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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Good and Popular Posts of 2014

Thanks to the data that Google provides (as opposed to the data they keep--which I'd love to see), I have a pretty good idea of which posts attracted the most attention over the past year.  Google tracks "entry pages," which is a good proxy for post popularity. These are the individual post pages people are referred into--from other sites or internet searches--as opposed to coming to the main site. In the modern era, entry pages are referred largely by social media referrals.  Early in the year, Reddit was responsible for some of my biggest traffic days, but that site has become an anemic source of late.  Twitter remains my biggest performer, but virality transcends platform.

I've always described my blog as a garbage scow of information--you'll find some treasures and some rubbish, but it's a theme-free jumble. Actually, that's not entirely true.  If anything unites the content here, it's my proclivity for finding a tiny thing and writing a thousand words on it. It's what I like. One thing I noticed in looking through the top posts of the year is that readers tend to respond to the same posts.  I'm slightly embarrassed by my top traffic post of the year--keying off the idea, other people took the subject to far more interesting places--but the second-most popular post was my favorite of the year.  That post could become the coda to what I've learned writing about beer over the last five years.  It's incredibly reassuring to know that people like reading, more or less, the same posts I like writing. 

So here are the top click-getting posts of the year.  (I quite liked the last post, so it's a top-11 list.)  I don't expect anyone to click around much--I know these year-end posts are mostly ways to fill up space in the absence of news--but I do think there's some decent content there.  If you missed one of these, give it a look. 
  1. GABF Analysis: Five States Won Half the Medals (5,851 clicks)
  2. Zen and the Art of Appreciating Simple Beers (4,535)
  3. How the Word "India" Came to Mean "American" (4,341)
  4. The Goose Island Challenge (4,275)
  5. When Naming Goes Awry (4,112)
  6. Cider Saturday: How Angry Orchard is Made, an Interview with David Sipes  (3,280)
  7. A Brief Primer on Czech Lagers (3,205)
  8. A Bomber Bubble? (2,673)
  9. A Hoppy Ale to Rule Them All (2,238)
  10. Introducing "Hop Bursting" (Part 1, History)  (2,234)
  11. Big Brewers Making Specialty Beer: Lessons from MillerCoors  (2,080)
For the completist within, I feel impelled to offer my own top posts, though after the first two listings, they don't really fall in order of preference. 

I'll see you next year.  Everyone stay smart and safe tonight--

Update.  Responding to this post, both Stan and Alan listed their top-ever posts as measured by the algorithmists in Mountain View.  For what it's worth, mine are below.  I think there's some randomness to all-timers like these, in that some large outlet must have linked to them at one point and goosed the stats.  I don't know that you can take much away from the list per se (the third-highest was an April Fool's post).  Anyway, here it is:

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year in Pictures

Over the course of a year, we mobile modern humans often range far and wide across this sapphire planet of ours, and our travels offer a tiny window into the currents and trends stippling the beer world.  At least among those of us who direct our gaze toward things beery.  As I ramble about, I take snaps on my wheezing iPhone 4 and post them to Twitter.  Below are a selection of the choicest cuts.  See what trends you can divine.  (Yes, cider looms large.)

My year started in Salem, as I joined EZ Orchard's Kevin Zielinski
as he milled and pressed apples.

It was then off to Europe on research for Cider
Made Simple
.  First stop--Tom Oliver in Herefordshire.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Beer Invades the Metroplex

Note: Because it's apparently not clear in the post, Portland has had beer in theaters since at least the late 1980s.  The McMenamins may well have had the first theater-pub in the US when it opened The Mission in 1987.  Now probably 80% of the indies and local chains serve draft beer.  It is Regal, the Tennessee-owned chain, that has finally--at least in one location--decided to get on board.


I abandoned movie theater chains a decade ago. They had become too abusive: a high-volume onslaught of TV-style ads in the theater before the movie, sky-rocketing ticket prices, and concessions that were as bad as they were over-priced. Meanwhile, the proliferating indies offered ad-free viewing, low prices and--now almost uniformly throughout the city 4-8 handles of great beer and cider. I could go to the St Johns Cinema on opening day, grab a slice of pizza and a beer for barely more than it cost to go to a Regal metroplex. I was not alone. I watched as the traffic abandoned the Regal experience (a deliciously ironic name) and came over to the indies. 

Yesterday Sally and I decided to catch a Christmas Day matinee of the latest spectacular spectacular, but the indies were not available. (Good for them, giving the employees the day off.) So off we went to the Lloyd Center Regal and: ho!, what is this?

They haven't yet gotten to installing draft lines, but you can actually get a decent bottle of beer now. 

(1) This illustrates an interesting fact about the rise of drinking culture in the US. We no longer drink as much beer as we used to, but we like good beer when we go out to get a bite or catch a movie. This was never going to happen before craft beer came along. (2) Is this a thing everywhere, or just beery Portland, Oregon? My dataset is way out of date. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Joy to You All

Hope the holidays are bringing you joy and connection to those you love.

I'll be taking the rest of the week off from blogging, but if you're absolutely dying for a bit more blogging, you can check out this mood piece of mine over at All About Beer.
Holiday ales are an old tradition. In England they were once literally warming—sometimes topped by a crust of bread or a flotilla of apples. In Franconia, as the nights turn chill, breweries turn to bock to warm their shivering customers. In Belgium and France, they enjoy strong, sweet bière de Noël, or, in some of the grote markts of the Flemish-speaking region, steaming mugs of glühkriek.
Happy yule/solstice/festivus/Hanukkah/Christmas/holidays to you all--

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Year in Beer

That time of year is upon us, when in the dark and cold and dearth of news we cast our gaze backward at the year to see what to make of it.  This isn't entirely in service of generating clicks--it is sometimes worthwhile to remind ourselves of events past and see if they tell us anything relevant about life in the present. 

January always starts slow, and because I was in Europe doing research for my cider book (Cider Made Simple), I was out of the loop.  Not entirely out of the loop, though; I did manage to catch the reports of a beer called "Mouth Raper."  A nice controversy to warm up a frigid month (with a follow-up here).  The incident sheds very little light on anything, except 1) that the sheer number of beers made each year means the likelihood of at least one of them offending people is 100%, and 2) people really, really take beer seriously.  Number (2) is a theme we shall return to in due course.

In February, the OLCC released final numbers on 2013, and we learned that a new crop of breweries are making some noise in the world.  The top-ten of best selling beer includes Ninkasi (#3), 10 Barrel (#7), Boneyard (#9) and Oakshire (#10).  On the other hand, four breweries accounted for half the Oregon beers sold in Oregon in 2013.

In March, the Brewers Association changed its definition of craft brewery and essentially scrapped the "traditional" element.  Pyramid came in for an assessment on its 30th birthday.  The horse having left the barn, both MillerCoors and AB InBev decided to close the door and released mass market ciders.  (An abstruse use of cliched metaphor, I'll grant you.)  Here on the blog we discussed hop bursting (in posts one and two).

