Blogs will save us.


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Brewery News: Proef, Hair of the Dog, and Samuel Smith's

Fascinating developments. First, Yeager with the good news:
For the last five years, much-decorated Belgian brewmaster Dirk Naudts, who develops beer recipes for brewers throughout Holland and Belgium, brings an American brewer over to his village, Lochristi, to collaborate. The chance to work with Naudts at his Na De Proef Brouwerij is much sought.... This year the honor goes to a Portlander, Alan Sprints from Hair of the Dog.

Now to Daily Mail (hat tip BeerNews) for the bad:
A pub landlord and landlady face losing their jobs and their home after brewery bosses accused them of serving too much beer in their pints.

Pete and Debbie Gibson say they were forced to close the Junction Inn pub, on New Year's Eve, following a surprise visit by millionaire Humphrey Smith, owner of brewing firm Samuel Smith, who in front of shocked customers said he was shutting it.

The couple, who have run the pub, in Royton, near Oldham, Greater-Manchester for 12 years, have now been told they owe the company £10,733 in lost stock for topping up people's pints.
Of course, the extremely secretive brewery refused to comment. Having been a close follower and sometimes blogger of politics over the past decade, I have learned to identify coverup spin when I hear it, and there are a few things in this story that just don't add up.

First, while Samuel Smith's has a reputation of treating tenants and employees poorly, they are extremely solicitous to punters. They proudly serve their pints at rock-bottom prices--like, 1970s prices. It seems odd that they'd slam a pub for topping up; that is, after all, a nice service to the punters.

Second, Humphrey Smith is so reclusive I didn't even know his name. During my visit, the brewery would only mention "the family" (la cosa nostra resonances abounding). So why does he show up, on New Year's no less, to shut down the brewery himself? This looks like a case of using the proverbial tank to kill a fly.

My guess--and perhaps the lads across the sea can comment--is that the Gibsons committed some other crime, one so severe it warranted not only sacking, but a public hanging (in the commercial sense) as well. Of course, we'll never know.

I should also add that this is all pure speculation and in the absence of real data, we have to take the case at face value. Maybe the Gibsons had regularly flouted instructions not to top-off the pints (an obscure dictate, but not inconceivable) and the sacking was richly deserved. Another caveat: I have written about the old Victorian brewery and the beer it turns out, which I admire enormously, but that doesn't mean it is exempt from public scrutiny.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Items You May Have Missed

Some detritus that has managed to get caught my memory's holey filter.

1.
The economics of Sierra Nevada's new brewery, viz. the proximity-concentration trade-off:
As breweries expand there is always a tension between growing big on one site and capturing the considerable economies of scale and getting close to customers thereby reducing transportation costs. In international economics this is known as the proximity-concentration trade off and some interesting empirical work has been done to understand where the tipping points are. It is interesting, then, to see where that tension resolves itself in craft beer. Sierra Nevada is up to an annual production of around 800,000 barrels, New Belgium is up to about 600,000 barrels annually, but Deschutes is still less than 250,000.

Anecdotally it would appear to make sense for breweries to grow pretty darn big on one site before opening a second. Of course, a big factor is how much you currently sell and expect to sell in the future to east coast customers. Also factoring into the equation is the desire to reduce the carbon footprint of the business. Beer is heavy and bulky and it take a lot of energy to get it from Chico California to New York. But this gives us some idea of where the tipping point is 600,000 to 800,000 barrels a year.
I would add that placing a brewery near your customers is important in terms of freshness. And no brewery is more concerned with freshness than Sierra Nevada.

2.
Keg-lined can. I was unaware of this bit of beer history:
It wasn’t until 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the 73rd Congress passed a series of laws repealing the Volstead Act, that American Can again took up the cause of canned beer. Working at a rapid pace, its engineers solved the exploding-can problem that September, producing the world’s first beer can. In addition to traditional tin, they reinforced the can with steel, which proved able to hold up to beer’s pressure. Drinkers opened the can with a “church-key” opener, a slice of metal with a sharp bill to punch a hole in the can’s flat top. But with this innovation arose more problems. Designers had to find a way to combat the fact that beer packaged in metal began to taste metallic or tinny. To counteract this, American Can inventors slathered the inside of the cans with brewer’s pitch, made from pine tar. The pitch insulated the can walls from the beer just like the inside of a keg; thus, their cans came to be known as “keglined.”
Turns out that didn't last long. Union Carbide's Vinylite to the rescue. And by rescue I mean certain poisoning of the first generation of canned-beer drinkers.

3.
Although he's muscling in on my turf, I love Pete Dunlop's analysis of new brewery growth. (Much as Bill invented the pub crawl, I invented bar charts.)
Now look at how the number of planned breweries keeps creeping up on the number of existing ones. There's a clear trend here. In 2008, planned breweries (207) represented a small fraction of the existing count (1,496). By the end of 2011, the planned number (915) approached half the number of existing breweries (1,949). Wow!

Below is another way of looking at what's going on. It shows the number of planned breweries at the end of each year against the actual increase in total breweries at the end of the following year. For example, there were 207 new breweries in planning at the end of 2008. A year later, we saw a net increase of just 50. And so on.
To get the full effect, you should click through and see the charts. Fine analysis, Pete.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Bière Blanche de Paris

Yesterday the Beer Nut wrote in comments: "Spare a thought for all the styles that didn't make it." I did a bit of that last week, but the Nut reminds me of one style I didn't mention--bière blanche de Paris. Of all the old styles Lacambre mentioned, this one sounded the most intriguing (far better than some of those lime-poisoned, 15-hour boil jobs they were making in Belgium).

It was a relatively new style to Paris at the time, and his information about it was incomplete (also partly because the brewers were secretive. It was made with wheat and followed the usually somewhat-convoluted mash procedure of the time. (The Franco-Belgian brewers were not big spargers.) It went through a trifling boil for the time-- 2 1/2 hours. Paris White was a pretty strong beer, weighing in at 1.066 and was made with coriander and elderflowers. Lacambre specifically mentioned that brewers used the finest floral hops--presumably to accentuate the spice. There was one offbeat ingredient--a starch syrup extracted from potatoes. Meant to be served fresh, it was available from the cask a week and a half after brewing or in bottles within three weeks.

Here's my cleaned-up version of a Google translate rendition of Lacambre's original (which is to say, consult the original if you want something more authoritative).
“It is very white that is to say, very little colored and very clear without being absolutely transparent, foam very strong and persistent and very pleasing to the eye and it moistens the palate pleasantly. This beer whose production has grown significantly and very significantly improved in recent years is very enjoyable, especially in summer, and deserves to be mentioned as one of the best known white beers.”
I have endeavored to entice Breakside's Ben Edmunds into brewing this beer and we have a tentative plan to put something together in June. I'm thinking maybe honey in place of the potato-starch syrup (however alluring that might otherwise seem) and of course, we both instantly thought of a saison yeast. More to come on that score.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

End of Gueuze

Things are about to get meager around here. I woke up on Monday and it occurred to me that I have a May deadline coming up. That may sound like a long ways off, but I have to write as much between now and then as I have between now and last May. Yikes. So you'll probably get stuff like this...

