500 Words On One Article You Need To Read, 9/26/16

I took a couple of months off from writing The Five Articles every morning because I was burned out on reading and writing about the same stories every day.  It is interesting to read what is going on in the beer world, but sometimes it is like Ground Hog Day.  The same stories over and over.  I thought that was simply a symptom of following it every day.  So, I took a break.  A break that was longer then I originally anticipated, but a break.  Imagine my dismay when I opened up my Google Alerts this morning and saw articles that told me Oklahoma still hasn’t passed an update to its beer laws, Georgia still has the worst beer laws in the country, and North Carolina still hasn’t passed a distribution cap raise.

Anyway, this is the article that I found the most interesting today.  If you are a craft beer drinker of a certain age, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was important to your development.  It set the template for the hoppy American style pale ale that would lead us all down the path to the IPA explosion that currently fuels the growth of all craft beer.  However, you will be hard-pressed to find Pale Ale in almost any craft beer bar.  In a weird way, it was too successful.

The end of Conan The Barbarian closes with this image of Conan sitting on his throne looking out over all the world that he has conquered bored as hell.  What is a revolutionary to do when they not only win, but more miraculously survive the revolution?  Don’t get it twisted, the problem that Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer, Brooklyn Brewing, and Stone, and a handful of others, have is a problem thousands of brewers around the country would love to have:  What to do when you are so successful that your core beers show negative growth?

There are two factors at work here.  The first is the weird one of too much success.  As I said, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is one of the progenitors of American craft beer style.  The second factor is the need of craft beer drinkers (and humans in today’s world) to always seek out the new and different.

In a business driven by innovation in the form of finding the next new “it” style and flavor combination, how does a brewery keep its core relevant after 30 years?

An idea has been floating around in my head that compares the craft beer business to the music business.  The more I think about it the more the similarities coalesce in my head (a longer post on this is coming).  Craft beer could be even more cutthroat then music however.  There are no nostalgia tours for beer.  Once the craft beer public thinks your brand is stale and irrelevant, you don’t get to keep touring and getting the people who grew up on you work to overpay for tickets to hear songs they heard 20 years ago.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest 2016 Review

Each year as Summer turns to Fall during the last two weeks of September through the first weekend of October on the Theresienwiese in Munich since 1810, Oktoberfest has taken place.  It wasn’t until 1872 that Spaten brewery named a beer Oktoberfeistbier for the even.  This first Oktoberfeistbier was probably a high abv bock brewed in 1872 by Spaten brewery and stayed popular at the event until World War I.  Since then the strength of the beer has lessened and the color has lightened to its current version.  This version has been codified in German law since 1990.  There are also only six Munich breweries legally allowed to brew a beer called Oktoberfeistbier:  Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrauhaus, Lowenbrau, Paulener, and Spaten. (Thanks to The Oxford Companion To Beer for all that.)

German Oktoberfeistbiers are lighter in color and mouthfeel then their American cousins.  That is what makes this year’s Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest brewed in collaboration with Mahrs Brau in Bamberg.

When you pour it into the glass it is immediately apparent that this is not the same as other American versions of oktoberfeistbier.  It is a much lighter deep golden color instead of the usual amber color that American versions tend toward.  The lagering also makes this beer crystal clear with a nice carbonation that creates a thin but persistent head.  The aroma is nice and biscuity sweet balanced with a good amount of German hops.

The mouthfeel is light, again in comparison to an American version, and it has a slight slickness on the tongue.  Like all beers in the marzen, Vienna lager, oktoberfeistbier family this is a wonderfully malty and sweet beer on the front of end of its taste with a good spicy hop bitterness on the back end to keep it balanced. However, it still manages to have a light mouthfeel and taste.  Combined with its relatively low abv, the 2016 Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest makes a good easy drinker.

That is what makes this beer interesting. It combines two things that are often on opposite sides of beer taste and flavor: maltiness and lightness.  Most malty beers are at least a medium mouthfeel.  Most beer with a lighter mouthfeel tend more towards crispness.  It is a hard balance to pull off successfully.

