Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Beery Existentialism - Part Deux

I’ve had a recent revelation.

I don’t enjoy craft beer bars—and by “craft bar" I mean a bar which exclusively serves craft beer, or high-end imports, rather than a brewery taproom, or a brewpub.

Often, when I walk into a craft bar, I get the same feeling I did when I walked into class—mid lecture—after a dentist appointment in high school. All eyes on me. I feel uncomfortable in craft bars, and I’m the kind of person that feels pretty comfortable in most situations. I feel un-cool in craft bars. The problem is, craft beer has become “cool”, and seeing as how I’m not very “cool”, I really do get a tinge of un-cool high school kid anxiety in craft bars. I feel like I don’t know something that everyone else knows, or that I don’t have enough tattoos, or I'm not drinking the right beer. So, to make things simpler, I don’t go to them, at least not very often.

I am much more comfortable in a bar that has a great beer selection but isn’t necessarily a “craft” bar. I like the dive, or the dart league bar, or the neighborhood watering hole where two people can sit at the bar having a conversation about the local high school football team while one drinks from an aluminum bottle of Coors, and the other drinks a pint of the latest and greatest from Stillwater Artisanal. I like the happy co-existence of Bud Light and barrel-aged stouts.

I have no problem with the “craft” bar—and I don’t begrudge their existence—but they might not feel the same way about me.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Albany Ale: The Dark Side of Albany Ale

By “dark” I don’t mean porter or stout.

For the last five years, I’ve researched and celebrated Albany’s brewing history and heritage. I’m glad I did. I've come to realize that beer was a major part of Albany’s cultural and societal fabric. Without a doubt beer helped to shape what Albany was and what it would become. Albany owes a lot to beer, and that's a good thing.

But there is a downside to that. A rather terrible downside. A city that builds itself on a drug—and yes, alcohol is very much a drug—will eventually have to deal with the ill-effects of that drug. In beer’s case—alcoholism, abandonment, and orphanhood. It was during the post Revolutionary, period where we see the collision of pre-industrial colonial drinking habits in which, to some extent, beer benefited Albany’s population by providing a potable alternative to the city’s often contaminated water, as well as being a nutritional supplement; with the reality of industrialized, population-wide drunkenness.

By the 1820s, even before the meteoric rise of the city’s modern brewing industry and during the infancy of Albany Ale, alcoholism was rampant in the city. Albany’s gifted and award winning journalist and biographer Paul Grondahl covers this period of Albany’s history at the beginning of his book, Now is The Time, about the history of Parsons Child and Family Center. Parsons has operated in Albany for 186 years, and today it “is the largest multi-services agency in New York’s Capital Region dedicated families and their children. The agency provides counseling services, parenting education, child abuse/neglect prevention and treatment, family strengthening programs, early childhood family support, special education, youth development programs, and mental health services.” According to their website.

However, in 1828, a year before Orrisa Heely opened the Albany Orphan Asylum (later to become Parsons Child and Family Center), there was nothing but, literally, the poorhouse—a woefully under funded, government assisted poorhouse—and the meager alms collected by the Dutch Reformed Church.

Albany saw unprecedented growth in the 1820s, due largely to the completion of the Erie Canal, and although some in the city were thriving economically, others—many others—were not. Poverty was everywhere. Beer did not help. The combination of easily available alcohol and destitution gave rise to alcoholism, and with alcoholism came abandonment. Heeley’s own husband left her after the death of their infant child. Homeless and orphaned children roamed the streets in incredible numbers, competing with hogs for food and shelter. A law passed in 1820 required that any child found begging in the city to be sent to the poorhouse until ”some proper person shall be found to take such a child.” As you can imagine that “proper person” did not come around often. Grondhal wrote of the poorhouse in his book:
“…the city’s poorhouse, opened in the early 1820s, was almost immediately inadequate to meet Albany’s needs…Some widowed or deserted mothers and their children were taken in there, but it was not conducive to family life.”
He continues, later in the chapter, writing about the city’s indigent, it’s plentiful alcohol and the unfortunate result.
“Several of the poorhouse residents had entered its doors after serving time in Albany’s jail. The jail was built in 1810 to punish drunk and disorderly conduct and more sinister crimes.The city was awash in alcohol. Albany was also a center for brewing and produced 42,000 barrels of beer in 1829, of which 12,000 barrels were not exported and were consumed locally—equal to one-half barrel for every man, woman and child in the city. An estimated 415 tavern, shops, and market stalls sold liquor in Albany at that time. It was little wonder that the city was home to about 500 chronic drunkards and nearly 200 people died from complications related to alcohol abuse in 1830—one of the primary avenues to orphanhood for the children left behind in the wreckage of those who succumbed to the disease of alcoholism.”
That’s all past us now, right? Not quite

