Sunday, December 13, 2009

Divine Opportunity Missed

Just this past December 1st, Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing Company released the latest edition of its specialty beer series, this one sequentially dubbed the Divine Reserve No. 9. In a departure from previous versions of classic high-gravity styles, the No. 9 is a unique recipe of an “imperial pumpkin stout,” a Russian imperial stout brewed with pumpkin and traditional spices.

Saint Arnold has been brewing this rather irregular series since 2005. Even-numbered releases are based on the winning recipe of the regional homebrew competition, the Big Batch Brew Bash, with odd-numbered versions being original in-house creations. In the past they have produced barleywines, imperial stouts and heavy IPAs; No. 9 has proven to be their most original attempt yet.

These Divine Reserve releases have grown into something of a frenzied cult following. Because the batch sizes are limited, unique and never to be reproduced, they often sell out statewide within days or even hours—or minutes, as is the case at some retailers. Demand is high both for consumption and for cellaring purposes, both by casual consumers and hard-core Saint Arnold fans alike.

Yet is Saint Arnold missing a prime marketing opportunity with this series? Limited editions are always a good profit engine for brewers but Saint Arnold seems to be mishandling some of the success that has fallen seemingly at its feet. Almost all the Divine Reserve beers are very highly rated individually but the series taken as a whole can be viewed as a lesser success.

To begin, there is the issue of the styles chosen. These include a couple of barleywines, a Belgian quadrupel, a strong IPA, a heavy Scotch ale (twice), a Russian imperial stout and a weizenbock. Granted that half the styles are dictated by the Big Batch Brew Bash, the choices made by the Saint Arnold brewers have not been the most original or experimental. Hopefully, the latest No. 9 is a break in this uncreative trend.

The second problem has been one of supply, most likely dictated simply by spare capacity at the brewery to hold one of these batches for the long term required. The extremely limited supply coupled with attempts to distribute throughout Texas means shortages in all places, and the accompanying media attention has lead to a growing following that ravenously purchase and hoard sizeable quantities as soon as each release hits the shelves. With any luck, expanded capacity at their new brewery location will ameliorate at least some of this issue.

However, the largest problem with this special series is also seemingly the easiest to remedy: timing. There appears to be no set schedule or calendar consideration for each Divine Reserve batch. A mere three months elapsed between releases No. 8 and No. 9, whereas the No. 8 came out almost a year after its predecessor. No perennial character exists, nor is there any attempt to correlate releases with seasons or calendar dates.

This problem of scheduling is a grand opportunity missed for a great deal of positive (and free) marketing and exposure. With an annual “Divine Reserve Day,” the media coverage would extend for months and consumers would plan their events with anticipation; instead, Saint Arnold fans are left racing against each other due to grass-roots notification via a mailing list. Cameras would capture the celebration surrounding this ersatz holiday (re: Three Floyds Dark Lord Day) instead of covering the frustrated crush at liquor stores on the day of release.

Will these matters be resolved with the expanded space and capacity at their newly occupied brewery just north of downtown? Possibly, at least those concerns related to space, capacity and distribution. As for criticisms of the choice of styles and release dates, this is a matter solely under the control of Saint Arnold management.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Another Extreme Beer

News broke this week of another entry into the race to create the strongest and most extreme beer on the commercial market. Scottish brewer BrewDog, currently the largest independent brewery in Scotland, recently announced the release of a 32% ABV imperial stout aged in whisky casks quizzically named Tactical Nuclear Penguin.

Aside from bragging rights used in marketing, high-gravity extreme beers are quite an accomplishment and a testament to the skill of a brewer. Alcohol is a toxic substance (hence the root word for intoxication), especially to microorganisms. Even though their entire existence is spent converting sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, most yeast strains cannot survive as their environment approaches 10% to 12% alcohol by volume.

So how are such high-gravity beers made? The first step is in the choice of yeast used, and some brewers have developed their own robust yeast strains in their house laboratories. Even so, these specialized species cannot achieve the record-setting levels of 25% ABV or above without a lot of prodding from the brewer.

