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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fresh Hops, Neomexicanus Hops, and No Hops

Hot on the heels of a bottled Lagunitas fresh hop beer, two from Deschutes arrived at Casa Beervana, Chasin' Freshies (still the worst name in beer!) and Hop Trip--and two more chances to disprove my skepticism that fresh hop flavor can be bottled. 

(As a side note, Chasin' Freshies plays a prominent role in my skepticism.  One recent year, I was down at Deschutes sampling fresh hop beers, and Chasin' Freshies was on tap.  It was the first year they made it, and I assumed it was just one of the many one-offs they do during fresh hop season.  It was one of the best examples I'd ever had, though, and so imprinted itself on my brain.  A couple hours later, I arrived home and found a bottle of the same beer waiting for me.  That Chasin' Freshies was nothing like the beer served on tap and yet was, presumably, as fresh as the brewery could make it.)  (As a side note to the side note, I'll add that I've only previously had one fresh hop beer worth a damn--BridgePort Hop Harvest.) 

So back to Deschutes' 2014 bottled fresh hop offerings.  Did they manage to bottle the flavor?  Must I revise the theory?  Our findings are inconclusive: Chasin' Freshies (22 oz bottle) was superlative.  Fully alive and green and fresh-hoppy.  Hop trip (12 oz bottle) was a dud--very little hop character at all, and therefore a sweetly malty soup with no zip.  My advice: if you want the experience of fresh hop, get on down to your favorite grocer, buy a 22 of Chasin' Freshies and drink it tonight.  You might even risk waiting until tomorrow, as you hand out chocolate to small fiends.  I wouldn't wait longer than that.  Skip the Hop Trip.

The Neomexicanus Hops Are In
Stan Hieronymus has an update on some monk-grown native hops that will soon be available to the home beermaker.  Step lively if you want to get in on the action.

In Lieu of Hops
Finally, let me direct your attention to my latest post over at All About Beer.  Today's offering involves Eric Steen's project Beers Made By Walking, wherein Eric and brewers go on a hike and forage ingredients to use in a beer, along with my consideration of which of those ingredients seem like candidates for regular use. It starts:
Artemisia douglasiana, also known as California mugwort, grows along stream banks up and down the West Coast. Dried and—particularly—burned, it has a distinctive aroma similar to another plant famous in the region, Cannabis sativa. Perhaps for this reason, it creates a pungent, hop-like quality when added to the conditioning tank of a light ale. The flavor is anything but subtle; it is sticky and musky and surprisingly bitter, reminiscent of some of the more exotic modern hops in vogue. I discovered it in a gluten-free beer by Portland’s Ground Breaker Brewing, the result of a project called Beers Made By Walking in which brewers go out and forage for local ingredients they later use in a beer.
Go read the whole thing.  (Please!)  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Doomed Lagunitas Experiment That Wasn't

Lagunitas's Jack Alger called me last week to see if I would like to participate in an experiment.  The brewery had had a refrigerated truck full of fresh hops shipped from Yakima (Equinox, Amarillo, Mosaic), put them into a beer brewed on the equinox, and was offering to overnight me a bottle the day the beer was packaged--which was yesterday.

I have no idea if Jack knows that I have been assiduously documenting the maturation of fresh hop ales for years or that I am incredibly skeptical of 1) any fresh hops that spend longer than a few hours off the vine, 2) the techniques of breweries distant from the fresh hop epicenter where brewers have learned how to use them, and especially 3) bottled fresh hop beers. If he did, it was a ballsy move.  In my mind, this was an almost certainly doomed experiment.  But, because it was Lagunitas, where brewers are master-level hop wranglers, I figured I'd give it a shot.  I knew it wouldn't work, but I wanted to see for myself, anyway.

Guess what?  It worked.

The beer is called Born Yesterday, and it is in the market now (look here to see if it's in your area).  As with any fresh hop beer, the sooner you taste it, the better, and you should definitely track down a bottle/pint in the next week if you want the full experience (though Oregonians may rightly yawn after having indulged in our annual lupulin bacchanalia).   

