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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Beer From Here: An Observation From the Road

Those of you who follow drinkdrank on FB and Twitter know that I’ve just landed back in Albany after a twelve day, nearly two-thousand mile trek to Pittsburgh via Myrtle Beach. The car was loaded with (far two many in my opinion) bags, bikes, snacks and electronics as well as a four-year-old and an eight year old, and a much older year-old, too. The trip was fun, but I wouldn’t hesitate to also add the descriptor “grueling” into conversation (especially I-79 in West Virginia—yikes!)

As you might expect along with all the vacation normalities—sand, sunburn, cranky kids—I also came across a good bit of beer. Actually I did more beer hunting than I normally do. All said and done I brought back 19 different brews, from 15 different breweries hailing from five states (Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia and western Pennsylvania) All “Beer from Here”—that is to say beer made locally or (close to local) to wherever I was at any given point during the trip. A pretty good haul—and that doesn’t include the stuff I sampled while out and about.

My beery hunt took me to a few beer distributors and bottle shops, a number of grocery stores, and more than a few bar and restaurants. As I wrote last week, the South is really starting to come into its beery own. But I noticed something more interesting, even in Pennsylvania.

“Beer from Here” isn’t wacky or gimmicky.

By that I mean, walking into a store or bar I saw the überbeers, and the barrel-aged bourbon bombs, the hoppy floor polishes, and the mango/lavender/donkey penis infused sours. None of them, however, were local brews*, just domestic “imports’ from Rogue, Southern Tier, New Holland, and the like. All well established north, northeastern and west coast breweries. I suppose those breweries are local to some folks, but they also have a pretty wide range of distribution.

The 19 “Beer from Here” beers I brought back were all pretty simple stuff—pale ales and IPAs, a few ambers and reds, porters, stouts and browns—and that’s all they are. There were no 22% ABV stouts made with imported coffee, or Leychee nut IPAs spiked with pink peppercorns, at least none that came from local breweries—that I saw. Just beer made with regular old beer ingredients. And it’s not that I was actively searching for simple beer, that’s just what was available. In the South especially, there’s almost—as Al said in an email—a “pre-craft” mentality. A microbrewery (rather than a “craft” brewery) frame of mind that focuses on making good, small-scale beer. The Duck-Rabbit and Foothills Brewing Companies are prime examples of this.

So where does the “new, next, better” beer mentality come from? It doesn’t seem to be being spawned at the local level, at least not from the 15 “local” breweries I got samples from. It seems to me with age, comes expansion and with growth comes gimmicks and wackiness—and ever the perpetuating need for “innovation” that fuels the fan-boy mentality and jacks up the price of beer.

But therein lies the rub. Isn’t expansion the goal? Isn’t that what everyone wants to do—grow their business? Are gimmicks and wackiness inevitable?

I hope not.

*Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina’s Westbrook Brewing Companys’ White Thai—a lemongrass and Asian-spiced witbier—might be might be the exception here. Not bad, just an exception.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

I'm a baseball fan.

In fact, I'd say baseball has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. While major league baseball is great—take last night's All-Star Game, and the break in the game the entire stadium took to honor retiring Yankee-great Derek Jeter—what I really find to be one of the great joys in my life, is watching minor league baseball at the park.

There's something simple about a minor league game. For me, those games are where true baseball lies. The player's hearts are in the game, and minor league ball is far less big-business, and more, well just about baseball. I don't want to sound sappy, but there's a purity to minor league ballgames. There's just something perfect about packing the family up on a warm summer's afternoon and trucking to the ballpark to watch a game.

Hops grown by New South Brewing Co,
at TicketReturn.com Park, home of the
Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
Fortunately, minor league ballparks are also becoming a haven for some great beer. At home, in the Capital Region of New York, Brown's Brewing Company has a bar located along the first base line at Joe Bruno Stadium, home of the Valley Cats. Not only can you get some of Brown's regularly scheduled brews, they also make Iron Horse IPA, as part of Ales for ALS, in which all proceeds are donated to the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALS TDI), the world’s leader in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS research. For those who might night know, ALS is often called Lou Gehrig's Disease, named for the Hall of Fame Yankee first baseman, afflicted by the disease in the 1930s. Gehrig's nickname was the Iron Horse.

