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25 beers you wouldn’t kick out of the fridge

Another list. This one from Men’s Journal.

It’s received plenty of attention on beer discussion boards – see Rate Beer discussion; Beer Advocate – because notice in such a high profile publication always seems like validation.

It helps that it is a list of very good beers:

1 Firestone Walker Pale Ale
2 Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA
3 Stoudt’s Pils
4 Russian River Temptation
5 Avery Mephistopheles
6 Anderson Valley Boont Amber
7 Great Lakes Holy Moses White Ale
8 Full Sail Session Lager
9 Rogue Brutal Bitter
10 Bell’s Expedition Stout
11 Southampton Double White
12 Smuttynose Big A IPA
13 Penn Weizen
14 Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale
15 Ommegang Hennepin
16 Samuel Adams Black Lager
17 Sprecher Hefe-Weiss
18 Alaskan Amber
19 Deschutes Broken Top Bock
20 Lost Abbey Avant Garde
21 Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bier
22 Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock
23 Allagash Interlude
24 Alesmith Speedway Stout
25 New Glarus Yokel

I like that it gives extra credit for striking a balance between innovation and tradition.

I like that they made Firestone Walker Pale Ale their No. 1, even if I might prefer the Double Barrel Ale, because the brewery wins medals right and left in blind tastings but can’t seem to get any love from online beer activists.

I like that it is cutting edge – with the funky little (4.6% abv) Bam Biere from the funky little Jolly Pumpkin brewery sneaking in at No. 21. And you can’t be much more up-to-date than Lost Abbey Avant Garde from Port Brewing (a beer that deserves a post of its own – in the next few days).

What I don’t like is the promo on the cover – “25 Greatest American Beers” – or the headline on the story – “25 Best Beers in America.”

What a silly notion. You need only compare the list Men’s Journal published in 2004 to the 2006 list (in 2005 the magazine picked the “Best 50” beers in the world, equally silly).

Only one beer – Alaskan Amber – made the 2004 and 2006 lists. Did everybody else forget how to brew?

No, 12 of the 23 breweries that were on the 2004 list (two breweries had two beers) also made the 2006 list. But instead of calling Deschutes Mirror Pond Ale No. 1, as in 2004, the authors listed Deschutes Broken Top Bock at No. 19.

Instead of honoring Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils – No. 2 in the U.S. in 2004, No. 1 pilsner in the world in 2006 – they singled out Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock (No. 22).

You can’t sell magazines publishing the same list every year. Of course, that’s not altogether bad for the breweries on the list, because it gives them more accolades to promote (one more thing I like about the list).

Still … 25 Greatest?

No. What they really published is a list of “24 really good beers we didn’t write about two years ago and Alaskan Amber.” A job well done, but a lousy headline.

A beer menu that gets it

Anything less than a Singha now would be making Martha Graham do the Hokey Pokey. – From the beer menu at Baan Sawan Thai Bistro in Columbia, S.C.

The State in South Carolina found this beer menu quirky enough to write a story about, and discovered an interesting 27-year-old behind it.

When Sam Suaudom Jr. wrote descriptions the first time around he stuck to more technical descriptions and efforts to describe flavor in conventional ways. Version 5.0 is quite different. Suaudom told State:

“It just seemed like they were asking specifically what was written in there. Well, I should just write what I want.”

So Suaudom, who graduated from the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, went off the deep end with descriptors, employing a pattern of florid, first-person accounts of romantic settings punctuated by a witty twist.

Granted, some of the descriptions have nothing to do with flavor, but Suaudom said beer and wine sales increased from 12 percent to 25 percent of Baan Sawanâ’s total sales since he began making the special menus.

A couple of examples:

Budweiser and Bud Light
Mr. Randall Oxley popped open his Bud and waxed rhapsodic on his current romantic imbroglio. His descriptions were urbane yet ribald and as his companion chortled good naturedly he opened his own beverage. The sound of his Bud Light answered that of the Bud. ‘What should I do?’ Oxley asked. ‘Oh, my good man,’ responded Lord Ottombottom, ‘What shouldn’t you do?’

Baltika #6 Porter
Her eyes cut into me as she poured her #6. It was as dark as her hair and her heart and she eased a finger up the side of the glass to catch an errant drip of froth that had spilled over. I looked away as she licked her finger clean. I drank my own #6 and tried to lose myself in its coffee and chocolate bitterness but my own bitterness was distracting. I hate her so much. But don’t tell her I said that.

Suaudom said a man told him he blushed when reading the description of Baltika. Suaudom didn’t say if he ordered the beer.

Speaking of hops

HopsThe Wall Street Journal has a feature today on fresh hop beers. (it’s a subscription site, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a version of the story that works in a pinch).

The story alone is good enough reason to pick up WSJ if you don’t subscribe. One highlight:

The hop infatuation has resulted in a game of chicken among brewers, who have continued their effort to out-bitter the next guy – as evidenced by beer labels that boast mixed hops, extra hops or triple hops. Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., calls its Stone Ruination India Pale Ale “a liquid poem to the glory of the hop!” Delaware’s Dogfish Head has pioneered a pair of hop-enhancing technologies, including a “continuous hopping machine” that adds hops gradually over up to two hours of brewing instead of throwing some in at the beginning, middle and end, as is customary. The brewery also invented a method for delivering a final hoppy hit to kegged beer by running it through a hop-stuffed chamber before it hits the pint glass. Dogfish Head calls the device Randall the Enamel Animal, and some bars and beer stores have also started serving “Randalled” beers.

As much as I enjoy geeky hop talk – let’s argue for a moment about if the importance of co-humulone level is overrated – this is a terrific story because it gives the average person an idea of why the flavors are different in such beers.