There's a chemical compound in fresh hops that does not survive the kilning process.  Well-made fresh hop beers have it, and no other beers do.  The aroma resists description because it only smells like one thing: fresh hops. (Words like "green," "fresh," and "lively" sort of hint at the quality but are completely useless as identifiers.)  I have found good fresh hop flavor in beers without this aroma, but only very rarely. So as I poured out the bottle, I lowered a skeptical nose, expecting nothing--but there it was, the fresh hop smell, wafting mightily off the beer.

In a blind tasting, I'd guess it was Double Mountain's Killer Green.  Both Born Yesterday and Killer Green are IPA-strength (7.5%) and both are aggressively bitter (unusual for fresh-hop beers).  Like Killer Green, Born Yesterday starts with a loaded bitter charge that starts things with a pop.  Then the fresh flavors surge in, full of cannabis.  Sticky but lively and green, with a quality that seems to tickle the trigeminal nerve with the same zing as mint or menthol.  It's all there--a perfectly kosher, honest to goodness bottled fresh hop beer. 

I didn't think it was possible and I still don't think it's advisable (and I don't want to guess what Lagunitas spent making it), but I now know it can be done.  Kudos to Lagunitas.

Monday, October 27, 2014

What Did "Sweet" and "Sour" Mean in the Old Texts?

Lars Garshol has an interesting post on a question that has bothered me for the last four years: how sour were pre-20th century beers?  His post is well worth a read because he tackles it from a few angles.  The portion I'm interested in, though, is the survey of historical materials, which often indicate that 16th-19th century beers were not soured.  For example, Lars cites a typical 16th century Swedish account by Olaus Magnus, an archbishop:
He describes both sweet and sour wines, but of beer he says that people brew it sweet or bitter according to preference. He says winter water is the best, as it never makes the beer go sour. Today we can see what was really going on, but he was right that beer was less likely to go sour in winter, due to lower temperatures. He says winter water is used in the brewing of Danzig beer, "the noblest and healthiest beer". It's clear from the text that to Olaus Magnus, beer is a sweet or bitter drink, and mainly sour by accident.
So here's the thing: I don't trust Magnus.  The problem is that language is not precise, especially in describing flavor, which is by necessity always relative.  We don't have precise language for flavors, except to compare them to other things.  Flavor descriptions build on shared understandings of the way known things taste, and we use those understandings when we describe related flavors.  When we say hops taste "like citrus," we mean to say that relative to other hoppy flavors, they have a few molecules that remind us of orange.  Originally, though, hops like Cascade were so exotic and bizarre when compared to European hops that they weren't always described as citrusy.  People were using a different baseline for hop flavor in the 1970s.

Similarly, if the accepted baseline for beer was always a bit tart (by modern standards), then all the terms writers used would be relative to that reality. We have zero-level thresholds for "sour" because we can control microbiological activity. Did 19th century writers share that threshold? My strong suspicion is no; therefore, beer that was "sour" was relatively sour--that is, sourer than the baseline.  Let me draw your attention to the 19th century writer Georges Lacambre and his famous Traité Complet de la Fabrication des Bières.  He illustrates the point.

In the section on the old style of beer called uytzet,  He quotes the work of another writer who had written about chemical analyses done on uytzet.  That writer, Wauters, described double uytzet as "the most delicate and sweetest of all known beers."  What did he mean by "sweet?"  Fortunately, we have the actual analysis as well, which measured things like "resinous grain," "dry mucilage," and "vinegar" (acetic acid).  In 48 ounces of beer measured, 3 ounces of which were acetic acid.  (The 48-ounce figure come from a conversion Randy Mosher did, which is sadly no longer online.)  Lacambre comments: "However, we agree that Mr. Wauters must be accustomed to such a beer to find it so good, as it contains so much vinegar and so little alcohol."  Even then, language was imprecise enough that writers didn't agree on meaning.  You see this throughout Lacambre's book, where he dutifully explains what locals think of their beers, then savages them with his own less-admiring descriptions. 