Such a batch begins with making a very large starter, which is a type of mini-brew used just to increase the cell count of the yeast before introducing it to the wort. Homebrewers will commonly make a starter out of nothing but sugar, yeast and water, allowing it to grow for hours or days before brewing. The greater number of yeast cells that can begin fermentation immediately when introduced forgoes a lot of other problems as well.

The second consideration is to use highly fermentable grains, that is, grains with abundant starch content that can be fully converted and fully attenuated by the yeast. Likewise, fermentation is given another starting boost by highly oxygenating the wort once the yeast has been pitched, generally by agitation or even bubbling pure oxygen through the liquid.

Fermentation will naturally proceed quite vigorously at first and will begin to slow after a certain point, eventually coming to a halt once the consumable sugar content has been depleted. For that reason, brewers of high-gravity beers will continuously make small additions of sugar to feed the yeast and keep it alive and active, sometimes for weeks or months.

Eventually, any ale or lager yeast will reach its limit of survivability as the alcohol levels continue to rise. Thus, brewers will sometimes switch to other strains of yeast in later stages to finish off the fermentation to the target levels. Champagne yeast is a favorite alternative, as it is highly tolerant to alcohol and neutral in flavor.

However, BrewDog used none of these methods in brewing their record-setting beer, instead relying on a bit of a brewing cheat. Although water freezes at 0°C, ethanol does not freeze until −114°C. By freezing the wort after fermentation, the water content will freeze into a solid block of ice that can be easily removed, leaving behind the unfrozen alcohol in a much stronger beverage.

This method of freezing and removing the water is used in producing the German beer style eisbock, strong beers of about 16% ABV so named after this process. BrewDog did not actually brew a 32% beer but instead made a 10% imperial stout that was held at −20°C for three weeks. The result may be the same in the final product but the achievement is far less impressive than actually coaxing and manipulating yeast to perform far beyond their limits.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is Beer Vegan?

The question was recently raised about whether or not craft beer (or beer in general) can be considered vegan. As people become more conscious about what they eat and where their food comes from, and especially as organic claims and certification more often than not blur the lines of truth and nutrition, this can be a genuine concern to those on restricted diets.

First of all, all beer is clearly a vegetarian foodstuff. Vegetarianism is the abstaining from eating the flesh of all animals, and no meat products are ever used in any brewing process of any kind. (Medieval recipes exist for variations on a rather unappealing brewed beverage known as cock ale, but that is a topic for another day.)

However, modern veganism is much more restrictive than a traditional vegetarian diet. As defined by the American Vegan Society, “[t]he vegan diet excludes flesh, fish, fowl, dairy products (animal milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.), eggs, honey, animal gelatin, and all other foods of animal origin.” This means avoiding not only animal flesh but all animal byproducts and derivatives.

From simply an ingredient standpoint, most beer can be considered wholly vegan. Even the most adventurous craft beers include nothing but malted grains, hops, water, fruit or spice additions, and yeast. (Any beer containing honey obviously cannot be considered vegan.) Yeast itself is classified as a fungus, so although it is an independent microorganism it should offer no objection as mushrooms and tofu are acceptable to the vegan diet.

The point at which some beers may garner the disapproval of vegans lies in the various methods used for clarification of the beverage. Many craft brewers prefer to leave their beers unfiltered as it can enhance body and flavor, so these should offer no objection whatsoever. But an additional clarification step at the end of the brewing process can be problematic, depending on the method used.

One popular method of clarifying beer is the addition of finings near the end of the brewing process. Finings are materials that function as flocculation points for yeast in suspension to collect and eventually sink to the bottom under their own weight, where they can be easily removed in bulk. Even though very little of the fining material remains in the finished product, this practice is enough to render the beer non-vegan if animal byproducts are used.

Specifically, at one time brewers used a material known as isinglass as a fining material. Isinglass is a collagen product obtained from the swim bladders of sturgeon, and it has a few other cooking applications in confectionery and dessert-making. However, many modern brewers are abandoning the use of isinglass in industrial brewing—not over vegan objections but simply due to the expense, as the material has become quite costly.

