially absurd branding extremes.")

Since I have already proved myself to be a fraudulent reader of multinational beer company thinking, I figure this is an ideal time to offer sweeping theories and predictions. I mean, no one's still reading this, right? 

Let's start with the obvious: Budweiser is not an American brand. Problem. The question is: can Bud (the brand) reassociate itself with America despite its Belgo-Brazilian parentage? Or put another way, will actual Americans play along? Going back to the 70s through the 90s, when Bud ascended to become the dominant national brand, it played the patriotism card brilliantly. It created a portfolio of different ads directed at different audiences (nostalgic oldsters, sporties, party bros, blacks and Latinos) that all said "America" a different way. It was a marvel to behold. 

But the brand faces entirely different challenges now. It's not competing against other domestic mass market lagers. It's not competing against other national brands. And it's not competing in an environment in which "beer" has a single meaning. Attempting to brazen out this fraud in 1976 would have been one thing. But doing it in the era of craft, when the two most important values are authenticity and localness? That's a much more hostile battlefield. ABI is practically begging customers to deface their labels with sharpies reading "Brazil."

It also contradicts the thrust of their recent proud-to-be-a-macro/not-backing-down ads. Those have gotten nothing but derisive catcalls from Team Craft, but I think they're brilliant. They're designed to seize back credibility--and authenticity--by owning who and what they are. They basically say, "we're large and in charge, mother[expletive deleted]." And they work because it's true. The "America" campaign, by contrast, is the opposite. It's slick marketing (not quite in the category of Sally's Rule, but close) premised on a lie. The "proud" ads give Bud drinkers ammo to support the brand proudly, in the face of craft. The America ads treat those same customers as chumps, cynically assuming they'll buy beer from a foreign-owned company based on nothing more than cheap patriotism. 

ABI has also thrown a hanging fastball over the center of the plate for Team Craft to send long. "Nothing says America like a multinational corporation based in Leuven!"

I have no idea whether it will work or not. If I had been one of the guys from St. Louis sitting in the board room when this was green-lighted, though, I would have said "no [expletive delete] way." It's a deeply cynical campaign and seems like a great way to damage the brand long term.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The Changing Politics of Beer

We are now into the overheated tail-end of the primary season, where partisan fires burn most bitterly, and where politicians are working overtime to build cred with different constituencies. Very few things signal "normal," "blue-collar," and "down-to-earth" better than beer, and so politicians have regularly sipped from pints in front of the camera. Lately, though, the optics have changed:
Contrary to the time-honored campaign tradition of stopping at a local pub to quaff Budweiser with the after-work crowd, this cycle’s candidates have gravitated toward local beer makers. The shift shows how the market for beer is changing: Craft breweries are making increasingly significant economic impact in their communities...

Clinton’s not the only candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential race who feels compelled to share the spotlight with a craft beer. Her Democrat rival Bernie Sanders has been photographed proudly holding a can of Heady Topper, a Vermont-brewed Double IPA that can only be purchased in Sanders’s home state. 
What's fascinating is the changing reputation of big breweries. There are two notable shifts here. One is that large breweries are now no longer American. AB InBev and MillerCoors are a part of giant international conglomerates, and this fact is well-known among customers. (They used to feature heavily patriotic ads, but have had to back off them for more anodyne spots.) One giant remains American, Pabst, but it illustrates the other problem. As breweries have gotten ever more giant, they've become less local. Except for plants in Milwaukee, St. Louise, and Golden, CO, we have no idea where our mass market lagers come from. Pabst doesn't even have a brewery anymore. "Local" is no longer relevant to the bigs and as you know, all politics is local.

The second big change: breweries used to be a perfect proxy for supporting organized labor. When a politician visited that Budweiser plant in St. Louis, he not only got a nice photo op at a classic industrial site, but he got to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Teamsters. It wasn't quite as popular as a stop in Detroit, but the symbolism was the same.

