Wednesday, February 23, 2011

This Week in News

So here are some the things I've been reading:

A recent report from the WHO states that America ranks 57th in alcohol consumption in per capita alcohol consumption compared to other countries. Not nearly as bad as you might think. I wonder how our rate of alcohol-related crime stacks up? I found no mention of it in the report. As the country that brought prohibition to the world* As a country who's drinking culture is still defined by prohibition, there are a lot of teetotalers here which I suspect makes a difference. I also fear that this is really indicative of beer culture in the US: namely, that most people don't really care about it. This, of course, just feeds the binge and purge drinking mentality that is aided so well by tasteless light lager. The first step to responsible drinking is enjoying what you're drinking.

It looks like hop and grain prices may be increasing for home brewers, and possibly for beer drinkers as well. The National Hop Report shows that hop production was down 31% this harvest over the last. Amarillo and Simcoe hops seem to be especially scarce for home brewers, although that fact may not be indicative of what's going on in craft beer at large. Home brew stores are generally the last to get hops from suppliers after the harvest, so any shortages are felt by home brewers harder than by commercial brewers. There are also rumors that grain prices will also rise this year. I don't expect to see any crises, but prices may jump.

Jeff at Beervana recently wondered "Why can't Milds be Wild?" in which he states
I have given up the idea that low-gravity, malt-forward session beers will ever find more than the nichiest of niche followings.
Hate to say I couldn't disagree more. I don't know that Jeff is wrong, but I want him to be wrong. Hop-driven beers are nice, but can't we have something else, too? After a while, super bitter, and super hoppy beers are fairly one-dimensional. I won't say that I don't enjoy a hop bomb when the mood strikes, and I was frequently blown away by them (like I think most people were) in my nascent stages of beer appreciation, but I certainly think there is room for delicious, low gravity session beers, too. Eventually the hop-bubble has to burst and hopefully a tide of balanced, nuanced beers will emerge. If we ever want craft beer to represent a substantial share of the market, it's going to be on the back of something that's low gravity and approachable to non-beer-nerds.

I see here that Anderson Valley's beers are going into cans soon. I'm going to keep beating on this drum: I dislike cans. My preference is purely aesthetic and  superficial, but I just do not want to pay $10 for a six pack of cans. Especially when they look like this:
Generic soda, anyone?

Canned beer is synonymous with terrible beer to me. Perhaps its something I'll get past at some point, but as I've said before, cans are the best and fastest way for a brewery (and craft beer in general) to piss away any "brand equity" that they might have as a quality product. Packaging and image damn well matters, just ask Steve Jobs.  Here's an analogy: nest time you have a party, put out cans of Coke next to glass bottles of Coke and see which people gravitate towards. The can looks like something you would stock your fallout shelter with, the glass bottle is visually appealing and nice. It's like a treat. Also, cans can't be refilled with home brew.

Goose Island is going to have their IPA and Honker's Ale contract brewed out of state in Portsmouth, NH. Apparently, this is where Redhook is brewed. I am a big fan of Goose Island and I say good for them. Rent isn't cheap in Chicago, and you could tell that some of their beers were occasionally being rushed out early. Their 312 wheat beer especially seemed to suffer from this. It also sounds like they've really taken the time to get things right at the contracted brewery.

Stan at Appellation Beer recently mentioned the Cicerone program to which I responded that
"I hate the poncey, arrogant, cicerone crap. If there has ever been a greater crime committed in the name of wine-ifying beer, I don’t know what it is"
 And I do. I didn't want to clog someone else's blog with ranting and complaining, but the Cicerone program is steering things in absolutely the wrong direction, as far as I'm concerned. I know some certified Cicerones, and they're all very nice and enthusiastic about beer. Ray Daniels by all accounts is also a nice guy. His books were a huge resource for me in home brewing. However, it drives me up the wall when people long for the world of beer to match the world of wine. The Cicerone program does that. While I appreciate an effort to "educate" servers and bar staff about beer, it's not fucking wine, and honestly, it's not really very complicated. The program was conceived as a counter point to the wine "Sommelier" which in itself is simply a way to make wine and places that serve wine seem more exclusive, sophisticated, and to pamper to wine douches. All things that the beer world gloriously does not have, and does not need. Beer is good because it's simple. Any beer bar worth anything will happily offer you a sample glass of beer so you can decide whether or not you want it. At most, any pint of beer will cost, what $10 at the very upper end? We're not talking about a $500 bottle of wine that can't be re-corked, so I don't think a trained expert is necessary in any way. And I don't think that the existence of Sommeliers in the wine world was ever credited with improving the quality of wine, so I doubt it will do anything to improve the overall quality in the beer world either. I see it in much the same way I view the Brewer's Association: nice folks, but we don't really need a faceless "man behind the curtain" to tell us which beer styles are actually beer styles, which craft breweries are actually craft breweries, and in this case, which bartenders and bars are worthy of handling beer. Thoughts?

