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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Thirty Years in Portland

My grandparents arrived in Eastern Oregon in the 1930s and raised their two daughters in various farming communities. One of them stayed, married, and has been farming around Vale since the 1950s. But one of them--my mom--decided to head off to the big city to seek her fortune. Thus was I born and raised (mostly) in Boise, Idaho. I made my way back to Oregon to attend college here, arriving when I was just a few years younger than my grandparents had been fifty years before me. That was 1986.

Portrait of the blogger as a
young man (with mother).
Circa 1987.
Portland's transformation in those thirty years (along with a surprising vein of continuity) has been radical. Our minds are built to create sense of disparate inputs, and 2016 Portland seems like an organic result of an unseen trajectory 1986 Portland traveled; when I put my mind back on what the actual town was like then, however, this 2016 seems like a near impossibility.

In the mid-eighties, Portland was a poor, rough town. Portland had 66 murders in 1987--one of the highest rates in the country (the current ten year average is 24, and the city's a good deal larger now). It felt dangerous; there were places you didn't go. It was a visibly racially divided town. A century of racist policies had concentrated black Portlanders into a section of the Northeast, a poor section neglected by the city. Crimes of all kinds routine throughout the city, and petty theft was so common I just started leaving my car unlocked so people wouldn't break the windows to get in and discover there wasn't anything worth stealing. You were lucky indeed if you managed to avoid having your car, apartment, or house broken in to. For many of us, it was a regular experience.

Unlike many larger cities elsewhere in the country, Portland was never an industrial hub, but rather the focal point for the extractive industries that dominated the state's economy until the 1970s (logging, commercial fishing, ranching, and farming). Until a few years after I arrived, you'd still see giant flotillas of Douglas fir being pulled down the river. The reason Kurt Cobain wore flannel was not because it was a proto-lumbersexual moment in music and fashion, but because he came from Aberdeen, the heart of the Washington logging industry. In Portland about half the men wore jeans and flannel, but they were work clothes, not affectations.

Portland's unusual status had positive and negative effects. As early as the 1970s, the qualities that led Portland to become Portlandia were present. It was dirt cheap to live here. A couple years after I arrived, I became a hippie artist at Saturday Market, and I lived in a group house on Clinton Street that had five bedrooms and rented for $495 a month. At one point we had seven people living there and my rent was $80 ($176 in today's dollars). This meant it was a great place to live for the young and broke. I could string beads by day and scrape together enough money to pay rent and buy a half-rack of Rainier pounders every now and again. There wasn't really an upper class in Portland, and there wasn't a restaurant in the city that would have barred someone who was in jeans. (When we'd buy new Levi's, we'd joke they were our "dress jeans.")

Portland also didn't have industrial wealth that cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh had to build symphony halls and theaters. This led to a distinctly DIY approach that has been fundamental to the city's ethos. But it also meant there wasn't a lot of money to improve the city. Small businesses were run on a shoestring in provisional spaces in buildings that hadn't been much improved in 75 years.

Of course, a lot of this affected things like breweries, which required capital startup budgets. Banks wouldn't even look at them. (Karl Ockert, founding brewer at BridgePort, famously reported that one of the banks he went to told him, "Breweries don't open, they shut down.") Fortunately, dairy equipment was cheap and plentiful, and rents were cheap. Entrepreneurs who wanted to start breweries could get off the ground with relatively small investments (usually from personal savings, family and friends). Breweries were, in this way, much like other businesses. They were started by industrious but often cash-poor entrepreneurs who strapped their breweries together with baling wire in less-desirable precincts of the city.

Changing Geography
To get a sense of how much the city's geography has changed, let's start with the warehouse district behind the Henry Weinhard Brewery on Burnside. Immediately adjacent to downtown, it was in the mid-1980s almost vacant. Warehouses filled the blocks, but the streets were empty. It was as if a catastrophe had happened and forced all the people to leave suddenly. This was, predictably, a place of cheap rents, which ultimately led to its revival as artists moved into the warehouse and created lofts. A few galleries followed, and so did a few other businesses--like the three new breweries that opened between 1984-'86.


Throughout the 1990s, city planners planned, and around the turn of the century it was rebranded "the Pearl District" and soon the wealthy began displacing the artists. In the decade and a half since, it has become the city's wealthiest enclave, a mini-Manhattan home to people with the kind of wealth no one seemed to have in the 1980s.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Satori Award for 2016

In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award honors a debuting beer that in a single instant, through the force of tastiness and elan, produces a flash of insight into the nature of beer. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer.  

When we gaze back over 2016, our eyes pass anxiously over stories about "the industry." The chatter is about things like sagging flagship sales, "brand positions," metastasizing breweries and beer,  and excess capacity. The once-DIY flavor of small breweries has become slick and professional. There's no longer a clear line between those small brewers who are authentically excited about the beer first, and those that use "passionate" as a PR term to drum up business. All of which has led to a kind of weary cynicism about everything to do with beer.

Lost in all of this focus on the business is the thing that's really important: the beer itself. And by that metric, 2016 was spectacular. It's true we can't taste all the good beers out there like we once fooled ourselves into thinking we could. But among the beers I tried were a number of truly exceptional offerings. For a graybeard who can remember what passed for "good beer" a quarter century ago, we are truly living in the golden age. We normalize things in our minds, moving the needle on what's considered average without ever realizing we're doing it. Take the average American brewery in 2016 and time-travel it back to 1991 and it would instantly become one of the country's best. And the breweries making the best beer are doing it at a level absolutely no American brewery could touch back then. (Even Sierra Nevada 2016 crushes Sierra Nevada '91.)

