Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Late Summer Laziness

It's far too August to be reading—or for that matter writing—about beer. Go outside, enjoy the weather. Have a pint, or two.

I'll be back next week with updates. I leave you with this.

Gangway IPA,
Red Hare Brewing Co, Marietta, GA

Friday, August 15, 2014

Albany Ale: A Blast From the Past

It's been along time since Albany Ale has been in the title of a post, hasn't it? I happened to have heard a bit of news today, so I decided to dust it off.

I dunno about it being the "original" IPA.
Pabst, it appears will be re-introducing Ballantine IPA. Pabst owns the name to a number of iconic American beers, including Schaefer, Old Style and Schlitz, and is of course the brewer of the hipster paragon PBR. It's likely that Pabst is looking to exploit the caché of another ironic, nostalgia beer, like PBR, and what with IPA being the most popular "craft" style, hipsters are the most obvious "target demo,  as the marketeers might say.

According to Pabst brewer Greg Duehs, in a Mike Snider August 13, 2014 USAToday.com article "We are hoping that the current (Pabst Blue Ribbon) consumers will embrace the Ballantine IPA," Duehs continues in the article, "...one of my challenges was, how do we get into the craft business? I said that we already have the answer: Ballantine IPA." Ballantine IPA was one of the most popular beers the brewery made beers, if not one of the most popular beers of mid-century America, but the beer came about quite a bit earlier than that.

19th century American IPAs were quite common and Ballantine's version supposedly dates to the 1870s. It was revived after the repeal of prohibition, and "Aged on wood for a year" as its label stated, however its hey-day came during the 1950s and 1960s—an era by which IPAs were few and far between—but by the 1970s the beer had all but been bastardized, especially the after Falstaff acquisition of Ballantine in 1972. Pabst kept the IPA in rotation after their purchase of Falstaff until 1996, but it was a far cry from what the beer had once been.

The article delves briefly into the recreation:
In re-creating Ballantine IPA, Deuhs had no original recipe or company notes to fall back on. Instead, he relied on analytic reports from as far back as the '30s that tracked the ale's attributes (alcohol, bitterness, gravity level). He also researched what ingredients were likely used, historical accounts of the beer and beer lovers' remembrances.
So there you go. The much beloved Ballantine IPA is coming back from the grave.
What's that you say? What does Pabst recreating Ballantine IPA have to do with Albany Ale, you ask?

Oh yeah, I did add that whole Albany Ale thing to the title, didn't I?

Well, maybe this snippet from Upper Hudson Valley Beer—our, now available at both online-retailers, and fine local bookstores, book—might clear things up a bit:

...Dunlop had amassed quite a fortune. He owned grain and plaster mills near Syracuse and malt houses in West Troy and Albany in addition to his brewery. It was at this time that Dunlop hired fellow Scot Peter Ballantine as his brewer. In 1834, Ballantine bought Dunlop’s Market Street brewery. Dunlop went on to concentrate on his milling and malting business, eventually partnering with his son-in-law, Thomas McCredie. Dunlop’s son, Archibald, oversaw the family brewing business in Albany, operating a new brewery on Quay Street. Upon his father’s death, Archibald also partnered with Thomas McCredie in a brewery at the West Troy malt house location between 1852 and 1856.
Peter Ballantine continued to grow the old Dunlop Brewery, which he renamed Peter Ballantine & Co. He moved the brewery from Market Street to Lansing Street in the late 1830s and then finally out of Albany, relocating to Newark, New Jersey, in 1840. The brewery Ballantine opened in Newark evolved into P. Ballantine & Sons, one of the largest, privately held corporations in the United States by the mid-twentieth century.
See, now it all makes sense. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Friday, August 8, 2014

Dans la Célébration de la Saison

Saison might just be my favorite beer style.

It really is the perfect summer beer. Maybe it's the color—sort of a hazy yellow-orange. For whatever reason it reminds me of open meadow at round five or six in the afternoon, when the shadows are getting long and the sun gives everything a golden hue.

