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Monday, August 18, 2014

Well, this is embarrassing

It looks like it's been a week since I posted, and peering into my crystal ball reveals that the coming week is going to be just as bad.  It's not the usual doldrums of August, but rather a thicket of unexpected activity that has kept me off the site.  A week from now and things should start getting back to normal.  (I may--may--have some very cool travel blogging coming up, too, but it is not final enough to announce.)

In the meantime, I offer you this actually-pretty-fascinating article about beer at baseball stadiums.  If it convinces me of anything, it's that the hegemony of mass market lagers has come to an end.  A tease:
The average Major League team this season is offering 50 different beers from nearly 25 breweries.
And reference that suggests Seattle and Portland are not identical.  
About 70 percent of Safeco Field’s 700 beer handles are devoted to “good, quality craft beer,” according to Steve Dominguez, the general manager of Centerplate's operations at Safeco Field. Sales of craft-style products crush those of domestic-style mass market beers, by a ratio of about 4-1. The stadium bought three cask engines this year to allow for cask-conditioned ales throughout the stadium, and they offer a hearty list of 22-ounce craft bombers from breweries like Pyramid, Oskar Blues, No-Li and Rogue.
The whole article is well worth a read.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Morning News, Heat Wave Edition

As the mercury climbs for the latest in a series of heat waves (this is going to be an interesting hop crop), and hot on the heels of the news that Bear Republic may have to relocate because of persistent drought, I find my blogging energies dwindle.  But never fear--news marches on without me.

1.  Bud Establishes a Crafty Unit in Chi-town
I, perhaps alone, am fascinated to see how the two remaining American giants plan to tackle a tricky future.  Americans are drinking less beer overall, even while the craft segment explodes.  That means ever falling sales of mass market lager.  AB InBev's latest move?  Lean on Goose.
The brewer, whose U.S. headquarters are in St. Louis, will establish a new Chicago outpost to oversee premium craft and imported beers, which have been a bright spot in the overall sluggish U.S. beer industry.
Mainly, it seems like a marketing move, which is probably not going to be a long-term solution.  It's hard for bigs to sell beer in the craft market, and the obstacles can not be surmounted by a bigger PR wing.  

2.  Craft Breweries Expand Beyond Beer
In a doomy Bon Appetit article, Sam Calagione warns, "there's a bloodbath coming."   The answer would not shock executives in St. Louis: diversify!
On the fest circuit, Lagunitas runs the roving Beer Circus, and New Belgium operates the whimsical, bike-focused Tour de Fat. For its recent brand expansion, Pennsylvania’s Victory recently unveiled a lineup of cheese spreads, as well as ice creams concocted from its unfermented beer. “Strategically, that broadens our brand impact,” says cofounder Bill Covaleski. “It puts our flavors and brands in places where they’ve never been.”
Beer ice cream?  Who's crafty now?

3. They Could Have Save a Lot of Time
...and just asked a beer geek.  Instead, researchers actually did the work to prove that you can't taste the differences among light beer brands (.pdf).
 Participants were then asked to consume the beers at home, and rate each of them. Some of the six-packs had beers with labels, while others were unlabeled. When the beers were labeled, participants rated the beers differently, and as expected, they rated their favorites higher than other beers. When unlabeled, however, participants showed virtually no preferences for certain beers over others. In the blind tasting condition, no beer was judged by its regular drinkers to be significantly better than the other samples. In fact, regular drinkers of two of the five beers scored other beers significantly higher than the brand that they stated was their favorite.
But Boneyard fans already knew that.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