Sure, beer is cool, and beer is hip—especially in today’s climate, and with the growing popularity of craft beer—but we are not that far removed from the ills of 1829. Alcoholism is still major issue in our society even 186 years later.

Otherwise Parsons—or places like them—still wouldn’t need to be open.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Another Country Heard From or, In Wine There Is Truth

I don't usually re-post other writer's work verbatim, but today I'm going to buck tradition.

Carlo DeVito's recent post about craft beer's rather self-indulgent "pyrotechnics"—as he calls them—struck a chord with me. What he writes isn’t particularly revolutionary, and as far as beer folk go, it’s a rather beaten horse conversation. The “experiments” (again using his word) have been justified time and time again as a “what is made is what the market demands" and "experimentation makes for good beer". 

That might (or might not) be the case, but what makes Carlo’s point so interesting is that he doesn’t normally write about beer. Rather, he’s an accomplished publishing executive, and editor with an affinity for wine. In fact he owns the Hudson-Chatham Winery, in Columbia County, New York. But don’t get him wrong, Carlo likes beer—he sites Scotch Ale as a particular favorite. He enjoys the occasional glass of fermented grain, rather than his usual one of fermented grapes, every once in a while. But that’s about as far as it goes for him. However, at the same time, he can look at the craft beer industry through wine-industry colored glasses, and having published a good number of boozy books over his career, he comes with a unique perspective.

Now, beer folk may simply choose to write Mr. DeVito off as a novice, or a slightly ill-informed, under schooled beery dilettante—a moniker he chooses to call himself. But, perhaps, rather than showing him to the door with a polite wave, craft beer might do itself a favor by reading his post, and considering his opinion—and then maybe read it again.

Here you go:

What's Next For Local Beer? Pyrotechnics Versus Quality. 
Notes From a Beer Amateur

By Carlo DeVito

Scotch ale is a great beer. Malty and almost semi-sweet. Done right, it is one of my favorite beers. And tasting one recently brought me to a very weird question.

I am not a beer authority. I have been lucky enough in life to get hang out with some of the better ones. I published Michael Jackson years ago when I was at Running Press. And I was lucky enough to work with Tim Webb, Ben McFarland Stephen Beaumont, and Joshua M. Bernstein among many, as well as local beer authorities like Josh Christie, Chad Polenz, Julia Burke, and others.

That doesn't make me an expert...it makes me a dilettante.

Now, there are two things I want to say here. First, I have been a HUGE fan of the craft beer explosion. I have had immense fun watching what's been going on.

Secondly, I love seeing the inventive new products coming from the craft beer explosion. I love the experimentation and I love the collaboration. I think it is all very cool!

Thirdly, I am friends and acquaintances with a number of brewers, and I love talking to them about beer, and have even worked on a few collaboration beers myself.

That said, I am left wondering where we are with the craft beer revolution. Right now I see the evolution of a paradigm - the Pyrotechnics Versus Quality Beer.

Already there has begun a backlash of the over hopping of craft beer. The double and triple IPAs, the Black IPAs. It seems these days if it' not over hopped, it's not considered good. And I applauded the original trend. But of course, nothing in America succeeds like excess. I, like others, think the trend has gone too far. Brett too seemed to be the rage for sometime, though I seem to suddenly be hearing less and less about that.

I guess you can say that about almost every category. From Pumpkin stout, to chocolate stout, to gingerbread stout, etc.

But here's what I am wondering. I have skin in the local craft beverage business. And I am a fan. But here's what I ask as a drinker, and then some... Where does it all end? When do we just brew good beer instead of crazy beer? Is it all pyrotechnics, or is settling to be a quality maker not enough?

