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Thursday, March 05, 2015

What Can We Learn From 170-Year-Old Beer?

I got an email yesterday alerting me to this technical paper of analyses done on 19th century beer recovered from a shipwreck. Interestingly, they have no idea what the provenance of the ship was--nor, therefore, any idea where the beers came from.  But when they cracked two of the bottles open, this is what they found.
Bubbles of gas, presumably CO2, formed during sampling, producing a light foam. Both beers were bright golden yellow, with little haze. Both beers smelt of autolyzed yeast, dimethyl sulfide, Bakelite, burnt rubber, over-ripe cheese, and goat, with phenolic and sulfury notes. As the samples warmed to room temperature, the smell of hydrogen sulfide disappeared and that of butyric acid (particularly strong in C49) strengthened.
Hmm, those don't sound like particularly inviting qualities.  Some of this was the result of time (autolyzed yeast, goat and cheese), but I've never heard of DMS or butyric acid developing in aged beer.  Sounds to me like bad beer to begin with. 

I was instantly drawn to the study, but then wondered: is it really of much use? There is a trove of chemical analysis here for the nerd--esters, phenols, carbonyl compounds, hop levels and compounds, and so on.   But what does this really tell us?  The authors give incredibly detailed analysis, but the sum seems far less than the parts:
In summary, these two about 170-year-old bottles contained two different beers, one (C49) more strongly hopped than the other (A56) with the low α-acid yielding hop varieties common in the 19th century. Both beers exhibited typical profiles of yeast-derived flavor compounds and of phenolics. Present knowledge of the long-term chemical and microbiological stability of these compounds is not adequate to assess how closely the observed profiles indicate the original flavor of the beers. The flavors of these compounds were hidden by very high levels of organic acids, probably produced by bacterial spoilage. The composition of the microbial mixture used to produce these beers is unclear, but it probably did not include many strains producing the Pad1 enzyme responsible for the volatile phenols characteristic of wheat beers. Pad1 activity is common in wild yeast, and its absence suggests that the yeasts employed were domesticated rather than wild.
These kinds of analyses will probably add some knowledge in the margins.  As far as I can tell, there hasn't been a ton of study on the aging process in beers past a certain point.  (Those who pay for these studies--beer companies--have wanted to know what changes happen in the normal lifetime of a beer, not what changes happen years or decades later.)  So what we know by taking a snapshot like this comes with a pretty serious cloud of mystery.  Personally, I think there's quite a bit of evidence from the primary sources historians have lately been studying--evidence that is more relevant to the layman's understanding of beer evolution. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Oregon Beer Sales, 2014

Each month, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission releases details for the amount of Oregon-brewed beer sold in Oregon.  They are all fairly interesting if you're into sales data, but the biggie comes out in late February, when the year-end totals are released.  You can view them here in pdf.  Here are the topline numbers.  In 2013, Oregon breweries sold 490,000 barrels of beer in Oregon.  They added over 70,000 barrels in 2014 (a 14.4% increase) and sold 566,000 barrels.  According to the way the OLCC calculates these things, there are 189 breweries currently operating in Oregon.

Of course, the share of the sales goes to a very small group of breweries.  Deschutes and the Craft Brewers Alliance (Widmer, Redhook, and Kona) account for a third of all the Oregon-brewed beer sold in Oregon.  The five best-selling breweries account for half.  The top ten account for two-thirds, the bottom 179 the final third.

