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Monday, February 28, 2011

Learning to Abandon Shame in the Age of Typos

[Note: this long post has very little to do with beer. Forgive me.]

As is usual, I flipped through the hard copy of my new book with new eyes Friday evening. Those were the clear eyes of someone who now sees vividly all the typos and mistakes it is now too late to fix. Example: "Their" where it should be "there"; "recently" where it should be "recent"; a sentence garbled by an incomplete rewrite featuring consecutive, dueling verbs ("writes describes"). Uggh.

It got me thinking.

Technology has a way of altering landscapes. Theatrical productions were essentially static until moving pictures. The drama depended on language. Movies introduced the concept of visual storytelling. One of the more interesting technological shifts is the way the Sopranos altered the way television is used to tell stories. Seasons now function like segments in very long movies. The depth and complexity of a show like The Wire exceeds anything that's appeared in movie form.

The internet has changed the landscape of communication, upending the traditional hierarchy. Those who controlled production and distribution once dictated both what content got released and acceptable standards. This changed instantly with the arrival of free services like Blogger and Twitter. I worked in the old age, when journalists were media and everyone else was an amateur. The distinction is lost; with access to distribution, anyone who hangs out a shingle becomes a content-provider. Yet while the nature of content has changed, there's the matter of acceptable standards.

One of my favorite bloggers is Matt Yglesias, who writes about politics at ThinkProgress. Matt's still in his twenties and came of age as a writer in the era of free distribution. He was blogging when he was still in college (and getting national attention). His thinking is complex, quirky, and unexpected, and his prose is often sly and knowing. Example:
If you’re trying to look at America from a balance-sheet perspective the problem is very clear. It’s not “entitlements” and it’s not “Social Security” and it’s not “Medicare” and it’s not “health care costs” it’s the existence of old people. Old people, generally speaking, don’t produce anything of economic value. They sit around, retired, consuming goods and services and produce nothing but the occasional turn at babysitting. The optimal economic growth policy isn’t to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it’s to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction. With that in place, you could cut taxes and massively ramp-up investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and be on easy street.
(Matt's joking; by pointing out the "drain" of the unworking elderly, he illuminates the ways in which government and business differ.)

Even though he's young, Matt's a nationally-recognized author, paid to blog and write books and articles and participate in prestigious think tanks. And his blog is riddled with typos. Much like my own blog and book, he has agreement issues, tense problems, and sentences that were incompletely reworked. Sometimes he just misspells things.

I have always been fascinated by this, because many official organizations have measures to prevent this kind of thing. You certainly wouldn't see that problem on Hendrik Hertzberg's blog at the New Yorker (though Rick has quoted Matt--including in his most recent post). Like John Foyston at the Oregonian, whose posts must travel to New Jersey before publication, there's an invisible layer of editorial oversight happening between the composition of a blog post and the depression of the "publish post" button.

In an earlier era, the presence of typos would be a signifier. It would tell the reader: this is shoddy work you should distrust. Mostly the reader would blame the writer (despite the fact that excising typos takes hours and a separate pair of eyes), but by extension, this tarnishes the reputation of the publication. The New Yorker still prints little end pieces mocking mistakes made in other papers and magazines.

Yglesias, a card-carrying member of the intellectual elite, has been born in a later age. He's used to seeing prose with error and is not distracted by it. There are far more obvious cues about the quality of writing--the depth of thought, the originality, the subtlety of metaphor, the clarity, the wit. If a typo slides by his eye--when a typo slides by his eye--he remains untroubled. His generation is free from a morality that feels shame in the presence of a misplaced apostrophe.

Mine isn't, and I apologize for the typos in the book. (Which, plug plug, you should go buy.) It requires more of a reader to see a writer's intent when the prose is unkempt like mine, but perhaps I can develop some of Matt's sanguinity about the whole thing.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

While Watching the Oscars, Have a Heisler

Today we have that alt Superbowl known as the Oscars, and for you movie buffs, I have a beery recommendation: Heisler Gold Ale. "Brewed with a variety of specialty malts, including chocolate and Munich"--you're familiar with it, right? Have a look to jog your memory:


Can you remember where it's from? Indiana? Pennsylvania? How about Hollywood. Heisler is a prop beer made by ISS and regularly seen on TV (My Name is Earl, Dollhouse, the Shield, many more) and in movies (The Rainmaker, Superbad, Training Day). Visually, it scans very nicely--suggesting everything from a traditional American brand to a faux micro to a micro. It simultaneously feels familiar and new--probably the definition of a good prop. Beer geeks antennae might start waggling if they could see the style or read the ingredients (it's hard to imagine anything gold-colored having both Munich and chocolate malts), but hey, it's pretty close.

In case a gold ale doesn't float your boat, you might prefer these other brands:

Haberkern (named for the propmaker, Christina Haberkern)


Penzburg


Brockman (purportedly a dark lager, but note the color of the liquid)


Whatever you're drinking, happy watching. (And although it won't win, Winter's Bone was the best picture nominated this year.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Thanks to All of You

The last word on all this anniversary business will be my thanks. Blogging is a communication, and I’d like to thank anyone who has ever read Beervana first and most. It would have died a long time ago if you hadn’t been joining the conversation. I’d also like to thank the breweries and fest organizers who treated me like regular media. For some reason, if I email a brewer, s/he will invite me to spend two hours touring the brewery and learning about the beer. I never cease to be amazed by that. Sally, my wife, deserves a large measure of thanks for being willing to forgo many a restaurant so I could drag her into a brewpub. She has a great palate and enjoys beer, but would have no doubt drunk less of it had I not started the blog. Finally, thanks to the other Oregon bloggers and beer writers who have created a supportive community. We actually do this thing collectively, and it’s great to be a part of the group.

Beervana, the Book

And so we arrive at the grand day: this blog's five-year (also, wooden) anniversary. This means Beervana is now eligible to attend kindergarten. Actually, in blog years, it means Beervana is ready for a gold watch and a wistful pat on the back. Only a few beer blogs are older, but none are as creaky or forgetful. Beervana, in short, has aged badly.

What was I saying? Oh right, anniversary. Yes, well, as many of you know, I am a hermit, and so there will be no party. I leave it to the spry youth, Angelo and Ezra for example, to throw anniversary bashes. Instead, I will celebrate in the manner of a blogger-hermit, which is to say in a quixotic fashion: by releasing a collection of the best posts from the blog, bound for all time in the warm, corporeal covers of a book.

A book!

Why, you might ask (as my mom did yesterday), would you bother turning a blog into a book? Good question. Partly because I love books and I thought it would be cool. But also because amid all the crap here, there are actually some good bits. The barley isn't always easy to separate from the chaff, so now you have them, all in one handy, elegant package. Or, to quote from the back cover:
In the past five years, he [sorry, the slug text is in the third person] had written roughly 1,900 posts and over a half million words. This book is a collection of the best of those posts, including:
  • Over 130 beer reviews
  • Reviews of 60+ breweries, brewpubs, and pubs
  • Considerations of fifteen obscure(ish) styles
  • An all-new "best-of" section that has never before appeared in print
  • Typos, errors, factual improbabilities
  • Rumor, gossip, speculation
  • Poorly-sourced reportage, and
  • No posts about Oregon's beer tax!

Important Questions Answered

The book will set you back $18 and can only be ordered online at Lulu. Yes, eighteen bucks ain't cheap, but Lulu charges a lot to print them out one at a time. More importantly, you're asking yourself, "why the hell would I buy a book when everything's available here for free?" You are a reader of this blog, and therefore astute and wise, and I expected you to ask.
  • Books rock, and this one has a nice layout and substantial heft in the hand.
  • There are over a hundred names listed in the index, and maybe one is yours--but you'll have to buy a copy to find out!
  • It's relatively cheap when compared with the four pints you're going to go drink tonight at the pub and it will be there on your shelf in the morning, unlike those IPAs.
  • The proceeds of this endeavor will go to me, and like a lot of good causes, I can really use the dough.
  • It's a fun and festive thing to do to celebrate the blog's anniversary.
  • [Real answer]. Despite the fact that it's a collection of posts, the elements actually hang together very nicely. It's not comprehensive, but I honestly think that anyone who reads it will have a very good sense of this place we call Beervana.


