Showing posts with label craft beer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label craft beer. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

A Question of Locality

Everyone and his mate, it seems, loves to bang on about "local beer", even though as I have written before the whole concept of "local" beer is fraught with problems:
"so often the ingredients being used by "local breweries" are anything but local. Malts come from Canada, the UK, Belgium and sometimes Germany, hops likewise come from a raft of countries, including the latest craze for Antipodean hops. Yeast is sourced from multinational companies with libraries of strains again spanning the globe. Want to brew a witbier? No problem, order a Belgian yeast specifically for use in witbiers, use the Weihenstephan strain for making a German hefeweizen, Nottingham for an English ale, or even Prague's Staropramen for making that Bohemian pilsner you've been dreaming about.

That pretty much leaves the water as the only genuinely local element of a beer, but how many breweries strip their water of all the minerals and salts which make regional water a driving force in the history of developing beer styles and then add back the required minerals for a particular style? Imagine London and Dublin had soft water instead of hard, porter and it's offspring, stout, would likely be very different beers."
That may sound like a strange comment to make given that I am someone that drinks far more beer from the area in which I live than stuff brought in from the wider world. It just so happens that I live in a part of Virginia with plenty of good breweries. If my choices were a third rate local craft brewery and buying Sam Adams in the store, I'd be on the Sam Adams all day long. Drinking local only really works when the drinking is a pleasurable experience rather than an industry induced guilt trip. In all the industry's posturing and waffle about supporting and drinking local (and no doubt some people will say that you should drink local shit so the brewery has funds to improve, as if shiny toys make better beer for a brewer with no sense of taste), it feels as though the locals themselves get forgotten about.

Can a brewery for example truly call itself "local" if it relies on daytrippers and tourists for a large bulk of its revenue, or if the price of a pint excludes its nearest neighbours from being able to drink there? There was a story I read recently about a brewery owner looking for a new location because the expected gentrification of the neighbourhood in which he pitched his tent didn't happen and his target audience didn't feel safe enough to visit his brewery. Now, call me a miserable git, but if you expect your audience to take their lives in their own hands and come to a rough neighbourhood for a bevvy while you wait for potential gentrification then you deserve to go under. If you want "nice" people to come and drop $6+ for a 16oz pint of whatever you are selling then work that into your business plan and go to areas they frequent.

How exactly the presence of a new brewery in a rough neighbourhood benefits that neighbourhood often escapes me. Job creation is often lauded as being a benefit, but then the people that fill the jobs being created are often likewise bussed in from outisde the neighbourhood. Indirect benefits to other local businesses gets touted too, but as daytripping tourists come in their cars, drink their flight, then leave in their cars, I wonder what other neighbourhood businesses benefit? Unless there is a petrol station to hand.

For millennia beer has been the everyman drink and the pub a social leveller, but there are times when it seems as though craft beer is for white, college educated, middle class folks, and the craft beer bar/brewpub/taproom little more than a ghetto in which white, college educated, middle class folks can feel safe from the marauding hoard that is the working class of their imagination. It's almost as though there is an unspoken code that only acceptable people are worthy of craft beer, as the industry and its attendant hangers on sneer at the great unwashed and decree "let them drink Bud".

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

More Than Less

I will just come out and say it, I like a drink.

That fact is probably the main reason I seek out session beers whenever possible. Unless I am in the company of good friends, I am the guy that will sit at a table and be very much on the periphery of the conversation. It's just as well I am something of an amateur anthropologist, I love watching people and how they interact, though it does mean I tend to drink quicker than a lot of people I know, and that's where session beers come in. I simply wouldn't want to drink 5 or 6 imperial pints of standard strength craft beer (between 6.5% and 7% in this part of Virginia) and then drive myself home, regional public transport being something akin to unicorn shit and the Brexit dividend.

For a while a couple of years ago it seemed as though everyone and his mate was jumping on the session beer bandwagon, though this being the US they wanted to say 5.5% abv beer was sessionable. Given that my definition of a session begins at the fourth imperial pint, these beers felt like some cruel joke. For those unaware of Lew Bryson's vital work at The Session Beer Project, let's remind ourselves of his suggested guidelines for an American session beer:
  • 4.5% alcohol by volume or less
  • flavorful enough to be interesting
  • balanced enough for multiple pints
  • conducive to conversation
  • reasonably priced
Forgive me for being cynical, but there are times when I wonder if anyone is paying much attention to anything but the first point in the definition, maybe the second, though again being grumpy I would say that most session IPAs are too flavourful.

The other three points though appear to be willfully ignored. A sweet and sour fruit infused faux gose is not balanced enough to have multiple pints, remember a session begins at the fourth imperial pint - 4 imperial pints of a watermelon gose? Not fucking likely, most samples of the gack are difficult enough to get through, let alone a US customary pint.

Even though I tend to be the quiet guy on the edges, it is session beer that eventually gets me in to a place where I am happier to jump into conversation. God that makes me sound like some right uptight git, I am just not much of a talker when there are more people in a group that I don't know than I do. After a few pints though, I'll loosen up and dip my toe into the waters of the conversation, and we'll see where it goes, the beer though conducts me into the conversation.

Much like the pricing restrictions of Reinheitsgebot, the idea of reasonably priced beer is conveniently forgotten by all and sundry. For example, during American Mild Month I routinely saw dark milds between 3% and 4% being sold for between $5 and $7 for an imperial pint, the same price as some 7%-9% abv beers on the same beer list. Now, pardon my french, but that is taking the fucking piss. Charging the same price for a 3.5% mild as an 8% double IPA simply smacks of gouging the customer and reaping a much bigger profit margin on the beer.

