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Monday, April 03, 2017

The Beervana Blog Has Moved

The Beervana Blog has moved. This site is no longer actively updated, though I'm not doing an automatic redirect for people who are landing in the archives. Please bookmark the new site and visit it for current content.


Update. Per the comment below, the RSS feed is:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

An Update on Cider in Oregon

On Monday, Cider Riot's Abram Goldman-Armstrong put 63 hectoliters--nearly 60 barrels--of cider in cans for the first time. Yesterday he had a media event at his pub and cidery to introduce Everyday Cider and it made me realize some things have changed since I last checked in on cider. Time for an update.

Lest we bury the lead, Abe dropped this remarkable stat that could be inferred, perhaps, by his large canning run: in the city of Portland, cider now accounts for 6% of the beer market. Not the craft market, but all beer sold in Portland. As a handy point of comparison, the craft segment of beer did not hit the 6% mark nationally until 2011. There are surely many towns where craft constitutes a smaller share than 6%.

This is surprising. It was as recently as five years ago that you couldn't reliably find a handle with cider in your local pub. Now that has inverted; it's rare to walk into one that doesn't have at least one cider, and they're in a majority of the restaurants I walk into, too. Still, the bottom fell out of cider a couple years back, as the shelves started to fill with very sweet, soda-like mass market offerings. The driver of the segment, Angry Orchard, was everywhere, and it took the brunt of that slowdown. I wasn't sure how thing were doing and frankly feared the worst. Quietly, however, local producers have continued to solidify a base of support in places like the Northwest and New England, and sales are clearly still strong.

Companies like Cider Riot are one of the reasons. Abe makes dry cider--completely dry in nearly every case. (Everyday Cider is the first exception--it has a touch of sucralose, but is still drier than most products out there.) Apple juice contains yeast-friends simple sugars, and left alone, all will get consumed. What's left behind is alcohol and whatever flavor and aromatics the apple contained (tannins and acids principle among them). Fermentation can produce esters which, along with some of the aromas, suggest sweetness, but these qualities are very far from the soda-like sweetness you find in supermarket ciders.

To palates new to cider, naive and somewhat jejune in aesthetics, sweetness is a bridge, a point of familiarity. But it's a blunt force, and as palates mature, people want ever more dry ciders where the flavors and aromas of the fruit are exposed. Abe, like most cider-makers, doesn't have access to the amount of good cider fruit he'd like, but he's made a specialty of producing great, palatable cider from simple culinary apples. I actually think this stage is still a bit young, and as the fields start to bear more interesting fruit, our collective palates will get even more sophisticated. (Cider Riot does have access to some cider apples, and releases bottles of these from time to time.)

EZ Orchards has led the way in this kind of cider, but others are catching up. 2 Towns just yesterday released Afton Fields, one of their rustic ciders made with good fruit. Baird and Dewar, Wildcraft, Art+Science, Rack and Cloth, Runcible, Slopeswell, and others are beginning to push the envelope for what quality and craft will look like in the next decade. I don't know if there are any official counts of cidery numbers in Oregon, but it's well past fifty at this point, and a number of them are shooting to make world-class products.

I asked Abe what he thought the high-water mark for cider might be, and he guessed it would top out at about 10% of the beer market. That seems about right to me. Cider has never been a volume product, and the more it inclines toward quality, the less volume will matter.

FX Matthieu. So many
hops it has a head!
When I first started touring cideries and visiting cider-makers for Cider Made Simple four years ago (on sale, for the moment, for eight bucks at Amazon!), I wondered which direction it would develop. The answer is starting to become evident. The "mass" end of the spectrum is drier, more consistent, and more interesting than it was in 2013--stuff like Cider Riot's Everyday Cider is leagues better than the first Angry Orchards. Ciders that seemed gimmicky then, like hopped ciders, have become credible products. Abe has one called FX Matthieu on tap that uses a pound per barrel of hops and is vivid and alive in a way the early versions weren't. Fruited and flavored ciders are getting more sophisticated, too--and drier!

But more importantly, cider is developing that critical high-end tier that has always buoyed successful product categories. We need to know what a thing is capable of before we can assess any given example. If cider's ceiling was Angry Orchard, that's one thing. If it's EZ Orchard's Cidre, that's another. Knowing how good cider can be, we expect even easy-drinking supermarket examples to satisfy.

That's happening. It may have not drawn the headlines it did a couple years ago, but cider is coming right along.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Brand New Blog!

At long last, and with surprisingly few nostalgic glances over the shoulder, I am leaving Blogspot forever. Yes, I've embraced parallax scrolling, big, grabby titles, and vivid, full-page photos. Please welcome the new and future site of this here rag:

You'll see there are a few upgrades. Principally:
  • Better site architecture.
  • Better, more elegant layout.
  • A more photo-forward design.
  • Better archives, with certain categories of timeless content highlighted (things like The Brewing Process, Beer Culture, The Business of Beer, and American and European Stories).
  • A decent URL. (Nope, is still not available; this one's pretty good.)
All of the content from this blog has been migrated over there, and most of the comments. Posts placed over there over the past month or so, as both sites have existed, arrived sans comments. Layout of the old posts is dodgy, except for those that appear in the archived sections, which I've fixed. Everything else should be basically the same, and longtime readers should find the whole thing fairly straightforward. I'm going to keep both of these sites active for the next week or so, and then this one will auto-direct folks to the new site. If you do have a desire to comment, I'd recommend doing it over there. Please update your bookmarks.

A special shout-out to Chris McClellan, who guided me through this project. He helped me find an aesthetic (gently) and did all the heavy technical lifting. Matter of fact, I managed to screw the site up just last night, and he went in and fixed it. Give him a holler if your site needs tuning up--he is good at this stuff.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

More on Mexico; A Lupulin Powder Blind Tasting

We have a new podcast for your listening pleasure. The main subject is Mexican craft beer, featuring an interview with Enrique Aceves-Vincent Ramirez of  Guadalajara’s Loba Brewing. We talk about the Mexican market, what it's like getting started there, and where things may be headed. A great primer for those of you interested in our southern neighbor.

Also on that podcast, a follow-up on my experiment with lupulin powder. (Manufacturer description: "the concentrated lupulin of whole-leaf hops containing resins and aromatic oils.") Recall that I received a package of a new product from YCH Hops--now apparently available for purchase--and used them in a batch of homebrew. Patrick and I had just brewed a pale ale when the package of Simcoe lupulin powder arrived, so I dry-hopped half the batch with that product, and half the batch with standard Simcoes.

I poured the two beers and had Patrick--who hadn't had a chance to taste them yet--taste them blind. That segment of the podcast has at least two surprises. I will of course leave it to you to listen and find out what they were. (I'm trying to get better at teasing this stuff!) It's actually a follow up to a different podcast, in which we visited Imperial Yeast. They gave us their "Dry Hop" blend to try, and it produced the sludgy look of a New England IPA all the geeks are excited about. We reflect a bit on that, too.

Give it a listen (it's available on iTunes and Google Play as well):

Monday, March 27, 2017

Vignette #14: Carlo Grootaert (De Struise Brouwers)

Brewer vignettes feature quotes from brewers I picked up in my travels around the world.

On the origins of Pannepot, the brewery's flagship.
“I heard that in my family, there were homebrewers at the time—100 years ago. The women were the brewers because the men were at sea to catch herrings. The women made beer in the wintertime on the stove.”