Even if you decide to pass on the book, raise a pint to all the brewers, brewery workers, and readers who made this blog possible. I know I will--it's been a great five years.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Biggest Trends of the Past Five Years

Beer trends move swiftly--even in one-year increments they're pretty obvious. Look back on five years, though, and some are so well-established you forget there was ever a time they didn't exist. So, as a part of anniversary week, I offer my picks for the most significant trends of the last five year.


5. Reinheitsgephobia
This trend really only began in the last couple years, and I suspect it is only getting started: the use of non-standard ingredients in beer. The use of fruits and certain botanicals (coriander, orange peel, licorice, etc) has been around for a long time, even in American brewing. But breweries are now throwing in everything they can think of, like: chestnuts, blood oranges, prickly pear, coconuts, chiles, tulips, hyssop, lemongrass, apricot nut meat, peanut butter, and on and on. Some of these experiments have been flops, but many more demonstrate that the judicious use of adjuncts can enhance subtle flavors. It's a fantastic trend, and one that has the potential to radically alter the beer landscape.


4. Belgianization and Souring
I suppose we could break these into separate trends, but I think they're of a piece. Breweries have gotten much more excited about deploying Flemish techniques to produce new styles or tweak old ones. A few years back I noticed that farmhouse ales had become standard--amazing given that Michael Jackson declared them all but dead twenty years ago. The use of sugar to strengthen beers or yeast strains to funkify familiar beers (recent fave, Le Freak from Green Flash) is now pretty standard. Rare is the brewery without at least one Belgian-inflected beer.

And then there's souring. Google the phrase "is sour the new hoppy" and you get a sense of how entrenched this trend has become. Sour isn't the new hoppy, incidentally, but neither is it a flash in the pan. With breweries like Cascade, Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin, and Allagash, not to mention successful experiments like Deschutes The Dissident and New Belgium's Lips of Faith, sour is here to stay.


3. Barrel-aging
This innovation didn't start in the last five years, but it has become standard. Breweries have recognized the value of putting out barrel-aged specialty beers--ones that retail at SPEs of $25 bucks and more--and most now have a barrel-aging program. What I find hopeful about the trend is the growing interest in the organic potential wood exerts on beer rather than just the use of infusing a bourbon character. Pinot barrels and straight oak are making their way into breweries, and a few brave souls are even allowing native cultures to set up colonies inside their little woody ecosystems.


2. Imperialization
American beers have always been a little stronger than their European counterparts--and West Coast beers have been stronger than most American beers. (I was amused to see Full Sail release a beer called "Session" than was north of 5%.) The trend is only growing. It used to be surprising to see beers stronger than 7% on store shelves, but now you can buy regular six-packs that are 8% or more. I'm not excited about it, but the trend appears to be with us for the foreseeable future.


1. Fresh hops
While the other four trends could be applied to most American beers, this last one is unique to the Pacific Northwest. Fresh hop beers have been around well over a decade, but it has only been recently that they've exploded to become a regional celebration of the hop harvest. For three or four years, dozens of breweries across Oregon and Washington have taken to brewing fresh-hop beers, a phenomenon akin to the release of Beaujolais Nouveau in France.

What makes these ales so delightful is their evanescence. The good ones are transcendent when they're fresh and thoroughly mediocre after that vivid, green flavor wears off. I can imagine a time when tourists will flock to the Northwest in October to try these lovely seasonal offerings. Of all the trends I've seen come and go, this one seems to most fully express the quintessence of American brewing--fresh, green, vibrant hopping. And, while it seems firmly rooted in local culture, I think the rest of the world has yet to discover the joys of fresh hop beers. They will, they will...

Feel free to weigh in with your own observations in comments.

Snowpocalypse 2011!

We're getting hammered pretty hard here in Portland this morning--blizzard conditions, snarled traffic, really a terrible situation out there. I'm just glad we haven't lost power. The city's doing yeoman's work, and the busses are chained up so folks can get into work--those folks whose bosses are mad enough to attempt to transact business in this maelstrom. If we're lucky, and if God smiles on our sorry little town today, we might--just might--get out of it with minimal lost life.

Being a hardy blogger, I braved the violence to snap a quick picture so you can see just how bad things are:


I mean, just look it it: you can see that accumulation threatens the actual sidewalk and streets.

Of course, I kid. For those of you who don't live west of the Cascade Mountains, this is a little bit of local color. Once or twice a year, the threat of snow appears on the doppler radar of area meteorologists and this threat--yes, just the threat--is enough to shut the city down. Today most of the school districts in the metro area have canceled classes and lots of people will skip work. The local news has been obsessed with it--the Oregonian devoting two full articles to this specter of doom--all while people raised in Wisconsin and Massachusetts snigger.

It's a razor's edge, because Portlanders don't really know how to drive in the snow, and the city doesn't have the resources to handle a once-every-two-years snowstorm. When the roads are covered, it can be a horrendous mess. On the other hand, shutting the city down on the threat of snow also has some disadvantages. Oh well. All cities are dysfunctional in their own way.

I guess a day off means an opportunity to go grab a pint, so it's not all bad.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Events of Note

Right on cue following my ain't-Beervana-sweet post come these two announcements, both portending great events.

Roscoe's Stout Summit
Friday, Feb 25th at 5pm
8105 SE Stark St

Roscoe's, the hardest working pub in Montavilla, is serving up twelve impressive-looking stouts this Friday, including: Fort George (Badda Boom), Caldera (Old Growth Imperial Stout),
Oakshire (Heart Shaped Box), Firestone Walker (Black Xantus), Deschutes (Mash Tun Madness), Double Mountain, Upright, and more. An impressive list!


Cascade Rare Beer Dock Sale
Sunday, Feb 27 at 10am

I'll just go ahead and quote from the press release, with apologies: This Sunday we will release 11 cases of 2007 Kriek. These will be sold ONLY at Cascade Brewing Barrel House, and we will NOT be shipping any of these bottles, nor will we hold them on reserve. The vintage bottles cost $18 each, and there is a two bottle maximum purchase per person.... This is the very first edition of our Kriek blend. We used three different types of cherries: Sour Pie, Bing and Sweetheart - the Sweetheart cherries are the centerpiece of this blend."

That's not a whole lot more expensive than regular bottles--and it's way cheaper than what you'd find on the open market. Cascade will be releasing other old vintages during March and April:

2008 Apricot, Sunday, March 13
2008 Sang Royal, Sunday, March 27
2008 The Vine, Sunday, April 10


And finally, just to draw these two threads into a nice knot, note that Ron Gansberg will be "telling lies" at Roscoe's on March 4th--as well as pouring several Cascade sours. Stop in if you want to be entertained. With Ron in the house, it's guaranteed.

Five Amazing Years in Beervana

I first started writing about beer for Willamette Week in 1997 (I think), which was just about the grimmest time in American craft brewing. All through the 80s and early 90s, breweries were notching shocking growth. In 1987, Full Sail was bottling beer by hand--the homebrew method--and the receptionist was labeling it in her spare time. A decade later, they had expanded to a massive plant capable of kicking out 250,000 barrels. The Widmers had moved across the river from their original, small location. McTarnahan's (née Portland) had also moved, but in the other direction, further Northwest. Then the market plateaued, and lots of breweries that had expanded on the assumption of 20% growth were in deep trouble. Star, Peak, Saxer, and Nor'Wester all died during the years I was writing for Willamette Week. Even Henry Weinhard's plant closed--and I still have a scar from that psychic wound.

In a kind of nice mirroring, when I came back to beer writing in 2006 with this blog, things had flipped. In a 2006 press release, the Oregon Brewers Guild touted 16% growth in 2005. The next five years, even though they include the worst recession in seven decades, continued apace. We don't have numbers for 2010, but growth continued at 15% through 2009--the heart of the collapsing economy.

Oregon produced 683,000 barrels in 2005 and 1,050,000 in 2009--54% growth. If the market expanded even by a relatively modest 10% in 2010, that would put five-year growth of production at an astounding 69%. Those are numbers like we were seeing twenty years ago.

It's a little harder to calculate new breweries. Much of the growth happened as breweries opened new outposts--Lompoc, Lucky Lab, the McMenamins, and Laurelwood all expanded substantially over the past five years. In terms of new brewing companies, Heater Allen sort of kicked off the half-decade trend of nanobrewing. Should we count some of the newer breweries that have produced little or no beer for commercial production? In any case, using the classic "visual inspection" method, I count 28 new breweries since I started writing Beervana. Portland, predictably, had the biggest growth in terms of numbers (12), but the story of 2006-2011 is the rise of the Willamette Valley. Ninkasi, Oakshire, and Block 15 have all established themselves as brewing leaders, and Brewers Union, despite minuscule production, has brought quite a bit of attention to cask ales.

