Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Bit of a Break

I've been woefully derelict in my bloggy duties of late. I apologize for that, but I'm taking my lack of beer-related pontification as a sign. So, I've decided to take December off—to recharge the ol' battery as it were. The game plan is to get through the holidays, with jump back into the pool of beery goodness, in January. Hopefully with a new perspective—and maybe a little insight, too.

See you bright and early in the New Year!

Friday, November 21, 2014

This Is Why I Love Beer

Courtesy of Carlsberg Group
No, not because of girls in sexy blue Santa outfits.
Okay, not only because of girls in sexy blue Santa outfits. 

Yeah, yeah, I know I'm coming at this late (by two weeks), but when I read about the (relatively new) Danish tradition of J-Day (or J-Dag in Danish), my love for all things fermentable was reaffirmed.

What exactly is J-Day—or more precisely—Julebryg Day? I'll let Helen Russell of the Guardian explain.
This is J-day, the first Friday in November, when the Christmas beer, or Julebryg, is delivered to every town in Denmark and the first snow of the season traditionally falls. Temperatures often sink to below zero at this time of year, but in case Mother Nature doesn’t oblige, lorries [that's trucks to you an me Americanos] pump out gallons of fake snow to get everyone in the mood.
At precisely 9pm, Carlsberg’s Tuborg Julebryg – a 5.6%-proof liquorice-infused pilsner that is Denmark’s fourth bestselling beer, despite only being on sale for 10 weeks a year – will go on sale across the country. The beer gives its name to J-day (J-dag in Danish), which was accepted into the Danish dictionary in 2008 as “the day a brewery’s Christmas beer comes on the market”.
According to the article, the idea of J-Day was spurred on by an animated advertisement for Tuborg Julebryg back in 1980. The cartoon features Santa and reindeer chasing a truck full of Tuborg—en lieu of their regular Christmas Eve duties—and has run unchanged for the past 34 years. Since 1990 Carlsberg employees have been giving out free samples of the anise flavor brew—at what now totals 400 locations across Denmark.

I know some of you are going to say "Carlsberg?! Carlsberg is macro crap!" But who cares? It's fun, and it's tradition. So much so that according to the article, school teachers and employers complained that absenteeism was so high on the Thursdays after J-Day, that Carlsberg switched the unofficial holiday from Wednesday to Friday in 1999.

Oh, and there's always a theme. This year it was a Michael Jackson theme—the King of Pop, not the beer writer.

I have no explanation for that, all I know is I want an American version J-Day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Battered (and Beery) Bastard of Bastogne

December 1944 was a horrific experience for American troops in the Ardennes forest of Belgium.

In a last ditch effort to reach the port city of Antwerp, the German army mounted on all out effort to punch a hole in the Allied lines along the German border. By Christmas they had pushed a nearly 60 mile “bulge” into American held territory. On December 19th, the U.S.’s 101st Airborne Infantry Division and elements of the 10th Armored Division were sent in to fortify the village of Bastogne where seven main roads converged, making it a critical point in the German advance. By December 21st the town and its beleaguered defenders were completely surrounded, and outnumbered five to one.

But the line held.

German artillery pounded the U.S lines for days. When hit, the tall pine trees of the Ardennes exploded. The “tree bursts” hurled splinters and heavy branches, killing or wounding many more of the of the G.Is than the shells actually did. U.S patrols that wandered too far from their positions were easily captured or killed. The temperature dropped well below freezing, and the frozen ground made entrenching nearly impossible. Fires along the front lines were forbidden. The troopers and tankers were woefully under equipped, some wearing the same uniforms they wore when they dropped into France in June. Trench foot and frostbite were rampant. Snow kept supplies lines bogged down, and a persistent fog made airdrops nearly impossible, keeping ammunition, food and warm clothing from reaching the encircled soldiers.

But again, the line held.

Two days after Christmas, elements of the Third Army broke the German stronghold around Bastogne. The 101st, however would not be relieved until the 17th of January.

For one trooper, machine gunner Private Vincent Sperenza, of H Company, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, a brief respite from the grueling events of the Battle of the Bulge—involving a wounded buddy and an M1 helmet full of beer—would result a pretty amazing immortalization—which came as a surprise to him 70 years later.