McSorley's, 1940

One of my regular tipsters, BB, was taking advantage of the New Yorker's momentary open archives when he found this remarkable article from 1940 on McSorley's Old Ale House in 1940.  McSorley's had already been open 86 years (it's been another 74 and the place is still open).  It's a fly-on-the-wall story, panning around the old place and zooming in from time to time on a few historical photographs.  It gives you such a rich sense of a different time.
It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register. Coins are dropped in soup bowls—one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves—and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox. It is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years. 
[John McSorley] patterned his saloon after a public house he had known in Ireland and originally called it the Old House at Home... In his time, Old John catered to the Irish and German workingmen—carpenters, tanners, bricklayers, slaughter-house butchers, teamsters, and brewers—who populated the Seventh Street neighborhood, selling ale in pewter mugs at five cents a mug and putting out a free lunch inflexibly consisting of soda crackers, raw onions, and cheese; present-day customers are wont to complain that some of the cheese Old John laid out on opening night in 1854 is still there. Adjacent to the free lunch he kept a quart crock of tobacco and a rack of clay and corncob pipes—the purchase of an ale entitled a man to a smoke on the house; the rack still holds a few of the communal pipes.
There's even a word or two about the ale, like:
In warm weather he made a practice of chilling the mugs in a tub of ice; even though a customer nursed an ale a long time, the chilled earthenware mug kept it cool. Except during prohibition, the rich, wax-colored ale sold in McSorley’s always has come from the Fidelio Brewery on First Avenue; the brewery was founded two years before the saloon. In 1934, Bill sold this brewery the right to call its ale McSorley’s Cream Stock and gave it permission to use Old John’s picture on the label; around the picture is the legend “As brewed for McSorley’s Old Ale House.” During prohibition McSorley’s ale was produced mysteriously in a row of washtubs in the cellar by a retired brewer named Barney Kelly, who would come down three times a week from his home in the Bronx. On these days the smell of malt and wet hops would be strong in the place. Kelly’s product was raw and extraordinarily emphatic, and Bill made a practice of weakening it with near beer. In fact, throughout prohibition Bill referred to his ale as near beer, a euphemism which greatly amused the customers. One night a policeman who knew Bill stuck his head in the door and said, “I seen a old man up at the corner wrestling with a truck horse. I asked him what he’d been drinking and he said, ‘Near beer in McSorley’s.’ ” The prohibition ale cost fifteen cents, or two mugs for a quarter. Ale now costs a dime a mug.
In the centre of the room stands the belly stove, which has an isinglass door and is exactly like the stoves in Elevated stations. All winter Kelly keeps it red hot. “Warmer you get, drunker you get,” he says. Some customers prefer mulled ale. They keep their mugs on the hob until the ale gets hot as coffee. 
But mostly, it's a snapshot of the past taken in 1940--a glance at what a New York alehouse might have looked like in 1920 or even, possibly, 1890.  It's a long article, but very much worth the read.

McSorley's in 1937.  There's the onions on the bar and the stove--
sans warming beer--and the earthenware mugs. [Source]

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Beer Sherpa Recommends: Gigantic IPL

Yesterday's post was, I suppose, a bit of a distraction on one point.  Although I used Gigantic's newest beer to illustrate a wholly unrelated point, I didn't much discuss the beer itself.  Now to rectify that oversight.

Very often, you come to understand a beer the less you know about it.  The Green Dragon, where I sampled the Gigantic, has a great taplist that, perversely, gives the drinker zero information beyond a name.  They don't even list the ABV. That leaves you with nothing else but your nose and mouth to figure out what you're drinking. It makes a session a bit more random, but when you find a gem, it also happens to make the experience more rewarding.

When IPL arrived, I was startled at its appearance, which might have passed in a line-up of Blue Ribbons.  It is pale.  Nothing India about that.  But then, lifting it toward my nose, I caught a plume of the aroma, which was very India indeed.  There's a sweet, fruity underlayment and then something that first seems like pine but drifts toward the Alien OG.  The effect of the appearance and aroma produced a kind of dreamlike discontinuity.  The strange pleasures continued as I added my tongue to the mix.  IPL is a very delicate beer, with little wisps of malt and no perceptible alcohol (turns out it 5.6%).  And amazingly, the hop intensity, though sunshiny and resplendent, did not overwhelm the rest of the beer. 

I tried to order another pint but, no shock to me, the keg had blown.  We're stuck in the middle of one terrible long sunny nightmare*, and this was an amazing tonic.  It looked and behaved like a helles, but had the aroma of an IPA and the flavor of a vivid pale ale.  I would have liked to test its durability, but I can say that it performed very well over the course of a pint.  I expect it did just as well over two or three.  Get it while the sun still shines.

*To Portlanders and hairy black dogs, weather over 90 is painful, and we've endured weeks of the stuff.