Very little happened in April.  Seizing the moment, Nat West released his version of a Mexican fruit wine called tepache

In May, another brewery turned 30--Oregon's oldest, BridgePort.  I spent an odd afternoon celebrating this event with brewery members past and present and offered another consideration.  It was the month tragedy struck, as brewing pioneer and Rogue founder Jack Joyce died.

In June, Vani Hari's effort to get beer to fully label its ingredients came under closer scrutiny.  I still think her overall point is right, but she is a catastrophic messenger.  (And if you don't agree, this post is the one to read.)  I had a chance to sample the "craft beers" of MillerCoors and was surprised at what I found.  On the blog, we discussed style evolution in the US.

July is the month of beer.  There are seven million fests in Portland alone, and I spent most of the month with my nose in a glass of local beer.  News was happening elsewhere, though.  In a major theme for the year, brewery openings were astounding.  This article provides the numbers (headliners: brewery numbers have doubled in five year and over the past two years, 8.4 breweries open ever seven days).  Even Cantillon announced it was expanding.

Absolutely nothing of note happened in August.  Or perhaps just memory, which might better explain things.

September was personally busy.  I had the chance to make a lightning trip to the Czech Republic and also judged magazine articles for the North American Guild of Beer Writers.  Then at the end of the month, I went to Victoria, BC on a grand beer tour.  But news-wise, it was no more exciting in September than August.  I mean, this was major beer news:

October brought us the GABF and the realization that five states won half the medals.  It was the month that Ohio-based Fat Head's decided to open up a multi-million dollar brewpub in the most expensive real estate in Portland--which locals observed with slight mystification.  In other curious launches, Guinness put an amber ale in a wooden box and hoped people would shell out $35 for it.  Lagunitas managed to get a fresh hop beer in a bottle and, for at least 48 hours thereafter, it tasted like a fresh hop beer.  Hops native to the US and grown by monks went on sale for the first time, and a New Yorker cover caused a stir.

The last two months of the year have been dominated by an existential crisis.  It was precipitated by the news, in early November, that Anheuser-Busch was acquiring 10 Barrel Brewing lock, stock, and barrel.  It led us to question things like the soul of beer, and the meaning of craft


Does any of this add up to anything?  I think it does.  I don't know how broadly the general public feel it, but 2014 ended with a note of unease about the health and long-term well-being of smaller, independent breweries.  (An unease I don't share, but a pervasive one nonetheless.)  The year started out with anniversaries of two early enterprises that have managed to survive the craft beer era--but which are owned by corporate conglomerates.  Just last week I noted that Founders and Surly are both in the midst of $40 and $30 million brewery upgrades.  As the year went on, we saw a staggering number of new breweries open, and the year was capped by the 10 Barrel sale. 

What we're seeing is the maturation of the market.  There's very serious money to be made in beer, which is attracting a lot of new entrants to the market.  What we're seeing are the first signs of consolidation as older breweries pass to new owners and aggressive mid-size breweries look for capital to grow.  Change is afoot and 2014 won't be an anomaly.  But no worries--with 3,000 breweries out there, surely you can find some beer to get excited about.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Are You Ready for Lifestyle Beer?

My latest post at All About Beer concerns a growing phenomenon in beer--and a brewery that serves as the perfect case-in-point:
The splash page for Saint Archer Brewing Co., a San Diego company founded last year, is curious. On a recent visit to the page, there was nothing but a six-and-a-half minute video that began in grainy black and white and looked something like the early French new wave. It turned out to be a short promo doc about a guy who makes surfboards in San Francisco. Wait, what?
Welcome to the most ambitious lifestyle brewery in America.
What's "lifestyle beer" and why is St. Archer it's patron saint?  Go have a look.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Never Say "Craft Brewery"

Yesterday morning, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers announced that they would be selling 30% of their brewery, Founders, to the Spanish brewer Mahou.  The reason:
With Mahou San Miguel at the table, Founders Brewing Co. gets a partner with access to consumers on five continents and a chance to pay off investors who have helped finance the brewery’s rapid expansion....
Founders is No. 26 and climbing on the Brewers Association list of the nation’s largest craft brewers. It is also in the middle of a $40 million expansion that, when completed, will allow to make 900,000 barrels of beer annually.
The news came out on the same day I saw a nice article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about another large Midwest expansion:
When it hits full production, Surly’s new complex will fill more than 100,000 barrels annually — half of Summit Brewing’s capacity in St. Paul, but triple the capacity of the original Surly complex in Brooklyn Center and way more than any other brewery in town.... The final price tag of more than $30 million soared from initial estimates of $20 million. 
A large, independent, industrial production brewery.
The situations of the two breweries are not identical, and surely Brewers Association is going to have to think long and hard about whether to boot Founders from its membership roll.  But in one key way, I think we can agree that these breweries (and a few dozen more across the US) stretch whatever definition we might assign to "craft beer" beyond usefulness.  They are big breweries designed to produce beer efficiently and consistently--"industrial" plants by anyone's definition.  One passage I particularly appreciated in the Surly piece was a quote by brewmaster Todd Haug: "'Everything about the brewing process is going to be more precise and consistent,' he bragged, staring at computer screens that monitor every facet of his new tanks."  This is not the talk of a man hauling his own grain and whirlpooling his 3-barrel kettle with a canoe paddle.  (And there's nothing wrong with that!  Surly can make far better beer with their new system.)

It all gives me a chance to reprise a post from two years ago, when I argued for new and better definitions of American breweries that makes them consistent with breweries elsewhere:
  • Brewpub/hausbrauerei.  A pub with a small attached brewery that makes beer for onsite sale.  The focus is the pub, with attention to ambiance and a full menu, not the brewery.
  • Production brewery. a brewery that packages its beer for sale largely off-premise.  May have a tasting room, but this is a subsidiary function, unlike a brewpub where eating and drinking are the focus.
  • Traditional brewery. a brewery that employs equipment or processes to uphold a certain tradition in brewing.  Decoction breweries, tower breweries, breweries with open fermenters, etc.  Not a precise definition, but I distinguish these from modern breweries that have been optimized to make any type of beer.  A brewery doesn't have to be old or small to be traditional, and traditional breweries don't always make good beer.  They are distinguished from industrial breweries (below).
  • Industrial brewery. a highly automated and efficient brewing facility designed to produce beer as inexpensively as possible.  Again, nothing to do with beer quality.  They tend to be large, but not all large breweries are industrial and some smallish ones are.
  • Independent brewery. Owned singly by one human or a family.  Nothing to do with beer quality, size, or brewery design (industrial versus traditional). 
  • Nanobrewery. a production brewery with a batch capacity of less than three barrels. 
  • Large brewery. Any brewery with an annual capacity of 250,000 barrels or more a year.  You want to place it at 100,000 or a million?  I'm mostly cool with that.  Either way, it's worth noting that when you look at the tens of thousands of breweries worldwide, only a tiny percentage of them make even as much as 100,000 barrels.  And a 250,000-barrel brewery is necessarily a pretty damn big facility. 