When I read sources like Lacambre, I read "sweet" as "not yet very sour," or "young."   It's not the modern definition of sweet, which means "not hoppy."  When writers of this era--and earlier writers, like Magnus--mention "sour," I think they mean what we would call spoiled. It's why they talk about winter and summer brewing--when we know very well thanks to lambic-brewing that winter beers can get very sour indeed without spoiling. 

As a final data point, it's useful to turn to Louis Pasteur himself.  In his seminal work on yeast, Etudes sur la Bière (translated into the English as Studies on Fermentation), he recommended the lager-brewing practice, because ale-brewing so often resulted in soured beer.  “How is it that the use of ice and yeast operating at a low temperature [in lager brewing] so greatly facilitates the preservation of our beer and enables us to secure such striking advantages?  The explanation is simple: the diseased ferments, which we have pointed out, rarely appear at a lower temperature than 10° C. (50° F.), and at that temperature their germs cease to be active.”  This further suggests to me that the ales must have been either sour or had such a short window before they got sour that he discouraged their manufacture.  And indeed, his research was one of the reasons lager-brewing (along with technological advancements) took off at such a rapid clip.

Without being able to taste these old beers ourselves, we can't know the microbiology of pre-20th century beers based on the descriptions of contemporary writers from earlier periods.  But I would encourage readers to exercise a healthy skepticism.  Our assumptions about the way beer tastes is very unlikely to reflect their assumptions--and subsequent descriptions are going to confuse modern minds. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cider Saturday: Make Your Own

Rack and Cloth, washed by the last sun of summer.
This past weekend, I made my way down the Gorge on what seems now like an impossibly warm, sunny day for some cider-sampling and juice-buying.  In a leisurely afternoon, you can easily begin your day at Fox-Tail, where I recommend especially Docklands (one of the nicer ciders in Oregon) and Apfelwein.  I expect you'll find fouler weather than I did, but never mind--their tasting room is cozy.  About a mile down the road, you can stop in at the Gorge White House, where they specialize in pear juice (with both a nice perry and an apple-pear cider).  The White House has a food truck with great burgers, so it's also a good lunch stop.

But the place I really want to direct you, especially over the next month, is Draper Girls Farm--about eight miles down past Fox-Tail (driving away from Hood River).  Theresa Draper has nine acres of apple trees, and has planted some nice heirloom cultivars like Spitzenburg, Black Twig, Gravenstein, Harrison, Northern Spy, Winter Banana, and others (and she's recently planted classics like Yarlington Mill and Kingston Black).  She presses the apples herself and makes a rough blend (depending on what's ripe) that includes acid varieties and then sells the juice, unpasteurized, by the gallon.  I picked up three gallons, brought it home, dumped it in the carboy, and this is what's going on now:

I have no idea whether it will be tasty or not, but I love the idea that juice will just ferment itself.  (After some dangerously warm temps the first couple days, the juice has settled down to the mid-fifties.  I may yet be making vinegar, but we'll see.)  If you are feeling less adventuresome, you could always just pitch yeast.  I gotta tell you, pouring three gallons of juice into a carboy and adding a fermentation lock is a whole lot easier than brewing.

I'll let you know how it's coming.

Update.  I was out raking leaves and found the yeast activity evolving.  I have no idea whether this is good or bad, but it sure is exotic.  Have a look.

