Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Greatest Crime in Craft Beer

With a title that makes a claim such as this, the mind races through probably dozens of possible offenses perpetrated against or even by the craft beer industry itself. Any of these offenses may qualify, depending on your personal drinking preferences and level of passion for today’s craft beer movement. Could it be the bland light lagers forced upon us by the major commercial breweries, whom we all know to be evil incarnate? Could it be the radical and experimental (and often mediocre) brews put out by craft breweries in an attempt to recapture their bleeding edge? Could it even be the overzealous online fans of craft beer themselves?

In fact, the greatest crime in the craft beer world today is something so innocuous and subtle that it most likely has escaped notice by most craft beer consumers. It has crept upon us silently over the past few years and has spread now widely in some areas, especially with the advent of the more upscale drinking establishments and fashionable gastropubs. It is not something new that has been added but instead something that has gone missing: the simple
16-ounce pint glass.

The pint glass has been the standard of goods exchange for draft beer retailers for generations of beer drinkers. A  U.S. liquid pint is a volume of measure defined as 16 ounces, or around 473 milliliters. (The British went so far as to regulate the servings of beer by law centuries ago, hence their 20-ounce imperial pint.) The name pint has its roots in the Old French and ultimately in the Latin picta, meaning “painted,” referring to the serving line painted on an ale vessel. The very definition of this word has historical origins tied to the selling, serving and consumption of beer – but all that may have now come to an end.

This crime is not one committed by the craft beer brewers themselves but by on-premise retailers, who have quietly started to replace their standard pint glasses with either similar-looking 14-ounce glasses of the same shaker pint design or stylized glasses of 12 or even 10 fluid ounces in volume. This is ostensibly a cost-cutting measure – one often accompanied by a price increase as well, so the consumer sometimes now pays more and receives less beer pulled from the tap. Understandably, a business must cover its expenses and ultimately make a profit but the consumer’s salary is not rocketing skyward, either.

This is the greatest craft beer crime because it has broken the standard metric of exchange between craft beer consumers and the retailers they support. No longer can we compare one establishment to another on the basis of price as their serving sizes cannot be relied upon to be equivalent, and some retailers are unjustly accused of being more expensive when they are actually the same or cheaper on a per-ounce basis. The consumer metric between the ultimate purchaser and the brewery, the 12-ounce bottle, still stands but for how long? Will brewers begin to adopt a 10-ounce bottle size or 8-ounce can for the same purpose?

(Actually, this trend has already started, albeit on a very isolated scale. Some breweries use the "stubby" bottles for their product, a throwback design from decades ago. This bottle style does have some distinct and practical functional advantages for brewers but it holds only 11.2 ounces in volume instead of the standard 12 ounces. Fortunately, the ubiquity of the iconic longneck brown bottle is a difficult tradition and marketing package from which to deviate.)

Nor are craft breweries entirely innocent in this practice. Customized brewery glassware is often provided to retailers, specialized glasses etched with the company logo that are meant to be the ideal serving vessel and volume for perhaps a boozy barleywine or pungent sour ale. For high-gravity products or limited-edition exceptions such as these, smaller portion sizes are understandable and acceptable but too often a simple sessionable amber or wheat ale is served in the same glass. Breweries do not object because they are eager for the logo to be displayed and happy for the free promotion.

As consumers, the only force we have is the budget we choose to spend on purchasing such products and supporting these retailers. Watch for the serving size you are offered next time you enjoy a craft beer from a fresh tap, and verify its volume if necessary. Challenge retailers that do not use the 16-ounce pint as their serving standard, and patronize those that still adhere to a reliable and universally accepted metric of sale.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dallas as a Craft Beer Town

Something strange has occurred in Dallas during the past year, something not known since the mid-1990s when dot-com money flowed freely and commercial ventures were embraced recklessly and without long-term thought. Dallas is rediscovering craft beer—and making up for lost time in a big way. With no production breweries in Dallas at the beginning of last year, by the end of 2012 at least five are projected to be in full operation.