Here Grootaert interjected with a story about the name. It refers in part to the village of De Panne and the boats the fishermen there use, a flat-bottomed vessel able to land on sandy beaches. That is not, however, the boat you see on the label. That is the second half of the homage, which he went on to describe:
“The label is actually my great-granddad’s boat, the B-50. He died in 1918. He went to France in WWI. The war was finished November 11, 1918. And he came in his boat back to Belgium—but he came in a storm and on the 18th of November he fell overboard and drowned. So he didn’t make it. It’s a sad story.”
He continued on with the story behind Pannepot, Struise's thick, jammy beer.
“Anyway, the women made beer on the stove at the time. It was so strong and sweet and very alcoholic so they kept in a little cask in the cellar. If they wanted some beer, they went down with the jug and tapped off some beer—it was flat. But they didn’t like cold beer. So they had to heat it up: they put the metal poker in the fire and it was glowing red, and when they put it in the thick beer (it didn’t have a name, it was called “thick beer”) with lots of sugars in it and the sugars instantly caramelized. It gave it a roasted, caramelized flavor.”

Friday, March 24, 2017

La Cerveza Artesanal de México, Part 1

My journey into cervezas artesanales--Mexican craft beer--began at Societe Brewing in San Diego. I'd just flown in from Portland, and Hector Ferreira thought it would be a shame to miss one of San Diego's bounty when so many were at hand. This turned out to be a better metaphor than I imagined; it's impossible to imagine the breweries of Baja California emerging in the numbers or form they have without this brewing mecca right on their border. Our next stop was just south in Tijuana ("TJ" to locals) at Norte Brewing--one of the country's best--which is owned by Carlos Macklis, who splits his time between the two cities. Later on I'd meet Ivan Maldonado, a brewer at Silenus, another Tijuana brewery; he also brewed across the border at Fall Brewing. This kind of cultural and human resource exchange is typical.

If you can't call to mind a Mexican craft brewery, don't feel too bad. It's a surprisingly recent phenomenon, dating back a little more than a decade. The first significant craft brewery was Minerva, from Jalisco, launched in 2003. That somewhat overstates things, however. One of the people most able to see the scope of the market is Tero Moliis, who founded an ambitious ratings app called Maltapp. "Two years ago--well, in 2014, let's say, there were fifty or as many as 75 breweries," he told me. "Today there are over 600." Over the past year, they've been opening at a rate of more than one a day.

Tijuana and San Diego have shared a boozy relationship dating back nearly a century. They are in many respects twin cities divided by an international border, and residents wash back and forth each day like the rising and falling tide (albeit one slowed considerably by border guards on the northbound side). You might therefore reasonably ask why craft brewing started so late in Baja. The reason--as is so often the case--is because of legal barriers. Mexico is dominated by a duopoly of giants--Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma and Grupo Modelo--who until 2013 had absolute control over the market. They held powerful exclusivity contracts with retailers that kept small breweries out, which made starting a brewery dicey in the extreme.

Then in 2013 that all changed:
The two companies do so by holding exclusivity agreements with a large number of restaurants and bars throughout Mexico, limiting the access of micro - brewed and other beers not distributed by the two companies. On July 11th, 2013, the CFC announced a decision that these two companies would have to limit their exclusivity contracts to 25 percent of their points of sale in small grocery stores, restaurants, and bars, effective immediately. This number is to reduce to 20 percent by 2018.
Breweries in Mexico now sell directly to the retailer. It's an arrangement that seems to work out for them; I found no brewers who thought access to market was a problem. (I found many who were mystified by our three-tier system.) Tax law is another fight they have yet to wage--the structure means that craft breweries end up paying twice as much to the government, with concomitant price hikes to the customer. This limits their reach to upper-end bars and restaurants, but for an industry that is still less than 1% of the market, is not yet hobbling growth. (Little breweries have a trade organization similar to the Brewers Association fighting for these changes.)

Back to Norte, which is on the fifth floor of what is mostly a parking lot, but inside it looks much like anything you’d find in Portland--or San Diego. Big chalkboard over the bar, a lineup of beers that includes three hoppy ales, a small kit Macklis designed himself behind glass to the side of the bar, and a sky view of downtown. Not only do brewers in Baja have access to ingredients and equipment just across the border, but they can learn from and collaborate with San Diegans. Right on cue, I bumped into Keith Shaw, lead brewer at Modern Times, who was down for a pint. After tacos, we made another pit stop at Plaza Fiesta, the "colectivo" I mentioned, and had a couple pints in pubs that took their style cues straight from north of the border. In Baja, as one brewery told me, "it all pours down" from San Diego.

That is not true everywhere. Despite the way Americans see their neighbor to the north, Mexico is not all just border cities. The further into the country you go, the less US craft brewing has a hold. I was in the country to speak at the Ensenada Beer Fest (full disclosure: the fest paid for my travel), which poured beer from breweries from all over Mexico. IPAs are popular in Baja, but the pull of hops grows weaker with every mile you move from San Diego. The two other central hubs of beer are Guadalajara (1400 miles south) and Mexico City (1800 miles). Walking around the beer fest, I saw a lot of stouts, amber, and pale ales from breweries in those parts, but few trendy hoppy styles Americans make. (The phrase "New England IPA" was never mentioned in the five days I was there.)

I’ve harped endlessly about the way beer culture is formed—the organic communication between the brewer and drinker that somehow produces a distinctive palate and way of brewing region to region. The Mexican market is still too young to know what they want, which means the brewers are experimenting pretty broadly. Nevertheless, that formative period the United States went through that lasted from the earliest breweries until the first shakeout took two decades. Here, they've compressed birth and adolescence into just a few.

Surprisingly—or perhaps not—dark ales do seem to have emerged as the early favorite among drinkers. I’ve heard that from nearly every brewer I’ve spoken to. It’s surprising because Mexico doesn’t have the climate I associate with these heavier ales. But as Enrique Aceves-Vincent Ramirez, the brewer at Guadalajara’s Loba Brewing pointed out, for drinkers excited by craft beer, it seems like the style as far from Corona as you can go. (That was exactly what happened in the US, too.) 

The learning curve for Mexican breweries is far, far shorter than it was for Americans. Most brewers haven’t been professionally trained, but there’s so much more information and communication out there now that they’re learning very fast. English-style ales seem to be the dominant category (again, much like the US in the 1980s), but brewers are already moving on. It seems to have occurred almost simultaneously around the country that fruit and culinary ingredients, particularly native Mexican ones, offer a deep vein to mine. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve seen fruit, spices, and in one case, squid ink, all deployed.

Albur's brown ale was a highlight at the fest.

I think the big transition will happen when brewers start to get access to locally-grown barley and hops, which they're keen to do. Significant barley crops have been grown in Mexico for centuries--and varieties bred for the climate have been introduced periodically since the 1960s. They grow six-row strains, and Hector Ferreira, who brews at Cerveceria 159, told me they're not particularly great barleys, so there's still work to do, but that's promising.

Hops are obviously a bigger challenge. At 32 degrees, Tijuana is south of the ideal hop-growing zone--and places like Mexico City, at 19 degrees, are far too far south. But a number of the brewers I spoke to are keenly interested in Neomexicanus hops, which flourish at southerly latitudes.

Beyond this, brewers are already embracing localness in their beers. Paco Talamante, at Canneria Cerveceria in Ensenada, made a wonderful saison with the hard, salty water that bubbles up from the rocky soil. Like Astoria, Oregon, Ensenada used to be a huge canning port, and like Astoria, the canneries all closed. Like Fort George, Talamante wanted to bring canning back to his home town, and he wants his beer to reflect the place as well. It's a sentiment I heard many times during my visit. In this way, Mexicans are way ahead of Americans, who didn't start talking like this for decades after craft beer got started.

