One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 10/28/16

Despite the headline of this article, pumpkin beer will never die.  By that I mean even though beer drinkers are not buying it like they did 3 years ago, it will not stop being a staple of the fall beer season.

For reasons that escape me, the American public became obsessed with pumpkin flavored everything sometime in the last 5-10 years.  Once the calendar said September, people just had to have pumpkin flavored lattes, beer, Kleenex.  I could even take the easy position that this obsession leads to riots, but when you read these articles it becomes clear that this was a bunch of drunken privileged assholes looking to break some shit.

This year continues the trend of pumpkin beer sales falling sharply.  For brewers, trends like pumpkin beers can become a black hole.  You must make pumpkin beers because the drinking public wants them.  It sells really well.  You sell out of what you made, so the next year, you up your production.  You sell even more. So, you up your production again for the following fall and to get ahead of your competitors you put it a little earlier than they do.  This time you sell less and you and your distributor have a bunch of pumpkin beer left over long after the season has passed.

That is the danger of chasing trends.  It is a seductive yet fickle thing.  In a competitive marketplace like brewing, it can be even harder.  You must keep your market edge by responding to your customers in a way that stays true to your core values as a brewer.  Brewers successfully navigate this by staying true to their process and who they are.  Make no mistake. Brewers must respond in some way.

The worst thing you can do as a response is to throw together some pumpkin recipe and pump something out just to have a pumpkin beer.  Consumers, in general, can see through bullshit like that and craft beer drinkers, in particular, see through it and the will respond with scorn and ridicule that will be worse than just not making the beer.

There are two better responses from brewers.  Take your time and create a pumpkin beer that fits who you are as a brewer.  Or, eschew pumpkin all together and choose another fall style or use another staple of fall foods like sweet potatoes.

The best brewers see these types of trends before they develop.  They don’t so much respond to consumer demand as help influence that consumer demand.  Consumers do not know what they want or need until someone gives it to them.  Sours and goses have taken off in the last 2 years because a few brewers were interested in them and made good ones and people responded.

I don’t want craft breweries to become what they rebelled against.  Those of us who are in the craft world love it because brewers, good brewers, have a curiosity and a sense of adventure that shouldn’t be handcuffed by chasing trends.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 10/27/16

Somewhere around two years ago, the North Carolina craft beer community got a shock to its system.  The Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) arm of the Department of Public Safety closed a few beer festivals.  Why?  Servers at the beer festival were taking the opportunity to go around and taste other beers.  You see in North Carolina it is illegal for someone who is serving beer to drink while on duty or while wearing their uniform.  Bars and restaurants followed this rule with no problems.  However, most craft beer people didn’t know this new interpretation of the rule now included festivals.  Tasting beer is one of the incentives for volunteering for to pour at a beer festival for brewery and distribution reps.  That is one of the main draws to get volunteers for the Great American Beer Festival.

Under the ALE interpretation, that is now verboten.  So is having a post-shift beer at the place you work even if the establishment has closed for the day.  Bartenders can no longer pour themselves a beer to sip as they sweep and mop.  Again, under ALE interpretation, you are still on duty.

Now, as this Free-Times article highlights, South Carolina’s craft beer community is coming under the same scrutiny from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED).  Basically, SLED contacted the SC Department of Revenue to get a ruling on whether nonprofits are retailers for these types of events because in SC brewers can’t have any direct dealing with retailers.  Not only is it illegal for brewers to donate beer directly to a nonprofit retailer, they cannot pour their own beer at a festival sponsored by the nonprofit retailer.  In this case, the SC Brewer’s Guild was considered a nonprofit retailer so brewers (members of the guild) couldn’t pour their own beers.

Without getting into the weeds of the absurdity of this particular situation, the larger point is somehow craft beer is succeeding in this country when the laws that govern it change from state to state.  They can also change from year to year depending upon who is interpreting and how they are interpreting the laws that govern beer and alcohol.

Here are my problems with alcohol laws in this country:

  1. Most of the laws affecting craft beer culture were written years before the idea of craft beer was even conceived.
  2. The hodge-podge nature of alcohol laws vary from state to state is more than just an annoyance for brewers.
  3. Alcohol law enforcement is poorly funded and staffed. Plus, staff, like the rest of general population, is just learning about craft beer and how its culture is different from a traditional beer and alcohol culture. Also, that culture is often imported from other states where craft beer is better established and the laws are different creating somewhat of a culture clash.

