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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Ready-to-Sell Brewery Bought, Surprising None

Note: Post cleaned up for some egregious (Hop Valley is two hours from Portland, not two miles) and small-and-sloppy mistakes ("big" for "bit," etc). 


The consummately generic Oregon brewery Hop Valley was the latest to join MillerCoors' growing portfolio. I swear to all that is holy that I'll quit posting every time this happens, but in this case I'll make an exception--since it's a local brewery, I'll tell you a bit about its reputation on background. It's original location was in Springfield, which is fused St. Paul-style onto Eugene, two miles hours south of Portland. You could pop into the brewery in a strip mall just off I-5 if you're headed south.

If that makes it sound like a bit of a generic place, you're on the right track. They made one stand-out beer some time ago, Czech Your Head, a really credible Czechish lager. Mostly, though, they fall into that anonymous middle band of breweries you see at the grocery store but which fail to register. The beer is perfectly serviceable, but forgettable.  I described it yesterday on Facebook as the kind of brand, with the kind of name, you'd see as the supermarket brand for a chain like Safeway. Aside from a scandal about a beer named "Mouth Raper" a few years back, they have maintained a low profile in the state. Here in Oregon, no one is gnashing her teeth and lamenting the loss of an important node of unique local culture.

If ever there was a brewery purpose-built to be acquired, Hop Valley is that brewery. You may safely ignore the sale and the brand henceforth.

By coincidence, I am headed down that way today, but I'll be going to Agrarian Ales, which is as close to the perfect opposite of Hop Valley as you can find.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Is Japan Developing Its Own Voice?

A group of Japanese brewers has descended on the city of Portland. (What's the plural?--a "wort" of brewers, a "tank," a "grist?") They are here for the Oregon Brewers Festival, and last evening they were at Belmont Station to discuss their breweries and beer. I can't say how much they represent new trends in craft brewing, but I did detect a few proclivities that might, if nourished and supported by Japanese drinkers, evolve into something recognizably Japanese.

Let's start with the now. Like so many other countries, the new breweries of Japan are following a typical American model of craft brewing. We were served a Baltic porter, a stout, an IPA, and a pale ale last night, and none of them would have raised an eyebrow had they been labeled "Widmer Brothers" instead of Y Market or Shiga Kogen. German brewing formed the template for the first breweries of Japan, and it seems like that tradition still exerts some pull. Kumazawa Brewing (which makes Shonan Beer) has a lineup of mostly-German styles, for example. But that is quickly giving way to IPAs, stouts, and saisons.

At the margins, however, there are some interesting developments. Several of the breweries in town are also very old sake makers. Unsurprisingly, the use of rice in their beers is common. This is also common in mass market lagers, and the Japanese propensity toward highly-attenuated, drier beers seems to carry through. One of the most popular Japanese beers at the fest is Shiga Kogen Number 10, a burly 7.5% IPA. It is a dead ringer for an American beer in the nose and the front of the palate, but it is noticeably dry in the finish. Curiously, all that dryness doesn't make it seem alcoholic--on the contrary, the booze is very well concealed.

Japanese breweries regularly use local ingredients as well, like yuzu (a citrus fruit), green tea, and Sansho peppercorns. And of course, they have access to barrels from local whisky distilleries, some of which are counted among the world's best. (Japanese whisky is largely made in the Scottish mode.) Hitachino Nest, the most well-known Japanese craft brewery (but which was not among the attendees), also uses ginger, local barley, and ages one of their beers in sake barrels. All of this seems very promising.

According to Jeff's Unified Field Theory of Beer Evolution that I just now invented, what happens when a country enters its "craft" phase is imitation. In the US, we made mainly English ales. The next phase is experimentation, when breweries start fiddling with style and trying to do something creative. That was when, in the US, we started to pimp out our pale ales with extra pounds of American-grown hops. The final stage is creation, when the communication between brewer and drinker results in a brand new beer idiom. A process that resulted, in the US, in these intensely flavored IPAs.

Japan is well into its experimental phase. The final stage is an organic process where styles enter the wild (which is to say the marketplace) to see if they can survive. We'll see what comes next in the next decade or two.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

How Americans Will Change German Beer

I had a number of tasty beers at the Oregon Brewers Festival yesterday, but none were as interesting or surprising as the one that came from Montana's Bayern. It was born last summer, when the brewery experimented with a very American hop, a reinheitsgebot-dubious practice, and a classic Bavarian lager:
The story of how this beer came about goes like this: During American Craft Beer Week (2nd week in May), Bayern has been offering a different cask-conditioned version of one of their usual offerings each day of the week. It has been a fun opportunity to experiment with some of things you can do with beer that we don't normally do such as dry-hopping and infusing with fruit. The cask (called a firkin) in which we dry-hopped Dump Truck with Citra hops turned out to be one of the best. Summer 2015, Bayern had the opportunity to test drive a centrifuge (a.k.a. separator) allowing us to dry-hop a whole tank of Dump Truck and remove the hops. "Citra Charged Dump Truck" was born and made available in many of our markets in bottles and on draught.
In all other ways, this beer is purely Bavarian. The brewery's brewmaster, Jürgen Knöller, is a Bavarian-born, -raised, and -trained brewer who does things exactly by the book. He has his malts prepared to his own specs, he uses a decoction mash on this maibock, and everything about the base beer, it's rich creaminess and wonderfully warm malt breadiness, is pure Bavaria. (Bayern has a second German-born and trained brewer as well.)

But the use of Citra in dry-hopping transforms the beer into something that seems un-German. The nose reminds me of the way the scent of jasmine seems to be heavier and more viscous than the surrounding air. It is somewhere between tropical fruit and summer flower. The flavor is largely typical for a maibock, but the scent continues to waft off the beer, leaving the drinker with the impression of a sweetly floral beer. The aroma and rounded maibock body are perfectly in harmony, but this smells like no German lager I've ever had.

