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Friday, April 30, 2010

Cheers to Belgian Beers, Picks and More

Well, no more from breweries, so I'm calling it final. You can find a .pdf of my ultimate guide, formatted nicely, for your printing enjoyment (probably it should be called the half-ultimate, since it features just half the breweries).

Cheers to Belgian Beers

Bill asked in comments if these represent my picks of the fest. They do not. Here's my list, and I'll probably be prevailing upon Sally to help me get through it all. I would love to try every single beer using the yeast, actually, but that's going to be impossible. So here's how I'll divide the baby:
  • Big Horse Cuvee de Ferme
  • Block 15 La Ferme' de Demons
  • Cascade Frite Galois
  • Deschutes Tropisch Bruin
  • Double Mountain Bonne Idee Kriek
  • Fort George Magnifera Indica Belgae
  • Hopworks DiaBlato
  • Laurelwood Infared [maybe]
  • Oakshire La Ferme
  • Old Market Red Headed Stepchild [maybe]
  • Roots Brune O
  • Silver Moon Saison de Moon
  • Upright Mingus and Monk
  • Widmer Biere de Table
But I'll also listen to what the buzz is and change gears as appropriate.
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Cheers to Belgian Beers: The Ultimate Primer

Post has been updated: Lucky Lab Doggie Kong added to the list.

Over the past couple days, I've been trying to track down as many breweries as I could to find out more about the beers they made for the Cheers to Belgian Beers fest. I was interested in the methods as much as ingredients of the beers. Many got back to me, and below are excerpts of their responses.

I considered trying to recreate their responses in neutral Jeff-speak, but I like the way each told his own story. As you'll see, some breweries went to elaborate lengths to create interesting beers. As a consequence, it's a looooooong post (though I've put in a page break). I hope to hear from more, so I'll update the page as needed throughout the day. I'll also post a pdf with this whole document in case you want to print it off for the fest.

Enjoy!


Ambacht
Name: Ambacht Black Gold
Concept: Brewer Tom Kramer described his beer: "Ambacht Black Gold that we brewed for the PCTBB is a variation on our regular Ambacht Black Gold that brewed with the Farmhouse strain of yeast and bumped the OG up a bit to make it a bit more festive.
Method: "We brewed it early February, just after the yeast became available and it spent two weeks in the primary getting up to 80°F, we then let it age for a month at about 50°F before kegging/bottling. We carbonate all our beers withhoney which we find leaves just a bit of residual sweetness to the taste."
Comments: "The farmhouse yeast added some new flavors and we are very happy with how it turned out."
Stats: 15.2P, 6.8% ABV, 25 IBU


Big Horse Brewpub
Name: Cuvee Du Ferme
Concept: If you haven't been to Big Horse in the past year or two, you need to go try new(ish) brewer Jason Kahler's beers. "Describing "Cuvee Du Ferme" gets a little complicated, because two of the three beers going into it were experimental in process. All three use the selected strain; I suspect people will assume that it involves other "yeast." It does not."
Method: " I brewed the 2 younger beers in early Feb. and allowed them to condition warm until about 2 weeks ago. Sour Mash Wheat: 72% of the blend, FV temp. 78F, sour mashed 1/2 the grain for 48hrs. Rye Saison: 24% of the blend, FV temp. 80F. The Old Gold: 4% was a beer I did years ago with the [same strain of yeast], I put up a 1/2 barrel of it with pediococcus/lactobacillis and let it ride at ambient temps, hot in summer, cold in winter. This beer on its own is very acid, it's one that I use strictly for blending."
Comments: "[The soured beer] adds a layer to the cuvee that I really enjoy. As far as the [festival] strain is concerned, it is probably my favorite of the commercial Belgians.
Stats: Final, blended beer 6.3% ABV

Click to expand and continue reading...


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Thursday, April 29, 2010

More on Anchor

In case you don't read the Brookston Bulletin regularly, let me direct your attention to this post by Jay Brooks. He met with one of the new Anchor owners and got a very nice exclusive. Looks like things won't be as bad as expected, and that bizarre announcement on Tuesday was actually just a misfire--the news was supposed to come out next week. (Incidentally, I also got that press release everyone else received yesterday, evidence that they had a media strategy ready. Otherwise, why would low-volume bloggers like me be on their mailing list?)

Oregon Emerging as Premium Hops Producer

John Foyston has a fascinating article in today's Oregonian. It revolves around Indie Hops, a company north of Woodburn that is seeking to become the source of premier hops for craft breweries.
"We decided from the start to scale this to craft breweries and not the industrial brewers. Craft brewing has basically grown up on trickle-down from the mega brewers," such as AB InBev (Budweiser) and SABMiller, he said. "But craft brewers have come into their own."

[T]he Indie Hops business plan ... aims to elevate Oregon's aroma hops to among the best in the world and provide the state with a processing and storage infrastructure that now exists mainly in Yakima.... "Nearly everybody -- hop geneticists, brewers, and even farmers in the Yakima Valley -- confirmed for us that Oregon's Willamette Valley was the best terroir for aroma hops in America," Solberg said of the research he and Worthington undertook on the way to building the only U.S. hop merchant devoted solely to craft brewing and Oregon aroma hops.
One fascinating tidbit from the article: Indie has developed a hop pelletizer that only heats the hops to 110 degrees. Other commercial pelletizers are built for higher volume and heat hops to 130 to 140 degrees as they crush and extrude them. You may be aware of the big debate among breweries about whether pellets are an inferior form of hops. Pellet partisans have always maintained that, since they're just compressed whole hops, they're effectively just the same. Breweries use pellets because they store better and are less bulky for storage and use.

