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Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Few Quickie Recommendations at the OBF

Source: @RogueAles
I braved the liquid skies and mud bogs for opening day at the Oregon Brewers Festival yesterday, and aside from the very unusual weather, things went just as you would expect.  Lots of people, nice conversation, and good beer.  One of the topics of conversation begins with the question, "what have you had today that was good?"  In the spirit of that, here are my (necessarily incomplete) answers.

  • Boneyard Bone-a-fide.  You have certain expectations about Boneyard: a sweet malt base that lifts up an intense infusion of hops.  Boneyard meets your expectations.  At 5.5%, it's a perfect festbier.
  • Boundary Bay Double Dry Hop Mosaic.  Very much in the  Boneyard mode--vivid but not oppressive washes of hops.  They build through mid-palate, and you expect a shattering finish, but no, it fades out into a sunny, fruity finish.
  • Heathen Megadank.  This is listed, wrongly, at 120 IBUs.  It's actually not hugely bitter, but it is saturated in hops--dank, slightly fruity hops.  
  • Klamath Basin Breakfast Blend.  A coffee IPA that is just a notch below the best I've ever had, but which nevertheless demonstrates the potential of hops and coffee (which just shouldn't work).
  •  Sierra Nevada/Ninkasi Double Latte Coffee Milk Stout.  The name pretty much says it all, and it really hit the spot as the rain was hammering down.
We don't all have the same palates, so I'll throw out a few more that were good--and perhaps in your mouth, great.  Bayern Amber (a graduate course in rich malting), Crux Off-Leash Session Ale (a Crystal hop special that will probably show better under hot skies), Ecliptic Crimson Saison (interesting balance, but my palate was gone), Payette Blood Orange IPA (more IPA than blood orange, but good), Logsdon Straffe Drieling (just had a sip, but it seemed really impressive), Sixpoint 3Beans (a bit hot, but rich and creamy).

I didn't encounter any disasters.  There were beers that didn't hit me in the happy spot, from Upright's overly spiced (those damn pink peppercorns again) saison to Caldera's coconut porter (too coconutty--but others were going crazy for it).  Even Laht Neppur's latest non-beer confection, a peach pie beer that tasted 100% of the former and 0% of the latter, was well done for what it was. 

That's the report; go forth and enjoy--

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Twenty-odd Years at the Oregon Brewers Festival

I have been attending the Oregon Brewers Festival every year since somewhere in the 1990-1992 range.  (I have a spectacular inability to remember the years things happened.)  Just to put that in perspective, we're talking about the Bush administration--the first Bush administration.  Not only were there no real cell phones (and consequently no vintage selfies to offer), but the internet didn't yet exist.  (!)  Neither did the Pearl District, Voodoo Doughnuts, or food cart pods.  You could, however, smoke wherever you wanted, and there was a kick-ass old brewery wreathing downtown in the scent of wort and hops.

The OBF did exist, however, and the experience was almost identical to the one you can enjoy over the next five days.  There have been a few changes on the margins--it has gone from two to five days, and those old opaque-plastic mugs were finally dumped in favor of glass.  But the experience has not changed.  The fest is still located on a green ribbon between the buildings of downtown and the mighty Willamette River.  It's still "always the last full weekend in July."  There are still north and south constellations of trailers, each with eight taps manned by smiling volunteers.  You still saunter up to one of those volunteers and offer a $1 wooden token for a pour (four for a full glass), and take it back to your clutch of friends, standing in a circle in some shady spot.  As inflation eats away at that dollar, the real price for a pour has been roughly halved since the first fest.

In three hours, I'm going to meet friends for the annual ritual.  We always went on the opening day, and fortunately, we're all old men who have managed to get jobs that allow us to take a Wednesday off to go drink beer all day--when we started, the first day was a convenient Friday.  We'll still stand around in a circle and tell each other familiar old stories.  (Next year, a friend's son will be old enough to join us if he wishes.)  Wars and famines have come and gone, regimes have risen and fallen, the world has shrunk and sped up, and yet each year in July, Portlanders can step into a bubble where time has been frozen--and where the beer is always fantastic.