German oktoberfeistbiers are also interesting as a look at style development.  As most styles evolve over time they evolve up (mass produced American pilsners being a notable exception) meaning they get darker, get higher in ABV, get hoppier.  In this case, the Oktoberfeistbier style has evolved down over time.  The first version was a higher abv, darker bock.  The version that was codified into German law in 1990 is lighter and lower in abv then it has been at any point in its history and is certainly lighter than its American cousins.

Compare that with the IPA in England where English brewers have slowly adopted a more American style approach to IPAs, i.e. hoppiness.  While there as still many brewers making traditional English style IPAs both in England and the US, the trend for the style is usually darker and almost always danker.  Leave it to the Germans to not only hue towards tradition, but to then codify that tradition in its laws.

An Argument For Beer Criticism

We live in a time when everyone can be a critic. Anyone can go on Rotten Tomatoes and rate the last movie they saw.  Anyone can go on Yelp and review the last restaurant they went to.  Anyone can go on Untappd, RateBeer, or Beer Advocate and rate the last beer they drank.  Anyone can start a blog and write about whatever movie, album, or book they just enjoyed or hated.

It is the democratization of criticism.  However, is it criticism worth listening to?  I recently read AO Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism.  It is an interesting book for anyone involved in any type of creative endeavor. He wrote the book as an argument for the need of the professional critical class.  He explains the origins of criticism, how it is practiced by professionals, and the goal of good criticism.  The book also serves as a for users of Rotten Tomatoes, Good Reads, and RateBeer to criticize better.  So from Mr. Scott’s general thoughts on criticism to a more specific area of criticism:  What is a beer critic?

Let’s start with is the point of the existence of critics.

A critic is a “professional appreciator.” The best critics have the ability to be moved emotionally by a piece while at the same time explaining to you why they were moved.  A critic should be able to take the component parts of a work apart, examine them, and tell you why they work or don’t.  Yet, at the same time the critic should be able to convey the emotion conveyed when those parts are assembled.  In other words, tell you why a certain camera angle at a precise moment can move you to fear or happiness or tears.

While telling you why something does or doesn’t work or is or isn’t beautiful is important in some sense, what exactly is the need for critics?  Is a critic someone who defends the traditional, champions the unknown/underappreciated, or are they cheerleaders for what’s popular at this very moment?  To answer that, lets break it down into 4 sections: How do creators see critics; How does the public see critics; What do critics think they are doing; How does all that effect what the modern critic actually does.

Series and rigorous critics consider themselves part of the creative process.  A slightly removed part, but a part nonetheless. Most critics began their critical lives as creators.  Most movie critics studied screenwriting or directing.  Most book reviewers have a manuscript or two tucked away somewhere.  Most beer writers have sat in garages on Saturday morning boiling wort.

The critic stands between the creators and the public fostering a conversation between not only those two groups but for creators and for the public to have among themselves.  To me the critics job isn’t to tell anyone whether a movie, album, book, or beer is bad.  It is to tell you whether it is successful in attempting to do what it attempts to do.  Good or bad are value judgements that can only be made by individuals.

Creators see critics as meddling know-it-alls.  Dilatants sitting outside the creative process throwing stones and making assessments about things they know nothing about.  When faced with a bad review, creators will often fall into, “They just didn’t understand what I was trying to do.” Here is the critic’s defense: Good reviewers usually have an excellent idea about what the creator was trying to do.  In a world where the critic and the creators are in a dialogue, the critic is free to tell the creator I know what you were trying, but you failed and here is why.

The difference between a critic and a website reviewer is the Untappd user will give a beer 1 star and put the comment “this sucks” with it.  A critic explains that the beer was an attempt at something new and creative and then why the beer failed.  Unfortunately, creators often lump both of those reactions together.

The public sees the critic as a utility. The reason people love rating websites is that they point them in a direction.  Critics help cut through all the clutter and noise to find the stuff worth enjoying.  There is a finite amount of time in the world and too much of everything.  Around the world, almost 3000 movies come out every year. In the US alone, somewhere around 300,000 books come out every year.  There are over 4000 breweries in the US and if you say they each produce around 7 beers each, you are looking at almost 30,000 different beers.  The critic in part should strive to make the average consumer’s life a little bit easier.

