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Friday, December 30, 2011

Events Note

Lots happening this weekend, and here's a slightly-better-than-Twitter bullet list:

And the 2011 Satori Award Goes To ...

The Satori Award
In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award, now in its sixth year, honors a debuting beer that in a single instant, through the force of tastiness and elan, produces a flash of insight into the nature of beer. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer. The inaugural winner was Ninkasi Believer followed by Full Sail Lupulin (2007), Cascade Apricot Ale (2008), and Upright Four (2009), and Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter (2010)--all of which, I'm pleased to see, are still on the market.

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Now that I've been doing this thing a little while, I'm starting to see a pattern emerge. In three of the five years, I've chosen a beer from a new brewery. You could throw Cascade into the mix, too, because it was effectively a new brewery--a separate name and entirely separate brewing philosophy from the Raccoon Lodge. Even Lupulin honored the novel--the emergence of fresh hop ales as a fixture in the Northwest brewing calendar.

All of which led me to believe I'd be choosing from one of the new breweries to hit the scene--Burnside, Logsdon, or Boneyard (I might have been convinced to name GoodLife or Occidental had there been a tide of support, too). Then I began winnowing and thinking. Finally, it came down to three. And I was surprised to see which emerged as The One.


Logsdon Seizoen Bretta
This would have been a pretty easy choice. The beer geeks were clamoring for it, saison is one of my favorite styles, and the story behind the brewery is fantastic. The problem is the beer. I have to back into my complaint. Over the course of four days in my recent trip to Belgium, I had an epiphany. It came after about my 14th gueuze, the style that makes the Brussels area famous; it occurred to me: sour beer should never, never be harsh. In the US, we love extremes. If alcohol is good, more is better; if a little hop bite is good, melting faces is better. With sour ales, if funk is good, psychedelic funk has got to be better. What results is a staggering range of sour beers, some of which have lots of flavors one might charitably call "interesting" but never pleasant. Solvent, band-aid, burning plastic, extreme, saliva-sucking aridity, and painful harshness. True: they are natural. We like sour ales because they have unexpected character. But these flavors aren't pleasant.

Which brings us to Seizoen Bretta, a beer that announces its prickly nature with its unpronounceable name. Dave Logsdon uses a secret strain of brettanomyces to sour his saison, and one would expect nothing less of the founder of Wyeast Labs. But it's not a gentle strain. A style fascist might demand both malt character, preferably rustic, and some funky fermentation notes like you find in Dupont. I will resist the urge and approach the beer on its own terms. Yet what I find is not a pleasant, interesting brett character, but one that is exceedingly dry and has a long, tongue-scraping citrus-rind bitterness. To me it's out of balance, a beer bludgeoned by brett So, while I will no doubt incur the wrath of the fans who love it, I am passing over this early Logsdon effort.


Burnside Sweet Heat
Next we have a beer in the category of experimental flavored beers. (Bend's Ching Ching, a beer I considered almost as strongly, is another example.) This category of beer is the future of beer, and one area where American breweries are in the forefront--not alone, but definitely right there with the Italians and maybe a step in front of the Belgians. It makes a lot of sense to choose a beer that represents this style of brewing as a way of acknowledging its arrival, and I almost did.

I love Sweet Heat. This is a reprise of a beer Jason McAdam brewed when he was at the now-defunct Roots Brewery, Calypso Ale. A light wheat beer, it finds balance by contrasting Scotch Bonnet peppers with apricot--a high-concept recipe designed to evoke the cuisine of the Caribbean. McAdam pulls off the trick in a light session ale, which is a doubly impressive achievement. The future of flavored ales depends on the examples that manage not to be gimmicky but cohere into something that is truly beery. Sweet Heat does exactly that. Even more importantly, it passes a truth test for whether I really like a beer: do I crave it from time to time and feel like I just need to go buy a pint? Sweet Heat brings the crave.

In the end, it was that element of pure craveability that won me over and which brings us to the last beer I considered. I chose because, not only do I regularly crave it, but it falls into a category of beer we just have too little of--tasty light session beers, especially lagers.


2011 Satori Award Winner: Fort George 1811 Lager
I loved this beer the first time I had it, and wrote:
I hope customers are so mesmerized by the shiny blue cans that they ignore the prominent word "lager" and don't read blogs like this. Because, if they manage to get the beer into their glass, they're in for a treat. Despite people's expectations about canned lager, this is quite a lively and assertive beer. I'm not sure what the hops are, but noble sounds about right--or maybe Sterlings or a mixture of nobles and bastard American varieties like Mt. Hood. In any case, it's zesty and spicy, but buoyed by a lovely, summery sweetness. As is de rigueur for an Oregon beer (nod to Stan Hieronymus), it is as cloudy as November Portland skies. And, although it is packed with flavor, the volume doesn't blast at IPA levels, so it has that moreishness you want from a summer tipple.
Many cans and pints later, I'd add a few more notes. It's not a subtle beer. The hops (which were at the time confirmed to be Saaz and Centennial) are American-strong. It's certainly not balanced in the manner lager fans will expect. There's a decidedly sulfury nose that combines with the hops in a way that does not delight one and all (a friend of mine recoiled and said "woo, skunky"). Even in the lead-up to this post, a number of people called it their fave while commenter Shawn wrote "I heard the hype, bought one, took a few sips and had to give the rest away. Yuk. I like some lagers (Heater Allen, especially), but the 1811 was undrinkable." As all those fans of Logsdon's saison will no doubt agree, assertive beers divide people.

But hey, the heart wants what it wants. Fort George is one of Oregon's best breweries, and their wish to honor the founding of their home town, Astoria, makes all this a lot easier. The pub is one of the nicest anywhere, and I would call Sunrise Oatmeal Pale Ale, Vortex IPA, and Murky Pearl Oyster Stout Beervana must-haves. They even have a sweet new website. So congrats Chris Nemlowill, Jack Harris, and the brewing crew from Fort George--you made a hell of a beer.


Errata
Mike Wright recently launched his post-Beetje Brewery, the Commons. I'm going to consider all beers from the new brewery eligible for the 2012 Satori rather than this year. I didn't have a chance to try them, and I'd like to give Mike a chance to get the line up and running on the new system. Looking forward to get over there.

Ben Engler of Occidental Brewing. early new year's resolution: I will come see you soon. Promise.

Special shout out to Laurelwood for their new Organic Pale, which qualified as the most tasty of all the new beers released this year. It's hard to make the case for what is, after all, just a perfectly executed example of the country's most common style, but it deserves recognition for being a fantastic--if not quite Satori-ish--beer. Kudos to Chad Kennedy, and good luck, man.

I also totally loved Deschutes Chainbreaker, which used sage to bridge the flavor spectrum between spices and hops, and I'd like to put out a special appeal to the brewery to bring it back. Extremely tasty beer. Don't leave me hanging, guys.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Trends in Beer 2011

A few years ago, it was fresh hops; a couple years back it was sour beers, last year it was CDAs (or black IPAs or bitter darks or whatever). Like birds in flight, when one body inclines in a different direction, the whole flock changes course. What are the trends this year? Which birds are driving the flock? It occurred to me that the list I compiled for the Satori candidates does a great job of summarizing four of the more interesting developments in the world of beer. Here they are.