Saison is one of those beers, regardless of who makes it, I will always try. They've gained in popularity of late, but they still aren't in quite the same regular rotation as some of the more go-to brews.  This week though has been a rather good week for my saison habit.

Wednesday, the Lionheart Pub, held a Goose Island/Rushing Duck tap take-over (yes, it was called the Duck...Duck...Goose event) and both breweries brought along their sasionic* offerings. Goose Island brought along Sophie, a brew that in the past has been a bit disappointing, but GI must have hit a stride before Wednesday, because this keg was really on point. The pride of Chester, New York, Rushing Duck Brewing Company brought along their Bauli saison. I'm not much for spice in my beer—a little goes along way—but RD had a deft hand when it  comes to the spice for Bauli. Coriander, white peppercorns and especially their use of Kahfir lime leaves, all add a really nice punch of citrus.

A freak thunderstorm on Tuesday—and subsequently a flooded basement—led to another saisonic treat. Moving stuff off the cellar floor, I opened a cooler that I use to store beer and found—lo and behold—a bottle of Saison Dupont and another of Ithaca's Ground Break. The Ithaca variant is a great "American-ized" riff on the farmhouse tradition—spicy with a great pop of American hop zing. The Saison Dupont, well, what really needs to be said about the archetypal saison? Other than ahhhhhh...

Both bottles had to have been two or three years old—an added bonus to "bringing the funk" as it were. They must have been quietly sitting there, in the dark, waiting for an event that begot more than a bit of swearing on my end. Perhaps as a reward for basement mucking?

Yeah, that's what I'll go with.

*Saisonic? Saison-ish?

**BTW I don't speak a lick of French, but Google Translator says "In Celebration of Saison" translates to "Dans la Célébration de la Saison". I have no idea if that is correct, but who am I to argue with Lord Goog.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Beery Existentialism

Since writing last week’s post on the state of beer as I see it, I’ve been doing quite a bit of beery introspection. What is my situation with beer? What kind of beer drinker am I?

I know what kind of beer drinker I’m not. I’m not a ticker. 

I honestly don’t care about Untappd, and I really don’t care what’s the newest, or the strongest, or the hoppiest. If I’m traveling, I might seek out the local brewery or beer bar, but when at home I don’t hunt for beer. In all honesty, I rarely even make it to my local beer shop. I’d like to say “I drink local”, but truthfully I don’t adhere to that mantra all that rigidly. Don’t mistake my meaning, I like the idea of drinking what’s local, or at least relatively local. Why not support the local economy, right? In actuality, though, I think it’s something I say rather than do.

I’m also starting to realize I’m less interested in where the beer comes from, rather than the beer itself. I have a tendency to buy stylistically, rather than from a specific brewery. I’m glad to see Founder’s or Bells—or even Beau’s—coming into Albany, but I’ll be hard pressed to order a pint of heffeweizen made by any of them. They are great breweries, but I’m not a party-line voter. Heffes just aren’t my thing—and I don’t care if Mikkel Bjergso brewed one up in my kitchen. Thanks, but no thanks, Mik.

I have a tendency to order hoppier beers, although I do enjoy something more malt focused now and again— a creamy milk stout, or a roast brown ale. I’ve never gotten behind sours or most Belgians for that matter, with the exception of the saison. A simple, saison, with just a hint of funk is sublime. I likes me a saison.

I have a tough time with big beers—imperial stouts, DIPAs, and barley wines. I have nothing against big beers, but I have essentially one waking hour to the day to myself—the hour that falls between me leaving work, and arriving home. Just enough time for a pint or two. Coincidentally, this hour is called happy hour. Because I have but one hour, I have learned to embrace session ideals. Plus, I have a tendency to drink fast, It might be a defense mechanism, like a coyote scarfing down its kill before a competitor wanders by. Maybe it’s less primitive than that, but in any case, I can put down a pint pretty quickly. That ability and a 10% beer isn’t a great combination. I also have children and a wife. My wife does not take favorably to me passing out on the couch at 7 pm.

