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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why We Love Lists and Awards

My cursor hovered over a link to "the best IPAs in each state." I wondered--did they get Oregon right? But, in that moment of indecision, I asked myself another question: why do you care what some random site thinks? On a Saturday morning a few weeks back, live tweets from Denver started announcing winners at the GABF. I spent an hour looking at my phone as the results dribbled in, again, transfixed by the results. As consumers of online media, these moments happen all the time.

Why do we care?

There's a totally functional purpose for awards and best-of lists--they help us navigate worlds populated by too many attractions. Whether it's beers or books or 80s alt rock albums, there's just not enough time to consume everything. We've all found ourselves Googling for best-of lists to help us winnow choices. Awards serve a similar purpose in helping us find the creme of any given crop. Looking for a novel on Kindle; why not scan recent Hugo award winners for guidance? But this function is a mere downstream benefit of awards and best-of lists. They actually function at a much deeper level--the desire to bring authority to the subjective.

A perfect example of this dynamic is playing out in the kerfuffle over Bob Dylan's recent Nobel for literature. The Nobel has cultivated the reputation as being the most authoritative judge of merit. The Nobel is by far the most prestigious award on the planet, and serves, for winners, as a crowning confirmation of greatness. The basis for that authority is rarely challenged (except by non-winners), but Dylan, in refusing to even acknowledge that he's won, has illuminated the grubby, largely subjective nature of the whole thing.
On Saturday, an academy member called Mr. Dylan “impolite and arrogant.”  “One can say that it is impolite and arrogant,” the member, Per Wastberg, a writer, told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, according to a translation by The Associated Press.
Of course, the Academy is not a purely neutral algorithm of aesthetics; it is comprised of humans with idiosyncratic opinions. Their authority comes in part from the universal agreement of their authority--and not least by the acknowledgement of the winner. Wastberg erred by demonstrating that there's a quid pro quo at play: we call you the best, you say we are uniquely qualified to make that judgment. Dylan, in refusing even to comment, challenges the sandy foundation on which Nobel rests. (Sartre declined the award, but announced his rejection. In doing so, he affirmed the import of the award.)

The thing is, we know this, and yet we still have this bizarre urge to find "the best." It appears when our finger hovers above the link to a listicle, of our urge to fight over the meaning and approriateness of Dylan's Nobel. We may often disagree with a particular award or list, but we seem never to disagree with the idea of the award or list. The problem arises when our own personal preferences come in conflict with the authority of the list or award. Weirdly, we rarely think, "this idea of 'the best' is stupid"; instead, we think, "that award/list is wrong." Why can we not just abandon our urge to quantify the subjective?

Whatever the reason, we can't. And so year after year, listicle after listicle, we continue to debate these things, forever thinking that somehow, someway, there's got to be a satisfying (read: quantifiable) answer to it. Humans are such funny creatures.

(Incidentally, I considered titling this post "Eleven reasons we love lists (you won't believe #4!)" but I spared you that. You're welcome.)

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Modern Age

If you follow beer news at all closely, you notice that at any given moment, there's a gestalt to the way the stories coagulate. Each one seems to arrive as a piece in a larger puzzle, one we slowly assemble in our minds. A few years back, that news gestalt told a happy story: the beer biz was forever improving, buoyed by ever greater selection, quality, and evolution. We'd surf over to stories about obscure breweries in remote parts of the country--ones we knew we'd never visit--because the brewer there was making all-foraged beer, or had captured and cultivated wild, local Saccharomyces, or had invented a new process or India pale something. We even celebrated the growth of formerly-small breweries that opened new plants across the country. The gestalt was excitement, discovery, possibility.

