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FrankenBrew, a bit of American micro history

FrankenBrew: How to Build a Micro-Brewery, is now available on DVD.

I haven’t seen this video, assembled in 1995, in some time and fully expect it will be dated. In a good way.

Tom Hennessy, one of the founders of Il Vicino in Albuquerque, put it together, featuring New Mexico microbreweries that were small and smaller. And in many cases not survivors.

It originally had a subtitle along the lines of building a brewery for “less than $20,000.” That notion’s obviously dated, and it’s a heck of a lot harder to start a brewery these days with used “re-purposed” equipment, so I wouldn’t suggest this is the video you need if you are dreaming of starting your own brewery. (Additionally, Hennessy was always quick to point out the idea might have been to get started on the cheap, however the bigger plan was to use the profits to buy “real” equipment.)

If you care about American small-batch brewing it’s worth owning even if you don’t live in New Mexico (we do, although we lived in Illinois when we first saw the video). It captures an important bit of history from a time when a lot of small breweries opened on a shoestring. Some became rip-roaring successes, more didn’t make the cut. Big picture: It’s important to hear the voices of those who don’t succeed as well as those who do.

Maybe more important, I remember grinning a lot the last time I saw this video. I look forward to seeing it soon and grinning some more.


Book review: Amber, Gold and Black

“I think I was the first person ever to use the phrase, ‘beer style.’ The next thing was to try to define what they were, which lots of people have done since, but I think I was the first person. But then my focus became really to talk about, to try to describe the flavors of beer. When I was first writing on beer, nobody else was describing the flavors in beer. It’s very frustrating when you read old books on beer.”

         – Michael Jackson, interviewed in All About Beer magazine in 1997.

Amber, Gold and BlackI went looking for this quote about the time I reached the fifth chapter, the one about stouts, in Martyn Cornell’s new book, “Amber, Gold and Black: The Story of Britain’s Great Beers.”

Although Cornell himself writes in the introduction that this is “the first book devoted solely to looking at the unique history of the different styles of beer produced in Britain” don’t mistake it as “just another book about styles.” No, it’s about beers, sometimes specifically what they tasted like and other times giving us some damn good leads. Most importantly, this book brings them to life in a manner I think Jackson would have approved of.

Cornell uses a nicely balanced combination of words mined from a dizzying number of sources and his known, cleverly mixed with delightful vintage illustrations (his first book, “Beer Memorabilia,” also belongs in your collection).

As Cornell showed with “The Story of the Pint,” he is a trustworthy historian. Yet this is not all about the past. He writes that the microbrewery boom in England has “helped bring in new styles such as golden ale and wood-aged beers.” It is an unapologetic “celebration of British beer in all its many beautiful shades and inspiring flavours.”

And it is specific to the UK (although it provides examples of how styles evolved as they were exported to other brewing nations), making it comfortably uncomprehensive. We don’t need another compleat guide to styles. Cornell passes on breadth to provide refreshing depth.

Certainly this book will be useful in starting, and one would hope settling, barstool arguments. As Cornell’s press release states, “Long-standing stories about beer, lovingly retold over pints by beer drinkers and brewers down the ages are comprehensively debunked in the book.”

Now to that fifth chapter. We find Charles Knight writing in 1851 about Guinness: “Its sub-acidity and soda-water briskness, when compared with the balmy character of London bottled stout from a crack brewery, are like the strained and shallow efforts of professed joke compared with the unctuous, full-bodied wit of Shakespere [sic].”

Then Cornell connects the dots by explaining the difference between London and Dublin stouts.

“Amber, Gold and Black” is available only in electronic form for a modest £5 (about $10 US). Not everybody seems keen on reading it on a computer screen. Personally I had no problem. My only complaint would be that it lacks an index.

Quite simply, this is both a terrific resource and a wonderful read. An index would make it easier to find just the right fact or phrase when you find yourself perched on a barstool, computer on your lap, pint in hand, ready to make an important point.

Need to know more? The Table of Contents is here.

Battle of the ‘Beer versus Wine’ books

Grape vs. Grain

He said Beer, She said Wine

Next weekend in Washington, D.C., the Brewers Association plans to show that beer belongs at the table with the grownups. OK, maybe that’s not the best analogy – suggesting beer might otherwise be served at the kids’ table won’t go over well in most circles – but you get the point of SAVOR: An American Craft Beer & Food Experience.