1. Strong ales
This is admittedly the most inconsequential of the year's trends, but one worth noting. With the release of Kingpin in six-packs, BridgePort solidified a trend that has been emerging over the past year or two: very strong beers released in six-packs at standard (that is, non-specialty) pricing. BridgePort had already scored success with Hop Czar, and Kingpin joins the lineup as another 7.5% giant. GoodLife Descender IPA (7%) and Boneyard Hop Venom (10%) are in the same vein. BridgePort is an appropriate marker for the trend because when they released one of the earliest IPAs back in 1996, they thought it needed to be a sessionable 5.5% to sell. They wouldn't make that decision today.

2. German Revival
When craft brewing started thirty years ago, the early pioneers wanted to work in a non-German milieu (except in the Midwest). German tradition--or its sad descendents--had dominated American brewing for over a century and craft brewers were looking for inspiration elsewhere. Folks like the Widmers had little luck exciting people about their rich German heritage. Lagers were commercial death (literally, in some cases--Saxer RIP). You might sneak a doppelbock into your line-up, but no one was interested in anything carrying the whiff of macro. With the arrival of Occidental and Fort George's delightful 1811 lager, there are signs people might be ready to give the Germans another go. (Yes, 1811 is based on a pre-prohibition American lager, but that style came from the breweries of the wave of German immigrants who remade the industry in the second half of the 19th century.)

3. Saisons
I think I may have cited this as a trend in past years, but I continue to be amazed by how many saisons are on the market--and 2011 was another banner year. There were 65 entries in the saison category at the GABF, more than all but ten other categories (of 83). BeerAdvocate list 982 saisons ... and just 924 German pilsners. This is a staggering turnaround for a style Michael Jackson declared nearly extinct 30 years ago. It may seem crazy for someone to build a brewery on the idea of farmhouse ales, but Dave Logsdon is riding the wave of one of the hottest styles in brewing. I once thought there were a lot of saisons because brewers like them, not customers, but that's becoming harder and harder to believe. In fact, when I interviewed Avondale, a brewery that opened in Birmingham earlier this year (Alabama's fourth), I wasn't even that shocked to learn that their flagship was slated to be a 7.5% saison. Well, why not?

4. Strange Ingredients
Perhaps the biggest trend of the moment is using non-standard ingredients to make beer. We have two beers on the Satori list that are useful examples--Bend Brewing's Ching Ching, a pomegranate and hibiscus Berliner weisse, and Burnside Sweet Heat, an apricot and pepper wheat ale. (Throw Deschutes Chainbreaker in there, too.) American craft breweries--not to mention breweries over the span of history--have often wandered into the fruit, spice, and veggie aisle for added flavor oomph. But often, the additives were there to mask the beer. The current trend is an evolution in brewing where the beer's nature is accentuated and bent in the direction of fine cuisine. Not every experiment works, but those that do are helping to redefine the way we think about beer. I expect this trend to continue and fundamentally change beer. It could take decades, but I think it's irreversible and inevitable. Oh--and good.

I've had to consider the Satori hopefuls in light of these larger trends and I've come up with a winner, which I'll announce tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

People's Choice: Logsdon Seizoen Bretta

I have been busy tallying comments, emails, and Facebook posts on the question of which beer should enjoy the hugely coveted Satori Award title.* It's actually a bit closer than I expected, but the clear winner is Logsdon Seizoen Bretta. This is impressive for a couple reasons. In past years I've posted polls, but the winner has always been the brewery with the biggest market share or, in one case, the biggest twitter following. That makes sense--beers that sell a lot are, definitionally, popular. The fact that Logsdon's beer won--easily the most obscure on the list--is impressive. It's also not an easy beer, so not everyone will have loved it (more on that in a couple paragraphs).

I have already expressed huge excitement over the arrival of this brewery--anyone who homebrews has already developed an appreciation for Dave Logsdon's work, and I'm no exception. I've even visited the brewery, which impressed me all the more. "Farmhouse" is a poetic invocation, not an accurate description of the places most beers are made. But Logsdon's beer is literally made in a farmhouse. I continue to have great hopes for the brewery, and Dave has a long view about what he wants to do. The reviews have been very positive, and as the voters in this little poll illustrate, it's already a well-loved beer.

Because I've been drinking too few local beers, I was prepared to rely on you all to pick the Satori, and if you'd voted for Boneyard in sufficient numbers, I might even have selected a beer I've never tried. Unfortunately, I'm not a huge fan of the Seizoen Bretta, and I had another bottle last night just to make sure. Yup, not for me. It's one thing to pick a beer I've never tried on the strength of beer geek love, but choosing a beer I'm not fond of is maybe asking too much.

But here's the thing: beer flavors are subjective. Especially with a beer like Seizeon Bretta. It was designed to have lots and lots of intense flavors and slowly nurtured and coaxed into developing them. It's exactly the kind of beer that will divide opinion. That means some won't like it, but others will adore it. A different blogger, a different Satori winner. And, whether I liked it or not, I'd encourage everyone to try a bottle. At ten bucks, they're quite a value (keeping in mind the time it took to make). You may have the same reaction I have, or possibly it will confer upon you that moment of Satori--as it did for about 40% of the people who voted. Pretty good odds, eh?

I'll announce the Satori tomorrow or Friday.
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*By which I mean that when/if they hear about it, winning brewers usually offer a confused look and a shrug.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brand Dissection: Pyramid's New Look

Among the venerable American craft breweries, Pyramid has had a relatively stable brand identity and line-up. The brewery, founded in Kalama, just across the Columbia halfway between St Helens and Rainier, was actually first called Hart Brewing. The Pyramid came when they started naming their beers--first with Pyramid Pale Ale in 1984 and then Pyramid Wheaten in '85 (an important early American wheat beer). Snow Cap came in '86 and Hefeweizen replaced Wheaten in '93--a rebrand of the wheat ale designed to respond to a certain Hefe further south. The next year they added Apricot Ale and within the first decade, Pyramid's line was already much as it is today.

The next decade were as rocky for Pyramid as they were for a number of mid-sized breweries that grew fast while the market was still immature. When the market did mature during the mid-aughts, Pyramid was stuck in a familiar dilemma. They had the reputation of an easy-drinking craft beer and their sales were supported by more casual fans who liked drinkability, not the modern hop fanciers who were launching a new generation of aggressive breweries like Stone, Dogfish Head, and Lagunitas.

Breweries can respond to this quandary in a number of ways, and Pyramid chose the sure-fire loser: trying to rebrand itself solely by changing its image. In 2009, Pyramid released catastrophically bad new design abetted by cringe-inducing names (Apricot Ale became "Audacious Apricot," Hefeweizen became "Haywire Hefeweizen")--or in their words "inject a new attitude" with "energy" and "activity." Are words like that ever accompanied by good design? But this wasn't just bad, it was brand suicide:



I actually awarded it a DMS Award for Worst Accomplishments in Beer (which, unfortunately, it doesn't look like I'm going to have time to compile this year) for terrible labels. The problems were many (opaque design, failure to communicate product identity, etc.), but mainly, they radically undermined the brand. Pyramid is a Northwest brewery, emphasis on brewery. The packaging made them look like a sports drink. I suppose the idea was to communicate "dynamic" to overcome the image of a staid, possibly bland product, but this beamed "corporate" and "inauthentic." It didn't seem to have anything to do with place, and it barely had anything to do with beer. A poor way to reach out to a guy stroking his chin in the supermarket beer aisle.

