If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

More Randomness!

Two dudes wander around Newcastle drinking in various pubs.  If you miss ambling around the streets of chill cities where the rain rattles down spitefully and then ducking into warm pubs with cask ale, this will please you. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is There a High Culture of Beer?

Someone from Eugene's Bier Stein pointed me (via Twitter) to this article by Saul Austerlitz in the Times magazine.  It discusses the rise of "poptimism," the backlash among music critics against those who have long lauded mainly old, white dudes.
The reigning style of music criticism today is called “poptimism,” or “popism,” and it comes complete with a series of trap doors through which the unsuspecting skeptic may tumble. Prefer Queens of the Stone Age to Rihanna? Perhaps you are a “rockist,” still salivating over your old Led Zeppelin records and insisting that no musical performer not equipped with a serious case of self-seriousness and, probably, a guitar, bass and drums is worthy of consideration. Find Lady Gaga’s bargain basement David Bowie routine a snooze? You, my friend, are fatally out of touch with the mainstream, with the pop idols of the present.

Poptimism wants to be in touch with the taste of average music fans, to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more “serious” artistic intent.
Okay, so far so obvious.  But then he asks--and this is where the tweet came from: "I like to entertain myself by imagining what might happen if the equivalent of poptimism were to transform those other disciplines."  He imagines the worlds of literature and film under such a backlash (which makes me wonder where he's been--this backlash is very much active in these other disciplines).  Indeed, it's a flavor of meditation that we have been happening since at least the 1960s when pop art challenged the mores of art.  (I mean, it's right there in the title.  How is "poptimism" anything remotely new?)

But now we come at last to the point of this post: in beer, what is haute?  You can't have a backlash without a lash, and I'm not sure we can make the case for one.  Certain beer styles are very popular with a niche group (barrel-aged beers, strong hoppy beers, sour beers), but there's no ruling beer orthodoxy.  The sourheads, to take one example, aren't zymurgical royalty; they are, to use the music analogy, like metalheads.  Many people want to declare a high and low among beer styles, but no one has come close to enforcing it.  Even a group like CAMRA, set up to expressly to do this, now finds itself defending beer that many craft beer fans consider old and lame.

(Parenthetical semi-digression.  The whole notion of orthodoxy probably died around the turn of the century, or perhaps a few years later when Facebook and Twitter arrived.  We're no longer really aware of worlds we choose not to inhabit.  Without a collective dataset that includes both high and low, the critical framework collapses in on itself.  I listen to certain types of music, watch certain kinds of movies, read certain kinds of books, and drink certain kinds of beers.  But only in rare cases do I actually find myself discussing these critically with anyone else; they all have their own, different groups of movies, books, and music.  Everyone sees the Avengers and we all judge it like it's sui generis, or possibly in comparison with a set of very similar movies.  No one thinks to mention Fellini.)

So unless someone can make a very effective argument that there's a high culture in beer, I don't think we're really ready for our pop art correction. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring in the Gorge

On Saturday, I pried myself away from the computer to head down the gorge for the first annual Hard Pressed Cider Fest just outside Hood River.  The location was a fruit warehouse in the middle of acres and acres of rolling orchards in bloom.  I'm still in super slo-mo on blogging as I enter the final two weeks of book-writing (about cider, so I justified the trip as "research"), so you just get pictures. 

Hood-san rises above the flowery scene.

A nice western swing/country band serenaded fest-goers. (Cider is more
country than beer.)

The view from the fest.

When you get to within ten miles of Parkdale, Solera is a must.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Quick Cheers to Old Town

A Portland landmark is celebrating 40 years.  In 1974, Richard Nixon told the country "I've never been a quitter" on national TV as he fled the White House.  As if re-balancing the scales of wholesomeness, Old Town Pizza opened that same year in Portland.  It has been through a lot in those four decades--haven't we all?--but is now a vibrant new pizzeria and brewpub.  Last week, owner Adam Milne invited me to check out their modern NE Portland outpost.  That's where they do the brewing under the oversight of one of my favorite brewers, Bolt Minister, and also where I got to meet Madi the Piemaster. 

This is a placeholder post until I can give you the full story.  Old Town is celebrating their major milestone now, so go celebrate with them.  The old site remains one of the more interesting places in the city (even without considering Nina, the resident ghost), and if you haven't been to the pub out on MLK, it's really worth a visit.  More in a few weeks' time, but for now--cheers to Old Town.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Coalition Wheat the People

Photo: Samurai Artist/The New School
If I weren't being willfully perverse, I'd tell you to go to Coalition for the barrel-aged barley wine they're currently pouring.  It is a decadent treat, one that even I--a drinker suspicious of bourbon-aged beers in general and barley wines in particular--loved.  It is rich and intense but balanced (if chocolate mousse is your idea of balance), exactly the kind of beer most beer geeks seek out.  But I am willfully perverse, and this sherpa therefore eschews the obvious soaring peaks and guides you to the verdant valleys instead.  To where the wheat grows.

