Sunday, January 10, 2010

Extreme Beer, Corn and Mild Beer

The latest movement in the beer world has been towards extremeness, at least in the craft brew world. Still, craft beer sales account for <5% of the market nationwide. However, extreme beer is much more interesting to write about and tends to get more press.

Also, making fun of the "Big Blands" is quite popular too. Many beer writers and indeed brewers, marketers and beer lovers make it a point to state that their beer is not as sinful as the big two (AB InBev and SABMillerCoors). We in the craft beer industry do a lot of mudslinging. We tell stories of bearded brewers in rubber boots creating art, a thing of beauty, a world-changing bottle of Double IPA to be thrown into Goliath's head. Truth is that brewers are not "rock stars". The big two are not our enemies and extreme beer is marketing concept. I am paraphrasing Jack Curtin's article "The Extreme Beer Fad" in American Brewer magazine. It's a great article that sums up what I've been feeling but is published in a trade magazine so I feel it necessary to write about it to my small audience. Forgive me, Jack.

Say something nice or not at all.

It's not fair of us to criticize the most successful breweries for making beer that the majority of Americans like. Not only does it diminish our respectfulness, it proves to the wavering light-lager drinker that craft beer is too complicated for them to enjoy. We turn off customers with our arrogance, and if the trend continues, our sales and reputation will go down. Also, the money, hours of labor, research and education we have poured into craft brewing is a tip of the iceberg compared the largest breweries worldwide. We would not be making good beer without their innovations. And I wish beer geeks would quit criticising the use of corn or other adjuncts in lager beer. The use of corn and rice in American lager beer dates back to the first brewing in America. American barley was six-row instead of the traditional two-row European varieties. The first American brewers were mainly German immigrants that were used to using 100% pure two-row barley but the six-row they found in the New World was proteinous. Because of the higher protein, the product was unstable. This was well before the invention of the whirlpool device installed in or just after the boil kettle, which was invented buy Labatt's in the 1950's (another big brewing innovation), and before Adolph Coors brought over and planted the first two-row Movarian barley. The brewers found that if a certain percentage of local corn was substituted for barley, the balance of protein to sugar would further mimic beers brewed in Europe. Brewing with corn became a traditional way of brewing in North America. Does beer brewed with all barley malt have better health benefits and superior taste? That is certainly my opinion. I think our battles against corn should be waged in our voting practices as corn is heavily subsidized by the US government. The big brewers will always use it as long as it's cheaper than domestic two-row. There is no difference between Belgian candi sugar and corn and I find it ludicrous that beers brewed with Belgian candi get positive press while corn beers get negative.

But what is this extreme beer that our craft breweries are pioneering? Is it beers brewed with strange ingredients? Highly hopped? Barrel aged? Full of booze?

Mike Stevens, president of Founders Brewing, compared the craft brewing industry to the computer industry. We do not look at our new computers that are ten times faster than our old computers and call them "extreme"? They're just better computers. He was just surmising how we would look back on the beers we brew now in twenty years, and makes a good point. Anchor's Liberty Ale or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale twenty five years ago were considered "hop bombs", but now we think of them as tame. Is this the natural evolution of brewing? Or is it a fad? I think it might be the latter. In ten years I think people may get bored of trying the next big, hoppy, wood-aged booze bomb and might just expect quality and consistency. Plus those big beers really give you a headache the next morning.

When I started here at Chuckanut I found brewers tend to look for different things in beer than consumers or beer geeks. Some of the best brewers I know would tell me that if you could make a 4% abv beer taste awesome then you can rule the brewing world. Also I found that I appreciate these beers more for their nuance and delicate flavor. These beers were easy to drink with any company and most people like them. They fit in at sporting events, a night out with friends, at a picnic, at breakfast, after church or just about anywhere else.

Andy Crouch wrote in a recent column that "...brewing a clean Helles or crisp German Pilsner is about the most radical act an American craft brewer could undertake these days." I hope he just foresaw the next movement of craft brewing, away from extremely strong flavored to extremely well made beer. Strong beers definitely have a place in craft brewing and I wish their continued success, but I expect all beer should be extremely well made. I hope that's what the public wants. In the words of Phil Markowski, "I'd like to see us taking more of a European approach-more about balance, subtlety, subtle complexity, instead of the beer-as-hot-sauce approach. It's not about machismo: it's about flavor and enjoyment, and not being whacked over the head."

All About Beer, Beer:30, Chauauqua Inc. 2009 Phil Markowski quote
BeerAdvocate issue #32 September 2009; "New Frontiers for Extreme Beer" by Andy Crouch; "Does Extreme Beer Really Exist?" by Mike Stevens
American Brewer Vol 25, No. 4 Fall 2009; Greg Kitsock's editorial; "The Extreme Beer Fad" by Jack Curtin
Siebel Institute lectures 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Sorry to be so long without an update. After a beautiful summer working as a plumber and saving up some cash, I found a job that is a perfect fit. Shanna and I moved to Bellingham, Washington and I joined Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen.

