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‘The more I travel the more I realize how little I know’

Here we are again. Boak & Bailey have invited bloggers to “go long” and I must once again turn to Plan B, which is digging something out of the archives. This is a story written in the fall of 2010 for American Brewer magazine about beery lesson brewers have learned from their travels. Visit Boak & Bailey’s Beer Blog for more #beerylongreads.

Jason Oliver brews a pretty mean Vienna-style Lager in Roseland, Virginia. Likewise Alastair Hook in London.

Two questions immediately come to mind. How did they learn to brew such beer, and why do they bother? Oliver has never been to Vienna, nor had he been to Germany before a trip in November. Hook traveled extensively on the continent and trained at Germany’s famous Weihenstephan brewing school. But he knew full well when he started brewing lagers they didn’t attract much an audience in the United Kingdom. After the first brewery Hook worked at closed, famed British beer writer Michael Jackson wrote, “One the problems was that the beers were too good: drinkers in Britain have become accustomed to the notion that lager should be tasteless, as most of the ‘famous’ international brands intentionally are.”

Their stories are a bit different, but share much in common with scores of others who have left home to drink beer, even to explore other breweries, and come home having learned lessons they weren’t looking for.

After Oliver graduated from college in 1995 he traveled across the country. He drank more Busch Natural Light than anything in college, but on this trip looked for local beers, quickly noticing that beer from old line Midwest regional breweries tasted different than beer in Virginia and from beer in the state of Washington. “I remember picking up a six-pack of Wheathook (from Redhook in Washington),” he said. “It was the neatest thing. Here this hazy cloudy beer.”

He and friends soon took the ferry from Washington up to Alaska. “Pitchers of Alaskan Amber cost the same at Budweiser,” he said. He was hooked.

When he returned to Virginia he had no idea what he might do with a degree in history. He found a book that listed unique careers. “Brewer” was listed at the end of the Bs. “That’s as far as I got,” he said.

He didn’t know he’d be drawn to brewing with a German bent, but that course was set by the time he completed the California-Davis professional brewing program in 1998. “I like the precision of it, the process,” he said. He was drawn to methods not commonly used in American brewpubs. ‘I wanted to learn those old techniques,” he said. Six years-plus with the Gordon Biersch chain of restaurant breweries prepared him well. Devils Backbone Brewing Co. opened in 2009 and won four medals at the Great American Beer Festival in both 2009 and 2010 as well as four at the 2010 World Beer Cup.

Hook was only 17 years old when he stuck Jackson’s “Pocket Guide to Beer” in a back pack and went beer exploring all over Europe. “I learned that the whole CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) mantra was bunk,” he said. During the 1980s he trained first at Heriot-Watt in Scotland, then at Weihenstephan.

It might be just as important that he traveled regularly to California, also during the 1980s, among other things becoming a lifetime member of the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco. He visited New Albion Brewing, and got to know the beers of Anchor Brewing and Mendocino Brewing. “It made me make look at beer in a different way,” he said.

He continued to do that before opening Meantime Brewing in 2000 and has managed to since. He recently began brewing a beer called London Lager made from East Anglian malt and Kentish hops, serving an unfiltered kellerbier version at the brewery.

Hook talks about technical excellence with the enthusiasm of any Weihenstephan-trained brewer, but reserves the same passion for “the creative spirit of the U.S.” It wasn’t easy for him to turn down job offers in America, where his technical skills are in particular demand, but it wasn’t really hard. “As much as my creative instincts are with America, I’m a Londoner. You can’t take London out of a Londoner,” Hook said. “If you grow up a fan of the Charlton Football Club your ultimate dream is to go back you play for that club.”

Oilver’s and Hook’s experiences illustrate that a traveler never knows what lessons he or she will bring back. Here are ten from a few such brewers.

1. Beer tastes different in its own home.

Ted Rice, director of brewing operations at Marble Brewery in New Mexico, had never tasted a Kölsch before he brewed one in 2003 that won gold at the Great American Beer Festival. He laughed when asked to compare that beer with what he eventually drank in Köln. “I can see some similarities,” he said.

Drinking Kölsch in Köln or Helles in the south of Germany put the classic styles in perspective. “You see how delicate and refined they are. What happens when a number of breweries around a town or region all focus on one style they elevate it,” he said. He drew an analogy to Double IPAs in southern California. “Even a simple. . . ,” he said, pausing to consider his choice of words and making certain there was no misconception is this discussion of pilsner, “everyday beer gets better.”

