Sunday, December 12, 2010

Is Stone Brewing Still Worthy?

If you are like thousands of other craft beer fans, your tastes will likely have passed through the revelation of Stone Brewing’s beers along the way to forming your beer identity. You most likely remember your first taste of Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale—possibly your first exposure to beer beyond the light lagers of the majors—and its reckless use of hops and strength as they assaulted your palate onto the next level.

Stone entered the nascent craft beer movement with a big splash in 1996 with their rebellious image, the omnipresent gargoyle icon filled with disdain and a chant of “You’re Not Worthy” emblazoned on every bottle. They made their mark mocking the “fizzy yellow beers” by shunning adjuncts and making some style-defying products, most of which pushed the boundaries of flavors with a newfound brashness in brewing and earned for them legions of eager craft beer fans.

Now almost fifteen years forward, look back on their works of the past decade and a half. Their core products are still among the best-reviewed and most-favored in the craft beer world. Beers like the Stone Pale ale, IPA and Ruination, the Smoked Porter, Imperial Russian Stout and Old Guardian Barley Wine stand out as excellent representatives of each of their respective styles. Of these listed here, I am still a huge fan and regular consumer.

However, look across at some of their “edgy” product ideas such as the Vertical Epic series, which has met with only lukewarm critical response. Designed as a dozen-beer series to be collected, aged and enjoyed at the end of those twelve years, some have been quality stand-outs but with many of these not nearly as good as anticipated, bordering on mediocre. This latter group certainly will not improve with time, much less age well enough to make the end of the series as intended.

Even some of their “new” products are not truly new, much less innovative. Arrogant Bastard has been oaked. The Double Bastard Ale is almost by definition merely a doubling of the original Arrogant Bastard recipe. Stone Ruination is nothing more than a re-issue of their Fifth Anniversary Ale, formulated as a year-round product. Even their newest releases of the Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale and the Stone Cali-Belgique IPA are reworks of their Eleventh Anniversary Ale and one of the Vertical Epic editions, respectively. Just about the only original standout of the past decade has been the Stone Levitation, a mild amber ale.

The latest sign of trouble comes just recently with an announcement of their “Odd Beers for Odd Years” series. Stone plans to vary the yeast in two solid flagship products, the Old Guardian Barley Wine and Russian Imperial Stout, releasing specialized versions of each in odd-numbered years going forward. Although in some cases such experimentation can be viewed as innovative and progressive, a move such as this that displaces two highly in-demand beers comes across as almost desperate—especially in light of the lack of other original ideas.

More than facing problems simply with the origins of new beers, Stone suffers from a tremendous house flavor. Breweries often become accustomed to using the same ingredients from the same suppliers, and many maintain a particular favored yeast strain used as a base for most if not all of their products. If not careful with recipe formulations, breweries can inadvertently develop the same flavors throughout their product lines no matter the individual style of beer.

Unfortunately, Stone has fallen into the trap of house flavor not only with brewing but also with their thinking and business practices. Their rebellious new beers come across with flavors not innovative and desirable but that are yawningly familiar variations upon an often-abused theme of “extreme brewing” while searching for some sort of style identity. All I am able to taste recently are tinkering experiments with the Arrogant Bastard base recipe that are wholly uninspired and unoriginal.

Stone may have been “extreme” early in their history but as the rest of the craft beer industry has caught up (if not passed them by), Stone has remained static while resting on the same business formula with which they started years ago. Their image has become dated and self-mocking, and their talents have become a creative shadow of the bad boys of brewing they once claimed to be.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Austin Brewing Phenomenon

Amid a tee-shirt emblazoned mantra of “Keep Austin Weird,” the Texas state capitol has worked to maintain its local flavor and attitude. For decades, I have watched the town grow from a barely-city positioned as a quaint, convenient college-and-government town into an almost-metropolis struggling to keep its liberal, indie identity within the corporate influx and urban sprawl.