(By comparison, there were about 1,400 craft breweries in the US in 2006, and there are still only 1,640. That's healthy growth--17%--but not exactly eye-popping.)

The other huge trend in terms of growth was the arrival of the good-beer pub. Consider that in 2005, your best options for a good beer were a brewpub or the Horse Brass. The beer bar, where you could find a range of regional and international specialty beers, was pretty obscure. In the past five years, the city has added: Apex, Bailey's, Beermongers, Belmont Station, Concordia Ale House, Green Dragon, Hawthorne Hophouse, the Hop and Vine, Plew's Brews, Roscoe's, Saraveza, and the Victory Bar. You can now find more local specialty beer and rare international beer in one building than you could in most of the city just a few years ago. Amazing!

In a separate post, I'll discuss some of the trends we saw in the past five years, but let's rest for a moment and consider the numbers. If you were a beer geek, the last five years was arguably the best period in craft brewing history. What a fortunate time to be blogging.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Identifying the Most Beery Nations

The World Health Organization recently released their Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2011 report. It includes fascinating information on the total alcohol consumption of every country in the world, as well as breakdowns by type--liquor, beer, wine, and "other." Thumbing through the country profiles, it occurred to me that there are a few different ways to think about whether a country should be called a "beer country."

Take a couple contrasting examples. You might well say Algeria is a beer country: 80% of the alcohol there consumed is in the form of beer. France, of course, is a wine country--62%. Yet the statistics lie. Algerians consume .8 liters of beer per capita a year. In France, where only 17% of the alcohol consumed is beer, the French actually drink more beer per capita--2.3 liters. The difference, of course, is that the French like their booze and Algerians, chastely Muslim, do not. On the other hand, you could look at the total consumption of beer, which would put China on top, since they recently passed the US.

WHO puts out this report as a way of warning against the dangers of alcohol, and so they don't compile total stats, but I flipped through the charts and saw some surprising per-capita numbers. It won't shock you that the Czech Republic leads all comers, but I'll bet you wouldn't have guessed the number two country: that brewing giant Azerbaijan. Have a look. This may not be an exhaustive list--a lot of South American countries do pretty well--but I wanted to include some of those we think of as big beer countries--you'll see they're pretty far down the list. (Note: numbers listed are per-capita totals of pure alcohol in the form of beer, which is why they look so small.)
  1. Czech Republic 9.4 (57%)
  2. Azerbaijan: 9.2 (87%)
  3. Palau: 7.7 (77%)
  4. Ireland: 7.6 (53%)
  5. Poland: 7.5 (56%)
  6. Austria: 7.0 (53%)
  7. Germany: 6.8 (53%)
  8. Mexico: 6.6 (78%)
  9. Venezuela: 6.2 (75%)
  10. Belgium 6.2 (57%)
  11. UK: 5.8 (43%)
  12. Ecuador: 5.3 (56%)
  13. Canada: 5.2 (53%)
  14. Netherlands: 5.1 (50%)
  15. Brazil: 5.0 (54%)
  16. USA: 5.0 (53%)
>>. Australia: 4.6 (46%)
>>. China: 2.0 (34%)

Also of note: percentages represent the amount of beer consumed by a country. Shockingly, in famously beery Britain and Australia, beer can't even attract a majority. Hang your head down low, Britain. Your pubs are closing and you're drinking a lot of wine. (Probably French wine!)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Anniversary Week

On Saturday, this blog will officially turn five years old. To acknowledge the landmark, I'll be doing celebratory posts in anticipation of the Very Important Announcement scheduled for Friday. (On Saturday, no one will be at work to read the blog.) Ezra and Angelo celebrate their blogoversaries with huge parties, somehow securing special beers from the breweries who clearly love them. I am a hermit and huge parties frighten me, so don't expect anything like that. The Important Announcement will be appropriate to the ways of a hermit.

In any case, wheeeee!, the blog is old. Put on your party hats.

Why Can't Milds Be Wild?

On Thursday evening, I stopped into Alameda Brewing, mainly for their blood orange saison. (It was beautiful and very close to exceptional, except that there was a slight overabundance of citrus peel, which left an astringent coating on the inside of the mouth. I hope to see version 2.0 next year.) The beer I ended up wanting to write home about, however (or blog as the case turned out to be) was a little number called Maupin Mild.*

Those of you who are sticklers for style would have found yourselves scandalized. Maupin was by no definition mild. It was 4.5% alcohol (almost permissible, given the gravity gigantism that afflicts all of our native beers), pale (also permissible, but a possible surprise to those expecting a mahogany pour), and quite aggressively hoppy. Cue that turntable-needle-across-the-LP sound. Hoppy??? Apostasy! It was not served on cask.

Look. There are a lot of things about British beers that will just never fly here. I have given up the idea that low-gravity, malt-forward session beers will ever find more than the nichiest of niche followings. I haven't given up on the idea of a popular session ale, though. There's absolutely no reason we can't see beers in the 4-5% range that are as bold and saturated in flavor as IPAs--sans that warming booze note, of course.

For reasons historical and cultural, low-gravity beers are almost all quite tame. Irish ales, Scottish ales, bitters, milds, light lagers, etc.--these are beers marked by balance and approachability. (There are a few offbeat styles, like Bavarian weizens, Berliner Weisses, and some sour ales that are quite flavorful. These are, however, fairly obscure styles.) American palates--especially West Coast palates--love them some tangy, sharp, green, vivid hoppiness. For these folks, the gentle low-gravity styles will always seem too tame to be interesting.

But why not milds like Maupin? There's no reason to keep replicating the traditional styles just to brew lighter ales. Let them be "over-hopped." This is how regional tastes develop, and how styles emerge. West Coasters won't drink mild milds?--soup them up. I have no idea how well Maupin Mild sells (though the name might be a barrier), but I'd love to see breweries run experiments with aggressive, low-gravity beers. We have escalated up the gravity chain; why not down? Consider this a request to run the experiment: will drinkers drink low-gravity beers that in all other ways meet their standards for hoppiness?

Just a thought.
______________
*Since I couldn't figure a way to work it into the text without a parenthetical, and since this post was wheezing under the nearly fatal weight of parenthetical digressions already, I will mention, here in a footnote, that Maupin is a town on the eastern side of Mount Hood, south of The Dalles.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Must Be Beervana

Gardeners have used hops for decades as ornamental and hardy climbers. But how many nurseries include alpha acid percentage and recommendations for beer styles with their rhizomes?


I was surprised and amused to find these at Portland Nursery this morning. Obviously, gardeners in Portland don't care about hops' ornamental value.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Time to Go A' Zwickellin'

Beer is an organism, and like any organism, it goes through stages of development. This may not be obvious to the average beer drinker who's used to finding beer in its adult state, in pint glasses or six-packs. There's conception (the mash), gestation (the boil), and development (fermentation). Eventually you get to a stage where you can feel the baby kicking, and get a pretty fair sense of what will happen in a few days: conditioning.

The first time I experienced beer pre-packaged, I was at Portland Brewing's then-new plant in NW Portland. (It's called MacTarnahan's now, though I keep hearing rumors they plan to return to the old name.) I had been writing for Willamette Week for about five minutes and was beginning my tour of the city's breweries. I don't recall who took me to the massive tanks outside the building, or what beer we sampled. I mainly recall thinking that it seemed a little transgressive to be opening a spigot on the side of the tank and slugging back raw beer. (I had a similar experience when in second grade I went on a field trip to a farm and milked a cow.)

That lovely experience is the inspiration behind Zwickelmania, the annual event organized by the Oregon Brewers Guild that turns participating breweries into open houses for a day--so everyone can cruise up to a tank for a wee zwickel.* That day is tomorrow, from 11am to 4pm.

Click on the poster for details about where the events will be happening--and take note of the descriptions provided by the breweries. Some breweries offer tours but not actual zwickels; others give you the full monty. My recommendation is, obviously, always, the full monty. Some breweries are releasing new beers, others are reprising old beers, others have specialty menus, and still others appear to be winging it. Plan accordingly.

Another cool thing: shuttles are available. Check the Brewers Guild website for times and locations (follow the same link).

