Book Week!

Friday, July 03, 2015

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Culmination Brewing

Keeping his eye on the beer.
In what counts, in Alworth-world, as lightning-quick response time, I managed to make it out to recently-opened Culmination Brewing within two weeks of the grand opening. I had heard some good things and knew a bit of founder/brewer Tomas Sluiter's work at Old Market. But of course, every time a new brewery opens, you hear good things. People are nice and they are hopeful. So I toddled down yesterday to assess matters for myself.

The buzz is not only warranted, it's understated. Even after two weeks, when Sluiter and crew are still getting to know their system, the brewery has at least three excellent beers on tap. (I now forgo the taster tray in favor of full pours; you can't really get a true sense of a beer in four ounces.) My favorite was his Saison II (he's in the process of testing recipes), made with a variety of malts (rye, wheat, oats ... I think) and the Dupont yeast strain. It was very much unlike Saison Dupont, though. Instead, with a nice dose of fruity American hops (El Dorado--sorry, I didn't take notes and have to rely on this balky memory of mine) and lush esters, it reminded me a lot more of Jandrain-Jandrenouille. He has the next iteration ripening in the tank, and it's also very nice. 

Most people, though, will be more taken with his Brett IPA. Brettanomyces famously give leather and dusty-dryness, but that comes with age; in its youth, Brett kicks off lots of esters, and that's what you find in this beer. It actually smelled like fresh strawberries to me, though the flavors were more generically fruity, fading to wonderful American hops. My guess is that most people wouldn't even notice the Brett, but they will be mighty impressed by the vivid fruit and hop flavors.

Finally, Sluiter had on a kettle-soured lightish beer he called Sour Citrus (I think), which was exactly that. It falls into an emerging category of beer that has no name--sessionable tart hoppy ales that present as little citrus coolers, like beery lemonade. These really came into focus when Breakside released La Tormenta, and I've been seeing them around various places since. This is another great example. When I arrived at the un-air-conditioned pub, it was 97, and that little darlin was a welcome quencher.

I sampled some of Pete Dunlop's glass of double IPA, and it seemed accomplished and impressive. We also tried a forthcoming imperial CDA from the tank and it was (my reservations about the style notwithstanding) also accomplished and well-made. The only beer I didn't love was a 5% wheat beer, which had a funny phenol. Maybe it was just the heat, but it didn't thrill me. Still, that's a hell of a batting average, especially for a brewery that's still working out the kinks. You could do a lot worse than spending some of your time there this summer. I'll definitely be heading back.


_______________________
"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, July 02, 2015

Book Week: The Beer Wench's Guide to Beer

The Beer Wench's Guide to Beer
Ashley Routson
Voyageur Press, 256 pages, $23
  • What is it? A personal beer tour by Ashley Routson
  • Who's it For? Aspiring beer geeks
  • Reviewer Disclosure. I know Ashley a bit and have met her a couple times--and had one unintentional online fracas with her.
  • Scope. The U.S. mostly, though she touches on foreign styles

The Review
This book is aptly named. It's not a general primer, written by a faceless writer in the classic voice-of-God third-person. It's a personal book written in the first person in a very chatty, familiar voice. You have the feeling, very early on, that Ashley Routson has you by the elbow and is taking you on a tour of the beer world, pointing out the things that catch her eye. During the tour, she offers a very current sense of the way American beer geeks see the world--which I sense is also quite personal. Routson is in many ways the face of American craft beer, and folks who are entering that world will get a strong sense of its flavor. (She has an all-star list of blurbs on the back cover: Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione, Stone's Mitch Steele, Firestone Walker's Matt Brynildson, the Brewers Association's Julia Herz.)

The structure itself captures the current thinking on beer in the US.  She starts with beer types, organized by family, but only spends 40% of the book there. She points them out from her perspective, offering punchy little observations like "my take," "in the mouth" (taste), "in one word" (mild: friendly; IPA: invigorating; saison: majestic), "drink instead of" (and here she helpfully offers alternatives to wine and cocktails). Then she moves along to a section on ingredients and appreciation, which is again interpretive. For example, in describing esters, she has a table that lists the "fancy scientific name" and the associated smell. The last 40% of the book concerns food pairings, cooking, and beer cocktails, and while I am largely ignorant of those things, it seems to be a strength in the book.

