Saturday, December 27, 2008

Beer Myths, Part 1

"Ales and lagers are the same thing."

Other than both are beer, nothing is further from the truth. What distinguishes an ale from a lager is the yeast strain used and the particular method used to ferment the beer, which again depends upon the particular yeast. This yeast is the only ingredient differentiating the two, but it is important enough to make all the difference.

Ale is brewed with a yeast family known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a "top-fermenting" or "warm-fermenting" species, whereas lagers use species of the Saccharomyces carlsbergensis family, which prefer cooler temperatures and tend to cluster at the bottom of the tank. Although hundreds of variations exist on each, ales tend to be fuller in body and heartier, whereas lagers have a cleaner, lighter body and finish.

"Beer from a can tastes like a can."

Beer tastes like beer; cans taste like cans. One of the most prevalent problems with canned beer is drinking it directly from the opened can. With your lips and tongue in direct contact with the lid of the container, of course you are going to taste aluminum and steel. Pour it into a glass.

In the industrial past, canned beer did have a problem with the can material contributing to the flavor of the beverage it contained. However, modern beer cans are coated with a thin layer of food-grade plastic so that beer never comes into contact with metal at any point. Any contributing flavors detected are flaws in the beer itself, or else purely psychological.

"Bock is made from the leftover dregs of other beer."

The origins of this myth are puzzling but they may be attributed to the seasons of the year in which the style of bock beer itself was consumed. Bock was typically brewed in the spring for fall consumption, with a long and quiet lagering time unlike the relatively quick-fermenting ales produced year-round.

The darker color and stronger flavors of bock may have led some to believe it was manufactured from the remnants of other ales brewed in the meantime. But bock is brewed no differently than any other beer, with an initial ingredient list of malts and hops and a specialized lager strain of yeast.

"Dark beer is stronger and heavier than lighter beer."

This myth is most likely traceable to the many decades-long Guinness marketing campaigns that claim "Guinness gives you strength" or it is "A meal in a glass." While it may be true that Guinness is more full-bodied than most commercially popular light lagers today, it is by far neither stronger nor heavier.

The color of a beer is wholly a function of the initial roast of the grains used in the mash. As in coffee, darker roasts produce a darker color in the final product, and the use of adjuncts such as rice can significant lighten the final color. But neither of these has any connection to body or final alcoholic strength.

"Craft brewing is just a fad."

Modern American craft brewing has been around since the 1970s, and is presently enjoying a healthy growth curve. More to the point, what we today consider "craft brewing" or boutique products are simply what has been standard practice for centuries of local and artesianal brewing operations.

The Brewers Association tracks such growth annually, and the craft beer industry is relishing a healthier growth than their large corporate counterparts. Our sincere hope is that someday the specialty market of "craft beer" will indeed disappear, and that such quality brewing will simply be referred to as the norm.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Consumer Trends, Brewing Trends

Merriam-Webster defines a trend as "a line or general direction of movement” or “a prevailing tendency or inclination." The most obvious trends are either in fashion or on Wall Street, where the skill of detecting and predicting trends is almost a science. Consumers trend constantly in their choices and purchases, from autos to household electronics, from movies to the food they eat.

Likewise, craft beer is not immune to trends. It is as much a consumer item as any DVD or child’s Christmas toy, and craft brewers are as attuned to the market as any retailer or manufacturer. Let us examine a few recent trends in the Texas craft beer market. Texas makes a good sample population because it has a large beer-consuming base and none of its small craft breweries distribute outside the state.

Case #1. In 2004, the Rahr & Sons Brewing Company began brewing operations in Fort Worth with three flagship beers: a Münich helles, a Vienna lager and a schwarzbier. The schwarzbier, named Ugly Pug Black Lager, was a tremendous local success and remains so today. Even in a state with a large historic German settlement and brewing tradition, this was the first U.S. commercial schwarzbier in the Texas market, a market that barely had any imported schwarzbiers at all.

To celebrate their upcoming centennial, a few years ago Spoetzl Brewing began a limited-run annual series of beers of various Bavarian styles. Released in 2006, their Shiner 97 edition was a “Bohemian Black Lager,” or a schwarzbier. This particular beer proved so commercially successful that it was resurrected a year later and added to their current product portfolio as the Shiner Bohemian Black Lager, the only one of the series so far to make this permanent jump.

Case #2. Each spring, the Houston area homebrewing clubs host the Big Batch Brew Bash, a statewide homebrew competition with a twist: it only has one style category. That style changes from year to year, and in 2008 the designated style was weizenbock, a dark German wheat beer full of yeasty banana and clove flavors.

In an agreement with the competition, the Saint Arnold Brewing Company of Houston purchases the top beer from the winning homebrewer each year and uses that recipe to develop the odd-numbered beers of their special Divine Reserve limited edition series. And in 2008, the Divine Reserve #7 was that championship weizenbock, which enjoyed an improved and wider distribution throughout the state than previous beers in this series.

Again as far as I am aware, this was the first U.S. commercial weizenbock available in the Texas market, aside from the rare European import. And what happened later that year? The Live Oak Brewing Company of Austin releases a new fall seasonal beer named Primus—a weizenbock. A few weizenbocks also start appearing among the Texas brewpubs, where they never had entertained that style previously.

Are these cases of petty copycat brewers or savvy businessmen identifying and pursuing profitable popular trends? Do Texas craft brewers large and small keep one eye on the competition and plan products competitively, or are style ideas and preferences planted in the population’s psyche that somehow spread virally and bubble just beneath the consciousness? Is this a case of convergent evolution or is the market larger than the sum of its parts?

No craft brewer wants to be labeled as a follower, and all claim to have developed similar beers only coincidentally. All in all, trends like these do turn out to be very good things, especially in a rather contained market like Texas. Multiple versions of similar beers foster competition and the craft beer consumers become a wonderful test bed for comparing and contrasting individual interpretations of the same styles.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cask Ale

Consumers are quite familiar with the common serving methods for beer, both mass-produced and craft. Beer may be served either from a large keg via a tap in the wall or it may be put into smaller containers, either colored glass bottles or aluminum cans. But most consumers in the United States are woefully unaware of a third, unique style of service that gives rise to a world of different treatments: cask ale.

A cask is nothing more than a small traditional wooden storage vessel, still used today for aging whiskey and other spirits. Taking its name from the historical container, cask ales are more accurately described as cask-conditioned ales and very often as real ales, as their methods are steeped in tradition long eschewed by modern commercial breweries. The beers are fermented and then packaged into the cask (although the process can use modern metal kegs as well), at which time a small dose of yeast is added before it is sealed.

The resulting beer is a naturally fermented, unpasteurized ale that has striking differences to the same brand available in bottles, cans or kegs. Cask ale is actually “unfinished” beer, as the late dose of yeast provides a natural and ongoing late fermentation and the lack of pasteurization means the ale is still “alive.” Yes, with cask ale you will most likely be drinking what few living yeast cells are left, depending on the age of the cask—and this is just fine.

What should you expect from a cask serving? First, the beer is not propelled through the lines using gas pressure on the keg, as most taps are served (a blend of carbon dioxide and nitrogen aptly named beer gas). The beer must be laboriously hand-pumped using what is known as a beer engine, a simple mechanical piston with a thick handle used to draw the beer from the cask that is the historical and traditional method that beers have been served.

Other differences arise from the nature of the late fermentation of the product. The beer is generally served at “cellar temperature,” or a temperature slightly cooler than ambient and closer to that found in underground cellars used for aging. The beer is also left unfiltered, so a glass of cask ale may be cloudy and turbid. Keep in mind that nothing is wrong with this style of service; a cool (neither warm nor ice-cold) and hazy pint of beer is normal for cask ales.