There's more to say, but his post is running long so I'll leave it here for now. We'll pick up in future posts with some of the best breweries I found and a few thoughts on the mood and excitement of the Mexican beer scene (which was a balm to this beer fan increasingly tired of the cynicism and anxiety of ours). Until then--

The Ensenada Beer Fest

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Secrets of Master Brewers

A new title has elbowed its way onto the increasingly-crowded beer section at your local bookseller: The Secrets of Master Brewers, my latest book. It is, foremost, a guide to homebrewing. But it's not just a brewing manual. The idea behind the book was to introduce the idea of national tradition, this notion that people who inhabit a region begin to think about beer in a similar way and develop techniques that accentuate their preferences in beer.

A satisfied customer!
I've organized the book around these national traditions, and each section begins with an introduction describing those elements that define it. The chapters focus not on styles so much as archetypes. Bavarians think about and make lagers very similarly whether they're brewing a bock or helles but differently than the pale lagers made in neighboring Bohemia. Based on my travels and writing, I mapped out the extant national traditions as I know them and the archetypal styles within each. Whether you want to brew one of the beers in the book or just understand them at a deeper level, this book has information you won't find elsewhere.

The Techniques
The Secrets of Master Brewers describes the way classic, archetypal beers are made at the breweries that made them famous. You definitely get the details of mash rests, boil lengths, and fermentation processes, but you also get to hear how brewers think about beer, what they emphasize in their own brewing, their ingredient selection, and specific techniques to bring out the flavors they prize. There's an anthropologic bent throughout. For example:
  • John Keeling (Fuller's) explains parti-gyle brewing, and
  • Ian Cameron (Traquair) emphasizes the importance of open fermentation.
  • Hans-Peter Drexler (Schneider and Sohn) gives the lowdown on ferulic acid rests, and
  • Matthias Trum (Bahnhof) provides techniques to conduct lactic fermentations.
  • Hedwig Neven (Duvel) describes how to achieve balance in yeast-driven ales, and 
  • Alexis Briol (St. Feuillien) offers a tutorial on subtle spice infusions in biere de Noel.
  • Of course, I didn't neglect the US, and Ben Edmunds (Breakside) gives a seminar on modern techniques for making hoppy ales, while
  • Brian Mandeville (Fullsteam) advises readers how to use corn in their brewing.
Throughout the course of the book, you'll learn techniques like decoction mashing, kettle souring, making invert sugar, cask-conditioning, adding speise, how to use different spices (which may be bark, seeds, blossoms, leaves, herbs or roots), wild fruit inoculations of wort, growing your own hops, and more.

click to enlarge

I recognize not everyone is going to want to buy this book. I hope everyone does pick it up and page through it to see what jumps out. Beer-making is not just a chemical process. It has evolved over the centuries and includes a whole range of local philosophies, approaches, and techniques. If you want to understand how brewers think about the beers they invented, this is your best resource. And, if you want to brew those beers yourself, that's cool, too. Amazon is currently offering a pretty good price, so act now! :-)

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Baja "Colectivo"

Yesterday afternoon, those of us who were still around following the Ensenada Beer Fest made a couple stops. Hey, what else would you expect beer people to do? The second—and for me, final—stop was at Baja Brews, a “colectivo” where several breweries are on hand pouring their beers. Imagine a food court, but with breweries. Someone had the brilliant idea of repurposing an old warehouse into Baja Brews, which spills out on the back to a cliff-side view of the Pacific. Live music plays while you sample beers from one of eight (I think) different breweries. It’s a pretty magical place to get a pint of beer.

This is a thing in Baja, and a really clever idea. We visited a version of this in Tijuana at the Plaza Fiesta, an even more elaborate space of interconnected pubs that you access through ever-sprawling walkways and staircases. That one is so cool largely because of the location, which would be hard to replicate. But the basic idea is very simple and, once I saw it, obvious.

Take Ensenada. The town of around 500,000 got their first brewery less than a decade ago; now they have around twenty. Many are small outfits that would almost certainly struggle to find outlets to serve their beer. Drinkers, confronted with a metastasizing brewery scene, have a hard time tracking down the new breweries. Voila—an eight-in-one tasting room.

The colectivo idea probably depends on a collaborative beer scene, and that’s definitely the case in Baja (and seemingly the entire country). Brewers are as friendly with each other as anyplace I’ve seen, and you can sometimes see them gathered in packs. They are supportive and seem to share ideas liberally. Whether this is because things are so new and the market is healthy and growing, I can’t guess. The colectivo model might last only until the first market contraction. (I also can’t say what happens for those breweries in the colectivo that don’t sell well; seems like a ripe opportunity for resentment.) But at least from a consumer’s perspective, it’s a wonderful idea.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

En Mexico

I send my dispatch today from under the sunny(ish) skies of Ensenada, Mexico. There's an annual craft beer festival down here that has grown to become one of the more important dates on the annual calendar. Over a hundred breweries will be pouring beer on Saturday and as a lead-up there is a series of talks and lectures from I think largely academic types (I met a researcher last night). I got one of the golden tickets to speak, along with the very famous but elusive John Palmer, whose guide to homebrewing remains stubbornly atop the best seller lists in beer, despite my efforts.

The phrase "craft beer" is probably useful here--at least for awhile. The two large beer conglomerates have even more control over the Mexican market than the bigs ever had in the US, and small breweries are fighting an uphill battle. They seem to have adopted the US model of brewing (down to styles), and at the moment seem like a discrete category separate from the Coronas and Tecates and Pacificos.

Things are still quite new, though, and from what I can gather they're getting organized to make the laws more favorable. I jumped at the chance to come because I am remarkably ignorant our our neighbor's beer. I'll be here through Sunday, attempting to absorb as much as I can about the breweries, beer culture, beer styles (but yes, IPAs do seem to be prominent), and business in Mexico. I'll try to bird-dog the trends and see if I can find any nascent Mexican expressions that might be steering the development of distinctive, native beer styles. And I'll definitely try to sit down with at least one Mexican brewer for the podcast.

Updates as I have time, and a full report in due course.

Carlos Macklis (R) of Norte Brewing in Tijuana,
with his head brewer.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

New Book + Book Launch

In one week's time, my latest book will officially be published: The Secrets of Master Brewers from Storey Publishers. Next Thursday, March 23rd, the book launches at a very cool event in Hood River, where I've sagely arranged to have Josh Pfriem, Matt Swihart (Double Mountain), and Jason Kahler (Solera) join me in a panel discussion.

The Book
The idea was an outgrowth of my research for The Beer Bible; in traveling around to Britain, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere, I became far more attuned to the national brewing traditions in those countries. I would periodically post blogs or discuss my travels, and the people who were most interested were invariably homebrewers. People were fascinated about, say, the way in which nearly every Belgian ale spends time in secondary fermentation in a warm room, or how open fermenters are pivotal in developing flavors distinctive in weissbier, and were keen to learn more. So a flicker of an idea sparked in the back of my brain: what if those same brewers I spoke to offered basic advice on their techniques for the homebrewer?