There is more to creating a session beer than simply being technical with the ABV. To truly have session beer there needs to be an environment where the best bitters, dark milds, and pale lagers are as an attractive proposition as some extreme hop bomb or malt based fruity alcopop. Session beer thrives when the beer culture is one of drinking pints with your mates rather than cruising breweries doing flights. I fear we are starting to lose that culture.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Devils Backbone Sale - Initial Thoughts

So the Anheuser-Busch shopping spree continues...only this time it is much closer to home. News came through this morning that they have purchased Devils Backbone, a brewery very dear to my heart.

One of the first breweries Mrs V and went to when we relocated from Prague to Central Virginia was Devils Backbone, which had been open for a mere 8 months at that point. The beer was solid, the service maybe less so, but they were finding their feet and a few months later we went again for their 1 year anniversary, which also happened to be my birthday. The beer was great, and I knew then that I would drink a lot of Devils Backbone.

If you've followed Fuggled for a while now you will know that I have brewed on the brewpub kit a few times, firstly as an eager observer/mash digger outer for the Trukker Ur-Pils, then creating the recipe for Morana, a Czech dark lager that makes it's fourth appearance in a few weeks, and also recreating a London Dark Lager with Ron Pattinson.

I guess then people will be expecting a renting in twain of my robes, and the liberal application of ashes to my head in mourning. People will be disappointed. I have met Steve and Heidi a few times around the brewery, I would count Jason as a friend, and have had drinks from time to time with Hayes and a few other folks from Devils Backbone, and to be perfectly honest I am happy for them. The hard work they have put into the brewery is staggering, and to think they have gone from being a brewpub in the mountains of rural Virginia to the largest craft brewery in the Commonwealth in the space of just 7.5 years.

Congratulations Devils Backbone, and as long as the beer remains good, then I will remain a happy Devils Backbone drinker.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Iconic Craft?

It's been one of those weeks where the best intentions get flung out of the window as a result of circumstances. Nothing drastic, just a demanding week at the day job, and so a couple of pints of an evening at home has been the ideal way to smooth away the wrinkles of the day. I'll get back on the not drinking during the week wagon next week.

Not wanting to buy in more beer I've been raiding the cellar and fridge, both of which were thankfully well stocked with my kind of beers - key word there 'were', they're a tad barren now. Most of the beers I thoroughly enjoyed in the past few days have been from what I would regard as 'iconic' breweries, Guinness and Samuel Smith's, coming hot on the heels of drinking beer Schlenkerla at the weekend.

This got me thinking, a dangerous habit for sure, about how many American beers and/or breweries that have sprung up in the last 30 old years will go on to achieve the same kind of legendary status as the folks at St James' Gate, Tadcaster, or Bamberg?

To be blunt, the list is fairly small.

Top of that list for me would be Sierra Nevada, and in particular their Pale Ale, the very archetype of the American Pale Ale style, and still the benchmark for any beer in that style. I think it would be rather obvious to point to a West Coast IPA as some kind of iconic beer, but without SNPA I am convinced there would never have been the taste for American hops that drives the continuing IPA obsession. It also helps that Sierra Nevada for all their innovation have always struck me as delightfully respectful of tradition. How many US craft breweries bottle condition their beer, let alone recreate bottle conditioning in their canned lineup?  The sight of the pale green 12 pack in the store in such decent beer wastelands as Daytona Beach is an infinite source of comfort, and its acceptance in the mainstream a sign of it becoming an iconic American beer.

The other iconic US craft beer, and for similar reasons, is Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Sure it may be brewed in several different breweries, and the brewing company itself is branching out into cider, hard tea, and whatever else will sell, but Boston Lager itself was the beer that broke the mould. Think of the American lager scene in 1985, dominated by pale lager megabrands and their light cousins. People that wanted something different drank Heineken, Beck's, and other German imports. In to that milieu stepped Jim Koch and Boston Lager, the first non-BMC American made lager I ever drank, and I loved it at first mouthful - and remember at this point I was living in the Czech Republic, a land that makes a decent lager or two. Just as with SNPA, the sight of a Boston Lager tap in a franchise restaurant is welcome to anyone that likes a decent beer instead of post-mix soda.

After that though, who is there that are still out there making the beers that made them famous rather than ditching them to satisfy the fickle winds of change? From among the ranks of craft brewers currently riding the crest of a wave, who among them will my children drink, or their children, and even their children?

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sober Thoughts

It's funny the things that potter through my brain during my annual month of boozeless existence. Quick side note, I generally don't refer to it as 'dry January' because I am not doing this because of the ridiculous machinations of Alcohol Concern or some other bunch of neo-Prohibitionists, by the time the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year period is over I have drunk way too much and feel like crap, so I take some time off. I still go to my favourite watering holes, I just drink some diet form of soda. Anyway, that's not the point of my post today.

One of the things that has pottered through my head of late is the lie that is the public image of the brewing industry as a boy scout jamboree writ large and with added kegs of beer, a vocal cheer squad of bloggers, raters, advocates, and allied industries in the background, singing a chorus of whatever the beer version of kumbaya is.

While there is great bonhomie amongst the brewers themselves, I find it really disturbing when brewing companies (and let's not get so soft headed as to forget that craft beer is an industry, and its processes are largely at an industrial scale) start suing other brewing companies for perceived infringements on their trademarks or intellectual property. My ire is particular raised when brewing companies try to lay claim to the common nomenclature of beer culture as somehow being theirs.

There are, in my opinion a set of concepts and ideas which simply cannot be trademarked in all good faith. Things like beer styles, such as hellesperceived logo similarities, or even the common brewing terms 'imperial' or 'session' are not worth suing over in my opinion. I have no problem if a brewing company wants to make predominately session strength beers, in fact I support that as an avid drinker of lower gravity beers. However, the idea of session was not invented by any one brewing company, it belongs to the drinking people of the world. It is we who have decided, through common use and tradition, what constitutes a session beer. The use of the term 'session' in a beer name is simply an indicator to the consumer of the expected strength of the beer in the glass, just as 'imperial' tells me to expect something big and boozy.

