Wednesday, December 7, 2011

British Beer Prices

Look at this list of beers from the Burton Bridge Brewery in Burton-upon-Trent and you'll notice that the price varies by ABV. This is something you almost never see in the US unless it is a huge 10+ percent beer. But why not, after all, higher ABV beers are more expensive to make?

One reason is that customers in the US would be confused, they are not used to thinking about beer this way. But the British are used to it, thanks to a large excise tax that is levied on the final alcohol content of the beer itself.  Below you can see the current excise rate. Note that lower strength beer (up to 2.8%) is taxed at half the rate, which is why you'll often see breweries brew a low strength beer in the UK so that they can sell it for much less money (I had a great one at Greene King).

Here is the current excise rate for beer in the UK (the current tax is the last column):

This is big, by the way, there is a VAT tax as well, but the excise tax for a pint of 5% beer is about 50p if my back-of-the-envelope calculation is correct.  So for the festival ale at Burton Bridge, about 50p out of the £3 price is for the excise tax alone. 

In fact this is such a part of British brewing that apparently the Bass brewery in Burton used to have an entire floor filed with excise agents who tested the beer and levied the tax on each and every barrel that left the brewery. 

The Burton Bridge Brewery is exceptional, by the way.  You won't find their beers here in the US, so you'll have to go to Burton-upon-Trent to try (which, sadly, is not a big draw - it is a charmless town) but if you are ever in the area, make a point of stopping in, you won't be disappointed.  Then, after, you can do as we did and head over to the excellent Coopers Tavern (in the shadow of the enormous Coors plant).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Honest Pints Indeed

This sign is in the Angel & White Horse, the Samuel Smiths Pub attached to the brewery.

Ahh Britain, the land of the marked glass and the truly honest pint. The 'traditional creamy head' refers to the use of a sparkler - something ubiquitous in the north, but absent in the south of England. 

And by the way, there will be much more on this, but Samuel Smith's is so traditional they still deliver their beer in hand made oak casks to local pubs using, yes, white horses that reside just beside this pub (in fact you can see the stables from the side window). And, much to my nose's dismay, they still keep a coal fire burning in the hearth.

Which only makes sense as they have a massive pile of it to fire the boiler for the brewery. Traditional indeed.

Like I said, much more on this later, but the Old Brewery Bitter, cask conditioned in oak, is exceptional.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Holiday Ale Festival

A generous benefactor (who shall remain nameless but to whom I am indebted) gifted me a VIP ticket to the Holiday Ale Festival going on now at Pioneer Square in Portland, and so I went yesterday to finally check it out.  I am slightly ashamed to say that this is the first time I have been but I have to admit that big beers are not my first love and the idea of spending hours sampling big beer after big beer has always been a bit daunting.  Plus it is not the cheapest of fests and spending hours under a tent in the cold winter is unappealing. But with the free ticket, a beautiful evening and a few good friends as companions I could not delay another year.

So let's get the preliminaries out of the way: the setting is immensely better than I though it would be - the clear plastic used in much of the roofing keeps the main areas light and airy and the lights of the tall Christmas tree are visible through the roof as well, which adds a nice holiday touch.  The tent is heated so it is very comfortable and you can find spots to linger in of varying temperatures to suit your preferences (closer to, or farther from, a tube emitting hot air).  There is a lot of stuff inside the tent and it does get a little crowded, but the smell of cinnamon and spices is ever-present and in toto it is a very nice environment indeed.

The beer is, however, big. There was one exception: Breakside's Cranberry Biere de Table which is a very flavorful 3.3% ABV beer. After that, though, you are hard pressed to find a beer under 7% and there are many that hit the double digits. Yikes. There is also an abundance of Bourbon Barrel aged beers. I am not a huge fan of Bourbon beers as I often find the Bourbon overpowering and in conflict with the base flavors of the beer. But I am a minority as far as I can tell and for the Bourbon lovers, you are in luck.

Given my resistance to Bourbon, however, I thought a few of the winners were Bourbon barrel aged beers starting with the Velvet Merkin from Firestone Walker. I didn't expect to like this because of the Bourbon and the fact that I am not a fan of their IPA which I find heavy and over-malty. But this beer is sensational - the Bourbon is almost overwhelming on the nose, but not on the tongue where is its very subtle and gives way to vanilla and has a wonderful creamy mouthfeel. But beware, it is a very drinkable 8.6% ABV.

Another big winner in my book is HUB's Kentucky Christmas which seemed to me a beer that has no right being good: it is, as far as I could tell, a big hoppy NW imperial IPA mixed with Bourbon - ick! But no! It is sensational. I have no idea why, but the citrusy hops dance with the hint of Bourbon in such a way that they are in rhythm and make a nice melody on your tongue. You must try this beer.

Cascade's Sang Noir is great as well and so dry you can blow the dust off the top, but the complex and wonderful sour notes shine though - another Gansberg masterpiece.

Other winners to check out include Oakshire's The Nutcracker, Double Mountain's Chimney Stout and Fort George's Kentucky Girl.

But the champion of the fest for me was Ninkasi's The Little One. When I tasted this after a succession of humongous beers, I said to Jeff "finally, I get to drink some beer!" It is a small beer from the second runnings of their barley wine Critical Hit. It is 5.7% and delightful in every way with a nice Germanic hop note that distinguishes it from their popular IPAs. To me this is a lovely winter beer and I hope that next year they will have some more smaller winter warmers.

But there were some misses as well.

Bear Republic's Old Saint Chongo had an off metallic flavor that went away for me after a couple of sips and revealed a nice beer underneath, but assaulted others. I blamed the equipment, Jeff blamed the beer. Elysian's Bye Bye Frost was one too many byes: at 10.6% it is just stupid-strong. Would have been a great at 7.6%. Lompoc's Cherry Christmas was too much cherry and not enough Christmas. Widmer has been on a roll, but Peppermint Paddy Porter is a mint filled fiasco - think vics vapo rub and you get the idea. Upright's blend of an old ale and Biere de Garde didn't quite work for me but was interesting. And finally stay well away from Rusty Truck - there are off flavors and it is a mess.

So my hope for the next fest is a little less Bourbon and a more lower strength winter warmers.  So far the beer I have liked most recently was a fresh Winter Solstice from Anderson Valley - such a lovely and subtle beer with just the right hint of spice.  I hope local brewers will back of the big-is-better kick and start to rediscover, once again, the subtle, drinkable winter beer.

Oh and the VIP thing is pretty great, you can walk up to the main area and get any pour you want without waiting (but the same is not true at the smaller bars).  Also 20 tickets are enough for about three visits.  Worth considering if you are going at the heavy Friday and Saturday night times.

Finally, a word to the wise: even with little tasters, at 7 to 10% ABV, these beers get on you quickly. As the fest is at the heart of the city's public transportation hub, you should not plan on attending the fest and driving home.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fresh Hop Roundup

A little late to this, but I have been busy with exploits that shall yield many intersting blog posts whenever I find time to write them - stay tuned.  I have been lax with the news of fresh hop beers, one of my favorite craft beer products, but I have now had enough that I am ready to give a short synopsis.  It is not a completely useless endeavor, I think there are still a number of them on tap and in the bottle so there is still time to get your fix in quickly before the winter ale season begins in earnest.

So let me start by saying I was a savvy consumer of the fresh hop beers this season and I did not make it to a fresh hop beer festival this year so I have not had a single fresh hop beer I didn't like.  But even though my sample has severe selection bias issues, might I be bold enough to suggest that the NW craft beer community is really starting to get it in term of brewing with fresh hops?  Perhaps.

While this might be true, my experience is that the best of the best come from the reliable top-quality brewers in the state.  In my book, Double Mountain lead the pack: this years killer green was amazing, a real hop bomb that was perfectly balanced (in the NW usage of balance) and yet the fresh hop characeter shone through but not in an aggressive way. I think it is the most accomplished fresh hop beer I have ever had (picture below from the Skamania Celebration of Beers event).