I wasn't aware that the process heated the hops up to 140 degrees, though. That's a big deal. Much of what gives hops their oomph is contained in volatile essential oils. Crushing hops bursts lupulin, exposing these oils to the air; the addition of heat must further drive off these compounds. At 110 degrees, there's probably still some loss, but it would be less severe--especially when you consider how warm it is in a hop dryer anyway.

So, go read the whole thing. As with all Foyston pieces, it's well worth your time.
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PHOTO: JIM MERITHEW, WIRED | Share

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rain Squalls Make...




Cheers To Belgian Beers

Beer is local. Even if it's not brewed locally, the way people consume it, and the types of beer they consume reflect local attitudes. In places where breweries and beer culture flower, local happenings can be pretty cool. On Saturday, one of my favorite local events takes place as Hopworks hosts the fourth annual Cheers to Belgian Beers fest. It started as an informal agreement among a few Portland breweries to produce a beer with the same Belgian yeast strain and has grown to be a statewide, Brewers-Guild-sponsored event with 29 breweries and 33 beers.
Cheers to Belgian Beers
Saturday, May 1, noon - 9pm
Hopworks, upper parking lot
2944 SE Powell Blvd
Free; $5 for required tasting goblet, $1 pours
This year's yeast strain is Wyeast 3726, a farmhouse strain from Brasserie de Blaugies. Blaugies brews Saison D'epeautre, an highly-carbonated, tart spelt version (epeautre means spelt). Although I haven't had the pleasure, theirs sounds like a throwback example, recalling the sour saisons that were common until 100 years ago. The yeast itself appears to be quite flexible, with high temperature tolerance, but none of the Dupont strain's finickiness. The attenuation is listed as 74%-79%--not especially high--but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that breweries managed to exceed that. It can produce complex esters and spice character (presumably at higher temperatures.)

In any case, this should be the best event yet: saison strains have the flexibility to produce a broad spectrum of styles, and depending on how the breweries use it, should also express substantially different character. Previous fests fell to difficult strains that bent beer to their will, rather than vice versa.

In early editions of the fest, breweries weren't limited in the style they could make; perversely, this resulted in a lot of very similar beers. To rectify that, the Brewers Guild now hosts a selection event where breweries toss darts to determine whether their beer will fit into one of four quadrants: high alcohol/light color, high alcohol/dark color, low alcohol/light color, low alcohol/dark color. Looks like we'll have some real diversity this year, too (list is in pdf):
  • Five beers exceed 9% (with host Hopworks busting out a monster 11-percenter).
  • Widmer is bringing a 3.7% table beer. Sorry, biere.
  • Lots of breweries went sour, including Deschutes, who used tamarind (an idea I was flirting with for a homebrew recently--damn you, Deschutes!).
  • At least five are barrel-aged.
  • Fruit additions include cherry, currant, and mango--in addition to the tamarind.
  • Spice additions include pepper, ginger, orange, lemon, and grapefruit peel, coriander, rosehips, and grains of paradise.
Consider this just a taste--I'll do a subsequent post with a bit more depth and include my picks (which will be, as usual, a crapshoot). In any case, I am getting pretty psyched. It looks like our fair brewers went all-out this year.
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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The End of the First Generation of Craft Brewing

Note: this post has updates.

The wonderful thing about the youthfulness of craft brewing is that most of the breweries are Mom and Pop outfits. Even breweries like Widmer and Deschutes are run by the people who founded them. We relate to the breweries in part through the familiar personalities of the founders. It's a labor of love, and that's part of the allure. But what happens when Pop sells out?

Fritz Maytag was so far ahead of the craft brewing curve that he doesn't usually get credit as the founder of the movement. It was over a decade after he bought San Francisco's dying Anchor Brewery until the first started-from-scratch micro opened (Jack McAuliffe's New Albion). Yet he gets the credit. Not only did he brew craft beer (natural ingredients, no cereal grains, robust styles), but he helped guide the first wave of craft brewers--who not coincidentally started in California.

If anyone has earned sainthood for their work reviving good beer in America, it's Fritz. The story of how he took Anchor and turned it around is now told in the manner of a hero myth, and yet here we have the actual man still walking among us--and brewing beer. So unloading the brewery to a couple of vodka guys is more than a little jarring. I have no doubt more than a few sets of teeth gnashed and breasts beaten.

But once again, Fritz is just ahead of the curve. It marks the end of the first generation of craft brewing, when the owners and founders are the same people. Although a number of breweries have already been sold, failed, or absorbed, this is the moment when the future presents itself in sharp clarity. Beer is a product, breweries a business. In the next thirty years, almost all of the extant craft breweries will be under new ownership (a lot of them, to be sure, still in the family). Our kids and grandkids aren't going to relate to beer the way we do. Their relationship to breweries will be like the one our parents had to Henry's. Cool local breweries, maybe, but not more than that.

Things change. We best get used to it.


Update. Stan Hieronymus has an excellent post up with his own thoughts. Jay Brooks has done some reporting and will have his own update soon.
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IPAs and More IPAs: Twisted Thistle and Samuel Smith's

I am working on a project which, if successful, I'll not only tell you more about, but celebrate by dancing around in mad joy. But so far the project is mainly keeping me from better blogging. It's a piece of a piece, and the part I'm working on involves IPAs. I've been trying to find examples to laud, from the US and beyond. In particular, I've been trying to find decent British IPAs--something you'd expect would be easy to do. (You'd be wrong.) I'll review them as I work my way through, so here's the first couple.