Looking at the bigger picture, it seems to me that such legal wranglings actually do more to harm the independent brewing industry as a whole. Litigation when there is a real, clear, infringement of a company's intellectual property within their market is one thing, but I would hate to see any of my local breweries attempting to sue a company where they do no business. Such behaviour would just incur the rancour of drinkers in that locality, and ultimately portray the brewing company doing, or threatening, legal action as a bunch of jumped up tossers. It's kind of like those big multinational brewing companies that sue family owned breweries in an entirely different country because their beer has the same name, though different spelling, as a brand of low grade beer brewed by said big boy.

Isn't craft beer supposed to be the antithesis of big beer?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Flagship Craft Lager

On the same shopping trip that resulted in buying the Coors Banquet that I wrote about in my previous post I decided to also get myself some craft lager. Wanting to try something I had not had before I perused the collection of singles rather than splashing on a 6 pack. I learnt my lesson with buying 6 packs of craft lager when trying out Samuel Adam's Noble Pils.

As the aisle I was standing in was in a supermarket rather than a specialist beer retailer the selection of craft lagers was somewhat meagre. I did though find a craft lager that I had never had before...

Now, I know there will be people looking at that picture and wondering where the craft lager is, it's the rather fetching copper liquid that I poured out of the can into the glass. According to the ever flexible definition of a craft brewery espoused by the Brewers Association, America's oldest family owned brewery became a craft brewery in 2014, and if I have understood the numbers correctly, Yuengling Traditional Lager instantly became the best selling craft lager in the US. It really was remiss of me to have not drunk it already, and how was it? Well, here goes:
  • Sight - orange copper, topped with a thin, loose bubbled, white head that rather surprisingly didn't disappear quickly
  • Smell - imagine walking into a pub first thing in the morning, that distinct beer smell that pubs have, that, with some light butter and earthiness lingering in the background
  • Taste - distinctly grainy, like Weetabix, with a toasty taste in the middle and a slightly nutty finish
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 1.5/5

The thing that really surprised me with this was that the body was more on the medium side of light than I expected. It was also nowhere near as carbonated as I expected, no fizzy mess here thankfully. Overall it was a nicely balanced beer that I really rather enjoyed and at 4.4% definitely one I can see myself ordering in the pub from time to time.

Without wanting to get into the politics of what makes a craft brewer, it is after all the BA's definition and they can do with it as they will, Yuengling tick every box when you think about a bit. Small, independent, and traditional, it's just that the tradition they adhere to isn't some puritanical obsession with Reinheitsgebot, but a very American tradition, innovation - a tradition that these days sadly gets confused for having an ingredient wankfest.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Coming Full Circle?

As I took my dog for a walk this morning I was thinking about beer. Not about the beer I drank yesterday to mark my 40th birthday, the highlight being a couple of litres of Rothaus Pils at Kardinal Hall in Charlottesville, but rather how my tastes in beer seem to be ever increasingly skewed toward classic styles well made.

As I said, the highlight of my drinking yesterday was as simple a German style pilsner as is humanly possible. Other recent highlights have been a Helles lager from South Street, positively gallons of Sierra Nevada's collaborative Oktoberfest, and in the summer plenty of Three Notch'd Session 42 best bitter.

The thing that ties all these beers together is simplicity. There are no extraneous ingredients, no aging in barrels that once upon a time held a spirit of one kind or another, nothing experimental at all. I would say that my drinking life has never been richer.

Sure, it helps that each of the beers is very well made, but simple beers made poorly are often the worst beers a brewery puts out because the brewer can't hide behind the innovative band-aids that disguise their shortfall in brewing technique. I have said it many times, but show me a brewer that can put out a consistently high quality, and flavourful, classic beer style, such as pilsner, and you are showing me one worth his or her salt.

Thinking over my 22 years of legal beer drinking, from that first pint of Guinness to last night's Rothaus, put me in mind of Bunyan's pilgrim who sets out on a journey of discovery that takes him through many adventures but eventually comes full circle home. I feel as though I am coming full circle, where all I really want when I am having a beer is something that tastes great, is a well made iteration of a recognisable style, and is an aid to the occasion not the whole point of it.

I almost had a sense this morning that craft beer is starting to grow up and appreciate simplicity in all its glory, though in all likelihood reality is less prosaic and more a case of my having found my sweet spot in beer, and it is really isn't all that far from where I left from when I started this blog.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cost, Price, and Value

Yesterday on the Yours For Good Fermentables Facebook page, Tom Cizauskas posted a 2014 article from the Huffington Post which purported to breakdown the cost of a 6 pack of beer. Below is the chart from that original article.

This chart got me thinking more about the cost of being a craft beer drinker, and frankly I find some of it really rather disturbing.

We hear much about craft beer being expensive because of the use of expensive ingredients, but if this chart is correct then the ingredients themselves constitute just 10% of the cost of the beer in your 6 pack. The bottles and the cardboard carton said beer is sitting in is far more expensive than the beer itself. I would love to see a comparative chart about the cost of creating a 6 pack of industrial beer and see what proportion of the final cost is the ingredients.

More disturbing is that the cost of labour is a mere 1% of the overall cost of a six pack, think about that for a moment, that six pack in your hand at the shop contributes just 9.9 cents to someone's pay cheque. Add that 1% to the ingredients and only 11% of the cost of the six pack is actually involved in the production of the beer, everything else is margin, distribution, and tax. The actual cost of your beer is likely not much more than $1.09, chuck in the packaging costs and the total package on that six pack is $2.39, and that's before the brewery themselves have added a markup, which takes the total so far to a mere $3.19 for a six pack, less than a third of the final cost.