These terms are not mutually exclusive--they cover types of breweries, methods of production, and ownership structure.  Surly is an independent, industrial production brewery.  In no case do these definitions concern beer quality--and this is the really important point.  Americans, due to a trick of timing, have come to fuse the concept of beer quality with the type of brewery making the beer. It is an unexamined habit for many people to think of smaller, newer breweries as the holders of quality, while huge, national conglomerates invariably offer bad beer.  But "craft beer," whatever else it may have once meant, is now just a marketing slogan. With breweries as big as Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium--companies now building multiple plants--the association between quality and size is even increasingly academic.

Since writing about these brewery categories a couple years ago, I would now add something about products, which is a distinct realm.  In this sense, "craft beer"--in the U.S., anyway--does have some utility.  More terms:
  • Mass market lager.  Pale lager beer produced by national brands to satisfy mass tastes.  This is by far the most popular beer in the world, and most countries have at least one brand--Budweiser, Beck's, Asahi, Heineken, Corona, Snow, Panama, San Miguel--and on and on.  The beverage industry distinguishes between beer like Budweiser (domestic) and Corona (import), but that term doesn't have a ton of utility when talking about the actual products.  
  • Alco-pops/flavored malt beverages.  Ever since Zima, a fringe of the beer market has been devoted to various sweet concoctions aimed at people who don't like beer.  It's not a big part of the market, but it continues to drive a lot of what the big companies are doing.
  • Craft beer segment.  Contrasting mass market lagers, the U.S. market also has "craft beer segment" which is essentially anything that's not a mass market lager or flavored malt beverage.  Regular human beer drinkers understand it to mean everything from the corner brewpub to Sam Adams to Blue Moon and Shock Top. 
I've been getting better about talking about beer in terms of which segment it occupies, but less good about talking properly about categories of breweries.  Breweries themselves have always had a huge interest in defining categories in ways that help them sell beer, but as consumers and journalists, we should resist this.  Clear, unambiguous language about what breweries are and what kind of beer they make, unsullied by the jargon of marketing departments, is what we should aspire to use.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Google released their "year in search" today, which charts the trends in every conceivable area of interest.  That includes a top ten list for beers searched, but it isn't particularly illuminating.  They also have an interactive tool that allows you to plug in search terms and see how they've performed over time--and using that, we can glean more interesting trends.  It's that time of year, so I don't have hours to sit and play with this tool--but here are a couple interesting findings.*

 Let's start out with a comparison I did to track the two currents in the beer market.  The red line tracks searches for "Bud Light" (the country's most popular mass market lager) and the blue tracks "craft beer."

There are a couple things to say here.  The first is obviously to acknowledge a pattern we see in real life--craft beer is gaining while mass market lagers struggle to stay relevant.  (Coors Light, which is fading and less popular than Bud Light, is now trending below craft beer.)  But there's another possible interpretation.  Our minds tell us that if craft beer commands 10% of the beer sales, it must similarly command only 10% of all beer drinkers.  But that's always been wrong.  The heaviest users of beer (a small group) drink the large majority of all beer sold.  So when we see craft beer beginning to eclipse Bud Light in terms of search terms, this may be a better reflection of the actual number of people drinking craft beer than sales numbers.

Now have a look at generic search terms.  This is also interesting.  Among drinkers, the majority still prefer beer.  Wine is second and liquor third.  But search terms don't reflect consumption patterns.  Below are "wine" (red), "beer" (blue), and "liquor."  (I tried "whiskey," "bourbon," and "vodka" in place of liquor, but the trends were almost identical.  Also, essentially no one searches for "hard cider.")

What's more interesting is that "beer" is ticking up while wine has been in a slow decline.  (Also interesting: the annual end-of-year bumps that wine and liquor enjoy correspond to a drop in beer searches.)  This is harder to interpret, but worth a few minutes trying.  Theories? 

Last one.  This sort of speaks for itself.  I plugged in "Sierra Nevada Pale" (blue), "Lagunitas IPA" (red), "Sam Adams" (yellow?--colorblind), and that last one is "Angry Orchard."  No wonder AB InBev and MillerCoors jumped on the cider bandwagon, eh?

*Google searches are a proxy for interest--and therefore don't reflect reality perfectly.  Not everyone uses the internet, and those who do have idiosyncratic interests.  They're just Google searches, and it's easy to add meaning where none may be. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lessons From a 25-Year-Old Beer

Last night a group of friends and I cracked open the first bottling of Old Knucklehead from BridgePort--a beer dating back to 1989.  Back in the day, Old Knucklehead (OK) was a wonderful tradition.  The brewery honored a local codger (some famous, some not) by putting his visage on a little nip bottle.  It combined localness, particularity, and tradition all in one lovely little package.  (The brewery would do well revive the tradition, methinks.  It's hyper local tradition and wouldn't account for many barrels in absolute terms, but it would get a ton of press and continue a beloved tradition.  It's also perfect for the social media age.)

I have no idea who's on that first bottle--I think it was a regular at the old brewery.  Labeling standards were different then (no government warning, for instance), and the ABV isn't listed.  If memory serves, OK was a relatively low-alcohol barley wine--nine percentish.  All of which made analyzing it more dependent on what our senses could tell us. 

One thing you could tell right away was the clarity--even in the bottle.  That was a good sign.  When we cracked it, the bottle let out a nice pssst, and bubbles sprang to the surface.  Old Knucklehead was bottle-conditioned, and there was a thick layer of now-black yeast at the bottom.  Bottle conditioning is great for aging beers in the shorter term--the yeast harvests oxygen while refermenting in the bottle.  But it also raises the risk of autolysis (yeast cell degradation). 

 Twenty-five years is a long time, but amazingly, the beer had little flavor of autolysis and also not a ton of oxidation.  For those who like the effect of oxidation on high alcohol beers, this was an argument for the prosecution.  A tinge of paper, but mostly a rich, sherry-like note.  There were no hops left, but the beer was not overly sweet.  Some bread pudding and raisin, but balanced by the sherry note. 

The beer probably would have been better a decade or two earlier, but it was still surprisingly fresh and tasty.  People often ask me how long you can store beer before it's a lost cause, and I've always been reluctant to answer.  My data set--like most people's--is not flush with examples.  But 25 years is quite a test.  And this bottle, which was well cared-for in that quarter-century, held up remarkably well.

