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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wait, There's Corn Sugar in My IPA??

When I posted a link on Facebook to the hop-degradation piece I did earlier this week, Pete Dunlop wrote:
No mention of the corn sugar, huh? Hmmm.
And then a few minutes later, in response to another question...
I don't have an objection to this post or to the use of dextrose. I just think it's important for people to understand how dextrose is being used in their fancy IPAs. I've discussed it with Jeff. I'm baiting him to write about it.
Well, consider me baited, Pete. 


Sugar is Kosher
It turns out using sugar is a somewhat under-discussed widespread practice, so let's discuss it. I think we should begin with the obvious question: who cares? The reason Pete even brought it up is because the use of sugar in beer was originally and ignorantly tarnished by craft brewers who considered its use purely a way to save money, with the added bonus of making the beer taste cheap and thin. In fact, sugar is a big part of the brewing traditions in Belgium and Britain, and it's used to enhance those beers. 

It does a few things. Because sugar is easily digestible by yeast, it thins a beer and adds crispness. This is a huge benefit in stronger Belgian ales. If you brew an all-barley beer to eight or ten percent strength, it will be both heavy and sweet. There are just too many unfermentable sugars in barley to get really attenuated beer. Let's take Duvel at not-quite random. It's a burly 8.5% beer, but it is incredibly lithe and drinkable. In fact, the name is a reference to that ease of drinking; like a Devil, it coaxes you into over-indulgence. Brewers at Duvel do a multi-step mash to get the most fermentable wort possible, but they also add sugar, perhaps 15%, and this pushes the beer to a finishing gravity of 1.5 Plato (1.006), which is astonishing. A regular pale ale will finish out at 3 Plato (twice as sweet), and an all-grain 8.5% stout might finish at 5 Plato--more than three times as sweet, and with a dense body. 

In British ales, sugar does something like the opposite--it allows very light ales to express their ingredients cleanly and clearly. Since a cask bitter or mild is made with so little malt (these beers are in the 3-4% range), they can't pack much flavor punch. By adding sugar, it lifts them up and exposes them a bit more. Hops are always perceived as stronger in thinner beers--it's why Belgian ales so rarely have much hoppiness--and in cask ales, that means those lovely East Kent Goldings really pop.

Sugar can even add its own flavor component. British brewers use a form called "invert sugar," where the sucrose molecule has been cleaved into glucose and fructose—two highly-fermentable forms of the sugar molecule. In Britain, invert sugar comes in a range of colors and can, in beers like stouts and milds, add color along with high fermentability. I interviewed local homebrewer Bill Schneller for my forthcoming book, because he's a big fan of invert. He told me, "You just can’t get the flavors of invert from crystal malts. [Invert gives you] richer color, different dried fruit flavors than crystal alone, plus a drier, easier-drinking beer than if you use all crystal malt. It adds complexity and flavors you just can’t get anywhere else."

What's Dextrose?
There are lots of sugars out there, and they'll all work in a beer--sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose (of course), and so on. Some of them are disaccharides like sucrose and maltose, composed of two monosaccharide molecules (like fructose and glucose). Dextrose is a starch-derived monosaccharide that comes from, ta-da!--corn. It's chemically extremely close to glucose. 

We have this second bias, probably a good one, against corn sugar. Even the phrase "corn sugar" can be easily turned into an epithet. But the use of corn in beer is not only old and completely respectable (I commend you now to Stan Hieronymus' forthcoming Brewing Local, which will fully and permanently exonerate our only native grain), but it's something even the Belgians do. Indeed, in many breweries you'll find this little side-vessel that you might mistake for use in decoction, but is in fact called a cereal cooker because it mashes corn. No less than Rodenbach does this. You want to tell Rudi Ghequire his beer uses cheap additives? Good luck with that. 

Dextrose is the most common sugar used in modern IPAs (I think), but I wouldn't bet even a nickel that it's the only sugar. Either way, it's fine.