"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, August 04, 2014

How the Word "India" Came to Mean "American"

Last week, I ordered a pint of Gigantic's new beer, IPL, sight unseen.  I was at a pub that listed nothing but the name.  A few minutes later, the waiter dropped a glass of something pilsner-pale and conditioned-clear in front of me.  I had assumed--correctly, it emerged--that the name of the beer stood for "India Pale Lager."  The beer in front of me had almost nothing to do with IPA, though.  Indeed, I later discovered that Ben and Van (brewmaster and master brewer) also call it a "Northwest pilsner," and it's a lot closer to a pils than anything to do with English or American ales.  It's 5.6%, has a pilsner malt bill, and is, not unimportantly, a lager.

During that same session--possibly just after the arrival of the Gigantic--one of my friends complained that IPA no longer had any meaning at all.  He ticked off the various offenses against a once-knowable style: black IPAs, white IPAs, lagered IPAs, session IPAs, fruit IPAs.  (He actually ordered a rye and double IPA that night.)  It had nothing to do with the original IPAs and has devolved into little more than a marketing gimmick, he argued reasonably.

As someone who has complained about this very phenomenon, I should have been sympathetic, but here's the thing: to the average drinker, slapping the word "India" on a label communicates a very specific, easily-understandable meaning.  It's shorthand for "saturated in the flavors and aromas of American hops."  Gigantic IPL, for all the ways it wasn't an IPA, instantly met the expectations I'd had--it was decadently perfumed and soaked in Simcoe and Citra hops.

Beer taxonomists and history prescriptivists miss this truth that is so obvious to the casual drinker.  The qualities that separate the 19th century English originals--or the middle 20th century English or even late 20th century American versions--from these myriad permutations (Belgian, black, imperial, etc.) are vast.  But that's because there's now a contemporary definition and it does a pretty good job of characterizing things.

Until something like thirty years ago, the hoppy beers typical in American brewpubs today did not exist.  There were hoppy beers, but they didn't have the kind of hopping Americans now use--which is partly a function of the method but mostly a function of the hops themselves.  And those qualities, begotten by vigorous kettle hopping and profligate late and dry-hopping of American hops, is what "India" (or "IPA" or "IP-whatever") now refers to.  It's sort of like the catch-all term "Belgian," which means anything with vivid yeast character but can be applied to any imaginable style (except, I suppose, lagers).  One of the great revelations of my foreign travel was to see that this shorthand was well-understood by breweries in the UK, Italy, and the Czech Republic.  "American IPA" or "American-style" always meant super-hopped with American hops, whatever the beer style.

I've stopped overthinking this.  Breweries want customers to know what the beer is going to taste like.  If they attach the word "India" to it--whether it is just a hoppy pilsner or witbier or stout--customers know what they mean.  It's pedantic to insist that there's something wrong with how this artifact of language has evolved.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Cantillon Adds New Building; Will Double Production

This is flying around Facebook, and for good reason.  Below is the text of what Jean Van Roy (a non-native English-speaker) posted a few hours ago:
Dear Friends,

Great news, Cantillon is expanding.

Since last year, we are looking for a new space and we got it.  The new building is located at 300m far from the brewery and, as you can see on the picture, it welcomed till the sixties a Lambic blender, Brasserie Limbourg. The new space is big enough to dubbel the Cantillon's production.  

Because we can't disturb the balance between new and old Lambic in our blend, we will increase the production each year to finally dubbel it in the four next year.  The wort, brewed at the Cantillon's brewery, will be transfered the day after the coolling and will matured for years in the new location.  As you know, we need at least two or three years to produce a beer. In this way to work, the next production increasing will take place during the season 2016-2017.

The building will be at our disposal next October, more news will follow.

The Van Roys (including Jean's father, Jean-Pierre) have been fierce protectors of lambic's heritage, and have a small museum in their current brewery.  (And in fact, their current, ancient brewery is a museum itself, of sorts.)  That they managed to find a building that once housed a blendery must by a huge source of satisfaction.  Cantillon has all but disappeared from American shelves, so with luck, maybe we'll see a bit more in a few years. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

What Idaho Can Teach Us About Beer

I just spent the better part of a week in the state of my birth, Idaho.  Much of Idaho rests under the shade of vast pine forests, but the part where the people live is in the high desert in the south, land of brown, sage-covered hills with river valleys quilted with squares of green potato fields.  Idaho, like Washington and California, borders Oregon, and so there's every reason to believe it should be a great beer state. 

