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Friday, February 05, 2016

The Range of Cider

On Wednesday evening, Nat West started uncorking bottles of cider and perry made by Hereford cider-maker Tom Oliver ten years ago. Nat managed to score them a few years back and has had them squirreled away waiting for the right occasion. And what better occasion than the arrival of the cider-maker himself for CiderCon?

Tom Oliver (left) and me.
Photo: Steven Shomler

I'd seen Tom earlier in the day, and he described these bottles, fearfully, as "the most oxidized cider in the world." In the event, they were not oxidized much at all; the flavors were deep and intense. Unlike IBUs in beer, tannins do not disappear. Cider, as a chemical solution, seems more well-suited to age than beer, too. The biochemistry changes but does not destroy the best flavors in cider. As I held it under my nose, it created the immediate impression of soil, or earth. Good, healthy soil is alive; you know it immediately by the scent. Tom's cider had that quality; the tannins were earthy and complex. Sally said, "daikon radish." Since we had the cidermaker on hand, I put my phone out and had him describe what he tasted.

"What I was anticipating was a removal of any sort of sweetness. By that I don't mean a sugar-sweetness, I mean what I call 'apple sweetness.' It's perceived for me as apple skins, but over time oxidation will remove that and turn that apple sweetness to cardboard--which has the effect, when you drink it, of there being a massive hole in the drink. What you're expecting to get--you instinctively do that [gestures] to your tongue because you're trying to find something that doesn't exist. But there's none of that.

To me, this is like a German dry sherry. It's slightly intensified and it's got that dryness which is--Germans do this dry sherry which is sort of oxidized. Hungarians do one as well that's a bit like that. It just has a lovely charm of its own. And this is--I have to say, I'm so relieved. Everyone's standing around and I don't mind them drinking this stuff now."

I have basically stopped cellaring all but a few beers I know handle age well. Nearly ever beer--and I mean all but a tiny handful--will begin pass their peak after a couple years. They might evolve into something interesting and even tasty, but they will be lesser beers than they were at birth or peak age. Cider seems to be different. I've only got an intermediate understanding of the flavors cider can and should produce, so I leave a big asterisk next to this statement. But that cider--and the perry, too, which was wonderfully balanced and lively--I could drink it all day long.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

All the Culture That's Fit to Print

Two notes for your reading and listening pleasure. In the first case, I respond to Mark Dredge's comments on the unsessionability of session IPAs. He's working from the British context, and I totally agree. However, I had to make a pitch for how these things work in the American context, which I have done here:
I have long been an American defender of European palates. I have spent many a session (and blog post) defending half-liter pours of Bavarian helles beer or imperial pints of cask bitter. Mark gives one of the best one-sentence description of the pleasures of cask ale—and helles lager: “There’s a simplicity to these beers that belies their depth and balance and makes their drinkability somehow increase as you go from pint to pint.” Totally true.
But I think it’s time I defend American palates for our European friends.

The second note is the new podcast, in which Patrick and I consider Trappist ales. Not all abbey ales, just the monastic ones. The idea came to us as we considered the lingering winter and the absence of American winter ales (which get pulled from shelves Jan 1), and which beers we--all right, I--turn to in these desperate months. If ever there was a beam of liquid sunshine on a winter's day, it was one of the Trappist ales of Belgium. Listen to it below or on iTunes. (And bonus production note: new mic!)

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Welcome Ciderfolk!


The little city of Portland is fortunate to be the center of the cider world this week. CiderCon, the annual conference for cider makers, is for the first time being held outside Chicago this year--and Portland was the lucky city that got to host it. (Chicago will have highs just above freezing during the period of the conference, whereas here in Portland it will be a delightful, drizzly mid-40s!)

There are a lot of events happening around town, and cider fans should really make an effort to get out and sample because the city will never be this suffused in cider again. Here's a very handy run-down of all the events happening in Portland this week.

I'd like to do a special call out for an event happening tonight at Reverend' Nat's. The celebrated Herefordshire cider-maker Tom Oliver will be visiting at 8pm (1813 NE 2nd), and Nat will have some of his ten-year old cider (!) on hand. Tom was one of the two cidermakers I spent extensive time with in England, and whom I wrote about in Cider Made Simple. He is both a very engaging and warm person, and also one of the most erudite proponents of traditionally-made English cider. He's also probably the most accomplished perry-maker (fermented pears) in the UK. So, if you want a chance to chat about tannins, natural fermentation, and keeving in Herefordshire, this is one of the very rare chances you'll have. I will definitely not be missing it.