Sugary IPAs
Okay, so now we come to the point of all this: do American brewers regularly dump corn sugar into your IPAs? You bet they do, and good thing. This is no secret. When I interviewed Vinnie Cilurzo for The Beer Bible, he readily described why he used sugar in the grist of Pliny the Elder when he first made it 13 years ago:
“If you want to know the difference between it and a barley wine, it’s got 3.5-4% crystal malt in it.  So having a low level of crystal malt you really let the hops come through.  They’re not being muddled by the caramel character of the crystal malt.  Also, we’re using a lot of sugars in the fermentables, dextrose sugar, so it’s drying the beer out and giving the beer a nice light, dry body.  Super crisp, but really dry yet really bitter.  And like you said the malt just lays the foundation and it’s just there to keep the hops in check without being sweet, malty, biscuity.  It’s a real simple malt bill and the hops are the shining star in that beer.”
That is about as clear a description of why brewers do this. When you're making an American IPA and you want a bit of caramel malt for sweetness, which can inflect hop flavor, you don't want to add unnecessary body. That's especially true if you're getting up there around 7% or more, when it's impossible to keep the sweetness and body at bay without sugar. The whole thing about American IPAs is that they're a vehicle for all the flavors and aromas of hops. Everything else--water, yeast, and malt--is there just to serve the hops. Sugar is invaluable, just as it is in strong Belgian ales, in this regard. 

So enjoy your IPA and know that it is in very good beer company. Corn sugar's fine!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bringing Us Together Through Beer

I spend about half my internet time reading about politics, and this is shaping up to be one of the grimmest, most divisive elections in my lifetime. But then I run across something like this and I think: "There is hope." That hope is beer.
OHIOPYLE, PA.- Judy and her husband Phil, who is in his 29th year of service in the military, along with three other couples who ventured from Pittsburgh to attend an annual craft beer festival held on the fringes of the Pennsylvania state park, all sat in folding chairs, waiting for the event to begin.

They were three hours early, the second in line and well stocked with sunscreen, bottles of water, string cheese, beef jerky, cold beers and a very happy state of mind. “We come for the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the music, the beer of course, it’s just a very good vibe here,” she said.
The article goes on to describe the couple and their political leanings and surfaces the rawness of the campaign. But I have a hunch that if I'd been standing next to them in line, we'd all have been happy to steer conversation straight back to the beer. What's that? Trump or Hillary? Actually, let's talk about IPA or pilsner.

Yes, that's much better.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Engineering an IPA That Lasts


This has been in the inbox for far too long, so let's have a look at it now. Grant Golden sent me this question, and it is the key that opens a box of fascinating information.

"I was wondering if there is any chance you might be interested in writing about or even just shedding some light on what about Breakside's IPA woos judges in almost every major beer competition in the states. I think it is a solid built-to-style American IPA, however, I just can't see how it continues to shine through and dominate when there is a plethora of other very, very well-constructed IPAs out there."

As it happens, I've discussed this with Breakside's brewer, Ben Edmunds. In the months before Breakside won GABF gold for its flagship IPA, the brewers had set about re-engineering that beer so it was more shelf-stable. What people love about the best IPAs are their fresh hoppiness, which is that combination of aromatics, flavor, and bitterness and how those elements play off the malt bill and (in some cases) fermentation characteristics. One of my favorite quote comes from a technical paper on aging beer, and the writers put it this way: "However, the constituents of freshly bottled beer are not in chemical equilibrium. Thermodynamically, a bottle of beer is a closed system and will thus strive to reach a status of minimal energy and maximal entropy." 