More so, however, when it comes to big beers, I just have a hard time getting through them. You’d think that when winter comes along, and a fie is cracking away in the fireplace, maybe an old black and white movie is on, I’d be happy with my feet up sipping on a big, fat Triple. In theory, I would. But nine out of ten times I get half way through, the beer gets warm and sticky and I give up.

I’m a wuss what can I say.

I’m a bit cheap, too. Five dollars is a fair price for a pint in my mind. Pints cresting $7 simply are not worth it, and those upwards of $10 or $12 are downright nutty.

There’s one more bit to this beery existentialism, and it’s not about styles or strength or cost. It’s about—as the real estate folks say—location, location, location.

As I said in my last post, my beer drinking is of the pub. I am, as I have been told many a time, a social butterfly. I thrive in a pub atmosphere. I like the layered conversations and banter down the bar. I like the arguments, and the laughter, and the music and waving of the arms and the slapping of the backs. I love the wood and the stainless, and how pints of orange red and amber nearly glow like stained glass as light pours through them, as they sit stoically on the bar. Beer, for me is as much about the pub as it is the beer.

Whatever kind of beer drinker I am—or for that matter will become—beer still continues to hold some mystery for me. Something draws me to it. I could easily be as into wine or whiskey, or cigars or cars even—but I'm not. I may comment on the tricks and gimmicks pulled by breweries, and I complain about the celebrity brewers and the price gouging, but I know there are still some really amazing beers out there—and there's nothing like that first sip of a really great beer.

I’m into beer. That's just who I am.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The State of Beer (As I See It)

A friend, Gina, asked my thoughts on a recent article by Joshua Bernstein that appeared on Bon Appétit.com. Bernstein looks at the over-crowding of the American beer market, and what breweries do to stay competitive in a saturated environment.

I absolutely think beer is over-crowded, and that got me thinking about a number of things happening with beer today. I've been meaning to put my thoughts down about this for a while—my perspective on all things beery. The article and Gina's prompt, acted as a sort of cue for me to lay out the state of beer as I see it today. 

I've borrowed Alan's thinking chimp.
First off I have to say that I am a consumer, and therefore my point-of-view is that of a consumer. I have friends who are brewers or work in the beer industry, and their perspectives are often quite different than mine. I experience beer not at tastings, or festivals, or dinners. Beer, for me, is of the pub. I am, for lack of a better term, a punter—and this is how I approach beer.

Right now, there is a "rising tide lifts all boats" mentality. Places are opening hand over fist, and the money is good.. Beer is the hot ticket. It's showing up outside the pub—in magazine and newspaper articles, television talk shows, someone even made a beer related movie. Beer has become "mainstream". It's a hipster magnet. Unfortunately, if the brew-pub craze of the mid-1990s is anything to learn from (which we won't) bad business practices and bad will probably change that. Depending on your economic philosophy, that might be good or bad for the market, but whatever side the coin lands on, I have a feeling a lot of people are going to lose their shirts. 

But that happens with fads like "craft" beer.

"Craft" has become a marketing term—like "farm-to-table"—just a hyperbolic phrase, used to sell the false importance of beer. There are breweries producing great beer, and there are A LOT of so-called “craft” breweries producing shit beer. Unfortunately, the focus of many places shifts from making great beer to the side-show—essentially being "craft" has become more important than the beer itself. In other words, "craft" is far from synonymous with good, but the term gets bastardized to make beer, or breweries "important".

"Craft" in that sense, shares something in common with the Oscars. Films that are deemed "important" or those that deal with important or serious issues like war or diseases often win Academy Awards. They, like "craft", are in fact quite the opposite of important. They are celluloid past time fillers. Beer is beer—craft or otherwise—it is not important, and those who make it are not significant. Is it enjoyable? Immensely. 