The Satori gives me a chance to look back at the year and remind myself just how good it was. The full list of the beers I considered for the award is here, and I could write a separate post on the significance of each beer and why I admired it. We select a "best" as a political move--we choose a particular example of art because it says something about that moment in time. But "best" is a ridiculous designation, as we all know. It's really just an excuse to talk about the things we love. With that in mind, let me point to three other beers that I didn't choose--which were equal in every way to the winner.

Zoiglhaus - North German Pilsner
German beers just do not get the kind of love American, Belgian, or even Czech beers get. They are acts of subtlety and restraint, and as a result, don't dazzle the palate the way vivid saisons, IPAs, or wild ales do. Nevertheless, Alan Taylor's mastery over this oeuvre is worthy of a lot more attention than it gets. The house helles is a masterpiece, the dunkel lager now pouring is the equal of any I found in Bavaria, and his Berliner weisse is literally one of the best examples made in the world. But this summer's North German Pilsner was special because it exemplified not just the brewer's art, but something about the brewer and brewery, too.

No one is as professorial as Alan Taylor. My first introduction to him was on this blog, when I quoted a 1914 German text that used the word "zentner," an obscure term I'd never encountered. Taylor quickly commented on the post, explaining what it was. A bit later on, he was introducing two goses brewed at Widmer, detailing the difference between the Leipziger and Goslar variants. Since then I've turned to him a number of times to explain the arcane or technical to me, and he has always come through. Well, with North German Pilsner, he exposes his customers to this side of his personality. The dry, hoppy, and fairly macho pilsners Taylor loved to drink while living in Berlin get the spotlight this time. They are indeed unusual beers, with less balance, less malt, and a good deal more bitterness than is typical either for German beers or lagers in general. (They're roughly the opposite, within the same style band, of American mass market lagers.) It's an obscure style presented lucidly--a perfect metaphor for everything Taylor does.

Taylor's version smacks you across the mouth like a right cross, and for the first couple swallows you're wondering what's the matter with him. But then your tongue adjusts and a previously hidden layer of malt flavor emerges. The best beers are not just good from a sensory perspective, but from an experiential one. I had my first pint on a hot day in July after riding out to Lents on my bike. I was sweaty and steaming, just like the factory workers who were the original drinkers of these kinds of beers. It enlivened me and slaked my thirst and offered an experience I will never forget.

Agrarian Ales - Field Beer
One of the quiet developments in brewing in the past half-decade is the emergence of true farmhouse brewing. This is happening nationwide. In 2012, for example, New York state introduced a law to encourage farm-based brewing. The South has been on the leading edge of farm brewing, and places like Scratch Brewing in Illinois have gotten attention for their old-world ways.

Oregon's doing all right on this front as well, and Agrarian Ales in the Southern Willamette Valley near Eugene is our local version of Scratch. They use their own farm-grown hops and dose most of their beers with something grown on-site. Appropriately, their line is rustic, whether the beer is a lager, a traditional style, or a farmhouse ale; they are cloudy, yeasty, and full of the flavors of grain and hop (and often beet or sage flower or apples or whatever's on hand). The beer that wowed me, however, was a little 4% saison with no frills. It had a simple grain bill and I think a single hop variety. Despite all this simplicity and its modest strength, the little beer was a mighty mite of flavor. Yeast led the way, with a character similar to Dupont's, with an emphasis on phenolics. It was heavily hopped, giving it a pretty nice bitter punch followed by wildflower aromatics. A spectacular beer, and one that seemed precisely of the place and moment I drank it.

Ex Novo  - Where the Mild Things Are.
Ex Novo is another brewery that had a quietly superb year, and richly deserves more attention. Departing brewer Jason Barbee (who was at Deschutes PDX before Ex Novo) has a feel for the beers of Great Britain, and I've previously extolled the delights of Stiff Upper Lip, a spectacular strong bitter. Brexit Through the Gift Shop, a summer ale, and Most Interesting Lager in the World are another pair of big winners. Barbee and Ex Novo's body of work this year puts them near the top of Portland's breweries.

But nothing was as special as their 3.5% dark mild. If we were to categorize styles by how close to extinction they are, milds would be moving from endangered to critically endangered. Even in the country of their birth they are really rare in the wild. I've been able to drink maybe two dozen separate brands in my day, and I've never let one go by without downing (a pint of) it. That said, Where the Mild Things Are is easily the best mild I've ever tasted. I Sherpa-ed it in July, writing: "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."

Very rarely do you locate a clear best-in-style beer, so this is a seriously impressive accomplishment. I was this close to choosing Mild Things for the Satori and would have, were it not for the beer I did choose.

Satori Winner: pFriem Sour IPA
For a small brewery that makes so much noise with its barrel-aged selections, it may seem odd to single out a beer that hasn't exactly set the world on fire, and yet here it is, my Satori 2016: pFriem Sour IPA.

So why did this beer go mostly unnoticed? A big part of the problem is a category error: it is neither sour nor an IPA. Putting people in the frame of mind to expect one or the other of these things, I think they missed the genius of this beer. IPA is a category large enough to contain multitudes, but even a term that malleable has certain limits; no beer that's 5% and 15 IBUs will ever meet the expectation of someone looking for an IPA. Nor is it particularly "sour." The brewery uses kettle souring to lower the pH, but only to a level of tartness that harmonizes with lushly tropical dry hopping.

Rather, the idea is to use acidity rather than bitterness to balance the beer and give it structure. American IPAs have been on an inexorable quest to achieve the qualities of fruit juice, going so far as to include fruit juice (and rind) to create the effect. But hop bitterness is not like anything that appears in fruit juice, and always creates some distance. pFriem takes the logical step in eliminating the bitterness and replacing it with acidity--the balance in fruit juice itself.