Friday, October 24, 2014

New, But Not Innovative

I received an email yesterday so brazen and cynical in its scope that it left me briefly stunned.  It begins:
Just in time for the holiday season, Guinness introduces the perfect option for beer connoisseurs and enthusiasts alike with Guinness The 1759, a limited edition ultra-premium amber ale. [Their bold.]
Source: CNBC
In this one sentence are two fascinating details: 1) the name of Diageo's latest is "Guinness The 1759," which I think must be bizarre even in Irish-English, and 2) Diageo announces a category heretofore unknown to beer drinkers, "ultra-premium amber ale."  Surely this must augur even more fascinating details?  It does!  Carrying on:
This latest innovation from Guinness brings artistry and elegance to the beer category by combining  the famous Guinness yeast with both traditional beer malt and peated whisky malt – the very same used in the world’s most deluxe Scotch and Irish Whiskies - for smooth and quality tasting beer.
You know something deeply suspicious is afoot when the fifth-largest drinks company claims to be "innovating," and suspicions mount when the reader discovers that peated malt seems to be the sole innovation.  Let's hold our horses, though--something more must be on the way, right?  Glad you asked:
This unique beer is the first from Guinness that uses a cage and cork mechanism to seal the bottle (typically used with champagne) and packaged in a stylish back velvet lined gift box.  Only 90,000 bottles will be produced, which makes this commemorative release the chance to be part of Guinness’ brewing history.
Wonderful!  In addition to the extremely rare use of whisky malt*, this "unique" ale will be packaged in the same manner as Champagne!  And sold in a gift box!  And will be sold in small quantities for no other reason than to justify an obscene sticker price!  (Thirty five bones.  And so you know that this beer will retain its exclusive, just-for-the-one-percent cachet, Guinness brand manager Doug Campbell promises that "We will brew it one time only and basically throw away the recipe afterward."  Which is quite a statement, given that Diageo also claims the beer is based on a 200-year-old recipe.  Once they're done with this beer, they're throwing out all the old log books!)  But wait, can there be even more?  Yes:
This is the first offering of the new Guinness Signature Series™ which offers a range of limited edition luxury beers. This series gives beer drinkers more options for different occasions, from fine dining to exquisite gifting.   
"Which is to say this isn't rare or special at all, just the first in a series of scams we plan to run on what we imagine are endlessly gullible rubes willing to fork over $35 for an amber ale."  (That last bit is, despite being in quotes, only what I imagine went through the email-writer's head as he put the finishing touches on things.)

This is probably the most shameless email I've ever received, and the beer is definitely in the chutzpah sweepstakes as well.  But this debacle isn't actually Diageo's fault.  It's the poison fruit of wildly over-priced craft beer--resulting from a combination of fan lust and brewer manipulation.  A company like Diageo, with a brand as valuable and important as Guinness, would be stupid not to play the same game.  It represents a moment of decadence inevitable with anything so heavily hyped.

It's a shame, too.  Some beer really is expensive to make and necessarily limited in quantity--Rodenbach, Cantillon, and Cascade (among many other fine and reputable American craft beers).  But you have to know something about beer to appreciate that, and in the not knowing, there is room for the unscrupulous to make quickie beers, pop them into a glitzy package, and jack the price up 500%. 
*Not rare.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Good Beer in Victoria: a Round-up

A few weeks back, Travel Victoria brought me to Canada for a beery weekend.  I got to set the agenda, and managed to visit six of the city's ten breweries while I was there.  What follows is in no way a definitive guide (you might consult Joe Wiebe for that), but a useful starting place if you decide to visit that lovely little city.  (And you should--it's a wonderful getaway.)

Hoyne and Driftwood
2740 Bridge St and #102-450 Hillside Ave

They're this close.
The internet age makes the life of a beer tourist a snap.  When I think about Michael Jackson trying to figure out which Belgian breweries to visit, without aid of GPS and the vast internet archives, I marvel.  Achieving intreptitude (TM, Jeff Alworth, pending) takes no more than a few hours with Google now.  It was in this way that I discovered broad agreement about Victoria's hottest brewery--Driftwood.  But the Google can also fail you--Hoyne gets absolutely no love at all, and had it not been literally next door, I would have missed what I believe to be the city's most accomplished brewery.

Driftwood is definitely in the conversation, though, and they do it mainly because they have Victoria's favorite IPA, Fat Tug.  Brewer Jason Meyer seems most in synch with the kind of brewing we do south of the border, and in addition to the IPA, they do stuff like a saison, gose, wild ale, and fresh-hop ale.  It's clear why the IPA is so coveted--it has managed to become the quintessential Victoria IPA, hitting all the notes locals like, but with greater verve than anyone else.  It has an immensely juicy aroma, indicating the coming fruity flavor blast.  Falsely, it turns out.  The locals like their IPAs bitter, and Fat Tug is intensely so--all that juiciness in the nose evaporates under the alpha assault in the mouth. For my tastes, the Pale is a tastier pour.  Meyer manages to get a softness out of his beers, and it really shines here with more subdued and flavorful hopping.   Their saison uses the Ardennes yeast and black peppercorn and is also quite nice.

