Thursday, April 24, 2014

Telephone 27: Putting the Craft in Craft Beer

          The term craft beer is a many-headed hydra. While I understand that most people want the definition of craft to be simple, clear, and easy, it is not. Even basic questions like “what makes a beer good?” are influenced by numerous considerations outside of the beer itself. For example, how does the producer influence your perception of the beer you are drinking? And how does the production process influence the final product that goes into your glass? The most obvious and oversimplified answers to these questions are that Big Beer is evil and craft beer is good, but this tautology ignores the shifting parameters of craft beer as an economic, political, and social entity over last thirty years.
          Before getting too far into these questions, I would like to take a moment to distinguish between quality and intensity. Often, beer geeks and new craft drinkers alike focus on intensity, allowing intensity to stand in as a marker of quality; this can be seen by the status accorded to massively-hopped imperial IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts in most craft beer circles. In and of itself, however, intensity is not a marker of quality; there is not a pre-ordained hierarchy of beer styles marked by an increasing level of intensity—a Great Chain of Beer, if you will. Instead, quality refers to the beer itself, not the scale or intensity of it. Big does not always equal better. A lager can be as well-made as an IPA, heretical as that may sound. When the focus shifts to the beer itself—rather than the assumptions that consumers bring to beer as an overarching whole, like the admonition that adjuncts, like macrobreweries, are evil—we can ask different types of questions. 
          The Brewers Association—the trade group that represents craft brewers in the United States—defines a craft brewery as “small, independent, and traditional.” Their definition of “small” is “annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales).” 6,000,000 barrels. And a barrel of beer, in case you were wondering, equals 31 gallons. So that’s 186,000,000 gallons of beer. While I understand the increase of numbers regarding annual production in recent years to allow the Brewers Association to continue counting breweries like Boston Beer as a part of their yearly statistics, this number still goes beyond that which reasonably counts as small. After all, while 3 percent of U.S. sales is far less than, say Coors or Miller, it is still well beyond the numbers most craft breweries will ever approach. As a comparison, the only Dayton brewery with the current capacity to produce more than a 1,000 barrels of beer a year is Warped Wing. So in this scenario, as long as you are no more than 6,000 times bigger, you are still considered craft. As economies of scale go, that is a pretty large spectrum.
          Next comes independent. Redhook gets kicked to the curb by the Brewers Association for the 25% stake it sold to Anheuser-Busch in 1995, which provided Redhook with access to A-B’s national distribution chain and the money to open a second brewery in Portsmouth, NH. Widmer followed in 1997, selling A-B a 27% stake for distribution access; Redhook and Widmer themselves merged in 2007 to form the Craft Beer Alliance. While both have been vilified for their decisions, as has Goose Island in 2011, I’ve always had difficulty reconciling the differences between their actions and the similar brewery expansions pursued by Boston Beer in Cincinnati, OH and Breinigsville, PA, and more recently the second wave of these expansions by Sierra Nevada and New Belgium in Asheville, NC, and Lagunitas in Chicago, IL. Sure, these breweries have maintained their “independence,” but they are all moving towards the business model espoused by the supposed enemy, Big Beer, with multiple breweries across the country intended to maximize distribution, production, and profit. The notion of independent is further complicated in the case of Boston Beer; while initially critical of Redhook’s actions, it had its own IPO stock offering in the mid-90s, raising $60 million dollars in capital that allowed Boston Beer to finally built its own brewery—during its firstdecade as a brewery, the majority of its beer came from contract brewing. It is this type of duplicity that makes me wish for more craft breweries like New Glarus, which intentionally self-limits their distribution to Wisconsin. Sure, it makes getting their beer more difficult to obtain, but I’ll take less-often quality over more-frequent quantity. As it relates to craft, less is often more.
          Finally, the Brewers Association’s third term: traditional. The ill-conceived “Craft versus Crafty” statement from BA in December 2012 was intended to call out “phantom craft” brewers like Blue Moon and Shock Top—breweries actually owned by Big Beer—in order to provide clarity and transparency for craft beer consumers. At the same time, it managed to alienate several of America’s older independent breweries by labeling them as “crafty” for their use of adjuncts, most notably corn. As Jace Marti of August Schell Brewing Company told the Brewer’s Association on BeerPulse, “Shame on you.” This hewing to “traditional” brewing ingredients on the part of the Brewer’s Association—yeast, water, barley, and hops—stems more from a false need on the part of BA to adhere to the German Reinheitsgebot than it does to the actual history of brewing in America. In this sense, the stigma connected to adjuncts has been created via their association with Big Beer: it is a product of those producer’s reputations more than anything to do with adjuncts per se. While this reaction may be understandable given the particular history of beer in this country, the backlash against adjuncts is more a manifestation of our own personal discomfort with American’s brewing legacy. In a discussion we had regarding the American Weissbier recipe from Wahl’s and Henius’s American Handy-Book of American Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades (1902), a recipe that features 30% corn in the grain bill, beer writer Jeff Alworth aptly observes that “corn is so hated now we forget that it’s our claim to indigenous fame. We call it ‘cheap’ but if the Belgians had had corn, we’d call it ‘rustic.’ Time to reclaim it from the beer geek trashbin.” His point, that we look down on our own history in the same manner that we tend to valorize the brewing history of other countries, hits the proverbial nail on the head. I couldn’t agree more.
          So where does this leave us? I’d like to close with a question, one intended to expand traditional discussion regarding the definition of beer at a local level: if a brewery—let’s call it Brewery X—produces 2-3 million barrels of beer annually and distributes in all 50 states, is it still a craft brewery? After all, at that point, Brewery X would seem to have more in common with Big Beer breweries like Budweiser than a brewery producing 500 barrels a year, even though the scale of comparison between Budweiser and Brewery X is roughly comparable to the one between Brewery X and a brewery producing 500 barrels a year. Pretending that the giants of craft beer share the same concerns with those on the lower echelons of production is both foolish and asinine. And even a little bit insulting. Still, the desire to continue to count breweries like Brewery X, to acknowledge their role in the history of craft beer while also relying upon their successes to document the growth of craft, is important as well as understandable. It would just be nice of that history was based upon, well, history, and was a little more even-handed and based less upon marketing. Even so, craft beer, much like Dayton’s burgeoning craft scene, is at a crossroads.
          Next time, let’s try some beer.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Barrel Beer Replacement Brewday