Then things changed. When big breweries began buying smaller ones, the mood darkened. It wasn't totally clear how this was bad, just that it somehow had to be. All that growth and discovery has atomized the market on the bottom end even while it's consolidating on the top end. What's the current gestalt? Have a look at these four articles that came out over the past week:
  • Chicago's Revolution Brewing had to recall a huge amount of beer over five brands because of a "quality issue." Said the brewery: "The affected beers exhibit ester or phenolic flavors, which are more characteristic of Belgian-style ales, and which should not be present in our standard American ales.  We believe these off-flavors were produced by a wild yeast that has gotten worse over time and was not identified in time by our quality control methods.   Our brewing team has re-propagated our house ale yeast, and all beer now being packaged at the brewery meets our standards for taste and flavor."
  • From Brewbound comes a story that can be told in the title: "After Raising $3.5 Million, Fort Point Beer Company Prepares for Next Round of Funding."
  • Meanwhile, Boston Beer is not only experience sharply falling sales (bad), but the brewery seems to have no idea why or how to reverse things (far, far worse). 
  • And finally, and perhaps most pointedly, there's this story of a Swedish brewery that is unironically selling five potato chips for $54. This whole article reads like an April Fool's joke (I'm still wondering if it can be true), but here's a taste: "All of the chips have been made by hand," the chef says. "It took a delicate touch, a finely honed sense of taste and time to ensure that each chip would achieve a perfect balance between the various ingredients. The taste is a very Scandinavian one. … Most people recognize potatoes and onions, but what stands out is the quality. All of the ingredients are of a stature that not many will have tried before. These chips are an excellent accompaniment to craft beer, or simply enjoyed on their own."
I smell the flop sweet of greed and anxiety in these news stories. The craft segment now constitutes around 25% of the beer market, which places it squarely in the mainstream. It's no longer a quirky niche where anti-establishment oddballs could make weird beer for a few thousand fellow-travelers. Sam Adams, which has been the largest player in the craft market for a generation, is in the awkward position of having none of that niche support, nor being big enough to trade blows with multinational beer companies.

Breweries like Revolution are rushing to establish a presence in the market, and they're pushing products onto shelves that aren't ready. (I have no idea what the story is with Revolution, but that explanation doesn't quite add up.) It's so extreme that breweries are in constant states of growth, rushing to get as big as possible in as short a time as possible--with no time for reflection or loyalty-building. You may get big overnight, but you don't build a durable customer base overnight. Finally, that potato chip debacle seems emblematic of a huge danger for small breweries--using the "craft" concept to produce wildly overpriced, high-concept products that look far more cynical than anything coming out of ABI. (ABI, for its part, is trying to do the opposite by projecting their small-brewery cred with press releases like the one I got from 10 Barrel last week with this subject line "Holy Sh*t - Our First Newsletter!" So edgy and alternative!)

Most breweries will continue to make great beer because they love to, but we probably won't be reading much about them. "Brewery continues to make great beer, barely grows," is hardly going to grab eyeballs. But most breweries still make up only a small percentage of the beer. For the rest, this is the modern age, when craft beer is all growed up. Both the competition and the risk are real, and so the gestalt has turned from discovery to something far more prosaic: money.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

How We Toast

A few months ago I was sitting in an Irish pub with The Beer Nut and I did what any American would do: I held my pint glass aloft and said "Sláinte" with gusto. Hey, that's what the Irish do when they offer a toast, right? Fortunately, just as the word was dying in my mouth, shamrocks, leprechauns, and Blarney stones trooped through my mind and I had the good sense to ask John (the Nut's actual name) whether this is something Irish drinkers say. Not often, he confirmed. 

In drinking culture, the toast happens reflexively. We offer the toast and may even bring our awareness to the moment, but then it's gone. Once the act is done enough it passes into ritual, which is to say it is so familiar the particulars of the act are hard to identify. I was reminded of this when John and his wife visited Portland a few weeks past and I joined them for pints on my home turf. I met them at Fat Head's, where they were already well into their pints, and then, in the Irish fashion, marched off to a different pub for our next pint. It was there I went through the reflexive toast, and I could tell by their slight expressions of surprise that I was doing something culturally specific.

