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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Zoiglhaus Bets on Lents

Photo: New School
Over the last forty years, one of the roughest pockets of Portland has been the Lents District (once regularly called "Felony Flats") in the outer Southeast. The neighborhood's nexus is at 92nd and Foster, for years symbolized by the seedy, graceless, and dangerous New Copper Penny. Scattered throughout Portland are pockets like Lents, where generations of families have lived in lower-middle class stasis. A couple native sons of the neighborhood, the poets Michael and Matthew Dickman, were profiled in the New Yorker a few years back, and author Rebecca Mead gives an overview of the place:
It was hot outside, and the bus, which was headed downtown, offered refuge from the arid intersection where they had been waiting: Ninety-second and Foster, where a junk-filled antique store with “Closing Down” signs in its windows faced off against the New Copper Penny, an establishment that offered ladies’ nights, and was considerably more tarnished than its name suggested....

Lents, which was originally a farming community that was annexed to Portland in 1912, was until the early seventies a blue-collar neighborhood of single-family homes, with its own commercial center and a distinct, small-town character. Things started to change in 1975, with the construction of Interstate 205: the freeway sliced the neighborhood in two, requiring the demolition of five hundred houses, and seeding strip joints and bars along Foster Avenue.  As the boys grew older, Lents declined. There were drugs and gangs, including the Gypsy Jokers bikers, who had a clubhouse a couple of blocks from the Dickmans’ home. Asian immigrants began moving into the area in the nineties, and there was a concurrent rise in the skinhead population. 
Lents, pockmarked by crime and poverty, has been one of the most intractable problems for the city. Anything beyond 82nd Avenue might as well be in a different county, and Lents has the additional dislocation of being not just east well south of the city. For two decades, the city has been making gestures toward rehabilitating Lents, but it was too remote to move onto the front burner. A few years back, though, Portland finally started making good on some of the plans. They have been looking for anchor businesses to replace the blighted ones that have made the place home, and the Portland Development Commission helped the Ararat Bakery to move into the neighborhood in 2008. The building they invested in was formerly a nightclub (with, apparently, an illegal brothel upstairs) and it seemed like a great exchange--except that 2008 was the start of the worst depression in a century. Ararat went bankrupt in 2011, and the building sat idle.

Panorama of Lents by Twelvizm

All of this very long preamble is to critical to understanding the business that took over the building in 2015--Zoiglhaus Brewing. It is an ambitious project made all the more interesting by its bet on this under-served neighborhood, a good six miles as the Schwinn pedals from the rich vein of breweries nearer to town. The founder and inspiration is Alan Taylor, a Berlin-trained Oregonian who spent five years planning Zoiglhaus, and investigating locations everywhere from Beaverton to the west of Portland to the eastern suburbs. Settling on Lents makes the whole venture more intriguing--though in an interesting way, is exactly in harmony with the region that gives the brewery its name.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Vignette #2, Hans-Peter Drexler (Schneider)

Brewer vignettes feature quotes from brewers I picked up in my travels around the world.

“There are three different styles of aroma in a Bavarian wheat beer: most of them are very fruity,  from the Weihenstephan strain; there’s one that is more neutral; and there are some that are more spicy like the Schneider yeast, spicy-tasting like clove and nutmeg.  We are very interested to have the raw materials that bring a lot of the ferulic acid to the wort to get a lot of vinyl guaiacol in the beer.  It comes from the barley and the wheat—most of it comes from the barley.” 

“The biggest challenge in the brewery is to keep the biological balance in the right way.  It’s a really big challenge. For me, wheat beer is terrible to produce.  There are so many screws you have to turn.  It’s crazy.  And these open fermenters are very hard to control.  But the result is amazing if everything works perfectly.”

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ninkasi at 10

How do you measure the modern era of American brewing? For me, there was a specific moment when the possibilities of the American tradition yawned in front of me like an almost unlimited chasm. I can date it to an exact moment, back in December 2006. I was attending the Holiday Ale Festival, and this new Eugene brewery with a lot of buzz brought a beer called Believer. Here's how I described it:
It had one of the most succulent aromas I've ever encountered--sweet, citrusy, with a little mint. I had four people give it a sniff and they all did the same thing: sniff, eyebrows up, head back down for another sniff. 
That experience pretty well describes the transition from the second epoch in American brewing into the modern era. In my schema, the first epoch was marked by the pale-amber-porter period, lasting until the mid-90s; the second era was the transitional hops period, when brewers were going crazy for IBUs in their IPAs. The modern era dawned when brewers realized the true, full potential of the hop, one that lay more in the aromas and flavors rather than the bitterness. No brewery seized this flavor terrain as fully as Ninkasi did in its early years. For months, the only beers they had on the market were Believer (a red IPA, now retired), Total Domination (the flagship IPA), Quantum, a hoppy pale, and Tricerahops (a double IPA). Not only did they introduce our palates to this new way of brewing, they basically only made these kinds of beers.

Big tanks
The entire country has gone through palate shift, but each region has its pivotal products that initiated the change. In Oregon, Ninkasi was patient zero. Each one of those early beers bore the DNA of this new way of brewing, and Ninkasi, making a big, splashy debut, was the perfect delivery mechanism. Even though ten years ago seems fairly recent, it was actually the tail end of a long fallow period in beer. In 2006, there were still only 1,377 breweries in the country, and the craft segment of the market was just 3.4%. It was breweries like Ninkasi, bringing an exciting new version of hoppy ales to the market, that jump-started the current boom in brewing.

This had to do in part because of the beer, but the company's approach, ethos, and personnel were also a big factor. Jamie Floyd had been brewing for over a decade in Eugene when Ninkasi launched, and he had always been a huge proponent of hops. (I recall a heated debate in the late 90s he had with a Colorado brewery who derided hoppy ales--"all you do is throw a bunch of hops in the kettle; anyone can do that.") Floyd has an outsized personality, simultaneously big and gregarious but also small-d democratic. Ninkasi reflects Jamie, and even when it was the cool brewery, there was something approachable and everyman about it. Ninkasi has never been twee or hipsterish, and this was probably one of the reasons it grew so fast so early.