Many beer cognoscenti chose the Deschutes' Fresh Hopped Mirror Pond as their favorite (see, for example, Bill's much more thorough round-up) and though I agree with its excellence, it is not, for me, as transcendent ad Double Mountain's Killer Green (ed. note: I did not have the Killer Red this year).

Other winners: I thought, as always, Full Sails John Harris did an amazing job, this year the one I sampled was the one using Tettenanger hops - fantastic.  Another great one this year was Lucky Lab's The Mutt, which was surprisingly complex and well-rounded given the unknown provenance of the hops therein.  I think the Lab is getting pretty expert at The Mutt now and I really enjoyed the result.

Once again the good folks at the Great Northern Brewery sent me a sample of their Frog Hop beer and once again it was one of my favorites.  They go for a very light body to accentuate the fresh hops which are used gently but to perfection.  One reason for my love of this beer is that they use locally grown hops in the Whitefish Valley - which is what the fresh hop beer is all about: local, seasonal, fresh.

In fact, the Frog Hop was my inspiration for the Green Crown, which is what Jeff named our first attempt at a fresh hop beer.  We had no idea what to do, so I went for a light pale ale recipe, mostly two-row pale malt, with a little crystal and a hint of wheat for mouth feel.  Then it was all Cascade: wet home grown hops in the worth for a dose of first wort hopping, dry cascade for the bitter charge and then a bunch (completely unmeasured - we just dumped a bunch in until it seemed good, and then dumped a bit more...) fresh hops at the end.  From the picture below you can see from whence the name Green Crown came.  I am usually pretty critical of the beer I brew, but this one was a huge success - a wonderful light body upon which the fresh Cascades dance their little dance on your tongue.  Even Jeff, who deesn't think much of fresh hop beers in general, calls it a big winner. 

I still have a few in my basement and to my surprise they are aging extremely well: I think the grassy notes have faded just a bit but the rest of the fresh hop sensation remains.  A fitting end to the season.

I can also attest to the fact that the fresh hop beer craze has hopped the pond.  The Dark Star craft brewery in Sussex did their own fresh hop ale this year with English hops:

This is super cool, unfortunately it was all gone when Jeff and I visited.  Note that at 6.5% it is an absolute alcohol monster relative to most English beer.  

Let the winter beers commence!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Far and Wide

If you were to find a far flung Oregon beer what would you think it'd be?  For me, it's Rogue hands down.  You find them everywhere, including, in my case, on tap at the Rake bar in London's Borough district.   What I would not expect to find in my wildest imagination is Caldera.  But lo! From a bottle shop in York, England:

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Tale of Two Brewing Businesses: One Macro and One Craft

I'd show you a nice glamor shot of their Boston brewery but...
Well, almost.  Boston Beer is the one company which I guess you could say straddles the line.  But, say what you will about the business model, Boston Beer is built upon quality beer, not light lager volume.

First, the big. Molson Coors is hurting:

Molson slumps in 3Q as economy saps beer money
By SARAH SKIDMORE, AP Business Writer – 1 day ago

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Molson Coors Brewing Co.'s third-quarter profit tumbled 23 percent as high costs and high unemployment among its core customers continued to take a toll on the brewer.

Molson Coors and other major beer makers have struggled in the down economy as young American men have faced particularly high levels of unemployment. The company, which makes products like Miller Lite, Coors Lite and Carling, also saw lower-than-expected sales in the U.K. And the industry is seeing consumers overall shift toward more craft beers, wines and spirits.

The company is also struggling with higher costs for commodities such as barley, aluminum and fuel.

"We have had the equivalent of an earthquake," Peter Swinburn, president and CEO of Molson Coors, said of the recession. "Our core consumer was hit overnight... It is very difficult to recover from that, it takes time to rebuild."

Next, the slightly less big. Boston Beer is not:

Boston Beer 3Q profit rises on higher revenue


Boston Beer Co., which brews Samuel Adams beer, said Tuesday that its profit grew in the third quarter as shipments increased.

The company reported net income of $16.3 million, or $1.19 a share, for the three months ended Sept. 24. That compares with net income of $15.4 million, or $1.09 a share, in the comparable period last year.

Net revenue surged 8 percent to $134.8 million from $124.5 million a year earlier, driven by a 7 percent gain in shipment volume.

Analysts were anticipating, on average, earnings of $1.13 a share on $131.9 million in revenue, according to FactSet.

"We are happy with the health of our brand portfolio and remain positive about the future of craft beer," said Jim Koch, chairman and founder.

Curious that the AP byline is Portland, Oregon. Where better to report about beer, I guess. Anyway, the empirical question that I still wonder about is whether the growth in craft beer is from new converts while those that have already converted reduce their overall consumption in the down economy, or is it the case that even craft beer drinkers are not reducing consumption? I suspect the former.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pubs Getting in on Brewing and Where to Find Brew Dog

Here is a little tidbit from the Willy Week: Kells has applied to open Kells Brew Pub in Nob Hill and Old Town Pizza have applied to start brewing at their Vanport location.

This is interesting to me as most brewpubs start as a brewery pub combo or start as a brewery and then add the pub.  I wonder if the whole brewpub idea is becoming so ubiquitous that pubs are beginning to find it a necessary selling point?  It is one thing to be an avid brewer and figure out a business to support your hobby-turned-profession but quite another to be a successful pub and decide that you need to add on-site brewing.   Thoughts?

On another note altogether.  After my soccer game last night in Oregon City a few of us stopped in for a quick drink at the wonderful Highland Stillhouse.  I had already been eagerly anticipating a draft Bellhaven Twisted Thistle so that is what I got, but the beer selection was fantastic - everything from Ninkasi's fresh hop beer to a great cask offering (which escapes me at the moment).  But what really caught my eye was an extensive list of Brew Dog beers.  I suspect, though I didn't ask, that these are from the bottle.  And they don't come cheap: a glass of Brew Dog will set you back $12!  Still, if you want to see if all the fuss is due to genius at self-promotion or to great beer, here is your chance.  You can even enjoy you Brew Dog with haggis balls!  Yum. 

If you are a little more budget conscious, I do recommend the Bellhaven. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Brewpubs and Economies of Scale

Here is a nice Washington Post article about Brewpubs outgrowing their breweries:  

You can brew only so much beer in a restaurant, and you can shoehorn only so many fermentation vessels among the tables and chairs and deep-fryers.

With thirst outpacing output, several regional brew pubs have been building, buying or renting off-site breweries to keep their own taps flowing and to supply an off-premises market of grocery stores, liquor marts, bars and restaurants.
I have always thought that there are two models for aspiring professional brewers that want to start their own company: packaging brewery or brewpub.  The problem (or curse) of the first is that economies of scale demand growth.  Unless you can sustain an incredibly loyal following that will pay a premium for your beer, you have to grow to keep prices competitive and survive.  I don't think that in the modern era of craft beer you can ever count on loyalty - there is just too much good and new beer out there to grab attention.  There is nothing wrong with a packaging brewery per-se, just that your business model must plan for growth (see, e.g., Ninkasi).

The brewpub model is the escape, if you will, from the tyranny of economies of scale.  From what I can glean, most brewpubs do about 75% of their business in food, can keep beer prices reasonable by cutting out the packaging, distributing, retailing and associated costs and margins.  The brewpub is the model of choice, in my view, for the homebrewer-going-pro in that it allows for lots of flexibility and creativity.  The problem with this business model is that you are in the business of a restaurant first, and the restaurant business is incredibly hard and tiring and easy to muck up.  Smart owners (see, e.g., Block 15) get experienced restaurant managers to handle the food side and concentrate only on beer. 