So, combining those points of view, what is it the critic actually does in a modern world?  The critic has no job if the public doesn’t read him. So, a job of the critic is to find the worthwhile and present it to the public in a clear and concise way. A good review should get across the basics of a beer and whether it is worth your while to seek it out and drink it as quickly and as entertainingly as possible.

A critic should also write the review so that the creator can get something out of it.  By saying what worked and what didn’t with as little judgement as possible, makes the review more palatable for a creator if it is a “bad” one.

The critic and the creator should also engage in a continuous conversation about what they are doing and where their creations stand with respect to the past, present, and future.

That is an important conversation.  In beer, annotated styles are snap shots in fixed point in time.  Styles shift and change as the public’s appetites change, ingredients become more or less available, and as the brewers (who are creative people) take chances with their creations.  Take the ubiquitous IPA. Just in the last 10 years the American IPA has shifted and changed.  If you consider what we call an IPA with the first IPAs shipped from England to India, those beers only have a passing resemblance to each other.  In my mind, it is important for critics and creators to talk about what was, what is, and what the future may hold.

So, what is it I want to do as a beer critic.  First, I want to explain why a beer is successful or isn’t successful.  Meaning, did the brewer do what they set out to do?  I want to tell you that so you can make the decision as to whether you like it or not.  I never want to use the words good or bad or any of their synonyms in a review.  I can only tell you what it tastes like. I can only explain whether I think it is a successful interpretation of the current style guidelines, a return to the original intent of the first brewers of that beer, or whether it is the herald of a shift in the style.

Second, I want to think about where beer is going.  What will affect who, what, where, and how beer is made in the future.  We are at an interesting time in beer.  Two things are occurring simultaneously: Consolidation is creating ever larger beer companies as beer drinkers are getting more localized in the beer they want.  I think the growth we have had for the last five years will slow.  Urban areas are getting saturated with breweries and those breweries will start to close and consolidate with each other.  However, it is the smaller towns and more rural areas where growth will continue with breweries opening up in 15,000 people towns away from urban centers allowing everyone to have a beer to call their own.  While at the same time the big beer companies are no longer going to build breweries pumping out the same beer all over the country.  Instead they are buying regional breweries and helping them flood their local markets.

I’m making my life harder.  I started off, just wanting to drink and write about beer.  Now, I’ve elevated myself to the role of critic and all that I put into the meaning of that word.  God, this will be fun.

One Beer Article You Should Read And Why, 8/8/16

We are going to try something different with the Five Articles.  At least for a little while.  Instead of 5 takes on 5 different articles, I want to try one take on one article in 500 words.

One of the things you notice when you pay attention to the news surrounding craft beer is how there is a learning curve that has to happen in many parts of the country about craft beer and its culture.  That is particularly true in places where alcohol has been historically demonized like the South and parts of the Mid-West.

I know in many places in the South, any consumption of alcohol is considered sinful and an aberration of “good” behavior.  There is fear that allowing easy access to alcohol will lead to things like “Beer Street” or “Gin Lane.”  William Hogarth’s painting is a depiction of what the wealthy and he upstanding thought happens when the poor and unwashed were given access to “demon alcohol.”

That idea of the degradation caused by unfettered access to alcohol led to the Prohibition movement in the United States which still persists.  When you combine that fear with the power many alcohol distributors and their lobby have in most state legislatures you can get situations like the one in Alabama.

Recently, Alabama passed a law to allow breweries to sell growlers.  As in many states where similar laws were recently passed, the distribution and big beer lobbies added in provisions to protect themselves.  In this case, one of those provisions is to limit individual purchases of growlers from breweries to 288 ounces at any one time.

First problem, this limit is only for brewery growlers.  You can buy more than one case of mass produced beer at your nearby gas station with no problem.  Second problem, as often happens when legislatures pass laws to either protect a certain lobby or to solve problems that don’t actually exist without putting much thought behind their actions (NC HB2 anyone), someone has to enforce those laws.  So, the Alabama alcohol beverage commission had to figure out how to regulate this 288-ounce limit and decided the best way to do it is to have breweries take down the name, address, and telephone numbers of anyone who buys growlers and give that information to the Alabama ABC. That went over like a fart in church.