Thus was born The Secrets of Master Brewers, which is part homebrew how-to, and part brewing anthropology. The book is organized to reveal the proclivity of brewers in different countries. I start with an introduction of the national style and what typifies it, and then offer deep dives into classic types of beer, with recipes and formulations offered by brewers who made them famous. The book takes us on a trip to Kelheim, Germany and Tourpes, Belgium and London, England where we learn from masters of weissbier, saison, cask ale--and 23 other classic beer archetypes. The book was mainly designed for homebrewers, but should be interesting and entertaining for anyone with a deep interest in process and technique.
 “One of the truly essential books on modern brewing, period. No other book, aimed at professionals or homebrewers, could improve your brewing as much as this one will.”
Ben Edmunds, Breakside Brewery

The Event
Thursday, March 23rd, 7pm
Columbia Center for the Arts
215 Cascade Ave, Hood River
$10, includes beer from pFriem, Double Mountain, and Solera

I'll host a panel discussion with three of my favorite brewers, all of whom are featured in the book. This will be the live-action, multi-sensory version of the book, with the brewers on hand to discuss their process and philosophies. One of the amazing advantages in writing about beer is that I get to walk around breweries with the world's best brewers and pepper them with questions. I get to hear how they think about beer, what curious techniques they use, and how their personalities get expressed through their beer. This is a rare opportunity for me to share that experience with you.

Matt Swihart has always been a hops whisperer, and he was one of the first to figure out how to properly brew fresh hop beer. Jason Kahler, who learned a great deal about brewing as a homebrewer, uses fruit from the Hood River orchards to inoculate his wort, a technique he explains in the book. (You also get a sense of the temperament it takes to work with wild, native yeasts when you talk to the very laid-back Kahler.) Finally, Josh Pfriem will talk about how he adapted a basically irreproducable style in the US--tart Flemish ales. We'll discuss the heritage and tradition of these beers, the agriculture and terroir, and of course, see how this all expresses itself in the flavors of beer.

It's a bit of a drive for Portlanders, but the start time should allow for an after-work jaunt down the Gorge if you wish to join us. With those three brewers, I guarantee a fascinating and toothsome evening. Of course, I'll be on hand to sign books afterward. Come join us, or buy the book if you can't make it.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Once Again, Whose Culture?

Follow-up posts are like newspaper corrections: only a tiny percent of the people who saw the original error will ever notice the correction. Nevertheless, the conversation following that post along with Stan Hieronymus' comments convince me there's another juicy bite to be had from this apple.

I erred in using Zoiglhaus as the point of reference for a more general point I wanted to make. The Zoigl tradition is unusual in that it is a vestige of traditional culture rather than a style. I don't actually have a strong opinion about whether an American brewery should use the name--but am pretty amenable to the argument that because of its special status, care should be taken.

My bigger point was really to argue that Europeans consider American culture on its own terms. If we're using an example, let's return to the other one I did mention in that post--when people born in the United States refer to themselves as "Irish" (or "Swedish" or "German" etc). This surely sounds odd to the ear of someone actually from Ireland or Sweden or Germany, and Irishman John Duffy comments:
Like with my Irish-American interlocutor above, there doesn't seem to be any ability or willingness to hear themselves from the other person's point of view; that empathy is a risk to be avoided. It's like the correct perspective for an American to have is an American perspective and that's all that matters. You could understand it if we didn't live in a world which is much smaller than it was 25 years ago, where we have instant real-time access to each other's cultures and viewpoints. The viewpoint you're defending just seems a bit manifest-destinyish to me. It's not that it's offensive, or that anyone is offended, but it does look like poor manners.
I will defend to the death John's right for this to seem like poor manners. But I do think it's a an incomplete view of what's actually happening. It's the Irish view. But an American does not have, like John, a sole national identity. To demand that we use this lens of national birth is itself a cultural position, one that fails to recognize the actual cultural context of 300 million people living in a place to which their ancestors all immigrated from somewhere else.

When an American says "I'm Irish," it has nothing to do with Ireland. It's an American telling you something about his own identity. That's how we think. Should we think otherwise? That's not really a question that any culture can adequately respond to. Should the Spanish eat dinner earlier? Should Indians have a shorter sense of time? Should Canadians hunt less?

This plays itself out in manifold ways in the United States. Almost nothing that is a part of American culture--the language, religions, art, music, government, cuisine--came from this place. Asking us to mind our manners is a way of asking us to defer to the European definition of identity. And my big point here is just to point that out. It is a European mental model. When we "appropriate" things, very often it is an expression of our identity, not a slight to other cultures. Our parents or grandparents came from a place and we claim that piece of heritage as our own. When Europeans ask us not to use fixtures of "their" culture, I think they forget that it's part of ours, too.

Sometimes that means we do awkward things that offend people and sometimes--many times--we engage in cultural theft (though this is hardly the sole province of Americans). No apologies for any of that. But if we only use the culture of the offended group to adjudicate what we do, we leave out the important element of America's own cultural context, of our ancestors, of our strange, pieced-together shared history. This is a view not often stated nor much understood in Europe, and so as an American I wanted to make it explicit.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lessons From Speakeasy's Closure

Update: I finally had a chance to correct that egregious typo in the title. So many apologies.

Yesterday afternoon, San Francisco's Speakeasy Brewery shuttered their doors. A tweet came out followed by this announcement:
"Speakeasy Ales & Lagers has been forced to immediately cease brewing, packaging, and tap room operations at their San Francisco brewery for an indefinite period of time. Difficulty securing capital investment and outstanding debt obligations led to this difficult and painful decision. The company’s primary creditor will determine the future of the brewery and brand, and no decision or further information is available at this time."

"According to Speakeasy founder and CEO, Forest Gray, 'The brewery has worked with multiple investment banking groups and have had numerous meetings. One fact has become central to the process, and that is the company is financially insolvent and requires new capital to move forward. Whether that will happen is unclear, but I do hope the brewery and brand will persist.'"
It was an unexpected announcement and I haven't seen any description of the particulars, but I think we can infer quite a bit from this:
In 2015, the company announced an ambitious $7.5 million expansion project, financed by Union Bank, that was slated to increase its production capacity from 15,000 barrels to 90,000 barrels. At the time, the company’s products were sold in 14 states and Gray had projected sales of 50,000 barrels.
Speakeasy was a big brewery. In 2015, it was the 86th largest craft brewer--or among the largest 1%. Small breweries close all the time--and have, even during that growth boom in the past few years.  Not every business plan is well-conceived, not every brewery capable of making good beer. But Speakeasy has been around 20 years and understands the business of making and selling beer. 

Some people link this, misleadingly, to 1,200-barrel Valiant Brewing, which also closed last week. But Valiant was founded in 2013, and was a typical closure. Over the past five years, a brewery closes every week in the US on average. Most were small and meh, so we rightly pay no attention. 

Without details, we're left speculating, but Speakeasy fits a pattern we saw--well, just about the time it opened in the late 1990s. That was during the first craft beer "shakeout," which wasn't a shakeout at all, but a flattening of growth that stranded breweries that had overleveraged themselves based on expected steep growth. Any time a brewery expands, whether that's from a nano scale to a seven-barrel system, or the leap that Speakeasy took, there's risk. It's hard to lose when the market is growing at 15%; breweries can exploit whatever level of market they plan on entering. But carrying millions in debt when sales flatten out can end a brewery. 