______________
*The German Beer Institute offers this definition: "The name Zwickelbier stems from the sampling cock ("Zwickel" in German, pn. tzvickle) mounted at the outside of a cask or tank to take tastes for assessing the brew's progress during fermentation." Whether the Brewers Guild's extended uses--as a verb to indicate the act of pouring beer from a tank and as a noun to indicate the beer thus poured--are traditional, I can't say. But it seems to have taken root.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Beer Genome Project (My Get-Rich-Slow Scheme)

In a post yesterday, Stan reprises a meme I discussed last August, wondering if the methods used to create Pandora's Music Genome Project would work for beer:
Anyway, while I was reading Gladwell’s article — which delves into the subjectivity involved in setting “objective” standards — Pandora managed to feed me song after song that I didn’t feel the need to skip. It’s been a while since The New York Times explained how “The Music Genome Project” works, but it’s still a fascinating story. ... Would it be possible to do something similar for beer?
In a word: yes. But it wouldn't be easy. To create a "music genome," Pandora employed a team of musicologists to break music down into elements and code them. If you've ever done qualitative research, the process would be familiar. They looked for objective, technical features, like major or minor key tonality, rhythm patterns, vocal harmonies and so on. But then they bravely tackled the subjective as well, looking at, to quote that Times piece Stan linked: "To what extent, on a scale of 1 to 5, does melody dominate the composition of 'Hey Jude'? How 'joyful' are the lyrics? How much does the music reflect a gospel influence? And how 'busy' is Stan Getz’s solo in his recording of 'These Foolish Things'? How emotional? How 'motion-inducing'?"

What results are a series of markers that form the song's "genome." I booted up my account and looked at the first song that played. Pandora described why it selected this song:
"We're playing this track because it features rock influences, off-beat style, highly syncopated drum beats, use of modal harmonies, a slow-moving bass line, dominant use of piano riffs, affected synths, an acousti-synthetic sonority, trippy soundscapes, prevalent use of groove, and many other similarities identified in the Music Genome Project."
Note what it doesn't include: genre. This is part of the genius of Pandora. For decades, radio stations have played certain genres of music, conditioning us to partition our tastes off using this criterion. What you find when you tune into Pandora are certain qualities of music that you weren't aware you liked. Apparently I'm big on syncopated drums and complex rhythms. I like electronic influences, but I couldn't care less about vocals. The music Pandora selects for me has an amazingly referential quality. Without realizing it, I was setting up "channels" that were effectively the same channel--the music was related closely enough that I kept getting the same music no matter which band I stared out with. (That's on my indie-based music, anyway.)

A Beer Genome
So how would a beer genome work? Pandora wisely started with musicologists; amateurs like me trying to code music would have missed whole layers of subtle markers. To construct a beer genome, you'd need people with sophisticated palates and a substantial background in beer tasting. From there, I think you'd follow the music method pretty closely. There are a lot of objective qualities in beer--the beer flavor wheel offers a nice template. You'd probably expand it to capture a few more qualities like color and effervescence and perhaps strength.

Then, to capture the essence of a beer's nature beyond mere descriptors, you'd need to come up with a list of subjective qualities, like "sunshiny lightness," or "intense greenness." (And this is where you'd come in for a lot of hell: so many beer geeks and homebrewer types hate anything that isn't quantifiable; they wouldn't just disagree with the categories, they'd disagree with the subjectivity principle.) My guess is that it is these qualities that would help you overcome the conceptual rigidity of style--which, obviously, would need to be abandoned, just like Pandora abandoned music genre.

Maybe you'd come up with a description like this:
"We've selected this beer because it features a light but round straw-colored body, gentle cookie malt sweetness, perfumy, floral hop aroma, fruity notes of citrus and melon, piquant, lively mouthfeel, a clean, crisp finish, sunny brightness, and many other similarities identified in the Beer Genome Project."
(I was trying to describe Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from memory there.) Part of the reason Pandora succeeds is because it has scores (hundreds?) of markers. What seems banal in the particular begins to sort out into pretty small categories. If you like SN Pale, perhaps the qualities would lead you to try a wit, say, which wouldn't be expected if you hewed strictly to style. More to the point, it would guide you not just to other similar styles, but particular beers. And this is where the genius of such a project would lie. If you tune in a radio station, you select one based on the blunt dictates of genre. You might end up enjoying 75% of the music and really liking 25%. But with Pandora, that number goes up quite a bit--I enjoy probably 90% of the music and really like half of it. If you could reliably find a way to navigate the tens of thousands of beers produced every year in the world, the same thing would happen.

In terms of implementing it, well. As Stan says, it's a pipe dream. You'd need to get a team of trained tasters who could assemble a list of say 2000 beers at launch. It would be a great app--you could easily charge a few bucks for it. But the list would have to grow quickly; since beer is regional, you'd need ten thousand or more to ensure that everyone had a decent selection of options. That would require some kind of serious investment. I'd be happy to take some calls from VCs, but I don't expect them.

Ah, but imagine, you're in the mood for something like, oh, say Hair of the Dog Adam. You boot up your Beerdora, hoping to be able to scratch the itch. Adam--that'll be a tough beer to match, you think, but no, there they are, a dozen suggestions just waiting for you.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nanobreweries Defined

I have always felt that a reasonable definition for nanobrewery was any brewery using a three-barrel system or smaller, and now I see I'm correct. John Holl has a nice piece on nanos at craftbeer.com, and that's the definition he uses. His source? Me.
Nano-breweries, sometimes referred to as pico breweries, or bucket breweries, distribute to a limited area and only make beer in very small quantities.

How Small are Nano-Breweries?

"My working definition is three barrels or less, which essentially makes them large-scale homebrewers," said Jeff Alworth, author of the Portland-based beer blog Beervana.
Now, if only someone would call to ask my opinion on whether beers fermented with brettanomyces can properly be called sour, we'd be all set.

New Blog: Beer Sensory Science

Back in November, I got an email from a new blogger who's work greatly interested me. The site is called Beer Sensory Science, and the "Beer Sensor" describes himself (I think it's a he) as a "sensory panel administrator at a regional American craft brewery." (For the sake of his employer, he's trying to stay anonymous.) The blog is focused on the nexus between science and the experience of consuming beer, a little-discussed, little-understood element of beer.

So, you get a description of the six most prevalent esters that contribute flavor in beer, such as:
Ethyl butyrate (aka ethyl butanoate): very common in beers. Threshold: 400ppb. Common levels in beer: 50-250ppb. Smells of tropical fruit, pineapple, Juicy Fruit bubble gum. Our panel has seen ethyl butyrate in: Alaskan Winter Ale, Hair of the Dog Blue Dot, Stone Levitation, Coors Blue Moon, Deschutes Twilight, Stone Belgian IPA.
Or this post, on the person-by-person variability of olfaction:

Some practical examples of this have been seen in the threshold tests I’ve performed with the panel regarding diacetyl. Some panelist’s thresholds are down below 30ppb, while others are well over 100ppb, and there are even 1 or 2 who may be totally anosmic to it (meaning they have no ability to detect it at any concentration).... Another example comes from the flavor standard “indole”, which has been known to elicit a floral jasmine-like aroma for a certain portion of the population, while the rest of the population smells fecal material.

Or this post on glycosides, currently my fave:

Glycosides are compounds which contain two parts: a sugar component which is in its cyclic (ring) form, and another component attached to the sugar at the number 1 (or “glycosidic” carbon). Some of these companion molecules can also be sugars, so sucrose, being a 2-sugar molecule (disaccharide) made of one glucose unit and one fructose unit attached through the appropriate carbon, is an example of one of these types of glycosides. The glycosides which appear to influence beer flavor are found in hops and have aromatic compounds bonded to the carbohydrates. In their combined state, the glycosides have no flavor; no sweetness and no aroma. However, once this glycosidic bond is broken the aromatic compound is free to volatilize into the headspace of the beer and ultimately into your nose.

Fascinating! Of course, since the Beer Sensor is a chemist, you get baffling information like this, too: "In beer, the substrates that react to form the variety of common esters are the numerous alcohols present (byproducts of amino acid and carbohydrate metabolism) and the various acyl coenzyme A molecules which are active participants in some of the metabolic processes of brewer’s yeast." Err, right.