I made this little video back in 2006, and except for those plastic mugs, there are very few clues to suggest it wasn't made last year (or next year, if you're feeling quantum).  If you're a lucky old (or young) man (or woman) and are heading down today, say hello--

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Old Town Red Ships of Spain

It doesn't make any sense.
Belgium is such a tiny country that it usually surprises people to learn that there were several regions within its cramped boundaries with distinct brewing traditions.  Even today, when you consider the wheaty beers associated with Hoegaarden and Brussels or the rustic farmhouse ales in the south, you see vestiges of these traditions.  Or when you pass through Flanders, the northwestern part of the kidney-shaped country.  There you will find dark ales, sometimes rich and rounded, as made by the monks at Westvleteren, or acidic and fruity, like those at Verhaeghe and Rodenbach. 

These go back at least two hundred years.  When he toured Belgium in the 1840s, the brewer Georges Lacambre found different kinds of brown beers all across the region.  The ales got dark not by the addition of roasted malt, but because they boiled the worts for insane lengths--from 12 to 20 hours (!).  Over those great lengths, the malts caramelized.  Everyone felt at the time that only good beer came from long, "healthy" boils, and the color was proof of process.  (Nevertheless, Lacambre wasn't impressed.  He said “far from being very pleasant indeed, for it is bitter, harsh and somewhat astringent.”)  Many of the beers were barrel-aged and tart, but there is also a long tradition of these rich, velvety darks that dance on the line between roasty and sweet.

All of which brings me to Old Town Brewing's newly-released Red Ships of Spain, a beer made with the Leuven yeast strain (Brasserie du Bocq) selected for this year's Cheers to Belgian Beers.  Brewer Bold Minister calls it a "Belgian pale," but at the color of Rodenbach (at least in the mood lighting of the old town location), it reads more dark than pale to my eye.  But it is the flavor that gives away the game.  This is no crisp, delicately spiced pale in the mode of a Taras Boulba (Smeirlap!).  No.  It has much deeper, exotic aromas, like I would imagine drift out of Turkish spice markets.  The folds of malt envelop the tongue, and there is a distinctly chocolate note.  I also picked up a warming phenolic sensation that was the physical manifestation of those spicy aromas. 

As I gulped it--Red Ships of Spain, at 6.8%, is a quaffer--I was having clear flashbacks to my stay in Watou, when I drank brewery-fresh Pater 6 at St. Bernardus's Brouwershuis.  The two are kindred spirits.  But because Pater 6 is a somewhat more perishable beer, I've never found it in that fresh state here in the US.  Now, for as long as Red Ships plies the waters of old town, you can experience the joy of an old Flanders dark ale, just like they do in Watou. 

(Red Ships of Spain?  "This is the second in my Robert Goulet series," Bolt said.  And then he went on to explain something obscure about an SNL skit.  We're talking very deep cuts in the reference department here.  Google it if you want to lose a half hour.)

"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.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Oregon Brewers Fest By the Numbers

What is that deep rumble I hear shaking the earth like a refrigerator-sized subwoofer?  Why, it's the sound of beer trucks trundling toward Tom McCall Waterfront Park for the annual Oregon Brewers Festival.  And as surely as those trucks make their trek, so do I journey deeply into the database of beers to provide you with a by-the-numbers look at the grandaddy of American beer fests.

For those of you who are too busy to read the details, two trends that will amaze and astonish: there are more beers using fruit (23) and almost as many flavored beer (18) as there are IPAs of all types (21); the huge trend last year in Dortmund exports (3) seems to have run its course.  Also, for the first time, the OBF is styling itself the Oregon Brewfest.  Dunno what you want to make of that.

The Numbers
This year, the specialty tent returns (formerly called the "Buzz Tent"), but we don't calculate those in the figures.  (I am nevertheless delighted to have it back.)   Also note that in the numbers below, the bolded text refers to 2014, while the text in the (parentheses) are last year's.  Here we go...

