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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.


Imagine a Barrel 10 New Yorker cover


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]


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.


Different perspectives on the meaning of local beer


Hinkle: Brewery deal comes with a hangover. Indeed, it is great news for Richmond, Va., that Stone Brewing Co. chose that city in which to locate a new brewery. It will create a bunch of jobs and pump money and a lot of excellent beer into the community. But it didn’t come free. Just to be clear, nothing against Stone. The company has proved time and time again in San Diego what a wonderful community member it is. But what if the city of Richmond had chosen to use those millions of dollars as seed money for local companies? If city government is going to suggest to its citizens that they should support local businesses then it seems to make sense they’d do the same.
[Via Richmond-Times Dispatch, h/T The Potable Curmudgeon]

Brooklyn Brewery Cofounder Steve Hindy Discusses South Florida’s Brewing Future. “One idea that Hindy put forth was that Miami has had a hard time in the past in becoming a craft beer mecca because of its status as an international city. He sees that in major metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles. People are seeking the best of everything, even if it’s just what they perceive as the best, no matter where it’s from. ‘Places like Vermont or Maine or Michigan or even Oregon are very loyal to their local product. International cities are not; [the people] want the best of everywhere. That’s a challenge for craft beer.'” If that is true, I wonder if citizens of those international cities understand the price they are paying.
[Via New Times]

Beer Industry Reacts to ‘The New Yorker’ Cover. I will continue not to write anything about this. I offer John Holl’s post as a public service because it is really a 13-headed monster (which you can read all at once if you drop it into Pocket first), and suggest you then turn to “Craft Beer Mocked on Cover of The New Yorker: Geeks Unsure If They Should Celebrate.” Although I am avoiding comment, I secretly wonder why every headline I read on this topic reminds me of something from The Onion.
[Via All About Beer and Hey, Brewtiful]

The Old House at Home. However, I will use all this fuss about The New Yorker to link to this story from 1940. It turned into the first chapter of Joseph Mitchell’s “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.” You can read the whole book as part of “Up in the Old Hotel.” A terrific anthology.
[Via The New Yorker]

Wine Critics Keep Semantic Arguments at Bay—Not So for Beer and Spirits.“The most fascinating battles to watch are the ‘Word Wars’. The battle over word use and semantics that are primarily playing out in the beer and distilling industries over the term ‘Craft’. And here his the kicker/conclusion: “If there were a Robert Parker of Beer or a Wine Spectator of Beer, the meaning of ‘craft’ would be far less important.” Curious idea.
[Via Fermentation, The Daily Wine Blog]

Meet the Twinkie-saving, beer-selling billionaire who has changed the way you eat. This profile of the Metropoulos family details, rather than explains, what the family did with Pabst, the brewing concern it is selling at considerable profit.
[Via the Washington Post]

And because beer is local. Reports from Portland, Maine, and Kansas City.


All that stuff about beer quality? It starts on the farm

Roy Farms hop package label (Cascade)

A few years ago, Summit Brewing founder Mark Stutrud made a serious commitment to using locally grown barley (and a specific variety, Moravian 37) in Summit Pilsner. Listen to him talk in the video and you’ll think, yep, this is somebody who understands the importance of local.

So it is interesting to see him take a wait-and-see attitude toward using local hops.

“We’re keeping track of what’s going on in Minnesota, but a lot of folks who are starting hop farms in Minnesota don’t think of how they’re going to measure the quality of their harvest. Are they going to have a kiln? Will they pelletize or are they just going to grow the vines and say, ‘Come on over and pick them up?'”

The best the Hop Growers of America can figure Minnesota farmers planted about 20 acres of hops in 2014. But these are questions that need to be asked from the outset and often aren’t.

“I get these calls every day (from would be hop growers),” Sean McGree, hops manager at Brewers Supply Group, said the other day. “All they are worried about is getting their trellises in and hop going. They don’t realize that 60 percent of the quality that brewers see comes after the hops are picked.”

I’m more optimistic that farmers trying to revive hop growing in regions outside the American Northwest might succeed than I was three years ago, which is not to say I have any interest in investing in a hop farm. Picking and drying remains the next big challenge for many of them. But as Hop Head Farms in Michigan has shown it can be done.

The image at the top gives you an idea of one of the standards they will be expected to meet. There’s a lot more to know about what’s inside the package than the percentage of alpha acids, which many new farmers can’t even provide. Roy Farms goes beyond most, for instance including the picking and pelletizing dates as well as the crop year, but the other number to look at is the lot. Roy tracks each lot literally from the time the plants are trained to string in the spring until they are picked, processed and packaged. Ever wonder what pesticides might have been used on the hops in the glass of “wet hop” beer you had the other day at your local brewpub? Perhaps you should. (You’ll also notice that Roy Farms is as Salmon-Safe certified grower.)

This isn’t exactly related, but in doing some research for another article I was re-reading part of “Hop Culture in the United States” (1883). In it there is a report of the Chamber of Commerce for Middle Franconia in 1879:

“American Hops (we have to admit this, though unwillingly) are greatly preferred in England to ours, and have decidedly taken precedence of us in that market. Taking the excellent qualities of our produce into consideration, such a result would be quite inexplicable, if it were not that the system of German commerce, unfortunately, has itself to blame, in part for this defeat. American Hops, no matter whether of better or inferior quality, almost always appear in foreign markets in their original state, whereas, with us, parties are not ashamed to make up for exportation, hops of all countries and all qualities, mixed together, often marked with best brands on the outside of the bales, but containing the poorest kind of goods.”

Next there is this account:

“A brewer in England, a short time ago, bought a bale of hops in Nuremberg, and thought he got the genuine Bavarian article. But when he opened the bale, a slip of paper with the name of a hop-growers in Eastern Prussia on it, was found. The hops had been sold in Allenstein, Eastern Prussia, and from there found their way to Nuremberg. Being of good quality, the Englishman sent the grower, in Prussian, an order for more hops. A still more striking instance of such dealings happened in Wurtemberg, Prussia. A brewer, of that place, was prejudiced against the hops of his own country. He refused to buy hops in the Allenstein market. He wanted the genuine article from Southern Germany. He bought all he needed at Furth. But what did he find one day in a bale of Bavarian hops? A business card with the name of his next neighbor, a hop grower, whose hops he had declined to buy at any price. Unwittingly, he had taken them many a time at a fair premium, when they were sent by some Bavarian hop dealer.”

Kind of funny, but not really.


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