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


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

OLCC Blowback Escalates

A couple days ago, I passed along news that the OLCC and Oregon DOJ had ruled that a long-standing law prevented judging home brew and homemade wine at the Oregon State Fair. Yesterday, folks in the homebrew community as well as Lisa Morrison suggest that not only will this end the State Fair competition, but all competitions. Here's Lisa:
It also appears that home brewers might not even be able to participate in other competitions outside the state; the OLCC is ruling that homebrew can’t be transported, because the law stipulates the beer must be consumed at the home where it is brewed. Heck, home brewers might not even be able to legally bring a corny keg of their latest IPA to friend’s summer barbecue the way the OLCC is currently interpreting the law...

Indeed, at least two Portland-based homebrew clubs are being impacted by this mess. PDX Brewers have already decided to ban homebrew from its meetings, and the Oregon Brew Crew, one of the oldest homebrew clubs in the country, is meeting later today (Tuesday) to discuss whether to ban members from bringing homebrew to meetings. In-house club competitions, which are held monthly to help brewers learn more about brewing specific styles, will probably also be discontinued, and several larger competitions, including the American Homebrewers Association-sanctioned Fall Classic, and the in-club Collaborator Project, in which winners get to brew their winning beer at Widmer Brothers Brewing, will no doubt become a thing of the past. (Rob Widmer tells me they are having a “regulations specialist” look into this mess as I type).

I may be swimming up a roaring torrent here, but I think all this panic is overblown. No one is going to start cracking down on homebrew competitions. No cop is going to pull over homebrewers like erstwhile rum-runners (though the imagery is enticing). There are several issues here. The mere existence of a law on the books does not make it enforceable. (We have several crazy laws on the books.) An example I'm quite familiar with: when I asked the state whether it would be illegal if a pub serving "pints" in 14-ounce glasses was legal, they admitted that it probably wasn't. But there was no way to enforce it.

Beyond a written law, you need: 1) a penalty for violating the law, and 2) funds to enforce it. The state can't keep schools open; it's damn sure not sending cops out after homebrewers. And even if a homebrewer was caught in violation; what would the state do with her?

This is a stupid law that may or may not be changed. I'm a bit of a radical, so my instinct is to overtly flout the law. The OLCC's interpretation is clearly not consonant with the intent of the law; enforcing it advances no discernible social good; and bothering to try to enforce it is an affront to the will of the people. I think a "Hey OLCC, Here We Are" Homebrew Contest is in order.

Oh, and one more thing. While it will be useful to contact your local rep and senator to let them know to change the law, this isn't a quick fix. The legislature won't be in session again until January.

Of course, there's a Facebook page to protest the law; go and join if you wish to publicly register your displeasure. Meanwhile, I'm going to load the Toyota fulla homebrew and drive around town until a cop pulls me over.

Craig, Abe, Roots, and the Organic Fest

In case you missed Ezra's two interviews with the founders of the North American Organic Beer Fest, you should go check them out. Abe's bombshell charges came last week, and Craig's response is up today.

Now, the real question is, where does a specialty media content provider working to maximize his monetization potential find the cash to buy a brewpub?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Breweries in the Social Media Age

I started writing about beer back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and ink was actually applied to papers and distributed throughout a city. In those olden days, breweries had very few options for promoting themselves. They could either take out ad space or try to attract the attention of slack-jawed (and fairly easily bribed) freelancers to write stories about their beer. The latter choice was considered FAR superior, because readers tend to trust (even slack-jawed) freelancers more than ads.

This system held sway until really just a few years ago. Bloggers were the first to arrive, but I will confess that we had little influence overall. Then came MySpace, which turned out not to be so hot, but it was followed quickly by Twitter and Facebook as well as apps like Taplister. These latter innovations, particularly when combined with each other, have been game changers. I don't want to be too breathless about this, because social media advocates always over-estimate their own influence, but I believe social media may ultimately become the most valuable tool breweries have in their communications arsenal. The reasons vary depending on the nature of the brewery, but whether a company is turning out 500 or 500,000 barrels, social networking plays a key role.

Small Breweries - Getting Information Out
Last week Coalition Brewing threw open their doors, knowing they'd have a pretty decent crowd. True, it was only the second sunny day we'd had this year, but mainly, they knew it because they've been counting down the days on their Facebook page. They have a regular web page--but it's effectively a digital yellow-pages listing. The Facebook page is where they actually communicate with their 600 fans. They've been posting pictures, answering questions, and adding links. It has made the launch far less scary and may save them a slow ramp-up.

Social media also helps small breweries find their customers and promote their beer. Take the example of Gilgamesh, a small brewery in the even smaller town of Turner. In an earlier era, the physical barriers for a brewery like Gilgamesh might have put it on the thinnest of ice. But Gilgamesh has become nearly ubiquitous online--I get updates for all their releases and events and know more about what they're up to than I do the Lucky Lab, which is about a mile from my house. The small-bore promotion breweries manage through their own social media is magnified when they coordinate with other establishments--beer stores, pubs--to stage events and releases. I've watched Double Mountain release beers at Belmont Station, Eastburn, Apex, Fire on the Mountain, Saraveza--and those are just off the top of my head. (They do similar releases in other cities.) Most also promote their events through social networking, doubling the volume of the announcement. Social networking is huge for small breweries.

Large Breweries - Getting Information Back
Promoting small breweries is sort of a no-brainer. Getting the word out for free makes a lot of sense. But what about the big breweries? Some have been way out in front on social networking--Widmer and Deschutes, for example. Both have active Facebook pages and tweet regularly, and Deschutes has their own blog. That's cool for someone like me, but these breweries have business models that depend on selling to more huge numbers of people--far more than they can reach via social networking. It seems like a tweet blast about cheap pints at the Gasthaus (which I've seen), can't possibly affect their bottom line. But that's not how big breweries use social media. For them, it's a way to get feedback about what they're doing. Here's Rob Widmer:
"Facebook and Twitter have given us opportunities to have conversations with and give instant answers to consumers and fans. Our growing fan base on Facebook has provided us with good insight to consumer thoughts, it's given us a great outlet to announce new products (as have the blogs), and helped us put a personality to the brewery name for some people who may have never had the chance to meet Kurt or me or anyone from the brewery, for that matter"
I think this is exactly right. Selling beer is always going to have an element of personal connection. In the past, breweries concocted ad campaigns to give themselves personalities, but now they can actually behave like people. They don't need to talk to every single customer to know how they're doing--staying connected with ten thousand Facebook fans is adequate. My guess is that the breweries that succeed in the decades to come will be those that are most responsive to the actual interests of their customers.


Blogs and Amateur Media
The last big change is the rise of blogs and the simultaneous collapse of coverage by newspapers. The Oregonian is quite rare in continuing to pay someone to work the beer beat; mostly, news is now carried forward by buzz created at the blog/ratings-site level. This cadre of amateur and semi-pro fans puts by far the most print into cyberspace and, on the internet, no one knows the review was written by someone in his jammies. Do a search on "Russian River Pliny the Elder," and not a single review pops up on the front page from a dead-tree source. All the reviews that appear are from blogs and amateurs doing video. If a brewery's not reaching out to bloggers, it's really limiting the coverage it gets.

For special releases, the proportion tilts even more toward bloggers. This is why Gary Fish describes us as "directional beacons."
"The other thing is that practitioners of social media (bloggers, etc.) tend to be among our core customers. You are not “small fry” in the sense you are pathfinders and trendsetters. As a group you tend to put yourselves out ahead of the crowd and, as a result, become valuable directional beacons in a very crowded, noisy marketplace."
If you think of the world of chatter as a great big hive mind, having directional beacons is an important way to try to shape the conversation. You want to make sure that someone's talking about your beer, creating the opportunity for the entire hive to look your way.

