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New Beer Rule #5: It is only beer

Credit for this one goes to Don Younger, publican of the Horse Brass Pub in Portland.

Exhibit A: Last week’s Session, in which the guys at Hop Talk challenged bloggers to write about atmosphere. We’re talking about dozens of folks who take the time to write about beer several times a week.

And what did they focus on?

Early on, it became quite clear that there was a nearly universal theme as to what made for a good beer drinking atmosphere: people.

Exhibit B: Don Younger and the Horse Brass Pub. Now we’re talking people.

There are various stories about how Younger acquired the Horse Brass, but what’s certain is that it wasn’t until after he owned it that he decided to find out just what an English pub was. So he headed to Great Britain in 1977. “That’s when I knew,” he said. What, he wasn’t yet sure, “but I was going to do the pub thing.”

Fast forward to 1995, the evening of the last day of the Oregon Brewers Festival. We had arrived in town before the festival started, and spent an intense several days visiting pubs and brewpubs in the metropolitan area, some with Don and many more he suggested. He talked about influences, about history, about Oregon brewers (some gone), about pubs. Several times over.

We didn’t expect to see him at the Horse Brass that evening. We’d just stopped by for one last pint before leaving town. But he showed up at our table and had a seat. Soon it seemed half the people in the pub had stopped by and the conversation naturally centered on beer. What do you think of Portland’s bars? The brewpubs? What beers did you try at the festival?

Then at one moment Younger leaned back in his chair and smiled. You could see him almost eavesdropping on scores of conversations taking place around him, most of them not about beer.

“After all,” he said, “it is only beer.”

How’s that for perspective?

New Beer Rule #4: Variation is not a flaw

Looks good to meNEW BEER RULE #4: The god of beer is not consistency.

Full credit for this rule goes to Mark Dorber, the venerable British publican who uttered these words in 1996 at the first Real Ale Festival in Chicago.

He was speaking specifically about cask-conditioned ale, but the rule applies fairly to most small-batch beers.

This doesn’t mean that a beer needn’t be consistently good; only that it doesn’t have to taste the same every batch. Or in the case of cask beer, the same the second day it is on dispense as the first. Or in the case of a beer that you might cellar for a few years the same two years into the process as five years in.

Look, same is OK. It’s what most people seem to want. That’s why Anheuser-Busch goes to incredible lengths to make sure beers such as Budweiser – brewed in 12 different plants in the United States and other around the world – taste the same no matter where they come from. They don’t want us commenting on the nuances of Newark (New Jersey) Bud versus those of Fort Collins (Colorado) Bud.

Small batches lend themselves to greater variability. Hop varieties taste different not only from year to year, but from lot to lot – depending, for instance, if they are grow high on a hill or in the lowlands of a rolling hop district. The same may true for barley that will be turned into malt. (And then there are process differences, etc., but let’s keep this short).

Large breweries may blend to minimize differences. Not so small-batch brewers. “We’re going to have variability from batch to batch,” said Great Divide Brewing founder Brian Dunn. “I think the flavor profile doesn’t change enormously, not enough that drinkers necessarily notice.”

This is why it is silly for Consumer Reports to rate beers (see what Ron at Hop Talk has to write about that), and just another reason that assigning a number to a beer doesn’t work for me.

Back in the 1980s, Michael Jackson discussed consistency with Roger Schoonjans, then brewing director at Belgium’s famed Brasserie d’Orval. “People should not want our beer to taste exactly the same every time,” he said. “They want the gout d’Orval (flavor of Orval), for sure, but they want to be able to chat about it: ‘I think this one is a little more hoppy — yesterday’s was rounder . . . .’ In that respect, they treat it like wine.”

You don’t have treat your beer like wine to appreciate that worshiping at the foot of consistency means that you’d be giving up something you should not want to.

New Beer Rule #3: 2 pints are better than one

NEW BEER RULE #3: You must drink at least two servings of a beer before you pass judgment on it.

Good tasting, huh?I starting writing the rule before this wandering conversation at Seen Through a Glass, but it makes a great point. In the middle there is a discussion about how, or if, drinkers come to appreciate a range of beer flavors.

My answer: Pay attention.

At first I was going to propose only a single serving (that size may vary according to style). However, George Reisch of Anheuser-Busch suggests a “three pint rule” when he speaks at beer dinners. Several years ago Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver put forward a “Four-Pint Principle” to other brewers.

Oliver explained he means “that I want the customer to WANT to have four pints of this beer.” Circumstances may dictate otherwise but he or she should want to continue drinking that beer. Oliver was speaking to brewers, telling them they needed to get out and drink their beer where other people drink.

“Just before the end of every pint, every customer makes a decision – ‘Will I have another one of these?'”

A commercial brewer got me thinking about the rule when he wrote this in an e-mail:

“My favorite rating of all time goes something like this. I went to X festival where I proceeded to drink 4 ounce samples of everything they had 55 beers in all over a 4-6 hour period. Right about the time I was set to go home, some guy broke out this beer that I (really wanted). I was so late to the bottle opening that I got only an ounce of dregs from the 4-year-old bottle of bottle conditioned and unfiltered beer. God, it was the best one-ounce tasting in my life. I can still remember seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after swallowing it…. Or it could have been that I drank so much before and I was seeing Jesus himself? Either way, I give it 19 out of 20 and it would have been a perfect score but I had trouble with its ‘clarity.'”

