Monday, February 25, 2013

Smoke and Mirroring the Past

Over the past year or so, I've resolved to not write beer reviews. Firstly, because there are a lot of people out there doing it. From the ubiquitous Beer Advocate and Rate Beer-like sites, to the amazingly clever and concise one, true Beer Nut. Secondly, reviews, and more pointedly—critiques, take a special kind of writing, that quite honestly, I don't gravitate too. Few and far between are the great reviews, like those of the Nut. Most are unfortunately mundane and pedantic. Mine, most often fall into the later category. So, I stopped banging the drum.

Every so often, however, something comes along that makes me want to fall off the beer review wagon.

The beery, Blind Faith-like, supergroup collaboration between Jopen and Monarchy of Musselland with beer writers Ron Pattinson and Evan Rail, is one of those somethings. The collaboration resulted in, Grodziskie, a recreation of a variant of Grätzer—the only indigenous, Polish beer-style to survive into the 20th century—last brewed in the early 1990s. 

You might ask, other than being a twenty years dead, what makes Grodziskie special? Because, I've never had anything like it, that's why. Brewed with 100% wheat malt—that also happens to have been oak wood-smoked; then hopped with Polish-grown, Lublin hops and fermented with the actual yeast strain used over twenty year ago by the brewery in Grodzisk. If you really want to get into the nitty gritty, check out Ron's site to read about the history and re-making of both Grätzer and Grodziskie.

Appearance-wise, the Grodziskie is the beery-equivelant of the blind-date with a great personality. It poured smooth into the glass, a murky, hazy yellow, with an ever-so-slight tinge of green. The color reminded me of freshly grated ginger. It is as opaque as glass of orange juicy without the sunniness. The dismalness is topped with a brilliant white, dense meringue-like head that bobbed just above the rim of the glass.

Don't worry though, it really does have a great personality.

Smoke on the first whiff, and then smoke again. It's there in every way shape and form—aggressive but not distracting, like the remnants of the previous night's camp fire, left behind in your sweater the next morning. The beer had a soft feel on the first sip, I'm guessing from the wheat malt, but there's a noticeable amount of carbonation, and peering at the pint, I could see pearly bubbles even through it's cloudiness. Again there's smoke, and a slightly sweet, citrus note—almost pineapple. There was little bitterness up front, but it rolls up after the swallow and lingers, quite noticeably. In fact, the smoke diminished after the first few sips, but the bitterness stayed, especially on the side of my tongue.

There's something else in the Grodziskie—willow bark. That's what separates the Grodziskies from the Grätzers, in fact. The bark (from what I can tell, not having the Grätzer to compare with) is a study in subtlety. There was just a hint of spiciness—a slight sharpness, like tiny pins on the tip of my tongue. It seemed to be more of a sensation, rather than an actual flavor. The bark doesn't bring the medicinal quality you get from birch sap, like in a birch beer soda, but there does seem to be a bite—and that bite seems to boost the bitterness.

Now, I've had Rauchbiers and smoked Heffeweizens, but Grodziskies are a whole other animal. There's no banana and clove and it's not just a smokey beer—it's truly unlike anything I've ever had. That's what great about projects like this—not just tasting the past, but experiencing something new. Grodziskie was made within the arc of my lifetime, but chances are, even if it was still made I probably wouldn't be able to get my hands on it. For me this oddity is both old and new—and for a beer nerd with a penchant for history, that combination is irresistible.

Well done, beery supergroup, well done.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Boston, Gravey, Ron P. and Pretty Things

Aside from getting the chance to catch-up with one of my best friends—Gravey—for a few hours in the car, to and from Boston; also aside from being gifted a bottle of Old Burton Extra from Fuller's Past Masters Series, and a bottle of Jopen and Monarchy of Musselland's birch bark-spiked Grodziskie; and aside, from the amazing beer selection (Pretty Things Jack D'Or, Cervesera del Montseny's Lupulus, Smoke and Dagger from Jack's Abbey and a cask Oatmeal Stout by Mayflower brewery) and righteous food (catfish po' boy, duck confit hash, and poutine) offered by Allston's own Deep Ellum. The highlight for me on my day trip to bean town was discussing hops and the hopping rates of 19th and early 20th century beers, with Dann Paquette of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project—the best American historical brewer this side of the Pecos—and Ron Pattinson—the greatest beer statistician/historian this side of the Ijssel. For a beer geek who loves history it was like talking philosophy with Einstein and Picasso. 

As Gravey put it on the ride home, "Those guys have forgotten more about beer than I will ever know."

And how, Gravey, and how.

If you're in the Boston area—hell even if you're not—go see both Ron and Dann (and hopefully Martha, too) at Meadhall in Cambridge, MA, tonight from 7 to 8pm. Ron will be signing books, and you might get a little insight into Pretty Thing's next Once Upon a Time brew...

