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Epic, indeed

It makes no sense to endorse a beer from a brewery whose products you’ve never tasted, but we’d sure like to try Epic Strong Ale from Roots Organic Brewing, a brewpub that opened in Portland, Oregon, earlier this year.

The beer is 14% abv and calculated IBUs are 70, but it’s not those numbers that intrigue. The recipe includes 60 pounds of malt smoked over cherry wood then soaked in single-malt scotch, brandy and cherry juice.

The execution may suck – although the early reviews of Roots’ beer indicate otherwise – but that’s not the point. The willingness of brewers – be they American, Belgian or Chilean – to attempt such experiments keeps the category moving forward. Pretty exciting.

UPDATE: Roots closed in 2010.

Fighting for a better image

U.S. brewing companies aren’t the only one concerned about beer’s image.

An article in the Los Angeles Times (free registration required) reveals that when Heineken opened a restaurant specializing in beer year on Paris’ Champs Elysees, it banned the kind of food typically found in German beer halls.

From the story:

Culture Biere offers cumin-flavored tortillas and pan-seared prawns in ginger. The restaurant opened in July with the ambitious aim of changing the image of beer in France.

Heineken, like other brewers, is trying to figure out how to arrest a decline in consumption of beer in many countries in Western Europe, as imbibers increasingly favor other kinds of alcoholic beverages.

Heineken does not expect Culture Biere to be profitable. Instead, the Dutch brewer sees its investment (it will not disclose how much money it has spent) in the Culture Biere brand as a marketing tool.

“If we defend the category, we defend our business,” said Richard Weissend, director general of Brasseries Heineken.

Many brewers are finding that they are several years behind their counterparts in the spirits business in terms of understanding drinkers and communicating with them. “Beer as an industry has been too inward-looking for too long,” said Richard Evans, vice president of marketing for InBev.

International brewers are trying different tactics. For instance:

– Danish brewer Carlsberg opened a brewery in Copenhagen, the Jacobsen brew house, to develop new types of beer, including seasonal and “experimental” brews. Only 1% of the brewer’s total sales are derived from these beers.

– InBev is targeting the Leffe brand at older drinker, a group it says has been neglected by the beer industry. “Sometimes the industry behaves as if people die or stop drinking when they hit 40,” Evans says.

– In contrast, Heineken believes that the best way of keeping customers loyal is to catch them before they turn 35. Consequently, it is focusing on marketing activities that resonate with young people.

You may not be interested in drinking Heineken or Leffe or other beers from this large brewing companies, but how well they fare in upgrading beer’s image will make a significant difference in what sort of beers are available to all of us.

Tasting note: Pêché Mortel

Pêché Mortel from Canada’s Brasserie Dieu du Ciel certainly qualifies as one of the most hyped beers of 2005. Is it that good?

Roger Baylor, a.k.a. The Potable Curmudgeon, says yes:

All I can say is, “wow.”

Beers truly worth the hype are rare, but if – and only if “ you enjoy coffee the way I enjoy coffee, Peche Mortel is amazing, and perhaps worth the deal I’m about to offer you.

Of the essential components of Imperial Stout, a strident black color and a mouth-filling body (9% abv) are the only ones making a showing alongside the strident coffee character, which acts as the surrogate balancing hop in this luxurious ale. As with espresso, it’s overwhelmingly roasty, and leaves a faint acidic tickle going down my throat.

Very, very specialized – and very, very good.

Beer on a Champagne budget

The mainstream press loves stories about expensive beers – maybe so they can write headlines like the one above.

The Sunday Times in Britain examined beer menus in upscale restaurants yesterday, noting early on:

Rupert Ponsonby, a spokesman for the Beer Naturally campaign, set up by brewers to encourage restaurants to widen their beer selection, said: “Drinks like DeuS (from the Bosteels brewery in Belgium) show what’s possible and will help change perceptions of beer. It’s crazy that a restaurant can have 250 wines and just three beers.”

The story pays particular attention to DeuS, first because it is expensive, but also because of the way it is produced. After being brewed, DeuS travels to a cellar near Epernay in Champagne and is re-fermented like a sparkling wine to give it its bubbles. It is remains for nine months, then is riddled (like Champagne). Yeast that gathers at the neck of the bottle is frozen and removed (like sparkling wine) before the bottles are corked for sale.

Is Joanna Simon, the Sunday Times wine critic, impressed?

“It’s a very good beer. But no matter how it’s dressed up – and, boy, it is dressed up – it’s still only beer.

“The palate is creamy-smooth, fruity and malty-sweet, and the finish is clean with characteristic beer bitterness. But it’s short and that’s the problem. Why pay good money for a taste that disappears in a couple of seconds? I’d rather have half a bottle of good champagne.”

That’s OK, but it misses the point. Truthfully, I’m not a much of a fan of DeuS – the combination of many spices doesn’t work for me and the Champagne aspect seems like a gimmick.

But distinctive beers – and that means good tasting as well as unusual – push our idea of what beer should be forward, creating demand for a wider range of beers that eventually spread the category horizontally. That’s worth paying more for.

Getting your money’s worth

When should you pay $3.99 for a 22-ounce bottle of beer you’ve never seen before instead of $2.99 (or $4.99) for one you know well?

– Taste blind. Is it the label or what’s inside the bottle? Tasting blind removes a key bias.

– Taste across styles. Tast a variety of styles to find out what you like.
You might love Baltic Porters and yawn at brown ales. If you form a tasting club then each member can try a few ounces of any particular beer, and you’ll have the chance to find out what style you prefer. Consider taking notes. You don’t have to assign scores, but writing down what you discover, and what others are tasting, will help you find still more flavors.

– Taste across prices. Try beers of the same style at different price points so see if paying more is worth it.

– Be different. Consider buying what’s “out of favor.” Also don’t rush to buy every new beer or seasonal that may offered just once (for good reason).

– Christmas in July. If you are buying a beer you intend to cellar then look for years, watch for beers your retailer may have marked down because they’ve gone “out of date.”

– Pay for flavor, not alcohol. If you think only in terms of buzz for the buck you’ll overlook many excellent beers.

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