My favorite brewery, though I love trying beers from Mikkler and all the others, are places like Samuel Smith, Brooklyn Brewery, and a handful of others.

If all you do as a small brewery is concentrate on wild new experiments, then at what point do you flare out?

Asking someone to be the next Samuel Smith, by the way, is like asking someone to be the next Mouton Rothchild. In wine terms, Samuel Smith's is a First Grown brewery.

But where does the madness end? Or doesn't it?

I come to this question because I recently went somewhere, I tasted a lovely Scotch Ale. I love Scotch Ale. This was luscious and malty and just perfect. And I was relieved. Because the last two or three Scotch Ales I've tried were completely over hopped, and ruined in my humble opinion. There so many classic styles, is it not enough to make three or four or five well?

I am not trying to be a curmudgeon. I am a beer fan. And I love the experiments and trying new things. But the industry cannot sustain this level of experimentation forever. I saw the shakeout in the 1990s, and expect, in the craft business, that one will happen sooner than I like, and I will lament the loss of our fellow brethren. I might be a loser myself...lol. I am a business owner. I know these margins are thin. I am rooting for these guys. But when the shake out happens, who will be left standing?

There are smarter minds than mine on this question. As I said, I am a dilettante. But the landscape is rising up around me. In the Hudson Valley alone there are near 15-20 breweries. And around the state, there are multitudes more. I love it. I think the malling of North America has been a disgusting farce. And there is a certain glee I experience when I see the ghost malls springing up over the landscape (I admit a kind of self-righteous, sadistic Cormwellian sneer at these), and I love that the craft beverage business because it returns uniqueness to the individual regions. I love tasting new things and I love tasting things that are peculiar to a region. I like that local thing. I like that uniqueness. It is what makes traveling fun!

I know I am asking a big question. I know there is no answer. I know I am not equipped nor own the bonafides to give a proper answer. That's for the big guys to take on.

But from my lowly spot on the beer totem pole (actually I am not even on it), as a local purveyor, I wonder if it will affect the region and the other craft beverage producers? I am sure someone can even turn the question around on me, and ask them same of the wineries or the distilleries or the cideries.

But the question remains, at one point doesn't quality win out over pyrotechnics? Does making good beer beat experimentation at one point? Maybe I'm wrong and this was a waste of space, but I thought I'd at least ask the question. How does local beer sustain itself for the long haul?

To me, it all rests on a simple glass of Scotch Ale.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Black Is the New Orange

Have you guys ever had a chocolate orange? You know the ones in the foil wrapping that break into slices when you slam them on a table. 

I’m going to be honest, I’m not a big fan.

There’s something off-putting to me about the combination of chocolate and citric fruits. Chocolate covered bananas I’m all over, but the bittersweet, orange-iness of orange-flavored chocolate, just doesn’t float my boat. To be fair, I’ve never been a big chocolate lover—especially dark chocolate. I’d be quite content If I had some freak accident befall me where I could never taste chocolate again. I don’t dislike it. I just don’t care about it. Chocolate is the very definition—for me—of the beloved interwebs idiom—“Meh”. I’m also not a big fan of orange. Don’t get me wrong, I like fresh oranges and OJ (Ooh! and and orange push-ups) but that’s about as far as it goes. Duck a l’orange. Nah. Orange baby aspirin. Blech. Put orange flavoring into chocolate, and I’m out. 

Here’s my current paradox: Black IPAs remind me of chocolate oranges, but I like Black IPAs.

I didn’t want to at first, but I’ve come around—In fact now I really like Black IPAs. There’s something about the mild chocolate flavor with and a punch of bright orangey citrus hops that Black IPAs bring to the party. 

Granted the whole Black IPA is a bit "2012" as far as beer trends go, and I’ve got little time for the “black isn’t pale, so these can’t be called IPA” argument (so take it elsewhere buster). But I’ve been on a bit of a Black IPA kick of late—Back in Black, Mendocino, Raven’s Black, Wookey Jack, Otter Creek, and Shmaltz’s celebratory Death of a Contract Brewer have all been given the ol’ “over the teeth, and through the gums” of late. 