What you taste is something fuller, richer, softer and more subtle than the same product poured from a wall tap. The beer is naturally carbonated by the remaining yeast instead of force-carbonated by gas pressure, so the mouthfeel is generally softer and less effervescent. Because it is unfiltered and unpasteurized, different delicate flavors are present that are tied to the yeast and other compounds usually removed by sterile filters and heat.

The tradeoff with a dramatic rise in the quality of flavor in cask service is a great reduction in shelf-life. In this sense, cask ale has much in common with freshly baked bread or fruits and vegetables. Pasteurization is a preservative measure, and the lifetime of a cask of beer is generally listed in terms of days or a couple of weeks. Left in the cask too long, the beer can sour through the continued action of the live yeast and other microorganisms.

Tragically, cask ale is a rare species as its short shelf-life and unfamiliar qualities are frowned upon by mass consumers and profit-driven retailers. Long enjoyed as the standard product in the United Kingdom, organizations such as the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) work hard to keep cask ale alive and popular. If you see such a device in the States, enjoy it for the rarity it is here.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Support Your Local Brewery

It is a mantra that resonates throughout the craft beer community. It is part sage advice, part current trend, part modern marketing. It originates from both components of formal microeconomics theory and home-grown wisdom. It is the counsel you receive from commercial brewers, home brewers and just about all beer-centric websites: Support your local brewery.

Fresh beer is better beer. Beer is a perishable product. It shares a lot of characteristics with farm vegetables or bakery bread, especially in the fact that (generally) age does not work to its benefit. Aside from a few exceptions of styles that may benefit from judicious aging, most beer simply gets old after it has fermented to completion. Protected from infectious agents, oxygen in the lines and the storage systems will continue to react with the beer, developing stale or papery flavors in the overall profile as chemical components simply degrade.

That said, the easiest way to avoid problems due to age is to buy beer from local brewers. Especially with brands that cross state lines, beers can sit in distributors’ warehouses for weeks if not months awaiting sales approval, tax certification or simply retail orders to arrive. Local beers avoid most of these problems as they arrive after dozens of miles from the brewery instead of thousands.

The local economy is important. Contrary to what is projected on the evening news, most of the United States’ economy consists of local businesses, not national corporations. Most businesses in this country are classified as "small businesses;" the vast majority (97.5%) have fewer than 20 employees. Local employers contribute to the local economy through property and corporate taxes, through employing of local personnel or subcontractors and through local charity events, recycling and gifting programs.

Every local community in this nation is a heartbeat. That heartbeat is a reflection of the health of the local economy, and the sum total of those local economies is the health of the national economy at large. But for the vast majority of us, those who own a home or employ others or have children in public or private schools, the well-being of the local economy is paramount.

What better way to encourage the health of the local economy than to purchase local products? The money and profits are returned to local businesses, not shipped to faceless, out-of-state bank accounts. Local sales benefit yourself and your neighbors with continued employment, consistent variety and quality of products, and a perception of strength on the national economic stage.

The green argument. Shipping foodstuffs, especially liquids, is terribly inefficient from a fuel/weight perspective. National breweries have cut their distribution networks down by constructing matching breweries in multiple states but craft breweries rarely (if ever) have that option. Distributors earn their living by transporting by truck cans, bottles and kegs of local beer to the far reaches of the continental United States, or further.

Trucks generate pollution, not to mention wear-and-tear on roadways and other transit systems. The longer they must travel, the more pollution they create. If you at all are concerned about your carbon footprint, or in any way interested in reducing personal waste and consumption, purchase local beer. Beer that travels tens of miles from local suppliers instead of across the country or across an ocean is—by default—the greener choice.

If you don’t like it, tell them. This is by no means a blind love-fest and forgiving endorsement for all local craft brewers. You should not drink local beer simply because it is local. The marketplace is competitive, and a brewery’s product should satisfy your personal preferences and tastes. However, do not be hesitant to provide feedback to a local brewer—especially negative, if delivered constructively. All brewers are interested in correcting what is wrong, and small local craft brewers can be much more personally responsive than a distant national corporation.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Don't Be a Ticker

The term railfan or railway enthusiast is used to describe an amateur hobbyist interested in commercial and industrial rail transport. These fans indulge their passion for trains by rail travel, building websites and gathering in groups with like-minded train buffs. They read books, write books, collect photos and other material related to rail engines and transit systems around the world.

Some individuals are derisively called trainspotters (a British term) by other enthusiastic railfans. These trainspotters have morphed their hobby into an obsession, and are usually regarded with contempt by other members of the practice. Trainspotters are more concerned with the competition than the content, taking great efforts to “spot” each and every type of train without a care or appreciation for the subject that other railfans feel they should.

The American craft beer scene has given birth to their own version of trainspotters. Called tickers for their penchant to tick beers off a largely arbitrary list, these obsessive fans of beer often care more about their lists and acquisitions than about the product itself. They live in a constant state of competition, always striving to be the first to try a new beer and then post a review of it online for all to see.

Sometimes, tickers blend into a crowd but often they are not difficult to identify. At beer festivals or at any social gathering where craft beer is served, some can be seen with heads down, writing in notebooks, photographing labels or even collecting empty bottles to take home. Many have advanced from pen and paper to laptop computers or PDAs. Interactions with the general group at large are limited.

Tickers are also noted for writing full and detailed reviews of beers from the smallest of samples. Gatherings are specifically planned for new and rare beers, and bottles are passed around so that every person can taste just a few ounces of a new beer. These activities are only fueled by online rating websites like Rate Beer and Beer Advocate and their competitive point systems.

Addressing this last point first, many believe that a craft beer cannot be adequately judged short of a full serving, or without an adequate volume to consume. Some beers change their nature through the course of a full glass, and some mature for both good and ill as they warm. An otherwise tasty sip may turn cloying with a full serving, or an off-putting sourness may turn pleasant after just a few ounces. Many flavor elements may not be immediately apparent or detectable with only a brief sample.

Craft beer is an inherently social beverage, and it should be treated as such. It is to be shared and enjoyed among comrades, exchanging opinions about the tastes and discoveries of the flavors. It is not meant to be consumed apart from the group but instead as part of the group. Conversation enhances the enjoyment and appreciation of craft beer, not ignoring others to scribble meaningless notes in a futile competition.

This is not to say that reviewing beer is bad, or these beer review websites are responsible for this behavior, or that small samples do not have their appropriate place. There is nothing wrong with jotting down a few tasting notes. However, our beerfan hobby should not turn into a mocked obsession, alienating other craft beer fans and reducing this pleasant drink to mere ticks on a list. We do not want this to be the image of craft beer taken away by those outside the subculture. Craft beer is meant to be savored, experienced, appreciated and shared.

Don’t be a ticker.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


On the whole, most of us are healthy individuals. However, we all must deal with infectious diseases or conditions from time to time. Bacterial or viral, our bodies cannot always successfully defend against the microbes that bathe our world. We all get infections. Our pets get infections. Even our computers get infections. And believe it or not, so does our beer.

Readers should already be familiar with the role of yeast in fermentation. Whether you talk about beer, wine, vinegar, bread, yogurt, cheese, buttermilk, sauerkraut or soy sauce, the process is essentially the same: microorganisms of various cultivated yeast species eat sugars and produce alcohol, carbon dioxide and a few other chemical flavoring components. We use and breed yeast to do this because the end product tastes so good.

But what is good for domesticated Saccharomyces cerevisiae is also good for hundreds if not thousands of other microbial life-forms, ranging from mold spores, bacteria or wild yeast species native to our environment. The process is similar to that of yeast, as existing sugars are consumed, but the output of these foreign bugs can contribute flavors that range from mildly sour to absolutely vile. A rare few like Salmonella can even kill you.