The last commercial brewery to operate in Dallas proper was the Great Grains Brewery, a terrible operation that mercifully shut down for financial reasons in 2006 over a rather trivial TABC regulation that left it unable to recover. Since that time, Rahr & Sons Brewing (opened 2004) has thrived in Fort Worth and Franconia Brewing (opened 2008) in McKinney but nothing in the Dallas area per se. The only non-chain brewing that has persisted within the city limits has been the Humperdinks brewpub on Greenville Avenue, an orphaned spin-off of the Pacific Northwest-based Big Horn Brewing franchise that went independent a few years ago.

To begin the charge, in October of last year the Deep Ellum Brewing Company became the first craft brewery to open in Dallas in more than five years, setting up in the south end of the Deep Ellum arts district. Owners Scott Frieling and John Reardon hired young brewer Drew Huerter away from the St Louis area, with names such as Schlafly and Mattingly Brewing on his resume. Their first beers have been style-twisting crowd pleasers, a crowd that has regularly mobbed the brewery ever since they opened Saturday tours to the public.

Almost immediately on the heels of Deep Ellum Brewing came Peticolas Brewing, setting up in a small place in an industrial park west of downtown near the Meddlesome Moth. With a legal family legacy in Dallas going back almost as long as there has been a city, Michael Peticolas left a career as a lawyer to pursue his dream of independent brewing. His is a much smaller and more personal operation than Deep Ellum, taking all financial, marketing and brewing responsibilities upon himself and his young family. Peticolas’s first beer was released in January of this year to almost immediate success.

The third in this initial triad to develop throughout the prior year is Lakewood Brewing, who only recently acquired a lease on a site in the White Rock Lake area. Although owner and brewer Wim Bens may have grown up in the Lakewood area of east Dallas, he did so with a Belgian birth certificate and a young enthusiasm for homebrewing. His previews of beers at various promotional events have been excellent, and Lakewood Brewing is expected to be in full production by late spring.

Two newcomers to the Dallas beer scene are also expected to be open later this year. From the common amateur brewing interest of three local friends (Jack Sparks, Brent Thompson and Kat Stevens), Reunion Brewing is born from the coincidence of these three reuniting once again in Dallas for business. Their production brewery is currently under development in west Dallas not too far from Peticolas’ current location.

The second new craft brewery will be Four Corners Brewing of the Oak Cliff area, also the venture of three partners with a shared passion. George Esquivel, Steve Porcari and Greg Leftwich have already hired award-winning veteran brewer John Sims for their operations, and have only recently located a commercial site. With hopes to be open by Labor Day and plans for as many as ten employees their first year, Four Corners may outpace all the rest despite a late start.

To see five production craft breweries sprout within the space of twelve months is simply unprecedented for a city like Dallas, more characteristic of the brewing culture of Austin. Is there room for all these businesses (plus those not yet named) to survive together in our North Texas market? Is the craft beer nature of Dallas truly shifting after all these years, embracing the movement as so many other cities have already? Only time can answer.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Black IPA and What Makes a Beer Style

A rising trend in modern craft brewing today is toward an ill-defined beer known as the black IPA, which breaks down into an American-style IPA brewed with darker malts not out of place in porters and stouts. Beginning with a disclaimer, I am not a fan of this trend as the citrusy, pine-resin bite of domestic hops does not sit well on my palate with the dark-roasted malts used in these beers.

However, many do enjoy this flavor combination, which is why brewers are so keen to rush into this brand-new beer style. But this only begs the question: Is black IPA truly a new style or just a variant of an existing category? What, if anything, defines a craft beer “style” as distinct and official? Can such discrete lines be drawn, or are beer styles a squishy continuum that can accommodate most anything used in a brew kettle?

The categorization of beer styles comes down to just two elements, those being ingredients and tradition. Note that prevalence nor popularity is mentioned at this point; neither should be considered in defining a beer style, especially a brand new one. A new style is a new style, whether brewed by one brewer or adopted across the country. The science of grouping beers into styles should be approached as objectively as the senses can allow.

A beer’s ingredients may seem to be the simple part of this formula, but this element is deceptively complicated. It is easy to enumerate the constituents of a craft beer, and not much more difficult to quantify each in turn. However, modern beer styles have been fairly complete and well-defined for decades now—some for centuries—and wedging a new style into the grid is (and should be) a struggle. If defining new styles were an easy task, we would be left with thousands instead of the hundred or so recognized today.