Why? Again I’m going to be honest. I have no idea.

Perhaps it’s the intensity of the chocolate and orange in a chocolate orange that I don’t like. Obviously, a Back IPA isn’t going to taste like a melted candy bar. Maybe it’s because there’s other things going on in the beer. It’s not just chocolate and orange. You get a bit of roasted coffee beans with Black IPAs, and a slight tobacco earthiness, balanced with some, not only citrus but piny bitterness.They are surprisingly complex.

Either way, I’m digging them, and I suppose that’s all that matters, anyway.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

I'm Not Going to Fuss Over Bud, and Neither Should You

I’ve been sitting back reading some of the responses and reactions to Budweiser’s “Brewed the Hard Way” Superbowl ad.

I’ve read articles noting Anheuser Busch’s hypocrisy, having just purchased Elysian. I’ve read pieces arguing that the ad was a clear, and definitive attack on craft-beer. Some are saying that Budweiser seems to be acknowledging the fact that it’s product is less than premium. I’ve even seen comments comparing the ad to the recent red sate/blue state political discourse in the U.S. of late. The bloggy, twitterverse has been gnashing its digital teeth and wringing its binary hands over the whole affair.

Who cares? Seriously. I sure-as-shit don’t.

I couldn’t care less what Budweiser or AB thinks about good beer. I haven’t drank Budweiser since I was in college. I haven’t given Bud much thought since then, either. I’m not sure what all the hubbub is about. AB is doing what AB has always done—and that is act like a big company by doing all the things big company’s do, and one of those things is turning the discussion towards them.

Ignoring the ad—and not buying their product(s)—sends a stronger message than tweeting pithy, craft-affirming responses to like-minded friends or customers. Which is what AB wanted you to do. They wanted a response. They goaded you. They wanted to rile you up. They wanted to disrupt your craft-drinking worlds, draw you into an argument, and get thousands of people talking about Budweiser. Guess what? It worked. 

But it didn't have to.

I had a coach in high-school who had a philosophy about competition. It was pretty simple. 

Do your job.

By that he meant don’t worry about the other guy. Do your job. Keep your eye on the prize, do what you need to do to be the best. Stay focused on you and your job. If everybody does their own job well, then things work out. The win will come. I think the same can be applied to the Budweiser situation.

Craft beer, and its "enthusiasts" have a tendency to be defensive. One might even say they have an ever-so-slight chip on their shoulder. They might be a bit thinned skinned, too, but they do love a pissing match. But Budweiser, AB and big beer aren't going anywhere. So why waste your breath? For the past 30 years craft beer has relentlessly waged war against big beer, and craft beer is everywhere now. But here's the thing. It’s not craft's manufactured mantra of "big is bad, good is great" that did that. It’s not the marketing and propaganda against big beer that has taken a good-sized bite out of big beer's market share. It was good beer that did it. 

So keep doing that—make good beer, buy good beer.

That’s all you have to do. Don’t worry about the other guy. 

Just do your job.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Albany Ale: The Times They Are A Changin'

Last week I wrote about New York’s barley growing issues.

That got me thinking about the history of barley growing in the state—more specifically when did the switch from wheat (or other non-barley grains) to barley-based beer happen?

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the early Dutch, and later the British settling in New York seemed to have leaned toward non-barley grains for their brewing. In 1646, Father Issac Jogues, a Jesuit missionary visiting New Netherlands, on behalf of the Governor of New France, noted in his diary, wheat and oat farming in Beverwijck for the purposes of brewing. Daniel Denton, confirms wheat ale brewing in the Upper Hudson Valley some three decades later, noting “their best Ale is made of Wheat Malt, brought from Sopus and Albany”. By the early 1700s, wheat had become one of New York’s agricultural staples, for both domestic use and exportation. Peter Kelm, a Swedish professor mentioned in his travel diary of 1748 to 1750 that both wheat and rye were grown in abundance—and malted—but not barley, because it simply wasn’t profitable.