The feel here is of a welcoming insider showing a newbie the ropes. The information in some sections is not always accurate. The beer styles section has some poor history* and I would quibble with the introduction to the styles in several places.  I wish these had been cleaned up a bit, but I don't actually think it's a huge problem. If you're the kind of pedant who reads Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell and knows what a mild really is, you were never going to buy this book in the first place. If, on the other hand, you are a Corona Light drinker who has put your toe in the Blue Moon waters, that's a good enough description.

Ashley Routson is, like craft beer culture itself, a somewhat polarizing figure. She is as close to "celebrity" as beer writers get (ain't no one paying me to write Jeff Alworth's Guide to Beer), and that means she attracts attention both positive and negative. Her rise to fame has been fueled by social media (she has 33,000 Twitter followers and 45,000 Instagram followers; Widmer Brothers have 21,000 Twitter followers), and this is a book for the social media age. It is light, breezy, personal, and filled with the personality of the writer. Although the book will no doubt draw some negative reviews, it will introduce a lot of people to beer--and they'll be the better for it.

_________________
*Mild ale: "Milds got their name for the same reason bitters got theirs--patrons used it as a way to differentiate between the two styles at the pub. They would either order the bitter (the hoppy pale ale) or the mild (the less hoppy, less alcohol and therefore more 'mild' ale)."

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Book Week: Beechum and Conn's Experimental Brewing

Experimental Homebrewing
Drew Beechum and Denny Conn
Voyageur Press, 240 pages, $25
  • What is it? A detailed guide to modern American beer types
  • Who's it For? Intermediate-level homebrewers
  • Reviewer Disclosure. None (though Denny Conn does live in Oregon).

The Review
Rare is the homebrew book with a running theme, but Beechum and Conn devised one with their "experimental" concept. The notion is that homebreweries are essentially little labs, and homebrewers should embrace the science of experimentation. I'd put it a different way. While most homebrew books describe standard techniques and help you brew classic styles, Experimental Homebrewing encourages you to dabble. In this way, it is the most modern homebrew book out there, and one that closely mirrors the experimentation going on at the professional level.

There's a lot to love about this book. Beechum and Conn brew separately--and differently. They bring their first-hand experiences to bear, and the reader gleans one of the most important lessons in brewing: there's no one way to do anything. They have a loose, informal approach to brewing, and while they're happy to give you the math if you want it, they do so only to show their work (and, I suppose, for those math nerds who love it). Everything else is in clear, descriptive prose that makes the process of homebrewing seem approachable. Which is perfect--it is approachable. You can make great beer without understanding hydrogen ions.

Homebrewers are nearly always experimental in temperament (they like to make jalepeno helleses before they really know how to make helleses), and this book encourages them. There's plenty of talk of crazy ingredients and how to use them. More interesting are the sections that teach brewers how to experiment with process and technique. There's modern stuff like force injection (infusion might be a better term) , along with classics like parti-gyle brewing, invert sugar, cask brewing, blending, and more. There's quite a bit on experimenting with ingredients and technical stuff like dissolved oxygen and yeast counts.

This is a great book. If you haven't started brewing yet, you need one of the standard manuals to teach you how to get started. This would be a perfect second book--and I put it right there with Randy Mosher's Radical Brewing as a great intermediate resource. As a bonus, the authors have set up an interactive website to continue discussions about the experiment.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Beer Week: Steven Shomler's Portland Beer Stories

Portland Beer Stories; Behind the Scenes with the City's Craft Brewers
Stephen Shomler
American Palate, 170 pages, $20
  • What is it? A collection of stories about the people who work in Portland's beer world
  • Who's it For? Portlanders
  • Reviewer Disclosure. I wrote the foreword. I know Steven a bit, but mainly in the way I know many people whom I see around town at pubs and fests.
  • Scope. Portland, Oregon
The Review

Portland Beer Stories is something of a curious book. It contains a fairly large number of vignettes about brewers (home- and pro), publicans, business owners, and writers (a few cider makers even make the list). It's actually something like a collection of blog posts, though author Steven Shomler is not a blogger. (He does, however harness our local blogging talent for interstitial "writer perspectives" pieces, giving it an even more bloggy feel.) That is to say, there's no through-line connecting these stories; their organizing principle is the city itself. Collectively, the vignettes manage to convey the kind of variety you find here in our rich little ecosystem, from the owner of one of the country's oldest homebrew shops to the director of the Oregon Brewers Guild to Rob and Kurt Widmer.