Oh, and thanks to Deep Ellum, again, and Max Toste for all the hospitality! Max picked the Lupulus for me, and he chose right!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Albany Ale: The Politics of Beer

In piecing together the Albany Ale stuff, I've noticed a trend that carries over three centuries. It's a trend that has nothing to do with malt or hops, or Xs or distribution. In fact, it's a trend that has more to do with the men who made Albany Ale rather than the beer itself.

Alan and I are piecing together an article about the early Dutch and Beverwijck brewers of 17th century New York and I came across a short passage in Jaap Jacobs' book The Colony of New Netherlands: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-Century America, it states:
Because of the high costs of purchasing a wort boiler (new kettle), brewers had to invest considerable sums of money. In Holland, many brewers were members of the city vroedschap, which was selected from the wealthiest inhabitants. In New Netherland brewers were also often part of the elite. For example Beverwijck brewer Goosen Gerritsz van Schaick was also a magistrate for a number years.
As is now, so was then—money leads to politics.

The vroedschap was essentially a city council made up of richest men in the city; and the magistrates— usually three or four individuals from within the vroedschaps own ranks—were appointed by the group. It's important to recognize that these were not elected officials, but almost like a self-appointed administrative group—a noble city council, if you will. Like many elements of Beverwijck culture, this custom started in the Dutch Republic and was brought to New Netherlands, by the earliest settlers.

The brewing/politics trend continues through the 17th and into the 18th centuries as well, with the 1702 appointment of Albert "Captain" Janse Ryckman—the owner of the brewery on what is now Broadway between Hudson and Division Streets—as mayor of the city of Albany. Brewer Teunis Visscher, would be chosen fire master for the city for a period during the mid-1700s, while Peter Gansevoort, hero of the American Revolution and brewer, served as sheriff of Albany County, as a commissioner of Indian Affairs. He would also run—unsuccessfully—for the U.S. Senate in 1800.

The 19th century would see the election of not one, but two, brewing mayors of Albany. The first was John Taylor in 1848. Taylor owned what was at the time the largest brewery not only in Albany, but in the country, Taylor & Sons. Upon completion of his tenure as mayor, Taylor served on the board of water commissioners, starting in 1850. He and his compatriots were responsible for overseeing the first municipal water system in the city. The second, Michael Nolan—principal owner of Quinn and Nolan Brewery—served first as fire commissioner, then was elected mayor in 1878. Nolan was mayor until his resignation in 1883, but was also elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1881 to 1883—while still acting as mayor! Nolan was also the first Irish-born, Roman Catholic mayor in the history of the city.

The most famous—or some might say infamous—brewery owning-politician, however was Daniel P. O'Connell, who was elected County Assessor in 1919—the highest elected office he would hold. Uncle Dan, as he became known, would step down as assessor, in 1921, and take over as Chairman of the Albnay County Democratic Committee—running the Albany Democratic political machine, like Capone ran Chicago. O'Connell and his cohorts were responsible for the 1921 victory over the incumbent Republican party—the group was not above voter fraud and intimidation. The results of this victory continue to this day—Albany has not had non-Democratic mayor since that election. O'Connell's political clout allowed him full advantage in the beer world, as well. He "officially" purchased the Hedrick Brewery after the repeal of prohibition in 1933, but it's suspected that he controlled it's brewing operations through out the 1930s, essentially ignoring the both the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. Albany lore states that up until the closure of the brewery in 1965, "if you didn't carry Hedrick, you didn't have a bar." O'Connell's beery political influence continued until his death in 1977.

By my count that's seven notable Albany brewers who also dabbled—some more successfully than others—in the political arena. There probably were a good deal more, but all this talk of politicians makes me want to go and take a shower, so I'm going to stop here.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Form and Function

Last week, Boak and Bailey asked what is beer innovation?

That post got me thinking a lot about the idea of innovation, and how that relates to beer. It's not simply the act of creating something new, using technique differently, or simply being the first one to do something. Those things all help, but there's more to innovation than that.

The 1939 Buick "Y"
For me there two factors involved—technical precision and creativity. Both of these ideals create a balance—and balance is important in innovation. Automobile design is a good analogy. Technical precision alone, will result a Formula One car—the ultimate expression of engineering in the automotive world. These cars can accelerate from 0 to 100 miles per hour and back down to a dead stop in four seconds. That's great out on the track, but taking a McLaren MP4-28 to the grocery store, might be a bit overkill. The opposite side of the coin—pure creative expression—results in a Volkswagen Beetle covered in 1600 computerized lights. Cool, but not quite a performance vehicle.

Beer is not so different.

Take the BJCP, for example. Their guidelines are the the widest used beer judging criteria in the world. They work well for what the BCJP judges—the brewers ability to make a technically perfect beer. The BCJP has a comprehensive set of detailed style guidelines that includes descriptions of mouthfeel, flavor and aroma, as well as technical specification for original and final gravities, IBUs and alcohol strength. Following these guidelines will assure that the brewer will create a technically, style-correct brew.

Technically perfect, yes. Innovative, no so much.