Now there's a bigger upside in going small. Smaller craft breweries are still industrial sites, but they're also local businesses. They are still obviously very blue collar (yay workers!), but they're also classic, entrepreneurial small businesses (yay capitalism!).  You get to associate yourself with one of the trendier products, and, as when a politician pays lip service to a local sports team, you get a tribal bump at no cost. If you play it right, you can talk about how breweries help build local communities. Breweries have even managed, despite peddling the devil's water, to avoid getting embroiled in the culture war. There's no political downside to making a stop off at the local brewery*.

Oh, finally, I suppose I should use my tiny pulpit to exhort you to vote against Trump. Beer and politics don't mix, and I will spend no further blog space mentioning it, but come on. I have to go out on this very short, stout limb and say nyet to Trump. I mean, the man doesn't even drink beer (or anything else.) No doubt this was highly persuasive.

Bernie wisely avoided trying to pour out the Heady.

*Unless you commit an unforced error like Hillary did in this widely-mocked photo of her foamy, low pour. Personally, I found this photo hugely appealing. It looks like your Mom trying to pour a pint and, although she recognizes she sort of botched the job (look at Hillary's expression), she nevertheless takes simple joy in gamely attempting the maneuver. But it's the bitter season, so pouring a foamy pint makes you history's greatest monster. Let the comments commence.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The Brewers Association Wrestles with Buy-Outs

If I could have teleported into Philadelphia for just one event in the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC), it would have been the one where the Brewers Association (BA) addressed the wave of buyouts over the past two years. It sounds like it was every bit as fascinating as I'd hoped. The situation, as you all know, is that the largest and most successful American breweries are ripe for acquisition by bigger international players. And that has happened in dramatic fashion, with nearly 30 sales in the past year and a half. The BA is a trade organization, and was set up to advocate for small brewers. As the most influential members of that organization leave--to the very competition BA has protected its members from--it represents a serious crisis for the organization.

Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza addressed the CBC on Thursday. He did the only thing he can do--parse between the deals that are bad for his membership and those that are (at least for now) relatively benign. Chris Funari:
“Private equity investments are different,” he said. “The company doesn’t get the market access benefits or the ingredient access benefits. It feels like it is more a form of banking.”
As more money pours into the space and as savvy business-minded investors become craft brewery operators, the deep passion for brewing — which has long been a cornerstone of craft and a major reason for the category’s impressive growth spurt in recent years — is becoming less of a focus, Gatza argued. “It feels like its differing and it feels like we’re losing some of that,” he said.

And it views even small labels owned by bigger companies as a threat on a different scale than that presented by private equity. Even knowing that private equity’s passion might lie more closely to business than to brewing, the BA still regards investments from that sector as potentially less harmful to the overall craft universe, however.
Although this seems awkwardly legalistic, it's fundamentally accurate. The BA wandered into the weeds when it tried to clothe itself in the language of heroism (craft beer as a revolutionary social change). But its role as a protector of the little guy is critical for an open, healthy market. And in this regard, BA really does travel with the angels. Here's what at stake:
Part of the reason these acquisitions are such a threat is their impact on access to raw ingredients and distribution networks. As the largest brewer in the world, ABI can buy ingredients in much larger quantities (for much cheaper prices) causing availability issues for small craft brewers. In addition, ABI owns a significant portion of the American distribution network, outright owning distributors in 10 states and having significant influence over their distributor network nationwide.

“What is needed is a truly independent beer distribution system” said Pease. “Anheuser-Busch InBev has rolled out an incentive program… that basically aligns their distributors not to sell brands that are over 15,000 barrels in their house. We have no problem with Anheuser-Busch InBev incentivizing their distributors to sell more of their own product, but for them to incentivize distributors not to sell other products is something we want to see remedied.”
Consolidation does pose real dangers, and in the coming years, the Brewers Association is going to be the blade edge leading the fight. They were caught flat-footed by the recent buyouts (which were entirely predictable), but now they have become a given. The BA's going to have to give up being a champion for that nebulous concept of "craft beer" and retrench for the fight for small beer. That's the battleground of the future.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Considering the Belgian Tradition

Palm Brewery, Steenhuffel

Post updated; see below.

