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Archive | July, 2011

More about beer from a place; local, if you will

First, a bit of disclosure. I own the domain name (you don’t need to go look; you’ll just end up back here). Collecting domain names is cheaper than owning pets.

DRAFT Magazine has posted the story I wrote for the July-August issues they call “The dirt on terroir.” A little science, a little history, a pinch of opinion and philosophy (not all mine). It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time looking into, and might just be getting started.

I’ve got a lot to say. However, we’re out the door in the morning and I won’t be back for more than three weeks. A little family holiday; a lot of hops. Hop growers, hop breeders, hop processors, hop scientists, brewers, museums, research facilities. I might have to write a book. So things will likely be quiet around here. (There goes the Wikio ranking.)

I’ll leave you with something I wrote for All About Beer Magazine a few years ago. Wrote it sitting in a hotel room in Bamberg, in fact.

December 2008

We are in the midst of a Year of Eating and Drinking Local. Were it going to result in a book – though it won’t – we might call it “If it’s a blueberry ale, this must be Maine” or “If it tastes sour and salty, this must be Leipzig.”

Our family adventure will, in fact, last more than a year, and it wasn’t planned around food and drink. Even if it were, most days the diary entry wouldn’t be about beer. One example: the expansive produce market that occurs daily in Split, Croatia, as impressive a scene as any Czech beer hall. We bought fabulous bread, fresh vegetables and brandy aged on walnut shells (How strong? “Strong!” said the man who made and sold it in a one-liter screw-top bottle for 50 kuna).

My wife, Daria Labinsky, our daughter, Sierra, and I left our New Mexico home last May, first heading to Alaska and eventually to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. As I file this from Bamberg, Germany, in mid-December, we’re quite near the end of 15 weeks in Europe. By the time we return to New Mexico in August we will have visited 17 countries, 9 Canadian provinces and territories, 49 states and Washington, D.C. (Before you ask – can’t drive to Hawaii.)

Why the interest in eating and drinking local? Beyond the obvious pleasures, and a sense that local is somehow better, there’s little that reveals more about regional culture. To understand how Italians feel about food, you shouldn’t eat in a restaurant near Rome’s Coliseum. Head instead to a small town to the south and visit a pizzeria where pizza arrives as the fourth course of a feast, coming directly after buffalo mozzarella oozing with milk.

And to appreciate the magic of New Glarus Brewing beers in Wisconsin, stop at the first gas station after you enter the state and discover that six-packs of Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel are cold and ready to go. Or head to the town of New Glarus itself and Roy’s Market, which has a large sign out front declaring Roy’s “Proudly Serves All New Glarus Co. Brewing Products, Only Available in Wisconsin.”

The New Glarus local success story has been repeated enough, but basically Dan and Deb Carey started their brewery in a space designed to produce 8,000 barrels a year. Fifteen years later, after squeezing 65,000 barrels out of that facility in 2007, New Glarus moved into a brand-spanking-new, $21 million brewery that sits on a hilltop overlooking the town. Without selling a drop of beer beyond the borders of Wisconsin.

Spotted Cow serves as a perfect representative of the brewery not only because it accounts for half its sales. Dan Carey created the beer first for himself, after wondering what Wisconsin farmhouse beers would have tasted like in the nineteenth century. He uses indigenous ingredients such as corn, includes a bit of unmalted barley grown on land the brewery owns, and leaves the beer unfiltered. It’s designed to be consumed ice cold and tastes like, well, Wisconsin.

Local can be complicated. I seem to find questions more easily than answers. Does any old beer brewed “in town” qualify as local? Do we think more highly of local beers because they are “green,” because they are fresher, because breweries are locally owned and the profits stay in town, because they use local ingredients? Can you still be a local brewery if ship your beer across the country?

A conversation early on with Alaskan Brewing co-founders Geoff and Marcy Larson provided the first answer. Alaskans love Alaskan Brewing. Neon signs brighten most bar windows. Souvenir shops that cater to cruise ships prominently display Alaskan T-shirts (a local grocery sells an Alaskan T and hat package). Locals wear Alaskan sweatshirts.

But Alaskan Brewing sells 70 percent of what it brews outside of Alaska. Big state; not a lot of people. So I felt a wave of paranoia sweep over me when Marcy asked, “Should we be selling our beers down south?” (Down south being Alaskan for the lower 48 states.) I knew she wasn’t seeking my approval, that this was a question about the integrity of their beer far from home, but still I gulped.

I thought about her question during the next several days, when we hiked to an overlook above the Mendenhall Glacier and when I was negotiating “frost heave” along the Alaskan Highway. I realized that Alaskan beers could only come from Alaska, and not just the ones using local ingredients. The tension between man and wilderness you feel everywhere is also part of the balance in each beer.

So now there’s at least one thing I’m sure of. Local beer comes from a particular place, and local beer tastes of that place.