The dichotomy of brewing is to develop an environment that is literally an ideal world for these microorganisms to thrive and then deliberately infect it with the germ of your choice—yeast. After boiling the hops and grains during the brewing process, the resulting cooled liquor (called wort) is a sterile landscape just waiting to be populated. And it will be quickly invaded and inhabited, either by the choice of the brewer or by the chance of whatever agent can get to it first. This is why sanitation in the brewing process is paramount.

The good news in this microscopic war zone is that yeast has been bred to be very good at what it does. Whereas professional brewers have sealed industrial equipment, homebrewers can reliably and repeatedly make good beer in their kitchen or backyard. Even if a few undesirables get into the wort, yeast can usually out-compete anything else. In this environment, yeast is generally the dominant life-form.

However, yeast isn’t bulletproof. Some infections can gain a foothold and add their own flavors to the recipe. It can happen when the yeast is pitched, or when it is transferred for bottling, or even live in the plastic lines behind a commercial tap. Some states and municipalities have their own laws and procedures for maintaining brewing and beer-serving equipment, above and beyond commercial food safety regulations.

Whatever its origin, an infected beer is not too difficult to identify. In a bottle, an infection sometimes overcarbonates the beer, leading it to gush uncontrollably when opened. Flavors that infections can impart include a sour or acidic taste like vinegar (often a result of Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus or Pediococcus), a plastic taste (often referred to as "Band-Aid"), a sulfur taste like rotting eggs or matches, or vegetal components like celery, onion or asparagus. Flavors of infection tend to resemble organic substances, as opposed to other contaminants like soap or cleansers that may add more of a chemical flavor element.

The good news is that other than ruining the taste, nothing that can grow in a beer is really harmful to humans. The pH of beer and the presence of alcohol keep almost all the truly nasty microorganisms at bay. Even drinking an infected beer won’t make you sick, although the flavor and acidity may turn your stomach. If you suspect a beer is infected, always inform the manager, the retailer or even the brewer directly. Most will be happy and eager to replace it.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Someone Called Me “Brewmaster”

If prompted, I am happy to talk beer and brewing with most anyone. Many people are either fascinated with the method or amazed it can be done at home, and almost all are understandably ill-informed of the entire process and subculture that has developed. For that reason, I was caught a bit off-guard when during a recent conversation, someone said to me, "So, you’re a brewmaster, right?"

To the general public, brewmaster is a term that lies somewhere between kids' fantasy toys and overly enthusiastic hobbyists bordering on obsession. However, what this innocent layman actually committed was a rather minor faux pas by using that term incorrectly. Within the brewing community, especially within the professional and commercial realms, this honorific is reserved for a select few.

In Germany, a brewmaster (or rather Braumeister) is a formal title and job position. It reflects a professional brewer who has completed a university course of training for the Diplom-Braumeister, somewhat equivalent of a Bachelors of Science degree in brewing beer. Inspired individuals can even proceed to a Diplom-Ingenieur, something like a Masters of Science with a specialty in biotechnology/brewing science.

In the European world, calling someone a brewmaster or master brewer is a designation of respect. It means that they have mastered the art and science that is beermaking, and have the credentials to back it up. It implies not only a knowledge of brewing but also an advanced education in the chemistry and biology of those involved processes. Although not entirely uncommon, there are but a few schools that offer such programs in both Germany and the United States, and their popularity is growing.

Overall, finding such certified brewmasters in American craft brewing operations is not necessarily a given. Many owners of microbreweries do have a similar academic background, possibly having attended one of the domestic brewing programs such as the University of California, Davis or the Siebel Institute of Technology. Most are simply talented homebrewers who have turned professional, or have apprenticed at other craft breweries. However, few are certified brewmasters of the German tradition.

Because of this, it is much more common to find a head brewer in charge of a small brewery here in the States. There are several variations on this title—such as Head of Brewing Operations, Chief Brewer or simply Brewer—and all reflect more of a journeyman aspect to the profession on this side of the Atlantic. Being the upstart entrepreneurs that they are, some small brewers have adopted more playful titles, such as Chief Zymurgist.

Do homebrewers have any such titles or rankings? Not at all. Aside from being no more than a pastime, homebrewing is a much more egalitarian activity. Even award-winning, long-time homebrewers still make mistakes and are still learning about their devoted weekend diversion. There is much more camaraderie and less status among homebrewers, as the hobby lends itself to teaching and learning across both the novice and the expert.

Given that most American craft breweries are small operations at best, titles and positions are little more than words printed on a business card. With small profit margins and a lot of labor involved, most professional head brewers are as up to their armpits in muck as any volunteer or lowly trainee. What title should these professional brewers use? As more than one has personally told me, "Janitor."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

As Near-Bear as Not-Beer Can Get

Another rising trend in the world of American craft beer stretches the definition of beer to its very limits. This is the appearance of gluten-free beers on shelves, beer made without the traditional malt or grain products. A relatively young and very narrow specialty product, these gluten-free beers are seeing a toe-hold in the American craft beer market.

Gluten is a sticky protein that develops from wheat and related grains such as rye, barley or oats. It is the same substance that gives bread or pizza dough its chewy mouthfeel. Unfortunately, sufferers of celiac disease have a condition in which their small intestine becomes inflamed in the presence of gluten, leading to a host of uncomfortable symptoms and nutritional disorders. Presently, no cure exists except a lifetime of a dedicated gluten-free diet.

An estimated 1 out of every 133 people in the United States suffers from celiac disease. This is enough to merit a commercial response, and the American craft brewing scene is as inventive as they come. However, it does pose a rather major problem for brewers as malted grains are the largest ingredient (besides water) used in making beer.

The leading malt alternative in brewing presently is sorghum, a grass commonly grown for animal feed. Sorghum lacks the protein that becomes gluten when worked but still has enough sugars and fiber to be used as a foodstuff. It is a major crop outside of the Western world, used for porridge, couscous and unleavened breads and cakes. Americans are probably most familiar with it as sorghum syrup or molasses, popular in the South as an analogue of the North’s maple syrup.

Of course, yeast love and need sugar, and are not so particular as to its origin, so sorghum makes them as happy as any grain. Individuals with celiac disease have no problem with hops, so that flavor ingredient presents no difficulties, and water is a neutral and flavorless component. Thus, the only real difference between regular craft beer and gluten-free beer is the grain bill. But what a difference that can make.

I have tried several commercial gluten-free beers—mainly out of curiosity—and I find few that I can recommend. The flavor profiles are very limited by the lack of traditional grains and the flavors derived from their roasting or caramelization in the boil. Residual tastes range from being too sugary (as in table sugar) to saccharine (as in artificial sweetener). Although rarely horrible, some of the strange and unfamiliar off-flavors can be quite off-putting.

Styles available at present are very limited; most commercial versions are no more than amber ales or simple lagers. To maximize their market, few brands are pushing the hop profile, which could be a great assist to this type of beer. The stronger hops flavors in pale ales or IPAs might mask some of the more undesirable components and leave the resulting beer closer to traditional styles.

Some of the best of the gluten-free choices are from outside the United States, but a few domestic craft brewers are catching on to the trend. Lake Front Brewery of Wisconsin produces a gluten-free beer, and one of the oldest of the style is Bard’s Tale Beer of California, which claims to be the first to develop gluten-free beers in the States. The best that I have found currently is Redbridge, an Anheuser-Busch product; it is actually clean enough not to immediately come across as a nonstandard beer.

Regrettably, gluten-free beers are not a variety that excels in flavor or that are highly prized or sought by the craft beer public. Whether they ever will be remains to be seen, but the limitations of using none of the traditional grains severely handicaps their quality and potential. But if you are an individual with celiac disease or some other related food sensitivity, these beers can be an answer to a prayer.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Is Organic Better? Part 2

Organic is the new buzzword of the brewing industry. Brewers are rushing to develop new organic ales, and some new brewers are striving for full certification and status of all their products. Mother Earth is happier, people are drinking cleaner and healthier beers, and all is right with the world. But how do they compare in taste to otherwise conventional products?