We are quickly approaching the tenth edition of Cheers to Belgian Beers, which comes on May 13-14. The original idea behind this fest was educational, to "help introduce Oregonians to the breadth of style and flavors of beers brewed in Belgium." (That comes from the press release.) Initially, brewers just agreed to use the same yeast strain and brew whatever they liked. As it evolved, the Oregon Brewers Guild, which organizes it, tweaked the structure so breweries didn't all brew the same type of beer; they're now sorted by color and strength.

All good so far, right? Well, I wonder. Does it still serve its mission? Are people learning anything about Belgian beer? As a way of getting ready for the fest, I wondered if it might not be useful to consider some of the hallmarks of Belgian brewing and then see how well the fest reveals these to people.

We think of "Belgian" as a pretty good description for a school of beers ... until we think about them very much. In fact, it's not even so great as describing the two populations, Flemish- (Dutch, really) speaking northerners, and French-speaking southerners. They have never formed a cohesive whole, and for a couple of years recently their troubles were serious enough they couldn't form a government. If you consider the range of native beer styles, you see a similar range of incoherence: Belgian breweries make everything from simple little pale and brown ales to titanic abbey ales, from sweet, heavy, spiced ales to bone dry saisons, stouts, hoppy ales, and of course the several exotic funky styles. Calling all of them "Belgian" is asking that word to do a lot of heavy lifting.

Dubuisson Brewery, Pipaix

If you want to try to tie these up with a single bow, you could say that, in Belgium, the distance between some of the old styles and the new ones is shorter than anywhere else. Reading about bizarre old German ales doesn't make you think of modern ones. But Peeterman, the brown beers of Mechelen, Liege saison? These extinct beers are familiar to fans of certain contemporary products. There's a wonderful old text that describes beers from the mid-19th century, and if you read that and then tour around modern Belgium, you can discern a line between the two.

Another way to group these beers is in the way they're made. From a sensory perspective, the range is too diverse to identify a through-line. But if you visit a few breweries, you see that the beers are made in a similar way, and issue from a national philosophy about what beer should taste like. There are three major hallmarks.
  • Yeast character. This is the main thing people mean when they say "Belgian." Ale yeasts are teased to produce as much character as possible, whether wild strains are in play or not. Belgians practice “high fermentation” (warm fermentation), and it is often very warm when compared to other countries—mid-70s for pitching is not unusual, and terminal temps in the eighties or nineties is not unheard of. The result is beer with tons of fruity esters and spicy phenols. Brewers may also stress yeast by under-pitching it, which also causes it to create esters and phenols. (Many times they do both.)
  • Secondary fermentation. Nearly every ale brewery in Belgium (from Duvel to Dupont to Rodenbach) has a “warm room.” It’s a temperature-controlled space where bottles ripen while bottle-conditioning. For Belgians, the carbonation is only a secondary effect--the real goal is refermentation in the bottle. That’s when the yeast flavors mature and evolve. It’s why you mostly don’t find Belgium’s famous ales on tap; to properly develop, beer must go through this secondary fermentation.
  • Sugar. It’s common for Belgian beers to be strong--7% and higher is completely typical. To keep the beers light on the palate and attenuative, breweries regularly use sugar, often in high proportion. (Occasionally they use adjunct grains, deploying a cereal cooker, to achieve the same thing.) It's also worth noting that nearly all breweries just use dextrose, not whatever it is Americans think “candi” sugar is. Plain old corn sugar is the ticket.

These three things work together, too. Secondary fermentation builds on the yeast character formed during primary fermentation, and the use of sugar creates a thinner body so malts don't mask the flavors produced by yeast. As in all national traditions, once certain proclivities get a toehold, they tend to build on each other. These three elements are not mandatory, of course, but you find them in simple, large-scale breweries, in breweries using wild yeasts, in saison breweries, in monastery breweries. 