Rather than chase the IPA trend, though, pFriem has done something more interesting. These light, bright fruit flavors are not consonant with a big, boozy beer. They're like lemonade on a summer day--crisp and refreshing. The aromatics that come from dry-hopping are delicate and complex. When other hopping is used, they accent the flavors and aromas that come along with kettle hopping. When they're floated atop a kettle-soured base, however, they have to stand on their own. That calls for a softer hand.

Sour IPA is a new style altogether. It may be a logical step in American brewing, but it's too far removed either from more familiar kettle-soured beers and from American IPAs to be substyles of either. Josh Pfriem and Co. have a literalist approach to beer names: they call them by their style. (pFriem has a beer called "Flanders Red," which is fine, but compare it to The Commons' Flemish Kiss, a much more evocative moniker.) For the most part, the loss of a resonant hook a good name provides is offset by the sheer virtuosity of the beer inside. But in the case of Sour IPA it is regrettable. The beer itself is at once instantly familiar and completely unusual. It's a new thing in the beer world, a purely American thing, and it's my beer of the year.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Vignette #9: Stéphane Bogaert (St. Germain)

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

“Everybody thinks Belgium when you say beer.  In this region, we are not so famous compared to Belgian breweries--but the history is the same.... That’s why I say to my colleagues that they should write ‘bière de garde’ on the label because it’s profitable for everybody. We want to be different from Belgium and we want the people, especially in America, talk about French beer. Bière de garde is something you can say, okay, it’s a French style.”

“In the past, many local brewers decided to change and adapt the beer to new tastes and there was no more bitterness in beer. We were more interested in beers like Westmalle, Orval. We decided to make our own beer, but in a bitter style. More bitterness than we used to find in local beers. Three years ago we decided to work 100% with local hops. There is a movement to work with organic beer, but most of the people are obliged to buy hops from Germany or New Zealand, places like that. So we decided, we don’t want to make organic beer, but let’s work with local hops.”

“We have a tradition here. We try to stay traditional. Our philosophy is to respect the bière de garde tradition. The major activity of the brewery must stay this kind of beers. Because, if we want to export to the US, you have so many good IPAs--the American consumer will be more interested in bière de gardes [from France].”

Castelain's Loïc Falce (L) with Stéphane Bogaert (R)

St. Germain produces the Page 24 line of beers. They are located in Aix-Noulette, near Lille and the Belgian border, and all the ingredients to make beer are grown within a few miles of the brewery. St. Germain is one of the breweries committed to reviving a sense of "Frenchness" in their beers.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Sacred and the Profane

Boak and Bailey direct us to a report by Britain's Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), which is trying to figure out what its mission is in the age of craft beer. This presents the organization with an entirely new set of challenges than the ones it was created to address. Confronted with an influx of mass market lagers and cheapo non-cask knockoffs, a group of drinkers in the 1970s set about trying to protect full-flavored ales served on natural carbonation at the pub.

They made a fateful decision to define the object of their protection thus: "Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide." That definition became a rallying cry, and eventually, a theology. For thirty-five years, this was a perfectly serviceable definition--until British brewers started making full-flavored ales in the American fashion--kegged and artificially carbonated. Bit by bit, CAMRA got crosswise with craft.

To address that, the organization went on a "revitalisation" project. A couple relevant comments from their findings:
There is no doubt that, on the market today, there exist some keg and other non-cask beers that are high-quality products -– brewed with first-class ingredients, often matured over long periods, unfiltered and unpasteurised. In some cases, keg beer contains live yeast and is subject to secondary fermentation in the container. It is, to all intents and purposes, real ale up to the point that carbon dioxide pressure is applied in the cellar. 
Some of these products, by most measures, are far superior to some of the lower-quality, mass-produced cask beer common in pubs -– some of which, it is alleged, may be subject to very minimal, if any, secondary fermentation despite being marketed as real ale. Yet today, in accordance with its policies, CAMRA champions the latter over the former. This naturally leads to the argument that, in order for CAMRA to return to its founding, fundamental purpose -– to promote the availability of good beer over the bad or mediocre -– it must revisit the technical definitions that govern the types of beer it will support.
For a decade, they've been prickly-to-antagonistic toward craft, but now have moved tentatively into agnosticism.
CAMRA should seek to promote awareness and understanding of the different factors that contribute to beer quality, to help consumers make an informed judgement about the relative merits of different types of beer. It should do this while advocating and promoting well - produced, well - kept cask - conditioned ale as the pinnacle of the brewer's craft and campaigning for traditional British beer styles to be safeguarded and celebrated. In practice, this means that CAMRA should ... permit the stocking of British beers that do not meet the definition of real ale at CAMRA beer festivals.
Well, good for CAMRA--this is an obvious move. But why did it take so long?

Beer is a funny beverage. Although alcoholic, it's not much like Twisted Tea or gin. Beer is both a beverage knitted into society, and also an expression of society. Civilized humans have literally always made beer. They've drunk it together, sometimes in circles, from straws, sometimes in pubs or beer halls. It helps bind them together. They have used it as ritual and sacrament. Beer acts, as the whiskery old men of CAMRA demonstrate, as an affirmation: this is who we are.

Beer has become something like a sacred beverage to people all over the globe. And of course, any time you have something sacred, it means there's a vast world out there of the profane. Beer must be made and consumed in a particular way. To do anything else violates this sense of the sacred. This dichotomy doesn't emerge arbitrarily, though. Sacred things are those which protect and nurture the group; profane ones endanger it. In the case of cask ale, CAMRA issued an edict about the nature of British beer. They did this to create a very clear inner circle of protection: this is the thing we're talking about, and these are the things that endanger it.

