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 medium.com, 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'! http://www.drinkdrank1.com/2014/09/gratuitous-self-promotion-didja-miss.html
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.”

Friday, October 17, 2014

Albany Ale: The Preposterous Processes of Amsdell's Porter

It dawned on me the other day that I’ve not really written about historic porter in and around Albany.

The epiphany came earlier in the week when Chad Polenz of chadzbeerreviews.com, asked if I was interested in doing a dual book signing at the Homebrew Emporium. Chad’s book The Handbook of Porters and Stouts hits shelves in the next few weeks, and the Emporium just received a shipment of my book, Upper Hudson Valley Beer. A dual signing at the area’s best home brew shop is a no-brainer, and when in Rome, I suggested we also brew a historic porter (specifically from a recipe in the turn-of-the-century, George I. Amsdell Brewing & Malting Company log-books, held by the Albany Institute of History & Art) on the day of the signing. As of right now, our tentative date for the brew day/book signing is December 14.

A homebrew shop, a book on beer history, a book about porter, and a historic porter recreation—the event sells itself, right?

So, down the rabbit hole I went. 

Arguably the defining beer of 19th century London, and historically popular in U.S. cities like Philadelphia and Boston, porter was also produced in the Upper Hudson Valley—although it seems not to the extent of ale. Perhaps this is because porter stems from a British tradition, and the Upper Hudson valley was still quite Dutch, culturally, into the early 19th century. However, it's likely that many of the area's breweries were making some variation of porter in the 18th century. In 1791 William Faulkner (No, not that William Faulkner) was advertising porter at his Arbor Hill brewery in Albany; and nearly all of the Hudson Valley brewers were making it during the first half of the 19th Century. Brewers up and down the Hudson testified to making porter in the 1835 hearing before the New York State Senate. By the very late 19th century porter was still being made by a number of area breweries—at Fitzgerald Brothers in Troy; in Albany at Quinn & Nolan, and Taylor Brewery—among others—and of course at the George I. Amsdell Brewing Company & Malting Company.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of Amsdell’s porter, I need to pause here and clarify something. I mentioned ale earlier. It’s not until recently (recently being the 20th century) that porter has gained an association as “ale”. Yes, it’s fermented warm, and top fermented, but for the majority of its life, porter was considered to be its own animal, and not simply black ale. Advertisements in Britain and America throughout the 18th and 19th centuries clearly differentiate the two brews. Brewers—and the public—obviously saw them as not one and the same.

Speaking of Britain, British brewers in the late 18th and early 19th century often aged porter. This aging altered the flavor of the porter, mostly because Brettanomyces claussenii in their wood fermenting tubs and unions contaminated the beer, causing it to sour over time as it aged in large vats. Later in the 19th century, brewers and pub landlords took to a more cost saving method of achieving what had become known as the “British flavor”. By blending an amount of a Brett infected aged, strong, stock or "old" ale (or, often additional aged porter) with fresh porter they could achieve an aged flavor, without actually aging it. Guinness continued this practice into the 1970s, adding 3%—or so—sour beer to their wort to achieve a slight tang. However, for the majority of brewers in Great Britain, old ale additions fell out of fashion during the mid-19th century when beer began being served "mild"—that is to say shortly after conditioning—and a slightly soured tang was no longer desirable.

In 1901, Albany’s Amsdell Brewing & Malting Company’s porter was a bit of an odd duck, because they were doing both—blending and aging—well after either practice had been dropped in Britain. According to brewing logs held by the Albany Institute of History & Art, Amsdell blended old ale into their porter wort after the boil, and then vatted it after fermentation (rather than racking it with kräusening wort as they did for many of their other beers). It was an exceptionally high amount of old ale they added, too—sometimes as much as 21% of the total volume, up to 65 barrels. Amsdell's old ale, however, may not have been old ale in the British, strong, soured ale sense of the word, but literally old beer that had been sitting around for a while, which had not been sold. Whether that beer was sour, remains to be seen. It may have been used as an adulterating agent, or simply as a way to get rid of overstock. Along with the heavy addition of old ale, Amsdell also added everything but the kitchen sink to their porter—licorice root, capsaicin (the stuff that makes chilies hot), and grains of paradise. The other additives may have masked the flavor of the older brew.

