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Is this the best job ever or what?

Today the topic for The Session #85 is “Why Do You Drink?” and I can’t make myself believe you should care about that any more than why I seem to be favoring black t-shirts these days.

Instead I planned to post a Friday beer note (so why I drank a particular beer) about the very nice dunkel I had last week at Kansas City Bier Co.. But that’s going to have to wait until next Friday.

Because …

Roger Baylor pointed to a story about the explosive growth of breweries in Indianapolis (they are up to 23, with a dozen more planning to open this year).

And the second one on the list is called Books and Brews. A used book store in front and a one-barrel nanobrewery in back. But, wait, there’s more. They’ll have live music Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. I bet it won’t be long until there’s a food truck parked out front.

How did this not happen in Denver or Austin or either Portland first?

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Books: ‘Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer’

The Home Brewer's Guide to Vintage BeerAppropriately enough, last time I looked, Amazon told me that “Home Brewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer” and “Amber, Gold & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers” are frequently bought together (along with “Water”).

This has caused me to rethink which book shelf to put “Vintage Beer” on when I am done reading it. I had planned to file it with the books about brewing and brewing techniques, somewhere near “Radical Brewing.” Now I’m thinking it belongs next to Martyn Cornell’s books, on the shelves more generally devoted to history and culture.

My personal library fetishes aside, this is a book brewers, primarily homebrewers, but certainly some commercial brewers, interested in classic British styles must own. Although the reading is always interesting — there’s something of historic or philosophical note on almost of every page — the book is properly focused, on process and recipes. It is that simple and that delightful.

Oh, I just realized I have not mentioned Ron Pattinson wrote “Vintage Beer.” He did. The disclaimer here is that I’ve known him for a while, drank beer with him in Amsterdam, and he provided generous help on my previous two books. I’m looking forward to drinking more beer with him in Grand Rapids in June. This is not an unbiased recommendation, but is one I’m pretty sure I would make anyway.

Publishers seem to have noticed the booming interest in homebrewing, because this is one of several new books of interest specifically to amateur brewers (although, again, you’re going to see commercial brewers make some of the recipes in this book). Those who want to replicate a wider range of styles, and using recipes from small American breweries, are going to prefer “Craft Beer for the Homebrewer: Recipes from America’s Top Brewmasters.”

It’s your call. You could buy both. You can use Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to preview the contents of each book, so I’ll spare you those details. Instead, a thought from something Pattinson posted more than six years ago about “an epiphany while in Franconia.” It does not work perfectly to replace the word “beer” with the word “book” in every instance, but it’s close enough. He wrote:

“Honest beer is what I want. Beer that can look me straight in the eye and not flinch. Beer with heart. Beer that’s like an old friend. Beer you can sit and drink by the pint in a pub with your mates.”

There’s no way I am going to get around to writing about all the new brewing related books available. Nor, quite honestly, am I inclined to read another book intended to take a new brewer through the process from the outset. (At least until Randy Mosher’s “Mastering Home Brew: The Complete Guide to Brewing Delicious Beer” is finally available.) But, just so you know, these look more interesting than the rest:

- Homebrew Beyond the Basics: All-Grain Brewing and Other Next Steps

- The Homebrewer’s Journal: From the First Boil to the First Taste, Your Essential Companion to Brewing Better Beer

- Beer Brewing for Everyone

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About the movement in Craft Beer Movement

BOOK REVIEW: “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer”

Is the “craft beer movement” a social movement, a political movement, an aesthetic movement, any sort of movement?

Tom Acitelli uses the term, or simply the movement, on more than a third of the pages in “The Audacity of Hops.” He does not categorize this movement, and that probably illustrates how the words “craft beer movement” have become an entity unto themselves. Only a couple of months ago, the Detroit Free Press suggested “Pride, personal experience help define the craft-beer movement” without explaining what makes it a movement.

Within the context of “The Audacity of Hops” the implication would be that Acitelli is discussing a social movement. The publisher states, “This book not only tells the stories of the major figures and businesses within the movement, but is also ties in the movement with larger American culinary developments.” And Acitelli certainly links craft beer and Slow Food, often itself described as a movement and even defined by Wikipedia as a social movement.

(The lengthy Wikipedia list also includes the civil rights movement, right to life, Tea Party movement, Ku Klux Klan, and Health at Every Size. In the end, what constitutes a “social movement” is less clear than finding a definition for “craft beer” and we know what folly that is. Academics have laid entire forests to waste simply theorizing on the life cycles of social movements. If there is such a thing as a craft beer movement, social or not, it would be interesting to determine where it might be in its life cycle. Another day.)

