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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.

3

Session #94 announced: Your role in the ‘beer scene’

The SessionHost Adrian Dingle has posted the topic for The Session #94: “Your role in the beer ‘scene’. What it is?

Ding explains by describing how he feels his own role has changed, then reels off several questions (I like it when hosts do that – makes it easy to pick one):

“So, where do you see yourself? Are you simply a cog in the commercial machine if you work for a brewery, store or distributor? Are you nothing more than an interested consumer? Are you JUST a consumer? Are you a beer evangelist? Are you a wannabe, beer ‘professional’? Are you a beer writer? All of the above? Some of the above? None of the above? Where do you fit, and how do you see your own role in the beer landscape?”

The next session is Dec. 5.

0

Signs of the beer times & European Star winners

Hopsteiner boothSigns of the beer times.

– Boston Beer co-founder Jim Koch delivered the keynote speech today at Brau Beviale in Nuremburg, Germany. It is a massive trade show. I grabbed a photo of the Hopsteiner booth off Twitter to illustrate the point. That’s one booth of hundreds. It looks like an airport bar.

Koch’s statement that “the Reinheitsgebot has served its purpose as a public health measure and it’s almost becoming like artistic censorship” is likely to be retweeted the most often.

But I was struck by something he said at near the end. “Hops will begin to be customized, even for an individual brewer and their needs,” he said. I would not be surprised to see breweries paying breeders and farmers to own the rights to particular varieties, but don’t expect many breweries to own their own — at least not ones you want added to your beer.

– The European Beer Star award winners were later announced at Brau. The competition is not as big at the World Beer Cup, but the quality of entries and the judging panel is damn near the equal. American breweries won plenty of medals, but although Firestone Walker captured four of them its India Pale Ale, Union Jack, finished second after winning the previous two years. Birra del Borgo, an Italian brewery (that should be obvious), won gold with Re Ale Extra.

– From the Triangle Business Journal: “Farm Boy Farms of Pittsboro – a local provider of barley, wheat and malt for craft beer – is doubling in size, which means more local ingredients could work their way into local craft beer.” Hops are sexy, so get most the attention, but local grains (which can then be malted; as you can see the writer might have a small problem with that concept) are just as important in making local beer. And managing them at the local level just as challenging.

– That the Cicerone Certification Program is giving an exam in San Antonio, Texas, next February merits a story in MySA.

12

Imagine a Barrel 10 New Yorker cover

MONDAY BEER LINKS, MUSING 11.10.14

Remember all that stuff about the New Yorker cover? That is so October. If you follow the people I follow on Twitter and subscribe to the rss feeds that I do the news that AB InBev bought 10 Barrel Brewing in Oregon looked to be as big a deal as when InBev took over A-B. The Internet can fool you that way. It was a big ass local story, but how wide are the implicatons, really? How people reacted to the news might be as important down the road as the news itself. For instance, Jeff Rice has already used it as an opportunity to examine craft rhtetorics.

While we wait for an equally surprising “big” story this week, pig out on 10 Barrel:

Making sense of Anheuser-Busch InBev buying 10 Barrel Brewing
Why Anheuser-Busch’s Purchase of 10 Barrel – Brewing is bad for the industry
The Short Life and Ugly Death of 10 Barrel Brewing
Craft Rhetorics: the 10 Barrel Brewing Moment
On Anheuser-Busch buying 10 Barrel
Interview with 10 Barrel Brewing Founders and Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO of Craft Brands

Elitism, or something else? Millennials and the war on Big Beer. OK, this is why there’s such a fuss.
[Via CNBC]

The Soul of Beer. Jeff Alworth followed up on two posts he wrote about 10 Barrel with this one. There was at time the tagline here read “In search of the soul of beer” before I changed it to “Celebrating beer from a place.” I’m not sure that made my intentions any more clear, but it seemed like it at a time. Neither phrase lends itself to literal interpretation. In the era of the old tagline, I asked several brewers about the notion their beer might have soul. The best answer came from one who pointed out all energy must go somewhere, so a lot of what happens in a brewery ends up in the beer.
[Via Beervana]