Another fining material very popular with homebrewers is known as Irish moss. Irish moss is a red algae containing carrageenan that looks much like any other herb when dried, and is of course wholly vegan. Other fining substances such as gelatin from fats, casein from cheesemaking or albumen from chicken eggs are so rarely used any more they are virtually nonexistent within the modern commercial brewing industry.

Most clarification processes used today do not involve added finings at all but instead rely upon physical filtration methods. The beer flows through either a very fine-grade industrial microporous screen or, more commonly, diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is a chalk-like mineral product formed from the fossilized remains of diatoms, or phytoplankton with a calcareous skeleton. It is cheap, easy to replace and recycle, and is the preferred method of filtration for many craft brewers today.

Of course, nothing beats first-hand information. Virtually all American craft beer on the market today is wholly compliant with the vegan philosophy, but if you are still concerned talk to the brewer directly. Most would be happy to explain their process to you and rather flattered that you showed such a detailed interest in their profession.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Beer Across Texas

Even though Texas has a history of brewing as long as the state’s existence, it is a relative newcomer to the national craft beer movement currently in progress. Compared to other states like Colorado and Oregon, the number of Texas brewers is minor but growing. Nevertheless, some sort of guidebook for Texas breweries has been long overdue.

This story begins about two years ago with a casual correspondence between myself and my long-time friend, Travis Poling. Until recently a business reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, Travis’ typical beer-related conversation on one occurrence yielded this item: He was working on a guidebook for Texas breweries, and already had a publisher interested.

I responded by saying that I, too, was working on a book for Texas breweries, and thus a collaboration was born. The state was divided up and some tasty research was conducted, with the result finally to be released this week as Beer Across Texas: A Guide to the Brews and Brewmasters of the Lone Star State.

The “Golden Age” of modern Texas brewing occurred soon after brewpubs were legalized in 1993. With that new idea in the marketplace and the wealth generated by the emerging dot-com industries, we saw dozens of microbreweries and brewpubs pop up like weeds from entrepreneurs and enthusiasts flush with cash.

But craft brewing is not an easy business and (to be honest) not all those who jumped into the fad should have been there. Craft beer was a hard sell early on, especially in a state with two national breweries and a population that once considered Lone Star and Shiner “specialty” beers. Combined with the financial downturn of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a scant handful of those early brewers have survived until today.

Now that the adolescent batch of brewers has come and gone, we are currently experiencing a Renaissance in the Texas craft beer scene. Although not as numerous as the previous wave of brewers, today we have more active—and financially stable—brewers than at any time since 2001, some 9 microbreweries and about 23 independent brewpubs spread across the state. Even more are planned for 2010.

Mine and Travis’ hope is that Beer Across Texas can become the “official” guide for beer tourism in the State of Texas. Included in it are all details, descriptions, original photographs and contact information for all currently operational craft brewers and brewpubs in our state, as well as a few notable beer-centric locations. We also have a short history of Texas brewing and a guide to a few beer styles and commercial favorites brewed here.

Beer Across Texas is published by Maverick Publishing of San Antonio, who also publish a similar book for wines, The Wine Roads of Texas by Wes Marshall. Work is ongoing to keep this beer guide updated and current, so that subsequent editions can best reflect the growing craft brewing industry of Texas and this book can continue to be an effective travel guide and reference.

The book should be available this week at Amazon or at any commercial book store such as Borders or Barnes & Noble, with a list price of $12.95. It is suitable for both the casual craft beer drinker, reader and traveler as well as those who work in the craft brewing industry. You should buy two, because you might spill beer on one.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Contract Brewing

At their initial stages, some brewers do not have the necessary funds to establish, staff and open a fully functioning craft brewery. Other brewers, having established themselves in the market for years, can have excess capacity or at least equipment that is idle to some degree. The solution? Contract brewing.