Dry-hopping was a practice almost no breweries did in Germany until recently. Uerige does it in their Sticke alt, but they make ales, and they come with an asterisk anyway. Whether it was Reinheitsgebot-compliant was mainly a theoretical one. The effect of American craft brewing on the world came quickly, and apparently it has already changed the thinking in Germany. But what makes Dump Truck seem transgressive is not the practice, but the taste of those American hops.

Germany's great strength as a brewing country has been its rigid adherence to norms. A helles is a helles is a helles. Everyone understands what it is and how it should taste. But that is also leads to calcification. Knöller told me, “I have seen over the years in Germany where your Reinheitsgebot also led somewhat to a standard beer which they’re all doing to perfection, but it kind of got a little bit boring.” Germany has a rock-solid foundation, but that can sometimes feel like a prison.

The way forward is using wholly authentic techniques and ingredients, but looking for new flavors. There are only so many things you can do with Hallertauer hops. But open up the possibility of using American hops, and the potential range of flavors mushrooms. Then imagine using some of the other techniques Americans have uncovered in working with hops--tons of late- and post-kettle hop additions. The palette of flavors multiplies again.

The biggest barrier to German beer innovation has never been Reinheitsgebot--it's that cultural expectation about what beers should taste like. No doubt there will be some distress in the transition, but beers like Dump Truck have to the be future of German beer. The forces of craft beer will eventually challenge Germany's classic styles. For some, a beer like Dump Truck would seem an intolerable apostasy. But my guess is that there will be enough of a market to explore these new flavors and that, reassured that what they're tasting is still classically German, drinkers will be happy to come around.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Oregon Brewers Fest Recommendations, Observations

Patrick and I used the Oregon Brewers Fest as an occasion to consider the kinds of beers people are making these days in the latest podcast, and also to offer a few beers that caught our fancy. Here's the Soundcloud version, but the Beervana Podcast is also available on iTunes and Google Play.

As promised, here are our personal choices:

  • Anchor Mango Wheat
  • Bent Paddle Venture Pilsner
  • Breakside Pomegranate Gose
  • Culmination Deutschland Down Under
  • Ex Novo All of the Things
  • Fort George Dirty Snowball
  • Iwate Kura Japanese Herb Ale Sancho
  • Ninkasi Grapefruit Sour
  • pFriem Mango Sour
  • Pints Lemon Curd ESB
  • Buoy Dragon-Fruit Berliner Weisse
  • Burnside Cedar IPA
  • Gigantic Le Petit Bâtard Abeille
  • Jinga Koji Red Ale
  • No-Li Big Juicy
  • Oersoep Schnappi (A Dutch-speaker tells me the pn is "oar soup.")
  • August Schell Hefeweizen
  • Shiga Kogen Isseki Sancho
  • Van Mollen Luikse Vechter
And for the daredevils, we encourage you to give Zoiglhaus' Birra Pazza al Pesto a whirl.

Also, my extended list included these: 54-40 Ultra Pilsner, Bayern Citra Maibbock, Deschutes Sagefright, Drake's Foraging Raccoon, Pelican Chongie Saaz, Three Creeks Berry Porter, and Upright Wit. Hey, that's only a quarter of them!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Oregon Brewers Festival 2016 By the Numbers

Oh, how you wait for this annual tradition! Don't tell me it got old hat in 2008 and this is merely more evidence of this blog's certain decline into irrelevance--I know you love it! Hey, traditions beget traditions, and as surely as the OBF comes around each year, so does my by-the-numbers post.

New Trends
The biggest trend is definitely beers made with the help of our friend Lactobacillus. These little bacteria are used to make tart summery beers like gose and Berliner weisse, and boy are they all the rage now. If you count only those in the regular trailers, 20% are B-weisses or goses. Yes, one in five beers at the OBF is a Berliner weisse or Gose. Last year there were, I think, four or five altogether; this year there are 18. (If you throw in the foreign breweries, it boosts the total to 19, but drops the percentage to 17%.) Partially as a consequence of this trend (most Berliner weisses and all goses are made with wheat), the number of breweries using some grain in the grist beyond barley is nearly half--44%. This isn't surprising, unless you cast your memory back to about the turn of the century, when 85% to 90% would have been the norm, and when the remainders would have all been light American wheat ales and maybe one rye. Now oats and corn are commonplace and wheat is everywhere. Fruit beers continue to soar in popularity as well--they're now a quarter of all beers.

Also, after a couple of low-IPA years, they're back and popular. Once again, session IPAs outnumber imperial IPAs. Radlers had a momentary blip last year but are absent this year. There are only four pale ales, which shows just how far this once-dominant style has fallen. That has got to be an all time low.  Kolsches, amazingly, are absent as well. That may be the first time in a decade or more no kolsches have come to the fest. Frowny face. Nevertheless, Czech/German styles account for a quarter of the beers, while Belgian styles have fallen to just 4%. There are more pilsners than witbiers and saisons combined, which is an interesting reversal of past years.

Getting More International
The best trend by far in recent OBFs is the inclusion of international breweries. Last year, the Netherlands and New Zealand were highlighted, and Canada had a small presence. This year there will be beers from four other countries: China, Japan, Germany, and The Netherlands (breweries from the Netherlands always seem to make it--some guy must know a guy).