*corrected thanks to Beer Nut

Monday, February 21, 2011

Flagon of Ale

is now on Twitter. You can find me here. I've been on the fence about Twitter but thought I'd give it a try. Enjoy, readers. Now both of you can see what I'm up to on Twitter.

Friday, February 18, 2011

An Experiment: Aged Hopslam

Preface: I don't like Hopslam all that much. I tend to think it's overrated. My initial impression the first time I tried it was "this doesn't taste like beer". Fair warning, beer geeks.

So that brings us up to speed. Last year for my birthday, a friend gave me a bottle of Hopslam, which even though I wasn't dying for, was still appreciated being that it's fairly expensive and can be hard to find. I planned to keep in the back of the fridge (my "cellar") for a little while to let it mellow out. Weeks turned into months and I had forgotten about it until just recently. By now it's a year old and much past the prime of any normal American IPA. This isn't a normal American IPA, though. At 10.5% abv it's well within cellaring range, alcohol-wise, and over-hopped enough that the loss of hop aroma may not be a bad thing. While not intentional, this was certainly an interesting beer to try 1 year later.

 How did it stand up? Personal preferences aside, not great, but it wasn't bad either. This was only one bottle, so it would be silly to over generalize. I also can't attest to its treatment before it got to me. Excess carbonation had built up over time and it poured with a very agitated, volatile head. Bubbles raced to escape the beer creating a beverage that was initially a bit champagne like. Given the beer, it wasn't completely out of place. Fizz cut through the honey-ish alcohol and thick hops. There wasn't much of a boozey quality although, deceivingly, there isn't much in the fresh version either. Surprising was the level of hop bitterness. Even after a year it's really still out front, and almost seems more pronounced without the massive hop flavor and aroma to distract the senses. When this beer first came out there was quite a bit of speculation among home brewers as to whether the beer was hop bursted* or not, and what sort of techniques the brewers might have employed to get such a walloping hop drink/beer. Hop aroma and bitterness from late hops tends to fade very quickly in beer when compared to bitterness from early hop additions. The longer boil time more fully isomerizes hop oils which makes them more stable and less volatile. In my humble opinion, the bitterness present in aged Hopslam was much more indicative of early hopping rather than just late hopping, so I do not personally think it's a hop bursted beer. That ever fleeting hop aroma and flavor was the quality of this bottle that was noticeably, drastically reduced and the area where it most suffered. There was still undeniably a good amount of aroma, but it had a stale, metallic tinge to it. Not overwhelming, but not something that makes you to want to go back for another sip. Under the odd notes it mostly tastes and smelled like a regular strength IPA with some mellow citrusy, lemon, and grapefruit notes.

In the end, it did mellow out the beer as I had hoped, but the effects of age and (possible) mistreatment were just as present. IPAs are a delicate bunch. They're all strut and muscle-flexing on the surface, but they're  fragile under neath. Without the solid, malt foundation of something like a barley wine, they do need to be treated right to have a chance of aging well, but that almost makes them a rarer treat. A tasting with aged IPAs might be forthcoming.