Years since inception: 27
Total beers: 88 (84 in 2012)
Total breweries: 87 (82)*
States represented: 14 (12)
Percent Oregon: 58% (57%)
Percent California: 14% (14%)
Percent Washington: 11% (14%)
All Others: 17% (15%)

Total styles (by broad category): 25 (28)
Lagers: 6 (13)
IPAs: 24% (14%)
__- Standard IPA: 10 (9)
__- Double IPA: 4 (1)
__- CDA: 1 (2)
__- Fruit IPA: 4 (N/A)
__- Flavored IPA: 3 (N/A)

By style:
__- IPAs: 21 examples (12)
__- Fruit Wheats: 11 (10)
__- Pale ale: 10 (9)
__- Pilsner: 3 (3)
__- Berliner Weisse 3 (N/A)
__- Abbey: 3 (0)
__- Stouts and porters: 3 (0)
__- Kolsch: 1 (3)
__- Gluten-free: 2 (2)
__- Dortmund Export 0 (3)
__- Witbier: 1 (3)

Beers using spices/flavors: 23, 26% (14, 17%)
Fruit beers: 18, 20% (16, 19%)
Belgian styles: 13% (12%)
German/Czech styles: 15% (18%)
Totally weird beers**: 8% (15%)

ABV of smallest beer (Cigar City Blood Orange/Dragon Fruit Florida Weisse): 3.5% (3.5%)
ABV of largest beer (Dogfish Head Oak-Aged Strong Ale): 11% (10%)
Average ABV: 6.11% (6.0%)
Beers below 5.5% ABV: 31 (31)
Beers above 7% ABV: 21 (14)
Fewest IBUs in Fest (Beer Valley and Elysian): 0 (8)
Most IBUs at the Fest (Heathen Megadank): 120 (116)
Average IBUs: 40 (38)
Beers between 0 and 40 IBUs: 50 (58)

*In past years, the Fest allowed some breweries to surreptitiously double up--like Rogue and Issaquah.  This year the only double is Widmer and gluten-free Omission--which is nearly permissible.  (But  I doubt Harvester would agree.)
** A big caveat here.  A ton of these beers are brewed to no style whatsoever, and about half have either fruit or flavors added.  But there's a "black wit" and a few oddballs like that which, even by today's free-and-loose standards, are totally weird.  To me, beers like this year's smallest, Cigar City Blood Orange/Dragon Fruit Florida Weisse, is not totally weird.  Your mileage may vary.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: Gilroy Was Good For Guinness by David Hughes

Gilroy Was Good For Guinness
David Hughes
Liberties Press, 256 pages
$40 hardcover

How about a nice off-speed pitch?  Today's review touches only tangentially on beer.  Almost everyone, beer fan or no, is familiar with the iconic ads from the twenty years on either side of midcentury: My Goodness My Guinness, Guinness For Strength, and Lovely Day For a Guinness.  The main illustrator behind those ads was John Gilroy, an English artist whose Guinness ads started appearing around 1930.

The book's central focus are those illustrations, though it does touch on his full career, which included fine art as well as commercial art.  Although he was never able to fully ascend to the highest echelons of the fine art world, he did do some very accomplished portraiture work, capturing the vitality and spirit of his subjects.  But the book only acknowledges this element of his career; Hughes is much more interested in the Guinness material.

What interested me most was not the familiar art (though flipping through the pages and seeing rough sketches and discarded ideas is fascinating) but the amazing grasp Gilroy and Guinness had on the brand--in decades long before ad men used the term.  This part of the story is only hinted at, and yet with each new illustration, you see how the clarity of the vision led to an iron-clad sense of the brand.  One of Gilroy's most memorable series involved a zookeeper whose stouts kept getting purloined by different animals.  In one, a satisfied-looking ostrich has a pint glass descending his long neck.  In another, an upside-down kinkajou cradles the glass.  Gilroy suggested a theme with a cobra and a snake charmer--the rough sketch is included--but Guinness rejected the pitch because snakes weren't cuddly enough.  It's a great idea, and it must have taken some soul-searching to discard it, but such was the clear-eyed sense of what the company wanted to project.

Hughes doesn't do a spectacular job with the text.  The long introduction spends way too much time on Gilroy's personal life and way too little time on his life as an artist.  Except for my reading of Peter Schjeldahl, I have very little sense of art.  It would have been useful for Hughes to have covered the artistic side of Gilroy.  I would also have liked a sense of the Guinness ads in a larger context--what was their influence?  What kind of art was typical for the time?  How did Gilroy influence other illustrators and ad men, and what was the legacy of the Guinness ads?  Hughes skips all this.  