In any case, it's a great site and one I'll be checking in on regularly. Have a look.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Blazers + Good Beer = Hoops and Hops

I know all the cool kids have abandoned the Blazers for the sleek elegance of the Timbers--but old-timers like me still love us some hoops. And the Blazers love them some good beer.

I've written before about how good beer enjoys a rare place of prominence at the Rose Garden, but this year, the team has been trying a new promotion--one that sings to my beer-soaked heart. Once a month, the Blazers host a pre-function over at Memorial Coliseum that looks a whole lot like a mini beer fest. A dozen beers, most of them seasonals or rarities. They aren't the kind of beers that would necessarily wow you lot, but I'm prepared to declare them far beyond what has ever been served in connection with a professional sporting game. After you enjoy your ten four ounce pours (!) you trot across the street and watch a Blazer game. There are two price points: $54 for lower-level seats and $31 for upper-level.

The remaining games are the Hornets tomorrow night, the Washington Wizards on March 22, and the Memphis Grizzlies on April 12. Order tickets to the package here.

And, for those of you who have written off this year's injury-plagued team, have a look at the standings. Riding the stellar play of LaMarcus Aldridge, we have jumped two spots and are now second in the division.

I had meant to post on this earlier, and I apologize for the late notice--but bookmark it for next month if you can't make it tomorrow.

My Facebook Experiment

I wish to alert you to a new experiment that is roughly 23 hours old. Yes, I know the word "Facebook" is in the title, but please don't let that dissuade you--read on.

As a good-beer fan and beer blogger, I end up tasting a lot more beers than I review. Even the ones I do mention on the blog sometime don't get reviewed until weeks after I taste them. Yesterday, in one of those increasingly rare moments of insight, my old brain had a thought: why not kill two birds with one stone and post short capsule reviews of these beers on your Beervana Facebook page? That way you 1) don't lose the opportunity to comment on the beers you try, and 2) give your vestigial Facebook page new reason for being.

As many people have discovered, the imperative "YOU MUST HAVE A FACEBOOK PAGE" runs almost instantly up against the question: "But why?--I already have a blog." In this stroke of insight, I have discovered a way to use the FB page that won't function merely as a drain on the thing it is ostensibly supporting. Ta da! Damn, I told my old brain, you're not completely useless to me after all.

So there you have it. Go have a look>>

Evaluating Exotic Beers

Blood-orange saison, toasted-coconut brown, apricot-chile wheat. Beers brewed with strange and unexpected ingredients are far from novel, but they are no longer outliers. Those three beers all entered my consciousness last week (and two entered my belly); every week brings new examples. As an inveterate trend-watcher, I think 2011 will be the Year of the Strange Concoction. So long as we don't starting devoting style categories to every new mixture (American farmhouse ales brewed with citrus versus American farmhouse ales, no citrus), consider me very much a fan of the trend.

It does, however, raise questions about how we evaluate them.

Sally and I popped into Burnside Brewing on Friday night for a pint of the new apricot-chile wheat, and ripe was the issue. The intention behind the beer seemed pretty obvious: the sweet apricots were married to the Scotch bonnet peppers in the manner of Caribbean cuisine. The wheat base provided a soft backdrop, like a bed of rice under a fiery jerk chicken. Indeed, the beer evoked these notes precisely: the apricots, fragrant but gentle, offered just a hint of sweetness that drew out a sweet-spicy vegetable note from the peppers. Compared to some chile beers, the fire was at a lazy, slow burn. The wheat, scone sweet, softly swaddled the more assertive flavors. Right. But was it good?

Sally and I chatted about this for awhile. Take the peppers, which in a beer like this are a substitute for hops. In a light wheat ale, we'd have a baseline for bitterness--low to medium, not so much that it overwhelms the wheat character or makes the beer oppressive. But chiles? How much is too much? For Sally, Burnside went over the line. The pepper hit her so hard she had to really focus to find the apricots. I thought they were perfect. I thought, in fact, that everything was in great balance, and I could easily drink that beer all summer long. (In fact, on a drizzly charcoal day in Portland, it was a ray of sunshine.)

In grammar, they always say you can break the rules if you know them. Throwing in a little colloquial syntax can spice up an otherwise flat--but grammatically-correct--piece. "Style" is the grammar of brewing. As long as breweries stick to the rules, evaluation is a snap. But once a brewery wanders into the deep weeds way beyond style, it's not clear where the definition of "good" lies. In both literature and brewing, rule-ignoring virtuosity can produce a combination of exhilaration and uncertainty.

I guess we're going to have to take in on a case-by-case basis. The only criterion I bring is whether the ingredients harmonize with the nature of the underlying beer or conceal it. Back in the early 90s, when craft breweries were clamoring after new drinkers, they often released sugary-sweet fruit ales that bore a stronger resemblance to Fanta than beer. If I'm drinking a beer, I want a beer. But the use of fruit to draw out citric esters, say--that's very interesting. Kona is rolling out a new brown ale made with coconut. Brown ales, brewed for moreishness, have an innate malt sweetness that works very well with coconut. I had a couple pints last week and could have kept going. It was a beer gently accented by a complimentary adjunct. Had Kona tried to make a liquid Mounds bar, I would have reacted differently.

We better get used to it, though. I envision a future where a sizable percentage of American beers are brewed with something other than malt and hops.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Ritual

There was a moment last night when I realized the beer I was drinking was one too many. I was enjoying the company of a brewer and also a beer writer at Don Younger's wake at his seminal* Horse Brass Pub. Smoke was in the air (as were raindrops, beyond the walls, outside.), and we were all feeling, in addition to loss and sadness, a little joy and hope. This is the nature of Beervana, and it was the legacy of Don's long life work. I raised my glass in an impromptu toast and I drank the glass down. And then I continued to drink.

Cheers, Don--

(Posts may suffer today.)


Update: John Foyston has a wonderful collection of pictures from last night. I guess I missed a number of folks there--but eagle-eyed John was on the case. Go have a look--you'll see he captured some rare (and not so rare) sightings.

___________
*Yes, I understand the meaning of "seminal" and can't think of a better use of it in a sentence.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Don Younger's Wake

I think most of the readers of this blog have seen the news elsewhere, but in case not, be apprised. The Horse Brass will be hosting a wake for Don Younger today between 2-6 pm. At three, we'll toast Don, and Lisa Morrison is encouraging folks to toast him today at three your time--wherever you may be.



____________
PHOTO: DON RYAN, AP

Friday, February 11, 2011

Reviews: Widmer W '11, Lompoc Batch 69, and Full Sail Black Gold

Tis the season of big blacks. Last month I watched Upright brew their annual Oyster Stout, Fort George is in the midst of Stout Month, and at least three breweries have new stouts out on shelves.

Okay, they're not all called stouts: one is a Baltic porter. These all have a common ancestor, though. I reviewed a bit of the history on Wednesday of how porters became the first international style--go have a look if you missed it. English breweries were shipping strong porter to the Baltic states by the beginning of the 19th century. These were the ur-beers that led to the styles of imperial stouts and Baltic porters. For some reason, Russians felt locally-brewed porter wasn't much good, so they relied on imports. Elsewhere in the region, brewers did brew the style, and there the line split.

Over the centuries, Baltic porters emerged looking a little different from English imperial stouts. The porters produced in Poland and the Baltic states are mostly lagers. They are as strong in alcohol as imperial stouts (7-10%), but lighter-bodied. They are silkier and lighter, less gloppy. You often find roasty notes--sometimes so intense they bend toward the sour--or plummy port-like notes. Imperial stouts, by contrast are gloppy--they're dense and rich and generally very intense. Their intensity makes them a huge favorite of beer geeks--who strangely aren't anywhere near as charmed by their close kin, the Baltics.

I, however, am charmed by them all, and was delighted to see all these releases emerge at roughly the same time.

Widmer W '11 KGB Imperial Stout
Old-timers were not surprised to see KGB make it to the W series. It has been a Gasthaus favorite since 1998, although brewer Ben Dobler says each iteration is a little different. So was the bottled version, which Ben describes thus:
"We've always been right around 9-10% ABV, and 65-75Bu's. The main change in this version is the addition of Midnight Wheat from Briess. I think adding this malt helped round out some of the roughness and harshness we were getting by relying on Chocolate, Roast, and Black malt to give us color as well as flavor. The beer is ridiculously smooth, in my opinion. It surprised me how well we hid 9.3% ABV."
This beer was released more than a month ago, and I've heard quite different reactions in that time. Some of my friends raved, agreeing with Ben that the alcohol was very well-concealed. Others, however, have complained that the body is too thin for a Russian imperial; some also dispute Ben's characterization of smoothness and call the roastiness harsh. Fortunately, you have me to resolve these differences

Tasting Notes
In the manner of Solomon, I shall split the baby: both fans and critics are correct. KGB is an intense beer, highlighted by a massive wallop of roasted barley. People are more or less susceptible to intense flavors; some love 97% cacao dark chocolate while others (like me), need a little moderation. Widmer pushes the envelope. Interestingly, there's a competing sweetness that runs through the palate, long and sweet, with a molasses finish.

