One Beer Article You Should Read And Why, 1/15/16

Here is another great post by Bryan D. Roth who continues to do good and interesting work around what craft beer really is and not what we want to think of it. Each year he researches the ratings of beers by regular drinkers and experts to see what trends have developed and to give a good accounting of what is considered the “best.” Today’s post takes that research a step further and shows how abv and rarity/uniqueness affects the perceived quality (and price) of beer.

Craft had been open for a few months and I was behind the bar on a Friday or a Saturday night. A customer could not decide what to drink, so he asked me what my favorite beer on the wall was.  On tap at that moment was the Mystery Ballantrae, a wonderfully malty 3.8% Scottish ale that I love. So, that is what I told him.  He looked at me with either confusion or disgust and said, “It’s not even 4%.”  That is one of the interactions that told me two things early on that I always remember.  First, people just want you to confirm their opinion.  They know what they want to drink and they just want you to tell them it is OK.  Second, people honestly believe higher abv is a sign of quality.

Now after a few more experiences like that, when asked what my favorite beer on the wall is, I pick the lightest abv and weirdest possible beer as my favorite.  I have recommended many grisettes, Scottish ales, schwarzbiers, dry Irish stouts, and ESBs to unsuspecting customers who want me to tell them how great the 10% abv barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout is.  If I tell you I like it, I really do like it, but I’m trying in a small and somewhat petty way to get people to see that great beer comes in all shapes and colors not just IPA and imperial stouts.

I’m beginning to think that there are two separate craft beer worlds.  There is the one where people look for good beer and eschew macro beer.  They just want to drink something that is good and interesting.  The other world is the world of the Whale.  In this world buying and drinking beer is a performative act. You are not just buying the beer to drink it, you are buying it to show others how cool and connected you are.  “Wow, you got this bottle of Cantillon Grand Cru? You must be cool and really know your beer.”

Roth’s post shows the effect of this way of thinking and acting.  If you can get enough of the right tastemakers to say they like one of your beers, your whole brewery can become a star.  I’m often asked if I think the awards at GABF are done fairly.  This article explains why the rare whales everyone votes to the top of RateBeer, Beer Advocate, and Untappd don’t win. Your perception of them is colored by things that have little to do with the actual liquid in the glass and that is what it should always come down to.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/13/17

Here is a transcript of a story that ran on NPR Berlin about Berlin Beer Week.  Hugh and Hana Eckermann have done a series of reports from beer week including this one where they talk to brewers, including Sam Caglione and Greg Koch, about the German Beer Purity laws and how younger German brewers are beginning to chafe under it.  This is even leading to a reconsideration of the law this year that would allow other natural ingredients to be included.

This comes at a time when a major piece of legislation in the US Congress that would reform the tax code for craft beverage producers (wineries, cideries, and breweries) sits waiting for debate and when the never-ending argument over raising the NC beer self-distribution cap enters its 3rd year.

These cases all interest me in how different brewers of different sizes and of different ages view legislation that affects them.  Take the case I know best of these, the NC distribution law.  The NC Brewers Guild and 3 of the largest craft brewers in NC have made this a major issue.  They talk about it at every turn and have even created a group to promote it called NC Craft Freedom.

Here is the thing, everyone involved in NC craft beer agrees that the cap should be raised and that the current cap is an arbitrary number that was created when no one understood how big craft beer would become to the NC economy.  Even the smaller distributors who work with most of the state’s craft brewers agree that it should be raised and that brewers should have the freedom to sell their beer how they see fit.

However, if you talk to anyone from a smaller brewer who is nowhere near the 25000-barrel limit for long enough, usually over a few beers, they will quickly volunteer that the state’s excise taxes are a greater hindrance to their growth then a self-distribution limit that is still 10000 barrels away for them.  It is amazing that North Carolina’s craft beer industry has flourished as it has when as of last year, only Tennessee, Alaska, Hawaii, and South Carolina had higher state excise taxes.  Add to that, if you self-distribute you also must pay sales taxes on the beer you sell.

In all aspects of life, your opinion on a thing is dependent on where you sit in relationship to that thing.  In Germany, the newer brewers see the Reinheitsgebot as stifling their growth and creativity.  While the older brewers see it as a cherished part of their heritage.  In NC, the large craft brewers see one law as hurting their growth, but the smaller brewers see a whole other law as hurting their prospects.

Heraclitus famously wrote a man never steps in the same river twice to indicate the constant march of history.  I think it can equally be said, no two people even see the same river they are both stepping in because they have different perspectives.