The ritual of toasting one another with alcohol is ancient. It fits within a category of social rituals that happen all the time: vocal greetings at particular moments during the day, the way we touch each other when we meet for the first time (handshake, cheek kiss, bow), even the way we say something after someone sneezes. Alcohol fits into a slightly more special category because it is usually used in ceremonies (weddings, funerals, boat christening) that mark our connections. That's what's happening in the pub, too, though on a more quotidian level. The words themselves often translate to some kind of well-wishing: "to your health" is a common translation of many national exclamations, or to happiness or one's benefit. 

The subtle particulars of how we conduct this ritual vary a lot. Czechs have told me that the failure to look someone in the eye during toasting brings seven years bad sex--an amusing joke that nevertheless reveals a real element of the act. In some countries you only have to raise your glass or clink the glass of your neighbor, while in others, clinking must happen all around. Most places frown upon toasting with an empty glass.

I'm not sure what I told John at that second pub about the habits of American toasters. I hadn't considered it well enough to know. The truth is, I'm not even sure if there's an American practice--these things may well be regional or even confined to smaller social groups. I have considered the matter, though, and should you ever find yourself in my company here in Portland, expect these things to transpire.

A toast is made after the first round arrives. We generally say "cheers," though variations may be appropriate for special occasions or comedic purposes ("cheers to this sorry basket of deplorables"). Everyone must touch everyone else's glass. Eye contact is not a must, though appreciated. 

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me the moment is not a blind ritual. Stopping after receiving that first glass of beer to offer a toast centers the moment in its social setting. Offering a toast is a way of re-establishing connections. We say "cheers," but we mean, "let's not miss the opportunity to affirm how happy we are to have a chance to be together here, now." In nearly every case, I sense the actual connection being made. 

(Perhaps a great deal could be made about the psychology of men's emotional relationships to other men, and how they are nurtured through these subtle and non-demonstrative displays of friendship. Since toasting is now done among all genders and since I have not surveyed the literature, I'll skip that digression for now.)

Other rules. If people arrive at different times, the toasting will take place when a new round arrives. If the group doesn't settle into ordering in rounds, the opportunity may be lost, though any member may, after everyone has a beer, offer the toast then. It's considered poor form to toast with an empty glass, and I have seen the ritual delayed while the group waits for the empty-glassed member to get a fresh beer. This again confirms that the moment is more than an empty gesture. 

Finally, and this wasn't something I'd noticed until recently, relocation to a new pub starts the whole process over again. One is tempted to draw connections to the religious sphere in this ritual act, and the idea that we toast at every new pub would tend to bolster that case. There's an element of blessing or sanctification that this suggests; a new space, a new need to prepare it and make it sacred. In this way, the act of drinking becomes something like a rite that must be preceded with the proper invocations.  

Or perhaps I'm overthinking things here. Maybe it's just something we do, and it's nice and we like it, and it's cool because we all do it slightly differently. Even at that, it's worth a blog post every now and again.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

An Evening With Alworth (Friday, Nov 4)

In a bit more than two weeks, Portland's premier literary event, Wordstock, hits town. As one component of that, on Friday, November 4, there will be a simultaneous happening across downtown and in the Pearl--mostly in places that serve drinks. In three phases, book events, readings, and various literary fun stuff will happen, including a talk I'll be giving at the Big Legrowlski:

Jeff Alworth on Litcrawl
Big Legrowlski

Friday, Nov 4, 7pm
812 NW Couch St, Portland

The event is free, and it will be a freewheeling discussion about beer style and the weirdness of national brewing traditions. I will tell funny tales about strange practices and relate them to the beer we're drinking (I hope to have one designated beer, in case people want to taste along). It's a free event, though it will of course be far more entertaining if you have a beer in your hand. I always encourage audience participation, and these events are usually a blast.

Please join me! (Did I mention it was free?)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Beer Sherp Recommends: Ft. George Overdub Session IPA

The idea of a session IPA is irresistible: all the intense flavor and aroma from a traditional IPA without all the booze (and calories, if you care about that). The problem is that they're hard to make. With a standard IPA, brewers have a very solid foundation to work with--lots of malt body and often a touch of caramel flavor--onto which they can build stories and stories (or layers) of hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma. The sweetness and body provided by the malt make it possible to nuke the beer with hops and have the whole thing work.