Forward to the Past
In the past month, Pyramid has rebooted the brand, and they've very wisely gone back to basics. When you're approaching 30 years in a 35-year-old industry, you want to communicate a sense of history. Beer is, more than most things, a product of place, so the brand should signal its Northwest roots. Finally, the brand should at least nod in the direction of the product itself, beer. Pyramid found salvation in the company archives, and the new label looks a whole lot like labels from the first epoch back in the 1980s:


Name
Pyramid's one of those too-clever-by-half names. For people who know their brewing history, it's a charming little nod to the past, particularly given the flagship is a wheat ale. But most people don't know Egypt had anything to do with beer, and the pyramids on the label have always been obscure. That's probably another reason the company was keen to put a snow-boarder on the label: no more answering questions about the Egyptian theme. (Ninkasi, which is even more obscure, works because people don't have any context for the name. They don't know what it means, but they don't care--it sort of sounds cool and that's good enough.)

Unfortunately, that's the brand. For over two decades, people saw pyramids on the label and whether they figured out what they allude to, they are at least familiar. Recognition is critical to branding, so if they were sticking with the name, Pyramid had to stick with the images, too. It wasn't so bad that it hampered the company from becoming one of the country's biggest.

Look
The new labels are very much in the lineage of labels the brewery used for most of its existence. The pyramids are back, the font is back, the original names are back. This is a tune-up, for sure. It's more modern, cleaner, and the colors are used to clear effect than in some earlier iterations of a similar look.

What I particularly like is that the six-pack containers really track as old fruit-crate labels--a great touch for a state that produces tons of fruit. The simplicity of the design and the colors instantly evoke decades of local design:

The best design works on multiple levels, and in recalling a long history of commercial design is one way of tapping into local sentiment here in the Northwest--where the brand is strongest.

Product
The last element is the product itself. When Pyramid rebranded three years ago, they just changed the names of the beer and I didn't see a lot of movement in the product line. This time, the branding comes as Pyramid solidifies its "Ignition Series" (silly name, but fine), continues to add seasonals, and plans new "exclusive" beers. Of the 14 beers on the active roster, six will debut this year. It is not yet a hugely adventuresome line, but Pyramid seems to be making a play for the beer geeks. The brewery will still be a hefeweizen house, but it may yet shed its reputation for caution.

Final Appraisal
Returning to the old brand was a great move. If you have the history Pyramid does, it's wise to use it, not flee from it. The new designs are aesthetically pleasing, and they communicate all the things Pyramid wants: history, connection to region, and quality. It's even a bit daring; after wandering away into total brand confusion, Pyramid had the presence of mind to cut its losses, retool, and return to the thing that made them the company they are. Good stuff all around.

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FRUIT CRATE PHOTOS: THE LABEL MAN

Monday, December 26, 2011

Slow Blogging

I appear not to be blogging a lot this week. I'll try to get back in the swing of things tomorrow, and I'll do my best to get the Satori awarded this week (the list is down to four--when I hit three, I'll announce). Meantime, if you wish to do any lobbying, now's the time. Logsdon has gotten the most love, but Bend, Boneyard, and Burnside have their adherents.

Anyway, I hope you're taking it slow, too. A belated happy holidays--

Update: A tweet from Ft George produces a minor flood of email votes. 1811 rising!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Semi-Final Satori Award List: Vote Now

Thanks to help from contributors, I have pretty good list of beers I'm considering for the Satori. This year, instead of selecting it solely based on my own preferences, I'm going to ask you all to vote for the one beer you'd call the best debut Oregon beer this year. Rather than do a poll, which is so easily skewed, send me an email with your choice in the subject line (the_beerax at yahoo dot com) or vote via comments at my Facebook Page. I'll keep a running tally and use those to weight my own preference--which could be key with beer from breweries I haven't yet had a chance to sample.

Here's the list, with brief comments. You may obviously vote for a beer I didn't mention here.

Bend Brewing Ching Ching
Jon Abernathy says it's good, says I said it was good, and that's good enough for me. Sadly, my one experience with the beer came at the Beer Bloggers Conference at the end of a long day of sampling, and my memory is foggy. A pomegranate-hibiscus beer that took bronze in this year's GABF.

BridgePort Kingpin
Bridgeport released a whole raft of new beers this year after the departure of founding brewer Karl Ockert. Kingpin seems to be the consensus fave.

Burnside Brewing Sweet Heat
Burnisde made a great debut this year, joining Portland's growing group of eclectic new breweries (I'm looking at you, Ben and Alex). In an inversion of norms, I found Jason McAdam's offbeat beers--the harder ones to brew--to be the special ones. The pale and IPA I could leave. The Gratzer, Berliner Weisses, and my fave, Sweet Heat, were fantastic.

Boneyard Hop Venom
Boneyard has made some serious noise this year, and I regret I haven't tracked down a pint yet. Although they have fans of many of their different beers, Hop Venom, a double IPA, seems to be the fave of faves.

Coalition Wheat the People
This isn't going to win--I know that. It's a small, elegant little wheat ale, not a booming hop monster, aged sour, or funky experimental beer. But it is a fantastic beer and it deserves to be on the list.

Deschutes Chainbreaker*
Putting this beer on the list is a bit of advocacy on my part. It grew out of the collaboration experiment with Boulevard that produced a white IPA. This is more a white pale, and it was the better of the two versions. It shouldn't work, but it did, and I loved the way the spices and hops worked together. Maybe Deschutes will bring it back.

Fort George 1811 Lager
This is a bit like Wheat the People--probably too ordinary a beer to be crowned king. Yet in a state blessed with far too few lagers, 1811 was a joy. I drank a lot of it over the summer and admired how it stayed true to the roots of the style while also gave a strong nod to hoppy, ale-loving Oregonians.

GoodLife Descender IPA
Another beer I haven't tried, but which seems to be getting some fine notices. Has a dab of Galaxy hops, which are the current rage.

Logsdon Seizoen Bretta
A truly rustic beer made in a true farmhouse, Wyeast founder Dave Logsdon's brett-aged saison is the odds-on fave to win the Satori this year. The only handicap? I wasn't a huge fan. The brett (a strain from Dave's private store) is quite aggressive, bordering on violent. Turns out brett is hard to use in saisons--Boulevard's absolutely exquisite Tank 7 (possibly America's best saison) sees all its rustic malt and yeast character crushed under the brett influence. Nick Arzner manages it in Block 15's saison--he knows how to keep the brett from overwhelming the beer. Seizoen Bretta? I'm not there yet. But I'm willing to be convinced--after all, it is my favorite style of beer. (Today.)

Laurelwood Organic Pale Ale
As with all things Laurelwood, this beer attracted very little attention. But as a parting gift to the brewery, Chad Kennedy couldn't have done better. It is the best pale I've had in the last five years, easy. Vivid hopping, but amazing balance.

Ninkasi Imperiale
A beer where I seem to be out of synch with the beer geek crowd. I found it smoky and lush, others found it sweet and insipid. Of course, I'm right.

Occidental ... err, Cloudy Summer?
I haven't had any beer from this brewery either. But come on--St Johns, German styles? It's got to be good, right? Cloudy Summer, a kolsch, may be their best, if the internet doesn't lie. And I've certainly never found it to.