By the Numbers

Below are the annual breakdown of the breweries and beers. As always, last year's totals are included in parentheses.
  • Years since inception: 29
  • Total beers: 112 (105)
  • Total breweries: 84, plus 16 internationals (89)*
  • States represented: 15 (16)
  • Countries represented: 5 - US, Japan, China, Germany, Netherlands (4)
  • Percent Oregon: 61% (50%)
  • Percent California: 9% (10%)
  • Percent Washington: 11% (7%)
  • All Others: 19% (19%)

Total styles (by broad category): 31 (33)
Lagers: 15, 13%  (10)
IPAs: 27% (21%)
__- Standard IPA: 15 (6)
__- Session IPA: 6 (6)  
__- Double IPA: 5 (4)
__- CDA: 3 (0)
__- Fruit IPA: 0 (1)
__- White IPA: 0 (2)
__- IPL: 1 (2)

By style:
  • IPAs: 30 examples (22) 
  • Fruit/ Fruit Wheats: 26 (17)
  • Pale ale: 4 (15)
  • Saison: 2 (7)
  • Pilsner: 6 (4)
  • Abbey: 1 (4)
  • Stouts and porters: 8 (4)
  • Berliner Weisse: 8 (3) (plus 4 goses)
  • Kolsch: 0 (3)
  • Radler: 0 (3)

By Type:
  • Beers using spices/flavors: 41, 37% (21, 18%)
  • Fruit beers: 29, 26% (17, 16%)
  • Belgian styles: 5, 4% (15%)
  • German/Czech styles: 27, 24% (11%)
  • Beers not brewed to traditional style: 17, 15% ("many"--I punted)
  • Kettle-soured beers: 19, 17% (N/A)

Population Distribution
  • ABV of smallest beer (pFriem Mango Sour, Oersoep Schnappi and Buoy Dragon Weisse): 3.5% (3.0%)
  • ABV of largest beer (New Holland Dragon's Milk and Lost Abbey Serpent Stout): 11% (9.5%)
  • Average ABV: 5.9% (5.8%)
  • Beers below 5.5% ABV: 45% (47%)
  • Beers above 7% ABV: 20% (18%)
  • Fewest IBUs in Fest (Aslan Disco Lemonade): 1 (0)
  • Most IBUs at the Fest (Molen Hell and Damnation): 102 (100)
  • Average IBUs: 35 (37)
  • Beers between 0 and 40 IBUs: 66% (65%) 
  • Beers over 60 IBUs: 18% (9%)

*There are 88 beers pouring in the regular trailers, but Deschutes brought two (one gluten-free), and there is a an Omission (Widmer)

Friday, July 22, 2016

The DOJ Clips AB InBev's Wings in Merger

I'm really getting tired of business news, aren't you? I'm going to try to talk about it less in the future. But when a $107 billion merger of the two largest beer companies in the world is approved by the US Department of Justice, clearing a path for a titan that will control a third of the world's beer production, I should at least acknowledge it in passing. And the news is actually good.

In its approval, the DOJ did two things that will ensure ABI's position in the US doesn't improve much. I was really dreading this merger, and I still think it's going to have malign effects on the world market. But in the US? Not so much. There were two issues here, control of the US market and distribution, and the DOJ addressed both (the full ruling is here).

Spin-Off MillerCoors
As expected, ABI has to spin off MillerCoors as a part of the deal. DOJ: "The settlement requires ABI to divest SABMiller’s entire U.S. business – including SABMiller’s ownership interest in MillerCoors, the right to brew and sell certain SABMiller beers in the United States and the worldwide Miller beer brand rights." This is not unexpected, and has been an acknowledged assumption about what it would take to get the deal past US regulators.

Restrictions on Distribution
More importantly, the DOJ puts strict limits on what ABI can direct its distributors/wholesalers to do, and how many distributor/wholesalers they may own. The press release doesn't detail these, so I'll turn directly to the ruling for the language. Here is the DOJ on the amount of the wholesale market ABI can directly control. "Defendant ABI shall not acquire any equity interests in, or any ownership or control of the assets of, a Distributor if (i) such acquisition would transform said Distributor into  an ABI-Owned Distributor, and (ii) as measured  on the day of entering into an agreement for  such acquisition more than ten percent (10%), by volume."

And here they are on the question of whether ABI can demand certain measures of loyalty from their independent wholesalers. "Defendant ABI shall not unilaterally, or pursuant to the terms of any contract or agreement, provide any reward or penalty to, or in any other way condition its relationship with, an Independent Distributor or any employees or  agents of that Independent Distributor based  upon the amount of sales the Independent Distributor makes of a Third-Party Brewer’s Beer or the marketing, advertising, promotion, or retail placement of such Beer."

The second condition is especially important. Recently ABI had instituted the Voluntary Anheuser-Busch Incentive for Performance Program (VAIP), which incentivized loyalty among its independent distributors. (Why they rolled that out when the merger was pending is anyone's guess. Seems hopelessly clueless to me.)

The DOJ's stipulations were stringent enough that even the Brewers Association, the trade organization that represents small breweries, gave it a qualified thumbs up. All of which means you can safely return to ignoring this issue and just enjoy your fine pint of ale.

One last note. Interestingly, despite having made it over this regulatory hurdle, the merger may not go forward after all--in part thanks to the Brexit.
The takeover of the London-listed brewer has come under scrutiny in recent weeks as a drop in the British currency has reduced the relative attractiveness of the all-cash offer aimed at most SAB shareholders. A source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday that the company’s board was weighing the terms of AB InBev’s offer, amid rising shareholder disquiet.
Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fill in the Blanks

Introducing the Buy-out
[ _______________ ] announced today an agreement to acquire a majority interest in
[ ________ ]-based [ __________ ] Brewing Company.

Expression of Delight in Finding the Perfect Buyer
“Bringing  [ __________ ] on  allowed us to get to know each other better and realize the incredible potential of becoming a majority-owned partner with  [ __________ ] ,” said  [ __________ ] ,  co-founder and vice president of brewing development. “With  [ __________ ] 's dedication to helping us grow and their passion for creating high-quality craft beers, we knew it would be the perfect partnership. We look forward to continuing to create innovative beers to share with beer lovers nationwide.”

Anodyne History of the Acquired Brewery
[ ________ ] founders Buckowski and John Cochran set out in 2002 to craft beers unlike any that were available in the [ ________ ] at the time, choosing [ ________ ] as home base because of its distinctive culture and shared appreciation for music. The 84,000-square-foot brewery and 100-barrel brew house creates year-round and seasonal beers including [ ________ ], [ ________ ], and [ ________ ].