Session IPAs, on the other hand, are often too thin, or the hops are too bitter, or they lack the intensity you get from a proper IPA. I love the idea, and I order them anytime I see them on a taplist (in the past six months my session IPA consumption outpaces regular IPAs by perhaps four to one). Very rarely am I satisfied by the result. I thought Harpoon's Take Five, mashed in at 161 degrees for maximum body, was spectacular (it was also one of the first I had, setting unreasonable expectations). There have been others that were good, but only one that hits all the marks.

I first had Fort George's Overdub in a can at the Hollywood Theater. I forget the movie, but the beer--whoo boy, that was memorable. Last week I stopped in at the brewery when I was in Astoria, and found the draft version even more delightful. The perfume of tropical fruit, as sticky and fresh as if I were standing in a jungle, billowed from the glass. The flavors followed the aroma, and were supported by just enough bitterness to give them structure and bite--but there was a fine body to support everything (fine to the extent a 4.5% beer can manage). It was that unicorn of balance and intensity in a tiny package. I was tempted to drink 14.

This beer is apparently a seasonal (Big Guns, Fort George's regular-lineup session IPA, is nowhere near as vivid), so seek it out and purchase with alacrity. 

"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.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Jäger and Not Your Fathers? An inevitable Reductio ad Absurdum

Is there anything that could make me dislike Not Your Father's Root Beer more? Of course there is:
 Small Town Brewery, the creator of Not Your Father’s Root Beer, and esteemed spirits brand Jägermeister have teamed up for the first time to create innovative fall cocktails with a touch of herbs and spices;  the key elements both brands are known for. Jägermeister’s botanical flavors harmonize deliciously with Not Your Father’s Root Beer to create a brand new drink everyone will enjoy!

And because one "innovative" isn't enough, the ad copy continues:
“Jägermeister and Not Your Father’s Root Beer are both iconic brands that share the same roots and dedication to quality, pairing perfectly together,” said Marcus Thieme, chief marketing officer at Sidney Frank Importing Company, Inc. “We found that Jägermeister’s botanical flavors harmonize deliciously with Not Your Father’s Root Beer and this new partnership helps further our goal of reaching more consumers with an innovative take on fall cocktail offerings.” 

I think what's so innovative about this is that no one has ever conceived of anything remotely like it before. It really is a radical new idea. Add a lemon wheel!

For about six weeks there, Not Your Father's was getting amazing press and huge geek love. That was all a bizarre mirage. From their dream, drinkers awoke to discover that it was just another gross, overly-sweet flavored malt beverage masquerading as something appealing.

On the other hand, I might well whip up a batch of these on Wednesday to get me through that third presidential debate. One train wreck deserves another.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Defining the Indefinable

There is a cafe in Brussels. It is close and cozy, feminine in a way that is unlike pubs anywhere else I've visited. The walls are so coated in objects and pictures that you are able to confirm their existence largely by inference. The tables are small and dainty, as are the chairs. The beer list is extensive, but I didn't bother to consult anything but the lambic selection. This is the only place on earth they're made, and they've been made here for centuries. When you order one, the waiter arrives with a little basket; once he decants a portion into a pleated tumbler, he lays the bottle so that it reclines with its head resting on the edge--a vision of happy repose.

The beer list is extensive, despite my single-focus, and inside one finds a dozens of offerings spanning the range of local styles. In Belgium, the word "style" is especially fraught, since the local breweries work to make each of their beers different from everything else on the market. But whether we call them a dozen styles or three dozen, they are all there, well-represented. You could visit this pub every night for a month and not drink all the beer on offer.

The lineage of those lounging bottles dates at least to 1400, and they have been so ingrained in this city's heritage that they appear in paintings by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. Other Belgian beers have been brewed by Catholic monks for over a century (with a tradition dating back 1500 years). There is a selection of ambrée and brune beer, which cast back to Belgian brewers' old habit of boiling their worts for many hours to caramelize the wort. There are foeder-aged red ales, which took a lesson from 19th-century London porter, and there are beers called "stout" which have inevitably gone through that unmistakable Belgian cultural distortion filter. There are even the "new" blondes, which started to become popular a few decades into the last century.

