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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

May you all enjoy good food, company, and of course, beer this fine Thanksgiving Day. I intend to go indulge in all three.

See you next week--

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Breakside La Tormenta

Tart ales are, like tropical rainforests, strange, fecund places that give many people the willies.  Some just don't like acidity--fair enough.  But for others, tart ales are filled with unknowable flavors that may be as lovely as small, colorful songbirds or vicious and aggressive as carnivorous snakes.  Because of the variability, they prefer not to risk it.  They leave tart ales to the fanatics.

Because of the wide variability of this broad category, that seems to be where we have landed: sour ales attracts fanatics and wards everyone else off.  I am sympathetic.  I was an early proponent of tart ales, back in the mid-90s when they mainly came from the relatively civilized wilds of Flanders and Payottenland.  I came to adore gueuze, which, in my own idiosyncratic view, is the most accomplished beer style in the world.  Yet I've stumbled across enough terrible, gone-wrong science experiments passed off as potables that I, too, have become gun-shy. 

Which brings us to a new release by Breakside called La Tormenta.  It's got several things going for it that make it one of the most approachable tart ales in recent memory.  For one, it's dry-hopped, which gives it a point of familiarity.  I don't know why brewers don't use hops more to accent tartness--fruity flavors and acid are a perfect marriage.  Second, it's a lacto-soured beer, so it doesn't have the more exotic flavors that come from Brettanomcyes and other microorganisms.  Finally, it's a nicely balanced beer, with plenty besides the acidity going on.  (La Tormenta seems an odd name for a crowd-pleasing ale--at least until you learn it means "the storm," not "the tormentor.")

The brewery relied on Equinox, a newer hop, for this batch, and it produces a lot of wonderful citrusy and fruity notes--lemongrass and passion fruit tinged with white wine grape.  The clean lactic tartness frames these flavors, and caramel malts tie them together by adding a hint of sweetness.  It should be in stores now, which is good news for anyone planning on feasting this week.  Although a robust 7%, it is light and palate-cleaning.  On a day when heavy, sweet foods can overwhelm, tart ales can help scrub the tongue for more feasting.  (And boon of boons, it's apparently getting sold for $6 a bomber, which is wonderfully reasonable pricing for specialty beer.)

Go grab a bottle before Thursday--

Monday, November 24, 2014

Does Freshness Matter?

A quicky follow-up on my two-part series at All About Beer on staling.  Some folks pointed out that a few styles do age well and some improve.  I did acknowledge that in the second post, and it's definitely something worth noting. The problem is that this truth seems to have overwhelmed the far bigger truth that most beers don't improve with age.  Worse, the focus on the beers that do improve creates a subtle sense that age is good for beer, and this is definitely not true.   I'm pretty certain that many fans are not aware of how perishable beer is nor do they recognize that a "bad" beer is actually just stale.  (If you spend any time reading the ratings sites about your favorite beers, you can identify the many times this happens.)  It is definitely true that some beers age. But they are the extreme minority, and if that's the one fact you know about beer and time, you have learned the wrong fact.

Staleness is not identical to oxidation.  Long before you get those flavors of paper or wet cardboard, you get dullness; the intentional flavors placed in the beer leech out.  These are the flavors we love in most of the styles we drink: delicate, bready malt flavors, vivid, green hop aromas and flavors.  As a beer stales, those delicate notes are the first to go.  Whereas in those beers that do age well, new flavors emerge as old ones fade, in most beers the process is one of subtraction.  Arguing that this is good for beer is like arguing that bread tastes better once you leave it on the counter for a week.

Modern IPAs, which owe so much of their character to post-kettle hopping, are especially vulnerable.  (Since they are the most popular styles among beer geeks, this fact is muy important.)  But it happens in just about all the beers most people drink--light lagers, all of the light ales of Britain, most of the lagers in Germany and the Czech Republic, and even many Belgian ales.  More than 99% of the world's beers fall into this category.  (Because Belgian ales almost invariably go through bottle-conditioning, oxygen is scrubbed from the bottle and those beers age a lot better than most.  Belgian ales also have fewer hops--and almost never late-addition hops--and usually have higher alcohol, two other advantages.) 

I don't consider myself an expert on beer but I am a pretty reliable emissary from the brewing world.  I've talked to hundreds of brewers in several countries.  Except for the lambic brewers (who produce, collectively, something on the order of less than 50,000 barrels a year) I have not encountered a single one who argued that their beer should be drunk stale.  Rather, they talked extensively about the processes they use to keep their beer fresh.  I don't doubt that there are people out there who like stale beer, but it's akin to liking lightstruck beer.  (There's no arguing about taste!)  Except in the case of a few types of beer (either high ABV or wild, usually dark), the flavors are closest to what the brewer intended when the beer is freshest.  Don't believe me, believe the brewers.