The concept of contract brewing—literally, brewing under contract—is similar to outsourcing any other skill or trade. An outside client pays to have their products brewed by a traditional brewery that has the free capacity for hire, or at least is looking for another stream of revenue. Sometimes these may be special projects with single batches, and other times this is de rigueur for a virtual brewery.

As a practice, contract brewing spans the spectrum of both operations and opinions. Some companies called beer marketing companies are not breweries at all but contract out all their brewing operations. They have no formal corporate facilities beyond an office, if that, but present themselves as a traditional brewery like any other. Examples of these marketing companies are Pete’s Wicked and Pabst Brewing; there are no longer any physical breweries for these companies.

For many brewers, contract brewing is a means to establish a brand and actually generate revenue before embarking on a fundraising and building program for a new brewery. With a larger brewery handling the brewing labor as a fee service, the brewery-to-be can better test the market and attract investors before committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to a new building or renovation program.

For some brewers, it is simply a logistical necessity. Hawaii’s Kona Brewing finds it more cost-effective to contract their U.S. beers on the West Coast rather than ship everything produced from the islands. For others, it is a legal requirement: Due to a hindrance of Texas state law, Houston’s Saint Arnold Brewing brews all the beers for the Texas locations of California’s brewpub chain BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse.

However, contract brewing has caught somewhat of a negative connotation with craft beer consumers. For many, it is seen as cheating because there is no physical brewery behind the name, or that the beers may as well be considered products of the contracted brewer. This negative aspect may be a result of the practice being abused by the national corporate breweries, who often create virtual companies as a means of marketing while actively hiding a connection to their own house brands. For example, Blue Moon Brewing is a Coors company, the same way Green Valley Brewing (makers of a line of certified organic beers) is an Anheuser-Busch company.

Contract brewing arrangements should be judged by the consumer on a case by case basis. Some brewers (Stampede Brewing) have little to no brewing expertise, and even less interest in ever establishing an independent facility. Others (BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse) have professional brewers at the national level who actually office at the contracted brewery, and are as hands-on with their products as any other employee. It may be a shortcut, but contract brewing is not always a lesser status for a brewer.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Guess Who's Coming to (Beer) Dinner

One very welcome trend on the rise recently in urban culture is the event known as the beer dinner, often also called the beer-pairing dinner. Print, broadcast and online media love the idea, as it provides a simple and cheap human-interest piece, all the time showcasing such image-friendly items as fine dining and craft beer.

Many restaurants and pubs are just now becoming aware of both the appeal of and business opportunity for pairing craft beer with food. The concept is terribly simple, yet subtle: a multi-course meal is prepared, and each course is paired with a specific beer or beer style. Sometimes it is in conjunction with a local or regional brewer or central theme, and sometimes it is simply composed of a thoughtful mix of commercially available craft beers.

It may be easier to simply list what a beer dinner entails than attempt to expand the concept or rules any further. A recent local beer dinner included the following menu (the beers are usually served in smaller 4- or 6-ounce samples instead of full pint servings):
  • First course: Lamb medallion with a kriek glaze and white asparagus puree, paired with a schwarzbier.
  • Second course: Chilled cucumber soup with fried lotus root, paired with a light helles lager.
  • Third course: Blackened salmon with citrus coulis and arugula, paired with an English-style pale ale.
  • Fourth course: Slow-roasted beef with spring vegetables and garlic cous cous, paired with an American amber ale.
  • Fifth course: Berry cheesecake with chocolate crust, paired with a maibock.
The intent of the beer dinner is to show how the flavors of each dish can be matched, complimented or fortified by selected beer styles, often in much better ways than wine is able. After all, craft beer derives from the same ingredients as bread and herbs, not fruit. It is only natural for a malt-based beverage to accompany dishes made up of grains, spices and meats.

The subtlety comes in finding craft beers to compliment the food, and sometimes cooking food that specifically compliments the beers. A properly designed beer dinner should not be a random match, feature only crowd favorites or be a showcase for rare beer styles. Strong flavors are acceptable only so much as they can be augmented by other strong flavors, either from the beers or the food.