Coalition's Wheat the People is that lush valley.  There is absolutely nothing flashy about this beer.  It's a simple American wheat, with gentle aromatics, a soft body, and some stone-fruit esters that inflect the very light, grassy hopping.  It's the kind of beer that presents itself, wholly and fully, on the first sip and does not evolve or change with a pint, or two, or three.  If your attention wanders to conversation, when you return it to your beer, you will find all the pleasures you left there a half hour earlier.  It rewards attention but does not demand it. 

It's a timely beer because it illustrates the point about appreciating simplicity.  And, on a warm day like the ones we're enjoying now, a body pines for something less dense.  Wheat the People is perfect sunshine beer.  If you drop by the brewery, you probably ought to try the barley wine, too, but don't overlook this simple pleasure. 

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature.  In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer.  Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand.  In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out?  A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop.  I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Outage Notice

My other project seems to be taking more of my time, energy, and attention than I anticipated.  Slow blogging ahead...

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Cider Saturday: The Climate of Cider

File this under "hmmm."  When I traveled to England, France, and Spain in January to do cider research, I was amazed at how consistent the weather was.  I'd pull up my weather app, which was set to Portland, OR, and it would say 42 degrees Fahrenheit and rainy.  Then I'd swipe over to Bristol (which is a decent midpoint between Hereford and Somerset), and it would say 42 and rainy.  Then to Lisieux and it would say ... 42 and rainy.  As I write this, it's 53 in Portland, 56 in Bristol, and 57 in Lisieux.  (All cloudy, natch.)  It got me thinking about climate and whether there was something to wet, temperate places that make for good apples. 

In the book I'm working on, I have used a narrative model to describe cider, focusing in on traditional cider makers from various places in Europe and the US.  In the charts below, you can see how they stack up in terms of temperature and rainfall.  I selected the places based on the cideries I covered in my book, throwing in Fennville, Michigan as a final entrant, even though I didn't visit Virtue Cider.  It's on the coast of Lake Michigan.  (I did speak with Greg Hall and the cidery is mentioned in the book.)  You could add a lot more lines to the chart--Oviedo, Asturias, Yakima, Virginia--but this seems to illustrate things well enough. 

Let's look first at average high temperatures, which are relevant during the growing season.  At the height of the growing season, there's a ten-degree difference between England (72) and all the US locations, which interestingly have average highs of 82.  That's the widest gap. Spring temps are warmer in Spain, but similar in the other locations. 

I was especially interested in the lows, because in traditional cider-making, the juice is fermented naturally.  Temperatures that are too low would halt that process without intervention, while high temperatures would put the ferment at risk.  (All the Europeans do natural fermentation, as do EZ Orchards in Salem, Virtue in Fennville, and although Farnum Hill pitches yeast, they don't have much temperature control.)  Michigan and New Hampshire are real outliers here, but Oregon and the European countries stay largely within a few degrees of one another. 

Finally, rainfalls are pretty similar, too, except for insanely wet San Sebastian in the Basque Country, which is a wetter city than New Orleans.  The rainfall patterns are different: Oregon's dry in the summer, Bristol in the Spring, and Lisieux in the winter.  San Sebastian is never dry, and New Hampshire and Michigan get fairly even precipitation throughout the year.

It's not easy to draw big conclusions, but I pass it along for your edification nevertheless.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Happy Anniversary, Guys

Thirty years ago today, brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer officially launched their eponymous brewery.  (They didn't have an actual brewery or beer yet, but they mark the anniversary to the moment they started building all that.)  Five years ago, I did a retrospective that covers the arc of their history and includes a few photos of that haute 80s fashion.  For this anniversary, they've gone back to the brewing logs and plan to release thirty beers from the archives.  The first three are their first three beers--Altbier, Weizen, and Hefeweizen.  You can see the brewery they thought they'd be when you glance at the early beers, which in addition to the first three include Festbier, Maerzen, Bockbier, Oktoberfest, and Ray's Amber Lager, Doppelbock, and Ur-Alt.  I doubt very seriously that they looked into the 21st century and saw a rotating IPA series in their future.

Raise a pint to the venerable old brewery.  (Well, venerable by American standards).  Prost!