If this all seems outlandish, you can actually run your own experiment.  Select an IPA you admire with a lot of perfumy scents and rich hop flavors, buy a bottle, and put it in a warm cupboard.  Wait three months, and then buy a fresh bottle and do a blind tasting of the two.  This experiment also works with English bitter, session lagers, pale ales, wheat beers, German ales, light Belgian ales--pretty much anything that's not strong or wild. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Stale Beer and Fresh Cider

For your Friday surfing pleasures.  Over at All About Beer, I have a two-parter about beer freshness: part 1 discusses why beer gets stale and what breweries do to ensure fresh beer and part two discusses why you still find stale beer on shelves and what you can do to avoid it.

I've also launched a website to accompany my forthcoming cider book.  Both are called Cider Made Simple, and while the book won't be out til next fall, the website--still a work in progress-- is here now.  (Fans of Cider Saturday may recognize some of the content.)


Ross-on-Wye Cider and Perry, Herefordshire, England

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dive Bar Challenge

There's a lot of talk--way, way too much, actually--about which city is the best beer city.  It's a pointless argument because no one can ever define the terms of debate.  Every city has at least one good brewery and some great beer.  Limit the variables, though, and then we're talkin.  When I travel around, I judge cities on a single dimension: how advanced is the culture of beer in the city?  There are a lot of ways to measure this (who's doing the drinking; what are they drinking; and where are they doing their drinking?), but one sure way is to see what they're drinking in places you don't expect to find good beer.  Like dive bars.

The notion is this.  Go into a dive bar, see what they're serving on tap.  We would expect that bars on the outer fringes of the city to have fewer good beers on tap, while in the heavily-breweried, hipster enclaves, there should be more.  I've been toying with the idea for awhile, but fate forced my hand when I found myself in the Clinton Street Pub, a dive in the pretty-cool 26th and Clinton nexus.  I decided in the moment that the time had come to issue the Dive Bar Challenge

Anyone can play.  I assume Portland will easily crush all comers, but I don't actually have the data yet.  Over the next few months I will tour the city's dive bars and report back to you, tavern by tavern.  Should you live in another city and like to participate, just follow my handy template.  If you fancy your city as "Beer City USA" or "The Napa Valley of Beer" or somesuch, let's put it to the test.  I'm pretty sure Portland is in a class all by itself, but I'd like to see for sure.

Okay, now onto the inaugural entry...

Clinton Street Pub
The Clinton Street isn't at ground zero for beer in Portland, but it's ground-zero adjacent.  Moreover, it is immediately next to the Clinton Street Theater, the kind of place that has hosted a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Saturday since 1978.  One door down in the other direction is a vinyl record store (trivia note: I held the lease on that property for a year in the late 1980s when I has a teenage hippie artiste--way before that neighborhood was cool).  In other words, it's definitely a neighborhood where you should expect to find a decent beer.

Nevertheless, Clinton Street is a true dive bar festooned with old beer paraphernalia like a classic Meister Brau sign and the distant-yet-lingering scent of cigarette smoke from years gone by.  Clinton Street specializes in pinball, and on the night we were there, had a rousing pub quiz going on.  It caters to all ages, but gets a lot more young customers than some dives.  Of eight taps, only one was given over to mass market lager (Hamm's, my fave).  Perhaps tellingly, the pub also had an obscure-to-Amerians Czech pilsner on tap (Staropramen).

The Stats*
Breweries in ZIP code: 8
Distance from the heart of downtown: 2.8 miles
Neighborhood hipness factor (1-5): 4, pretty damn hip
Seediness factor (1-5): 1, not seedy
Beers on tap: 8
Mass market beers: 1
Craft beers: 5 (three IPAs, a sticke alt, and a stout)
Imports:  1
Ciders: 1
Verdict: Super crafty


________________________
*I may tune these up over time, but this seems like a good start.  Breweries in ZIP code determined by the Oregon Brewers Guild listing.  I selected Pioneer Courthouse Square, "Portland's living room" as the heart of downtown. 


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Timid Man's Spontaneous Ferment?