In the late 1990s, that's exactly what happened. Breweries made the jump to large facilities capable of producing a quarter million barrels just at the moment they flat-lined at sixty thousand. This led ultimately to high-profile failures or buyouts. Here in Oregon, Full Sail, BridgePort, and Portland Brewing all spent the late 90s and early aughts trying to survive expansions. 
Speakeasy will certainly not be the last casualty of the current tightening. Their timing was unfortunate, but far from unique--many breweries of all sizes are looking uneasily at their sales figures and wondering what the future holds. Craft beer plateaued in the late 1990s and didn't start growing again until the mid-aughts. When it did, the industry looked a lot different. If this is a second plateau, it may last for years. If so, Speakeasy is just the first of many failures to come.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Louis the 14th Tavern, 1985, The Widmer Brothers' First Account

Over the course of the coming year, I hope to post these kinds of things from time to time. Below is a short audio clip of Kurt and Rob describing their first sale. It captures the rawness of experience, both of young brewers and also bars used to dealing with familiar distributors, but also of a different time in Portland. I spent a bit of time trying to find any photo--or even mention--of the Louis the XIV (14th) bar, which was located on Sandy, but all record of it seems to be lost. We have to use our imaginations--and the tale below is suggestive.

Anyway, this is a wonderful story, well-told. It's just two minutes, so give it a listen.

Full disclosure: I am working on a biography of Rob and Kurt paid for by the brewery.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Whose Culture?

For the most part, modern beer is a European expression. The styles available in nearly every commercial setting issue from a handful of countries in a plot of land that would fit inside California. So any time an American or New Zealand or Japanese company makes a beer, they are (pick one) borrowing from, referring to, or ripping off the culture of Britain, Belgium, Germany, or the Czech Republic. Makers of the most popular beer style in the world originally tried to protect the name of their creation, but courts denied their claim. Nevertheless in a very real sense, every time someone makes a pilsner, they are disrespecting the people of Plzeň and the brewery that made it famous. Yet howls of outrage by defenders of cultural protection do not follow.

All of which I offer as preamble to Ron Pattinson's response to a tweet of mine this morning announcing that Zoiglhaus was bottling their beer:

There followed a spirited debate about whether the people behind this brewery were knowingly offending, inadvertently offending, or somehow vaguely violating some kind of norms that were never exactly identified. (The threads splintered, so I can't provide a single link to them all.)

I've already done my best to clarify where I think it makes sense to be careful about appropriating the names of beer styles (see here and here). Understanding the history of beer, beer styles, and national tradition are generally wise for anyone making beer.

But I'd like to turn the tables on the Europeans and ask them to be a bit more sensitive to our culture.

The United States is almost entirely an immigrant nation (Native Americans now constitute less than a percent of the population). The ancestors of the people who live here now came from other places, and the culture of the country continues to evolve as new groups arrive. I'll skip past the part about how the Irish were once so alien they were not considered "white," but it serves to show that what we are is what we have absorbed. We are a country composed of little bits of culture pieced together by people who bailed on their former countries, adding their cuisines and couture and music and beverages to what it means to be "American."

What we have now is a hodgepodge of different influences (some would call it a pastiche), and over time it mutates. Europeans often see this mutation as a debasement of their culture rather than the expression of our own culture. I am reminded of a story John told me about encountering an American who called himself "Irish." A few of his ancestors had come here generations ago, of course--he was no more Irish than I am. This irritated (mystified?) John, who felt that it disrespected what it means to actually be Irish. But here's the thing: that person wasn't talking about Ireland; he was talking about his own identity as an American. This is what happens when a giant population leaves one place and goes to another--the descendants of the immigrants become something different than their grandparents were. This is not the fault of the descendant.

So when we refer to things European, it is refracted through the lens of our own culture. Zoiglhaus's Alan Taylor is a massive Germanophile. He studied German in college and grad school and moved to Berlin to study a medieval variant of the language. He studied brewing at VLB in Berlin and worked as a brewer in several breweries around Berlin and in Bavaria. He married a German and he and his wife only speak to their children in German at home. He is insufferable about German pronunciation. And so, when he was looking to start his own brewery, it was of course going to be hugely influenced by Germany. He chose the Zoigl tradition because he admired it and felt importing it would enhance Portland's beer culture. He wanted to elevate the coolest thing in German beer culture and so chose the Zoigl tradition as his inspiration.

Alan is on the right. More here.
This kind of thing happens all the time. We are mutts who have to draw on the fractured lineages that go back to Europe or live as orphans with no history at all. I actually don't care if Europeans are gravely offended by these things we do, nor even if they accuse Zoiglhaus--as a couple people did--of behaving offensively. People get offended by a lot of stuff and there's not a lot you can do about that. What I do care about is that Europeans acknowledge that in many cases Americans are neither ignorant or intending to offend--they're just behaving as all people do, by expressing their own culture. It's just that our culture picks up and includes the stuff that happened after our shared ancestors decided to move from there to here. We are allowed to both have our own American culture and to have a culture that draws on a shared history without exactly reproducing the culture as it exists elsewhere.

Americans have plenty to apologize and feel guilty for. Plen-ty. Our own culture is not one of those things.

Update. One other wrinkle in this whole business occurred to me as I scanned the comments this morning. American culture is not just made up of the fragments of culture brought here in the steerage compartments of ships--it is made up of fragments of the culture carried by the people who in large or small ways were rejecting their countries of birth. It is no surprise that the anti-monarchists who bailed out of England in the 17th and 18th century begat a country full of anti-monarchists. Nor is it particularly surprising that Europeans who remained would be stauncher protectors of their own culture. We are a country settled and renewed by expats, and so it's not surprising that we place less value on the fixtures of culture in the places our ancestors quit. I think this is one of those places of friction--our irreverence is seen as more a behavior than a piece of our culture by those outside it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Vignette #13: Ken Grossman

Brewer vignettes feature quotes from brewers I picked up in my travels around the world.

“I was an avid homebrewer, starting back in 1969, and brewed through the seventies and ran a homebrewing supply store that I founded in 1976. I had brewed a range of pale ales and when we were thinking about starting the brewery I wanted to do something that was not British, that was American, and wanted to feature American ingredients wherever possible and so chose the Cascade hop as about the only signature American aroma hop at the time. I blended a little bit of brewing technology and history from England with my homebrewing and some US ingredients and came up with pale ale. It was my familiarity with that hop and the distinctive nature of the aroma—the piney citrus—that I appreciated and enjoyed and wanted to incorporate into our pale ale.”

The following answer was in response to a question I had about the durability of Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale.

“Well, I’ll take some credit as—I wouldn’t say we invented it, but we certainly focused in on and honed a style of pale ale that had a forward hop profile, which the English styles don’t so much have, and a more robust character, higher bitterness units, and higher alcohol than most of the British pale ales. So I think it’s certainly a variation on a theme—as all beers are, in reality. I mean, you’re brewing with a handful of basic brewing ingredients. We bottle conditioned. We did some fairly unique things for American breweries—not that they weren’t being done a few places in the world and by homebrewers—we also put that out there as one of our signatures. ”

I particularly love that second quote for its modesty. This is a man to whom I credit largely with inventing the American tradition. With Pale and later Celebration, Grossman fixed the DNA of the American palate. I gave him a chance to take a victory lap and celebrate this singular accomplishment, but he downplayed it the whole way.


Monday, March 06, 2017

Why We Will Never Abandon Our IPAs

Yesterday afternoon, I tansferred two half-batches of beer to into kegs. They contained a pale ale--and an experiment. One had been infused with two ounces of Simcoe hops (pellets), one two ounces of Yakima Chief's soon-to-be-released hop product called lupulin powder from Simcoe hops (backgrounder here). The notion is simple (though it took Stan Hieronymus to suggest it): how do they differ? 