So this trend of brewpubs getting stars in their eyes is troubling to me.  I think the temptations are great, but the business of packaging breweries is hard.  It is easy to think of selling in volume as the path to riches and success, but the craft beer world is getting ever more competitive and to leverage a successful brew pub to start a packaging brewery is fraught with danger.  As I understand, here in Portland, Laurelwood's great scheme to open an off-site production brewery and expand the brew pub empire is on indefinite hold.

The WaPo article addressed the complications with moving into off-premises sales: 
Off-premises is “a different market, no doubt,” says Bowers of Brewer’s Alley. You need to persuade a distributor to carry your beers, then entrust them to retailers who might plop them among dozens (perhaps hundreds) of rival brands. Bowers was cautious: Before sinking thousands into a production brewery, he was able to gauge demand by contract-brewing the six-pack version of several of his brands at the Flying Dog Brewery across town. He found a ready market, selling 4,000 to 5,000 cases per year.

The enticements outweigh the risks. For the first half of 2011, craft beer volume grew by 14 percent nationwide, and sales soared 15 percent higher than in 2010.

There are singular successes, such as Oskar Blues in Lyons, Colo. Nine years ago, it was an average-size brew pub in this Rocky Mountain gateway town of 1,600. Then owner Dale Katechis began canning his Dale’s Pale Ale with a manually operated canner capable of filling two cans at a time. Other U.S. craft breweries had contract-brewed canned beers (mostly amber lagers and golden ales) at bigger breweries, but Oskar Blues was the first to operate its own canner and the first to can an aggressively hopped pale ale.

Today, Oskar Blues operates an off-site plant in nearby Longmont, Colo., which is on pace this year to turn out 58,000 barrels’ worth for shipping to 26 states. In December, the company will take possession of a new canning line able to fill 300 cylinders a minute. That machinery will enable Oskar Blues to begin filling 16-ounce cans with a new brand called Deviant Dale’s IPA, an 8 percent alcohol powerhouse seasoned with pungent Columbus hops.

“It’s been a wild ride,” says Chad Melis, marketing director for Oskar Blues.

And it probably has a lot of pub brewers stroking their chins and going, “Hmmm.”
Enticements indeed.  All I can say is brewer beware.  Whatever you do, shield the core brewpub business from the packaging brewery in case it all goes wrong. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Beautiful Day at Skamania Lodge

With drink tickets you get this stylish mug, here with the incomparable Killer Green from Double Mountain

Last Saturday Skamania Lodge hosted its third annual Cheers to Beers Fest on their front lawn. I went last year and had a blast despite the lousy weather. This year I was invited to return and fortunately the weather was amazing, but the fest was surprisingly subdued. The beer selection was great and I was delighted to see Snipes Mountain back as it is one of those favorites that is impossible to find locally.  The beer based buffet dinner was once again great and the brunch is always a treat.

But, as you can see from the photo I took right in prime time fest mode, the attendance was pretty light and was not very beer geeky.  Which is too bad.  Perhaps one problem was the fact that it was scheduled on the same day as the OBG's Fresh Hop Festival at Oaks Park. Another problem might have been the lackluster effort at publicity this year.  I did not do my part - I had intended to post a notice or two here, but life got busy and I just plain forgot.  Still, I got no PR blasts to remind me which is kind of what I was relying on as my 43 year old memory is, well, 43 years old.  When I asked beer blogger friends about it the were not even aware of the date this year, which is a shame as there a a number of unique things to recommend this fest. 

The best setting for a beer fest in the world.

First is the location which, as you can see from the picture above, is absolutely the best setting for a beer fest...ever. Second is the venue which is wonderful itself, the lodge and its restaurants may be a little pricy but there is no reason you can't come for the afternoon and enjoy the setting and the beer. Third is the beer themed dinner which last year was festive and energetic - sadly this year it was subdued and slightly, well, morose. I say this because there is nothing more depressing than a humongous buffet largely going to waste. Pound for pound there was probably more food than punters.

But the single best thing about the event is to get to sample the far-flung beers from Washington that rarely make it across the Columbia. Once again Snipes Mountain was a big favorite of mine, as was Prodigal Son from Pendleton. The beer of the fest had to be Double Mountain's Killer Green which is a phenomenal fresh hop beer made by the most meticulous brewers around.

My gripes are the same as last year: not enough info on the beers and not enough brewers around to with whom to chat.  In fact the server at Prodigal Son was serving their wheat beer which is amazing and perfect for those hot sunny Pendleton days, but she thought she was serving their pale ale.  Ooops.  (At first I thought it was the most wildly radical rethinking of a pale until I realized what must have happened)

So while I enjoyed my stay and the lodge and staff were great, I fear that this fest might already be on the way out. I hope not - it rocks - but I think if they do it again next year they have to get the PR right and schedule it around the fresh hop fests in Portland. Here's hoping that they do.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Poll Results: X-114 is the Winner

In my scientific and representative random and completely meaningless poll asking which of the two initial Widmer Rotator IPAs you preferred, you have given X-114 a resounding victory.  

But I suspect that as random and unscientific this poll was, this is reflective of the general mood.  The X-114 is not beloved by all, the Citra hops don't dance on all tongues like they do on mine, but the Falconer's IPA is, I think fairly undistinguished.  Which does not mean it is not a great IPA (and worlds above the entirely forgettable Broken Halo) but X-114 has character that differentiates it from other great IPAs - which is about as high a compliment as I can pay.

I'm excited for the next iteration - this whole Rotator business is genius (assuming X-114 comes back regularly).

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Wells and Young's Buys McEwan's and Younger's

Nigel McNally of Wells and Young's
From the BBC:

Leading Scottish beer brands McEwan's and Younger's have been sold to a Bedfordshire-based family brewery.

The ales were bought from Heineken UK by brewers Wells and Young's for an undisclosed sum.

The firm said it would continue brewing McEwan's draught ales at the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh.

So, I wonder if the Scots prefer to have their beer owned by the Dutch or the English... Ach! Just go get a Brew Dog...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Taxes and Beer: The BEER Act is in Trouble

Photo Credit: Ángel Franco/The New York Times
From The New York Times, an article suggesting that the tax break for brewers bill, now known as the BEER act is probably dead:

Mr. Boehner, along with fellow House leaders like Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California and Mr. [Paul D.] Ryan, who is the party’s leading crusader for spending cuts, were co-sponsors of a 2009 version of the beer tax break bill, which has never passed. Known as the Brewer’s Employment and Excise Relief, or BEER Act, it would halve the excise taxes on the first 60,000 barrels of beer for small brewers.

Steve Hindy, owner of Brooklyn Brewery, said his company stood to save about $400,000 a year if the tax break was approved.

“The tax break would boost our financial situation and allow us to further expand our business,” he said. “We would be able to create more jobs.”

But the bill has stalled, and none of the four Republican leaders are now sponsoring it. But Bob Pease, chief operating officer of the beer industry group, the Brewers Association, in Boulder, Colo., said that Mr. Ryan’s staff had assured the organization in a private meeting that he would continue to support the bill.

Mr. Ryan’s spokesman, Kevin Seifert, said that the congressman had no plans to sponsor the beer tax break, but he did not address the Brewers Association’s assertion about Mr. Ryan’s private support. Mr. Ryan supports “letting individuals and entrepreneurs keep more of their hard-earned money,” Mr. Seifert said.

I have to say as much as I like craft beer, I never supported this. I don't like these specific and targeted tax breaks in general, but even if I did, why does craft brewing need a specific tax break, the craft beer industry is booming?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Kölsch Will Rule the World!

Deutsche Welle has a nice article on the spread in popularity of Kölsch:

It's relatively easy to find German beer in pubs across the world. Major brands like Beck's have global distribution networks, while the traditional Bavarian brews being served at the Oktoberfest are easily found in major cities like London, New York or Beijing.

