Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Few Beers for the Holidays

Full Sail's Wassail and Deschutes' Jubelale deservedly get most of the attention come holiday time, but there are a bunch of wonderful winter beers out this time of year and, though I generally go for lighter beers, the deep winter cold and gloom always inspire me to cozy up with a winter warmer.  Here are a few of my faves:

Wassail gets the big brewery run in the six-packs, but my favorite Full Sail winter ale is Wreck the Halls.  This is the hophead's winter warmer, really a cross between an IPA and a winter ale, it both gives the hop kick and lays on a nice, but subtle spice note.  I adore it.  

I am just back from a trip up to Seattle to visit the mom and while there I picked up a super-classic: Elysian's Bifrost Ale.  Glad to say it still rocks.  Fairly light to medium body with a nice hop/spice mix - very approachable and comforting.

Ninkasi's Double Alt beer Sleigh'r is a new classic and true to all things Ninkasi, it is a hop wonder.  It is fairly big bodied, but very well balanced with hops and spices.  It is quite a bit bigger then Bifrost and heavier than Wreck the Halls, so it'll fill your tummy and get you felling happy quickly.  It warms you up and keeps you cozy.

Oakshire's Ill-Tempered Gnome is what I would call a brown ale with the underlying nuttiness but nice spices and fruit along with porter-like chocolate and coffee flavors.  All in all a very nice winter beer.

And a miss: I also picked up a Pike Auld Acquaintance which I found thin for the spices: too much coriander came through on my tongue.  I like the smaller beer aspect - it is a reasonably light beer, but it needed a more gentle touch with the spice.

PS: Speaking of Ninkasi, Jamie Floyd told me and Jeff that Ninkasi is a 30,000 barrel a year brewery that uses enough hops for a typical 200,000 barrel a year brewery.  That about sums up Ninkasi.  The key though is what they do with all those hops: magic.  And I am planning sometime soon to discuss the different business models of the great four brewery tour that Jeff and I took.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Why Wait for OSU? Yamhill Farm to Begin Malting Barley

Gail Oberst of the Yamhill Valley News Register has the story:

Within a few months, fifth-generation farmer Zach Christensen, 33, is planning to launch a malting operation on his family’s Bellevue-area farm.

That could make him the most popular man in Yamhill County — at least among craft beer brewers. Today, a craft brewer seeking a small lot of Oregon-grown and processed malted grain has only one option — make it himself.

Christensen Farms Malting Company is about to change everything by opening one of the first new small malting operations in Oregon. It aims to become the first commercial operation capable of supplying small batches of site-malted Willamette Valley grain.

Malted grain is typically the principal ingredient in beer. It can be made from either barley or wheat.

The malting process requires steeping the grain in water, spreading it in a hothouse environment to germinate, then using kilns to dry and cure it. The process creates sugars that beer requires for fermentation, but is extremely labor-intensive, requiring expert attention at every step for a matter of weeks.

The nearest commercial supplier is the Great Western Malting Co., based in Vancouver, Wash. It sells malted grain in lots averaging 300 tons each.

Craft malting operations were common when most brewing was local. They disappeared when brewing went big time, but are beginning to make a comeback on the strength of the craft movement.

Some of the larger craft brewers, like Rogue, have purchased Oregon farms capable of growing and processing all of the ingredients they need. Like winemakers, who speak lovingly of “terroir,” they are looking to establish consistent taste variations that will distinguish them from competitors.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Rogue is calling this “dirtoir,” and has taken to giving made-up appellation names to its farms.

Christensen’s alma mater, Oregon State University, is currently working on small-scale malting techniques that can be used on Oregon-grown barley. But he is the first to move that direction commercially, hoping to supply the bulk of craft brewers operating on a smaller scale than Rogue.

Christensen said he became interested in malting when the brewer at House Spirits, a Portland craft distiller, asked him to malt some Willamette Valley barley for a custom whiskey.

He took the challenge and ran with it. Today, he is working with Anders Johansen, a McMinnville distiller and brewer who moved back home after developing breweries in Southern Oregon.

Christensen is now making the final adjustments to a smaller-sized steeper, germinator and kiln system to turn out a product Johansen can use in his Dolman’s Worker Bee distillery. Once they have the pilot system perfect, they plan to develop a system capable of processing up to 10 tons at a time.


Christensen developed the pilot plant in a 5,000-square-foot building on his farm. He intends to use it to house the larger-scale system to come as well.