I was listening to my audio tape of Frank Boon, and he made this observation:
“In the 1950s and 1960s, this was a time when breweries were closing and all the local styles were disappearing. Everywhere in Belgium. Louvain white disappeared, Peeterman disappeared, [others?] disappeared. If gueuze had disappeared in the 1960s, nobody would ever have imagined to make such a beer. It’s an absolutely crazy way to make beer.”
It never really occurred to me, but it's probably true that lambic was at one time on the verge of extinction. It's not a massive segment now by any means, but it's thriving in its small way. Whew.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Decided: West Coast IPA is ...

The definitions are in. West Coast IPAs are:
  • 1) no caramel malts 2) unbalanced (really, no desire to be balanced), leaning heavily toward hops, both of these contributing to 3) a drier ipa than non-wcipas.
  • A heavily hopped IPA with at least 6 percent alcohol and 60 IBUs.
  • The key is a complete lack of balance, no strong malt backbone competing with the hops.
  • It is used to describe an IPA that is high on the bitterness scale and that typically exudes citrus, grapefruit, pineapple, and other fruits. It is thrown around pretty loosely.
  • Gloriously lacking in balance. Just a liquid hop delivery vehicle.

On the other hand, they are also:

  • Just IPA made on the West Coast.
  • If a "West Coat IPA" is all of the things that has been mentioned in this thread, what, then, is an American-style IPA? Do we honestly believe there's enough of a difference between the two to the extent that "West Coast IPA" should be substantiated as its own style?

And finally, Jim F characterized how I was feeling about all of this when he wrote:

I think the term West Coast IPA charitably implies that NW IPA's have intense hop flavor (exceptions exist, but to me NW IPA's are characterized by balance). ["West Coast"] really ought to be California IPA, because that, to me, is where the hop bomb was popularized.

Ultimately, I think you have various flavors of the same fruit. Even if we grant that West Coast IPA is a low-malt, dry, super-bitter hop bomb, it's not really enough to peel it off from the IPA category. It's a step further out on the spectrum, but it's part of the family. I hope (but have no confidence) that the style lords in Denver never decide to add this "style."

That said, I do think that whatever this beast is we're pointing to is very much a species of California. We have scads of IPAs here in the Northwest, but these descriptions just don't fit. (Lots of Northern California IPAs are in the NW camp, too.) The balance point on a beer like Ninkasi Total Domination or Fort George Vortex--or hell, even Hair of the Dog Blue Dot--may be toward hops, but they never jump off a sweet, balancing hop base. Those beers are also deeply aromatic and flavorful, not just bitter. You don't get those juicy. funky/citrusy aromas and flavors if it's cranked too far toward bitterness.

So there: sort of a style, but not enough of one to start arguing about names.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

It Has Come to This: a Black Pale; Plus Two New Ones From Widmer

BridgePort's new beer is called Dark Rain. It is a hoppy brown ale or, in the fashion of the day, a black pale ale. But let us not dwell overlong on the terrible collapse of the English language.

Instead, let's consider the beer, which is actually damned nice. The whole black pale is meant to suggest something, and Dark Rain delivers. Pale ales feature the toothsome marriage of lightly sweet malts and pleasant, aromatic hopping. American pales are usually at turns caramelly, citric, and floral. So a black pale would suggest those characteristics but also a roasted note balanced right on top of everything else. Which is a pretty good description of Dark Rain, a roasty-smelling, tangy beer. The roast does have a tinge of that thin, metallic bitterness you find in a cup of Starbucks, but otherwise, this is an interesting, unusual beer and a good one.

_____________


If it's January, it's time for a new Widmer W' Series beer. The Brothers now have lots of non-core side projects: this one, the Rotator IPAs (see below), the Brothers' Reserve, and seasonals. Last year, Widmer brewed sixteen different brands, and this year it will be 23 [!]. The '12 W beer is a Dark Saison, brewed with Wyeast's French Saison yeast, about 10% wheat, and some malts dark enough to stain but not deepen the beer. I attended a release party, and the assembled crowd of writers was largely ho-hum about the beer (I think--we can watch the blogs and magazines to see), but I think it is pretty nice. Brewer Joe Casey fermented it at a relatively low 75 degrees, which meant the esters never really got revved up. Nevertheless, it does have a fair amount of zesty character. The series gets a nationwide release, and so it will be the first saison many Americans taste. If they move on from it to Dupont, say, they will note the family resemblance. W '12 isn't the most characterful saison on the market, but it's tasty and authentic.

We also got a chance to take the next Rotator IPA out for a test drive. The brothers reached out to QUAFF, a San Diego homebrew club to do what was in effect a collaborator beer. The beer they ultimately chose was Spiced IPA, made with a chai blend from Tao of Tea. In a reverse of the saison experience, the room lit up with this beer--while I found it a bit ... spicy. Actually, the spices are mainly aromatic. It was the asharply-astringent tea itself which I found off-putting. Weirdly, no one I spoke to could even taste it. It's made with a black tea and an assortment of spices--ginger, star anise, cardamom, clove, and black pepper. These are infused into water which is then mixed with the beer in the conditioning tank at a rate of a pound per ten gallons. A fascinating experiment. I will be interested to hear how it's received.

Monday, January 23, 2012

What Is This Mysterious "West-Coast IPA" of Which You Speak?

Leaving aside the debate about who brewed it first--and I very much want to leave that debate aside--a more salient question arises: what the hell is a West-Coast IPA? If that which-is-first debate shed any light, it was, I think, on the insubstantiality of this "style." There is India Pale Ale. Even an anti-style guy like me admits it, and its perameters are pretty well-established: strongish, hoppy, pale. Not quite a strong ale, but more than a pale.

West-Coast style? You tell me. I think people mean some combination of five things:

1. Made on the West Coast
2. Strong(er than regular IPAs)
3. Made with American hops
4. Juicy with citric flavors and aromas
5. Bracingly bitter

But how do these things differ from any other American IPA? With the exception of place--made in CA, WA, or OR--how do these characteristics particularly distinguish IPAs made in San Diego or Muncie? Everyone makes beers like this now--even in Europe. American hops are a worldwide phenom, and citric juiciness pretty much defines American IPAs, not a regional variation. Surely we're not going to argue that every style gets its own regional title just because it happens to be brewed there--Midwest wheats, New England stouts, Southern browns. That's not style, it's boosterism.

But I'm open-minded. Tell me what you think it is. If everyone in comments agrees, I'll be happy to concede the point. (No I won't--I'll be dyspeptic and profane, but I'll concede.)

Do tell--

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Greg Koch Responds

I called out Greg Koch, founder and impresario at Stone Brewing, last week over historical comments he made in a video over at the New School. I got the long response to that you see below. I'll leave the comments open, but watch them pretty closely. If you want to take a personal shot at Greg, me, or anyone, have the courage to sign your name--otherwise I'll delete it. Greg has taken the opportunity to open this up to conversation--and I appreciate the time and effort--so let's keep things on the high road, shall we? I'll give this post over to Greg and respond in comments.

