If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.


Saturday, September 29, 2007

Fresh Hop Festival

About ten or twelve years ago, Bert Grant, a beloved pioneer in the craft-beer movement, planted an acorn. In October, you should avail yourself of the opportunity to see how big the oak tree has become. In the mid-90s, he decided to take advantage of the vast wealth of hops that grew within a few miles of his brewery in Yakima (where well over half all domestic hops were grown at the time). He sent folks from the brewery out to the hop fields during the September harvest while he started prepping the mash tun. They gathered a batch of fresh hops, brought them back to the brewery, and within minutes of having been picked, were dumped into the boil.

This was radical. At the time, I recall hearing a lot of derision about this practice; fresh hops were reputed to lead to off-flavors and "gasiness." A gimmick, said the critics. Grant, who spent the last twenty years of his life proving critics wrong, proved to be the visionary. Now there is such love of fresh hops among breweries that harvest ales are pretty much de rigeuer; they are, as Bert Grant described them back in the day, the brewing world's Beaujolais Nouveau. Celebrating what has become a major phenomenon, the Oregon Brewers Guild and Oregon Bounty are hosting a series of tastings of 30 different fresh-hop beers in various places across the state. Thirty!

If you haven't tasted a fresh-hopped beer, you have missed a unique experience. Brewing with wet hops produces a far greener, earthier, herbal quality than traditional hopping. Not only do the hops dramatically change the flavor of the beer, they change recipes, too--alpha acids are converted unpredictably, so brewers aren't ever sure how a beer will turn out (even if the same varieties of hops are used year to year). For me, this is a wonderful old-world element. What results is unique and limited--breweries can never exactly replicate the flavor. These beers are also as perishable as the the freshly-picked hops--you have to drink them while they're fresh to experience before the delicate flavors fade. I regard this as pretty much a non-negotiable must-see event. If you love beers, don't miss it.

Our man in the middle, John Foyston, has the impressive list of breweries:

Brewery
________Hop(s)________Style______Name
Amnesia ________Cascades _____Pale Ale __Fresh Dusty Trail
BJ's
___________Willamettes __Pilsner ___Northwest Pils
Bridgeport
_____Centennial ___IPA _______Hop Harvest Ale
Calapooia
______Nugget _______Rye Ale ___Fresh Hop Rye
Deschutes
______Perle ___________________Mother of Perle
Deschutes
______Nugget __________________The Golden Nugget
Deschutes
______Crystals _____Pale Ale __Hop Trip
Full Sail
______Cascades _____Pale Ale __Lupulin Ale
Golden Valley
__Goldings _____Pale Ale __Golen Pale
Karlsson
_______Goldings/Magnum___IPA ___Twisted Sister
Karlsson
_______Multi Hop ____Pale Ale __Virgin Sister
Laurelwood
_____Tettnanger ___Kolsch ____Fresh Hop Kolsch
Lucky Lab
______Cascades _____Pale Ale __Cascade Harvest
Lucky Lab
______Nugget _______IPA _______Golden Nugget
Lucky Lab
______Multi Hop _______________Mutt The Mutt
New Old
Lompoc _Crystals _____Pils_______Crystal Missile
New Old Lompoc
_Crystals _____Harvest ___Harvest Moon
Mia & Pia's
____Multi Hop ____IPA _______Fresh Hop Madness
Ninkasi
________Liberty _________________Harvest Fresh
Oregon Trail
___Multi Hop ____IPA _______Hop Doctor
Pelican
________Sterling _____Pils_______Elemental Ale
Philadelphia's
_Nugget _______Amber _____Fresh Hop ESB
Raccoon Lodge
__Cascades _____Harvest ___Hop Harvest Ale
Rock Bottom
____Perle ________Pilsner ___Perle Pilsner
Rogue
__________Centennial ___IPA _______Hop Heaven
Standing Stone
_Centennial ___Amber _____Tri-Centennial
Widmer
__________Sterling _____Lager_____ Sterling Pilsner

Here's the schedule:
Hood River
Noon-9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6; part of the Hood River Hops Fest in city parking lot at Columbia and Fifth streets.

Portland
Noon-9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, McMenamins Edgefield, 2126 S.W. Halsey St., Troutdale

Eugene
Noon-9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20, Ninkasi Brewing, 272 Van Buren St.

Bend
Noon-7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, Deschutes Brewery, 901 S.W. Simpson Ave.

Admission is free at all tasting events; glasses are $5; individual tastes are $1, full pour $4.
See you there!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Soulless Beer

On a thread at the British beer blog run by Stonch, an English commenter offers some fightin' words:
American beers lose subtlty and class in favour of extremness, why would you want to go there? there are already crass US beers, would crass UK beers make things better?

Absolutely, that lack of connection leaves many such breweries with a slightly soulless range where every beer is totally different and equally out of context.
Stan Hieronymus, US beer writer, responds.

[Update: Whoops, apparently the quote's from a Kiwi. What's he talking about, then?!]

Mythic Beer

I hold in my hand (when I'm not typing) a mythical beer that no fewer than two people (all right, two people) told me was the best beer they ever tasted.* It is brewed by John Maier and was reputed to be served only at the Rogue Brewery. Impressive, no? These factors have created a mystique around the ale that have both attracted and unnerved me. For months I had this beer in the back of my mind, awaiting me in Newport like a green light across the bay.