The body? Definitely thinner than most imperial stouts, which got me thinking. Since this must surely have been intentional, what was the goal with KGB? I swished and swallowed, noting a bit of soot, as if from Victorian England. But that roast note--so similar to some Baltics I've had. This is a beer that goes a long way toward reuniting the two branches of the family.

My first pour came last month, when Widmer and the Brew Crew unveiled their latest Collaborator. In attendance was Rob Widmer, who noted that he was excited to throw some in the cellar and see how it ages. I agree: that roast note will fall back a bit, and I expect the sweet note to deepen and acquire some of the port of a Baltic. In six months or a year, this may seem a lot more like a Baltic porter than an imperial stout--and will probably reach its potential. Rating it now, I'd call it a B, but I expect it could rise substantially--and possibly even be an A before it's all done. [9.3%, 21.5° P, 65 IBUs]


Lompoc Batch 69
As is their wont, the folks from Lompoc have provided exactly one detail about this beer: it was lagered. Beyond that, I have no idea what ingredients or processes they used. That detail is important, though. Mostly the American Baltics I've seen have been fermented with ale strains and taste a lot more like imperial stouts.

Tasting Notes
This is the second year for Batch 69, and last year's (which I missed), was much lauded. I'm not sure if the recipe changed or I'm just out of step with the raters on BA and RateBeer, but I was less impressed. It looks great--an ebony body and a mousse-like mocha head. There wasn't a lot of nose, but I picked up chocolate and nuts ... and cabbage. Hmm. The palate was appropriately lager smooth, but there was not much depth to the flavor. It's mainly sweet, lacking any roast. And the sweet is overdone--by about half-way through the first glass, my mouth was coated. The cabbage is there, too, mildly, but not tastily. (Perhaps the Lompockians were taking the Polish inspiration too literally?) I'd be willing to give it another shot, but based on this bottle, I'd rate it a C+. [7.7%]


Full Sail Black Gold
The imperial stouts made by American breweries are, often as not, aged in bourbon barrels. This innovation takes us yet another step away from what I expect Barclay Perkins tasted like in 1825. Full Sail alternates between Imperial Porter and Black Gold, brewing one each year. They secure the barrels over a year in advance, then let that year's batch sit for a full 12 months on the wood, aging. The result is always a characteristically American product, rich and sweet, full of candy and chocolate sweetness. But not all are created equally.

This year's Black Gold was aged in 18- and 20-year old Kentucky bourbon barrels. Wholly apart from the contribution of bourbon, barrel-aging is its own art. Wood breathes and becomes a part of the environment. If a barrel is kept cool or warm, wet or dry, these factors will affect what's inside--especially over the course of two decades. Full Sail blended the batches together to produce the final version of Black Gold, but as a service to beer bloggers, they kegged up a tiny portion straight from the barrels and served them straight.

The beer aged in the 1990 barrels (just after Nirvana's debut "Bleach" came out) was incredibly smooth and sweet. Absolute decadence--and too much, for some people. (John Harris felt it was cloying.) But the beer aged in the '92 barrels (that was the year Bill Clinton was first elected president) was a little hot and sharp. I might have admired it more if it weren't served alongside the final version and the '90. I've seen a bit of speculation that the sharpness must come from the age difference in the barrels, but I doubt that. These are old barrels, and a 10% difference in age can't account for the harshness differential. I suspect, rather, that they were handled differently. For some reason, the '92 barrels ended up hotter and sharper.

The final version is the Goldilocks blend--just right. The hot notes and the intensely sweet notes from the two blends are smoothed out. The result is like liquid tiramisu--rich, chocolately, and creamy. A bit of the wood is present, and the bourbon provides a clear note, but not an oppressive one. Barrels breathe, which allow the flavor components of the beer to blend and harmonize more fully--something that hasn't happened yet in the KGB. Black Gold is released ready to drink, no aging necessary. (It will, of course, continue to evolve in the cellar.) I remembered a Black Gold that was insanely good and mentioned it to John. "2006," he said, without hesitation. That one is the standard against which other Black Golds will be measured, and 2011's batch is just a notch below. But just a notch--this is a very, very good beer. Since '06's was an A, I guess I'll call this an A-. Ah, screw it, let's call that '06 an A+ and leave this an A. [11.4%, 37 IBUs]


Update: I just got an email from Hopworks announcing the release of a tuned up Kronan:
Deep like the Baltic Sea and as massive as the Swedish ship Kronan sunk in its icy waters, our Bourbon Barrel-Aged Baltic Porter emerges from the depths after being stowed away for a year in Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels. This beer brings to the surface a frothy tan head and rich aroma combining malt notes of chocolate, caramel and dark fruit with the essence of vanilla, smoke and oak of Bourbon. Made with bottom fermenting lager yeast, Kronan the Barbarian is as rich and strong as an Austrian actor but with more complexity. [9.2%, 19° P, 25 IBUs]

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Beertickers: A Great Beer Movie

Someone asked me recently, "what's your favorite beer movie?" The question is as depressing as it is easy: none. Beer is ubiquitous, but capturing anything interesting about it on film seems impossible.* TV shows seem no more successful. I have despaired of every seeing something that captured the essence of beer culture--entertainingly--on screen.

In late 2009, Phil Parkin released his indie production called Beertickers, and finally managed what his predecessors could not. The difficulty is telling an entertaining story that allows a filmmaker to peel back the layers of beer culture in the process. So Parkin's movie, ostensibly about quirky obsessives called "beer tickers" (akin to trainspotters), is really about the nature and history of British pub culture.

Beer tickers are a strange variant of cask ale enthusiasts. Their goal is to "collect" beers by tasting and recording them ("ticking" them off). They go around to pubs and festivals, trying new beers and recording them in loose-leaf notebooks. Amateurs record hundreds of ticks a year; the real competitors do more than a thousand. We watch as "Brian the Champ," Britain's king ticker, records his 40,000th tick. Unsurprisingly, he's been doing it for decades.

The ticking is ultimately just a device to tell the real story, which is Parkin's deep appreciation for the institution of the corner pub and the art of cask ale. As he follows tickers around, Parkin tours English pubs, brews his own beer at Thornbridge, and learns about the history of British brewing. As you're watching, you begin to see that the tickers aren't the center of the show; rather, they're a consequence of a country so in love with a nice pour of real ale. Americans are proud of our burgeoning good-beer culture, but it's nice to be reminded, as I was when Parkin visits a 12th-century English pub, that we have a long way to go.

The story is entertaining enough that when Sally walked by my computer as I was screening it, she was instantly engrossed and sat down to watch it with me. It's a low-budget movie that neither looks or feels low budget (although you do see a boom mic in one shot). I could live without the chirpy music, but that's the kind of quibble I have to dredge up to find anything wrong with it.

Beerticking will not be getting a theatrical release in the US, but Phil is trying to get Americanos to watch on iTunes. You can watch it for a buck or own it for fifteen. The link is here, but if you might find it easier just to boot up the program and search for "Beertickers." Below is a trailer that focuses more on the ticking side of things--but gives you a sense of the piece nonetheless.



Definitely spend the buck and watch this movie.

_________
*Strange Brew is of course, nostalgically entertaining, but it's about drunkards, not beer.

Honest Pints at Sixteen Tons

Eugene, hermetically sealed from the good beer explosion for about 15 years, is catching up. It is finally boosting it's brewery-to-human ratio, and is home to an awakening giant (Ninkasi). Now it has a bottle shop/tasting bar in the mode of Portland's Belmont Station, Hop and Vine, Bottles, and so on. I consider these establishments indicative of the growth of beer geekery--they pop up when a community reaches a critical mass for, say, gueuze demand. [Note: see comments for a correction on this point.]

