It’s Not Funny

The Daily Beast has a new list that’s making its way around the internet, the most drunken cities of America. Oddly, this seems to be treated by most I’ve seen as a comical collection of data or a badge of honor for those cities that made the list. I, however, don’t find the humor in this – for several reasons.

First and foremost is the further acceptance by mainstream media in the definition of binge drinking, as defined by the CDC – who uses the definition of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism. According to these folks, “binge drinking” is a “pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above”. In other words, if you’ve drunk four or five drinks in a two hour period, you’re a binge drinker. Keep in mind, the USDA’s own “recommendation” for alcohol consumption is three drinks per day for women, four drinks per day for men. So, if you exceed the USDA recommended volume of alcohol consumption by just one drink, you’re a binge drinker.

Folks, I don’t know about you, but I find that illogical, misleading and terribly confusing. Imagine if a state were to deem speeding five miles per hour over the speed limit of 65 miles per hour as excessive speeding (or reckless). In California (where I live) speeding is defined, essentially, as exceeding the posted speed limit (70 mph is the top speed); whereas reckless driving is driving done in excess of 100 mph. That, to me, seems more in line with the way I think about recommendations, exceeding them and outright abusing them. In fact, I think that’s what most people think. Be honest, when you see the words ‘binge drinking’ we tend to think of characters like Johnny Depp in “Fear and Loathing” or Nick Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas” – those on major benders, unable to walk or speak, string together complex thoughts or carry on in any capacity. That is what we consider, as a public, to be binge drinking. Right? Well, guess what. The media has blindly accepted the bullshit definition of a binge drinker and perpetuated the myth to a point where it’s mainstream.

Why does this matter? Because our lawmakers buy into this shit, too. Folks read these stories, write letters and call their elected officials, who in turn feel they need to remedy a problem that really doesn’t exist to the level they’re concerned about it. It’s been said here before (as well as other places), the new prohibitionists aren’t out publicly trying to ban alcohol, that’d never work. Instead, they use propaganda such as this to influence policy makers into introducing fees, taxes and restrictions on sales that ultimately make alcohol harder to obtain. You think the City of San Francisco isn’t going to hear about its #3 ranking for the Drunkest Cities in America? They’ve already been pushing for new alcohol fees, citing public heath as a concern. Well, here’s more fodder for their misguided attempts to slide new taxes in while we’re distracted by the next big thing on TV.

Also of interest to me is the lack of apparent correlation between binge drinking and alcoholic liver disease. I mean, look at the two Northern California cities on the list – San Francisco and Sacramento. They’re close geographically, San Fran is #3 on the list, Sacramento ranks #23. Compare these stats:

Heavy Drinkers:

San Francisco: 8.2%

Sacramento: 7%

 

Binge Drinkers:

San Francisco: 19.6%

Sacramento: 15.6%

 

Deaths per 100,000 residents from alcoholic liver disease:

 

San Francisco: 6.9

Sacramento: 8.1

I don’t know. I clearly am not a doctor or statistician, but just looking at these generically it seems weird that San Francisco can dominate Sacramento in percentage of heavy drinkers and binge drinkers, but be so far behind Sacramento in the alcoholic liver disease category. I have my theories, however (lifestyle being chief among them – folks in SF just walk more than Sacramento).

In all I just want to convey that the we ought not jump on board in perpetuating stories like this. In fact, I’d love to see more of us speak out against the way we define binge drinking and the way ‘binge drinkers’ are characterized. If, in fact, we’re going to label anyone who have 4 or 5 beers as a binge drinker, we ought not be overly concerned as a general public. It’s pretty much like calling those who drive 75 or 80 in a 70mph zone “reckless drivers”. No, they’re speeders. Save the reckless term for those who truly are – same is true for those who abuse alcohol. Five drinks isn’t a binge. When you start doubling that number, then we’ll have something to talk about.

Top Ten Brewers of the Last Ten Years

It’s the end of another year. It’s the end of another decade. While we take time to celebrate another trip around the sun, I thought I’d take a look at what I believe to be the brightest stars in beer over the last ten years. I don’t have a reputable criteria for the list here, mainly just the folks I think made the biggest splash (in the media, with beer geeks, in my own imagination). There’s nothing too surprising here.