Before I render my verdict, a comment. Obviously, expectation is a dangerous thing. One's mind can imagine transcendence in a way that one's tongue may be incapable of experiencing. On the other hand, I've had high expectations in rare cases exceeded by experience, which is the double whammy of transcendence--so you never know. As rumors of this beer circulated, I bided my time, nurturing the legend. This is the context into which I sat, regarding my beer, just a half hour ago. As it turns out, you can buy bottles of it at the brewery, which one of these friends did, and it's the one I'm drinking now. Let us proceed in hushed tones, so as not to defile this hallowed moment.

The beer in question is Dry-Hopped Red. It's a variation on Saint Rogue Red, draft-only, as the rumors claimed, until a bottling this year. Unlike some of the big reds we've grown used to here in Beervana of late, it is a more modest-sized beer with just 44 IBUs of bitterness (mid-range for Rogue). It has just two hop varieties, and a fairly standard array of Rogue malts. The transcendence comes from the dry-hopping. a point both of the friends emphasized when they were communicating to me which beer to seek: "It's the dry-hopped red, dry-hopped--remember that." Unfortunately, here's the rub.

Dry-hopping captures some of the most volatile and delicate oils from the hop cone, and in my experience, they don't age well in a bottle. The compounds react with oxygen, of which there is a small amount in bottles (less per ounce in the twenty-twos, but enough). What is available in the bottle, therefore, isn't what my friends tippled at the coast. It is a tasty beer, and the hops are vivid. But the life isn't here--it's a packaged product and the edges are gone. I would call it a great recipe and a very nice session, but I don't believe this is the beer that begat a legend. You may raise your voices--this is a false alarm.

So the mythic beer remains elusive. Somehow, I sort of hope I never find it. We all need a white whale.

_____________
*I wrote this last night. I don't regularly drink beer for breakfast.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Politics Intrude

Wow, who'da thunk this issue would have made it into Presidential politics?
[At] the Democratic presidential candidate debate at Dartmouth last night, ... a mother of two asked if any of them would back removing the federal mandate for a 21 LDA [drinking age], which she believes to be counter-productive. Joe Biden led the very disappointing responses by bloviating about drunk driving deaths, alcoholism, and fetal alcohol syndrome...all of which really have nothing to do with the 21 LDA. Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson fell over themselves to agree, dismissing the very idea of lowering the LDA, or giving that power back to the states (because that, after all, was what the woman was really asking).
More important, who cares? There may be some relationship between a higher drinking age and a mystique that therefore grows up around it,* but does this really rise to presidential-level importance? Can't those who want it lowered just take it up with their congressperson?

_______________
*Which, incidentally, I don't buy. I'd like to see the stats about what it was like before we raised the drinking age to 21. We have a Puritanical culture and the danger of drinking has been a part of our national consciousness for at least 150 years. I don't think anything so modest as changing the drinking age is going to change that anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

And Two More Reviews

A couple more very brief reviews whilst I'm in the reviewin' mood...

Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale
As much as it pains me to admit it, the beer that was first to characterize the West Coast style of American brewing was Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale (not, regrettably, something from Oregon). To emphasize this august history, Sierra Nevada offers a robust version for the 27th anniversary of the brewery's founding. This beer (misnamed an IPA on the website) is like Extra Special Pale--everything you love in pale is here but more so! Good stuff.
Rating: A-

Calapooia 'Pooya Porter
I keep trying to make a swing of mid-Willamette Valley Breweries that I haven't been to, but in the meantime, I did have a pint of the 'Pooya (which seems vaguely obscene). There wasn't anything transcendent about it, but with a creamy body, notes of chocolate, and a touch of nuttiness, it was a fine pint. Need to try more to get a sense of the brewery, but this is a good start.
Rating: B

Two Reviews

Pyramid Imperial Hefeweizen
As I alluded to in an earlier post, this proves you can have too much of a good thing. A standard German hefeweizen will be rippling with wonderful flavors, all delicate and breakfast-gentle. Pyramid makes one of the oldest American examples of this style, with perhaps less character than Schneider or Paulaner--but far more than Widmer. So they know what they're doing.

However, the intention to imperialize this delicate beer leads one to wonder: what was Pyramid aiming for? What results is approximately what you'd expect. It is cloudy and cider-colored, and fairly glops out of the bottle. The head is nice and thick, but can survive the onslaught of alcohol--and not the only thing. Delicate cloves, tart yeast character, crisp finish; all of these are mugged by the wrenching alcohol. A wee bit of spiciness persists, like a single peppercorn in a winter stew. The beer is thick, alcoholic, and without much character. It's drinkable, but not much more can be said. The inevitability of the experiment seemed clear. So, what was the brewery thinking?

Malt: 60% wheat, pale
Hops: Nugget, Tettnang
ABV: 7.5%
IBU: Not many.
Available: Sept-Dec
Rating: C

Full Sail Vesuvius
Ten years ago, no brewery in Oregon--possibly on the West Coast--and few in the US could make a decent Belgian ale. Generally a brewer would brew a variation on a regular recipe, deploy a few obvious adjuncts--coriander, candi sugar, bitter orange peel--and call it good. Yeast character--overwhelmingly the most important aspect of a good Belgian--was uniformly ignored. So it is with great enthusiasm that I welcome beers like Vesuvius, a respectable Belgian-style ale.

Last year, Vesuvius led the vanguard of Belgian strongs that have lately appeared across the state. (An odd style to crash Beervana's hoppy gates, as it happens. Unlike English strongs, Belgian strongs are approachable and sweetish. Widely appreciated, they are nevertheless not the types of beer you typically find in a Portland pub.) I am slightly reluctant to give an honest review, because Vesuvius is a rare and interesting enough beer that everyone should go buy a bottle. Still, it cannot meet the standard set by Duvel, Delirium Tremens, et al.

