Category Archives: The Beer Counselor

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.

Home Again

By Riction - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Riction – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I have been in the process of moving for the last week. A friend called me last night and as I said to him, all my stuff is in my apartment now.  My stuff still needs to be unpacked and put in the right place.  So, I have gotten back to Charlotte.

So, I have gotten back to Charlotte. It has been eight years since I lived here.  My displacement was not voluntary.  I made some mistakes and ended up being taken in, in the place that I was born.  I thank my mother and everyone at Lowe’s for a bed and a place to work.

Now, I have returned to the place I was happiest (outside of my halcyon days in Chapel Hill).  I am working in beer and I’m living in a place I love and I have a direction of where I’m directing my life.

Tomorrow I’ll be back to my normal writing schedule. The Five Articles will reappear and starting next week I’ll start adding a couple of new features.  I actually fell happy now.

What Kind of Week It Has Been, 3/20/16

Before I get into what I wanted to write about today, I wanted to say something.  I’ve been gone for a while from this space.  I am an obsessive workaholic with trust issues.  That means I sometimes throw myself into my work to the point of physical or mental collapse and ineffectiveness.  That is what happened last week.  Through my own stubbornness and issues, I managed to simultaneously work too much and fuck up almost everything I touched while doing so.  It was a nice trick.  Anyway, last week has passed and now onto whatever the future holds.

The one thing managed to do successfully this past week was read.  I’m reading a couple of books right now, but the one I that has the most to do with my beer writing is Better Living Through Criticism by AO Scott.  Scott is the chief film critic for The New York Times.  He is a good read as well as a good reviewer.  What he attempts with this book is explain what a critic’s role in art is and how you can use that to make your enjoyment of art better.

I have long considered good craft beer and good craft brewing to akin to art.  At its best, it is an expression of the skill and creativity of brewers as they find ways to express themselves within the boundaries of what brewing is.  If it isn’t then we should all just drink Budweiser.  The best thing and most damning thing about Budweiser is that you can drink a Bud from any of its breweries around the world and it will taste the exact same as one from another brewery.

This is way of viewing brewing that many if not most, even in the craft beer community, do not have.  Beer is a product. A commodity to be manufactured, sold, and consumed.  When your job is to sell beer, it can be hard to remember how creative a brewer can be and should be.

Recently, I tasted a beer from a brewer who I respect more than most others because of the creativity and risks that brewer always takes with his beer.  I hated this beer.  It was an attempt that was unsuccessful as a commercially viable beer.  As a person tasked with selling beer to bar patrons, I was annoyed that this expensive beer was bad and unsellable.

As a writer who aspires to be a beer critic, I am fascinated by this beer.  Tasting it, I saw exactly what the brewer was trying to do and I could also see why it was not successful.  I struggled with how to define what was wrong with the beer in a different context then, “this is bad.”  What was bad about it; why did it turn out wrong; what was the brewer attempting; was he successful with that attempt; if he was successful, why didn’t the beer work.

I’ve always gravitated to reviews of beer and other acts of art that were more than just is this good or bad.  I want more than some star rating or whatever.  I want more than this sucks. That is all that most consumers and bar owners care about, however if we are to grow as a beer drinking community there has to be more than that.  We have to ask the next logical question after a beer is declared to suck:  why does it suck?

In his book AO Scott lays out three questions at the base of what a critic does.  I am paraphrasing here to gear the questions more towards beer, but here they are:

  1. Did you taste and feel that?
  2. Did you like it?
  3. Be honest.

To me, the most important part of that is, Be honest.  As a critic, you must be honest about what you taste, what you feel, and how it affects you.

To do that a critic must develop the skills to identify what he is tasting and the vocabulary to describe it.  They must also have the skill to do that in an effective and clear manner.  Again, above all else the critic must be ruthlessly honest with himself first and foremost.  That means understanding your predilections but not letting them define you or your criticism.

As humans, I think one of our jobs is to accept our mistakes and the bad things that happen to us and use them to grow and keep ourselves in the life we want to live.  For me, weeks like last week, remind me of the things I hold important to the life I want to lead.  I am reminded to remember every decision I make has to be with purpose, and that I must live consciously and stop coasting.  Trying to understand beer and place in a context of our shared humanity is how I choose not to coast.

Of Alternative Music And Craft Beer

1991-1994 was a great time to be an alternative music fan.  August 1991 was the release of Ten by Pearl Jam.  A month later Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the country. That was the moment we alternative music thought we had won.