__________


Jeff (and everyone), thanks for the conversation. I find conversations about my favorite subject (craft beer of course!) to always be invigorating and intriguing. And, on some, but-usually-quite-rare occasions, to be controversial. In this case, it seems to be the latter, but should it? Did my comments really qualify? Well, let’s take a look…


First off, you state “Many people have voiced criticisms of Greg because of his tendency to voice thoughts as they appear in his brain without the slightest filter--very often impolitic thoughts.” It’s certainly true that I’ve gotten some critiques over the years. Such is the reality of putting yourself out there on a regular basis. However, I actually try NOT to say controversial things most of the time. Some might be surprised, but one of my personal challenges is wearing my heart on my sleeve a bit. I think I allow myself to get too bummed out by critiques and mischaracterizations to be honest. Even small ones sometimes kick me to the curb. I lay there a bit, stew occasionally, but then get up, brush off, and remind myself its just part of the equation. My other choice is to just stay home, or perhaps to pretend that I’m less passionate about this biz than I am and keep outta the conversation. Faced with those choices, I guess I’d best just continue to learn how to take the hits, ‘cause I’m just not the type to stay home or be a shrinking violet.

But really? “Without the slightest filter” and “very often impolitic”? I think my occasionally “out there” persona coupled with naming a beer “Arrogant Bastard Ale” back in 1997 may be skewing the perception of me a bit, but alas, so be it. I do wonder what examples you might cite however. Of the easily over 300 vids I’ve shot and uploaded to the interwebs over the years (this being one of the first), or others have, probably less than a dozen involve a megaphone or crowd surfing, and probably only a small handful more have me saying anything that 9 out of 10 folks would be considered controversial.

Regarding my statement in Ezra’s interview about Arrogant Bastard Ale:

Forgive me for being an old-schooler here, but I suppose I could have referenced the current GABF category and what they now call an “Imperial Red Ale” rather than what used to be called an “American Strong Ale.” The latter, as a style description, has become a bit wide in its perception, and thus has been narrowed-down with more specific style categories. I am well aware of Hair of the Dog and their terrific beers. Hair of the Dog Rose was the first beer I ever consumed at our “not yet ours” warehouse/future brewery location on Mata Way in San Marcos, CA when I had the keys to it for the weekend in late 1995 (so that Steve and I could draw chalk circles on the warehouse floor to help us determine how we might lay out our brewery if we were to sign a lease on the space). Years late--around the year 2000--we started distributing other brands of beer in SoCal in addition to our own, and I was able to convince Alan Sprints to allow us to represent his terrific beers in our region (sadly, due to perhaps being too far ahead of the curve, either in our learning curve as a young wholesaler or in the knowledge curve of SoCal craft beer consumers, we were not able to make a success with HotD…sure wish we had the privilege to represent those great beers in our portfolio today). All that being said, suggesting that a 7.2%abv super hoppy red ale with elevated IBUs (Arrogant Bastard Ale) is in the same category as a 10% deep golden ale with more modest IBUs (Fred) is a stretch I wouldn’t make.

When it came out, Arrogant Bastard Ale was the only uber-hoppy (for the time in 1997 that is, not so much considered “uber-hoppy” by today’s standards) strong red ale of its kind that I am aware of (we didn’t have BeerAdvocate or RateBeer available to us back then to help us know the details of nearly every beer that was being brewed in the US). Is it possible that there was another big, hoppy, strong red ale being brewed somewhere by someone? Absolutely. Was Arrogant Bastard Ale the first one that really hit the radar? Yes, I believe so. When it came out, it was a very unique beer. There was very little at that time that occupied the space between the pale ales and red ales and barley wines.

On my statements about Stone IPA

In the interview I said…
“Stone IPA is the longest full-time production west coast-style IPA on the planet. We first came out with it in 1997 and have been producing it ever since. I don’t think that there are any other west coast [style] IPAs that have been in production, full time, longer…that I’m aware of. But I could be wrong and I always accept that if there’s some piece of information out there that I didn’t know.”

A few moments later I said: “I was always influenced on the way. I can’t ever say that we’ve done things that weren’t influenced by others.”

First, of course, it would depend on one’s definition as to a “west coast-style IPA.” Does Bridgeport IPA (a longtime favorite of mine, by the way!) at 5.5%abv & 50 IBUs fall into that category? The company must not have thought so, as according to their website, in 1997 they chose to enter it into the GABF in the “Classic English Style Pale Ale” category winning a Gold medal, and in 1999 they entered it into the GABF’s American Style Pale Ale category and won a silver. Presumably they likely entered it in other years as well, but under what categories I do not know. Bridgeport’s own website describes the beer as “…citrusy aroma and full hop flavor, while downplaying the bitterness.”

I don’t think most folks feel that a “west coast-style IPA” downplays bitterness.

Currently, the GABF does not have a “west coast-style IPA” category, so we’ll need to look at the “American Style IPA” for our reference in the matter. ABV range is 6.3%-7.5% and IBUs range from 50-70, which, interestingly, puts Stone IPA out of the range of those style guidelines since it’s around 77 IBUs (and one of the characteristics IMO, that puts it into the “west coast” style range).

Click to continue reading...

Friday, January 20, 2012

"Taste of Summer"

I promise not to keep inundating you with commentary about this Lacambre text I've been reading this week--though I won't promise this is the last post. But one thing is too juicy to let pass. Lacambre was writing in 1851--just six years before Louis Pasteur published "Mémoire sur la fermentation alcoolique," his revolutionary paper that identified the role of yeast in fermentation. Lacambre, a brewer himself, knew that environmental effects played a pivotal role in the quality of fermentation. Everyone knew that warm weather was bad, and during hot snaps in the Belgian summer, breweries knew to take the day off.

Unlike British and French breweries that were by the mid 19th century using wort chillers, Belgians were still cooling all their beer in large pans known as "coolships." Lacambre emphasized that a "viscous fermentation" came when the temperatures were too high.
“The cooling of the containers must be prompt, the condition is most essential, especially in summer because that is very likely to alter it in the hot season. The taste and smell, which are spread by contact with the greatest ease...from a profound alteration suffered by some of the wort often on the end of cooling.”
He relates an experience he had as a brewer when during a summer storm, a batch of cooling beer "became disturbed"--I think by crashing thunder, but it's not clear--and had become bubbly. He tried to save the beer, but it was putrid. He didn't understand the mechanism, but he knew the result of contamination was highly contagious worth that would spoil other wort it came into contact with. This is what he concluded:
“The result was strongly affected the taste and the more or less nauseating odor which is the true character of this kind of alteration. The smell is so characteristic that an experienced man can easily...recognize this kind of alteration simply smelling beer that has received the slightest breach of versoemer or taste of summer.... This kind of alteration, which always produces the bad alcoholic fermentation which many brewers have given the name of wild fermentation, because it still offers the symptoms unrelated to a good fermentation.”
Lacambre was convinced beer, or at least wheat beer, needed to rest in coolships to "release nitrogenous material"--whatever that meant. He classified different types of fermentation based on their qualities: "the alcoholic fermentation of glucose, lactic acid, acetic acid, viscous and putrid." He was so close to having figured it out himself. In just six years, Pasteur identified the mechanism:
"In 1856, a man named Bigo sought Pasteur's help because he was having problems at his distillery, which produced alcohol from sugar beetroot fermentation. The contents of his fermentation containers were embittered, and instead of alcohol he was obtaining a substance similar to sour milk. Pasteur analyzed the chemical contents of the sour substance and found that it contained a substantial amount of lactic acid instead of alcohol. When he compared the sediments from different containers under the microscope, he noticed that large amounts of yeast were visible in samples from the containers in which alcoholic fermentation had occurred. In contrast, in the polluted containers, the ones containing lactic acid, he observed "much smaller cells than the yeast." Pasteur's finding showed that there are two types of fermentation: alcoholic and lactic acid. Alcoholic fermentation occurs by the action of yeast; lactic acid fermentation, by the action of bacteria."
The "taste of summer" was buggies, allowed more time to infect a more slowly-cooling wort. Less poetic, but a revolution in understanding how beer ferments.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Greg Koch is Wrong