2. Beer culture is different in its own home.

Southampton Publick House brewmaster Phil Markowski had only recently started homebrewing when he first visited Great Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium in 1986. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say there were any beer epiphanies, but it solidified my suspicions about the culture,” he said.

“Seeing the social aspect of large glasses of weak beer with flavor,” he said, his voice dropping off. “Twenty-five years distant this is really the only beer I get excited about.”

That trip finished in Belgium, where he saw what’s much more common knowledge today. “Every beer had to be served in the proper glass, even in the most mom and pop bars,” he said. “It was an indication of how entrenched beer is in their culture.”

3. Techniques don’t give a hoot about style.

In 2007, Matt Brynildson of Firestone-Walker Brewing traveled to England to brew a batch of beer at Marston’s, the last UK brewer to use a union fermentation system similar to Firestone’s. In Paso Robles, F-W brewers transfer beer from stainless steel to wood one day after fermentation, then blend it back with beer fermented in steel a week later. At the time Brynildson was working on the recipe for Union Jack IPA, a beer he thought might lean on British malts and contain a measure of beer fermented in wood. Ultimately Union Jack went another direction, featuring leaner American malts and no wood, becoming a hallmark of the “West Coast” style.

Brynildson didn’t return home with any genuinely new ideas. “It all reminded me of the party-gyle system so many brewers used to use. Fuller’s makes three beers off one mash,” he said. Firestone’s Big Opal (a wheat wine) and Little Opal (a low alcohol saison) draw on that approach. “We started thinking in terms of first wort beers, then using the second wort in another place.”

At the Westmalle Trappist monastery, Markowski was struck when he learned the brewers aged Westmalle Tripel cold for four to six weeks. “I realized they were carrying over techniques from their training with lager brewers (the dominant style on the continent),” he said.

4. It’s alive, no matter where you are.

Brynildson recently traveled to Russia, to Brazil and to Germany representing the Hop Growers of America. “For me it’s an excellent education just hearing what their challenges are,” he said. “(In Russia) for craft beer there is this really interesting approach right out of the gate. This is ‘live beer.'”

Beer is packaged in PET bottles and stored cold in grocery stores. Consumers are taught that craft beer has a short shelf life. “We (Americans) never did that,” Brynildson said. “I don’t know how I take this home and use it. How do we teach this to our consumers? I never think it is too late.”

5. You don’t have to produce beer in a clean room.

On this first trip to Belgium Markowski learned, “You can brew beer with all sorts of things you didn’t think you could brew with,” he said. Visiting Franconia years later he discovered you can make beer on all sorts of equipment you might not think you could brew with. “The revelation was that some of the breweries were pretty unsavory looking,” he said. “That things seemed far from ideal and far from German.” One of the reasons, of course, is the training required to brew in Germany, considerably more than in the U.S. (or Belgium). “You can’t find a poorly made beer in Germany,” Markowski said.

6. Remember to dance with the one who brung you.

A brewer sometimes learns something about his own brewery visiting another. “It made me focus,” Brynlidson said of his trip to Marston’s. “We’d migrated away, a bit, from talking about our barrels. We emphasized that we were the expert on pale ales. I went fully back the other direction.”

7. Imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery.

Jean-Marie Rock – brewmaster at Abbaye d’Orval, one of Belgium’s six Trappist monastery-breweries – has become the consummate host in recent years, opening his brewery doors to many visiting Americans. But he’s also fond of playing the role of brewing curmudgeon, admonishing Americans to quit trying to imitate Belgian-brewed beers.

In the fall of 2008, New Glarus Brewing co-founder Dan Carey stopped at Orval on the way home from Germany. A conversation with Rock inspired him to make Crack’d Wheat. “He said, ‘I don’t know why everybody wants to copy my beer. They should invent their own style.’ So Crack’d Wheat is my beer.” It is much different than the very traditional hefeweizen Carey also makes. Cascade and Amarillo hops on top of Hallertau Tradition, including a solid dose of dry hops, turn make it what could only be called “an American beer brewed with wheat.”