It is not.

Southern Idaho
It's not that there aren't that many breweries--at 35, it boasts a brewery for every 46,000 citizens, which is more than Wisconsin.  Rather, it's the way local beer is completely marginalized in favor of large brands.  Taplists feature mass market brands with only a gesture to the craft segment with a tap from one of the bigger, out-of-state producers like Sierra Nevada and Deschutes.  (Or in many cases, just bottles from these breweries.)  Grocery stores might have two or three Idaho brands, but no more.  Unless you've traveled through or live adjacent to Idaho, you will almost certainly not be able to name a brewery there.  I would be gobsmacked to learn that any brewery in the state makes more than 5,000 barrels. [Note: see comments below, and consider me gobsmacked.]  In Idaho, breweries are mostly brewpubs, and they live the tenuous existence of restaurants, and failure is a very real possibility.  Earlier this year, TableRock, the state's oldest brewery, was dumped in favor of a burger joint
TableRock, which opened in 1991, is a seminal part of Boise's craft-beer scene. But it struggled in the past few years. TableRock Brewing Co., which operated the brewpub, filed for bankruptcy in 2008 because of a failed bottling plant. Chris Nelson took over the brewpub in 2009, eventually putting TableRock up for sale. Multiple head brewers have come and gone recently, leaving Nelson to brew TableRock's beer.
There's a lesson here: culture rules all.  There's a band running about a hundred miles wide (sometimes narrower) down the west coast of the US.  It is one cultural zone.  The next thousand miles or so have an entirely different culture, one that transcends state lines and geologic regions.  The culture of Boise, Idaho is a lot like Cheyenne, Wyoming and Missoula Montana.  It's closer culturally to Phoenix than it is to Portland.

The vast areas of the Mountain West are mostly rural and white, and therefore conservative.  You'd think this would make them bastions of capitalism--and maybe they are, if you're in the business of harvesting crops or beef--but local businesses of all stripes struggle.  Portlanders default to locally-made products and even regard products shipped from as close as Washington with suspicion.  In Idaho, national brands rule.  I was near McCall for part of the time, a pretty resort town on the shores of Payette Lake.  Though a tourist town, it gives nothing away to Portland in terms of parochialism; according to legend (about which the Google is mute), locals once tried to ban Californians from buying property there.

With just 3,000 people, McCall can support two local breweries.  And yet, despite their relative health, they have no presence outside their own walls.  You can't find McCall Brewing's beer on tap around town, much less down in Donnelly, ten miles south.  The parochialism doesn't extend to being boosters for local businesses like it does in Portland.

Aside from its innately fascinating differences, there's a pretty big lesson in the way Idahoans regard locally-brewed beer.  They are never going to be a big craft-beer market.  It doesn't matter how many local breweries open, they are never going to be more than marginal players making a few hundred barrels (at best) a year.  This is true across large swaths of the US.  I don't know a ton about the South, but only three of the largest fifty breweries are located there--even though it has a third of the country's people.  Geographically speaking, most of the country is never going to embrace locally-brewed beer in anything like the way people along that hundred-mile band along the Pacific Ocean do.

Politicos often use the description "two Americas" to describe the US.  If you were to map red and blue states, I think you'd find a fairly strong correlation with this cultural affinity for locally brewed beer.  It's just one of those things that makes the United States such an odd and interesting place to live.

Update:  A brewery insider just sent me some internal numbers from IRI.  These are incomplete numbers, but they demonstrate how different the states are.  In Oregon, only three breweries are from out of state in the "craft" segment (New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Lagunitas, the 8th, 9th, and 10th best sellers).  Of the top ten sellers, 84% of volume are locally brewed.  In Boise (no state numbers available), only three are local (the 5th, 6th, and 8th).  Local craft beers only have a 20% share in Boise.  Also interesting: Portlanders spend about 30% more on cider than people spend on craft beer in Boise.