The brewhouse at Driftwood

Brewer Sean Hoyne got started at Canoe (see below) before founding his eponymous brewery three years ago.  Even though the beer geeks have overlooked the brewery, the public has not--Hoyne is already making 7,000 hectos (6,000 barrels) a year, the majority of it on draft.  I can see why.  As Dave, one of the brewers, was showing me around, the woman working the tasting room handed me a glass.  I didn't know what was in it and was taking notes and listening to Dave speak.  At a certain point, I distractedly passed the glass under my nose and was instantly rapt: a plume of Saaz hops blotted everything else out.  (There are also Hallertau, Hersbruck, and Spalt, which inflect the Saaz with an herbal note, but it's mainly the Saaz that grip you.)  The flavor was every bit as rewarding--aromatic pilsner malts and hop flavor that matched the the aroma in kind and intensity.  This was their flagship, Hoyner Pilsner.

They do another lager that is Hoyner's equal, called Off the Grid.  They call it a Vienna, but I've seen dunkels this color.  In any case, it focuses more on the rich, nutty, biscuity malts; the Tettnang hops provide a lacy accompaniment, but this is a moreish lager they'd love in Bavaria.  Hoyne, like Driftwood, does an eclectic mix of styles (including, in addition to more standard offerings, a smoked porter, hefeweizen, and espresso stout), but it's their lagers that really sing.

Hoyne's brewhouse

Swan's Brewpub
506 Pandora Ave

Swan's is so far off the radar, I didn't even realize it existed until I strolled by on my way to Canoe.  I can sort of see why: it's a wonderful space that nevertheless feels a bit touristy (it's right next to Chinatown) and the beer is decidedly old-fashioned.  (I don't know if our experience was typical, but on the lazy Sunday afternoon of our visit, the musical selection ran to Jimmy Buffet and Foghat--a choice that didn't make it feel any hipper.)   These things shouldn't condemn it, though: the ambiance is louche English pub (it recalled pubs from The Sweeney), airy but languid, and the old-fashioned beers are the reason to go.

 Swan's does English ales, a fair number of them served on cask.  The US went through an English ales period but has mostly left it behind--even New England's scene is turning more toward national trends.  Part of the reason we left this tradition behind is that we never did it properly in the first place--the beers were too sweet and heavy or just poorly made.  Swan's does them right.  The two standouts are an ESB and a brown, both of which I got on cask.  The ESB is made the way the English make strong bitters--just 5% ABV, with a definite focus on balance.  Hops are a balance between citrus and blackberry, and the malts have an undertone of toffee.  The Brown is geared toward woody, sweet malts.  But in both cases, there's a malt I've never encountered before--somewhere between roast and smoke, with an evocation of Scotch whisky.  It played a minor note in both beers, but really added a wonderful layer of interest.  I could have drunk either one for hours. 

Swan's also does some standards--a pale and and IPA and of course, the classic Victoria lager, with lots of Saaz--and one-offs like a white IPA.  But it's really the cask ales you should be drinking--they make Swan's a great stop.

Victoria's oldest brewery was such an interesting place that I'll treat it to a special case study in a future post.

Moon Under Water
350B Bay Street

If you see a theme developing--new style breweries versus old style--it's because that's how it started to seem to me.  Moon is definitely a charter member of the new school.  Unlike nearby Hoyne and Driftwood, which are production breweries, Moon is a brewpub.  The ambiance would be familiar to Portlanders--brewpub industrial.  It's got a casual, cozy vibe.  Along with Hoyne and Driftwood, it's in a slightly gritty industrial part of the city, but is in no way off-putting.  Some of the locals warned us about the neighborhood, but it was no different than large parts of Northeast and Southeast Portland. 