  1. Dogfish Head: Ancient Ales has been a stupidly popular series. DFH 120 Minute? Mythic, if only slightly drinkable. 60 Minute? IPA of the East Coast. Oh, and there’s also the fact these guys were chosen to be the first collaborative brewery to work with Sierra Nevada (a test of sorts for the anniversary series rolled out in 2010). The passion of its founder, Sam Calagione, has catapulted this small-town brewery to the national stage – hell, Sam even hosts his on TV show, for crying out loud! It seems wherever you look, for the past several years, some talking head is out there talking about Dogfish Head. And why the hell not? Those are some damn good beers.
  2. Firestone Walker Brewing: It’s hard to imagine a brewery that has done more, all around, than FSW. With a treasure chest of GABF & World Beer Cup medals, vastly expanded distribution, wildly successful contract brands and some of the most sought-after barrel-aged beers, it’s hard to imagine what more they can accomplish. Additionally, they’ve seemingly perfected the modern understanding of the American Pale Ale (a feat that is incredible, in itself).
  3. Port Brewing / Lost Abbey / Pizza Port: The star on this great brewery seemed to fade with some bottling issues in the Lost Abbey brand, but who can look past the success of the Port Brewing team, as a whole, in the past ten years? In its stable this brother/sister brewing operation has two of the biggest names in American craft beer: Jeff Bagby and Tomme Arthur (with all their Brewmaster of the year honors to show off).
  4. Russian River Brewing: The darling of American craft beer for many, RRBC has sustained a level of quality and passion that seemed unsustainable. While the team hasn’t quite achieved the competitive successes of FSW or Port/Lost Abbey (even though the brewery has plenty of honors and awards), its brand has skyrocketed and forced its way to the top-tiers of American culinary acceptance. Want proof? I have two words: Thomas Keller.
  5. PBR: You have to admit, the beer your dad grew up on has found new life that few could have predicted in 1999. The brand is hip, too hip for some, and today is selling pretty damn well. How well? In 2009, while Bud & Corona were slowing in sales a bit, PBR saw a 30% increase in sales.
  6. Bell’s Brewery: How can I not have these guys on the list? With beers like Two Hearted making an annual appearance on many respected “top beers” lists, their impressive expansion in distribution, to its regular appearance in mainstream media outlets, you can’t argue these guys are making great beer and doing a great job telling the world about it.
  7. Jolly Pumpkin: You just can’t look past the media attention this small brewery out of Dexter, Michigan has received. What Jolly Pumpkin has accomplished in the media arena alone is impressive, especially given the word-of-mouth / grassroots nature of its success. Foodies love it, beer geeks love it. More importantly, these folks have heard of it and have access to it.
  8. Brooklyn Brewery: Garrett Oliver isn’t new to the brewing world, but this decade seemed to be a bit of a coming out party for this brewer / foodie. With the success of The Brewmaster’s Table, Mr. Oliver seems to have become the go-to man in the industry when it comes to discussing food and beer pairings. Aside from this, brands like Local 1 and Oliver’s collaboration projects with Schneider (Germany) have set Brooklyn’s beers on the national stage.
  9. Sierra Nevada: There is no single brewery that has done more in sustainable practices than Sierra Nevada, and in a decade where Global Climate Change and “Green Jobs” have been such hot-button issues, it stands out that this company has received so many local, state and national awards. Additionally, in the past several years the company has slowly rebranded itself (although they’d never admit it). From the introduction to Kellerweise, its wildly popular “beer camps, Torpedo and the still-fantastic offerings of old (Pale Ale, Celebration, Bigfoot to name a few) SNBC has basically told the beer geeks of America they’re not going away, they’re not being left behind and they may just continue being the pioneers we’ve always thought they were.
  10. Allagash: Part of me just wants to point out they were in Playboy, but that’d just be crass. In reality the folks at Allagash have achieved nation-wide distribution and a reputation that cannot be touched. In addition, they have put out an outstanding mix of beers – from the celebrated white ale, to the black, to the hoppy Hugh Malone and many in between.

In all there is no denying the decade has been fantastic for those who like ‘craft’ beer. We’ve got more now than we used to, not as many as we’d all like. For the most part, we all know that lists such as these are pointless exercises. That said, I know full well I’ve made omissions - I’d love to hear from you what you think I missed, what you think shouldn’t be here. Cheers!

2010 Hop Crop Data

As mentioned before, things aren’t looking very good for the future of hops in America. The 2010 hop report came out last week (Dec. 17th), as tallied by the USDA. While there are few surprises, the report does make one thing clear: we over-corrected on hop crops after the “hop crisis” of 2007.

Overall, hop harvests in 2010 dropped 31% over last year’s harvest (65.5 million pounds in 2010; 94.7 million pounds harvested in 2009)! That’s nearly one-third fewer hops in just one year! Also not surprising is the continued trend for hop farmers to grow the super-alpha hops, those with highest levels alpha acid units (or AAUs, commonly referred to as AA). In Washington, the nation’s top hop-growing state, Zeus & Columbus/Tohahawk accounted for 38% of the state’s hop harvest in 2010. Nugget & Willamette hop varieties topped Oregon’s hop harvest, with those varieties accounting for a whopping 52% of the state’s crops this year.

To read more on my thoughts of the future of American hops, please check out the story, Hop Crisis Revisited.