What one doesn't find is the latest release from Stone or Mikkeller--or even classics from Weihenstephan or Pilsner Urquell. There are a few places to find these beers, as the international craft brewing movement noses into even places with beer culture as well-established as Brussels--but they are by no means prevalent. And Brussels doesn't need them; the native drinking culture, the living history found in each bottle, the famous brewing school at Leuven, twenty miles from Brussels' Grand Place, the strange way brewers make their beer, the local ingredients they make it from, and even--especially--the respect and knowledge local drinkers have for this fixture of national identity. For a beer fan, casual or fanatic, there are few better places to drink beer.

Surprisingly, this isn't an opinion shared by everyone. There is an argument about what constitutes a good city for beer drinking, and it was on bright display yesterday when Jason Notte made a case that "New York cares more about craft beer than Portland." I spent an hour debating with Jason on Twitter--the second time in the last couple weeks we had this dispute. I'd considered doing a debate-style rebuttal about why I find this such a perverse position to take, but I'll limit it just to the acknowledgement that we understand "good" in very different terms. For Jason,
"...that ignores one of the key purposes of small brewing and craft beer: To try new ideas, to take chances and to explore. Sure, in lager-soaked Manhattan — where beers I had with friends at non-craft bars included Heineken, Labatt’s Blue and Rolling Rock — you have to go a bit out of your way to find a broad selection of craft beer. But those who do are rewarded with some of the best beers that all corners of the country have to offer.
I mentioned on Twitter that by this definition, Copenhagen would be a better beer city than Brussels. He made an adjustment to my comment, but agreed: "No, my argument would still apply: It's not a 'better' beer city, it's a more diverse, cosmopolitan beer city. But the Portland-Brussels parallel is a great one. Both have great beer, both are fairly insular and heavily emphasize local."

It is not possible to square this circle--we think of "best" in very different terms. For Jason, a "truly great beer town won’t be afraid to explore what’s brewing beyond the horizon line." For me, judging a city by how much of the local beer is brewed elsewhere seems a bizarre metric for assessing "truly great." New York and Copenhagen do have lots of foreign beers available in their bars, but it's precisely because locals haven't developed a taste for local beer in the way they have in Prague, Munich, and Brussels--and brewers in Copenhagen, for their part, are actively trying to invent a local tradition like Brussels has.

I'll never convince New Yorkers that their hometown is by most of my metrics one of the poorer beer cities in the country, and I don't know that there's any point in trying. (It's a promising sign that they are defending New York with such gusto!) But would I rather drink a Drie Fonteinen in a Brussels cafe, from a bottle my waiter has decanted and laid in a little basket, or go to a New York City bar that offers a menu of the world's beers, removed from their context and shipped across an ocean?

Rhetorical question.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Vignette #5, Jean Van Roy (Cantillon)

“I taste first my old lambic.  If I have a mellow lambic with some soft beer, I can work with two- and one-year-old with mild character. If I have an old beer with character, I have to find other types of beer.  Each blend is different. The beer is very good, but you have this small flavor in the beer, so it’s never the same. Never. You never know what you will discover.  That’s why lambic is so fun.” 

“No one, no brewers on the earth, can have the same rapport, the same feeling with his beer. In French we have a sentence. We say, 'tout est dans tout.'  If I translate it: 'Everything is in everything.'  In this brewery, everything is playing a role in the final product.  Everything.”  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Nothing New Under the Sun

If you've read The Beer Bible and were in a generous mood, you might have thought, "Gee, it looks like Jeff did quite a lot of research." Indeed! But one thing you won't see are the hours of research I put into postulates I could never verify. Like this, from page 333:
Breweries learned millennia ago to brew in cool weather, and the most prized ales were made just after harvest. No reference has explicitly distinguished fresh and dried hops, but it seems safe to guess that the practice dates back to the beginning of the hop era. If brewers did make their October beers with fresh hops in the distant past, the practice ended by the industrial age and wasn’t rediscovered until around 1992.
I probably spent a week on those three sentences, trying to find a source that would confirm my assumptions, but I never did. And so the week can only be inferred as I move briskly to the modern era. And now finally, thanks to Ed, we have the goods!
In the book Hops AH Burges quotes from Reynold (Reginald) Scot's A Perfite Platforme of a Hoppe Garden, (complete with olde English spelling):