Bright and effervescent after 25 years.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Your Controversy of the Day

Submitted for your discussion: Maine, not Oregon or California or Colorado, is brewing the country's best beer.  That's the thesis of my latest post at All About Beer, and I'm only being very slightly hyperbolic.
Maine obviously can’t compete on numbers. The population is the lowest of any least-densely populated state east of the Mississippi, and most of the towns are crowded down in the south and along the coast. It’s only got 47 breweries. People acknowledge that it has good beer, but it’s never placed among the most glamorous and it won just a single GABF medal this year. Nevertheless, in the ways that matter, Maine is at the beery vanguard. Good beer has saturated the culture and pubs—as Bray’s demonstrates—regularly have interesting, unexpected beer. None of this was unfamiliar to me—it’s been this way for years. What was striking was the degree to which breweries are now pushing the envelope on innovation and quality. As an Oregonian, I’m used to measuring cities by the number of years their beers trail ours. Maine’s scene isn’t trailing anyone, though, and their Portland may now be the equal of Oregon’s Portland. Seriously.
Go read the whole thing.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

We Like IPA and Other Findings

In the past couple years, the Brewers Association (BA) has really stepped up their stats game, a development I heartily welcome.  Today comes a quickie update on the year in beer, and three data points are worth closer scrutiny.

We Like IPAs
Sez the BA: "According to retail scan data, IPA is up 47 percent by volume and 49 percent by dollar sales, accounting for 21 percent volume share of craft."

One in every five beers we drink is some version of an IPA--and there's a good reason to believe this understates matters.  The BA relies on supermarket scans for these data (Symphony IRI and Nielsen), so they're not seeing what people drink in pubs or what they buy from specialty stores.  The figure is probably closer to a quarter of the craft beer sold rather than a fifth.

More interestingly, keep in mind that this is a new trend.  It was only three years ago that IPAs finally eclipsed long-time leader pale ale.  The ascendance of IPA is still an incipient trend, and who knows where it will finally level off.

A Lot of Breweries
BA: Breweries are opening at a rate of 1.5 per day. In addition, there are more than 2,000 breweries in planning....  In November, the United States passed the mark of 3,200 brewers in the country."

I continue to believe that, on the whole, the craft beer segment is positioned for strong growth over the coming decade.  But holy moly, that is one king-hell lot of breweries.  I suspect that there's more than a few poor business plans among them.  I wouldn't be surprised to see brewery closings start to spike soon.

Women Will Save Us
BA: "Additionally, women consume almost 32 percent of craft beer volume, almost half of which comes from women ages 21-34."

This is one of the reasons I've long been so bullish on craft beer in the US.  Despite occasional transgressions, craft breweries have been really good about offering a gender-neutral product.  They have neither alienated women with idiotic babes-in-bikinis ads nor condescended to them with idiotic products.  They've just made good beer and assumed women would like it.  Not-so-magically, that's what's happening.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Millennials and Beer - The Sky is Not Falling

The Washington Post's Wonkblog has a piece that is creating a bit of discussion amongst beery types: millennials don't like the beer so much.  (It's a post based on old numbers from a Gallup survey--apparently those ignorant of old poll numbers are doomed to repeat them.)  Actually, they do--beer is still millennials' preferred alcoholic drink--they just prefer it less than young people have in decades past.  And, actually, that tracks closely with general trends, too--beer consumption generally has been falling for decades.  We have known for at least five years that fragmentation is the way of the 21st century, as mass markets get ever tinier.

What we really care about is whether millennials are moving away from the craft beer segment.  Gallup's numbers didn't say anything about that, so of course Wonkblog can only offer a bit of throat clearing:
Even the beer world's coveted corner, craft beers, which has been gaining market share for many years now, might be on the verge of hitting their peak. "While we're not there yet, we're definitely approaching bubble territory,"  Spiros Malandrakis, an industry analyst at Euromonitor, said this past summer.
In other words: move along, nothing to see here.  We have known for years that the drinks market is getting more crowded as it matures, and that cider, micro-distilled liquors, and craft beer are increasingly grabbing market share from mass market beer.  Millennials are the first generation to be raised post-mass market, in the fragmented world of the internet.  They divide their love on all matters, not just alcoholic beverages.  That does not mean so few of them like craft beer that they can't support the segment's growth as it doubles or trebles (which would still leave it a decided minority of overall beer sales).

I'm also tired of lazy commentary like Malandrakis'.  His full quote continues: "There can't be a massive craft brewer. That's just an oxymoron. The moment a craft brewer makes beer on a mass scale, it's no longer a craft brewer."  He is a Londoner, and the word "craft brewer" has a different meaning there--so possibly we can chalk this up to cultural misunderstanding.  But on the face of it, that's an absurd statement.  We already have several massive craft breweries, and they are growing impressively.  Aside from a gut feeling he may have, there's nothing in the trends or data to suggest craft brewing is at or near a bubble.  None.  I know people feel that way, but there's no data to support it.

Sales of jug wine constituted two-thirds of the market in 1990 and are marginal now.  If you looked at the sale of good wine in 1995, you might have called it a "bubble," too.  But some times, trends just shift.  Nothing says mass market lagers have to remain popular.

Beer is fine, and millennials drink plenty of it.  In the immortal words of Aaron Rodgers, "r-e-l-a-x."

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Good Pours at the Holiday Ale Fest

There are no absolutes in the subjective realm of taste.  "Good" moves along a sliding scale, depending on our preferences.  So consider the following beers provisional recommendations.  But you knew that, right?
  • For me, the pick of the fest was Gigantic's Red Ryder BB Gun, a cranberry-infused saison.  The fruit choice was inspired: cranberries both offer a note of acid but also a fruitiness, so that the contrasting favorable qualities of the yeast--esters and attenuated dryness--are both accented.  With all the heavy, boozy beers, it also serves as a very welcome palate-cleanser.
  • Cranberries were also put to great use in Burnside's Jingleberry, a hugely-thick imperial stout.  Again, the acid in the berries help cut through the dense folds of black malt (though they're nearly consumed by them).  Unlike some of the heavy beers, it wears well, too.  I could easily have enjoyed a pint.
  • While we're on the porter-stout continuum, another winner was Coalition's Big Maple.  If you know its smaller incarnation, Loving Cup Porter, big brother will be familiar.  The maple is less obvious, which works to the beer's advantage by keeping the level of perceived sweetness down.
  • A beer you might otherwise overlook was quite nice: McMenamin's Lord of Misrule.  It's called a stout, but tracked more like an old ale to me.  Anyway, the use of habanero peppers gives it a ton of spicy flavor and only the tiniest hint of heat.  (I suspect that only two of ten people would even make the ID if they tasted it blind.)  The beer is very sweet and I don't think I could do a pint.  Still, it's well-done and clever.  Definitely worth a pour.
Overall, the fest is studded with a ton of great beers.  I was not in love with Ex Novo's Moonstriker, a mole Baltic porter (too thin; the flavors didn't come together) or Viking's Aurora Braggot (I may not be a braggot guy), but those are mostly matter's of preference.  I didn't encounter a single beer I'd warn people to skip--though in the usual manner of trading recommendations, I was guided away from one or two.  (For obvious reasons, I won't be passing that info along second-hand.)