There’s A Beer For That. When I was checking into a hotel last week I heard the words “Mosaic hops” coming from the television in the reception area and realized that a Guinness commercial was playing. It seems like just yesterday that we called that hop 369. Now it is part of television advertising, but I’ve managed to otherwise miss the commercial and probably will going forward. The roundabout point here is that I’ve seen numerous posts about the There’s a Beer for That campaign in England, but the advertisements are not part of my life and I’ve struggled to “get it.” This post put things in perspective for me. Your mileage may vary, but there’s a handy list of links at the bottom should you be interested.
[Via Total Ales]

It’s just good business. A reminder, from the Czech Republic.
[Via Pivni Filosof]

Perfect Parker Scores Keep On Coming. Is there similar score inflation going on in beer? This is a story about scores from critics, and in beer the scores of Internet rating sites carry more weight, but maybe this is a job for Bryan Roth.
[Via wine-searcher]

4

Session #93: The beer tour not taken

Cellar at Pilsner Urquell

The SessionThe topic for The Session #93 is “Beer Travel.” Hosts Brian and Maria at the Roaming Pint have asked participants to post articles in advance so they can have the roundup ready Friday.

As chance would have it, shortly after I hit publish on this post I’ll be in a car headed north, along Highway 61 among other roads. I’d like to be in New Ulm, Minnesota, not to long after dark. It is 556 miles away. There will be little time for detours to check out any Roadside America attractions or the occasional local pie. Time to think, but no time to type.

Instead, here’s something I wrote for All About Beer magazine four years ago. I’ve posted bits and pieces here, but in total I think it addresses the question of why travel about as well as I can.

*****

The tour at Pilsner Urquell begins for real at the end of the production process, in the massive bottling hall. Most breweries prefer to save this show for the end, as Budweiser Budvar does just a few miles down the road in České Budějovice. Bottling lines almost always dazzle visitors, serving as a pièce de résistance. Although the packaging facility here in Plzen might be the most impressive anywhere – it’s as big and busy as a train station – we’ll soon learn there’s a more exciting way to end this tour.

We actually started on a bus, and must return to it to reach the part of the rambling complex where beer itself is brewed. We then ride up the largest elevator in the Czech Republic (it holds the entire tour group) so we can watch a dizzying multi-media presentation. The old brewhouse and coppers offer a hands-on experience, the new brewery with much bigger vessels, both stainless steel and shiny copper, is simply stunning.

All of this is mere eye candy.

Our guide leads us through a stone archway with 1839 inscribed in the slab across the top and into a maze of underground tunnels. Do not get separated from the group, he says, pointing to a map that shows there are nine kilometers (5.6 miles) of hallways cut into sandstone. Urquell once lagered for three months in large wooden barrels that lined the tunnels. Now most are empty, barrels filling just a few. We head toward one with open wooden fermenters.

Twenty years ago the late Michael Jackson took a camera crew through then full tunnels to film an episode of his “Beer Hunter” television series. Standing over a wooden vat that looks just like the ones in front of us now he explained that although most brewing experts told the leadership at Pilsner Urquell they were crazy not to modernize they swore they wouldn’t abandon open fermentation. Of course they did, and long before brewing giant SABMiller acquired the brewery.

Now only a bit of beer still fermented in the open and aged in wood, but we’re going to get to taste it. The guide explains it is treated in this old manner so brewers can compare the new way to the old and assure the taste hasn’t changed, and for visitors on the tour to try. (The brewery museum restaurant in the Plzen town center is the only other place serving this version of Pilsner Urquell.) The beer we’ll sample right from the wood, unfiltered and unpasteurized, has been aging for six weeks, twice as long as the Urquell lagered in steel and sold around the world. No surprise, it will not taste exactly like what you drink from a can or bottle or on tap in the rest of the Czech Republic, let alone the world.