Expression of Delight in Finding Perfect Craft Brewery to Buy
 “The team at  [ ________ ] is so passionate and committed to brewing such terrific beers that we are thrilled to welcome them deeper into the  [ ________ ] family,” said Scott Whitley, president and CEO of  [ ________ ] . “As owners, our job is to work collaboratively with their team to support their continued success with their innovative, award-winning beers that complement our portfolio perfectly.”

Concluding Corporate Statements
[ ________ ]  Company joins other leading crafts in the [ ________ ] portfolio, including [ ________ ] Brewing Company, [ ________ ] Brewing Company and [ ________ ] Brewing Company. For more information on [ ________ ] Company and its portfolio of brands, visit [ ________ ] .com.   The transaction is expected to complete in August 2016. The terms of the transaction were not disclosed.


This was the actual press release of an actual sale that took place today, though the form is so predictable it is 100% interchangeable with any recent or future acquisition. In this case, the acquired brewery was Georgia's Terrapin, and the acquirer was MillerCoors (which had already owned a minority stake).

Carry on.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

On the IPA Cutting Edge...

No brewery is doing more to push the evolution of IPAs forward than Breakside. (See here, here, and here for recent discussions.) Well, the evolution continues apace. In a recent blog post, head brewer Ben Edmunds writes about some of the things they've been working on recently:
Back to the Future IPA (aka BTTF) is the third release in our series of rotating draft-only IPAs for the year. BTTF is a departure from the previous two releases in the series: Tall Guy IPA and Rainbows & Unicorns. Those two are beers we’ve brewed a number of times and have more or less “set” recipes. By contrast, Back to the Future is a beer that always changes, both each year and– in this year’s incarnations– each batch.
Since I am a Serious Journalist (TM), I felt that just quoting extensively from that blog post was inadequate. For true value-added content, you need Ben to elaborate on some of the things he mentions in that post--and I'm just the journalist to cut-and-paste the replies he sent to me via email. All kidding aside, this is cool stuff and worth your attention. Even a beer so dominated by a single ingredient can be inflected by other ingredients and techniques. Ben discusses the way flaked grains, water treatments, new hop varieties, and yeast strains can transform an IPA. Read on...

Ben started by noting what the last iteration of Back to the Future experimented with:
Specifically, we used BTTF 2015 to explore some questions we had about the use of flaked grains in IPAs. We also trialed a much softer water profile than we normally use with our IPAs. As with any trial, there were parts of the 2015 version that we liked and learned from, and elements that we didn’t. The things that we liked are now incorporated into many of our other hoppy beers. Both Lunch Break and Tall Guy use a good portion of flaked barley in the malt bill, for example. The hops that we used BTTF 2015– Ella and Azacca– have both found a home in our hop schedules for several other beers, including Hop Delivery Mechanism and Imperial Red.
To which I asked about both the flaked grains and soft water.  Ben comments:
I think there is a lot of emphasis amongst brewers these days, especially East Coast brewers, on flaked grains. They tend to use a lot of wheat and oats. We'll use all three (as well as flaked corn and flaked rice, in other beers) in hoppy beers, but I think we tend to use flaked barley more than the other flaked grains because of its more neutral character. Flaked wheat and flaked oats are great but tend to be very characterful; flaked corn (which we use in our Coconut IPA) and flaked rice (Rainbows & Unicorns) are also great. They all help round out body with some light grain character that allows hops to shine.  

Softer water is still a subject of debate within Breakside. Generally, we have come to favor a slightly Burtonized water profile for most of our hoppy beers. When we first opened, I used a classic Burton ratio (10:1 sulfate-to-chloride) on most hoppy beers. Over time, we've backed off on that in an effort to allow the finish to come off a little softer and let the hop flavor linger into the aftertaste. Most of our core beers are still 5:1 sulfate-to-chloride or higher (Wanderlust, Breakside IPA, and IGA are all pretty Burtonized at 8:1), but many of the new recipes we've worked on go down to the 3:1 range. We have tried a few pub beers with a very soft water profile (no Burtonizing or a chloride-heavy profile), and that gets a little flabby for our own preferences. BTTF uses the 3:1 profile, which, in my mind, optimizes hop flavor and a refreshingly snappy finish.
Water is something I need to address seriously at some point. When I was speaking with Nick Arzner on Friday, he mentioned this issue as well. He'd just done a collaboration with Great Notion. He also mentioned that they go for heavy chloride in their water to soften the palates of their "New England" IPAs. This, Nick suggested, was one of the most important ways these beers were distinguished from West Coast IPAs. 

Ben continued in his blog post discussing the newer hops they've been using.
This year, we’ve revived BTTF in the same spirit, brewing it with combinations of hops that we think have a lot of promise and using this beer as an opportunity for us to explore some “new directions” in making IPAs. Distilling it down to 3 key areas, this year’s Back to the Future IPAs are exploring the following territory: Pairing a new and interesting hop (Topaz, Lemondrop, Idaho 7) with hops that are already beloved (Mosaic, Citra, and Ella). Each batch of this beer focuses on a different combination of those hops. The first batch, which is currently on the market, is heavy on Topaz and Mosaic. The second round of brews will be mainly Citra and Lemondrop. The final batches– the ones that will be hitting the market in August– will use Ella and Idaho 7.
I know that the brewers at Breakside have novel hopping regimes based on whether they think a hop is "punchy" (spiky, sharp flavors) or "soft." I asked him how these new hops behaved.
Topaz is a lot like Galaxy but without the intense stone fruit character; it comes off as a little waxy/petrol the way many Southern Hemisphere hops do, but it has some nice underlying tropical notes. Lemondrop is very citric, as advertised-- kind of like a super Cascade. And Idaho 7 is reminiscent of a softer Centennial-- lots of lemongrass and Fruity Pebbles for me. Culmination uses it a lot in their Urizen Session IPA. I'd say that Topaz is very punchy, Idaho 7 pretty punchy, and Lemondrop soft. 
Finally, Ben talked about the interplay between yeast strains and hop expression. He writes that Breakside is "using a different yeast strain with this beer this year, and it seems to respond to American hops differently than our normal house ale strain." This is not just a matter of the way different flavors inflect each other, like blending colors. There's an actual biochemical process that happens in which hop compounds are transformed during fermentation--an issue I've written about recently. Ben expanded:
I think that the most interesting part of this whole experiment might be the use of a non-traditional "West Coast" yeast, much in the same way that the East Coast guys are favoring English yeasts for their IPAs. There's some real digging to be done about yeast selection and the future of American IPA.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Good, Old-Fashioned News Roundup

Been awhile since so much stuff came along that I felt it merited a round up, but there you have it. (Nothing here about Cleveland, either--I promise.)