* "hop bursting" is a brewing technique of by which all or most the hop bitterness comes from late kettle additions rather than from early additions, the idea being that you can get huge aroma and flavor without over-bittering the beer

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Trouble Brewing for Surly

Last week local Surly Brewing announced that it had plans to expand their brewery into a new, nicer, larger location. The new brewery plans include an on-site beer garden and restaurant. Right now it's illegal for a brewery to sell you a pint of beer in this state. It's also illegal for them to own or have any financial interest in a business which has on-site alcohol sales. To anyone with an ounce of reason, I think it's pretty obvious that a beer garden on the site of a brewery is not unusual or out of place. Breweries from Bell's to Sierra Nevada to Weihenstephan have beer gardens on the brewery grounds. This is a win-win as far as anyone could be concerned. It brings jobs to the area (to build and staff the new brewery) and if MN could become even a humble beer-destination, like the New York Times indicated, plenty of local industries would also stand to benefit.

Unfortunately, the outdated and absurd liquor laws are standing in the way. Laws that restrict local businesses, "outlaw" beer gardens, make it impossible for brewpubs to sell bottles of their beer, and all while doing nothing to limit over consumption. If anything, the three-tier system encourages irresponsible serving by on-sale businesses as they are forced to buy liquor indirectly and as a result, pay a higher price for it. Breweries and manufacturers likewise see less profit per barrel if they have to lower their prices to stay competitive with distributors taking their piece of the action. As such, both manufacturers and on-sale businesses have to sell more alcohol at a lower margin just to break even. It's not hard to see how counter-productive this is.

As the voice of all things counter productive, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association has also come out against Surly's expansion plan. The MLBA is a delightful little organization who combines the ignorant, heads-up-their-asses attitude of prohibition with the thuggish mentality of the mob. They claim to work on behalf of the beverage industry, but continue to resist alcohol sales on Sunday, beer and wine sales in grocery stores, and the right of breweries to serve the beer they make to customers. This is what they recently said about Surly's new plan 
"Nothing is preventing him from going out and opening up a brewery in another state... this is Minnesota. These are the rules. If you want to come in and work within the parameters of this rule we will embrace him." 
Brilliant. The MLBA's solution is to try to drive successful businesses out of the state, essentially just because. If the MLBA isn't really protecting breweries or people who do/want to sell alcohol, they aren't taking the interests of the state and the economy, and they certainly aren't protecting consumers, who are they protecting? Aside from existing as a corrupt arm of special interests in the state, what reason do they have for existing?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that people need to get behind the plan. Surly is not trying to scrap the entire three-tier system (which personally, I think needs being done away with) they're simply asking for a rewording of the law to allow them to serve pints of beer to customers in their beer garden. Yesterday Surly issued the call for people to contact their legislators to voice their support. If you're local, or you happened upon this from google, please go here and find your state representative and let them know how you feel:

It's an important beer issue, and one that's going to need vocal support from as many people as possible to have a chance.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What is Craft Beer?

Had some after-work beers tonight. Rush River chocolate coffee oatmeal stout. Not exactly my kind of beer, but the bar in question tonight had a beer in the cask, and that was it. So I ordered one. A bit sweet and distracting by the end of the pint, but not bad. Not great, either. Next up was a Deschutes Red Chair. I had this beer a year or so ago when I was in Washington state, and didn't remember being blown away. It was recently voted best beer in the world or some such nonsense, so I thought that I better give it another try. I guess my taste a year ago was just as incorrect as it is now, because I, once again, was not blown away. It's a nice beer. It's from the PACIFIC NORTHWEST as they insistently declare, and tastes like it: a bit sweet, caramely, and over-hopped for my taste. It has a zingy, herbish, hop flavor that tastes like rosemary or mint.

This is what I'm drinking now:

It's an IPA I brewed in an open fermenter which I blogged about here. By now it's pretty good. There is a bit of a weird flavor from the super old hops I used, but overall it's nice. The open fermentation really creates an amazing flavor profile. You would never guess that it was fermented with "American" yeast.