Why then is craft beer so expensive? It's really quite simple. 52% of the cost of a six pack of beer is margin added by the distributors and retailers. Now, I understand that businesses need to make money to survive, but when more than half the cost of my six pack is being taken up by people not actively involved in the production of the beer then I start to wonder whether that is really justified or whether they are just scalping the consumer because the product is so popular at the moment? It also reinforces my belief that the 3 tier system that exists in the US booze industry simply serves to line the pockets of middlemen. Imagine a world where breweries could sell directly to retailers and a healthy chunk of that 21% distribution markup saving could be passed on to the consumer, thus the 6 pack drops to $7.82 in the store.

By removing the distribution channel and letting the breweries sell directly to retailers like bars and stores you actually encourage genuinely local breweries whose products are primarily available in the brewery's catchment area. This also means that breweries are not encouraged to expand their presence into markets they can't support sufficiently, sure it might mean a slow down in growth but I would rather have fewer high quality brewers like Sierra Nevada than multitudes of third rate 'craft' swill.

For me, the 'more expensive ingredients' as a primary driver of the cost of craft simply fails to stand up to scrutiny, if this chart is accurate, and having seen the cost per barrel of the leading beers at a local brewery it sounds about right. The true reason for the cost of craft beer is that the people that control the beer once it is out of the brewery door can basically set the price at whatever they feel the market will bear, and as long as consumers keep stumping up the cash without criticism the more the price will rise. That is the very nature of the market, it will charge whatever it can get away with and that will only change when people start voting with their wallets and refusing to pay sucker prices.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Welcome to Starbeers

This morning I had a revelation, an epiphany. It was like lightning struck my brain, and yes it hurt. It was a revelation that may explain why I find much of the current hoopla around 'craft beer' so fucking puke inducing, and I am not referring to the abominable habit many an American brewer has for putting silly shit in a beer, pouring it into a firkin, slapping it on the bar, and calling it cask. Today I realised that craft beer, including many of its fans and acolytes, is becoming Starbucks.

Yep, you read that right, the buzz and culture of craft beer is painfully similar to going to a Starbucks and having to use nonsensical terms just to get a fucking cup of coffee, whilst having easy listening muzak inflicted on you in the background, and bubble headed wotsits trying to decide if they want 2 pumps of caramel in their skinny latte or just an extra swirl of wank.

When I think about it more deeply the more I am convinced that is where the whole shebang is headed. Different pour sizes, beyond the usual big/small, pint/half-pint, thing. In the UK it is all thirds, halves, two-thirds, pints, here in the US quite often it is 10oz, 16oz, or 20oz (and yes I know a place that does a 'supersize' 25oz beer!). I look at that and all I see is short, tall, grande, venti, and trenta. God help us if some overly addled bright spark comes up with names for all the different sizes, or we adopt the Aussie approach.

Now think about the craze for putting silly shit into beer, whether to be served turbid and shitty from a firkin or bright and freezing from a keg. It gets to point where it is likely reading a fucking Starbucks menu with stuff like 'salted caramel mocha frappucino', or a 'cinnamon chai tea latte' - what the fuck are you talking about??? Reading some craft beer menus, and I'm looking at you Asheville, gets me all in a state of Bernard Black doing his taxes:

I imagine there are even people who spend the day sitting in craft beer bars, sipping a barrel aged sour pumpkin spice white stout, whilst tapping away on their laptops....

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Buy Definition

There's an interesting piece in the Grauniad this morning going by the title 'Can craft beer really be defined? We're about to find out'. When I saw a link to it pop up in my Twitter feed, as I follow both the author of the article and the Guardian, I almost groaned at the thought of yet another attempt to define the undefinable, a task which is becoming the post-modern equivalent of answering the question of how many angels can stand on the end of a pin. But I decided to read the article anyway, and have some milk of magnesium on hand for the expected attack of indigestion.

The article is mostly about the newly formed United Craft Brewers trade association or whatever they want to call themselves, and raised a few points I'd like to address here.

One of the things I did not know about UCB is that there is a "a ban on third-party contract brewing; no-membership for “small breweries” that are owned / funded by multinationals". A ban on 'third-party contract brewing'? Really? This group of punk brewers (sic) think they have the right to tell businesses what they can and can't do to further their business? Does this 'ban' relate only to having third parties brew their beer or also to them brewing beer for a third party? As the author of the article points out BrewDog, one of the breweries driving this association are doing contract brewing for Stone. The author calls this arrangement a 'one off stunt' but it smacks more of outright hypocrisy, I guess though as long as the beards and lumberjack shirts are out in full force then it is an ironic thing and thus perfectly ok. Oh and I guess Mikkeller won't be brewing with brewers that are part of UCB anymore then, since 'gypsy' or 'cuckoo' brewing is just glorified contract brewing.

There is also a ban on small breweries being owned or funded by multinationals? How does one describe a 'multinational'? Take the simplest view and it is a corporation that owns businesses in multiple countries, kind of like, well, erm,....BrewDog will be once they open up their new brewery in Ohio. So you can't be a craft brewery and be funded by a multinational, but you can be a craft brewery and a multinational seemingly. Glad that got cleared up then.

The author then mentions that one of the worries of this organisation of so-called 'small breweries' is that 'Loads of big breweries are piling into the sector with sub-standard beers that trade on the language and design of craft. They are cashing in on a scene they did nothing to cultivate and exploiting a cachet they have not earned.'

Now, this is a bit, and pardon my French, fucking rich. The craft sector is awash with sub-standard beers already, quality control not exactly being something many seem to think about while they are cashing in on the craft beer bubble. Also what nonsensical shite is this phrase that the big breweries are 'cashing in on a scene they nothing to cultivate'? Without the big breweries there would be no craft beer. Big breweries are at the very epicentre of craft beer, a constant reference point for craft breweries, the always handy straw man for many a craft brewery's marketing. Oh and better not mention that plenty of the better 'craft' breweries are staffed by people that cut their teeth in the big evil brewing corporations and thus have an appreciation for quality control, which is one reason they make better beer than Joe Homebrewer following his 'passion'.

