Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Goose Island Selling to AB Inbev

If, for some reason, you haven't heard, Goose Island have been sold to super-mega beverage giant AB InBev. I say "sold to" because that's exactly what happened. Goose Island wasn't bought, it was sold. There is a very nice and level headed interview here with current Brewmaster Greg Hall. Sadly (and the worst part about this deal is that) he'll be stepping down as brewmaster of Goose Island. He states that nothing is going to change about the beers after the sale, but since he's stepping down as brewmaster, he can't really say what's going to happen once he's gone, can he?

Apparently the sale was motivated by a desire to expand. Fortuitously, in seeking funding for a 1.3 million dollar expansion, Goose Island was able to stumble onto the 38.8 million that AB paid. This all begs the question in my mind: why does capacity need to increase? It may seem a silly question, but if sales are good and steady with current production abilities, and everyone is making money, why the push to turn into something completely different? Granted, there is demand, but does demand need to be met at all costs? As small and regional brewers seek to rise to the challenge of delivering their beer to every possible consumer in America, they inevitably become something that's no longer regional or small. This is great for the bottom line, and plenty of people will be happy to defend any decision which pads profits, but as a consumer, why would I possibly care about such a thing? Regional tastes and ingredients are inextricably linked to beer styles and beer flavor. Could their 312 wheat or oatmeal stout have come to be on the West Coast? Would Bourbon county stout ever have been brewed in St Louis? I don't think so, and I would be surprised if we see the kind of innovation we've seen from the Fulton Street brewery that we've seen in the past.

Goose Island's predicament isn't a unique one. John Hall started Goose Island 23 years ago. He's now in his 60's and demand for craft beer in this country is reaching unprecedented levels. This is sort of a perfect storm for the sale of a business and it's emblematic to what's going on across the industry right now. The first generation of craft brewers are reaching the age at which control of their breweries will need to passed along in some way. Jim Koch of Boston Beer is 62; last year at the age of 72, Anchor Brewing's Fritz Maytag sold what many call the first modern craft brewery to investors; likewise, Bell's Brewery has been in business for 26 years, and Sierra Nevada is 30 years old. All are companies old enough that the founders are likely thinking about exit strategies. While these first generation brewers and breweries are reaching a transitional age, the quest for growth is changing the landscape as well. Bell's recently aquired 52 million dollars for an expansion, Dogfish Head also announced earlier this month that it will be pulling out of several export markets even after its recent expansion in order to keep up with demand. This is a story that's reverberating around the world of craft beer right now. Given the age and the profitability of these breweries, it would be very easy for craft beer to lose its identity in the kind of consolidation that helped create the craft beer movement to begin with. If craft beer is a revolution, the founders of the revolution are staged to transition power to another generation. If they don't stay true to the ideals they began with, the whole thing will fall apart, or at least mutate into something unrecognizable. The answer to me seems simple: maintain regionality, and maintain growth at a sustainable and reasonable pace. New Glarus is an outstanding example of this model, and because of it, they've been able to produce amazing beers without over extending themselves and alienating their customers.

If you haven't gathered, I am disappointed by the sale. I feel no need to be an apologist for Anheuser Busch: they have ruined beer in America for generations of people. Some may argue with that, but even AB loyalists must admit that at the very least, they've been at the wheel during the worst period in time for beer, which makes them well deserving of some distaste and suspicion. As I write this, Anheuser Busch does not make any good or great beer. They do not own any companies that make great beer. I suppose it's possible that Goose Island under AB InBev will continue to make great beer, but I see no historical reason to believe such a thing will happen. At best, Anheuser Busch won't ruin Goose Island. That's the best possible scenario, and that's what defenders of the sale are hopeful for. I have not heard anyone (even people in support of the sale) suggesting that the deal could possibly improve Goose Island's beers, which I think says a lot.

As it stands, I very much enjoy Goose Island's beers and I plan to continue to drink them. I remain skeptical of the possible good that could come from the deal, but I'll reserve judgement until we actually see what happens.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are you Loathsome Tonight?

Because I think Bell's Brewery might be.