They had some experimental beer going on, including an Earl Gray IPA that was quite tasty.  The mainstays are an IPA and pilsner (naturally) as well as a dunkel, which was surprising.  I'd put Moon's beers a notch below their neighbor's, though they were pleasant enough.  The food and feel was great, and the beer was above-average for a brewpub.  And if you're looking for a place to land for a meal, it's a far better choice for these reasons than the final brewery I visited.

450 Swift St

Canoe has one of the best locations in the city, and the space is amazing.  It melds warehouse and lodge, with very high ceilings with exposed trusses and lots of unfinished wood.  The food is also well above average brewpub fare, and I especially loved the moules-frites, which are normally the best beer food going.  

Unfortunately, Canoe's beer was not good.  Like everyone else, they do a pilsner and an IPA, and they augment these musts with a dark ale and a pale--and on my visit, an ESB.  The pilsner was actually very nice.  It was the first place I went, so also the first time I had the classic Victoria pils.  But after that, it was downhill.  The pale was full of diacetyl, the dark was over roasty, and the IPA and ESB had very rough, harsh finishes.  Overall, a poor showing.  It's not a bad place to stop in for the food, and a pint of lager will do you good.  Don't bother with the taster tray, though.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lastest AAB Post: What a Portlander Found in Victoria, BC

More content to come today, but I wanted to direct your attention to my latest All About Beer post, of which this is a tease:
It’s possible to think your hometown is in step with larger trends—IPAs are popular everywhere, saisons and barrel-aged beers are reliable beer geek bait. But all it takes is a little travel to upset this sense of sameness. A couple weeks back, I spent the weekend in Victoria, BC, which is roughly as far from my home in Portland as Boston is from New York. In the West, that counts as neighbors. I ended up visiting six breweries while I was there, and by stop number four, I felt like I’d gone through the looking-glass: I was definitely not in Oregon anymore.
As always, please like and share it if you do actually like it and think it's worth sharing.  I'm still trying to make sure they don't regret giving me the platform.  In any case, do at least go have a look.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Several Small, Interesting Things

Over the past week, I had a half-dozen moments where something interesting and beer-related floated by on the digital stream.  None warranted a post by themselves, but I can't help rattling them off, along with an opinion or two.  (You'll find some/all of them interesting, too.)

1.  Will Ohio's Fat Head's Brewery Thrive in Portland?
Does that Fat Head logo suggest a cultural
misalignment to anyone but me?
Fat Head's is a popular brewery from suburban Cleveland, successful enough that it expanded to Pittsburgh and then to ... Portland.  [Correction: Fat Head's started as a beer bar in Pittsburgh, then opened their brewery in Cleveland.] It will open two weeks from today in the Pearl District (13th and Davis), ground zero for the city's priciest real estate.  Fat Head's is famous for an IPA they proudly call "West Coast." 

Comment:  This is endlessly fascinating.  Portland has 978 breweries (estimated), and they're all "West Coast."  Portland is legendarily provincial, a place where locals gleefully eschew anything non-Oregonian.  (Forty years ago, a certain local brewery made some hay with that very concept.)  Many Oregonians are erstwhile Midwesterners who left places like Ohio because they wanted to live in a weird un-Ohio town like Portlandia where, presumably, they weren't seeking Ohio beer.  It seems like a steep and rugged climb.  That said, the brewery says it intends to make Portland-only beer on site, and I'm sure the brewers will quickly integrate into the Portland brewing community.  The Pearl is so expensive that there aren't many mid-range restaurants around, which will help get people in the door.

Will Fat Head's fly?  I have no earthly idea.

2.  Is Cheap Beer Good?
Writing in GQ, David Chang (a chef, Google informs this non-foodie) declares his love for mass market lager.  "And there's no drink I love more. I love it more than any great white wine, more than any white Burgundy, which I love very, very much. In my fridge, the only beer—practically the only foodstuff I've ever purchased for home—is Bud Light bottles."

Comment: God bless him.  I know this is total exhibitionist click-bait, but I'd like to use it as an opportunity to come out against beer-shaming.  People like what they like.  It's long past time we stopped trying to get them to drink what we like.  Over the last ten years, I've found myself in countless versions of the same discussion with someone who'd become interested in exploring beer, but was worried s/he didn't like the "right" ones.  There should be no shame in beer.  You love Bud Light or Shock Top: good for you. If so, I might suggest Breakside Pilsner or Allagash White, but I'm not going to look at you with surprised derision and shake my head in sadness.  And I think anyone who does has missed the whole point of "enjoying" beer.