Organic brewing has been embraced by both large and small brewers. Anheuser-Busch launched its own line of organic beers in 2006 under the names of Green Valley Brewing Company and Crooked Creek Brewing Company. Many independent craft brewers have begun operating with wholly organic ingredients and methods, including Butte Creek Brewing Company of Chico, California, and the longstanding Otter Creek (Wolaver’s) Brewing in Middlebury, Vermont.

Some craft brewers are adding organic products to their otherwise conventional portfolios, such as Green Lakes Organic Ale from Deschutes Brewery of Bend, Oregon. Specialty events such as the North American Organic Brewers Festival are now held regularly. The movement is mature enough that some organic craft brewers have already come and gone, such as the now defunct Healthy Brew out of Fort Worth, Texas.

The organic moniker is not truly a distinct style of beer, as it could apply to any style of beer brewed under these standards. But what has been seen so far in the marketplace are generally mainstream ales such as pale ales, ambers and the occasional mild IPA. This is to be expected for two primary reasons: First, these styles are simple and easy to obtain organic ingredients for and to produce, making them preferable test-market vehicles for a consumer sector still finding its legs. Second, some more complex styles may include ingredients that are not as easy to obtain or as favorably performing as those that fall under the organic umbrella.

For example, roasted malt requires an additional step beyond simple pale malt, that of roasting to obtain a desired color and flavor profile much like coffee beans. This can only add to the expense of an organic malt with its additional handling and processing. Likewise, some adjuncts like Belgian candy sugars or fruit additives may also be more expensive if not more difficult to obtain in organic form, especially for industrial levels of production. It makes sense that brewers would keep this specialty simple at the start.

The primary flaw with organic beers is that many brewers begin with the organic part instead of the beer part. Many organic brewers have either failed outright or produce lackluster beers because they are more focused on meeting ethical and legal standards for organic certification rather than what they should be—that is, brewing a flavorful, competitive beer. For established brewers, a single organic product may be more a reaction to a competitive marketplace than a philosophical choice.

Overall, most organic beers fall short of their “nonorganic” competitive counterparts. From a flavor standpoint, their afterthought status or shortcomings of new and enthusiastic brewers result in (at best) plain and (at worst) dismal beers. The added expense of organic ingredients, as well as the cost of formal certification or membership in organic consortia, can often drive the prices of organic beers beyond what a highly competitive marketplace will bear.

This is not to say that high-quality organic beers cannot be made, nor that companies that make them cannot thrive. Otter Creek has survived since 1998 producing a portfolio of certified organic beers, now distributed coast to coast. Organic beers have won awards, both in their own categories and in direct competition with conventional products. But the brewers must remain focused on producing the best beer possible without sacrificing quality in the name of certification.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Is Organic Better? Part 1

One of the latest trends to hit the U.S. marketplace is the offering of organically produced food, and craft beer is no exception. The rise in sales of organic beers has been meteoric in recent years, with annual jumps in the 40% range based on sales. But is this about a conscientious product or about marketing? Are organic beers better tasting or healthier than “regular” beers?

Being organic can mean different things to different people. For most breweries, there is only their word and reputation that the products advertised as “organic” actually are, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. Some are sanctioned by organic-foods organizations such as the Organic Trade Organization and adhere to their (nonbinding) requirements. The only law in the United States for such products is certification from the USDA National Organic Program, which is a legally enforceable award.

Fundamentally, organic beers are those brewed strictly using source ingredients (primarily malt and hops) that are produced without the application of artificial chemicals for the purpose of herbicide, insecticide or fertilizer. The USDA’s certification allows some commercial leeway as it only requires that 95% of the ingredients be produced with these methods. These requirements have also been extended to include the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) as ingredients.

The Green Movement has taken hold of many industries, and brewing is no different. Brewers and producers of brewing ingredients are working in many ways to upgrade their standards of production, storage and delivery. Some do this out of a motivation for better products, some for moral and ethical reasons, and some upgrades are solely in the name of efficiency and for financial benefit. Many times, it is a combination of these reasons.

Long past are the days of crop dusting with DDT. Many industrial farms are now using more green solutions for their day-to-day operations, not to pursue any organic status but simply out of a concern for the environment and to yield a better product. Fertilizers are less toxic and more bio-friendly than they have been in years past. Hop farmers are today more likely to use predatory insects to control pests than chemical insecticides. Craft breweries are now often models of green efficiency, integrating recycling and environmentally friendly practices with wastewater and chemicals as standard practice.

One issue particular to the brewing industry is that beers are not simply grown from the soil. It is comparatively simple to refrain from using nonorganic additives on crops, or to easily substitute one agent for another greener equivalent. But beer is an industrial product, and some portions of its production require otherwise questionable compounds. Water must be cleaned and filtered and, in some cases, chemically treated for proper pH levels advantageous to fermentation. Sanitizers must be used with every step after the boil, as the same environment in which the yeast flourish is also a welcome home for hundreds of other microbial agents.

Fortunately, acceptably green substitutions can be found for all these industrial issues, but thinking of organic beer the same way one thinks about an organic carrot can be misleading. The lines between what is by definition organic and what is simply another product on the shelf are blurring. Obviously, a beer certified organic or produced with all organic ingredients will be relatively free of any harmful chemicals, ostensibly making it a healthier choice. But by how much? With many craft brewers already integrating green practices and higher quality ingredients, the health and safety benefits of the “organic” label become marginal.

But does this make the beer taste better?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

In Praise of Session Beers

The evolution of the craft beer consumer is fairly predictable. Raised on a steady diet of bland corporate products (or no beer at all), the new beer drinker will discover their first craft beer. It may be brewed by a local craft brewer, or perhaps it is a popular import. From that point forward, eyes are opened, tastes are awakened and what was once good is no longer satisfying enough.

Sooner or later, the craft beer consumer will find a local source for a wide variety of craft beers, and then will read a beer website online, and then all bets are off. The new enthusiast will consume with abandon, drawn to the strong, pungent elements of the high-end IPAs and barleywines, the robustness of the Imperial stouts and the intoxicating (literally) complexity of Belgian beers.

However, on the other side of this heady flavor binge lies another, more subtle arena. This place marks the maturity of the craft beer drinker—not another phase, simply a move from fervent amateur to appreciative yeoman consumer. It is certainly not the endpoint of this journey but instead another beginning. This is the landscape of the session beers.

The origins of session beers can be traced back to Great Britain, probably from one of the world wars. British laborers (or is it labourers?) worked in shifts in the factories, sometimes around the clock. During their off hours, often either before or after work, they would “pop 'round to the local” in true pub culture fashion. These visits became the origin of the drinking session, where a patron would consume four, five, six or more pints at one sitting.

The attributes of session beer arose from these British drinking sessions. The workers required a beer that was alcoholic but not so strong as to leave them impaired or outright inebriated. They required a beer that was flavorful but neither so bitterly hopped nor cloyingly sweet as to grow tiring before the end of the session. Although interesting and mighty delicious, Trappist ales and strong IPAs can quickly lead to palate fatigue, rarely have a neutral finish and the alcohol content can be regrettable in volume. Thus arose the brewing quasi-category of the session beer.

Although traditionally British, session beers can have any origin and are not necessarily limited by defined style. At their core, session beers exemplify the ideal of balance in a beverage. They are bitter yet not too much so, malty but not too much so, lightly alcoholic but with sufficient flavor complexity not only to defer boredom but to keep the drinker genuinely interested.

These session beers are the delicate Goldilocks of the brewing world. They generally have a rich malt base and are mildly hopped, sometimes only barely so. Their alcohol content is generally higher than non-alcoholic beers (which are usually around 0.5% ABV) and almost by definition all are under 5% ABV. Both ale and lager yeast are used for session beers, although distinct and robust strains such as in Belgian ales are usually avoided.