During the summer I made trips to the brewery to drop off my resume and talk with their brewer Josh. He showed me the impressive setup that brewmaster Will Kemper engineered and talked about how precise their beer could be. Whether it is pitching temperature, mashing temp or fermentation, the guys at Chuckanut had it dialed to the 1/10 of a degree. It's no wonder that they got Small Brewpub of the Year at GABF after their first time entering.

Will has been making beer for over twenty-five years. He started the Thomas Kemper Brewery in '86 and moved on to help engineer breweries across the country. He's worked at Dock Street in Philly, Capital Brewing in D.C., Aviator, a brewery in Mexico, and just recently, the first brewpub in Istanbul and more. Will also taught engineering at American Brewers Guild and is a great teacher. If you get the chance to meet Will, you'll know what I mean. Ask him any question about beer and you'll learn something. Most of the time, you'll learn more than you bargained for. It's one of the reasons I am so excited about working here. Continuing my education after school is important to me and I was afraid of being locked in a brewery job that did not push to make better product, which if you're in the industry, is so many breweries.

Chuckanut is a German lager and English ale company. They won two golds and two silvers at the GABF all in lager (Dunkel, Vienna and German Pils, Schwartzbier). That hasn't been done by a small brewpub. In a time where whatever is overly hopped, oak-aged or boozy with alcohol wins all the attention, I find it relieving that well made 5% drinkable beer could win. It might be considered radical for a small brewery to make tasty lagers and no IPAs. I thought the industry was shifting, and it probably is, but at least I know some people still appreciate delicate flavor. Those that know me know my love for well crafted lager beer and the move to Chuckanut seemed natural. But indeed, I'm lucky.

During my few talks with Josh at Chuckanut over the summer I got the impression that they would be expanding their capacity soon and would be looking for an assistant brewer. That was the time I was calling, emailing, sending my resume and just plain showing up. I got the call from Will in October asking if I was still interested in becoming a brewer. "Oh yeah!" When I went up for the interview, he informed me that sadly, Josh was leaving to work at Full Sail. So although I did replace Josh, there is no replacing Josh. He is a great guy and very methodical in the brew house. The most anal-retentive ski-bum I've met. I wish I could have learned more from him. Josh has a wife, a three-year-old and a newborn to care for and Full Sail offered him a better opportunity.

So I'll be keeping this blog updated with info about beer, it's market, how it's made and any questions anyone might ask. Hope you enjoy.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Immortal Darkness issue #1 Limited Release

Why is it that beer dorks like me are so into comic characters on their beer?

I'm the kind of nerd that always buys the new, cool beers that come out of small local breweries or specials shipped in from Belgium, England and Germany. Funny thing is that these products are very deliberately marketed. Most of the locals in Europe have never heard of those beers and very special releases are nearly only consumed by aficionados like us.

We are expected to buy cases of their product and stow them away in dark closets until the time is right and then maybe we'll open one. During times like these I am reminded of running down to the comic store and buying the much anticipated Spider-Man issues that have the first appearance of a new arch-enemy, whereupon spending ridiculous amounts of money, I would hid under my covers with a flashlight and carefully examine the inside pages. After all that bother I would seal up the comic in plastic and try to forget about it for as long as possible but show the cover to friends who could covet the value but never get to read.

Are these companies playing with our childhoods? After coming back from the World Brewing Academy last May I have had a much different view of small and large breweries. Mainly I discovered what I knew all along. They're in it for the money.

Is it too much to ask to have your favorite beers available all the time? If the money's there for the product why not? I think the limited availability adds to the mystic of the beer.

Or how about an extremely strong beer(barleywine, Imp Stout, Belgian Style) that doesn't need age? From a business prospective releasing beer before its prime is ludicrous. What if German lager brewers decided to let their consumers lager the beer in the bottle to save on cost of bright tanks? It wouldn't go over very well.

Now I know all about subtle nuances that occur at peak times during a beer's maturation in the bottle. I also know about well balanced oxidation that only comes from storage. It's not that I'm against it or wouldn't practice it. I've just come to the conclusion that all great beer should be within a few months of peak flavor when it's in the store. Just because I'm a consumer doesn't mean I'm a sucker. If I buy a $10 22oz beer and it doesn't wow me, I'll never buy it again. In fact I'll regret the purchase and will be more likely never to buy another special release from that brewery again.

And please brewers from around the world: stop putting cartoon dragons on our beer! Take us more seriously than that. Dogs are cool too but they don't need to be a centerpiece of most breweries. Also try appealing to the wine consumers. They don't have comic characters. Do you want to know why women don't drink as much beer? Their choices are the macho Bud/Miller/Coors labels or the Dragon/Dogs/Comic labels. Most women I know are a little intimidated by 22oz or 750ml bottles. (That's a lot of beer!) But Belgians bottle in massive 1.5L or sometimes 3L bottles, Americans pour by the pitcher or by the sixpack and Germans serve in boots! Smaller portions of stronger beer produced well with little need for aging would be a great change. Maybe we could convert some of the corkdorks and give beer its proper place on the gourmet dinner table.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Back in Seattle

Well, it's been a few weeks back now from Europe. I swiftly got my old job back being a service plumber. It's kind of depressing spending all that time, money, brain storage and energy studying brewing science without being able to come home and immediately apply it.