Recently, however, a much smaller, straw-colored beer from the western German city of Cologne has been making waves abroad. Exports of Cologne's local brew, Kölsch, have rocketed in the past year, with more and more foreign distributors wanting to get their hands on this light ale.

"The United States has been a strong market for us – we've had a 200 percent sales increase in the past three years," the CEO of the Gaffel Kölsch brewery, Heinrich Phillip Becker, told Deutsche Welle.

"Countries like Russia, China and Brazil are picking up the Kölsch culture too," he added.

It is starting to gain in popularity for American craft brewers as well. It is Flat Tail's first bottled product and is my personal favorite from Double Mountain (and that is saying something).

But, as with everything, the Germans would prefer they didn't call it Kölsch. In the EU only beer brewed in an around Cologne can be called Kölsch. But for now they are laid back about it:

Kölsch's wave of popularity in the US has led microbreweries in New York, Boston, Charleston, Philadelphia and Portland to start producing a Kölsch-style drink – something the Cologne brewers are willing to tolerate as long as the newcomers don't grow too much.

"They are producing Kölsch-style beer in small, small quantities – so it's not really a danger for us and our market. We see them more as ambassadors for the category Kölsch," Becker said, adding that any major brewer who tried the same thing would face a lawsuit in no time.

One note to local beer snobs, Kölsch is properly served in a "Stange," a thin glass that holds only 200ml of beer. But who cares, I am overjoyed at the growth in popularity of Kölsch because I love the style and it is also one of my favorite to brew. The Wyeast Kölsch yeast rocks and I have gotten fantastic results. I even gave some to my Cologne born German friend and he was impressed with how authentic it tasted (of course he could have just said it to be polite). But now I know to call it "Kölsch-style" beer....

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Boston Beer Sues Anchor

And it used to be such a friendly business...

Boston Beer Co. is suing San Francisco-based craft brewing competitor Anchor Brewing Co. and a former Boston Beer marketing executive, alleging the executive violated a noncompete agreement by taking a job with the West Coast firm.

The suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Boston, alleges that Judd Hausner knew his move might be construed as a violation of the noncompete, but told his Boston Beer supervisor upon giving notice that an Anchor employee had told him the agreement could not be enforced.

Hausner gave his notice at Boston Beer to take "a key sales and marketing position with Anchor, a direct competitor of Boston Beer," the suit states. Boston Beer brews Samuel Adams beers; Anchor's Anchor Steam beer is another widely distributed craft brew.

I predict that nothing good will come from this. And really, why is Boston Beer so scared of Anchor? Listen big craft brewers, you market share has come largely at the expense of the macros, not each other. Can't we all just get along? I mean, come on, how much special knowledge can a marketing executive have?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

OPB on the Potential for a Bend Beer Bubble

David Nogueras has a story on the many, many new breweries opening in Bend.

Residents of Bend are used to seeing bicycles on their streets, but this is something new.

The Cycle Pub, as it’s called, carries 12 peddling riders, six on each side of what’s essentially a long bar. The contraption carries the riders from brewery to brewery.

And with 10 breweries in a town of under 80,000, Bend has plenty of breweries to visit. But how many is too many?

"Today is brew day it’s a grand day here in the brewery. We always enjoy brew day because we get to smell all the beautiful aromas of the hops and grain," Barnett said.

Indeed, the air is sweet with the smell of wort. That’s the sugary extract or pre-beer yet to be fermented. This batch will eventually become an IPA -- the standard bearer of Northwest Beers. Most breweries in Bend have one. And according to Barnett most of them are really good.

"It’s awesome. You can walk down the street and have a pint of BBC, then two blocks away go to Deschutes and then four blocks away go to 10 Barrel or Boneyard. It’s great beer and we just want to add to the notoriety by brewing beer that is up to that level," Barnett said.

The question the story raises is how many is too many? True Bend is only 80,000 (or actually more like 75,000 these days), but the story points out that there are 2 million tourists that visit Bend annually.  I think there is plenty of room at the moment for these breweries - especially the ones going the brewpub route - but that for the smaller production breweries, it might get tough.

On my last visit to Bend last month I spied the Cycle Pub and went to the Northwest Crossing farmers' market where Below Grade had a booth. [No tasting notes - tasters were expensive and I am a cheapskate! Actually it was hot, smoky and 11am so I was not ready for beer] Below Grade is a basement nano-brewery and one of many that are low capital costs, but also low volume. As the name of the game is economies-of-scale I think for a lot of these smaller breweries it is grow or die. It is when all these breweries try to grow at the same time that I expect a shake-out. But heck this is the process of creative destruction that will guarantee Bend as a top spot for beer for years and years to come.

Friday, September 23, 2011

On War and the Strength of British Beer

Across the pond, The Pub Curmudgeon gives us some stats from the BBPA statistical handbook:

Average strength of beer produced in the UK:

1900: 1054.9 OG
1910: 1053.0 OG
1918: 1030.6 OG (low point during WW1)
1920: 1042.6 OG
1930: 1042.5 OG
1940: 1038.5 OG
1946: 1032.6 OG (1940s low point, actually after the end of the war)
1950: 1037.0 OG
1960: 1037.4 OG
1970: 1036.9 OG
1980: 1037.3 OG
1990: 1037.7 OG
2000: 4.17% ABV
2010: 4.22% ABV

In fact, from 1950 to the end of the original gravity system in 1992, the average OG was always within the range 1036.9-1038.2, although this masked the long-term decline of mild and an offsetting reduction in the strength of bitter.

As Jeff has pointed out, wartime rationing led to the invention and popularization of the relatively low alcohol bitter and mild styles that have this aura of being ancient styles (proabably because they are British and everything British has that slightly musty aura of history turning slightly off...).  What is fascinating here is the sharp downturn around the Great War which quickly bounced back, while the low alcohol beers of the WWII era stayed.  Still nothing like the beginning of the 20th century.  For some perspective, it is hard to find a NW ale brewed below 1050 original gravity. [Alcohol content depends on the difference between OG and the finishing gravity - the sugars converted by the yeast to alcohol - but 1050 generally yields about a 5% ABV beer]

Poll: Widmer's Rotator IPAs

Sorry for the Oregon-centric nature of this, but as much of craft beer is local these things happen regularly.  Actually Widmer is spread pretty far and wide, so it should not be too limiting.  Anyway, the Widmer Rotator IPA series is now on its second iteration and I thought I'd get a sense of the relative reaction to the first two offerings: X-114 and Falconer's IPA.  So, after a long hiatus, it's poll time!

As a refresher, X-114 is the Citra-infused IPA that has been out all summer.  If you have caught the Timbers at Jeld-Wen this year and bought a Widmer IPA, this is what you had.  The Falconer's IPA, named after NW brewing legend Glen Falconer and using the eponymous hop, has been out for about a month now.

So the poll is simple: of you had to choose one, which do you prefer?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Is the Weak Dollar Helping US Craft Beer Exports?

Here is an interesting story from the Sydney Morning Herald about US craft beer sales in Australia (yes, I consider Boston Beer to be craft beer) being helped by the strong Aussie Dollar.  But the strong Aussie Dollar is due in large part to the very weak US Dollar which might mean that craft brewers have a unique opportunity right now to expand sales overseas.

From the SMH story: 

The strong Australian dollar is proving a boon to beer importers, particularly with top-of-the-range brands from Belgium and the US becoming more competitively priced.

''The state of the Aussie dollar allows everyone to receive the margins they are looking for,'' says the owner of Beer Importers & Distributors, Franck Berges. ''Where a six-pack of Sam Adams Boston Lager used to sell for around $24 to $27 in the likes of Dan Murphy's, it's now under $20.''

Berges has negotiated to import more brands from the Boston Beer Company. ''We've imported Sam Adams Boston Lager for years but we're selling a lot more these days,'' he says. ''But they've got an incredibly wide range and there's a growing interest in the whole US craft beer scene.