The entropy happens faster in IPAs, and the qualities that make the best ones so good are also the qualities that dissipate the quickest. When you put an IPA in a bottle, you have a very narrow window in which it will still taste as it does on tap at the brewery, and then it begins to go through a change. If you haven't prepared the beer for how it's going to taste at 30, 45, and 60 days as it goes through those changes you're left with an empty, hollow space where the flavor and aroma used to be. Here's Ben on that process:
“You have 20 days of brewery freshness and then it begins to degrade. If you bottle condition, you might buy yourself a week. But by day 30 you’re dealing with a fundamentally different beer than you had at day one. When you’re building these beers you should know what that beer will taste like at day 30. You can lament that ‘oh, it doesn’t taste like it used to.’ But knowing what that oxidative curve is and what those flavors will be is really important. Some hop aroma and flavors that oxidize are more pleasant than others.” 
There's no research into the process Ben describes, and they've been approaching it through trial and error. One of the reasons Breakside's various IPAs do well in contests is because they taste better when flights are finally poured out for judges, weeks after brewing, than other beers. That's because the brewery isn't just trying to make the best IPA at day 15, but one that is still toothsome at day 90--which requires an entirely different recipe. Other breweries that ignore the changes their beers go through may be disappointed in contest results, but they're essentially being graded on different beers than they sent.

As we spoke, Ben described the sensory change their Wanderlust IPA goes through (it's not their flagship, which is just called "IPA") by way of description.
“If you take Wanderlust as an example, the first fifteen days is all Mosaic and then it goes through this adolescence and between day 15 and 30 and what’s happening is this weird interference with Mosaic dropping out, but around day 30 the Amarillo starts to come forward and it becomes this new beer around day 30. When you have that beer from day 30 to 45, it has a little bit of tropical dankness, but essentially all that Mosaic character is gone and it becomes more bright, citrus peel, marmalade. I like to think how a hoppy beer is going to last on a shelf, and I don’t mind it going through this evolution.” 
He added that in their experience, some hops have "more legs" than others. Not surprisingly, they're some of the classics--Cascade and especially Centennial. Amarillo are good as well. 

So there you go. Commercial breweries have different sets of challenges depending on when and how they sell beer. If you're a brewpub that can move a flagship IPA through the pub in a month, you don't have to think about this stuff. If you're sending it out in bottles, particularly if you're sending it throughout the country, you have to consider what violence age and oxidation will wreak. Or, I suppose, if you're sending it to Denver to win a medal in the IPA category.

Monday, June 20, 2016

And the Next IPA is . . . ?

Each year the homebrewing magazine Zymurgy polls its readers about their favorite beers. The results are in most ways no more interesting than the average Thrillist article. What do you care if a bunch of people you don't know say Bell's Hopslam is better than Lagunitas IPA? What is notable is how thoroughly IPAs dominate the list. Here's the top ten (of the list's top fifty):
1. Russian River Pliny the Elder
2. Bell’s Two Hearted Ale
3. The Alchemist Heady Topper
4. Ballast Point Sculpin IPA
5. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin IPA
6. Founders Breakfast Stout
7. Three Floyds Zombie Dust
8. Bell’s Hopslam Ale
9. Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout
T10. Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA
T10. Stone Enjoy By IPA
Humans are generally blind to their own culture. But if you want a mirror in which to examine your own weird ways, Americans, I give you this list. It's true that homebrewers are just one group among beer fans, and if you polled the American public, you wouldn't come up with this list. But as beer fans go, homebrewers are a great subgroup. They're not just avid fans, they're avid fans who know a lot about different styles of beer. Polls many times reflect the ignorance of the respondents. Ask a thousand Americans about how to handle, say, the Yazidi crisis, and you'll come up with a majority who select one answer category. That doesn't mean more than four of them have ever heard of the Yazidis. Homebrewers are a reflection of the most knowledgeable group of beer drinkers in America. If you were looking for a new trend in brewing that might refute the dominance of IPAs, it would be among this group. Gose? Zero beers in the top 50. Saisons? One. Wild Ales? Two. Hoppy American ales? 37. (Big black ales are a majority of the non-IPAs.)

I noted this trend a couple years ago, and tracked down a list from the first poll Zymurgy ever did back in 2003. Only half the top ten were hoppy ales then, and just two of what we'd call IPA or IPA-adjacent beers today (Sierra Nevada Celebration and Stone Arrogant Bastard).