If I missed any, holler and I'll post them to this list. Otherwise, vote now and let me know what you favor.

Into the Darkness

The year's darkest night approaches. The perfect time for pub-going.


Bud's Lost Cred

I wonder just how much damage A-B's sale to In-Bev will hurt the brand long-term. Getting mocked in the funny pages--not good for the brand.


(Click to enlarge)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Valley of the Lambics

Not all beers are made alike. It may be uncouth to acknowledge this fact, but some beers are so time-consuming and difficult to make that they're in a separate category--"Beer Plus," say. On the one hand, a typical American or English ale might spend as little as an hour steeping in hot water, another hour in the kettle (with some lautering time in between), and then a week or two in primary fermentation and conditioning before being packaged and sent off to market. Some of these beers are triumphs of accomplishment. But a gueuze, which I would argue is one of the signature achievements in brewing, requires exacting circumstances, years of aging, and the totally separate skill of blending. It's unfair to compare a gueuze to a mild ale or even an American IPA--to both beers. Visiting lambic land confirmed in my mind that no beer is harder to make, nor any better when made properly.

I scheduled my arrival in Belgium to coincide with a relatively rare brew day at Cantillon. Lambics can only be brewed in the winter when the air is cool enough to chill wort overnight. Because lambics spend years in wooden casks, lambic brewers are confined to annual outputs equal to the cask space their breweries allow; Cantillon, a small brewery in a small building in downtown Brussels, has a strictly limited capacity. So brewer Jean Van Roy brews only enough beer to fill his available cask space. (Important tip: if you want to see Van Roy in action, visit between November and March and watch the Cantillon Facebook page about brewing dates.)

Lambic brewing is by design an ancient practice, but even among lambic breweries, Cantillon is the most insensitive to time. The equipment, the brewery, the methods--everything could have come straight from the 19th century. (With one caveat: Germans stole all Belgium's coppers in World War I, so the oldest coppers anywhere only dates to about 1920.) Cantillon has a museum at the brewery as well, but you'll find if you visit that this is a bit redundant. Cantillon is a museum.

Unlike that easy pale ale that goes from whole malt to fermenter in a few hours, a lambic is an all-day grind. The turbid mash, designed to create a wort that can stand up to years of munching by wild yeasts and bacteria, takes hours. Cantillon's equipment is steampunk old, and very hands on. When I arrived, Van Roy was pumping the finished boil through a thing that looked a bit like a hop back, except that it's purpose was to remove hops, not add them. Hops are used in lambics as an anti-microbial, to keep the wilder elements of the wild yeasts from getting out of hand; breweries age them so they're leached of all alpha acids and add no bitterness or flavor. (Except in a beer like Iris, where Van Roy jumps off the road of strict tradition.)

The wort becomes a template for feral yeasts, invited to join the party during the next phase of the process, when it goes up to a vessel called a koelschip (cool ship) that looks like an enormous cake pan. Van Roy has a disarmingly democratic approach to visitors: me brasserie su brasserie. He told me to just go wander around if I wanted to see the rest of the place (he was elbow-deep in the hop-catcher). The koelschip is on a loft above the brewery's top floor, where open windows let in the Brussels air. On a chilly day, the steaming wort creates clouds of ethereal mist that waft through the rafters, and I spent probably fifteen minutes communing with this scene. For an American lambic fanatic, this was ground zero for one of the most remarkable events in brewing.

In the romantic story of lambic brewing, you always hear about the pastoral Zenne Valley, laden with fruit trees and farmers smilingly working the fields. My mind conjured a kind of rural preserve where the wild yeasts were pristine and untroubled by modern life. Wrong. Cantillon is in the city of Brussels (it's called a "suburb," though to American eyes this is a bizarre characterization--the city sprawls unending for miles and miles, and Cantillon is in the middle of a gritty urban tableau.) The wild yeasts have definitely been slumming with some street-wise elements, from which I conclude that it's not mandatory to have untrammeled rural wonderland to make lambic--potentially good news for Americans willing to risk experimenting with spontaneous fermentation.

The most important part of the process happens in the wooden barrels, which themselves have their own ecosystems. What develops in the casks is straight lambic, some of which breweries may sell without blending. You get interesting but variable character from straight lambic. The real triumph of this style of brewing comes when lambic-makers blend the barrels and then add younger, fresher year-old lambic to add liveliness and effervescence to the sharp, dry, and completely still lambics that result after three years.

I followed my visit to Cantillon with a trip to Brouwerij Boon the next day. It was a fascinating contrast of styles. Frank Boon is emphatically not a museum brewer; in fact, he's one of the most microbiologically sophisticated brewers I encountered in Europe. He currently has a traditional old brewery, but Boon is in the process of upgrading everything--well, almost everything. He will install the world's first modern lambic brewhouse, purpose-built to accommodate the rigors of turbid mashing, but designed to create absolutely consistent worts batch after batch. The traditional part of the process--koelschip, wood aging, and blending--will continue as it has for centuries.

The Boon brewery is located in Lembeek, the historic capital of lambic brewing--the famous Zenne is just a stone's throw away. (It's tiny.) This is a much more rural location than Cantillon's, but it's still just 13 miles from Brussels' Grand Place--in what Americans would actually call a suburb. Boon told me that valleys were important for lambic brewers--and dangerous to regular breweries, which like to locate themselves on high ground. Valleys create pools of still air, and microfauna collect there. River valleys are even better, because the fog and humidity help keep the wild buggies from drifting away. Even though it's just around the corner from Cantillon, the wild yeasts are definitely different near Boon--as anyone who's tasted beer from the two can readily attest.

Another area where Boon and Cantillon differ is their casks. Cantillon uses wine barrels, but Boon uses vats. They aren't as big as Rodenbach's but they're in the ballpark--and 20-40 times bigger than wine barrels. This has a substantial effect on the beer. The volume of beer exposed to wood is greater in a smaller barrel, which affects the density of resident microfauna and amount of air that permeates the staves. I mentioned to Frank that I've seen Raj Apte's analysis of which yeasts become active in the life-cycle of lambic and asked if his followed the same pattern. Boon has been working with a university microbiologist to learn more about his yeasts--likely the most far-reaching studies into the biology of lambic ever done. He gave me a Cheshire Cat grin and said that Apte's charts don't apply to his yeasts--but he wasn't prepared to divulge how Boon lambic differs.

As with Rodenbach, my tour of Boon was spent disproportionately in the impressive cellar. We sampled lambic at different ages to see what character it would give to a gueuze. On their own, they were all less complex than the finished gueuze--one two-year-old batch was pretty tart and sharp, one was more fruity. The year-old lambic was sweet and uncomplicated.

Just before I left Cantillon, Jean pulled out a bottle of 2006 Gueuze, which was one of the highlights of the trip. It was practically glowing with sharp lemon notes. Boon makes a gueuze called Mariage Parfait, which has always been among my very favorite beers in the world--it's got layers and layers of fruit and sour flavors, a tiny bit of saltiness, and a towering effervescence. Drie Fonteinen, which is in between breweries, uses Boon's lambic in its blends, and that brine really pops. It's actively salty, but also has a kind of umami note.