One Beer Article You Should Read And Why, 1/11/17

There are a few beer writers working today who love beer and love the fun of beer but still manage to write about it in a serious way.  One of my favorites is Jason Notte.  He writes mostly on the business side of beer.  He also writes about the business side of sports, particularly the weird phenomena of public funding of stadiums for billionaires.

Here is a nice interview Jason did with the owner of Pabst Brewing.  Pabst has its fingers in more pies than you think it does and has positioned itself in the in-between spaces of the beer business.  It isn’t quite big beer, but it isn’t quite craft beer.  As the beer business changes that could be a very advantageous spot in which to sit.

Jason is one of a growing number of quality writers who produce work for outlets that publish well-written content about beer.  There is a dearth of good writing on the internet in general and sometimes even more so for beer writing.  Too often websites are simply content aggregators linking to or simply publishing other people’s work. One morning I read the same AP article three different times on three different websites. Instead of incubating and creating new content they simply hoist up other’s work as their own. Maybe just as bad they publish reviews and other pieces that are poorly written and lightly edited.

I understand. If you are operating an advertising based model, to get advertisers you must get page hits and the best way to get page hits is to keep churning out content regardless of its quality and promoting the hell out of it by flooding Twitter and Facebook with new articles with catchy titles.

I think one thing we have learned over the last year is that the people that produce content have a greater responsibility than many have ever imagined.  Writing about beer and reading about beer should be fun.  However, you can write about beer in a fun way, but also in a way that takes it seriously.  I think too often people within craft beer hold on too dearly to the idea of a bunch of guys sitting around on a Saturday morning homebrewing and just trying each other’s beer.

We should never forget the fun of sitting around on a Saturday in a friend’s garage brewing and drinking.  We should never forget the joy of sharing a pint or three of quality beer and swapping lies with friends.  At the same time, it is also a major multinational business that according to the Brewers Association contributed $55.7 billion to the US economy in 2014.  That is a lot of money and a lot of jobs for actual people.

It is incumbent on people who write and talk about beer to take that responsibility seriously.  Look we aren’t talking about a foreign government affecting a presidential election, we are talking about beer.  However, the act of writing about something is a responsibility to treat that asks you to treat that subject with respect by at least attempting to do it well and do it interestingly.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/10/17

Paste Magazine has a repository of well-written beer reviews by writers who really know their beer.  Here is an example of one.  This review of the Deschutes Red Chair NWPA is clear and solidly written.  There are other examples on Paste’s website and you can find still others at All About Beer magazine.    They are all examples of what modern reviews look like across a spectrum of disciplines.  From movies to books to television to beer, good reviews in the internet age are tightly written explanations of what the reviewer liked or disliked about the object.  If it is on the higher end of the quality scale, they go on to describe why they did or didn’t like it in a quick entertaining way.

There are times I don’t think I’m meant for this age. I have little to no interest in the things most people do in today’s world.  I listened to one of my favorite podcasts yesterday as they talked about the Golden Globes ceremony from the night before.  There was a little talk about the awards themselves, but mostly it was about the gossip and the celebrity of it.  Somewhere around the talk about Tom Hiddleston and whether he really dated Taylor Swift, I realized I could not give less than two damns about that stuff.  This obsession with celebrity and fame is how we ended up with the president-elect we have.  The elevation of celebrity is a symptom of people having a superficial understanding of competence and skill.

Another symptom is how we review art and craft.  While I like reading reviews like the one for Red Chair, they seem superficial.  Now, I understand they must be for the needs of most magazines in the internet age.  A review is an attempt to express to a hurried reader whether they will like a movie or a book or a television show or a beer.  A good writer will explain quickly and clearly why or why not.  A critique is different.  It is an attempt to explain to the reader and the wider world whether this thing was successful at being what it attempts to be and why or why not.

A good beer critique will do exactly what this review of Red Chair does.  It will go over the appearance, the aroma, the flavor, and the mouthfeel/finish and tell you whether those things added up to a pleasurable experience.  Then it must go further with two questions.  First, is this beer a good example of a beer of this style according to the guidelines?  Second, does this beer achieve what the brewer set out to achieve when the recipe was created? Why or why not?

I haven’t written any reviews in a while because I got tired of writing the same thing as everyone else.  I have taken a step back the last couple of months and now I think I am ready to try to do something different with my reviews.  We’ll see if it works.

Becoming A Cicerone 132 Days Left

One of my favorite questions I get behind the bar is, “What’s a saison?”  I can answer that question a little better now, even though the answer to that question is rather vague.