In my last post I mentioned that Ashland, Virginia's Center of the Universe Brewing Co. produces Chin Music, an amber lager for the Richmond Flying Squirrels, but this beery baseball phenomenon is happening across the country. In Rochester, New York, Rohrbach Brewing Company makes Red Wing Ale for Rochester's International League team the Red Wings. Fans of the Indianapolis Indians can get Indian's Lager, a Vienna lager brewed by Sun King Brewing Company, at Victory Park. Papillion Nebraska's Omaha Storm Chasers offer an extra pale ale called Ale Storm made by the Nebraska Brewing Company. The team that seems like the most obvious choice for good beer at the ballpark has to be the Hillsboro Hops, the hometown team of Hillsboro, Oregon. For this beery team, Bridgeport Brewing Company makes a Golden Ale dubbed Long Ball Ale. This past Monday I had the chance to quaff a few Summer Tides--a hoppy wheat pale ale--made by New South Brewing Company for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans of the Carolina League. These are just a few examples of the growing number of local minor league parks partnering with locally made beer.

Interestingly, many of these breweries are taking a session approach to their ballpark brews, ending up with lower in strength beers, topping out at around 5%. My guess is that these ballparks would rather not re-enact Cleveland's 10-cent beer night.

All said and done, baseball and beer go hand in hand, like peanuts and cracker jacks. Although Bud and Coors Light are still available at all these ballparks, it's nice to see some good, local beer finally creeping into the upper deck.

Many thanks to MiLB.com for help on this one.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Southern Exposure

I'd never abandon my family in a hotel while on vacation. That is unless there just happens to be a brewery less than 5 minutes down I-95. In that case I might make an exception*.

Bartender extraordinaire,
Meredith, and a pint of Chin Music.
We stop for an overnight in Ashland, Virginia every summer en route to South Carolina. We've done this for at least six years. How I had never come across Center of the Universe Brewing Company--or COTU as it's affectionately known--is beyond me.

My beerdar must need updating.

Founded by the brothers Ray, Chris and Phil--a former MLB big leaguer, and a NASA engineer--COTU brews a solid selection of both ales and lagers, of which Meredith, the full-time high school science teacher/part-time bartender steered me through at their tasting room. First up was Chin Music**, an amber lager and official beer of the Richmond Flying Squirrels (A San Francisco Giant's Double-A affiliate in the Virginia capital city); and COTU's pale ale offering--RayRay. Both were tasty. Chin Music fall somewhere between Yeungling and Fat Tire, with a wallop of caramel malt and a just a hint of hoppy bite to balance the sweetness. RayRay was quite a bit lighter with all the Cascadian goodness one comes to expect from a classic American pale ale. The brothers offer five or six more standards this time of year--a Kölsch, an Alt, a Belgian summer brew, and Pocahoptus--a straight-up IPA, of which I grabbed a bomber to go.

Having spent the last seven summers south of the Mason-Dixon, it has become clear to me that while good beer is booming in the South, it's still a pretty young concept . If the West Coast and Northeast are in  mid-life, beer-wise, then the south is still a teenager--and that's a good thing. COTU does do the occasional one off, special interest brew, like Homefront, an IPA aged on (get this) unvarnished maple Louisville Sluggers--yes, baseball bats--in which proceeds from sales help to benefit military families, but COTU's bread and butter is a line-up of dependable brews that--as I mentioned earlier--is  a "solid selection" of beer, and I think that's indicative of the south in general.

Southern beer drinkers are only now being given the option of something other than Coors Light. Although breweries like North Carolina's The Duck-Rabbit and COTU are springing up all over Dixie, they are taking it easy, making accessible beer, that's more about the beer itself than some wackadoo ingredient or promotion.

You know I can get behind that.

* Relax, I took the kids swimming when I got back to the hotel.

**For those un baseball-inclined, "Chin Music" is a euphemism for a high, inside fastball.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Session 89: Beer In History

I'm a little late with this month's Session. Truth be told, I haven't written a Session post since the Session was in its 60s. However, since the Pittsburgh Beer Snob threw history into the mix and I thought it was about time to come out of retirement. Mr. Snob challenged us thusly:
When I posted on a more consistent basis I tried to incorporate history in as many posts as I could. I love history. There's just something about it. It's fun. It's interesting. It even gives me goosebumps. So, I only saw it to be fitting that I choose the topic of Beer in History.

At many points in history you can look back and find alcohol intertwined. A lot of times that form of alcohol is beer. Beer is something that connects us with the past, our forefathers as well as some of our ancestors. I want this topic to be a really open-ended one. So, it should be fairly easy to come up with something and participate.
If I've learned anything about history working at the New York State Museum it's that history does not conform to a tidy little package. Over our four year investigation of Albany Ale and the history of brewing in the Upper Hudson Valley of New York state, I've often been asked "what was Albany Ale?" There's no simple answer to that, because it's not so much of a "what" it was answer, but more to the point, a question of "what was it when…?" Albany Ale in 1835 was quite a bit different than it was in 1905—and for that matter so was Albany.