If you're looking at these lists and still can't understand what I'm talking about, imagine if this were a German homebrewing magazine. Would you expect to see 82% of the top beers represented by IPA? Of course you wouldn't. Once you chuck light lagers out of the equation, the passion among beer drinkers is starkly clear. For anyone who's spent time looking at the development of beer styles, this makes complete sense, too. In other beer-drinking countries, the national or regional palate narrows and gets more specific, whether it's světlý ležák or abbey ale or kölsch. When we look in the mirror of this poll, our developing culture is staring right back at us.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Draft Beer State of Mind

Bart Watson and I were on the same page. Yesterday, I ran across this data set from My Beer Haul that shows the percentage of breweries in each state that bottle or can their beer. It all comes from internal data, and I can't verify whether it's accurate or not, but based on the brewery counts, it at least looks quite up to date. The national average is 45%. But when you start scanning the state-level data, you see incredibly wide variance. I dumped the numbers into Excel and did a few sorts. I quickly realized that brewery number really affects the percentages (only one of North Dakota's nine breweries bottles or cans--but all of Puerto Rico's four do), so I eliminated states with fifty or fewer breweries. Here's the variance at the top and bottom of the list

States With Highest Bottling/Canning Rates
76% - Massachusetts (109 breweries)
61% - Vermont (54 breweries)
60% - Wisconsin (139 breweries)

States With Lowest Bottling/Canning Rates
32% - Michigan (204 breweries)
29% - Iowa (54 breweries)
28% - Arizona (72 breweries)
There are a lot of ways you could slice and dice these data, and my crude cut-off doesn't capture much of the nuance. Sorting by breweries per capita would be more informative, but that would require me to find the populations of 50 states, and the benefit doesn't justify the effort. The upshot is evident in these numbers: there's huge variation state to state.

Bart Watson, the Brewers Association's economist, posted a highly relevant article yesterday that further illuminates this phenomenon. He finds exactly the same thing.
The first note is that the size of the on-premise beer market varies wildly by state. This is due to a variety of factors: beer’s share of beverage alcohol, overall beer consumption levels, number of on-premise outlets, on-premise culture, consumer preferences and socioeconomic factors.... [T]he variations are pretty huge, ranging from almost 44 pints per 21+ adult in Colorado to 5.5 pints per 21+ adult in Mississippi. 
He then adds another layer, explains it in technical statistics-ese, and summarizes his finding this way:
In crunching the numbers, the size of the on-premise beer market appears to be far more important for brewery per capita numbers than the size of the overall beer market....  In layman’s terms, that means when you know both the size of the draught market in a state and the size of the total beer market, the size of the draught market is a much better predictor of the number of small and independent breweries.
(For you stats folk, his r-squared was a muscular 0.7, which ain't bad.) Watson has three cool graphs, so click through and read his piece.

The Big Upshot: Draft is Good
I have been promoting the maxim "buy local, buy good, and buy on draft" as a guide to developing healthy beer culture, and Watson's numbers back me up.
The data suggest that states where on-premise is more important to the beer market, craft does better in the off-premise. The logic is fairly simply: in places where more beer lovers are in bars and restaurants drinking beer and thus encountering craft, off-premise locations have better sales for craft brewers as well.
So there you have it. Drink on draft and you will create a virtuous cycle that buoys local breweries.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Chafing Under the Tyranny of Mosaic Hops

If you pay much attention to the hops in you beer, you will probably have noticed that Mosaic is one of the most common varieties listed. This is pretty remarkable for a hop released only in 2012. There were nearly 1,800 acres under cultivation in Idaho and Washington in 2015, which puts it out in front of varieties like Crystal and Willamette--and it well more than doubled in acreage last year, so the growth curve is probably going to push it up into Citra territory in the next few years. The reason, of course, is because these are the words people use to describe it:
Specific aroma descriptors include blueberry, tangerine, papaya, rose, blossoms, and bubble gum.
“I really like that you can create sweet, fruity aromas with Mosaic but still have a dry beer. It’s sort of like gewürztraminer in that way,” says Jesse Friedman, co-founder and brewmaster for Almanac Beer in San Francisco.... “It has a big, fruity punch to it,” he says. “It’s tropical, but has a fruit punch note. There’s a little bit of bubble gum in there, some blueberry, but it also has really nice earthy quality. It’s definitely distinct.”
That sounds absolutely delicious. I would love a hop that tasted alternately of rose blossoms, blueberry, or mango. You know what I get? Caraway seed. Mosaic has a very distinctive aroma compound that my palate reads as savory. It's not actually terrible, but there's a reason brewers haven't rushed to make caraway beers. Mosaic is the daughter of Simcoe, and I think that hop is to blame. I don't dislike Simcoe nearly as much, but in my mouth it comes across as far more aggressively piney--it's like pine tar--than it apparently does in others'. That's not precisely savory, but it's related, and is what I think gets carried through in Mosaic. (Maybe it's the thiols.)