Thankfully the author states that 'I cannot help but think that any attempt to define craft beer is a retrograde step'. Absolutely spot on, 100%, nail on head.

Finishing up his article, the author asks the following questions:
Will some breweries knockout ersatz craft beers? Of course. Will some people be fooled by them? Naturally. But only until they try the genuine article, which, given the unprecedented growth of craft beer, is only a matter of time.
I am sorry, but the delusion of saying some people will be fooled by 'ersatz' craft beer and that only when they drink the 'real' thing, something the author says is impossible to define, will they see the light is just plain daft. Given the third rate brewing standards of many of the newer craft brewers, the drinking public is probably better off drinking 'ersatz' craft beer rather than the real thing until the new craft brewers learn to incorporate quality control standards into their processes.

There is a saying that does the rounds about life being too short to drink crap beer, perhaps it should be life is too short to drink whatever everyone else thinks you should. Drink what you like, with people you like, and your life will be all the richer without the mind numbing arcana and navel gazing of wondering if the beer in your glass is 'real craft'.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Pedant's Dilemma

I have been drinking quite a bit of a certain beer style of late. No, not mild ale, though I have enjoyed a fair few of those so far this month, especially the Three Notch'd 'Method to Your Madness'. Nor is it lagers, though the most recent iteration of Devils Backbone Morana is a delight to savour, and South Street's Back-to-Bavaria dangerously drinkable. Nope, I have been drinking a lot of a beer style that really brings out the pedantic purist in me. Session IPA.

My current favourite is Lickinghole Creek's wonderful 'Til Sunset, 4.7%, moreishly hoppy, and a beer I would happily drink all summer if need be. Then there is Founder's All Day IPA, a similar story, and also South Street's Conspicuous Consumption. It's as though American craft brewers suddenly realised that hoppy beers need not also be imperialised to shit and that people actually like a drink rather than just a collection of tastings (cynical side note, I wish they'd also learn to do the basics of proper cask conditioning before fucking around with nonsense ingredients and chucking them in a firkin).

What then draws out the pedant in me? The style name itself really (another side note, how come 'session IPA' got a style of its own on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate so soon after being invented, but the 19th century Bohemian tmavé tradition was lumped with Dunkel and Schwarzbier until recently?). What the hell does 'session IPA' even mean?

Clearly most of these beers fail to meet the definition of a 'session beer' being stronger than 4.5% abv, and 'IPA'? Does that even have any meaning at all anymore as it has been bastardised and had any meaning beaten the shit out of it? Then there is the question of how a 'session IPA' really differs all that much from a standard American Pale Ale?

But there is, I think, a solution to my ire, and I am sure I am pissing into the wind with this, but here goes anyway. 'Session IPA' is, in reality an Americanised version of the great English classic, the Extra Special Bitter. Look at the style guideline numbers for ESB:
  • ABV: 4.8-5.8%
  • IBU: 30-45
  • Colour: 8-14 (deep gold to deep amber)
Look familiar?

And the GABF description?
ESBs are amber to deep copper colored. Chill haze is allowable at cold temperatures. Fruity-ester aroma is acceptable. Hop aroma is medium to medium-high. The residual malt and defining sweetness of this richly flavored, full-bodied bitter is medium to medium-high. Hop flavor is medium to medium-high. Hop bitterness is medium to medium-high....The overall impression is refreshing and thirst quenching. Fruity-ester and very low diacetyl flavors are acceptable, but should be minimized in this form of bitter.

It's almost that as though the IPA driven craft beer world is taking another leaf from the Anheuser-Busch playbook, except instead of the word 'light' they are using the word 'session' (the other leaf being opening multiple breweries to deliver fresh beer to different locales - nothing new in that, the big boys did for the very same reasons decades ago).

What would be wrong with calling them American Special Bitters?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

'Merican Mild Month?

Each May in the UK, CAMRA encourages drinkers to indulge in Mild, a style of beer that is perfectly suited for drinking several of during a session.

CAMRA's definition of mild is as follows:
Milds are black to dark brown to pale amber in colour and come in a variety of styles from warming roasty ales to light refreshing lunchtime thirst quenchers. Malty and possibly sweet tones dominate the flavour profile but there may be a light hop flavour or aroma. Slight diacetyl (toffee/butterscotch) flavours are not inappropriate. Alcohol levels are typically low.

Pale milds tend to have a lighter, more fruity aroma with gentle hoppiness.

Dark milds may have a light roast malt or caramel character in aroma and taste.

Scottish cask beers may have mild characteristics with a dominance of sweetness, smooth body and light bitterness.

Original gravity: less than 1043
Typical alcohol by volume: less than 4.3%
Final gravity 1004 - 1010
Bitterness 14 - 28 EBU
I think I can count on the fingers of a single hand the number of milds I have drunk since moving to the US in 2009, two in particular stand out, Olivers Dark Horse and a pale mild brewed at Blue Mountain Brewery last year.

When I talk to my beer drinking mates, not all of them beer bloggers, craft aficionados, or IPA addicts by any stretch of the imagination, a common theme comes up again and again, they wish there was more session beer available, and what could be better than encouraging breweries to make milds, whether dark or pale, hopped with British hops or not, there is so much scope for brewers to play around with in this particular style?

In my homebrew messing about I have brewed several iterations of American hopped dark milds and have found that hops like Citra and Cluster lend themselves very well to complement the light roasty notes of a good dark mild. If you were to brew a pale mild, I imagine New Zealand hops such as Motueka and Pacifica Jade would work well.