''We have to fit in with their production schedule but we'll start bringing in their Noble Pils, IPA and Pale Ale - which will arrive in Sydney before Christmas.''

Last year the Brewer's Association reported that US craft beer exports were up 28% by volume. I suspect that this sharp increase is continuing.

Update: Pressed for time I didn't bother to look up currency markets but did make a passing comment about the weak US dollar in general.  This is true but a reader e-mailed me to emphasize just how strong the Aussie Dollar really is these days, and he is right (and provided images to prove it - thanks for these).  Here is the US Dollar/Euro market where you can see that the USD is pretty much flat over the last three years:

Now compare this to the Australian Dollar/Euro market where the AUD is up dramatically, over 50% since the bottom of the recession in 2008/2009:

Apparently this has a lot to do with strong commodities prices, mineral wealth and close proximity to Asian markets.  But the government also pays relatively high rates to borrow money, so purchases of AUD to buy treasuries is also a factor.

I guess what this means is that the time is right to sell down under.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Beer Sales Down in Europe

More about beer sales and the shift to home consumption and how it affects the recession from a nice post on the New York Times Economix blog:

Europeans are saving money by drinking at home rather than in pubs, which is costing jobs in the hospitality industry and depressing tax revenue, according to the study by Ernst & Young, which was paid for by the Brewers of Europe, an industry group.

The shift to home consumption has a disproportionate effect on unemployment, because 73 percent of jobs associated with the European beer industry are outside breweries. They are found instead in bars, hotels and restaurants.

‘‘Obviously, the crisis has had an effect,’’ said Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, secretary general of the Brewers of Europe.

Beer consumption in Europe fell 8 percent from 2008 to 2010, the period covered by the study. But employment in the beer industry fell by 12 percent, or 260,000 jobs, the study said. That compares with a 2 percent decline in employment for Europe as a whole.

But, never fear, craft beer will save us all:
But not all the news is bad for the brewers. Mr. Bergeron said he saw signs that a long-term decline in beer consumption in Europe, driven in part by health concerns and tougher drunken driving laws, could be coming to an end. A proliferation of microbreweries means that beer drinkers are being offered some of the variety and local character that makes wine appealing, making beer more attractive to younger, more affluent consumers.

When Mr. Bergeron joined the brewers organization a decade ago, he said, there were just 14 members from his home country of France. Today there are 80, with most of the new entrants small breweries.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Not Just in the Colonies...Microbrew Reannaiance is Going Strong Across the Pond

Fergus McMullen … 'People want quality, and they want to have a taste'. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian
From the Guardian a nice piece on the microbrewing revolution sweeping Britain [HT: John Foyston].  There is so much talk about the explosive growth of micro breweries in the US it is interesting to see that the same trend is happening in Britain.  There, however, it is a renaissance of traditional English ales, rather than the new-world hop-forward ales we are seeing as the backbone of the industry in the US.  Here is an excerpt:
Hunter's is part of a remarkable early 21st-century flowering of traditional British ale. Helped by an increasingly enthusiastic public and a handy excise duty relief that effectively halves your tax bill as long as you make no more than about 3,000 barrels a year (thank you, Gordon Brown), some 50 new small breweries are expected to open around the country this year.

There are now, in fact, more breweries in Britain than at any time since the end of the second world war: well over 800, against half that number, of all sizes, less than a decade ago, and a mere 140 in 1970. And we clearly like what they're brewing: sales of "live", cask-conditioned ales, which ferment a second time in the barrel, have surged by 25% over the past five years.

What makes this more striking is that overall, our national drink is in seemingly irreversible decline. The UK beer market, still dominated by the big keg lagers such as Carling and Foster's – which, for the sake of shelf life, get filtered or pasteurised after brewing to kill off the yeast, then are injected with CO2 in an effort to give them back some semblance of life – shrank by 7% last year. And we're losing 25 pubs a week.

Apropos of my earlier post about british supermarket beer sales eclipsing pub sales:

The big retailers have certainly got it: Sainsbury's is organising a Great British Beer Hunt that will see 16 new British ales, selected in regional heats, battle it out from early September for a permanent place on the shelves in some 300 stores. "We're seeing 7% year-on-year growth in premium bottled beers," says Oliver Chadwick-Healey, its beer buyer. "This is a real phenomenon, driven by choice and quality."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

US Beer Sales Down, But Craft Way Up..Again

From the Sacramento Bee, another story on the beer business:
For the fourth year in a row, the beer industry has continued its declines and lost 1.9% to total 2.8 billion cases. According to the Beverage Information Group's recently released 2011 Beer Handbook, continued declines in the Light segment continue to contribute to the overall losses in the industry. This segment has seen declines amongst its core brands and is only seeing pockets of growth from newly introduced line extensions.
Despite the struggling economy, growth was seen among the Craft segment as well as Imports. The higher-priced Craft segment continued to post solid gains due to consumers' attraction to the interesting flavors craft brewers offer. Imports, which previously have been experiencing declines, gained 0.9% to 362-8 million cases last year, but that is still 11.1% lower than its pre-recessionary levels.
From Monday's post on falling macro sales, the theme was that the big brewers are seeing sales of their regular beers drop, while light beers held steady - however, this appears to be isolated to the beers highlighted as the overall trend is down.  Overall beer consumption in the US is falling which suggests that beer is not recession proof, as the anemic economy appears to be having an impact. 

But craft beer does appear to be recession proof, but that clearly comes from the cannibalization of the macro market and not from overall market growth.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

UK Beer Sales Switching From Pubs to Supermarkets


This is fascinating: the Telegraph is reporting in the UK, supermarket beer sales are poised to overtake pub beer sales for the first time.  The thing that always struck me about the beer scene in the UK was precisely the fact that almost all drinking happened in pubs and there was very little beer for sale in the markets and little found in household refrigerators. Seeing the 'off license' sign, signifying their ability to sell take-away beer, outside the little markets was a rarity. From the article:
Back in the 1970s more than 90pc of all beer drunk in Britain was bought from the "on trade" – pubs and clubs, with less than 10pc brought from the "off trade" of supermarkets and off-licences.
According to the British Beer &Pub Association this ratio had fallen to 50.9pc from pubs and 49.1pc from supermarkets at the end of last year. "It will cross over in the near future," said a spokesman, possibly as soon as this Christmas.
Why? Well, the pub scene in Britain is in crisis suggesting that the changing lifestyles are leading more and more people to find their entertainment in the home instead of outside it.

Pub closures hit a record rate of 53 a week at the height of the recession. Last year, 26 a week closed their doors, leaving just 52,500 pubs in Britain, nearly half of the level at its peak before the World War II.
The Beer & Pub Association blamed competition from the supermarkets, which often sell beer as a "loss leader" to drive customers into their stores, and above-inflation increases to beer duty. The GMB blamed large pub companies putting up their prices because they were struggling with too many debts.
The GMB has calculated that the average price of a pint of lager cost 93p at a pub in 1987. If it had risen in line with the Retail Prices Index measure of inflation it would now be £2.18, but in fact it has climbed to £3.09, making it unaffordable as a daily staple for many consumers, already hit by rising utility bills, petrol prices and salaries which have been frozen.
Leaving aside the humorous notion of beer being a daily staple of British life, I think the blame is misplaced if it is aimed at pricing strategies of supermarkets. There is always a premium to be paid in a pub, after all, but the sea change we are seeing now has come during a time (until recently) of great prosperity in Britain, so I think the changing lifestyle explanation carries more water.

Monday, September 12, 2011

US Beer Sales: Falling Macros

Here is an interesting compilation of eight beers whose sales have declined precipitously from the blog "24/7 Wall St."

Number 1?  Michelob which saw a sales decline from 2006 to 2010 of 72%.  This makes sense as it was ABs 'premium' beer which, it stands to reason, was most subject to competition from micros.

