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Beer links: Big Picture. Hop fingerprinting. Your choice.

MONDAY BEER LINKS, MUSING 12.14.15

Craft beer – have the big brewers nailed it?
[Via Morning Advertiser]
Gerrymandering the Beer Aisle.
[Via Literature and Libation]
ABInBev Doesn’t Hate You – It Just Wants Sales.
[Via A Good Beer Blog]

There’s some big concept thinking going on in these three links, too big for me to summarize succinctly. I suggest reading them in order. Knowing that you may not, here are the last paragraphs of each one, unfairly presented without context.

I can see why this might cause some consternation for craft brewers and their hardcore fans, for whom craft is a movement, a stand against the corporate dominance of everything. But from a drinker’s point of view, if the big guys are now making better beer, that has to be good news.

As a fine patina sets in and the youthful exuberance fades, I have a sneaking suspicion that the game of beers will start to look a lot less like a righteous war or crusade, and a lot more like the classic Red vs Blue, mudslinging, carpetbagging mess that is our political system. Such is the nature of modern capitalism, and probably why, as they say on the internet, “we can’t have nice things.”

In 2016 as more and more big craft sells out to big beer, organized independent craft will need to catch up with the politics of adapting to market demand, catch up with big beer if it wants to avoid being a blip in history. And it might take as brazen an approach as big beer took in 2015. Not sure craft has what it takes.

The thing about big picture thinking is figuring out where all the little pictures fit in. When the number of breweries in the country doubles in such a short amount of time it is hard to take the pulse of all the new participants. Maybe they are lying, but an awful lot of these people seem to have no interest in becoming the next Golden Road or Ballast Point. They want to make a comfortable living. Some would simply consider themselves brewers, other artisans, some even artists.

Ian Rankin on the perfect pub: The Rebus author tells how pub culture has inspired his novels.
A different sort of little picture. [Via Independent]

Hop tidbit of the week

The conversation started the week before, but continued last week (click on the date to see it all), among other things raising questions about where Fuggle fits in on any hop family tree. The chart pictured also appeared in “For the Love of Hops” and shows the results of molecular studies that indicate the distance between certain varieties. The scientists used AFLP fingerprinting.

Researchers at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart employed that same technology to analyze the similarity of Tettnanger hop plants to other varieties in 2002, reaffirming other surveys that concluded that Tettnanger, Spalt Spalter, and Saaz hops are so closely related they may be grouped together as “Saazer hops.”

Among the hops studied at Stuttgart where multiple Osvald Saaz clones, plants chosen from the field because they looked and smelled like the original Saaz, and brewed similar beer, but perhaps yielded more cones per plant or were more disease resistant. Various farmers grew and sold these varieties as Saaz, and happy customers brewed with them as Saaz.

All the Osvald Saaz clones studied at Stuttgart could be more clearly distinguished from each other than the original Saaz could from Tettnanger and Spalter. Three of the clones were quite similar to the landrace Saaz, but Osvald clone 126 was much closer to Fuggle. Nonetheless, all Osvald clones grown in the region around Žatek exhibited very similar morphological traits and aroma components.

Just to be clear, grown in Žatek a plant genetically closer to Fuggle than Saaz passed for Saaz.

What if [fill in the beer blank] never happened?

This bit of speculation from W. Blake Gray hit my radar too late to appear in the Monday links: “The Judgment of Paris tasting was the single most important event in the history of wine. In a 1976 blind tasting, French judges chose Napa Valley wines over the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The repercussions still echo to this day. But what if it never happened?”

His speculation — starting from a slightly different but important perspective, that the tasting happened, but Time magazine never reported it — is both amusing and illuminating. There must be a beer doppelgänger out there, right? Maybe we’re looking at a Session topic. Even though no beer event, event, incident, development, whatever, resonates like “Judgment of Paris” there’s got to be a starting point. What would it be?

Three quick contenders . . .

What if Fritz Maytag had not bought Anchor Brewing in 1965?

What if the committee charged in 1906 with interpreting the meaning of the Pure Food and Drug Act had decided to implement some sort of legal differentiation between all malt and adjunct beer, or enacted a proposal that lager beer be required to lager at least three months? (Both were considered and rejected.)

What if the USDA had not released the Cascade hop variety in 1972? The story.

The week that was: Lagunitas and sharks not jumped

MONDAY BEER LINKS, MUSING 09.14.15

It was a very noisy week, on Twitter and via my rss feed. Noise that wasn’t about things that interest me at this moment and that was so loud you couldn’t hear the other stuff. But it seems it was an Important Week, so here are a bunch of links you may or may not think belong together — followed by some “sit back and enjoy a great beer” ones.