Samuel Smith's India Ale
Back when I first started drinking good beer, Tadcaster was a go-to brewery. Imports were hard to get, and nice English imports more so. I loved their oatmeal and imperial stouts, and the nut brown was nice, if sweet. The distinctively-named India Ale never called out to me, but given that it is so widely available and is, after all, an authentic English IPA, I felt I should give it another go. Sometimes a decade does wonders for a beer.

Unfortunately, this beer was a disaster. Even with the important stipulations: modern English IPAs are milder in alcohol and hop than they were in the 1800s and than they are in America. British breweries don't eschew sugar the way we do, but in some beers it's just wrong. I couldn't confirm Sam Smith's uses it here, but it certainly seemed like it. Thin, overly sweet, and harsh in that way sugar alcohol can get. I found it metallic, bordering on sour, and actively unpleasant. There was precious little hopping to be found, and what was there was tepid and undistinguished. There's some chance that part of the problem was age or travel damage, and so I hesitate to write it off completely. Still, what I found in my bottle was undrinkable. I dumped the whole thing.

Belhaven Twisted Thistle
What's the difference between a pale ale and an IPA? Descriptively, an IPA is just stronger and hoppier. Experientially, though, the IPA should give you a pop. Belhaven's isn't a muscular beer (6.1%), and it isn't super hoppy, but it has a wonderful zip to its hopping. I was surprised at the presentation--a light golden with an arctic white head and quite a bit of bead. One could mistake it for a pilsner. The aroma has a touch of diacetyl and caramel, but not so much in the way of hops. Instead, they come out on the tongue. The labels says Belhaven employs Challenger and Cascade hops, but I don't think they're US Cascades. The Challengers are obvious, but the profile is much cleaner and sharper than our pungent, funky hops. Despite the body, it's a creamy beer. Some malt tannins add to the sharpness of the hops, though there's also a touch of caramel. Given the relative paucity of assertive British IPAs, this stands out.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Fritz Maytag Sells Anchor

I thought maybe Ezra was kidding. Nope:
Fritz Maytag, the washing machine heir who launched the microbrewery movement, has sold Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco to a duo of Bay Area entrepreneurs who plan to preserve and expand the iconic brand.... The new owners of Anchor Brewing plan to capitalize on the firm's reputation to expand their footprint in distinctive beers and spirits. Through their Griffin Group investment company, Greggor and Foglio have already acquired Preiss Imports, a 14-person San Diego firm that specializes in fine spirits. They also have a minority interest in BrewDog PLC, a large independent brewery in Scotland, and hope to make that brew locally.

Beer on the Today Show

Hopworks brewer Ben Love sent out a link to an interesting clip this afternoon of a Today show beer tasting. He was interested in the content that begins at about the 1:45 mark--when they taste the Ace of Spades. In fact, it's the only brewery that gets two beers in the line-up. Quite a coup.

I, however, was interested in the absolute inexperience of the tasters. (Sorry, I have no idea who these folks are. The last host I recall was Bryant Gumble. The guy who brought the beer knows his stuff, though.) Have a look.



This is both encouraging and alarming. Alarming, obviously, because despite how much we think craft beers have made it ("we" being Oregonians), this indicates otherwise. The VAST majority of Americans have never tasted a craft beer. But it's encouraging because the tasters are able to instantly get their bearings. Tasting the barleywine, the host tentatively describes it as "caramelly." Nice! See, beer's not so hard--once you actually crack a good one.
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Good Question: Why Do We Spend More for Bombers?

I left town late Friday morning and missed a fascinating discussion about beer pricing. Bill at It's Pub Night starts off the discussion with a data point:
But there's a related pricing issue that doesn't make any sense at all: the disparity between the retail prices of 22-ounce bombers and 12-ounce bottles sold in 6- or 12-packs.... For each of the above beers, I took the lowest big-bottle price and compared its SPE to that of the lowest small-bottle price. That highlights another aspect of the bomber trickery: bomber prices are marked down less frequently than 6-packs or 12-packs, which are on sale almost every single day at big groceries.
In his careful way, Bill also details the price disparities on several types of beer where six-pack and bombers are both for sale in a grocery store. So: 22-ounce bombers are more expensive than six-packs on a per-ounce basis.

Our resident beeronomist, Patrick Emerson, takes the data point and explains it.
The answer, to economists, is well known and goes by the term 'price discrimination,' or more specifically in this case 'second-degree price discrimination.' Price discrimination in general is the ability to charge different customers different prices for the same good based on their ability to pay. You charge more to people who value the good more and less to those that don't....

This is classic third degree price discrimination and can be applied to Bill's 22 ounce bottles as well. There are low demanders for these beers who want just a wee bit to taste and high demander who will drink much more. By pricing the 22 ounce bottle so much higher you charge a premium to the low demanders and you give a discount to the high demanders by offering them a volume discount in six packs (and generally even better deals with 12 packs).
While I think Patrick's explanation is probably sufficient for economists (practitioners of the dismal science), I wonder if it leaves something out. One is always reluctant to use personal experience as a proxy for human behavior, but, owing to the rather fluid standards of this blog, I'll make an exception. When I walk into a store looking for a new beer, I have several complementary and competing criteria floating around unexamined in my mind. I want a beer that will offer me: value, novelty, quality and quantity.