Yesterday, Ezra posted the first part of an interview he did with Stone Brewing's Greg Koch--the irrepressible, irreverent face for the rock n roll side of craft brewing. Many people have voiced criticisms of Greg because of his tendency to voice thoughts as they appear in his brain without the slightest filter--very often impolitic thoughts. This is not one of those criticisms. Rather, I take issue with his history:
"Stone IPA, is the longest full-time production West Coast-style IPA on the planet. We first came out with it in 1997 and have been producing it ever since. I don't think there are any other West Coast style IPAs that have been in production full time longer. That I'm aware of, and I could be wrong."
This is just not right. There are enough caveats in this statement that it's hard to know what Greg's claiming here, but in the inventory of my own drafty memory I can pull one out--BridgePort IPA, introduced in 1996. Perhaps this doesn't meet the narrow definition Greg wants to claim, but if he's looking to place Stone in the place of ur-IPA and craft beer influencer, it's just not persuasive. He continues:
"Arrogant Bastard, considered to be the progenitor of the American strong ale category, Stone Ruination IPA, the very first full-time production double IPA on the planet. Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, one of the most popular black IPAs and a beer that is credited for helping to popularize the segment. We were not the first by any stretch--of course Greg Noonan in Vermont in the early 1990s was creating black IPA. But we have had the opportunity to do some things that stuck and became perhaps somewhat influential in the craft brewing industry."
Again, from the memory attic, I trundle out Alan Sprints and his work with strong beers in the years before Stone, including Fred. American barley wines had been been been around years and years. The concept of "double IPA" is an American invention and narrow enough perhaps to support the claim Greg makes--but strong hoppy beers have been around forever and certainly weren't invented by Americans. And I have no doubt that if we had something more reliable than my memory, we could probably find examples of American beers that were earlier than Stone--after all, I came up with examples off the top of my mind. To his credit, Greg cites the history of dark, hoppy English ales made over a hundred years ago as evidence that black IPAs are nothing new. Surely he recognizes that there's nothing really new under the sun, right?

It is a peculiarly American instinct to want to be the first at anything. There's something alluring about staking your place in the short history of American craft brewing, and no harm in that. But to substantiate these claims requires ignoring the centuries of brewing that happened before American craft beer came on the scene, and probably excluding early examples by some other brewery--now perhaps defunct and unable to defend itself--that fails to meet the narrow definitions of style or region. Greg Koch helms one of the most successful breweries in the world and one of the most admired. That's pretty good.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Deeper and Deeper Into the Surreal World of Belgian Brewing

Okay, I have now completed my survey of non-lambic beers produced in mid-19th century Belgium. The tour guide was one G. Lacambre, a man in possession of prejudices but lacking an editor. He would sometimes discredit certain styles of beer, some he even admitted were renowned, and offer biting commentary about the methods of the brewers. It goes without saying that Lacambre was himself a brewer, and this is exactly the kind of thing you expect (modern brewers are just the same). But he was also strangely imprecise, offering conflicting data or using different measures across styles. (Hops, for example, were sometimes measured by the barrel, sometimes by the hectoliter. Fair enough, except that barrel sizes weren't standardized.) All that accepted, he highlights some absolutely amazing stuff. To wit:
  • Every beer style he mentioned spent time in a coolship. The procedure varied a bit--sometimes beer would get filtered first, sometimes not. Usually breweries pitched yeast, sometimes (Leuven dobbel gerst, Hoegaarden wheat ales) not. (Sometimes he didn't specify.) But here's the point: no beer sits overnight in coolship without picking up scads of bugs. Every beer was infected in 19th century Belgium.
  • Lacambre lists about 18 styles and sub-styles, and the average boil length was nine hours. Only four of those were boils of three hours or less, and five were over ten hours (the longest was twenty).
  • Only one style--a cluster of three substyles from Leuven--was made entirely from barley. Two others were usually 100% barley, but often had wheat and oats. Nearly all of the beers had wheat, and a large number (11) used oats. One beer, the saison from Liege, was usually made with a majority of spelt.
  • It seems the Belgians were into poorly-modified malts that resulted in pretty sweet beers. Lacambre doesn't give a lot of final gravities, but the ones he does give are in the 1.020s and 1.030s.
  • Blending, as in gueuze, was common, and many styles had blended variants. The act of blending beer was “a special art entrusted to special men who should have a truly exceptional palate.”

Below are the beers Lacambre details, with very brief comments:

  • Antwerp Barley Beer. An aged beer that was blended with young beer and sounds much like modern gueuze.
  • Uytzet. Came in two strengths, ordinary (about 4%) and double (6%). One of the famous beers Lacambre slagged, saying “uytzet is an amber beer, fairly dark yellow, and very good quality when well prepared but but ordinary uytzet generally has a particular dry and more or less sharp taste."
  • Flemish Brown Beer. The beer boiled up to twenty hours, similar to uytzet but darker. Locals loved it, and for this reason Lacambre begrudgingly admitted it might be an acquired taste. For his purposes, "far from being very pleasant indeed, for it is bitter, harsh and somewhat astringent."
  • Leuven biere de Mars, enkel gerst, and dobbel gerst. These were the beers Lacambre made himself, and shockingly, he thought they were the best. Made from all barley, and divided into four runnings of the same mash. The first two made dobbel gerst, the final two biere de Mars, with enkel gerst being a blend of the two.
  • Biere de Maestricht. A brown beer made largely in Holland about which Lacambre was vague. Popular.
  • Wallonian barley beer. An amber to brown beer that was boiled to sharp bitterness.
  • Bieres blanche of Leuven. Light, refreshing beers that sound like a cross between lambic and witbier.
  • Peeterman. Similar to Leuven white beers, but brown and made with gelatin usually taken from fish skin. Tasty! Lacambre: "“viscous, very brown-coloured and has a slightly penetrating and aromatic bouquet." One of the more famous of the lost Belgian styles.
  • Biere de Diest. A strong golden ale (1.066-1.082) that sound sweet and delicious. Lacambre offers this left-handed compliment: “a very sweet and pleasant taste; their creamy flavour slightly sweet, and has something honeyish which is highly sought after by aficionados, amongst which we must count the majority of women and especially wet nurses who find in them a drink which is comforting and nutritious, as well as healthy and pleasant to drink.”
  • Mechelen Brown Beer. This sounds like a precursor to the sour ales of Flanders (which is to the west of Mechelen). They were aged up to two years and blended with a quarter to a third fresh beer--much like modern-day Rodenbach.
  • Hoegaarden beer. This is effectively a lambic--a spontaneously-fermented partially-wheat ale. Strangely, it was served fresh, not aged, apparently to great effect. Lacambre: “This beer is very pale, very refreshing and strongly sparkling, when it is fresh; its raw taste has something wild which is very similar to that of beer from Leuven which it resembles in many respects.”
  • Lier Beers (two versions). A stronger, paler export version and a darker version for locals. Not a lot of info.
  • Liege Saison. A beer often made largely of spelt and aged at least four months and often up to two years. Lacambre didn't like the methods of brewing and seemed to regard this as a crude beer whipped up by bumpkins.
  • Liege Biere Jeune. A lighter version of the saison served fresh after a couple weeks.