Some back story: Northern Brewer sells homebrewing equipment and supplies. They have a beer kit (the raw ingredients to make beer) called Three Hearted Ale. It's based on Bell's extremely popular beer Two Hearted Ale. Earlier this week the lawyers from Bell's sent Northern Brewer a cease and desist letter explaining that their Three Hearted beer kit is infringing on the beer's trademark. There may be some sort of justification for a craft brewery doing something like this to protect its trademark, but frankly, even if there is, I don't really care about it. As far as I'm concerned, this is completely outside the spirit of craft brewing. Squabbling over trademarks? With other people in the industry? It's downright ridiculous. I don't think I'm alone in that thought either. Hours after mentioning the trouble on their facebook page, Northern Brewer was inundated with comments of support for them, anger with Bell's, and even some calling for a boycott of Bell's beer (unfortunately, I don't think I could participate in a boycott of Bell's beer even if I wanted to, as they brew some of my favorite beer on planet Earth, but that doesn't really excuse the behavior). Is this sort of action really necessary in a world that has built itself on producing a "craft" product? It's a move you'd expect to see from one of the big brewers, but hardly from Bell's.

And this is all assuming that somehow a beer kit could possibly violate a trademark for a commercial beer. In Bell's reaction to the backlash they ludicrously base their claim, in part, on this statement

"Bell's Brewery are of the opinion that there is a likelihood of confusion between [Northern Brewer's] mark and the trademarks for TWO HEARTED owned by Bell's Brewery. The marks create the same overall commercial impression. Furthermore, the goods associated with your mark and the trademark for Two Hearted are identical." (my emphasis added)

So even if this sort of litigiousness and paranoia was somehow justified in the communal world of craft beer, the idea that a consumer would mistake a pile of hops and malt that you can make into beer, with bottles of packaged beer is absolutely absurd. There's also the small fact that the Three Hearted Ale kit has existed for 9 years without Bell's either realizing or caring about it, which certainly doesn't point to it endangering or getting confused with their brand. Finally, there's the small matter that there are probably half a dozen homebrew supply companies that have similar beer kits based on real beers. Austin Homebrew has hundreds. Even Northern Brewer has a dozen or so similar kits that are based on everything from New Belgium's Fat Tire to Timothy Taylor's Landlord without a single peep or complaint from any of the breweries in ownership of those brands. Surly even came right out and gave away the recipes for 5 of their extremely sought after and well loved beers for use in Northern Brewer's Pro Series beer kits. The names are even right on the kits, verbatim. There was certainly no harm done there.

Well by now, it's been over a day (which is a month in internet time) since the letter was revealed on facebook and the backlash began, so Northern Brewer and Bell's are friends again. No one actually got sued and no brands were harmed in the forming of this controversy, but I'm still left with a sour taste in my mouth. All this touches on something I may expand upon in another post: is this where craft beer is headed? Small brewers viciously clinging to trademarks and brands? Suing homebrewers and fans of beer for trademark infringements? It seems the exact sort of thing that craft beer drinkers claim to dislike about AB InBev and Coors. Let's hope it doesn't become the norm.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that I work for the homebrew supply in question and hence am not impartial. My thoughts do not reflect those of Northern Brewer.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Counterpoint: push out the hate, bring in the love

Recently, some of the local craft-beer types have been discussing the issue of dirty beer lines on Twitter. Specifically, by calling out bars that serve beer from dirty lines with a #TCdirtylines hashtag. You can read about the inspiration for the idea by the gentleman who started it over at Beer Genome. This conversation is something of a follow up to the recent #MNCleanpint silliness that was going around recently.

There are some very good points made at Beer Genome. In the interest of getting good beer to customers, having clean beer lines is absolutely essential. It's certainly more valuable than having a "beer clean" (as opposed to regular clean) glass which actually does nothing to improve the flavor of beer. Beer geeks love to talk about "lacing" though, despite it not really being an indication of anything intrinsically related to beer quality. It's true that residual detergent and sanitizer can ruin beer lacing, but lipids do as well. Lipids, which can be present on unclean glasses, are also naturally present in beer. They're a bi-product of healthy yeast, and also exist in higher quantities in grains like rye and oats than in barley which tend to leave certain beers with a less long-lasting head and less lacing. Next time you're at your favorite brewpub compare a pint of IPA to a pint of oatmeal stout. Don't tell anyone, though, lest we have to talk about how beer tastes instead of how it looks.

