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The Session #72: Beer love

I guess we’ve come full circle
We’re strangers once again
It’s hard to know we’d ever come to this
It’s funny you were saying how you’d miss
The good ole times
While all alone I’m thinking
You’re the one I’ll miss

Love’s a word I never throw around
So when I say I love you ’til the end
I’m talking about ’til the day
They toss me in the ground
Love’s a word I never throw around

        – Robert Earl Keen, “Love’s a Word I Never Throw Around”

The Session

For the 72nd gathering of The Session host Ryan Newhouse asks contributors write about “How We Love Beer.” The key word, he points out, is how. “I’m not looking for what characteristics beer has that makes us love it, but what we do to show our love for it.”

One of my personal rules when I write about anything is to question everything, including myself. In this case the question is: Do I write about beer, in this space and elsewhere, because I have a taste for it, because I’m addicted to collecting stories and retelling them, or because writing about beer is my primary source of income?

The answer is B and C, but of course there is another question. One I continue to consider more than five years after Michael Jackson wrote this mysterious paragraph, at least mysterious to me, in a column that appeared in All About Beer magazine after he died.

Being a critic is one of the things I do for a living. Being a reporter is another. Is a reporter a fearless seeker-out of truth, neutral and objective? Or does he recruit those qualities in support of his personal passions? When I enlisted, at the age of sixteen, I may have been attracted by the powerful purity of the first role. In the event, I grew into the second.

I would have liked to have asked him just what he meant there, about the reporter part, not the critic part. Not that I would necessarily have agreed with him, but because it seems to me thinking about such matters may result in better beer writing. And although showing a little love for beer in general is not my primary goal in improving how I write about the topic, it’s probably a side effect.

Enough about me. Tomorrow it’s back to writing about beer, maybe Clydesdales and Budweiser Black Crown, or perhaps how the distortion of the essential oil composition during isolation by steam distillation can significantly interfere with hop analysis and cause imprecise quantification of key compounds. I might be kidding.

Tomorrow’s classic beers

In the course of six revisions after his first Pocket Guide to Beer Michael Jackson elevated (and sometimes later demoted) only 20 beers to “world classic” status. He didn’t use the term casually.

As Alan fairly points out this was the opinion of but one man. One more qualified to comment than any, but just a important one who gave us an “exploration to follow.”

That’s why I keep pointing to what he wrote in the introduction to Beer (Eyewitness Companions). (He wrote the introduction a few months before he died in 2007; the book came out a few months after his death.)

First:

“Today, neither European brewers nor most drinkers on either side of the Atlantic have yet grasped that tomorrow’s most exciting styles of beers will be American in conception.”

Then:

“The nation that makes the world’s lightest-tasting beers also produces the most assertive beers. Tomorrow’s classics will evolve from a new breed of American brewers that are categorized by their admirers as ‘Extreme Beers.’ These are the most intense-tasting beers every produced anywhere in the world. They include classic European-style stouts that are richer, toastier, and roastier than anything yet produced in Ireland; ales massively more bitterly appetizing than any in Britain; ‘wild’ beers more sharply, quenchingly sour than their Belgian counterparts; wheat beers so spicily phenolic as to make a Bavarian choke on his mid-morning weisswurst; and pilsners so aromatic as to tempt the Good Soldier Schweik — the eponymous hero of Jaroslave Hasek’s comic novel.

“Sometimes the new US beers combine elements from more than one style, but with a view to achieving greater distinctiveness rather than to merge into blandness. The best example I ever experienced was the Smoked Porter of the Alaskan Brewing Company.”

Quite obviously he was not done exploring beer or celebrating the new. He didn’t find appreciating both “extreme” and “traditional” beers a contradiction.

You know, I think I’ll leave it at that rather than starting a conversation about what individual beers he would have given four stars.

 

Pilsner Urquell: 5 weeks does not equal 3 months

After touring the Pilsner Urquell brewery last November I promised that when I got a chance I’d take a look at Michael Jackson’s video report from 1989 (the Beer Hunter series) to compare what he saw then with what Pilsner Urquell says is how long they’ve “always” lagered beer.

Michael Jackson at Pilsner Urquell

I tell you, that’s one great half hour of video. Discovery really needs to reissue the three hours of video in DVD form (before our VCR dies). Incredible details about the wooden vessels the brewery was using, the coopering, the whole process. I love watching Jackson wander through the caves, and the Hitchcockian moment where a giant barrel appears to be stalking him. You get thirsty seeing him march around open wooden fermenters, then he climbs a ladder to loom over one and explain that this is one of the things that make Pilsner Urquell different, presumably better. He says that others in the industry have told the brewery it is crazy not to modernize but that its leaders swear they won’t abandon open fermentation. Sigh.