I look at the new beers and I see if there's anything I haven't tried. Mostly, breweries are now introducing their new beers in 22s before they commit to putting them out in sixers. (The expense to launch a new line of sixers is greater than bottling up a single run of 22s.) Most of the variety exists on the 22s side, so that's where my impulse for novelty guides me. Pretty much only quality beers are offered in 22s. Cut-rate or faux micros almost never make it into 22s. So far I'm two for two. Now comes the issue of pricing. If a 22 is five dollars or less, its absolute cost is lower than a sixer. This pleases my unsophisticated lizard brain, which isn't adept at making per-ounce calculations on the fly. I'm just thinking that I'll spend more for a 22 than a sixer. Which takes us to the final criterion: quantity. A bomber seems like a fair amount of beer. Again, my unsophisticated mind isn't adept at thinking of volumes clearly. It's a big bottle, it will satisfy my impulse, and it even seems like a value--more beer than a pour in a pub, at about the same price. Off I go with my bomber, thinking I've gotten a pretty good deal.

This doesn't apply to bombers priced north of $5 (I always balk at $6 Pelican, and I observe myself and wonder why that dollar makes such a difference). And when I see a particularly cheap sixer of beer I admire, I'm willing to forgo novelty. So the criteria sometimes do change my decisions.

I suspect this is in line with Patrick's theory, but I'd be interested to hear if economists have gotten into that fine-grained study of motivations.
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Friday, April 23, 2010

GQ Lauds Double Mountain

With a hat tip to the Beer Goddess, I offer you a link to another "best of" list. I'm constantly railing against these things as fools' errands, but in this case, it's worth noting that they only selected two non-bottled beer, and one was Double Mountain's Irish Stout. (An odd choice, given its rarity, but who's arguing?) The list includes international beers regularly available in the US and has a lot of the great hits: Saison Dupont, Orval, Rodenbach, Westvleteren Abt 12, Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout, etc. They threw in a number of well-regarded American brews, and actually mixed things up a bit. The list tilts heavily toward Belgian-style beers (many brewed here). You always can have beefs with these things, but as lists go, it's fine. This is what they said about the beer:
Why do we import Guinness when we have this right here? Brewed in Oregon, this has that creaminess you love in Guinness, but with real flavor—pleasantly roasty, with a hint of dark-chocolate bitterness.
That they decided to single out Double Mountain indicates that its reputation for good beer is growing. Oregon got pretty well stiffed--Rogue was the only other brewery making the cut. But congrats to Double Mountain. This is actually pretty cool. An easier way to scan the list is here.

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Finally Certified: Deschutes Brewery

Back at the start of the Honest Pint Project, when I was feeling embarrassed about how half-assed the whole thing was (probably following the Wall Street Journal article), I decided to make an official logo. I sent out a call for photos of a full, honest pint glass, and got back that lovely, beaded Black Butte Porter you see in the finished version--straight from Deschutes. They subsequently changed their glassware, going from generic imperials to their current embossed Rastal glasses, which sport the gold standard of honest pint transparency, an etched line so the customer can see if she's getting short-poured or not (see out-of-focus photo at the end of the post). All of which is to say that the fact that I hadn't officially certified the brewery is worse than a venial sin. Surely a mortal. Ah, but this is a forgiving business, and after a pint of cleansing pilsner, I believe I'm in the clear. And now Deschutes Brewery--both Portland and Bend pubs--are officially certified.


Deschutes Brewery
Certified Purveyor of an Honest Pint
1044 Bond Street
Bend, OR 97701
(541) 382-9242

Deschutes Portland Pub
210 NW 11th Avenue
Portland, OR 97209
(503) 296-4906


I don't think anyone in the world needs my encouragement to visit the brewery. Like Widmer, Deschutes always has a few pub-only specials, and at least one is usually exceptional. The beer in the certification photo is a pilsner, 5.5%, 37 IBUs, lovely hop character and a totally delightful beer. I regret we don't have more freshly-brewed pilsners on tap around Beervana. They also are pouring their new CDA as well as a silky cream ale. Plus, of course, a couple cask taps, which is reason enough to go.

Once again, thanks much for the photo guys, and sorry it took so long to get you certified. Cheers!


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Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Bridge Too Far? Introducing Meat Stout

I haven't mentioned this explicitly, but there are a couple blogs you should be reading: Zythophile, by Martyn Cornell, and Shut Up About Barclay Perkins by Ron Pattinson. Both are historians, and both delight at slaughtering sacred cows. Sample killing: Cornell on the stata of myth surrounding Pliny the Elder; Pattinson on the barleywine strength "mild ales" of yore (lesson: milds weren't always weak).

But it's not all high fiber. Sometimes one of these blokes stumbles across an amazing historical curiosity, and today, Cornell offers us "meat stout." It is not a euphemism:
What lay behind the invention of Meat Stout? According to one Blackburn historian, Colin Pritt, “It is rumoured that the natives complained about the gravity or quality of the stout, so the brewer threw a side of beef, or similar, into his next brew and it gave it more ‘body’. They then added some meat product to the brew ever after (probably offal, as it was cheap).”
Cornell includes two advertisements for Mercer's Meat Stout, but you'll have to click through to see them.

Oregon brewers have lately gotten experimental. You can't swing a dead cat without knocking an oyster stout off the table. But meat stout? I challenge our local brewers to give it a try. The next Brothers' Reserve perhaps? A Hopworks seasonal? Perhaps a joint venture with Le Pigeon or Beast. Just one warning, offered by Cornell, though: mind the fat, otherwise it will "give you rancid off flavours as it ages."

Mmmmm....
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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Advice: How to Attract Media Attention

I receive three or four press releases on an average day in my inbox. For round numbers, call it twenty a week, eighty a month. Of these, I will post maybe four items--or 5%. I'm a bit harsher than the average blogger; I don't do a lot of event or release posting. But even among those bloggers who do, you have to figure that for every press release that goes out, probably only one or two sites will mention it at all. The issue here is that the people sending press releases and those receiving them have very different experiences.