The art does speak for itself, however.  We learned earlier this year that a cache of Gilroys revealed some unsettling illustrations for export ads to Nazi Germany.  In the context of his full scope of work, though, they look pretty typical.  Gilroy was asked to adapt a lot of his themes for foreign markets, and--remember, these are advertisements meant to sell beer--he played on national and cultural themes of the countries in question.  That a 1936 campaign for exports to Germany involved Nazi images is not incredibly surprising (they were never produced commercially).  Nevertheless, they are fascinating and add to the narrative.

It's a full-color book that captures the richness of the Guinness campaign.  It's not a cheap book, but the money is well-spent on the reproductions.  Those who enjoy commercial art, and especially the fans of breweriana, would probably appreciate having this on their bookshelf.

In July, You Can't Swing a Dead Cat Without Hitting a Beer Fest

Click to enlarge.
July used to belong to just one beer fest, the giant kegger-by-the-river that kicks off in five day's time.  Then the international beer fest muscled its way onto the calendar (though this year it's coming in August). That made room for other fests, big and small (Puckerfest, Belmont Station's celebration of sour beers, is still one of the best).  This weekend we'll have the formerly in-house McMenamins Roadhouse Brewfest, and it will compete with the new and still-shiny White Owl Lagerfest on Saturday and Sunday.

I have no idea if Lagerfest will join the pantheon of beloved classics, but it's relevant in 2014 not only because it's something new, but because lagers are making a big return to the west coast.  Why I find most fascinating is that these aren't lagers in ale drag, all bejeweled with subtle esters and way too many hops.  They cleave to more ancient traditions and are sessionable in both strength and hop intensity; there are German pilnsers and helleses gallore, along with an occasional Vienna lager, schwarzbier, and maibock.  Unusually, the fest has different taplists both days, and of the two, you'll find more hard-to-get lagers on Sunday, including more from beyond Beervana.  But both days have great line-ups, and for the lagerheads and lager-curious, it looks like a really nice time. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: The Craft Beer Revolution by Steve Hindy

The Craft Beer Revolution
Steve Hindy
Palgrave Macmillan, 250 pages

Steve Hindy's new book is a serious and important work.  It contains some incredibly revealing details about the long history of brewing--particularly the history from 1988 onward, after Hindy co-founded Brooklyn Brewery and entered the history books.  It is also a wandering, unfocused narrative that contains two competing threads: early craft-brewing hagiography and an insider's guide to the unkempt, sweaty inner workings of an industry.  One half is disposable; the other half is indispensable.

The hagiography occupies the first section of the book, and it reads like many forebears.  Hindy clips through the pantheon of greats--Maytag, Grossman, McAuliffe, Papazian, Michael Jackson, and so on.  There is little here that's new, and Hindy treats the founders with a reverence we've come to expect in these kinds of books.  As he gets further along, to when he enters the picture, things start to pick up speed, though, and we see hints of things to come.  There is an absolutely fascinating section where he takes on the early, carnival-barker years of Jim Koch's rise at Boston Beer.  But then it loses focus again when he devotes a chapter to the class of '88, the ostensible goal of which is to illustrate the diversity in approach among the craft brewers.  But that was the year he founded Brooklyn, and he gives his own brewery a little biography along entries for Goose Island, Deschutes, Great Lakes, Rogue, and others.

Before he was a brewing magnate, Hindy worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press.  The Craft Beer Revolution benefits from his skill as a reporter.  He ably weaves history and anecdotes (his and others') into a compelling narrative.  But I think that reporter Hindy would have made a different decision about how to approach this book than brewery-owner Hindy did.  You can either write a business memoir or a straightforward history, but blending the two mars the history.  Hindy can't write about Brooklyn dispassionately (who could?), and for large stretches of the book, those competing impulses weaken the narrative.