I'll be looking for a few things. Does the quality of aroma differ? Bitterness (remember the humulinones!)? Intensity? Durability of these qualities? Diagnostically, the experiment should offer some clues about how to use lupulin powder going forward. I will of course report back. 

That's not really the point of this post, though. The remarkable thing about both batches (but especially the lupulin powder), was the way the aromas exploded out of the carboys. Simcoes are famous for being grapefruity-to-piney, but the aroma--especially with the lupulin powder--was intensely fruity. Not like any existing fruit, but a heretofore undiscovered, I imagine fleshy, tropical fruit that might, to the most careful of sniffers, suggest hop. But only just. It was mesmerizing; I can't imagine any human being who wouldn't be instinctively drawn to it. Even from the inch-wide aperture at the top of the carboy, it was like incense pouring out. 

This is why we like IPAs. This is why IPAs have evolved as they have. One whiff of hops like the scent coming from my carboy would make a believer out of even the most hardened Germanophile. Brewers across the country have sampled that aroma and become magnetized (because how could you not?), and have then spent their careers trying to infuse the beer we drink with something as potent. I'm not an IPA fanatic, and yet about half the beers I brew are in that general tradition and end up with hops in the carboy so I can experience that wafting succulence.

This thrills me in part because the experience is something new under the sun. Beer dates back at least 11,000 years, but hops only go back a thousand. Dry-hopping is not new, but the strains capable of producing these aromas are. East Kent Golding is a spectacular hop, an ancient hop, a hop long used in dry-hopping, but it doesn't have the oomph of a Simcoe (or Citra or Mosaic, etc). American brewers had the dawning recognition of the potential of their native hops, and followed them to their natural conclusion. This is the same process that Bavarians followed, using local barley, hops, and their unique fermentation. And the British, with their fruity-earthy hops and floor malts, and on and on. 

As I scented those Simcoes, I was encountering something Josef Groll, Arthur Guinness, and Anton Dreher never experienced. That scent is in some ways undiscovered--or just-discovered. It is wholly modern and wholly American. It is irresistible--even for people like me who revere gueuzes and bitters and světlý ležáks.  And it's why we Americans are as likely to walk away from our IPAs as Munichers are from their helleses.

Friday, March 03, 2017

The Riddle of Bitterness

Scientists long ago figured out the mechanism through which hops turn beer bitter: the alpha acids in the lupulin glands become isomerized over the boil--a process that allows the bittering compounds to become soluble. There's a mathematical curve that demonstrates the process, and the amount of bitterness is a direct function of alpha acids plus boiling time. This all beer geeks know.

But now we come to the riddle. American brewers have developed a new way of brewing that exposes very few hops to the long boiling process. Most of the hops are added at the very end of the boil, are used after the heat is turned off so they steep like tea leaves in the wort, or are added to cold, fermented beer as dry hops. Accordingly, these beers contain very few iso-alpha acids. And yet, amazingly, they still taste bitter. How can this be?

In one of the most remarkable moments in our interview with hops researcher Tom Shellhammer a couple of weeks ago, Patrick and I learned why. This strikes me as one of the most important findings in recent research, and something we're going to have to learn a lot more about as a result of our new practice of using vastly larger quantities of hops in our American IPAs. Here's Tom (with a transcript slightly edited for clarity):
"There are some beers, like Kona Big Wave, a beautiful beer, but there are homeopathic levels of hops in the kettle. When it comes out of the brewhouse, it's got like 7 BUs. Or less! And then they just load it full of hops and they dry-hop it. But it's not 7 BUs. The BU level creeps up. BUs--and the sensory bitterness--is creeping up in dry-hopping or late-kettle hopping or whirlpool hopping for a number of reasons.

"Probably the most significant reason is that there are oxidation products in hops that prevent the hops from isomerizing. If that isomerization process doesn't occur then the bitterness isn't there. But it turns out that the oxidation products of the alpha acids themselves are bitter. And so, just like isos [iso alpha acids] are more soluble in beer than the alpha acids are, the oxidation products are more soluble as well. And so as brewers add hops that have some degree of oxidation--and all hops will have some degree of oxidation ... they are extracting the fairly water-soluble hop oxidation products.

"Right now in our lab we're trying to hunt bitterness and figure out what things are driving bitterness in really hoppy beers. It turns out that if you track isos like you would in lager beer you're about 90% of the way there. Maybe even 95%. And with really hop-forward beers, if you just track isos in some cases you may only be about 40% of the way there. There's other stuff that's adding to bitterness. And we've found in the last year or two that these oxidation products, these humulinones, in some beers are there in higher amounts than the isos.

"So if you think of a typical beer ten or twenty years ago the hopping--even if you think about Jever [a German pilsner], which is a hoppy beer--the hopping level, which is just a front-end kettle hop addition, compared to a beer that's kettle hopped, whirlpool hopped, and dry hopped, you might have twenty to forty times more hops being used in those beers than a traditional lager beer. So even though you may have a small amount of oxidation products, the fact that you're using forty times as many hops means that you just can't avoid it. These things impart bitterness in beer."

"Polyphenols as well to some degree. Like when you make tea at home, you can get bitterness from that. You could think of it like a tannin. As these things polymerize they can create some degree of bitterness. When they're really small they can taste a bit more astringent, as they isomerize or polymerize large enough they drop out of solution. So these polyphenols can contribute to bitterness as well, but we found that that contribution is much, much lower than the contribution coming from the oxidation products. And the BU [measurement] will capture that, but not entirely."
This may seem like a weird little cul-de-sac in the world of hop bittering, but for brewers it's massive. We've been making beer with hops for a thousand years, but no one has ever used them the way Americans (and now everyone else) now do in their IPAs. The amount of bitterness that did not come through the boiling process was so insignificant that, even during the last hundred years when we understood brewing chemistry, nobody bothered to consider other sources.

So when brewers started shifting away from kettle hops to late-addition, post-kettle, and dry hopping in IPAs, they expected them to be low in bitterness. That's what the manuals said they'd be, and when you plug in your hop schedule to a formula that calculates BUs, they come out very low. But brewers found that it was wrong--their beers were bitter, sometimes pretty sharply so. When I spoke to Ben Edmunds about hops for my (soon to be released!) homebrew book, he told me:
 “I think all the formula out there are nonsense. It’s simply not true. We really need to retool what we use as our utilization for whirlpool and late kettle additions across the board for all the beers. The thing it opened our eyes to was that from a balance point of view, we were way higher in BUs than we wanted. So we started peeling away, peeling away. And the beers all got better. So the way we calculate it is that the 60 minute addition should add no more than 5-10 BUs.”
And so brewers are adding less kettle hops, but not because more iso-alpha acids are being absorbed into the beer than we thought, but because these formerly-marginal sources of bitterness were now being added in such volume that they became the majority source. Soon we will literally be re-writing the books.

As always, if you missed our interviews with Tom, track them down on Soundcloud. These quotes come from our second interview, which has several moments of similarly enlightening wisdom. Give it a listen for sure.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Oregon Beer Awards

The Oregon Beer Awards were handed out last night, and there were a few surprises. The first came when Wolf Tree (Seal Rock) won the first gold medal. Wait, who? That happened several times throughout the night, as obscure breweries took home medals: Freebridge (the Dalles), Back Pedal (Portland), Salem Ale Works, and Wild Ride (Redmond). Wolf Tree, incidentally, "is one of very few breweries operating on a working cattle ranch." I have no doubt about that.