I must now leave the translation Randy Mosher made of these texts and delve into the one I made via Google Translate--which though less elegant, is remarkably coherent. I am especially interested in his thoughts on "lambicks." He also discussed the beer of other countries, which also ought to be interesting.

Why Wikipedia is Down Today and Why It Matters To You

The big news today is that Wikipedia's down, and I suspect 93% of the country is largely mystified about why the titans of Silicon Valley are battling the titans of Hollywood over obscure copyright law. The truth is, we all have a dog in the fight. The thumbnail background is this: to combat foreign copyright infringement, content-producing companies--mainly in the film and video industry--promoted legislation in Congress (PIPA in the Senate, SOPA in the House). There is a real issue here, because movies get ripped off and streamed illegally all the time. When Warner Brothers spends six jillion dollars making an exploding boat movie, they have a right to want to earn money when people watch it.

Here's the problem:
Under the current wording of the measures, the Attorney General would have the power to order ISPs to block access to foreign-based sites suspected of trafficking in pirated and counterfeit goods; order search engines to delist the sites from their indexes; ban advertising on suspected sites; and block payment services from processing transactions for accused sites. If the same standards were applied to U.S.-based sites, Wikipedia, Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, Google and Wired could all find themselves blocked.
Regulation isn't as easy as it seems. The past ten years have seen rather extraordinary changes in the way information is delivered. Until about the year 2000, if you wanted your voice heard, you had to go through gatekeepers in print, radio, and television--or set up your own magazine, radio station, or cable channel at insane cost. Now you can literally do it for free. Sites like Blogger, YouTube, Ustream, and Twitter have made it possible for people to get their voices online in exactly the same manner CBS, the New York Times, and NPR do.

Let's take beer blogs as one case in point. I started writing about beer for print sites in 1997--when some of them didn't even have websites. If you wanted beer news in 1997, you picked up an Oregonian or Willamette Week--or Zymurgy or All About Beer. In a certain sense, it was very cool to be a writer in that era--I had an audience orders of magnitude larger than I do now. But look at how we get beer news now: blogs, BeerAdvocate, tweets, direct communication from breweries via Facebook, and on and on. As people interested in beer, the current system is way, way better. We're awash in information--most of it archived and available any time we want to do a Google search. Magnify that effect across all fields and media and you can see the transformation.

The problem, of course, is that big media companies don't make money when you and I blog and tweet. Their profits have crashed since 2000. They don't want a free flow of "user-generated content." Their bottom line depends on eyeballs and eyeballs have lately been wandering elsewhere.

I don't want to overly inject this post with politics, but one way media companies can mitigate losses is not by adapting to changing environments and competing, but rather by using the force of law and regulation to rig the game. Copyrights are so valuable that authors hold them decades after they're dead. Music companies get revenues almost in perpetuity on art they had nothing to do with--but to which they own the rights. Disney has perverted copyright law profoundly all so it doesn't lose the chance to be the exclusive retailer of Mickey Mouse tchotchkes. For this, we have sacrificed an enormous amount of control over the creative and information realm.

Now big media is making yet another grab that will further bind up creative expression. They have some rights over the content they create and should have recourse in the face of theft. But they shouldn't have the power to stifle the rights of everyone else. [Cue cheesy, overwrought music] So, if you value your favorite beer blog, cat fancy website, or Joss Whedon tribute page, please stand with Wikipedia and oppose SOPA/PIPA.

We now conclude this public service announcement and return to our regular programing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

And You Think Belgian Beers Are Strange Now

I have now left the island of Great Britain, traveled across the English Channel and found myself in 19th century Belgium--metaphorically, at least. After several months reading the past practices of British breweries, it is phantasmagoric to dive into the Belgian archive. The old British brewed more or less like the current British. Even strange old techniques like parti-gyling and the use of Burton union systems hasn't died out. But Belgium? Wild, wild stuff.

Take for example the practices described by G. Lacambre, whose 1851 Traité Complet de la Fabrication des Bières is the source for much of what we know:
"Boiling of these beers is longer and stronger than uytzet: commonly the boiling of these beers is 15 to 18 and even 20 hours in many breweries."

"When the colour is produced purely by a long boil, there is certainly no great harm, but unfortunately there are many breweries today that reduce the boiling time and force the colour using lime which is sometimes, as we have seen, very detrimental to the interests and even the health of consumers."
Or my favorite, which is just the second of six paragraphs on the mash schedule for Leuven white beer:
"As soon all the liquid has been extracted, they remove the baskets, of which there are eight to ten for a tank of 100 hectoliters, and by the underback, they refill the mash tun with completely cold water in summer and lukewarm water.... Once there is enough water in the mash tun it is stirred again very strongly, then they extract the second mash in the same way as I have described the first, and it also goes in boiler no. 1. Once there is no more liquid on the top, the liquid contained between the two funds is drawn off, then, always through the underback, a third infusion is added. The water used for the third mash is drawn from boiler no. 2, which is at this point filled with boiling water. The third mash is mixed until the warm mixture is perfect, then by means of baskets, and operating in the same manner as the first two mashes, they extract the slightly white wort which is poured into boiler no. 1 until the liquid reaches 40 or 45 centimeters from the top; the rest of the mash being drawn from the bottom of the mash tun, is placed in the clarification tank."
In sum: breweries regularly boiled their beer for 8-20 hours to achieve a darker color (or other mysterious, unidentified qualities) unless they dosed them with toxic calcium hydroxide. This followed mash schedules (in some beers) so baroque they took dozens of steps and required six vessels. I guess you can see why the lime seemed like a good idea.