Hindy shifts gears midway through, however, and the book becomes a revelation.  Here Hindy starts talking about the inside of craft brewing, the blood-and-guts reality that has been largely airbrushed out of the canon.  He treats the flood of money in the mid-90s with more details and insight than I've seen anywhere.  It's a blend of big-picture trend analysis and anecdotes that reveal the more human aspects of that time.  Oregonians may remember a mysterious brand that appeared briefly on shelves called Oregon Ale.  It was a contract-brewed stealth product by Boston Beer.  Hindy describes the situation and gets nice quotes from Oregon brewers--and then shows how Oregon responded to the threat.  These kinds of examples go on and on.

He goes into the tensions among craft brewers and between craft brewers and larger brewers.  Hindy describes the painful strife that led to the creation of the Brewers Association, with folks like Deschutes' Gary Fish on one side, glowering at Charlie Papazian on the other.  As an inside observer to the industry, he also understands the role distribution played in preserving large-brewer dominance, and devotes two chapters to describing the politics of changing the old arrangement.  (Old timers from Oregon who remember AB's vaunted distribution network and it's "100% share of mind" moment in the 90s--which led to the union with Widmer--will find that story placed in a larger, understandable context.)  These chapters about what really happened, with protagonists and antagonists, is absolutely fascinating.

For anyone interested in the beer business (which is to say anyone interested in beer), I would recommend picking up a copy.  It has large sections of the kind of writing we don't need--congratulatory (and sometimes self-congratulatory) prose about the great and wonderful American craft brewers.  You will have heard of these saints before.  But the other half is full of the sinners, the real people and the real stories behind the glossy promo--people you know a lot less about.  And that half makes this book quite a read. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Feeling Bookish: The State of Reading

There's a lot going on in the world of books.  I've received a raft of interesting tomes recently, just at the moment when this whole Hachette-Amazon battle has put publishing square in the spotlights.  And that in turn raises an interesting discussion about how Americans get their information in 2014 and what the future of reading looks like.  All of this makes me think it's about time for a series of posts on the subject, including some reviews of these books I've been receiving.  But let's start with an overview. 

How We Read
I get vertigo when I think about how radically we've shifted what we read and how we read it--all in the space of less than two decades.  We may never have gotten our Jetson's flying cars, but we did get the internet, and it has transformed media in ways no one could have imagined or predicted.  Two decades ago, I was working at Memorial Library, a 5-million volume shrine to letters on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  If you wanted information about a subject, you had three choices: newspapers, magazines, or books.  By that time, card-catalogs had given way to computer catalogs, and that alone seemed revolutionary.  But there was no functional internet yet.  Oregon was already a decade into craft brewing, but the internet was being born: "The number of websites grew from 623 at the beginning of the year, according to one study, to more than 10,000 at the end. E-mail quickly spread from universities to offices and homes." 

In the beer world, we passed around rumors and wives' tales about history and brewing because there was no way to readily access anything else.  Within a few years, though, information started filtering onto the internet.  Message boards and listservs helped speed the dissemination of those rumors (as well as some good information.)  A decade later, blogs came into their own and more information flooded onto the internet.  Shortly thereafter, the first social media sites started to proliferate.  The iPhone came in 2007, and by the 2010s, we were all using data from maps, review and social media sites, commercial sites, Wikipedia and search engines to seamlessly navigate between the domains of knowledge and those of terrestrial space. 

From books and mags (pre-1994) to email, message boards, and listservs (pre-2000), to blogs (2002) to social media (from 2003--Myspace--onward), to information that knitted all these sources together in handheld computers (2008ish onward).  With the addition of Wikipedia in 2001 and Google Books around 2006--combined with the extraordinary power of search algorithms--information became instantly accessible to humans at the whisper of a question to Siri.  No flying cars, but that's not too bad.

It's a little hard to appreciate how radically it has changed the way we think about and consume information.  I used to read probably 30-50 books a year.  A certain portion of my day was allotted to reading.  I'm lucky if I hit double digits now.  It's not that I find books any less useful--in a way, I think all this fingertip access has made them more valuable--but the minutes in my day that I can devote to reading has shrunk.  Like everyone else, my eyeballs spend a lot of time being caressed by the soft blue light of my smart phone. 