‘This beer sucks’ – Go directly to jail

Did you hear the one about the newspaper columnist who got tossed in jail in Hungary for criticizing wine from a state-owned winery? Fortunately, the European Court of Human Rights sprung him. From the original story:

Péter Uj trashed the celebrated TF1/LCI Sour wine, produced by the state-owned T. Zrt, in a column for Hungary’s daily newspaper. He said the wine was overly oxidized and used poor-quality ingredients, but “hundreds of thousands of Hungarians drink [this] shit with pride.”

After the column ran, he was convicted for libel in 2009 because the court found that Uj had unnecessarily insulted and infringed the wine producer’s right to a good reputation. His conviction was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court in May 2010.

The European Court of Human Rights unanimously held on Tuesday that Hungarian judges erred, saying Uj’s article was intended to “raise awareness about the disadvantages of State ownership rather than to denigrate the quality of the wine company’s products.”

Political commentary is one thing, wine criticism another, it seems.

But imagine if he’d been writing about beer in . . . well, pick the beer-loving country of your choice.

The good, the bad and the feel good

The good

First we’ve got the Chicago Tribune update: “The world of Chicago-made beer is expanding so quickly — at a rate unseen in the lives of modern-day beer lovers — that new entries arrive almost monthly.” A complete rundown.

There’s there’s the Boston Globe: “Region awash in new wave of niche breweries.” Includes the big question (and no answer), “How many will survive the long haul? No one knows.”

The other day I had a quick keep-it-to-less-than-140-characters exchange with a professional brewer not in St. Louis. He asked, in view of the number of relatively new breweries and additional ones about to open here, how many I think the region can support. I copped out and answered I’m too new to town to guess.

The answer is that a lot more [xxx]¹ beer is going to be sold annually. Will it be more Stone beers (just came into town with lots of fanfare), more Perennial beers (not open yet), more Schlafly (celebrating its 20th anniversary), more Urban Chestnut, Boulevard, Green Flash, beers imported by Shelton Brothers? Can’t tell you, but it will be a lot more. I hope quality makes a difference, but that won’t be the only factor.

¹ Insert whatever term you want: craft, boutique, microbrewed.

The bad

“America’s Finest Beer Festival” in San Diego was canceled rather last minute. There’s a joke in there involving the word “finest” but I sense some people might have got screwed here. A strange story.

The feel good

Stone Brewing has guaranteed that the Japanese Red Cross Society will receive at least $50,000 from its latest collaboration beer, Baird/Ishii/Stone Japanese Green Tea IPA. Toshi Ishii — a former intern-then-brewer at Stone and now owner of Ishii Brewing in Guam — contacted Stone brewmaster Mitch Stone Steele after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami disaster about brewing a beer that would aid the recovery effort. Bryan Baird of Baird Brewing in Numazu made it a threesome.

The beer is “‘dry-hopped’ with Sencha, a variety of whole-leaf Japanese green tea.” Details are at the Stone Blog, but between the tea and various hops the beer certainly makes a green, herbal impression.

Beyond the obvious relief for Japan, hop growers in France may also benefit. After France lost Alsace-Lorraine to German in 1871 and nearly until World War I the region was second only to Bavaria in hop production in the Germany empire. Not all the hops grown in the Alsace had a great reputation, but Strisselspalter (or Strisselspalt, depending on the catalog you are using) is wonderfully aromatic and spicy.

Strisselspalter accounted for 82% of the hops grown in the Alsace in 2008, and production dove 53% in 2009. There are a variety reasons, one of which is that it’s a low alpha hop. Even at a time when [xxx]¹ brewers put a growing premium on aroma quality they want more alpha than the hop provides.

Aramis is a new variety from the growers in the Alsace, with about twice the alpha acids (8 AAUs, so not a heavyweight) and many of the same flavor and aroma qualities as Strisselspalter. According to the Stone Blog this might be the first commercial beer made with Aramis. Given the complex hop recipe and presence of green tea you wouldn’t call it a showcase for Aramis, but you gotta think it’s going to start showing up in other beers. Reason for hop growers in the Alsace to hope.

Topic for Session #54 announced: Sour Beer

The SessionJon Abernathy has announced the topic for The Session #54: Sour Beer.

A little hard to believe that this many rounds into The Session that the theme of the month has not focused specifically on sour beers, isn’t it?

I’ll leave the implementation up to you, but here are some suggestions: seek out and review a sour beer of some kind; write about your experiences with brewing a sour beer; talk about your first sour beer experience; who’s brewing the better sours—Belgians or Americans (or somebody else)?; perhaps a contrary approach—what you don’t like about sour beers. Or if you have the perfect sour beer idea you want to write about, I can’t wait to read it!

It could be a busy couple of days for those planning to participate in #IPADay on Aug. 4 and The Session on Aug. 5. (Please don’t anybody even whisper the words Sour IPA.)

Both are open to anybody who wants to write on the topic, and for those who don’t have a blog Jon will post what you want to write about sour beers. Scroll to the bottom of his post for details.

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