Below are the top 20 best-selling breweries in Oregon.  Keep in mind that this is beer sales by Oregon breweries in Oregon.  This list does not reflect the beers sales by Oregon breweries in other states, nor the sales in Oregon of beer by out-of-state breweries.  The second number (in parentheses) is the brewery's position on the 2013 list; the third number is the actual barrels sold in Oregon; and the final number is the growth or decline over 2013.  I have highlighted sharp growth in bold and decline in red.
1 (2) Redhook/Widmer/Kona - 94,731, 17.1%
2 (1) Deschutes Brewing - 89,778, 2.1%
3 (3) Ninkasi Brewing - 43,118, -6.4%
4 (4) Portland Brewing - 31,309, 8.2%
5 (7) 10 Barrel Brewing - 25,848, 60.5%
6 (5) Full Sail Brewing - 24,520, 0.7%
7 (6) Bridgeport Brewing - 21,227, -10.6%
8 (13) Hop Valley Brewing - 18,504, 175.1%
9 (8) Rogue Ales Brewery - 15,294, 5.5%
10 (9) Boneyard Beer - 14,536, 14.6%
11 (11) Hopworks Urban Brewery - 9,579, 20.6%
12 (14) Fort George Brewery - 8,744, 47.7%
13 (10) Oakshire Brewing - 7,786, -2.1%
14 (22) Worthy Brewing - 7,783, 177.0%
15 (12) Double Mountain Brewery - 7,671, 1.3%
16 (18) Caldera Brewing - 6,283, 41.6%
17 (15) Cascade Lakes Brewing - 5,968, 10.0%
18 (20) Breakside Brewery - 5,646, 77.7%
19 (17) Edgefield Brewery - 4,881, 3.9%
20 (16) Laurelwood Public House - 4,833, -8.8%
It's worth noting that CBA is a troika of three essentially separate breweries, so its appearance at the top of the list should include a mental asterisk.  Most breweries sold more beer in Oregon in 2014 than they did in 2013, but some actually fell in position on the list (Deschutes, Full Sail, Rogue, Boneyard, Double Mountain, Cascade Lakes, and Edgefield)--a result of not growing as fast as neighbors on the list.  I personally don't read much into sales declines without knowing a brewery's strategy.  If they were making moves into other markets, they may well have sold more beer in 2014.  That said, Ninkasi, BridgePort, and Laurelwood saw decent declines and can't be happy about that.  Finally, just as a random note: Portland Brewing is quietly putting up very large numbers.  They're now selling 6,000 barrels more a year in Oregon than they were two years ago.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Notes

A few things to tide you over for the weekend.  First up, my latest post at All About Beer, wherein I take a look at one of the most influential breweries most people haven't heard of, Brasserie Thiriez.
As Americans have taken up saisons, [Dupont is] not the direction they’ve headed. Instead, they make beers with less assertive, more familiar esters in the citrus family that are light in hopping and only medium-dry—something like a kellerbier crossed with a Belgian pale ale. If you start tracing these beers back to their source, you find yourself not in Belgium, but just across the border, in Esquelbecq, France. This is where Daniel Thiriez started his farmhouse brewery (also named Thiriez) 19 years ago and where he started brewing beers that look a lot more like American saisons than does Dupont’s.
Next, you might have a gander at Martyn Cornell's most recent, if for no other reason than to remind yourself of the mutable nature of beer style. 
Meanwhile, here’s a small rant ... about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale”.... You don’t have a clue what you are talking about....  Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. 
Oh, and somebody's mad on the internet.  And no, not about dress color.  But lest you get too hot and bothered, I'd say this is a standard the-world-is-changing, get-off-my-lawn-you-damn-kids wheeze.  It really doesn't have anything to do with beer.
Craft beer culture must die, or at least stop taking over all the pubs where I like to go. If it were contained to its own small bars where I never drink, it’d just be another niche subculture, where it belongs. 
Finally, go have a look at Pete Dunlop's fine description of the knotty situation A-B, Maletis, and 10 Barrel Brewing find themselves in.
You may recall that 10 Barrel was purchased by AB last year. The intended outcome of that purchase was that 10 Barrel brands would be distributed by AB-owned Western Distributing in this area. The problem is, Maletis owns the franchise rights to 10 Barrel here.
Have a good weekend--

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Oregon's Best Beer

This week our local alt-weekly Willamette Week released their annual beer guide.  It includes their picks of the year's best beers and, for the first time ever, winners of the "Oregon Beer Awards" in 15 different categories.  Most people are pretty desensitized to best-of lists these days, particularly in this moment of online listicles.  Who cares what WW thinks, so goes the thinking, since we all have our own favorites?  I've got one foot in that boat, too, but there are a few reasons why this is a good and healthy development.

Upright's Alex Ganum. (WW's Arts and Culture editor,
Martin Cizmar, smiles in the shadows at right.)
Let's start with WW's pick for best beer: Upright Engelberg Pilsner.  Awards are only effective so long as they're credible.  I absolutely love this pick.  It follows pFriem's Strong Dark (2014) and the Commons' Urban Farmhouse (2013)--also excellent choices.  They're all good beers, but WW is also effectively using its bully pulpit to identify important beers.  Oregon breweries have been trying to make traditional pilsners for decades, and they just never sold.  Brewers love them, but the market is a tyrant--no sales, no pilsner.  Upright managed to finally break through, though.  I suspect it had something to do with restaurants--I would regularly find it on places with well-curated taplists.  (Chefs know that pilsners are great with food; they're versatile and won't overwhelm the dishes they've worked so hard to perfect.)  Since Upright came out, Oregon has now become a safe port for pilsners, and there are a ton of excellent ones around.  I've noticed restaurants often seem to reserve a tap handle for pilsners the way they do for IPAs.  Give Alex and Upright a lot of credit for that--and give WW credit for recognizing it.