We, the weird, geeky kids everyone else made fun of were on top of the world.  We weren’t the cool kids.  What we had done was bring the cool kids into our world.  The musicians everyone was listening to were just like us.  They had been the ones dressing weird in high school.  They were the ones acting weird.  They were the ones reading weird books.  They were the ones drawing weird pictures.  Now, they straddled the world like colossuses.  It felt like we could do anything.

Then it ended.  You can attribute it to Kurt Cobain’s suicide.  Or, maybe it was Pearl Jam warring with TicketMaster.  Somehow it all ended up with Creed being a hit band.

I have much the same feeling right now as a craft beer fan as I did as an alternative music fan in 1992.  Craft beer has the same critical buzz. Craft is in every magazine and on every bookshelf.  Entrepreneurs are figuring out how to make money using the words craft beer.  It is a heady time.  It is also a dangerous time.

Back to Creed.  I’m sure the guys in the band are nice enough.  OK, maybe they have their issues, but who doesn’t.  Creed as an entity doesn’t matter.  In this case, they represent the idea that grunge music could be broken down into a scientific formula for success.

One-part muddy guitar + one-part gravelly voiced baritone lead singer + one-part flannel = successful band.

There is a soul in art and music that you can’t capture by the use of certain chords and instrumentation.  What money men and accountants forget is that the thing that makes art great, its soul, can’t be codified.  Great music is more than just chords and instrumentation.  Much of the music that came after Nirvana sounded fine.  It provides a good soundtrack to your time spent in a bar or a coffee shop, but it doesn’t make you feel.  It is missing that ineffable thing that soul actually is.

You can taste soul in beer as much as you can hear it in music.  Budweiser is a solidly made beer.  Each can taste like the can you had 5 years ago.  Making beer taste the same or close to the same from batch to batch is the holy grail.  That is a hard thing to do.  Ask any brewer.  However, that doesn’t mean Bud has any soul.

The company that makes Budweiser isn’t a brewery.  It is a beer company that manufactures and sells beer much the same way Goodyear manufactures and sells tires.  For them, beer is a commodity.  Its purpose is to appeal to the broadest possible audience at the highest possible price to produce the greatest profits.  That formula leaves room for no soul.

Think of it another way.  You can eat macaroni cheese that comes in a box.  It tastes fine in a pinch.  The macaroni and cheese your mother makes from scratch taste wholly different.  The Budweiser you drink could be brewed in Virginia or it could be brewed in China.  You won’t know the difference.  The beer you get from the brewery 10 minutes from your house could only be made in that particular place by those particular people.

That will be craft beer’s saving grace just as it has been the saving grace of good music.  There are independent music labels popping up every day.  Bands tour constantly.  They connect with people at a grass roots level every day all over the world. Going forward, the most successful breweries will be the ones who continue to innovate and connect with the public at a grassroots level.

Some of the most financially successful musical acts today get little to no airplay on traditional popular radio.  However, they play to sold out concerts night after night and get plenty of airtime on independent radio stations and online streaming services.  They find a way to connect with their audience on a grass-roots level almost person to person.

Big music companies stripped music of its vitality by dumbing it down to the least common denominator.  They stripped it of what makes it vital and kind of scary. Big beer companies are doing the same thing to craft beer through purchasing existing craft breweries and creating faux craft brands under their own umbrella.


Hey – he’s the one
Who likes our pretty songs
He likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his guns
But he knows not what it means
Don’t know what it means
— “In Bloom” Nirvana

Most people don’t want to think too much when it comes to their beer.  They just want something to drink. They don’t know what all these words mean and they don’t care.  They just want to get a little buzz and they will get it from something that tastes good enough unless they are convinced that there is something better.

People have so many choices to make in their lives that they don’t want to think about choosing the music they listen to or the beer they should drink.  They want someone to curate those things and tell them what is good and what is important.

If the big beer companies are allowed to curate, they will do it in a way that maximizes profits.  They will drown the world in the least offensive, least creative, most soulless, cheapest beer possible.  Beer that is merely close enough to good.

It is incumbent on us, the people who love craft beer, for all that it is and all that it can be, to stand up and make sure the big beer companies aren’t allowed to convince people that just close enough is good enough.

Ask The Beer Counselor: What Is The Future?

One thing that happens when I talk to distributor or brewery reps when they come by Craft to either sell me beer or drink beer as patrons, is the future of the American craft beer industry.  I will stipulate that I can barely tell you what my future is over the next 10 months.  So any ideas I have about American craft beer over the next 10 years should be taken with a grain of salt.  I do hope, however, you find this stimulating.