I’m pretty sure that Max Bahnson and Alan McLeod would not label it a social movement. In fact, perhaps they should rename the eighth chapter “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer – A Rant in Nine Acts.” Instead of calling it “Evangelism, Movement and Community” they might have chosen “Evangelism and the Myth of Movement or Community.”

A quick explanation is probably in order. “The Unbearable Nonsense” is a work of fiction, science fiction really and not at all like Evan Rail’s “Triplebock: Three Beer Stories.” Rail’s stories are about fictional characters who, through their actions and the dialogue, eventually reveal truths about themselves and beer, perhaps about ourselves and our relationship with beer. Banhson and McLeod are simply Max and Alan throughout the book, time and space traveling into fictional setting, but talking just like the guys who write their blogs.

Each chapter, as the title promises, provides a platform for them to rant. In Chapter 8 they basically kidnap a guy variously known as Lanky Geek, Lank Geekston and LG, a not particularly adept beer evangelist. He doesn’t stand a chance. They describe him as trying to “keep his grip on the myth.” It is Alan who tells him:

Supporting and promoting what you like is a nice thing to do. Sharing it with friends even better. We all do that… But taking it as a mission, as a responsibility? That just ain’t right. Believing that you, a consumer, are part of a movement that involves producers; that ain’t right either. You’ve been lied, duped. You’ve been disingenuously made believe that you and a group of brewers share a common interest. You don’t. In fact, your interest couldn’t be any more different from theirs.

Alan continues to pile it on, then Max resumes. Eventually, “The lanky guy nodded but kept his thoughts to himself.”

I wish he hadn’t. I wish he’d suggested that at some/many/most post industrial breweries those paid the most make only a reasonable multiple of those at the bottom of the salary ladder, compared to an obscene multiples CEOs enjoy at many large corporations. That would imply such breweries are part of a social movement. Or he might have pointed out that the producers genuinely enjoy the taste of the beers they make, just as the customers who buy them must (or they wouldn’t be buying them). So perhaps an aesthetic movement.

Do I know these things to be true? I’d like somebody (else) to do the research. I wouldn’t suggest it, however, if there weren’t anecdotal evidence.

That “The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer” provokes such thinking beyond the words on the screen is a good thing, but I’m not certain what sort of audience this Kindle book (a Lulu version is in the works) will reach. It is one thing to kidnap a Lank Geekston and another to expect him to pay for a series of one-sided rants that will mostly piss him off. He’s not as likely to be entertained as those who regularly read A Good Beer Blog and Pivní Filosof – Beer Philosopher or consider this alternative view.

(And to be honest, even those who agree with the authors may not always be entertained. The word “rant” in the title is perfectly accurate so there is some rambling, and the language R-rated.)

But, geez, it costs just $3.99, less than a pint at happy hour. I only hesitated to hit download when I considered what other sorts of science fiction Amazon might recommend for me based on this purchase.

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Making sense of beer: Pick your guide

“I think a lot of people who are coming up in the craft brewing world — since, as I mentioned, we’re sort of on the fringe — they’re either hippies or they’re into metal.”

       - Barnaby Struve, vice president, Three Floyds Brewing

I guess that means I’m a hippie, because I’m not familiar with bands like Pig Destroyer and I would not think to pair Jester King’s Funk Metal with “Suck on This” by Primus, although intuitively it makes sense.

In the introduction to “The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing’s Outer Limits” author Adem Tepedelen writes “I’ve always equated craft beer drinkers with the segment of the population that isn’t necessarily listening to Top-40 radio and consuming mainstream music.” Me, too. It just so happens my outside the mainstream choices don’t include metal. In fairness, I’m not sure how easy it would be to assemble an entire book pairing alt.country music and beer. (Perhaps you’d start with James McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo” and Lagunitas IPA, because when we last saw McMurtry that’s what he was drinking on stage and he does sometimes refer to himself as a beer salesman.)

In the December issue of Beer Advocate magazine Andy Crouch writes about how overwhelming and confusing the beer aisle (which usually occupies a lot more than an aisle) at your favorite store has become. He suggests breweries need to find a sensible way of naming and describing beers to give drinkers a decent idea of what the beers they are thinking about buying might taste like. I don’t see that happening soon. Instead, expect it will be harder to make sense of “beer,” particularly for a newcomer.