And I think it even goes a little further than that. A few years ago, movie studios used to have art house divisions that they would use to burnish the company's brand during rewards season. It's similar with breweries. Deschutes is going to continue to make its bones with Mirror Pond and Black Butte, but their specialty lines serve a purpose beyond just a profit margin: they provide an aura of quality to the entire line. People chat, they ask what's good. They tend to put credence in the word of fanatics, so the reputation of Deschutes is magnified when a blogger recommends the brewery to a casual fan.

Breweries will only get more dependent on social media in the future (the smart ones, anyway). We are rapidly moving away from the bottleneck of the past. I've been thinking about it for awhile, and there only seems to be upside here. It allows niche breweries to get their message directly to their fans, allows big breweries to stay in touch, and gives customers far more information than they've ever had. In all ways, the brave new world looks pretty good.


Update. In comments, someone noted that it was surprising I didn't mention Ninkasi, one of the earliest adopters of social media and the most active. The official website started out on MySpace, and now most of the action seems to be on Twitter and Facebook (though they do now have an actual webpage, too). Others I'd single out for mention are Oakshire, Boundary Bay, Rogue, and Allagash. That last one gets special mention for the use of travel pictures posted via Twitter. Nick and Block 15 and Alex at Upright have done some nice blogs themselves, which opens up the inner workings of a brewery in ways not possible a decade ago.

In comments, Jack also mentions the Beer Mapping project. Like Taplister, it's a great resource that incorporate new technology. I should also give a shout out to Barfly, which is a pretty indispensable resource for Portland bar-hoppers. I assume other cool projects are happening in other cities, too. What'd I miss?

Roundabout

Various stories about beer have cropped up to which I will direct your attention. So as to earn my cred as a blogger, I will add a comment after each link--just the kind of value-added content you expect from a top-flight outfit like this.

1. Best Pale Ales in the World!
Eric Asimov has one of his regular features at the NYT about a beer style with selected tasting notes. This one's about pale ales. He spends the first four paragraphs unnecessarily retelling the story of the craft beer revolution, and another several very slooowwwwly working his way into the tasting flight. Their faves? Flying Dog, which they compare to a pilsner, and Long Trail, which they compare to a Belgian. Sierra Nevada, which he concedes is the standard, did not make it into the top ten.
Comment: perhaps Eric should have praised a pale that, you know, tasted like a pale.

2. Deschutes Black Butte XXII Catastrophe
Angelo broke this news yesterday, but now the brewery has a blog post up about it. Problem? As Gary Fish explains, the "experimental" chocolate failed to fully dissolve and a "portion formed a layer on the surface of the beer. While the beer tastes fantastic, the visual presentation in the bottle is not up to Deschutes Brewery’s long held commitment to quality and the customer experience."
Comment: Gary, I'll give you five hundred dollars for a palette of this beer and I promise it will never appear publicly anywhere. Seriously, I'll keep it on the down low--just between you and me.

3. Ever Since A-B Went Belgian, St. Louisians Want Local Beer
In this heartwarming story by the Beeb, we learn that micros are cropping up all around St. Louis to capitalize on a backlash from locals who are now off the whole Bud thing.
Comment: Good for them.

4. GABF Tix On Sale Now
The title sort of says it all, but here's the link.
Comment: I'm prepared to go on a junket if anyone wants to send me.

5. Zymurgy Readers Identify the Best Beers in the World!
Pliny gets the top slot, but, unlike the BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, IPAs, not stouts, dominate the top ten. But get this, these pinheads think Sierra Nevada Pale is the 5th best beer in America. Don't they read the New York Times? The whole thing is thrown into question, however, by Guinness's appearance at number 7. Apparently most Zymurgy readers live in Texas, because Rahr placed a dozen in the list. By contrast, the only Oregon beer is Black Butte. Washington gets skunked.
Comment: Never mind the Guinness, I'm cool with Pliny.

Monday, June 28, 2010

OLCC Cancels Homebrew Contest at State Fair

The OLCC, apparently believing its approval rating was edging toward double digits, made sure it was still the number one most hated agency today, canceling competitions at the State Fair for homebrew and home-vinted wine. The wine competition has been going on for 30 years, the homebrew version for 22.
"The issue has to do with the judging," Bradley said Monday. "Judges are considered the public, and we cannot have the public tasting amateur wine or beer."

Earlier this year, we're told a county fair official asked the Oregon Liquor Control Commission about whether the 30-some-year-old Oregon law indeed made it illegal for members of the public to taste home-brewed beer. Over the past month, officials with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department then worked with the OLCC and the Department of Justice to find a way to hold the event and still comply with state law, but were unable to so.... The irony is the Oregon State Fair has been holding this home brew competition for years under the same law that is now being interpreted to make the competition illegal.
To be clear: this is merely a re-interpretation of settled law that appears to bother no one. On the other hand, that KATU article was posted two hours ago, and there are already 19 comments. On the Brew Crew homebrew listserv, where I found out about the law, there have already been 18 emails. Clearly a LOT of people are going to be mightily pissed off about this.

Remind me once again--why do we fund the OLCC?

Two Good Ones

When I went on the Guild-organized junket last week, I managed to score some bonus tasters of beer. We were really there to try new releases that will be unveiled on Thursday as a kick-off to Craft Beer Month--and I'll run those down tomorrow. But you know, adept media can generally wheedle a pour or two of different beer if they ask brightly enough. I tried a couple you ought to go out of your way for, and they are in many ways mirror opposites.

Rock Bottom Koelsch
The first is a kolsch Van Havig has on tap at Rock Bottom now. Kolsches are hard to rave about in the way you rave about other beers with very strong flavors. On a scale of intensity, all aspects are at the low end--hop bitterness, malt richness, yeast character. Yet each makes a definite contribution, and when they are all in perfect harmony, the resulting beer is a triumph of balance and satisfaction. Like me, Van loves a good kolsch, and the one he has on tap now struck me as being pretty close to the mark. The malt is a gentle honey-sweet base, the hops are light and spicy, and the finish is clean, crisp, and just a wee bit tart. A perfect summer beer and perfectly pleasurable.

Van, though, thinks he could do better. He painted a target in the air and arrayed the flavor elements around, just outside the center circle. Each year he makes a kolsch, fiddling with the ingredients, zeroing in. You should go have a pint and see if you can find any faults. (Stats: Cargill Europils, touch of Weyermann Carafoam and acidulated malts; Sterling to bitter, Liberty for aroma, and a kolsch yeast strain; 4.8%.)


New Old Lompoc Sour
On the other end of the spectrum, we have a lovely accident--a batch of Lompoc Strong Draft that was exposed to a few wild yeast residing, unbeknownst to the brewery, inside the wine barrel in which it was aged. Until not too long ago, English old ale was characterized by a similar quality from wild brettanomyces. (Carlsberg first identified brett in English beers in 1903.) This beer tasted more lactic, but the principle is the same--with age, the beer picks up the funk of the barrel. "Old," used in this context, meant beer that had had a chance to turn. Although Lompoc is apparently still calling the beer LSD ("strong" being subbed in by "sour"), I think of it as an old ale revival.

It was one of those very approachable, lush sours that most people will appreciate. It's a pretty hefty beer and still contains some sugars, which mute and draw out the souring. It gets those chocolate/cherry notes that seem to reside halfway between sour and dark malts. It's at the Sidebar, which is a cool little joint I hadn't yet had the chance to visit. Picture in your mind the Fifth Quadrant, which is actually on the Failing side of the corner. Next to it, on the Williams side, is Pix, and then on the other side is the Sidebar. It's a shadowy space that approximates the feel of a wine cellar, ringed on the inside by aging barrels of beer. The air is still and thick with yeast aroma. It's a nice place to try a contemplative pour of rich ale, and so you should stop in for a pour of the sour--possibly after you've had dinner at the neighboring pub.