The people I feel worst for are the government officials and agents tasked with interpreting and enforcing these laws.  They are hamstrung by the 3 problems I just listed.  I think each state should create a commission to study how to modernize its alcohol laws and change them to fit our times and culture.  Of course, that could just make things worse.


Bell’s Brewery Best Brown Ale Review

In modern American craft brewing, brown ales are often an afterthought. If you look at the core beers for most breweries, you will see the obligatory IPA, a saison, a stout/porter, a wit/wheat ale/hefeweizen, and probably a lager/pilsner/Kolsch.  That leaves the brown ale out in the cold.  Why is that?

While the brown ale is seemingly simple it is a rather difficult beer to brew well and it is a beer misunderstood by many drinkers. It along with ambers is the in between beer.  It isn’t as dark and heavy as a stout or even a porter and it isn’t as hoppy as an IPA. It is made for the lovers of malt.  So how do you define it?

For me, a good brown is the perfect session beer.  Not hoppy, with a low abv, and still a lot of taste.

One way to highlight a brown ale is to make it a seasonal.  This may seem strange for such a simple style, but it means a brewery is giving the beer the time and attention it deserves.

20161026_113350Bell’s Best Brown Ale is a chestnut colored brown ale released seasonally at the beginning of every fall. Like a good Marzen or Oktoberfeistbier, there is nothing remarkable about this beer.  It is just that Bells has taken the time to craft a good and solid brown ale.  First, as I said, it is chestnut in color and has a thin off-white head that has good retention.

Next, it has a chocolaty malt aroma and a faint hops aroma just underneath it.  The first thing you notice is that it has a light malty feel on your palate.  The taste is where it all comes together for this beer.  You get a slightly chocolate and maybe hazelnut (?) taste to with just enough of a hop bitterness reminder to highlight the malt and make you want to have another sip.

As much as people want hops and hoppy taste to their beers, without malt balancing out the hops you get a mouthful of grass clippings.  That is why black IPAs and browns are maybe my two favorite styles when well-made and balanced.  BIPAs must have enough malt to highlight the hops and browns must have enough hops to balance out the malt.

Best Brown achieves this balance and provides fans of malty beers another great fall seasonal option.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 10/26/16

A couple of days after the GABF awards came out, I saw a thread on Reddit or Beer Advocate where commenters talked about the awards.  Many believed the awards were rigged.  That goes with the territory.  Your favorite whatever doesn’t win a subjective award, the awards were rigged.  What was more telling or annoying or both to me was the number of commenters who said that they would rather look at the ratings on Untappd, RateBeer, Beer Advocate, or other such sites then the results of a judged contest.  I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of a) what judging a contest with guidelines is and b) what reviews are supposed to do.

First, judges notes and beer criticism are not the same as comments made on Untappd or RateBeer or other sites.  On those sites, you do have commenters who are thoughtful and interesting in what they write, especially on Beer Advocate.  However, those sites are mostly to say, “I like this beer” or “I dislike this beer.”

Judging a beer contest that adheres to BJCP or GABF guidelines doesn’t necessarily tell you the beers that everyone will like the most.  They tell you the beers that are the most technically proficient and well made.

A review also should not necessarily concern itself with whether the reviewer likes the beer.  It should be an inquiry into how all the parts of the beer work together to give an overall impression.  If at the end the reviewer does or does not like it, you must explain why or why not and explore the highlights and/or deficiencies.  Whether the reviewer personally likes it or not, it is that last part that is important because it is what will tell the reader whether they will like it or not.

It also tells the brewer what they have done right or wrong.  Judging and properly done critical reviews are more for brewers than they are for regular consumers.  I think critics should be in conversation with the brewer with the drinkers eavesdropping.

This article is the perfect example as to how this is supposed to work.  The writer wrote a critical, but fair review.  The brewer read the review.  Here is the critical point, the brewer had enough self-awareness to look at the review and say, “what do we need to do better?” The brewer fixed the problems and the brewery has taken off.

Like many creatives, brewers cannot always separate themselves from their creations enough to see them clearly or let others criticize them fairly.  The successful ones, like successful artists, have the ability to step back and accept criticism.  The very best can self-critique in a way that is harsher than anyone else can. They see the I love this beer or I hate this beer comments as nice, but not helpful.  I have sold lots of beer that customers say they love but isn’t good.  The wisdom of crowds will tell you what’s popular, not necessarily what is quality work.

Major League Soccer Playoff Preview: Knockout Round

I am a huge soccer fan.  That includes being a huge MLS fan.  I’ve watched the league grow from the very first moment of its existence.  I remember the Clash, the MetroStars, the Mutiny and the Fusion.  So, I wanted to combine my love of beer with my love of this shaggy dog of a league.