For example, the black IPA has ingredients that are distinct from the American IPA as well as ingredients that are separate from the robust porter, but does that meet the threshold of a new style? Does the flavor profile of the black IPA reside within one of these other styles? Might it be considered a hoppy porter instead, or an off-style mistake that is too dark to judge within the existing IPA guidelines? If “dark” makes a new IPA style, does “light” do the same if using pale pilsner malts? This latter equivalence should hold for both or neither.

More important than the actual ingredients is the tradition surrounding the beer itself. In this sense, popularity does matter but not in the same way as in modern beer-rating website status. Instead, tradition implies a regional origin and prevalence, something identifiable with a particular locale either for cultural or societal reasons. Does a beer have a unique backstory, or does it exist due to some exceptional local demand from consumers? Does the beer stand the test of time, or will the black IPA fade out of our consciousness in a few years?

This last criterion is probably the most critical, and what will ultimately determine if the nascent black IPA style is to be formally recognized. Like adopting words into the English lexicon or scientists evaluating new species, these professionals must make sure that new changes have some true and meaningful persistence, and not minor blips that fade into obscurity within a few years. If it does just this, the black IPA will be remembered as merely a twist on an existing beer style, not something distinct unto itself.

Without splitting hairs to the degree of substyles, varietals and the unending permutations that can be achieved with both classic and modern beer recipes, we must conclude that the black IPA is not a new and distinct beer style—at least, not yet. This subcategory of beer styles will have to be debated by both the brewing and consuming communities, and only years from now can the stylistic determination be made.

Update: Just this past January, the Brewers Association updated their 2011 guidelines to include the American-style Black Ale, but this has not yet been universally adopted.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Writing About Beer

A few recent comments and feedback received through this website have made accusations about me hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet for my unsupportable attacks against innocent craft brewers. Of course, I find such comments almost comical as I have never made any attempts to hide my identity or contact information, which are both easily available through some competent navigation of this page.

However, these objections do raise a somewhat valid point about beer-related content that is published online. With the advent of free blogs, blogging software and online social media, we find ourselves now saturated with craft beer content on all levels—the good and the bad, the interesting and the tedious and the ignorant, those we agree with and those we rail against. How should craft beer consumers choose whose efforts to spend time reading?

The first and primary requirement should not be about the brewing-centric content at all but about the quality of the writing. Craft beer consumers are quick to discount beers brewed with obvious flaws, or even those they simply consider mundane, yet week after week eagerly follow some absolutely horrible compositions that get posted online. The written language may be a dying art in our modern age, but it is still a skill to be practiced and perfected. Demand at least the same level of proficiency from your reading material as you would your own food and drink.

Another requirement of online substance should be originality. This online medium has made it too easy to repost and link to other meta-content rather than working to create one’s own. Too many beer blogs are not blogs at all but rather collections of connections to other material online, some news items and some of other beer blogs, and some not related to the brewing industry at all. A proper publication (even those online) should have a focus, and should be more than rambling content. If you demand original and distinctive in your craft beer choices, demand the same in your craft beer reading.

Naturally, those writing about craft beer should have at least some working knowledge of the brewing process, some knowledge of the industry and relevant ordinances, and some knowledge of how to properly evaluate the final product. Experts and amateurs alike find voices in online outlets, and both coexist on a stage that levels the grounds for the known and the unknown. Just as some extremely learned professional brewers are unable to compose a simple thesis, you also have talented amateurs that may never have entered a homebrew shop.

Perhaps the most problematic requirement regarding writing about beer is in its evaluation, as this seems the most widely prevalent theme chosen while being the most resistant to objective quantification. Many websites have sprouted that allow even casual users to compose a few lines about particular beers, and many participants choose to go beyond this and construct diaries online to journal their tasting notes. And when everyone’s palate and preferences are wide-ranging, how does one evaluate the evaluators?