Sender's View
Breweries and event organizers are really excited about their product. They think: "[Beer/Event X] is the best [beer/event] in the world. It commands all my attention and interest, and I have spent so much time working on this [beer/event] that its genius is self-evident. All I need to do is communicate how transcendent this [beer/even] is and people will want to write about it." And thereafter they compose a press release describing the beer or event as the best beer or event the world has ever seen.

Writer's View
"Let's see what I have in the old inbox this morning. Ah, an invitation to attend a beer release in New Jersey. Delete. An announcement that a brewpub has released a new IPA, their fourth. Delete. Information about a series of beer dinners at Restaurant Y. Hmmm, maybe I'll save this one in case I get really desperate for content later this week. An old email with information about a series of meet-the-brewers dates saved in case I got really desperate. Out of date. Delete."

Yesterday's post about the Apple iPhone "discovery" is an instructive counterpoint. I have no confirmation that commenter Gary McMahon's suspicions are true, but it seems likely: "I keep thinking of all the 'secret photos' of new vehicles in car magazines...given Jobs' history, I'm betting the 'done on purpose' scenario." If so, it was a perfect illustration of how to get good press.

Give the Writer a Hook
If you have a product and you want coverage, you have to give the writer a hook. Literally dozens of beers are released every week and, notwithstanding the opinion of the brewer, most aren't going to be earth-shattering brewing achievements. Events fill the annual beer calendar. Some are good, some aren't.

Personally, I chafe at Dogfish Head. It's a good brewery, but one among a pretty large crowd. Yet it gets at least as much press as all the other 1500 craft breweries combined. How? It doesn't hurt that it's relatively near NYC, but beyond that, Sam Calagione does an amazing job offering the press interesting stories to cover. Continual hopping, that hop-infuser thing, the South American wood casks, chicha beer. The brewery is constantly telling fascinating stories and making sure the press knows about it.

Get Creative
I just got an extremely cool invitation in the mail from Goose Island. They're hosting a tasting for the press next Thursday. The invite came in a black envelope sealed with a sticker reading "MATILDA." Inside is a beautiful invitation and three cards with information about the beers and brewery. No doubt this was spendy. Five bucks an invite, maybe? But the impact is impressive, and it underscores Goose Island's current branding. They want to seize the upscale Belgian market, and this invitation communicates luxury.

Think of ways to stand out from a crowd. When Double Mountain released their kriek last summer, Matt Swihart showed up with the cherries from the orchard he'd used in the beer. When Full Sail released their Berliner Wiesse last year, they made sure to get traditional Woodruff syrup to go along with it. Zwickelmania is such a hit because people get that value-added experience of trying beer straight from the tank. There are a lot of very interesting facets to beer and brewing, and you'd do well to figure out a way to fold those into new releases.

Make Yourself Available
Don't send me a press release. Invite me to your brewery. Even if I don't like the beer you're releasing, if you take the time to sit down, have a pint, and tell me why you love this beer, I am almost certainly going to write about it. It's almost axiomatic that brewers are cool people. (I hold out the possibility that there's a jerk somewhere, but I honestly haven't found him yet.) Put a brewer and a beer writer together, and you will get a story. More importantly, you'll get a better story. The writer will be drawn into the subject and spend more time thinking and writing it. Send a press release and you'll probably get a press releasey post--generic and dull.

Make Good Beer
I suppose it goes without saying, but I'll say it. If you brew good beer, I'll find it and drink it and write about it. I'm starting to get on a few breweries' mailing lists, but the honest truth is that this isn't necessary. I like beer and I want to try new beer. We all have different tastes, and what I think is an A beer, writer X may find so-so and vice versa. But in the main, good beers get good press.

Keep sending the press releases. It's good for me to know when new beers hit the market and which events are around the corner. But don't stop there. If you want press, your work only starts with a press release.


Update. Right on cue, here's the latest news from Dogfish: a beer to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis' Bitches' Brew.
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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Classic Story: Engineer Walks Into A Bar...

So yesterday, Gizmodo got a hold of what it breathlessly described as the latest Apple iPhone. I saw the story and clicked through, amazed that so much buzz could be created by such little story. ("It's clear that the features in this lost-and-found next-generation iPhone are drastically new and drastically different from what came before." Like, for example, it's squarish! The volume button isn't a single button anymore--there are two! There appears to be a video cam on the front! Okay, that one is new.)

Today we get the rest of the story. Yup, it's a new iPhone, all right, and Apple wants it back. But how did it get into the hands of the dastardly (and comic) press? Beer.
Apple engineer Gray Powell, who was working on the Baseband Software that will allow the phone to actually make calls, lost the device at the beer garden not far from company headquarters, where he was celebrating his 27th birthday. He'd been testing it, disguised as a 3GS. His status update sent from the phone read, “I underestimated how good German beer is.”
A rookie mistake. Beer bloggers and other tech-dependent pub-goers know that you never take your phone out of your pocket except to use it. We've all been there: a few panicked moments patting every pocket and craning around wildly, trying to remember where you've been. Pretty much one of those adrenalated buzz-kills is all you need to mend your ways.

My guess? Powell has learned his lesson.
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Monday, April 19, 2010

A Sprawling Post About Cask Ale

The Green Dragon hosted the third annual Firkin Fest over the weekend, and it was the first I was able to attend. A very nice event, and some nice beers, but I have to say, I walked away thinking that I was witnessing one of the very few thin spots in the dense culture of beer that otherwise pervades the Northwest.