He already figures he has nearly $100,000 tied up in the venture, not to mention months of work. So if anything, he’s understating the case when he says, “Malting isn’t for everyone.”

But it is, apparently, for him. And that has craftsmen like Rick Allen of Heater Allen Brewery and Mark Vickery of Golden Valley Brewery salivating at the prospect.

Vickery, who helped get the Deschutes Brewery started in its early days, was so excited he rode the combine with Christensen when he cut his barley this summer.

Despite the buzz, Christensen refuses to be rushed. He said he wants to make sure he’s capable of consistently turning out a high quality product before he gets totally committed.

He said the family’s farm has survived since 1902 by producing a sustainable, certified and quality product. When and only when he knows the product is good, he said, will consumers be able to look for Heritage Malts from Christensen Farms in their local brews.

Meanwhile, they can check out for updates.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

OSU to Build Experimental Malter

Via John Foyston I learn of the OSU Fermentation Science's plan to build an experimental malter.  Here is an excerpt from the press release as quoted by Foyston:

Drink a beer brewed in the United States, and there's a good chance the hops you'll taste were grown in Oregon. But chances are the malted barley in it wasn't.

Oregon State University is working to change that. Students there have designed and will build a malting unit that could soak, germinate and dry small batches of the grain as part of OSU's larger effort to create a market for barley grown in Oregon. The malter will become part of OSU's existing research brewery; researchers and companies can pay to use the machine to test new barley varieties or malting techniques.

Last year, Oregon farmers sold $6.8 million of barley harvested on 31,400 acres, according to a report by the OSU Extension Service. But Oregon barley rarely makes it into beer because there is little data on its suitability as malts, said Pat Hayes, an OSU professor and barley breeder.

To gather that data, Hayes said, you need a malter. But commercial malters are too big, he pointed out. Their typical run is about 300,000 pounds of barley, producing about 175,000 gallons of beer, which is too much for research purposes.

OSU's brewery, which companies contract to produce experimental batches, requires only about 200 pounds of barley to produce 100 gallons of beer, Hayes said. The brewery uses barley that has already been malted because it hasn’t had a malter. The university can't buy one because the machines on the market are too large for OSU's needs, Hayes said. So he and his colleagues asked three senior OSU engineering students to design and build a mini-malter capable of processing up to 300 pounds of barley.

"This equipment will remove the malting bottleneck and get Oregon grain flowing to Oregon glasses," Hayes said.

OSU professor and fermentation scientist Tom Shellhammer added, "We could conceivably produce enough malt for a small microbrewery to experiment with."

The students will build the machine during winter term and test it in the spring. When finished, the portable unit will weigh about 1,000 pounds, measure about 4 feet wide and 6 feet long, and stand about 5 feet high. The students are recording their progress . Great Western Malting Co., a commercial malter in Vancouver, Wash., is providing technical assistance.

Hayes hopes to brew the first beer from on-site malted barley by June, just in time for the North American Barley Researchers Workshop, which will convene on campus from June 6-8.

This is cool. Given the amazing things going on at OSU around the science of beer (especially in hops breeding) it is surprising to me that OSU is not more intimately involved with the commercial beer industry in Oregon. I happen to know that there are folks around who would love to integrate the business of beer and the science of beer on campus and create a commercial brewery in so doing. I also hear that there are significant bureaucratic obstacles to this. But if they did, I think they could become the place for would-be brewers. My brother is a graduate of UC-Davis' program but they are all about the science and not the business. I think these days the goal of most folks who want to brew is to one day own their own business so a program that taught both sides could be very valuable (and profitable - to speak the language of the 21st century state university).

Just sayin'.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Brazilian Craft Beer

At last, I finally got my hands on some craft beer from Brazil!  It was not easy, as most bars and restaurants (as documented here) are tied to one of the mega breweries.  Here is a typical scene from a night out in Brazil - it is with a cell phone camera, sorry, but it captures the essence of the beer experience awaiting most visitors to a Brazilian bar or restaurant: pale, light pilnser without any real pilsner character.  [This, by the way, is a great pizza place in Sao Paulo, despite the fact that only Antartica beer is on tap: Margherita Pizzeria]  The beer is suited to the climate: it is light and refreshing for the hot humid days that typify lots of the country for most of the year.  But it does not have much else going for it.