From the blog post:

Most of the beers whose sales declined that much have one thing in common — they are “full-calorie” beers, or about 145 calories a can. Instead, beer drinkers have turned to “light beers,” which have 100 calories a can, and “ultra-lights,” which are closer to 90 calories.

Surprisingly, Budweiser, the best-selling beer in America for years has lost 30% of its sales over the five-year period. Given that Budweiser sold 18 million barrels last year, this is a massive loss – more than 7 million barrels less. Sales of Bud Light, on the other hand, held steady at just over 39 million barrels during the five year period. Six products on our list have lost half their sales since 2005.

Other than lighter-calorie beers, drinkers have also turned to imports, such as Corona, and to craft beers, which are produced, and usually also consumed, in relatively small regions, according to Eric Shepard of beer marketer’s INSIGHTS. Overall, sales of beer from 2005 to 2010 rose 1.9 million barrels to 208.4 million barrels. But sales of the top 20 brands dropped 10 million barrels to 149 million, a sign that Americans have turned to craft beers and imports.

Bud is the number 8 beer on the list.  Go and see the rest here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Growing Your Own: Fresh Hop Brewing

The hops, after a disappointing (but expected) first year with no blossoms, flourished this year and produced a bumper crop.  So I finally got a chance yesterday to brew my very own fresh hop ale with my very own (organic!) hops.  The problem is, of course, that I have no experience using fresh hops and the whole endeavor is pretty new, so there is not a lot of collective wisdom out there about the use of fresh hops.

Nevertheless, I forged ahead.  I am a huge fan of fresh hop ales, but I also know how hard they are to make well.  Most fresh hop festivals have as many failures as triumphs.  One thing I have settled on is that dry hops should be used for the bitter charge.  There are some who would argue that this then makes the beer not a true fresh hop ale, but I disagree.  The point of the fresh hops is not the bitterness but the green earthy note they impart to the beer.  And bad beer is bad beer, so using the very hard to anticipate fresh hops as the bitter charge increases the risk of a bad beer significantly.  In fact, I am confident that my beer will be quite enjoyable no matter what I have been able to extract from the fresh hops.

 I decided on a very simple recipe - a light colored pale ale (no, not a redundancy) hopped exclusively with Cascades, both dry and wet.  My brewing compatriot came over at 10 and we began the harvest of the hops at 10:30 while the strike water was heating up and by 10:45 we mashed in and continued to pick the hops.  Just for kicks I threw a couple of handfuls of wet hops in the mash at vorlauf for some wet hop first wort hopping.  Then the dried Cascades at the beginning of the the boil with a big bunch of wet hops at the end.  Having no idea how much to add I just grabbed handfuls and dumped until satisfied.  Something about that lack of precision - in a process defined by precision -  seemed fitting to the whole fresh hop beer ideal.  All went well and the beer is now fermenting happily. 

It'll be interesting to see how long the beer will last.  We will have five gallons of the stuff and I expect the fresh hop note to be ephemeral - I wonder how long it will take for the beer to either lose its character or become stale and unpleasant.  Those with experience are encouraged to chime in to prevent me from wasting beer.   

The whole endeavor feels very Portland to me - backyard hops cultivating, home-brewing, and making a northwest pale ale.  It was also a very cool experience regardless of the outcome.   

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Beer Arbitrage

I am going to hop on (get it?) an ongoing debate started by Jeff at Beervana (in fact he egged me on to do so) by talking about beer arbitrage.  It all started with a link to this article in the Washington Post. [You should go and read Jeff's post and the very interesting and informed discussion that followed in the comments]

While it focuses mostly on the eBay marketplace for beer (which is both prohibited by eBay and, if sold across state lines, most likely the law), I want to focus on the bigger picture: the secondary beer market itself.

The fact that these market have arisen suggests that there was a missing market problem: buyers and sellers who would like to transact but for whom there is no forum for such transactions.  The most common reason for such transactions is some sort of regulatory constraint.  Black markets in command and control economies like the former Soviet Union are a perfect example: shoes are on sale in Moscow, but there is little demand, so buyers buy them and sell them illegally in Siberia and so forth. 

In this case I suspect the main culprit is interstate restrictions on the sale of alcohol and the fact that a lot of the special beer can only be obtained close to the brewery. So this secondary market is really about circumventing the law - making money by breaking it.  But it is also about beer lovers who are willing to pay a lot to get some special beers that they crave and I agree entirely with Jeff, I fail to see how the resale market in any way exploits brewers.  The very existence of such markets means that additional value from the production and consumption of the beer is being created.  Which is good.

For the sake of argument let's forget about the regulatory constraint and suppose I decide to sell the bottle of Roots Epic that I have in my basement to a local buyer.  I am pretty sure I could get more for it now than when I bought it.  I have a willingness-to-sell price above which the cash is worth more to me than the beer.  I suspect there is someone out there with a willingness-to-pay price above my sell price and below which the beer is worth more than the cash.  If we can agree on a price somewhere in between my price and his/her price we are BOTH better off going through with the transaction.  This is precisely the entire point of markets: they create value by facilitating mutually beneficial exchanges.  Why this should be frowned upon is completely beyond me.

Here is a snippet from the article:

“In another life, I would be a consumer advocate,” Stone’s Koch says, adding that high prices also are problematic because they often accompany second-tier products. Some beers, such as hoppy India pale ales, quickly lose their vibrancy or go rancid when exposed to light and heat. “Frankly, somebody’s naive if they pay big dollars for this stuff on eBay,” Koch says. “They think they get a rare, special beer, but the reality is that they get a rare beer but it’s no longer special.”

Ultimately, though, what seems to upset brewers most is their sense that they are being exploited. “You want to hear about the framboise story?” said Russian River’s Cilurzo. “I am furious about this.”

Last September, Russian River released Framboise for a Cure, a raspberry-flavored beer that it sold for $12 per bottle to raise money for a local breast cancer treatment center. The beer sold out in a day, and soon somebody sold a bottle on eBay for $400. Then someone else put one up for sale. “We contacted that person,” Cilurzo says, “and we said, ‘This is absolutely ridiculous, because we donated 100 percent of this for charity.’”

But this is ridiculous, there is nothing pro-consumer about special releases and events that restrict the beer to a lucky/well-connected/eager set of consumers. What this secondary market is telling you is that you are excluding lots of your consumers and doing so in an inefficient way. And if Russian River wanted to raise money for the Cure, they should have raised the price of the beer, because they probably could have sold it for more. But they got the $12 they wanted for charity, I fail to see how the resale of the bottle has anything to do it, it is not going to affect the amount raised.

Furthermore, the implication that buyers of high priced Vertical Epic bottles are getting a degraded product is totally beside the point. Any buyer paying that much surely knows enough about beer to know the risk he/she is taking. And who are we to judge their preferences. I would not spend the money, but that is me, everyone else can follow their bliss.

So in the end, I do not think secondary markets are evil, just the opposite.  In general I love to find little instances where markets arise spontaneously due to some missing market problem and this is but another case.

Fresh Hop Fest in My Backyard

I am happy to report a bumper crop of Cascade hops in my backyard.  Now it is time to harvest and brew.  This will be my first ever attempt at a fresh hop beer.  I am of the opinion that fresh hop beers are best when dry hops are used as the bittering hops and the fresh hops are saved for the aroma.  I do not think this in any way creates somehow an ersatz fresh hop beer. I am, in general, a big giant fan of fresh hop beers and appreciate them even with their green and grassy warts.  Beer's connection to the earth is never more apparent, and the beer itself never more fresh tasting, than with fresh hop beer. 

All that said, it seems to be a real challenge to brew good ones.  Most fresh hop beer fests contain a few great ones, many so-so beers, and quite a few total failures.  I don't expect much from my first try.