And the BA has called on several luminaries from the wine world to help make the case, like Ray Isle from Food & Wine and Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast. Fortunately beer people as well, so I’ll pass on pointing out that maybe this looks a bit too much like beer has an inferiority complex.

For the most part attendees won’t hear much argument about whether beer or wine is better.

But that debate seems like a good way to sell the printed word. Exhibit 1: “Grape vs. Grain” by Charles Bamforth. Exhibit 2: “He Said Beer, She Said Wine” by Sam Calagione and Marnie Old. Three and four: Old and Calagione have taken their rivalry to the current issues of All About Beer and Beer magazines.

And a friendly rivalry it is. It started with a series of beer dinners where they’d pair each dish with one beer and one wine and ask dinners to vote for their favorites. They are a very entertaining team, in person and in print, and don’t be fooled if a few of their exchanges look a little adversarial. Although Old is a sommelier and educator and Calagione — you surely know — the founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, in this instance they could both be described as promoters, even sales people.

HSB,SSW is jammed with inviting photos, including 20 each of the protagonists. Both talk about simplifying wine/beer and the editors of the book have set out to help them with easy-to-understand presentations. For instance, charts with objective characteristics for specific beers or wines, then charts with rules of thumb about serving wine or beer with particular dishes.

Bamforth’s approach is decidedly more academic. He is the Chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology and Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at the University of California, Davis. Reading the book feels like attending a college lecture, but one conducted by everybody’s favorite professor. He successfully acts as his own foil, spinning stories that go beyond the chemistry behind beer, such a look at the evolution of the pub.

Yet you remember this is the author of “Standards of Brewing – A Practical Approach to Consistency and Excellence” when he chooses to explain dimethyl sulfide (DMS) — an aroma often described cooked corn — in particular detail in order to illustrate the complexity of brewing.

He’s always the educator, and the book could be characterized as a beer primer from wine drinkers and a wine primer for beer drinkers. He doesn’t hide his own preferences, writing in the preface, “To that extent, and reflecting my professional specialty, the theme of this book is primarily one of demonstrating how beer is a product of an excellence and sophistication to match wine, and I seek to do this by championing beer while being entirely fair to that other noble beverage.”

He’d need to be a little flashier to keep up with Calagione and Old. Consider this from the authors within two pages.

Old: Every culture what has had access to both (beer and wine) has judged wine to be superior — from the ancient Mesopotamians straight through the modern day.

Calagione: “It’s true that beer drinkers may burp more often than wine drinkers, which could seem “uncivilized.” However, I’ve always thought that is because wine drinkers don’t stop yakking about pretentious things like “notes” and “bouquets” for long enough to build up the required internal pressure.”

Old and Calagione will encore their debate to SAVOR on Saturday. Quite honestly, it wouldn’t be fair for Bamforth to act as “referee,” but let’s give him the final word.

“Wine and beer — both wonderful beverages, sublime outcomes of humankind’s oldest agricultural endeavors. They have much to learn from one another.”

Book review: Good Beer Guide West Coast USA

Good Beer Guide to USATravel guides are worthless without trust.

So, you might be thinking, why should we trust a couple of British blokes who showed up for a holiday or two on America’s West Coast and then presumed to write about our beer?

Oh, sure they seem clever, for instance describing American IPAs as “hoppier than a one-legged man in an arse-kicking competition.” And the publisher Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has outdone itself with a colorful, easy-to-find-what-you-want presentation plus an embarrassment of color photos.

But ultimately here is why you can trust Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham, authors of “Good Beer Guide West Coast USA.”

When I managed a newspaper copy desk the rule repeated every day was, “Readers trust everything they see in the paper until you write something they know about.” So pick up a copy of the book. Turn to a section you know about. Do they write about the best places? Do they leave any out? Are they right about the beers? Do they give you a reason to visit? Yes, no, yes and yes.

Feel free to be skeptical, but the proof is there in black and white. They dropped by the Craft Brewers Festival in San Diego last month to sign books and I sat down to talk with them about how they accomplished this. To be honest, my notes ended up full of “inside baseball” (or cricket) talk — and we weren’t even drinking. You’ll likely find their Q&A at the CAMRA site more amusing.