Which is what brings us back to dirty beer lines, which can, and do, drastically affect the flavor of beer. An unpleasant nutty, or buttery flavor can be due to beer lines which have not been cleaned regularly. They can also occur in beer itself, regardless of the lines.  And while I agree that it's something which should be prevented, I'm very wary and skeptical that calling bars out on Twitter (or anywhere) is the best way to do so. Firstly, and most importantly, there is really no way for a bar patron to determining that the beer in their glass was served through dirty beer lines unless they're under the bar. Much as we hate to admit it, beer faults can originate at the brewery as well. Asking random people to accuse their bar of having dirty lines because of a perceived flavor defect is a witch hunt. While it may be satisfying to publicly label a bar with perceived dirty lines, the best course of action is to send the beer back, tell the bartender why you're sending it back, and ask for something else. Most bars will accommodate such a request if made politely. If they don't, leave and don't go back. Secondly, it's ultimately the brewery's and distributor's responsibility to ensure that their beer is being served properly. Letting either of them know, in addition to letting the bar know about your experience is much more valuable than a passive aggressive scarlet letter. We should at least give them the chance to solve the problem, right?

And anyways, who really cares about bars that refuse to clean their lines? I'd be much more interested in hearing about bars who DO serve their beer consistently well. #TCgoodbeerbar seems much more productive to me. If we're really interested in preventing dirty beer lines, legislation and being vigilant are much more effective, in my opinion.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Summit - [new] Gold Sovereign [and improved] Maibock

"Spring is in the air" what I might say if I lived below the 44th parallel. Since I don't, it is still very much winter as I write this on the 15th of March. As such, the weekend excursion to the Muddy Pig was a hair-raising ordeal across 6 blocks of completely ice-coated sidewalks. The wind is still blowing, wearing multiple layers is required, and snow banks are still waist-high. Once there, I was rewarded, though. Summit's new releases put me in a snow-melt state of mind. The Maibock is out a couple months early, as usual. Their seasonals always seem to come out a bit before you might expect, but I don't mind at all. It's become a tradition of wishful thinking. Early-summer beers in March, Oktoberfest in August, etc. I quite enjoyed the Maibock.

The star of the show on Friday night, though, was the newest release in the Unchained series, Gold Sovereign. The beer is apparently based on a Victorian-era recipe. Damian McConn, the brewer behind Sovereign Gold was on hand most of the night to talk about his beer and he described some of the trouble in getting the top-cropping strain of British yeast to clear. The beer is unfiltered and does pour a hazey, light, golden color. Gold Sovereign utilizes Boadicea, Sovereign, Pilgrim, and First Gold hops. It really is a showcase for British hops and it doesn't go easy on them. This is a bitter, hop-forward drinking experience for sure. There is a dominating, lemony, grassy punch right at the beginning of the first sip that lingers for a while and eventually fades into a mild saltine-like maltiness at the finish. I expected something malty, sweet, or warming based on the description, but this is a drinking-beer. For a something that's in the 6% abv range, it is extremely quenching and easy to drink. I'm not the only one who thought so, either. Two hours after the tapping, the cask was empty and by Sunday when I stopped in for another drink, the keg was also completely gone. I wondered previously if the beer's obscure origin and style might affect its popularity, but that certainly wasn't the case during the release weekend. It will hopefully be available on tap shortly, and the bottles are set to release the week of March 21.

OG 1.060
Organic Westminster Malt
Boadicea, Sovereign, Pilgrim, First Gold hops

Summit's Maibock is much improved over previous years. I have found it disappointing or lackluster in the past. No longer. For 2011, Summit is using a new Moravian Pilsner malt as the base. Their Moravian malt is made from a barley variety originating in the Czech Republic. It's grown in North Dakota (allegedly by some of Summit-owner, Mark Stutrud's family) and is under modified* when malted which is a more traditional method of production. The end result is amazing. Summit has tweaked their Maibock in years past and it tended toward the sweet side in the style of most American Maibocks. This version is sublime. It rises right to the top of my list. If anyone can think of a better American Maibock, well, I'd be interested in trying them side by side. Summit Maibock 2011 is easy-drinking and complex. The holy grail of beer, as far as I'm concerned. Each sip is like a new experience. Soft, smooth malt flavors dance with nuanced hops. Balance is the word of the day. You first sink into gentle, creamy malt like an overstuffed sofa only to be greeted by your good friend hops. "Hello hops!".  Further sips reveal spicy, floral, grassy (artichoke leaves?), and a slight piney-ness all accompanied by that classic well-made-lager malt component.Great lagers are sorely missing from the American craft brewing community (and not without reason - they are difficult and more expensive to produce) so this is a welcome improvement in my book. The only shame is that it's a seasonal. I hope Summit brings it back without change next year.

