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, varieties of the grain which—hopefully—will grow better in the future. They 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 developing a stable variety of 2-row 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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The New Model

This past Saturday, I wound my way through the back-roads of Schoharie County to one of my favorite places in New York—the village of Middleburgh. It’s about a half hour drive from Albany, and a gorgeous drive it is, even on a rainy, winter's day. Farms emanate east and west off of Route 30 as you roll towards the village and to the south rises Vrooman’s Nose, one of the best hiking trails in the whole area. Middleburgh is the personification of a quaint rural American town. There can’t be much more than 1,000 people living in the village. It has thriving downtown, with the pre-requisite post office, Stewart shop, and pizza place. It’s also home to my good friend Justin Behan’s 2-barrel brewery—Green Wolf Brewing Company.

I spent an hour chatting with Justin and his wife, Tracy, about a few upcoming projects. I sipped a 10.6% ABV Belgian Style Quadruple, dubbed Hal’s Old Singular, and chased it with a significantly less potent Schoharie Pale Ale. Both were fantastic. Justin and I planned and discussed and Tracy set about getting the tap room ready for service. Then something happened at 4 o’clock—and when I say 4 o’clock, I mean exactly at 4pm. 

First a woman came in for a growler fill-up, followed by two mid-20 something women. Then what looked like,  a father and son in-law arrived. Three more mid-20 something women strolled in shortly thereafter, meeting up with the first two women. A couple in their early thirties sauntered to the bar, and in quick succession two plaid shirt and Carhart wearing fellas, arrived. By 4:15 the bar was shoulder to shoulder and most of the four-top tables were occupied. Justin mentioned that it was slow compared to most Friday and Saturday nights. He said he’s become the village brewer and tavern keeper all rolled into one.

This substantiates theory I have. A theory that I was in fact discussing with Justin that very afternoon—but before I get into that, I need to step back for a moment.

I’ve always been a little skeptical of the nano model. It never seemed like a sustainable business plan. It seemed like a short cut that would eventually end up costing more than it was worth. Here’s what I mean. In 1995 if you wanted to open a brewery you did one of two things: 1) Open a, minimally, 7 barrel capacity, brewpub, or 2) open a 10 to 15 barrel capacity microbrewery. The thought was, anything smaller and you’d have 1) brew two or three times as often—which is less efficient and therefore more expensive, and 2) eventually have to expand into a larger system, and having a relatively large system to begin with, would be less expensive than with a smaller system. That way was the way, until say 2008* or so—which was when someone had the idea of developing a small 1, 2, or 3 barrel “nano” brewing system. Nanos were a way to ease into production brewing. a $30,000 (as opposed to a $150,000) way to gain a little experience, build a fan base, rise in popularity, make a little scratch, and eventually expand into the next Southern Tier.

There’s are two problems with that: 1) Expansion is expensive (which hearkens back to the old idea of “having a relatively large system to begin with, would be less expensive than with a smaller system.”). The logical step is to garner investors for said expansion—which means another level of debt—and of course investors demand returns; and 2) There are 1.2 billion nano breweries opening in New York, with the same exact plan as everybody else—to be the next Southern Tier. That is obviously a bit of exaggeration, but nonetheless not everyone can be the next Southern Tier.

But that’s not Justin’s plan for Green Wolf.

Here’s my aforementioned theory. Green Wolf is the new “nano” model, or rather a very old model adapted to today’s situation. One hundred or two hundred years ago, most little American villages had a brew house and taverns. Green Wolf is the re-imagining of the village brewery/tavern. There’s also no reason this model can’t work in an urban environment. If a village brewery, why not a neighborhood brewery? Sure Justin wants to grow his business, but he’s not looking to dominate the craft market. He’s looking to fill a void, and there’s obviously a void to be filled on a Saturday afternoon in Middleburgh. He’s happy to be the village brewery—and therein lies the key to the model.

Long theory short, if you’re a small stay small.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Albany Ale: It All Comes Back to Beer

When Alan and I first started writing Upper Hudson Valley Beerone of the things we really wanted to do with the book was contextualize beer. Beer does not exist in a bubble, and we wanted to show how the economics, politics, culture, religion, language and… well… generally everything about a specific place effects the beer of that place throughout history.  Contextualization—placing beer within time and history—broadens the story. It shows the big beery picture, not just that this "type" of beer was made at this "location." But why that type of beer was made, and why at that location.

One of the other wonderful things we've found, is that on many occasions, events and individuals that might not appear on the surface as beery, quite often are. An email I received just before Christmas from local author and historian David Fiske, proves my point.