This hints at why awards may have lasting value.  We don't fool ourselves into thinking there is such a thing as a "best" beer--subjectivity can never be quantified.  Yet collectively, awards are a great way to give a snapshot to a particular time and place.  Willamette Week's awards can't reflect the actual best beers, but they can illuminate where the beer world was at that moment.  Awards are really a way of saying, "here's where we were in 2015."  Done well, they act both as a pretty good time capsule and year-end wrap up all in one.

Willamette Week publisher Richard Meeker
I don't know if the Oregon Beer Awards will have legs, but I also think it's worthwhile to have a bit of pomp and celebrate an industry.  On Monday, WW announced the awards at the Doug Fir Lounge, and there was quite a turnout.  Kurt Widmer, rarely sighted in the wild, was in the house.  Matt Swihart, rarely cited in Portland, was too.  You couldn't swing a bottle of High Life without hitting a brewer (bottles of which started popping up after the beer lines downstairs got too long).  I was part of the selection committee that created the categories and made nominations.  (It was mostly brewers and people inside the industry, not writers.)  WW sent the names of the ten nominees in each category out to a couple hundred industry types for the voting.  The recognition came from inside the industry and allowed some smaller entities to shine.  It felt like the kind of collegial event that has been the hallmark of Oregon brewing for so long--and I could imagine it surviving well into the future.

So while I don't need WW to tell me what Oregon's best beer is, I'm glad they did anyway. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Full Sail Voting to Scrap ESOP, Merge With Investment Firm

A fascinating tidbit I thought I'd pass along.  Today, Jamie Emmerson and Irene Firmat announced that the company is considering whether to end its Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) and merge with an investment firm.  This is a little different than the standard A-B news we've been hearing lately.  John Holl explains:
The number today of employee owners—called shareholders—is 78, and on Tuesday Founder and CEO Irene Firmat and Executive Brewmaster Jamie Emmerson sent a letter to those folks, asking them to vote on a proposal to merge with a San Francisco-based investment firm....

Shareholders were given ballots earlier today and those votes will be tallied at the end of the month. If approved, the investors could take ownership by mid-March. For the existing shareholders there will be a stock-option plan, but it will no longer be an ESOP company, but Firmat said it will enable employees to benefit along with the company as it continues to grow....

Firmat noted in an interview that the investors do not have a brewing background, so they will need the existing employees with their wide range of expertise to stay on and helm Full Sail. If the vote is successful, Firmat and Emmerson plan on staying at the brewery they founded in 1987.
I am not close enough to Full Sail nor smart enough about business to be able to parse this, but maybe some smart reader can give us some insight as to the pluses and minuses for the employees.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Cask Deschutes River Ale

Last week I glanced up against the subject of cask ale, and by chance I managed to end the week by encountering an actual glass of the stuff when I had dinner at Deschutes.  Bend's finest is one of the last refuges of cask ale in the city, and you can always find two handles devoted to it when you stop in.  Rarely, though, do they offer something in the English mode--a low-alcohol, low-hop session beer.  As a traditionalist, I love these the best.  (Though Ron Pattinson, when he was in town a while back, swooned over the Fresh-Squeezed IPA on cask.  It was also on cask last Friday, and I admit I was impressed.  Still think the flavors don't go through the full transmutation of smaller beers, but still, mighty impressive.)

I have never had much success convincing people hat 4%, 28 IBU beers are the pinnacle of cask accomplishment, and I may not convince you now.  But do me a favor, and drink a pint of real River Ale and see for yourself.  (I have no idea if it's still on or how often it comes on--but let this stand as a plea to the brewery to do it often.)  The wonderful thing about this beer is that it is 100% American.  It's got the classic pale-and-caramel malt base and a troika of juicy American hops (Nugget, Crystal, and Cascade).  On cask, the body seems to swell; it's full and rich.  The hops are zingy and zesty in that unmistakeable American way.  When you swallow, the malts turn golden in your mouth, departing with the essence of honey.  It's a lovely duet--American beer, English package, all in perfect harmony. 

Make it a point to try this beer if you ever see it there again. I know, I know--IPAs and all that.  But I just can't believe you won't be transfixed.

"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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Different View From London

A couple of days ago, I posted a piece on All About Beer wherein I mentioned with some alarm the ubiquity of American-style beers in London.  I specifically name-checked The Kernel, and yesterday one of the brewers, Toby Munn, left a really thoughtful comment on the blog.  With his permission, I'm reprinting it in full.