Gentlemen excited to pursue MORE BEER.

If you care for other picks and pans, check out the New School, Beer Musings, Not So Professional Beer Blog and Beervana Buzz for alternate run-downs.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Bird-Dogging the Best at Holiday Ale Fest

Holiday Ale Fest
Pioneer Courthouse Square
Wednesday 12/3 to Sunday 12/7
Full Details

The Holiday Ale Fest begins on Wednesday in its too-snug venue at Pioneer Courthouse Square.  A force of nature, the Fest has evolved into an event in which most of the beers are specialty one-offs, which makes it one of the most anticipated fests of the year.  And also makes recommending beers a total crapshoot. If you like red-hued beer, coffee, chocolate, and bourbon, you're in luck.  Lots of that this year.  There are a number of black ales to go with the usual complement of IPAs, and there are even several sours.  Overall, a nice variety.

It's a fool's errand to predict which beers will emerge as the big faves, but equally, the wide range also demands that the savvy get together a list of target beers.  In the interest of generating discussion, below are the beers that intrigue me.  I plan to head down the first day, so look for a report back on Thursday. 
  • Base Camp Dunkelrauch Weizenbock (8.9%) and Old Town's Bluth's Original Chocolate Banana Hefeweizen (5.5%).  Base Camp's is all right there in the name--a smoked dunkel (dark) weizen.  What more can you ask from a winter beer than smoky, clovey, banana? Old Town's, which makes the list owing to the "Arrested Development" reference, is a lighter hefe with cocoa nibs.  Not so many sub-6% beers, so it might be a welcome pace-setter.
  • Bear Republic Do Yo Want to Build a Snowman? (6.8%).  A melange of four barrel-aged beers I've never heard of, the result of which is billed as fruity and slightly tart.  Two or three years ago, Bear Republic had the best beer at the fest, and I'm hoping for a repeat performance.
  • Burnside Jingleberry (8.3%).  Of all the stouts, this one most beguiles for the addition of fresh cranberries.  Fruit stouts are often lovely, and cranberries seem like an inspired choice.
  • Cascade Gingersnaps (12.1%).  A gigantic blend of 2-year-old quads aged on bourbon and rum barrels.  Ron Gansberg usually sends over something special, and I like special things from Ron Gansberg.
  • Coalition Big Maple (9.0%).  When she co-founded Coalition, Kylie Hoyt wanted to express a bit of her native Vermont and turned to maple syrup.  Coalition generally sends their wonderful winter strong ale, Lost Glove, but this year it's the big brother to their maple porter.  I love the little brother (Loving Cup), so this is a pretty sure bet.
  • Ex Novo Moonstriker (8.0%).  A mole Baltic porter made in collaboration with Moonstruck chocolates.  This seems like such an obvious idea, and yet I've never encountered a mole porter/stout that really sings.  Let's see if Ex Novo pulls it off.
  • Hopworks Incredible Abominable of the Enchanted Barrel Forest (9.0%).  Pretty much the only bourbon-aged IPA I've ever enjoyed was one made for this event by Hopworks, Kentucky Christmas.  It has heretofore been a tradition at the Fest but in its place we have a different bourbon-aged IPA.  I'll take a flyer on it.  (Also, standard Abominable is my fave beer from Hopworks.)
  • New Belgium La Folie (7.0%).  Because New Belgium La Folie.
  • Ninkasi Doppelbock (7.5%).  After having established their rep based on hoppy ales several years ago (I sampled my first Ninkasi, Believer, at HAF), Ninkasi has quietly been building an inventory of wonderful in-style German lagers.  I'm looking forward to test-driving this doppel and have high hopes.
  • Oakshire Prestidigitation (7.0%).  This is not the first pale stout, nor even the first recent pale stout (or in Oakshire's locution, "white stout").  But it may be the first pale chocolate milk stout.  Coffee, cocoa nibs, and star anise are harnessed in service of wrapping a stout-y flavor in a pale wrapper.
  •  Sixpoint Lump of Coal Porter (7.9%).  The reasons to be interested in this beer are two: 1) Sixpoint is located in Brooklyn and is unavailable in the Beaver State, and 2) it was a collab with the Beer Goddess, Lisa Morrison.  Not bad as reasons go, eh?
There are, incidentally, two beers that use mint: Slanted Rock Cordial Tease and Widmer Brothers Frostie the Munchyman.  I hate mint, so they got struck from my dance card, but if you like them take note.  The fest also has two-ticket (usually vintage) rarities that pour at designated times on each day of the event, but the Fest hasn't announced the line-up yet.  Watch this page for updates.

I'll leave you with the latest "pin-up" for further consideration.  Why on earth does the fest continue this bizarre tradition?  Consider it a provocation for a discussion in comments.  See you Wednesday--

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

May you all enjoy good food, company, and of course, beer this fine Thanksgiving Day. I intend to go indulge in all three.

See you next week--

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Breakside La Tormenta

Tart ales are, like tropical rainforests, strange, fecund places that give many people the willies.  Some just don't like acidity--fair enough.  But for others, tart ales are filled with unknowable flavors that may be as lovely as small, colorful songbirds or vicious and aggressive as carnivorous snakes.  Because of the variability, they prefer not to risk it.  They leave tart ales to the fanatics.

Because of the wide variability of this broad category, that seems to be where we have landed: sour ales attracts fanatics and wards everyone else off.  I am sympathetic.  I was an early proponent of tart ales, back in the mid-90s when they mainly came from the relatively civilized wilds of Flanders and Payottenland.  I came to adore gueuze, which, in my own idiosyncratic view, is the most accomplished beer style in the world.  Yet I've stumbled across enough terrible, gone-wrong science experiments passed off as potables that I, too, have become gun-shy. 

Which brings us to a new release by Breakside called La Tormenta.  It's got several things going for it that make it one of the most approachable tart ales in recent memory.  For one, it's dry-hopped, which gives it a point of familiarity.  I don't know why brewers don't use hops more to accent tartness--fruity flavors and acid are a perfect marriage.  Second, it's a lacto-soured beer, so it doesn't have the more exotic flavors that come from Brettanomcyes and other microorganisms.  Finally, it's a nicely balanced beer, with plenty besides the acidity going on.  (La Tormenta seems an odd name for a crowd-pleasing ale--at least until you learn it means "the storm," not "the tormentor.")