1. Puckerfest!
One of the best events of the year arrives in Portland tomorrow--Belmont Station's annual celebration of sour, Puckerfest. The lineup:
  • Tuesday, July 19 - Breakside (with appearances by Ale Apothecary, Alesong, Boneyard, the Commons, Culmination, Rogue, Upright).

  • Weds, July 20 - Gorge Night, featuring Double Mountain's annual Kriek releases (including a keg you can't even get in Hood River), Logsdon, pFriem, and Solera.
  • Thurs, July 21 - Belgian Giants. Rodenbach Alexander (!) and Grand Cru, Cantillon Iris and Gueuze, Hannsens Oude Lambik, Bockor Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge, and Liefmans Goudenband.
  • Friday, July 22 - Cascade. 
  • Saturday, July 23 - Block 15 & De Garde
  • Sunday, July 24 -  Califorina breweries. Almanac, Bear Republic, Firestone Walker, Green Flash, Lost Abbey, Russian River.

2. Hop Acreage Expands 18.5%
American IPAs are great for beer drinkers--and even better for hop growers. Brewers are now using absolutely crazy amounts of hops when they make IPAs, and that means hop acreage has had to expand to keep up with demand. This is from the Hop Growers of America:
After a 15.4% increase in acres harvested in the US in 2015, a 10.2% increase in 2014, a 10.3% increase in 2013, and a 7.2% increase in 2012, acreage has jumped up once again. For the second year in a row, U.S. hop acreage has surpassed previous records to reach all time highs. With 53,213 total acres strung for harvest in the U.S., that’s a whopping 8,303 new acres from 2015 – a 18.5% increase.
It is whopping, too. In 2004, which looks like a serious low tide for hop-growing, the US grew only 27,742 acres--almost exactly half the acres it grew in 2015. A few interesting notes:
  • Zeus (21%), Willamette (21%), CTZ (18%) and Galena (17%) were the big cultivars back in 2005. There were just 6% of Cascades.
  • Variety was much more pronounced in 2015. The biggest cultivars were: Cascade (14%), Centennial (9%), and CTZ (9%). 
  • Hop acreage outside the Northwest increased 64% and is now 4% of all acreage. Michigan, with 650 acres, is leading the pack.

3. The Price of a Beer
This last one is not much more than a link, but it's a good one. Care to guess how the price of a pint of beer stacks up now to any time in the past fifty years? (Hint: this is one way you don't want to make America great again.) Interesting graph for those who find graphs interesting.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Naive Pleasure

Something's not quite right this summer. There's a sour mood in the air, the feeling of confusion and conflict. Social media has a mean edge. I could be speaking about politics, but the same is true with beer. We have passed out of the fun stage of infatuation and have entered the period Sartre called "the age of reason"--the loss of the simplicity of youth. Or perhaps the scene in the Matrix is a better analogy. The one where Neo is offered the chance to embrace the harsh truth of reality (the red pill), or take the blue pill and slide back into a blissful fiction. Too many of us have eaten the red pill, and we sink into the sludge of buyouts, lawsuits, sales reports, and purity tests.

But these analogies are inexact. The one great thing about beer is we can turn off the discursive mind and slide into the emotional mind. A nice beer on a sunny day, just you and your senses, falling into a blissful absorption of beer. There are many ways to do this--as a drinker, as a homebrewer, or, if you're lucky enough to be a writer, as a kind of motivated fan.

I'm off to Block 15 today to spend some time with Nick Arzner, one of my favorite brewers. We're going to spend some time today discussing his projects, process, and philosophy, and I will have the joy of just listening. (With luck you'll be able to hear part of our discussion, because I'm hoping to get some tape of Nick discussing the art of blending for the podcast.) One of the great things about writing about beer is that you get to hang out with brewers and learn about how they think about and make beer. At some point, I'll need to turn our conversation into something with shape and form, but the conversation itself should be pure pleasure.

We probably need to spend more time rediscovering that sense of naive pleasure that drew us to beer in the first place. There is plenty of drama and conflict in the beer world to sustain a million tweets, but that is decidedly not why I started writing about beer. Summer itself is a time of uncomplicated pleasures--bare skin, dime-store novels, popcorn blockbusters, tall glasses of cold beer.

Happy Friday, everyone--

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Big Change Possible in Massachusetts Wholesale Laws

You may recall that last year Boston-area distributors were caught giving kickbacks to retailers. The repercussions of that incident seem to be rippling through the Massachusetts state house in a serious way:
Massachusetts brewers unveiled a last-minute legislative proposal that would dramatically reorder the state’s beer industry, making it far easier for breweries to switch among distributors that bring their brews to bars and package stores.