And go have a good, cidery week.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Why the Beer Matters

Yesterday, I discussed the beer Cartwright Brewing made when it launched an early microbrewery in Portland in 1980. It was definitely the most interesting part of the papers posted by The Oregon Hops and Brewing Archive. But there is an element that's almost as interesting. Chuck Coury, Cartwright's founder, came to the project from wine-making. He'd already seen the change that had taken place in wine, and he gave an incredibly prescient overview of where beer was heading. (Although a small handful of American microbreweries had opened within the year or two before Coury started thinking about opening his own, they were far too new and tiny to suggest that any of his predictions were imminent.)

In the review he made of his own project at the time, here's what he observed about the coming beer market:
  • "There is a market for quality domestic beer. Note the rise in import sales. Compare to the explosion in fine wines. Prohibition theory: America's beer palate is only now recovering."
  • "Not everyone will enjoy your beer. That is good."
  • Things to stress about your brewery: "Local, small-scale production. Traditional/European quality. Re: chill haze and sediment; stress positively as 'real beer.'"
Kurt Widmer at the recent
release of Hopside down.
This is exactly what happened. It's remarkable that he had this insight into the market, because it took the rest of the country more than a decade to catch up with him. For basically all of the 1980s, it was touch and go in terms of whether what he wrote above would actually come to pass. Karl Ockert once told me that when the Ponzis were looking for bank funding to open BridgePort a few years later, the banker said (paraphrasing), "Nobody opens breweries; they just shut them down." But here we are, a generation later, and it turns out there is a market for domestic beer. Not everyone like every brand, and that is good--it means we have a very rich and diverse market. He even correctly identified that elements of craft beer that would be anathema to a large industrial brewery like haze could become a marker for hand-made authenticity.

Which raises the question: why did Cartwright fail?

Part of it was that the market Coury envisioned wouldn't emerge for years. Sometimes visionaries suffer a first-mover disadvantage (you could say Cartwright was the MySpace of beer). But a far bigger reason was the beer. It just wasn't good. There are still lots of people around who remember it, and that's the overwhelming memory; even on Facebook people were recalling the beer with amusement as a crapshoot. Apparently there were a few good batches, but they seem to have been the minority.

When you look at the breweries that survived the 1980s, nearly all of them did so by making very good beer. But it's also true now. A glance at the largest breweries in the roughly "craft" camp (Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Craft Brewers Alliance, Lagunitas, Deschutes, Bell's) confirms that quality really helps a brewery. It's not the only thing that matters. Good branding, smart distribution, fortunate brand performance, good location--all these things can really help. Good beer alone is not sufficient to become a big brewery, either; there are thousands of small breweries worldwide, from Block 15 and Breakside to Dupont and Schlenkerla, that make world-class beer. Some breweries making great beer even fail for reasons unrelated to the beer.

But an iron rule is that without quality beer, it's very, very hard to build a successful brewery if you're competing in the "quality" category. (I'd say impossible, but wise hive mind is going to point out a case where it's happened.) Coury understood where the market was headed. Unfortunately, he charged into it with bad beer and that insight didn't do him any good.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Cartwright Brewing's Weird Steam(?) Beer

In June 1979, Fred Eckhardt reported two items in Amateur Brewer:
"PORTLAND, OR -- The Pabst Brewing Company of Milwaukee announced that it was acquiring the Blitz-Weinhard Company..."
"PORTLAND, OR -- The country's [missing word] (very) small brewery will produce its first brew in June, according to brewmaster Charles Coury, of Oregon's new Cartwright Brewing Company...."
Both of these things probably made very little impression on people at the time, but they augured big things to come. Henry's would be shuttered 20 years later, after it was clear Oregon had become a "craft beer" state. And although Cartwright brewing vanished after a couple years, Coury's quixotic venture would inspire others to consider the possibility of brewing their own beer. I recall Rob Widmer telling me once that he and Kurt saw the brewery and later agreed, "we could do that."

Charles Coury.
Source: Fred Eckhardt

But peering through the looking-glass from this side of history distorts things. While the scale of Cartwright must have seemed comprehensible, the actual act of brewing turned out to be a bigger trick. I have long heard about Cartwright's troubles, but the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archive posted a remarkable document that explains the nature of Coury's challenges. It was an assessment of the brewery by Coury himself. The whole thing is worth a read, but I want to focus on the beer itself. The business stuff is interesting, but a look at the beer Coury designed in late 1979 or 1980 tells us a lot about the state of beer then. Here's the recipe:
"The basic formula: 93% pale malt, 7% caramel malt, about 1 pound of hops per barrel (2/3 boiling--Cluster, 1/3 finishing--Cascade), typically a bottom yeast is used."
That's an odd recipe (more in a moment), but it's nothing compared to the process.
  •  He started out with a 3.5 hour mash in apparently three steps ("rests for protein reduction, saccharification, dextrine production")
  • "Lautering takes 3-4 hours" (!)
  • "The wort is boiled for 2 hours 15 minutes."
  • "It is cooled overnight by recirculating cold water in the kettle's steam jacket."
  • "The cool wort is racked and pitched the following morning."
  • The final beer was bottle-conditioned and spent a month carbonating.