Study questions:
1. What happens to hops after a twenty-hour boil?
2. Had they never heard of dark malts in Belgium or did they just like that tweaky lime buzz?
3. Extra credit: was the production of lambic a short cut for slackers tired of 29-hour brew days? (Provide corroborating evidence.)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cantillon's Jean Van Roy, Mystic Brewer

I'm finally getting to my recordings of Belgian breweries. Last night, I transcribed portions of my visit to Cantillon--the first brewery I visited in Belgium. The next day I toured Brouwerij Boon and got a totally different presentation (more on that later, probably). Frank Boon is the consummate scientist--to the extent possible, he has tried to understand the processes involved in making lambic beer. Just north, Jean Van Roy has a totally different approach.
"I know my beer. I feel my product. The beer is alive. I really have contact with the beer. I feel, I smell what the beer will accept or not"
When I found him at the brewery, he was elbow-deep in a little kettle straining out loose hops. He has the ascetic, hard-working quality of a monk, and his affect is monklike as well. He doesn't mind you wandering freely around the brewery, but he has work to do. He speaks precisely as he works. We were talking about the nature of lambic, and he described the experience of tasting barrels of his Bruocsella [pronounced BROOK sella], the three-year-old lambic.
"I had really great beer, and when we taste such a lambic we are so proud--for me, but also for the product itself. No one, no brewers on the earth can have the same rapport, the same feeling with his beer. In French we have a sentence. We say, tout est dans tout.* If I translate it: 'Everything is in everything.' In this brewery, everything is playing a role in the final product. Everything."
Incidentally, I forgot he told me the following, which may count as some kind of scoop. It also fits in nicely with his thoughts on lambic.
“The next [inaudible word] will be a top-fermentation beer. So we will work here with filtered yeast. But, in such an environment, you will always get a wild inoculation as well. The goal will be to produce a tripel but make it like two or three hundred years ago. They worked with filtered yeast, but they didn’t have real control.” [I then asked whether he’d age the beer or release it young. He must have smiled enigmatically because I started laughing and I said, “Right, listen to your beer, huh?” And he started laughing, too. Then he continued.] “First production. And then for the rest … ah. The goal I hope, between six months and one year. No more. I hope the beer could be ready for September, October 2012. We brew it in December.”
Okay, back to work--

_______________
*I don't speak French, and that was my best effort, using Google Translate, to render what he said.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Open Thread Friday: Most Characteristic American Breweries

One of the things I'd like to do in The Beer Bible (the Beer Bible--even I don't know) is give a verbal tour of certain breweries that offer insight into a country or style of brewing. For those of us who have had the opportunity to go on actual tours, it's wonderfully educational--I thought it might be in print, too. For example, I wrote about Fuller's to describe both British ale brewing but also parti-gyle brewing--a relative rarity in the beer world. I'll write about Rodenbach and Boon/Cantillon and Orval.

I'd like to include an American brewery or two (or three). The problem: there are 1700 of them and the ones I've seen are largely in Oregon. So here's your charge, should you be willing to take it: offer your choice and tell me what makes it illustrative of American brewing as well as somehow unique. A couple examples I've been thinking about.

1. Double Mountain. Reasons: the brewery is a great example of a classic American craft brewery on the one hand--they do lots of beers wholly characteristic of the region (pick an IPA, any IPA), and tend to put an American twist on every style they brew. Double Mountain is also a brewery evolving into something distinctively local. Owner/brewer Matt Swihart has orchard land--in one of America's premier fruit-growing regions--and has begun to incorporate his own fruit into Double Mountain's beer.

2. Anheuser-Busch. There's nothing quite so American as a titantic brewery, and there's no brewery quite so titantic as A-B. But more than that, A-B has been a leader in a number of technologies going all the way back to the use of adjuncts in the 19th century. Macro lager might be easily dismissed gastronomically, but as a fixture in the brewing world, it's a little hard to match.

You see how I'm thinking about these things? Give me your ideas--particularly those from beyond Beervana.

Birth of a Porter

In an annual rite, brewers at Full Sail opened the barrels of aging Top Sail Imperial Porter yesterday. The beer had been gestating for a year (four days shy, actually, if you're a stickler for precision) in those barrels, and what came out was not only different from what went in--but different from what was in the next barrel over.

This year Full Sail used 18-year-old barrels of Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, and rye from Jim Beam. The idea is to get a blend of flavors from different types of barrels. Last year, Full Sail used two types of barrels, and for a short time they had examples of all three variants on tap at the Pilsner Room--a blend of all barrels, and then one each that came from the two different types. (Here's my review from last year's iteration.) Yesterday, though, I got to sample the beer as it was coming directly out of the barrels, pre-blend (pic here of the blogger in action). This is slightly different because, while the different types of barrels contribute a character of their own, each barrel also has its own character.

Barrel-aging is an organic process. The brewer's work has been completed by the time the beer goes into the casks, and what happens next is uncontrolled biochemistry. The beer pulls the liquor from the wood and it blends together, adding alcohol and aromatic compounds. Oxygen slowly seeps through the grain of the wood and interacts with the beer. The various compounds within the beer continue to evolve and interact. Each barrel becomes a singular ecosystem for these changes, and at the end of a year, each one has a unique character. Cracking those barrels open after a year is a fascinating study in biology.

In general, the Maker's Mark barrels produced a decadent beer--extremely rich and loaded with chocolate and cherry flavors. The Wild Turkey was, as you might expect, hotter and thinner, with a sharp edge. The rye barrels were my faves overall--they were earthier, spicier, and drier. Those were just broad contours, though. Barrel to barrel, flavors varied quite a bit. Some were more aromatic, some flatter, some richer, and some, sadly, had gone wrong. One was full of aldehydes and a vicious higher alcohol and one had the beginnings of what I argued might be a tasty funk (though there was a troubling solvent note). Both got dumped, and I captured the tragedy with my trusty camera.

The beer is headed for a tank where it will rest and settle for a period before bottling and it should be available next month. Meanwhile, the next batch of bourbon casks are headed to Hood River, awaiting the 2013 vintage of Black Gold Imperial Stout. They've been doing this every year since 1998, and now they alternate the stout and porter every other year. I will be most fascinated to see how the final blend tastes.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Damage Control

This is a rather remarkable statement from a brewery:
We know Punk IPA have been a little inconsistent of late. Here is why and here is what we are going to do about it.

However before we get onto that, 2012 is going to see an evolution of BrewDog. We have definitely created loads of buzz over the last couple of years but the main aim this year is to get people speaking about what is in their glass as opposed to all the other stuff. No fighting with CAMRA, no falling out with Germans, no punishing animals with sticks and no legal battle with the Portman Group.
BrewDog has definitely spent more time than any brewery I know trying to get attention. They do just about whatever it takes to make sure you're thinking of BrewDog--except, apparently, keeping their eye on the important ball, their beer. I find what follows to be implausible: they blame the poor quality of their flagship Punk IPA on variations in malt quality and hop supply. But brewers deal with this ever year, and it's part of the business to make sure you have the recipe you want before the beer goes out the door. But leave that aside.

Craft breweries face tough times when they grow. There are certain moments in growth that seem particularly dangerous--from small to medium-sized or medium-sized to large. The systems strain and wheeze, and sometimes beer quality suffers. It's an incredibly dangerous moment, coming when the brewery is trying to solidify a larger customer base--exactly the wrong time to be putting out substandard beer.

Rarely does a brewery admits mistakes and (more or less) owns them, promising to do better. It will be interesting to see what happens with BrewDog. Like that ADHD kid in the back of the classroom who's willing to eat his own boogers to get attention, the brewery has definitely stayed in the spotlight. Now they promise they'll do their homework and turn in their assignments on time. Let's see what happens.

____________

Errata. This is, incidentally, somewhat related to the recent kerfuffle over Sam Calagione's response to critical comments on BeerAdvocate--an issue I've assiduously avoided mentioning til now.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ahead of His Time

How early did the idea of pitching brettanomyces occur to someone? Almost instantly:

The holder of the patent is N. Hjelte Claussen, the scientist who discovered brettanomyces at Carlsberg. I'm going to go ahead and hazard the observation that the Wiki site on his strain--brettanomyces claussenii--is wrong; it says he discovered the strain in 1904. Nice trick securing a patent on this technique a year before he discovered the actual strain.