According to the Amsdell logs, porter was only brewed two or three times a year at the turn-of-the-century, and its grist was similar to other brews in Amsdell's line-up at the time—6-row and black malt, corn grits, and sugars. Tangential, and not distinct only to Amsdell's porter, a substantial amount of "Quick" malt was also used in the breweries second batch of porter in 1901. Martin Mowrer patented the process for making "Quick" malt in 1891. The process allowed for the malting of degerminated barley in as little as 24 hours—1/10 of the normal time. A good bit of salt and Irish moss was also included in the recipes.

The porter was moderately strong, about 6.3% ABV, with an OG in the low 1.070s, finishing around 1.023, making its attenuation about 65%; on par with Amsdell's other brews. 500 to 600 pounds of hops were used in each batch (~2 lbs/barrel), and were also added when the beer was stored.

The brewery also produced a second variation of porter—their Stock Porter—which looks to be nearly identical to their standard porter, except it seems to have not been vatted. The notation of “Stock” might mean, in Amsdellian parlance, “best”—as in the breweries top quality effort, regardless of style. At the time Amsdell was making its Stock Porter, it was also making in its regular rotation, Diamond Stock Ale, and far less often, India Pale Stock and XXX Stock. Old school specialty beer, perhaps?

Be it stock or standard, Amsdell’s porter, with its long list of ingredients, and odd techniques made it one of the brewery’s most unique brews—and one of its rarest, as well.

Now that's out of the way, we need to re-make it. See you on the 14th.



Coincidentally, today is also the 200th anniversary of the great porter flood in London

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Not So Quiet On the Eastern Front

It's a big, ol' love-fest in the craft beer world, right?

Well, maybe that bright and shiny "a rising tide lifts all boats" rhetoric is starting to tarnish, a bit. At least it is according to Dann Paquette of Pretty Things Ale and Beer Project. Esquire's Aaron Goldfarb broke the news of Paquette blowing the whistle on the "pay-to-play" tactics of Boston-area breweries and distributors who pay bars and restaurants to secure lines—essentially locking-out competitors. Paquette, urged others to join anti-'committed lines' cause via twitter, asking:


Big beer ethics in craft beer? Say it isn't so. That could never... happen... to craft.

By the way, good job Dann. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

I Think We Need to Clear Something Up

Everybody knows this latest argument of quality and local beer (and for that matter craft versus krafty) is partisan politics, right?

The arguments don't really have anything to do with quality or authenticity. They are politcal-esque attack ads. They are the beery equivalent of one politician claiming another politician voted against meals for the elderly (even thought the first guy probably also voted again the old folks). But it's not re-election or control of the Senate that's being quibbled over, it's control of the U.S beer market—and "craft" beer is in the middle of it, literally.

It all started 25 or 30 years ago, when micro-brewing got itself going. Companies like AB, Molson, and Miller were big—and times were good in the 1980s. The big boys had been sucking on the "too big to fail" tit since the 1970s. What did they have to fear from some upstart in Boston? Not much—at least not in their world. That was a mistake, because some of those 1980s microbreweries were good, and they grew because of it, slowly pushing into macro's profits. Then came "craft"—the marketing strategy that places authenticity, and so-called innovation, paramount to anything else. Micro-brewing, the denizen of beer-nerds and hobbyists, became "craft" brewing in the 2000s. "Craft" has brought along hipsters and radicalized fan-boys by the legions, first glancing, and now cutting a swath through macro's market share.

What's the lesson to be learned here boys and girls?

The big boys should have payed more attention to the little guys. Perhaps a smiting was in order. That didn't happen. Faux craft or krafty happened, and conglomeration—as is the preferred tactic of macro brewing—happened. In any case, most of the actions came a bit too little, a bit too late.

Do you know who the lesson was not lost on?