You can understand why he OK’d using this, but without his name. He likes the beer rating sites and appreciates they’ve been good for his business. But he knows that customers buy growlers where he works, go home to hand bottle the beer, then ship it all over the country. He knows enthusiasts will split beer into tiny portions to share with friends.

That’s not the way he intended his beer to be enjoyed. (OK, when a consumer buys the beer it becomes her property, but we’re getting the beer we do today because brewers put some of themselves into the product.)

Yes, I know that judges at the Great American Beer Festival or World Beer Cup only sample a few ounces in deciding which are the “best” beers.

No, this isn’t a screed against beer community sites – I’ve written before about how vital they are to the beer revolution. And I’d still tell you assigning a score to a beer for anything other than personal use is silly even if you guaranteed you’d drink 10 servings first.

This is a rule for your personal use.

Reserving judgment isn’t going to make a great beer taste mediocre, nor a boring one suddenly take on nuance. Reserving judgment means paying attention throughout – whether it is a beer high in alcohol, low in alcohol, high in hops, low in hops, malt forward, malt backward, yeast dominated, yeast sublimated. What’s the rest of the story?

You might be surprised what you learn. Besides you got nothin’ to lose. I’m giving you a reason to have another beer.

NEW BEER RULE #2: A beer consumer should not be allowed to drink a beer with IBU higher than her or his IQ.

NEW BEER RULE #1: When you open a beer for a vertical tasting and there is rust under the cap it’s time to seriously lower your expectations for what’s inside the bottle.

New Beer Rule #2: IBUs and IQs

NEW BEER RULE #2: A beer consumer should not be allowed to drink a beer with IBU higher than her or his IQ.

HopsI like – OK, love – hops more than most people you know. But I understand the frustration expressed by some brewers about the attention that highly hopped high alcohol beers (sometimes called extreme) receive.

The 25th highest-rated Imperial/Double IPA at Ratebeer.com gets a 3.96. The top-rated Dortmunder/Helles gets a 3.71.

I happen to think that 25th-rated Double IPA, Pizza Port’s Hop Suey, is a great beer, so please don’t consider this an attack on beer ratings sites or hoppy beers.

In fact what should really rile sensible brewers is high scores given even the 100th or 200th ranked Double IPA (whatever that might be). MORE does not automatically make a beer better. It often produces an out of balance, lousy tasting beer. This isn’t really about IQ; it’s about common sense.

For reference
New Beer Rule #1.
– Wikipedia on International Bitterness Units (IBU) and Intelligent Quotient (IQ).

New Beer Rules

SamichlausWith a nod toward Bill Maher’s “New Rules” as opposed to Miller’s Man Laws …

THE BACKGROUND: A little over a week ago we were in California for some meetings. For evening diversion, Real Beer co-founder Mark Silva brought along vintage beers for “vertical” tastings (where you sample the same beer across a number of years).

In that spirit, Banjo Bandolas hauled down some old beers from the 1980s his uncle, Bud Lang, had given him. Lang was the first managing editor at All About Beer magazine, but these were not beers carefully cellared for a special occasion. They were beers that spent cool winters and hot summers in a Los Angeles garage.

Some were strong beers we might have hoped would stand up to those temperature swings but others – like the Millstream lager out of Iowa – had no chance.

The most interesting looking beers were a Thomas Hardy’s Ale from 1983, Samichlaus from 1986, Mort Subite Gueuze from the 1980s (no date) and Anchor Old Foghorn from the 1980s (again, no vintage). They would all sell for a chunk on eBay, but Banjo pointed out that in good conscience he could never sell beer that he suspected would taste like we found out these did.

We drank the beers (not all at once) against other vintages that had been stored in friendlier conditions. In each case they were the oldest beer in the lineup, and in each case the least enjoyable. Maybe it was age, but mostly it seemed like the garage won.

The 1996 Samichlaus (brewed in 1995, packaged in 1996, a lager that had spent 10 years in the bottle) was spectacular, rich and complex. The 1986 – at the time the strongest beer in the world (Sam Calagione was still in high school) – tasted like prune juice mixed with vodka. The difference between the ’83 Hardy’s and an ’89 Silva brought was as dramatic.

In each case, the well-cellared beers gained complexity, drank smoother, and acted like we hope beers will when we lay them down. The cooked beers were lifeless, not just wanting when it comes to carbonation, but one-dimensional, single-note beers.

One other thing they shared in common, and that was lack of good closure. The Mort Subite cork crumbled when I pulled it from the bottle, and on each of the other three the inside of the cap was rusted.

Giving us …

NEW BEER RULE #1: When you open a beer for a vertical tasting and there is rust under the cap it’s time to seriously lower your expectations for what’s inside the bottle.

Rusted cap

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