Funky.
Here's a little question for the internet. As you may recall, I am experimenting with the pleasures of natural fermentation.  Having secured three gallons of unpasteurized, fresh-pressed apple juice from Draper Girl's farm, I relocated it to a carboy and let it sit outside, where nature could run its course.  And run it did. (A little too quickly, I think--late October was unseasonably warm in Oregon, and I the cider was fermenting at between 55-60 degrees.  I'd been hoping for 50 or lower.)  I racked the cider on Sunday and it was already down to 1.006 and tasting great.  It's been unseasonably cold for the past week, and the cider is now slow-fermenting in the 30s, so it should finish out nicely.

Anyway, here's the question.  It was only as the last drops of cider were getting suctioned up that I recognized the potential gold I was sitting on: a rich layer of wild Oregon yeast and bacteria, smelling funky and alive.  I had not planned ahead, so I dumped it, but here's the thing: wouldn't that be a perfect slurry to pitch on a fresh batch of wort and get a cheater's version of wild ferment?  Is there any reason I should not go back down the Gorge, get another gallon of Draper Girl's juice and use it effectively as a wild-yeast starter? 

Hive mind has never led me astray, so render now your verdict: clever or boneheaded?

Monday, November 17, 2014

What We Can Learn From Mass Market Ciders

Imagine the beer market as a large celestial body with dense gravity.  At the core of that weighty market are drinkers who love love love beer and wouldn't think of drinking something that tasted only beer-esque.  They want the genuine article.  Further out toward the fringes, you have people who dabble in other alcoholic drinks and are amenable to beer-esque drinks. Like me, they may choose from time to time to have a glass of cider, wine, or dram of whisky instead of a beer. Finally, way out on the fringes are people constantly drifting over to cross-over beverages; beer that tastes like margaritas or clams or iced tea. 

The markets flow with the currents.  If the beer market is down, it starts trying to appeal to drinkers beyond the core.  That's what's happening now, as Americans, bored with mass market lagers, drink less and less beer each year.  It can have very positive effects, though; that's the reason people have turned to craft beer.  It can drive breweries to make bad decisions, too, as when they begin to put more and more emphasis on alco-pops, which further undermines the interest in their core products.  (The hard lemonades and shandies are crack to the big companies--easy, short term highs that fall off the cliff after a few years.)

Into this environment comes cider, a beast that is, from the brewer's perspective, neither fish nor fowl.  Cider's an ancient beverage that has national traditions and a distinctly artisanal vein--but it's also an easily-manufactured product that can appeal to those hugely fringey players.  Brewing companies can co-opt the market, but they have to ask themselves: which market?  Will they make an alco-pop, or try to appeal to the core cider drinker and slowly build a market that they might come to dominate in a decade or two?  Is cider good for beer, or will it ultimately become a stiff competitor?  These are not idle questions.  Cider has become a big-ass deal:
As Symphony IRI points out, if hard cider were in the craft beer category, it would rank as the third-largest style behind IPA and seasonal. It also notes that 84% of cider drinkers also drink beer, which means a cider that could appeal equally to both cider drinkers and beer lovers could be a very powerful product in the right hands.
Whether beer guys like it or not, cider has become part of their landscape, and they're going to have to contend with it one way or another. In my constant effort to read the tea leaves, I decided to do a round-up of recent major supermarket-cider releases to see which way the wind was blowing.  Keeping in mind that big drinks companies have millions to spend on R&D and market research, one would think that a theme would be emerging.  It's a testament to the weirdness of cider that they seem to all be headed in different directions.  Here's what I found.

General Word About Mass Market Ciders
Johnny Appleseed
For the past few decades, as ciders have constituted a tiny segment of the drinks market, supermarket cider has been keyed to the flavor notes of soda and aimed squarely at soda drinkers.  It is an engineered product composed of apple juice concentrate (and sometimes, though rarely, a portion of whole juice), sugar, water, malic acid, and natural flavors and aromas.  It generally has no more than 50% actual juice; the rest is flavorings and sugar-water.  It is characterized by sweetness and an artificial candy-like aroma, and usually flavored to make it taste like fresh supermarket apple juice.  (Interestingly, the intense, Jolly-Rancher smell and flavor comes from distillates of apples that are added back in--natural but artificial-tasting.)  Many times I find a chemical quality to these ciders that I assume is the unfortunate side-effect of using such a heavily industrial process. 

That's the baseline drink, one that has had decent success in Britain but been ignored in the US.  Now that cider is growing in popularity here, how are the big breweries responding?