There seems to be a lot of talk about the term "craft beer" on other beer blogs right now. Personally, I think it's a valuable term, if a bit vague. The whole discussion reminds me of the "what is art?" conversation you hear frequently. Something being "art" doesn't ensure that it's good. It just ensures that it's not something meaningless created in a factory. As The Beer Nut pointed out in the comments here, beer brewed by brewers rather than accountants, is craft beer. Art matters, craft matters, things that are created by humans and not by computers matter. To me, simply, that's what craft is.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ireland Round Up

A pint of the Haus lager and the cleverly named "plain" stout at Messrs Maguire.
I have returned from my trip to Ireland. It was nothing short of amazing. I've been struggling to write about the beer I had in Ireland having only just gotten a taste of it. As I get older, traveling becomes more of a chore. It's been almost a decade since I was off the North American continent, so I was also ill-prepared for the effects of jet lag. This is all preamble to say: I didn't drink as much beer as I had intended or hoped, but I still enjoyed myself immensely. Ireland is such a beautiful country, and the weather is in such stark contrast to Minnesota right now, that at times it almost seemed a shame to be inside a dark pub. I suppose I'm not a very good beer tourist. Now that I'm back, I'm kicking myself for practically walking past several great pubs without realizing what they were. The beer I did have a chance to try was great, though. Even Guinness didn't disappoint, not that I had terribly high expectations of it. Irish Guinness truly did seem superior to my memory of it. Smithwick's did disappoint even with my memory if it being bland.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Galway. The Salt House. Maybe my favorite pub ever. This is where I had my real epiphanic moment: Dungvaren Helvick Gold on cask. I was so distracted by the beer menu and the awkwardness of walking into a new pub for the first time that initially I didn't even notice the Angram beer engine that was smack in front of me. I did not expect to find any cask beer in Ireland, and based on several conversations I over heard the bartender having, I gather it's something new for other people as well. I was pleased enough to see that they also had Galway Hooker and O'Hara's stout on tap. After well over a week of not having any beer, Dungvaren cask was perfect. Drinkable, complex, delightful. Blonde Ale sometimes means "bland, ale-version of lager" but Helvick Gold could not be farther from that notion in every way possible. The nuanced malt flavors and slightly grassy hops come together in a surprisingly flavorful beer. would it be pretentious to describe it as "harmonious"? Probably, but this was one of those angelic drinking moments where everything is just right, so I'll allow it. Galway Hooker was served to me from the tap in a weizen glass. It calls itself an Irish Pale Ale and that description seemed perfect. It's softer than American Pale Ale, gentler around the edges, and generally has more going on. Hops are present, but instead of being the focus, hop bitterness compliments the nutty, biscuit-like quality of the malt. It's conversational beer. Something you can sip and enjoy, but don't have to be afraid of. Complex enough to hold your attention, palatable enough to drink all night. These are true comfort beers. After only one or two pints of each, I won't try to describe them any more in depth, but suffice it to say, there are some pints that etch themselves in your memory, like my first-ever pint in a pub in Cork 10 years ago, and these fall into that category. The setting inside the Salt House is a very small and cozy pub with a small bar and several tables with short stools lining the walls. I get the impression it would be easy to fill this place so it feels crowded, but this was a Monday in January, so no worries there. Most of the clientele are people playing games, and for some reason other tourists. The Salt House was filthy with American tourists. Regardless, this is my idea of an ideal pub: cozy, welcoming, and an excellent beer selection.

Dublin is a large European city. I know this because I've now been there once* and because it's in Europe. It's also fairly fast paced, taxis abound, and I feel under dressed even on public transportation. Sure signs, all three. I like Dublin. I feel like I could live in Dublin. There are many cities that are nice to visit, but are terrible to live in. Dublin did not strike me as one of those. The pints pictured above were enjoyed at Messrs Maguire, a brewpub right in the heart of Dublin on the south bank of the Liffey. Messrs Maguire is expansive and massive. Easily the largest brewpub I have ever been inside. I didn't even explore half of it. There are apparently 4 levels all with their own bars and slightly different moods. On this level, dark wood and comfortable leather furniture tuck inside various nooks and corners to create semi-private seating areas. There is also a long bar with tables facing a screen that displays a soccer match. From my seat I can see Daniel O'Connell across the river, past the ornate street lamps and the double decker buses zipping around. It's a much needed change of pace from the scene outside. Why in fuck's sake did I pick a Saturday to come to O'Connell Street? Beers will help. Service here is good. The bartender explains to me which beers are available and which are not (despite what the sign says) and offers a sample without acting put-off. A pint of the stout and the Haus lager. The stout is nice. Lots of chocolate and not much else. I feel as if something in the finish (roast, hops?) might do this beer well, but it's enjoyable enough as is. The next round is their brown ale and "Rusty" which is a red ale. The red ale is served on nitro like the stout and, similarly, is nice, drinkable, and not too complex. The brown ale is great. I have a great love for brown ales. This one shows off some of the gentle roastiness and caramel in balance that I love about them. I wouldn't mind coming back here to see if subsequent visits were as nice. People are starting to collect in various areas, now, and for some inexplicable reason, Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair" followed by several dance-club type songs come on, which makes me wonder. All in all, great beers in a supremely enjoyable atmosphere. I hope to have a chance to visit them again.