Sixteen Tons, which recently hosted a wild ale fest, is such a place. And thanks to the efforts of our Eugene correspondent, Kevin, we are now delighted to certify them as purveyors of honest pints. As is appropriate for those who take beer very seriously, Sixteen Tons receives a gold star for including an etched line indicating the 16-ounce fill point. Kudos!




Sixteen Tons Beer and Wine Bottle Shop
Certified Purveyor of an Honest Pint
265 E 13th
Eugene, OR 97401
(541) 345-2003
website | Facebook




As always, I strongly encourage you to visit this fine establishment.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Reviewing the Storied History of Porter and Stout

Do events crowd together through the motivation of some kind of unrecognized collective motivation, or do they only seem to crowd together because we're magnetized to look for them? Two imperials stouts and a Baltic porter have just been released, and just yesterday, Finnish researchers announced they want to try to recreate a porter based on those found on a 200-year-old shipwreck. Coincidence?

In the next day or two, I'll have a look at the beers, but first, let's peruse the history of this style--certainly one of the three or four most important beers ever brewed.

__________

History of the Style
The exact date of porter's birth and the nature of the infant are lost to history. There's quite a bit of evidence that the "three-threads" theory is a case of bad history repeated for 200 years. Rather, like most styles, it appears likely that there was no birth, no infant, no single moment of inception. Like most inventions, it was an evolutionary process--a common brown beer that came to be called porter as it was refined and improved.

In the early part of the 18th century (until 1740, according to Cornell), it bore a very strong resemblance to gratzer. Made entirely of smoky brown malt, it was heavily hopped and not exactly tasty, according to early reports. In order to reach palatability, that smoke needed to dissipate, and so starting around 1740, brewers began to age it in wooden vats--at least months and often as long as two years. This iteration bore strong resemblance to oud bruin, for, predictably, those vats inoculated it with wild yeasts and bacteria. At a certain point, brewers realized that the inefficient brown malt (which was cheap) wasn't the value they imagined. To achieve the dark color, they developed "patent" malt--charred black--which they used to stain a grist of mostly pale malts. This was effectively the beer we'd recognize, but it took 100 years to develop.

Blending was another important feature of porter consumption. Especially as the recipe evolved, consumers began to appreciate a little liveliness in their beer. Publicans would therefore mix aged, still beer with young, effervescent beer, producing a pour that had elements of both. In Amber, Black and Gold, Cornell writes:
"In the pub, the casks containing this highly conditioned beer were known as 'high,' while casks containing maturer, less lively beer were known as 'low.' Publicans would fill glasses three-quarters full from the 'low cask' and then top them up with foaming beer from the 'high cask.' The 'high' and 'low' casks system was in use for Irish stout and porter until at least the 1960s."

Success of the Style
Pilsners and their more insipid descendants have conquered the world more spectacularly than any style in history. Yet light lagers weren't the first--porter was. (Or porter and stout--but let's leave aside the distinction for this post.) Prior to the industrial revolution, beer was necessarily a local product. It just wasn't possible to produce it for wide distribution. But porter arrived just as industry was beginning. Within a hundred years, breweries would be producing massive amounts of the stuff and storing it in vats so large (20 feet high) they sometimes burst, sending floods down the streets of London.

It was first sent to Ireland, where it was wildly successful (so much so that for long decades, Ireland was the only real producer of black ales to be found in the US). The trade continued to spread, making it to the New World, Russia, the Baltic states and Scandinavia. It was so popular Germans imitated it, and brewers across the globe started brewing it. Later it spread to Africa and the Caribbean. Extant examples of porter and stout still exist from Russia, Poland, and Australia. Despite the waxing and waning of other styles, the arrival of new immigrants, and the crushing success of light lagers, black ales have continued to be an international commodity. A remarkable success by any standard.

Imperial stouts and Baltic porters are the quintessential dark ale exports--and among the most popular styles among beer geeks. Of course, modern American imperial stouts and Baltic porters look quite different from the original beers shipped to the Tsars. Tomorrow I'll reflect a bit more on this change when I review Widmer's W '11 KGB Stout, Full Sail's Black Gold, and Lompoc's Batch 69 Baltic Porter.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Disquisition on the Nature of Sour

I'm not totally sure why tastes are broken down into just five categories (salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami), but what's interesting is that two of the three most characteristic beer flavors--sour and bitter--are considered "aversive." That is, they are signals our ancient adaptive brains recognize as containing potentially lethal substances. These categories of taste are subjective and culturally specific. So much of the terrain of flavor exists well outside their small purview--but somehow they persist.

One of these flavors is the subject of today's post: sour. What is sour, and when should it apply to flavors found in beer, and particularly, should we consider brettanomyces-inoculated beer sour? The answer is semantic, not scientific, but that's fine: it's best to have a shared vocabulary in discussing the flavors present in beer. Back when I reviewed this year's Dissident, I classed it as a sour beer, and Ezra took issue with this. A few weeks ago, the Brewers Association signaled they were in accord with Ezra's view and split brett-inoculated beer off from the category of "sour." And then last week, when I was chatting with John Harris, he also made the point. So, what's sour?

The Nature of Sour
What we call "sour" is the perception of acids. Vinegar, is a great example; it takes most of its sour quality from acetic acid, but also has small amounts of citric acid and tartaric acid. In beer, lactic acid is a big player in the perception of sourness. Impressionistically, it's that puckery quality. Linguistically, there's no precise distinction between "tart" and "sour," though beer people will typically ascribe to more lightly-soured beer the adjective "tart." I'm cool with that.

The Nature of Wild
Wild ales almost always produce sour flavors, but they usually produce lots of other flavors, too. Many of these are referred to by similarly wild-sounding adjectives: horse-blanket, zoo-like, goaty, sweaty. Other qualities seem to come from chemistry labs: nail-polish remover, paint thinner, etc. Still others are less precise--dusty, austere, hot, sharp, funky, tangy. The process of fermentation produces lots of chemical by-products, and no doubt a sophisticated lab could identify all the compounds that produce these varying flavors. Some are related to sourness, some are miles away. I have been lax about using the words "sour" and "wild" interchangeably, and this definitely confuses matters. If a beer is zoo-like, it's best not to refer to it as sour.

Is Brettanomyces Sour?
So then we come back to our friend, brett. Many of the qualities it produces aren't traditionally sour. But it can produce sour notes. At halftime of the Super Bowl, we cracked a Billy the Mountain--a beer soured with brettanomyces clausenii. (The Packers were ahead and I wanted to celebrate while we had the chance--no waiting until the end of the game for this pessimist!) And yes, it is sour--or at the very least notably tart. In fact, the signature quality the brett contributes to the Billy the Mountain is tartness/sourness (though there are other, more subtle harmonics, that figure in). This isn't always the case--this year's Dissident, for example, has many wild qualities, but its acid is less sour than dry and leathery. One of the by-products of brettanomyces is acetic acid, though it doesn't always crank it out in huge quantities. Beers made with brett can therefore be sour or not. They are the chimera of the sour world.

The upshot to all of this is that I feel suitably chastened about my cavalier substitution of the word "sour" for "wild." As a matter of coming to shared vocabulary, using the word sour should be restricted to flavors that are, in fact, sour. On the other hand, it is not strictly true that brett beers are not sour, either. (Claiming they're just "tart" is a scoundrel's refuge.) This is especially true when we're trying to come to shared vocabulary. Compared to standard beers, something like Billy the Mountain has to be considered sour. It's an abstraction to exempt it because the sourness is lighter, different, and more subtle than in other soured ales--and to the average beer drinker, a bizarre elision.

In conclusion, to the question "are brett-inoculated beers sour?" we must agree to the answer "yes." And "no." Thank your for your attention.

Monday, February 07, 2011

All the News That's Fit to Print

It's one of those days: I'm looking through the email and see that I've been lax on spreadin' the news. My remedy, post haste:

Fixing Oregon's Homebrew Laws
None of you will have forgotten the national news of last year; the OLCC and Oregon DOJ randomly decided that a 30+ year old law restricted the transport and public serving of homebrews, pretty much ending competition for the past six months. The Oregon Legislature will eventually fix this--there's no opposition, it doesn't cost anything, and everyone loves beer--but there are competing bills and a looming $19.7 jillion budget hole that may distract legislators from the important stuff. One bill supported by the Oregon Homebrewers Alliance and 26 legislators is up for a hearing this Thursday in the Senate. You can help make this bill become law by following the simple steps outlined below:
  1. Go to the Oregon legislature site and find your Oregon rep and senator.
  2. Using the contact information provided, call or email these folks and let them know you support Senate Bill 444. Of course, be polite and generous-spirited. It was, after all, not these folks who caused the issue.
  3. If you are connected to a homebrew shop, are a professional brewer, or member of a homebrew club, contact the Homebrewers Alliance so they can assemble lists of supporters.
It doesn't need to be a long communication. Just mention the bill number (SB 444) and your support for it. Thank them for helping make the bill law.