So I headed down to Galaria dos Paes and lo and behold, there I found Baden Baden and Colorado bottles.  These are 20 ounce bottles and with the very strong Real each cost about $10.  Ouch.  This makes it especially hard to catch on - it is a super-luxury good.  Oh, and apparently beer in the bottle is pasteurized even at the craft level so these bottles probably have suffered from this and the heat.

Anyway, the Baden Baden Golden is just that - golden.  A very pretty beer and one immediately notices a very strong smell and taste of honey.  It was a bit much to my taste - slightly heavy and sweet - but upon reading the label it is not honey that is giving this taste but fruit.  They don't specify which, but I am guessing they use local tropical fruit.  If so, I give them big props - craft beer should be local beer and the sue of native ingredients is precisely what Brazilian craft brewers should be doing.  Taking old world techniques and recipes and transforming them into something local and unique is the way to go. Though slightly heavy to me, the Baden Baden Golden is very well crafted, there is no doubt, it is well balanced, pretty in the glass and wonderfully aromatic.

For a northwest hophead, finding a 7% ABV IPA in Brazil was a real treat.  And the Cervejaria Colorado Indica IPA was a fine example of a NW-style IPA (that is a little bigger than an English IPA).  Exceptionally well crafted and balanced, it lacked in exactly the areas your would expect: being so far from the fine fresh aromatic hops fields of the NW it has all the appropriate bitterness but not quite the aroma and floral/citrus taste we have come to associate with out local products.  Still it is an exceptional IPA and would be at home among the better NW IPAs.

My only chance to drink these beers was while watching the final weekend of the Campeonato Brasileiro where Fluminense of Rio won their game through a nice goal by Emerson (of course) and captured the championship.  As my flight was later that night, I could not drink too much, but I ended up drinking a lot of the Indica and less of the Golden - so in my own personal preference set the Indica won, but on another day who knows?

If I were a craft brewer in Brazil, I think I would be concentrating on making lighter beers (for example pale ales and pilsners) both with better quality and taste and with local adjuncts.  A great example of the latter is Wailua Wheat from Kona - a standard wheat beer with a beautifully subtle touch of passion fruit.  Teaching Brazilian beer drinkers to appreciate quality and different beer drinking experiences it the way to start.  It is hard for me to imagine most beer drinkers in Brazil jumping to Indica.  It seems Baden Baden and Colorado are both following this strategy.  I, of course, jumped to the big stuff, which is what caught my eye, but browsing their selection it seems both are making lighter and accessible beers: Baden Baden mostly lagers and Colorado mostly ales. 

They are even starting to make an international impact, each with a few international awards to their credit.  Hopefully, more will make it for export.  If they can make beers that use local ingredients to great affect then they can offer the world a new experience and perhaps make a good export business.

One of the great experiences I had this time in Brazil was an amazing meal at a restaurant called Mani that serves nouvelle Brazilian cuisine: local fresh ingredients used to perfection to create an amazing taste sensation of local flavors like coconut, passion fruit, banana, manioca, white beans, hearts of palm and on and on and on.  If Brazilian brewers can tap into this same flavor palate and create light fruity and surprising beers, I think they can really catch on worldwide.

I wish them luck and next time I'll know where to find them.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Competition and Craft Beer in Brazil

In a comment to my post and question about the anti-competitive beer market in Brazil yesterday (I had noticed that a lot of bars seem to be tied houses), Renato Todorov provides some compelling information:

Unfortunately I have to answer with a big yes to your question about our bars being tied to major companies like AB-Inbev, owner of the Brahma Chopp you've tasted. Not only the bars but I can say for sure that mostly restaurants are tied too. The big companies here have a huge power on all instances, including political. Just to give an idea of that political power, we have very strict laws here in Brazil that ties the microbreweries hands. For example, to have a new beer on the market, the brewery have to get a licence for that beer with our Department of Agriculture (equivalent to your USDA). The fact is that this licence can take, believe me, YEARS to happens. Until there, you just cannot sell your new beer.
Besides that, the ammount of money the large companies pays the bars, restaurants and supermarkets are considerable and, nowadays, is already part of their budget.
It's a very bad scenario but that's our reality, that's why the craft beers are so underground here. Sad but true!

We (the beer enthusiasts) are trying to make our part, by supporting the local breweries and sharing as much information as we can, on blogs, social networks and with our macro-beers drinker friends. I hope someday we can have craft beers all over the place here.