Picking a bracket for MLS playoffs like a NCAA Tournament basketball practices is silly.  MLS playoffs are a crap shoot. Picking winners based in part on beers and breweries I the respective cities is as good a way as any to predict the eventually MLS champion as any.  I choose breweries in or around each city that I think are good.  I have either had beer from these breweries (all but 2) or I picked beers that writers I trust recommend.

Here are my Knockout Round picks:

Toronto FC (Folly Brewing) v. Philadelphia Union (Tired Hands) – I’ve had and really like Tired Hands (Philadelphia) my favorite is the SaisonHands.  I’m partial to Belgian style beers (this will become apparent as we move along). I’ve never had any of Folly’s offerings, but from looking at the beer list and descriptions, I would be in farmhouse heaven if I ever get there.  So, I’m going with Toronto to win this knockout game.  They have who should probably be MLS MVP, Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and an inform Jozy Altidore. Anything can happen in a one-off game, but this is probably too much for as slumping Philadelphia to overcome. Pick: Toronto FC.

DC United (DC Brau) v. Montreal Impact (Unibroue) – I’ve had both brewery’s wears and as much as I love DC Brau for doing a beer with my favorite MLS team (favorite player of all time is Eddie Pope, fellow Tar Heel), I must do go with the Impact here.  Unibroue makes Blanche de Chambly, La Fin du Monde, Trois Pistoles, and Maudite.  That is kind of like saying, whatever else, we have Didier Drogba.  That is assuming Drogba doesn’t go all diva and refuse to sit on the bench if he doesn’t start. Pick: Montreal Impact.

LA Galaxy (El Segundo Brewing) v. Real Salt Lake (Uinta) – I have had a lot of Uinta because we carry them regularly at Craft and I’ve only had a few tastes of El Segundo at the last two GABFs I’ve been to.  My favorite from Uinta is the Baba Black Lager (another one of my obsessions: schwarzbiers).  Mostly I picked El Segundo so I could link to this song (RIP Phife Dawg).  The Galaxy should win this game.  Much like the Toronto/ Philly matchup in the Eastern Conference, they are entirely too talented to lose to Real Salt. Pick: LA Galaxy.

Seattle Sounders (Urban Family Brewing) v. Sporting Kansas City (Boulevard) – I love both teams.  Seattle has put it all together after firing Sigi Schmid and bringing in Nicolas Lodeiro.  Both things happened in July.  Kansas City is led by a guy who looks like a hardcore military officer in a bad action movie, but Peter Vermes is a great coach.  This is a game about the solid and occasionally transcendent (because of Benny Feil Haber and Dom Dwyer) Sporting KC and the solid and occasionally transcendent Boulevard Brewing against one of the hottest teams in the league and one of the hot breweries out of the Pacific Northwest. In a one-off game, I’ll take my chances with the hot team so I’m picking the Sounders. Pick: Seattle Sounders.

Coming Friday, the conference semifinal picks.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 10/25/16

There is a point, somewhere around 24 or 25, when you understand you can’t act like you did in college.  It is that point where you have been out of college the same amount of time you were in college.  Your job is going well.  You may be up for a promotion.  You’ve gotten a couple of raises and have moved to a better apartment.  Maybe you’ve even bought a car that is reliable.  However, you keep thinking of yourself as a college student with no responsibility.  You still try to go out on Thursdays and drink with your friends until the wee hours, but slowly you and they realize, you have to go to work the next day and it’s much easier to work without a hangover.  Maturation comes in steps of realization that point out to you that the things you did in college may have been fun, but they aren’t feasible all the time.

Craft beer likes to continue to think of itself as this bunch of insurgents.  This rowdy bearded group of pirates out to make beer and have fun drinking it.  The slow realization that this fun anything goes insurgency has become a business with all the attendant problems is creeping across the craft beer world.  At the high end, beer is a business that is increasingly cut-throat.  Layoffs and plant closings are here in this little happy valley and they aren’t going away as the business matures and morphs into its next phase.

Some of the answers and quotes in this Jason Notte piece show an almost naive or arrogant belief that the explosive growth of the last few years would continue unfettered.  That is either a lack of common sense or a lack of vision.  I don’t know.

Until the last few months, anyone who dared say that the kind of growth craft beer saw over the last 4 or 5 years was not sustainable was accused of saying the “craft bubble will burst.”  That seemed to be a way of pushing the inevitability of maturation down the road so people would not have to think about it.

