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.