But the structure also limits the appeal of book to folks beyond our borders. For those of us who live and drink here, it adds wonderful texture to the world we see superficially. I've been shopping at FH Steinbart's since the 1990s, and it was cool to read about John DeBenedetti's family business. Portland's a small town, and if you've been to more than five beer events, you're likely to have seen certain faces appear again and again. Some of them people this book, like homebrewers Lee Hedgmon and Rodney Kibzey. I doubt there's very many people who don't know beer goddess Lisa Morrison, but there she is. Beer writer John Foyston, check. Owners of  and familiar faces at Saraveza (Sarah Pederson) and BeerMongers (Sean Campbell)?--yup. 

For Portlanders, it's a pleasure to read the stories of these folks, but what if you live in Cleveland? I dunno. If this were called Munich beer stories and was peopled by local beery Munichers, I spose I'd actually be pretty interested. My guess, though, is that this is really a book for, by, and about Portlanders. You'll have to decide if that applies to you or not.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Wonderful Things

It feels a little petty, on this 26th day of June, to be mentioning anything as base as beer. This date will be remembered along with some biggies (May 17, 1954, August 6, 1965, June 28, 1968) as watershed moments in the history of freedom in the United States. Congratulations to the Supreme Court and all those who committed "countless small acts of courage" to bring it to fruition.

Session IPAs
On the other hand, this is a beer blog, and I have a few items to mention. First off, the latest podcast is live. Today Patrick and I address session IPAs. Are they an actual, distinct style, or merely pales ales dressed up in marketing gloss to sell to the rubes? We speak to three brewers who've made these beers to discover the real story. (There's a weird gap in the middle, but don't despair, it's just poor production on our part--the pod continues eventually.)



By the way, the podcast is now available on iTunes. I encourage everyone to subscribe--you won't regret it! 


The Trickiness of Beer Styles
Next, I'd like to direct you to a couple of my posts at All About Beer.  First we have the troublesome question declaring whether a particular American beer has been "brewed to style." It ain't as easy as it looks.
And more importantly, styles change—just like language. You may insist until the end of time that “hopefully,” an adverb, should never begin a sentence—but that battle is long lost. Language moves on, and so must grammar pedants (full disclosure: I am one). Until the 1950s, when they went extinct for a time the witbiers made in Hoegaarden were wild ales, something like young lambic. That changed when Pierre Celis revived them a decade later. So should we insist that breweries are doing it all wrong now?

Hard Root Beer?
Finally, allow me to direct you to a treatment a phenomenon that is sweeping the nation--hard root beers. Yup, they're a thing.
The question that leaps to my mind is this: do people love Not Your Father’s Root Beer because they love it, or because they’re impressed with the sleight-of-hand at play? It’s made by a brewery and called a beer but tastes exactly like a root beer. Also: it tastes exactly like a root beer but, giggle, it’s boozy! Those are elements of novelty that have buoyed every malternative since the 1980s.
You may not be surprised to hear where I land on that one.

Have a nice weekend, everyone. And to my poor brethren in the Pacific Northwest--find yourself a shady patch and try to stay cool. It's going to be India hot out there.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Beer Week: Mary Izett's Speed Brewing

Speed Brewing
Mary Izett
Voyageur Press, 192 pages, $20

  • What is it? A homebrewing book focused on speedy fermentation
  • Who's it For? Urban homebrewers on the go
  • Reviewer Disclosure. None. I have no connection to Mary Izett
  • Scope. Homebrewing
The Review
I have noticed a recent trend in homebrewing of books that offer full all-grain brewing experiences, but in uncomplicated forms especially for urban dwellers. Mary Izett, a New Yorker, follows this trend and offers a range of different fermented beverages that can be made quickly in one- or two-gallon batches. No complex RIMS or HERMS system--nor a back yard--necessary. These books are a very welcome addition to the homebrewing canon; they recognize a basic obstacle to brewing (complexity and cost) and address it not by dumbing-down homebrewing with extracts, but just making smaller, less complicated beers.


Izett spends the first 55 pages explaining the process of brewing and giving an overview of the various ingredients. It's brisk and clear, and those who follow the instructions will be able to brew their first batches without investing a ton of money. Homebrew converts can easily scale up without having spent a bunch of money on now-useless equipment, and those who make just a batch or two won't feel guilty about what they spent.

The recipes are divided into different categories of fermentables: beer, cider, mead, kombucha, fermented sodas (hey, they're a thing now, don'tcha know?), and a way-too-short section on traditional beverages like kvass and tepache. I didn't brew the recipes but the beer, anyway, looks well-done. The cider section isn't so great (she directs readers to ferment plain grocery-store apple juice), but the mead section is. (Mead is an overlooked treat.)