OG 1.060
abv: 6.5%
IBU: 40
Moravian Pilsner malt, Munich malt
Czech Saaz, Mt Hood hops

*under modification refers to the a lower level of starches and proteins which are converted and readily available after the malting process. Under modified malts hence require additional processing by the brewer but yield a different or better flavor.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

International Homebrew Project: Brewday

Last Saturday was the designated brewday for the International Homebrew Project. Sadly, my camera battery died right at the beginning of the brewing so I have no pictures. Posts about brewing without brewing-porn are pretty useless, but as a record, I thought I'd blog my experience. This is a highly unusual recipe, and I did learn some things that would be good to know if I ever brew a historical recipe (likely from Shut Up About Barclay Perkins) some time in the future. I do 3 gallon batches, so I had to scale the recipe up for efficiency and then down. This what I ended up with:

OG: 1.060
IBU 40

2.5 lbs Warminster Maris Otter  51%
0.375 lbs Simpson's Dark Crystal 8%
0.5 lbs Amber malt 10%
0.375 lbs Brown malt  8%
0.375 lbs Roasted barley  8%
0.5 lbs lactose  10%
0.25 invert sugar  5%

0.5 ounces fuggle @ 120 min
0.4 ounces kent golding (super kent at 7.2% AA) @ 90 min

You can see the recipe on hopville here as well. I opted for maris otter because I dislike mild malt. I suspect modern versions of mild malt are nothing like the mild malt of half a century ago, anyhow.

Making the invert sugar was an imprecise process. My small batch size means I only needed 4 ounces of sugar. If I was thinking, I would have made a larger batch of invert and saved some, but as it was, trying to boil 4 ounces of sugar in 8 ounces of water made it very difficult to monitor the temperature. Nonetheless, there did seem to be a noticeable burnt sugar, creme brulee kind of thing going on in the wort sample. It really tasted amazing. The invert sugar flavor paired with roasty and toasty flavors from brown and amber malts on top of coffee and dark chocolate from the roasted barley should make this a really nice beer.

The other thing was the outrageously long boil. My gravity ended a bit high because I boiled off more than expected. Almost 50% boil off at the end of it.

I chose to use Wyeast 1318 which is apparently Boddington's yeast for this batch. I'm not sure why Kristen England recommend this yeast, but I hadn't really used it before, so I wanted to give it a shot. A week before this brewday, I brewed a pale ale (with some Canada malting pale malt - a new variety for me) to prep the yeast. I conducted an open fermentation and skimmed off the first krausen, pictured below. The second krausen that formed was saved in a mason jar, pictured further below, for the IHBP. This also presented a problem as yeast skimmed from actively fermenting beer also contained unfermented wort, so the jar had to be burped periodically to release pressure.

God forgive me for taking so many pictures of yeast. There must be help for people like me.

You can really see what a top cropping and flocculant yeast this is here

A gravity sample yesterday showed the beer at 1.040 which is about half way there since I expect this to finish around 1.018 or so. The partially fermented wort sample tasted much different than expected with almost no sweetness, so it will really be interesting to see how the beer develops.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Session 49: Regular Beer

Stan over at Appellation Beer is hosting this month's session for the topic of regular beer.