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Brewers Association Unveils New Definition of Craft Beer

Since its founding, the Brewers Association has maintained an occasionally-revised definition of what a craft brewery is, and they've also run a campaign targeting "crafty" beers--but this is the first time they've dared to actually define "craft beer."  Have a look.
American craft beer is disruptive, impactful, and made by the right people.
  •  Disruptive: Like all revolutionary technologies, craft beer disrupts the dominant paradigm.  Craft beer disrupts the old definitions of beer and brewing.  It disrupts a drinker's expectations.  It disrupts the marketplace with innovation and originality.  After three imperial IPAs, it even disrupts a person's ability to find his car.
  •  Impactful:  Craft beer is bold, it's unexpected, it's radical.  Drinking craft beer is like getting punched by a stevedore. 
  •  Brewed by the "right" people:  Craft beer is brewed by the guy down the block.  Or possibly contract brewed by the guy down the block.  Or possibly by 243 guys on the other side of the country.  It might be brewed in a series of large industrial breweries as well, just not breweries that are too large.  It is never brewed by large Belgian-owned brewing conglomerates, but middle-sized Belgian brewing conglomerates are a-okay.  (Middle-sized Costa Rican conglomerates are not a-okay.)  Actually, we'll tell you who the right people are.  We keep a list.

I will say this: it's honest.  I'm not sure it will be a PR coup, but you never know.  I thought that "crafty" campaign was going to backfire, too.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Zen and the Art of Appreciating Simple Beers

There's a famous Zen verse that goes: "First mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.  Then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers.  Finally, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers."  The insight has to do with the Buddhist concept of the two truths, but it can also be understood more simply.  At first, we accept the nature of rivers and mountains because we haven't thought deeply about them.  Once we do, we see that they are not as we thought.  However, once we see their true nature, then we understand their essence and "rivers are rivers"  once again.  It's a circle, but we arrive back at our starting point with a transformed view.

I would like to posit a similar lesson with beer appreciation.  A while back, Stan quoted from a post by blogger Eric Sturniolo, who described the process of developing a palate as evolutionary, with a beginning point of mass market lager and an end point of Westvleteren.  This prescription is as old as craft brewing, though the "evolved" state--Eric called it an apex, as if reaching the mountaintop--is particular to the times. 

It's a paradigm that assumes beer styles exist in relative quality.  Style x is superior to style y, so as one becomes more sophisticated in the way of the beer world, she will naturally grow to enjoy x.  In this prescription, "x" is almost always the more intense beer.  Belgian abbey ales are more intense than light lagers and therefore naturally and innately superior.  When you look at how beer geeks rate beers (compare beer x to beer y), this is borne out by mass acclaim.

But, going back to the koan, I'd describe this as the "rivers are not rivers" phase of beer appreciation.  In the pursuit of intensity, the beer drinker begins to narrow down the range of beers that can be considered sublime.  Whereas a novice might go to Munich and fall in love with hellesbier, to the beer geek, such products are trifles unsuitable for the serious palate.  For the geek, "hellesbier is not beer."

The true apex of appreciation is the ability to locate the sublime in any style (not, of course, any beer).  This means being able to pick up a glass of helles--or English mild or Belgian bière de table or even a characterful mass market lager (of which, admittedly, there are not a great number)--and find the flavors as pleasant and satisfying as when you heft a barrel-aged imperial stout.  It is possible, but not if the only flavors you can appreciate are intense.  You have to fine-tune your palate to appreciate the difference between a helles that has dull, simple malt flavors and one that has rich, fresh, and complex malt flavors.  The presence of subtle esters, the gentle scent of a particular hop, the weft and harmony of all these flavors working together.  It's not the kind of gesture judges make in a competition to reward one beer in a reviled or discounted class--the best of a lesser bunch--but the actual deep pleasure in the beer itself.  

It has helped that I traveled the world and tasted beers in several different countries.   In places like England, Scotland, France, and Germany I found serious beer people committed to styles Americans have long ago "transcended."  Travel challenges certain prejudices one wasn't aware he possessed.  But those are intellectual discoveries.  At the end of the day, to really grow to love a hellesbier is a private journey of experience.  You can't know it intellectually.  It dawns on you in the moment, as when I drank an Augustiner Hell in Munich and something changed in my experience of pale lagers.  

Beer appreciation is not linear; it's circular.  First you love beer naively, out of a simple joy.  Then your head gets filled with a bunch of crap about what's "good" and you begin disliking beer out of a blind prejudice.  Finally, you come back to appreciating beer for its own nature.  (And conversely, that appreciation makes you aware of how many intense beers are badly made and lack the harmony and integration that are the hallmarks of a good beer in any style.)  It may be facile to put it his way, but what is blogging but not facile?  Until you can appreciate all beer styles, your journey of appreciation is not yet complete.