The measure, filed Wednesday by state Senator Barbara L’Italien, would effectively repeal the state’s decades-old beer-franchise law, which makes it difficult and expensive for breweries to fire their distributors.... Instead, the legislation specifies that distribution deals would be governed by the same type of private business contracts common in other industries.... Under current law, a brewery is effectively locked into its distributor after six months unless it can prove to state regulators the wholesaler has met one of several conditions — such as violating the law or failing to “exercise best efforts” in selling the beer.
The distributors were incensed, and it's not clear that the bill is going anywhere. Still, it's a sign that the beer market is in flux and there could be seismic changes coming. Indeed:
Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, whose office oversees the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, is also threatening to shake up the industry by launching a task force that will conduct a top-to-bottom review of the state’s liquor laws and regulations. 
It's not actually clear that this would 1) solve the very real problem in which distributors currently act as a gateway for small breweries getting to the market, without 2) damaging them in the process. Distribution is always a weird part of the brewing industry, one nearly invisible to consumers. In states like Oregon, legislators have relaxed the law on self-distribution, so wholesalers have to compete on service if they want to lure little breweries, and that seems to be an effective solution. But each state has slightly different rules, and those rules affect little breweries in different ways. If Massachusetts does pass this bill, it will certainly be something the rest of the US will be watching closely.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Deep Dive on the Claims About New England IPAs (Way Nerdy)

Last week, the ever-busy Jason Notte had a great piece on the rise of niche brewing. This is a point I regularly make to visitors coming to Beervana: one of the things that makes the city so interesting is the presence of breweries that don't make IPAs--like Occidental, Upright, and the Commons (among others). It's a city of diversity. For his piece, Notte chose Great Notion Brewing, which specializes in the fraught "New England IPA" category.
Miller and Dugan had spent years home-brewing and swapping beers with friends across the country before realizing that their brewery’s inspiration had to lie somewhere other than Portland. They were taken with the hazier, fruitier India Pale Ales being made by Northeast breweries including Maine Beer Co., The Alchemist and Tree House.
(To be fair, Great Notion is making a pretty broad line, and their puckery beers are for me their real calling card.)

All well and good. Let's not relitigate this particular debate. My bone of contention comes with a comment Great Notion's James Dugan makes--a pillar on which these types of beers seems to rest. The overwhelming trend in American beers now is toward saturated and intense hop flavors and aromas, not bitterness. Somehow the idea is that the New England IPAs have a greater abundance of these qualities due to their cloudiness. And here Dugan doubles down with some science:
People look at our beers and say: “You have too much yeast in suspension.” What it comes down to is educating people that there is some yeast in every beer — we don’t filter, we don’t fine, we don’t centrifuge — but we cold crash all of our beer, drop the yeast out and then do a heavy dry hopping. We dry hop about two and a half to three gallons per barrel. When you dry hop that heavily, you get hop polyphenols that are basically tannins that saturate beer with oils.

Without protein content from wheat or oats, those oils eventually drop out. What we’re finding to be the defining characteristic of our beers is this marriage of protein and hop oil saturation. What’s happening is that those two are binding. You have this hop oil stuck in suspension and when you pour it into a glass, you’re tasting the hop oil. 
This seemed ... dubious. I set about looking into the science, but unfortunately, the mechanism of hop flavor and aroma hasn't been studied much. For decades, all hop research was focused on IBUs and paid for by big breweries who were trying to get ever more bitterness out of ever fewer hops. The state of the aroma and flavor research is still in the gestation state. I spoke with researcher Tom Shellhammer at Oregon State last year about a project to understand the mechanism of dry-hopping. He described it for me:
“What it’s getting at is, if you’re going to use hops for dry-hopping and make a consistent product batch-to-batch, should you as a brewer hop based upon the mass of hops, or the oil content of the hops—or based on something else?”  
This illustrates how little we understand about these mechanisms. But we understand something. We know some of the constituents of hops, like oils and and acids and prenylated flavonoids (yes, I way out over my skis on that last one), and we have some sense of what they do and don't do. In particular, scientists have focused a lot of their attention on the terpenes like myrcene, linalool, geraniol, and so on that give hops their lovely citrus or floral kick. But we also know that hops are incredibly complex and not only are there many other compounds I haven't mentioned, but even the ones I have aren't inert. Some terpenes, for example are "biotransformed by yeast during the fermentation" into other terpenes. The question at hand is whether proteins enhance and preserve the behavior of hop flavor and aroma, as proponents of New England IPAs believe.

It doesn't really add up. There's no mechanism that I understand that would cause the polyphenols in hops to bond the oils to the proteins in grain. (It's not clear why the hops don't bond to the proteins of barley, which are also present in beer, except I suppose there is less of it.) Polyphenols affect the perceived smoothness or harshness of hop flavor, but they don't appear particularly relevant to that "juicy" quality prized by modern breweries. The thing you're worried about with hop oils is degredation from oxygenation, not dropping out of suspension. Terpenes in oils appear to be susceptible to this as well, and they are also volatile and can escape the liquid. There's really nothing we know that suggests wheat and oat haze is going to affect these hoppy properties.

I shot an email to Stan Hieronymus, the writer who literally wrote the book on hops, to find out if this sounded plausible to him. If he'd like to weigh in on this, I'll let him do so in his own words. The one thing he mentioned that seemed really important was this: we "have to get past thinking about oil and think about compounds," he said. Oils are part of the equation, but they're not the whole kielbasa.

For me, the proof is in the palate. I still haven't encountered anything different in these cloudy IPAs in terms of hop flavor and aroma than I do in typical (hazy but not milky) modern American IPAs. It's as easy to make a saturated IPA whether it looks like a milkshake or not.  Dugan--and others, apparently--have argued that there's some science going on in these beers that make them especially juicy. Could be! But point me to the studies that demonstrate it, please. Sciencey language doesn't quite cut it alone. (Otherwise hive mind would let me get away with a lot more BS.)

For now, I think these are standard modern American IPAs with a ton of haze. And a special prize to anyone who managed to read through this post to get to that rather modest conclusion.

Monday, July 11, 2016

How Far Will Mass Market Lagers Fall?