It looks the part--beautiful spun gold, frothy bead, dense, white head. Softly sweet of palate, with a faintly biscuity maltiness; a slight bubblegum note (phenols), and alcohol warmth drying out in the finish. One criticism: the body is too light; it goes watery just when it should be supporting the heft of the style.

ABV: 8.5%
IBU: 24
Available: August-November
Rating: B

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Green Dragon Awakes

Jim Parker's new brewpub, the Green Dragon, is in the midst of a slow opening. The liquor licence is a week or more away, and the beer isn't flowing quite yet. The kitchen is open, and if you want to pop in to see what it will look like, the doors are open. (My guess is that every plate of Belgian-style mussels* you order speeds up the opening, too.) From an email Jim sent out, the beer will be flowing soon: The Green Dragon "should be serving beer, wine and liquor at least in the Bistro space by next week's end."

Leave a comment if you've stopped by and have observations. I will do a review at some point, but it's always nice to let a place get up and running and work out the bugs, so maybe I'll do preliminary posts on the beer first.
The Green Dragon Bistro and Brewpub
928 SE 9th
Portland, Oregon
503.517.0660

________________
*Actual dish.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Best Beers

A recent Men's Journal article has been getting some attention for it's apparently careful compilation of a "best of" of world beers. The Hops and Barley Blog is detailing their selections by style in a series of posts, and it's worth a look. One of the reasons I often hate these kinds of things is because they overlook West Coast beers or preference a regional style. Men's Journal has a balanced approach and makes me want to try some of them (Russian River Damnation, Firestone Pale, Stone Smoked Porter).

Go give it a look.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Good Beer, Bad Label


Ow, my retinas!

Time for a Bonsai Beer Movement

The joy of drinking beer is in the epiphanies it sparks. In my case, the insights are often directed back on the source itself, and so it was last night as I shared a bottle of Pyramid Imperial Hefeweizen with Sally. We have entered the era of imperial. No style is immune. Imperial IPAs and stouts, of course. But now there are imperial reds, porters, pilsners, wits, and hefeweizens. Never mind the "doubles" and "strongs." The age of supersized beer is upon us.

I love strong beers. When Sam Adams released its Triple Bock back in 1994, I shelled out for a bottle. I exaulted when Hair of the Dog released Fred. I laid away gallons of Jackfrost Doppelbock. Sasquatch Strong still remains one of the best beers I've ever tasted, and I drank it whenever it was available.

But the madness has to stop. I bought the Pyramid Imperial Hef with reluctance but dim hope. Maybe the word "hefeweizen" was an evocation--the beer, I hoped, might be something like a wheat wine. Alas, this really is just a steroidal hef. Hefeweizens are quintessentially light beers; the characteristics that distinguish them are products of smallness--light body, gentle wheaty palate, and the fragile, spicy character from yeast and phenols that make the style unique.

As an antidote, we need some kind of small beer movement. Bonsai beers, miniaturist efforts that focus entirely on producing flavor with a minimum of ingredients. I know that in a vacuum, breweries probably aren't going to invest a lot of time into beers that will get overlooked--especially when they can bloat a beer and get a fair amount of attention. That's why it needs to be a movement--consumers would become more conditioned to appreciate the small beers.

A festival of beers under 4%? A contest? A joint brew-off? Something needs to be done or we're going to have to endure imperial lambics, double milds, and strong sessions. Stop the madness before it's too late!

Belgium in Turmoil

This may or may not have substantial effects on brewing, but I am alarmed nevertheless:
BRUSSELS -- In the back room of an exclusive social club across the street from the U.S. Embassy here, Flemish separatists are plotting the breakup of Belgium....

The campaign here is a modern-day separatist movement for a globalized world. This is not a war of guns and guerrillas in jungle hideouts or suicide bombings on city streets. It is a conflict debated daily in the news media, parliaments, cafes, bars and establishment clubs of a country confronting the schisms now facing nearly every European nation: the struggle over national identity following mass immigration from Asia and Africa, the preservation of native culture and language, and economic competition in an era of global markets.

Belgium has been without a national government for more than three months now.
Will the Walloons have to start referring to their ales as "Belgian-style?" What other consequences might it have? Hmm...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Disturbing Trends

Two separate stories about hop and barley crops came out this week, and they are something of a brow-furrower.

Hops
World hop yields have been in steady decline for twenty years, down to nearly half the production from 1986-2006. This is due to a number of causes--notably the rise of high-alpha hops, which reduce the quantity needed per barrel, and the steady decline of bitterness in national brands, which still produce the overwhelming majority of beer in the US. After very low prices in the late 90s and early aughts, growers started scrapping acreage which has in turn led to spiking prices and hop shortages:
Prices are the highest they’ve ever been - and it’s beyond comprehension. Cascades were priced at $7/lb. three weeks ago and are currently being quoted at or near $10.00/lb. Willamettes went from $5.50 to $7.00/lb. and may also get to $10/lb.

It takes three years to get to full production on a new hop field, however, we don’t have the number of growers needed to put new acres in (the total of US growers is about 45, down from more than 2000 in 1978. About new 2,000 acres are going in this year - almost all of those are high alpha. The Cascade increase in acreage is 0.
Cascades are, of course, the backbone of Northwest brewing. The upshot is that we'll see increasing experimentation with other varieties of hops as availability drives new recipes. Probably this means greater reliance on high-alpha hops, which may be a downside. The upside may not be all bad, though--it could provoke a new wave of beers.