The second weekend back I had to homebrew. Missing Augustiner Helles already, I went about formulating a recipe for 11 gallons. My great friends at Beacon Hill Brewing, who have stored my stuff, were having a BBQ for Memorial Day. I got there early and brewed as best as I could to follow what I had learned (except for hot-aeration).

This last Saturday after judging at the Washington Homebrew Pro-Am, I dumped the trub and tasted a sample. Huge German hops and sulpher, just as I remember with a strong Weyermann Pils background.

The hours at plumbing are still meager and I feel like a burden to the other guys who need hours and didn't leave to study brewing. With that in mind I've sent my resume to all local Washington breweries. With a little luck you'll see me with rubber boots on in one of the country's best breweries.

Shanna and I have moved in together and are now month to month on our lease. She, like me, is happy in life but would welcome a life change. I believe we'll embrace a move if the opportunity arises.

As for now, I'm broke and out of shape. I'll keep on working off the twenty pounds that Germany bestowed me with and saving up my dollars waiting for an opening in the industry.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Aging of Beer

When I first came to Germany I noticed right away that the beer tasted different than in the States. It tasted clean and fresh, with good hop character and a tasty malt profile. While traveling through Belgium and the Netherlands I've noticed that the Belgian style beers either taste the way they do in the States or a little different.

In the States the dominant character of Belgian beer in my mind is the yeast. It adds all the esters, light fusals, phenols, and the typical bready flavor. What I wasn't ready for when I tried my first fresh Belgian beer is that the hops are very forward in most styles. They're bitter! Also the lack of aging allows fresh malt character I'm not used to in a Belgian beer.

To tell the truth, I like the aged Belgian beers that I get in the States compared to the same product only a few weeks old. And that leads me to my question if anyone is still reading this beer blog:

How do you store your beer? Why do you celler beer? What kinds of beer do you celler and what do you think it'll achieve? What's your oldest beer? Will you invite me over to drink your oldest beer?

I've been in the school of thought that beer should be drank fresh and only Lambics should be aged. However, two of my favorite Belgian beers, Westmalle's tripel and dubbel, I can say taste far better a little old.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gastronomical delight

After a long day of walking lost around Amsterdam, Shanna and I are staying in to catch up on the sleep we missed on the overnight train. Right now Shanna's making pancetta pasta with onions, mushrooms and arrabbiata sauce and I'm finishing a Westvleteren 8.

The 8 smells of figs and cherries just like a well aged barleywine. The subtle oxidation that makes this sherry-like nose is one of my favorites. It appears dark brown and has plenty of yeast floaties in it. The taste is strongly carbonated, sweet and delicious. Not phenolic or fusel, it has big esters that coat the mouth. It's a delicious beer. It reminds me of a very good bottle of Chimay Grande Reserve. Although this may be considered a dubbel, I would lump it in the dark strong catagory. Sure it has the lower alcohol %, but the warming flavor, lack of intense caramel flavors and well aged caracteristics move me toword the the dark strong.

Shanna's having a Westmalle Tripel right now. We also got the Westvleteren 12, Brew Dog Paradox Islay and a Danish porter named Hamer and Sikkel by De Molen. The Brew Dog is a islay casked imperial stout. Mmmm Mmm.

We've also been treating ourselves to raw milk Cambert, Buffalo Mozzarella, Swiss Appenzeller, authentic Landjager, and of course chocolate. Tonight we're eating Mozart balls for dessert with the White Widow.

Goodbye Munich!

Sorry I've not been keeping up the blog so well. The traveling made it very difficult and now the screen on my laptop is broken. Oh well, I'll keep chiming in as much as I can with the hotel/hostel computers.

We had a fun graduation on Friday; Lyn from Siebel flew out to Bavaria to hand us our diplomas. We got to sample our horrible wheat beers and our IPA. Later that night I met up with Shanna, (finally!), and we went to join the rest of the fellas at Augustiner Keller for some liters and some goodbyes. I've spent more time with these guys in the last three months than I do my best friends in a few years. Although at times I got really sick of them (and them of me), I know that I made some great friends for the rest of my life. Now if only there were some yearly beer festival held in the center of the country that we could all meet up at...?

Shanna and I had a wonderful three days in Munich. We ran into Nick Phelps and Annie at Dachau and ended up at St. Jakobus in Polach for a beer. Now we're in Amsterdam on a house boat were we'll stay through Queen's Day. Queen's Day is like St Patrick's Day but you wear orange instead of green. After Amsterdam we'll be going through Belgiam and on to Paris to meet up with friends and fly home.

I'll try to blog some more beer geek stuff, but for now I'm just relaxing.

Ta Ta for now,