Come on brewers, show us the mild mannered Clark Kent beers for a change instead of Superman!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

About That Spoof

The ad that cannot be mentioned without whipping up a veritable cyclone of spittle flecked craft fury has certainly lead to an outpouring of media commentary. Whether it's fellow bloggers going all Roger the Rabbit and counting the ways they are offended, Twitter groaning under the weight of outrage and calls for boycotts, or retaliatory videos like the one below...

Of course it is a well made video and of course it brings up the seemingly age old canard of craft beer being made by hand, a myth which I dealt with in more detail here. The video claims that craft beer is brewed 'the actual hard way', which is of course understood as being the mythical 'by hand' method.

My first reaction when I saw that part of the video was that it reminded me of those arguments you had on the school playground about who's dad was bigger, or harder, or whatever. Another thought that went through my mind was the number of times I have heard craft brewers and drinkers claim that decoction mashing is no longer necessary for making Pislner style lagers because 'modern malts are more modified', where then is the commitment to doing things the 'actual hard way' and doing a decoction mash rather than single infusion?

It would seem to me at times the 'actual hard way' is really just a fig leaf for having a production capacity where automation is not needed because the volumes of beer being brewed are manageable without computers and other modern technology. From what I have heard from head brewers in a number of companies, more advanced automation becomes a necessity once you reach about 30,000 barrels of beer per year - a number which is about the production of Virginia's largest independent brewery.

Once a brewery gets to the point of brewing 16 million barrels of a single beer per year, I think Anheuser-Busch's total production is about 120 million barrels, so even the flagship is only 10%, then state of the art technology is an absolute necessity.

Brewing by (mythological) hand then is not really the 'hard way', it is the only viable way for small breweries who don't have the capital, market share, or need for automation. Once a brewery becomes a big company, and there are plenty of such businesses in the self-proclaimed 'craft' sector, then brewing the 'easy' way with computerised automation becomes the only way to keep up and keep growing.

It's fairly evident that there actually isn't an easy or hard way of making beer, it's all a question of scale.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

About That Ad

The pitch seems to have hit a much more fevered tone in the last few days than usual. I guess it has something to do with this Budweiser Super Bowl commercial...

Admittedly I am something of a johnny come lately to this particular party because I didn't see the commercial until the furore was in full swing on Twitter. I am not a fan of American Football, a phrase which could easily be the understatement of the year, so I wasn't watching the game and thus couldn't get my knickers in a twist at the appropriate moment. Ah well.

Yesterday though I took a few minutes to sit down and watch the commercial, and I actually quite like it. It's well made, tells a clear story, and takes a few well aimed jabs at the perceived snottiness of many a craft beer aficionado, well played Anheuser-Busch, well played. Be honest, we all recognised people we know in their depiction of people fussing over their peach pumpkin ale or whatever the hell abomination they referred to. When I watched the ad for the first time I was reminded of a scene in The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer where Max and Alan kidnap a craft acolyte from a bar...

Now, I am not going to go down the path of hand wringing about how that nasty big corporation is being mean to the little breweries that it is intent on buying up, because such a narrative (admittedly the dominant narrative it seems) misses the entire point of the commercial. It is also a flawed narrative because it conflates the Budweiser brand with the AB-InBev company. Let's get one thing straight, Budweiser is just one brand owned by AB-InBev, and this commercial was for the brand not the company behind it. Remember, Elysian, 10 Barrel, and Blue Point were purchased by AB-InBev not Budweiser, to think that Budweiser owns these craft breweries is as daft as saying that the breweries are owned by AB-InBev's other major brands, Stella Artois, Beck's, or even Leffe.

But the core message of the commercial is actually one that I can get on board with, because I have been saying something similar for quite some time. Beer is for drinking, with your mates, preferably down the pub. Sure, I am not going to go an order a pint of Budweiser because it is not my cup of tea, but I find myself increasingly drinking almost exclusively from breweries that I know make great drinking beers rather than an endless morass of shit with random extraneous ingredients -  I can think of plenty of breweries that should be focusing on quality and process management rather than what strange herbs from their aunt's garden they can dump into their next batch.

When it boils down to it though, I get the feeling that the hysteria is largely about one thing, and one thing only, the commercial is very close to home, and for many craft beer fans having the tables turned on them is uncomfortable. As with fundamentalists of every stripe, if you can't laugh at yourself then you might be taking things too seriously. It's just beer remember.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Localising the Revolution

For some reason that escapes me, I have been thinking about the so-called 'craft beer revolution' an awful lot so far this month. Maybe it's the absence of alcohol in the bloodstream? Anyway, I was thinking about the origins of this 'revolution', (though I prefer the term renaissance) and in looking at early pioneers there seemed to be a common theme. Essentially it boiled down to taking established beer styles from the UK, Germany, Belgium, chucking in a shit ton of Cascade, Centennial, or Columbus hops and labelling the beer an 'American 'Insert Beer Style'. Imitation being the highest form of flattery, lots of aspiring brewers jumped onboard and thus the American Pale Ale was born, an offshot of the English Pale Ale, the American IPA was born, an offshot of the early English IPAs, and so on and so forth (this may be an oversimplified view of history, but I think it holds water as a general scheme of things).

The best thing about this renaissance was not being cowed by a given beer style, for want of a better word, and using ingredients that were more readily at hand to create something both identifiably within a tradition but also unique, and the drinking world would be all the poorer without Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, perhaps the archetype of my theme here.

Skip forward some thirty years to the modern day and you have a situation where the 'craft beer revolution' has spread beyond its American heartland to the wider world. Breweries in the UK, Germany, Czech Republic, and Belgium, for example, are taking American styles and brewing them for their own markets. Personally I think this is a pity in many ways.