As we get ever deeper into the world of designer hops, I think these kinds of mismatches are going to be more common. Some hops seem to read as "true" across palates. They're often the classics--Hallertau, Cascade, Saaz. But others have this Jekyll and Hyde quality. Sorachi Ace track as lemony to many palates, but come across like dill to others. Summits can be juicy and fruity, or taste like onions, garlic, or durian. Nelson Sauvin taste like sauvignon blanc grapes (hence the name), or musky and sweaty. In each case, the alternative flavor/aroma does not constitute a reasonable substitution. (It's interesting that most of the alternate flavors, including caraway in Mosaic, are savory notes.) If you're not tasting the qualities in these hops those who love them are, you probably dislike them.

The upshot for me, as basically every brewer is rushing to get her hands on Mosaic, is that I wish there were more of us who got the caraway flavor. It might make them a more specialty hop--as Sorachi Ace and Summits have become. But my sense is that I'm a fairly rare outlier here. Ah well--I can always have a saison.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Mainstreaming of Fruit

Six years ago, Ezra Johnson-Greenough had the rather foresighted vision to launch the Portland Fruit Beer Festival. This was near the dawn of the niche fest trend, when "beer festivals" morphed into things more specific--festivals celebrating cask ale or single-hopped beer or session beers. A fruit beer fest may have been inevitable, but Ezra's, right from the start, gave us a glimpse into the future, when fruited beers would come to be seen as perfectly mainstream.

It's interesting to look back at some of the beers at that first fest in 2011. There were at least two fruit IPAs, a concept which seemed pretty mind-bending at the time. "Hops contribute far more than bitterness; they add flavor and esters, both of which are often likened to fruit," I observed at the time. "Why not take intensely hoppy beers and accentuate their hop-fruitiness with actual fruit?" Or how about Block 15's offering?
Nick Arzner's idea was to brew a pretty straightforward farmhouse ale. After his initial order of guavas failed to ripen, he found puree instead and produced a beer he felt was too flat and one-dimensional. To liven it up, he added 20-25% soured ale he'd had in a barrel for 21 months. The effect is totally misleading though; Psidium doesn't taste like a sour ale. Rather, the blended beer works with the fruit flavors to create the sense of a fruit skin astringency.
These kinds of beers are now commonplace. They're a big change from an earlier era of fruit beers, when the idea was to create something like a flavored malt beverage--a sweet, soda-like beer that would appeal to people who didn't like beer. (It was often derided in classic sexist form as "girly beer.") Ezra founded his fest to illustrate the ways in which fruit could be used to enhance a beer's native beeriness by inflecting flavors already present in it. I won't go far as to say that he sparked the current national renaissance, but he certainly anticipated it. Six years ago, the beer list seemed exotic and unusual; in the 2016 lineup, the same kinds of beers seem far more familiar. We have come to understand how fruit works in beer, and now no one thinks to denigrate it as something inferior to "real beer."

This year, the fest runs three days--today through Sunday--and has a new venue. This year it will be held in the north Park Blocks, which should be a vast improvement over the boiling asphalt postage stamp they'd been inhabiting outside Burnside Brewing the last five years. Full details here.

The taplist looks pretty spectacular, so go give it a look if you're in the mood.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

The Complete Beer Travelers' Guide to Portland

It's summertime, which means people are starting to flow into the river city. For this week's podcast, Patrick and I give you the lowdown on the best breweries, bars, and restaurants to satisfy your beer tooth. We even give you a guide to Portland's brewing history and offer a couple of good day trips to round out your adventure. Have a listen. (It's also available on iTunes and Google Play.)