Don't Forget the Pleasure

Let's try a thought experience. Imagine I put a liquid in front of you while your eyes are closed. I don't tell you what it is but ask you to investigate it. When you bring your senses to the task of discovery, they have no external clues to guide them. Your mind and your past experiences may begin to inform you immediately--you may taste it, feeling its texture and sweetness and conclude it's milk, say. If it's a beer, you may recognize the gentle fuzz of bubbles that form the head, or smell malt and hops. Still, your senses will have to guide you from there. Now, imagine I put a glass in front of you and tell you it's a Terminal Gravity IPA. How does the experience differ?

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has a new book out called How Pleasure Works, and in it he discusses all the complex factors that go into creating the experience of pleasure. Here he is explaining some of these:
For food, it matters enormously what you think you're eating. Not just in sort of the abstract consciousness of what you choose to buy or what you choose to put in your mouth, but in how it tastes. The price of food, how natural it is, how healthy it is, are all considerations that affect your taste experience of it. Maybe the most practical application of this is wine. So there's now several studies showing that the more expensive you believe a bottle of wine to be, the better it will taste to you.
I was listening to an interview with Bloom and I thought--of course, this is true with beer, too. Long before we ever bring a glass of beer to our lips, we have made lots of judgments. These begin with opinions about the brewery that made the beer, preferences regarding style, preferences we may have about the ingredients if we know them, judgments based on the price we paid for the beer, and expectations formed by the opinions of others, possibly insecurity about not knowing enough to actually appreciate the beer. Many of these are useful at helping us focus our attention. If you have no idea what style a beer is, you can spend some time just trying to figure out what you're tasting.

On the other hand, for every bit of information we have, we also put in front of ourselves a potential filter. As Bloom reminds us, our senses aren't actually all that acute. We think our senses are telling us a lot more than they actually are; rather, our brain is synthesizing information from all these different sources and processing it with the information our eyes, nose, and tongue provide.

Now, we could go down the road of thinking about how this affects our judgment and get into some philosophical discussion about the nature of empiricism and experience. But as I was listening to Bloom, I was reminded that there's something far more valuable at stake: the pleasure of the beer itself. When we let those other considerations overwhelm our experience, when we don't allow for even the tiniest caesura between experience and judgment/evaluation, we cheat ourselves of pleasure. Even beers that we'll ultimately deem average may well be capable of providing intense pleasure. We are sophisticated beings, and we can evaluate whether that pleasure equals greatness, but it's a shame to let the pleasure be lost. At the end of the day, beer is all about pleasure. We shouldn't forget that.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dilemma

I have my 20th college reunion in a couple of hours, and I'm trying to figure out what to call myself. "Unemployed blogger" has accuracy as its virtue, but it could use some punching up. I think I'll go with "specialty media content provider working to maximize his monetization potential."

Friday, June 25, 2010

I Seem to Recall That Coors Used to be More Hoppy

As our palates change, we sometimes mis-remember the past. We recall beers that impressed us with their aggressive flavors and wonder what happened to them. Poor Full Sail has weathered accusations of dumbing-down Amber for years. Of course they haven't; rather, after ten or fifteen imperial IPAs, it is the tasters' palates that change. But that's in the realm of the micro.

With the macros, it's a totally different ball game. Here's a clip I meant to post where Ken Grossman describes what happened.


If you remember a more flavorful Coors, your memory doesn't deceive. Twenty years ago, it was more flavorful. By the way, the flavor threshold for hops is somewhere in the range of 8 IBUs (it depends on the beer, obviously), which means that you can't taste any of the three hops used to brew "triple hops brewed" beer. At this point, hops are solely there to keep the beer from being too sweet--they add zero flavor.

Reason 312 Oregon is Cool

I had the opportunity to go on a little jaunt sponsored by the Brewers Guild yesterday afternoon. It was a ramp-up to Craft Beer Month, and we went to four breweries to try unreleased beers they plan to debut on July 1. I'll write more about those later, but the coolest thing about the event was this: after every stop, the brewers would join our traveling menagerie and continue one. By the time we hit Widmer, the last stop on the tour, we had John Harris, Van Havig, and Jerry Fechter in tow. For people who have followed the brutal history of beer wars throughout American history, this stood in stark relief--guys who compete in the market but seem to genuinely relate to each other as colleagues. Either that, or they're really good actors. (Nah.)

Here they are, at the final stop--


(l-r, Rob Widmer, Kurt Widmer, Van Havig, John Harris, Jerry Fechter)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A First Look at Coaltion Brewing

I first mentioned Coalition Brewing over a year ago, back when it was still slated to be called Hobo Brewing, and have been watching it edge closer to becoming my friendly neighborhood lo these past months. Such anticipation! Yesterday, on a gloriously sunny early evening, Sally and I walked the four blocks that separate my front door and theirs and finally had a pint of Coalition's new brews.

I won't do a full review for a few weeks. Last night, the wee space was over-run by fans and Sally and I didn't stick around to try the food (or even, I must admit, the third beer on offer). It's always good to let a brewpub get its bearings, work out the kinks, and get all their beer on line before subjecting it to a real review. Still, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and I have one: very promising.

Coalition has three very similar beers on tap right now: a pale (5%, 59 IBUs), and ESB (5.5%, 56 IBUs) and a red (5.7%, 59 IBUs). Next up is a stout, which will be followed by an IPA, the first "Coalator" beer--made jointly with a homebrewer--and then a cream ale. By the time the cream ale hits the taps, it will look a lot more diverse. I wasn't thinking so much about the styles of beer as the quality, and it was excellent. Both the ESB and pale were pretty aggressively hoppy, but well-made and sessionable. If I were to retool the recipes at all, I'd drop the pale down about ten IBUs. I'll let them get used to their new system and do a full review later. But in short, they're exactly the kinds of beers patrons in Southeast Portland want.

The pub itself is quite attractive. The entire north-facing wall is a windowed garage door, so on sunny days, the pub runs out onto the street (in a few weeks, there will be patio seating on the pub's east side). To help compensate for the very small size of the space, they've added a long table on one side of the pub that functions like a second, two-sided bar. The open door is obviously great on summer days, and I expect the windows will be great on rainy ones, too. And one thing I noticed with interest: no TV. This seems a conscious choice about what kind of clientele they're shooting for.

I shot a few phone photos, which I'll paste in below. Overall, pretty damn cool.

Looking at the bar from the street side.


The sole disappointment: not honest pints.
On the other hand, they're only $3.75.



The outdoors spill in through the north wall.


Sidewalk seating.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Coalition Update

Lots of Google searches tell me people are hankering for this info:

Coalition Brewing Grand Opening
Today, June 23, 2010
Noon
2724 SE Ankeny Portland, OR

Fun with Fungus

I pulled up a batch of peach lambic from the basement to see how it was going. Such an odd sight--the slick of gunk on the top, bubbles that appear to be emerging from toxic sludge. The whole thing resists a mammal's sense of what healthy and tasty should look. It looked more like something BP has done. Yet a sample reveals the sublime--lush peach aroma, deep, fruity flavor. All those little fungi and bacteria may visually repel, but the nose knows. This is going to be a keeper.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Trouble With Bud Light Lime

Aside from its obvious faults, apparently Bud Light Lime leads to debacles like this:

A general, his aides, and one reporter, stuck on a bus from Paris to Berlin, and drinking case after case of Bud Light Lime ...

Hastings told NBC that McChrystal and co. were boozing on the bus "the whole way." He added: "They let loose." The general may now lose his job as a result.

We also learned from Hastings' story that McChrystal's favorite beverage is Bud Light Lime, so we can only assume the bus was well stocked. The real question is where in Paris would one procure such a wondrous delicacy (and which foul-mouthed staffer's job it was).

Moral: avoid Bud Light Lime. This would never have happened if he'd been drinking Total Domination.