Mass Market, Sure, But Real Cider
The gigantic borg that owns Strongbow (if you trace it back far enough, you come to Heineken) has decided to tempt the market with ciders that actually taste sort of ciderish.  This may not be entirely shocking, because Strongbow is a Bulmers brand, and Bulmers has long had massive contracts with farmers growing proper cider fruit throughout Herefordshire in England.  Strongbow recently introduced two products for the American market, Gold Apple and Honey and Apple. They have the classic sweet hallmarks of traditional mass market ciders, but also contain a fair amount of tannin, presumably from the vast acres in Hereford.  Honey and Apple is made for the soda fans (I think "honey" is a signifier for "sweet").  It has a strange, heavy scent of flowers and over-ripe fruit and has an unpleasant chemical flavor.  Still, the tannins are appreciable and remind you that actual cider is the benchmark here.

Gold Apple is actually kind of pleasant.  It is very pale and has that damnable Jolly Rancher aroma (fortunately, it's volatile, and will dissipate after five minutes or so).  But it has some nice body, a crisp effervescence, a touch of stone-fruit complexity, and is decently balanced thanks to the tannins.  If you're thinking of Ross-on-Wye or Oliver's Ciders, it's pretty dispiriting.  But if you're the kind of person who develops a taste for Gold Apple, you're probably also the kind of person who might find yourself drifting toward more real ciders down the road. 

Doubling Down on Soda Cider
Anheuser-Busch's lunge at the cider money comes in the form of Johnny Appleseed, a name clearly the result of at least two minutes of deep Googling over in the marketing department.  It is pretty much exactly what you would expect, only worse.  It's the most pure reproduction of liquid Jolly Rancher I've ever encountered, from the artificial aroma to the intense candy sweetness (limned by a tiny touch of balancing acidity, same as in the candy).  It's even has the same pale translucence of a candy.  But A-B didn't stop there--it threw in a dash of chemical harshness for good measure.  As I was trying to choke down two swallows for the review, I was prepared to call it the worst cider on the market.  But then I cracked a Smith & Forge and realized that MilerCoors wasn't about to accept second fiddle that easily.

The Malt Liquor Segment of the Cider Market?
I guess MillerCoors decided to carve out a different segment--and they have.  I'm just not sure it's a segment anyone wants to own.  If I didn't know better, I'd say that Smith & Forge was an evocation of the old "New England" ciders that were fortified with brown sugar. I do know better, and I think this is serious over-interpretation.  Smith and Forge is both "made strong" (6%, a tad higher than the others) but also made dark.  There's not a drop of acid or tannin in the cider; instead we are offered the unpleasant cooked aroma and flavor of prunes by way of balance.  The character of sweetness is not candy but molasses.  It is heavy and listless, with almost no fizz.  Appalling and undrinkable.  Choosing between this cider and Johnny Appleseed for the title of "worst" is a real challenge.

In sum: A-B and MillerCoors are peddling an alco-pop they plainly don't expect to survive five years on the market (and neither do I).  The companies made throwaway products for throwaway brands.  If cider ends up getting a decent share of the beer market, Bud and Coors don't plan on participating in it long term.  (And keep in mind they came to the opposite conclusion with beer.  Shock Top and Blue Moon are brands designed to stick around and grow.)  Heineken's calculation seems to be the reverse: cider will be a popular segment in the drinks market, and they want a piece of it along with Woodchuck, Angry Orchard, and the like.  Indeed, they really seem to be appropriating the Angry Orchard model whole cloth.  Establishing Strongbow as a line means they can adapt to the changes in the market.  Honey and Apple may be appealing to the same alco-pop market as Smith & Forge and Johnny Appleseed, but they can also release other products, including, presumably, a traditional cider if that's the way the market goes. 

Big beer is happy to cash in on the trend of cider, but for the most part, it doesn't yet seem to think that trend will turn into something substantial.  That could be a pricey assumption.  My guess is that once we've long forgotten about Smith & Forge and Johnny Appleseed, A-B and MillerCoors (or AB MC InBev or whatever) will be back with something new to try to crack the market.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Beers and Blunts

Last week, Alaska and Oregon joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational marijuana.  What do these four states have in common?  Robust local brewing scenes.  Indeed, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado--along with California, another state likely to pass recreational marijuana--are the most active and influential brewing states in the country.  Alaska may not have the influence of the big four, but it is a top-ten state in terms of breweries per capita. (DC, which also legalized weed, ranks 13th.)

That's some intriguing correlation, but does it mean anything?  And more to the point from the brewing perspective--will marijuana affect beer sales?