A few years back I tried a beer by New Orleans' Dixie Brewing Company—Dixie White Moose. This is, and will for always be, the worst beer I have ever had. Cloyingly chocolate, sweet and slick, like candle wax, this was an amber abomination. Not only do I feel sorry for those who have drank this most foul crime against nature, I feel pity for the malt from which it was made. If there is a hell for barley, that hell is named Dixie White Moose.

Creative? Sure. Gut-wrenching? You bet! Innovative? No.

What you want—to go back to my automotive analogy—is the beery equivalent of Harley Earl's 1938 Buick Y-Job. The Y-Job was General Motors (and the world's) first concept car. It was the perfect blend of performance and aesthetics. A design that would influence American car making for the next twenty-five years. A design that could be pulled from and reshaped into a thousand different ideas.

None of this is to say that a technically perfect or creative-slanted beer—or even unbalanced beer—can't be great, by all means they can. I'm talking about innovation, and here's the thing about innovation—a bunch of people are trying for it, but realistically, it's few and far between. It's not all about brewing prowess and it's not all about unabashed creativity. To be truly innovative and able to get that ribbon of precision to cross the ribbon of artistry, at just the right time, is a pretty rare occurrence—be it through skill or luck. It's not a question of whether brewing is an art or a science, but rather how do you get those two disciplines to overlap. It's in those over-lappy parts that you find true innovation.

However, beery innovation has a pretty big obstacle in it's way. Beer doesn't need to be innovative. This isn't the space race, hell it's not even a car race. Beer can be made the same way it was 100, even 200 years ago. Innovation means change and there are a fair amount of beer drinkers—and beer makers for that matter—who aren't all that interested in change. Beer isn't making our lives easier, it's not making us go faster, it's not curing a disease—so why innovate?

Because change is good. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Our Man Amand

Atheists and Agnostics need not apply today.

The first round is on Amand!
Today (February 6th—not tomorrow or yesterday) is the feast of St. Amand, the patron saint of brewers, vintners, bartenders and wine merchants. Born in the eighth-century, Amand is known best for bringing a hanged man back from the dead and setting up a bunch of monasteries across what is now Belgium, northwest Germany and the Bordeaux region of France.

What any of those things have to do with beer and winemaking, I have no idea. As far as I know, he never slung drinks at the local watering hole either, so how the bartenders got in on it is beyond me.

The most plausible explanation I've read so far, is that since he did most of his work in and around what has become one of the brewing and capitols of the world—not to mention a major wine producing area since the eighth-century (eighth-century, why does that sound familiar?)—and was a considered to be a generally affable and hospitable guy, he got the nod. Think of him as a northern European St. Patrick—without the snakes.

In any case, stop by your local wine shop and drop a bit in the tip jar, or drop by the pub and give your barkeep an extra buck or two—for good ol' Amand. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Price You Pay

Does the cost of beer affect your perception or appreciation of it?

Dollah', dollah' Bill y'all.
I've read number of articles recently, that point to yes. Recently, both Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog, and Max Bahnson—better known as Pivní Filosof—have come right out and said that beer, most certainly should be judged not only on its quality and ingredients, but also on its price. It wouldn't be out of the question for some breweries inflate the price of their product to generate a certain buzz about it. An artificially induced, price tag je ne sais quoi. Yeah, it's ridiculous, and as consumers we're pretty dopey for buying into it but, honestly I don't think it's much of an issue for me.

Beer doesn't have to have a value-added element for me. I'm not buying a car, I don't need to know it's gas mileage versus it's break horsepower. I do enough shopping around at home and at work—I have to get lowest bids from printers and price estimates from plumbers all day, everyday. I don't want that from my beery experiences—ya' know why?

I want beer to be fun.

Beer, for me is like a carnival game—I'm probably not going to win, but I'm going to have fun trying—even if drop a little money, and I know that going in. I'm willing to pay the price for, as Alan is so fond of saying, sucker juice, because it might fun. If it sucks, oh well, it's just beer. I'm fine with the scam—because I know it's a scam. It's not about winning the goldfish or knocking down all the bottles. It's about saying, "Hey, that beer looks fun, let's give it a whirl"—maybe I'll end up with a fuzzy pink panda bear, maybe not.

I'm curious as to what everybody else thinks about beer and the all mighty dollar.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Superbeer Sunday

I've decided to cash in on the most watched sporting event in the United States, with what is, obviously its least exiting alternative—a web poll. Hey, the Puppy bowl had 8.5 million viewers last year—I'm getting in on that action.

Either way—just for shits and giggles—let's see who wins in a head to head match-up between the San Francisco '49ers hometown brew Anchor Steam, and the Baltimore Raven's ville de la bière, Clipper City's Heavy Seas Loose Cannon IPA. As far as I know the head brewers for each brewery are not brothers, nor has anybody at those respective breweries been indicted for murder.

I have no idea what the odds are in Vegas, but you can vote for either beer on the right of your screen.

Let's just chalk this up to the usual, hard-hitting journalism brought to you be drinkdrank.