8. The more often you brew a beer the better the beer it gets.

Returning to the lesson Rice learned about everyday beers, he was talking about both appreciating and brewing them regularly. “When you taste those beers (in this case Kölsch) you get layers of hop flavors. But also the malt; everything is so balanced. There are no flaws,” he said. That’s one of the advantages of making the same beer over and over. “We (American brewers) try to make a broad range for everybody. That’s what we excel at. The things we make every day we do better.” At Marble that’s an IPA that accounts for about half of production.

9. The Germans still know a little about brewing.

There’s a reason that Carey makes it to Germany almost every year – other than the fact he loves drinking in and around Bamberg – and that others like John Mallett of Bell’s Brewery and Brynildson annually visit Brau Beviale, a giant trade show. “The Germans are light years ahead of us when it comes to equipment, plant design, saving energy, how to build a brewery,” Carey said.

The influence of English brewing is obvious in most American breweries. However when Brynildson travels to countries now looking to American for inspiration he sees something else. Craft brewers in Russia, Brazil, Japan and other countries undergoing a beer renaissance initially focused on German styles. “It’s the German who have more influence sparking interest in craft beer in other countries,” he said.

10. Be humble.

Leonardo Di Vincenzo, founder of Birra Del Borgo in Italy, is a man of some experience. He has brewed collaboration beers with Sam Calagione both in Delaware and his own brewery outside of Rome. He’s one of the brewing partners in the brewpub project atop Eataly in New York City, and he blended beers at Cantillon in Brussels.

Standing at Cantillon he talked about beer with other Italian and American visitors. The American took a sip of something Jean Van Roy had hauled out of the cellar. “Humbling,” he said. Di Vincenzo smiled, the look of a man who already knew what he’d be told.

“You can’t get to New Glarus from anywhere,” Carey said, talking about the challenges of traveling from Wisconsin and back home. Yet he’s a frequent visitor to Bamberg as well as other destinations associated with beer. “You stay home and you brew beer. It’s incestuous,” he said. “You think you are better than you are. The more I travel the more I realize how little I know.”

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Blast from the past: ‘Macros or micros?’

Paste Magazine has a rather comprehensive post today which is pretty much what the headline says: “A Not-So Nefarious History of Craft and Crafty Beer.” I don’t need much of an excuse to dig into the personal archives. So here’s something I wrote for All About Beer in 1997, as is, without the benefit of a safety net the rear mirror can provide.

The subhead on this story read: “What happens when the large breweries enter the ‘little guys’ territory?”

Scene 1: A church-run festival in Covington, La.
Boiled crawfish cost $1.25 a pound, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. is pounding out zydeco, and cups of beer sell for $1.50 each. The choices are Budweiser, Bud Light and Michelob Hefeweizen. When a customer orders the hefeweizen — and quite a few do — the man taking the orders turns to the pourer and says: “One heavyweight.”

Scene 2: Applebee’s Grill & Bar, Milwaukee, Wis.
A customer orders a beer called B. Barley’s, which recently became available on tap at Applebee’s around the country. The tap handle includes the information the ale is brewed by Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. Although B. Barley’s is made exclusively for Applebee’s and available only on tap, when the customer returns home to northern Wisconsin he tries Leinenkugel’s Auburn Ale from a bottle, which is not exactly the same beer but similar.

Scene 3: Cyberspace.
The brewers from Anheuser-Busch Specialty Brewing Group are conducting a live tasting of Michelob Specialty beers on the Internet, providing frank and specific answers to questions about A-B products. Somebody in Orlando, Fla., wants to know why Crossroads, a beer test-marketed in 1995, was never put into full production. Brewer Steve Michaluk notes the beer may have been “ahead of its time,” and that it was much closer in style to a Bavarian hefeweizen than the current Michelob Hefeweizen.

Michaluk and Mitch Steele make it clear they are nonetheless proud of the second beer and delighted with its malt character and the influence of Cascade hops. “American hefeweizen might be more aptly named American wheat ale,” Michaluk types, “which is what our Michelob Hefeweizen is and what most of the hefeweizens popular in the Northwest are.”

The largest breweries in the United States are sending their specialty beers where they haven’t gone before, often where no specialty beers have gone. While those at smaller breweries watch with understandable concern, in most parts of the country the short-term result has meant more choices for consumers. “The good news is that more people will be able to get good beer,” said American Specialty Craft Beer Co. manager Scott Barnum, who oversees the specialty brewers that Miller Brewing Co. owns partially or in total.