The brewery relied on Equinox, a newer hop, for this batch, and it produces a lot of wonderful citrusy and fruity notes--lemongrass and passion fruit tinged with white wine grape.  The clean lactic tartness frames these flavors, and caramel malts tie them together by adding a hint of sweetness.  It should be in stores now, which is good news for anyone planning on feasting this week.  Although a robust 7%, it is light and palate-cleaning.  On a day when heavy, sweet foods can overwhelm, tart ales can help scrub the tongue for more feasting.  (And boon of boons, it's apparently getting sold for $6 a bomber, which is wonderfully reasonable pricing for specialty beer.)

Go grab a bottle before Thursday--

Monday, November 24, 2014

Does Freshness Matter?

A quicky follow-up on my two-part series at All About Beer on staling.  Some folks pointed out that a few styles do age well and some improve.  I did acknowledge that in the second post, and it's definitely something worth noting. The problem is that this truth seems to have overwhelmed the far bigger truth that most beers don't improve with age.  Worse, the focus on the beers that do improve creates a subtle sense that age is good for beer, and this is definitely not true.   I'm pretty certain that many fans are not aware of how perishable beer is nor do they recognize that a "bad" beer is actually just stale.  (If you spend any time reading the ratings sites about your favorite beers, you can identify the many times this happens.)  It is definitely true that some beers age. But they are the extreme minority, and if that's the one fact you know about beer and time, you have learned the wrong fact.

Staleness is not identical to oxidation.  Long before you get those flavors of paper or wet cardboard, you get dullness; the intentional flavors placed in the beer leech out.  These are the flavors we love in most of the styles we drink: delicate, bready malt flavors, vivid, green hop aromas and flavors.  As a beer stales, those delicate notes are the first to go.  Whereas in those beers that do age well, new flavors emerge as old ones fade, in most beers the process is one of subtraction.  Arguing that this is good for beer is like arguing that bread tastes better once you leave it on the counter for a week.

Modern IPAs, which owe so much of their character to post-kettle hopping, are especially vulnerable.  (Since they are the most popular styles among beer geeks, this fact is muy important.)  But it happens in just about all the beers most people drink--light lagers, all of the light ales of Britain, most of the lagers in Germany and the Czech Republic, and even many Belgian ales.  More than 99% of the world's beers fall into this category.  (Because Belgian ales almost invariably go through bottle-conditioning, oxygen is scrubbed from the bottle and those beers age a lot better than most.  Belgian ales also have fewer hops--and almost never late-addition hops--and usually have higher alcohol, two other advantages.) 

I don't consider myself an expert on beer but I am a pretty reliable emissary from the brewing world.  I've talked to hundreds of brewers in several countries.  Except for the lambic brewers (who produce, collectively, something on the order of less than 50,000 barrels a year) I have not encountered a single one who argued that their beer should be drunk stale.  Rather, they talked extensively about the processes they use to keep their beer fresh.  I don't doubt that there are people out there who like stale beer, but it's akin to liking lightstruck beer.  (There's no arguing about taste!)  Except in the case of a few types of beer (either high ABV or wild, usually dark), the flavors are closest to what the brewer intended when the beer is freshest.  Don't believe me, believe the brewers.

If this all seems outlandish, you can actually run your own experiment.  Select an IPA you admire with a lot of perfumy scents and rich hop flavors, buy a bottle, and put it in a warm cupboard.  Wait three months, and then buy a fresh bottle and do a blind tasting of the two.  This experiment also works with English bitter, session lagers, pale ales, wheat beers, German ales, light Belgian ales--pretty much anything that's not strong or wild. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Stale Beer and Fresh Cider

For your Friday surfing pleasures.  Over at All About Beer, I have a two-parter about beer freshness: part 1 discusses why beer gets stale and what breweries do to ensure fresh beer and part two discusses why you still find stale beer on shelves and what you can do to avoid it.

I've also launched a website to accompany my forthcoming cider book.  Both are called Cider Made Simple, and while the book won't be out til next fall, the website--still a work in progress-- is here now.  (Fans of Cider Saturday may recognize some of the content.)

Ross-on-Wye Cider and Perry, Herefordshire, England

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dive Bar Challenge

There's a lot of talk--way, way too much, actually--about which city is the best beer city.  It's a pointless argument because no one can ever define the terms of debate.  Every city has at least one good brewery and some great beer.  Limit the variables, though, and then we're talkin.  When I travel around, I judge cities on a single dimension: how advanced is the culture of beer in the city?  There are a lot of ways to measure this (who's doing the drinking; what are they drinking; and where are they doing their drinking?), but one sure way is to see what they're drinking in places you don't expect to find good beer.  Like dive bars.

The notion is this.  Go into a dive bar, see what they're serving on tap.  We would expect that bars on the outer fringes of the city to have fewer good beers on tap, while in the heavily-breweried, hipster enclaves, there should be more.  I've been toying with the idea for awhile, but fate forced my hand when I found myself in the Clinton Street Pub, a dive in the pretty-cool 26th and Clinton nexus.  I decided in the moment that the time had come to issue the Dive Bar Challenge

Anyone can play.  I assume Portland will easily crush all comers, but I don't actually have the data yet.  Over the next few months I will tour the city's dive bars and report back to you, tavern by tavern.  Should you live in another city and like to participate, just follow my handy template.  If you fancy your city as "Beer City USA" or "The Napa Valley of Beer" or somesuch, let's put it to the test.  I'm pretty sure Portland is in a class all by itself, but I'd like to see for sure.

Okay, now onto the inaugural entry...

Clinton Street Pub
The Clinton Street isn't at ground zero for beer in Portland, but it's ground-zero adjacent.  Moreover, it is immediately next to the Clinton Street Theater, the kind of place that has hosted a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show every Saturday since 1978.  One door down in the other direction is a vinyl record store (trivia note: I held the lease on that property for a year in the late 1980s when I has a teenage hippie artiste--way before that neighborhood was cool).  In other words, it's definitely a neighborhood where you should expect to find a decent beer.

Nevertheless, Clinton Street is a true dive bar festooned with old beer paraphernalia like a classic Meister Brau sign and the distant-yet-lingering scent of cigarette smoke from years gone by.  Clinton Street specializes in pinball, and on the night we were there, had a rousing pub quiz going on.  It caters to all ages, but gets a lot more young customers than some dives.  Of eight taps, only one was given over to mass market lager (Hamm's, my fave).  Perhaps tellingly, the pub also had an obscure-to-Amerians Czech pilsner on tap (Staropramen).

The Stats*
Breweries in ZIP code: 8
Distance from the heart of downtown: 2.8 miles
Neighborhood hipness factor (1-5): 4, pretty damn hip
Seediness factor (1-5): 1, not seedy
Beers on tap: 8
Mass market beers: 1
Craft beers: 5 (three IPAs, a sticke alt, and a stout)
Imports:  1
Ciders: 1
Verdict: Super crafty

*I may tune these up over time, but this seems like a good start.  Breweries in ZIP code determined by the Oregon Brewers Guild listing.  I selected Pioneer Courthouse Square, "Portland's living room" as the heart of downtown. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Timid Man's Spontaneous Ferment?

