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 M√ľnich 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.