It's a funny, almost frontier beer. I wonder if Coury consulted Fritz Maytag, because the recipe looks quite a bit like Anchor Steam. There's no evidence he had any lagering equipment, so it seems like he was fermenting lager yeast warm, like Steam. The hops are different (Anchor uses Northern Brewer), but with the Cluster they would definitely have an old-time American authenticity. It took the poor man over nine hours to brew one batch of beer--and that doesn't include the time spent milling grain, which he called "a tedious and difficult task." And then there's the business of leaving it to cool overnight. One of the most common descriptions of people who tried this beer was "infected," and I have an idea that nice 8-hour cooling period before pitching didn't help. This formulation and process reads a lot more like a 19th century brewery than one from the 21st century.

Cartwright Brewing. Source: Fred Eckhardt

(Other amusing tidbit. He listed "problems with the process," and included this one: "Clean-up after brewing. Shoveling the spent grains and scrubbing the equipment takes a good part of the day." You don't say? Oddly enough, the first two modern Oregon breweries were founded by winemakers. Reading between the lines, it seems like Coury hadn't bargained for how much different, and more laborious, brewing would be than wine-making.)

There's a sheet of paper among the documents from Fred Eckhardt, who was apparently taking notes on the beers Cartwright made. He describes two beers, "Original" and "New." The stats on Cartwright's original beer are these. It was brewed to just 11.2 P (1.045) and finished out at 3 P (1.012)--which would have made it a 4.4% beer--and had just 18 IBUs. The "new" beer was 12.3 P (1.049) and finished drier, 2.4 P (1.009)--a 5.4% beer. It had 40 IBUs (of rugged Clusters, no less), which even today would seem plenty bitey. I have no idea if the second beer was ever made.

Coury thought his product was quite distinctive. He compared it to "traditional/European quality" beer and thought the bottle conditioning could be spun as a positive--though he seems to have fretted it would seem strange to consumers. What's interesting is that the beer is so similar to commercial beer at the time--it's just a half step in a different direction. It's a 4.4% copper-colored steam beer with 18 IBUs. The color and fuller flavor would have been unusual, but hardly unrecognizable, to consumers in 1980.

Source: Fred Eckhardt

The Archive includes a contemporaneous article from the Eugene Register-Guard that offers a bit more insight into the beer. "[Coury] says he found century-old beer beer-making recipes in 'beautiful, old brewing textbooks' in the stacks of the Multnomah County Library in Portland." Coury also gives a specific nod to Anchor Steam. It seems history, tradition, and a desire not to get too far outside the mainstream guided the development of the beer.

Two other random facts going out. Cartwright was selling the beer for $.90-$.95 a bottle, which is $2.59 to $2.73 in today's dollars--a fairly steep price. And according to the newspaper article, he was also planning on brewing a stout. Wonder if he ever made it that far?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

From Cartwright to Session IPA in 272 Words

I'm a bit short for blogging time this week, though there is a remarkable post over at Oregon Hops and Brewing Archive that will feature prominently in (hopefully very near) future posts. A trove of documents reveals what the state of brewing was like in the late Carter administration as Chuck Coury struggled to make one of America's first microbreweries a viable enterprise.

Original Cartwright site.
I don't want to step on that blogging too much, but suffice it to say that what brewers and drinkers understood then--a long time by one measure, but well within living memory--was shockingly primitive. That article contrasts nicely with a piece that provoked a lot of debate on the nature of Session IPAs. In that post, Londoner Mark Dredge argues that there's nothing sessionable about this style. Unsurprisingly, his British commenters all offer their hear-hears (as did Alan, in a thread that sadly took place on Facebook). I'll leave aside for a moment my strong dissent of Mark's point--"sessionable" may be a British word, but which flavors Americans choose for their sessions is not under British oversight*--but what's striking is the distance between Cartwright and Session IPA.