Their initial phase took Ninkasi through two brewery expansions and put them in six-packs on grocery shelves. They fueled that rise with variations on hoppy themes, introducing hoppy seasonals along with their flagships. Of course, no brewery stays in front of the novelty curve for long. Ninkasi therefore needed a second act, and it was a surprising one: traditional European lagers. It turns out that, in addition to his love of hops, Floyd also had an abiding love of classic, balanced lagers. (He may have shown his hand when Ninkasi put Schwag out early in their life; a light lager with a throwback style, it was a decade ahead of its time.) So while they were at the apex of their popularity, and still growing so fast that there were occasional diacetyl problems, Ninkasi released a pilsner and a helles, both straightforward, un-Oregonized examples, that seemed entirely at contrast with their brand.

I think the most startling was Helles Belles, the helles they released in the summer of 2011. It was a 5.1% beer with just a scant 22 IBUs of Hallertau and Spalt hopping. I loved it (of course), but it really threw people off. Drinkers were used to pulling whatever Ninkasi released off the shelf, assuming it would be a hoppy ale. I watched more than a few confused friends crack open a bottle of one of their lagers and wonder what they were drinking. But there was a perverse genius to it, too. Ninkasi has brought a lot of people into beer over the past decade. By offering a pilsner, helles, and Dortmunder, they introduced those same people back to the kinds of beers they thought they didn't like--and I think with quite a bit of success.

The metal shop.

This demonstrates something unusual about the brewery. The first is that Jamie Floyd and co-founder Nikos Ridge keep their own counsel. They don't work with outside marketers, brand folks, or PR people. Everything, including the artwork, is done in-house. Indeed, Ninkasi's commitment to the arts extends to sponsorship of local music, hosting an "artist in residence," and metal craft. They have both a music studio and metal shop onsite. If you visit the main offices, you can find a room with artists working on the next label or event art. Even though Ninkasi has grown to become the third-largest brewery in the state, it still has a bit of Eugene's DIY feel about it. In the case of the lagers, there was no one there to suggest this ran counter to brand. The brewery's instinct was pretty solid, though--just at the moment Ninkasi was investing heavily in lagers, craft beer was finding them newly interesting as well.

It's safe to say no Oregon brewery--and few American breweries--have had a better decade than Ninkasi. It has passed through its constant-growth cycle and now has a large and impressive campus in Eugene. It remains one of the strongest brands in the state (more than half the regular line-up date back to the first couple years of production), and acts as a great vehicle for Floyd and Ridge to do the extracurricular activities and philanthropic work they clearly enjoy.

But it's also at an inflection point. The lineup, though solid, is starting to look dated. Most people in Oregon now think of Total Domination as a "classic, old-school" IPA. Ninkasi has added a couple of trendy IPAs to their regular lineup (session and fruit), but debuted them well into the fads. They don't have much of a barrel program and have largely ignored kettle-souring. None of that is bad--and in fact, older breweries never look good chasing trends--but it does put a question mark on the future. A brewery making over 100,000 barrels doesn't have the flexibility to pursue trends and must support core brands, but it also needs to find a way to appear fresh and interesting. What will Ninkasi's third act look like?

Ninkasi has long been mentioned among likely targets for buy-out, and it certainly makes sense on paper. Having toured the brewery with Jamie and Nikos a couple of times, though, I'd be surprised about that. You don't spread your focus to non-bottom-line activities like the arts, philanthropy, and the environment. You do hire branding firms and spend money on strategic planning to boost sales and reach in anticipation of an acquisition. Anything is possible, especially when big enough sums are mentioned, but this doesn't look like a brewery that's looking to sell.

As one more piece of evidence, I'll recount what Jamie told me when I toured the brewery back in 2010. He talked about the feeling of place he got from the old regional breweries that used to scatter the Pacific Northwest, and how he thought that was a good goal for Ninkasi. The NW has a different feel and vibe than the rest of the country, and local companies were the only ones who really knew how to address it, he told me. He wanted to be a part of the region, an institution that both understood it and helped define it. No doubt people can change their minds, but that always struck me as such an unusual, Oregon goal. It put Ninkasi's approach into a context that the brewery has continued to live up to. And I do hope we can continue to write about them at twenty, thirty, and forty years as an Oregon institution.

Happy 10th, Ninkasi--

Beer flowing overhead, from one building
to the next.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Does This Seem Slightly Sexist To You, Too?

See update at the bottom of the post.

On Monday, Patrick and I sat down with five women who work in the beer world to learn how far we've come from those babes-in-bikinis ads from the 80s and 90s (podcast to follow). It was an illuminating conversation, because we learned how far things have come--but how subtle sexism still lingers.

Well, today I got an email that makes me wonder if the more overt sexism isn't still an issue in at least a part of the beer world. AB InBev hired a firm to do some research about attitudes of women and what they drink, and the resulting "findings" are discouraging. Here's the set-up.
Picture this:  Three women walk into a bar.  The first orders wine, the second orders a cosmo, and the third orders beer.  Which woman, do you think, ends up in a conversation with the tall and mysterious stranger?  According to the Budweiser 'Beerpressions' National Survey—a first-of-its-kind study about how beverage choices influence first impressions—your drink may be worth a thousand words.    Based on a representative survey of 2,000 Americans conducted by Learndipity Data Insights, Budweiser asked respondents to match common bar drinks with the perceived personality traits of the people ordering them.
Got that? The research was designed to learn how men assess women in bars based on their beverage choice. At first glance, this appears to be a return to that neanderthal sexism of the ads, where women and beer become accoutrements for men's enjoyment. But surely that can't be right? It can.
Drink Choice #1:  Domestic Beer (Budweiser)
  • 70% say a woman with domestic beer (Budweiser) is "friendly" and "low-maintenance."
  • Conversely, only 36% believe a woman drinking imported beer is "low-maintenance."
To be scrupulously fair, women and men both rated each other, though the characterizations of women had a lot more to do with sexual availability than they did for men. ("Low-maintenance" is an especially freighted term.*) For a company that is trying to stanch the exodus from their brand, I wonder how effective this approach will be. Is this really going to be a winning pitch to a new generation of women drinkers?