Lambics, and especially gueuzes, live in that strata of artistic accomplishment that includes stinky cheeses, opera, and abstract art. It's very difficult to come to a gueuze cold and appreciate what's going on with it. If I had three beer wishes, I'd ask that people try several different gueuzes in at least ten sessions--different brands and ages. Unlike a lot of American sour beers, gueuzes don't have super challenging flavors--there's no band-aid, solvent, or burning tire. Because of the blend of young and old beer, they're not intensely dry nor sour, and the effervescence nudges them toward sparkling wine. Once you get past the shock of the experience, you begin to understand the flavors and how they work together. Moreover, sampling a bottle from different breweries makes it instantly clear what role the wild yeasts play. Gueuzes are a bit like dog breeds--they are distinctive and unique, and people have their preferences. I'm a Boon man, but I know people so devoted to Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, or Girardin that they consider the preference for others a minor blasphemy. That kind of devotion is a testament to just how profound these beers can be.

Below are a few more photos:


Cantillon



The undisturbed cobwebs at Cantillon.



Faro, a sugared, low-alcohol, young lambic, is now all but extinct. (Even Cantillon's is well stronger than the traditional 2-3% ABV.) Still, Jean Van Roy serves it from the clay pitcher that at one time would have been found in cafes all around lambic land.



The soon-to-be-replaced mash tun at Boon.



Every lambic brewer has a mark that identifies a cask of their beer when they send it out to blenders. The stylized "L" at the top is Boon's.



Brouwerij Boon.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Your Nominations for the Satori Award

I had hopes that the Portland beer bloggers would get together and issue annual awards en masse, but it doesn't look like we're getting our act together in time. So for a sixth (and ideally final) year I'll run the Satori Award. Here's the usual boilerplate:
In Zen Buddhism, satori is the moment of sudden enlightenment when the mind realizes its own true nature. The Satori Award, now in its fourth year, honors the beer that in a single instant allows the drinker to realize brewing magnificence. It is that moment when the sheer force of tastiness produces a flash of insight into the nature of beer. I award it for the beer released in the previous year (roughly) by an Oregon brewery (roughly) for a regular or seasonal beer. The inaugural winner was Ninkasi Believer followed by Full Sail Lupulin (2007), Cascade Apricot Ale (2008), and Upright Four (2009) and Prodigal Son Bruce/Lee Porter (2010).
I could use your help this year. Due to a book project, I've been devoting a lot more of my palate-space to beers brewed outside Oregon. I have no doubt that I've missed some of the best releases this year (for example, I haven't tried anything from Occidental, Good Life, or any of several other tiny start-ups from 2011). I've had precious little beer from a few well-regarded newbies like Flat Tail and Boneyard. So, in designating this year's Satori, I'm going to have to rely heavily on the hive mind, possibly even substituting a people's choice for my own if it appears clear there's some movement toward beers I haven't tried (and can't easily get my hands on).

So please offer your suggestions and arguments. Keep in mind that the beer should have been released this year and it needs to be a beer joining a brewery's regular or regularly-recurring seasonal line-up. The idea is to select beers people can actually go back and try.

Nominations, anyone?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Michigan and Honest Pints

A comment that got caught in my spam net posted a link to this cool bit of news from the Michigan legislature:
House Bill 5034 (2011)

Liquor; retail sales; selling glass of beer as a pint if it contains less than 16 ounces of beer; prohibit. Amends 1998 PA 58 (MCL 436.1101 - 436.2303) by adding sec. 1006.
Well done!

The OLCC's Latest Gambit

Harry Esteve, writing in today's Oregonian:
The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which regulates all sales of distilled spirits in the state, is proposing two significant rule changes. One would allow far more liquor stores to become "non-exclusive," meaning they would be allowed to expand into beer and wine sales.

The other, which could have even broader consequences, would allow corporations to become liquor agents. The idea is to make it easier for big grocery chains, such as Safeway or Fred Meyer, to open "store within a store" liquor outlets. Buy the cantaloupe in the produce section, then head over to a separate area for the vodka or gin to make fruity martinis.
The OLCC is running scared because last year month Washington state voters passed a ballot measure allowing supermarkets to sell liquor. They're trying to get in front of things to protect their fiefdom--or as Merle Lindsey, OLCC Deputy Director says, "from the control model."

As I have said many times in the past, the OLCC is a terrible agency. It's innately conflicted, having been put in place out of a post-prohibition way to enact moral codes on a drinking public while being responsible for liquor laws. Their rules and rulings over the past few years have been legendarily bad. But, like any entity, they have a sense of self-preservation, and the Washington law has them scrambling. As always, I'll end with my usual plea: scrap the OLCC and join the 21st century.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

How Does the United States Stack Up?

In the niche-y world of craft brewing, American boosters love to proclaim our place in the world of good beer. (I am not immune.) True, only 5% of the American market is composed of good beer, but never mind--we have Pliny the Elder and Black Dark Lord, so step back. Well, having just been to Britain, France, and Belgium, I'm now in a slightly better position to evaluate America's place. The results are fascinating. (I have yet to hit Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, and Ireland, so bear with this provisional assessment.)

The sad reality is that ales aren't doing so hot. The "ale" countries of Belgium and Britain now produce and drink way more boring, international lager than their traditional styles. In Britain, lagers have a stunning 86% share (according to Fullers' John Keeling). Belgium's a little better at 30%, but they've been stuck at that figure for decades, a period that has seen a precipitous drop in beer consumption (according to Rodenbach's Rudi Ghequire). Britain has roughly 800 breweries (according to Adrian Tierney-Jones' latest article in All About Beer--a great piece, by the way), Belgium has about 125, and the US has 1700--or to adjust for population, per-capita densities of one brewery for 77,500 in the UK, 87,200 in Belgium, and 176,500 in the US.

But the stats don't really tell the story. Each country has its own potpourri of pluses and minuses, qualities that make it surpassingly beery, but others that make it suspect--and this includes the United States. Here's how I'd break it down--of course with the acknowledgement that a month in Europe doesn't make me an expert.

Britain
By far the most impressive thing about the UK are the number of pubs. What I loved was the knowledge that if I set out walking, I would come to a pub in no time at all--big city or tiny village, it made no difference. In those pubs one always finds at least a good pint, if not a variety of great ones. You have to contrast that with the US, where vast stretches of the country have few pubs, and the ones you find serve two or three varieties of industrial lager. As a population, the British are far more knowledgeable about their beer than Americans and it forms a much more substantial part of British culture. Where Britain falls down is variety--and this is a function of that same strong culture of drinking. You'll find bitters and lagers in a put and rarely anything else. Worse, there's an embrace of a depressing trend toward "extra cold" beer. Often pubs will have two versions of the same tipple, one frozen to the point of tastelessness.

There's a lot of excitement in the market, though, and craft breweries are starting to have a real impact on the market. To a person, every brewer I spoke to said this was the best moment in their careers for beer. There's a lot of excitement for flavor and experimentation, and anyone who reads the English bloggers will recognize names like Marble, Thornbridge, and Kernel as leading-edge experimenters. Interestingly, though, the styles of beer these new breweries make are heavily influenced by American craft breweries.