Session beer styles range from English milds, bitters and brown ales to porters and even the milder stouts and Scottish ales. Teutonic varieties include the mild bocks, Vienna lagers, altbiers and dunkels—almost by definition, the Oktoberfest/märzen style is a session beer. Many wheat beers such as hefeweizen and Berliner weisse would also qualify as session beers, as would standard lagers and a few pilsners. Across the pond, American varieties like wheat ale, blonde ale, rye beer and California common also fall into this category.

Do not take the next logical step and believe that anything you can imbibe in quantity will qualify as a session beer. Individual tolerances do not define the session beer category. Instead, it is a world of subtlety and whispers, the enticement of spotting a fawn in the wild as opposed to listening to a lion roar in his cage. Appreciation of session beers marks the successful fulfillment of your craft beer education but still only the start of your craft beer journey.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Can You Take the Heat?

Possibly the most widely circulated and believed myth surrounding beer is with regard to temperature. Most people believe that beer must be kept refrigerated always, and that once allowed to warm to room temperature, it can never be cooled again. Room temperature would essentially spoil the beer, much the same way as any dairy product would spoil.

Except that beer is not a dairy product. Fluctuations in ambient temperature do not adversely affect beer any more than any other foodstuff. Beer is remarkably delicate and yet astonishingly durable at the same time, and the common room temperature is in no way harmful to either its flavors or storage life in the short term. Beer bought from the warm shelves is no different than what is retrieved from the cooler, and may be the exact same beer merely a few hours removed.

So how much heat is too much heat? Is beer something you can leave in the car on a hot summer afternoon? For how long? Can it be stored indefinitely at room temperature? And what is “room temperature,” anyway? What counts as “hot” in Minneapolis is certainly not the same as what is experienced along the Texas/Mexico border.

Beer belongs to a special subset of our food supply that are living things. More precisely, beer is several billion living things—we call them yeast. Like most living things, yeast have a temperature range in which they are happy and comfortable, and a range in which they fuss about, complain and eventually die. We forget that beer is less a beverage and more of a microenvironment, depending entirely on your perspective.

Basically, if you are comfortable, so is your beer. During fermentation, most yeast strains prefer temperatures between 55°F and 75°F (or 45°F and 55°F, if you happen to be lager yeast). These ranges qualify as “room temperature” for most anywhere, and any of us will generally be comfortable in these environments. Over 75°F and yeast begin to produce some quite nasty byproducts, lending off-flavors to the finished product. Much over 100°F and yeast start to die, so their comfort range is pretty close to that of any other organism. But all this is for brewing; what about the packaged beer on the shelf?

For most beers the commercial product is inert, the yeast having died off long ago due to lack of food, filtered out or killed through a variety of pasteurization processes. What is left in the bottle is a mix of sugars, proteins, alcohols, oils and trace other chemicals (plus water, naturally). None of these compounds is active, so the only thing left for them to do is to degrade over time.

This is where the temperature is a factor. Heat accelerates chemical reactions, making the natural breakdown processes of large molecules into small molecules happen more quickly than they would otherwise. What does this mean for beer? Simply this: it ages faster. A general rule of thumb for the brewing industry is that beer stored at 100°F for one week tastes as old as beer stored at 70°F for two months, or as old as beer stored at 40°F for one year.

Time is as much a factor in beer quality as is its ambient temperature. Storing beer in the trunk of your car during summer months is obviously a bad choice—unless it is just for that half-hour transporting it from the store. Fluctuations in temperature are not ideal but are certainly not disastrously harmful to the beer, no more than they are harmful to your own body. A good guideline is to never leave your beer anywhere that you would not leave your dog (and for the same reasons).

Beer stored at room temperature is never bad, merely not chilled... unless it has been at room temperature for many, many months. In this case, the fault is not with the environment but with the retail establishment itself. Do not blame the storage temperature for what is actually a neglectful vendor failing to sell their product in a timely fashion.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Purpose of Reviewing Beer

Along with the growing popularity of craft beer comes the rising number of fan-based websites and personal blogs. These websites range from online diaries to sophisticated collective ratings systems, from very private first-person accounts to semi-professional and certified beer judges to encyclopedic communities of beer reviewers.

If you have spent any time at all looking up the details of your favorite craft beer, then you are probably familiar if not already a member of many of these websites. Two of the most prominent are Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, both of which have complex scoring scales and product rankings. Others include the Oxford Bottled Beer Database, BeerPal and dozens of other home-spun efforts to emulate the largest of these. With the low threshold of scripting and database tools available on the cheap, new beer-rating websites are developed all the time.

To the interactive websites, we can add the personal beer blogs. These run the full gamut of quality and experience, from the novice just discovering craft beer and stringing together dangling participles with blurry digital photos to the seasoned craft beer consumers, homebrewers and judges to the professional columnists and writers for whom their blog is just another media outlet for their work. But what is the purpose behind all this online beer rating, ranking, wrangling and reviewing?

Some of these websites, especially the larger ones, have developed into both online and actual public communities of like-minded craft beer hobbyists. A few have even gone so far as to develop rivalries and conflicting factions, with their published “best of” lists being picked up by the general media investigating this craft beer phenomenon — which are all topics for another time. However, our focus here is on the purpose of actually writing a personal review of a single craft beer.

First, more writing is always a good thing. In our digital age of e-communication and a thousand channels of pap on the television, it is good to focus on our language skills again. Writing (about any topic, not just beer) is an exercise for the brain. One should work out their mental muscles no less than their physical muscles, and a goal of a sharp mind should be just as important as the definition of your abs.

Along that same argument, writing a review of a craft beer forces you to really think about that beer. Instead of gulping down a beverage, or even slowly sipping one of your faves, you are required to pay close attention to the sensations coming from your palate and translate these signals into understandable prose. You will have to analyze aromas, flavors, textures and even colors that are ordinarily amalgamated parts of the complete craft beer product.

With the analysis, you must also bring your personal beer experience. You attempt to isolate tastes and aromatics and connect each of them with brewing ingredients, other beers, even foods and chemicals. You make links with events, places and memories, both associated with the beer or with unrelated yet similar sensations. Some craft beer reviews can be turn out to be surprisingly personal.

In short, reviewing craft beer makes you think about what you are consuming, which in essence is the entire motivation behind the craft beer movement. Bland products are fit only for a quick, cursory consumption, and are so by willful product design. But if you are spending your money and adding those calories, there should be more to it than just a forgettable experience. Make sure to leave a record of that.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Purpose of Limited Editions

One of the fastest growing trends in the craft beer industry is the offering of limited edition products. A limited edition beer is a beer that is brewed only once by a brewer, often in a single small batch. Limited edition beers are different from seasonal beers, which are sometimes brewed in the same manner but are on an annual production schedule. Limited editions appear one time only.

Most limited edition beers are styles that are either high gravity or out of the ordinary. Favorite selections for limited editions may be alcohol-soaring barleywines, imperial stouts, old ales, Scotch ales or Belgian-inspired beers. Other choices can be based on specialty hop varietals, fruit or nut infusions, artesian beers or even historical or extinct styles. But why do brewers choose to produce limited editions at all?

Contrary to the true nature of beer festivals, this time the cynical view is correct: money. Limited edition beers are highly profitable ventures for most craft brewers. Even in cases where the specialty ingredients are not cost-effective, and even when normal production schedules are reorganized around a special batch, the brewer still benefits financially if only through the marketing value surrounding their new product.

First and foremost, limited edition beers get noticed. They are talking points in brewery newsletters, subjects of advertising and marketing campaigns, and fuel for the fire of craft beer consumer zeal. Saint Arnold’s Divine Reserve series consistently sells out in less than a day statewide, even with reservation lists and limits on purchase quantities. Stone Brewing has dominated the limited edition world with their Vertical Epic series, building toward an eleven-year series conclusion in 2012. Carlsberg brewed their Jacobsen Vintage No. 1, which retails for $400 a bottle, a price artificially inflated by that brewing giant specifically for press appeal.

