Monday, August 27, 2012

Beer Tasting in São Paulo

Our host instructing us on the method
I was invited to a beer tasting event while I am visiting and conducting research in São Paulo.  At first I was excited because I thought it would be a chance to try out new craft breweries in Brazil (which are devilishly difficult to find due to the stranglehold the big brewers have on the Brazilian market), but it turn out it was all macro brews.  No matter it was a fun time and the host was interested in finding out if his guests could distinguish correctly among the beers, find consensus on what beers were good and the ranking of the beers.  Unsurprisingly, there was a distinct lack of ability to tell them apart and no consensus on what were the better beers.

By the way, I don't think it is translated into Portuguese but what my host needs is his own copy of the Beer Tasting Tool Kit.  Next time I come I'll take him one signed by the author...

My sheet
Brazilian macro lagers have a distinct taste due to their use of corn they are derisively called Brazilian Corn Beers (BCB) by the small but growing community of beer geeks in Brazil.  I dislike them and find them desperately in need of a little more hops.  The beer I turn to when I have a choice is Heineken which is brewed in Brazil but tastes pretty close to the real thing - Heineken in Brazil also produces Kaiser and Bavaria (which was one of the beers at the party).  AB InBev is the global conglomerate that is a Brazilian - Belgian company and was formed in part out of the Brazilian firm AmBev that was formed by the merger of Brahma and Antartica - two of the beers we tried - and they also own Bohemia and Skol.  Thus the companies that are represented in the list below are exactly three: Heineken, AB InBev and Itaipava (Groupo Petropolis).

The beers were:
The metric


Brahma Extra





Frankly they were all pretty bad I am sorry to say, but no worse than if I was in the US judging Coors, Miller and Bud.  They do have a distinct taste due to the corn, just as US macros have a distinct taste due to the rice they often use. I found the beers lacking in taste and substance and my winner won because it was the only beer in which I could detect even the faintest hint of hops.
My winner

Still it was a fun time with lots of denigrating the beer and a friendly contest to see who could name the most beers correctly (the winner was able to name 4 beers correctly and did so twice - impressive - the rest of us peaked at 1).  My winner, by the smallest of margins (mainly because I had to choose a winner) was Brahma Extra.  I like to think that this confirms my discriminating taste as I chose the only beer that was 'Extra." 

So what of the Brazilian craft beer industry?  Well it did make one appearance in the from of Baden Baden Stout, which at 7.5% ABV was for me far to heavy and sweet.  Take 25% off the grain bill and you might be on to something as the flavors were nice.  I had a Baden Baden Golden the last time I was here and I remember finding it a bit heavy as well so I suppose it is their house style and it makes some sense in response to the thin watery beers.

My next time here perhaps I'll arrange a craft beer tasting party, but for now at least I am well learned in the ways of BCB.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Beer Review: Mt. Hood Ice Axe IPA

I, among many beer bloggers it appears, was sent a bottle of Mt. Hood Ice Axe IPA to help announce its arrival in bottles and on the shelves of Zupan's Markets. Though I have driven by Mt. Hood's brewpub in Government Camp many times I have never had occasion to stop in, nor have I ever had the opportunity to taste their beer. 

Given that I had not been privy to any buzz about the place and also that it is launching (both predictably and smartly) an IPA as its first bottled offering to thirsty Oregonians I was frankly not expecting too much.  What I was expecting was a pretty conventional NW hop bomb with generous helpings of Cascade, Centennial and perhaps Columbus to make a three C hop bomb, or possibly Summit or another heavy citrus hop.  Which is all great for me, I am a slave to such beers.

What I got surprised and delighted me.  This is not a typical NW IPA, it is more of a NW take on a traditional English IPA.  And it is phenomenal.

I don't get too technical when I think about reviewing beer.  Frankly I don't have the palate for it, nor the inclination.  I like to drink beer experientially - by which I mean I like to think less about all of the component parts and more about how the beer makes me feel.  This beer hit a sweet sport because it took me immediately back to my beer tour of Britain with the Beerax while at the same time reminding me of home. 

It has a nice malt profile, and pours a fairly deep amber with ample head and nice lacing.  It is exceptionally well-balanced (which will probably lead to condemnation among NW hop heads) and is more malt forward than NW IPAs but true to the English style.  It features English variants Centennial, Willamette and Goldings hops prominently so look for a spicy and slightly piney hop flavor but not the big citrus nose that characterize so many of the big NW faves.   Added to this are Geman style Mt Hood and Magnum hops that further emphasize the spice.  This a brave beer to make in a region that has such a well-defined idea of what makes a good IPA.  This, my firends, is an exceptional IPA but wonderfully different.  As it warmed, the malt biscuity flavors mingled lovingly with the English spicy hops and made me think of those cold English evenings huddled in a country pub, tucked into a sheppard's pie and a fresh IPA.  Nice.

It splits the difference between Britain and the NW by coming in at 5.7% ABV - small for the NW, but grotesquely big for England.  And they claim 60 IBUs but these are English hops and treat your palate more lovingly than do the big NW super hops. 

Keep and open mind and enjoy a rare locally made English style IPA, done to perfection. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Brewery Bubble?

The U.S. now boasts 2,126 breweries—an increase of 350 additional breweries since June 2011. The BA also tracks breweries in planning as an indicator of potential new entrants into the craft category, and lists 1,252 breweries in planning today compared to 725 a year ago. Additionally, the count of craft brewers was at 2,075 as of June 30, 2012 showing that 97 percent of U.S. brewers are craft brewers.