All of this has changed how information is produced and packaged.  We have become fast-food readers, gobbling information as quickly as possible before clicking on.  Content providers have responded by offering shorter and shorter bits--generally to their detriment.  The publisher of our local paper, the Oregonian, has instructed reporters to squeeze multiple posts out of each story, so you get several half-baked fragments that are the literary equivalent of raw footage.  The O has also decided to package as many stories in list form, or at least to use a headline that suggests a list ("The Five Things to Know About the Street Fee").  That in turn drives readers to scan, because who's going to devote serious brain power to such slapdash "reporting?"  (Treat your reader with contempt and don't be surprised if you lose her.)

It's not entirely clear how all of this affects book reading.  We know that the way we read books has changed.  From an industry report (pdf): "In the United States, where ebooks have taken off dynamically since 2010, until plateauing in 2013, the overall revenues in all of the publishing industry, and print in particular, seem to continue their decline."  Physical books still constitute the pretty large proportion of the market.  Since Amazon doesn't share sales numbers, estimates are a bit dicey, but figure 80% of sales are still hardcover--which doesn't include the second-hand market.  Amazingly, hardcover book sales are now outpacing ebook sales--though I don't think anyone believes ebooks are a fading trend (and paperbacks are tanking).  Overall, book sales seem to be robust, with decent gains in four of the last five years. 

Twenty years ago, almost all our information came from newspapers, magazines, and books.  Now, information comes through dozens of sources, and newspapers and magazines are fighting to stay in business.  We spend more of our reading time on shorter, disposable pieces, but we still reserve some of it for books.  I take from this two lessons.  As readers, we now divide our attention between short pieces for either mindless entertainment or quick facts and longer pieces that help bring that fragmented information together.  People in the content-delivery business, therefore, seem to be sorting themselves into the two camps--providing longer, deeper reads, often at a cost, and disposable listicles and clickbait.  Once I thought the two worlds couldn't coexist, but now it seems like exactly the opposite.  In 1994, we were desperate for quick references.  But in 2014, we need more than just flotsam.  The two types of information are symbiotic; they need each other.  Because we, as readers, consume both types.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Third Wave Lagers

The new world wasn't much for beer for the first 250 years Europeans lived here.  The barley and hops weren't spectacular, and we had liquor instead.  That changed when Germans started immigrating in huge numbers in the middle of the 19th century and brought their tasty lagers with them.  I have a wonderful little history book called Brewed in the Pacific Northwest that lists scores and scores of breweries founded between 1850 and 1900, and nearly every one of them was helmed by a lager-brewing German.  It turned the US into a beer-drinking country (per capita consumption went from about 3 gallons to 16 gallons annually).  Call it the first wave of lagers.

That first wave was a monster--and indeed is still with us.  It was so successful, in fact, that in its pure dominion it sparked craft brewing.  Ultimately, that movement would be known far more for ales, but at the outset a lot of the earliest micros made lagers.  It wasn't really obvious in the mid-1980s what people would be drinking, so places like Stoudt's, Penn, Capital, and of course, Boston Beer all made lagers early on.  This wave was marked by breweries making full-flavor, all-barley German styles.  This was lager's second wave.

By the 1990s, it was clear that most of the craft action was happening with ales (Sam Adams notwithstanding).  This was especially true on the west coast, where it was nearly impossible to sell lagers.  All-lager breweries like Saxer and Thomas Kemper went bust.  Widmer, in the midst of a brewing retrospective, spent a decade trying--and failing--to move lagers.  Breweries attempted to smuggle lagers into people's fridges by adding lots of hops, directing attention away from the fact that they were lagers--anything to try to change their rep.  I was pretty sure it was never going to work.

But then, lo, they finally came to drink lagers.  Full Sail was clearly the West Coast's big groundbreaker with Session and the LTD line, but there are lots of lagers out there now.  Fort George has turned 1811 Lager into a co-flagship, and equally ale-y breweries like Ninkasi, Lagunitas, and Firestone Walker have successful lagers.  You can see that a trend has reached some kind of watershed when breweries start hopping on a bandwagon.  Nothing against Pyramid, which has an underrated line of beer, but it is not a brewery known to be on the leading edge of innovation.  When they released IPL earlier this year, it seemed to confirm the mainstreaming of lager.  This is the third wave of lagers.