The attraction for craft beer consumers is a sight and taste of something different and unique, often never to be seen again. It is the same allure that drives concert and sports ticket sales, the desire for the individual to be “witness to history” and build up a cache of stories with which to impress their friends. It is the draw to maintain a complete sample set from a brewer, leaving no product untasted, and brewers are happy to oblige.

For the craft brewer themselves, it is a chance to flex their skill and creativity. Unhampered by the necessity of providing a business-dependent product, consistently and perpetually, brewers are able to design beers based on their personal tastes or ennui to experiment. They are able to construct their own badges of honor within the brewing industry, gilded even more so at craft beer competitions.

More significantly and more practically, limited edition beers allow an ideal test market for the craft brewer. Risk is contained as new products can be produced on a narrower scale and with restricted commitment. Those beers that do not sell well can easily be forgotten; those beers that surpass all expectations may become the next seasonal or permanent edition to the brewer’s portfolio.

To the individual craft beer company as an entity, limited editions can be a chest-thumping roar to other craft breweries. It is a method to announce their presence, no matter their scale or lackluster public opinion of their more mainstream products. A limited edition beer is a calling card of aptitude and expertise from a brewery that forces others to take them seriously by demonstrating their own irrefutable dexterity in the market.

The point behind limited edition beers may be patently financial but they do provide an all-around win for both brewers and consumers. Craft brewers benefit from additional revenue and industry clout, and craft beer consumers benefit from an increased and perennial variety. With the imaginations of brewers nourished by the pocketbooks of consumers, the limited edition trend is not likely to slow down.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Purpose of Beer Festivals

As long as the American craft beer movement has been around, there have been beer festivals. Some are organized by individual breweries, some by consumer advocate groups, most by third-parties to the brewing world such as distributors, retailers or other organizations. Festivals are generally planned for the good weather months of summer but may be found at any time. They can be of any size or held at any setting, some with a specialty focus, and in almost any state across the country.

But what is the purpose of these festivals? What can the organizers hope to accomplish by putting beers and beer drinkers together in the hot sun or the occasional summer shower? The immediate and cynical answer would be to earn a little cash but there are many easier routes to that end. The legal liabilities and licensing alone quash most proposed festivals at the concept stage.

What do the brewers and brewery representatives get out of the experience? For them, the festival provides a showcase for their beers, a means to get samples into the hands of a potential consumer base. Yet the fans of craft beers are already loyal followers of many of these same breweries, and exposure to these consumers is either a foregone conclusion or future certainty. Craft beer regulars tend to seek out the beers and brewers that interest them, so using festivals as an advertising medium is a wash.

Likewise, what does the public gain from beer festivals? Although a festival can draw the uninformed beer-curious, the primary attendees at festivals are already craft beer consumers. They may encounter beers they have not seen or tried previously but these customers are already the target market. They are the most likely candidates to make a purchase from a retailer and need no further convincing to make the sale.

Are beer festivals about educating the public? Possibly, although the primary draw and audience for beer festivals is already the craft beer fan. Macro beer drinkers tend to tire of craft beer quickly, and easily revert to their favorite mass-produced products. The craft market demographic is usually already well educated about craft beer styles and flavors, so the festival as a venue for public education is not a substantial argument.

The real purpose behind beer festivals is community. The average craft beer consumer rarely, if ever, encounters a professional brewer or brewery employee face to face. They know their products, they follow their business and history online and through other publications, but personal interaction is rare. Breweries are industrial workplaces and although most welcome the public with regular tours, the restrictions are many — primary among them being time and location.

The point of the beer festival is to put the brewer at the tap handing a sample glass to one of their patrons. This personal arrangement allows the brewer to feel rewarded about their hard work and vision and receive direct feedback from the consumer. It also allows the public to meet the tireless employees behind the label and brand, demystifying the industry for the customer living outside the system.

Beer festivals bring people together from all aspects of the craft beer industry, from brewers to distributors to retailers to shoppers. They provide a basis for relationships and communications in an industry that can be professionally isolated but also uniquely personal. No matter the organization behind them, festivals are collectively the craft beer village that everyone gets to visit for a short while every year.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Can Do

Aluminum cans have long been the domain of the macro brewers, who tend to experiment with every form of packaging and marketing concept to gain a competitive edge. The brown glass bottle has become so iconic within the craft beer industry that the very idea of canned craft beer gains instant attention. Because so few craft brewers have opted for a canning operation, the association between an aluminum can and a macro product is difficult to break. Hopefully, this association can be changed.

For a small craft brewer, canning equipment and product has long been beyond their financial reach. Purchasing the printed aluminum stock alone is a hurdle most cannot overcome, as they often cannot be obtained in anything less than tens of thousands of units. But as their popularity grows, a few daring craft brewers have chosen the can route over bottles, and it is now up to us, the consumers, to support this far superior choice.

Aluminum cans impart no taste to the beverage. Unlike cans of many decades past, today’s cans have an interior that is lined with a thin, nonreactive plastic laminate. In fact, the beer inside never touches metal, only this plastic coating. The tinny, metallic taste that was once a deterrent for beer consumers is an attribute of your father’s beer, not current packaging.

Aluminum is an excellent thermal conductor. This substance is so great at heat conduction that we fill our kitchens with aluminum pots and pans. What this means for the beer consumer is that cans cool down much faster than bottles, whereas glass is an insulator. If you worry that cans may warm faster than a bottle while you drink it, you should already be pouring a craft beer into a serving glass instead of swigging it from a bottle.

Cans offer 100% light protection. One of the greatest enemies of beer is strong visible light, which contains photons energetic enough to react and break down complex hop oil molecules within the beer. Thus, brewers have favored brown bottles over clear glass to cut down on the amount of light transferred. But not a single photon gets into a sealed can.

Aluminum cans favor an active lifestyle. Many beaches, park areas, lakes and outdoor entertainment venues prohibit glass of any product, as a dropped glass container can result in thousands of dangerous shards spread over the grounds. Cans present no such hazard, and with an empty can weighing less than an ounce while an empty bottle weighs 6 oz, cans are also significantly lighter than bottles in backpacks and coolers.

Cans have a greater packing factor. Packing factor is a concept used in fields as diverse as manufacturing efficiency to atomic structure. Simplified, it is the ratio of how many uniform items can be packed into similar areas, whether those items are widgets or bottles or atoms. With their long and asymmetrical shapes, bottles have a low packing factor; however, with their clever stacking design on both top and bottom, cans have a relatively large packing factor, meaning they are easier and more efficient to transport.

Aluminum is the green choice. Certainly, both glass and aluminum are recyclable materials, with both offering advantages as post-consumer products. But whereas aluminum may be more costly to manufacture from raw materials, it is far more cost-effective to recycle. Recycling glass saves about 26% of the energy over manufacturing new glass, but recycling aluminum reclaims a whopping 96% of that same energy. Colored glass must also be separated manually, adding to its cost, as it takes more energy to rid the glass of the metals used to impart the tint.

There is also the consumer participation aspect, with about 45% of aluminum cans being recycled compared to around 25% of glass bottles. Likewise, much more paper and packaging is used for a six-pack of bottles at retail when compared to a simple plastic six-ring can holder. Add to this the weight factor of shipping thousands of units of product and you consume far more fuel trucking glass around over aluminum.