Belgium
Even more than Britain, in Belgium, beer is a major source of local pride. In the tourist districts of the big cities, you'll find chocolate, lace, waffles, and beer. These are the markers of national identity. It seems taken as a given by locals that Belgian beer is the best. People are even more knowledgeable about beer in Belgium than Britain (though perhaps not as knowledgeable as they think themselves to be). Everywhere you go, you'll find a selection of decent beer, even if you pop into a corner pizza joint. Things are dire if you only have a half dozen beers to choose from.

The downside to this is a complacency. Unlike British brewers, Belgian brewers are depressed. Sales for good beer continue to decline as an absolute figure; worse, for small breweries, they're declining faster because the Stellas and In-Bevs are seizing an ever bigger portion of the market with macro-ales. (And this is where the knowledge thing backfires a bit, too; macro breweries play on consumers' sense of history with made-up heritage and antiquity. Tons of marketing dollars help them swamp the little breweries.) The result of all of this is that while there's still amazing beer in Belgium, it's not a healthy market and some of the beers that we revere most are in jeopardy.

France
Obviously, France can't stack up to the major beer countries, but it's worth noting that there's a lot of excitement there. People will be surprised to learn France has more breweries than Belgium, and new ones are opening up all the time. The market is similar to what it was like in the US in about 1988--breweries are experimenting, trying to find their place in the brewing world. In two decades time, the country will actually be a real player in brewing, and it's a pleasure to watch.

America
Which brings us to the US. The country's greatest strength is diversity--we brew anything. Since there's no national tradition of brewing here, there's no consumer expectation, and that frees breweries to do whatever they want. When I mentioned this in an earlier post, some non-Americans took exception. Sorry, guys, it's true. This is America's great virtue in the brewing scene--absolutely amazing varieties of styles.

American recreations may not be identical to the styles brewed in other countries, but that's totally predictable. That's the story of style development. And that very experimentation is what has inspired breweries in other countries. I managed to tour craft breweries in all three countries I visited, and it's really hard to underestimate the influence of Americans on these folks. Of course, the craft brewing movements in other countries will evolve in ways unique to those countries, deviating from the American model much as our beer deviated from the Belgian and British beers that inspired it. Round and round the cycle goes.

The US is so big that the geographic majority of the country has been barely touched by good beer. This is different from Belgium and Britain, which have good beer in every corner and cranny of their countries. To talk about American wild ales is absurd in North Dakota or Mississippi. When people criticize the US as lacking a true beer culture, this is what they point to, and they're right. On the other hand, there are pockets--the NW, New England, Colorado, the Bay Area and San Diego, Pennsylvania--where beer culture is every bit as developed as the UK and Belgium. I think people in those countries may not be aware of how far things have gotten in certain pockets here.

It makes the US slightly hard to characterize and categorize. It is simultaneously one of the best good beer countries and one of the countries most bereft of good beer. But I now feel more confident in saying that in those good beer pockets you'll find more good beer and more varieties of good beer, than nearly anywhere else. Whether they're stable and whether they will spread is impossible to say, but they are impressive even by world standards.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tweet of the Day

(No, I won't get into the habit of harvesting tweets for cheap blog fodder, but this really is great news.)

John Keeling @FullersJohn
Sales team want more Past Masters and more Brewers Reserve- good. Prize Old Ale also on the agenda.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Harmonic Convergence of Thursday Night

Thursday marks one of those bizarre harmonic convergence of events that makes you wonder if Jung was onto something. It actually makes me wonder if people should coordinate a little better, but hey, that's a different rant. In any case, you should probably plan to head out that night. To which location is the more difficult call.


Oakshire Skookumchuck Release
Belmont Station, 5-8pm

Matt Van Wyk will be on hand to launch a new line of Oakshire beers, the Brewers Reserve Series. First in the line is Skookumchuck, "It is a blend of three different beers (Belgian Golden with Brett, a Farmhouse Ale with Apricots and Brett, and an American Wheat Ale with lacto) all aged in Oregon Pinot Noir Barrels for 18-24 months." You can buy a bottle, or it will be on tap along with Ill Tempered Gnome and Hellshire II (an imperial stout). 4500 SE Stark


Christmasakuh with Sierra Nevada
Hop and Vine, 5-8pm

Sierra Nevada reps are on-site with eight special beers: Life and Limb, Black Hop Rising, Celebration, Foam Pilsner, Base Camp Beer #45 (Blackaliscious), Ovila Dubbel, Saison (which rocks), and Quad. Bring a can of food or a buck to get in, and bring a new toy for the Metro Toy Drive and receive a free Ovila chalice. 1914 N Killingsworth.


Occidental Tap Takeover at Bottles
Bottles, beginning at 6pm

Occidental is the groovy new St Johns brewery that focuses on German styles. Which, with great shame, I admit never having tried. They'll have six of their beers on, including a doppelbock and a tripel. (I'm guessing they'll have their regular line on beyond these two: an alt, kolsch, hefeweizen, and dunkel.) 5015 NE Fremont

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Remarkable Rodenbach Brewery

When Rudi Ghequire, the master brewer at Rodenbach, took Sally and me on a tour of the brewery, we spent less than ten minutes in the actual brewhouse. We spent a similar amount of time on the history of the brewery (history is a big deal at Rodenbach) and a few minutes on fermentation. But our tour lasted two hours. The remainder of our time? We spent it inside the maze of cellars that contain the massive vats of aging beer.

This is not incidental. Rodenbach takes care making its beer--the new owners, PALM, just spent a boatload of money on a beautiful new brewery--but what happens in the mash tun and kettle aren't primary. The real action happens in those famous wooden vats. Rodenbach brews a single base beer--a sweet, red ale made with 20% corn and roasted barley. Fresh, it is very sweet, and in fact, the hops are used to retard bacteria, not balance the beer (they fall below the threshold of taste). A portion of the beer is then put in the vats and left to age there for a full two years. When it has fully ripened, it's blended back with fresh beer to make regular Rodenbach (25% aged beer) and Grand Cru (67% aged beer). What makes Rodenbach Rodenbach is what happens in those vats.

There are 294 of them altogether, and they're housed in ten vast cellars that can hold up to 33 each. Many of them are very old--the brewery says "older than 150 years" but they've been saying that for awhile. The three oldest date back to the 1830s, if I'm hearing my audio tape correctly [!]. The brewery has its own cooperage, not for building the vats, but maintaining them. This is how their version of an acidified red ale has been made for well over a century. Inside the vats, a happy little colony of wild yeasts work away for months, adding lactic acid to the beer and dropping the pH. This is where Rodenbach is truly made.

For those who know their history of English brewing, Rodenbach's methods will be familiar. It's how the great London porter breweries made beer two centuries ago, aging their beer in immense vats until wild yeasts had given it a refined, mature finish. I was surprised and delighted to learn that this isn't a coincidence; in the 1870s, Eugène Rodenbach went to England and learned to brew porter. He brought the techniques he learned there back to Roselare, where they're still practiced--long, long after the English abandoned those methods in porter-brewing.

When it comes time to bottle the beer, Ghequire leads a team of tasters who blend the vintage beer to get the character they want. Each vat is its own ecosystem, so the beer coming out will taste different vat to vat. (Brettanomyces is not the main culture in the vats, though when we tasted beer from one, Rudi detected it in the sample. It was too subtle for me to locate, but he knows his beer pretty well.) Once they have a final blend of vintage stocks, they will blend that back with fresh beer to make Rodenbach and Grand Cru.