*In comments, Nick asks about why "low-maintenance" would be especially objectionable. I almost made more comment of that when I wrote the post, so let's correct the oversight and do that now.

Sexism is an innately male-centered way of seeing things. The value of women is assessed based on what they can do for men. "Low maintenance" fits into this because it's not a judgment of the women themselves (like other words that popped up--"predictable," "shallow," or "cautious"), but how well women serve men's needs. Put another way, ff I call you shallow, I'm making a judgment about you. If I say you're low-maintenance, I'm making a comment about your utility to me. And that feeds a very ancient and unpleasant way of thinking.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Sour" Beers, Craft's Dark Secrets, and Yeast--Three Interesting Stories

August is reliably the deadest month on the calendar. The excitement of summer has passed, but no one wants to confront all these Oktoberfest releases the marketing people are trying to promote. True to form, this August started slow, but there have been a few recent articles out there that piqued my interest. I think you'll have thoughts as well.

1. The New York Times Botches "Sour" Beers
Eric Asimov, the wine writer for the Times, has offered more misleading, confusing information about beer to more people than anyone on earth. I know he's an astute guy with a great palate, but for some reason, beer is so far beneath him he can't actually be bothered to report it properly. Last week he did a round up of "sour beers," and made a predictable hash in framing it. I don't mind particularly that he combined every tart style, from gose to lambic, in one category. In sensory evaluation, it's fine to blend categories of like beers. But then he writes this, and my patience evaporates:
Many of these characteristics are a result of a brewing process seemingly derived as much from wine as from beer, in which the beers are aged in barrels after fermentation. As they rest, they undergo additional transformations as bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus interact with the beer, contributing lively acidity as well as tart flavors and increased complexity. Some are vintage dated.
My guess is that few commercial sour-beer brewers choose to allow the sort of spontaneous fermentations that shape Belgian lambics. More likely, they are inoculating their brews with selected yeast strains, including brettanomyces, anathema to winemakers as it can be the source of funky flavors great and small. If unwanted in wine, it can be great in beer styles like gueuze, a Belgian blend of young and old unflavored lambics.
Ugh. To make explicit the crimes here: 1) in the first paragraph, he conflates the production of beers like gose (kettle soured) with barrel-aged beers. Goses (and most Berliner weisses) do not spend months in barrels. People are confused enough about this already; there's an entire debate raging about the cheat of making "quick sour" beers that's fueled entirely by ignorance about style and technique. Asimov inadvertently feeds this. 2) In graf two, he reveals that he's never even bothered to pick up a phone to inquire how the beers he's evaluating are made. Are some breweries inoculating while others are using spontaneous fermentation? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  It's a mystery!

(Asimov's favorite beer was Cascade's Kriek, and he loved it. He also admired a Logsdon beer. So I can't be too disappointed in him, I guess.)

2. Craft Beer's Dark Secrets
An article on Thrillist has gotten a ton of attention as an anonymous insider ("someone who's worked in the industry for six years and currently works in marketing for a well-known brewery") dishes on all the terribleness happening in craft. I have seen it reposted quite a bit with nods of acknowledgement. (Stan, for example: "Many of the points are valid. That some are less valid does not invalidate the story.") It's a pretty long laundry list of stuff, so I'll skip trying to pull representative quotes. A lot of the observations are anodyne or wrong (competition is increasing; consolidation is happening; there's a bubble), but there are others that are more serious and potentially accurate: working brewers get paid badly; the beer world is sexist; jobs in beer are hard and pay badly.

The big problem I have is that we have no idea from where these "secrets" emerge. The beer industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, and it follows that individual experiences vary widely. Some breweries are great to work for, while others are Dickensian hell. What does this tell us about "craft beer?" General, anonymous statements supported by anecdote are rumor, not fact or even reportage. I would bet my life that there are dark secrets in craft brewing--we already know about pay-to-play, as one example--and I would love to read a serious report, backed by numbers and on-the-record accounts. This is not that report--reader beware.

3. Yeast, the "God Particle"
Jason Notte has another excellent piece out, this time on the yeasty Dave Logsdon (founder of Wyeast Labs as well as the yeast-forward Logsdon Farmhouse Ales). You should go read the whole article, but one graf jumped off the page to me. This is Logsdon talking about his spontaneous program.
We’ve let those go spontaneously and haven’t tried to isolate and identify them. I don’t see a need to anymore. After spending a career in a laboratory, one of the things I wanted to do was get away from the strict, stringent protocol that was necessary. Even though we have a lab here and do our testing and stuff, it’s done on a more as-needed basis than a controlled management. With the 10 strains we do manage, I’m experienced enough to know what the right protocol is. 
I have written about this before, but there's something very, very different about inoculating wort with wild yeast and letting beer make itself spontaneously. The end results, so similar a NYT columnist can't distinguish them, belie the huge act of will it takes to get out of the way and let nature take its course. Dave has spent a career corralling and controlling yeast. It's a testament to the life transition he experienced when he put down the test tubes at Wyeast and installed a coolship. It may look like an obvious step, but I think it was anything but.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Beervana Podcast Updates and Upgrades

Although it's podcast 27 for Patrick and me, today we debut at our new home on All About Beer. (I heard some chatter about it being called All About Beer On-Air, which I love, though perhaps that moniker didn't stick.) What this means, for the literally tens of you who subscribed to our old feeds on iTunes/Google Play/Soundcloud is that you need to resubscribe at one of the new locations: on  SoundCloudiTunes, or Stitcher.

