Monthly Archives: July 2017

What Is Craft Beer, Part 1

One of my favorite classes, when I was at UNC, was on the history of the Constitution since the Civil War.  We studied all the major Supreme Court decisions that led to the Civil War and all the major decisions after the war as well as all the Constitutional Amendments from the end of the war through the 20th century.  It was interesting mostly because it was a good way to survey how the modern US government was formed and took shape for the last 150 years of the country’s history.

The concept that has stayed with me the most from that class is “annotative law vs. connotative law.”  In other words, what the law says in the statutes vs. how the law is enforced and interpreted.  Those are often two very different things.

The Brewers Association has defined craft breweries as:

Small

Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.

Independent

Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Traditional

A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.

That means, generally speaking, any beer made by those brewers is a craft beer.

That is the annotated definition of what craft beer is.  The connotative definition, the one people define themselves in a way that they understand is where things get murky and where arguments and hyperbole ensue.

This all started while I was on my sabbatical from writing about beer after the Cicerone test punched me in the face.  I read two or three tiresome Twitter threads that were arguments between craft beer people. What I noticed in all these arguments were the two sides the arguments were having two different arguments. Mostly, arguing past each other.  I wondered why was this and the only conclusion I came up with is that while they agreed on the general definition of what craft was, there were differences in details and their approach to craft.

Let’s step back and think about the definition of craft again.  We have the Brewer’s Association’s definition.  The question then becomes how is the concept of craft beer interpreted and expressed by different people involved in the industry.

One of the things I find interesting about ideas and concepts like craft, alternative, independence, and freedom is how in a modern capitalistic society they can be co-opted by businesses and advertising agencies to sell stuff.  When you buy a pair of jeans you are not only buying those jeans, you are buying whatever concept and narrative the manufacturer and their advertising company have built up around those jeans.

For many people, buying and drinking craft beer has become the same as listening to a certain band, watching a certain television show, or buying certain clothes. They represent a narrative you want to express about yourself without talking.

This week, I want to use this space to theorize how each constituency, brewers, distributors/wholesalers, retailers, bloggers, and drinkers, defines craft beer.  Why do I include bloggers as a separate constituency from drinkers?  Usually, bloggers aren’t a part of the constituencies that directly financially benefit from craft beer, but they are a great deal more informed than the average drinker.  They also help drive the conversation surrounding craft beer in a way sometimes disproportionate to their actual reach.

Then to wrap up, I will delve into the idea that even within each of those groups is another dialectic between what I term the Realists on one side and the Romantics on the other.  That is where the real fireworks take place.

I hope to have fun doing this and you I hope you come back to read at least part of it even if you don’t agree with it.

Cicerone Exam Advice From The Beer Counselor

On May 22, I took the Cicerone Certification exam.  I did not pass.  I did well enough on the written portion, but not well enough on the tasting portion.

That is OK, I kind of expected it from the beginning and when we went over the tasting portion that day, I knew I would need to take it again.  I will take the whole test again in November.  I want to not only pass but leave no doubt that I passed.

Even though I failed the first time, I did learn some things that will help me study for my next attempt in November.  These are things that I believe will help me and may help you if you are thinking about taking the exam.

Know The Styles

As you would expect, beer styles are the core of 95 percent of the exam.  Besides questions that specifically ask about a style, the pairing and tasting portions of the test lean heavily on you knowing and understanding the styles and their attributes.

The best way to learn the styles for me was to make flash cards and just review them 2 or 3 times a day.  My goal was to know them and not just memorize them. Make sure your cards have the pertinent information like country of origin, ale/lager, appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, ABV, SRM, and IBU.  Also, list 2 commercial examples of the style and memorize those.  Trust me you will need those.  There are multiple questions that ask you for a specific commercial example of a style.

Make these flash cards as soon as you decide to take the test and just run through them every day.  You can buy flash cards with this information, but the act of writing them out yourself will help you remember the facts better.

Read The Suggested Books

The Cicerone website lists almost all the books and other materials that will help you prepare for the test.  Like the flash cards, as soon as you decide to take the test, buy them and start reading and studying them.  Again, it isn’t just about rote memorization.  It is about ingesting the information so that it becomes second nature.