There's a (surprisingly weak) piece on the online New Yorker that includes this remarkable comment:
Over the past decade, varieties once thought of as boutique beers, such as I.P.A.s, have exploded in the United States, thanks to the locavore movement. Craft brewing is now doubling in sales, by volume, every five years; today, craft-beer sales make up twenty-one per cent of the beer market, and twelve per cent of the volume. The Brewers Association, a craft-brewing trade group, expects craft beers to have a fifty-per-cent market share in a decade. Since craft brewers use about ten times more hops than megabrewers, the trend has been a bonanza for Hopsteiner and the other big hops companies. [emphasis added]
Let's leave aside that unsubstantiated (and untrue) intro sentence about the locavore movement. The bolded sentence is the real whopper. It's not clear whether he's talking volume or dollars when he refers to the market--even predicting that the craft market will more than double in ten years is a pretty staggering prediction. That would require 10% year-over-year growth for the entire period. For volume to hit that mark, craft would have to grow more than four-fold in ten years time--and someone better at calculating compound growth can run those numbers. [Update. In a tweet, Brewers Association economist Bart Watson confirmed he was misquoted. "No. I think I said something like the high end could get to 50% of dollar sales eventually."]

It is interesting to consider where the floor for mass market lagers is. Rather than just guess at random, let's look at a similar product category: coffee. Much like beer, it was an industry once dominated by a single kind of product and a few large national players. Like beer, a "craft" movement arrived in the 1980s and began gobbling up market share. Like beer, consumption habits vary for younger folks than older folks. Like beer, total consumption is declining even as consumption of good coffee increases. And finally, like beer, people drinking outside the home is on the rise. And what's happening in coffee?
Only about 8 percent of the coffee beans Americans buy are fresh whole beans, which upscale coffee brewers, like Blue Bottle, will tell you is the much better way to buy coffee beans. And ground coffee isn't just outpacing whole bean coffee — it's increasing its lead, each and every year. 
I couldn't find solid stats on coffee, which has no equivalent to the Brewers Association. Coffee is also fragmented in a way beer isn't (espresso vs ground vs whole bean vs pod). But this one teaser graph from Statista is illuminating:

Folger's and Maxwell House are objectively inferior products. They're made with inferior beans and produce coffee I think most people would agree is marked by harsher flavor notes. This, too, is different from beer. Mass market lagers may be less interesting, but they're not made from inferior ingredients. The difference is subjective. And yet, Folger's and Maxwell House are still rocking it. Why?
But just the opposite is true: People in this country, on the whole, are actually drinking worse coffee today than they have in the past. And the reason appears to be that they value cheapness over quality — and convenience over everything.
This is certainly going to be the case with beer. There will always be a large market for cheap beer, because there will always be a large group who prize value over flavor. (Or, more accurately, a group that prizes value at least part of the time.)

My rough guess, based on business news from the past couple years, is that about 50% of the coffee sold in America is "cheap"--the equivalent of mass market lager. That seems about right. I suspect the number might tick up or down depending on trends, but the low-end market is never going away, no matter how ubiquitous Starbucks seem. At some point in the future, we'll settle on a definition for mass market beer, and it will probably include some flavors and styles we currently call "craft." (Witbier is cheap and easy to make in volume, as one emerging example demonstrates.) By the time the market matures and we have settled on that definition, most of us will think of mass market beer about as often as we think of three-pound cans of Maxwell House now.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Rogue Is Doing Incredibly Interesting Stuff

If I asked you to name the ten breweries doing the most interesting things in the US, you'd probably leave Rogue off the list. In most markets, Dead Guy is the face of the brewery, an ancient beer by US standards, and a pretty boring one at that. When we think of cutting edge, our mind turns to places like Scratch Brewing, Crooked Stave, or pFriem. But you'd be hard pressed to find a brewery as ambitious as Rogue. Consider:
  • Rogue has developed an extensive farm where they grow branded, proprietary strains of barley (300 acres) and hops (42 acres).
  • The brewery floor malts its barley.
  • They grow other crops on their farm, from which they produce mead, braggot, and flavored beers.
  • Rogue has gotten into distilling, and now grow their own corn and rye to make whiskey.
  • Rogue has also started making cider, although it's not clear that they have an orchard or plans to plant one.
And then there's this, which Rogue announced today:
Rogue Ales & Spirits announces the release of 2016 Rolling Thunder Imperial Stout, its first-ever beer aged in barrels made at Rogue’s cooperage....

Rogue acquired vintage French WW II era coopering equipment before knowing where to put it and who was going to make the barrels. Longtime employee Nate Lindquist volunteered to be Rogue’s first cooper and spent a year as an apprentice learning the ancient art form of barrel making. Using Oregon White Oak, Nate assembles, raises, toasts, chars, hoops, heads, hoops again, cauterizes, sands and brands each barrel, one at a time all by hand. At full capacity, he makes one barrel a day. 
This is really fascinating--and the kind of thing I'd normally be all over. Rogue, unfortunately, is perhaps the most secretive brewery in the world (at least now that St. James Gate has opened up a bit). They deliver information pre-packaged with a smile and the unmistakable message: take it or leave it. I've tried to engage the brewery about their produce, but they won't even tell me basic facts, like whether a certain hop is high-alpha or not. Since they have their own marketing team putting out all this material anyway, it hardly matters if I reprint it.

Every now and again it is worth stopping to admire it all--if, necessarily, we must do so at a great remove, without any actual details.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Ex Novo Where the Mild Things Are

No marketing professional was consulted in the naming of mild ale. Who wants "mild?" It doesn't tell you anything at all about the beer (unlike, say, "bitter" or "pale"), except the suggestion that you will be bored by it. It's almost like a warning: nothing to see here, move along.

The only people who want anything mild are those who have seen too much excitment, like for example soldiers following a world war or survivors of overhead bombings. And indeed, these were exactly the people who took to mild back in postwar England. You can't blame them for seeking refuge in a cozy pub and trying to soothe their jangled nerves with something soft and comforting, something mild.