We're pretty pleased with today's podcast, because it represents our effort to bring more voices into conversation. For this episode, we spoke with Alan Taylor about Zoiglhaus Brewing, the culmination of five years' effort. We wanted to hear from Alan what it takes to found a brewery in the second decade of the new millennium. Alan explored many possible sites before landing on this one; what did he consider in terms of neighborhood demographics, location, and so on? How did he settle on a format and theme, and what considerations went into that? We asked about details like working with the city, designing, buying, and installing equipment, and creating the kind of pubby feng shui that will bring the community in to drink beer.

And of course, we talked about beer. Alan trained in Berlin and made Berliner weisse one of his specialties. We drank the version he makes each year for summer, one that is a year in the making, and learn why brettanomyces is an absolutely essential ingredient to getting the "typical" Berliner weisse flavor profile. (Brewers Association, please take note.)

Please listen, subscribe, and support us in this new endeavor. Thanks!

Friday, August 19, 2016

On Perfection

An article in the NY Times Magazine got me thinking. The subject of the piece is Michelangelo's David, which may in time--like all things--collapse into dust. But what caught my eye was not the fascinating backstory of the statue nor the nature of the physics that threaten it, but writer Sam Anderson's description of the statue's perfection:
When I first saw the David in person, the only word that came to mind was “perfect.” Why hadn’t anyone ever told me he was perfect? I was 20 years old, exhausted, unwashed, traveling for the first time ever, ignorant of almost everything worth knowing. “Perfect,” I know now, is not a terribly original response to the statue, nor a very precise one, but in that moment it filled my mind. It felt like a revolution — urgent, deep, vital, true.
And then a bit later:
I stood there in my filthy Birkenstocks feeling a sense of religious transcendental soaring: the promise that my true self was not bound by the constraints of my childhood — by freeway exits, office parks, after-school programs, coin-operated laundry rooms at dingy apartment complexes, vineyards plowed under and converted into Walmarts, instability, change, dead dogs, divorce. No. The David suggested that my true self existed most fully in some interstellar superhistorical realm in which all the ideal things of the universe commingled in a perpetual ecstasy of harmonizing trumpet blasts. If such perfection could exist in the world, I felt, then so many other things were suddenly possible: to live a perfect life creating perfect things, to find an ideal way to be. What was the point of anything less?
Curiously, Anderson details all the conventional ways in which the statue is not perfect. That's actually the point of the article: "The seed of the problem is a tiny imperfection in the statue’s design" (my bold). The marble itself is pockmarked in places, and one of David's arms was once knocked off and reattached. What Anderson's describing is an artistic and aesthetic perfection, one with such power as to impart a religious experience. He ignores the tangible imperfections and instead locates a mystical perfection beyond the physical object.

Is he looking for the perfect beer?
Perfection is a weird concept. It suggests both an empirical and  subjective quality. Like a perfect ten in gymnastics, it's the way we attempt to codify in concrete terms our certainty of a surpassing aesthetic triumph. The perfect moment, the perfect man/woman, the perfect job. It's a self-defeating concept, though, because there's no way to actually measure the subjective, which is by definition a judgment based on non-quantifiable criteria like taste, opinions, or feelings. And that unverifiability is exactly why we want to have a concept like perfection. Calling something perfect is the act of desperate hyperbole, when we try to end an argument with the maximal rendering of judgment.

The reason "perfection" is a paradox is because the elements that compose it are always open to debate. We can't arrive at perfection because we can never agree to the rules of debate. I mean, when I look at David and see that bizarrely mannered tuft of pubic hair riding David's junk like a pair of furry chestnut burrs, I have a hard time moving on. And because perfection suggests a Platonic ideal, one which is so manifestly obvious that even a philistine like me can see it, David must not be perfect. In these matters, the doubters get the final veto.

In art, the idea of perfection is thrown around a lot. Maybe this has to do with the money involved. If you just spent a half a billion dollars on a Van Gogh, you don't want anyone telling you it's not perfect. In lower forms of expression--beer, let's say--perfection is generally considered a quality to aspire to, not one to attain. I've seen this over and over again. In homebrewing competitions, no one gives out a 50, the highest score. You're lucky to get a 40. It seems like the reasoning is encouragement: no matter how kick-ass your bock is, the theory goes, there's always got to be some room to make it more kick-ass. Homebrewing is a journey, and a natural 50 would abruptly end things at the summit. Best to think there's another, higher mountain beyond the one we're just about to crest.

When I sat in on the tasting panel at the Widmer Brothers brewery a few years back, they rated the beers on a five point scale. Four was the maximum any beer ever received, which seemed odd to me. I assumed five would represent the best quality the brewery could produce, since they were evaluating the beer before it shipped. Nope, four was the highest score I heard that day. I asked about that and they said five was reserved for a truly exceptional beer, one that, like Anderson's David, truly deserved the title of "perfect." They had never encountered such a beer but, like hopeful Sasquatch-hunters everywhere, wanted to believe one existed.

I sometimes use perfect casually (so please don't dig around the archives to disprove the following clause) but I've abandoned it as a useful concept. Whether we're talking about beer or art, perfection is a unicorn. We can describe it in rich, vivid detail, but no one has ever actually encountered it. Worse, the existence of this fictitious state denigrates the excellence we find occasionally in the real world. We hold open the possibility that there's something better than a Usain Bolt hundred-meter dash, or a 1966 Jaguar E-type roadster, or a Saison Dupont, but in pining for the impossible, fail to apprehend the real genius in front of us. The notion of "perfect" is what leads to hundred-dollar bottles of Cantillon and a veneration of mythical "whales" (or worse, "whalez"). There are a staggering amount of exceptional beers out there, more than the earth has ever seen, and settling into their enjoyment seems like a far better use of time than waiting interminably for perfection to come along.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Amazing Predictions

Maine writer Josh Christie was perusing some old archives today and tweeted out two fascinating articles that illustrate why we should regard current doomy proclamations with some skepticism. They date to the 90s, and were written in a now-defunct weekly. Article one (1994) poses the compelling question: with four Portland (ME) breweries, can the city absorb yet a new one opening up?
"That's a lot of new brewing capacity, considering local beers still account for only 1.5 percent of beer sales in Maine. And if the growth curve starts to level off, LaCharite and his competitors could end up fighting each other to survive."