During the 1760s, however, something changed. I came across a newspaper advertisement in the October 1st, 1764 edition of The New-York Mercury. The advert read:
The highest Price for good Winter Barley, be given by
Hendrick Rutgers, Brewer, Near Corlears Hook, N.York.
Within 15 years, barley goes from unprofitable to being specifically requested by a brewer. But there’s a clue in that advertisement as to why—the phrase “winter barley”. By the 1780s, winter barley was becoming more popular as a cash crop. Even George Washington began growing it at Mount Vernon after multiple years losses of spring barley in the early 1790s.

So what’s so special about winter barley? Well, it’s a bit of a “what’s in a name" scenario, because in the 18th and 19th century the name winter barley is an alias. A few of it's other psudomyns  include square barley and Bigg or Bere (pr. “bear”) barley—a variety often associated with Scotland and Northern England. It was also distinctive because it had 4 or 6 rows of grain on it’s head. Winter barley was euphemism for 6-row barley, and it was 6-row barley that would grow in tremendous amounts across western New York during the 19th and early 20th-centuries.

But let’s back track a bit—back to the 1790s. It seems to me that the post-Revolutionary War period is the tipping point for barley over wheat. I’m going to use two examples to illustrate this. The first is an advertisement placed by Peter Ganesvoort—heir to the Dutch Gansevoort family brewing empire of 17th and 18th century—in the May 15, 1794 edition of the Albany Gazette.

The good General Gansevoort is clearly offering to pay a premium for what appears to be a less than available crop. You probably wouldn’t do that unless there was a demand, right? The second example comes four years later. James Boyd—a decidedly un-Dutch Scot, who opened his Albany brewery in 1796—was, according to his ledger of 1798, buying more barley (617 bushels) than wheat and rye combined (219 and 289 bushels, respectively).

So why was this happening?

My guess is cultural change, teamed with availability. There seems to have been a Anglo-fication of the Upper Hudson Valley starting in the mid-1700s. What had once been an area steeped in Dutch-traditions was changing. The area began seeing an influx of British-influenced cultures (either from Great Britain, or from New England and the Southern colonies) and a sustainable variety of barley—6-row barley—was becoming more readily available. New York's new population began demanding barley-based beer over wheat-based brews, because that's what those cultures drank. Barley beer was a taste of home. In the very early 19th century we still see wheat being used in conjunction with barley (Walter Grieve was making a 50% wheat/50% barley beer at his brew house in Geneva, NY in 1803) But, by the 1830s, barley had fully supplanted (pun intended) wheat as the main brewing grain of the Upper Hudson Valley.
Interestingly, Gansevoort’s brewery closed within ten years of his 1794 advert (after having operated for 150 years), while Boyd’s brewery thrived for almost 125 years after his ledger was written.

If that’s not a sign of “The times they are a changin’“ then I don’t know what is.

Friday, January 23, 2015

New York's Barley Conundrum

I’ve been thinking about the barley growing situation in New York.

You may have heard that Senator Chuck Schumer (D) has proposed Federally-subsidized crop insurance for those farmers who grow barley in New York. Like any politicized debate, this issue has two sides to the coin.

On one hand proponents of the measure, acknowledge that although 2-row malting barley doesn’t grow particularly well in New York, agro-biology programs at places like Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension are working on developing disease resistant, and climate adjusted, testing varieties of the grain from other parts of the U.S. and Europe which—hopefully—will grow better in New York, the future. Proponents also feel Federal crop insurance will encourage more farmers to try growing barley, thereby enriching the state’s farming economy and benefitting craft brewers and distillers, which in turn will benefit all of New York State’s economy—one of the main reasons the NY farm brewery law as conceived and passed.

The dissenters, however see it as throwing good money over bad. Estimates on actually finding a stable variety is anywhere from 8 to 12 years in the future. Barley generally likes a cool, dry growing environment—like the upper Midwest and Canada (the county that produces most of the barley used in craft brewing in the United States). New York’s climate is, realistically, too damp for 2-row, making it susceptible to Fusarium head blight, a fungal infection of sorts—which can be poisonous to humans. An editorial in the Albany Times Union put a fine point on the whole issue, rather bluntly:
“But to have the government cover farmers for a risky crop so that beer growers can meet the unrealistic standards of another government program? What is Mr. Schumer drinking?”
As usual, plenty of good arguments on both sides.

Buuuuut, there’s actually a whole other coin—with two totally different sides—that no one is talking about.