Mrs V and I are planning to head back across the ocean again this year, though this time back to what we consider in oh so many ways our spiritual home, Prague. We are both looking forward again to long walks by the Vltava, the Christmas markets, and sitting with our friends drinking excellent beer in watering holes like Pivovarsky klub. I am already looking forward to my first p?llitr of a well made desítka. I doubt I will be drinking much in the way of pale ales hopped with Cascade, Amarillo, or Citra. What would interest me though would be a Czech brewery doing Czech interpretations of the 'new' styles that are sweeping the beer world (there's an interesting circularity in that but I won't unpack it here). Imagine a Czech IPA, hopped with Kazbek, Saaz, or Premiant.

Maybe brewers in other countries could do likewise? A German stout using Tettnang and fermented with an altbier yeast strain, a Belgian IPA where all the ingredients are actually Belgian rather than just the yeast, more British 'craft' breweries having faith in both traditional and new British hop varieties

I guess my fear here is that the wave of innovation, creativity and excitement around beer could be diluted if 'craft beer' becomes defined in the minds of many as being 'pale beer made with New World hops', much like the multinational brewing industry became defined as being 'pale lager of indeterminate flavour'. The seemingly inexorable rise of American hopped IPA (and variants) is, in my as ever unhumble opinion, in danger of becoming as dull and uninspiring as the mass produced pale lager.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Oh Really?

Czech beer and brewing maestro Honza Ko?ka posted a link on his Facebook account about pioneers in the British 'craft' beer scene, which you can see here. Most of it is the usual innocuous waffly bollocks, but one particular sentence caught my attention, a quote from the CEO of Majestic Wine:
“Craft beers bridge the gap between wine and beer. People want something specialist and more interesting so we are moving away from sales of mass-produced beers."
Again this association of 'craft' beer with wine is presented, and as ever it misses the point.

Craft beer is not a 'bridge between wine and beer', craft beer is just beer. Pure and simple.

If you want your beer to be more like wine then I would suggest that you don't have a 'passion for beer' or whatever vacuous pile of shite you want to spout this week. Craft beer, micro beer, macro beer, mass-produced beer. It's all fucking beer, so stop with the 'it's like wine' nonsense.

This isn't to say that beer doesn't 'deserve the same respect' as wine (whatever that daft shite means), but can we stop with the comparisons for fuck sake and actually be proud of, and celebrate, beer on it's own terms.

Repeat after me:
Beer is beer, wine is wine.
Beer is not wine, wine is not beer.
Let beer be beer, let wine be wine.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Revolution Will Be Purchased

According to news coming out of the Pacific Northwest, Bend's 10 Barrel Brewing has been purchased by Anheuser-Busch.

Now, don't worry, this won't be some hand wringing diatribe on a brewery selling out to the evil corporations. Neither yet is it a lament about another well respected, award winning, brewery going from craft to crafty in the ledgers of the Brewers Association. You see, it really isn't all that important, unless of course you buy into the faux-revolutionary bollocks which is much of craft beer marketing. What we have here is a very successful business buying another successful business because they think it will benefit their business.

Thus has it ever been, and thus will it ever be.

A couple of things though that stood out to me in the press release included the following statement from the CEO, Craft, at Anheuser-Busch, who said:
"10 Barrel, its brewers, and their high-quality beers are an exciting addition to our high-end portfolio"
In that one sentence you have the perception of much of the 'craft beer world', upmarket, high-end, aspirational.

The other was 10 Barrel being excited to benefit from the 'operational and distribution expertise of Anheuser-Busch'. Essentially saying that they are looking forward benefitting from AB's expertise in quality control processes and getting consistently quality beer into the hands of drinkers, which can only be good for drinkers in the long run.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Hand Made Tale

One of the most common marketing memes amongst brewing companies is that their beers are 'handmade', 'handcrafted', 'made by hand', or some such term, often phrased in juxtaposition to something along the lines of 'not by machines'. This zythophilic ludditism plays very well with people looking for a more 'authentic' or even folksy view of beer, but it really doesn't fit very well with the everyday realities of working life in many a brewery.

Beer is, by its very nature, an industrial product, something that would never occur in nature, and the processes that go into making your pint, whether that pint comes from SABMiller or your local microbrewery, are heavily mechanised.

Let's start at the beginning. The mill, which crushes the malt so that the sugars and enzymes can do their thing in the mash tun, is a machine. I don't know of any brewery, regardless of size, out there that has its brewers use a pestle and mortar to crush their malt. Perhaps there are nanobreweries using the hand cranked barley crushers that many a homebrewer would use, but they still just hand cranking a machine.

Let's head then to the mash tun, where the grain will sit in warm water while alpha and beta amalayse do their thing to the starches in the grain. Here again machines come to the aid of the brewer in the form of mash rakes, which admittedly not all brewers have the luxury of. With mashing done, it's time to lauter and sparge the grains, pumping more water over the grains to extract more wort from the mash, pumps being machines.

I think you see my point, and I don't need to go through the entire brewing process pointing out where mechanisation is part and parcel of modern brewing. Ultimately the use of machines is an every day reality is the vast majority of breweries. Sure some may have more advanced systems involving hop chargers to automatically dose the boiling wort, but these tools don't impact whether or not the beer is actually worth drinking.

If transparency is really all that important in beer marketing then there are plenty in the craft segment of the industry whose marketing is guilty of deceiving the consumer. Claims that their beer is 'handmade/handcrafted' ring hollow when the truth is they use many of the same machines and technologies as industrial scale breweries.

I don't believe that the use of machines in a brewery impacts the flavour of a beer as much as the choice of ingredients, recipe, quality control processes, or the skill of the brewers themselves, but they do make a lovely straw man as a replacement for faceless corporations.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Speaking My Language

Just a moment ago, Melissa Cole tweeted about some comments Garret Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery made on a post over at The BeerCast.