 Five breweries??? Mon dieu!--it's a bubble!

In article two (1998), the thesis is that craft beer microbrewing has become too boring. This isn't exactly the same as the complaints we hear today--though IPA weariness is similar--but it illustrates that complaining about what looks like a stable situation in beer is pretty foolish. Don't like things now? Give it five minutes.
"Most of the supermarket survivors fall into the traditional categories of the tried and true: pale ales, wheat beers, lagers. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Many of these brews taste just fine. Some of them are personal favorites. But after more than a decade of innovative brewing, the spirit of imagination seems to have seeped out of the bottles. There are too many beers with taste profiles that are all too familiar. Even worse, there are too many beers with too little taste. Just as it's tough to tell Bud from Miller from Coors, it's slowly becoming more difficult to distinguish among the micros."

I can only imagine what a boring landscape awaits this city two decades hence, after the imminent demise of microbrewing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Vignette #1: Nick Arzner (Block 15)

Brewer vignettes feature quotes from brewers I picked up in my travels around the world.

“I literally think about beer all the time. I have a list on my phone of ideas, and those ideas can come from wherever. They can come from even a name; if I think it’s a good name I’ll build a beer around it. It can come from an ingredient; I’ll build a beer around that. It can come from [events]. People ask me to do an anniversary beer; it can come from them. I look at some breweries, they say, ‘I’m a lager brewery,’ or ‘I’m a Belgian-style brewery, I won’t do hoppy beers’—I don’t know why you’d limit yourself to that. I dunno, I just really just like beer. I like all styles, I enjoy drinking all styles of beer.”

Monday, August 15, 2016

When the Original is the Outlier

Beer styles, like grammar, are at best uneasy agreements about what is considered "typical." English grammar comes with so many asterisks, exceptions, and disclaimers that it seems to have been invented solely to thwart non-native speakers. Beer styles aren't as bad as that, but the curious fact remains that in several cases, the original, classic example of a style is out of step with all the other beers that followed. Schneider's weisse is substantially darker than is considered typical; Dupont is hoppier, more stripped-down (no exotic grains or spices), and more phenolic than most saisons; and Pilsner Urquell is far less attenuated and in possession of far more diacetyl than would be accepted in any other pilsner. Which is why when I came across this "pilsner showdown," I was amused to see poor Urquell coming in 23rd of 24 pilsners sampled:
A reference pilsner entered the showdown, and thankfully wasn’t in a green bottle. We thought it looked great, like a bar of GOLD!! Smelling it, we caught diacytel. While that’s to style when it’s “restrained” we thought it was not restrained at all and it really put us off the beer. Matt successfully nailed it and called the beer, but the off flavors put the whole group off enough to rank it one of the lowest in the showdown.
It even fared more poorly than several lightstruck examples. The indignity!

Diacetyl factory.

Truth is, writers of style guidelines don't know how to handle Urquell. This is the "Bohemian-style pilsener" entry from the 2016 Brewers Association style guidelines, the one used to judge beers at the GABF (bolds mine):
Very low diacetyl and DMS aromas, if perceived, are characteristic of this style and both may accent malt aroma.... Very low levels of diacetyl and DMS flavors, if perceived, are characteristic of this style. 
The folks judging pilsners may well have been looking at these very words while they sampled Urquell, because one thing is for sure: the diacetyl note* in that beer is not "very low." It's huge and aggressive, and because Urquell, a světlý ležák (12° beer), is so under-attenuated--it's just 4.4% ABV--that diacetyl really comes through as sticky and sweet. Budvar, by contrast, is also a 12° beer, but it's 5% ABV. 

Writers of style guidelines have never known what to do with this, because breweries typically don't like their beers to taste of diacetyl. And no one would roll out a beer like Urquell now--it's just too weird and un-pilsnery. Indeed, German pilsners, which form the far more common template for international pale lagers, are specifically prohibited by style guidelines from having diacetyl. In my two trips to the Czech Republic, I managed to sample maybe two dozen pale lagers. I would not therefore forward myself as any kind of authority, but within that sample I rarely encountered diacetyl, and never anything like what you find in Urquell. The Czechs are very deferential to the first pilsner, and my guess is that they don't want to appear to be aping the original.

In conclusion, we should probably write style guidelines that say things like, "if your pilsner is awash in what seems like inappropriately slicky, buttery diacetyl, we'll consider it a fault unless the sample came from Pilsner Urquell." Splitting the baby and saying it's okay in low levels accounts for neither the way diacetyl appears in Pilsner Urquell (where it's massive) nor in most other pilsners (where it's absent). Otherwise you end up in a situation where people are eliminating the original pilsner from pilsner competitions because it's not brewed to style.

*Diacetyl is slick on the tongue, a bit full, and tastes like butter or butterscotch. It's so buttery, in fact, that it's commonly added to foods to make them taste like butter.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Awkwardness of Middle-Aged Breweries

As a gentleman now past any reasonable definition of "young," I am sensitive to ageist derision. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that once you've been around awhile, you do get stuck in your ways. You can start to look a bit fusty. And so it is with breweries. The ultimate reward for building a successful brand that stretches out across some or all of our broad country isn't public admiration for your portfolio of stable, popular brands. No, it's yawns. In the craft beer biz, the question is always, "what have you done lately?"

This became a topic of discussion on Facebook and Twitter earlier in the week following my post about Sam Adams. To the thesis "the flagship brand needs to be refreshed," I don't think I heard a single voice say, "no way--it's a perfectly current classic!"  And this is just the problem. The successful old-school breweries (let's say pre-1990) all became successful because they built up a popular brand. Sam Adams had Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada had Pale, Widmer had Hefeweizen, and so on. It's very hard to keep a beer exciting for 30+ years. The best breweries can do is try to transition these older brands into a "classic" slot and hope to keep the brand of the brewery alive and vital.