Cask conditioning is a process, of course. We seem to do well enough as far as this goes--for as long as I've been drinking beer in Portland, cask ale has been available. It's a traditional process, a fussy one, and arguably a more "natural" one. I could imagine cask ale existing for these reasons alone--traditionalists always like to promote the old ways. (Reinheitsgebot is just silly, but it has its ardent defenders.) If you stop at the process, you're really missing the point. Because, while cask ale does require a different process of packaging and handling to reach your glass, the real reason to drink cask ale is because it tastes different.

Beer that has been cask-conditioned, with its warmer serving temperature and--critically--lower levels of carbonation, will express different flavors than regular draft ale. Carbonation interferes with some of the flavor and aroma compounds, but on cask, these are revealed in what I think of as their naked, raw state. As a consequence, beers that are uninspired on regular draft may reveal levels of depth and complexity when they're served on cask. In particular, smaller beers with nuanced hop and malt complexity really shine.

Now, here comes the problem. Northwest drinkers are rarely looking for smaller beers. If a brewery offers a luscious bitter, redolent of nuts, toast, and pine, alongside an average IPA, people will uniformly go for the IPA. I don't have a huge problem with this, because local preferences are what guide the emergence of local beer culture. (They don't drink oud bruins in Germany not because oud bruins aren't good, but because people like lagers.) C'est la vie.

However! On cask, everything changes. That same bitter--subdued, subtle, and just too staid for hopheads--will be a totally different beer on cask. The hops will sing, the malts will be rich and balanced, and even hopheads would find it satisfying. And interestingly, many huge beers don't fare so well on cask. Often even exceptional big beers seem muddy and average when you switch them to cask. Where cask allows a smaller beer the room to swing its elbows and open up, these bigger beers are already at the maximum flavor--opening these up makes them lose focus and seem muddy and indistinct. (That's not uniformly true. Cask ales are a witchy business, and I think breweries just have to put their beers on cask and see whether they work.)

All of which brings us--at long last!--to the Firkin Fest. Nearly all the beers there were huge and/or hop monsters. I congratulate Hopworks for sending a mild ale, the perfect choice for a cask fest, and also the host Green Dragon, which brewed up a minerally bitter specially for the event. The mild was murky and smelled of swamp (later, I saw Ben Love, who conceded that they may have overdone the finings), but was a lovely beer once it reached the tongue. Full of flavor, nicely balanced, springy hop character. The bitter was sadly heavy on the tannin side. And Deschutes, which has long been great about producing wonderful cask ales, including Bachelor Bitter, sent Twilight, which was delightful. Far more richly flavored than the (also tasty) version you get in the bottle.

But beyond that, there were few beers I could see that had been designed to really pop on cask. I think there were 17 firkins, and I bet there were at least a half dozen IPAs. Lots of breweries, in fact, just sent cask versions of regular beers. Beer Valley, which actually produces a mild ale, sent a blended cask of their imperial pale and imperial stout. (Even Ted Sobel of all-cask Brewers Union brought a strange duck--his Ardennes-yeasted Cascadian dark ale. Fortunately, I got a pint of 5.2% pale at Belmont Station the night before--and it was fantastic.)

I hope next year breweries take the opportunity to brew up a firkin or two of beer specifically for the event and take advantage of the opportunity to brew a beer that will shine on cask. This event could help spark at least a robust niche of cask fiends if the beers expressed their innate cask-i-tude.

It's always important to include caveats, and so here's mine. The best beer I tried at the fest, and it was the best by a long shot, was an IPA. A dry-hopped version of Double Mountain's IRA. Holy crap, was that a fantastic beer. The malts were toasty and honeyed, and the hops ... words fail. What a beer.

So there you go: cask ale is great with smaller beers because it allows the subtle nuances to come out, except when a beer like dry-hopped IRA comes along, and then it's the best. That's my final word.
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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pics from the Firkin Fest

More to come, but here's a few pics...

That's a fine sight.


Firkins.


Business end.


Ted Sobel, his beer, and his honest pint glasses.

Friday, April 16, 2010

OLCC's New Happy Hour Rules: Solomonic Stupidity

Laura Gunderson has an interesting piece in today's Oregonian (the print version only, of course--the O is in usual form about getting its content online) about a change to the OLCC's law prohibiting pubs from advertising happy hours:
"The commission will allow outdoor signs or web sites to advertise the time a deal is in place or the cost of drinks--not both. No matter how good it may sound, working such as '$4 ladies-night margaritas on Thursdays' won't fly."
This is like how one lie leads you into a thicket of convoluted, conflicting lies. In the OLCC's case, it's not lies, but stupid rationales. The commission has always been characterized by a strongly Puritan streak and one assumption seems to govern all decisions: the evil drink will corrupt men's souls, and we must do our part to make sure the twain meet only after navigating our Kafkaesque bureaucracy. We will tie up pubs with red tape.

Advertising for happy hours is bad, obviously, because it will, you know, encourage people to go to bars. But since the OLCC can't dictate what price bars sell a pint of beer for, the best they could do was prohibit them from advertising cheap pours. Now they say: well, you can advertise prices or times of discounts--but not both together. How on earth did they come to this divide-the-baby solution? Gunderson quotes an OLCC spokeswoman saying that it will "ensure against price wars." Good god. (I await the Beeronomist's take on that bit of wisdom.)