In the US--as is our wont--we invented our own religion called "craft" beer and wrote up a theology for it, too. It was less about the specific type of beer made than who owned the means of production. Violators were excommunicated. The stain of ownership by the wrong group was so polluting members could not stay in the group. For the Brewers Association, this is an existential issue (and, I'd argue, pretty accurately so). Drawing these lines means protecting a strain of brewing from extinction.

One of my favorite beer stories involves the arrival of pale lager in Munich. Munich was, for centuries, a dark lager town. It was the sacred local beer, the one that both defined who Munichers were and bound them together in sacrament over mugs at the beer halls. There was an interloping type of lager from neighboring Bohemia, pale and coruscating, that had created an international sensation--one Munich ignored for five decades. So when  Spaten finally brewed the first batch of what they called a "helles," the local brewers guild went crazy. It nearly created a schism. (The great irony of this story is that the Bohemians had imported not only Bavarian lager-brewing when they invented pilsner, but imported a Bavarian to brew it.) It's hard to read that history and not smell the aroma of religious fervor.

There's no real point here except the observation that these passions are deep and real in beer. They may seem silly in the moment--CAMRA has suffered many guffaws as it's flailed about--but it's actually one of the wonders of this simple drink. It is so important to us that we sacralize beer--and profane anyone who dare challenge it. To those beyond the faith, this kind of devotion always seems silly. But the devotion has its uses; after all, cask ale is still with us. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Satori Time of Year

When this blog started, I gave out an annual award for the best new release called the Satori Award:

In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award honors a debuting beer that in a single instant, through the force of tastiness and elan, produces a flash of insight into the nature of beer. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer.  
I managed to do this through 2012, and then, overwhelmed by new beers, I threw in the towel. Last year I happened to take note of an old Satori post and was struck by the beers I'd previously chosen: Ninkasi Believer (2006) Full Sail Lupulin (2007), Cascade Apricot Ale (2008),  Upright Four (2009),  Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter (2010),  Fort George 1811 Lager (2011), and Occidental Pilsner (2012). That's a good-looking list, isn't it? I decided to pick up the tradition again, tentatively, last year. Obviously, I can't possibly taste every new beer that comes out--no one can. But it's possible to single out a beer that really spoke to me, that I would be happy to drink again and again. Last year I added Culmination Euphoric IPA (a brett IPA) to the list.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this tradition is poring over the beers of the past year to see which sang to me. Thanks partly by prodding from Willamette Week's Martin Cizmar, I've gone back through 2016. I'll announce a Satori winner in the next couple weeks, but here is an expanded list of beers that thrilled me. (Not all of them debuted in 2016, a rule I'm getting more lax about to accommodate the sheer number of beers--but they're not too long in the tooth, either.)
Two fairly large asterisks are my failure to get down to Wolves and People or to adequately explore Matt Van Wyk's new Alesong project. Apologies. And of course, many of my best experiences drinking beer this year occurred while sipping old favorites from breweries you might expect to see on the list. Most of the best beers in the state weren't released last year. Someday we'll have an award to celebrate them.

My list is in no special order, and the top four that I'm most strongly considering are scattered throughout. Stay tuned for the thrilling announcement of this year's Satori winner!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Won't A.I. Beer Inevitably Result in Bud Light?

I somehow missed the yuuuuge rollout this summer of IntelligentX, a Britain-based project to produce beer that responds via algorithm to customer choice:
After you’ve tried one of our four bottled conditioned beers, you can tell our A.I. what you think of it, via our online feedback system. This data is then used by our algorithm to brew the next batch.
Because our A.I. is constantly reacting to user feedback, we can brew beer that matches what you want, more quickly than anyone else can. That means we get more data and you get a better, fresher beer. 
Paging through Google search results, I see they got a massive amount of press for this, nearly all of it happy to goose the hype machine. (Admittedly, combining "AI" and "beer" is genius clickbait and I kick myself for not thinking of it first.) For some reason, there's a new round of hype, which is how I stumbled on this just now. 

Lab coats make this seem extra sciencey.
Source: 10x

As far as the project goes: whatever. It seems almost inevitable that someone would have invented this in 2016. (In fact, if Elon Musk is right, it was algorithms that led us here in the first place--algorithms within algorthims.) Every start up in the world is trying to figure out how to monetize app-collected data, and fusing that to the jillion-dollar beer industry is a no-brainer. 

I am surprised no one pointed out the three fatal flaws behind the rationale for this project, though. My guess is most brewers would have seen it immediately. First, incorporating feedback into recipes is what breweries do. Markets function as far more effective algorithms than a consequence-free thirteen seconds tapping buttons on a smart phone. There are five thousand US breweries making at a minimum 50,000 beers in the US, and the feedback of preference is available when a customer spends actual cash on a beer. 

Second, people have different tastes. I was out for a beer last night with BeerAdvocate's Ben Keene and Eater Seattle's Adam Callaghan. We discussed how breweries now use IPAs as points of distinction--each one is different, to suit different tastes. And third, collecting the input of hive mind means finding the exact average of their preferences. It will produce a beer most people think is adequate. "In pursuit of the perfectly average beer" was probably not the motto they were shooting for. Brewers know you can either appeal weakly to the largest group (light beer) or powerfully to a small subset (distinctive IPAs), but you cannot simultaneously do both.