The greatest benefit from events such as this is to re-introduce the idea that beer is food. For too long, beer has been relegated merely as a beverage of cheap convenience and refreshment by large corporate breweries, something only the working class swilled to quench their thirst during sporting events. Modern craft beer is as complex and sophisticated as any wine or spirit, and presenting it to the consuming public in this manner elevates it to a more suitable level.

Most beer dinners are well within the affordable range for most diners, and it is a great method of presenting craft beer to an underinformed public while also educating those already fans about some flavors and styles with which they may not be familiar. And as it seems to be quite profitable for many merchants and provides promotion for smaller, local brewers, these dinners will hopefully only develop and grow in popularity.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Extreme Beers

Brewing lends itself to experimentation in the same way as cooking up a recipe in a kitchen. Ingredients can be used or featured based on their individual strengths and flavors, their seasonal availability or to the taste of the chef. And as always, limits and prescribed recipes exist only to be pushed, challenged and extended.

The American craft brewing scene has an element of rogue extreme beers galloping along its fringes. What is meant by “extreme beers” are certain craft beers that push the limits of style guidelines, palatability or alcoholic strength. These are almost by definition experimental products, some little more than commercial test batches that have been formally released.

The descriptor "extreme” is taken to mean beyond simply the stronger versions of more traditional styles. Strong IPAs and imperial stouts may creep into the 10% ABV range but extreme beers routinely double this. Yet it is not necessarily the gravity that defines an extreme beer but some attribute taken to excess beyond any contemporary product or stylistic guideline.

By their very nature, extreme beers can be expensive and calorie-laden. Anywhere from twice to ten times the ingredients of a normal batch of beer can be used to produce just a single batch of these beers. This makes their prices soar, and small batch runs yield limited availability that is only compounded by rabid fans and consumers.

Because extreme beers are such a financial commitment on the part of the brewer, only a few brewers have the means to even attempt these rarities. Likewise, only a subset of the craft beer consuming market is willing to invest in these beers, yet somehow demand remains very high nationwide. Some present commercial examples include:

Three Floyds Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. This is a dark imperial stout that pushes the limits of viscosity. At 13% ABV, this stout is as thick as sorghum and has elements of coffees, chocolates and ports. A special day is set aside each April for its annual release that draws pilgrims to the brewery in Indiana from across the United States.

Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. This is another Russian imperial stout that has traded places back and forth with the Utopia in years past for the world record of the highest gravity commercial beer. Generally around 18% ABV, this is another heavy stout with components of roasted coffee, merlot, dark fruits and licorice.

Samuel Adams Triple Bock. Batches of this extreme beer were brewed only in 1994, 1995 and 1997, yet bottles can still be found in retailers around the country. An experimental (and somewhat controversial) extension of the doppelbock style, the Triple Bock reached 17.5% ABV and has been described as everything from a heavily malted ale to an unpalatable blend of soy sauce and wine.

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. Supposedly a continuation of their sixty- and ninety-minute hopping process from the beers of the same names, this is less a strong IPA and more of a hoppy American barleywine. Recent batches have clocked in at 21% ABV, and this beer is designed to age in the cellar for decades or longer. Trust me when I say this beer greatly improves with even just a little age.

Samuel Adams Utopia. The most extreme of commercial beers, this beer requires several different yeast strains to reach its final gravity of 27% ABV. Sold in a very distinctive gold vessel modeled after a full-sized mash tun, a single bottle can retail for as much as $125. Remarkably, the beer remains smooth and drinkable without becoming whiskey-hot with the highest alcohol level ever recorded for a commercial beer.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Origins: India Pale Ale

Every beer has a story to tell. Every style has an origin, whether it is invented one night by a creative commercial brewer or developed over centuries by a brewing culture. Some origins are simple and direct, and others are complex amalgams of time, society, environment, worldwide economies and even international politics.

Take the India pale ale, or IPA, for example. Americans have rabidly embraced this style and have quickly made it their own, especially with the rise of very distinct American hop varietals. But the story of where it originated is sometimes blurry, and contains historical facts mixed with a fair amount of carried-forward misinformation.