But, Mr Sperenza tells it better than I can…

Airborne, a 7.5% dark ale, is brewed by Brasserie de Bouillon, in Bouillon Belgium, and is the house beer at Brasserie Lamborelle, a beer-centric pub in Bastogne—a five minute drive from where Private Sperenza'a fox hole was.

It's always served in a miniature ceramic, M1 helmet.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Sanctity of "India"

A few days ago Tom Cizaukas of Yours for Good Fermentables, found out that Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver had some thoughts on India Pale Lager; or more precisely that the use of “India” as a euphemism for all heavily hopped beer irked him. Oliver argued for a more creative approach when naming a new style, because as he notes "…if the word 'India' means 'hoppy', and IPA can be white, or black, or a lager, or sour....what does 'IPA' mean?

Garrett’s argument seems a bit more like the realization that his own influence on all things beery has begun to wane, and he’s a bit miffed someone didn’t ask him his opinion before they started naming their beer. But, to the larger issue, if I were a brewer, why fight an uphill battle when it comes to selling beer by trying to create a new “style”? Every other gimmick in the book is employed when it comes to moving beer, so why not use the path of least resistance when it comes to naming a really hoppy lager?

More to the point, “India” has been synonymous with hoppy for far longer than IPA has been associated with beer exportation to India. Furthermore, historically, “India” has been associated with other beer styles besides pale ale, specifically Export India Porter—an IPA-level hopped (upwards of 20 pounds per barrel) porter that kicked around from the early 19th century into the 20th century, and like IPA, used the label “India” well after it had stopped being shipped east. “Style creep” is not a new phenomenon. Be it a stylistic anomaly, oxymoron, or simply downright uncreative—like it or not—“India” now means hoppy. Language and the meaning behind words change, and so goes beer.

That being said, I wondered how some of my other beery compadres—those who use nomenclature daily when writing about beer—felt about Oliver’s statement, and the prolific use of “India”. So I posed this question to them: 
Do you believe that “India” (when related to beer) has come to mean bitter and hoppy, and therefore is it fair to say “India” as a descriptor, can be applied to a variety of beers if the intention is to imply that the beer is hoppy and bitter? Or, should the use of “India” be held fast only to India Pale Ale?
Here’s what came back:

Jordan St. John
The whole thing is a nonsensical appropriation of a term from the 19th century. Even in England IPA doesn't mean "Big Hoppy Beer."
We have all of us had that 3.5% IPA that is the direct legacy of that tradition.
The real difficulty is that we're in a period of rapid growth and development for an ingredient. If you look at the proliferation of styles that happens in Germany and England in the mid 19th century as a result of having the ability to suddenly create malt at different kiln treatments reliably; the lightening of beer throughout that century, it's very similar to what's happening now. Try, I dare you, to separate a Helles and a Dortmunder on the basis of taste alone. Styles were categorized geographically rather than on a continuum.
Similarly, we now have a situation where we've developed God only knows how many varieties of hops in the last forty years and more or less the same thing is happening. The difference is that the signifier that has been glommed on to is IPA because that was the hoppiest beer. It is convenient as a story. I wonder whether Garrett would care about the process of development if that signifier was left alone.
Style creep certainly happens, but that's how beer has always developed. Vienna Lager becomes Marzen. Pilsner becomes Helles. The difference is that in the 19th century the development was based on things getting lighter and more drinkable because there was paler malt. Now we got a wider variety of hop characters so of course hops that might benefit an existing style sneak into that style. Mr. Oliver himself has put Sorachi Ace in a Saison. That's not a traditional thing. The addition of new ingredients to additional styles is style creep certainly, but it's what happens when there are new ingredients and talented people.

Max Bahnson a.ka. Pivní Filosof
I wrote something on topic two and a half years ago:
I don't disagree with Oliver, but getting too wound up about that is a waste of time. It's like complaining that it's cold winter, it might make you feel better about yourself, but you'll still have to put your coat on. And let's be honest, whether we like it or not, when we see something labelled as This-or-that IPA, IPThis-or-that or India This-or-that we do get a fairly good idea of what we can expect, so I'd say that the nomenclature sort of works, if you are willing that IP(A) or India as a descriptor like Stout once was.