Midwest and East Coast Lagers?
I have a pretty good sense about how this all developed on the West Coast, but I'm less clear about what's happening elsewhere.  In the next week or two, I'm going to start working on an article about third wave lagers, and I'd like to fill in the story nationwide.  For readers on the far coast and midwest, are you seeing third-wave lagers in your markets?  If there is a trend toward lagers, which beers helped popularize it?  Which breweries have led the way?  We are always unduly influenced by our own experience, so I don't want to assume that the West Coast is leading the way on lagers--but of course, it may be so.  Disabuse me of the notion if disabuse is needed.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Next Mass Market Beer: Saison?

It has been a long time since the word "slatepitch" entered our vocabulary, and the practice is now common.  For those who do not follow the minutiae of media trends, a slatepitch describes a story that takes a contrarian or counter-intuitive perspective, like "Why Sarah Palin is a closet liberal."  Slate Magazine remains the king and foremost practitioner of this tactic--thus the name--and so it's not so surprising to find this perfectly slatepitchy premise in today's edition:
Belgian beer has already provided the beer industry with one of its few legitimate breakout hits of the last 20 years: Blue Moon from Coors, inspired by the Belgian witbier style. The tart saison is a more obscure style of Belgian beer, and it could become a go-to lower-alcohol beverage for wine and champagne drinkers looking for a lighter quaff on warm summer days. A classic tart saison (or its sister style, the grisette) can be produced in about the same amount of time as a lager and deliver a crisp mouthfeel with a lightly sour and white wine–like flavor. It’s refreshing and complex, yet can deliver as little as 4 percent alcohol by volume, roughly equal to a Bud Light.  So what’s stopping craft breweries from putting out tart saisons by the truckfull?

Not actually that rare.  Source: Beer Obsessed
My first reaction was something in the contempt continuum, abetted in part by writer Pete Mortensen's many faulty assumptions and troubles with fact.  I don't know what he knows about beer, but his slugline bio reads, "Pete Mortensen is a project director and design strategist at Antedote, an innovation and insight agency based in San Francisco."

He says things like "because of the flavor problems these wild microbes can cause in conventional beers, few American craft brewers make tart saisons, and those that do, like Hill Farmstead in Vermont, tend to release them only at the brewery in limited supply at high price points."  (Craft breweries pretty much don't fear wild yeasts, and if they release beers infrequently it's because they're responding to market demand, not because they can't make more.)  And, "big brewers ... have access to the sanitation equipment required to defend barrels against wild yeast."  (All breweries have access to sanitation equipment.)  And, "Pale ales—especially India pale ales—are typically hoppy, which often translates to a strong bitterness that is off-putting to all but the most dedicated craft bros."  (No idea.)  

But here's the thing: he may very well have a point. 

Saisons are one of the styles that might appeal to a broad audience, particularly saisons with relatively subdued esters and phenols.  He's right in comparing the sensory terrain to witbier, the other style that has found a mass audience.  (The notion that mass market saisons should be made with brett and/or lactobacillus is another misfire--you can easily get "tart" from saison yeast itself.  In no possible universe does AB InBev start making a mass-market brett saison.)  A light saison with just a hint of yeast character, some nice raw graininess in the mouth, and a rich, creamy head--I could envision that selling like gangbusters.  You could even stretch the line a lot easier than you could with witbier, adding stronger saisons, hoppy saisons, and spiced saisons.  Blue Moon, by contrast, has had a hard time extending its brand past the original witbier formulation.

I have no idea whether this will or could ever come to pass.  (Mortensen's other two suggestions, that the bigs start making mass-produced barrel-aged beers and "New Zealand pale ales," I have a better idea about: nyet.  Absolutely nyet.  I can expand in comments if anyone cares.)  But it's exactly the kind of weird future we might find ourselves in.  The success of craft beer will definitely have some unexpected progeny.  Mass market witbier was the first case.  Mass market saison could become the second. 

Monday, July 07, 2014

A Hoppy Ale to Rule Them All

A couple-three weeks back, Zymurgy magazine released its annual poll of readers' favorite commercial beers.  Homebrewers do not in any way represent the average beer drinker, but they have been, since the 1970s, on the cutting edge of American brewing.  They were the first to use American hops, it was from their ranks that the first craft brewers emerged, and they have long been the leading practitioners of techniques now standard in professional brewing.  (I mentioned their latest innovation recently.) 