"Regular beer" could mean quite a few different things. I think has 29 definitions for the word "regular", so we could easily jump down the rabbit hole. A beer I drink regularly, in my thinking, is by definition going to be a regular beer, so that's what I'll go with. When I think of these beers, they're frequently the same beers I think of when I talk about comfort beer: beers that you can find comfort in without being pummeled with strong and extreme flavors. Largely, this is the antithesis of craft beer in this country, since light lager has almost ruthlessly defined what "regular beer" that doesn't impose itself is. So "regular" is not a word many of us use to describe beer we're passionate about.  It's a word I hear most commonly used by people who dislike craft beer, and flavorful beer. It's a word used to describe something in contrast to craft beer. As in, "reg'lar beer". I recall sitting around campfires with Coors Light drinking friends who handed down the decision that oatmeal stout was, in fact, not regular beer and may in fact be hippy beer, or kind of weird. More recently I was at a local beer bar (it's not so much a beer bar as a music venue with about 10 taps or so of mostly decent beer although the shortest pours in town) when I saw a member of a band who was playing that night order a couple of Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout. To my amazement, since these were on the house, they poured two full pints of BBC, only to have both pints returned minutes later because the gentleman ordering them thought that they were gonna be "regular" and hence he did not like them. I watched in horror as they were dumped down the drain. It would have been easy for a beer snob to step in and say something, but that's a bit prickish, so I kept my thoughts to myself. In matters of personal taste, no one needs unsolicited advice. Inside, though, I felt a bit like Willem Dafoe in that famous scene from Platoon. It's instances like these that make it easy for some of us to write off "regular beer", but regular does not necessarily mean plain, ordinary, or bland just because that's what it means to light-lager drinkers. My regular, most commonly, is Summit Pale Ale. Something you can find almost everywhere in the Twin Cities. If you open Michael Jackson's Beer Companion or Great Beer Guide you can see Summit Extra Pale Ale right there, too. To my disappointment, it's occasionally panned by local beer geeks who take it for granted. It's not the most explosive and obnoxious beer, but its supremely sessionable quality is sandwiched between spicy floral hops in the tradition of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and crunchy, biscuity malt in a more Midwestern tradition. The result is something that's interesting and drinkable, but easy to overlook in the world of 8% abv double-imperial-everythings. Many a local beer geek was weaned on Summit Extra Pale Ale (just a "Summit" if you're ever ordering one anywhere in Minnesota) only to forget its pleasure. Not I. So let's hear not for crappy, middling, or bland beer, but regular beer.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Beer Review: 21A Bitter American and Anderson Valley IPA

I guess we're doing a West Coast themed beer review over here at A Flagon of Ale this week. Hella, brah.

I had to drive over the border to Wisconsin to get a bottle of Anderson Valley's Hop Ottin IPA. There must be something about the curvature of the Earth that makes it easier for west coast brewers to ship their beers to Wisconsin before Minnesota despite our apparent proximity. Perhaps our unfavorable and outdated laws have something to do with it. Speaking of California beer by way of Wisconsin news, Stone Brewing will definitely be coming to MN. They have a distributor and events lined up in the Twin Cities. Stone's marketing seems to get in the way of their beer, but they're going to have 20 taps at the Muddy Pig (as well as events with fewer taps at the Acadia, Stub & Herb's and other beer bars) so there will be something for any beer lover to enjoy, and more breweries in MN is a good thing. There have been rumors flying about Stone leaving Wisconsin. These are mostly unfounded, but if true, probably won't bode well for them in Minnesota. If any brewery can't make it in one of the drinkiest states in the country (who, by the way are unhindered by the like of the MLBA) they'll never make it here. On to the beer:

21A's Bitter American is something I was eager to try because it's labeled as an "American session beer" which I would greatly like to see more of in the world of craft beer. Also, it's an American take on a British style by a California brewery that's brewed and canned in Minnesota. Lots of room for something to get lost in translation there, but I'm glad to say that wasn't the case. Granted, in spite of the alcohol content, this isn't really a session beer in my mind because the explosive, bombastic hop flavor that comes at you makes it hard for me to imagine drinking more than one in a row. A session beer should have a reasonable alcohol level, as well as an unobtrusive flavor, but I certainly won't hold that against this beer. Baby steps. To appeal to craft beer drinkers (and it should) Bitter American is essentially a small IPA. It's got huge piney, almost acetonic aromas from the hops and a nice bitter kick as well. It would have been easy for this beer to be overwhelmingly bitter without the malt and alcohol that many IPAs rely on, but it isn't. Hop heads delight: Bitter American has huge flavor without huge alcohol. Will this be the face of American session beer? Perhaps. There is also a chimpanzee on the can which I don't understand. I generally dislike cans, but won't say anything bad about this one. The art is interesting, and it doesn't get confused for soda or an energy drink sitting in the cooler. summary: great beer, will buy this again.

Anderson Valley's Hop Ottin' IPA is one I've been eager to try for a while. It seems to be one of those pioneering, early-ish American IPAs (anyone know if this impression is correct? I couldn't find out when it was first brewed with the Google). There is a folksy story on the label explaining the name. Anderson Valley's IPA is overwhelmingly dominated by bitterness. The first impression is of a powerful bitterness and the finish is even more bitter as it lingers. It's like bench clamp of bitterness on the palate which doesn't leave room for much else. Malt flavors seem to be pushed very far in the background, as are any alcohol or estery notes. The aroma is that of an American IPA: lots of citrus, grapefruit, etc. Overall a nice beer, but not very inspired. I'd drink it again, but I don't think I would seek it out.