Honest Pints in Silverton

Seven Brides brewery down in beautiful Silverton, Oregon recently opened a tap room. And guess what kind of glassware they bought. Honest pints! They actually have two different kinds of glasses, both honest. A fan of the place, Shane C, sent these photos, along with this comment: "By the way, when feel the need to get out of the city, take a hike at Silver Falls, or visit the Oregon Gardens, visit Silverton and head to the Seven Brides Taproom for some great beers and great food."


Seven Brides Tap Room

Certified Purveyor of an Honest Pint
990 N. First Street
Silverton, Oregon 97381
website



I can't speak for the food, but the beer I've had (sadly limited) was indeed tasty. And he's totally right about the region--it's incredibly nice down there. Silver Falls is one of Oregon's less-exalted gems and makes a great day trip. Now you can finish it off with an honest pint. Cheers to Seven Brides--

Morning Strays

Some interesting fragments of news across the beer-o-sphere this morning. A sampling.

1. Case against Dutch women dropped
If you had to rank entities getting terrible press last week, FIFA fell right in between BP and Joe Barton. Not only did the lords of soccer have to deal with fallout from a referee robbing the US of a goal, but it was trying to imprison Dutch women for wearing orange dresses provided by a beer company.

Fifa and the police have earned international condemnation for what was seen as a draconian response. The South African ambassador in The Hague was summoned by Dutch officials to explain the arrests. But today Mthunzi Mhaga, a spokesman for South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, announced the matter had been resolved. "Fifa was not interested in proceeding with the matter," he said.
To recap, Bavaria beer pulled a stunt so oblique that it could have garnered no attention for its company unless a fracas ensued. FIFA jumped in, causing the hoped-for fracas, vastly overplaying their hand and in so doing giving Dutch-made Bavaria Beer a week of press and sympathy while simultaneously immersing themselves in the worst kind of PR debacle. FIFA's goal was to hold Bavaria up as an example of what happens if you try "ambush marketing" on their watch; perversely, they did, and Bavaria's little stunt exceeded their wildest dreams.

2. Oregon has Block 15, Washington has Black Raven
This is the kind of statement that catches one's attention: "Black Raven is the best beer producer in Washington state. Its settled, there can no longer be a debate" This is something like when Derek declared Block 15 Oregon's best brewery. Dunno if it's true, but it sure makes you think about things differently. The quote comes from a review of the Washington Brewers Festival at the Beer Blotter. Apparently Black Raven was all the buzz. Okay, I'm intrigued.

3. Belmont Station's Barrel Mondays
A tweet went by yesterday afternoon reminding me of Barrel Mondays, a June special for Belmont Station, which features barrel-aged beers every Monday. Yesterday it was Deschutes, with the Abyss and Black Butte XXI. I scooted down because those anniversary Black Buttes are among my favorite beers in the world. Like liquid chocolate bars, steeped in alcohol. Amazing. We also tried Cuvee Des Jacobins Rouge from the very obscure Bockor Brewery in Bellegem, just northeast of Lille. It was not too sharply sour, but funky, and the nature of this particular funk tended toward the diaper. Naturally, I enjoyed it. Anyway, don't miss it next week, when different vintages of Full Sail Imperial Porter and Jubel 2010 will be on tap.

4. Coalition Opens
Given the size of the pub, I'm tempted to tell you Coalition's grand opening is Thursday. Actually, it's Wednesday. You should go on Thursday, though, or at least late on Wednesday. You know, after I've gotten a seat.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Deschutes' Strange New Beer - Miss Spelt Hefeweizen

In what is surely the best pitches to a blogger I've seen, Deschutes recently sent out two unmarked bottles of beer along with this brief letter:
"We invite you to fill the difficult role of 'Deschutes Brewery Beer Tester.' We know it's a lot to ask, but we'd love to get your feedback on a beer that we've been experimenting with in our Bend and Portland pubs for the last several months.

"Currently named Miss Spelt Hefeweizen, this brew has been so popular in the pub locations that we've bottled up a small sampling to get some feedback from the professionals: YOU.

"We're not going to tell you much about it: we want yoru opinion, unsullied by our explanations. Please let us know what you think about Deschutes Brewery's take on this popular style of beer. We can't wait to hear back from you."
It is always a good move to laud the genius of your reviewer's palate before you serve her your beer. We feel quite clever that way, and predisposed to like the beer. So a bow of admiration to the brewery before we get into those opinions of mine they are so keen to hear. Gassho.

Tasting Notes
Thanks to the confounding Widmer Hef, you are never sure what to expect when you crack a bottle bearing that name. In the case of Miss Spelt, we are looking east, toward Bavaria. In these wheat beers, the process of fermentation produces various compounds, notably phenols and isoamyl acetate, that characterize the style. In other words, the banana and clove for which it is famous. (For more on how open fermentation, wide fermenters, ferulic acid and other factors help create these distinctive characteristics, I commend to you Stan Hieronymus' excellent Brewing With Wheat. Again.)

As for Miss Spelt, the Google tells us what the press release won't--that at least one previous batch was made with 40% spelt. This ancient grain is closely related to wheat, but contains less gluten and is more easily tolerated by folks (like me, actually) who have slight wheat intolerance. That reference I found also puts Miss Spelt at 28 IBUs and 5.3% alcohol. No doubt this is a slightly rejiggered recipe, but it's a decent jumping-off point.

I love German hefeweizens. The combination of phenols, esters, and a crisp, tart finish make them the unbeatable summer beer. On a hot day, nothing can compete. But spelt hefs? Let's say I'm so far not convinced.

Miss Spelt produces a rich, billowy head and has great effervescence. Right down to the end of the glass, it is animated by lively bubbles. The aroma is inviting, with light clove and a strong dose of bubblegum. I lunged in for a fair gulp, but was surprised by the strange texture and disorienting flavor. It's thin and sweet, and has a strange, yogurt-like/milky note. I say yogurt because there's a slight sour turn to it. The aftertaste drags on quite a long while, creating a thin, tinny flavor that lingers on the mouth a good minute after a swallow. As I said, hefeweizens should end with a dry, crisp note, but this is watery and lingering. I didn't need to go back for another pull because I was still sampling the last one--not ideal in a summer beer.

Reading through Stan's book, you get the sense that there's a huge amount of science going on with a simple wheat beer. The presence of ferulic acid, to which I alluded earlier, is critical in producing the appropriate flavor compounds. They're here, but other compounds are too, ones absent from other hefs. I presume shifting to such a large percentage of spelt messes with the chemistry, and this yogurt and tin stuff is the consequence. Deschutes claims the beer is quite popular in their pubs, and I have no reason to think they're polishing apples there. But it's not popular with me.

Pass me a Weihenstephaner instead.
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PHOTO: JOHN FOYSTON

PoMo's "New Masters"

In the current issue of the Portland Monthly, Christian DeBenedetti has an intriguing piece wherein he identifies "the five brewers poised to redefine Oregon’s Craft Beer Movement." The chosen? Cascade's Ron Gansberg, Hopworks' Christian Ettinger, Bend Brewing's Tonya Cornett, Ninkasi's Jamie Floyd, and Widmer's Ike Manchester.

Any piece that highlights the personalities behind the beers is a good piece, but I'm a little surprised by the choices.
When you think of "redefining" a market, you think of breweries that are setting new courses either in terms of the beer they make or the way they affect the market. Gansberg is an obvious choice for redefining beer choices, and Ninkasi has demonstrated how to storm the market, Hopworks and Widmer--while they make fantastic beer--seem to be charting quite familiar courses. (To my great shame, I've never visited Bend Brewing, and the beers I've tried are the few that have made it west.)