Barley
Barley crops aren't under the same kind of pressure, but Laurelwood brewer Chad Kennedy sent out an email alerting us to the trouble brewers may be in as a result of global warming.
Due to the worsening climatic conditions it is possible that beer will not be made exclusively from barley, but also for example from chickpea, the Czech biotechnology portal www.gate2biotech.cz has found. The weather fluctuations in the past couple of years, especially the drier and warmer climate in association with extreme downpours have had a catastrophic impact on barley producers....

The brewing and malting research institute in Brno has been exploring the possibilities of utilizing for example chickpea, cowpea or sweatpea for the past year. It is therefore possible that in a few years Czech beer will not be made exclusively from barley malt.
For very different reasons, this could lead to experimentation with malt substitutes, which would definitely change the flavor of beer. (And would the German tradition of reinheitsgebot die? Imagine the horror in Munich!)

Makes a man want to go cry in his beer...

Traveling Pub

This is extremely cool: Deschutes is building a traveling pub shaped like a great big beer barrel:

(The actual thing in construction)


(Artist's rendering)

From a press release by the Brewer's Guild:
Deschutes Brewery is rolling out the barrel and introducing a new traveling pub to share their signature pub culture with the rest of the Pacific Northwest. The custom-made truck-sized wooden barrel was created by renowned Hollywood designer Eddie Paul and will be stopping in Portland before heading north to Seattle as part of its new Neighborhood Hops Traveling Beer Festival.
Bad news? It came to Portland two days ago. Sorry, I was on the road and not keeping up on the really important stuff. No doubt there will be other opportunities, however. (Hat tip: Belmont Station.)

[Update: More here, here, here, and here, including a better picture in the latter three.]

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Original Beer Alert: Rogue "Brewer"

In my wanderings up and down the Western third of Oregon, I managed to stop in with a group of politicos at Rogue's restaurant in Newport last night. No luck on the much-recommended Dry-Hopped Red (a mythical beer sighted only in Newport), but I did try Brewer, one of the rare beers I would call truly unique.

This is the third batch John Maier has made, but based on descriptions of earlier versions, an interesting departure. Those were based on a doppelbock recipe, and a description of last year's Brewer characterizes it as "a strong ale with tons of hop flavor and a hugh malt backbone."

This year's batch is a wild and wonderful mixture of styles. It is as dark as a porter, but quite light-bodied. It is creamy and chocolatey, again, firmly in porter territory. Now the fun: it's vividly hoppy and seemed to be potent (hard to tell amid the competing flavors). I don't know if it was intentional, but this might have been the conversation John Maier had with himself before setting out a recipe: "Cross a brown porter with a stong ale and hop liberally while ensuring that the body stays light and creamy and the subtler flavors of cacao and roasted coffee remain intact after the riveting assault by pounds of hops. The different flavor components should stay intact but complement each other, yet it shouldn't be a challenging beer to drink."

He pulled it off.

Monday, September 17, 2007

So Little Time

Here's the state of affairs: I have in my fridge two bottles of beer, Full Sail Vesuvius and Pyramid Double Hefeweizen (possibly not the exact name) and not only have I not had time to review them, I haven't even had time to drink them. Nor will I for a few days. I'll be on the road tomorrow and Wednesday, though this isn't necessarily bad news. Over 36 hours, I'll visit Medford, Roseburg, Eugene, Corvallis, Newport, Lincoln City, and Salem. Dunno what kind of time I'll have for beer drinking, but I wouldn't be surprised if some happened. So there could be some interesting non-Portland content in my future.

Meantime, I got nothin'. Perhaps a good opportunity to browse the right column and look at some of the other fine blogs out there--

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Hop Events

All of a sudden, brewers rouse themselves from a long summer's drowse, awakened by the smell of fresh hops. What began as a small experiment in the fields near Bert Grant's brewery in Yakima has spread into one of the most exuberent displays of seasonality on the annual calendar. I have yet to participate in these festivities, but that shouldn't stop you.

An evolving list:

Walking Man Brewery
(240 SW 1st, Stevenson, WA)

7th Annual Hoptoberfest Sat, Sept. 15th, Noon-10pm
A celebration to benefit local youth group; live music, games, fun.

Deshutes Brewery (901 SW Simpson, Bend)
Harvest Moon Ale Tasting - Tues, Sept 25, 6 - 8pm
Hop Trip and a pre-season release of Jubel (which will be green)

BridgePort Brewery (1313 NW Hoyt, Portland)
Hop Harvest Ale Release - Wed, Sept. 26th, 7 - 9pm
Fresh Centennial hops in an imperial ale

Full Sail Brewery (506 Columbia Street, Hood River)
20th Anniversary Brewers Dinner - Thurs, Sept. 27th, 4 - 8pm
Four-course meal featuring Anniversary Doppel X, $20, no reservations

Okay, that last one isn't related to hops, but it's timely. I will personally pull a beer from my larder for anyone who goes to three of four of these events and writes a guest post on what they encountered. Not my Fred #1 or first-edition BridgePort Old Knucklehead (wee bottle), but perhaps a 1997 Bobbydazzler or the like. Delivery on receipt of the post.