And how does this stop sites from listing this same information? It doesn't. Barfly does a great job cataloging this info, and others like Urban Drinks offer versions as well. So the info can appear on a website, just not a website operated by the pub offering the happy hour. A rule that makes sense only to the OLCC.
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Officially Certified: Raccoon Lodge

There remain a number of Portland pubs and breweries who serve honest pints but whom I haven't officially certified. One of two of the most egregious oversights on this score is the Raccoon Lodge, which was the first place ever to change their glassware to come into compliance. Well, thanks to that pint of Kriek, now it's official:


Raccoon Lodge Brewpub
Certified Purveyor of an Honest Pint
7424 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway
Portland, OR 97225
503.296.0110



That picture doesn't do it justice, but the elixir in the glass is indeed the Kriek--but don't bother trying to get a pint of it. That was a server misfire, and one of the luckier moments of my pub-going career. You can get a goblet of the Kriek, though, or a pint of any of Ron Gansberg's other beer. The west side isn't exactly festooned with joints serving honest pints, nor pints of great beer, so this should definitely be a go-to watering hole for those out past the hills.
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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Largest US Breweries

The Brewers Association has released their annual survey of the largest breweries and craft breweries in America. I'll direct you to Jay Brooks' annotated version of the list, because he offers more details. Here are the Northwest breweries on the list (with Jay's annotations):
8. Craft Brewers Alliance [Widmer/Redhook]; Moved down 1
12. Pyramid Breweries (IBU); Down 1, after two years moving up
13. Deschutes Brewery; Down 1
22. Full Sail Brewing; Down 5, primarily from removing contract beers from their total to give a more accurate figure of their own brands
34. Rogue Ales/Oregon Brewing; Up 2 from #36, canceling being Down 2 last year, and Up 2 the year before that
47. BridgePort Brewing (Gambrinus); Down 3 from #44 last year
Biggest movers (five slots or more):
24. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery; Shot up 9 from #33, after being up 5 and 4 the two previous years
25. Iron City Brewing; Plummeted 12, after a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and moving production out of Pittsburgh
30. Anchor Brewing; Down 6 from #24
31. Shipyard Brewing; Down 5 from #26 last year
37. Mendocino Brewing; Down 8 from #29 last year
41. Victory Brewing; Up 5 from #46 last year
Jay also has the list of largest craft breweries.
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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

New Brothers' Reserve: Widmer Braggot

"Her mouth was sweet as bra[ggo]t, or the nieth or hord of apples Laid in bey or heth."
~Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
I always feel that, when you're sitting down to review a beverage in a style you've never tried, it's best to start out with an inexplicable quote in Middle English. (Which sounds, perhaps not unexpectedly, like drunk-speak.) Throw the reader off, that's my motto.

So today we confront the second in Widmer's new Brothers' Reserve series: a prickly pear braggot. This raises two questions:
  1. What's a braggot?
  2. What's a prickly pear?
Well, I guess the first question has already been answered: a neith of apples in bey or heth. Obviously. Actually, it's an old-timey English drink, a mixture of mead and ale. Very few commercial examples exist, and certainly none with a lineage back to historic times. How it was originally made, why, and what it tasted like--well, Chaucer may be as close as we get. (It's well to remember that beer of Chaucer's vintage would have been sour and wild; brewer Ben Dobler suggests that maybe breweries used to cut sour old ale with sweet mead to make it more palatable. Or perhaps it was because ale was taxed heavily and beer was not--or vice versa. Or maybe it was just because a brewer one day had the wild idea to dump a half cask of ale into a half cask of mead and it was a success. Who knows.)

To the second question. Prickly pears are a type of cactus that grow in the Southwest and Mexico. They have a paddle-shaped stems where water is stored and from these sprout little fruits which apparently taste like tomatoes (ish). The brewery used the tomato-tasting fruit in this recipe. As you can see, it is a vibrant red, but little of the color came through in their braggot, to general disappointment. And why prickly pears? Head brewer Joe Casey, who is from New Mexico, fancied them. We can imagine what the braggot might have tasted like if he were from Idaho, but alas, we have only the prickly pear variety to judge.

Meads are, of course, beverages made of fermented honey. The Widmers used knapweed honey, selected because it has a spicy, earthy quality. My sense is that a typical braggot would normally have about half honey and half ale, but this is somehow illegal (stupid American liquor laws), so the Brothers' braggot was made with 60% malt, 25% honey, and 15% prickly pear. (The honey arrived in 55 gallon drums, partly crystallized, and made for some very gross labor. I'll attach a video at the end, and you can see how it got everywhere. Remember kids, brewing is glamorous!)

Tasting Notes
As you can see from the photo, it's a lovely honey-colored beer. Upon pouring or swirling, it rouses an amazing tornado of tiny bubbles (and all of us stood around rousing). The aroma reminded me of saison, a bit herbal, a bit Belgiany. Brady, standing next to me, dismissed this: "boozy," he declared. True, it's strongly alcoholic, which is also the predominant note on the tongue. Some meads are heavy and viscous, but the braggot was quite thin--more like a fortified Belgian strong. The honey emerges if you let it warm a bit, and it then tends toward the sweet. More subtle notes are herbal and earthy. The prickly pear? Unfortunately, I wasn't able to identify anything obvious. Perhaps those familiar with the flavor could sniff out its contribution.

In the end, it's not too foreign or exotic. Those who know and like beer will not feel like this is too far afield; on the other hand, it might also make a nice beer for the wine-drinkers. (A testable hypothesis.) You end up feeling like you've been taken to the shallow end of the strange pool--an enjoyable, safe place to be. I would recommend everyone try a glass or bottle; it's a fun drink. And my guess is that this won't be the last braggot we see, so let it be a baseline if, like me, you've never encountered this ancient beverage.