By now, I have a long list of other places to visit and ones not to miss next time. I hope it's not long before I have the chance again.

*maybe twice, if you count multiple visits on the same vacation

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Session: Cask, Keg, Can, Bottle: Does dispense matter?

This week's session is hosted by Reluctant Scooper. I haven't been blogging for the Session as much as I had anticipated. This subject, though, piqued my interest. This seems to be a much more hotly debated subject in England than it is here in the US regarding real ale, casks, and kegs. Real ale doesn't really exist here, aside from some small producers, and where you can find it, it's a premium product. Certainly not the working man's drink. So while I enjoy cask, I can't even really speak on it.

On to the question: does it matter? No not really. But this is the internet, for god's sake, so I sure as hell have an opinion about it. Mostly in regard to my hate for beer in cans. I enjoy some canned beers, Dale's Pale Ale is one of my favorites, but it's good in spite of its can. This is probably snobbery on my part, and there are practical arguments for beer in a can, but that's sort of the problem with it: if I'm going out of my way to pay a premium for beer, I want to be able to see it; I want to pop the top with a bottle opener (not with a twist); and I want a package that makes the beer look good and not one that's purpose built for people who don't know how to handle beer. Does beer served from a plastic grocery bag taste any different than beer served from a bottle? Maybe not, but I don't really care. More importantly, canning beer is the fastest way to reduce any impression among consumers that craft beer, or small batch beer, is something special. Aesthetically, from a design perspective, cans are ugly. The full-wrap labeling that cans require make them look more like NASCAR than good beer. Looks matter. Tastefulness matters. Putting beer in a can says to the consumer: "Here you go. Guzzle this beer. Even we don't expect anyone to care for it". Which brings me to my last point: drinking beer from a glass. Canned beer encourages people to drink directly from a can. I have tried this and I'm thoroughly convinced that you can't fully appreciate beer from a can. There is no visual aspect, and minimal aroma from a can. Beer, regardless of dispense, needs to be drunk from a glass. Part of the reason I chose the name for this blog that I did, is because even before the advent of refrigeration and canning/bottling, drinking beer from a container was a luxury people enjoyed, and ever should it be so. Somewhere along the way, we lost this idea, and you can see people drinking terrible beer directly from the bottle or can at every bar in America. Some will even say no if offered a glass. Beer was practically invented to be drunk from a flagon, mug, glass, or pint. If I have my pick, a full pint, filled to the rim, in a clean glass is the best way to drink a beer. Cask, Keg, or bottle are all fine with me, so long as they end up in the right glass.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Holy Crap

I haven't written about anything Twin Cities based for a while, but good news, Twin Cities-ers. The next beer in the Summit Unchained series is coming out in March and it sounds awesome. It's being brewed by Damian McConn, who I've met briefly and is a great guy. He's always willing to share his knowledge with other brewers and/or wonks like me. Damian does all of the casking at Summit, and in part because of that, there are probably a dozen places in the Twin Cities that now have cask beer, where five years ago, I didn't know of any. I hope the trend continues, and anyone who wants to further the cause is ok in my book.

The beer is going to be called Gold Sovereign, and is based on a recipe from the 19th century. It's going to be brewed with Warminster Maris Otter malt and Boadicea hops. Basically my favorite hop of all time. As a fan of British beer, and history (and naturally hence: brewing history) this should be right up my ally, as well as literally 10 or 12 other people. I haven't tried it yet, but I suspect that what it may lack in mass appeal, it'll make up for in flavor. I also have to hand it to Summit, because as a brewery that many local drinkers pan for being too conservative, they've been turning out some of the best beer from the Twin Cities. I'll be reviewing this one just as soon as it's available.

Thanks to MNBeer, who I stole the story from