The “traditional” history of the IPA relates that it was an ale brewed by the English to a greater strength and more strongly hopped so that it would survive the journey by sea to occupied India in the nineteenth century without spoiling. At that time, transit by ship took months and the additional hops acted as a natural preservative, keeping the beer fresh until delivery.

However, this origin tale is simply not true. Granted, it does contain some truths, enough to keep this version alive and propagating. Hops do act as a mild preservative, and the British did ship beer to occupied India on a trip that took months at sea. But other beers—namely, porters—often made the same trip without harm or spoilage, so it is unlikely that English brewers would use hop additions to solve a problem they simply did not face.

To uncover the IPA’s true origin, examine the brewers who first produced this style of beer. The IPA is tied to the origin of the pale ale, connected as that is to the particular water chemistry of Burton-on-Trent. A very high natural concentration of sulfates in the water produces a beer of not only exceptional clarity but also one of enhanced bitterness. The sulfates in the water also allows the beer to hold a greater hop load than typical brown ales without adversely affecting the flavor.

The first so-called IPA was the “October beer” brewed by George Hodgson at the Bow Brewery in the late eighteenth century. It was only of marginally higher gravity and only slightly more hoppy than the popular bitters at the time, but Hodgson had the fortune of good business relations with the East India Company, the long-serving trading body with India and China.

Due to Hodgson’s favorable location, business terms and lines of credit, the East India Company became a major customer for his beers—especially the October beer, which handled the journey to India very well. The months-long journey by sea aged Hodgson’s beers an equivalent of two years in a cellar, so they arrived at their destinations very well-attenuated and in prime condition for consumption.

At about this same time, many English brewers were suffering as they lost their Northern European and Russian markets due to new and increasing international tariffs on beer. To replace these lost markets, many took advantage of Hodgson’s popular new style and began producing IPA versions of their own for export. Demand for this export product expanded, and by 1840 the India pale ale was a popular style among British consumers.

These early IPAs would hardly be noticed by modern craft beer consumers, as their “hoppy” nature was only in contrast to the popular porters and brown ales of that day. However, brewers and horticulturists continued to experiment with the hop plant and have expanded the style almost continuously since that time.

Today’s varieties can be highly localized and regional, as American hops have been developed with distinct flavors that separate them from Old World species. Brewers and consumers continue to embrace an almost infinite spectrum of IPA substyles and specialties, as it remains one of the most popular American beers.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Texas Brewers Parity Amendment

It is illegal for breweries in Texas to sell you beer.

Let me state that once again: It is prohibited by current Texas law for a brewer (large or small) to sell beer directly to the public. If you take a tour of one of our state’s microbreweries, you can sample their beers for free and buy as many branded tee-shirts or pint glasses as you like, but you cannot purchase a single bottle. The one product they make, they are not allowed to sell.

In a relic left over from Prohibition known as the three-tier model, breweries are only allowed to sell to distributors, and distributors are only allowed to sell to retailers (bars, stores, restaurants, clubs). The original purpose of the three-tier system was a sort of monopoly-buster, a system of checks and balances to keep any portion of the brewing industry from having too much power.

Unfortunately, the three-tier model does not work. Over time, the parties involved have shifted, with major commercial brewers spawning their own distribution networks (legally separate on paper) that today hold almost total sway over the retail market. Large breweries have constructed the distributors to be largely dependent upon them and them alone, radically skewing the balance originally intended.

Some U.S. states have subsequently modified or eliminated laws surrounding this post-Prohibition thinking. But unlike many other states with blooming brewing industries, the brewer in Texas is still restricted from selling directly to the consuming public. The only legal means of selling beer in Texas is at the mercy of a distributor, but a bill currently before the State House wants to change that.