I commented on your All About Beer page, but I like repeating myself. This is just regarding point 1. These are all valid points, and your concern over the health of British cask beer is not insignificant. But, I would like to point out that, although there are a few breweries and a few beers that are attracting headlines, there are still a huge amount of beers produced that are quintessentially British.

This is just my tiny little opinion, but I happen to think that the influx of outside influence is good for traditional beers and breweries. I think that the younger/newer drinkers are bringing with them a different, critical look to beers. On the one hand, traditional brewers are concerned that newer drinkers are just after a 'grapefruit hit' in their beers, and concerned with only IBUs and intensity of flavours. In the short term, this may be true, sadly. Long term, I think that these newer drinkers will understand more about the technicalities about what makes beer great, and the subtleties that makes beer great. To reference a post that I think is perhaps relevant, and almost certainly true.  [Note: Toby added that link, not me.]

I think that the introduction of these different styles and new flavours is only a good thing. These modern drinkers will have a fuller and more rounded view and opinion of beers, and are more critical in general. If we are to follow trends of the US, we will see that producers of truly great beer are in demand. This, I think, will happen here in the UK, and elsewhere. Actually, it is evident already.

The problem with many indigenous beers, whether in Britain, Germany, or, especially, Belgium, is that, after years and years of little progression, the only point of difference has been price point, and the only change has been a deterioration in standard. There are many traditional beers and breweries that are truly awful. And there are many that have stuck to their principals and are outstanding. I think with the newer drinkers, armed with more discerning taste buds, will raise the expectation of what good beer should be, irrespective of style, and make our tiny little world of beer a better place. Other opinions are, of course, available.

When you came to Britain in 2011, I am sure that you found many beers that were dreadful. Just because it is served from a cask does not make it good. Similarly, just because a beer is doused in Mosaic is no guarantee that it is any good.

Your concern for traditional styles is valid. It is not insignificant. But I believe that your concern will be proved to be moot.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Grab Bag of Interesting

Let's skip the usual preamble and launch straight into the many interesting tidbits I have collected for you.

1.  I have both a new post at All About Beer and one I think I forgot to tease.  The new one concerns how London's beer scene looks a lot like ... Portland's (or any American city).  They love them some American-style IPAs--but it leaves me wondering who will champion cask.  It has already provoked one rebuttal--or call it an addendum--from Boak and Bailey.

The earlier post I forgot to mention emerged from Gigantic's Massive! barley wine, a beer that endures a nine-hour boil.  It gave me an opportunity to haul out my old Lacambre and throw around words like "maillard reaction."  Read it here.

2.  While we're on All About Beer, you might consider checking out this post about the proposed new Mikkeller brewery slated to go into San Diego later this year.  Interesting experiment.

3.  A beer fest in Reykjavik features two Oregon breweries (of 13 total)--Hopworks and Breakside.  From the press release:
“Our focus has been on breweries from Oregon simply because we like the way people from Oregon think and how the craft beer movement has been developing in that particular state,” said Ólafur Ágústsson, restaurant manager at KEX. “We feel that we can connect to people from Portland and all of Oregon. Reykjavik has a lot in common.”
The next question is: how do I swing a junket to Iceland?

4.  The rare brewers dinner that features multiple breweries.  It's at Higgins and it ain't cheap, but you get the Commons, Crux, Boneyard, Barley Brown, and pFriem in one meal.  And Higgins is never cheap, anyway.  I do wish more restaurants would do this kind of thing.  Italian beer dinners, German beer dinners, sour beer dinners--there are many organizing principles one can deploy that don't involve one brewery.

5.  We drink less beer.  Ron Pattinson has a fascinating group of charts showing how much less we drink now than we used to.  In the past fifty years, per-capita beer consumption has fallen markedly:
  • Belgium, -38%
  • (West) Germany, -6%
  • UK, -25%
The US is slightly weird because of prohibition, but another chart, in which he looks at the last six years, is equally interesting:
  • Belgium, -12%
  • Czech Republic, -9%
  • Germany, -4%
  • Ireland, -20%
  • Netherlands, -11%
  • UK, -21%
So the period corresponding to the biggest worldwide brewery boom in--well, forever--is also the period in which per capita consumption is tanking.  (True in the US, too, though numbers are lagging.  Consumption fell 7% from '08 to '11.)