Time to get ready to swap out the first round of beer currently residing in the barrel, so that means time to make more beer. Such a travesty! Since I already have 5 gallons via the infected No Name Best Bitter, this should give me plenty of gallons to build up that barrel beer stock. Photo is courtesy Jeff Fortney from when we were at Country Boy Brewing for the Craft Writing Conference in Lexington.

174. Barrel Beer 
5 lbs. Dingemanns Pilsner
3 lbs. Breiss White Wheat
1 lb. Breiss 2-row
1 lb. Weyermann Acidulated
1 lb. Breiss flaked maize
½ lb. Weyermann Carafoam
½ lb. Breiss Caramel 10° L

Mash @ 152° F for 90 minutes w/ 4 gallons RO water & 5 g. gypsum; collected 2 ½ gallons @ 1.074
Batch sparge @ 170° F for 20 minutes w/ 4 gallons RO water & 5 g. gypsum; collected 4 gallons @ 1.022

Collected 6 ½ gallons; brought to a boil (70 minutes), & added:
w/60 to go: 2 oz. Willamette leaf 7.8% AA

w/10 to go: 3 g. Wyeast yeast nutrient

Chilled and racked onto yeast cake from 170. Barrel Project

Primary: 4/21/2014 @ 68° F

OG: 1.056

Tasting Notes:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Gems from the Archives

Archival research is one of the many things occupying my time. Usually it involves lots of microfilm, and the need to trace down some obscure reference. Recently, however, I’ve increasingly been making use of some of the new digital online archives—like the Library of Congresss Chronicling America—that offers a quite distracting searchable interface. Distracting because you can quickly and easily find all kinds of interesting and useless information. As with these two advertisements for Consumers’ Brewing Company. The first was in the Washington, D.C. Colored American on June 15, 1901, appearing on page 3. Below is a second Consumers ad from the Washington, D.C. Evening Times that appeared in the April 9, 1901 edition on page 8. Consumers’ Brewing Company was in Rosslyn, VA, right across the Potomac from Washington, D.C., so it makes sense to find their ads in the majority of the Washington, D.C. papers. I came across the first ad while looking for a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem in the Colored American; I was amused by the image, so I proceeded to search the database using the brewery’s name to see what else popped up. Because who can get enough of an adult bear taunting cubs with a full stein of beer? Certainly not me! Sheer genius! Other delightful ad copy points to the “medicinal value” of Consumers’ porters and ales, as well as the fact that it is “recommended for family use” (Alexandria Gazette, September 3, 1900, page 1). Ah, history. So old and so foolish.