Americans are the opposite of those people. We want thrills and excitement, maybe even a bit of danger. We want novelty, variety, and intensity. We want wild, not mild. And so it is that the little 3.5% dark ales, seasoned with almost no hops and just a hint of nutty or roasty malt, have never found much of an audience here.* I think the main reason is alcohol content, though. You look at the taplist and see a 3.5% beer will cost you five bucks, same as the 7.1% IPA, and you shake your head sadly and order the strong one. It's difficult to argue the math.

But some people reject mild for other reasons--they aren't thrilled by the name, or have found milds to be as boring as their name. To these complaints I offer the finest American mild ale I have ever tasted: Ex Novo's Where the Mild Things Are. It has it all, from a rich, biscuity/nutty malt profile to a sturdy body to a creamy mouthfeel (despite being served on regular draft). And wonder above wonders, it doesn't taste like a low-alcohol beer. You wouldn't mistake it for a double IPA, but neither does it have that hollow spot so often found in weaker beers. It is hearty and satisfying, rich and flavorful, and of course, wonderfully sessionable. A perfect conversation beer, keeping your palate interested and your brain in the game.

Ex Novo is doing some absolutely wonderful beers, so use this as an excuse to hop on down if you haven't visited yet. (The brisket sandwich is excellent.) They're celebrating their 2nd Anniversary this weekend, so if you wanted to stop by the celebration, you could have that mild then. Or just drop by at your convenience. But do stop by and, despite the name and ABV, try that mild. You'll thank me.

*I hear all you lovely pedants out there scrambling to get to a keyboard and explain to me that milds don't have to be dark nor weak. True. But since strong milds haven't been brewed in decades and pale milds are rare and confusing, let's leave all that to the side for the moment, what say?

"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.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

American Farmhouse Ale

Post updated below (11:45 am, 4/5/16).

I was about to shoot the following thoughts and questions to Stan Hieronymus, who will release an excellent book called Brewing Local  in September (I've seen an advance copy). In it, Stan considers the nature of local beer, a straightforward question that turns out to be as solid as smoke, drifting lazily out of reach. You start poking that question with a few others--local ingredients? local styles? local tradition?--and it drifts ever further away. Of course, Stan doesn't just pose the questions, he tries to answer them, and you can read his conclusions this fall.

I've long planned to brew an American farmhouse ale, adapting the spirit of the old 19th century Belgian saisons to America. They were one of the products that came off the farm, made with what the farmer had on hand. They made those beers the way Belgians of the time did, with crazy-long boils and coolships, and I don't intend to make a beer like that. Indeed, I don't want to make a throwback beer. Imagine a modern farmer who happened to have a small brewery on-site. What would he make?
  • Corn is a must for an American beer, wheat seems like basically a must. Six-row barley might be in order, though I'm not trying to brew a 19th century beer--a modern farmhouse is likely to be growing modern barley. Oregon State recently released Full Pint malt, which is available at my local homebrew store.
  • Sugar beets are commonly grown in Eastern Oregon, so a pound of White Satin seems in order.
  • Hops are local to Oregon, but I figure a farmer who planted them for his own crops would be concerned about yield. Super Galena, Crystal, and Cascade are the most productive varieties. (I've never seen Super Galena for sale, so that's out--plus, Galenas are pretty rough hops.) Neomexicanus hops would be one choice, too--but they are not to my knowledge grown in Oregon nor, based on where they are grown (New Mexico) would they be much suited to Oregon.
  • Oregon now has a couple yeast suppliers, Wyeast and Imperial, though neither make a locally-obtained strain. Actually, Imperial has a yeast called Citrus that was harvested wild--I suppose it could be from Oregon. In any case, the strain should be pretty rustic if we're shooting for a farmhousy effect.
  • Other fruits/vegetable/spices could be thrown in, but I'm interested in doing one without them at the outset.
The one thing I think needs to be in play is the American penchant for late hops. This has become our national tradition, and it deviates quite a bit from the way the old Belgian farmers made their beers. So: a potpourri of grain including corn (mandatory), some sugar beet sugar, Cascades and/or Crystal hops, and a rustic yeast strain. That's as far as I got. What I was going to ask Stan, but what I'll throw out to hive mind instead (including Stan!), is this: how would you make it? What would characterize an American farmhouse ale? Is this exercise even valid--or at the very least interesting? I think so, but I'd like to hear your thoughts.

Update. Folks have been mentioning that there is no tradition of American farmhouse brewing and that trying to brew to that tradition is folly. I agree halfway. I'm thinking of "farmhouse" in a broader context than the saisons of Belgium. What would a rustic local beer made in America look like?--that's more the exercise. If it were made of ingredients grown on a farm (in, in my case, Oregon) and brewed on an imprecise, small-scale farm brewery, what would we expect to see? Farmhouse breweries predate the Belgians by a lot, and beer was made this way for millennia. There's no reason it couldn't be made this way in the US, but if it were, it would draw on the brewing tradition here as well as the local ingredients. That's really what I'm shooting for.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Celebrating Independents Day

I am not typically a big rah-rah guy when it comes to promoting independently-owned breweries. The idea that consumers should spend too much of their time running purity tests on brewery ownership strikes me as--well, it's not really our responsibility. (Better to drink local, drink good, and drink on draft.) On the other hand, AB InBev decided to brand one of its faltering brands "America," a brazenly cynical move in which a foreign-owned company trades on cheap patriotism to hawk beer.

And that pisses me off.

So I propose that this weekend, rather than drink "America," you celebrate American beer. You know, good ol' American-owned, American-brewed beer. Independent beer. This seems a smart way to let the marketing brain trust from Leuven know how you feel about their offensive campaign. In fact, I'm going to turn the mic over to a fairly important figure in the history of our fair country and let him make the pitch:
“I use no porter or cheese in my family, but such as is made in America.”
For this weekend, anyway, let's follow his lead.

Happy Fourth, you all. Drink something good and American-made--