No, go forth and drink, my pretties!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Pronunciations

Very cool site I just discovered in which Belgian brewing terms (beer styles, producers) have short pronunciation .wav files in the Flemish and French. Run up against "gueuze" or "oud bruin" and thought it was best just to keep your mouth shut? No longer! Now, in crisp tones, sort of halfway between German and French, you can hear a Belgian say clearly "Owd Brehn."

Whether your friends will appreciate your newfound pronunciatory skills (yes, it is a word) is another matter. But you, in your heart of hearts, will know you're right.

Jackson Toast

This is cool:
It's a simple idea. On Sunday, September 30th, at 9:00 PM Eastern, we're raising a glass to Michael Jackson, and raising money in his name for the National Parkinson's Foundation.

We hope to have a list up soon of bars and brewpubs that are participating; I know for sure that Monk's Cafe and the Grey Lodge are doing it in Philly. If you are a bar or brewpub owner, and would like to join in, e-mail me and I'll get you the information, and a template we've made for a flyer/poster.

Be generous, folks: this is for Michael, the guy without whom a lot of this would not have happened. As Tom Peters said to me, "I'd really like to be able to hand a check for $100,000 to the Foundation in Michael's name." (Tom's donating the evening's profits at Monk's, and will be passing the hat for direct donations as well.)

There will be other, ongoing opportunities to honor Jackson's name and legacy, but this one, as Sam Calagione said, is from the heart. Here's to Michael. See you on the 30th.
Dunno if places in Portland are participating, but you could send Lew an email and find out howw to participate. In any case, mark the toast on your calendar. That's six, Portland time.

In other Jackson news, he did a video interview just three weeks before he died that you can watch here. Toward the end, he mentions that he was planning to write a book called I Am Not Drunk about his struggle with Parkinson's. "I know a lot of people were saying it, wondering whether I had a problem or not."

[Update: Belmont Station is on it. I'll update the post if I learn about more pubs that might be nearer you.]

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Roots Saison

In the A&E friday, John Foyston mentioned that Roots had a new saison on tap--a nice way to break a beer fast of a week, my favorite beer style and one of my favorite breweries.

Saisons are an artisan style and feature pretty broad variability in ingredients. Some, like Dupont, are purely reinheitsgebot (water, malt, hops, yeast), while others have a variety of botanicals. Roots' versions is the latter, and in a couple of ways, strains the style a bit. But as always, the brewers have gone for a bold interpretation, and what results is tasty and mighty quaffable.

From memory, the adjuncts they used were hibiscus blossoms, sweet orange peel, "lemon zest" (your guess is as good as mine), and pink peppercorn. The style is generally spicy and peppery, a quality usually achieved through hops; Roots forsake sharp hopping and draw the flavors out with these adjuncts. The balance was tilted a little heavy toward the floral, and was a little light on the pepper. In other saisons, black peppercorn creates a wonderful earthy note that strikes the palate much like some hops. The finish is dry and crisp, as you'd expect.

The downside is the carbonation, which is minimal. Saisons should have a frothy, rocky effervescence that produces a luxurious head and stays lively in the glass. It contributes that characteristic prickliness on the tongue and isn't heavy, despite the strength. I wonder if this is a function of yeast experimentation--possibly it will continue to carbonate in the kegs.

It's something you won't find commonly at a brewpub, so stop in for a pint.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Out of Town

Where I am going there are no beers or computers, and there I will stay until Saturday. As a result, posting will be nil. A fine opportunity to read that huge Jackson interview.

Cheers--

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Jackson Interview

This interview, now almost ten years old, but it still seems fresh and interesting. I intended to do excerpts, but what the hell--column space doesn't cost anything on a blog (if it overwhelms you, be sure not to miss the final paragraph). There's a lot of history in this piece, and reading through it, you may have the realization, as I did, that we lost a lot of it when Michael Jackson died. I won't ever be able to do a follow-up and hear how things have changed in the past decade. Well, anyway--
Jeff Alworth: Your classic book, World Guide to Beer was responsible for bringing the news of "good beer" to America and was one of the main sparks of the micro revolution.

Michael Jackson: Yes, the first big book I wrote on beer, called The World Guide to Beer, which I was researching in the early to mid 70s--well sort of mid-70s, and it was published in '77 on both sides of the Atlantic--was really the first book to put together the different types of beer that existed in the different parts of the world and the different ways in which they were made. It was really quite surprising that nothing had been done like that before. It was a book that was aimed at the consumer, and certainly was the first serious book about beer for the consumer that had ever been written. Even for people in the industry it was the first world-wide study. The industry was remarkably parochial, and in some ways still is. I remember a guy at the University of Brewing in Berlin and saying to him, "I know you guys make wheat beer and the Belgians make wheat beer and I don't quite understand why they're so different." This is 20-odd years ago I was saying this. And he said, "Oh, I didn't know the Belgians made wheat beers." This is a guy who's only two or three hundred miles away from Belgium. And so I wasn't really digging up a whole lot of new stuff, I was just putting together stuff that nobody had put together before.

It was a time when the "big is beautiful" ethic was still quite strong, and I very strongly made the case for small breweries and varieties of beer, and so when the microbrewery movement got going, a lot of the new microbreweries in America would call me up and say, "How do you make this kind of beer?" or "How do you make that kind of beer?" or "We read something you wrote about such-a-such a kind of beer and you said that this kind of beer hardly exists anymore in the world and we'd like to try and make it." So that was how things were, and a lot of people have been kind enough to say that I was one of the people responsible for the microbrewery movement.

JA: How did you get started writing about the beer industry?

