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.