I would like to give a hat tip to The Brew Enthusiast for posting a similar piece a couple of days ago.  His piece got me thinking as I hope mine does for you. Additionally, part of my motivation was to try and find different things that he did not mention in his piece.

Beer will be really big or really small

The primary thing I see happening over the next 10 years is craft brewers will either by really big or really small.  By that I mean, the older established brewers, particularly those that survived the first craft beer boom in the 1990s, will be national breweries.  Think Sierra Nevada or Oskar Blues or a conglomerate like Craft Beer Alliance.  These breweries have large national followings as well as breweries across the country that give them the feel of local breweries.  On the other side, if you look at the Brewer’s Association statistics the explosive growth in the number of craft brewers is fed by the growth of nanobrewing and smaller local breweries serving their surrounding cities and counties.  The group of breweries in the middle, the regional sized brewers who just want to distribute to one or two states are the ones that will be in a dangerous position of trying to be both things: small and large at the same time.

Uniformity in law

The alcohol laws in this country are a messy hodgepodge created out of prohibition, regional mores, and tax burdens.  As the craft beverage industry has grown in economic clout, many of the laws in each state have come under needed attack to make them fairer for producers and easier to navigate for consumers.  Just in the last year you can see the push to make these laws more uniform across the country.  Cities and counties across the country are strapped for tax revenue and the beer business is a way to stimulate growth in failing industrial areas and create tourism.  Changing local and statewide alcohol laws are a way to stimulate the craft beer industry.  One of the things I will say is that even as craft beverage manufacturers get more flexibility with laws distributors and wholesalers will not lose any of their economic clout or political power.  The primary reason for that is many of the most powerful state politicians around the country are also some of the biggest alcohol distributors in their states.  Those with power do not let go easily.

Beer and the environment

Brewers will be forced to take a bigger role in environmental sustainability.  Many already do.  The reason for this is quite simple: At its core brewing is an agricultural business that uses lots of water. Creating brewing processes that use less water or recycle water is something that must be done.  Figuring out ways to repurpose, reuse, or recycle the other ingredients used also must be done.  As I said, many brewers are already doing that.  Many brewers are also using the farm-to-table model of using only local ingredients and other brewers are using the farmhouse brewery model to cut out any of the middlemen.  I love both of those movements and think they will both become more and more important to the craft beer world as the industry progresses.

Beer culture is more than just a fad

This is a culture with a deep vein in all of human history.  The depth of beer culture is more akin to comic books. Both have a deep and strong core of geeks who, while the minority of the people who enjoy it, will never leave and never let the culture go away.   Also, beer culture is growing because the depth and breadth of the ancillary businesses sprouting up around craft beer is amazing.  Not just bars and magazines and those types of things, but businesses that come along and try to enhance (or take advantage of) the experience of craft beer.  This is the reason I don’t think this is a fad that will disappear.

These are just a few ideas and thoughts.  They aren’t quite complete and I reserve the right to change them over the next ten years.

Confessions and Slight Changes

The Five Articles are coming up a little later this morning, but I wanted to make a confession and give an update on a few changes coming.

First off, my writing on this blog and in Gravity (and hopefully other places) and making Craft successful are the most important things in my life.  Those are the things that make me happy.  Over the last couple of months, one of those things has taken precedence over the other.  It has also taken precedence over other things in my life that I started doing over the last year to make my professional life easier and to stay centered and present.

So besides rededicating myself to reading and meditation and sleep (sweet, sweet sleep), I am creating a schedule for writing for the blog.  Starting today, there will be a guaranteed 3 posts besides the Five Articles on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  At least one of those posts will be a beer review.  This week’s will post today.  The other two posts will be of the Beer Counselor nature where I answer questions I hear when I’m bartending.

As I said, I want to get back to the core of what I want my life to be.  The first step will be to get the blog back up and humming at full strength.  Again, I will be making other changes to make sure I meditate at least 30 minutes a day and read a lot.  If all goes right, I may also have other writing to put on the blog.

Also as an update, I want to let you know what my resolutions for next year are (I’ve already started working on my New Year’s Resolutions. My year always restarts in September and October.) First, I will complete my Cicerone training and become a certified Cicerone. Second, I am going to the GABF and my goal is to get credentialed as a member of the media.  That is going to be the harder part, but I can do that.

To sum up, stay tuned for the Five Articles and today’s review.  More is coming and it will be awesome.