Ray Bailey of Boak & Bailey
Jess and I just had a chat about this.
We're pretty relaxed about the evolution of language, on the whole. Things change, and it's fun to watch while they do.
India, to us, means relatively strong, and hoppy, so we'd expect, say, India sour stout to be strong, hoppy, dark and sour.
GO [Garrett Oliver] has a point, though - why *not* invent new style names?  Or do without them altogether?
Answer: because people would be snarky...?

Stan Hieronymous
If we are to consider the population as a whole I'd say there are at least 4 groups
• Those bothered by the imprecise use of language. How can an India PALE Ale be black? And therefore all other variations, such as IPL, are silly.
• Those who think the styles that MJ [Michael Jackson] basically made up once upon a time are all we need.
• Those who don't understand, or probably care, what any of this style talk is about.
• Those, and these are the people driving sales right now, who use "hoppy" and IPA as synonyms. IPL tells them something.
I've heard him [Oliver] speak at length about nomenclature. He needs to read "Naming Nature" to realize how imprecise the scientific world can be.

Chad Polenz
Garrett Oliver is absolutely right. Basically India or IPA is just a synonym for hoppy. Black IPA, Session IPA, IPL, et al. It's just a cultural phenomenom. Not sure how it happened, exactly. And it IS ridiculous that we're still using the word "India". I think we need to re-brand the American-style IPA as simply "American Ale" or something like that.
I think it's too late now, though. The IPA-ization of everything is here to stay. People in the beer community will always know what IPA and India really mean. If you don't know what those terms mean, you're probably not a beer drinker (of anything other than BMC) and therefore you probably won't like an IPA anyway.

Alan McLeod
If I see "India" on anything but IPA I assume it means the beer is a mess. It does not actually mean big and hoppy so much as "lazy brewer." Same goes for barrel aged. IPLs are a perfect example of discordant tail-chasing bad beer design. Caused by the 3000 brewery universe as folk seem to need to both follow trends and stand out.

Jeff Alworth
Funny you should ask. I blogged about (and later argued with Alan about) it a couple months ago:
Mostly what I think about the question is addressed there, but here are three bonus points,
• Styles and names are never fixed. Anyone who has spent five minutes in Pattinson's archives gets this. One decade, Beer X means this, and then the next it changes. "Styles" are at best loose agreements between brewers and drinkers. In Germany, the distinctions are very fine (southern German pilsner versus helles), whereas in Belgium they are broad to the point of meaninglessness.

• The United States, not surprisingly, has adopted far looser commitment to style dictates. (Think of the stuff we call "Chinese" food.) Some things are very specific (an American helles is usually pretty close to a German one) and some are totally impressionistic (pale ale). IPA is no more or less than an expression of the American approach to appropriation and distortion that is exemplified throughout the food and beverage world.
• It doesn't matter what we think of this issue now: it will change. In 20 years, this whole IP-something will have become something else, but good luck guessing what. 

Evan Rail
It’s not just that styles change, but that language changes. Look at the word momentarily, which first appeared in English around 1650 or so. For centuries, momentarily was almost exclusively used to mean “for a moment,” or “briefly.” But today the word is mostly used to mean “in a moment,” or “very soon,” a sense it only acquired about a hundred years ago.

Think about that the next time the pilot says that your plane will be taking off “momentarily.”

Railing about India or IPL being an incorrect term is just as useful as complaining that the word momentarily should never be used to mean “in a moment,” and should only be used to mean “briefly.”

Language changes. Words acquire new meanings, and lose old ones. Deal with it.