But some basics. They researched the books in two four-week stretches. The first included Las Vegas and Southern California (then back to Vegas). “We laid down for a week (afterwards),” McFarland said. “I got shingles . . . We were in pieces.”

They came back anyway, flying into Seattle and this time destroying their livers with the beers of the Northwest. They leaned on Tom Dalldorf (of Celebrator Beer News) for Hawaii and Dr. Fermento (James Roberts of the Anchorage Press) for Alaska. Obviously they also received a lot of help on “leads” about where to visit. Quite often they’d be in one pub or brewery and the principals there would ask, “Have you been to …?” and they were off again.

The resulting book doesn’t exhibit the sense of familiarity of one like Jay Shevek’s The Beer Guppy’s Guide to Southern California, but the authors are no less enthusiastic about what comes first — beer. In fact, surprisingly so, writing a love letter to American small-batch brewing that nicely carries on a tradition started by the late Michael Jackson.

And at times you get a glimpse of what the book might have read like had they been able to spend two years instead of two months wandering in and out of breweries and pubs. Writing about Diamond Knot Brewery in Muketilo, Wash., they begin:

“We must have been in here for about 20 minutes before ‘Johnny Vegas’, a Port Townsend ferryman, offered us a place to stay the night. Being British we naturally regarded the gesture with a level of cynicism and, fearing we’d be somehow chopped up and a feature in his wife’s stew, said yes and promptly disappeared. The fact is, he was simply a generous and friendly local and a perfect example of what this bar offers.”

Despite their youth — they are in their early 30s, giving them a fighting chance of surviving their research — both are accomplished journalists. Sandham had edited CLASS, a leading drinks magazine, for five years. McFarland became the youngest ever recipient of the British guild of Beer Writers’ beer Writer of the Year Award in 2004. He won it again in 2006.

And because of their youth they offer a look at American beer through fresh eyes and taste American beer with fresh tongues.

Monday morning musing: What time is the toast?

75 Years of BeerYou’ve probably heard about this: Today is the 75th anniversary of when breweries could resume selling beer, although it was months later until Prohibition officially ended and full strength beer returned.

I mentioned Maureen Ogle’s excellent daily countdown a while back, and suggest you stop by if you haven’t been. Also read her opinion piece, “The day beer flowed again,” in The Los Angeles Times.

The anniversary even got a mention on National Public Radio this past weekend. I wrote last week at Real Beer about the press kit Anheuser-Busch sent out and that Noah Adams mentions in his short commentary.

For the record, I didn’t receive a six-pack of beer (as Adams found in his desk), which doesn’t bother me at all. However, this does seem relative to part of the lengthy discussion about beer criticism, etc. Adams makes something of a point of not accepting the free beer.

But back to celebrating this anniversary. We should all wish Pike Brewery in Seattle were close enough for us to visit.

Schlitz advertisement– Rumors last October about Schlitz going retro turn out to be true. The press release does not make the meaning of “Classic 1960s Formula” based on the original recipe exactly clear.

The 1960s Schlitz and the original 19th century Schlitz clearly were not brewed to the same recipe. More than likely it will be made as it was in the 1960s, with adjuncts, before the brewing cycle was shortened in the 1970s and disaster followed. Philip Van Munching details this all very nicely in “Beer Blast,” calling the chapter “Number Two Schlitz Its Wrists.”

“We are going after the baby boomers who remember Schlitz when they first started drinking,” Jerry Glunz, the general manager of Chicago-area distributor Louis Glunz Beer Inc., told a business newspaper. “This is a different beer than the (current Schlitz line in the can), and this beer will stand up to its former glory.”

Pabst, which owns the Schlitz brand, has had the greatest success with retro marketing, but because Gen X (and perhaps Gen Y) drinkers embraced the brand — not by reaching out to baby boomers.


– Do you want somebody to write like this about beer?

“I’m looking for the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want my wines to tell a good story. I want them natural and most of all, like my dear friends, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue.”

I’m a fan of Alice Feiring and looking forward to her new book,
The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization.

I even like the notion that there’s a great story behind some of my favorite beers and that they may sometimes speak to me. But not every one. That’s why beer is not the new wine. Thank goodness.

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