If I were to offer a list, it would look something like this (as usual, I can't keep the list to five):
  • Gansberg. The troubadour of sour is definitely trying to make inroads into hop central.
  • Floyd. He's shown that you can build a 20,000-barrel brewery by dominating a local market and selling in 22s of uber-hopped ale.
  • Alex Ganum, Upright. So far, this wee brewery is only making an impression among the beer geeks, but it has a chance to be the new millennium's Hair of the Dog--a brewery that challenges traditional views about what beer is, garners lots of press and awards, and slowly, slowly, begins to affect local tastes.
  • Nick Azner, Block 15. Nick's beers aren't out of the mainstream like Ganum's and Gansberg's, but they raise the bar on what we consider good beer. He just recently completed a trip to Belgium, and it's likely that we'll see him charge out into new territory. I'll be watching to see if he creates Belgian-inspired beers that remain within the Northwest's palate or instead joins Alex and Ron.
  • Jack Harris/Chris Nemlowill, Fort George. Much like Ninkasi, Fort George is trying to build a larger small brewery outside of Portland. They are expanding and adding a canning line, and it will be interesting to see if they build a regional power on the North Coast.
  • Ted Sobel, Brewer's Union. At the moment, Ted sells almost all of his very small production to the good folks in remote Oakridge. But as the pied piper for cask ale, his influence could ultimately generate enough excitement to support a niche for authentic cask ale, something Oregon really hasn't embraced.
No doubt there are other good choices--Matt Swihart at Double Mountain, Caldera's Jim Mills, Oakshire's Matt Van Wyk, Larry Sidor and/or Cam O'Connor at Deschutes all spring to mind (though the latter two fall into the Ike Manchester category). If you'd written the article, who would you have chosen?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Enter the Dragon

Inspired by the lush aroma of the Sorachi Ace hops I used to brew with yesterday, I began to consider more and more fanciful names. I'm not sure if it was my brewing compatriot or me who came up with the name "Golden Dragon" as an homage to their Asian roots, but it stuck. Last night I found and reworked an old Chinese* fireworks wrapper and came up with this label, of which I'm most proud. The original image is here. I haven't been labeling my homebrews for a few years, but this will have to be an exception. Even if the beer's a dud, the label rocks. ( You have to click the image to read the smaller text.)

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*Yes, I am aware that Sorachi Ace hop was developed in Japan, not China, but you take what you can scavenge off the internets.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Deep Research

Time to take the Sorachi Ace hop around for a spin. Think I'll do a single-hop batch today and get familiar with the strain everyone's talking about.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Microhopic Micro Fest

Shout out to Angelo and Margaret, who along with Saraveza, are hosting the Microhopic beer fest. The virtue of this event is that it features four small breweries, three of which are quite new. I will hazard to predict that no one out there has tried all of these beers, so there's sure to be something new. Details:
Microhopic Beer Fest
Saturday June 19, 2010, 5pm

Saraveza, 1004 N. Killingsworth


On hand, will be the beers and the brewers who made them. These breweries will include Big Horse Brewing of Hood River and brewer Jason Kahler; Rivergate Brewing of N. Portland and brewer Brian Frisch; Mt. Tabor Brewing of SE Portland and brewer Eric Surface; and Ambacht Brewing of Hillsboro and brewer Tom Kramer.

Yelling at the Refs

In an email one time, a friend jokingly commented, "[Expletive deleted], what is it with you and beer?" Indeed, there are other matters to consider. To wit:

1. We was robbed.
In today's USA-Slovenia match, the US was caught by surprise in the first half and fell behind two goals to nil. The scrappy Yanks came roaring back, with two impressive goals in the second to tie it up. And then, on a free kick, they scored again! Except: the refs called a phantom foul. I'll put the video in here so you can see it for yourself, but on the many replays I saw, there was nothing to justify the call. No doubt FIFA will stand by their man. Update: Here's a very crude vid--I'll find something better soon:



2. They was robbed.
I hate the Los Angeles Lakers with the same unreasoning white-hot fire with which all true and good people burn, the same fire that crackles whenever we see Yankee pinstripes. They are a preening, self-absorbed bunch, from the "Zen master" coach (please) to the perpetually aggrieved star, Kobe Bryant.

Sometimes bad guys win, and the Lakers did last night. Unfortunately, the stink of referee interference hangs over that game, as well. Entering the fourth with a four-point lead, the Celtics were instantly hit with three consecutive ticky-tack fouls. To non-basketball fans, it's important to note that close fourth quarters feature hundreds of fouls. It's impossible to stop ten grown men from fouling each other when the game is on the line. So refs have to let a lot of it go by. And last night, they did: when the Lakers were fouling the Celts. When the Celts were fouling? Not so much:
Fans of the losing team always complain about the refs, but I do want to note a complaint from a Celtics loyalist about “how the refs inexplicably decided to call touch fouls on the Cs in the 4th qtr leading to 21 laker FTs. That’s on pace for 84 FTs for the game.”
Watching Pau Gasol begin flopping and howling even before he began his moves--and then get the call--was more than I could handle. It's why I so rarely watch professional games where the Blazers aren't playing.

3. Kobe and greatness.
Finally, there's a lot of talk about how Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players of all time, and possibly only second to Jordan--or perhaps even better than Jordan. Let us dispense with this nonsense immediately. He is a prolific scorer, but not a great shooter. His 45.5% ranks well behind other greats like Bird (49.6%), Jordan (49.7%), LeBron (47.5%), and Magic Johnson (52.0%).

Further, while he has a decent stat line (25.3 points per game, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assists), it pales compared to the others: Bird (24.3, 10, 6.3), Jordan (30.1, 6.2, 5.3), LeBron (27.8, 7.0, 7.0), and Magic (19.5, 7.2, 11.2). Yeah, he has won five championships, but as someone pointed out, Robert Horry won seven. No one's making the case Horry's number two.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

FIFA's Shame, Ctd.

More details have emerged on Biergate, wherein FIFA has used the South African police and court system to enforce extremely strict bans against merchandizing. Two Dutch women have been charged with criminal violations for violating the Merchandise Marks Act. Their "crime" involved recruiting 34 blonde women in South Africa and dressing them in unmarked orange dresses--orange, of course, being the color of the Dutch team.

Yesterday two Dutch women who orchestrated the harmless 36-woman stunt at Soccer City were arrested in a raid on their hotel and dragged into a Johannesburg court where they were charged with breaches of the Merchandise Marks Act, and “Special Measures Regulations” introduced for the World Cup.

Staggeringly it seems the authorities here wanted to detain the women in jail, and only after intervention by their lawyers – and a call from the Dutch foreign minitry to South Africa’s ambassador in the Hague – were they granted bail.

Apparently the world can be divided into those who believe this is an actual violation and those who don't. Put me in Pete Brown's camp:
As the Bavaria spokesperson says, Fifa don't have a trade mark on the colour orange. This is an astonishing abuse of human rights - admittedly a trivial one in the context of South Africa's recent history, but still deeply disturbing, because it's all about protecting the commercial rights of a beer brand.
Brown calls for a boycott of A-B, which I'd happily join--except that I've been on a de facto boycott for about 20 years already.

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Photo: ACTION IMAGES

What Will Become of "Belgian Beer" if Belgium Divides?

Big things are happening in little Belgium. A country separated between the Flemish (or Dutch-speaking) North and French-speaking South, it has long been a divided nation. Now, for the first time, the separatist party has won a majority of seats in Parliament, leading to decent prospect that the already-wee country may break in half. No doubt there are many, nested issues here, but I wonder--is no one considering the beer?

Belgium may be a country divided by language--but zymurgically, it is distinctive. In the Flemish region, sour reds and browns of Flanders; in the French region, sour lambics. In the Flemish region, Trappist breweries (Westmalle, Westvleteren); in the French, Trappist breweries (Orval, Chimay). In the Flemish region, strong goldens (Huyghe, Moortgat); in the French, strong goldens (Du Bocq). No country produces more indigenous beers of greater diversity, and so certain styles are region-specific; still, it's hard not to argue that "Belgian," when applied to beer, means something.