And one final thought I throw out to the techies out there. I'm not perfectly versed on my sci-fi futurism, but does any of this actually have anything to do with AI? I mean, find me a HAL who's making his own beer, and then we're talking.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Asahi Snags Urquell

In the wee hours US time, Asahi announced it had picked up one of the jewels of the brewing world:
HONG KONG — Asahi Group, the Japanese beer giant, said on Tuesday that it would pay $7.8 billion to buy a group of Central and Eastern European beer brands from Anheuser-Busch InBev, in the latest brand shuffle for the rapidly consolidating brewing business.... The latest agreement, which is expected to close in the first half of next year, would give Asahi control of operations that were previously owned by SABMiller in five countries, including Pilsner Urquell, Kozel, Tyskie and other brands.
Asahi is an interesting company. It was the first brewery to introduce "dry beer" back in 1987, and Asahi Super Dry became an influential hit in Japan. That allowed the company to grow, and it began doing all those things we expect from big breweries: entering in agreements with other bigs (Miller, 1995), expanding into other markets (five breweries in China opened by 1999), adding liquor to its portfolio (early '00s), and finally adding food products a couple years later. In the last decade, they began picking up stakes in foreign breweries and then this year really made a move by purchasing some very high-profile European brands outright; in addition to Urquell, they acquired Peroni and Grolsch earlier this year (and were the subject of rumors involving acquisitions of other breweries in Europe and North America).

Asahi has managed to move into Europe thanks to the massive ABI-SABMiller deal, which was approved contingent on those companies dumping some of their assets to preserve competition. It reminds me a bit of a blockbuster sports trade, when other teams are brought in to help move superstars between two principal teams in the deal; in order to make the deals work, they need to move role-players around, too, often to teams not involved in the central deal.

If you're a fan of Urquell (or Grolsh or Peroni), this is probably good news. In making the announcement, Asahi said in a statement that the newly-acquired breweries were “highly compatible with our existing business in Western Europe and will strengthen our business platform, allowing Asahi to grow sustainably across Europe.”

SABMiller has owned Pilsner Urquell since 1999, and their approach hasn't always been clear. To their credit, they've maintained the grounds Urquell owns, which are honestly an international treasure, and have kept the brewing onsite in the more inefficient plant with all its oddities (decoction brewing, onsite maltings). But they've also periodically tried to Heineken-ize the brand, making it a more industrial and generic product in order to turn it into an international brand. Those two impulses were in conflict, and the brand suffered. SABMiller seemed to abandon the generic-and-big strategy in the last couple years, though, and had gone back to accentuating its heritage and unique and unusual flavor palate.

I'll be honest; if I were a billionaire, I'd have tried to buy Urquell myself. It is without question the most influential brewery in world history. The brewery itself is a treasure with its miles of cellars, those maltings, and gracious (and spacious) campus. Going there is like visiting a beery Vatican City. The value of the beer and brand seem enormously under-utilized right now, and I can imagine that in the hands of the right company it might well rejoin the ranks of the world's most-respected breweries. SABMiller has let it languish.

It is not the kind of workhorse that will deliver 30 million barrels of sales (if memory serves, they actually brew around a couple million). But, in the post-craft world, where brewing quirks, heritage, and localness are valuable assets, few breweries have as much upside as Pilsner Urquell. Asahi may not be assembling a portfolio of the biggest players, but they have found some excellent smaller breweries. It's an unusual approach that uses a different logic than ABI, and I'll be watching closely to see how it continues and how it pans out.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Get Your David-and-Goliath Story Straight

Boak and Bailey direct our attention to a spat  that, despite its ordinariness (these debates are hundreds of years old), captivated me. It's the classic little guy versus behemoth throw-down. Perhaps I've become more sensitive to truth and reality lately, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with politics. In any case, the whole thing got me thinking. But first, let's pick up the debate at Honest Brew, a British beer retailer, who is battling Beer Hawk, an ABI-owned beer retailer:
You see, the honest truth about Beer Hawk is that they are owned by AB InBev, the multinational behemoth behind Budweiser. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call them Blandy. Blandy likes a world where mediocre beer is made as cheaply as possible, sold at profit-maximising prices, and where as much shelf (and online) space as possible is colonised by its own ubiquitous brands.
To which, surprise upon surprises, Beer Hawk took exception:
In fact, the change has enabled us to do a better job of hunting out the world’s best beers. We have been able to secure a warehouse five times as large and employ twice as many people. As a result, we have added 300 new beers to our stock and reduced delivery charges by nearly 30%, making all our beer even more accessible to beer lovers.
There is of course a great deal more in the arguments of both companies, and connoisseurs of the "craft versus crafty" genre of fan fiction will know them intimately. I selected these excerpts because I think they illustrate the different stories people on both sides of the debate tell themselves, and where the true drifts into projection.

Since this post doesn't lend
itself to an obvious picture,
here's glowing beer.
Let's start with the pro-indie camp. Particularly in Great Britain, where brewing gigantism is far older and more nefarious than in the US, the David and Goliath stories are shot-through with moral overtones. Big companies exist do cause harm--harm to smaller breweries they wish to crush, harm to palates they wish to destroy. That leads to sentences like this one, which contradict themselves halfway through: "Blandy likes a world where mediocre beer is made as cheaply as possible, sold at profit-maximising prices...."

On the other hand, Goliaths are no great defenders of reality-based environments. One of the first arguments any whale makes when gobbling a minnow is that this is somehow an act in service of diversity and variety. This is also laughably self-contradicting (and self-serving).

To little breweries and retailers I would say: no one is more concerned with quality than big breweries. Their empires depend on it. Furthermore, they have no interest in leading the market to any particular flavor profile (bland or otherwise); their interest lies in following customers' every whim. The great IBU drop in 1960s and '70s was not a conspiracy to crush America's palate. It followed national trends toward hyper-sweet foods and beverages. Everything got sweeter, not just beer. Now that the national palate is moving into other flavors, ABI is moving right with them. It's a habit of mind for good beer fans to think that there's a structural barrier that keeps people from drinking saisons and IPAs. There is not: people just want to drink Bud Light.