6.  According to my Facebook alerts, February 18th is the birthday of Crux's Larry Sidor, Pink Boots' Teri Fahrendorf, and Double Mountain's Matt Swihart.  That seems like a damned impressive coincidence.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Portland's Favorite IPA

The Oregon Hophouse has recently been running a little experiment.  They invited patrons to try a flight of twelve IPAs and vote on their favorites.  In a certain sense, the free market functions as a way of determining patrons' favorite beers, too.  But in that case, people may be influenced by price, ad campaigns, the image of a brewery, peer pressure, or proximity.  Here it was just twelve unmarked beers and the palates of the tasters.  The flight contained:
  • Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack
  • Boneyard RPM
  • Breakside IPA
  • Crux Outcast
  • Double Mountain Hop Lava
  • Fort George Vortex
  • Gigantic IPA
  • Goodlife Descender
  • Hop Valley Alphadelic
  • Laurelwood Workhorse
  • Migration Luscious Lupulin
  • Ninkasi Total Domination
Care to guess which one came out on top?  Before I tell you, last year the champeen was Boneyard--but the beers weren't served blind.  This year, 864 people cast a ballot and the results looked like this: 
Barley Brown Pallet Jack: 160 (18.5%)*
Breakside IPA:132 (15.2%)
Boneyard RPM: 123 (14.2%)
I'm interested in this experiment because I think it tracks the momentary preferences of Oregonians.  Boneyard has definitely been the most recent example of the Oregon palate, with its thick body and saturated late-addition flavors and aromas.  Pallet Jack is lighter and sharper and more dank--to me it seems a bit more Californian. (A characterization I suspect would make a good Baker Citian cringe.) Breakside is a more classic interpretation, with tons of citrus and a hint of pine.  So does this suggest a move away from the Boneyard mode to something a little more universal?  Probably that's going too far--Boneyard did hang in at a respectable third.  But still, it's at least suggestive.

Interesting side-note.  In an email, the Hophouse's Kirsten Seitz added this bit of detail: "Breakside was in fourth/fifth place until the third week, when both locations saw a drastic increase in votes for Breakside.  It even earned the most votes during a week at each location in total votes, but it still wasn't enough to surpass Pallet Jack's monthly totals.  It was incredibly interesting to witness the change, and the staff felt certain that it was a new batch of Breakside."  I offer that without a lot of commentary--though I'd love it if someone from Breakside would care to weigh in with theories.

*Does this prove Pallet Jack is definitively Portland's fave IPA?  No.  It was not a scientific study and there are any number of variables that were not controlled for.  But it was a blind tasting, and so I'd be leery to dismiss it outright, either. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Spontaneous by Proxy

The juice beginning fermentation.
A few months back, I mentioned trying an experiment with spontaneous yeast.  I was racking a batch of spontaneously-fermented cider, and when I discovered that lovely yeast cake at the bottom of the carboy, I wished I had some wort to throw on it.  Well, I got another bite at the ... err, another chance.  Kevin Zielinski, who makes some of the best cider in America, set me up with ten gallons of juice from his orchards (a mix of mostly French and some English bittersweet varieties).  He suggested I try one in the English mode, racked once and fermented to dry, and once in the French mode, with multiple rackings to try to get the yeast to exhaust the nutrients in the juice and go dormant (which is how they end up with sweet ciders that don't turn the bottles into bombs).

In any case, this afternoon I finished up a three-gallon batch of wort and transferred it to the barm of one of those ciders.  It smells like a great ferment has begun, with a lovely, fresh juice aroma and the beginnings of that wild yeast funk (and a bit of sulfur, which Kevin says is normal).  If this works, I'm going to call it "spontaneous by proxy" and hope the title catches on.  Of course, if it doesn't work I'll call it "a debacle" and hope everyone forgets quickly and moves along.

I am slightly less sanguine than I was before, though, owing to the lab report Kevin shared with me of the yeast and bacteria found in the juice sample.  It has lots of saccharomyces, which is great, and very little brettanomyces, which is curious.  But it also has tons of acetic acid bacteria, something called Hanseniaspora uvarum, and something else called Pichia membranifaciens.  I can't predict whether these would normally be found in a spontaneously-fermented beer, so who knows what they'll do in my wort.

Whatever happens, never fear--I'll let you know.

Update.  Well that was fast.   The yeast cake went into the wort at about 3pm yesterday, and by 7 this morning it was rocking.  I'd chilled the wort down to 55 so the yeast wouldn't be shocked by warm temps (the apple juice is outside and is probably around 45-48).  I therefore expected a slow ramp-up, but no:

(And to be clear, I don't leave the carboy on the sunny deck to ferment--that was for photographic purposes only.)