Any and all advice is appreciated.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Timbers Pints are Honest

Thank god, Timbers pints are honest pints.

These are the pints season ticket holders were given as a thank you and, of course, I had to check.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

New Beer in the Old Country: US Craft Beer Catching on in the UK

News from across the pond, via the Guardian, is that US Craft Beer is taking off in the UK:

American "craft" brews are revealed as the UK's fastest growing beer trend. Data from Information Resources Inc, a research company, shows that sales of premium lagers imported from the US have increased by 150% over the past year as they are rolled out in the UK's pubs and clubs.

Tesco is launching four of the most popular – Blue Moon, Goose Island, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Brooklyn – at 750 stores across the UK. "American craft beers have become the UK's fastest growing beer trend and are now starting to muscle in on territory dominated by Belgian and German specialist brews," said Tesco's buyer, Chiara Nesbitt. "UK tastes have been changing for a while now, and more and more drinkers are moving towards flavoursome brews."

Now, we might lament the fact that Blue Moon is a SABMillerCoors product and that Goose Island is now part of the Bud empire, but Brooklyn and Sierra Nevada are legit. In fact there is a good argument to be made that it was Sierra Nevada that was THE pivotal beer that really kick-started the craft beer revolution in the US (Jim Koch disagrees, of course. And my theory of endogenous demand suggests that these early pioneers might just open up all kinds of room for other US craft beers and other UK brewers, like Thornbridge, that brew more American-style craft beer.

Here is another snippet:

"The popularity of American craft lagers is very much down to how they offer similar traits associated with the British brewing scene of older years," said Ian Lowe, of the real ale campaigner Camra. "They are more heavily hopped and are higher alcohol content brews."

The new lagers usually cost anything between 20p and 30p more than their established rivals. Lowe said he believed their increasing popularity indicated a shift in drinking patterns.

"While the American craft lagers are definitely pricier than the lagers and bitters that dominate the UK, even by London standards, I think the public feel that they would rather drink less but drink better," Lowe said. "They are moving away from the tasteless pint that the smooth-flows and lagers from bigger traditional brands offer. They are tired of old offerings of the standard of Carling and Carlsberg."

Still the culture of session drinking in the UK and the high-alcohol content of US craft beer might be a volatile mix...

Beer in Cans: Fort George

Last weekend, I went up on Mount Hood to go camping and at the last minute decided to bring a little tipple along.  Looking for something tasty and appreciating the compact and collapsible nature of the can, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to finally try craft beer from the can.  Craft beer in cans is not something I have been a big fan of, noting the BPA liners and the general low-brow nature of the can and so I have, until now, resisted.

When I saw Fort George's Vortex IPA, however, it was a easy decision to make.  Vortex is one of my favorite beers and one that I have only ever been able to enjoy at the brewpub in Astoria.  And I will say this for the can, it did preserve the beer perfectly: the aroma and flavor were excellent, and even drinking straight from the can did not diminish the enjoyment.  

I do have one regret, however: Vortex is a massive beer, something I had forgotten.  At 7.4% ABV it is a meal into itself.  Perfect for Astoria's cooler and wetter climate, but less good for a wonderfully warm and sunny weekend on the mountain.  I had a choice between Vortex and Fort George's 1811 lager and I didn't give it a second thought.  I should have, 1811 is a wonderfully over-hopped (for style) lager that is a hop-heads delight and a perfect summer beer.  I should have put off the Vortex 'till later and gone with the 1811.

The other regret is the $12.99 I parted with to buy a four pack of 16 ounce cans.  Were it not for the rush to get off to the mountain and the excitement of the chance to become reacquainted with Vortex, I would have pondered this a bit longer.  This is just too damn expensive.  [Ditto the $5.99 the same Safeway was charging for a 22 ounce Ninkasi Maiden the Shade]  And in this I think I see the rough waters ahead for the craft beer industry: with so much great beer, the companies that can provide it for less are going to be hard to compete with.  When I can get a six pack of Total Domination for $7.99, it is hard to justify the Vortex purchase.

But I digress, the point of this post was both to rejoice at the fact I can now enjoy Vortex at home and to admit to warming to the whole can deal.  Cans, in this instance, were as advertized: handy, easy to deal with and great a preserving the contents.   And big or not, the Vortex was fantastic.

Update: I had to stop in for some supplies and I grabbed a four pack of 1811, which I failed to notice before retails at $7.99 in my local grocery.  Interesting the disparity in prices.  Surely the Vortex costs more to produce, but not 70% more.  So why the price discrimination?  The Vortex must be a hot item while the 1811 less so. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

From Whence Lager Came: Patagonia?!?

CREDIT: by Barry Carlsen/University of Wisconsin-Madison

This is a fascinating article about a real-life yeastie detective story.  Apparently lager yeast is a hybrid - part ale yeast and part something else.  But what something?  No one knew - the genetic makeup was not native to Bavaria where lagers originated.

But now a University of Wisconsin researcher has found the missing link and not at all where you would expect it: Patagonia.  From the LiveScience article:

A fruit fly's journey from Patagonia to Bavaria could be the reason we enjoy nice, cold-brewed lager beers today. The missing parent of the hybrid yeast used for brewing lagers has just been discovered in Patagonia.

Until now, scientists had known lager beers were made from a hybrid yeast, with half of its genes coming from a common ale yeast and the other half coming from an unknown species.

"Nothing they could find in the wild or in the freezer collections could match the missing component of the lager yeast," study researcher Chris Todd Hittinger at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told LiveScience.


They found the missing yeast growing on southern beech trees in Patagonia. They sequenced the genes and found that this species of yeast was very likely to be a parent of the lager yeast hybrid.

"It’s a 99.5 percent match to the missing half of the lager genome. It's clear that it is this species," Hittinger said.

Each lager-yeast parent contributed one copy of its genome to the special yeast through sexual reproduction. The resulting yeast hybrids are sterile, meaning they can't reproduce sexually, but they can make direct copies of themselves and expand their genetically identical population.

In nature, this wouldn't be a smart evolutionary tactic, because it doesn't allow the yeast to adapt to changing conditions, the researchers said; but in the beer-brewing facilities, where temperatures are constant and food is freely available, the yeast can thrive.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Visit to Flat Tail Brewing in Corvallis

Flat Tail - the phone cam does not deal with the contrast well, but in front there is lots of outdoor seating.

When I lived in Corvallis, I lamented the dearth of local craft brewpub options.  At that time there were two, neither really meeting the definition of a true brewpub: Oregon Trail Brewing at the Old World Deli and the, then new, McMenamins on Monroe.  In the last few years however two exceptional brewpubs have opened: Block 15 (on which I waxed rhapsodic previously) and now Flat Tail Brewing.

I finally got a chance to check out Flat Tail yesterday when I was in town for some meetings and I came away very impressed.

Full on sportsbar style with lots of Beaver memorabillia

Flat Tail is in what used to be the Fox and Firkin, which after the creation of the waterfront park is now in a lovely spot on First and Madison with ample outside seating.  The location and the outdoor seating give it an advantage over Block 15, at least in these lovely summer months.  But whereas Black 15 is squarely in the 'NW Brewpub style' meaning lots of wood and exposed beams and a wee bit of down home funk (thank the McMenamins for creating the blueprint - and I do mean thank, the bright airy style of the NW brewpub was a distinct break from the dark tavern style), Flat Tail is full on collegetown sportsbar style.  It has gray walls, black furniture, a touch of gloss, and lots of flat screen TVs.  It also is a Beaver heaven with memorabilia covering all the walls.  Go Beavs.  In the 'do TVs belong in pubs?' debate I fall squarely in the yes camp as I am a hopeless sports fan.  I love to have a place to socialize and watch the game while at the same time enjoying excellent house made beer.  Though I am not terribly fond of the decor - I prefer the woody NW brewpub style - I am a fan of variety and find Flat Tail a nice break from that tradition.

iPhone cam not really up to the task, but here is the brewery

I don't know if the attached brewery was a part of the Fox and Firkin's space, I suspect not, but it is a wonderfully large space in which a reasonably large brewhouse has been placed.  I didn't think to ask, but I suspect it is in the 10 barrel range.  You can see the brewery from as couple of windows as you walk in and, in a nice touch, a whiteboard informs you of what is being currently brewed.