Here's a little question for the internet. As you may recall, I am experimenting with the pleasures of natural fermentation.  Having secured three gallons of unpasteurized, fresh-pressed apple juice from Draper Girl's farm, I relocated it to a carboy and let it sit outside, where nature could run its course.  And run it did. (A little too quickly, I think--late October was unseasonably warm in Oregon, and I the cider was fermenting at between 55-60 degrees.  I'd been hoping for 50 or lower.)  I racked the cider on Sunday and it was already down to 1.006 and tasting great.  It's been unseasonably cold for the past week, and the cider is now slow-fermenting in the 30s, so it should finish out nicely.

Anyway, here's the question.  It was only as the last drops of cider were getting suctioned up that I recognized the potential gold I was sitting on: a rich layer of wild Oregon yeast and bacteria, smelling funky and alive.  I had not planned ahead, so I dumped it, but here's the thing: wouldn't that be a perfect slurry to pitch on a fresh batch of wort and get a cheater's version of wild ferment?  Is there any reason I should not go back down the Gorge, get another gallon of Draper Girl's juice and use it effectively as a wild-yeast starter? 

Hive mind has never led me astray, so render now your verdict: clever or boneheaded?

Monday, November 17, 2014

What We Can Learn From Mass Market Ciders

Imagine the beer market as a large celestial body with dense gravity.  At the core of that weighty market are drinkers who love love love beer and wouldn't think of drinking something that tasted only beer-esque.  They want the genuine article.  Further out toward the fringes, you have people who dabble in other alcoholic drinks and are amenable to beer-esque drinks. Like me, they may choose from time to time to have a glass of cider, wine, or dram of whisky instead of a beer. Finally, way out on the fringes are people constantly drifting over to cross-over beverages; beer that tastes like margaritas or clams or iced tea. 

The markets flow with the currents.  If the beer market is down, it starts trying to appeal to drinkers beyond the core.  That's what's happening now, as Americans, bored with mass market lagers, drink less and less beer each year.  It can have very positive effects, though; that's the reason people have turned to craft beer.  It can drive breweries to make bad decisions, too, as when they begin to put more and more emphasis on alco-pops, which further undermines the interest in their core products.  (The hard lemonades and shandies are crack to the big companies--easy, short term highs that fall off the cliff after a few years.)

Into this environment comes cider, a beast that is, from the brewer's perspective, neither fish nor fowl.  Cider's an ancient beverage that has national traditions and a distinctly artisanal vein--but it's also an easily-manufactured product that can appeal to those hugely fringey players.  Brewing companies can co-opt the market, but they have to ask themselves: which market?  Will they make an alco-pop, or try to appeal to the core cider drinker and slowly build a market that they might come to dominate in a decade or two?  Is cider good for beer, or will it ultimately become a stiff competitor?  These are not idle questions.  Cider has become a big-ass deal:
As Symphony IRI points out, if hard cider were in the craft beer category, it would rank as the third-largest style behind IPA and seasonal. It also notes that 84% of cider drinkers also drink beer, which means a cider that could appeal equally to both cider drinkers and beer lovers could be a very powerful product in the right hands.
Whether beer guys like it or not, cider has become part of their landscape, and they're going to have to contend with it one way or another. In my constant effort to read the tea leaves, I decided to do a round-up of recent major supermarket-cider releases to see which way the wind was blowing.  Keeping in mind that big drinks companies have millions to spend on R&D and market research, one would think that a theme would be emerging.  It's a testament to the weirdness of cider that they seem to all be headed in different directions.  Here's what I found.

General Word About Mass Market Ciders
Johnny Appleseed
For the past few decades, as ciders have constituted a tiny segment of the drinks market, supermarket cider has been keyed to the flavor notes of soda and aimed squarely at soda drinkers.  It is an engineered product composed of apple juice concentrate (and sometimes, though rarely, a portion of whole juice), sugar, water, malic acid, and natural flavors and aromas.  It generally has no more than 50% actual juice; the rest is flavorings and sugar-water.  It is characterized by sweetness and an artificial candy-like aroma, and usually flavored to make it taste like fresh supermarket apple juice.  (Interestingly, the intense, Jolly-Rancher smell and flavor comes from distillates of apples that are added back in--natural but artificial-tasting.)  Many times I find a chemical quality to these ciders that I assume is the unfortunate side-effect of using such a heavily industrial process. 

That's the baseline drink, one that has had decent success in Britain but been ignored in the US.  Now that cider is growing in popularity here, how are the big breweries responding?

Mass Market, Sure, But Real Cider
The gigantic borg that owns Strongbow (if you trace it back far enough, you come to Heineken) has decided to tempt the market with ciders that actually taste sort of ciderish.  This may not be entirely shocking, because Strongbow is a Bulmers brand, and Bulmers has long had massive contracts with farmers growing proper cider fruit throughout Herefordshire in England.  Strongbow recently introduced two products for the American market, Gold Apple and Honey and Apple. They have the classic sweet hallmarks of traditional mass market ciders, but also contain a fair amount of tannin, presumably from the vast acres in Hereford.  Honey and Apple is made for the soda fans (I think "honey" is a signifier for "sweet").  It has a strange, heavy scent of flowers and over-ripe fruit and has an unpleasant chemical flavor.  Still, the tannins are appreciable and remind you that actual cider is the benchmark here.

Gold Apple is actually kind of pleasant.  It is very pale and has that damnable Jolly Rancher aroma (fortunately, it's volatile, and will dissipate after five minutes or so).  But it has some nice body, a crisp effervescence, a touch of stone-fruit complexity, and is decently balanced thanks to the tannins.  If you're thinking of Ross-on-Wye or Oliver's Ciders, it's pretty dispiriting.  But if you're the kind of person who develops a taste for Gold Apple, you're probably also the kind of person who might find yourself drifting toward more real ciders down the road. 

Doubling Down on Soda Cider
Anheuser-Busch's lunge at the cider money comes in the form of Johnny Appleseed, a name clearly the result of at least two minutes of deep Googling over in the marketing department.  It is pretty much exactly what you would expect, only worse.  It's the most pure reproduction of liquid Jolly Rancher I've ever encountered, from the artificial aroma to the intense candy sweetness (limned by a tiny touch of balancing acidity, same as in the candy).  It's even has the same pale translucence of a candy.  But A-B didn't stop there--it threw in a dash of chemical harshness for good measure.  As I was trying to choke down two swallows for the review, I was prepared to call it the worst cider on the market.  But then I cracked a Smith & Forge and realized that MilerCoors wasn't about to accept second fiddle that easily.