Meanwhile, some high-profile breweries got mostly elbowed off the podium--pFriem, Block 15, and The Commons took home just four medals combined. That kind of thing happens when you have a blind-tasting competition. (Upright, a member of that often-lauded tier, pulled a hat trick, getting a bronze, silver, and gold, so some order was restored to the universe.)

The big winner, by a country mile, was Breakside, which took home ten medals total, including four gold. There were only 22 categories, which means Breakside managed to win a staggering 15% of the awards--in a competition with over 900 beers from 114 breweries. Tourists visiting the city often overlook Breakside or seem surprised when I suggest they go visit--this is a pretty good example of why locals keep buzzing about it. (Though from the perspective of optics, there is something slightly awkward about seeing the festival organizer, Breakside's Ben Edmunds, trot up on the stage so many times to pick up hardware.)

Maybe the best moment of the night was the short film put together by Lucas Chemotti and Ezra Johnson-Greenough to honor the late publican Don Younger, who was voted into the hall of fame:

Two years ago, when the OBA asked for nominations for the hall of fame, they forbade us from choosing posthumous candidates. Something like 75% of us ignored that and nominated Fred Eckhardt anyway (they relented and he was honored). Don is a worthy follow-up. Now maybe the organizers will get their wish and we can start honoring the living legends.

A couple other odd notes. Of all the beers submitted, 140 used Lactobacillus. 140! This is a trend no one could have seen developing even a decade ago. Related to that, Cascade Brewing, which is famous for using only Lactobacillus in its sour ales, won gold in the "Wood + Barrel-aged Sour + Brett category." Ron Gansberg is so opposed to Brettanomyces he used to dump barrels that had been wood-inoculated. I don't know if Framblanc 2015, the winner, had any Brett, but even winning the category is jarring.

Oh, and Ezra wore a tie.

Finally, a comment to organizers of the ceremony. Waiting outside in line for thirty minutes is not acceptable to get into a pre-ticketed event. The venue at Revolution Hall is great--for a crowd half that size. It's a rolling mosh pit with ten-minute beer lines. The ceremony is an awkward blend of awards-show pretension and in-group humor. I really felt for the poor MC, a comedienne whose jokes fell flat in a crowd where guys from a hop farm got a giant roar from the audience. The awards show itself doesn't know whether it wants to be for the industry or the public, and striking the unhappy medium between the two just isn't working. It's still a lot of fun, but that part needs to be tweaked.

Congrats to all the winners, the organizers, and the judges.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Big Beer Makes a Big Move

Each year, General Distribution's Jim Fick closely tracks the sales of Oregon beer in Oregon, and he very graciously forwards me the spreadsheet with the numbers. Frustratingly, the OLCC, which tracks these numbers, has gotten fairly lax and the figures aren't terribly reliable. One obvious example is that they somehow don't capture CBA's sales (Widmer/Redhook/Kona)--one of the two largest breweries in the state. Some of their other numbers are suspect as well. Given these troubles, I figured 2015 would be the last year I commented on these, but there are a couple things that leap out so profoundly I can't help but comment on them. Actually, commenting may not even be necessary--just look at these two graphs.


To put precise numbers to these--excluding GoodLife, for which the OLCC had no numbers in 2015--the two beer companies owned by multinational corporations grew 18,161 barrels in 2016, and the other top ten breweries grew 10,851. Combined. And even that sort of understates matters. Have a look at the top gainers in 2016:

ABI and MillerCoors account for 40% of all gains among the ten breweries growing the fastest. There is probably a lot of context one could provide to explain why these two brands grew so much (discounting, distribution, etc), but the fact is they did. Oregon has one of the most parochial markets in the country, and they still posted these remarkable increases. Two of the top five best-selling brands in the state are owned by companies in Wisconsin Chicago and Leuven, Belgium.

Things change. Who knows if this is a stable trend and whether 10 Barrel and Hop Valley will continue to grow--or even keep their share (look what happened to BridgePort). But for the moment they're selling like hotcakes, and I doubt there's a brewer in the state who's not unsettled by this development.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Troubles With Travel

If you were to name the four or five hottest breweries right now, measured in beer geek coolness points, Boston's Trillium Brewing would have to be on that list. They are makers of many different types of beer, but are famous for being one of the charter members of the New England IPA movement, with all the requisite rarity and excitement. Well, despite having failed to find any of their rare offerings when I was back in New England in November, I got to try my first can when friend-of-the-blog Mason Astley spent his hard-earned time and money securing Fort Point Pale Ale and sending one my way.

I was very excited about this because, while I think there's no special style* to be found here, I have been mighty impressed by the work New Englanders have been doing with hops. Places like Maine Beer Co, Bissell Brothers, and Hill Farmstead understand our little friend, Humulus lupulus. Maybe not uniquely (I could point to a few guys around here who have passing familiarity), but decidedly. And by all accounts--including Mason's--Fort Point is one of their best beers. (Not that these things matter too much, but it is a top-ten pale as rated by BeerAdvocates).

So it was to my surprise and disappointment to discover this waiting for me:
So murky as to be dark pouring out. Very much a pond water rather than Orange Julius cloudy. Poor head, gone in 30 seconds. Aroma is orange passionfruit with a hint of sweat underneath. Flavor is fairly sharp bitterness with a rindlike astringency. Mouthfeel is fluffy to gritty. The tropical notes present far more on the nose than palate. Very little malt character. Slight burnt rubber aftertaste. 
Those are not the tasting notes of a world-beater. Those are not even the tasting notes of a particularly good beer. I sent them to Mason last week and he was surprised and chagrined--this was not the beer he knew. There's no accounting for taste and I could just be missing the subtle genius of this beer. I don't think that's what's going on here; I believe were Mason to have tried this beer, he would more or less agree with the notes. So what's going on?

Beer is inherently unstable. Brewers tease chemical compounds into an arrangement that will not last. They begin interacting with each other and that particularly nefarious enemy oxygen will begin to stale the flavors. This happens in all beers, but not at the same rate. Some beers are incredibly fragile, ready to collapse like a house of cards into a pile of decomposing, once-brilliant flavors. Among the most delicate elements are hop flavors and aromas, which are driven by volatile compounds that begin degrading immediately even in the best circumstances. Send a beer across country, where it may be subjected to temperature fluctuation and agitation--two accelerants to degredation--and even a relatively young can might well end up like the one I received.

This is an important cautionary tale about modern IPAs. So much of the hop character comes not from the more stable iso-alpha acids formed during longer boiling, but volatile compounds in the oil. We know how evanescent those flavors and aromas can be from observation, but I don't know how much study has been done on trying to stabilize them in the package. Moreover, we're in a realm of brewing that is out in front of the science. When we were in Corvallis last week, hops researcher Tom Shellhammer mentioned that perceived bitterness and astringency may also come from other sources (polyphenols?--I can't find the passage from our interview) than iso-alpha acids. How do these astringent elements change with time, agitation, and heat? I was picking up sharp, prickly notes that had a quality of astringency, like citrus rind. Was that present in the brewery-fresh version?

The category we now call IPA is hugely broad, and at one side of the spectrum can be made so that it's pretty shelf-stable. But on the other side--the side that tickles the beer geeks' fancy--it's not clear that this is the case. What happens when a brewery like Trillium scales up and has the capacity to start sending their beer around the Northeast? Can they find a way to package the freshness so that it lasts even 30 days? I have my doubts. And interestingly, I kind of hope it's not possible to stabilize this. If breweries have to sell their beer at the source to ensure these flavors and aromas survive, that means people will have to continue to patronize them there. That means I won't be getting any brewery-fresh Trillium in Oregon, but I can live with that if it encourages a market for hundreds of small breweries nationwide serving fresh beer.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Beer There: Olde Mecklenburg (Charlotte, NC)

Periodically--too infrequently, if you want my opinion--a friend of the blog will feel inspired to send me beer from their distant location. When breweries send me beer, I make no promises to review or ever even comment on them (though I will drink them; I'm not a halfwit), but when a person spends hard-earned cash to purchase and send beer from a brewery, my hard and fast rule is: always review them.