MJ: I began my working life as a newspaper journalist. I began straight out of high school--I come from quite a blue collar family and they couldn't afford to put me through college--and I went to work at a newspaper when I was 16 years old on a small town weekly. Journalists in those days drank huge amounts of beer, far more than they seem to today. We'd go cover the local courtroom or something, and when the court finished we'd go into the pub. Because it was a daily paper you couldn't go back and write the story; you had to phone it in straight in from the pub.

People always argued about the beer. The main conversation when the guys would gather was always about the beer. "Oh this beer's terrible, and I had to cover a story in the next town and the beer in the next town's much better." "Oh no, you got that all wrong, that beer's terrible; what your really want is this beer." And I would ask, couldn't we do a taste-off, couldn't we do a story about this? I mean, where do all these flavors in beer come from, why are they all different? And everybody would always say, oh well, it's only beer, who cares? I would say, well, we've been talking about it for the last three hours, arguing about it quite passionately--what makes you think our readers wouldn't care about it? Journalists think they're special, that they're somehow different from their audience. It's an extraordinary arrogance and conceit to think that; if we were interested, our readers were interested.

But, it was never really possible to do anything about it until the Campaign for Real Ales started in the early 70s. I had nothing to do with that--I'm often written about as one of the founders, and I wasn't one of the founders. Though, actually, three of the four founders were journalists. And that really changed the landscape and made it possible to write about beer. When I started in the business, there was no writing about drink at all. When writing about drink started, it would always be about wine. In the 1960s, British people started to travel a lot more, skilled workers and a lot of middle-class people who previously wouldn't have traveled wanted to go to France on vacation. They'd come back, and they'd drunk wine in France and they wanted to drink wine with their meals in Britain--which had previously only been something that rich people did--and so wine got democratized and people started writing in the newspapers about it. But you still couldn't write about beer, and it wasn't until the Campaign for Real Ales that beer became something that we talked about in the same terms as wine. Even then it was difficult, and it remains difficult to do that.

I would say to a newspaper editor, "How about we do a piece on beer?" And he would say, "Well, we did a piece on beer last year." And I'd say, "Yeah, well, you did a piece on wine last week, you're doing another piece on wine this week, you're doing another piece on wine next week, but you did a piece on beer last year and you think that's enough? What your readers drink is beer, don't you think they'd be interested in that?" It's always been a bit of a struggle, but at the same time I've felt that as wine became more popular to a broader--I'm a little hesitant to talk about wine moving down market and beer moving up market, because I think that is too simplistic. I did always nurture this idea of a democratization of drink.

I was very inspired by some writers on wine, particularly Hugh Johnson, who wrote a book called The World Atlas of Wine. Before Hugh Johnson, most writing on wine assumed that you already knew quite a lot about it. I remember as a young man in London, when I was about 20, inviting this woman to dinner in my apartment. I was going to try to seduce her by giving her a nice meal with nice wine and everything. I went to the liquor store and asked the guy about wine: I asked him what wine would go with the food I was going to make. His view was, if you don't know that, what the hell are you doing in here, anyway? It was kind of like going to buy a fur coat--if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it. It was that kind of attitude. People like Hugh Johnson changed that around. People like him wrote, without condescending to the reader, they wrote intelligently, but accessibly, about wine and explained why it was exciting and interesting. That was what made me think that there could be something similar on beer. When I wrote that book, I thought that was it--I would do this book and that would be the end of the exercise; I didn't realize it was going to take over my life. It did take over my life.

JA: Early on in the micro movement, American brewers brewed mostly ales, and certainly in the Northwest we started to brew in more the British tradition than the German tradition. What do you think of these interpretations?

MJ: The comparison I've often made between the ales made between San Francisco Bay and British Columbia--that whole stretch, that Greater Northwest, if you like--their robustness of flavor and their freshness of flavor, the fruitiness of hop character and the dryness and intensity of hop character, as compared to the ales made in Britain, which are really less assertive, less flavorful, less aromatic, arguably more subtle. It's very similar to the comparison you might make between New World wines, between, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon made in Northern California and one made in Bordeaux. It's very analogous, it's youthful, assertive, excitable. The United States is a very young country, a very energetic, confident young country, and the West Coast, particularly the Northern part of the West Coast, is the most youthful and energetic part of that country. It's almost as though the people are reflected in the beer. That might sound a slightly poetic way of looking at it, but I think it's true.

I just love these very hoppy Northwestern ales. When somebody in Britain says they're too hoppy, it's very much like the people that say that some of the Northern California Chardonnays are to oaky. And maybe, in fact, over the years, in response to that criticism, some have become less oaky. But I hope that the Northwestern beers don't become less hoppy. I just love that in-you-face hoppiness, and I really miss it when I'm in Britain. When I go back to Britain--this particular visit that I'm on right now is only for two or three days, it is literally a flying visit. But if I'm in the country for a week or two and then the first thing I do is to go have a pint of my local beer. The first pint I think, "My God, this is terrific." And the second pint I think, "Oh this really is pretty good." And by the third pint I'm thinking, "Well, on the other hand, there could be more hop there." And by the fourth pint I'm thinking, "I think I better go back to the Northwest and get some hops." So I love the vigor and attack of these beers.

JA: The newest issue in craft brewing is the slow down of the market. Looking at it from the English point of view, where good beer is brewed alongside industrial beer, do you have any words of wisdom for American craft brewers?