But the bigs err, um, bigly when they think all we only care about price. One of the central lessons of the "craft" backlash is that people care a lot about things like localness and invention. Little breweries are quirky and they make oddball beers. They do so because they're not chasing a market of 35 million people. Although I hate the word "innovative," it's manifestly true that all the great things about good beer we now love and celebrate have all come from little breweries. Not a single one came out of St. Louis, Golden, or Milwaukee. Were we to leave beer-brewing to them, they would quickly dump all the marginal sellers (take that, variety!) and devote R&D money to consistency and efficiency.

If I were writing the talking points for the little players, I would tell them to stick to the facts. Cynicism is born of falsehoods, intentional or un-.  For the most part, an entirely-honest PR war between little companies and big companies would be won in a landslide by the little guys. There's really no reason to make up stories about the malignant effects of big companies. Just stick with the actual stories and everything will be fine.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Spontaneous Files: Solera Brewery

Other posts in the series: De Garde and Block 15

I finish up my discussion of spontaneous fermentation with Solera Brewery, which sits on the hem of Mount Hood as it spreads out toward the Columbia Gorge. It is less than an hour and a half from downtown Portland, has one of the prettiest settings in the state, and consistently produces some of the best beer I've ever tasted--seriously--and yet still it remains a little-visited destination for beer fans. I'm often mystified by this, but all the more so since I've just come back from Hill Farmstead, a similar brewery that Bostonians and New Yorkers regularly trek to, with drives of 3.5 and 6.5 hours respectively. And, pretty as Northern Vermont is, nothing beats the view from Solera.

Well, it is a bit more rustic than Hill Farmstead, and it's a much smaller brewery. You can't visit and stock up (their beer is all draft) or enjoy a range of three dozen offerings on tap or in the bottle. You take what they're serving and, because brewer Jason Kahler follows the seasons, the taplist is as mutable as the whether outside the back of the pub. Unlike at Hill Farmstead, if there's a beer you really want to taste, you may have to wait awhile. But then, you'll never want for good beer, either.

Jason does all beer styles well, but his uncategorizable (but instantly recognizable) range of saisons and tart ales are the real show-stoppers. At one spring stop a couple years back--I think it was actually when I took that photo above--he had two saisons that both qualified as among the best I'd ever tasted. They were, like so many beers in this cohort, kissed by wildness. They weren't all the way tart (certainly not sour), and a casual fan might not even have noticed the wild yeasts that added a layer of crisp definition. But that wildness is his calling card--in fact it's even there in the name.

While he was working as a brewer for other places around Hood River, Kahler practiced a kind of wild brewing that is becoming more popular. In his home basement, he had different vessels (none wooden) filled with wild ales. He used these in blends and then topped off the partially-emptied barrels with fresh wort, keeping the colonies of wild microorganisms alive. This is the "solera" system of the brewery's name (though it's not quite like the more famous solera systems used to make sherry and vinegar). As a commercial brewer, he continues to embrace the wild side, though his preferred form of inoculation is fruit, not coolship.

A bottle of homebrewed solera beer
Kahler shared on my first visit.

Parkdale is in the heart of Oregon's tree-fruit growing region, and Kahler takes full advantage of the bounty. “I’d hover around two pounds per gallon as a good jumping off point,” he says, by way of explaining the process. “One thing to consider is the acidity of the fruit. That plays a big role. The more acidic it is, the more it comes through in the beer.”

Being local means he can form relationships with growers and get the fruit exactly like he wants it. “What’s great about that is he can let the fruit hang until I want it and he picks them without the stems on them. The only thing I want to get rid of from the fruit is the stem. I don’t cull the fruit. In fact, often I’ll get what they call ‘number 2s’ or higher. Those fruits will generally go to juicing or canning—they might have a blemish on them. They let them hang longer so the brix are very high. That’s important, flavor-wise, for aromatics.”

My impulse to talk to these breweries in the first place was an article for Travel Oregon in which I tried to elicit how the "terroir" of wild yeast might affect the beer. The only person who was willing to edge up to that description was Jason. "We don't have a language for these kinds of beer," he began. “You can get Brettanomyces from the laboratory and you can get Brett from the air. I love Brettanomyces, I love Lactobacillus, Pedio. They’re all there in the air; you don’t need to buy them. If you’re buying them from a lab, you’re really trying to control the process, you’re trying to drive the end result. You’re not embracing your terroir—which I’m a big fan of. You should just embrace what you have.”

Source: Solera Brewery

In my forthcoming homebrew book I have a chapter about how to inoculate with fruit, and Kahler was the one who conveyed that information. I don't want to reveal too much about that, but here are a couple tidbits. The valleys around Parkdale have substantially different elevations, and I wondered whether that affected how the fermentation went. It did. Solera brewers once ran an experiment where they tried inoculation with apples that were taken from close proximity but at different elevations and one of them (for whatever reason, the info about which one is not on my audio tape) didn't take off. That illustrates how hyper-local this kind of brewing is. If a different brewery were to use fruit from the Willamette Valley or east of the Cascades, they would find their fruit covered with different microorganisms (Or, at least, different proportions of them.)

One thing I've found in talking with these brewers is that they have a certain kind of Zen ease about this process. Many brewers do wonderful wild ales with pitched yeast, but they don't want the chaos of randomness in their brewhouse. In different ways, each of the brewers doing spontaneous fermentation shrugged it off. Here's how Kahler put it. "Getting back to philosophy," Kahler told me, "that’s something that you have to get over, your fear, if you’re going to try these beers. You can’t lose sleep over something like this.”