SNOBs Are Cool, But Angels are Divine
The Pink Boots Society is kicking off a new initiative called Barley's Angels. The goal is most admirable: "As the consumer leg of the Pink Boots Society, Barley's Angels is committed to involving women in the enjoyment of craft beer by creating environments where women can learn more about beer in a friendly, educational and supportive atmosphere, thus creating more women beer enthusiasts, and, ultimately, involving more women in beer- and brewery-related careers."

So what will the Angels do? One example is an event Lisa Morrison is hosting:
We will taste and compare at least six beers, pairing them with some fantastic snacks, learning a bit about recent developments regarding beer as a healthy addition to your diet. This will be held in the new brewery at Fort George, so there will also be a brewery tour and you can learn first-hand how beer is brewed.

Date: Sunday, Feb. 20, 2-5 p.m.
Where: Fort George Brewing's New Brewery, 1483 Duane St., Astoria, OR
Cost: $35 per person, available now at Fort George
Sorry gents, you have to sit this one out.


Interesting Releases
Breweries continue to put out fascinating beers, and here are some interesting ones to which I look especially forward:
  • Alameda My Bloody Valentine (available now). A blood-orange saison made with dried peel in the kettle and blood-orange juice later (conditioning tanks?). I'm a sucker for saison.
  • Burnside Sweet Heat (Feb 8). A wheat ale brewed with an addition of 200 pounds of apricots and dry hopped with Jamaican Scotch bonnet peppers.
  • Deschutes Stoic (April). There's a news embargo on this beer, but I managed to prize a bit of info out of the brewery. What I believe I can get away with: big and barrel-aged. I wondered if it might be related in any way to the similarly obscurely-named Dissident. The short answer: yes.

Zwickelmania

Each year, the Oregon Brewers Guild cajoles its members into opening their breweries for a single day of tours and open houses. Sort of like first Thursday for breweries, but just once a year. This year it's February 19th. Zwickel, incidentally, is a verb, meaning, to pour beer straight from the conditioning tank. (Also a noun, for beer thus poured.) I have no idea whether it's an ancient German term or one invented three years ago by OBG director Brian Butenschoen, but it has come firmly into the regional vocabulary. Details about which breweries are participating and where to find area shuttle busses is here.


Van Havig Appreciation Night
A reminder that the Grain and Gristle is hosting an appreciation of Van Havig tomorrow at 6pm. I will regrettably not be able to attend, but Van knows how much I appreciate him, anyway. (By the way, I drove past the Grain and Gristle for the first time today and realized it's in the old Chilango's space. That was my corner burrito joint when I lived three blocks away a few years back. So strange--that used to be sort of a lost and derelict corner.)

Home Brewer in the White House

Presidents make their mark on the White House by fixing the joint up. Nixon, for example, added a bowling alley. Carter added solar panels (and Reagan removed them). Roosevelt (FD) put in a swimming pool.

Obama? Homebrewery:
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have joined the home brewing beer trend that's swept the US, and will be serving a very special White House brew tonight when they welcome guests for the annual Super Bowl party, to watch as the Packers take on the Steelers.

In a special turn of events in the history of White House food creations, one of the White House chefs has brewed White House Honey Ale, a White House aide exclusively tipped ObFo. It uses one pound of honey from this year's 160-pound harvest of honey from the White House Bee Hive, which sits beside Mrs. Obama's South Lawn Kitchen Garden.
I've watched Obama's flirtation with beer since he was a candidate. (Although it's lost in cyberspace, someone shot a video of his visit to Beaverton. Someone recommends a local IPA and Obama responds, 'Really, is it good?") Forget the beer summit--Obama's been seen tippling at ball games and restaurants. His passion is typical for an American: he mainly drinks (and apparently quite enjoys) macros, but has the occasional crossover micro, too. He has so far failed to fall under the sway of double IPAs and bourbon-barrel aged imperial sours. Give him time, though. Homebrewing can affect you in unpredictable ways...

Update: by the way, if anyone knows how I would go about getting a bottle of WH homebrew for review, holler. I'd love to see what they're serving.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Why the Green Bay Packers Can't Possibly Win the Super Bowl

Note: this has nothing to do with beer. Viva blogs!

For some reason, the Green Bay Packers are the favorite to win the Super Bowl tomorrow. It's trendy because the Pack have been on what is admittedly one king-hell of a tear over the last few games. Aaron Rodgers is a pure quarterback, and his redemption of a beloved city sullied by shenanigans of the late Favre era is a story everyone loves. He's a good kid and everyone wants the good kid, not his thuggish counterpart, to win. Of course, everyone forgets the suspect team that lost to the Dolphins at home. They forget that at the start of the playoffs, pundits were prepared to pin to Rodgers' lapel the dreaded can't-win-the-big-game pin. They forget the lack of experience on the Pack side, and the long, valuable experience Polamalu, Rothlisberger, Ward, et. al. have. So it's a trendy pick that is based on misguided gut instincts.

But that's not why the Pack will lose.

(In fact, the teams have remarkable similarities. The 3-4 D, obviously, but similar parity at key positions: speedster receivers (Wallace, Jones), rangy speedster defensive backs (Polamalu, Matthews), great D-lines and good but iffy O-lines, great quarterbacks, and similar lunchpail running backs. If I weren't invested in the game, I wouldn't have the cojones to make a prediction.)

The Pack will lose because I desperately want them to win. Much is made of the Packers' 90 years of winning football, but it's grossly misleading. Since they won the second Super Bowl, they've mounted a mediocre 328-310-8 record. They had exactly three winning seasons in the 70s and 80s (plus one more in a strike-shortened year). Even in the Brett Favre era, they only went to two Super Bowls and botched the second. Most living fans don't have the experience of dominance from their Pack. Much like the Blazers over the same period, they were good and entertained thoughts of championships--but seasons almost always ended in disappointment.

Sports produces cultures, and Wisconsin sports have--again, like Portland--created the best kind of pure fans. Packers fans are fans no matter how bad the team is. It is not their instinct to turn against the team for losing. Rather, there's a family feel to being a fan. Sure, it may be humiliating to go 4-12, but hey, families got to stick together. In Dairyland, the other great teams come from my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin Badgers. Like the Pack, they have suffered through a lot of terrible years, and with the exception of hockey, where they are national royalty, never seriously contend for national championships. They get close some years. Take 2010, for example, when the football team lost only one game and looked like possibly the best team in the country. Until, embarrassingly, they lost to TCU in the Rose Bowl. Classic Badgers.

Not all fans are like this--a fact I discovered by simultaneously marrying into a New England family and befriending a lifelong New Englander here in Portland. In New England, teams are expected to win championships. Even the hapless Red Sox, which didn't for decades, was expected to. The second things go south, fans get ugly. Be good or go home. For teams that are good, like the current Patriots and Celtics, the fans are insanely loyal. Old heroes are treated like kings. David Ortiz will, until he draws his last breath, never have to pay for another pint of beer in Boston. But get sideways with the fans, and it's an ugly thing.

Ironically, I was a Steelers fan growing up in Boise, Idaho--634 miles from the nearest pro team (Oakland). If there was a local fave, it was the Broncos--but they were even further away, 832 miles. So a lot of kids just picked teams at random, based mainly on mascot and color themes, like you might select a favorite Sesame Street character. (The Dolphins were big.) I was a Pittsburgh boy, entranced by the mighty steel curtain and the lovable, working-class team. I was a fan so young that I couldn't even understand the down system--but I understood that the Steelers were the best. For my eighth birthday, they beat the hated Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X.

It will be strange to watch what is effectively the same team I loved as a kid beat the team I've rooted for for nearly 20 years, but I have no doubt they will. That's how it goes with the Pack. Just close enough so that you really taste the loss.

On the other hand, if they do win, I know just the beer with which to toast them....

Update: see?