MJ: Well I think in terms of the slow down, it has been somewhat exaggerated in the sense that it was based on an absurdly high rate of growth. In some ways these things become self-fulfilling prophesies; the more the industry grew, the more people started to throw money at it. In the early years of the movement the East Coast and New York as a whole just ignored microbreweries and thought it was something people did in hot tubs while smoking dope on the West Coast. Suddenly Wall Street discovered microbreweries. They're like overgrown babies, the people in Wall Street--"Throw money at it, invest, invest, invest!" Some people on the West Coast thought, well hey this is a great opportunity to build empires. That was never going to work; any idiot could see that the whole house of cards was going to come falling down. And that's happened. But the well-run breweries making good beer are still there.

One thing that I feel very strongly is that it's very, very important for a brewery to have a strong local market, a strong local identity, and a strong local loyalty before it tries to conquer the world. I very much admire breweries that have built that strong local base. There are some in other parts of the country that are absolute models. There's one in Twin Cities called Summit; there's one in Kansas City, Missouri called Boulevard; near New Orleans is Abita Springs. They've really built a strong local market. It's important to do that, and then if you want to build and expand upon that, fine; if you can't sell to your local people, one has to ask if everything's all right there.

In terms of the general management, to me it always makes sense that a brewery which is wholly or largely owned by a proprietor as opposed to shareholders is going to work better. I mean it's fine to having the kind of closely-held corporation or sort of thing where a few local doctors or dentists or attorneys and people are shareholders, and whenever they're going to a restaurant they can say to all their friends, "You must drink my beer." That's fine. But if you've got shareholders all over the place whose expectation is to get rich, and you feel you have a responsibility to the shareholders, I think it makes it very hard to run a brewery with the kind of single-mindedness and personality and instinctive, intuitive feeling that you really need to have to run this business.

JA: It seems to lead to beers that appeal to the lowest common denominator.

MJ: It's bound to. The minute you get a whole bunch of marketing people coming in with their latest wisdom, then I begin to think, "how long is this brewery going to last?" The fact of the matter is that microbrewing is a niche activity. When you say "niche," maybe that sounds like you mean "small," but a lot of the market is going to be made up of niches in the future. I'm not suggesting that the age of mass production has come to an end, but certainly the time when everybody ate the same food and drank the same drinks and drove the same car and watched the same TV programs, that age is a thing of the past. Perhaps it seems something of a paradox at a time when a lot of things have become more global, a lot of things are also becoming more local, but they sure are.

You only have to see that in looking at the national TV networks. There was a time when people like A-B or Miller could say, "We'll reach every American male who's a potential customer for our product at eight o'clock tonight by advertising in the break in this ball game." You just can't do that anymore. People are not watching the networks as much as they used to; they're watching CNN, they're watching C-SPAN, they're watching cable, they're watching satellite, they're using their VHS machines to watch TV when they want to rather than when you want them to. They're editing out the commercial, they're playing around tremendously on the internet.

The biggest scotch whiskey company in Britain, which is owned by Guinness, has a range of single malt scotches called "The Classic Malts." The one that's most successful on both sides of the Atlantic is Lagavulin, which is the most intensely medicinal, pungent, powerful whiskey that you'd think would just put everybody off. I love it, but I thought I was the only person who loved it. But you find people saying, "I've tried Lagavulin, where can I go next?", and there's nowhere left to go after that. I keep telling them they should make a more assertive one. But as soon as you get a hold of the focus groups and the market research and all of this, it always comes out to the lowest common denominator. Plus, you know, if you did everything by market research, you'd never have another new idea from now until eternity.

JA: A question I get asked a lot is, "What is your favorite beer?"

MJ: Right.

JA: What do you answer?

MJ: I always say it's a question of where I am in the world and what's local and what's the mood or the moment. You know, why am I drinking the beer? And people say "Why am I drinking the beer?" Did I just mow the lawn, or am I trying to have a quiet time shooting the breeze with my friends in which case I want a much different beer. Is it a beer before a meal, or is it with food, or is it with a book at bedtime. When it's on a radio show or something, when they want a sound bite, I see the interviewer glazing over or getting frustrated because he feels I'm trying to evade the question. And then I say that I couldn't possibly name a single favorite beer. I'll say, "Well, sometimes I do a top twenty or something." I'll always try to make it as stylistically varied as possible and always try to include some local beers and try to pay attention to what might be available to their listeners. So now there are all these top twenties around, and they're all different.

JA: Framing the "favorite beer" question a little differently, which beers do you think are more likely to become international classics or rise above a solely local stature.

MJ: Well, that is an interesting question, and I don't really know what the answer is to it. Somehow, although there are all these very hoppy beers in the Northwest, nobody has made the clear, clarion call that Anchor Liberty Ale makes, for example. I thought at one time that something like Grant's IPA or Grant's Russian Imperial Stout might achieve that kind of status. They haven't quite. I very much like some of the Full Sail beers. Their Amber is a very good beer in a sort of an American answer to Samuel Smith's Pale Ale. Then you have very special things like Redhook's Double Coffee Stout, for example. But you've got this real clamor of very good beers--lots of which I love to drink--but there's nothing which has really come out and said, "I am an international classic." I can't quite put my finger on why that is; it's maybe because there is just such a clamor.

It's very clear that in California that some of the Anchor products and some of the Sierra Nevada products have very clearly established that kind of identity. In the Northwest, nobody really has.