Today we have three beers sent from Daniel Warner, who lives in the far Carolinas (I use the plural because while I believe he lives in South, he regularly drifts to North). Daniel and I have developed an e-bromance over our shared love of German and Czech beers, and one of his go-to breweries is Charlotte's Olde Mecklenburg. They make not a single IPA or cucumber sour; in fact, the only beer not drawn from the German oeuvre is a Baltic porter--which is not much of a heresy as those things go. This is interesting if not quite unheard of--our own Occidental and Heater Allen follow the same prescription. What is unusual is their success with this model:
"OMB started to build a dedicated following that’s never really stopped growing. Today, in a new, larger space that features a spectacular eight-acre German-style Biergarten, a state-of-the-art 60-barrel Brewery (largest locally owned craft brewhouse in the state), and a dine-in Brauhaus."
That says ... something about North Carolina, though I'm not sure what. Even Urban Chestnut has conceded hoppy ales to their customers, and St Louis is about as lager-friendly as you're going to find. And to add further intrigue to this mystery, their flagship beer is an altbier. What in the blue hell? North Carolinians, I do not get you.

All right, enough with the anthropology--let's move on to the beer.

Copper (altbier)
The flagship, I hate to say, would not be mistaken for a Düsseldorf alt. It looks like one: its a gorgeous beer, with a deep copper and perfect clarity that seems to make it almost glow from the inside. But in flavor profile, it's distinctly American, with a slightly syrupy caramel note offset by rather sharp hopping. In Düsseldorf, the alts are characterized by a downy softness and even in the hoppy Uerige, the bitterness is rounded and lacking bite. The real key to a altbier is a minerality that I believe comes from hardened water; Daniel obscurely believes this to be a function of the yeast (feel free to debate that in comments); whatever, it ain't here. It's a nice beer, but a bit too bimodal for me--thick caramel offset by sharp hops, rather than a harmony between the two.

Capt Jack Pilsner
This is an interesting and unusual pilsner. It has a surprisingly sweet malt note up front, and this is balanced by pretty assertive hopping. I don't recognize the malt, which is more candylike and less grainy than is common. It is perfectly clear again--I'm beginning to get a sense of the house preference here--and pale as January sunlight. Olde Mecklenburg gives zero info about their beer, so I'm left to guess at the last element--a touch of diacetyl. I would guess this is an intentional homage to Plzeň, and it is both nicely integrated and subtle. But that's only a guess. Definitely a cool little beer and unusual, which is what you want with a style that can seem generic if handled badly.

Hornet's Nest (hefeweizen)
One should always save the best for last--and this was my fave of the three. I forgot to rouse the yeast and it had of course settled, so I got just a haziness rather than dense cloudiness. (User error.) I was also surprised at the low level of effervescence, which is far lower than the Bavarian examples. These are quibbles, however--it's a wonderful beer. Very spicy and almost absent banana, which is my preference. I speculated that they don't use the Weihenstephan yeast, which produces banana like a Panamanian jungle, but Daniel replied that he believes they ferment very cold, which would suppress ester production (the banana comes from isoamyl acetate. The spice is, additionally, intriguing in its complexity. There's definitely clove there, but black pepper and something that reminds me of apple tannin. It has the soft, fluffy mouthfeel you want and expect. It is, over all, a wonderful beer and my fave of the lot.

Based on photos, the place looks like a spectacular, very German, beer hall and it will be my first stop if I ever make it to Charlotte.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Understanding Hop Aromas and Flavors

We have a very special episode of the Beervana Podcast for you this week, and I want to tease it by quoting from a section of the interview. Patrick and I visited the labs and brewery of Tom Shellhammer, who is a professor of fermentation science at Oregon State University and one of the world's leading hops researchers. Before we did the interview, he took us around his labs, stopping at one point in front of stacks of small bottles containing aroma compounds found in hops. He uses these in classwork as a way of giving students a pure, condensed version of these aromas. We took a whiff of the "stone fruit" and "catty" bottles.

As we spoke about the catty scent, Tom referenced a class of compounds that have started to get more attention--thiols. These are sulfur-containing aroma compounds in hop oil that are responsible for both the deeply tropical aromas in many recent hop varieties, but also aromas some of us find objectionable (sweat, onion, garlic). Here's Tom, in a quick-and-dirty transcript from the podcast:
Thiols are a class of chemical compounds that have sulfur in them. So that sulfur part is what makes the compound a thiol. Not that all sulfur compounds are thiols, but a thiol has sulfur in it; that's the key component to that. Myrcene and linalool don't have sulfur in them. Myrcene is a hydrocarbon. [Describes the chemical structure.] Linalool is an oxygenated version of that, so it's got an oxygen component in it that does things to its functionality and its solubility. Hydrocarbons as a class tend to be more woodsy, herbal, and somewhat floral. They oxygenated versions of these things like linalool and geraniol tend to be floral and fruity. And then we move to this thiol class.

The hydrocarbons make up to 75 to 90% of the hop oil, the oxygenated fraction makes up almost the rest, and then less than 1% are these sulfur compounds. Tiny, tiny amount. But the thing about them that make them so important is the aroma-detection thresholds of these things are three to four, maybe five, orders of magnitude lower than these other compounds. With myrcene, you need about 300-500 parts per billion. Sounds like a small amount, but not quite a part per million. And the thiols, their aroma thresholds are parts per trillion. A little goes a long way with a thiol.

The thiol compounds can be stinky like onions and garlic but they can also be potent tropical fruity, citrusy, but also animal-y, stinky, sweaty/BO. 
One of the reasons some people absolutely love hops like Summit and Nelson Sauvin is because they're getting the fruit. But I am apparently hyper-sensitive to thiols, and I get the onion and sweat.

This podcast, I'm pleased to say, is filled with gems like this. (It's part one of our visit down there. Next week we go to the test brewery at OSU and join the head brewer there, Jeff Clawson. Hop talk continues as we sample beer students made in the brewery.)  Definitely give it a listen:

Finally, if this all seems irresistible to you (and how can it not??), Tom and Jeff Clawson are leading a two-day course in Portland for those of you who'd like access to some of the content he presents in his coursework, but who don't have the time or money to take a class in Corvallis.
Our Origins of Beer Flavors and Styles workshop is an experiential sensory course that will guide you through the brewing process from raw materials to finished beer. Through hands-on instruction, participants will learn how the main raw materials used in brewing process (malt, water, hops, and yeast) impact beer flavor and aroma. Participants will work through standards and exercises with the goal of highlighting how each of these materials impacts beer flavor. Guiding tastings, focused with a historical lens, will also walk participants through on how these raw materials have impacted beer styles historically overtime. Over this two-day course, participants will evaluate 8 beer styles and over 35 beers.

Friday, March 17 - Saturday, March 18, 2017
If memory serves, a part of the class will involve those little glass vials of hop aromas. Soon you, too, will be able to distinguish thiols, hydrocarbons, and oxygenated hydrocarbons from one another. Follow this link to register.