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Who cares if beer has a tail?

Geez, take a few days to go drink beer with homebrewers (the National Homebrew Conference) and all kinds of interesting discussions break out related to our access to better beer.

First there was this: The long tail of the alcohol distribution curve in a business innovation blog.

That lead to this interesting post: Did the Long Tail just become a hit, or did it jump the shark, or is it just mainstream now?

And this one from the Long Tail itself, which might help you understand more about the “long tail” concept. (Daniel Bradford also wrote about this in his editorial in the May issue of All About Beer Magazine.)

If you’ve got this far and not clicked yet then much of this is summarized by Jay Brooks before he adds lots of thoughts of his own. It’s hard to comment on Jay’s post – other than to note he obviously has too much time on his hands – because he touches on many subjects I’d like to agree, and sometimes disagree, with him on.

So to stick with one: When he writes “we must act as a cohesive group” you may not be sure how that might include you.

Stone Brewing co-founder Greg Koch put the responsibility for keeping great beer available for all of us – and making it available to still more – on all of us. If his keynote address gets posted online somewhere I’ll add a link. For now, a quick summary from memory (disclaimer: I was drinking Stone IPA at the time, having judged beers all morning).

If you go into a restaurant, bar or beer store that isn’t offering the beer you want then demand that they do – or at least some other great beer. Remember you are the one who gets to define what a great beer is – not a fast-talking distributor.

Don’t serve your friends “stepping stone” beers because they are have more flavor than mainstream but not as much as those you like because you fear your friends (and relatives) can’t handle that much. Koch used the example of ordering a keg of beer for a wedding. Serve them great beer and they’ll thank you for it.

The access to market issues that Jay concludes his post with are real – in fact, I heard some other scary tales over the weekend – but there’s still a grass roots element to the Great Beer Movement (notice how we’ve moved up from better beer to great beer?).

That’s our part.

Blurring the line between beer and wine

My first thought on seeing the headline “Craft Beer Steps Into Wine Country” was that wine country (Northern California) was one of the early beachheads for craft beer.

In fact, the story in Advertising Age (warning, sometimes you can link here and later the story will be listed as paid content) the story notes that small-batch brewers are “increasingly cribbing vintners’ marketing techniques in an effort to keep volume and prices buzzing.”

Methods long synonymous with high-end wine marketing, such as reserve bottlings, vintage dating, future-allocation programs and even vertical tastings (in which drinkers compare multiple vintages of the same beverage) are becoming increasingly commonplace among craft brewers.

The story looks into pricing, reporting how Grand Teton in Wyoming is able to charge twice as much for a single one-liter “reserve” bottle than it does for a regular six-pack Of course there is the success of Stone Brewing’s Vertical Epic Ales.

Stone Brewing CEO Greg Koch says the brewery’s emphasis on vintages has created a demand for older bottles. A 2002 bottle, which cost $4.99 upon release, fetched $400 on eBay last November. Mr. Koch says that degree of consumer enthusiasm has driven production from 300 bottles in 2002, the inaugural bottling, to 7,500 bottles this year, which is on pace to sell out.

“It really is a lot like selling fine wine, very boutique-ish,” Fred Rosen of Sam’s Wine and Spirits in Chicago told the reporter. “The beer and wine sections are looking more alike all the time.”

Wine should be so lucky.

The spirit of experimentation

What’s it take to brew a beer that wins in the experimental category at the World Beer Cup or Great American Beer Festival?

“That experimental category is really, from a brewer’s perspective, the most exciting one to win,” said Chuck Skypeck of the Tennessee-based Boscos brewpub chain. His experimental beers have twice won gold at GABF. “It’s really looking at experimentation and innovation. That’s really at the heart of experimental brewing.”

The matter came up in a story from the News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., about Wallking Man Brewing in western Washington. Walking Man’s Bloot Voeste Bruin captured gold in the experimental category at the 2006 WBC.

Brewer Bob Craig innoculated Bloot Voeste Bruin with Kombucha to get fermentation rolling.

It (Kombucha) looks like a Silly Putty mushroom. It’s a fermented mass of yeast and bacteria that grows on a mixture of black or green tea and sugar. Kombucha dates to ancient China and Russia. Some people believe kombucha wards off cancer and everyday ailments. Others say it may cause liver damage.

Available in tea and soft drinks, kombucha sucks the saliva from your cheeks faster than a mouthful of aspirin and lime.

Bloot Voeste Bruin isn’t all that outlandish a beer. It took its inspiration from Duchess de Bourgogne, a popular Flemish red ale. And Craig shouldn’t be viewed as a brewer of only oddities. His hop-driven beers quickly established a loyal Northwest following and Walking Man IPA also captured gold at the World Beer Cup.

Tradition is a guide and not a jailer

More about tradition . . .

The headline is a quote from W. Somerset Maugham and the following paragraph from winemaker Annette Hoff:

. . . a philosophical struggle I have been dealing with the last few years, and that is the idea that can a wine be made traditionally in modern times? How could it truly be “traditional” when made with modern equipment, commercial yeast, in stainless steel or plastic bins, with modern manipulation, technological know-how, bottling lines, etc. etc.? A “traditional” wine, in my mind at least, would seem to have been made by folks who are more in touch with nature, the soil and the seasons, than most folks are today. But, in spite of all of this, I truly believe I’m making a traditional product, but my problem was that I haven’t had a whole lot of evidence to back this idea up, even to myself.

Just substitute the word beer for wine and give it a little thought.

Caracole

Worth considering whether you are arguing about lambic or considering an American (Imperial-Double-India) pale ale with more hop flavor than any other beer in history.

Belgium’s eating and drinking tradition

While doing some filing I came across a few notes takien from the Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook by Ruth Van Waerebeek and Maria Robbins.

Quite honestly, the best way for me to keep track of these lovely quotes is to store them here.

“Given this bounty of wonderful food, it may surprise you to learn that there are few cookbooks devoted to Belgian cooking published in Belgium. The reason is simple. In Belgium, the secrets of cooking are still transmitted orally. Recipes, techniques, tradition, tastes and passions are passed along from generation to generation . . .”

The book emphasizes a strong link between brewing and cooking traditions (see below), so a few points seem worth emphasizing:

– In a conversation with Brother Joris, the monk in charge of brewing at Abbey Saint Sixtus (Westvleteren), he explained why he did something a particular way. He simply learned the practice from Brother Filip, the previous brewer. “That’s our training,” Brother Joris said. “The knowledge is passed on from brother to brother.”

– To celebrate 60 years of operation, Bert Van Hecke is producing a special version of St. Bernaruds Abt 12 at Brouwerij Sint-Bernardus, located not far from Westvleteren. For 46 years, Sint-Bernardus produced beer under contract for Westvleteren – beer that was sold under the Saint Sixtus label in the United States.

Because the head brewer from Westvleteren helped set up the Saint Bernardus brewery, it seems likely he brought along the original Westvleteren recipes, and Van Hecke says that to his knowledge the recipes haven’t changed since.

As you might understand, neither Brother Joris nor Van Hecke is handing out detailed information about their recipes but based on what they will say the recipes for Abt 12 and Westvleteren 12 are no longer the same. That’s what happens when things are passed on via verbal communication – they change, maybe for the better, maybe not.

– Not not only are recipes passed on but also tastes and passions. Just as important. Make that more important.

Another great quote:

“What makes them (brewers) unique is that over the centuries these beer brewers have remained faithful to their origins and traditions and thereby have developed a degree of perfection, originality, and variety unknown in any other country in the world. The same can be said for Belgium’s extensive and varied beer cuisine.”

Understand why it matters that the passion be kept alive?

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