I suppose some of the beers I've talked about having established that kind of position are certainly ones that have been around from the very early days of the specialty beer movement. Things like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bigfoot Barleywine and Anchor Steam and Anchor Liberty and Old Foghorn. Anchor Liberty's just a stunning beer, I think. Even the ones I did mention from the Northwest as having been in my mind possible candidates, especially the Grant's products, were from the very early days. Another beer that I really loved, and I'm not sure whether it's still available or not now was the original Widmer Altbier, which was then remarketed as Ur-Alt. I don't know what you do if you're in a situation something like the Widmer Brothers. I mean, they started out with this very good altbier, it's what they wanted to make, they made a few other products, they were reasonably successful, but it was when they made their Hefeweizen that it really took off. You can hardly expect them to say, well, we're going to downplay that and play up our altbier; that would be commercial madness. I think sometimes it's necessary for breweries to try to keep these products going as their Rolls Royce product. It's like, General Motors and Ford own various luxury car companies in Europe their special fig leaf.

JA: It's like when the major movie studies produce one really nice art film that will win awards. It doesn't make very much money, but it's a feather in the cap.

MJ: Yes, yes. It's funny to be talking like this about these breweries because I remember all of these breweries when they were very, very new and very, very tiny indeed, and facing what seemed an impossible situation in trying to persuade people that there beer other than the type made by Bud and Miller and Coors. To actually be talking about how they've handled their success, and say, "Well, gee, I wish they'd keep this beer in the business or keep that one," I mean, it's astonishing. It's not astonishing in the sense that they certainly deserved where they got. It's something I was tooting my trumpet for and being a cheerleader for from a very early time. But it's great that it got as far as it has got.

I think the beer revolution is by no means over yet. There always comes a time when people have to regroup a bit, and that's really what's happening. In some ways it's just entering the mainstream, especially on the East Coast. The East Coast was so scornful and indifferent. The East Coast attitude towards all of this for years veered from utter indifference to total scorn.

Now to go into Washington DC and the Dulles airport, there are three bars there specializing in selling Old Dominion beers. That's an airport; we're not talking about the Dublin Pub or the Horse Brass or something. We're talking about an airport, for Christ's sake. These are guys in suits on their way to business meetings in Omaha, Nebraska who are actually stopping at a place where 2 or 3 years ago all you could get was Bud and Miller Genuine Draft and Coors Light. And they're saying, "What's the beer of the month, what guest beer do you have?" "Do you still have that Double Bock?" "No, no, I like the hefeweizen." "No, you had a dunkles hefeweizen the last time I was here." "What's this one like?" And the guy's saying, you've got bar staff saying, "Well, this one has got a different hop in it--it's more aromatic." It's unbelievable to hear that kind of stuff in an airport. It's kind of funny as well because the people drinking those beers are the Americans and you've got all these people from Europe wanting a Bud Light because they think that's what you're supposed to drink when you're in America.

I was asked on radio this morning, "How important is Portland in all of this and is Portland the beer capital of the United States?" To which my answer always is that it's a private squabble between Portland and Seattle, really, and nobody else comes close. I mean, there are other good beer cities like Denver, Austin, Texas, Boston, but to be the beer capital of America, it's got to be either Seattle or Portland, and it's probably Portland. Portland has within its zip code between a dozen and twenty breweries which is actually slightly more than Cologne has, which is the most breweried city in Germany. So, you could make an argument for Portland being the beer capital of the world. I'd like to see more evidence of this when the city promotes itself. When I come into the airport I'd like to see a sign that says, "Welcome to the Beer Capital." It certainly would if it were the Cabernet Sauvignon capital of the world.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

New Goal: Beer Knighthood

The Belgian Brewers Guild knights Americans. I kid you not. Scott Simon discussed it this morning on NPR, so you know it's gotta be true. One of this year's awardees is a beer steward from Brasserie Beck in Washington DC. The practice apparently started in 2004, when the Belgians tapped Brewery Ommegang's Randy Thiel as the first-ever beer royalty:
Thiel was recognized for his ongoing contributions to the art of Belgian brewing as practiced at Brewery Ommegang and in the U.S. He has been brewmaster at Brewery Ommegang since its inception in 1997, and has been responsible for the development and ongoing production of the five highly regarded Belgian-style ales the brewery produces.

The ceremony in Brussels was presided over by Grand Master Jack Van Antwerpen and attended by the Knighthood of Brewers, as well as Laurent Demuynck, president of Duvel Moortgat USA and Brewery Ommegang. Other Americans inducted were Tom Peters, co-owner of Monk's Café in Philadelphia, Eddie Friedland, owner of Edward I. Friedland distributorship in North Philadelphia; and Joe Lipa of Merchant du Vin Importers. All are credited with helping create rising interest in Belgian beer in the United States.

"Inclusion into the Guild is an inspirational and humbling occasion all at once," Thiel said. "The members of the Belgian brewing community take great pride in their unique heritage and current achievements in the international arena. To be in the presence of people I respect so much, sets a higher standard to shoot for. It truly is an honor."
This just raises so many wonderful possibilities. First off, I'm scrapping this blog post haste--it's all Belgium all the time from here on out (Beervana, pah!). Second, I'm starting a Belgian beer blog that will feature a lot of words like "post haste." Third, I will begin a Portland society of Belgian-beer knights, and we will parade around the Oregon Brewers Fest in robes that look like tulip glasses of Flemish Red Ale. We will call ourselves the Western Royal Order of the Duchesse.

Or perhaps I should just pioneer the Knights of Beervana and then we can selectively knight Belgians and hope for reciprocity (sort of like link-trading among bloggers). It may go nowhere, but the meetings would sure be fun.