One of the reasons I declared Boston Beer doomed was because as a brewery it does not seem vital. The brewery does have a barrel program, but it's pretty anemic. They still roll out the Utopias from time to time, but it's been a long time since beer geeks swooned over anything but its price. The recent nitro line was curious at best--a fifty-year-old package dispense system is not exactly the cutting edge. Meanwhile, one of the main trends in craft beer right now is lagers, a concept Boston Beer should absolutely own, but they seem to be missing the boat.

Contrast that with Sierra Nevada, which is one of the most active and interesting breweries in the country right now. Their core lineup is as always anchored by Pale Ale, but they've added a great pilsner (not missing the current trends), a gose, and two IPAs, Hop Hunter and Torpedo, which use innovative new techniques to produce vivid hop flavor. (Sam Adams' Rebel series of IPAs seem, by contrast, pro forma at best). They have managed to serve both their tradition--they exalt in it, in fact--as well as trying to remain current with the styles and techniques that are driving new sales.

And that's without mentioning the incredibly successful Beer Camp project, which makes this venerable grandfather of craft beer look anything but stodgy. It not only integrates them into this vital world of brewing they've honestly sort of outgrown, but allows them to both be a leader and a participant in building the notion of "craft" (which, admittedly, is a lot more spin than reality these days).

It's a difficult trick to pull off. Most of the middle-aged breweries have had their share of failures and miscues. You don't want to end up looking like the dad who's dropping middle-school slang into conversation, but you also don't want to just slowly go to seed. And so far, we really only knows what this looks like for breweries in the middle-thirties. Imagine what they'll look like when they're truly middle aged (like me).

As a final, related thought, it seems like that in one of these decades pretty soon we're going to see the failure of some large craft breweries. Maybe they won't outright vanish, but like regional breweries following Prohibition through the 1970s, they might get absorbed into a giant corporate entity, become mere SKUs in a company's bottom line, and eventually mostly fade out. When I came of drinking age in Oregon, we had brands like Lucky Lager and Heidelberg that soon vanished. Could Bell's or Rogue go the way they did? Eventually, some will.

Anyway, this rumination has been brought to you by Metamucil and old farts everywhere....

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Year Ago

A year ago today, sometime around 8pm, I stopped into Powell's Books in downtown Portland and located The Beer Bible on the "new releases" shelves. To my joy, there was only one copy left. Not bad for the first day of sales!

It's been a pretty good year for the book. Sales have been brisk, the Cicerone Program added it to their list of recommended reading, and it won an apparently prestigious IACP award. I try to refrain from flogging the book too much, but allow me to do so on this one-year anniversary. If you haven't picked up a copy, consider doing so. I guarantee that you'll find at least some new tidbit in there you haven't encountered before, and I really do think it's a good reference. (I think this because I have a crap memory for details, and so I end up pulling it out on a fairly regular basis.) Consider buying one for the whole family!

I'd also like to thank everyone out there who said kind words, bought a copy, or was otherwise supportive and kind. I can't tell you how many of you I've encountered, and you've all been wonderful. I hope the ride never ends--

You'd buy a book from this man, wouldn't you?

Monday, August 08, 2016

Is Boston Beer Doomed?

I've got my nose deep into a long-form piece today, and so I'm outsourcing content to The Motley Fool, which paints a grim picture of the country's largest craft brewery.
The bulk of Boston Beer's sales come from the Samuel Adams line of beer, and those have been declining. The company's Angry Orchard cider and Traveler beer brands were also down in the quarter, only partially offset by sales increases in Twisted Tea, Coney Island beer, and Truly Spiked and Sparkling....

Still clinging to its craft tradition, the company has chosen to primarily develop new offerings in-house through its Science and Alchemy division. Its most recent launch was a spiked sparkling water-flavored beverage. Sam Adams also recently released its Rebel IPA and Nitro projects, but none has been enough to restore the company to growth....

The company's internal efforts to generate growth aren't keeping up. I can understand the desire to stay true to the craft roots, but the company opted to play the perpetual growth game and went public. Shareholders demand profitable growth. It might be time to purchase a small rival brewer or two and plug them into the existing Sam Adams family.
Of all the larger craft breweries, Boston Beer seems to be in the weakest position. A decade ago and more it was lauded for innovation, but that era has long passed. Crappy, brand-eroding flavored malt beverages have distracted the company from its core competency (beer), and owner Jim Koch's commitment to amber lager in an IPA era does not inspire confidence that it will be relevant again anytime soon. I disagree with the Motley Fool on the direction it should take, though. Boston Beer doesn't have the money to compete in the acquisitions game with ABI and MillerCoors. It needs to rehabilitate and extend its own brand and figure out a way to freshen up Boston Lager. And it should definitely quit trying to come up with crappy side products.

Boston Beer looked like a titan as recently as a couple years ago, but it's in real trouble now. It never developed a strategy to compete against smaller, boutique breweries in terms of innovation and quality, nor does it appear prepared to battle the new wave of ABI- and MillerCoors-owned "craft" brands, which are going to be making extremely aggressive efforts to establish their national presence. If I were on team Sam Adams, I'd be hitting the panic button, stat.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Just IPAs on Tap?

This is worth, barely, a Saturday post. I was just emailing with Zach Beckwith, brewer at Three Creeks, and I was inspired to see just exactly how many IPAs were on tap. I used the not-random selection of taplists available in the right-hand column of this blog. I really do need to add some more of our finer pubs to that list, but it should suffice for now. Using an extremely generous definition of IPA (basically anything with notable hop character, including pale ales), here are the number of IPAs pouring at this moment in these pubs in Portland, OR. Most of these pubs do serve cider, and I did not exclude them from the calculation (because if anyone hates the prevalence of IPAs, it's cider drinkers.) Make of it what you will:
  • Apex 21/50 (42%)
  • Bailey's 6/26 (23%)
  • Beermonger's 4/10 (40%)
  • Belmont Station 12/24 (50%)
  • Hawthorne Hophouse 9/22 (41%)
  • 15th Hophouse 9/24 (38%)
  • Horse Brass 26/68 (38%)
  • Roscoe's 7/20 (35%)
  • Saraveza 5/10 (50%)

Friday, August 05, 2016

IPAs as National Tradition

It is sometimes hard to appreciate the phenomenon of American brewing while experiencing it first hand. It's far more enlightening to travel to Copenhagen or Dublin, as I did earlier this year. In both places, you find good beer bars and breweries that function as perfect facsimiles for the ones you find in the US. From inside a Mikkeller or Galway Bay pub it's nearly impossible to tell that you're not in, say, Brooklyn.