I'd even take it a step further. Having interviewed a number of brewers who make beer this way, I've found something else they all share: curiosity. This kind of brewing is not predictable. It's not reproducable, not consistent. It's certainly not speedy. In order to forgo those qualities--which are critical in most breweries--you have to take joy in the unpredictable. You have to find the prospect of turning your wort over to unknown forces a kind of delightful gamble. You will certainly find that nature has returned you something weird or gross from time to time--you can't prevent it. But sometimes it will also give you an unexpectedly sublime ale, something you didn't expect and couldn't even have imagined.  That is the promise of brewing spontaneously, and it takes a certain kind of person to pursue it.

John Hitt (L) and Jason Kahler (R), co-owners of
Solera Brewery. Source: The New School

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Dancing at the Margins of Ignorance

Every job has its plusses and minuses. I usually joke that everything about writing is great except the salary, but there's actually another downside that freaks me out nearly as much. A reasonable working definition could be: "writing about things you don't understand." The next story is always something intriguing, something you'd like to explore further. That generally means wandering off into some subject on which you have tenuous grasp. Knowing, of course, that the successful outcome of this little foray is an article that will go out to many people who know more than you do on the subject. (Along with, thankfully, many who know less. Blessed are the uninitiated, for they do leave angry comments.)

We have come to a phase in the realm of beer where interest is highest in the business rather than the product. Thanks to eye-popping numbers, intervention by multinational corporations, rivalries and sniping, the business of selling beer now entertains us much as the drinking of it. Well, at least where blog posts are concerned.

This is all well and good except the part where I know nothing about it. I have spent many hours doing things that make me feel incompetent: trying to translate old foreign-language texts, slogging through technical science papers, navigating the absurd address in the UK (Hook Norton's address, for example, consists of "Brewery Lane" and nothing more), attempting to understand weissbier mashing regimes, but in no area was I more unprepared than business.

I have never worked a day in a business that had more than ten employees. I've been self-employed (several times), worked at universities (lots), and done odd jobs for small businesses (a long time ago). I studied religion and developed an active allergy to corporate life. None of that was a good preparation for writing about beer, a big part of which is always a story about business. If you refuse to engage the business elements of brewing, you are basically not covering beer because nothing is free of it in those sixteen delicious ounces of IPA we regularly hoist.

This came into sharp focus when I interviewed Nicole Fry recently for the Beervana Podcast. Nicole is a managing partner for First Beverage Group, a a company that invests in and advises beverage companies, and which has been involved in several of the recent major brewery acquisitions. She's one of the people at the center of the business side of things, and she probably knows more about how beer is made and sold in America than just about anyone. I hope I did an adequate job.

Fortunately, Patrick was on hand to shore up my knowledge--and yours. In addition to my discussion with Nicole, we talked about what reaching the 5,000-brewery threshold means and why certain beers are so damn scarce in some markets. In other words, another in our regular podcasts on the economics of beer. Give it a listen:

I'll probably give it another listen, too, because this is a subject I really need to get a handle on! As always, it's available on iTunes as well  as Soundcloud.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Signed Copies of the Beer Bible

For your holiday shopping, consider picking up a signed copy of The Beer Bible for that someone special. I ended up with a spare box of these, and am happy to share the bounty--while supplies last! Getting copies signed has been the hardest challenge for buyers, so you now have a nice opportunity to grab one while the grabbin's good.

Because these are coming directly from me, I can personalize the inscription. I will address it to the person you're giving it to (or yourself), and include a message. I have a standard message I use, but I'm happy to further personalize it if you give me some guidance.

Books are $20, and I'll send it in a flat rate box from the post office ($6.80). These things are super speedy, so there's plenty of time if you act in the next week or so. I'll have you send a check along with instructions about the inscription, and then I'll pop it in the mail. Email me to set it up: the_beerax(at)yahoo(dot)com.

Happy holidays--

Monday, December 05, 2016

Vignette #8, Agostino Arioli (Birrificio Italiano)

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

“This is okay for, we call it ‘meditation beers’—special brews, specialty beers. These beers are beers you drink with your senses more than with your brain; birra da meditazione. When you drink a meditation beer, you really think about it. This taste reminds me of flowers; this taste reminds me of the food my aunt used to prepare me.  So you’re really thinking about the beer.”

“In Italy we grow up where you can spend hours and hours on Saturday and Sunday discussing sauce—the spaghetti sauce or anything we are eating for lunch. The whole family and the relatives and parents and so on and we can discuss food for a long time. This is better; last time was worse. It’s overcooked, or it’s too rare. Really, we talk about food a lot; we really care about food. So this probably automatically require us to brew beers that can fit with our sense of what is pleasant, what is balanced.”

Arioli (center) when he visited Portland in 2015.
Photo by Giulio Marini.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Whom Indeed? Four People I'd Drink Beer With

 The beer blogosphere has had a long-running project called "The Session," in which a bunch of people post on the same topic. Bastard that I am, I've only one other time participated. But this month's question is too alluring to pass up. It comes from Stan, who asks:
If you could invite four people dead or alive to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?
It's not obvious to me whether the intention here is to do four beer people, or any four people. And though I do love beer people, I have to say this distinction matters--my top four beer folk wouldn't make my top hundred regular people. So let's deal with them separately.