I'll hazard a second observation as well: Claussen's scheme to pitch brett into lagers doesn't seem to have taken off. Sour lager (sauerlagern?)? Someone should give that a shot--there's a gold medal at the GABF waiting for the first brewery to perfect it.

It didn't really pan out for English beers, either, though you could credit Claussen with amazing foresight. It only took commercial breweries a century to start pitching brett after he suggested it. Wonder if that patent's still good?


Update: In comments Ron Pattinson writes:

It didn't take 100 years for someone to pitch brettanomyces. Courage were doing it with Russian Stout in the 1970's and probably started a good bit before that.

I've also an East German Porter recipe from the 1950's that says to add brettanomyces for secondary conditioning.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What's Authentic? -- The Scotch Ale Example

Have you ever considered a thing so long that you came back to where you started from the other side, thinking maybe you had it all wrong in the first place? I've been thinking. The topic remains Scotch ale, a style that seems pretty clearly invented by Americans. Therefore, we consider this an inauthentic style, one invented from ignorance.

In the early days of American craft brewing brewers had only fragmentary information about world beer styles and the history of beer. Drinkers had even less. Many of the early beers were not brewed to style nor made with methods appropriate to style. (Old-timers will recall "pilsners" made with ale yeast and American two-row malt.) The market has matured, though, and now brewers and drinkers have a far better sense of style. Breweries were doing some pretty terrible things in the eighties, so this was an important corrective.

On the other hand, “authenticity” isn’t as obvious as it looks. Consider this thought experiment. What if, in the 1980s when Scotland was enjoying its own craft brewing renaissance, the first breweries had decided themselves to add peat-smoked malt to their grists? It would have been a perfectly native instinct—malteries were already producing the product for distilleries. What if Scottish breweries had tried to distinguish their beers from English beers with this small change? We would surely now be discussing the necessity of using peated malt in the recipes for authentic Scottish ales. Instead, it was Americans who did it, and the whole thing now strikes some people as a shameful example of brewing juvenilia. But is it, really?

There's an interesting complication to all of this. Peaty American Scotch ales are pretty tasty--and popular. For Americans, a bit of smokiness is what defines Scotch ale and what they expect. Because of this, I can't imagine breweries abandoning peat-smoked malt, at least not in those pretty popular extant brands. Which likely means that in two or three decades, peaty American Scotch ales will have been around so long no one will remember or care that there was something embarrassing about all of this. They'll just enjoy the beer and think nothing about its ahistoricity. We'll have a new style, and it will have become as authentic as any other.

Monday, January 09, 2012

That Old-Timey Old Ale, Billy the Mountain

Once, very early in my homebrewing career, I tried to brew an imperial stout. Unfortunately, the recipe included too little dark malts and what I got looked like iced tea. Consulting Jackson, I concluded that I had brewed an Old Ale. Thus was I introduced to the style.

The designation "old ale" is itchin' for abuse. Anything can be old. Old as in "sitting at the back of my fridge too long" or "made a long time ago, like Blitz lager." Even in England, where the style should have some meaning, breweries regularly take liberties with the style. Adnams has a beer they call an Old Ale, but it is just 4.1% and is "a mild ale style beer brewed with East Anglian pale ale and Crystal malted barley and Boadicea hops." An old ale that is a mild. Hold that thought a minute.

Breweries have long made very strong beers. Humans love intoxication, and there will always be demand for heavy hitters. Back in the day, the British referred to these with affectionate names like "crackskull," "stingo," and "huffcap." (Huffcapping was big in the winter of 1749-50. Kidding.) These beers were not only strong, though, they were also aged for months or years in oak. Old ales had other names like "stale" for this reason. After a year on wood, Old Crackskull would have taken on lots of character from wild yeasts. It would have gotten that sere, leathery quality we now associate with Belgian beers. In this context, the "old" referred to the time the beer had spent lounging around in barrels. Like stinky old cheese.

The opposite, of course, was "mild" ale, the fresh stuff breweries sent out lickety-split so publicans could start pouring it before the brettanomyces got busy. Old and mild were opposites. (Now, back to that Adnam's Old Ale. Their use of old to describe a mild is therefore a beautifully perverse turn of phrase. Adnams wishes to evoke a sense of the kind of beer old granddad may have enjoyed in the pub back in the fifties--you know, mild ale. One could say--and I would support it--that this use of metaphor is no less useful or poetic to the average punter in Southwold.) It was, however, regular practice to blend the two at the pub in order to spice up a mild with a bit of tartness from old ale. This may be where the word "stock" came from, yet another euphemism for old ale.

There are almost none of these kinds of old ales left in Britain. The two that spring to mind are Gale's Prize Old Ale (now made at Fuller's) and Greene King's Strong Suffolk. Americans have never really taken to the style, preferring their own super-hopped take on a barley wine. (The difference between old ales and barley wines? Damned little. Or anyway, semantic. Barley wine was a much later name used to help move product.) In America, actually right here in Portland, however, Upright's Alex Ganum, has shown an admirable enthusiasm for the kind of old ale you might have found in the days before microscopes had detected the existence of yeast.




Billy the Mountain
The name comes from a half-hour-long Frank Zappa song, incidentally--I think that's Ethell the tree on the label. The image I have omits the side text, which reads "a regular picturesque postcardy old ale"--a wink to the lyrics, which describe Billy as "a regular picturesque postcardy mountain." It's a psychedelic song in which Billy, flush with royalties from posing for postcards, goes on adventures that involve the draft, red-baiting, and Las Vegas. Good times. Anyway, we're here to discuss beer, so on to the other Billy the Mountain.

The first batch of the beer in 2009 was inoculated with brettanomcyes. Alex experimented in 2010 by blending 80% of the brett-inoculated Billy with a portion of sweet mild Billy. This year he's completely switched the ratio--just 20% brett-inoculated. By chance, I happened to have a year-old bottle at our annual holiday party last month. They strain Upright uses is a pretty gentle brett (I'm 90% sure it's claussenii, which is purportedly a British strain and therefore the one to make a beer like Dickens drank). Even after a year and even with an 80% blend (robust), I found that it "added a lovely tart snap to an otherwise hearty, sweet, English-style ale." In other words, not a face-melter.

I wondered if this year's would therefore be sweet--it doesn't have a lot of soured beer in it nor have those yeasts had a chance to do much to the base beer. But it was quite impressive. Here were my notes:
Balsamic nose, with a bit of berry jam. Reminds me of a Flanders brown. There's a tart undercurrent that has that balsamic tartness, but its enclosed in a dense, sweet, gingerbread beer. A touch of oak, too. Heavy and still, it would cloy if it were not brightened by the lovely tartness. There's some spiciness in here, and a long, port-like finish.
It's easily one of the most interesting beers around, and one that will age for years. Given the amount of sugars left in the bottle for the wild yeasts to snack on, I expect it will change enormously over those years. If you drink a whole bottle yourself and listen to Zappa, you too will go on adventures. Oregonians are fortunate to have so many wonderful historical recreations around, and this is one of my faves.