With the latest Brewery Association numbers comes renewed worry that we may be seeing a bubble in brewing.  First, to be a little pedantic about it, in economics a good working definition of a bubble in when prices become detached to the fundamental value of the good in question.  Of course, careful economic students will think about how prices are set in marketplaces and represent the market value of a good - which leads to the first existential question in economics: can bubbles exist.  But leavoing that aside, I understand the usage here: are there now too many breweries than can be sustained long term in the market? [This is a bubble in the sense that the price folks are willing to pay to start a brewery may be too high given the present discounted value of the expected stream of revenues]

In general the market for craft beer is showing stong growth:
Dollar sales were up 14 percent in the first half of 2012, while volume of craft brewed beer sold jumped 12 percent during that same time period.
So the fact that the number of craft breweries is expanding makes sense. However, the overall market for beer is shrinking - something the big brewers are grappling with by getting into more and more flavored malt beverages to try and compete with cocktails and the like.  In other words, the craft beer niche is expanding at the same time the overall beer market is shrinking.  What to make of this?  I actually think it is not contradictory at all.  Whereas before most drinkers would find themselves behind a Bud, new drinkers are looking for more - more flavor, more variety, etc.  Both spirits and craft beer offer this.

Which is all to say that I think craft beer is in a good place and maybe we should think of craft beer in the same way we think about spirits and not lump it in with the macro lager industry.

Which is not to say that there will not be some bloodletting in the craft beer industry.  I imagine that at the rate of new openings we are currently seeing there are probably a number of breweries with inadequate experience, poorly thought out business plans or poos locations.  But brewery closings in these cases are a sign of industry health - creative destruction as economists call it - not a sign of an ailing industry.

Overall, then, I see no reason why the marketplace can't sustain vastly more brewpub models.  I think the pressure will be on production breweries - the economies of scale reality and the limited shelf space in supermarkets make pure production brewing much more cutthroat and I expect that we will soon start seeing some failures in this area even with overall increases in market share.  But again, I think this is healthy - better breweries will survive and lesser ones will not.

The winners in all of this are the punters who will get better beer, more variety and lower prices as a result.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Flat Tail Redux

On the last night of an intense work week in Corvallis I decided to finally get back to Flat Tail Brewery.  Work, unfortunately forced me to miss a chance to hang out with Dave the brewer so that will wait for another time but I have two little notes from my economist's notebook to pass along.

I hadn't noticed before but Flat Tail prices beer differently for different beer and roughly by ABV.  Which is nice.  It makes the exceptional Kolsch both a great session beer for being lower ABV but also because it won't make to big a dent in your wallet.  [I also suspect it helps cut down on binging by price sensitive college students but who knows]  The Kolsch last night was as good as I remember and perfect for a lovely summer evening down in the valley.

And talking of beer, I highly recommend the IPA, a great example of getting great flavor and aroma out of hops, but what the heck is Zythos hops?  Apparently good, because it was hopped with Cascade (which I know very well) and Zythos (which I don't).  Zythos appears to be a fruity hop ala Summit that imparts a nice citrus note.

I did not care for the imperial IPA, the Licentious Goat, because I am very sensitive to herbs and spices in beer and generally find them objectionable.  But, that is me and it is a very well made beer and a real crowd pleaser so there you are.  I bought a bottle of a pale ale (whose name escapes me) in a local market which was also very nice - it was great to see bottles out in the market.

I will also put in a plug for the fish and chips (one of my other passions).  The fresh halibut was fantastic and wonderfully flavorful.  Just a tiny bit rubbery, but nice big chunks cooked well puts it well up on my list.  I do think they should rethink the waffle fries though. And something that is often neglected is the tartar sauce, but Flat Tail's appears to be made fresh and is exceptionally tasty.  Ditto the slaw which is sans mayo, fresh, light and tasty. 

Funny that the crowd outside Bock 15 was bigger, but Flat Tail deserves just as much love: beautiful location, great beer and good food. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Kids and Pubs

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
It always seemed like good economics to me to make pubs in Portland family friendly, and it is the rare exception to find a pub that is not.  I have never felt tension in such places and, though I am a parent who from time to time patronizes pubs with kids, I more often meet up with adult friends for a little adult chatter and beer sans fils.

But apparently our tolerant, family-friendly culture is not common in hard-core New York:
It seemed that every parent in Park Slope was talking about it. A new bar was opening on the edge of the neighborhood and its owner had put out the word to local families: strollers welcome.

This was big news among the stroller set in a Brooklyn neighborhood where relations between those with children and those without have often been testy.

But within days of the June 28 opening of the bar, Greenwood Park, vitriol erupted online.

Several patrons took to Yelp, the popular review Web site, to complain — loudly — about the influx of children.

“I arrived around 6 PM with friends and showed my ID to the doorman. OH YEAH, time for a laid back and relaxing time with some frosty beverages and bar food! WRONG, welcome to Chuck-E-Cheese in South Slope,” a Yelp reviewer, John H., posted on July 3. “From infant to toddler to preteen, every age except adult seemed to be well represented. I’m not sure why they even put tables and chairs in. It would have been far more practical to just throw a jungle gym in there and call it a day.”

At 13,000 square feet, Greenwood Park, tucked between the Prospect Expressway and Green-Wood Cemetery, is much, much larger than bars on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, where they average about 1,000 square feet, according to the Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District. Most of its space is outdoors, ringed by a high wall of wooden pallets and dotted with picnic tables and featuring a bar made out of a shipping container, bocce courts and 40 varieties of draft beer.
Here are some amusing responses to this article.

I think places like Laurelwood get it just right: have an area in which kids can entertain themselves, mildly segregate the groups with kinds and those without and otherwise not worry so much about it.