That means there’s likely room for specialty books such as “The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers” and certainly that we’ll get more general guides. A quick scan through Michael Jackson’s “World Beer Guide,” his “Beer Companion” and later “Ultimate Beer” illustrates there are at least three ways to attempt to organize the topic.

Three recent newcomers include “The Complete Beer Course: Boot Camp for Beer Geeks: From Novice to Expert in Twelve Tasting Classes” by Josh Bernstein, “The Pocket Beer Guide: The Essential Handbook to the Very Best Beers in the World” from Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb, and “World Beer.” (At this point you might want to skip to the disclosures at the end.)

The Complete Beer Course: Boot Camp for Beer GeeksEach of these books seeks to educate a novice and satisfy the more experienced, but Bernstein is the first to turn the adventure into what could be a semester. In fact, the first class is about the essentials and the last about pairing beer and food, with the middle 10 focusing on styles — working through the spectrum of flavors much as you would a rack of tasters at a brewpub. You own the book, so it’s not like you have to think, “I can’t cut class this week because it’s about IPAs and that’s the real reason I signed up.”

I’m not sure if anybody reads a book like this in a strictly linear fashion, because it’s too tempting to flip ahead and see which American Porters he chose to feature (The Duck-Rabbit Porter and Deschutes Black Butte Porter) or which brewery in the Class 2 (Victory Brewing; the chapter focuses on the “pleasures of cold fermentation”). However, it’s best at some point to flip through every page, because “quick facts” are splattered all about, just waiting to be dropped into a friendly bar conversation.

The Pocket Beer Guide: The Essential Handbook to the Very Best Beers in the WorldA year ago, Webb and Beaumont organized the beer world geographically in “The World Atlas of Beer: The Essential Guide to the Beers of the World.” Lavishly illustrated with maps and photos that was a coffee table book. “The Pocket Beer Guide” is much smaller, although your pockets need to be pretty good size to hold it (it is 4 1/2 inches by 7 inches, and more than 3/4s of a inch thick; much fatter than any of Jackson’s pocket guides), and the plan is to update it regularly.

It will appear familiar to those who used Jackson’s pocket guides, with quick tasting notes and star ratings, although generally there is a bit more information about each brewery and quite a few more breweries (thus the thickness). The one sentence review: if you are thinking about visiting Lithuania it is an essential book, and otherwise it is pretty dang useful.

“The Brewtal Truth Guide” is less essential, but plenty of fun to read. Tepedelen writes a column for Decibel (America’s only monthly metal magazine) as well as beer articles in more beer focused publications. Each of six chapters includes an interview with a brewery type (including) and a musician type, with a bonus Q & A with Tomme Arthur about the Ultimate Box Set Lost Abbey released last year. More than anything it is an introduction to 100-plus “extreme” beers, each of them paired with a song. Tepedelen explains, “The majority of beer-drinking Americans will never appreciate them, but like the thousands of independent metal bands who … (know) they’ll never sell a million copies or be played on mainstream radio, extreme beers are made for the diehards who are open-minded and want something well beyond the status quo.”

I’m rearranging my bookshelf now to accommodate these books, sliding “Complete Beer Course” into a spot next to Zak Avery’s “500 Beers” and “The Brewtal Truth” between “The Bedside Book of Beer” and “Christmas Beer” because it’s a grab-it-and-read-a-few-pages-at-a-time book. “The Pocket Beer Guide” goes on the reference shelf alongside “Amber, Gold and Black.”

*****

The disclosure stuff. Although I mentioned “World Beer,” it is not reviewed because Dorling Kindersley paid me to write most of the US entries. As you would expect in a DK book it weighty and generally what people call a coffee table book.

Beaumont and Webb also paid me for few dozen entries in the “Pocket Guide” but because it will be ongoing, and likely the best way (at least in print) to track the changing beer world, it deserves your attention. Besides, and more disclosure, I’m more likely to be influenced to write something positive by my friendship with the authors, and that Webb wrote the foreword to one of my books, than what they paid me (let’s just say you wouldn’t quit your day job for the gig). So there’s one more reason not to trust my “review.”

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Beer experienced: Getting it right takes time

(Boak and Bailey are “going long” on Nov. 30 and asked other writers to join them. I’ve jumped the gun by a few days because what might best be described as logistical reasons. Be sure to look for their “longer than usual post” the 30th. The Twitter hashtag #beerylongreads might help you find more.)