Okay, here's that video:


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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

At sometime around 4pm yesterday afternoon, Cascade Brewing announced that they were pouring the new vintage of kriek at the Raccoon Lodge; by six-thirty, Sally and I were asking the waiter for a pour. Fortunately, we were his first kriek customers of the day (we were, in fact, how he learned it had come on tap), and he blundered and brought us full imperial pints.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, this is a beer that generally sells for about $15 a bottle, so a five-dollar pint was a steal. (It's worth the fifteen, by the way.) The Blazer game started while we were there, and so we generally had a great time. Still, there were aspects to the experience that reminded me I was definitely not on the east side anymore.

Portland, Oregon is divided in half by the Willamette River (pr. wuh LAM it, for those of you from elsewhere). And when I say divided, I mean divided. It's essentially two cities that overlap, like a Venn diagram, in the downtown region. On the east side are the things Portland is most famous for--distinctive neighborhoods, bikes, good restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops. It is a very social, connected part of town. The west side is more like standard American cities, a hodgepodge of national chain stories and strip malls with indistinct neighborhoods tied together by a tangle of major roads--a place where houses form the nexus of social life.

After grad school, back in about '96, I drove a cab for a year. (Broadway, cab 133.) It was axiomatic that you were either a west-side driver or an east-sider. In that entire year, not a single fare ever asked to go from the east side to anyplace in the west. I have no doubt that the reverse was true, too.

So last night, there we are, settling in for a lovely pint of kriek, and my eye is drawn to the massive screen with Blazer pre-game activity. Sally is facing the other way, and she sees what's on a little TV in the corner: Fox News. Hannity or someone iconic. This is not alarming so much as mystifying. East Portland is that socialist hell about which Sarah Palin frets. Well, not really, but they'd like it to be. The only way Fox News would make it onto the television in an east-side pub is for irony. But hey, different strokes. In front of the bar, we're all brothers.

What really caught me by surprise was a quartet at the table next to us. One guy was drinking beer from a bottle, one woman had soda, and two others had pints of something pale. When they got up to leave, the woman with a pint had managed to drink about half, but the man's was almost completely full. They left and Sally and I wondered where they were going. Obviously, they weren't leaving, for they had left their beer. We held onto this misconception right until a woman cleared the table.

There's no moral to this story, but I am glad Cascade is putting a barrel house over on the east side, walking distance from my house. No one should ever stray a Ron Gansberg pint--and they won't on this side of the river.
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Monday, April 12, 2010

On a Spring Afternoon

It's nice to see the breweries blooming. This scene is about a half hour old--tanks arriving at Coalition Brewery.

Does Beer Matter?

Always fashionably late to a party, I arrive at this international fête fully ten days after the fact. Nevertheless, it's a timeless topic, and therefore one requiring no punctuality. The topic of the party was posed by the dyspeptic Beer Nut who asks, does beer matter? And then answers no:
Beer is a luxury commodity, an enjoyable way to dispose of my disposable income. It's fun, it's frivolous, it's entertaining, it's a social nucleation point. But it doesn't matter. If it wasn't beer it'd be something else. Indeed for most people it is something else.

From here the Nut goes on a pretty extensive rant about how people who line up for special releases are kidding themselves, that the breweries who put out special releases are scamming the rubes, and how the whole affair smacks of elitism we proles despise among the effete oenophiles. Thereafter, Alan and Stephen and Pivni Filosof behave like bad guests and dispatch the argument in short order.

We would have to take this to a tiresome level of etymological analysis to resolve matters (pun intended), but I'll just add the only kind of comment a late arrival can--an obvious one. Beer provides a small but significant group with a respectably textured form of diversion--less than the one engaged in by monastic priests, but more than that of fans of American Idol. If it didn't matter, why would we still be debating the point?

Which reminds me--on Tuesday I get to taste that prickly-pear braggot the Widmers are just about to release. Limited quantities, so be sure to race out and get your bottle soon!

Friday, April 09, 2010

Spring Beer Fest Winners

One of the more interesting aspects to the Spring Beer and Wine Festival is the tradition of voting for a "People's Choice." The fest hands out ballots and people identify their first, second, and third-place votes. I find it fascinating because it tells you something about what the market for craft beer is. Folks who go to the Spring Beer Fest are self-selected craft beer fans, though they're not by and large fanatics like the people who read and write blogs. The last three years, they've chosen Astoria Brewing's Bitter Bitch, one of my least favorite beers in Oregon. It's visciously hopped and magnificently out of balance. (And if I worked for Astoria, I'd make barrels and barrels of the stuff.)

This year, Bitter Bitch slid to number two. The winner? Gilgamesh Brewing's Black Mamba, the hop-free beer made with Earl Grey tea and tangerine zest. Block 15 took the bronze with their succulent barrel-aged Pappy's Dark. Incidentally, as far as I know, these results haven't been released. I saw the post on Gilgamesh's Facebook page and asked Lani Radke if she knew who came in second and third. So consider these unofficial:
Spring Beer Fest 2010 People's Choice Winners
1. Gilgamesh Brewing, Black Mamba
2. Astoria Brewing, Bitter Bitch
3. Block 15, Pappy's Dark
What do these beers tell us? A few things. First, that people like novelty. A number of breweries sent their same old, same old beers, and people weren't rewarding them. And clearly, they appreciated Gilgamesh's effort to build a better mousetrap. Second, that they like hops. Bitter Bitch's run is pretty amazing. The last lesson, which is a little speculative, appears to be that while barrel aged dark ales are all the rage among hardcore beer geeks, they are a niche minority. Pappy's Dark is exactly the kind of product that gets intense love at places like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. But at the Spring Beer Fest, it was on the outside looking in.

Congrats to Gilgamesh, who was properly rewarded for pushing the envelope. Let's hope it's the start of a trend.
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