So what will probably happen next is the Alabama legislature will have to go back and fix this, by taking out the limit on individual purchases and everyone will go on their merry way.  This could have been avoided if legislatures were populated by more people with enough common sense, intelligence, and respect for the legislative process to actually read and understand the stuff they are asked to vote on during a session.

The people we elect to represent us in state legislatures are supposed to be the smartest most community dedicated people in the room.  That is why we choose them to be our representatives.  Our spokespersons.  Unfortunately, what we seem to keep electing are the ones who can raise the most money.  Not the smartest and not the ones who care the most about the least of us.  And they are certainly not people dedicated enough to public service to read the things they are being asked to vote upon, much less care how these actual laws will affect the people and small businesses they are there to represent.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 7/27/16

Missing yesterday was not my fault. It was the fault of Time Warner Cable.  My internet was down most of yesterday morning.  Now, everything is back to normal (for the moment).  Onto the Five Articles.

  • Tap handles are interesting. Sometimes they bring people to the beer and sometimes they just sit there.  If they are interesting enough, they may get the attention of a customer who will be intrigued enough to try a pint.  This is one of those beer adjacent industries that has popped up over the last few years.
  • They will figure out a way to make the money work and the deal will go through. The core of this merger was always the non-North American (specifically the African, Asian, and South American markets) companies and neither side is going to let that investment go away easily.
  • Yes, the insane growth of the last 5 years has slowed. It was never sustainable and any article you read that says this is some kind of death knell for the craft beer industry should be ignored. I will say again; growth will soon grow flat.  Rural areas will lead the growth because small towns all across the country will open their own local breweries.
  • I don’t know what the point of this column, but it was at least interesting. Yes, many beers were developed to be easy drinking, but that does not mean devoid of all taste.
  • Economic development and state incentives interest me in general. The question I always ask is at what point do all the tax incentives given to corporations to move end up with the state paying more money to the company than the taxes they pay? On the other hand, if you are a community with a large swath of empty factories and/or warehouses you need someone to come in and make that wasted space into something that generates some kind of tax revenue.  Here is the view of craft beer corporate investments from Michigan.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read and Why, 7/25/16

I am a creature of routine and when my routine gets disrupted it takes me a while to find my rhythm and make my way back to a new routine.  I’m starting to get my new routine established and that means writing more consistently (my new routine includes meditation and jogging). On the Five Articles.

Yet Another Update

I’m no longer moving.  I’m no longer trying to get my cable/internet/phone working (at least for now).  I’m no longer buying crap for my new apartment.  I am now home.  I’m still getting my voter registration sorted out, which is made ridiculously difficult to keep that scourge of voter fraud from occurring by silly hoops to jump through (check out Media Matters for more statistics, but from 2000-2014 of the 1 billion votes cast there were a grand total of 31 cases of voter fraud).

Now with all that crap out of the way, I can concentrate again on writing and beer (and reading Ulysses and Hamlet).

I have a beer review in the hopper and I hope to get another one for next week.  So, I am back on my plan to do 1 or 2 reviews a week (working on my palate so I can take the Cicerone exam) and writing 1 or 2 other blog posts per week.  The Five Articles will start back on Sunday.

It feels good to be back and it feels even better to be home.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 6/20/16

Sorry, I missed the Five Articles this weekend.  I was in Richmond, enjoying a lot of good local beer, but we were also without power.  No power meant no Wi-Fi.  Richmond was awesome. My favorite place was The Answer a small brewery attached to the Mekong restaurant.  Also, the new Stone brewery will be awesome when it is finished.  We managed to go six different breweries and restaurants starting at noon on Saturday and wrapped up around 11 and didn’t get hung over on Sunday morning.  That is some professional drinking right there.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 6/17/16

A short vacation starts for me today.  I’m heading to Richmond for a couple of days of beer drinking.  The Five Articles should not be affected, but it just depends on how drunk I get.

Five Beer Articles You Need To Read And Why, 6/16/16

Today is Bloomsday.  It is June 16, the day Leopold Bloom walked through Dublin in James Joyce novel Ulysses.  Once again, I will begin my quest to start and finish the book. I’ve made it pretty much half way through on my last attempt.  Anyway, on to the Five Articles.