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

A Blog Post About Donald, Hillary, Steph, and, Oh, What the Hell, Beer

Back in the late 1980s I stumbled across my first bottle of stout ale, an event that sparked decades of fascination. That may seem like a long time (particularly to the many adults born thereafter), but more than a decade before beer, my first two loves were basketball and politics. I was drawn into both around 1976, the first by Kareem and Dr. J, the latter by stories my mom told me of a peanut farmer who might win the Democratic nomination. I know this is a beer blog, but (wo)man can not live in malt alone--and this is an absolutely banner moment for my first two preciouses. 

Let's start with politics, it being so timely and all. Last night the first woman in US history sealed up a presidential nomination for a major party. At one point last evening, MSNBC posted a graphic of the number of votes for all female candidates for president not named Hillary in US history: 800k and change. Hillary has in her two runs earned more than 30 million. 

Of course, barely anyone noticed that because the GOP primary is the most florid and bizarre in living memory. (Old-timers may cite 1964, but come on, Goldwater had been a sitting US senator for 12 years before he ran.) Without leveling any particular judgments about candidates, I think it's safe to say that the events of the GOP primary--a billionaire and reality-show host beating a slate of senators and governors--were so implausible you couldn't have used them in fiction. No matter what happens in November, the selection of Donald Trump will remain a point of head-shaking amazement for decades. It's the campaign that will launch a thousand poly-sci studies. It's been such good entertainment that come November, I won't know what to read in the morning without my daily Trump campaign news.

Meanwhile, in basketball we're witnessing not only the best season any team has had (the Golden State Warriors are two NBA championship wins from wresting the all-time record from the Jordan-Pippin Bulls), but seeing the Warriors permanently change the game. For the whole of basketball's run, it has been a sport dominated by giants. Plant an oak tree under the basket and give him a couple maples on the wings, and you can compete in any game. High-scoring teams have made runs in the past, but the shooters who do so well in the regular season enter the playoffs and find themselves in the middle of wrestling matches they inevitably lose.

But the Warriors have switched the script. They use a lineup of small sharp-shooters who are so fast the wrestlers can't get a hold of them. They regularly use a lineup in which their "tree," the center, is Draymond Green, a 6' 7" forward who gives up five inches to other teams' centers. They win because the movement of their offense, and particularly of their two guards, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, is so fast and fluid the bigs can't keep up. Now teams who want to beat the Warriors bench their big men and put in the speedsters. The Warriors are illustrating that you can win more easily if you score in intervals of three than two, and when plodding teams put their large lineups in, they get blown out. Because math. Those Bulls-era teams of the 90s put up 10-13 three-pointers per game. Golden State averaged thirty-one this year.

Back in the late 90s, when the Ewing-led Knicks were at their prime, the game was a dismal mess. Each possession ended up with a clear-out and one guy backing down to the rim to fire up a brick or get fouled. The  Knicks would win games and only score 70 points. The game is more elegant and beautiful now, and teams almost always pass 70 points in the third quarter. The rest of the league has taken notice, and the Thunder almost beat the Warriors playing Warriorball, while the Blazers, a team everyone thought would be one of the league's worst, used it to get into the second round of the playoffs.
There's every reason to expect it to continue. Guys who are 6' 3" like Curry are a dime a dozen. And all those short 15-year-olds are now shooting day and night to be the next Steph, knowing they don't have to wait for divine (or rather genomic) intervention to make them giants. It's rare to witness a revolution--even one so trivial as to happen in basketball--and I'm enjoying every minute. Tip-off to game three of the NBA finals is tonight at 6pm West Coast time.

Amazing times. Oh, right, this is a beer blog--I've got to do my duty and somehow tie IPAs into this whole thing. Easy peasy: nothing is so pleasant as drinking one while watching the Warriors or as necessary while watching politics. See how I did that? Now it's a proper beer blog post.

(Oh, and I didn't even get to the heroics of Big Papi and my Red Sox--that's the kind of year we're having.)