Rodenbach's baroque production methods would only be worthy of a footnote if the beer were ordinary. Of course, they're not. Rodenbach is a lovely session tipple that has surprising versatility with food (the sugars and slight acid work in tandem to team up with a wide variety of flavors) and Grand Cru is simply one of the world's best beers. Americans are adept at recreating most styles, but approximating Rodenbach is tough; Rudi believes this is entirely due to the wood. Without the interaction of wild yeasts and the tiny bit of oxygen that permeates the grain, beer can't develop the depth and character Rodenbach has.

Of all the breweries I toured in my three weeks in England, Scotland, France, and Belgium, Rodenbach was the most awe-inspiring. Every older brewery I visited discussed the balance between tradition and efficiency--such an important consideration for a commercial enterprise. Rodenbach is off the charts in terms of the expense and inefficiency it takes them to produce a single bottle of beer. No modern company would or could consider the Rodenbach model. The vats alone cost thousands (tens of thousands?) of dollars, never mind the cellar space. Add to that the notion of vatting beer for two years--it's an absurdly expensive venture. And yet here the brewery is, putting beer in vats and then trying to compete in a marketplace where industrial lagers can be made for a tiny fraction of the cost.

It's no surprise that the sour beers of Flanders are on the endangered species list. Very few make authentic sour red (or red/brown) ales, and none make them the way Rodenbach does. (De Struise, though it makes a tiny amount, produces a totally traditional, wood-aged sour called Aardmonnik that gives me hope--it's authentic and an exceptionally good, complex beer.) It is almost impossible to imagine any brewery will join Rodenbach in the near term, either. If we could designate breweries "world heritage" sites that could somehow never fail because of commercial pressures, I'd put Rodenbach at the front of the list. In the world of beer, there's nothing like it, and we are fortunate indeed it has survived the vagaries of wars, depressions, and modernization. If you haven't had a bottle recently, go find one and remind yourself what a remarkable beer it is.


Here are a few more photos of the brewery:

The modern brewhouse overlooking the historic brewery compound.



From the right comes "bier" (fresh, unaged) and on the left "oud bier."
They are blended here before being sent to packaging. (click to enlarge)



Like many old breweries, Rodenbach used to malt its own grain.
(Like many old breweries, the maltery used to catch fire.
Now they buy their malt.)



Oak drying before being milled into staves for the vats.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cellar Report

We've been hosting a holiday party for a number of years, and three or four ago, I started busting out some gems from the cellar. As my cellar gets fuller over the years, the annual roll-out gets more and more extravagant. Yesterday, boosted by some of the beers I brought back from Europe, we had quite the blowout. Below are some comments on a selection of the bounty.




Westvleteren Blonde, 2011. I was not much impressed by the famous 12 at the brewery, But the blond was a treat. It was even better out of the bottle. A light, spritzy beer with a notable saison yeast character. I have no idea why this beer isn't the legendary one.

Fuller's Vintage Ale, 2000. John Keeling, the master brewer at Fuller's, pulled this out of his own cellar when we visited--and it was definitely the highlight of the night. Eleven years is pretty long for an 8.5% beer, but Keeling designed this for the long haul. (Amazingly, it's still available for just eight pounds--the best deal in brewing.) There is, predictably, lots of dark fruit and smooth, caramel notes. The immediate impression is port, though. The taste of age, chemical changes and very slight oxidation, is on perfect display here. It is a crucible for cellaring beer: if you don't like this beer, cellaring is not for you. Our crowd greeted it with astonishment and delight.

Upright Billy the Mountain, 2010. I didn't get a lot of this one--just enough to take note. Alex has changed the process for this beer, but he might want to reconsider. After a year, the brettanomyces have added a lovely tart snap to an otherwise hearty, sweet, English-style ale. they've thinned the beer a bit, but it's still rich and still has a fair amount of sweet, candyish malt. If you have a bottle, consider drinking it now--it's really nice.

Block 15 Ferme De La' Ville Provision, 2011. I love this beer and wanted folks to try it while it was still fresh and bright. In my view, one of the best saison made, and the very vest made with wild yeast.

Deschutes Dissident, 2009. I bought a case of this, and I wish I'd drunk it quicker. It's just on the edge of passing too far. Already, the Brett has eaten a hole in the center of the palate--and it seems almost to pull moisture out of the cells of your mouth by osmosis, so dry has it become. Still quite a tipple, but I remember what it was like last year.

Fuller's Past Masters Stout, 2011. Another real joy, this stout was made from an 1893 recipe and ingredients as authentic as the brewery could procure. It is a roasty, meaty stout, but one broadly similar to current recipes. No brett, but otherwise a trip to Victorian England.

Widmer KGB Stout, 2010. Speaking of roasty, I was amazed to find this beer had changed very little in a year's time. I think it could easily go another five years.

Full Sail Doppelbock, 2008. Just a hair past its prime, with a stewing that goes a bit flaccid in the middle.

Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws, 2008. I had only a mouthful of this--enough to confirm it remains in perfect, tasty form.

There were several more, but those are some of the more interesting highlights.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday Flick: John Bexon and Greene King's Five-X Vats

In Britain, "head brewer" is the term used for the master brewer, and in the larger ale breweries that usually means a man in loafers, not rubber boots. They oversee operations, head new product development, buy raw ingredients and so on--they don't haul grain sacks. The head brewer at Greene King over the past decade has been John Bexon, the man who took me on a tour of the brewery when I was there last month.

Despite some scorn locals heap on Greene King (too big, to acquisitive), it is one of the most traditional breweries in England, and to my American eyes, a real treasure of brewing history. The brewery recently spent 3 million pounds to replace old equipment, but unlike Adnams, decided to stick with old, quirky coppers. "We could have gone mash-filter, we could have gone lauter, but no, we said we’re staying with what we know. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Okay, we could have gotten a bit more efficiency by doing it, but I think you lose the authenticity." At a certain point in the last thirty years, every old brewery in Britain had to make a decision about whether and how to modernize, and they all answered the question a little differently.

Greene King went with tradition: an old tower brewery that does literally tower above the beautiful town of Bury St. Edmunds (see pictures below), beer is made much the same here as it has been for decades. One of the signature products--and one of the most important beers brewed in England--is Strong Suffolk Ale, sold in the US as Olde Suffolk. The beer is a part of living history, made by blending a young (mild) ale with vintage, 12% strong ale vatted two years on oak. This is a tradition that goes back centuries, but what makes Strong Suffolk important is that the vatted ale, called XXXXX, takes on the character of the wild yeasts that are resident in the wood of those old vats. Thankfully, more breweries are experimenting with wood-aged beer, but since Gale's has moved up to Fuller's, none from England have the continuity of using original oak vats like Greene King.

It's a remarkable product, one actually designated by the government by covenant--like Stilton cheese, which must be brewed in one of four counties--that can only be produced in Suffolk. Blended with between 10-17% old ale, Strong Suffolk has a malty base leavened with a vinous balsamic character. It's rich, warming, creamy, and elegant, like a Burgundy. If you can locate a bottle, you'll have a perfect winter ale to enjoy next to a roaring fire.

When we arrived at the vats, I asked John to stop and speak for a moment about them on video.



Some photos:




The view from atop Greene King over Bury St. Edmunds.


At Greene King, this counts as "push-button" brewing.