We've gone from a time when Americans neither knew how to brew beer nor what most beer tasted like to a time where we argue about "sessionability" and "session IPAs"--two concepts that would have been abstruse to the point of gibberish just 36 years ago. I have a decent shot at being alive in another 36 years, and it's hard to even imagine what world we might inhabit then.

*Okay, I didn't entirely leave it aside.

Monday, January 25, 2016

But the Horse Has Already Left the Barn...

...and lived a full life and passed into the next. But Coors, discovering the door ajar, is racing to close it.

Latest marketing push uses "Whatever your mountain, climb on" to lure back diverse crowd of consumers curious about craft brews
The campaign opens with a panoramic shot of hiker scaling a snow-covered peak, which is followed by a "Rocky"-style montage of boxers, bull riders, runners, climbers and welders.

"Our mountains make us who we are, your mountains make you who you are," the ad says, winding up with "whatever your mountain, climb on."

It's a far cry from hot babes and cold beer.

The new comprehensive marketing campaign from MillerCoors, the Chicago-based joint venture of Denver-based Molson Coors and SABMiller, targets women, consumers with diverse ethnic backgrounds and adults aged 35-44, hoping to draw customers back to the venerable brand.

On the positive side: at least now they're aware they have a problem. On the negative side: they've skeezily objectified women for 35 years.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Marks of the Modern Era: Hop Breeding

Looking back on a decade of blogging, one of the biggest revolutions has been the emergence of hops as the central player in craft brewing--a phenomenon that stretches all across the globe.  This has been driven by a couple things. First and foremost--and the subject of a future post--the way in which beer styles have evolved to take advantage of the flavor and aroma of particularly New World hops (US, New Zealand, Australia). But a possibly overlooked dimension in all of this are the hops themselves.

Breeders have been busy for the past four decades adding to the world's inventory of hop varieties. The focus in the early decades was on alpha acids; every few years, breeders managed to goose the alpha acids in hops so that "high alpha hops" went from 8% up to the low teens. When they kept going, breeders invented a new category, "super high alpha," to describe them. Large industrial breweries were driving these innovations, because the higher the alpha acids, the fewer the hops they had to use in a batch of beer.

Craft brewing changed that calculus, as drinkers became attracted to the vivid, often exotic flavors of New World hops. There were a decent number of first-gen varieties to choose from, principally the classic "C-hops" (Cascade, Centennial, Chinook). As craft brewing turned more toward hoppy ales and brewers started focusing more on techniques to enhance these hops' flavor and aroma, breweries started to look for new varieties to give their beers distinctive flavors. Stan Hieronymus would probably be able to comment more knowledgeably on this than I, but it appeared that the development of Citra, led by the Widmer Brothers and Sierra Nevada, marked a turning point. 

Developing hops takes a long time and is expensive and laborious. Unusual, off-putting compounds in these new hybrid hops are not always evident until they've gone into a number of beers. (Summit has a compound that tastes of onions to a minority of drinkers, Sorachi Ace a dill note--flavors not generally admired by those who detect them.) Producing a winner like Citra means finding several also-rans. Nevertheless, the blend of incentives created by the new direction of craft brewing post-2005 has shifted hop breeding firmly in the direction of aroma varieties. 

After Citra, a succession of new hops has hit the market--Mosaic, Equinox, Meridian, El Dorado, Palisade--all bred to give breweries more options. This is only the start of things. Breweries have a huge interest in finding hop varieties that will (generally in combination with other hops) give them IPAs that taste like no others on the market. They're looking not only to newly-bred ones, but forgotten varieties (Comet has made a comeback), indigenous varieties, and uncommon foreign varieties. What follows is an incomplete list of hops you may see appearing in your local IPAs:
What's been really amazing is how these effects are translating to new varieties in Germany (Mandarina Bavaria, Huell Melon), the Czech Republic (Kazbek, Vital, Bohemie), and the UK (Sussex, Sovereign, Endeavour)--all places where classic varieties had previously been sacrosanct. The British strains seem to be the most New-world of the bunch, and Americans may soon be turning to the new varieties there to trick out their hoppy ales.

When I started this blog, it was possible to keep track of all the hops used in commercial brewing. As a homebrewer, I was able to brew with most of them and learn how they behaved and tasted. Now it seems like every week I encounter a beer made with some new hop. The very popular ones, like Mosaic and El Dorado, find their way into enough beers that we can hope to identify them. But Tahoma? Minstrel? TNT? It's getting harder and harder. I suspect this will slow down at some point, but it's the new normal for now. And it's been quite a transformation.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

From Understudy to Star: Craft Brewing's Decade

Craft beer doesn't seem like a recent phenomenon. (For the purposes of this post, "craft beer" means anything made by smaller American breweries from the late 1970s onward.) Most of us will recall hearing something about it before I started this blog a decade ago. Some will remember drinking it back as far as the Reagan administration. But in some very real ways, it is recent. Until the middle 2000s, craft beer was a niche product in all but the beeriest of cities. Let's trot through some numbers to illustrate just how stark the change has been.