Beer Counselor, What’s Your Favorite?

During this wedding weekend, someone asked what my favorite beer is.

I can answer that question in two ways.  The first is as a critic.  When I taste a beer as a critic I am trying to see how the beer matches up with the BJCP/GABF/Cicerone guidelines.  I am tasting a beer and trying to break down its constituent parts and compare it to the style guidelines.  I’m not necessarily trying to tell you if you will like it, but if it is a well-constructed beer. People are sometimes surprised at the GABF winners list. They will see a beer local to them and wonder who did that win.  What you have to understand that a competition is trying to find beers that are perfect distillations of the style guidelines.  That is why in the last paragraph of my reviews I give my overall impression to help you know if you’ll like it or not.

My favorites list and my best lists are different.  There is overlap, but they are not the same.  Unless I’m doing a real tasting for publication or competition, I turn off my critic’s mind after the second sip.  At that point, I just want to enjoy the beer.

You need to remember the difference between favorite and best when you read a beer review.  If you are reading a review that breaks the beer down into its component parts, skip to the end to find the overall impression.  That’s where you will find out if you should drink it.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t read the rest of it, especially if you are trying to learn more about beer.  If, however, you are just trying to find something to drink at a bar you don’t need to worry about whether it has good head retention, you just need to know if someone else likes it and why.

Your favorite beer should be more that.  It should be more than how it hits certain checkboxes on a rating sheet.  It’s about where you are, who you are with, and how you feel.  Finding your favorite is about why we drink.

We drink because it makes us feel good.  We drink for social lubrication.  We drink to hang out with friends and loosen up with strangers. When you combine the best of those things you find your favorite beer.  Favorite is some kind of combination of who, what, when, and where that you can’t measure on a tasting form.

My two favorite beers involve sitting with good friends and drinking good beer.  First up, Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti.  It was with my best friend since high school in the old Great Divide tasting room in Denver.  It was my second time in town and my first trip to the GABF.  One of my favorite people, in one of my favorite cities, during my favorite time of year.

Number two on the list is, Oskar Blues Ten Fidy.  Again, I was with best friends in a cool spot, Oskar Blues in Brevard. I was drinking great beer in a great place with great friends.  Honestly, that is pretty much all I want out of my life.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.

Beer Counselor: Josh and Anne Wedding Addition


I am in Richmond for the wedding of Anne Saldutti and Josh Wroniewicz this weekend, so that will make posting a little sporadic.  However, I did want to answer a question that was asked of me last week.  Josh, through his friends at Ardent Craft Ales, has brewed a wedding Oktoberfest.  That led to a mutual friend of ours to ask, “What is the best wedding beer?”

The easy answer is your favorite beer that matches the season.  For example, an Oktoberfest is the perfect beer for this wedding with it happening during the last weekend of the German Oktoberfest.  Another example of a good one for a September/October wedding would be a fresh-hop IPA. That is a more American contribution to the beer canon.  It is a fall beer because of the way it is made.  The hop harvest begins in late August and the fresh-hop IPAs are brewed using hops that are still wet from harvesting (hence the other name for them: wet-hop IPAs).

For winter, while a big stout or porter would be perfectly fine, I would go with some type of winter ale. It isn’t as heavy and would be a little easier to drink for the attendees, but if you roll big like that go for it.  You could also go with a barley wine in this instance and be perfectly fine.  Another good alternative would be a smoked style beer, but that would have to be a wedding with a lot of deeply committed craft beer drinkers.  Not everyone likes the smoky taste.  My personal choice would be a wee-heavy.  You would get a nice malt forward beer with good alcohol warmth for a cold night.

Spring screams of maibock.  This traditional German spring beer will be a little lighter and usually hoppier than traditional bocks and calls forth the coming of warmer days.  For summer, you could do a nice hefeweizen or Weiss beer. If you wanted to leave Germany you could go over to Belgium and France and go with a saison or biere de garde.  These are all beers usually brewed during the late winter and early spring for the warmer days of summer.

As with all things beer, whatever beer you choose, choose one you like.

If all goes well, I plan to come back with a couple of growlers of good Virginia craft beer.

The Beer Counselor Is In: Ask Better Questions

“Specificity is the soul of narrative.” – John Hodgeman

John Hodgeman has a very entertaining podcast named, Judge John Hodgeman, in which he manages each week to find depth and profundity in mundane and pedantic arguments between friends, spouses and lovers.  He uses the above quote to get participants to hone in on what they are upset about and what that means to them.