One of the strangest experiences on my visit to Dublin was bar-hopping with John "The Beer Nut," and stopping off in one of those Galway Bay pubs for a pour of their double IPA, Of Foam and Fury. John's craft beer organization Beoir voted it the best beer in Ireland, and yet it was absolutely indistinguishable from an American double IPA. It is an bizarre experience to travel to one of the world's most famous beer-drinking cities, one I have revered distantly my whole life, and find that the brewers there are imitating the beers I buy a two-minute walk from my home.

A taplist in Copenhagen

The point is that it's difficult to appreciate how massive America's impact on world brewing trends are right now, or to see what "American" means unless you view it in a world context. After yesterday's post, I got a fair bit of feedback on Twitter and via email that makes me think these facts could do with a bit more elaboration.

IPA is Shorthand for the American Tradition
The countries (or sometimes regions) that have given rise to the myriad beer styles that we still brew all have certain characteristics in common: they make beer from unique ingredients and use  distinctive or unique brewing techniques. British ales use certain barley, yeasts, and hops, and are packaged on cask. Belgians use sugar and bottle condition. Czechs use distinctive barley and hops and decoction mashing.

And Americans? We have very distinctive local hops, and we have developed ways of brewing that maximize the flavor and aroma potential of these hops.* Many people have commented that all you have to do is slap "IPA" on a beer and it will sell, and the result is that we have a ton of substyles that are confusing and unnecessary and make the term "IPA" meaningless. I would argue the opposite. That word is a designator for an approach to brewing--the American approach. Just like "Belgian" is an adjective as much for a philosophy of brewing rather than a portfolio of styles, we should think of IPA now almost like an adjective for American brewing.

The influence is profound. Just in recent days I have mentioned how a Bavarian-born and -trained brewer dry-hopped his decocted maibock with Citra hops and how Germans now consider dry-hopping kosher according to Reinheitsgebot. I wrote about how Japanese brewing might one day develop into its own thing--though now they're making a lot of American IPAs. When Patrick and I were at Zoiglhaus recording our forthcoming podcast, German-trained brewer Alan Taylor mentioned how he adds Magnum hops in the whirlpool in one of his German beers (can't recall if it was the kolsch, the helles, or the North-German style pils he makes). Czechs are making IPAs, Mexicans are making IPAs, and now we'll see if Berliners can be persuaded to drink IPAs. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

Belgians have something in common with Americans in that they are keen to brew beers from other regions. But these inevitably go through a cultural filter so that the beers that come out the other side look only Belgian and nothing like the beers that inspired them. Americans certainly can brew straight German lagers or British bitters, but they tend not to. Instead, they usually dose their beers, like Taylor did, with more hops along the way. All these different IPAs are the manifestation of breweries who have adopted a way of thinking about and making beer, and who apply them to everything from 4.5% to 10% beers and pale to black beers (with everything in between).

Styles definitely change and mutate. Very few of the beer styles made today look like the version of that style made fifty or a hundred years ago. And national traditions mutate, as well. Germany, where decoction was invented, has been quietly moving away from the practice. I have no doubt that American hoppy ales will continue to evolve and change.

What I would not expect is a move away from the intensely flavorful hops we grow, nor the techniques brewers have developed to goose them. And this is largely because Americans have gotten so excited about these beers. In fact, the rise of the modern IPA and the supercharged growth of breweries entering the market happened at the same time. (When IPAs became the best-selling beer in 2011, there were about 1800 US breweries; five years later there are over 4600). I'd argue this is no coincidence.

And all of this is highlighted by the way American IPAs are being brewed around the world. They are precise imitations of our own IPAs, using the same ingredients and processes. To the brewers making those beers, these are manifestly new and unique, unlike anything on the market. IPAs were once a British style, but go buy a bottle of Samuel Smith's India Ale and taste test it against a Breakside or Gigantic. You will rediscover the Americanness in that experiment.

*Pedant note. Yes, it's true Americans did not invent the basic practices of post-kettle hopping and dry-hopping. But they have never been used the way the Americans are using them--particularly since Americans continue to develop these techniques (hop torpedoes etc) in ways that are new embellishments to crank up the aromas. Czechs did not invent decoction mashing, either, but their embrace and development of its use is now distinctly Czech.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

An American Story

Lew Bryson is tired of IPAs:
Speaking as a guy who’s been preaching the beer gospel for over 30 years, I’m feeling short-changed. Damn it, I didn’t put up with the abuse of my co-workers and relatives, or spend thousands of dollars on questionable beers from brewers with six months’ experience during the buildup, just to get the opportunity to drink hoppy, hoppier and hoppiest, no matter how good those hops are! I’ve been at beer bars where over three-quarters of the taps were pouring some variation on an IPA, or at least something that called itself an IPA. There are a lot more taps at bars now than there were back in my salad days, but I happily recall places with only five taps that had more variety. 
I think this case is overstated--barroom variety isn't as monochrome as all that--but it's true that IPAs have conquered America. But to Lew, who seems to take a slightly proprietary approach to the development of beer in the US ("We did this for you. Don’t squander it."), I would rejoin: what did you expect?

When countries develop their beer culture well enough to begin to introduce their own styles, it inevitably leads to a narrowing in the marketplace. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the more people in a region grow to love beer, the less they love diversity. It's not like German brewers can't make abbey ales. They can't sell them. The same thing is happening in the US: breweries make IPAs because Americans love love love them.