But back to the question at hand. These days Pilsner Urquell lagers its beers five weeks, claiming this is the same amount of time as when Josef Groll first brewed the beer in 1842. On the other hand, the Beer Hunter report in 1989? “Three months,” which on my calendar is one quarter of a year (13 weeks).

What do beer people really want to read about?

Michael Jackson and Blue Moon.

Those were the most popular search terms that brought readers here in 2007. Looking at lists of the best read posts at several blogs I read got me poking around the stats at Appellation Beer, to see what you were reading and to try to guess why.

I was surprised this final post of the year will be the 299th, more than double 2006 and a lot more than I expect in 2008. An explanation about why week after next, when we’re back from an Internetless shakeout cruise that’s practice for a trip we expect to occupy much of 2008 and 2009.

Anyway, I won’t be finishing 2007 with a list of “top beer stories” (we already know the biggest one is also the one that still makes us terribly sad). I do recommend Don Russell’s look back with some make-you-smile predictions.

And I can tell you that the search terms that are trending up are Firestone, beer sommelier and Michelada.

Make of that what you will, as well as this list of the best read stories here during 2007:

1- Michael Jackson: Journalist
2- Russian River Brewing expansion update
3 – Blue Moon: Peter, Paul & Mary or Trini Lopez?
4 – 10 Beers that changed America
5 – New Beer Rule #2: IBUs and IQs
6 – And now . . . Imperial Hefeweizen
7 – Firestone 11 and a ‘Tale of Two Matts’
8 – Globalization versus local versus variety
9 – Fantasy Beer Dinner #1: Neal Stewart
10 – A million dollars worth of beer?

See you next week in time for The Session #11.

The 42 best beers in the world, circa 1982

Michael Jackson Pocket Guide to Beer - 1982When somebody talks about “MJ’s list of best beers” do you think about the latest offering from Men’s Journal or one from Michael Jackson?

Me too.

Working on another project I recently hauled out his first Pocket Guide to Beer, published in 1982 and opened enough times since that the 18 pages containing Guinness through Anchor keep falling out.

This was the only pocket guide where Jackson used a 5-star rating. In following editions the highest was 4. In essence, each 5-star beer in this edition was a best of breed, so Zum Uerige Altbier represents that style, Westmalle Tripel that one, etc. (More about this at the bottom.)

Just for fun, here are the 42 beers that Jackson awarded 5 stars. (He also gave all 12 traditional Lambic brewers in the Senne Valley 5 stars “for dedication to an elusive craft,” adding “their products vary according to the good years and the bad, a greater discrimination would be illogical.”)

Czech Republic
Pilsner Urquell

Germany
Jever Pilsner
Einbecker Ur-Bock
Dortmunder Kronen Export
Zum Uerige Altbier
Kulminator 28 Urtyp Hell
Hofbräuhaus Maibock
Hofbräuhaus Edel-Weizen
Paulaner Urtyp
Paulaner Salvator
Schlenkerla Märzen
Spaten Dunkel Export
Spaten Ur-Märzen
Weihenstephan Weizenbock
Kindl Berliner Weisse

Belgium
Duvel
Liefmans Goudenband Speciaal Provisie
Rodenbach
Rodenbach Grand Cru
Westmalle Tripel
Hoegaards Wit
Saison Dupont
Chimay Red
Chimay Blue
Orval

Britain and Ireland
Brakspear’s Pale Ale
Courage Imperial Russian Stout
Fuller’s ESB
Gales Prize Old Ale
Whitbread Gold Label
Mackeson
Marston’s Pedigree
Marston’s Owd Roger
Highgate Mild
Thomas Hardy’s Ale
Belhaven 80/-
Traquair House
Guinness Extra Stout (Britain and Ireland)
Guinness Foreign Extra Stout

France
Jenlain

United States
Anchor Steam

Australia
Cooper’s Sparkling Ale

In the introduction Jackson explained a beer rated 5 stars was “a world classic either because it has outstanding complexity and distinction or because it is the definitive example of its style, and no matter whether everyone is capable of appreciating it; some people probably don’t like first-growth Bordeaux, either.”

In later editions he introduced the star ratings by making it clear they compared beers within a region to each other. For this first one, he wrote, “The whole scale of ratings in the German section tends to be high because all beers in that country are of what must be recognized internationally as a particularly good quality.”

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