Craft beer brewers just got downgraded to ‘sell’
[Via MarketWatch]
Lagunitas’ Magee speaks on Heineken deal and craft beer’s ‘next phase
[Via Chicago Tribune]
That Lagunitas-Heineken deal.
[Via Steve Heimoff]
Shakeup at craft beer giant Stone Brewing.
[Via Fortune]
‘Craft beer’ crumbling.
[Via I might have a glass of beer]
Signposting Craft.
[Via Hard Knot Dave]
Welcome to Starbeers.
[Via Fuggled]
The Curse of Craft strikes again.
[Via Ed’s Beer Site]
Craft Beer Sales Are At An All-Time High (Part I)
Craft Beer Sales Are At An All Time High-and why this could be scary.
[Both via The Hop Tripper]
We need to dial it back a notch.
[Via All About Beer]
And in Every Town.
[Via St. John’s Wort]

OK, a lot of words, and I am leaving most of the heavy lifting to you. My thoughts are mostly related to the last three links. Many of the “things that concern (Mitch Steele) about the future” are related to brewing and selling beer on a larger scale. Nothing wrong with that, and certainly keeping with the theme in Jason Notte’s story (first link). You can decide how it meshes with this from Greg Koch (fourth link): “There are two ways of operating a business – commodity or artisan. We operate as an artisan. We make decisions based on our passions. … Anybody that thinks commodity can operate as an artesan is ignoring the basic facts about how businesses operate.”

But as regular readers know, I cannot buy into the notion that breweries must always be growing. There is another way. Jeff Alworth’s commentary for All About Beer includes many amen sentences, words to drink by, and most importantly this: “Going forward, I’m planning to focus less on the specific products and breweries of the commercial sphere—they will come and go, inevitably—and more on the act of sharing a beer with someone I enjoy.”

And I certainly agree with this:

But beer companies? They are organs of commerce, however wonderful the brewers and publicans they employ may be. We feel good about beer, so we place that good feeling on the institution of private businesses. And in many cases, that feeling is well-placed. Breweries are collections of humans, after all. When they make good beer and create a wonderful space to enjoy it, they rightly earn our loyalty. But they’re also businesses, and sometimes their owners decide to sell to different owners—and then we have to make new judgments all over again.

But not with this:

Magee’s announcement is a spectacular Trump-like masterpiece of overstatement, and for me it was the moment Craft jumped the shark into over-seriousness.

No, Lagunitas is not a proxy for “craft.” No brewery is. And most drinkers don’t give a hoot what Tony Magee has to say. (Pausing for a moment of introspection: a lot more care than wonder about what I am thinking, so perhaps I should quit typing now).

Daria and I spent much of a week ago Saturday afternoon on the deck at Piney River Brewing, which is located on a farm 26 miles south of Plato, Missouri, a town that will remain the official “population center” of the United States until the 2020 census. Inside, the superintendent of a nearby school system was playing guitar and singing. Outside, volunteers were selling hot dogs and brats (Piney River does not serve food) to raise money for the Houston Education Foundation. Beer was the part of some conversations, not included in others. I don’t expect much changed this week. More concerned discussion about the St. Louis Cardinals’ recent slump, some comparing of notes about the kids’ new teachers, idle talk about the sudden and welcome arrival of cooler weather.

To be clear, Piney River also is not a proxy for “craft.” And it is a business. The brewery recently expanded, adding capacity that would allow it to produce 10,000 barrels a year. Founders Brian and Jolene Durham want to brew beer “in and about the Ozarks for the Ozarks.” When they first opened the tasting room one day a week (now it is open three) they expected a few friends would show up. Turns out they must have more friends than they realized, Brian said. It’s places like this that capture my attention these days, and beers that reflect where they are brewed, the where not necessarily being the brewery itself.

So there’s a reason that what Jordan St. John wrote (the final link) seems so brilliant to me.

. . . there’s the craft model. It’s not specific to craft beer. It’s a 19th century manufacturing model. It’s generational, driven possibly by the lifespan of the founder and the interest of his partners or progeny and it’s on a vastly more human scale. The smaller production level means that the owner is answerable to a community. The wealth that it generates will end up flowing back through the community in which it operates.

I’ll try to include the spirit of that thought in “Brewing Local.”

Meanwhile, those other links I promised . . .