One young local start-up, Southern Star Brewing, decided to go with a canning operation from the beginning with their first beers, with no plans for a traditional bottling line. Break your association that canned beer must be inferior or compromised, or that fine barleywines or IPAs cannot come from an aluminum container. Support craft brewers that choose a canning operation over bottles, as it is obviously the superior choice.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

American Craft Beer Week

The craft brewing industry is currently enjoying its most robust and healthy period since all but disappearing during Prohibition. So healthy are the craft brewers of the US that a couple of years ago, Congress established American Craft Beer Week, May 12th through the 18th. The big event is being called SAVOR: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience, a multi-brewery exposition of food and beer to be held in Washington, DC. Let us examine the current state of the US craft beer industry using the language of the congressional record itself, House Resolution 753 of the 109th Congress.

Whereas American craft brewers are a vibrant affirmation and expression of American entrepreneurial traditions. Craft breweries are models of the values of American small business. Very few are publicly owned, with most owned by individuals who are usually also elbow-deep in the work and sweat themselves.

Whereas the United States has craft brewers in every State and more than 1300 craft breweries nationwide. At the turn of the 20th century, it is estimated that the US had somewhere around 2000 independent breweries nationwide. Prohibition essentially destroyed the industry, with the only brewers surviving being those with the deepest pockets. But the industry has been rebounding ever since, especially in the past few decades.

Whereas American craft brewers support American agriculture by purchasing barley, malt, and hops grown, processed and distributed in the United States. Craft breweries are often a farmer’s best friend. Not only are they constant purchasers of domestic grains and hops, the spent grain — the used byproduct of the brewing process — is often sold or donated for livestock feed.

Whereas American craft brewers promote the Nation’s spirit of independence through a renaissance in hand-crafted beers like those first brought to colonial shores. Craft brewers are often amateur historians, at least with regard to the brewing industry, and microbreweries are miniature museums of local and regional history dotted around the country.

Whereas American craft brewers strive to educate legal drinking-age Americans. Just as they preserve their industry’s heritage with their work, craft brewers are eager ambassadors and teachers of beer’s flavors, qualities, ingredients and alcohol issues.

Whereas American craft brewers champion the message of responsible enjoyment to their customers. Ironically, craft brewers should never face the opposition they do from anti-alcohol groups, as they are among the firmest supporters of responsible consumption, and are quick to police themselves and the behavior of their fans.

Whereas American craft brewers produce more than 100 distinct styles of flavorful beers, the quality and diversity of which have made the United States the envy of every beer-drinking nation in the world. The varied and adventurous tastes of the American consumer has today created the most diverse beer market in the history of the brewing industry. ‘Nuff said.

Whereas American craft brewers are vested in the future, health, and welfare of their communities as employers providing a diverse array of quality local jobs. One aspect of local breweries that is often overlooked is that they are not only good employers and municipal friends, they also support a myriad of associated business and local merchants that depend on their product for their own business.

So, how will you celebrate American Craft Beer Week? Hopefully, the same way you celebrate every week, with a fine American-made craft beer in hand.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Texas' Taste in Beer

More so than any other state in the Union, Texas constitutes a unique subculture above and beyond simple state borders. With a colorful history, a strong independent streak and even today isolated by long distances from our nearest neighbors, Texas culture has grown up with its own unique and regional tastes and preferences.

Until just a few years ago, Texas consumed more beer in total volume than any other state. (California now holds that distinction, with Texas a close second.) Of course, this is not a reflection of the craft beer market; the bulk of what is consumed are macro products, with their multitude of light lager styles and alcopops. But it does show that Texans have a particular taste for beer, and the local craft beer market also reflects that.

Basically, Texas is hot. Not the type of desert heat like Arizona, with temperatures of 120°F during the day and dropping into the cool 60s at night. Texas heat is a stagnant, humid heat that hangs in the upper 90s, usually crossing the triple-digit mark in summers, and that heat is retained with a perpetual +70% humidity so that overnight the mercury barely budges by ten degrees. Perspiration is an uncontrollable fact of life for everyone, and the humidity can sap your energy in mere minutes.

The heat alone tends to preclude certain cold-weather beer styles from gaining a foothold. With their heavy flavors, stouts of all varieties are rare; in fact, only one stout is commercially produced by any Texas craft brewer, and that one merely a seasonal, the Saint Arnold Winter Stout. Likewise, high-gravity beers like barleywines, wee heavies and old ales are rare, although a few are produced on a limited basis.

The German and Czech immigrants to Texas at its formation infused the state with a taste for their native beers, particularly the maltier bock and dunkel styles. Although no longer a “true bock” (it is now classified as an American dark lager), the hundred-year-old Spoetzl Brewery produces the ubiquitous Shiner Bock that is amazingly popular with native Texans from cowboys to Chicanos, and has grown to be distributed through about a third of the US. So popular is Shiner Bock that brewing giant Anheuser-Bush produces a similar beer named Ziegenbock specifically to compete in the Texas market.

But if there were a single style to declare as a “state beer,” nothing slakes the thirst of Texans like the wheat ales. Texans have embraced all manner of wheat styles, from Bavarian weizen to spicy Belgian witbier to the standard American wheat. So popular is this single family of beers that every craft brewer in Texas commercially produces some variety of wheat ale, and local brewpubs are foolish not to have one of their own on draught. Even clear, filtered varieties of wheat ales such as kristalweizen are developed ahead of the massively popular IPAs.

Standing out from this family of wheat ales is the German hefeweizen, or weizen mit hefe (“with yeast”). Texans adore their hefeweizen in all its creamy sweetness filled with estery traces of clove, vanilla and banana. The acknowledged leader in the state is the Live Oak Hefeweizen from the tiny brewery in Austin, one of the oldest craft brewers in Texas. Once only a spring offering, demand for this Live Oak beer was so great that the brewer now produces it year-round. So distinct is its quality that it continually appears on “best of” beer lists and websites, beating out other national craft beers and even native Bavarian products of the same style.

As the Civil War general Philip Sheridan said, “If I owned Hell and Texas, I'd rent out Texas and live in Hell.” As long as we had our hefeweizen, I think we could get by.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Defining Craft Beer

The phrase craft beer is thrown about quite a lot in beer-centric publications, as if the audience naturally knows and understands precisely what this means. To fans of craft beer, the phrase is inherently understood and adopted as lingo within the subculture. Actually, the phrase is not as easy to define as it would seem, especially to those consumers “outside” the craft beer movement.

Let us start with some public and objective definitions, courtesy of the Brewers Association. Craft breweries are often also called microbreweries, or defined as a brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels of product annually. (A barrel of beer is about 31 gallons.) The next step up from there is the regional brewery, defined as a brewery that produces between 15,000 and 2 million barrels of beer annually. Altogether, these micro- and regional breweries currently account for somewhere around 7% of total beer sales in the United States.

Any brewery that produces in excess of 2 million barrels of beer annually leaves only the major national brewers, namely, Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors in the US. Collectively, these brewers are called macros (in opposition to “micros”) by the craft beer community, and are generally regarded as cold corporations more concerned with balancing budget sheets on the backs of an inferior product than actually brewing something tasty for the consumer.

At this point, the lines begin to blur and definitions start to bend and morph as we enter a much more subjective arena. To craft beer fans, macros are the enemy (by definition), somehow having gained market dominance by foisting insipid and flavorless lager variations upon the consumer. Macro beers are not just to be avoided but completely resisted in favor of the “higher quality” of the independent small craft brewers across the country.

I place the term “higher quality” in quotation marks because at this point, definitions of what is and is not a craft beer enter a grey area. Craft beer fans regard their favorite beverages superior in all ways, thus painting the macro products as somehow inferior and flawed or, dare we say, impure. Surely, with their robust flavors and heady aromas, craft beers must embody all that is good and pure with American industry and idealism.

It becomes very difficult to delineate craft beer in terms of quality. Macro brewers have built very technologically advanced brewing and delivery systems and are near-obsessive about monitoring quality and consistency of product. They manage not only ingredient sources but also international distribution chains to ensure the highest quality at all levels of production. Telling an employee of a macro brewing corporation that they have no regard for the quality of the product they produce can be personally hurtful to many.