The Texas Brewers Parity Amendment, or formally HB 1062, was introduced in February by Tarrant County Representative Lon Burnam. (A similar version was also introduced into the State Senate, SB 754, and another compromise bill, HB 2094, followed that one.) What it asks for is rather modest: Brewers “may sell ale… manufactured or bottled on the permitted premises to ultimate consumers… in unbroken packages for off-premises consumption in an amount that does not exceed 35,000 gallons annually.”

Similar legislation has been attempted in the past but has always been defeated. Two years ago, Saint Arnold’s Brock Wagner spearheaded a comparable bill that never saw the House floor. Strong opposition is generally raised by distributors and retailers, who fear direct sales will only cut into their bottom line as people go straight to the source for the sale.

But these fears are unfounded and paranoid. Consumers are unlikely to forgo more convenient retail outlets to patronize a brewery only open a few hours each week. Our nine Texas microbreweries are located so far apart that business “stolen” from distributors will hardly be measurable. No one is driving from Dallas to Houston just to buy a beer they can get at the local supermarket.

And counter to any arguments against this compromise is the real-life example of wine. Winemakers won the same rights several years ago for wine sales on-site at vineyards (Texas alcohol laws are annoyingly specific to the type of alcohol they cover) with no impact on anyone’s sales. In fact, many winemakers claim an increase in sales because of the change.

Visitors on a brewery tour usually want something to take home with them. Being able to purchase a six pack will only generate more business for distributors and retailers, as the beer tourist is converted into a beer consumer. Customers will return to the nearest store for more beer instead of returning to the brewery each time.

What can we do? If you live in Texas, contact your state representative and your state senator and express your support for our local Texas microbrewers and for this legislation.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Glassware Matters

Most fans of craft beer collect branded beer glassware like stray dogs. Shelves are filled with all shapes and styles of beer glasses, most with brewery logos etched on their sides. Such brewery paraphernalia has become the currency of the craft beer market, bought and traded as often as the beers made to fill them.

Of course, every brewer will want you to drink their beer out of their particular glass—that is simply basic business marketing. Many will also claim that their glassware possesses specific design elements that can enhance the drinking experience, and bring out the flavors of the beverage to their fullest. But how much of this is true and how much is just promotional hype? Is specialized glassware even needed at all?

To start, you should always consume your beer from a clean, room temperature glass. Your palate can only detect five different flavors, which means that the majority of your tasting is done through the aroma. (This is why food tastes bland when you have a cold.) Sucking a beer through the narrow neck of a bottle robs you of much of the flavor of that beverage.

Pouring a beer into a glass also stirs up the carbonation in the beer, releasing even more aromatic elements as the head is formed as well as slightly oxygenating the drink. Think of pouring beer from a bottle to a glass the same as decanting a bottle of wine. No one would swill a wine directly from the bottle, and neither should you treat fine beer with any less respect.

Proper glassware should also only be kept at room temperature, or at the most lightly refrigerated. Serving beer in frozen mugs does nothing but crank down the dial on flavors, as cold suppresses the taste the same way that warmth facilitates it. In addition, a glass with frozen sides will only freeze the water out of the beer, leaving thin ice chunks floating in a beer that dilutes as they melt.

However, contrary to the multitude of glassware designs foisted upon consumers today, only two types of glassware are truly necessary to enjoy the vast majority of beer styles available. First and foremost is the basic tumbler or shaker pint, the standard serving vessel for most pubs and restaurants today. It is heavy, sturdy, functional and durable, and easy to replace if broken.

Many variations on this basic design can be found, such as the tulip pint glass or the nonic. The basic design is a roughly cylindrical shape that widens slightly at the top; thick sides are a plus but any further filigree or design elements are irrelevant and contribute nothing to the drinking experience. This is your basic, everyday, serviceable glass for most beer styles.

But for your more aromatic beers, one additional glass is necessary. This type would be your basic tulip stemware, which could also be a snifter, a goblet, a thistle or even a wine glass. This glassware is far more delicate, with thinner sides and a more intricate intent, and should be cared for accordingly. Breakage is common, and some particular items are not so easily replaced.