Likewise, I have seen Austin beer ebb and flow yet always lead the state in craft brewing. With a natural water composition that chemically favors brewing, the area has attracted national and international attention from brewers, with no less than the legendary Pierre Celis once brewing here. And the local population has eagerly and thirstily embraced them all.

But something new is in the wind these days in Austin, the likes of which have not been seen since the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. This summer saw the opening of two new microbreweries in addition to the existing three (four if you count nearby Real Ale Brewing in Blanco) that have been operating for years now. And as of the time of this writing, at least that many more are under development for 2011.

With well-established breweries Live Oak Brewing and Independence, along with sophomore effort (512) Brewing, this summer saw Thirsty Planet Brewing and Jester King Craft Brewery open, with Kreuz Creek Brewing and Hops & Grain still pending. Next year should see Circle Brewing and South Austin Brewing open, and at least a half dozen more ventures are still toying with the concept. These places are popping up like weeds; if you hear of still more new brewers, please let me know.

So what has spurred this stampede of new brewers, and why now? And why Austin? Is there something unique to the area that is missing from the rest of the state? Of course, the larger unstated question that looms on the horizon is can a city of only three-quarters of a million people support six, eight, or ten microbreweries when much larger markets like Dallas/Fort Worth or Houston struggle to keep even one open?

A healthy Texas economy has been a factor for many years now, with Austin providing a high-tech boomtown and major university that attracts residents (i.e., thirsty consumers) from around the United States, especially the beer-thirsty West Coast. Golden State residents find the Hill Country’s liberal nature and lush outdoorsmanship in the middle of conservative Texas a natural environment, and the relative living expenses are equally attractive.

However, the underlying factor to the demand and ultimate success of Austin beer lies in the nature of Austinites themselves. Residents of our capitol tend to be fiercely loyal to local brands and wary of corporate products, as well as being heavily vested in the Slow Food movement—of which, as I have always maintained, craft beer is a healthy segment.

Along with brewers also come the writers and bloggers these days, with several Austin locals establishing themselves as the witnesses to the movement. Chris Troutman of Beertown Austin (who produces some great vblogs with craft brewers) says this:
People in Austin love to latch on to local products and producers. Like Portland and Boulder, Austin is a granola town, and something about the ‘rawness’ and ‘earthiness’ of beer really appeals to the market here. Of the new brewers coming on the scene we have guys brewing with rain water, reclaiming spent grains for dog biscuits, attempting to go 100% organic, and you can’t talk to any new brewer without the subject of the environmental friendliness of cans coming up.
Can a town like Austin support a dozen independent brewers? Remarkably, unlike almost any other locale in the Lone Star State, I believe they can. This is not a group of overnight millionaires from the Internet playing with beer, and the craft beer movement is no longer merely a novelty waiting to pass. Austin is uniquely a beer city, and they are about to enter another Golden Age.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Rahr & Sons and the Road Back

On February 12th, 2010, Fort Worth’s Rahr & Sons Brewery became the stuff of Texas legend by being the sole brewery in the history of the Lone Star State ever to be destroyed by a blizzard. Such events may be commonplace in northern climes but a record-setting 12.5-inch snowfall in just 24 hours is unheard of in North Texas, and unlikely to be repeated in our lifetimes.

The weight of the precipitation collapsed the roof of the brewery from stem to stern, busting a water main and plumbing and filling the warehouse operation just south of downtown with water a foot deep. Brewing and bottling equipment was ruined or partially crushed, and in some places the fermentors were the only structures holding up what remained of the snow-capped roof.

From an operational standpoint, the brewery was an almost total loss: Some equipment could be salvaged but it would be months before anything could be brewed again. Fortunately, insurance covered large portions of the damages, which meant that Rahr & Sons would definitely be brewing again at some future date. The only obstacle at this point was time.