Read more here:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

On Kolsch

It has been a couple years since I passed through Cologne--and probably that long since I blogged about the city's signature style. Yesterday, I encountered something that made me think it was time to revisit these light, crisp pale quintessentially summery beers. As easy as they seem to understand, it turns out there's still confusion about kolsches:

Did you spot the problem?  Germany and Bavaria are not synonymous (this confuses the history of Bavaria's ancient Reinheitsgetbot, too); Cologne is nowhere near Bavaria. 

But there is another issue, more subtle, more confusing. Is it an ale or lager? When I tweeted out that menu picture last night, a number of people said it was not just a mistake to call kolsches Bavarian, but to describe them as ales, too. They're sort of right--but that doesn't make them lagers, either. As with so many things German, the categories have been sliced more precisely:  

This middle-space, Obergäriges Lagerbier, indicates a top-fermented beer that has been lagered--a lagered ale. This distinction is useful to the extent that it illustrates the dual nature of the word "lager," which designates not only a yeast type (a noun), but also the practice of cold conditioning beer (a verb).  It harkens back to the era when yeasts were only dimly understood, but practices very well known. 

But as much as I respect Ron Pattinson and his knowledge about German beer, this is a needlessly pedantic distinction--and one I had a hard time finding Germans observe. When I was in Cologne, I asked about Obergäriges Lagerbier, and got curious looks for my trouble.  When I was touring the Kolsch brewery Reissdorf, I had an exchange with a brewer where I tried making Ron's point--and it was his point; I'd boned up on his vast treasury of blogging before my trip--but the brewer dismissed the distinction. "No," he told me, "it's an ale."  I think the world has shrunk enough now that the notion of ale as Americans understand it is typical, even in Germany. 

So you may call a Kolsch an ale without worry, or if you want to impress your friends, you can call it Obergäriges Lagerbier.  You might even argue that since it's a lagered ale, the word lager can be used in describing kolsches (though not by itself). 

 Just don't call it a Bavarian ale. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Cider Saturday: The Gorge Flows With Cider

I have been pointing the nose of my Toyota east and shooting down the Gorge the last couple weeks.  That's the newest hotspot for Oregon cider, although most of the cideries are so new very few people have heard of them.  Over the next few weeks or months, I'll be giving them the full Cider Saturday treatment, but for now, here's a picture essay and a thumbnail description of each cidery.  In the meantime, you can organize a tour for yourself if you wish.  All the cideries mentioned here have regular hours and welcome the public.  Click the links for details.

1.  Gorge Cyder House

Stefan Guemperlein operates the tiniest cidery from the back of his Ovino store in Hood River.  A German who recalls drinking cider in Bavaria in his youth, it was actually his love of Italian wines that brought him to the apple.  Now he makes naturally-fermented cider, slow-aged to rich complexity.

2.  Foxtail

You want cider?  The orchardist Bob Fox and his cider-making partner Justin Cardwell have cider--eight varieties when I visited.  Many include fruits gathered elsewhere on the farm (the best-seller is a peach cider, Fuzzy Haven), but I like the English-style dry, Docklands.  Stop into their really nice taproom just north of Hood River to sample.

3.  Rack and Cloth

I think Mosier is about to go on the cider map--it's about five miles east of Hood River, and it's where you find Rack and Cloth.  They have a cool little tasting-room/restaurant, and you can get not only their cider there, but food made from the produce of their farm.  Right now supplies are in very short supply, so visit early.  Silas has parceled out one five-gallon keg for each day they're open until the new cider is in, and when it's gone, you have to drink beer.  (Horrors!)  By the way the sheep on the far right is PommePomme, the cidery's mascot.

4.  Draper Girls

At the moment, Theresa Draper only makes sweet cider--that is, pre-fermented.  She is edging toward a cidery and tasting room to showcase the nine acres of heirloom fruit she grows, but that's down the line.  But here's the thing: that sweet cider is unpasteurized.  That means if you want to ferment it out yourself, with the Drapers' own Parkdale yeast, all you need is a carboy.  In October, I'm definitely making a trek out to pick up my five gallons.

5.  Hood Valley

Hood Valley is located across the street from Solera Brewing in downtown Parkdale.  Cider maker Brian Perkey has a long history in brewing, and brings his experience to the endeavor of producing a high-quality off-dry draft cider--the equivalent of a good session ale.  Both he and his ciders are enormously effervescent, and chatting with him is as fun as drinking his product.

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--