Those same upstart breweries, who are not so upstart anymore. Those breweries who grabbed onto "craft" and ran with it—Big Craft. They can now afford marketing departments and strategists, and can sway distributors—all through "craft". This puts them in a unique position, to 1) continue to undermine the macro brewing industry—by using their "craft" credibility; 2) proliferate the "craft" mantra to new breweries and; 3) eat their own young—with warning shots across the bow about lack of quality undermining the industry.

The small guys—the local breweries—hear that they need to be "craft" from their venerable elders, because craft is good and not-craft is bad,  so "craftier" they become—in go the pickles and pepperoni and out comes the bad beer. Macro is chasing the illusive credibility of "craft"—or at least attempts to appear that they are, to gain back their lost percentage of the market. All the while Big Craft sits in the middle like "The Man With No Name" in a  Sergio Leone spaghetti western, playing both sides against each other.

Big craft knows there is a chink in macros armor. Macro beer will still be a major player in the U.S market, but they'll start—actually they've already started—to look to non-U.S. markets to make-up for their loss. The bad-press of craft versus krafty only helps to move that process along. It gets the dander up, if you will.  Big craft also sees weakness in smaller, local breweries. First many of those breweries have been opened by people who shouldn't be opening business—beery or otherwise—in the first place. Secondly, they know that "craft's" mantra of authenticity and "innovation" (i.e potentially, and quite often bad beer)—only acts to undermine those businesses built on unstable foundations to begin with. Big Craft can then turn that lack of quality against those smaller breweries. There lies the "local beer has quality issues" argument.  In the end, it all works out for Big Craft.

It's actually a pretty brilliant strategy—political campaign-style beer selling.

Beery folk have convinced themselves that beer—especially craft beer—is one big happy family. It's not. Beer is a business. Boston Beer Company, Lagunitas, Bells, Stone—and the like—may have started in a garage—but so did Microsoft. It's about market share and money. The arguments of authenticity, quality, and local are straw man arguments. Big Craft wants to sell beer, and they want to sell more beer than the next guy. He who dies with the most number of distributors wins.

Got it? Good. I just want to make sure everybody is one the same page.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Easy Money

The big dance in Denver is done, and the winners have been announced.

If I were a betting man—which I’m not, but let’s say I was—which brewery would I bet on as almost a guarantee to medal at the Great American Beer Festival next year? For this exercise the number of medals received is irrelevant, just as long as a gold, silver or bronze is awarded. So, which brewery has consistently medaled over the lifetime of the the festival. 

Since I’m not a betting man, I’m not going to bet on the jockey with the prettiest silks, if I’m going put down the coin I want a nearly guaranteed, positive outcome, in my favor. 

So who’s it most likely gonna be? Is it an up-and-comer on the cutting edge of “craft” like Lawson’s Finest Liquids? Nope. Not even close. How about venerable favorites like Founder’s, Firestone Walker or Dogfish Head? Nuh-uh. What about big craft? Your odds are getting better, but no.

The easy money bet is Alaskan Brewing Company.

Alaskan has medaled 25 times out of 28 showings since official judging started at the GABF in 1987. That’s an almost 90% success rate. If you want a nearly guaranteed win, bet on Alaskan. 

Buuuuuut, there is a a slight hiccup. 

Although official judging (that is to say standardized, panel judging) began in 1987, the festival held a “Consumer Preference Poll” from it’s beginning in 1983 until the poll was eliminated in 1988, ushering in the “modern” era at the festival. During the “unofficial” era, Boston Beer Company took home poll medals in 1985 and 1986. Those two extra medals tie Boston Beer with Alaskan over the full 32 year run of the GABF, however in the “modern” era of the GABF (from 1987 to 2014) Boston Beer trails Alaskan 23 to 25 in the medal count.

All said and done, your best bets for next year—literally—are Alaskan first, Boston Beer second—and coming in to show—Sierra Nevada, with 22 total appearances.

So what does all this mean? Not much to me, because I still think beer judging is dopey.


Editor's Note: Only six of the breweries—Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer, Snake River, Alaskan, Widmer and Capital—who medaled between 1983 and 1987, also medaled in 2014. Of those six, Sierra Nevada is the only one to have medaled in both the first festival and this past festival.