Comment 2:  For some reason chefs often like light lagers.  I have formed theories that relate to their interest in not having strong liquid flavors compete with their subtle chewable ones, but haven't done a full double-blind study yet.

(Stan Hieronymus directs us today to a rebuttal by Garrett Oliver, which is not persuasive.)

3.  Seawater Beer
Vice points us to Er Boqueron, a Spanish beer made with Mediterranean sea water.  The writer is interested in a related study that shows that deep ocean water, partially desalinated, helps speed recovery time after exercise.  Naturally--it is Vice--this leads the writer to believe that it might prevent hangovers. 

Comment: Sea water?  Based on reviews, it must be pretty heavily desalinated.  But at the very least, the phenomenon shows you how far we've gotten into the exotic beer trend.

4.  Beer in the Non-Beer Press
James Fallows is an old-school foreign-policy journalist writing for The Atlantic.  He has developed a passion for craft beer and occasionally blogs about it.  In the current edition of the magazine, he wrote an article about Jim Koch.  I direct you to it because it's interesting to see non-beer people write about beer.  Fallows did a follow-up piece on his blog, wherein he noted how, despite how superficially unimportant beer is, it has a serious impact.  Fallows has been doing a project for the past year looking at the circumstances and problems confronting small American towns.  Connecting his avocation and vocation, he writes: "I know this seems like a running gag, but quite seriously we've come to think that the locally based, strongly locally branded food-and-beverage outfits we've seen from Maine to Mississippi to South Dakota, are significant business operations and signs of civic health."

Comment:  In the Koch piece, Fallows describes him as a billionaire.  This goes back to a point I have been making for some time: beer is a lucrative business.  The happy warrior Fallows describes is the public version, but Koch, like all billionaires, has managed to succeed through a combination of hard-nosed (and often controversial) business decisions, political acumen, aggressive competition, and periodic collaboration with some competitors.  I don't fault Fallows for anything he wrote except the sepia-toned filter that colors the piece with a promotional gloss.  It's a bit Pravda-esque.

5.  47,000 Articles About Pumpkin Beer

Comment:  I hate pumpkin beer.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tricks Wholesalers Use, a Pay-to-Play Follow-up

Earlier this week, Dann Paquette made some pretty incendiary claims about how breweries got tap handles in certain Boston pubs: by paying for them.  After I posted on it, a few people emailed to give some insight into their experiences here.  I know all these people and can vouch they are who they say they are--but for obvious reasons they did not want their names associated with their comments.  I think you'll find it interesting, though.

This first comment, from a brewery sales rep working in OR, WA, ID, and AK, summarizes a lot of what I heard:
Pay to play absolutely exists in mature markets like the northwest but it's not typically found in bars except for high volume accounts with few beer choices. You can imagine even if you could convince a buyer at a bar with a great beer selection to put beer on in exchange for money or gifts it would not make the consumer try your beers. The accounts that do this seem to be closer to stadiums and event centers that have huge crowds that pack a place but are not known for beer selection. If you are one of a few beer handles you will pick up some sales. 
But unlike some markets, where it seems corruption is rampant (the source above added "I went on a trip to Chicago a year ago and could not believe what was being asked of me. Buyers asked to buy two kegs get one free. Bartenders asked for money to push our beer"), it's more nuanced in the Northwest.  This comes from a wholesaler:
We do see some of this in Portland, where if distributors don’t give accounts free T-shirts, glassware, kegs etc. then your beer isn’t on.   I know of one distributor that’ll give an out of date keg to an account for free to sell in another tap handle.  Overall it’s not too bad in Portland (& Oregon in general) but it does happen with certain accounts.  My impression is it’s driven by the accounts asking for free stuff vs. distributors pushing free stuff.