This tulip stemware has two attributes the basic, ordinary pint glass does not. The material is thinner than most glasses, which will allow the warmth from your hand to gently warm the cold beverage included therein. Many aromatic beers, especially the high-gravity barleywines or imperial stouts, only reach their full flavor potentials at cellar temperatures—temperatures about 10° to 20° warmer than the common storage medium of the refrigerator.

But the most important attribute of the tulip stemware is the shape itself. Unlike the pint glass—which is wider at the top—good stemware should narrow slightly at the rim, creating an overall bulb-like shape to the glass. This allows the aromatic nose to be better contained within the glass and sampled with a deep breath prior to each sip.

Anything beyond these two styles of glassware is vanity. There is nothing wrong with collecting many interesting and varied beer glasses, as we all have shelves lined with such beautiful brewery swag. But there should never be more than two that do not collect dust—the pint glass and the stemware—because there is no proven functional benefit beyond these two designs.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What Makes Beer: Part 1 of 5

Beer is made of some rather common, everyday ingredients, and out of these few items literally thousands of styles and flavor profiles are possible. But do you really know of what your favorite beer is made? Could you explain and describe—on a fundamental level—each of the simple elements in the brewing process? Let’s try to do just that.

Brewing begins with malt, the primary taste component and flavor backbone of every beer ever made. But what is malt, besides an additive for milkshakes or a creamy breakfast cereal? Essentially, malt is cereal grain that has been malted, a process that renders the grain suitable for fermentation and a few other applications.

Remember that all cereal grains are grasses, the same type of plant that grows in your yard. The “grain” that is harvested from the whole plant is a seed kernel, whether that comes from wheat or oats or corn. Like all seeds, these small bits contain the genetic material of the plant and are used for reproduction. Put it in the soil, add a little water and sunshine, and you have a whole new plant.

Seeds are a complex little package in and of themselves. By nature’s requirement, they must be self-sustaining, meaning they should be able to sprout and grow wherever they land. To this end, included along with the genetic material of the plant is a fair amount of starch to be used as “starter” fuel once the seed germinates. This starch is intended to last long enough until sprouting leaves and roots can provide food of its own.

Malting is the process by which humans are able to take advantage of the seed’s starch reserve. It involves steeping the grains in water at a temperature just hot enough to activate (germinate) the enzymes in the seed without cooking it. Once these enzymes are activated, they set about their designed task of converting the starch present to sugars for use by the nascent plant. Ultimately, it is these grain sugars that brewers are after, and detailed recipes and parameters have been worked out for proper starch conversion.

These seedlings are well on their way to becoming plants, and would eventually bud leaves and consume all the available sugars if allowed to continue. However, at this point the grain is dried in ovens to stop the germination process and preserve what sugars are present. It is these sugars that will eventually provide nutrients for the yeast to consume later in the brewing process.

A specialty type of malt exists named crystal malt that consists of sugars converted to starches without the benefit of enzymes. Crystal malt relies solely on the heat of the ovens to caramelize the starches, and as such the resulting sugars are left unusable by yeasts. The addition of crystal malts in a recipe lends a sugary sweetness to the final beer, as the caramelized sugars persist through the fermentation process.

The brewer is left with usable malt at this stage but there may still be several options available, depending on the desired qualities of the final beer. Malt may continue to be roasted in ovens far past its dry stage to caramelize the sugars, adding a depth of flavor and color by heat and oxidation. Desired color, taste and aroma components can be developed by further roasting, in a similar fashion to that of processing coffee beans.

What is available to the brewer today is a wide array of malts from dozens of different base grains, each with its own character and fermentable sugar content and each with an additional flavor and color process. In particular, barley has been the favorite of brewers for thousands of years because of its superior enzymatic power of producing usable sugars, and almost all beers contain some amount of barley.

However, wheat, rye and oats also remain popular grains used for brewing. In theory, anything from maize to millet, sorghum to rice can be used for brewing, with each bringing its own elements of flavor and body to the palate. A skilled brewer with a notebook of proven recipes can produce a wide range of final beer styles by no more than combining the qualities and quantities of various malts.