First, it’s a business

Beer lovers shouldn’t forget a key ingredient in the explosion in their number of choices — there’s money to be made selling beer. Anheuser-Busch is in business to make money, as are Miller Brewing Co., Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Three Floyds Brewing Co., Two Brothers Brewing Co. and more than 1,000 other breweries in the United States. So are the importers, wholesalers, brewpub operators, bar owners and retail store proprietors.

That’s why the Wall Street Journal and major metropolitan newspapers publish stories about the business of beer, pondering macros going micro and micros going macro. But why should you care about the battle for shelf space in retail stores and tap handles in bars? That six-pack of Michelob Amber Bock in the cooler in a Nebraska gas station didn’t replace a beer from Pyramid or Rogue. It replaced a cold six of some beer you weren’t going to buy.

That’s not the way some smaller brewers and their supporters look at it. They heard those Anheuser-Busch ads that attacked the Boston Beer Co. and are well aware that A-B has made it clear it expects its distributors to focus on selling A-B products. Since A-B and Miller distributors carry enormous clout with retailers, it’s natural to wonder how much room will be left on the shelves and at the bar for small brewers’ beer.

Investors flocked to buy microbrewery stocks two years ago based on future growth in the “high price” segment. The potential for growth remains, but Robert Weinberg — a mathematical economist who consults for both large and small breweries — recently warned microbrewers about making predictions.

“The battlefield will not be in the high price segment. The major brewers will try to re-establish the super premiums,” Weinberg said at the National Craftbrewers Conference in Seattle. “You will be competing with a super premium that doesn’t currently exist.”

Budweiser is a premium beer, Michelob a super premium, and most micros high price. “As the relative price of malt beverages declined, consumers were willing to trade up,” Weinberg said. A-B understood this when it rolled out the Michelob specialty beers. “We have seen some cannibalizing,” said Bob Franceschelli, senior brand manager of the Specialty Brewing Group, meaning that the brewery was essentially stealing sales from itself. “We’re going to end up moving a lot of people into the micro/specialty area. Were they going to move anyway? Probably.”

Deja vu all over again?

Haven’t we seen different beers from the large brewers before? Miller test-marketed Dakota, a wheat ale, in the 1980s. “It was a very good beer. You could drink a lot of it. Very satisfying,” said Jim Robertson, author of the Beer Taster’s Log. “It was an American wheat beer — no cloves or bananas, but it went down smooth.”

The beer simply couldn’t get a hold in any market. “A company not only has to have a good product, but the market has to be there, too,” Barnum said.

Anheuser-Busch tested a variety of beers in the 1990s, including Anheuser Maerzen and Anheuser Pilsner in 1990 and Crossroads in 1995. Robertson remembers when he tasted the Maerzen for the first time. “I thought, this is a classical Maerzen and that these guys could wipe out anybody they wanted,” he said.

Muenchener Munich Style Amber, which the brewery introduced with its American Original beers in 1995, earned three stars (out of four) in Michael Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer, but has already been discontinued. Likewise the Elk Mountain beers.

So is it safe to fall in love with any of the latest efforts? A-B is used to selling very large amounts of every beer it makes. Beer is brewed in batches of 400 barrels at it Merrimack, N.H., plant, 500 barrels in Fairfield, Calif., and 750 barrels in Fort Collins, Colo., the three sites where the specialty beers are made. That’s more than was produced of some of the most highly praised microbrewery beers in all of 1996.

Franceschelli said the brewery’s expectations have changed since those earlier tests. “Absolutely. It’s been a huge learning curve,” he said. When the Michelob specialty beers were introduced in February, “we told (distributors) one case in an account is outstanding. Start with one bottle.”

Anheuser-Busch appears to have learned a few things from smaller brewers. In April it rolled out sampler packs of the Michelob specialty beers. It also packaged the draft beer in one-sixth-barrel kegs (one-third the size of most kegs), finding room in crowded taproom coolers and moving the beer while it’s still fresh. Micros and homebrewers have long used smaller kegs, often reconditioned five-gallon soda kegs.

Putting the special in specialty

Although the Stroh Brewery Co. sells a lot more of its own beer, its leadership knows a little bit about the craft beer market. Stroh brews much of the beer for Pete’s Brewing Co., Boston Beer Co. and its Oregon Ale and Beer Co. It brews and sells the Henry Weinhard and Red River specialty beers. It even makes some of the Black & Tan beer sold by D.G. Yuengling & Son, America’s oldest operating brewery.