Martyn Cornell
Yes, “India” is now shorthand for “very hoppy”, and frankly I have no problem with that. People need guidance as to what to expect from what they’re buying. Complaining that “India” now means “hoppy” is like complaining that “stout” now means “dark” when it originally just mean “strong”, or “mild” now implies something dark and weak when it originally meant something pale and strong—or, even, that “IPA” originally meant a beer that had to be stored for months, while today it means a beer that has to be drunk young before the hop flavours disappear. Nor do I believe that “IPA” itself is now debased through people saying “black IPA”, “white IPA” or whatever —even “IPL”. I don’t believe anybody is really confused by seeing a beer called “IPA” and not knowing what they’re likely to get, and if they see it appended with other adjectives, such as “Belgian”, to make “Belgian IPA”, I reckon if they have enough experience they can work out that they’re going to get something that’s going to be like a very well-hopped Saison. Similarly if someone sells me an “IPL” I know what to expect. I believe Garrett Oliver is completely wrong in getting upset at this, and I look forward to trying my first IPL.

That wraps it up on this end. many thanks to all of the writers who contributed. The only question left is, what do you think? Feel free to leave your comments below.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Of Beer and Writing

I don’t consider myself a beer writer, let alone an author.

I am a person who enjoys beer and beery history. Through the magic of the internet I have taken it upon myself to write about both of those topics, which in turn has also resulted in a book‚ but I still don’t perceive myself as a “writer”. That may seem paradoxical, but it’s the truth. 

That being said, a day or two ago Boak & Bailey—a duo that I would very much consider to be quite excellent beer writers—distilled the last 54 years of beer writing into a 1,000+ word post. Granted, B&B’s writing on the topic has a decidedly British slant (and they acknowledge that) but all in all, the post is amazing concise, simply outlining many—not all, but many—of the milestones, and notable folks in beer writing since 1960.

B&B are usually an inquisitive, and thoughtful lot; bringing up their own questions and commenting on the state of beer, but this particular post was different. This post wasn’t about them or their ideas. It looked at how others perceive beer and how they have expressed their perceptions—be them critical, historical cultural or industry-based—through writing, and for quite some time now. Uniquely, B&B are part of the beer writing history, and are writing about that history. It’s all very meta.

At the end of their dissertation, B&B ask, “When will beer writing really have secured itself a place in mainstream culture?”

I think beer writing has entered the mainstream culture. But maybe not in the way B&B mean. Not through publishing houses and printed tomes of beery knowledge. The Internet has spawned a menagerie of beery articles, blogs, review sites, and social media. Some of the best beer writing I’ve ever read has come from bits and articles, flung to me across the internet. Take Max Bhanson for instance. Nobody—I mean nobody—can capture what would normally be a completely inconsequential event, and make it become the most interesting thing you’ve read all day, better than he does on his blog. Simply put, the internet may be the ideal format for beer writing, in whatever shape it appears.

But there’s a downside to that. With the good comes the bad. Scruples, courtesy, ethics, and journalistic integrity often go out the window on the internet. Posts like this weasel their way in. They are not even opinion. They are just myopic rants—rudeness in the name of beer. Totally and utterly un-constructive.

And yet, they are still both beer writing—one good, and one very, very bad—but beer writing all the same.

They also are very much mainstream.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Craft Radicalization

This morning on Facebook Lew pointed out an article from, written by former NFL punter for the Minnesota Vikings and avid video gamer, Chris Kluwe. Kluwe writes about his disgust with the gaming world’s confounding problem of those self-appointed “true” gamers an their unwillingness to accept who they see as outsiders—notably women game developers—encroaching on their so-called "territory." Kluew’s position is that the rhetoric—and in some cases threats—is becoming unacceptable. Video games have become a cultural norm and its time those “true” gamers came to accept that.

Lew asked on Facebook after reading Kluwe s piece “Why is it that as I read this…I keep thinking of craft beer.

He’s right. Kluwe s point and some of the issues in craft beer today do overlap. Not necessarily like that of those "true" gamer's masogenistic slant, but a related issue—an issue of hostile, self-appointed worthiness.  

There are a lot of great things about craft beer, but there’s some really nasty bits too, and "craft radicalism" (as I have come to call it of late) is one of them. Craft radicalism is the need to defend “craft” for “craft’s” sake, and the ever-increasing aggressive stance taken by those who feel that craft beer should be drank and appreciated by only those who are deemed—by the radicalized—as worthy. To many folks, this might seem to be a non-issue; “Oh, that person is just a hot head”, or “Who cares what that person thinks, drink what you like," and I was in agreement, until I was on the receiving end of a radicalized tirade myself a few weeks ago. Initially I had decided not to write about it, but now seems like it may be a good time.