Naturally I popped on over and read the original article, which is interesting reading in it's own right, but Garret's comments almost had me shouting 'amen' at the top of my voice, and so I reproduce the entire comment here for liked minded souls' edification, and I encourage you to read the original article as well:
Whoa. I must admit that although I’ve spent a lot of time drinking craft beer in the UK the past few years (and 20+ years before that), I have never heard of Brewmeister. Nor have I tasted their beer or knowingly spoken to anyone who works for them. So, essentially, I know nothing about them. However, if the “charges” made are true, they are simply the latest of a new breed of brewers that we’ve seen here in the U.S. all too often lately.

Welcome, then, to the age of the “clown brewery”. I won’t name names – you know who they are. Instead of making beer to be delicious, instead of making public statements and representations that will lift all our boats, instead of standing ready at all hours to assist their fellow brewers….they put on the clown show. “Our beer is the strongest in the world.” “We have higher IBUs than any beer ever produced.” “We made a beer at the bottom of the ocean, in a cage filled with snakes.”

So let me be 100% clear. Not only do such people laugh at us beer fans, all day, every day….these people don’t even LIKE you. Do you understand? They think you’re a dupe. And like every con artist, they have nothing but contempt for their “marks”. They want fame, and they want money, plain and simple. And there’s always someone who’ll give them both. As Kurosawa said in his film title, “the bad sleep well”. Are you surprised at a lack of apology?

The current hot climate of craft beer breeds a lot of weeds. Craft brewers who speak ill of other craft brewers. Brewers whose beers are heavily flawed or have no consistency, not because the brewers are uneducated, but because they think that quality doesn’t matter, and we’ll drink anything with a cool or shocking name, story or label. Even better if it’s “rare”. A lot of them will say “hey, we’re just like punk rockers, we do things our way.” No, you’re not a punk rocker, you’re a leech and a poseur. I took the Ramones bowling. No one can tell me anything about punk – I was there and lived it. And the Ramones could PLAY. I know – I produced shows with them. So no, there are no excuses, and these people are not “punk”. There’s a big difference between artistic freedom and narcissistic cynicism.

At this year’s Craft Brewers Conference, there were 9,600 attendees. Last year there were just over 6,000. We have, in the US, 1,800 firms that have filed for federal brewer’s licenses and plan to open in the next year. From the stage, Paul Gatza, head of the Brewer”s Association, told the crowd that our culture was being threatened by new brewers who had a greater commitment to themselves than to their customers. As he pointed out, we’ve built a great thing in craft beer. Finishing his statement, he said ‘Guys…don’t fuck it up.” Here here, Paul. Only you, the beer fans, can make sure that the newbies, who we welcome with open arms, come correct.

There are also great newbies out there. Wonderful people making wonderful beer. Each one of them has left an easier and more secure path of life, leapt into thin air, and tried their best to make beers worthy of your table. I have nothing but mad respect for them. Support them, each day, every day. If they’re local, buy a pint of their beer before my beer, as a matter of principle. I hope you buy our beer too, but the new good brewers need you. The clown brewers detest you. Understand that. You know what to do.

I have no idea who the “Richard” is who posted here, but while I cannot speak to the veracity of his specific statements, I can certainly see the tide of crappiness, both organoleptic and spiritual, that some people hope to bring us. It’s dangerous to speak out these days, and some people may well take isolated quotes from this post and try to hang them around my neck. But yes, there are bad people abroad in the land. Thankfully, their ranks are small, measured in dozens, if that. They are no match for you. Send the bad ones back whence they came, plain and simple.

Garrett Oliver
The Brooklyn Brewery

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What Craft Isn't

A couple of weeks ago, in light of BrewDog's attempt to define a 'craft' brewery, I set up a little survey on SurveyMonkey, basically asking if consumers regard certain beers as 'craft' or otherwise.

The beers on the list were as follows:
  • Fullers 1845
  • BrewDog Punk IPA
  • Worthington White Shield
  • Becks
  • Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
  • Pilsner Urquell
  • Yeungling Lager
  • Anchor Steam
  • Samuel Smiths Nut Brown Ale
  • Budvar/Czechvar
  • Tipopils
  • Guinness Foreign Extra Stout
  • Franziskaner
  • Hoegaarden
  • Magic Hat 9
  • Staropramen
  • Stella Artois
  • Samuel Adams Boston Lager
The first, and main, question was simplicity itself, pick the beers you consider to be craft. Broken down by ten percent segments:
  • 91-100: None
  • 81-90: BrewDog Punk IPA
  • 71-80: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Steam
  • 61-70: None
  • 51-60: Magic Hat #9
  • 41-50: Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Fullers 1845, Samuel Smiths Nut Brown Ale
  • 31-40: Worthington White Shield
  • 21-30: Tipopils, Pilsner Urquell, Budvar
  • 11-20: Yeungling Lager, Hoegaarden, Franziskaner, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, Staropramen
  • 00-10: Stella Artois, Becks
Some interesting points come from these numbers. Firstly, less than a quarter of the brands in the list were pretty much unanimously regarded as 'craft', while exactly half of the beers were regarded as definitely 'not-craft' with less that 25% of respondents regarding them as so. Secondly, the split of styles, 'craft' beer would seem to be inherently, according to these numbers, warm fermented.

Perhaps most interesting to me is the group of beers right in the middle of the list, partly because they are the beers that I expected to divide opinion. When it comes to the group of beers which are neither pale hop forward and warm fermented, nor yet pale and bottom fermented, opinion is sharply divided.

In terms of the people who responded to the survey, only 13% work for a brewery or a related trade, and 92% drink at least a few times a week.

I am sure there is plenty more to unpack from the survey, but I think the thing which is clear is that more people agree on what 'craft' isn't.

Old Friends: Joseph's Brau PLZNR

I have to admit that there really are not that many things that I miss as a result of this pandemic. I am sure that comes as something of a ...