“We have to do things differently, to look for niches,” said Mark Steinberg, vice president of sales at Stroh. Anheuser-Busch and Miller have more advertising dollars to support their specialty beers, but don’t have the sales to justify the costs. “Besides, if they spend too much, the beers lose their specialty,” Steinberg said.

“There’s something about a customer going into a bar and finding something new,” he said. “People like the sense of discovery in this category.”

Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors Brewing Co. have all taken different approaches. Coors’ Blue Moon beers command micro prices and are available in all 50 states. They include funky styles consumers expect from micros — such as a pumpkin ale and raspberry cream ale — but also a Belgian white, a nut brown ale and, most recently, an abbey-style ale. The beers were first developed at the SandLot Brewery at Coors Field in Denver, then brewed under contract at other breweries. Rumors abound that Coors will soon buy a small brewery to produce the Blue Moon brand beers.

Miller’s strategy for selling in the specialty category has been through partnerships. The Reserve line it brewed itself in the early 1990s is long gone, and the brewery has no plans to make specialty beers. “I can never say never, but as this juncture, no,” Barnum said.

Although each of its first three partners is different, that doesn’t mean Miller has been building an overall portfolio to take national. “We’ve said before that this is a regional business,” Barnum said. “More and more, you will see people contracting, narrowing their focus.”

When Miller acquired a majority interest in the Celis Brewery in 1994, the Austin, Texas, brewery was selling its distinctive Belgian-style beers in more than 30 states. Miller cut that down to a handful of states. “They were allocating beer to their distributor in Austin. You can’t build a business like that,” Barnum said. Now that the brewery has added capacity and taken care of its home market, it is available in 14 states. “Celis does well in micro-favorable markets where Pierre (Celis, the brewery’s founder) is known and revered,” Barnum said.

The stories for Shipyard Brewing Co. and Jacob Leinenkugel are different, but similar. Shipyard, brewer of traditional British ales, is available in 12 states. Leinenkugel, the seventh-oldest brewery in the nation and known almost exclusively for its lagers despite the B. Barley’s ale, is sold in 27 states (plus draft in Applebee’s in some other states), but is strongest in its Wisconsin home and the surrounding states.

“You can’t be all things to all people,” Barnum said. At Miller that has also meant deciding which is the macrobrewery and which is the micro (you’ve seen the ads).

“The consumer has a hard time paying an above-premium price for a beer brewed at a larger brewery,” Barnum said.

One from column A, two from column B

The leadership at Anheuser-Busch obviously doesn’t believe that, although A-B has also gone into the strategic alliance business. A-B not only brews the Michelob Specialty beers and the American Originals, but is testing other recipes that take direct aim at the high price market. Its ability to put these beers in the pipeline is evident across the country. Not only will you find the Michelob specialty beers in the cooler at a gas station in Baton Rouge, La., but you’ll find beer from the Redhook Ale Brewery as well.

A-B owns a 25 percent share of Redhook, with the right to buy more. As summer began, A-B and Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. were working on finalizing a similar deal. “We have and are talking to more breweries out there. We are being approached quite regularly by these people,” Franceschelli said. While others figure A-B has the money simply to buy up the competition, the deals won’t come that fast. “We make more on what we brew ourselves,” Franceschelli said.

The five Michelob specialty beers released nationally will shock the taste buds of drinkers stepping up from Budweiser and its brethren. Bud, for instance, checks in with 12 International Bittering Units, a measurement of hoppiness. The Amber Bock, Pilsner, Pale Ale and Hefeweizen are all 30 IBUs. The Honey Lager, which goes heavy on the honey, is 12.5 IBUs. The result is that the Pale Ale, which is hopped with American versions of noble European hops, tastes more like a golden ale, while the Hefeweizen, hopped with Cascades and Clusters, hints of a pale ale. The Pale Ale and Hefeweizen are made with the same yeast.

Core microbrewery drinkers often want beers with more pop. The Michelob beers are “not intended to … knock your tonsils out,” Franceschelli said. Steele, the Specialty Group brewmaster, agrees. “The American Originals are a notch above the Michelob brand in intensity,” he said. The American Hop Ale is 5.6 percent alcohol by volume and 50 IBUs. It’s dry-hopped with a healthy dose of American Fuggles. The Black & Tan Porter is the best selling of the “Originals” and hoppier and more complex than the Michelob Porter currently available only in the Northwest.