Allow me to set the stage. I follow a local “support craft beer” page on Facebook. Ninety-nine percent of the posts are of the typical sorts you might find on such a page—photos of someone’s most recent DIPA acquisition, the occasional tasting, food pairing or event notifications, links to articles on Beer Advocate, and random questions about the best yada-yad beer on the market. All pretty typical stuff. I rarely contribute, but I know the creator/moderator of the site, so I thought the page might be an appropriate place for a link from here about one of the upcoming Upper Hudson Valley Beer book events.

I was apparently wrong. Within minute of the posting I was told—not by the creator of the site, but by another follower—that this site was not the place to post my self-promotion, and that a book about beer history has nothing to do with craft beer. I had been deemed not "craft" enough. Here’s the full interaction (I’ve removed all names, except mine):
Craig Gravina: If you missed our Albany Institute book event... I've got some good news for ya'!
JM: Lots of self-promotion and not much else...
CG: JM, I don't think we've ever met, but you've made a couple of dick comments to me. Have I pissed you off or something? What's up?
JM: We have met in fact. I am a believer that posts should contribute and not be purely selfish. Perhaps I am wrong and there are people who benefit from this post more that you, but I'm sure you saw what happened when XXX repeatedly spammed with his blog bullshit.
CG: I guess you won’t be wanting me to save you a copy of the book.
As far as my contribution goes, I think my work with the Albany Ale Project—and my book—has contributed significantly to both the the public record and a better understanding of the history of brewing not only in the upper Hudson Valley of New York, but also the country. 
Forgive me, but what is your contribution, again?
In regards to page moderation, since this is XXXX page, maybe we should let him decide who contributes and who does not.
JM: I do love this common question...why don't you write a post/blog/book/epic tale better than me? When I have something to contribute I do. When I don't, or what I would contribute is of no interest, which is most of the time, I don't. As your post does nothing to explain any history, I think it falls pretty solidly in the second category. You even know you're being an asshole because you state it in the post title. Read the group description, this is not a group for self promotion spam*.
CG: This group is also a place where you don't get to decide what does or does not get posted. Sorry.
JM: You and XXXX really are a special group of people.
CG: Good come back. 
JM: That's not a comeback you fucking retard. Both of you guys are self promotional assholes who haven't contributed anything tangible to either CRAFT beer (as the group is named) or society at all. Albany Ale is not craft beer, nor is anything else you post about. This is not a group for historical ale or italian eateries** that just happen to, yup, carry hop nosh. The world would be better off if both of you ate a little lead, and not in the same way that got you to where you are today. This is a fucking comeback.
CG: Did you just threaten to kill me over a post on Facebook? Seriously, dude, you need to settle down.
JM: I'm not your mother. Feed yourself. 

I realize this is an isolated incident (and I may have helped escalate it), and I’m not writing this as a call for my defense (don’t worry, I have pretty thick skin), but it does speak to the larger issue of craft radicalization—an issue not unlike Kluwe’s gaming issue. Craft radicalization and the idea, by some folks, that craft needs to be protected from some sort of phantom onslaught of mediocrity or from abduction by the unworthy—civil discourse be damned—is wrong, and that ain't cool. In truth, beer doesn’t need that kind of protection, and in fact it, beer doesn’t belong to those who have appointed themselves its worthy protectors in the first place. What it does need protection from is unacceptable, repugnant, radicalized behavior like that of above. I have little time for the “I’m more craft than you” turgidity, and even less time for threats.

There’s been a lot of talk lately of what will kill craft beer—craft versus krafty, big craft vests local and 10,000 other nonsensical arguments about the imminent demise of craft. Ya’ know what really kills craft beer for me?

People like JM. 

* The group’s description says nothing of the like. It does however, say: “Positive and negative comments are welcome, however please be respectful of others in the group."

** This is a nod to a previous interaction in which JM thought that my suggestion that a local import store had a decent selection of beer—Hop Nosh, Ommegang, Samuel Adams, etc.—was completely ridiculous, because “those aren’t really sought after or lusted after beers.”