Flight of tasters - yum.

But what matters most is the quality of the beer.  I am happy to say the beer is generally excellent.  Their flight of tasters includes 8 and the very knowledgeable and friendly barkeep threw in a few more he was excited to share with me.  The range of styles was impressive - quite a few sours as well as hoppy NW standards and some very interesting experimental beers.  I must say I preferred the sours, with the 3% ABV "KSA" a real standout.  Here is how they describe it:

The second batch fermented 100% on oak with our Corvaller Weisse sour yeast blend. Brewed with oats, rye, wheat, and malted barley, then fermented with Gotu Kola nut, raw cacao nibs, and cherry juice. KSA has an incredibly complex nose of cherry, cocao, and spicy woodiness. This enamel strippingly sour ale retains its sessionable nature with a thirst quenching 3%ABV.

It was fantastic. Not the least bit lacking in flavor or body, a true session beer and great summer thirst quencher. I found the standard lineup (Amber, Pale and IPA) quite good but nothing really stood out.  I noticed a house hop quality in the more hop-centric beers like the IPA to be a bit of harsh bitterness and less aroma than in my favorites, but all three were exceptionally well-crafted beers.  I really enjoyed their version of an English extra special bitter (the EST), the malt body was perfect, but I was not overwhelmed by the use of Perle hops in lieu of EKG or Fuggles.  I love Perle in, for example, Double Mountain's Kolsch, but didn't think they matched well with the malt. The stout was great as well, wonderfully roasty but not too dense.

Speaking of Kolsch, theirs is exceptional and I was told it will be their first bottled beer (and will be available in the Market of Choice chain statewide).  This is a great call, nice counter-programming from all the IPAs out there.  Their Kolsch is less spicy than DMs, but clean, refreshing and nicely balanced.  It is also crystal clear making me wonder if it was filtered.  The barkeep was not sure. 

Two other beers are worth mentioning.  The have a very nice apricot wheat, which is a nice dry American wheat beer with just a hint of apricot which is a study in restraint and very satisfying.  And then there is the El Guapo:

This unique summer ale is brewed with over 35 pounds of fresh, whole cucumbers, habaneros, and limes fermented directly in our open tank. Rahr 2-row, Weyermann Pilsner, and modest hopping rates allow this flavor combination to shine through.

No doubt this is a very divisive beer, but I loved it (though 3oz were plenty). The cucumber hits the tongue immediately - light and refreshing while the habanero spice comes through in the finish. I am not generally a fan of pepper spiced beers and I wouldn't really want a whole pint of this, but it is a successful experiment and worth a taste at least.

Finally a word about the food. The menu is brewpub/sportsbar: burgers, fries, sandwiches, etc. I had the Old South pulled pork sandwich which was very good and upgraded to onion rings which were excellent. From this small sample I expect the rest of the food to be done well with good attention to detail.

So, all in all, Flat Tail is a fantastic addition to the NW brewpub scene and a wonderful place to hang out on a sunny Oregon summer day or on gray winter days to watch a game and hang with friends. My one disappointment was the lack of any cask offerings - a shameful oversight if you ask me. Hopefully they will get on the cask bandwagon soon.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Bubbles and Beer

Jeff at Beervana has a post on new numbers from the Brewer's Alliance and wonders whether we need to start seriously worrying about a bubble in craft beer.  As evidence, he notes this graph.

He also mentions anecdotal evidence that at Jeld-Wen during Timbers games Widmer far out-sells Bud. 

Why do I mention the two together?  It is because, as readers familiar with the blog will know well, my theory of the craft beer industry is that demand is endogenous.  In other words, the more craft beer the more people try it and like it, the more it appears in stores, etc.  I think Portland, Oregon has the largest demand for craft beer in the country not because there is something different about the people or culture, rather because of the length of the history of craft brewing in the state as well and the breadth (see post below about quality beer taps in random pizza joints).  When you get to the point where craft beer far outsells macro lager in sports stadiums, you know the world has changed.

Most cities and states are far behind Oregon and I see no reason why the same kind of demand cannot be developed in other parts of the US.  Therefore I am not ready to call a bubble based on the graph above (and in general as an economist I never think I can call a bubble because by definition if it is obvious it is not a bubble).  I do, however, worry about the ever present economies of scale aspect of brewing which - especially among packaging brewers - will probably lead to winners and losers.  This is not a bubble however, simply that market sorting out the good from the not so good.

But no matter what, the unequivocal good news is in the short run at least, there will be a ton of new beer to try.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Only in Portland

Yesterday, after picking my kids up from their soccer camp, we stopped in at Pizza Roma in Woodstock for a slice.  For non-Portlanders it is a good pizza place, typical and has a nice little tap list despite not being known as a beer bar.  It was lunch and so I didn't partake but among the great beers on offer were Double Mountain IRA, Terminal Gravity IPA, Fort George Vortex IPA and Ninkasi Total Domination.  All four would proabably make my list of top ten favorite beers.  Nice.

Only in Portland do you wander into a random neighborhood slice shop and have such a stellar tap list.

Beervana indeed. 

Visiting Summit

Sam in front of Summit's bar

The last in a series of Summit related posts, I promise.  But as brother Sam gave me a tour of the now 25 year old brewery, it is worth talking about.

Fermenting/conditioning tanks
Summit now resides in a purpose built building that is located close to the Mississippi river in St. Paul.  Apparently they bought, for $1, the land for the building on a brownfield site that the city was interested in redeveloping.  What they built is an enormous brewery using the guts of the old ---- brewery in Germany including a lovely copper lauter tun and boil kettle:

The scale of the place is impressive: their brewhouse is 150 barrels and it runs about 20 hours a day.  They also bought Sierra Nevada's old bottling line which bottles at the rate of ten twelve ounce bottles a second (and yes, that tells you how big Sierra Nevada has become).  It is an impressive place, the scale of which is rarely seen in the craft beer world.

Summit's bottling line
It also gave me the chance to finally try Summit beer.  I had just about the full gamut at their in-house bar, and thus everything was a bit too fast to give a real review but here are some impressions.  The beer I expected to like least, the Red Ale, I liked best: it was nicely hoppy (with Cascades prominently featured) and balanced, it was not malty like I associate with the non-style that is the American red.  I also liked the ridiculously hoppy (and out of balance) silver anniversary ale - I am a hop head after all and a full on blast of hops is always welcome as long as it is not simply bitter and harsh.  , The IPA is a wonderful British IPA - Northwesterners would not embrace it, but old-worlders would find it right in the wheelhouse, full of Norther Brewer and East Kent Goldings it has a lovely soft hop profile.  It is not as transcendent as the Old/New-world masterpiece that is Bridgeport's IPA but very, very nice.  The best selling Extra Pale Ale was not for me, but seems a perfect gateway into the world of craft brew for the macro set.  The porter and the stout were both nice with the stout on nitro and very much the Guinness clone in the sense of being a lower alcohol beer that is dark in color but light on the tongue.

Cold room
 The thing that was most remarkable to this Beeronomist was the fact that 300 barrels of the the one-off Honeymoon Saison were made.  This suggests that the Unchained series has an identity of its own and they are confident it will sell no matter what the style.  And with the PR folks doing a good job selling the human interest side of Sam and Cambers wedding beer story, it will probably not last long on shelves.  
Sam and his beer
Plus, it is a damn good beer.