The most interesting of the current A-B beers is the Pacific Ridge Pale Ale, brewed in Fairfield, Calif., and available only in Northern California. The beer has been called a Sierra Nevada clone, though Steele said it wasn’t brewed as an exact copy. “Our wholesalers asked us for a beer like this … what we were going for was something of that style. I think Sierra Nevada is the best of that style that’s out there.”

The numbers for the beers — Sierra Nevada, 5.5 percent ABV, 39 IBUs; Pacific Ridge, 5.6, 35 — are similar, and so is the taste. Dry-hopping with Cascades gives Pacific Ridge the citrus quality that makes a beer drinker think of Northern California. But like all A-B ales, Pacific Ridge is pasteurized and lacks the yeast character of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. SNPA regulars aren’t likely to mistake the two.

“Pacific Ridge has good opportunities to be expanded,” Franceschelli said. “You will see some new beer before the end of the year.”

These may or may not be labeled Michelob or American Originals. Steele offered some test batches to members of the press in May. Included were a British-style pale ale, an Irish “creme ale” that is conditioned with nitrogen and meant to be dispensed via a Guinness-type system, a spiced winter lager, and a Scotch ale that seems to be a good candidate for reaching the public.

The Scotch ale got good reviews at another press gathering last November, when it was being made on A-B’s 15-barrel pilot system in St. Louis. August Busch III reportedly likes the beer, and the batch Steele showed off in May was made at the Merrimack facility, indicating it’s a step closer to being released. “We’re making the effort,” Steele said, smiling. The beer contains so much malt that it’s mashed in two vessels, then combined into the brew kettle. Two kinds of caramel malt and chocolate malt make the beer more complex than any of the current A-B efforts. The recipe produces a beer that is 7 percent alcohol by volume, which would present distribution problems in some states.

At the turn of the century, A-B brewed 17 brands of beer, ranging from the Hop Ale (which was a low-alcohol temperance beer also sold by mail order) to the Black & Tan Porter. “They were mostly lagers,” said A-B archivist Bill Vollmar. While the brewery could keep turning out beers based on those old recipes, the test batches from Steele and Michaluk focus on new recipes. “There’s a demand for (more choices) and we’re going to satisfy that,” Franceschelli said.

Those crowded shelves

Smaller breweries hope Anheuser-Busch doesn’t try to supply all the choices itself. Of course, craft breweries with shelf clout, such as Boston Beer and Pete’s Brewing, have been adding “year round” beers for the last several years. Much of the battle for space is among microbreweries themselves, and recently that has sparked plenty of teeth-gnashing.

“Everybody I talk to is waiting for the great shakeout,” said Peter Fremming, beverage coordinator at Premier Gourmet in Buffalo, N.Y. “I just don’t see that happening.”

Premier Gourmet sells more than 500 different beers, most of them by the case, six-pack or single bottle, as well as prepared gourmet foods, cooking ingredients and supplies, 90 varieties of coffee roasted in the store, and much more. It’s not at all like the grocery store down the block, but Fremming previously worked for a beer distributor, so he understands how those salespeople think.

“They know that if you lose one bottle facing (placement) on the shelves, it means so many lost case sales,” he said. The battle in the supermarkets is not just to squeeze out beer competitors, but for continued cooler space. “They have to give the supermarkets something new to sell, or they cut four feet off the beer cooler and put in more eggs and cheese,” Fremming said.

Now, the battle for space among specialty egg dealers, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Does Q trump L? And other C beer questions

Local beer drinkers

In alphabetical order.

The C word would be craft.

The L word would be local.

The Q word would be quality.

Can the three co-exist? Certainly. Must they? This is the part where my head starts to hurt.

Exhibit A: “Will a bunch of terrible craft beer ruin the booming craft beer industry?” It would have been a little easier to follow if the writer had made a clearer distinction between quality and quality control, but hang in there.

Exhibit B: “The future of the craft beer industry and its ability to provide quality and variety could hinge on this.” In which guest columnist Greg Engert writes, “New influences are afoot, and perhaps none is more pervasive or more limiting than the drink-local movement.” (My emphasis.)