I think there were bad assumptions made by many in craft, in retrospect.  One, there seemed to be a belief among many that they would get to make their beer and eat away at Big Beer’s edges and Big Beer would not respond.  Big Beer did respond by buying some smaller breweries and investing in others.  They did that because they saw something coming that many of the larger craft brewers didn’t.

I think among craft people the initial assumption was that the Big Beer national brands would be replaced by a group of smaller craft national brands like Sierra Nevada and Stone and Ballast Point.  While that has happened to a certain extent, Big Beer is also being replaced by really small beer. If you are a craft beer drinker in North Carolina, Big Beer was replaced with Sierra Nevada, Stone, and Ballast Point, but also Olde Mecklenburg, Lonerider, Newgrass, and Legion.  Craft beer is becoming increasingly localized which somehow the people who helped create the attitude that local and fresh is better didn’t see coming or maybe they thought they were immune to its effects.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 10/24/16

Terroir is a word used in wine making to describe how the local environment affects the taste of a wine.  Until recently it did not have a place in beer making because all brewers bought their ingredients from the same suppliers.  Maybe you buy fruit or some other specialty ingredients from local farmers, but your yeast, malt, and hops probably come from a handful of providers.  In recent years, the farm to table slow food movement has been adapted by brewers to create a farm to bottle ethos that is bringing terroir, among other things, to beer.

The reasons I like the farm to bottle movement is because the liquid in the glass is all that matters in the end.  The fresh ingredients grown in a specific place at a specific time makes the final product taste better and it gives each brewery its own terroir or signature taste.

This is brewing going back to its beginnings.  If you look at the style guidelines published by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) there are two separate designations for many styles:  Traditional and American.  The American style is usually the result of American brewers taking a traditional style, using the available ingredients to make the beer, and also deciding they can make it more.  More hoppy, more sweet, more alcohol.

The traditional style characteristics were developed simply by what ingredients were available.  What hops and malt were grown locally that brewers had easy access to?  What yeast was in the air?  Maybe most importantly, what water supply was being used?  Czech pilsners taste different than German pilsners mostly because of the difference in the water supply used in Pilsen at the origination of the style.

One of my favorite brewers is Mystery Brewing out of Hillsborough.  Eric Lars Myers, the owner and head brewer, makes some of the most interesting traditional style beers available.  The best part is they are all seasonally based.  Each season, based on ingredient availability, they produce a saison, a session beer, a hoppier beer, and a dark beer.  While not strictly farm to bottle, meaning all local ingredients, Mystery tries to use the freshest ingredients to craft the best tasting beer possible.

The article also mentions some of my favorite breweries as part of the movement.  The thing all the breweries mentioned have in common is a distinct taste and style.  Usually, when talking about a brewery’s style, people mean the affect of the brewers and their staff.  You get a lot of marketing buzzwords and pretty graphics that show you how cool and rebellious the brewers are.  Sometimes it seems there was more care put into how the brewery looks and is perceived than how the beer tastes.

Marketing is important especially in this environment where there are breweries opening every day across the country.  You must make yourself stand out in some way.  However, I hope farm to bottle is even just a slight turn and return to the roots of brewing as craft beer matures.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 10/23/16

Somewhere in the last year, the tide turned. I don’t know quite when it happened but it did. At some point, local governments across the country decided that the tax revenue generated by breweries was more important than “protecting” their citizens from the evils of alcohol.  It took almost 100 years, but alcohol is of more use as a revenue generator then it is a cudgel to enforce some version of morality.That is why articles like this pop up in newspapers every day.

I think craft beer and craft brewery culture is part of the reason this has happened.   Now, it is possible to get sloppy drunk at a brewery or a craft beer bar.  I’ve seen it done.  However, it is a rather expensive proposition to get drunk drinking that much $5 a pint beers.  Usually, when we cut someone off at Craft it is because we are like the 4th or 5th stop on that night’s bar hopping.

Let us not be stupid. Part of the reason craft beer people like beer is that it gets you a little drunk.  The operative word, being little.  There is an inclusive attitude inherent to craft beer you don’t get from macro light lagers. Using craft beer as a way to get blind drunk is expensive and inefficient.

Let me also caution, I’m not giving you the kumbaya, craft beer is a special snowflake that is above the crass marketing and pure business attitude of big beer.  Because it is not.  Craft beer is a great business.  You get to provide people with a product that aids in their having fun and, in the process you get to make a little money.  It’s much better than a real job.  Trust me.