Since it's an introductory book designed to get people to try their hand at brewing, the recipes are basic and designed to be foolproof--or at least hard to mess up. Anyone who buys this book in order to get started with the mechanics of brewing will be very pleased. If you want to get someone interested in homebrewing, buy them this book or a book like it--it is far better than a $200 kit for making extract beers.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Book Week: Mosher's Beer for All Seasons

A Beer for All Seasons
Randy Mosher
Storey, 200 pages, $15
  • What is it? A introduction to beer, arranged by season
  • Who's it For? New to intermediate readers
  • Reviewer Disclosure. None. I've admired and ready Mosher for years, but have no personal connection. I did write one of the promo blurbs on the cover, but that's because I thought it was a good book.
  • Scope. Spans the globe

The Review
Most people who read this blog are already well-acquainted with Randy Mosher. He has published two of the best general-purpose beer books ever written, one for homebrewers (Radical Brewing) and one on appreciation (Tasting Beer). If you already own and treasure those books, this one is, paradoxically, probably not for you. It's an introduction to the world of beer, organized, innovatively, around the seasons. 

Anyone who wants to offer newbies a comprehensive introduction to beer is confronted with the huge task of how to arrange the material so that it is adequately complete, somehow coherent, and ultimately not so overwhelming that readers abandon the quest after a few pages. Mosher arranges things by season, slotting in the types of beer you'd be most inclined to drink then. He lists seasonal events and celebrations, and embroiders each chapter with interesting historical vignettes (a Mosher specialty). He doesn't go deep, but he does manage to bring coherence to the subject in a novel and organic read.

There is the usual stuff you find in all books (and which you'll find in the Beer Bible): an overview of the styles, history, and ways to appreciate beer. All of that will be completely familiar to anyone who reads beer blogs. That doesn't mean it's not great. Mosher is the best explainer in the biz. He fuses an informal, lighthearted voice with the ability to condense his encyclopedic knowledge into concise sentences. Here are a few sentences on yeast.
"[A]s it ferments our beer for us, yeast churns out hundreds of flavor chemicals. Yeast is quite a complex little creature, employing a huge array of bio-chemical processes in its business of staying alive and reproducing, but it's a bit sloppy about cleaning up after itself. Depending on temperature, genetics, and a number of other conditions, yeast releases many volatile chemicals into the beer, affecting the overall flavor and aroma of the finished product."
Perhaps the best thing about Mosher is his accuracy. I suppose he's probably made an error about the history or craft of beer somewhere along the way, but his batting average is so much higher than the average writer that you can pretty much take what he says as gospel. Given how many books are festooned with well-worn myths and rumors, that's a big benefit. It's not for the reader who already knows who Gabriel Sedlmayr is or what kettle souring means, but that's fine. It's the book to buy for your friend (or mom, or dad) so you know they will get the facts--and probably enjoy reading about them, to boot.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Week Commences: Field Guide to Drinking in America

I have been remiss. Publishers keep sending me emails asking whether I'd like to receive the newest, most excitingest beer book and I always say yes. Even when it's about cider. Or mead. Although I do not promise to review every title, it's my secret goal. And now, as the pile threatens to grow large enough to attack me, I am resolved to fight back. Herewith I offer Book Week, which is likely to extend beyond seven days, but sounds better than the more accurate Beer Fortnight or Beer Almost Fortnight. I generally try to do more lengthy reviews when I receive books, but if I'm going to get through this batch, we'll have to do shorties. Let's get started.

_____________

The Field Guide to Drinking in America
Niki Ganong
Overcup Press, 214 pages, $20

  • What is it? A state-by-state guide of local drinking culture and laws
  • Who's it For? Ramblin' men (and women)
  • Reviewer Disclosure. It's by local writer Niki Ganong, whom I consider a friend. I've known she was working on this book since it was just an idea, and I've been a supporter. So obviously, objectivity here is out the window.
  • Scope. National--it covers every state in the union (sorry, Canada)

The Review
Niki travels a lot. Facebook friends marvel at how often she posts from some very attractive brewpub across the country--or globe. All that travel alerted her to how distinctive local drinking culture is, and how weird local laws are. She decided to create a guide describing these discoveries, and it's one of the most unusual, unexpected beer books I've encountered in awhile.

Each chapter starts with an overview of the state's local culture and history. (This covers all booze, not just beer--but it is beer-centric.) It's followed by an overview of the way liquor works in each state--what the laws are, where you can and can't buy spirituous liquors. This is in turn followed by a miscellany of quirky state-specific facts. (Minnesota: a description of Minnesota 13, a "smooth, high quality moonshine" distributed nationally by Al Capone. Colorado: a mini-bio of Hunter S. Thompson and his connection to Flying Dog. Hawaii: description of Harry Yee, who invented the Blue Hawaiian.)