The guide has taken the group into the next room to begin tasting. I linger behind, struggling to take a proper picture in the low light. I see a man walking between the barrels, clipboard in hand. He pauses and draws a sample. He writes something down.

Surely he was a brewer.

Unless it was a ghost.

Behind the scenes

While reporting about beer the last 18 years I’ve been a few places regular tours don’t go, but the experiences aren’t necessarily any different. We all travel for many reasons, some of them involving beer. On the best trips the physical journey parallels an intellectual or cultural experience. That can happen at the front of the house just as well as well as behind the scenes.

I’m astonished reading the resumes of those who enter Wynkoop Brewing’s Beerdrinker of the Year competition how many festivals, pubs and special events some people manage to visit. How many states and how many countries, or how many people manage an annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Brewers Festival or De Nacht van de Grote Dorst in Belgium. Let’s not fool ourselves, part of the attraction is that beer is an alcoholic beverage, but these frequent beer travelers also always talk about discovery.

On that Sunday in Plzen our family signed up for the factory tour (that’s what SABMiller calls it), 150 Czech Koruna (about $7.50) for adults, 100 more for the right to take pictures. We like factory tours — Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont, Gruyère cheese in Switzerland or Harry & David’s in Oregon &#151 and the best showcase the production process without interrupting production itself. That’s not always easy when you invite visitors to watch you at work.

If instead a brewer had led me through Pilsner Urquell I might have left with details #151; for instance specifics about the decoction mash or hop additions #151; that aren’t part of any public tour. But I probably wouldn’t have seen that ghost.

In contrast, I wouldn’t know the beers at Private Weissbierbrauerei G. Schneider & Sohn in Germany nearly as well had I not been allowed behind the scenes. For practical reasons a basic tour does not pass through the fermentation room, where yeast turns wort into beer in open tanks. Brewmaster Hans-Peter Drexler calls it the soul of the brewery. Speaking at a brewers conference in 2008 Drexler revealed all the “secrets” involved in brewing Schneider weiss beer to a room full of Americans, but understanding him fully requires standing beside him in his brewery.

Walking between large circular fermenters he explains how brewers still use slotted spoons to skim hop resins and trub off the top of the yeast. “The flavors are very hard and bitter,” he says. “For me it is important to remove them.” On his left yeast climbs high in a tank full of wort on its way to being the strong wheat doppelbock called Aventinus. On his right fermentation only recently started on what will be a batch of Schneider Original. A small hole opens in the middle of the yeast blanket, briefly revealing the wort below before closing again.

It is alive.

The rhythm of the brewery

The bar at Russian River Brewing in downtown Santa Rosa, California, and the In de Vrede café across from abbey Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in Belgium are both on any beer traveler’s bucket list, and all a drinker needs to know about the beers is in the glass. On the surface the breweries appear about as different as two beers they produce, Pliny the Elder and Westvleteren 12 respectively. One the ultimate expression of American hops; the other deep and contemplative. Russian River, making beer at the downtown pub as well as production brewery nearby, squeezes all of it can out its equipment and limited space. Westvelteren pays no attention to demand although the monks who run the brewery could produce more. However at both the beer seemingly has a voice in deciding when it will be sold.

The rhythm of monastic life, framed by seven daily prayers, remains intact within the abbey brewery, situated on what was the agrarian side of the complex when it was home to a much larger community. The monks brew seventy times a year – during twenty-five to twenty-six weeks and two to three days per week. They brew one week and bottle the next, adding yeast taken from a high krauesen off a batch started the previous week.

Because Westvleteren neither filters nor centrifuges, yeast, hops, and proteins must settle out naturally. “The length depends on the speed of becoming clear,” says Brother Joris, the monk in charge of both the brewery and the library. Westvelteren 8 usually takes at least a month, and Westvleteren 12 might take two months to ten weeks, “when you get a difficult one.”