____________
Full Disclosure: the brewery gave me the bottle of this year's beer to taste, which is why I didn't throw it in the cellar, as all my instincts begged me to do.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Friday Flick: The Samuel Smith Cooperage

The video's quite rough, and you may have to put your ear next to the speaker to hear some of the conversation--but still, it is rather rare footage of an almost-extinct profession.



Of course, at one time, every brewery had a team of coopers on hand to make vats and casks. I haven't made enough of a study to know for sure how many working full-time coopers are still on staff in Britain's breweries, but it is certainly no more than the number of fingers on your two hands. If I had to bet, though, I'd say this is the footage of the last one.

Unpacking the OLCC's History

Last week, Brian Boe, executive director of Oregonians for Sound Economic Policy, wrote a very nice piece on the Oregon Liquor Control Commission in the Oregonian. In my periodic imprecations against the agency, I often fail to give the context of my pique. Keying off Washington State's recent efforts to change liquor laws, Boe does a great job providing background about how and why the OLCC was (mis)conceived:
When I first sought to study why the current system was adopted back in 1933, I quickly discovered that OLCC had very limited historical information.... Gov. Julius Meier in his remarks to the special session of 1933 asked the Oregon Legislature to study the "Rockefeller Report" and adopt its findings on liquor regulation as the 18th Amendment was about to be repealed. Produced by and written at the direction of the Rockefeller Foundation, the book was titled "Toward Liquor Control," by Raymond Fosdick, personal counsel to John D. Rockefeller Jr.

Utilizing European systems of liquor regulation as study guides, Fosdick patched together two systems of liquor control for the states to consider in their post-Prohibition deliberations. The regulatory model of least intrusion was called the "license system." The second model, and the one that Oregon ultimately chose, is known as an "authority or control system," in which the state retails liquor directly to the public.
The problem, Boe describes, is that no one really knew what the hell they were doing:
Other holdovers from 1933 include the requirement that grocers and restaurants pay cash-on-delivery for liquor rather than the 15- or 30-day terms they enjoy for all their other supplies.

Additionally OLCC insists on literal interpretations of rules that prohibit retailers from taking delivery of beer or wine into a warehouse and then transporting it to their stores with their own trucks. Such inflexibility hurts the environment (prompting double delivery trips where one could suffice), but also provides no tangible public benefit or protection. It is, like so many of the OLCC statutes, outdated thinking attempting to anticipate problems that have never occurred.
It's absolutely amazing that Oregon has never revisited the question of how to regulate alcohol sale and distribution. When I do go on my rants, it's not because I don't think the state needs to regulate alcohol (it does), but because the OLCC seems to be doing such a terrible job at it. Boe's backgrounder was really useful in laying out why the agency has always been hamstrung. It was badly conceived, and as a consequence, it's bad at that regulatory role. Good stuff.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Did Americans Invent Scottish Ale?

I've been thinking a lot about Scottish ales over the past week or two. Like everyone else who's ever written a book about beer, I had a chapter planned on Scottish ales. But when I went to Scotland, I was mystified to find very little in the way of the beers we so often describe as "Scottish." For example, Google the style and this comes back in the top position:
The Scottish style of ales break down into Light, Heavy and Export. In the 19th century Scotland, a nomenclature, based on the now obsolete shilling currency, was devised in order to distinguish each. 60/- (light), 70/- (heavy), 80/- (export), 90/- to 160/- for Scotch Ales.

Scottish Ales traditionally go through a long boil in the kettle for a caramelization of the wort. This produces a deep copper to brown in colored brew and a higher level of unfermentable sugars which create a rich mouthfeel and malty flavors and aromas. Overall hop character is low, light floral or herbal, allowing its signature malt profile to be the highlight. Smoky characters are also common.
And then I read. Fortunately, Ron Pattinson has been obsessed with the beers of Scotland for going on five months (I use "obsessed" as a compliment). If you start reading through his research, you begin to see that the current state of Scottish brewing is roughly equivalent to former states: yes, it's a bit different from English brewing, but that's if you average out all the different regional styles of England. If you take them all separately, Scotland looks a lot like a distinctive regional expression of British brewing. You find little support for almost any of the "information" I quoted--and evidence that disproves quite a lot.

(Scottish ales may have been classed by shilling cost, but this had little to do with style--and it changed as prices fluctuated--they didn't go through long boils and were therefore not darkened or caramelized by long boils, and "smoky characters" may now be common, but that's because people mistakenly believed Scottish malts were smoky or peaty. I think smoky characters are far less common now that you can't smoke in pubs.)

Scottish brewers made Edinburgh ale, a beer that sounds a lot like Burtons. They made a range of pale ales. They made stouts and porters. Looking through Ron's brewing logs, I don't see anything very much different from English styles. It is worth noting some variations: Scottish brewers added dark malts to their pale ales for color. They did ferment their beers at colder temperatures, and this gave them a lager-like quality. (George Howell at Belhaven's confirmed that yeast never used to be significant. When he worked for Tennent's in the 70s and 80s, they used to give their yeast to other area breweries. Whatever was on-hand was fine because the temps were low enough that ester production was minimal.) But really, none of this justifies a separate style.

I blame American's tendency to romanticize foreign lands. We started thinking about Wallace, Burns, and haggis, and the bare mention of shilling ale got us spinning yarns. I'm writing a chapter about Scotland's ales. I don't think there will be much in there about Scottish ale, though.

_________________
PHOTO: The new brewhouse at Belhaven, constructed outside the building to avoid running afoul of local codes that protect the main building--which will be 300 years old in seven years.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Most Interesting Brewer 2011

A post over at the New School jogged my memory about one final year-end post I had in mind. It was written by Breakside's Ben Edmunds, and he was discussing the various exotic ingredients he tossed into beers.
In all, we’ve made 92 different beers at the pub this year, learning lots about the various ingredients we’ve incorporated along the way. Some of that includes the fun of working with different base malts, the challenges of finding substitute hops when our supply of Citra and Amarillo ran dry, and the learning curve with bringing in a new yeast strains. It also includes all the Reinheitsgebot–forbidden ingredients that I love to use in the brewery. Over the last few months, it seems like we’ve been on an especially adjunct-heavy kick using a number of less common fruits, herbs, spices, and so on in some of the beers. (At the same time, we’ve also been making a series of traditional lagers, for what it’s worth.)
Ben has an almost unique situation at Breakside. It's a three-barrel brewery with owners willing to completely cede the brewhouse to their brewer. The small batches allow Ben to experiment endlessly even while keeping the house range on tap. As a consequence, Ben can brew beers that are hugely experimental. Larger breweries can't afford to gamble as much. It creates a virtuous cycle: Ben is now well-known for being able to pull off experimental beers, and that makes people eager to try them.

Beyond making some of the most interesting beers over the past year, Ben has also done more than any other brewery on the education front. He blogs at the New School, regularly brews authentic revival beers (his Devon White Ale this year is one of the all-time highlights of Oregon brewing), and has collaborated with various bloggers, writers, and groups to design and brew their own recipes. (A personal highlight of mine was brewing a grisette--a low-alcohol saison--with Ben.)

Breakside may be a tiny brewery in a remote quadrant of the city, but Ben's made it a destination. I can't think of any brewer who did more interesting work in 2011 than he did. Kudos--