My first week of Cicerone study concentrated on Belgian style beers.  Belgian style beers are probably my favorite family of beers to drink.  Belgian style beer guidelines are sometimes vague.  See saisons.  That helps make them some of the most interesting and flavorful beers.  I have found every Belgian style beer I’ve drunk to be interesting.  It was a good week and I know a lot more than when I started.

This week will be the British family of beers.  These were the first beer styles I really got into.  The first craft beer I ever drank was an English style brown (Pete’s Wicked Ale) and I drank and enjoyed English style IPAs before I ever drank a west coast hop bomb.

I’ll have at least one more update this week.  Until later.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/9/17

This is interesting. I remember the first product PicoBrew released, the Zymatic. It was big and expensive, but people did buy it.  Then this year the GABF I get to see the Pico in action and I thought, “OK, that is going to change home brewing.”  Not that I think it will change how most home brewers work, but that it will provide an easier in for people interested in home brewing. It is a simple and easy to use product that, while still kind of expensive, isn’t too much more expensive than a good home brewing set up.

Now, how will bigger industrial grade equipment change brewing?  I don’t think it will change brewers much.  However, here is a possibility.  You are a bar in an area with lots of craft breweries and you want to figure out a way to get a little piece of that action without all the work.  You can purchase one of these new industrial machines and cook a 5-barrel batch of beer and then sell it.

Now, if you do that, are you completely circumventing the 3-tier system?  Bars are licensed differently than brewery taprooms.  That is how they are allowed to sell their own beer.  Occasionally, a brewery and craft bar will team up to create a one-off beer specifically for that bar.  The bar will still have to buy that beer either from the brewery or through a distributor.

I guess I immediately jumped to bars buying one of these machines because I don’t see a large number of breweries buying them.  I could be wrong.  Maybe this will cheaper than brewery equipment for a startup brewery.  It could be a cheap way to go from a 5-barrel or 10-barrel system to a 10 or 20-barrel system.

Having said that, I think we are often too quick to try to streamline and industrialize the creation of products.  Part of the whole point of the slow food movement, which I think craft beer is a part of, is that your food is not an industrial product.  It is best when the food is grown and cared for by real farmers and not some agribusiness that uses the same concepts of an auto factory to grow chickens.

Part of the love of craft beer stems from the idea that you can meet the brewer.  You can go on a tour of the brewing facility and see the kettles and the fermenters and the oak barrels.  You can watch brewers moving around the catwalks in their big rubber boots.  It gives you sense that these people care about the beer they are making.  You get the sense that it is more than just a thing to produce to sell.

The idea of a machine where you dump all the water, malt, hops, and yeast in one end and wait a couple of weeks for fermented beer to come out the other end with no additional care is anathema to me.  At that point are you any better than the macros?

Becoming A Cicerone, 138 Days Left

Yesterday, I continued my journey through Belgian beers by with Trappist Ales:  Dubbel, Tripel, Golden Strong.  I like the way the outline groups similar beers from a style grouping.  It helps you associate beers together which makes it easier to learn.  Next up will be the pale Belgian ales and other Belgian style beers.

I will be joining a study group in the next few weeks.  That will help with the tasting/off flavor portion of the test.

These updates will vary in length and in frequency.  I can say at the very worst, they will appear weekly.  Most likely they will be mostly daily.  Until tomorrow.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/4/17

This is the kind of story I like.  One with mystery. Who is Burial trying to refuse to sell its beer to?  Why are they trying to refuse to sell beer to them?  These are the questions I have.

Another question I have is, why does South Carolina make you sell to whoever orders your beer?  What if a private club who does not allow women or minorities requests beer from you?  Do you have to sell it to them?  They aren’t breaking any law since they are a private club and can decide on who is eligible for membership.  You would be breaking the law by refusing to sell to them.  Also, how has this not been challenged in court?

One thing I’ve found out over the time I’ve been doing this blog and this daily article post is alcohol laws are a very good way to explore the federalist system of laws.  We all know it is legal to buy alcohol in the US. That is pretty much the whole of the federal laws regarding the legality of alcohol.  That and the federal government mandates the 3-tier system.  Once you are past those two restrictions it is up to each individual state to regulate the production, distribution, and retail sale of alcohol.