Randy Mosher, a beer author and instructor at Siebel Institute of Technology, a Chicago brewing school, says there’s little historical precedent for using hops within a few hours of picking. “What people are trying to do with craft beer is put people in touch with their food again, and remind them that they’re drinking an agricultural product,” he says.

Since it is popular sport in the beer press to pick on factual problems with stories from the non-beer press, kudos to this story for reaching out to both the hop experienced and beer novice.

A fresh-hop beer can often, in fact, be less bitter than a corresponding version with dried hops, and instead is powered by floral, citrus tastes. The retained oils line the inside of the mouth and have a tinge of greenish, vegetal flavors. (Many brewers recommend drinking their wet hops with a glass of water.) It’s easy to taste the difference between a normal brew and a fresh-hop version — though that isn’t always a good thing. “If you’re not careful you can end up with a beer that tastes like lawn clippings,” says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.

At the end it notes Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher’s Tastings column will return to this space on Sept. 8, indicating this story ran in place of one of the best – and best-read – wine columns in the country. It was written with similar sophistication, the sort of approach that wine afficiandos who talk about “hang time” expect.

10 Reasons Craft Beers Sales Are Hot

A post at conjectures about why craft beer sales are up 11% so far this year.

Brendan Picha gives a lot of credit to imported beers, starting the with UK icon Samuel Smith. Yes it’s true that dam was opened in this order:

– Michael Jackson wrote the World Guide to Beer.

– Charles Finkel read the World Guide and called Jackson in London to praise the book. They quickly became friends, and soon Finkel’s company – Merchant du Vin – was importing beers Finkel had read about in the World Guide, including Samuel Smith. Imports were an inspiration for American brewers and an introduction to classic flavors for American drinkers.

Anyway, Picha then outlines what he summarizes this way: “This is a short snowball effect theory that I think may be responsible for craft’s current marketplace presence and demand.” Give it a read.

That got me thinking. The result is “10 Reasons Craft Beers Sales Are Hot.” (Disclaimer: This is a list is not the top 10 – and order is random after the first two).

1. These beers have more flavor.

2. Michael Jackson. The reasons listed above are just a start. The next list should be 10 Ways Michael Jackson Saved The World From Bad Beer. He’s shown here with Jeff Bagby and Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing/Lost Abbey.

Michael Jackson

3. Hops. OK, zealously defending hops has been known to get me in trouble. It’s just that innovative use of hops helped set American craft brewers apart from the start. (Before you send that e-mail, innovative use of hops does not mean using enough to take the chrome off the back of your pick-up truck. Firestone Walker innovative will do.)

4. Brewpubs. When craft sales were up 9% in 2005, brewpub sales grew less than 3%. That’s not the point – they put the roots in grassroots, because they are still the place many people are introduced to flavorful beer. Some of the most innovative (there’s that word again) beers, which literally inspired new styles, were and are first made in brewpubs.

5. Cult producers. When you look at the numbers, “accessible” beers that lots of people drink are driving growth. But extreme beers generate excitement.

6. The Internet. News travels quickly these days and the online communities are huge.

7. Importers. The sale of imports also remained strong in the first half of 2006, but IRI mostly measures beers sold in grocery stores – such at Heineken and Corona. I’m talking about the smaller importers, the ones who continue to find new and exciting beers (see Nos. 5 and 6).

8. What goes around comes around. A few months ago in England I had a wonderful 4% abv cask-conditioned bitter spiced with American Amarillo hops. Innovation is a two-way street. Some American brewer is going to taste a beer like that and say: “Hey, we can do that at home.”

9. Great retailers. Meaning bars/taverns/pubs as well as stores (both independents and the likes of Whole Foods – just think about when Costco starts to offer beer that rivals its range of wines).

10. Niches are good. In the mid-90s megabrewers invested in smaller breweries and experimented with specialty styles. Interest that waned then seems to be returning, but no matter how good of beer they decide to make there are some things they will never choose to do. That leaves an opportunity for those willing to do a little bit more.

Consider what Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing has to say about his beers that may spend a year aging in wood before they are ready to sell: “These beers reflect a slower pace of life. Americans are so into ‘I want it all and I want it now.’ That’s why I don’t think many brewers will get into aging. They aren’t going to commit the time or the space.”

Is craft beer bucking a trend?

Two news stories from yesterday:

– The Wall Street Journal reported reported that the trend toward “trading up” is slowing for many consumer products.

– The Brewers Association reported craft beer sales roared ahead at an 11% clip in the first half of 2006.

Craft beer

If the former trend continues through the coming months how long can the latter trend go on?

Any answer is a guess. For instance, Information Resources Inc. (IRI), which takes most of its data from grocery stores and supercenters, reported craft sales grew 12-13% in the first half of the year and dollar sales were up 15-16%. Those numbers don’t include beers from many smaller brewers, and certainly not from brewpubs, but they indicate the inroads craft breweries have made.

Also, the WSJ story notes that because they are less likely to “trade up” that “middle-income families visiting more mass merchants and grocery stores than specialty outlets.” Since they are more likely to find great beer in those stores than before they may consider that beer more necessity than “affordable luxury.”

Plenty of reasons remain to be cautious. The Journal reports that Starbucks, Whole Foods and specialty-sandwich chain Panera Bread Co. all recently reported disappointing sales and pointed to higher gas price. Restaurants catering to middle-income consumers are seeing a sales slump too.

WSJ concludes by consulting Michael Silverstein, who co-authored the book Trading Up. He said middle-income shoppers are still trading up for high-end items, but are “‘making much more deliberate choices and being much more tough-minded about what they want. . . . The investment thesis has to be: Are you generating heat? The companies that aren’t are in trouble.”

For now at least, craft brewers have plenty of heat.

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