Maybe the coolest feature is a tip Niki elicited from a local bartender in each locale. Here's the entry for Maryland, with a tip from Brendan Dorr at Baltimore's B&O Brasserie. "Maryland has a long history of beer and spirits, from American whiskey's humble beginnings of Maryland Style Rye to German breweries scattered about Baltimore City. Even William Walters, Baltimore's local philanthropic art collector...built his fortune on rye whiskey.  However, if you are going t odrink in Baltimore and feel like a real local, then order a shot of Pikesville Rye and a Natty Boh, hon!"

I think it's a pretty cool book (but I'm biased), and the only criticism I'd levy is this: I really wish Overcup would also turn it into an app. That would be handy. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I HAVE A MINOR COMPLAINT: The Fruit Beer Fest's Sweaty, Cramped Quarters

This past weekend we had the latest incarnation of the Fruit Beer Fest, one of the year's best. It was, sadly, still located in the exceedingly cramped parking lot in front of Burnside Brewing. Before we get to the old man's whinge, the requisite throat-clearing: the FBF is sneaky good. It poses as a regular fest, but doubles as a symposium on the myriad ways fruit can be incorporated into a beer. Each year envelopes get pushed a little further, until at this year it seemed like half the beers were barrel-aged wild ales typical of something you'd find in Moeder Lambic. Ezra Johnson-Greenough, the founder and an ecumenical drinker, has increased cider's participation in the fest. Everything about the tasting side of the fest is great.

The location, however, is perhaps the worst in the city. I traipsed down on Friday, the first day after a cold snap when the temps toppped out at about 75. Nevertheless, the sun had baked the surfaces of the locale--concrete all, including pavement and surrounding walls--turning it into an oven. Light knifed off the hard surfaces and created a blinding glare. Even with the sun getting ever lower in the sky, there were precious few patches of shade to be found.

The fest floor--a pen, really, fenced in with chain-link--is so small that the long lines running off the pouring stations blended into the crowd, making it a chore to even know where to stand. (Creating, perversely, open jockey boxes that people at the rear of the line didn't realize were free.) Oh and: there was no place to stand. You sort of do a slow waltz with the crowd as the fluid dynamics of people standing in line or trying to get to a line sent us on a perpetual move, a half-step at a time.

I know Ezra and the organizers are aware of this, and I understand there are challenges to hosting fests. Nevertheless, as a fest-goer, these are not my concerns. My concern is spending a pleasant few hours enjoying excellent beer in the company of friends. The excellent beer is at the Fruit Beer Fest, but not the pleasant few hours. A victim of its own popularity, the fest must grow or lose cranky old men like me. (And before you say it: there weren't nearly enough of us to fix the problem with our absence.)

Friday, June 12, 2015

All You Ever Wanted to Know About Italy, and More

Photo by Giulio Marini
Last week, Birrificio Italiano's Agostino Arioli arrived with three friends and co-workers on a fact-finding mission to the West Coast. I hosted them for a couple of days, showing them pubs, breweries, and leading a trip down to Gayle Goschie's hop farm in Silverton. (Big fun, natch.) It reminded me how much I love Italian beer (the new stuff, not Peroni or Moretti, though Peroni in particular is a fine mass market lager). So this week became a spontaneous Italy week. First came an overview for All About Beer.
The best Italian beer is not only world-class, but some of the best beer I’ve ever tasted. But more than that, Italians have, in just 19 short years, developed their own brewing traditions so that it’s possible to talk about “Italian-style” beer. It’s one thing when a country’s breweries develop the skill and knowledge to reproduce quality examples of existing styles. It’s another, far rarer thing when they develop their own styles. So how did they get here, and what are the markers of “Italian-ness?” Here’s a primer.
Then Patrick and I did a podcast about Italian beer, hinged to a tasting of five of Italiano's products, hand delivered by the generous Arioli. It departs slightly from our regular format, but I think it's our best ever.


Please give it a listen. And I mean that seriously. I love doing this podcast and I think folks will find it interesting. I won't be able to justify the time (nor will Patrick) as a vanity project, though, so we're really looking for an audience. You will vote with your ears, and I hope you encourage us with your interest. Your comments about what works/doesn't work and what we could do to improve it are always invited--nay, solicited. Tell us what you think.