Where beer culture emerges, it does so buoyed by the enthusiasm of the most avid fans.  Look to their preferences if you want to see the state of the country.  The following list will therefore in no way surprise you.  It contains a surfeit of hoppy ales, a few dark ales, and a very thin smattering of outliers.  (Depending on how you classify things, 35 of the fifty listed beers were hoppy ales; another nine were dark ales.  Five were flavored, four were barrel-aged.  The first beer that is not either a hoppy or dark ale comes in at 25--Boulevard Tank 7.)  The top ten:

1. Russian River Pliny the Elder (hoppy ale)
2. Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (hoppy ale)
3. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA (hoppy ale)
4. Bell’s Hopslam (hoppy ale)
5. The Alchemist Heady Topper (hoppy ale)
6. Lagunitas Sucks (hoppy ale)
7. Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA (hoppy ale)
8. Stone Enjoy By IPA (hoppy ale)
9. Founders Breakfast Stout (dark ale) (flavored)
10. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout (dark ale) (barrel-aged)

I wondered how this stacked up to past years as a way to chart the changing preferences among the uber geeks.  Zymurgy has only been doing this for 11 years, unfortunately enough, yet even that span of time is instructive.  The American Homebrewers Association director, Gary Glass, sent me the 2003 list--actually a top-12.  Have a look:
1. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (hoppy ale)
2. Anchor Steam (steam beer)
3. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (hoppy ale)
4. Anchor Liberty Ale (hoppy ale)
5. Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale (hoppy ale)
6. Alaskan Smoked Porter (dark ale) (flavored)
7. Brewery Ommegang Abbey Ale (dubbel) (flavored)
8. Sierra Nevada Bigfoot (hoppy ale)
9T. Anchor Old Foghorn (hoppy ale)
9T. Great Lakes Edmond Fitzgerald Porter (dark ale)
9T. New Belgium Fat Tire (amber ale)
9T. Samuel Adams Boston Lager (Vienna lager)
Only half of those beers are hoppy ales.  It includes six different styles, including a lager and lager-like beer (there are no lagers on the current list of 50).  Vestiges of the early days of craft brewing--one is an amber ale and two are old-school barley wines--have now fallen out of favor (zippo of both on 2014's top-50 charts).  Eight--two-thirds--of those beers no longer make the homebrewers' top fifty (Anchor Steam, Anchor Liberty, Alaskan Smoked Porter, Ommegang Abbey, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Anchor Old Foghorn, New Belgium Fat Tire, and Boston Lager).

Eleven years doesn't seem like a long time in the scope of things, but we can see the distant past reflected in 2003's list.  It was still loaded with beers from the founders--half came from Anchor and Sierra Nevada, and throw in Sam Adams for good measure.  Even Fat Tire, which didn't go back to the beginning, represented one of the founding styles (amber ale).  What's really shocking is that there's only one IPA (though it's smuggled in under a different name).  You could slide Anchor Liberty uneasily into that camp, but it's no one's version of a modern IPA, no matter what the old-timers try to tell you.  Sierra Celebration, at 6.8% and 62 IBUs of c-hops, definitely is. It's America's first American IPA, and still loved by beer drinkers--it's number 15 on the 2014 list.

Pliny the Elder has won the reader poll six years running, which shows how hops came to dominate craft beer.  There's a way in which it seems like we've always loved hoppy beers, but the 2003 list is proof that hops are a fairly recent phenomenon.  What convinces me that this isn't another trend destined to be replaced is the overwhelming dominance that vein of styles has in the beer geek's imagination.  When you look at the 2003 list, you can see different camps represented.  There are the homebrewers who liked balanced session beers.  There are those who liked exotic flavored beers.  And there are those who liked hops.  When you look at the current list, you see homebrewers who like hops and stouts, full stop.  They're not evolving toward diversity--they're coming to agreement on what good beer is.  Just like the English, Irish, Belgian, German, and Czech drinkers have done. 

If I had to bet on what the list will look like in 11 more years, I'd put all my money on hops.  It has become our national tradition.