Yes, part of the test is just regurgitating what you remember, but once you get to the essays, you will need to be able to construct a convincing narrative with the facts you know.  That is why it is imperative you understand the food pairing ideas in Tasting Beer more than just memorizing what Randy Mosher wrote.

Take Practice Exams

Find practice exams and take them under conditions as close to exam day conditions as possible.  The practice exams do 2 things.  First, it will reinforce the things you are learning.  Second, taking them under exam conditions helps ease exam anxiety the day of the exam. Third, it will help you see how the questions are framed and shows you the depth of information you need to know.

Work On The Practical Video

From everyone who I’ve spoken to who has taken the test, the practical video portion is always the same: Explain how to take apart and clean a tap faucet.  With that in mind, you should write down and then study each step of cleaning a faucet.  Yes, more flash cards. Then you should use your cell phone to record yourself explaining each step and each part as you will have to do on the day of the exam.  Go back and watch it and make sure you didn’t miss any steps.  Do this a few times.  If you played sports you understand.  Practice is about rehearsing the actions you will perform in a game until you do them without thinking.  Acting purely on muscle memory.  Work on the video with the same idea in mind.

If you don’t work at a bar, find a draft tech and take him out for a beer.  Get him to let you borrow a tap faucet and walk you through taking it apart and putting it back together.  Also, please download and read the draft manual put out by the Brewers Association.

Tasting Exam Run Throughs

Find other poor souls studying for the exam and everyone pitch in to buy an off-flavor kit.  Then, buy Amstel Light and maybe Sam Adams Light.  Then run through a tasting exam under conditions like you will have during the day of the test.  This is the one part of the test I did not like because the tasting portion is not like you will experience tasting for off-flavors in the real world.

Here is how the tasting exam works.  On the day of the exam you will arrive at the site, check in, get handed your test and you will begin the 3-hour written portion.  That also includes the practical video, but for the most part, it is 3 hours of writing.  Usually, an hour in the proctor will begin the process of spiking the beer for the tasting exam.  The spiked beer then sits for at least an hour and a half out on a table or counter.

Then, once the tasting exam starts, the beers are sampled out into cups. One group of 4 is for the off-flavor identification portion.  One group of 4 is for the style identification portion.  The final group of 4 beers is for the serve/no serve portion.  The serve/no serve portion questions count for half the tasting portion. This was the hill I died on that day.  My suggestion is to do the serve/no serve and the style identification portions first.

Why?  Your palate is fresh.  Hit the style section and get it out of the way.  Then, do the serve/no serve because you must ID the style and the off-flavor, and then tell whether the beer is servable to a customer.  You have all 13 cups (one control for the off-flavor) in front of you and you can do it in any order you want.  At least, that is what I’m going to do this next time.

Pick 2 Styles and Know Food Pairings For Them

You will have a food pairing question where they will give you a dish and then ask you to pick a style and explain why you picked it and why you believe it will work.  Knowing that pick 2 styles and think of as many food pairing ideas as you can with them.  As practice, write out why you think they will work.  My 2 styles are saison and amber ale.  You want to know your styles’ characteristics so you can pair them with whatever dish they throw at you.  There is no “right or wrong” answer.  However, you must be able to make a logical and coherent case for the style you picked.  This is also where knowing a few commercial examples and their attributes will come in handy.  Picking a particular beer and explaining why its characteristics make it the best choice for that style will get you points.

Do Blind Tastings As Often As Possible

Find a bar that does flights with a wide selection of beer and become friends with a couple of the bartenders.  Go in once a week and have the bartender give you a blind flight and then go through a real tasting and figure out what you are drinking.

Also, at least once a week buy beer you’ve never had before and taste them.  Really taste them.  Download the tasting sheet from craftbeer.com and go through that with each new beer.  Start with appearance, then aroma, then taste, then mouthfeel, then the finish.  Here is a handy and more in-depth guide on how to taste a beer.

Finally

The most important thing is to give yourself enough time to really know and understand the information.  There is too much to learn to cram into a few weeks.  There are little details you will miss that seem like nothing but become extremely important particularly in the long answer and essay portions.

Anyway, I’m going to flip through my flash cards and start the next portion of this journey.