Beer is not a singularity. It's not a Doctor Who-esque phenomenon. That is to say, a fixed thing in time. Beer evolves, and has changed through time. Telling the four hundred year story of beer in the Upper Hudson Valley, proved that to me. For example the notion that beer—and not just Albany Ale—was stronger "back then" is often put forth. But back then is a pretty wide spectrum isn't it? What a specific beer was all depends on when the "back then" was—and where the "back when" was, as well. Beer is, was, and will always be the product of its environment and the social and economic factors that act upon—and against—that environment. That's the part that excites me. It's not just the "oldness" beer. It's the contributing factors—the contextualizing elements—that affected the beer, that perk my coffee.

Beer did—and for that matter does—not exist in a bubble. Why did Albany Ale become the phenomenon it did in the 1850s and 1860s? For a multitude or reasons that quite honestly have little to do with the beer itself—like the recovery from the Revolutionary War, the devastation of the American cereal crop by the Hessian Fly at the turn of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution—and last but most definitely not least—the opening of the Erie Canal. Take any one of those bits out, and you have a chain missing a link.

I think that's why there are some many misconceptions about the history of beer. We often do not look at the whole picture. We generalize history into bite-sized chunks of information, developing the quick story to explain what is in fact a rather complicated story. Unfortunately, some times those easily digested stories are wrong. Just mention to Ron Pattinson that early 19th century IPA was brewed strong to survive the trip to India, and see what happens. I'll be in the other room, mind you.

We also have the tendency to—what a psychologist might say—project our expectations onto the past. We are modern, they are old. Their ways must have been inferior or less efficient than ours. Most of the time, that's just not true. If the breweries of 1870's Albany were operating today, the majority of them would fall under the Brewers Association classification as a regional craft brewery—that being a brewery which produces between 15,000 and 6 million barrels per year—a category that encompasses about 4% of the breweries in the U.S. That seems pretty efficient.

But this post isn't about dispelling myths. It's about understanding that the history of beer is more than beer. It's a history effected by other histories—and a a contributing factor on those histories as well.

The history of beer is the history of us.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Putting Two and Two Together

Remember the brew-ha-ha a while back in which the FDA said it was going to start regulating and overseeing the sale of spent brewing grain? Regulations that would effectively mean that breweries that wanted to sell their spent grain to livestock producers would, for all intent and purposes, have to install food process equipment in their brew houses.

This new proposed rule, as of October of 2013, seemed to come out of the blue. I remember working for the Big House Brewing Company in Albany back in the mid 1990s. We sold our spent grain to a local farmer. That was 15 or 16 years ago—and my guess is the practice well proceed my tenure at the brewpub, by say, a few hundred years? Now all of a sudden, the federal government is concerned about the safety of spent grain. Why now?

Journalist Melissa Pandika, may have inadvertently uncovered the answer to that when she reported on the results of study by scientists at the Technical University of Madrid and the Spanish National Research Council that was described this past January a publication by the Royal Society of Chemistry, in her article on Ozy.com.

Pandika’s article is about those scientist developing a method for regenerating bone tissue using a less a expensive method than is being used today. The researchers have found what they think might be a viable organic alternative for synthetic calcium phosphate coatings currently used as growing surfaces—or scaffold—for the regeneration of bone cells for repairing severe breaks, or for grafts and dental implants. The current materials are really, really expensive, reports Pandika—like $92,000 per pound expensive. The new organic material, tested by the researchers, Pandika adds, is far less expensive—like about $50 a ton—less expensive.

So what’s the the organic material at the heart of this study?

Beer bagasse.

“Oh, really? You may ask. “Is beer bagasse, by chance, also known as spent grain?”

Yes. Yes it is.

"Ah ha." you add.

Did the FDA know about this study before its proposal of the regulation of spent grain? I have no idea. Are they trying to get out ahead of a possible boon for grain producers, brewers and the biomedical industry. Perhaps, but again I have no evidence. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, by any stretch of the imagination. Trust me I believe in both the holocaust and the moon landing. But I gotta say, this seems like more than a coincidence. I do however, think a quote from the article—and the report—sums everything up: 
“The researchers’ method for processing beer bagasse is ‘inexpensive and easily adoptable by the biomedical industry.’”
Easily adoptable, indeed, but it looks jury is still out on how the FDA feels about that.