And this is a good thing! The beers Lew describes are the slow adaptation to American tastes. We started out trying to make the styles popular elsewhere. By tiny increments, the beers began to drift. US breweries were using these strangely potent (and initially derided) local hop varieties, and instead of trying to conceal them, they started to make them the focus. They adapted further by figuring out new ways of brewing with them, and further still by changing the water, grist, and yeasts to showcase them. All of this went hand in hand with the public's embrace of these evolving hoppy ales. If you go back and look at the way German, Belgian, Czech, and British beer styles develop, you see parallel evolutions. In any country that embraces beer, you should expect to see both the creation of new styles, and a local preference for them.

Thirty years ago, it would have been unimaginable to think that the US would be the most dynamic brewing country in the world, author of a whole new chapter in beer history. We would not be able to conceive that these American inventions would be brewed in London, Prague, and Berlin. And yet here we are.

Lew's complaint is not new, and it is often framed as a sad form of degeneration. But you almost never hear the same people complaining that the beer culture in Bamberg or Bruges or České Budějovice is bad because the choices are too few. They are routinely hailed, correctly, as paragons of beer culture. As the politicos would say, the prevalence of IPAs is a feature, not a bug.

Enjoy it--

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

All About Beer On-Air

In a few hours, I'm going to peddle over to Zoiglhaus Brewing in the lovely Lents neighborhood of outer Southeast Portland. Patrick and I will settle down with brewer and co-founder Alan Taylor to talk about his long road to establishing that brewery. We'll be looking for universal lessons that come from when you go through this entire process. Things like:
  • Figuring out what kind of brewery to open and whether it will be successful.  
  • Deciding on a type of brewery and budget, and finding funding.
  • Finding a location.(Lents!)
  • Working with the city, complying with regulations.  
  • Designing, buying, and installing equipment, designing and outfitting the pub.
Why am I telling you all this? Because when this podcast goes live, it will be under the auspices of a new venture we've joined: All About Beer On-Air. It's a portfolio of podcasts the magazine by the same name is hosting. The format will stay the same, except that we'll be throwing in some ads along the way (or speaking them ourselves, or something--that part isn't quite clear yet). We're using this upgrade as a way of trying to upgrade our own content, so expect more stuff like the interview with Alan. As always, there will be both beer geekery and economic analysis on offer. (I do intend to have Alan mention Berliner weisse and the importance of Brettanomyces. As a Berlin-trained brewer with a special interest in the style, he is one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet.)

One other podcast is already live, and it's pretty fascinating. Editor John Holl did an interview with Boston Beer founder Jim Koch, and what makes it compelling is how combative and uncomfortable Koch seems throughout. I have done hundreds of brewer interviews in my life, and I know that 95% of them lead to a meeting of the mind between brewer and interviewer. We don't play gotcha journalism; we just want to know how you make your beer. But Koch never seems comfortable, and he challenges John on nearly every question. He's prickly, contrarian, and offers very different opinions than you normally encounter. It makes for great listening.

As for the Beervana Podcast mentioned above, I'll let you know when it goes live and where you can find it.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Agrarian Field Bier

If you're headed south on I-5, you go almost all the way to Eugene to get to Agrarian Ales. It's about five miles north of the city and also five or six miles along double-lane roads that lead into large fields of crops. Agrarian is among them, and indeed is one of them--a farm with patches of vegetables, grain, and small plots of hops. It's one of the growing number of true farmhouse breweries, and it has aspirations to make some of Oregon's most interesting beer. It only took me a couple years, but I finally made it down over the weekend.

The space itself is very charming. There's a low-slung building that functions as brewery, taproom, and half-outdoor pub. Behind it is an expanse of lawn interspersed in seemingly random places by groves of bamboo, trees, and one bushy hop tower. Picnic tables abound, as do games for the kids, including a sand box and playground equipment. On the day we visited, a large piece of John Deere equipment was moving back and forth through the field next to us. Kids sped around nearer by (and safely away from the harvester) and I felt my muscles relax.

Agrarian could serve pretty mediocre beer and still get a recommendation from me. Instead, they serve very good and appropriately rustic beer I wish was far, far closer to me. My favorite, and the excuse for this post, was the exceptional Field Bier, a hoppy saison. It is rare to find a beer that evokes Dupont, but this one does, and impressively. It's quite a hoppy beer, made with an herbal infusion that works well with the phenolic, herbal yeast. It is dry, but partly because it's not especially effervescent (contra Dupont), it has a fullness that strongly belies its 4.0% alcohol content. It is truly a mighty mite. I could drink gallons of it for months and never get tired. A truly great beer.

Before I got a twenty-ounce mug of the stuff, Sally and I did a sample tray just to get a sense of the place. Here are my notes on the other beers we tried:
  • Sylvan (herbal saison, sans hops) - Great yeast character, phenolic. Aroma has a touch of chamomile, sweet, wildflower honey. Mild, integrated sense of herbs. Yeast dries the beer nicely so it doesn't cloy. They use triticale, a wheat-yeast hybrid, and I suspect it helps accentuate the herbal quality. 
  • Purple Rain (wheat ale with blueberry and lavender). Well done for what it is, but the lavender is on the soapy side. A good bit of acid, dry.   
  • Sommer Steiner - Very bitter! Nothing like a Kolsch, which it claims to be. Sort of like Dupont's Redor Pilsner in that it's rustic and yeasty. Franconian instead of Bavarian.  
  • Cumulus Wit (herbal witbier, sans hops) - slightly tart, lemony nose. Creamy mouthfeel, herbal, lemony palate. Finishes with a particular kind of herbal quality.
  • Kashyyyk Black Ale - Hoppy stout. Totally tasty, but not summery. A hair too many hops, but there's a nice chocolatey sweetness to offset it. And along the way is a luxurious dark-chocolate roast. Boozy. (8%)
They have a limited menu, with cheese and meat plates plus pizzas. Though limited, the food is tasty and satisfying. A great line-up and a great place. You could do worse than taking a day trip down, and leaving a lot of time for lounging once you arrive. It's also an excellent destination if you have kiddies in tow.  I'll put some photos below the fold.
"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.