Anyway, craft beer culture places taste above alcohol content.  This isn’t the gin lane from a William Hogarth fever dream.  If you have ever been to a brewery taproom at 2 o’clock on a Saturday, you are more likely to see a dog or a toddler then a bro looking to wasted.  This isn’t to say craft beer culture doesn’t have its own drunken buffoonery, but the majority of people who drink a lot of craft beer are rather mellow.  The culture breeds a kind of laid back attitude.

This gives politicians the license to promote breweries to increase tax revenue.  Tax revenue is shrinking as the cost of services increases in many places.  A lot of these cities and counties have fallow industrial properties perfect for breweries.  At the same time, the culture that craft beer represents isn’t seen the same way as “traditional” American beer or bar culture. This makes it acceptable enough to politicians.

I’m going to sit down and develop “Moe’s Alcohol Law Rule.”  In short, it will say anytime you see a new law involving alcohol, it is actually a law designed to increase tax revenue and not to promote or discourage alcohol sale or use.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 10/19/16

Every presidential election cycle I notice that a lot of people in this country do not know exactly how our government works.  Yes, the president is the most powerful individual in this country’s government.  However, the president is not a monarch.  The President is powerful in a narrowly defined role.

Another part of government citizens do not get is how powerful agencies are.  The day to day function of government and most of citizen’s interaction with government is at the agency level.  Many of the rules and regulations agencies operate under are never voted on by politicians beholden to the voting public.  These are rules and regulations the politicians expect the agency experts to enact based on their experience and expertise.

What if the experts don’t know what they are talking about?  In 2014 the FDA as part of an overhaul of its food safety rules proposed a solution to something that had not been a problem for the history of brewing.  They wanted to regulate the use of spent grain as food for cattle and pigs.  Never mind that there had never been a recorded case of animals getting sick from spent grain or humans getting sick from eating animals that had eaten spent grain.  This was a solution in search of a problem that would cause more time and expense for brewers already operating on the bare minimum of both.

These regulations were rejected after the whole of the brewing world threw a collective fit in newspapers, magazines, and at regulatory hearings, but it does highlight something we in the craft beer world should consider.  The concept of craft brewing is so new that people don’t fully understand it or its culture.

The average beer drinker had no idea brewers give away their spent grain to local farmers.  That assumes the average beer drinker knows where beer comes from in the first place.  For all the sturm and drang Big Beer acquisitions of craft brewers engenders within the craft brew community, the average drinker doesn’t care.  They just want one of two things: beer that tastes good and to be a part of this new cool craft beer thing.

It is no surprise that FDA regulators had no idea of the history of spent grain, brewers, and farmers.  Much like people who work in craft beer, the regulators lives and field of vision are very myopic. They spend most of their time becoming experts in their field of study or the machinations of bureaucracy.  They have no connection to beer or brewing.  I am fully confident that this spent grain proposal was not considered that important or controversial by the people who proposed it because they had no context in which to think about it.

The process did work.  Bureaucrats with no context to understand the real effects of a solution with no problem, proposed the solution.  The people whom would be most adversely affected by this regulation raised hell.  The regulation was reconsidered and shelved.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 10/18/16

Today is a short one. I had trouble finding something that fascinated me enough to write about, so I went with an old favorite.

Ever since I started this blog and started reading beer related stores every morning to comment on them, I’ve been fascinated by stories like this one out of Johnson County, NC.  I’m not fascinated by these stories because they are about beer or alcohol.  They aren’t.  I fascinated by them because they are about revenue both business revenue and tax revenue.

These ballot measures are almost always spurred by one of two groups realizing they are leaving money on the table:  business owners and politicians.

This holds to my theory that all laws involving alcohol are primarily enacted to decide who gets to economically benefit from the sale of alcohol even when they are wrapped in a cloak of morality or purity.

The most famous beer law, the Reinheitsgebot, was created to stop competition between bakers and brewers over grains they both wanted to use for their respective business.  By restricting brewers to barley, bakers would use the cheaper grain keep bread affordable for the masses.  It was also a way to protect drinkers from beers using potentially dangerous adjuncts.

Here is a bit of rampant mostly uninformed speculation: Prohibition lasted as long as it did, even in the face of obvious failure, because politicians played teetotalers off bootleggers to rake in power from one side and money from the other, all the while drinking as much Canadian whiskey as they could get.

That is a thing that happens a lot, particularly in this country.  Politicians using the sincerity and ferocity of the religious as their foot soldiers to pass laws while taking money from the craven who are benefiting most from the laws they pass.