"Some gather them, and brue with them being green and undryed, supposing that in drying, the vertue and state of the Hoppe decayeth and fadeth awaye..."
The book dates from 1574, and is in fact the earliest book in English written about hops, written 50 years after hops started being cultivated here.

Reg wasn't keen on the idea himself continuing:
"...wherein they are deceyved, for the verdure is woorse, the strength less, and the quantitie must be more of the greene Hoppes that are to be brued in this sort"
One thing I learned writing The Beer Bible is that humans are humans, and if we thought of doing something in the 21st century, there's an almost dead certainty someone thought of doing it in the past hundred decades or so of the hop era. Now we know, and I can breathe a sigh of relief for writing that it was "safe to guess" the practice had antecedents dating back more than 24 years.

Read the book here.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Why Locals Say Breakside is Portland's Best

Over the past couple years, I've welcomed a number of national and foreign beer dignitaries who've made the trek to far Portland. Rarely do they visit long enough to sample from the full range of good breweries we have in Portland (nevermind Oregon). So of course they want to see our best. But best is a funny thing. Two stops on just about every visitor's agenda are Cascade and Hair of the Dog. No one is going to argue that these aren't excellent breweries, but they make very particular kinds of beers--boozy, super intense, and not particularly sessionable. Special occasion beers. (I even met Brewery History editor Tim Holt at Cascade, and The Kernel's Toby Munn at Hair of the Dog.)

Photo by Ezra Johnson-Greenough, who has a great
report on the GABF at the New School

When you live in a town and spend most of your time drinking in sessions, you appreciate different things. You appreciate those breweries that can deliver the goods no matter what the beer is-- do a top shelf kölsch, IPA, barrel-aged wild ale, kettle-soured German ale, saison, and a stout, and you have achieved something rare. A good metric for this is that moment when you're standing in front of a barroom taplist and see an unfamiliar beer from a familiar brewery. Do you order it immediately or wonder if it's actually in the brewery's wheelhouse?

If you asked a dozen beer geeks in Portland to name city's the best brewery, I'd be surprised if half didn't say Breakside, and if you gave them top five, probably 11 would include Dekum Street's finest. It rewards the repeated visits locals give it, when, over the course of a year as their mood passes through all these different styles, they sample broadly. That's when beers like kölsches pop--when you're really craving one. If you go to a city looking to be wowed by the best breweries and the most sublime beers, a kölsch is going to be a hard style to make the case.

I bring all of this up because over the weekend Breakside picked up three more medals at the GABF, and the distribution of their nine medals is pretty representative of why we admire them (asterisks equal 2016) :
  • Rye beer*
  • English pale* (two different years)
  • "Australian-Style or International-Style Pale Ale" (Their session IPA)*
  • German-style sour ale
  • Dry stout
  • American-style IPA
  • English-style mild ale
  • American-style strong pale ale
Breakside is that extremely rare brewery that continues to be on the leading edge of palate evolution but one that can brew absolutely any style very well (in Oregon, the only other brewery that achieves it is Block 15). If you are an out-of-towner planning a trip to Portland and you've seen all the hype this brewery gets, you may well leave with a more vivid memory of the visit to Cascade and wonder what all the Breakside fuss was about. It's not the kind of brewery that specializes in the show-stopping special-occasion beers tourists love; it makes beer locals learn to appreciate over the months and years they spend drinking Breakside's uniformly accomplished beers. Now you know.


Oregon took home 21 medals this year, and congrats to everyone who scored some bling. Special kudos to Matt Van Wyk, who picked up a gold in brett beer category with his brand-new project, Alesong.