Fiske who wrote Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, sent me a note about someone associated with Solomon Northup who had an interesting connection to Albany’s brewing industry.

First though, who’s seen the three time 2013 Academy Award Winning film (including Best Picture) 12 Years a Slave

Not surprisingly, the movie is based on the book, or rather the memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, written in 1853, by Solomon Northup—a musician from north of Saratoga Springs. Born free, Northup was kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841, and sold into slavery, and sent to Louisiana for—you guessed it—twelve years, but was eventually freed.

Don’t worry I won’t give any more away.

In his email David told me, that after Northup returned to New York, he was approached by an Albany lawyer and journalist—David Wilson—to tell his story. Northrup, relayed his story to Wilson, who ghost wrote and edited Twelve Years a Slave on behalf of Northrup. As far as Fiske is concerned, the narrative was all Northup, but the panache of the writing was Wilson. Simply put, Northup wasn't writer, so that's where Wilson came in. Wilson had written a few other books on historical subjects, but Twelve Years a Slave was his most successful work.

And successful he was (Here’s where the non-beery becomes the beery). In David’s email, he also informed me that after having read a passage in Upper Hudson Valley Beer about the Kirk brewery on Broadway, something dawned on him. Here’s the passage:

“The building sat idle for a few years after Kirk’s death, until Patrick Kearney and James McQuade began operating at the site in 1860. In 1867, the property was sold to Wilson & Co. and operated until John Smyth and James Walker purchased it in 1870.”

As you’ve figured out by now, David Wilson was the “Wilson” in Wilson & Co.

Incidentally Smyth & Walker were the “& Co.” and bought out Wilson’s holdings in the brewery after his death; they would eventually sell the property to The Fort Orange Brewing Company in the 1880s. Wilson’s brewery building—or rather Kirk’s building—is gone, however one of the Fort Orange building still stands, and is now Stout, and Irish-themed bar.

See, what did I say? Contextualization—what might not appear as beery, quite often is. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"I love scotch. Scotchy, scotch, scotch..."

I’m back—after my long winter’s nap—and I’ve had a bit of a revelation. 

I think I’m in love. In love with Scotch ales.

Truth be told, I think I’ve known this for a while, but a week and a half off of work and an abundance of the stuff sort of solidified it for me. There was a moment, ever so fleeting, where I realized that supping on a Founder’s Dirty Bastard with my feet up, while sitting in front of a roaring fire, as the snow and ice was whipping around outside, that I might—just might—be experiencing one of the most pleasant happenings of the holiday season. Sure, watching the kids tear into their presents is exciting, and the big, family dinner is fun, but that one quick moment, well, that was just nice.

There’s something soothing about a Scotch Ale. Be it Brooklyn Winter, Old Chub, Claymore, Skull Splitter, or good old McEwan’s. Sure they can be a bit boozy, but that’s part of it. Sometimes they lean Cherry Coke, other times dry with a nice hop bite, while others go a bit smokey and peaty, but they all have big maltiness, and It’s that warming, bittersweet maltiness that make them so seasonally appropriate.

They’ve been around for time immemorial, too. Here’s a few snippets from the good doctor Pattinson’s phenomenal book, The Homebrewer’s Guide to Vintage Beer.
The mainstay of Scottish breweries at the beginning of the [nineteenth] century was Scottish ale. It was the rough equivalent of English mild ale and it came in a variety of strengths… The different strengths were classified by a number of shillings 60/-, 80/, 100/, 120/-, 140/- and sometimes even 160/-or more… A similar system was used for pale ales…
 In the second half of the nineteenth century, William Younger launched a new range of strong ales clearly inspired by those of Burton… The original versions of all Scottish strong ales, like shilling ales were pale in color. As with many English styles, they began to darken sometime around 1900. During the twentieth century, they became dark brown.
So sayeth Ron. 

Incidentally, at the turn of the twentieth century Amsdell Brewing and Malting Company, here in Albany, made a Scotch Ale, as well. Although it was quite a bit weaker (about 4.9%), than it’s Burton-esque, Scottish cousins, being made round the same time. It was probably more akin to those pale shilling ales, and more in line with a 60/- PA. Now, I’m sure Amsdell’s Scotch Ale was tasty, but it’s the decedents of those dark, early twentieth century brews my heart longs for. 

Nevertheless, Scotch ale seems to be here to stay—and I’m glad, because I have plenty of wood to burn this winter, and I have plenty of Dirty Bastard, too.

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.