Russian River co-founder and brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo relearned the role time plays when he began aging some of his beers in barrels. After he literally grew up in a winery one of the attractions of brewing wasn’t he didn’t have to wait a year before a fermented beverage was ready to drink.

On this particular June day at the brewpub he is transferring a brown ale that eventually will be a beer called Supplication into wine barrels that not long ago held pinot noir. He recently acquired 120 wine barrels from Flowers Vineyard and Winery. He and assistants dosed 10 with cherries and Brettanomyces yesterday afternoon and hauled them over from the production brewery, where the rest of the barrels will be filled. The base for this batch was made at the brewpub, will age at the brewpub and will only be served at the brewpub. “I like that it is special to the pub,” Cilurzo says. “The barrel room is so alive (with wild yeast).”

As he empties the contents of a stainless steel fermenter into the barrels the aromas of cherries and pinot noir rush from the bung hole at the top of each barrel, only hinting of what Supplication will smell and taste like more than a year from now.

He notices a small problem. A barrel is leaking. He hurries into his office, returning with toothpicks, garlic and chalk. “It’s an old winemakers’ trick,” he says, coating the toothpick with garlic, plugging the hole and covering it with chalk. Later, as he is transferring barrels to the storage room a red stream begins spilling from still another barrel. (At this point I can’t help but think of a certified beer geek trailing behind, tongue out.) He wheels it back and goes to work. “Fortunately it is at the top,” he says, “so it will stop soon.”

As at Westvleteren there is a rhythm. “We’ve really got the process down to a time science,” Cilurzo says. “We add the same amount of Brett and fruit (in the versions that include fruit) each time. After two months we top it up and add the other bugs (a house blend of still more wild yeasts). We add a hard bung and don’t open it until it’s ready to bottle.”

And as at Westveleteren some beers keep their own schedule. Consecration, aged with currants in cabernet sauvignon barrels, is ready to bottle in six months, but may benefit with more time in the bottles because of bold wine flavors and tannins. “Supplicaton will probably have the flavor we want at nine months, but it will be lacking acidity,” Cilurzo says. It might be ready to bottle in twelve months. It could take fifteen.

The best laid plans . . .

The day before touring Pilsner Urquell we visited the town of Český Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage site and second only after Prague in our list places to see in the Czech Republic. A couple of months before a friend told us to be sure to tour the brewery, but not until we’d been walking through the narrow cobblestone streets for several hours did we discover the only tour of the day had already gone.

Before settling in at the brewery’s restaurant, located above the lagering cellars as it turns out, for a late lunch we headed over to peak through a closed gate into the brewery yard. What might best be described as a snack shack sat not far from the entry. A man inside waved and signaled us to come around the back, where he held the door open.

Two men greeted us in Czech. They spoke no English. We speak no Czech. The man obviously in charge pointed toward the beer taps and made it clear there would be only one draft choice, because like the food menus on the wall the other tap handles were for busier days. The beer turned out to be a slightly cloudy unfiltered pale lager. A dark beer was available in bottles. We had one of each, sitting on a narrow bench in the storage room. We continued to speak English, smile and gesture. He spoke Czech, smiled and gestured. Occasionally the second man, wearing a leather cowboy hat, mumbled a few words (he apparently had been drinking a while and eventually wandered off).

We somehow discovered he had Eggenberg T-shirts for sale (fortunately we’d be able to do laundry soon, because like everything else in the small shack the shirt smelled like the inside of an ashtray) and when it came time to pay he pointed to numbers on the menu to let us know how much we owed. The beers cost about $2 for two half liters, the T-shirt $3.

We had more beer with lunch, but it didn’t taste as good as in that shack, a place we never would have ended up had we planned more carefully.

Sometimes the best tour is the tour not taken.

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