Beery Types
This actually turns out to be harder than it seems because there are so many important figures whose contributions we cannot peer into history and see. I'd love to know more about the development of lagering in Bavaria, but we're not even sure about the century, never mind a key figure. So how about these:
  • Josef Groll. Perhaps the most famous brewer ever, Groll brewed the first batch of pilsner back in 1842. I'd love to have him walk me through the decisions he made to come up with that beer. But he's also a fascinating figure whom basically everyone on record--including his father!--said was a major bastard. He was run out of Plzen not very long after he got there. I'd love to see that famous charisma in action. Obviously we'd drink Natty Light so he could see how debased his invention has become.
  • Georges Lacambre. I'm actually not entirely sure his first name is Georges, for in all but one case I've discovered he was listed as "G." This is the man who wrote the 19th century survey of world (but especially Belgian) beer at the time. I would pump him for all the info he had, and so I'd arrange for a 43-course meal to keep him pinned down for seven hours. We'd drink American IPAs to blow his mind.
  • Anyone who made Danziger Jopenbier between the 17th and 19th centuries. Jopenbier was made to cosmic original gravities, with wild yeast, but was nevertheless barely fermented. Every description I've ever read makes it sound undrinkable. I would have one question: why? I'd make him drink jopenbier while he answered the question.
  • Rudi Ghequire. Rudi is the master brewer at Rodenbach, the one living brewer. I got to spend a couple hours with him, but owing to scheduling confusion, it was still a rush job. He is an exceptionally smart guy, but even more, one of the nicest men I've ever met. He is the anti-Groll. We would of course be drinking Rodenbach from the foeders at the brewery. Because, hey, it's a fantasy and why wouldn't we be there?

Non-Beery Types
This is even harder, though made somewhat easier by the stipulation that we drink beer. The Buddha I'd love to meet, but maybe not in that environment. So:
  • Samuel Beckett. I doubt he spent a lot of time drinking beer in Paris, but I bet the liquid passed his lips, copiously, earlier in life. I'd choose old Beckett, perhaps circa 1986--88, because he was by that time pulling toward the mortality that was always at the center of his fiction. He's the most talented writer I've read, but he's also one of the most fascinating figures. Had he never written a word, he'd be fun to spend a dinner with. Beer? I would not foist stout on a man who fled his home country. My guess is he'd prefer lager, cheap and commercial.
  • Joe Strummer. As we trot through the professions I wish I'd had, we come now to musician. Why Strummer? Come on--Joe Strummer. I'd love to meet him in a pub and chat over cask bitter. Many, many of them.
  • George Orwell. Oh, wait, are we back to writers again? My excuse: part of this game is not just reciting the most famous people (Einstein! Joan of Arc!) but coming up with people you could actually imagine carrying on a conversation with. Orwell was a giant in literature, but he was also deeply interested in politics, as am I. In the age of Donald Trump . . .  well. Am I right in remembering that he liked mild ale? The era is right. Let's say it's so: we drink milds.
  • Barack Obama. This would be a bit of a gamble, because he's a pretty famously reticent guy. I'd be depending on the beer and our shared affection for basketball to get him to open up. (I bet we could get a good ten minutes on Steph Curry.) I suspect that people never recognize the historical significance of most figures during their lifetimes--it's only after the myth-making of decades that their statures grow outsized. Obama will almost certainly be one of those figures. Meeting him now, at an unexpectedly ambiguous historical moment long before those decades have passed--this would be the moment for the perfect chat. We'd drink a selection of Oregon beers, and I would subtly try to improve his palate. He's beer-curious, but he's got a ways to go.
There are no women on this list and all but one are white. (The likelihood that my Jopenbier brewer turned out to be a black woman seem dubious.) This reflects badly on me and if I had a chance to do this for reals, I'd probably rectify it. But since we're conducting a parlor game, there you go--

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Does Belgium Have an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" of Beer? Does Anyone?

Yesterday, news came out that UNESCO had given Belgium a singular honor:
Citing Belgian beer's integral role in social and culinary life, UNESCO is putting the country's rich brewing scene (with nearly 1,500 styles) on its list representing the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Belgium's beer culture is one of 16 new additions that were announced Thursday.
The honor came with an accompanying video (see below), which helped flesh out the case--one that might have come straight from the Belgian tourist board. Perhaps you picked up on one tell of a certain kind of exaggeration in the quoted paragraph: "with nearly 1,500 styles of beer." That would indeed be a hell of an accomplishment!

I actually think UNESCO intuited something profound in Belgium's beer culture, but they didn't do a very good job of documenting it. Had they done so, they would have seen that a few other countries have a similar cultural status. Beer, almost uniquely among human activities, is a mirror of the culture that brews it. This was the great discovery I made researching The Beer Bible, and one I speak about whenever anyone invites me to do so. When you pick up a glass of beer from one of these countries in question (Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, the UK), you can only understand it fully if you know the agriculture, history (including things like wars, famines, and rulers), drinking culture, laws, and ineffable qualities that seem to have no source. Of course, these manifest not just in the ingredients and final color, strength, and flavors of the beer, but the way it was made.

In the video, Senne's Yvan De Baets describes the four different types of fermentation found in Belgium, but he skips over the most interesting element--warm rooms. This is absolutely central to the production of Belgian ales of all types, and is a process used nowhere else (except the new world, where breweries make Belgian-style beers). The English practice of cask-conditioning, the Czech insistence on decoction, the German approach that is filtered through the restrictions of Reinheitsgebot--all these countries do something that looks totally bizarre when you compare it to other countries. And those practices are a kind of distilled version of the whole national tradition.

Perhaps the Belgians, living in a smaller country where cultural heritage is more evident nationwide, decided to pitch this idea first. (I have no idea what gave UNESCO the idea.) But they have no greater claim to the heritage than these other countries--though indeed they have enormous claim to it on its face. Even Julius Caesar noted that the Belgians brewed beer. (They were probably doing something offbeat even back then.) Walk into any cafe in Belgium, and it's hard not to observe something unique and pervasive happening there. So yes, Belgium deserves this. But so do at least three other countries.

Now, enjoy the film (it is pretty good).