So back to Cheers to Belgian Beers. Does it function as a great way to highlight these qualities? Yes and no. Yeast is the key flavor-driver in Belgian beer, but Belgians consider secondary fermentation a key part of the flavor development. When you skip that step, you lose some of the complexity. Many Americans skip the sugar when they're making Belgian-style ales, too, and this leads the beers further away from their Flemish inspirations. In educational fests like this, subtleties do matter. The goal should be trying to point out all the elements of this tradition so people can begin to recognize them. I've missed the past couple CTBB, so I'll go with this in mind.

If you're interested in prepping your palate, go buy a few bottles of Belgian beer and attune yourself to those fermentation characteristics.

Update. On Facebook, a number of people mentioned mashing regimes as an important part of Belgian brewing. They're correct! I skipped it because it's fairly technical and I figured the average beer drinker wouldn't care. The mention of sugar and highly attenuative beers was meant to point to that. But for the geeks, a bit more. One way Belgians goose their yeast is by adding a ferulic acid rest somewhere in the 113-122˚ F range. Certain yeasts ("phenolic off-flavor positive" or POF+) metabolize ferulic acid to create a phenolic or spicy flavor in beer. This is very common. Belgians also tend to use two saccharification rests, a low one of around 144-145˚ F and a high one somewhere between 154˚ F and 163˚ F, to get maximum fermentability out of their malt. This, along with the use of sugar, is another way they thin the body of their beers.

At St. Feuillien

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Postscript: Michael Ash, 1927-2016

We received some sad new yesterday afternoon via Twitter. Michael Ash, the creative mathematician who pioneered nitrogen dispense systems, died on Saturday.

I had the chance to meet Mr. Ash in Dublin on March 24, where he was being honored for his achievements. (It was the reason I was in Ireland.) I'll have more about his career in a future post, including some audio quotes I recorded in March. Here's a bit of the biography (edited for brevity) the brewery prepared for his visit.


Michael read mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge and was awarded a triple first in his studies – top scholar that year in Cambridge. Between 1948 – 1950, Michael was allowed to reduce his national service conscription by teaching Maths at a University (other than Oxbridge). He taught at Bedford College. Up to the end of World War Two, the Guinness Company had a policy of recruiting only first class honours science graduates from Oxford or Cambridge. Michael was the first non-brewer to be recruited into Guinness.

It was in this role, he led a team of over 20, and their primary role was to seek to improve the shelf life of bottled Guinness. However, Michael felt that the real prize was in developing a proper system for Draught Guinness and began dedicating his time to the ‘Draught Problem’.

The rise of lagers available on draught, especially in the UK in the 1940s and 1950s, was encroaching on traditional Guinness sales, and Michael felt that there was a great opportunity for Guinness, should the stout be available in Draught format. However, the essential problem was with the gas. Carbon dioxide was used to pressurise kegs of bitter and lager, and it was easy and effective for everyone concerned. Guinness, though was too lively to be draughted with carbon dioxide alone.

Of the 20 plus men on his Sample Room team, he could only afford to assign 2 people to work part-time with him on ‘Daft Guinness’ as it became known with the Park Royal Brewery. Michael talks about working weekends and late nights over a long period of time to eventually come up with a nitrogen gas solution. 

He worked hand in hand with Eric Lewis, of Alumasc, who supplied Michael with prototype after protoype of metal kegs with different experimental gas chambers.  The fact that nitrogen is an inert gas meant that they bubbles lasted longer and were smaller. The right amount of nitrogen, created the ‘surge’ and allowed for a controlled, creamy head that lasts for the whole pint.

The eventual solution was a ‘mixed gas dispense’ system. Known initially as ‘The Ash Can’, The Easy Serve Cask was a self-contained, two-part keg, with one chamber full of beer and the other full of mixed gas under pressure.

Having seen the possibilities, [the company] was in a hurry to get Draught Guinness out into the market place, and he demanded that it should be launched in 1959 – the year of the Guinness bicentenary.  At a board meeting of 9 December 1959 – Viscount Elveden (later 3rd Lord Iveagh)  reported that about half the draught Guinness outlets had now been changed to the Easy Serve system, and the changeover of the remainder should take place by mid-January 1960.