When you walk into a craft beer bar or a brewery tap room, the first thing you do is look for a place to order and a place to sit. The second thing you do is look at the tap wall.  If you don’t see that one beer from that one brewery you always drink, you might be stumped.

Specificity, specificity, specificity.

You don’t have to know what you want to drink.  However, you should have an idea of what it is you like to drink and have the ability to express that.  Now, a bartender’s job is to make sure you get the drink you want and help you have an enjoyable experience.  Part of that job is to elicit information from you so that we can help steer you towards the beer you want. We can’t read minds, so I has to be a conversation.  If you don’t give me specifics when I ask you questions, it can become an interrogation which will frustrate both of us.

One of the worst and over asked questions in sports press conferences are the “Talk about…” questions lazy sports writers pose to coaches and players. It isn’t a question looking for any specific answers, it’s just an invitation to the coach to fill time while the reporters transcribe what he says. We all need to ask questions better, and that is mostly just a matter of asking questions seeking specific answers.

There are two questions I hate getting when I’m behind the bar at Craft.  I don’t like them because like “Talk about…” neither is a question seeking a specific answer.  Instead they are just place holder to get the conversation started.  Sometimes people are intimidated by the concept of craft beer and don’t want to be embarrassed by asking a stupid question.  To that I will answer, the only stupid question is the one unasked.

Don’t ask, “What’s good?”  I have 36 taps.  All of it is good.   Instead, ask, “What’s a good IPA on tap right now?”  Better yet, tell me the specific beer you really like.  I should be able to find something similar.

Don’t ask, “What’s your favorite beer on tap?”  This assumes we have the same tastes in beer.  Last week I had a customer ask me that and I said, “The Rail House KA-BAR Brown.”  He responded with, “I don’t like dark beers.”  OK.

Instead ask, “What is your favorite wheat beer on tap?”

Another recent example was with a customer who didn’t even ask me the question.  This person just said, give me a taste of your favorite beer on tap right now.  I poured out the sample, gave it them, and watched them make bitter beer face.

Both times, after the person got more specific with what they were looking for (from my prompting them with questions), I was able to find them good beers to drink.

So, my advice is to help your bartender and yourself by asking specific questions so he can provide you with specific answers.

The Beer Counselor Is In: How To Find Better Beer At Chain Restaurants

It’s been a long day.  You’ve either been on the road too long or you’ve been sitting in one of those always exciting work seminars.  Now you have the chance to go get some dinner or lunch in a city you’ve never been to, before you head back home.  You check your map application of choice on your phone and the only thing you see on your way to the highway is a couple of chain restaurants.  You pick one and pull into the parking lot and head inside.  Your host/hostess seats you and as a craft beer lover you look over the beer list.  You keep looking and you keep looking.  Eventually, you decide water might be the best option.

If you are a craft beer lover, here is a little advice on how to handle this situation.

  1. As the host is taking you to your seat, scan the tap wall. Better yet, if you’re by yourself, sit at the bar.  This lets you preview the list before you get it.  You can prepare yourself for the disappointment and also start thinking about what you can accept. Another thing, the written list might not be updated, but the tap wall almost always is.
  2. When you start reviewing the craft beer list skip to the bottom. The beginning of the list will look like the commercial listings for Sunday football broadcasts.  What you are looking for is probably going to be down at the bottom.
  3. Now once you have done those things and you still feel that water is your best option, go to the bottle list. The bottle list is usually a lot more craft friendly.  Bottles and cans are both easier to store then kegs giving restaurants more flexibility in what they can carry.  If they are not on tap, this is where you will find New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and/or Samuel Adams and probably a lot more.

This isn’t meant to be a dig at chains.  Their job usually has little to do with promoting craft beer.  They are trying to make a profit in a business with a very low profit margin.  If they can sell a pint of a mass produced lawn mower beer that costs them $1 for $3 at 3 times the rate of a local craft beer that costs them $3, they are going to do it.  That’s basic business.

However, to the chains I would say this:  Take two of the mass produced taps and make them local favorites.  No one is really going to miss Michelob Ultra and/or PBR.  If you have a customer who is mad you don’t have Michelob Ultra, give them water because they really don’t like beer anyway.  As far as PBR goes, you’re a chain, you don’t have enough hipster poseurs coming in to drink that crap.  Dedicating, two of your twenty taps to local beer won’t affect your lawn mower beer only patrons and you will win a little loyalty from the more finicky craft beer drinkers.