But it was time put to surprisingly good and productive use. Coors Distributing arrived immediately and took what bottled product was left on-site for immediate sale. A few batches of beer remained in the unpowered conditioning tanks for weeks before they could be accessed and kegged, with the good fortune of mild weather keeping them fresh (and the unintended extra lagering time produced what was probably their best batch ever).

Fritz Rahr may have been a man without a brewery but he and his bunch were far from idle. Without the very popular Saturday tours and tastings every week, the Rahr brewing team moved out into the city of Fort Worth and the greater Metroplex, holding special events and tastings almost weekly as they kept the company name alive despite having no new beer. Even as bottles became more difficult to find on retail shelves, a series of sly viral videos featuring indolent brewers trying to amuse themselves attracted some minor national attention for this non-brewing brewery.

But as of this past June, Rahr & Sons became an actual working brewery once again. A new roof was installed and the entire facility replumbed, taking advantage of this reboot to reorganize some lines and equipment that were otherwise placed for expansion’s convenience. A new brew kettle and subsequent arrangement now cuts a 12- or 18-hour brewing cycle down to about six hours. A new bottling line will allow both 12-ounce and 22-ounce bottles, and the annoying and unreliable screw-caps are now history.

A new cold room has been added, including a temperature-controlled area specifically for barrel-aging beers. A new bar has been installed, making more space available for the inevitable crowds of fans who will soon fill this brewery on weekends. Even the bottle labels have been updated and standardized, with a modern and uniform style for all the beers produced.

Having his brewery destroyed may yet be the best thing to ever happen for Rahr & Sons, as it allowed them to tweak, subtly improve and redesign what had previously grown organically and haphazardly. With added capacity and more control over the brewing process, look for Rahr beers to significantly improve in quality. An entire barrel-aging program of beers is planned, some to be bottled and others exclusively local.

Rahr & Sons has finally turned the big corner, and anxiously awaits the city-issued certificate of occupancy before resuming their ever-popular Saturday tours. A business pairing with a contract brewing opportunity out-of-state will see the production of an entire line of sub-products under the Ass Kisser Ales label. And with their current setup and operations, they are poised to be a close contender for the second-largest craft brewery in the state behind Saint Arnold.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Dancing Bear Pub and a Beer Fest

Located in the most unlikely of spots possible is one of the best beer-focused pubs in the state of Texas, The Dancing Bear Pub. On a corner sharing a small freestanding building with a sandwich and pizza shop in Waco, this establishment has found a way to thrive amid both the Southern Baptists and the swilling college students mere blocks away at Baylor University.

Last week, The Dancing Bear Pub dared to host their first annual Texas Craft Brewers Festival in the lot just behind the pub. It was a small and almost local affair, far from the last state-wide event of the same name held in Austin back in 2003–2005. Only a handful of Texas brewers were represented but, in light of nothing equivalent elsewhere, it was a good start to a much needed tradition in this state.

Established in 2006, The Dancing Bear Pub is a true craft beer house. The interior has plenty of room to sit and socialize, with only a tiny bar at the end beneath the single television. Just 16 taps line the wall, which is close to an optimum number for serving beer at its highest quality and allowing selections to change frequently. Likewise with the bottle selection, featuring daily specials throughout the week intended to keep the stock always moving.

Owner and Waco native Paxton Dove is the one responsible for creating this oasis of a beer bar within a college-town environment—which is not always easy. Dove is not only a fan of craft beer, he is a seasoned homebrewer and organizer of a couple of central Texas homebrew clubs. He also has plenty of friends and contacts within the commercial brewing industry at both ends of I-35 and across the country.

In fact, Dove has his eyes on eventually converting to a brewpub model and brewing commercially through his place in Waco. He even went so far as to acquire all the necessary state and federal licensing to brew on-site before a paperwork snafu as the ATF transitioned to the TTB threw cold water on that idea. Now, with proven beer recipes already selected, finances and space limitations have the brewpub idea currently on hold. A small (10-gallon) brewing system may be the next step with this idea.

