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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.