Engert adds this:

Now, the desire to drink local brews has reached a fever pitch, often blinding publicans and craft beer drinkers alike from what should ultimately guide our choices: Is the beer of the highest quality? Is it bereft of off-flavors? Is it delicious? In short, is it superlative and memorable?

Wait, so now quality isn’t enough? It must be of the highest quality? And aren’t there times when a beer that does not demand to be memorable, and duly entered in Untappd, better aids and abets memorable conversations or experiences?

I appreciate the importance of quality (and quality control). In the All About Beer’s “People Issue” on newsstands right now my contributions are profiles of Gary Spedding (Brewing and Distilling Analytic Services) and Alastair Pringle (who consults with food companies and breweries on all things quality). Conversations with those guys are a reminder you need to know what you are doing, but Q and QC are perfectly doable.

Which brings me to the part I really care about. Local beer makes life better. It made our 14-month road trip in 2008 and 2009 better, when it was local and we weren’t. Roger Baylor argues the matter more eloquently than I do, so I suggest reading, “The PC: Anti-local craft beer unconsciousness, revisited.” He makes it clear “buying local is important both in non-beer terms, and in the specific way it impacts the craft beer ethos.”

I was going to quote him further … but you really need to read the whole thing. (I’d call it a “must read” but I don’t want any more shit from @thebeernut.)

Beer made by walking: Indigenous?

Scratch Brewing, Ava, Illinois

The Great American Beer Festival has an “Indigenous/Regional Beers” category.1 I should have mentioned that last week when I asked for reader help in understanding what makes a beer indigenous.

I figured that out Saturday when a) Alan McLeod added a rather long comment (long enough to turn into a post of his own), and b) we hung out at Scratch Brewing after a pleasant bit of bike riding in the not-too-hilly roads around Ava, Illinois.

Foraged ingredients ready to go into Scratch Brewing beerLast year at the Great American Beer Festival founder/brewers Marika Josephson, Aaron Kleidon and Ryan Tockstein decided if they were going to return this year they would do it the “Scratch way.” They are and they are. Scratch will be pouring five beers made with foraged ingredients and without hops. They call these gruits, which could lead to a whole other discussion that is best considered another time. The point, related to last week’s question, is that they are using indigenous ingredients.

One of the beers, called 105 is made with 105 (of course) plants and funghi from the surrounding area. To brew the beer they split the ingredients into three piles, one for bittering, one for flavoring and one for aroma, mostly flowers and leaves. (Hickory leaves add bitterness and tannins. “I had to cut down a hickoy tree that day,” Kleidon said.) The beer was fermented with Perennial Ales house yeast (technically one of their house strains, I guess), itself sourced from a Belgian saison brewery. I’ll keep the tasting note short: nicely balanced, well integrated, good. And spicy.

They’ll also be serving it at the Beer Made By Walking Festival on Oct. 3 at Wynkoop Brewing (so Friday afternoon, before the GABF evening session). It appears that tickets are still avaiable. Eric Steen, who teaches art at Portland State University and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, started BMBW in Colorado Springs in 2011 (just as we were moving from New Mexico and before I could head north on I-25 to get a closer look). It’s an intriguing concept. Invites brewers to go on nature hikes and make new beers that are inspired by plants from the trail.

More than 20 of the beers at the festival were made specifically for this event from Colorado breweries that have collaborated with BMBW. They’ve also added a “foraged and indigenous” component to our festival this year. These are beers from brewers not part of the original Beers Made By Walking program that use foraged, wild, and indigenous ingredients to create “place-based beers.” The five breweries participating are Scratch, Fullsteam, Fonta Flora, Ladyface, and Wicked Weed.

The afternoon should provide a good opportunity to consider what constitutes an indigenous beer.

*****

1 Here are the GABF guidelines: Indigenous/Regional Beers are any range of color. Clear, hazy or cloudy appearance is acceptable depending on style. Malt sweetness will vary dramatically depending on overall balance desired. Hop bitterness is very low to very high, and may be used for highlighting desired characters. This beer style commemorates combinations of ingredients and techniques adopted by or unique to a brewery’s particular region and differentiated from ingredients and techniques commonly used by brewers throughout the world. For the purpose of defining this style, uniqueness of ingredients, regional heritage, technical brewing skill, balance of character, background story defines the intent of this category. The use of hops, yeast, water, malt, or any raw grain regardless of origin does not by itself qualify beers as an Indigenous/Regional Beer. Body is variable with style. “Indigenous/Regional Beers” that are not represented elsewhere in these guidelines by a defined style could possibly be entered in such categories as Experimental, Herb & Spice, Field Beer, etc. but by choice a brewer may categorize (and enter) their beer as Indigenous/Regional Beer. Beers that represent established historical traditions should be entered in “Historical Beers” or other categories and should not be entered in Indigenous/Regional Beer category.