Naturally, and with a competing event the same day just down the highway in Temple, this Texas Craft Brewers Festival did not reach the size or scope of the aforementioned Austin event. However, this allowed for the 5-oz sample pours to be a little more generous, hourly raffles to award pub and brewery swag, and lines for the beers and the terrific pizzas from the shop next door to be much shorter. A local animal rescue organization was sponsored by the pub, who in turn was helped by ESPN Radio giveaways.

With an army of new craft brewers amassing in Austin, Waco may seem an unlikely place to host an “official” Texas Craft Brewers Festival—or is it an even better locale for this event? Resurrecting the festival in Austin may see it dominated by the new local Austin brewers, possibly to the point of discouraging Texas brewers outside of Austin from participating. The central location, reduced costs and neutral ground of Waco may be an ideal spot to promote this event annually.

But the success of the Dancing Bear is in the environment that is created not only by Dove but also by his staff, all of whom are just as knowledgeable about the products they sell. A similar Oktoberfest event is held at the same spot each year, featuring food from Kuby’s in Dallas. This is not a bar; it is a true local pub—an important distinction, and one surprisingly in touch with the larger modern craft beer movement outside of this minor Texas town.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Caveat Emptor and the Craft Beer Consumer

I recently picked up a bottle of BrewDog’s Dogma, a new imported beer from a Scottish craft brewer previously unrepresented in this area. My intent was to evaluate and properly review the beer contained within for a future article but a few tell-tale signs lead me to abandon such an attempt. As happens on occasion in the craft beer world, especially with the new and imported, I was in possession of a bad bottle.

BrewDog Ltd. is a very experimental, “American-style” microbrewery located in Fraserburgh, Scotland, with beers only newly arrived in the North Texas market. I use the term “American-style” because BrewDog differs from the standard European brewing industry—steeped in tradition and loyal to regional styles—and instead is daring and boundlessly nontraditional with their products. Only a couple of months ago, BrewDog made international news with the “world's strongest beer” at 32% ABV.

Dogma is an herb/spiced beer brewed with additions of guarana, poppy seeds, kola nut and Scottish heather honey. Sometimes one can form an expectation of the flavor of a beer before sampling, but this unique combination of ingredients proved a challenge. Based on the description, some sort of lightly spiced, nutty, slightly honey-sweet beverage should have been forthcoming.

Instead, the beer that poured from this bottle was flat and lifeless with a taste to match, somewhat of an ripe, tangy flavor and a slightly not-so-unpleasant element that just was not quite right. It did not exhibit any of the typical characteristics of an infected beer (such as obvious sourness or a green apple flavor) or of oxidation (such as a stale or cardboardy element) but something in the profile just did not add up.

Suspicious, I referenced a few online reviews of this same beer and found almost no correlation between other drinkers’ descriptions and the beverage before me. My guess is that I purchased an old or mistreated bottle—which will happen occasionally in each beer drinker’s career. Especially vulnerable are imports newly arrived on the Texas market, beers of unknown provenance that not only cross the oceans under dubious storage conditions but may also sit in state-side warehouses for months on end awaiting regulatory approval.

Texas is especially guilty of this problem. Commercial approval of new beers for sale in our state’s markets can be tediously lengthy and expensive, with delays ranging from disputes over alcoholic strength to stylistic classifications to minor elements included on the labels. During this time, beers will sit—and where they sit and the environment in which they are kept is an unknown quantity.

Naturally, heat is an enemy of fresh beer and it is doubtful products are stored in the same sort of stifling warehouses as furniture, clothing or other environmentally durable goods. But imports (as well as many domestic brands) can suffer during transport periods without cooling controls, and even some areas of storage under air-conditioned units can be much warmer than intended, such as shelves stacked high off the ground.

One obvious sign of mishandling is a thick layer of sediment caked at the bottom of a bottle. Upon disturbing the beer, the detritus floats in suspension and can leave an otherwise delicious beer rather unappetizing, almost like a glass full of dietary fiber supplement. This is a positive indication that the beer has been through relatively rough temperature ranges, causing solids and proteins to fall out of their normal suspension.