It looks like the jury's still out--and probably will be for another year or two.  Researchers looked into how medical marijuana affected beer sales, but the results were mixed.  The results are made muddier because craft beer and mass market beer weren't disaggregated in the studies.  This points to a larger problem with data in general--we know that a small slice of beer drinkers consume a large majority of the beer, but we don't know what kind of beer they're drinking.  That pattern, known as the Pareto principle, also applies to marijuana.  Until we have a better sense of who heavy users are and what they consume, it's hard to make predictions about the future.

I'll be watching two competing factors.  The first is a cultural harmony or resonance between the two worlds.  Beer has long used the language of ganja to describe certain aromas and flavors in hops, and the mellow, West Coast culture applies to both equally well.  We've already seen Washington breweries have some fun with the new law.  On the other hand, good beer and marijuana habits are expensive.  Wages have been flat forever, and people have limited resources to spend on luxuries like booze and weed.  Will their budgets allow them to spend lavishly on both? 

Big public policy changes generally arrive with a bunch of unexpected outcomes. Legal marijuana hasn't been around long enough for us to fully assess them, but time will tell.  Anyone willing to lay down a prediction?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Two Oregon Beer Books

Two new books are arriving on bookshelves (just in time for the holidays) from local writers.  The first is a companion to Pete Dunlop's history of Portland beer: Bend Beer by Jon Abernathy (and a foreward by Gary Fish).  The second is the long-awaited guide to Oregon breweries called, well, Oregon Breweries by the peripatetic Brian Yaeger, just back from Amsterdam.  I have read neither book (Yaeger's isn't actually available yet), and yet having read Jon and Brian for years, I feel certain they are going to be worth owning.

By chance (or rather good planning), both will be at Belmont Station on December 6 at 5pm for a joint signing and beer-sampling event.  (And Brian's release party happens December 1, 7pm at Widmer.)

Look for the books and see if you can't spare the time to go congratulate them at the event.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Soul of Beer

After yesterday's surprising news that Anheuser-Busch had acquired Bend's 10 Barrel Brewing, I wrote a post for All About Beer discussing some of the implications.  I was trying to make two main points: 1) there's no benefit for A-B in dumbing-down 10 Barrel's beer--they purchased the brewery because it makes such good beer, and 2) that this kind of thing is the way of things in mature markets, so we should expect more. 

If beer has soul, does that make Jean Van Roy God?
The reactions on Facebook to that post are worth a read--and were totally enlightening. According to a preponderance of the comments, my points weren't just wrong, they were heresy:  "Beer with no soul is not beer I care to drink" and "I say we see one more brewery who made a devil's bargain and lost the appeal of those who supported ... them."

This is absolutely fascinating to me because it illustrates the degree to which people relate to beer not as a widget produced by a business, but something of a higher calling.  Let's do a thought experiment, and keep in mind the notion of souls and devils as we do it.  A group of DIY-ers start a small business that makes an innovative, creative, and well-made product.  Because they're a start-up, sales are small and the principals are earning enough to keep going, but they're not getting rich.  A large company comes along and offers to buy the business and infuse it with money.  They will keep the principals on to continue making their product and selling it to a now much-larger audience.  Think about how people would respond if that business were:
  • A Portland shoe company acquired by Nike;
  • A Chicago comic-book publisher acquired by Marvel;
  • A San Francisco software company acquired by Apple.  
It's hard to see how the outrage would be the same, yet shoe fans and comic book fans and tech fans are all passionate.

I'm not trying to make any bigger point here.  Even though I no longer hold the view, I'm not entirely sure the idea of a beer with soul is wrong.  We all live in the bubble of our own experience.  I've spoken to brewers like Jim Bicklein at Anheuser-Busch, and his excitement and commitment to the beer he brews is no different than Jean Van Roy's (Cantillon) or Dan Carey's (New Glarus) or Matthias Trum's (Schlenkerla).  My bubble has been formed by interacting with all of them.  

But there are other bubbles out there, where people have different relationships to this thing we all love. One of the reasons we're in a golden age of beer is because people do feel this level of passion.  Those who were outraged by  A-B's purchase of 10 Barrel will help keep small, independent breweries in business, and I can certainly sign up for that.  If they had felt this passionate about beer 50 years ago in Belgium, dozens of old, quirky breweries wouldn't have gone out of business and would still be around making traditional, sometimes world-class beer.  Passion is good.

Actually, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure beer does have soul.  I just subscribe to a slightly different religion: I think all beer has soul.  Well, maybe not Natty Light.