Not long after Geoff Larson dumped the thirteenth batch of what would eventually be the first brand Alaskan Brewing sold he poured out the fourteenth. Then the fifteenth, and the sixteenth.

“Oh, boy, that was painful, very painful,” said brewery co-founder Marcy Larson, Geoff’s wife. She kept the books, so she understood perfectly how necessary cash flow was by December of 1986, 10 months after they’d finished raising the money to start their brewery in Juneau and two months after the government had given them approval to start brewing, and selling. “But Geoff was pretty adamant.”

The Larsons weren’t going to sell a beer until they had it dialed in. “And we could redial it,” Marcy said. “If you saw the beer label Alaskan Amber and you tasted it, you should be able to pick it up again and taste what you were expecting.”

They had planned to use one of Geoff’s homebrew recipes to make that first beer. However, because Marcy worked in the state offices she spent each lunch break searching through the archives for information about local breweries at the beginning of the twentieth century. She found enough details about the ingredients and process Douglas City Brewing Co. used for a popular amber beer that Geoff was able to put together a recreation.

He learned that the Douglas brewmaster had trouble keeping the yeast in suspension because of the cold weather, so it would not have produced the same amount of fruity aromas and flavors it would in a warmer environment.

First there was the matter of selecting the yeast, then getting to know it. “We had to find out at what juncture the yeast would still do a good job of creating a product that tasted as we liked it, but not with the ‘ale-y’ component that higher temperature fermentation would create,” Geoff said. “Yet if you got it too cold the yeast wouldn’t ferment. A lot of it was learning about the biological best, our yeast, and how it needed to be treated.”

That took sixteen batches. Alaskan Brewing bottled and sold the seventeenth.

The Larsons always understood that the beer also has to taste good. Before Geoff joined Marcy in Alaska in the early 1980s, when starting a brewery was as much a fanciful idea as a working plan, he visited several breweries, including F.X. Matt Brewing in New York. F.X. Matt II himself spent the better part of a day with Larson. “What really hit me was one comment,” Geoff said. “He said if you start brewing make sure you brew the best beer you can, because it will reflect on all of us. As a small brewer, when somebody tastes your product they are going to judge not just your product, they are going to judge the entire genre.”

*****

As a parenthetical aside to a discussion at A Good Beer Blog a while back, Jeff Alworth wrote, “No brewery that was founded in the 1990s is legendary. That’s an ignorant form of nationalism. Wheee, lots of beer geeks like Stone … it’s legendary.

Coincidentally, as far as I know, about a month later Mitch Steele, who is in charge of brewing operations at Stone, wrote a post for the company blog titled, “What Makes Great Beer?”

Steele writes, “Whenever we put out a new beer, I’m always asked ‘who came up with the recipe?’ and am always uncomfortable answering that question, because it is a simple answer that really doesn’t accurately convey why the beer is successful and tastes delicious.

“Too much credit is given to the formulation/recipe for a beer’s success. I honestly believe that recipe formulation is the easiest part of making a great beer, and accounts for about 5% of its potential success. In my opinion, anyone with some understanding of ingredients and styles can create a great recipe, but actually working with that recipe to brew a great beer is the hard part.”

He provides supporting extensive, detailing the many components involved. Stone began selling beer in 1996 and Steele, who worked for Anheuser-Busch for the previous 14 years, joined the San Diego brewery in 2006. In the 11 years that ended in 2006 Stone sold about 196,000 barrels of beer (each holding 31 gallons). In Steele’s first full six years the brewery made more than 687,000 barrels, and will produce another 210,000 in 2013. Quite a bit has happened on his watch.

To be clear, I know legendary and great are not the same thing. A brewery does not need to be legendary to make legendary beer, nor great to make great beer. And I have no interest in defining what makes a beer or brewery great or legendary. But the discussion of time that Alworth introduced, if only unintentionally, is intriguing. I’ve written here and at DRAFT magazine about time as an ingredient, but this is something else.

Beyond the Pale by Ken GrossmanIt takes time for a brewery to define itself, but the process can begin with the first batch, even if it gets poured down the drain, and maybe because it does. Six years before Alaskan Brewing dumped brew after brew Sierra Nevada Brewing did the same, in this case ten batches. Co-founder Ken Grossman describes the frustration he an Paul Camusi felt in “Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.”