Remember when I said 2-Row barley doesn’t grow well in New York? It doesn’t, and never has. The Dutch (and a bit later the Brits) found this out when the settled in New York in the mid to late-17th century. They brewed with wheat, and oats and spelt, and only sometimes with barley, because crop yields were unreliable year to year. That, and wheat beer was rather coveted, as “a taste of home” for many of the early settlers of New Netherland, but I digress.

At some point however, a new kind of barley was introduced to North America—6-row barley. Guess what? It grew pretty well. In fact it grew so well in New York State that by the mid 19th century New York became one of the largest 6-row producers in the country. By 1879, New York produced 46% of the nation’s barley crop (7,792,062 bushels), second only to California.

So problem solved, right? New York should grow and malt 6-row.

Weeellll, there’s a hesitancy on the part of craft brewers to use 6-row. 

Here’s the other first side…of the other coin. There’s a perception that 6-row is an inferior brewing grain. Don’t believe me? Here’s Farm House Malt’s, located in Newark Valley, NY take on that:
We can only speak from our own experience with 2-row vs. 6-row barley varieties, but can tell you this -- the differences are more about perception than reality. Our malting barley experts at Cornell University, who have worked with us for the last two years sorting this out, are in total agreement. 
6-Row is slightly less diastatically powerful, and therefore offers less fermentable sugar, meaning more grain has to be used, or an adjunct has to be added, to brew to strength. Therein lies the rub—adjuncts. Craft brewers don’t like the concept of adjuncts. They want beautiful, easy to use, high sugar yielding 2-row barley. Adjunct brewing smacks of big boy, uber-industrial rice solids, and macro-brewing—like Bud, Miller and Coors—and as everyone knows craft brewers want zero association with those guys.—even when it comes to ingredients. Here’s the thing though, American brewing has almost always used adjuncts—literally for hundreds of years. Thomas Read, a Troy NY brewer, testified to the New York State Legislature in 1835 that his brewery added:
“…about two or three pints of honey to the barrel, we think makes the pale ale finer, and is rather an improvement.”
Honey is an adjunct. The Brits did it too, those same Brits who inspired the American craft brewing craze. Those same Brits who extoll their purist of ingredients—water, hops, yeast and malt—imported millions of tons of American-grown corn into the U.K. explicitly for use in brewing. That is until the Kaiser’s U-boats started sinking all their cargo boats. Oh, yeah let’s not forget about the gold standard of brewers—the Belgians. Belgian candy sugar is an adjunct.

The blind acceptance that 6-row barley and adjunct brewing is bad, is misinformation, and I hate to say, but it’s misinformation that seems to be perpetuated by politics in craft brewing, rather than— perhaps—what might be best for the industry. Far be it for me to imply that craft proponents are prone to blindly accept anything, either.

Okay enough about adjuncts. On to the fourth side of the coin… or is it the second side of the other coin? In any case, and here’s where it gets really sticky—Federal crop insurance or not. Farmers don't want to give up field space to barley because growing malting barley is essentially a niche market. Malting barley is grown for basically one reason—to make booze. Booze is big business, but not as big as food. Corn and wheat are easier to grow and waaaaaay more profitable—think about it, High Fructose Corn Syrup is in just about every food product, and corn-based ethanol is in our gasoline, not to mention how much shit is wheat flour based. And then, there’s the Canadians. How can New York even conceive of competing with the fully established—and significantly cheaper—Canadian barley industry?

So, the Alpha and Omega of New York barley growing is this: brewers have backed themselves in a corner, because the've gotten themselves in bed with politicians who don't really know the whole story—or the industry—and who are waving the "We've got to grow barley in New York because, if North Dakota can do it, so can we!” flag, but the barley that would be the best choice—6-row barley—the brewers don't want to use. The politicians have stepped in it too, because they really don't know why New York doesn't grow barley, or more importantly, that the craft industry doesn't really want the kind of barley that would grow best here—they just want a sound bite to get re-elected.

I'm not sure what side of the, apparently, 4 dimensional coin I'd bet on (although I'm leaning toward the growing and advocating for 6-row route) I just wanted to put the whoooole story in perspective. 

At least it isn’t complicated.