We compete pretty hard in Portland but I’m pretty pleased to say it’s mostly above board.  All the OR distributors sit in the room together at OBWDA meetings and get along for the most part.
There seems to be a fuzzy line where breweries are asked to offer inducements of freebies.  (You can see how that would be good for pub business.) A former rep for a NW brewery added a bit of texture.  (The source asked me to paraphrase his comments.)
Wholesalers aren't allowed to give "items of value" to pubs in OR and WA.  You can give things like information sheets or beer mats, but not leather jackets, neon signs or free kegs.  Interestingly, it is legal to give items to customers--things like glassware, given to pubgoers directly, rather than through the pub.  
He went on to describe a practice that is probably not legal, but would be nearly impossible to police.  He actually witnessed this happen first hand.
A brewery was willing to pay $500 to the distributor's representative if he could move ten kegs of the brewery's beer.  This is legal.  As the promotion was about to end, the distributor had sold only eight kegs.  At the last account, he swung a deal so that he essentially dipped into the promo money and sold the two kegs to the pub for the price of one.  (The pub paid for the two up front, and the distributor shared the cost of the keg later.) 
Writing in comments, The Common's Josh Grgas echoed the same thing:
There is a backward pay to play approach some larger craft breweries have taken. In this case, a brewery will provide a cash incentive to distributor's sales reps for each competitors tap handle they acquire. This type of head hunting has happened in Portland, unfortunately. 
Josh added a comment that illustrates how hard it would be to separate pubs who are corruptible from those who just have random preferences:
Committed lines do happen, but it’s not nefarious like in other areas. A bar manager might stock a certain brewery or distributor based on personal preference, superior service or other intangibles. For example, there’s a bar in NE that almost exclusively stocks a certain distributor because the distributor’s warehouse is located nearby and the staff all drink at the bar after work. 
The upshot: Portland and Oregon are probably pretty clean, but every market is different.  We often talk about the ways in which the three-tiered system is so good at preventing market domination--and it is.  But having an invisible layer in between the producer and retailer also offers an opportunity for hard-to-stop corruption.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"A Whores' Market"

Alan McLeod alerts us to a fascinating story on Esquire.
What’s “pay to play”? It’s when breweries bribe bars under the table to stock their beers and freeze out competition and is, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations, an illegal practice. [Pretty Things' Dann] Paquette even dared “name names,” accusing some popular Massachusetts’ joints such as Bukowski’s Tavern and The Lower Depths of accepting this dirty money. Paquette further noted, “Ever heard the term ‘committed lines’? This is what it means. Breweries buy draft lines so their lame beers aren't irrelevant.” He didn’t name any of these “lame” breweries though he hinted at one, saying “Right now one of the hottest newish brewers in MA pays for lines all over the place....”

But, in fact, it’s not just Massachusetts where this is a major issue. In 2010, a Crain’s investigation found that a trendy Chicago hotel bar had been taking payouts and other bribes from a powerful MillerCoors distributor. Deb Carey of New Glarus Brewing went so far as to call the city of Chicago “a whores' market,” noting, “Everyone has a hand out and everyone wants some cash, (free) beer or a discount.”
I have no idea whether this is a real thing or not.  Accusations are not facts.  Much as Dann Paquette is respected by beer geeks, this is nothing but rumor-mongering.  Based on the reactions, I have a strong suspicion it is happening--but I wish Dann had some actual evidence to offer.  The issue is a rich one, and if you want to get a sampling of opinion the issue has sparked, look here

I'm interested in informed thought on this, as well as straight-from-the-arse opinion.  I only have the latter, but to get a conversation started, here it is.  Although this practice sounds bad, I wonder how big a problem it actually is, at least in mature markets.  In towns along the West Coast (and I suspect this applies to Boston, too), pubs would be making a poor decision to take uninteresting beers along with a small handout.  The competition among bars is such that those offering anodyne choices aren't going to attract many customers.  It doesn't really matter how much a brewery is paying you under the table if no one's coming to drink your beer.  Seems like the market would be self-correcting.

If anyone has had direct experience with this and wants to chat on or off the record, you can shoot me an email at the_beerax (at)

Your thoughts?