Independent style guidelines do exist that are written and moderated by experienced committees both amateur and professional, and these are good as a starting point and as references. Ultimately, the value of someone’s craft beer review lies in their ability to adequately identify the ingredients, convey the flavors they can detect and support their impressions of said beer. A good evaluation should be less about whether you concur with the assessment and more about whether the author has effectively analyzed the beverage and effectually communicated that impression to the reader.

Whatever you choose to read online, regard it as intellectual consumption the same as popping a cap on a craft beer bottle is gastronomic consumption. The goal should not be to always read substance you agree with but instead authors that make you think and extend your opinion, understanding and appreciation of the world that is craft beer. And if you happen to learn something along the way, you are so much the better for it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Is Stone Brewing Still Worthy?

If you are like thousands of other craft beer fans, your tastes will likely have passed through the revelation of Stone Brewing’s beers along the way to forming your beer identity. You most likely remember your first taste of Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale—possibly your first exposure to beer beyond the light lagers of the majors—and its reckless use of hops and strength as they assaulted your palate onto the next level.

Stone entered the nascent craft beer movement with a big splash in 1996 with their rebellious image, the omnipresent gargoyle icon filled with disdain and a chant of “You’re Not Worthy” emblazoned on every bottle. They made their mark mocking the “fizzy yellow beers” by shunning adjuncts and making some style-defying products, most of which pushed the boundaries of flavors with a newfound brashness in brewing and earned for them legions of eager craft beer fans.

Now almost fifteen years forward, look back on their works of the past decade and a half. Their core products are still among the best-reviewed and most-favored in the craft beer world. Beers like the Stone Pale ale, IPA and Ruination, the Smoked Porter, Imperial Russian Stout and Old Guardian Barley Wine stand out as excellent representatives of each of their respective styles. Of these listed here, I am still a huge fan and regular consumer.

However, look across at some of their “edgy” product ideas such as the Vertical Epic series, which has met with only lukewarm critical response. Designed as a dozen-beer series to be collected, aged and enjoyed at the end of those twelve years, some have been quality stand-outs but with many of these not nearly as good as anticipated, bordering on mediocre. This latter group certainly will not improve with time, much less age well enough to make the end of the series as intended.

Even some of their “new” products are not truly new, much less innovative. Arrogant Bastard has been oaked. The Double Bastard Ale is almost by definition merely a doubling of the original Arrogant Bastard recipe. Stone Ruination is nothing more than a re-issue of their Fifth Anniversary Ale, formulated as a year-round product. Even their newest releases of the Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale and the Stone Cali-Belgique IPA are reworks of their Eleventh Anniversary Ale and one of the Vertical Epic editions, respectively. Just about the only original standout of the past decade has been the Stone Levitation, a mild amber ale.

The latest sign of trouble comes just recently with an announcement of their “Odd Beers for Odd Years” series. Stone plans to vary the yeast in two solid flagship products, the Old Guardian Barley Wine and Russian Imperial Stout, releasing specialized versions of each in odd-numbered years going forward. Although in some cases such experimentation can be viewed as innovative and progressive, a move such as this that displaces two highly in-demand beers comes across as almost desperate—especially in light of the lack of other original ideas.

More than facing problems simply with the origins of new beers, Stone suffers from a tremendous house flavor. Breweries often become accustomed to using the same ingredients from the same suppliers, and many maintain a particular favored yeast strain used as a base for most if not all of their products. If not careful with recipe formulations, breweries can inadvertently develop the same flavors throughout their product lines no matter the individual style of beer.

Unfortunately, Stone has fallen into the trap of house flavor not only with brewing but also with their thinking and business practices. Their rebellious new beers come across with flavors not innovative and desirable but that are yawningly familiar variations upon an often-abused theme of “extreme brewing” while searching for some sort of style identity. All I am able to taste recently are tinkering experiments with the Arrogant Bastard base recipe that are wholly uninspired and unoriginal.

Stone may have been “extreme” early in their history but as the rest of the craft beer industry has caught up (if not passed them by), Stone has remained static while resting on the same business formula with which they started years ago. Their image has become dated and self-mocking, and their talents have become a creative shadow of the bad boys of brewing they once claimed to be.