Jeff at Beervana knows more about the history of big beer in the US, but this makes me think of how fortunate US beer makers are to have a relatively open system generally free of corruption. Yes, I know that the distributor and retailer relationships can be cozy, but this gives a lot of perspective, doesn't it?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Beer in Brazil Redux: Social Media and Beer Culture in the Southern Hemisphere

Wow, so I inspired some passionate responses with my cavalier statement about beer in Brazil.  Apparently there is a lot going on here that I did not know about, but it is still a sub-culture.  A number of Brazilians took me to task for being ignorant and yet making broad statements.  Fair enough.  In my defense, flippant statements are my forte, and I wasn't really trying to put down Brazil.  It does give me a healthy does of perspective though.  Coming from Portland, Oregon where it is harder to find a macro-lager than a quality craft beer, where just about every single bar and restaurant has at least one craft beer on tap and where craft breweries are around every corner it is easy to lose a sense of perspective.  What I see in Brazil, where I have only visited Rio, São Paulo and Salvador, but have gone to many bars and restaurants, is macro lagers.  I have not been exposed to Brazilian craft beer because I have not been able to find it.  I have not specifically looked for it, but in Portland, you cannot escape it.  So relative to Portland the craft beer scene in Brazil has not yet made much of a dent. 

But social media may change this.  Very soon after my off-hand post on beer in Brazil - which, by the way, was intended to be an amusing post on an interesting bar and beer serving styles, not a negative post - the Brazilian craft beer Twitterverse, of which I was heretofore ignorant, was aflame with stories of my blasphemy.  I was labeled a gringo ignoramus.  Which is fine, actually: I was not offended but surprised and delighted that there is a passionate craft beer crowd in Brazil.  It also clued me in to what is out there and particularly where to find it. So I will find it.  I don't know how widespread is the use of social media, but in São Paulo and Rio at least it seems fairly popular.  It is an interesting case then. Brazil seems like the US around the time when Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer and Anchor were starting to make inroads against the big macro-brewers, but unlike then social media is a real potential force. Word-of-mouth can spread quickly and easily and could, one hopes, make craft beer a trendy thing.  [As an aside, Malcom Gladwell in the latest New Yorker has a nice piece on the role of Twitter in political movements and makes the case that Twitter is best at weak connections but less good at strong ones.  So it is great to get people to try craft beer but less good at starting political revolutions]

So what about Brazilian craft beer?  Well, there is A LOT to say about beer in Brazil! ;-)

Renato Todorov, in a comment on my last post, points to a site that gives a great rundown of the best of the Brazilian beers.  Wow.  I stand corrected.  Renato also points to a blog post on the Brazilian beer festival which give a nice outsiders first-take of the beer scene:

  • The Brazilian craft beer industry is definitely in its infancy, with the same sort of beer breakdown that you expect to see in such a youthful market – lots of good, enthusiastic efforts, some pretty poor and flawed beer, and a handful of exceptional brews.
  • Probably because of the intense heat they experience, Brazilians are obsessed with pasteurizing their bottled beers, often, it seems, with rather primitive equipment and to the detriment of the beer’s flavour. One brewery booth I visited, for example, poured me the same beer in pasteurized bottle and unpasteurized draught form, which might have been completely different brands.
  • Most of the brewers and brewery owners I spoke to told me they were selling all they could brew, which is definitely a sign of potential for the future, but equally most of the breweries here are crafting pretty small quantities, with a large craft brewer brewing around 10,000 or 13,000 hl per year. They seem to be experiencing big time the classic craft beer challenge of education their customers to appreciate something beyond a bland, blonde lager.
But there is definite interest and excitement about craft beer in Brazil, and that, I think, bodes very well for the future.
Finally, Raphael Rodrigues commented and pointed me to his very nice beer blog (in Portuguese but you don't need to know the language to get the point).

It appears that the German influence in Brazil (especially in Rio Grande do Sul) has had the major impact on craft beer a well.  There are a lot of German-style brewers among the craft beer scene, mush less so British-style brewers which are the lions share of US craft brewers. 

Hopefully tomorrow I can report on some Brazilian craft beer.  And hopefully, next time I am down in Brazil (probably next year) craft beer will have become more widespread.

One question I have for the Brazilian beer crowd is that it appears that lots of Brazilian bars are tied houses (unlike the US when craft beer took off), is this a major impediment to the growth of craft beer in Brazil??

Ciao ciao.