The first batch of Pale Ale fermented well and tasted good, but they noticed fermentation slowed on the second. Grossman writes, “Brewed on December 23 [1980], Pale Ale number four wasn’t as good as number three. It wasn’t that bad, but the fermentation had dragged on a few extra days; it was just a bit different than the last one. Now we were starting to get concerned by the lack of consistency because we had made the decision that we couldn’t sell beer until we could replicate the batches every time.” They checked ingredients, process, chemistry, equipment, everything they could think of. They were ready to abandon their chosen yeast before they talked to a retired brewmaster familiar with the strain. He provided information that led Grossman to make a simple modification and the eleventh batch fermented very quickly and “tasted great.”

Grossman writes candidly about quality and consistency issues at fledgling breweries in the 1980s and ’90s, adding, “We knew that a bad experience with one craft beer would taint us all in the eyes of consumers, so we tended to help each other out to solve problems when we could.”

Sierra Nevada has always invested in technology and research, and, although Grossman might suggest it is simply a matter of being practical, has been particularly generous in sharing company knowledge. He doesn’t argue that every brewery take that approach.

In some cases owners may prefer not to keep investing and take resources out of a company; after all, isn’t that why you’re in business, to make money? What drove me and many others into the business was the desire to make great beer. Sure, I was a businessperson, too, and I realized making a profit was essential to my ability to brew beer for a living, but I was not enticed into the industry based on profit motive.

He compares meeting the demands a brewery puts on financial resources to tending to a nest of hatchlings.

For me, continuing to invest in our beer and its quality whether it be through equipment for our labs, improving infrastructure or, more recently, in marketing and brand support, was never a question … (Many) seemingly small decisions were critical and set the stage for failure or success.

That’s what happens with time. North Coast Brewing co-founder Mark Ruedrich talked about this in a story I wrote for All About Beer magazine about breweries celebrating 25 years of business this year (that issue is headed to newsstands now). “A lot happens just by surviving. You have the opportunity to make good beer,” Ruedrich said. “Then you can try different things other people haven’t done before.”

This isn’t unique to beer. When author Paul Lukacs chose the wines to include in “The Great Wines of America” he had one firm criterion in his selection process, that any entry had to have a least a ten-year track record. This presumably allows him to assess year-to-year variations within the vineyards themselves. The saying “farmers make wine and engineers make beer” aside, beer is likewise an agricultural product.

However, while wine drinkers might enjoy talking about the differences from one vintage to the next beer drinkers expect consistency, exactly what the Larsons and Grossman were talking about from the beginning. Consumers know what their beer is supposed to taste like, and although exactly alike might be a mythical beast the difference between good and bad is an important divide.

Bernard Kuhn, who brews at the smallish Weissbräu Freilassing hotel and brewery in southeastern Bavaria, has little patience for brewers who don’t know that difference. “You cannot always do the same process because every year the malt is different,” he said. “You have to brew good beer out of shitty malt. That’s the skill of the brewmaster.”

It’s an acquired skill. Mark Matheson studied both winemaking and brewing at UC-Davis (University of California, Davis). Now he brews the beer at Turtle Mountain Brewing, a New Mexico brewpub, and also operates his own winery. “In brewing and making wine anything you do is experience – ‘have you seen it before?’” he said. “Whether it is wine or beer I think you have to do it about 10 years to get a grasp.”

Like Alworth, Matheson gives us a minimum. It’s too early for a brewery founded in 1990s; it takes about 10 years to get a handle on fermentation science. I don’t think it is important to pick a particular number — and the controversy surrounding what some call “Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice rule” should make that obvious.1 Instead, listen to what Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, told European Beer Bloggers Conference attendees last July.

Near the end he talks about “fronting” — when a new brewery presents itself as something it may expect to be, but isn’t yet. He conjures up an image of a peacock spreading its feathers, then makes it clear there is no substitute for time.

“But you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it yet, not five years in, not ten years in, let me tell you, not 15 years in,” he says. “Only now, after 20-some odd years am I getting anywhere near being the brewer that I’ve wanted to be, that I said I was.”

*****

1 Gladwell addresses recent criticism here, and David Epstein’s “How Athletes Get Great” in Outside magazine is a good read despite not being related to beer or brewing. If you really want to kill some time you might cuddle up with “This Is Your Brain On Music.”

In it author Daniel Levitin writes, “Ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert-in anything. In study after study of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.”

And: “The ten-thousand-hours theory is consistent with what we know about how the brain learns. Learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of information in neural tissue. The more experiences we have with something the stronger the memory/learning trace for the experience becomes.”

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