Beyond the brasseries and brouwerijs, however, things are less coherent:
The southern region of Wallonia - poorer, with higher than average unemployment - is home to mostly French speakers, who make up about 40% of the population. The other 60% are Dutch speakers who live in the more prosperous Flemish north. To add confusion, the capital Brussels is officially a bilingual (but largely francophone) enclave in Flemish territory.

The linguistic gulf runs deep. There are no significant national political parties - they too follow the language split, so there are both francophone and Flemish versions of liberal, socialist, Christian democrat and green parties. Likewise, there are no national broadcasters, no national newspapers or magazines.

If the country breaks in half, how will we describe the beer? "Belgian" may become a politically-charged term--like "Bombay" in India--and beer fans will be caught wondering what to call their beer. Will we have to learn the location of every beer in order to know what to call it? Calling a Scot "English" instead of "British" is a grave insult; will our future be fraught with similar unwitting low country slights?

Not the most pressing concern for Belgians (or should I say Walloons and Flemish?) perhaps, but something about which beer aficionados may fret.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ken Grossman on the Second Anniversary Beer

Note: Post has been updated; I've added another video.

Yesterday, Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman made a couple of stops in Portland, and I caught him when he appeared at Steinbart's. Fred Eckhardt was supposed to appear jointly, but he arrived late and, in gracious humble form, sat at the back of the crowd. (Angelo caught the later appearance at the Horse Brass and filmed it.) I cut together some video of his comments about the beer he, Charlie Papazian, and Fred jointly conceived for the second of the Sierra Nevada 30-year anniversary beers.

I apologize for the quality--it was filmed in the warehouse, and Ken was standing about a foot underneath a fluorescent light. The bay door was open, and you can hear cars driving along rainy roads in the background. Still, I think you'll find it interesting.



I shot about 45 minutes of tape, and Ken spoke on some pretty fascinating topics. Do you guys have any interest in further footage? I thought I'd put up one more where he talks about the next anniversary beer--but I also have footage of him talking engagingly about technical aspects of brewing, like: how to leach iron from kegs before using them; how quickly beer degrades in the bottle and which seals are most effective; how the SN torpedo works; history of Sierra Nevada; discussion of issues around distribution; and more random stuff.

Finally, I want to highlight an extremely cool thing the brewery is doing this year: Beer Camp. Twenty lucky participants will go down to the brewery, spend two days crafting and brewing a beer which will then be released in their home regions once it's ready. Someone from Portland absolutely needs to be in that group of 20. So go and enter.


Update: Here's the video about the third anniversary beer Sierra Nevada brewed with New Albion founder Jack McAuliffe. Call this the "Old Toe-sucker" clip.


FIFA's Shame

There's a pretty remarkable story coming out of South Africa this morning. A group of women wearing dresses provided by the Dutch beer company Bavaria were ejected from a game and now face criminal charges.
Official sponsor Budweiser is the only beer company allowed to advertise within Fifa venues and Fifa fiercely protects its lucrative marketing interests.

When the women refused to leave the stadium, they were forcibly removed by stewards and taken to a Fifa office where they claim they were interrogated for three hours and threatened with six month in prison.
There are a few interlocking issues here, and it's worth teasing them apart. One issue involves protecting sponsorship rights. This is the one thin reed on which FIFA and the South African government may hang their defense. Bud wants to protect not only the millions it spent but also the right to cash in on the publicity. Fair enough. But then we get into what appears to be pretty indefensible territory. For one, private citizens now face criminal charges, which does nothing to punish the offending beer company--if indeed it has violated any law. If the women aren't employees of the company (apparently they were recruited by Bavaria and given tickets to the game), this gets into sticky human rights territory. You can't protect a sponsorship right by punishing individuals who use clothing as speech. Imagine if a bunch of Oregonians showed up in World Cup Deschutes t-shirts. Should they face jail time?

Finally, Budweiser should be held to account.
Peer Swinkels, from Bavaria beer, said people “should have the right to wear what they want”. “The Dutch people are a little crazy about orange and we wear it on public holidays and events like the World Cup,” he said. "This time we put no branding on the dress. And Fifa don't have a monopoly over orange."

The now stateless multinational giant was once a proud American company, and Americans take enormous pride in the right of free expression. Someone from the Budweiser wing of AmBev needs to stand up and condemn FIFA and the South African government for trying to press forward with criminal charges. The women were taken out of the game, so Bud was protected. But threatening them with jail time for wearing skimpy beer-company-provided skirts? Un-American.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Heads Up

Those of you in Portland today take heed:

fhsteinbart Ken Grossman, the founder of @SierraNevadaCA will be here today with legendary beer writer Fred Eckhardt for an intimate Q&A at 3PM!

I will definitely be wandering down...


Update: From Chris in comments:
Ken and Fred are also appearing at the Horse Brass at 5pm for those who can't make it to Steinbart's. The post card I received mentions an "intimate celebration of beer and food", but is shy on details.

It doesn't mention anything about cover charges or tickets, so I assume it's open to everyone who can squeeze into the Brass...

American Lambics: Allagash Spontaneous and Jolly Pumpkin Lambicus Dexterius

The history of modern brewing can be described as the triumph of sanitation--keeping wild yeasts out of beer. The central achievements of the past 150 years do not involve flavor innovation but the mastery, through refrigeration, pasteurization, and the application of industrial chemicals, of yeast. The one way to ruin a good brewery was through lax standards and the introduction of infectious, unwanted yeasts. This is why the experiments at Allagash and Jolly Pumpkin are so remarkable. Not only are they not trying to keep wild yeasts out, they're actively encouraging them to wander in.

Last Tuesday, I had the opportunity to sample the lambic experiments* of these two breweries, and it was like witnessing a birth. This process is ancient, obscure, and onerous. To see it transplanted and revived in the US borders on miraculous.

Spontaneous fermentation is an ancient practice--yeast wasn't even discovered until the mid-1800s. By then breweries had more or less figured out that leaving inoculation to chance was unwise; they re-pitched by dumping dregs of one batch into the next. They effectively domesticated yeast without knowing it existed. Before that, they brewed a batch of wort and let it sit out. Some natural process unknown to the brewers--God perhaps, or magic--caused the liquid to ferment.

A few breweries still make beer this way, and until five years ago, they were all located in Belgium. These breweries have special facilities where they allow wort to cool, taking in the microflora from the countryside. The vessel in which the wort rests is called a "koelschip," and once the wort has spent a night there, it absorbs the final ingredients to turn it to beer. Brewers return the liquid to casks, where it sits for months or years, waiting while throngs of micro-organisms slowly turn the sugars into alcohol, acids, and other compounds (brief primer here) and create some of the most interesting beer in the world. Only a handful of traditional lambic breweries remain, and their annual production is like a rounding error for a larger brewery.

And yet Allagash and Jolly Pumpkin have taken up the old ways. Both have hewn to tradition, too: they use the appropriate amount of wheat in the grist (about a third), employ a turbid mash, use aged hops (to impart bacteria-inhibiting compounds but no bitterness), and both used a coolship. I visited Allagash in November 2008 and wrote about the brewing process here. Jolly Pumpkin's Ron Jeffries describes his process here. Given these similarities, the lambics we tried on Tuesday, including two Belgian examples, were differentiated principally by the wild, native buggies of the regions they were fermented: Maine, Michigan, and Belgium. And different they were!

The Allagash lambics are not commercially available. I begged and wheedled and managed to get brewer Jason Perkins to send me some samples. They almost certainly will be at some point--everyone was so impressed with their character and accomplishment I can't believe they won't get released. In some ways, lambics are more like wines than beer; they depend so much on factors beyond the brewer's control that vintages vary widely depending on when they were brewed. Some measure of consistency comes from blending, but what you mainly get from a lambic producer is a house character. Boon's is more lactic, Cantillon's drier. I suspect the general character we found in the Allagash beers will carry through on future vintages. The Jolly Pumpkin is commercially available, though you probably have to go to Ann Arbor to get a bottle.