This draft array, sighted this week in Yuma, AZ,
is typical of what you used to find--in, say, 2006.

In 2005, craft breweries combined to brew 6.3 million barrels, which was just 3.2% of all beer sold in the US that year. At the end of 2014 (the most recent date with numbers), that figure had more than tripled to 22.2 million barrels, or 11.3%. (Total barrelage was nearly identical for both years at just over 197 million.) When they finally get to totting up the figures for 2015, it should be around 25 million barrels, or 14.5% of the entire market. Since 2005, the craft beer segment's worst year-over-year growth was 5.8%; it fell below double-digit growth only twice, and that was during the throes of the great recession.

In 2006, Oregon was well ahead of most of the country in adopting craft beer, with Portland and Bend leading the way. I couldn't find the statistics for overall consumption in 2005, but I think it was probably close to the national stats we'll see in 2015. In 2006, craft beer was already a generation old, and it had only managed to cobble together a 3% share of the beer market. There was a general sense that it was never going to become a huge player, and when people looked at Oregon's stats, they tended to dismiss them as cultural outliers. No one believed the rest of the country would ever achieve that kind of penetration.

I'd argue that the psychological change in the last ten years has been far greater than even the growth in barralage. In 2006, craft beer could provide owners with a nice little business. No one imagined that it constituted a real threat to mass market lagers. Last year, big breweries paid tens of millions, and in one case a billion dollars for modest-sized craft breweries. Even in 2006, there were craft breweries the size of 2015's Ballast Point and Lagunitas, but the idea that a large brewery would spend half a billion or a billion on them would have been inconceivable. The reason is because the idea that craft beer would one day become the dominant force was also inconceivable. Now it's conventional wisdom, and large breweries are willing to pay a massive premium in order to position themselves to compete in this world in the future.

Beyond sheer growth, there's a change in the distribution of breweries as well. Have a look at the total production by type of brewery. These are the Brewers Association's categories; a regional brewery makes more than 15,000 barrels and a micro makes fewer than 15,000.

Production by Type


The share of production by big breweries is now over three-quarters of the market, and that's the segment of real barrel growth. In the coming few years, the percentage of beer produced by the biggest craft breweries will likely pass 90%. In a market where there are fewer bigger players, you'd expect consolidation, and that's what we're already seeing.

One of other interesting trend is the types of new breweries getting founded. If you wanted to identify a bubble somewhere in the market, this might be a place to look. It appears that people are betting on production facilities rather than brewpubs.

Percentage of Breweries by Type


This again isn't surprising; with all the potential money to be made, starting a production brewery looks like an attractive option. But it means that there will be many more players trying to compete for a piece of the pie dominated by large breweries. I expect that means we'll start to see brewery failures rise in the future--even if, overall, there's not yet a bubble.

In 2006, as I started this blog, craft brewing was just a sleepy little current in the overall beer market--still a "boutique" segment. In the next decade, growth has been so strong that it is now a given that it's the future of beer. Imagine what the next decade will hold.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Beer With "Lift"

On Saturday I had the pleasure of judging at the evolving Willamette Week Oregon beer awards. During one of the sessions, a judge (I'll let him identify himself if he wishes) was describing why he liked one of the beers. He was praising its liveliness and described the finish as having "lift." It was an adjective that received appreciative nods and smiles around the table.

A beer with "lift?"
Describing or judging a beer can often be a deadening experience, as we default to a list of familiar attributes. But the experience of drinking a beer, particularly a very good or very bad one, sometimes means using the language of metaphor. "Lift" is not a descriptor that will ever be usable in the way "diacetyl" will--it's not a quantifiable quality. But in the case of the beer being described, it was perfectly accurate. We all understood what he meant. It wasn't only liveliness, but the way the beer evolved in the mouth. It went out with a rising, spirited snap, with lift.

I've heard other beers described as having "bass," a kind of thrumming resonance full of deep flavors. It's not only the sense of heft or roastiness, but gravitas. Some beers seem "hollow," in that they have at the mid-palate collapse--perhaps the opposite of "bass." In a world where we use the same, tired old language ("the beer pours out copper and smells of nuts and citrus") it's great to hear new words that capture a beer's essence.

Happy MLK Day, everyone--