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Archive | June, 2009

On leaving Oregon: Thoughts of local beer

It’s hard to spend much time drinking local beer in Oregon and not get excited about what’s in the glass.

Not only in Portland — which was at the center of the recent “best beer city” silliness — but in Pacific City, Enterprise, Eugene, Hood River, Newport, Bend, Parkdale and, gee, the list never seems to end. Although a few breweries ship their beer far from home, and that’s a fair amount of the state’s production, the majority simply sell local beer to local drinkers.

Door to open fermentation room at Upright BrewingThis is not to say every beer was great, but Oregon’s been leading the nation since the mid-90s and somehow there’s still more local beer than there was not long ago, better and a wider variety, with more people drinking this beer in more places. Having visited forty-six states since we left home thirteen months ago I feel pretty confident typing there is no other like Oregon. And although I’m not sure why this makes sense to me, and appreciate it might not to you, leaving Oregon the other day made me stop to appreciate what I’ve seen elsewhere. I wouldn’t say other states are catching up so much as they are in hot pursuit.

In Florida, which has never been known for breweries making particularly frisky beer, suddenly you have Saint Somewhere Brewing and Cigar City Brewing making cutting-edge beers. In Kansas City, Boulevard Brewing recently released Two Fools Double Wit, its latest seasonal in the Smokestack Series, a beer that starts from a “sour mash.” In Pittsburgh, Scott Smith at East End Brewing used 60 loaves of rye bread to brew an old-style Russian beer called Kavass.

I grew up working for newspapers, so skepticism is second nature to me. I find it hard to believe that sales of beer that costs far more than people were paying a few short years ago can continue to be so robust given the current economy, but so far I’m wrong. We’ll discuss why another time. Instead consider something from Mike Kallenberger, Insights Manager at MillerCoors. “One thing I’ve learned is once a trend starts it can keep going longer than you’d expect,” he said. Discussing what’s referred to as the “adoptive curve,” he added, “I don’t think craft beer has begun to reach the tipping point.”

Maybe not even in Portland.

What’s astonishing is that you can have so many pretty big brewing companies and so many small ones in the same city. It’s only about a 15-minute walk from Widmer Brothers, which is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, to Upright Brewing, which began selling beer in April. Widmer is thoroughly modern, fermenting more of its flagship Hefeweizen in a single unitank than Upright will sell this year. (Widmer’s tanks have a capacity of 1,500 barrels, but are only filled with 1,100 barrels of Hefeweizen.)

Upright is located in the basement of a renovation-in-progress called the Leftbank Project. Founder/brewer Alex Ganum hadn’t even started school when Kurt and Rob Widmer founded their brewery in 1984. He calls Upright a farmhouse brewery and is employing open fermentation; wide open, as in no tops at all on two fermenters in a special-built room. He recently added a Post-it note to the entry that reads, “Don’t sneeze.” (That’s the photo at the top.)

He resists the efforts of others to classify his beers as “Belgian.” “I feel like we are more Northwest than anything,” he said. “We’re big (Frank) Zappa fans here. I think Zappa’s music is a lot like our styles.”

Listening to him I thought of a conversation last summer with Dan Carey, co-founder and working brewmaster at New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin. He was happily showing off his brand-spanking-new brewery, a $21 million beauty built strictly based on demand within Wisconsin; New Glarus doesn’t ship its beer beyond its home state. “We like to talk about local,” he said. Now the discussion turned to influences and Carey considered the question about if he could describe himself more as a German, Belgian, English, Czech or American brewer.

He couldn’t. “I’m like the Japanese, or like the Australian winemaker,” he said. “I try to learn from everybody and take what I can use.”

The result is better local beer.


When the Times discovered New Albion

Oops, I missed the anniversary on this by a bit. It was thirty years ago on June 12 that New York Times wine writer Frank Prial penned a full-length and very complimentary feature on Jack McAuliffe and his New Albion brewery. You have to pay to download a pdf version of the article, but it’s a great read through the lens of history.

This was so long ago that there was no reason for Prial to call New Albion a microbrewery, a craft brewery or a boutique brewery. Simply a brewery that made “what may be one of the country’s best beers.”

And . . . “At 95 cents to $1.05 per bottle, including deposit, it may well be the most expensive domestic beer sold.”

So let’s call it a buck for a 10-ounce bottle. Taking inflation into account that works out to 31 cents per ounce in 2009 dollars and cents. Or $3.72 for a 12-ounce bottle, $22.32 for a six-pack of those, and $7.84 for a 750ml bottle. Just so you know.


How many IBU? ‘About one hundred’

Oakshire BrewingMatt Van Wyk at Oakshire Brewing in Eugene, Oregon, has a new standard answer when he’s asked how many IBU (International Bitterness Units) are in one of his beers. “About one hundred.”

How many in the Perfect Storm Imperial IPA? “About one hundred.”

How many in the Oakshire Wheat? “About one hundred.”

He’s not trying to be rude, just having a little fun at festivals with a question brewers hear all the time. I think the answer is brilliant because it naturally moves the conversation from a number with questionable meaning to one about aroma and flavor.

Make no mistake. Hops are about more than bitterness, about more than being macho. They are about aroma and flavor.

That said, next week Stone Brewing releases its 13th Anniversary Ale and it’s been measured at 100 IBU. I emphasize the word measured because breweries and their fans sometimes toss around crazy claims about beers with 120 IBU and more. Next time somebody tells you a beer clocks 100-plus ask whoever tells that if he or she had seen a proper lab analysis. I know of a couple of beers that have topped 100, but only a couple.

Brewers should know better and what they say should reflect that. First because education has been an important part of craft brewing since the get-go. Second because when it comes to perceived bitterness the big numbers may not be that important. There’s some question if us mere mortals can actually detect any additional bitterness above 60 or 70 IBU.

Why do brewers fall into this trap? Everybody, and that includes me, asks about IBU. The number is a shorthand for telling us the volume of hops added to a recipe, which may well impact aroma and flavor. It’s unfortunate that a number sounds so precise, but is usually based on a formula a heck of a lot more accurate for beers of something sane like 40 IBU. Adjectives would be so much better, although it can be a challenge to describe the difference between piney and in-your-face-big-ass piney.

Stone 13th Anniversay AleTurn up the volume another notch or two from big-ass and you have Stone 13. That was the impression out of the tank when I tasted it, before it was dry-hopped for the second time. For the record Stone calls this a 90-plus IBU beer, but the first batch in the bottle measured dead-on one hundred. The lads in the brewery added four and a half pounds of hops per barrel, more than any Stone beer ever.

They did a quick check on the wort prior to fermentation and it measured about 130 IBU. A pretty impressive number, don’t you think? But . . . “IBUs drop during fermentation because the pH of the liquid drops from about 5.3 to about 4.5,” Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele explained via email. “This reduces the solubility of the iso-alpha-acids, the bittering component of hops, so some bitterness solidifies and drops out, and/or gets absorbed by yeast.”

So now you know what it’s best to say “about” when talking about the IBU in beers brewed with bunches of hops.

Cheers to Stone and local beer

Working on a post about Stone 13th Anniversary Ale, that it measures 100 IBU and why that’s a story. Meanwhile I noticed this reading the text written for the back label on the bottle:

“No matter where you are, we are thankful and hugely flattered when you choose Stone. However, if you’re outside our region and you often choose a quality craft beer that is more local, we understand.”

Cheers to Stone. The 13th is supposed to start hitting stores June 29. Don’t know whether that includes Jackson, Wyoming, but even if it does we’ll be toasting Stone with a little Snake River Zonker Stout.


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