The tasting notes are arranged in the order we tasted them. The tasting panel** consisted of Derek from Beer Around Town, his friend Josh Grgas, Sally, and Upright's Alex Ganum. My sense is that we generally shared similar experiences, though we related to the beers a little differently. I was very happy to have Alex on board--as a proxy brewer for Ron, Rob, or Jason, we couldn't have done a lot better. Geoff Phillips was kind enough to lend us a table at Bailey's to host the tasting, too. Here goes.

Jolly Pumpkin Lambicus Dexterius
A gueuze of lambics aged 4, 3 1/2 and 2 1/2 years. This was, by an order of magnitude, the most funky beer at the table. Bottled still, it poured out like apple juice. The nose was sharp and solventlike; imagine a bottle of nail polish. Sally, who is sensitive to oak, picked this up right away. Very dry, with a grape-skin pucker. As the beer sloshes around the mouth, it seems funky but not deadly; swallowing it, though, is like taking a hit of acetic acid from a chem lab beaker. Easily the most acidic beer I've ever tasted. We were all left a little shell-shocked afterward. My comment is that I hope the intensity can be adjusted through blending. Even for lambic freaks, this is likely a bridge too far. Sour-o-meter reading: 6.

Allagash Coolship Resurgam
A gueuze of 2-year, 18-month, and six-month lambic. A livelier beer, but not exactly effervescent. Right after we opened the bottle, I was picking up a sharp note in the sour nose that I think might have been butyric acid. With a moment of breathing, this vanished, leaving a peppery, lemony scent. It has a soft, dry palate that suggested wheat. I found it far less acidic--with the lemon, it was more on the tart side. We were all picking up a bit of hoppy bitterness on the palate, too. I know Allagash is in the process of aging their hops, but possibly they haven't been aged enough. (Though to tell you the truth, the mild hop bitterness did not clash with the beer--it was just less traditional.) My favorite gueuze is Frank Boon's, which is drier, sharper, and extremely effervescent. Allagash's is not yet as complex as that, but it is remarkable for a first draft, and makes me think it may one day ascend to that level. Given that it's a beer made with the wildest, untamed new world yeasts, I expected something a little more nasty--like the Jolly Pumpkin. Yet it was almost gentle. Sour-o-meter reading: 4.

Oud Beersel Gueuze
Typical for style, the Oud Beersel boasted champagne-like effervescence. I noticed a distinctive inner-tube aroma that could also be called skunk. A bit musty, cellarlike. The flavor, though, is much more approachable than either American example. It was the sweetest of the non-fruit lambics, but Alex was certain these were esters. We had a mini debate about whether it really was sweet or just tasted fruity. Alex brews with one of the driest yeasts available, so he should know; still, my tongue tells me what it tells me: sweet. The finish is light and refreshing. An uncomplicated gueuze--if such a thing exists. Sour-o-meter reading: 3.

Allagash Red
I assume it's the same recipe as the cherry blend (see below), but I haven't found confirmation; though the blend was definitely aged on raspberries for three months. Even in the bottle, you could see the vivid red of this beer. It was fairly effervescent, and easily the prettiest beer of the afternoon. Reminiscent of Cascade's Apricot, the aroma was saturated with fresh raspberries. Interestingly, their flavor was quite subtle. Instead, it was a drier, more tart and more refreshing version of their regular gueuze. The body was quite thin--too thin for some of the tasters. I sensed some disappointment around the table that, after the splash of color and rich aroma, the beer lacked the intense flavor of raspberries. I thought it was quite stylish, though--so flashy to see and smell, but then coy and reserved on the tongue. It was my favorite of the night. Until we cracked the cherry lambic.... Sour-o-meter reading: 4.

Allagash Cerise
A blend of 90% 2-year lambic with 10% six-month, then aged for three months with local Maine Montmorency tart cherries. Brewer Jason Perkins calls it "albino kriek," and it's easy to see why: the cherries give the beer almost no color. The nose carries a bit more cherry, but not a great deal. But then, in a mirror image of the Red, the flavor explodes with fruit. It pops with cherry--deep and peppery. The sour is softened a bit by the spiciness and pit bitterness of the fruit, but the cherry is softened by the lambic--its bright, fresh flavors smoothed and darkened. (There's a reason cherries are the go-to fruit with sour ales.) The body was a bit fuller than either of the other two Allagash beers. The table was unanimous in declaring this the afternoon's best beer. Sour-o-meter reading: 3.5.

Girardin Gueuze
We finished up the tasting with a visit back to Belgium. Like the Oud Beersel, Girardin's Gueuze was very lively, sending the cork up toward the ceiling. I was pleased to find the inner tube aroma again--an expression of Belgium's unique character. It was more lactic and more peppery than Oud Beersel, akin to a Berlinner Weisse in its sharpness and thin body. Not so much funky sourness, just a crisp, sharp, citric sourness. Sour-o-meter reading: 4.

It was a truly singular experience. I feel most indebted to Derek for sharing his Jolly Pumpkin, to Josh for sharing his Girardin, and to the folks at Allagash for sending me three precious bottles of their lambics.
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*The word "lambic" is somewhat fraught. The most exclusive definition limits its application, like a wine appellation, to the Zenne Valley in Belgium. I've also heard people call beers "lambics" if they use wild yeasts--even ones pitched from a Wyeast starter. In my mind, any brewery that is willing to subject a turbid-mashed wort to a night's fresh air and adds no other yeasts has brewed a lambic, full stop. I am prepared to risk Belgian terrorists who dispute this use.

**The tasting panel was supposed to be bigger and include more bloggers. We had several cancellations, and by the time of the tasting, we hadn't had enough time to get the word out to other bloggers. I regret that I wasn't able to share it with more of you.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Six-Million Barrel Craft Brewery

Last week, Abby Goodnough reported that Boston Beer is attempting to redefine "craft brewery" to avoid getting hit with a tiny tax hike. The federal definition puts a cap at 2 million barrels, which Boston Beer will soon surpass. As a consequence, Jim Koch is scrambling to try to change the law:
But help may be on the way: Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, along with Senator Michael D. Crapo, Republican of Idaho, introduced a bill last month that would increase the yearly production limit for small brewers to six million barrels.

The bill would also cut the excise tax rate for small brewers to $3.50 per barrel, from $7, for the first 60,000 barrels produced, and to $16, from $18, for each additional barrel. A similar House bill has several dozen sponsors. The Brewers Association created a distinct definition for craft brewers, said Bob Pease, its chief operating officer, to differentiate small companies from big ones that were also marketing certain beers as craft.
First, the basics. For any brewery producing less than two million barrels, the taxes break out like this: $7 on the first 60,000 barrels, and then $18 a barrel thereafter. Once a brewery hits the 2 million barrel mark, all barrels are taxed at $18. But hey, you gotta draw the line somewhere. Two million barrels is a huge number. For perspective, keep in mind that all the other 1600 craft breweries combined only produce 7 million barrels to Boston Beer's two. By no definition is Boston Beer small.

And by my calculation, Boston Beer would only paying $660,000 a year more under the current rule (out of a tax burden of $36 million) when no longer classed as a craft brewery.

When they hit the 2-million-barrel mark, Boston beer would have to pay the feds $36 million. But if they only brewed 1,999,999 barrels and were still classed as a craft brewery, they'd pay $35.34 million. So it doesn't seem like a catastrophic hit. What it looks like instead is that Boston Beer is trying to use the milestone to roll back taxes in a more substantial fashion. Under the scheme Koch proposes, his tab would decline from $36 million to $31 million when brewing 2m a year. You know the old saying, a million here and a million there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.