The mash tun.


Greene King has a campus of 44 acres, and subterranean pipes connect the brewery underneath Crown Street.


Square fermenters are common in British ale breweries--and are the norm at Greene King.


The tasting cellar.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Beer Snobbery Gone Wrong

Amusing:
The singer’s rider also reveals a fondness for certain beers. It states that she requires: “12x selection of bottles of best quality European lager beer. ie Beck’s, Stella Artois, Peroni etc. North American beer is NOT acceptable.”
The singer in question is Adele, the latest soul-inspired English singer to roar to massive stardom. She's all of 23, so this seems about par for the course. And maybe this accounts for something, too:
She [also] asks for two bottles of posh red plonk and a packet of Marlboro Light fags and a lighter.
Someone ought to sneak an American IPA in with the Peronis and see what happens.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Adnams and the Question of Technology

In Britain, one of the things I was most fascinated with was the way traditional ale breweries handled the question of whether to upgrade their equipment. On the one end of the spectrum is Greene King, who basically has stuck with its old tower brewery and classic old coppers. On the other is Adnams, who went for the most cutting-edge tech I've ever encountered. What follows is an interview with the owner, Jonathan Adnams and the brewer, Fergus Fitzgerald, as they walk through their new system.

It's as close as you'll come to getting a brewery tour without going on one, and embedded in it are a ton of illustrative points about technology and beer. Reading through it, I hope you have the reaction I had listening: there are just so many factors that go into a batch of beer. It's technical and fine-grained for the average fan, but I think geeks will appreciate it. Mostly, it just felt too interesting to keep secluded on my hard drive. I've slightly cleaned up the language so it flows. Enjoy.

____________


Fergus Fitzgerald: When we want to start a brew, then, we select a recipe, and [the brewery] weighs out the right amount of malt and it will put in specialty malt, whatever you’ve loaded into those silos. From there it goes into the malt hopper and below that then is the mill—and this is what’s called a wet-conditioning mill. So basically the malt sits up here [gesturing to the computer screen] and in this little chamber here we spray it with a small amount of water. What happens then is the husk of the barley takes up that moisture so when it goes through the mill--these two big rollers--the husk is a bit more pliable so it doesn’t break up quite so much. This is important for two reasons, because the husk is what does the filtration when it’s in the lauter tun—the more intact you keep that, the better filtration you get. But also, you can leech a lot of harsh tannins coming out of there; so the more intact you keep it, the less of those tannins you leech out into the beer.

We add water at this stage. The water we use is town’s water. Like most breweries, at one stage we would have had our own well, but that got contaminated with salt water in about 1940 and since then we’ve been on town’s water. We put it through the carbon filters and then we Burtonize it. Again, because of the age of this brewery, when we started making the majority of the beer, the beers coming out of Burton on Trent would have been the iconic beers of the age. And like lots of breweries we Burtonize our water to try to give it that sort of hop [clarity].

From there into the mash tun, which is this vessel out here. Jonathan Adnams, from later, during the tour: As [the malt] comes out from the bottom of the mill, in goes the brewing liquor to eliminate oxygen from the grist right at that point of exiting the mill. And then it literally flows up underneath [into the mash tun] so there’s no splatter splatter. It’s very important in bottled beers to eliminate oxygen right at an early stage. FF: The less oxygen you create at this stage, the less oxidative reactions you’ll get in the kettle. You don’t want to add oxygen and heat together because that’s going to give you staling compounds later on. Everything’s filled from the bottom to try to keep that out.

Fergus Fitzgerald: [There are] steam jackets on the outside and a big stirrer. All the mash goes in, sits in there for about an hour. We can temperature program mash so we can do protein stands and bring them up to 65, 66 degrees [149-151 F]--which is something we could never do on the old system. We basically put it in at one temperature and it got gradually colder after that.

Typically after an hour we check that the starch is all gone and then it goes into the lauter tun. It's fairly well automated; we take all the first wort off and then we sparge and then we take some second wort off. All that wort is then going to a pre-run tank, which is really just a holding tank. [Jeff: how big are your vessels?] In terms of grain capacity we can go up to about seven and a half ton and down to about two ton, so it’s got a reasonable turn-down ratio. In terms of volume, we’re between about 100 and 300 barrels. That’s quite a good turn-down for that size brewhouse. So, lauter tun usually about three hours.

[Next, it goes to a "pre-run tank", which is] basically a holding tank and then it goes on into the kettle. We boil for about an hour. We have four dosing vessels over here, so we load three of them with hops and those hops go in at different stages—obviously bittering, aroma, and some really late aroma hops. And then one of them we use for copper finings [Irish moss/carrageenan]. So those get dosed in at different times, which is really quite an advanced form from where we used to be. They all used to be added by hand, so there was a bit of variation, particularly on the aroma hops. With this system it gets added at exactly the same time every time—which gives us greater control over the consistency of the beer.

One of the major advances we put in was the energy-recovery system. In the old brewhouse all the steam just went up into the atmosphere and made some nice, fluffy clouds. Whereas here, we can capture all the steam going up off the kettle, use that steam to heat a hot-water tank, which we call our energy-storage tank, and on the next brew, as the wort’s traveling from this pre-run tank into the kettle, it goes through this heat-exchanger which picks up the heat from that energy-recovery tank. Typically we can heat up from 72 degrees to about 93,94 degrees [162 to 199-201 F] just using the steam that previously would have been blown away in the wind.



Jonathan Adnams adds We’re the only brewery in the UK that can do this kind of energy-store, capture-and-storage system, bringing it back at a later date. So even for the last brew on Friday we can hold that energy to first thing Monday. And we can do the same thing with cold energy, too.” FF “We can still get up to 88, 89 degrees Celsius [190-192 F] on the first brew Monday.

Fergus Fitzgerald: So it boils in there for an hour. We control the amount of steam we put in. In the old brewhouse we had basically two big steam controllers that we could open by hand. JA adds “We’re evaporating at about five percent" and then FF takes over We’re now at five percent; we used to be anywhere upwards of ten—not because we wanted to do, just because we had very rudimentary control of how much steam we put in. It was a quarter of a turn for a gentle boil an three quarters for a big rolling boil. So you had big variation between one person’s quarter turn and another person’s quarter turn. It’s also a whirlpool, so at the end of the boil we do the whirlpool stage and then from there through the wort cooler and then into the fermenting room.

We aerate either with air or oxygen depending on the gravity of the beer style—higher gravity stuff we use oxygen, lower gravity’s air. We have cooling capacity, too. There’s this two-stage cooler: part of it’s cooled just using mains water, off the mains, and part of it’s cooled using chilled water tank. At different times of the year we use more—obviously if the water from the ground is running colder we have to use less of the chilled water.

Jonathan Adnams It's a highly automated brewhouse, switches itself on at four in the morning, there’s no one here, it literally runs—I mean, the first thing we do is take an iodine test. The manpower now is mainly about monitoring the process, taking samples, taking back to the lab to analyze. The computer’s running the kit so you get repeatability time after time. All the recipes are in the computer; they can load up the recipes for the week and the computer will run. We generally run two to three brews a day. So three brews go through in 16 hours, so you can have three brews in this brewhouse at any one time.


PHOTOS: Fergus Fitzgerald at top, Fergus and Jonathan Adnams below.