The lesson here is that there is an unwritten element to evaluating craft beers, and that is to always consider the possibility of a mishandled or old bottle. Rare circumstances such as this should not reflect negatively on a brewer, and are most often remedied once distribution channels are established and refreshed regularly. Bringing such matters to the attention of your retailer is also a good idea, as they should also benefit from as much feedback as you can provide.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Beers Texas Needs

In case you had not noticed, the young Texas craft beer market is currently flourishing. We are seeing an unprecedented number of national brands and imports arriving almost weekly, and our in-state commercial brewers are the strongest they have been since the reckless microbrew expansion of the dot-com era.

Naturally, all the stylistic basics seem to be covered. Amber ales and Vienna-style lagers are quite popular and widespread, as are many variations of the well-liked wheat or weizen styles. We have plenty of quality helles lagers, and fall brings an abundance of new Oktoberfest beers each year. We have a couple of decent IPAs (although we could always use more) and a few great stouts, albeit with the latter not truly in high demand with our grueling Texas summers.

So where do we go from here? What direction should Texas brewers take with their products, and which will prove the most successful? What gaps remain to be filled? The good news is that many market niches have already been identified and satisfied most profitably. We have schwarzbiers and Dortmunders and variations on the kölsch, all of which are great additions to our landscape. But we have still missed a few of the obvious.

Bock. The historical settlement of Central Texas is one of German and Czech immigrants, imparting a long and noble history of Germanic brewing to the Lone Star State. Yet too few breweries today embrace this heritage, particularly with respect to bocks and their subcategories. We do have maibocks and limited spring seasonals, but it seems craft brewers are content to relinquish the bock style to Spoetzl (even though Shiner is no longer categorized as a bock) when instead this state should have a market flooded with bocks from every brewhaus. And a popular state-brewed doppelbock is long overdue.

Münich dunkel. The dunkel, a slightly darker, roastier cousin of the Vienna lager, would make a fine competitor for either the dark, sweet lager that is now Shiner or as an alternative to brewing a true bock-style beer. Unfortunately, the only dunkels to be found in Texas are either imported from Germany or from Mexico, which has embraced its German and Austrian brewing heritage better than Texas has.

Berliner weisse. To brew a Berliner weisse for the scorching Texas heat should not even be debated. This low-alcohol wheat beer brings a refreshing lemon and citrus lactic tang to the traditional weizen already popular in hot weather. The proven success of hefeweizen and witbier in our state should prompt local craft brewers to explore all the variations of the weizen styles.

Rauchbier. Another seemingly obvious choice is the rauchbier, a German lager similar to a bock that is brewed with smoked malt and often with an addition of rye. The smoky flavor can be anywhere from subtle campfire to full bacon-flavored beverage, and its obvious pairing with native Texas barbecue should make it a commercial success if only for cooks building their marinades.

Czech pilsner. Despite being the most numerous commercial beer style on the market today, pilsners have drifted too far away from their authentic Bohemian origins. Instead of being smooth, sweet and forgettable, true Czech pilsners can be hopped as strongly as American IPAs using Saaz and other noble hops yet can remain equally as refreshing as a tame marketable lager.

Eisbock. Including an eisbock on this list is a guilty indulgence on my part but still one that may be economically competitive. A traditional strong bock is brewed and then held below freezing for a duration, after which the frozen water content is physically removed as ice (ethanol has a much lower freezing point than water). What remains is a high-gravity commercial competitor to barleywines and imperial stouts that is as smooth as schnapps and relatively unique to the marketplace.

Granted, a few of these styles have already been attempted by in-state brewers—even with ongoing success—but few remain as permanent products on the state’s large landscape. If existing and future brewers adopted German styles more, perhaps a unique national identity could successfully arise for Texas craft brewing.