I would be in favor of the proposal to lower taxes on craft breweries, but I see no reason to create a law that would give Boston Beer a tax advantage until they grow to three times their present size. The idea is to encourage small craft breweries. Once you hit two million barrels, you ain't small no more. Take it on the chin, Jim, and pay Uncle Sam the full tab. You can afford it.

Is Sour the New Hoppy?

Hang around a good taproom long enough, and eventually you'll hear someone observe that "sour is the new hoppy." Indeed, in a market characterized by novelty and trends, sour is having its moment. Sour ales are getting quite a bit of press and have lately been named to quite a few "best of" lists. Breweries like Jolly Pumpkin, Allagash, Russian River, and Cascade all have been feted for their exotic sour beers.

So let's grant that sours have achieved "trend" status--does it follow that they're the new hoppy? It's hard to see how. Hoppy beers aren't a trend, they're the dominant player. As a useful snapshot, I just had a gander at the taplists for Bailey's and Belmont Station. Three of Bailey's twenty taps are sour beers, and one of Belmont's sixteen. I'd guess that's about usual--in the finer taprooms around the city, maybe ten percent of the pours are sour. Compare that to the seven taps at Belmont and six at Bailey's--over a third. And all of this is looking at taprooms, where diversity is a goal.

Sours are just a trend. A better analogy would be to say that sours are the new witbier. Or red ale. Or ESB. All of these styles had moments, but now have settled back down to proportional representation. Sours have achieved a level of appreciation that will allow them--I hope!--to maintain commercial viability, but it will be a snowy day in Bombay before we see a third of a pub's tap space regularly devoted to them.

Hoppy beers, on the other hand, are here to stay. Up and down the West Coast, but particularly in the Northwest, hops have become the dominant regional characteristic. Whenever the topic comes up, I point to Double Mountain as an illustration. When they first opened their doors three years ago, Matt Swihart and Charlie Devereux seemed keen to offer a broad range of beers. But now, with the addition of Vaporizer, they have three (!) IPAs in their regular line-up.

While this drives some people crazy, it's actually a good thing. Regions that manage to establish robust beer culture do it on the backs of a relatively narrow range of beers. In England, they don't sell a lot of saisons or bocks. In Belgium, cask milds and hefeweizens aren't common. And in Germany, you won't find a lot of taps devoted to tripels and barleywines. (There's the matter of the popularity of industrial light lagers, but that's a different post.)

The maturation of the American market will inevitably mean a self-selection of a portfolio of styles. In the Northwest, the process is well underway. Lagers don't sell well here. Belgian styles seem to have a pretty low ceiling. Ales, hoppy, strong, and/or dark--that's how locals like beer. But we also appear to have an appetite for variety, and so we are constantly on the hunt for the next new thing. Double Mountain, for instance, still sells a fanciful seasonal sour kriek. It isn't the new hoppy--Hop Lava doesn't sweat the arrival of Devil's Kriek--but there are enough of us who like novelty that we'll happily line up for a new experiment.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Note From the Road

After a long day with convelescing dad, I'm back at the Boise Red Lion. Just went down to the bar for a couple bottles of beer, and of my ten or so choices, the only non-macro was Guinness (if you consider that a non-macro). Such is my opinion of regular Guinness (as opposed to Extra Stout), that I nostalgically went for Rolling Rock instead.

(To their credit, the bar did have Widmer on tap.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Reviewing Beer: Describing

Describing food and beverages is brutal business. It makes the tasting and assessing look like child's play by comparison. Every beer drinker knows why this is. Try to describe a beer to a friend. The conversation goes something like this:

"Tried the new Hopworks strong ale?"

"No, what's it taste like?"

"It's pretty hoppy, citrusy. It's boozy. It's good."

If the friend trusts your palate, he may try the beer, but he certainly has no idea what to expect. Language often fails us when we're trying to communicate the experience of certain flavors and tastes. We have to come at it sideways, by simile, or are reduced to using bland, general terms. Everyone who has written more than a few reviews has written bad ones. Sometimes we just can't find the words. But those of us who have read Michael Jackson know it can be done. I'm not sure how other reviewers do it, but when I pull off a good review, this is how I do it.

Specificity
It's easy to fall back onto vague adjectives. Here's what I wrote about MacTarnahan's Grifter: "It has that characteristic MacTarnahan's clarity, the light fruitiness, and the gentle, unassuming hopping." This could describe half the beers on the market right now. Not so hot. Now, here's Double Mountain Kolsch: "They have overhopped it for style, but selected hops that draw out a lemongrass note, complementing the tartness." In the Grifter review, my adjectives are too general, and don't communicate anything that would help the reader imagine the experience. The Kolsch sentence is better--adjectives like "lemongrass" and "tartness" tell a fuller story.

It is a fascinating quirk of the English language that most of the adjectives we use to describe flavors and aromas are other flavors and aromas. We say a beer is "nutty" or "piney." Well, how else can you describe something that smell of pine? Although I don't often hit the mark, it is possible to do better. Rather than just say "nutty" and leave it at that, why not get a little closer with "roast almonds," say, or "hazelnuts." Wine reviews have given a bad name to this kind of specificity. So often useless and pretentious (I saw a pinot gris described as "linen"), they are mock-ready. But, going back to the tasting section, if I had the presence of mind to investigate the "nutty" malt, perhaps I saw something that would take it out of the bland and uninformative and give it a more vibrant clarity.

Evocative
In India, there's a theory of art known as rasa, which is the mood of a piece. Music is grouped by rasa--romantic, melancholy, joyful, etc. Many beer reviewers don't like to evoke a sense of the feeling of drinking a beer--perhaps they feel this is an ornamentation that intrudes rather than clarifies--but I think it's useful. Beer, like haiku, is associated with season; this is one dimension. In the toolkit of the reviewer, we find only words. The more evocative ones, that help point to the experience of drinking a beer, I find most useful. I was pretty happy with my description of Duvel, a beer that inspires me:
The instructions on the bottle say "pour unhurredly," but unless you've got a large glass, you can't pour slowly enough to stop the massive head from rushing to the rim. You pour in increments, steadily building the pure white froth up like a vanilla cone. The beer is pilsner pale (made in fact with pilsner malt) and roils with bubbles. Still, it's not at all viscous, evidence of ample added sugar that gives the Devil its juice.
Avoid Beerspeak Wherever Possible
Perhaps most controversially, I hate the language of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) which has come to dominate beer reviews. It goes like this:
Flavor: Moderate to high hop flavor from American hop varieties, which often but not always has a citrusy quality. Malt flavors are moderate to strong, and usually show an initial malty sweetness followed by a moderate caramel flavor (and sometimes other character malts in lesser amounts). Malt and hop bitterness are usually balanced and mutually supportive. Fruity esters can be moderate to none. Caramel sweetness and hop flavor/bitterness can linger somewhat into the medium to full finish. No diacetyl.
These technical outlines may be useful in trying to determine whether a beer has been brewed to a style or not, but they violate the two earlier rules. Brewers like them because they map to methods and ingredients familiar to him. But I don't write beer reviews for brewers. For a non brewer, this language is useless. It may tell what's in a beer and how it's brewed, but not what makes it distinct from other examples or whether it's any good or not. I don't like to read reviews written in beerspeak, and I try to avoid them.

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So there you have it. If I manage to write a successful review, what appears on the page will have been the result of a careful tasting, reflective assessment, and evocative, specific descriptions. I hope readers walk away with a good sense the beer's context, style, and brewing process as well as my experience of drinking the beer--and clues to how their own experience may differ. I probably succeed half the time or less. (You be the judge.) Beer writers are a minor player in the ecosystem of brewing, but I like to think we can be useful. The world of beer unfolded for me by virtue of reading Jackson as I started drinking micros. Without his research and descriptions, I would have spent a lot longer wandering the wilderness. So, with luck, we bloggers and beer writers do contribute something.

Thanks to blogs and the ratings sites, many of you also review lots of beers. Feel free to throw in your two cents in comments.