Anyway, after examining the search results on the Chronicling America site, I turned to the internet to see what else I could find out about Consumers’ Brewing Company. Which, as it turns out, was not much. Though more than I anticipated. This is from One Hundred Years of Brewing (Chicago: H. S. Rich & Co., 1901): “In 1895 the Consumers’ Brewing Company, of Rosslyn, VA, was organized for the brewing of lager beer, light and dark. A plant was erected on the Potomac river front, lighted by electricity and refrigerated artificially. It was ready for occupancy January 1, 1897, and since then porter and ale have been added to the brewery products” (207). By 1902, the brewery had changed its name to Arlington Brewing Company, and it attempted to stay afloat during Prohibition by producing Cherry Smash. Here is a picture of the brewery from around 1920 when it was producing Cherry Smash; the building itself was torn down in 1958; this picture shows the brewery from across the river—the building is in the upper right corner. I also found a reference to Consumers’ in American Brewers’ Review from October 20, 1896, indicating that Consumers’ had ordered a “50-ton refrigerating machine” from the Vilter Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, WI (140). So there you have it: a completely pointless post about a long-defunct brewery. And yet this seemingly large digression, one that has consumed most of my afternoon, has left me in a delightful mood.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Rockit Cup Imperial Stout Recap

So the Rockit Cup finally caters to convention and what happens? All the complainers and detractors fail to brew yet again. So typical. Any who, another small and intimate Rockit Cup, with four beers and three brewers. Brian Gallow was unable to join us—something about moving to Columbus or the likes. Double boo for whatever he tries to pass off as his trumped-up excuse. Overall, all four beers were solid. Still, rankings had to be done because, well, that’s what the Rockit Cup is all about. The final tabulations:

1st: Jim Scofield
2nd: John Hoke
3rd: myself
4th: Brian Gallow

Yes, I am as shocked as all of you that Gallow ended up last. But he has it coming for moving. I ranked the four beers as follows: myself (although the beer I thought was mine was actually Jim’s), Jim, John, and Brian. Additional comments include: Jim’s was a clean beer underneath, but had some hop bitterness and astringency that was a bit harsh, John's was the sweetest, bordering on sticky/cloying, and Brian’s was a little hot with some slight sharpness beyond that provided by the darker malts. The beer that turned out to be mine was clean and balanced with a chewy roasty body that was pleasant. I’m certain that given some time, all will blossom into something even better. And to ensure that we can see the results of that, I conned a bottle out of each of the other three to stash away in the basement until next year!


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Telephone 26: Why Style Matters