To allow for accurate judging the brewer must provide additional information about the entry including primarily the unique ingredients used and/
or processing which contribute to the unique qualities of the style, and information describing the beer style being emulated. This information will
help provide a basis for comparison between highly diverse entries. The information must not reveal the identity of the entering brewery. Entries not
accompanied by this information will be at a disadvantage during judging.

Pabst IPA: Welcome to 2014

Ballantine IPAOK, officially, we’re talking about the return of Ballatine India Pale Ale. But Pabst owns the brand and here’s a key quote from Pabst brewmaster Greg Deuhs: “We are hoping that the current (Pabst Blue Ribbon) consumers will embrace the Ballantine IPA.” So I think there’s merit in the headline.

In any event, very good news, given that now perhaps more people will give this underappreciated India Pale Ale style a try.

News so big it warranted a story in USA TODAY with this headline: “Going hipster, Pabst resurrecting Ballantine IPA.”

Enough silliness. Ballantine India Pale Ale has an important place in American brewing history. Mitch Steele provides the details in IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. A press release announcing the revival indicates the new version will be 7.2% alcohol and contain 70 IBU. That’s pretty close to what it was right after Prohibition (7.2%, 60 IBU) and unlike what it was by the 1970s (6.7%, 45 IBU, less as the decade went on).

Also in the press release, Beuhs says: “I began this project with a simple question: How would Peter Ballantine make his beer today? There wasn’t a ‘secret formula’ in anyone’s basement we could copy, so I conducted extensive research looking for any and all mentions of Ballantine India Pale Ale, from the ale’s processing parameters, aroma and color, alcohol and bitterness specifications. Many brewers and craft beer drinkers would be impressed that the Ballantine India Pale Ale of the 1950s and ’60s would rival any craft IPA brewed today.”

He brewed more than two dozen five-gallon test batches at home.

“Unlike recreating a lost brew from long ago, I had the advantage of actually being able to speak with people who drank Ballantine back in the day,” he said for the press release. “Their feedback was crucial to ensuring that the hoppy, complex flavor that was revered for over a hundred years was front and center in my recipe.”

The new version is made with eight different hop varieties, although it isn’t clear what they are. After Prohibition the brewers distilled the oils from Bullion hops at the brewery and added them to storage tanks, its aroma making it as unique among American beers as its alcoholic strength and bitterness. Later, they ran Bullion, Brewer’s Gold or American Yakima through a hammer mill before dry hopping, grinding them to “a consistency that was a cross between corn flakes and sawdust.”

Here’s what Michael Jackson wrote about Ballantine IPA in his 1982 Pocket Guide to Beer: “Like a half-forgotten celebrity, thought by some admirers to have retired and by other to be dead, Ballantine’s has been living in quiet obscurity in Rhode island. Now, it is making something of a comeback.” He notes that brewers added Yakima and Brewer’s Gold hops in the kettle. “IPA’s colour is a rich copper in the British tradition, its head thick and rocky, its nose and palate intensely aromatic, and its body firm and full.”

Although Pabst later made a beer it called Ballantine IPA, the version served at the Great American Beer Festival in the mid-1990s did not resemble the one Jackson described. The 2014 Ballantine India Pale Ale surely will taste more like it did in 1955 than in 1995, but the IPA field is a little more crowded now. And if it really is to taste “genuine” how prominent should the citrus-pine-fruity-maybe-pungent aromas and flavors that pretty much define American IPA be? Those were not desirable back then.

Farmers didn’t begin growing the Cascade hop, the first to come out of an American hop breeding program, until 1972. Centennial was released in 1990 (although available earlier — that’s a blog post in itself), Chinook in 1985, Simcoe in 2000, Citra in 2008, El Dorado in 2011, Mosaic in 2012, Lemondrop in 2014, Equinox in 2014 — notice a trend? Ballantine IPA is stepping out of a time machine into an entirely different hop world.

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