One can argue against macro quality by their use of adjuncts, or additive products besides malted grains (such as rice or corn) used to enhance the beer’s body or clarity. Adjuncts are generally regarded by the consuming public as somehow “cheating” in the brewing process. But the fact is that craft brewers often use adjuncts — where called for in a recipe — in some of their beers as well. Either way, the use of adjuncts should not be regarded as somehow related to the lessening of a beer’s overall quality. It is simply another brewing tool, nothing more.

Indeed, some macro brewers have taken note of the growing popularity of the craft beer movement and have spawned their own subdivisions devoted to producing more craft-like beers specifically tailored for that market. Some have gone as far as setting up mock-craft enterprises, branded and marketed as a small brewery but wholly owned and manufactured at the macro establishments. More than anything else, these macro/crafts have blurred the line in the argument of what defines a craft beer.

Perhaps one of the best ways to obtain a meaningful definition of craft beer is to correlate it with the Slow Food movement. Craft beers are artisanal products, much like meat that is produced by a small farm and butchered locally, or confections from a local independent bakery, or vegetables grown and sold at a local farmer’s market instead of trucked nationally from a single valley in California. Craft beers should be produced locally, marketed locally with local personalities, and reflect the local preferences of that consumer region.

It should be noted here that this blog is wholly in support of the independent craft brewers in the United States and abroad. That said, no hostility is directed nor intended here toward the macro brewers, and macro brewers and their products should not be weighed with a moral component. They are simply recognized as another valid consumer choice… just not this consumer’s choice.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Bad Beer Versus Preference

Unavoidably, craft beer fans are drawn to extremes. We love the monster hoppy beers, the high-gravity beers, the imperial stouts, doppelbocks and barleywines. Our desire is to either saturate or outright overwhelm our taste buds with our typical, American extra-is-good so ten-times-that-must-be-fantastic philosophy. It is our nature.

I point no fingers of blame, as I am just as guilty. I desire, purchase and guzzle the latest dry-hopped triple IPA just as much as anyone else. Indeed, craft brewers themselves have learned to work the crowds with limited-edition this and seasonal-release that, feeding the frenzy and capturing the spotlight and making a premium profit, all at the same time.

But an unfortunate casualty in this arms race of the palate is the journeyman craft brewer, the one who either chooses not to take advantage of this marketing trend or does not have the resources to do so. This is the brewer who turns out the session beers, the massive mid-ranged products that are the backbone of the industry: the pale ales, the ambers, the wheats, the casks, the English pub styles or German biergarten fare.

Too often, craft brewers are judged by their extremes. A highly desirable, limited-edition seasonal product can elevate a brewer to almost mythical status, regardless of the balance of their portfolio. Conversely, brewers that are not currently part of this trend are often overlooked or utterly dismissed by craft beer fans. The comment most often made by critics is simply, “I just don’t think they make good beer.”

At this point, a sharp distinction must be drawn: Does the brewer make truly bad beer, or simply beer that you do not prefer? Is the beer produced of a genuinely poor quality, or are they of styles that you are typically not drawn to, avoid or overtly dislike? This point is a very significant difference in the estimation of a craft brewer. Craft beer fans make this mistake more often than they may realize.

Regrettably, there have been a rare handful of (often short-lived) commercial craft brewers that, largely for reasons unknown, have produced and released truly bad beer. "Bad beer" is defined as beer that has identifiable flaws, whether stylistic, flavor components or with some perceptible fault. Perhaps it is too tannic, or too estery, or flat, or stale, or with any of a variety of chemical elements left as byproducts of fermentation and conditioning. These are all the hallmarks of bad beer — or more accurately, flawed beer — and they are not easily missed once you have identified them.

In contrast, consider a simple American amber ale. If you are a lover of hoppy beers, you may reject this as not bitter enough. If Russian imperial stouts are your taste, you may find the amber bland and unremarkable. Those searching for the high-alcohol burn will hardly notice the amber at all, and dismiss it as yet another forgettable label on the shelf.

Yet there is no flaw to be found in this typical American amber. In your evaluation of beers and brewers, you must always take into consideration your own taste calibration and try to value beers as objectively as you can. You need not take up a love of amber ales if your liking draws you to other styles, any more than you should be forced to read Solzhenitsyn if your interests lie elsewhere. But to rate it as “bad beer” or the brewer as somehow a “bad” brewer (or worse, “unable” to make a good beer) is simply wrongheaded.

Be aware of your own prejudices, preferences and tastes, and judge accordingly.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Geek Is a Four-Letter Word

Depending on how you date it, the craft beer movement in the United States is well into its third decade now, and is mature enough to have spawned countless books, websites, magazines, festivals and social groups both amateur and semi-pro. In short, a subculture has grown up around this movement, with members affectionately being referred to as beer geeks.

Or are they? With maturity brings reflection, and craft beer lovers are beginning to turn the microscope on themselves and rethink their modern-day appellation. “Geek” can be either a modern familiar self-deprecating pun or a juvenile epithet hurled against the skinny kid in sixth grade. In our society today, the geek plays the dual role of socially inept misfit with thick glasses and acne as well as the underdog hero who eventually turns out to be your boss. (Mr. Gates, anyone?)

But “geek” has worked its way into our lexicon with a slightly negative connotation, as someone either unusually obsessed with a subject (as in computer geek or Star Wars geek) or as someone exceptionally knowledgeable about a subject, equivalent to our modern use of “guru” — or indeed, both. It is this first association that is causing some grief, especially from those who consider themselves more of the latter.

Fans of music fidelity are called audiophiles, fans of English culture are called anglophiles and even wine connoisseurs designate themselves as oenophiles. As craft beer fans especially like to compare themselves with the wine crowd, of course, they must keep pace with the lingo. However, cerevisaphile has never caught on as an alternative; hence, the seeming default back to beer geek.

Other names have been tried. There have been beer aficionados, beer enthusiasts, beer advocates, beer lovers and many different permutations thereof and more. The bald truth is that neither the prefix “beer” nor its Latinized version of “cerevisa” lend themselves to catchy linguistic combinations. It must be unique, trendy and roll off the tongue to be widely adopted and, frankly, these requirements only bring us right back to beer geek.

Much of this consternation arises from one of the three categories of drinkers that may be designated by the term beer geek. The first is the casual consumer who prefers the taste of well-made craft beer over the larger national brands. Their involvement begins and ends at the palate, and while possibly loyal to a brand or style, their interest goes no further. This category makes up the largest fraction of the subculture by far.

At the other extreme are those obsessed with their hobby almost to clinical levels. They are not only educated about styles, brands and brewers, they often go to lengths to obtain, review and check off each beer as they find it. For these drinkers, the game of acquisition and categorization is almost more consuming than the actual consumption and enjoyment. Trainspotters, if you will.

But the rebuff of the terminology comes from the middle group, the true and loyal soldiers of the craft beer movement. These are individuals who are generally well-educated about various beer styles and different microbrewers across the nation as well as a variety of imports. They know about ingredients and the brewing process, and may even be homebrewers themselves. They take enjoyment in the beverage and the subculture without ever crossing the line into obsession.

This middle category of craft beer fans are stirring the pot against the moniker beer geek because to the rest of society, the term has become synonymous with the obsessive/compulsive group. “Beer geek” has become our culture’s newest four-letter vulgarity, and this misconception drives genuine craft beer fans to seek out new language with which to label themselves.

But why should we let an obsessive minority drive our self-image? The pejorative arises because of a negative stereotype, most likely from a disinterested public outside the movement having only limited or unhelpful experiences with craft beer consumers. Fight back and change the mass characterization. Craft beer fans should proudly take back the definition of beer geek and let society sort itself out.