The Malt Liquor Segment of the Cider Market?
I guess MillerCoors decided to carve out a different segment--and they have.  I'm just not sure it's a segment anyone wants to own.  If I didn't know better, I'd say that Smith & Forge was an evocation of the old "New England" ciders that were fortified with brown sugar. I do know better, and I think this is serious over-interpretation.  Smith and Forge is both "made strong" (6%, a tad higher than the others) but also made dark.  There's not a drop of acid or tannin in the cider; instead we are offered the unpleasant cooked aroma and flavor of prunes by way of balance.  The character of sweetness is not candy but molasses.  It is heavy and listless, with almost no fizz.  Appalling and undrinkable.  Choosing between this cider and Johnny Appleseed for the title of "worst" is a real challenge.

In sum: A-B and MillerCoors are peddling an alco-pop they plainly don't expect to survive five years on the market (and neither do I).  The companies made throwaway products for throwaway brands.  If cider ends up getting a decent share of the beer market, Bud and Coors don't plan on participating in it long term.  (And keep in mind they came to the opposite conclusion with beer.  Shock Top and Blue Moon are brands designed to stick around and grow.)  Heineken's calculation seems to be the reverse: cider will be a popular segment in the drinks market, and they want a piece of it along with Woodchuck, Angry Orchard, and the like.  Indeed, they really seem to be appropriating the Angry Orchard model whole cloth.  Establishing Strongbow as a line means they can adapt to the changes in the market.  Honey and Apple may be appealing to the same alco-pop market as Smith & Forge and Johnny Appleseed, but they can also release other products, including, presumably, a traditional cider if that's the way the market goes. 

Big beer is happy to cash in on the trend of cider, but for the most part, it doesn't yet seem to think that trend will turn into something substantial.  That could be a pricey assumption.  My guess is that once we've long forgotten about Smith & Forge and Johnny Appleseed, A-B and MillerCoors (or AB MC InBev or whatever) will be back with something new to try to crack the market.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Beers and Blunts

Last week, Alaska and Oregon joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing recreational marijuana.  What do these four states have in common?  Robust local brewing scenes.  Indeed, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado--along with California, another state likely to pass recreational marijuana--are the most active and influential brewing states in the country.  Alaska may not have the influence of the big four, but it is a top-ten state in terms of breweries per capita. (DC, which also legalized weed, ranks 13th.)

That's some intriguing correlation, but does it mean anything?  And more to the point from the brewing perspective--will marijuana affect beer sales?

It looks like the jury's still out--and probably will be for another year or two.  Researchers looked into how medical marijuana affected beer sales, but the results were mixed.  The results are made muddier because craft beer and mass market beer weren't disaggregated in the studies.  This points to a larger problem with data in general--we know that a small slice of beer drinkers consume a large majority of the beer, but we don't know what kind of beer they're drinking.  That pattern, known as the Pareto principle, also applies to marijuana.  Until we have a better sense of who heavy users are and what they consume, it's hard to make predictions about the future.

I'll be watching two competing factors.  The first is a cultural harmony or resonance between the two worlds.  Beer has long used the language of ganja to describe certain aromas and flavors in hops, and the mellow, West Coast culture applies to both equally well.  We've already seen Washington breweries have some fun with the new law.  On the other hand, good beer and marijuana habits are expensive.  Wages have been flat forever, and people have limited resources to spend on luxuries like booze and weed.  Will their budgets allow them to spend lavishly on both? 

Big public policy changes generally arrive with a bunch of unexpected outcomes. Legal marijuana hasn't been around long enough for us to fully assess them, but time will tell.  Anyone willing to lay down a prediction?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Two Oregon Beer Books

Two new books are arriving on bookshelves (just in time for the holidays) from local writers.  The first is a companion to Pete Dunlop's history of Portland beer: Bend Beer by Jon Abernathy (and a foreward by Gary Fish).  The second is the long-awaited guide to Oregon breweries called, well, Oregon Breweries by the peripatetic Brian Yaeger, just back from Amsterdam.  I have read neither book (Yaeger's isn't actually available yet), and yet having read Jon and Brian for years, I feel certain they are going to be worth owning.

By chance (or rather good planning), both will be at Belmont Station on December 6 at 5pm for a joint signing and beer-sampling event.  (And Brian's release party happens December 1, 7pm at Widmer.)

Look for the books and see if you can't spare the time to go congratulate them at the event.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The Soul of Beer

After yesterday's surprising news that Anheuser-Busch had acquired Bend's 10 Barrel Brewing, I wrote a post for All About Beer discussing some of the implications.  I was trying to make two main points: 1) there's no benefit for A-B in dumbing-down 10 Barrel's beer--they purchased the brewery because it makes such good beer, and 2) that this kind of thing is the way of things in mature markets, so we should expect more. 

If beer has soul, does that make Jean Van Roy God?
The reactions on Facebook to that post are worth a read--and were totally enlightening. According to a preponderance of the comments, my points weren't just wrong, they were heresy:  "Beer with no soul is not beer I care to drink" and "I say we see one more brewery who made a devil's bargain and lost the appeal of those who supported ... them."

This is absolutely fascinating to me because it illustrates the degree to which people relate to beer not as a widget produced by a business, but something of a higher calling.  Let's do a thought experiment, and keep in mind the notion of souls and devils as we do it.  A group of DIY-ers start a small business that makes an innovative, creative, and well-made product.  Because they're a start-up, sales are small and the principals are earning enough to keep going, but they're not getting rich.  A large company comes along and offers to buy the business and infuse it with money.  They will keep the principals on to continue making their product and selling it to a now much-larger audience.  Think about how people would respond if that business were:
  • A Portland shoe company acquired by Nike;
  • A Chicago comic-book publisher acquired by Marvel;
  • A San Francisco software company acquired by Apple.  
It's hard to see how the outrage would be the same, yet shoe fans and comic book fans and tech fans are all passionate.

I'm not trying to make any bigger point here.  Even though I no longer hold the view, I'm not entirely sure the idea of a beer with soul is wrong.  We all live in the bubble of our own experience.  I've spoken to brewers like Jim Bicklein at Anheuser-Busch, and his excitement and commitment to the beer he brews is no different than Jean Van Roy's (Cantillon) or Dan Carey's (New Glarus) or Matthias Trum's (Schlenkerla).  My bubble has been formed by interacting with all of them.  

But there are other bubbles out there, where people have different relationships to this thing we all love. One of the reasons we're in a golden age of beer is because people do feel this level of passion.  Those who were outraged by  A-B's purchase of 10 Barrel will help keep small, independent breweries in business, and I can certainly sign up for that.  If they had felt this passionate about beer 50 years ago in Belgium, dozens of old, quirky breweries wouldn't have gone out of business and would still be around making traditional, sometimes world-class beer.  Passion is good.

Actually, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure beer does have soul.  I just subscribe to a slightly different religion: I think all beer has soul.  Well, maybe not Natty Light.