          Stripped of its history and pedigree, style is a contract between producer and consumer. Style tells consumers that this beer is hoppy or this beer is malty or this beer is sour so that they can judge whether or not they want to purchase a given producer’s beer. Style thus indicates a set of characteristics connected to a particular type of beer, characteristics that should reciprocally inform consumer expectations. If I order an American IPA and it is more malt-forward than hop-forward, I am annoyed. Why? Because hops are the defining characteristic of an American IPA—hop aroma, hop flavor and hop bitterness—so there should be citrus, resin, and evergreen in the nose and body, along with a fair share of bitterness in the body and lingering bitterness in the finish. Malt may be present to provide balance and backbone, but everything in this beer is in the service of showcasing hops. Similarly, if I order an English Brown, the emphasis should be on the malt and not the hops—my expectations are that the beer will have a rich malt character with toffee, caramel, biscuit, and bread crust, along with hints of dark fruit and coffee. Chocolate and/or hop flavors would make this an American Brown, not an English one; a small claim to difference, certainly, but still one that matters. These expectations extend well beyond those connected to just flavor: a saison, for example, should have a dry body, while a Russian Imperial Stout should have a chewy, thick body. Clarity, color, carbonation level: they all connect back to style. This is the language of beer. It is the nomenclature we use to communicate regarding beer. To not attempt to educate yourself—to willfully disregard the established language of beer and pretend that it doesn’t matter—pretty much means that your interest in beer is insincere.
          So when I hear a brewer proclaim “I can’t be bothered with style” or “style limits my creativity,” all I hear is “I am a lazy brewer who doesn’t care about my customers.” If you want to experiment, go for it. Experimentation is fantastic. But market it as such. As a homebrewer, I brew all kinds of esoteric things: I spent all last year brewing Brettanomyces-only beers. But I’m brewing for myself, not customers. When commercial brewers decide to brew a random creation and slap a style name on it because they assume consumers won’t know the difference, they become part of the problem. The phrase “you need to know the rules before you can break the rules” may be cliché, but in this situation it has merit. Impress me with your ability to produce quality American Pale Ales or Oktoberfests that reflect established categories before you expect me to embrace your cutting edge ways. Respect your craft. To put it another way, while passion is important, so are skill and knowledge. After all, if you don’t have passion for beer, quite honestly, then you shouldn’t be brewing. Thus, if everyone has passion, then what will set you apart as a brewer is the skill and knowledge you use to craft your product. And one of the central components of beer skill and knowledge is an awareness of and respect for style. I wouldn’t pay a random stranger off the street to fix my car, regardless of the level of her or his passion for cars. The same holds true for beer. Passion alone has limitations. Just because you love beer doesn’t mean you can produce good beer. To those of you reading this, I suggest using the same rules of logic you all apply to other consumer goods when it comes to considering beer.
          To return to style, and the contract it represents between producers and consumers: breweries that disregard or blatantly ignore style when marketing their beer perform a disservice to craft beer. This point is important, so let me repeat it, as I want it to sink in. Breweries that ignore style—intentionally or unintentionally, it doesn’t matter—are hurting consumers in general and craft beer writ large. I speak here both ethically and economically. If good beer is a civic responsibility—and it is—then it behooves producers to perform their actions in good faith towards the consumer. While expediency is often the excuse, it doesn’t make it acceptable. Similarly, consumers who reward beers with excessive scores on social media sites when that beer clearly doesn’t fit the style, or who provide degradingly low scores for well-made beers because they dislike the brewery, are also part of the problem. Yes, you, with the straight 5s on Untappd, including similar scores for beers that are clearly infected, are part of the problem. Like and dislike are perfectly acceptable when hanging with friends who share similar ideas about beer. But when you are providing information to other consumers online, your opinion alone outside the parameters of style is not enough. After all, viewers seeing your comments don’t know whether or not you love or hate certain types of beer. And that type of information matters. Thus, you owe it to others consumers to provide appropriate information and feedback. In other words, you owe it to other consumers to know what you are talking about. Again, these are the ethical and economic dimensions of beer referred to above. Get educated. Learn. Otherwise, you’re a bad beer citizen who disregards and disrespects craft beer. Which leads me to next week’s topic: putting the craft in craft beer.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

June 2014 Rockit Cup: California Common

Once again, the Rockit Cup is back to screw up your neat and tidy brewing schedule. What, you don’t like that style? Too bad. Shut up and brew it anyway. And stop whining. Now you know why no one ever liked playing with you at recess. Anyway, what better way to usher in the fast approaching early summer months than by brewing one of the few styles indigenous to the continent? And remember, using this yeast will make your beer more lager-like than many other supposed actual lager beers.

Rockit Cup June 2014: California Common
OG: 1.051 @ 70% efficiency
FG: 1.012
IBU: 40
SRM: 5
ABV: 5.1%

6 lbs. Pale
3 lbs. Pilsner
1 ½ lbs. Dark Munich

Mash at 150˚ F for 60 minutes

½ oz. Northern Brewer @ 60
¾ oz. Northern Brewer @ 30
¾ oz. Northern Brewer @ 15

Wyeast 2112 California Lager
Ferment at 62˚ F

Carbonate to 2.5 volumes

California dreaming...

Saturday, April 5, 2014

AHA NHC Zanesville Beer Judging

This year’s version of the AHA NHC regional in Zanesville was much the same as last year: we were again located at Weasel Boy Brewing and Frank Barickman made plenty of bad jokes. Some things will never change. My compatriots in crime for the trip to Zanesville this year were Jake Browning and Jon Vanderglas. So basically a mini-YHCS roadtrip, since Chris Wyatt was in for the fun on Saturday.

So where to begin? How about four beer judging sessions in two days: two Friday and two Saturday. And two rough days it was: Friday was American Ales and IPAs while Saturday was Stouts and Strong Ales. So basically I drank through starter categories for home brewers on Friday, started with that again on Saturday, and closed out Saturday afternoon with even bigger beers with the Strong Ales. So Saturday was especially rough. As well, there was a lot more hot and fusel alcohols in the beers I judged this year; I’m not sure if I was just that unlucky, or there was some sort evil mojo curse circulating. Either way, after the two sessions on Saturday, I was in a bad place. So after a few rounds of our now-classic “Worst In Show” beer drinking game and the award segment of the evening, we opted to return to the hotel and drink Snakebites made with PBR and Woodchuck Granny Smith Cider. After all those big, dark, and burny beers earlier in the day, that PBR and Woodchuck went down like a dream. 

(4/4 & 5/2014)