Researcher recreates Viking beer.
The story this week I most want to read more about. [Via Knut Albert’s Beer Blog]

Young wine writers: don’t be too smart.
“Generally, in life, I reckon that less smart people are often happier. If you are too smart, I suspect that you’d find popular culture so inane as to be depressing, you’d be frustrated by the general low level of most journalism, and you’d spend a lot of the time quite bored. And as a writer you’d find that anything you wrote would only really appeal to small segment of the population.” [Via jamie goode’s wine blog]

Behind the new Abbey: How we changed the malts.
There have been several stories recently about breweries retooling their IPA recipes (for instance, this one from Bryan Roth). Tweaking recipes is hardly new — recall Ed mentioning Rochefort had begun using Aramis hops. But talking about it seems to be. I’m looking forward to this week’s discussion about choosing a new yeast. New Belgium co-founder Jeff Lebesch talked about that yeast candidly in “Brew Like a Monk.” He cultured from a Chimay bottle. “What I learned later is that Chimay could get kind of wild, so who knows how reflective what I got out of that bottle was of Chimay? I was doing all my culturing from bottles then, keeping them on plates in the house. Somewhere in the early 1990s I did a major cleanup of our yeast. It really changed the character of the beer.” [Via New Belgium Brewing]

Hype for hops helps farmers break into beer business.
This story overlooks most of the obstacles those who would grow hops outside of the Northwest face. Those challenges were at the top of my mind last week because I writing a story about it for New Brewer magazine. Perhaps that’s why when I saw the news of the Lagunitas-Heineken deal I thought immediately about the implications for hops, and in terms of real estate (because brewing is always about time and space). If Lagunitas is going to be selling two million more barrels per year, for instance, that means they could need more than three million more pounds of hops per year. That’s about 1,500 more acres of hops. Growing 1,500 more acres of corn in Iowa is not a big deal. But 1,500 more acres of hops just about anywhere, that’s a chunk. [Via CBS News]

What’s a hop picker look like?

Let’s start with two bits of nostalgia. Here’s a postcard from 1912 depicting a hop-picking crew in Washington’s Yakima Valley.

Hop pickers, Washington state, 1912

And here’s a photo from 2008 at Hoppefeesten, the beer and hop festival held every three years in Poperinge, Belgium. An area resident illustrates how hops used to be picked.

Hop picking, Poperinge, Belgium

And here’s a photo taken last week at Perrault Farms in the Yakima Valley, which this year began using two new Dauenhauer hop picking machines, set up basically in tandem. I guess I should have shot a panoramic photo to depict the size of the operation. It is stunning.

Perrault Farms, Washington, new hop pickers

When Alberic Perrault began growing hops in 1928 it took 100 people 30 days to harvest his 13 acres — or almost 8 workers per acre. These days in the Yakima Valley instead of workers per acre production is measured in terms of acres per worker. The average is about 20 acres per worker, and most of those acres yield considerably more pounds of hops.

Hops 2015: No bumper crop this year

Hop pickers, hop harvest

The good news is that this headline is pretty stupid: “IPA Lovers Beware: Beer Prices Could Skyrocket Next Year Thanks to Drought.”

The not so good news is that this one is more accurate: “Trouble Brewing: Drought-Hit Hops Crop Concerns Craft Beer Brewers.” And the story that goes with it is well reported and more complete.

That hop prices must go up if growing breweries are going to continue to use the varieties of hops they are in the manner they are is not news (see this explanation from last January). However, lack of water in the state of Washington, an unsually hot late spring/early summer in the American northwest, and a not-so-great growing season in Europe are about to remind us that beer is an agricultural product.

Earlier this week, Otmar Weingarten of the German Hop Growers Association told the those attending International Hop Growers Congress in Bavaria that production in Germany’s main hop growing regions would likely fall 12 to 22 percent short of earlier predictions. And Ann George, executive director of the Hop Growers of America, said that US alpha varieties yield would be down up to 5 percent and aroma varieties off 10 to 15 percent. There’s bound to be variation from region to region and variety to variety. For instance, best guess is that Centennial yields, also disappointing in 2014, could be 20 percent short of expectations.

That is bad news for brewers without contracts who were hoping for a bumper crop (so they could buy the excess). And it means you’ll see more stories about hop shortages as harvest begins next month and rolls into fall. But this is not the hop shortage of 2007 and 2008, one that was a big enough deal to merit an entry in “The Oxford Companion to Beer.” Then a combination of events led to an alpha shortage that became obvious after the 2006 harvest. In 2005, the “spot” price, one that brewers without contracts for some or all of the hops they needed would pay, was $1.95 to $2.80 per kg alpha. A pound of Cascade cost $1.65 to $1.75. By the end of the 2007 harvest the shortage was so extreme that most un-contracted hops sold for $198 to $220 per kg alpha and some ticked as high as $992. The price of a pound of Cascade climbed to $30.

Right now there remains an alpha surplus. I should probably write a primer about what this means, but just the basics for now. Most of the world’s largest breweries use hop extract to brew their beers and treat alpha as a commodity. They don’t use a lot for any individual beer, but they use a lot of hops. They like paying low prices, but as we saw in 2007 when they need to they have the money to spend whatever they must. So if alpha gets out of balance, and particularly given the structural change that has taken place, then all bets are off.

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