That means there are 52 different sets of rules that regulate alcohol in this country.  Fifty different set to regulate production.  Fifty different sets to regulate distribution. Fifty different sets to regulate retail sale.  To make it even more interesting some states use their department of revenue to be the primary regulatory agency, i.e. the agency that issues licenses to producers, distributors, and retailers.  However, other states use their public safety department (the state police and investigatory agency).  This why trying to study the alcohol laws in the US can be so frustrating.  Oh yeah, don’t forget that most states allow counties and municipalities to set further restrictions on alcohol as they see fit.

Now, if this is confusing and frustrating for alcohol, what about something that is important?  What about health care or education?  Understand, I’m not criticizing the federalist system.  I think it works.  I think allowing the local government make the final decision on how laws should be constructed for their state works very well.  However, I see the fault lines in it.  The primary fault line being you are counting on not only your voting electorate to be informed and interested, you are counting on your elected officials to informed, interested, and not corrupt.

That is the scariest fault line in this.  What if your elected officials are in the pocket of the alcohol distribution lobby?  What if they are in the pocket of pharmaceutical companies?  What if they take lobby money from people who love the US so much they don’t want anything about slavery or Japanese internment camps in high school history books?  What if the public is so uninformed and uninterested to notice these things?

By the way, this is what happens when I do the one article this late in the day.

Becoming a Cicerone, 139 Days left

So, I’m taking the Cicerone exam in May.  I am, as they say in poker, pot committed.  I plunked down the money for it, so I’m taking that exam barring some unforeseen event.

I began the process of studying yesterday.  The first thing I did was take the practice test to see what my deficiencies are.  It wasn’t as good as I had hoped, but not as bad as it could have been.  I need to go over the draught manual again and reread Tasting Beer mostly for the beer and food pairing, but that was kind of expected.

The main area I need to concentrate on are the styles and flavor/evaluation section. That is 25% of the test.  There are details about styles that I had forgotten that are important.  That is going to be my main area of study for the next 5 months.

This week I’m starting with Belgian family of beers easing my way in with Lambic, Gueuze, Fruit Lambic, Flanders Red Ale, and Oud Bruin.  It’s the details.  Going in, I knew these styles, but I didn’t know these styles.  It’s the subtle differences that make them all different and make it important when you get a question asking about a spontaneously fermented beer made with wheat.  That is a Lambic.

I know that now and know the difference between the different versions of Lambic and the difference between Lambics and the Flanders style sours.

For the next few days, I’ll be walking through the rest of the world of the Belgian beers. Next up Dubbel, Tripel, Belgian Dark Strong Ale.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/3/17

I really didn’t want the second article I highlighted this year to be about big beer screwing everyone else, but here we are.  Missouri has a new law that allows brewers to lease beer coolers to retailers.  Now, they can’t make the retailers stock only their beers in the cooler, but we know how this will work.  “Hey, we’re glad we could help with the new cooler.  By the way, do you think you might want some of this specialty stuff from Goose Island, Elysian, or Golden Road? We went able to offer it to you last year, but we think you might be able to sell it this year.”

This may be the year where conversation around craft beer is more about it being besieged on all sides.  Big beer is going to step up its attempts to turn back the clock to the seventies and eighties when they had a monopoly on the beer business.  People will keep talking about how marijuana is eating into craft beers market regardless of any evidence one way or the other.  The attempt to reform federal taxes still languishes in legislative committees.  And of course, the rate of growth will probably slow which will lead to many hand ringing articles asking what is wrong with craft beer?

That is something I did notice in the tone of the coverage of craft beer at the end of the year.  For most of the last two to three years the coverage of craft beer has been fawning puff pieces on how this new craft beer market.  These small breweries were heroically taking on Budweiser and Miller and having fun while doing it and they are right next door with these cool places where you can take your dog and/or your toddler.  Isn’t it great?

The second half of last year saw the coverage change a little.  More writers started taking serious looks at craft beer as a business and real analysis of the business began to appear more regularly in mainstream media outlets.  I think the coverage really began to shift when Stone Brewing announced its layoffs.  I think that was a moment for the craft beer industry to step back and look at itself in a critical way and the mainstream press has begun to follow suit.  By mainstream I mean non-beer centric websites and magazines.

My fear is that as the craft beer story gets more nuanced we will see things like what has happened with the marijuana is hurting craft beer story. Basically, a study that looked at the slowing of baseline sales in the states where marijuana is legal recreationally concluded that marijuana was hurting craft beer sales.  That may or may not be true, but many outlets jumped on the bandwagon without doing their own analysis of the study.

That is my worry for media.  Many news websites are simply aggregators of other people’s content and simply want clicks.  That includes some major news outlets whose websites are little more than wire service reports and videos from their television network.