Even more unfortunate, is that the idea of self-important clever "craftiness" is fueled by places like Stone, Rogue, Dogfish Head—hell, even Ommegang—who were at one time pretty good microbreweries, but have turned to pulling off crowd-sourcing gimmicks, überbeers, and so-called collaboration beers that are, quite frankly, pretty bad—but succeed due to their marketability. It's becoming a vicious cycle of new, next, better, barrel-aged, stronger, hoppier, and weirder—perpetuated by fanboys, beer snobs, and brewers who fancy themselves artistic rock stars. All said and done, "good" basically becomes secondary, and specialty, one-off or limited run $30 a bottle beers have become the new norm, doing nothing more than raising the price of beer—all beer. I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. If you spend $30 on a bottle of beer—then you're nuts.

A lot of breweries say that their gimmicks, promotions, special events, and even their non-beery stuffs—like cheese and a hotel—is what gives them the competitive edge, but isn't that a bit like saying you have to use steroids in major league baseball to be competitive?

What about banding together against the big boys? The craft community is important, right?

The mantra that Anheuser-Busch and Coors are bad because they are big, and that small, independent breweries are good because they are small is, as far as I'm concerned, a red-herring. In fact, part of the myth of "craft" is that "craft" brewing is a big happy family, just one big, beer-loving community.

That's horse shit.

We see that in the current phenomenon of "Big Craft." That is to say large "craft" producers, like Sam Adams, Stone and DFH, carving out large chunks of the market for themselves by expanding into alco-pop, cider, retail and, in some cases, buying out or into, smaller breweries. Big Craft wants to make as much money as they can—ethically or unethically—that's not just an ABInbev thing. Yet, there's this naivety among "craft" that ABInbev and SABMiller are the enemy and, apparently, one-off gimmick brews are the answer. If it were my money, and I was a small brewer, I'd make sure my beer was great, and I'd be watching Jim Koch far closer than Auggie Busch.

So, what do I see happening?

Again, a few things. 

First, I think a change is coming. Is it a bubble? Maybe, maybe not, and whatever is going to happen, isn't going to happen over night. But I think we're moving into the breaking zone—kinda like when the phrase "fo shizzle my nizzle" became common in upper class, white suburban neighborhoods. It's just a gut feeling. 

Many of the new breweries opening are nanos—that is to say tiny, commercial breweries producing one to three barrels of beer per brew—and I think that's part of the problem. Nanos beat the system, and the system isn't meant to be beaten. Although nanos are cheap to open, they are astronomically expensive to expand—and isn't expansion always the goal? In come the investors, now the homebrewer-but-not-necessarily-a-business-man brewery owner is beholden to investors to the tune of 100 thousand, or 500 thousand or a million—and, of course, investors demand returns. That's when the trouble starts. That's a lot of clams, and the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of people out there who simply should not be running a business—a brewery or otherwise. Success rates for new breweries are through the roof—right now. But everybody can't hit a home run, and not everybody deserves a trophy. Don’t get me wrong, I think some nanos will succeed in the long term—and I think breweries like Community Beer Works in Buffalo and Rooftop Brewing in Seattle will lead the vanguard as far as these small-batch breweries go. But we will eventually see fall out from this rapid expansion. 

Is it all doom and gloom?

No. Far from that in fact. I'm still regularly surprised by beer. Some of what is made—and I'm sure some of what will be made—is fantastic. Jabby Brau from Jack's Abby is an exercise in sublime simplicity, and The Duck-Rabbit's milk stout is one of the best beers I've ever rated—ever. Beer can still be great, and obviously there are bright spots—a lot of them, too—but I get a sense, as much as I love beer, that it has overextended itself. It's reaching for the stars, but often barely makes it to the top of the counter. 

More so than that, though, I just think beer has lost its focus.

Friday, July 25, 2014

And You Thought AB Was Bad

I don’t know if you’ve been following the Stone crowd-sourced-project-in-which-the-money-doesn’t-go-towards-expansion-of-their-Berlin/East Coast-breweries-but-will-cost-you-$50-$30-a-bottle-that-goes-towards-other-stuff.

That’s a bit like buying a Ferrari (or two) and then holding a bake sale to buy the gas.

Sure, Stone gets to smell the leather interior, hear the V8 rev, and feel the handling in the turns—but all you get is a muffin.

That doesn’t seem audacious at all. 

But hey, it's your money.