Hop Crisis, Revisited

It’s been three years now since the beer world became familiar with the term Hop Crisis and a lot has been said about the causes and consequences of it since then. On one hand we remember the initial reports blaming the crisis on a perfect storm of catastrophes in the hop world: the warehouse fire in Washington; a devastating hail storm in Europe; growing demand; fewer acres. What followed this storm was a controversial and mostly ignored period where brewers were strongly persuaded into long term contracts with farmers at astronomical prices, creating a miniature boom in hop farms in the United States. With the wonders of hind-sight we can now rationally look back at the crisis that was and hopefully learn to avoid the crisis that is coming.

The Perfect Storm

News of the hop warehouse fire spread like, well, wildfire across the country. Major news outlets ran it, brewers and beer geeks talked about blogged about it. To refresh, the fire took place in October 2006 at S. S. Steiner’s 40,000 square foot warehouse and was reported to have destroyed approximately 4% of the US hop harvest. That’s a lot of hops.

In 2007 the hop-watching world was rattled by the online videos of massive hail storms obliterating much of the region’s Saaz hop crops. The storm provided good visuals, but in fact the storm only added to the bigger problem that was a second straight year of weaker harvest numbers for the region.

It was right around this time that prices for hops skyrocketed. In 2005 farmers averaged $1.86 per pound for their hops. In 2006 hop prices had a modest increase, averaging $1.98. 2007 prices, however, jumped nearly a buck to fetch an average of $2.94. This was the year of the crisis, mind you, the year that was supposed to be the worst of it. Mind you, this is the average price for hops, said generically, that the farmers were paid. The vast majority of independent brewers in the country don’t buy hops directly from the farmer, but through wholesalers like Hop Union and Yakima Hops. When you factor in the costs associated with processing, storing and delivering hops, as well as any administrative fees associated with a wholesale entity, you should not be at all surprised to learn the brewers paid significantly more for their hops.

 

Background and Controversy

For brewers this was a troubling time. Many of the lower alpha acid hops (aroma hops), that the average beer geek may or may not know of, were in short supply – and for good reason. Hops are bought by major producers for their alpha acid. When an industrial brewer needs to achieve a level of bitterness for its beer, it doesn’t necessarily matter to them what the variety is. For this reason we see more and more farms moving to super alpha acid hop farming, which many of the American IPA fans appreciate. That said, there’s more to the brewer’s world than sticky, resinous IPAs. Delicate pilsners, Common Ales and beer styles of beer geeks go nuts over rely on the delicacy of low alpha hops, hops that don’t contribute much bitterness, but prove themselves for the soft notes of flowers and earthiness not found in super alpha acid hops. When a brewery buys hops for the alpha acid, it can buy fewer pounds of high alpha hops in order to achieve its desired IBU content in the beer. As much as the small brewery movement has grown in America, it still accounts for less than 10% of beer consumed in America and, therefore, lacks the influence in industry needed to dictate how farmers plant their crops.

In order to guarantee supply for the hops small brewers needed, many took the advice of top industry wholesalers and secured multi-year contracts at current market prices, which were very high. This is where the rub is for many small brewers in America. At the time it was perceived that the only rational stance for a small brewer was to accept that hop prices would never decrease and that it was prudent to lock in on the prices while they were seemingly low. Clearly, none of these assumptions panned out and today there are a more than a few breweries taking a significant hit on the price paid for hops.

How bad were these assumptions? As mentioned above, hop prices in 2007 soared to a whopping $2.94 on average. In 2008 hop prices continued to increase to an average of $4.08, thus leading some believe the hype of the previous year. In 2009, however, prices for hops dropped significantly, down to $3.52. In 2010 prices are expected to fall even further (this year’s hop report is due in the middle of December).

Another Crisis Looming

A concept that is easy to understand for any industry is supply and demand. After the scare of 2007 there was a massive overcorrection in acres of hops planted in America. Take a look at the state of Washington, the country’s largest hop growing region. In 2005 Washington had 21,000 acres of hops planted; 21,500 acres in 2006; 22,750 acres in 2007; 30,600 acres in 2008; 29,600 acres in 2009. The United states as a whole followed a similar pattern: 30,911 acres planted in 2007; 40,898 acres in 2008; 39,726 acres in 2009.

With such vast increases in hops available, the industry was able to avert catastrophic shortages of hops available for brewing around the world (not just the United State). However, with such significant growth in acreage, more so than demand, there was a necessary downward trend in hop prices that has yet to hit bottom. While final numbers are not available at the time of writing, it is expected that hop prices will once again see modest declines in 2010. But this is just the beginning.

Compounding the issue of hop pricing is the growing stockpile of hops in America. In March 2008 it was reported that America had a processed hop inventory of 66 million pounds (hops stored at breweries and warehouses). In March 2010 hop supplies were reported at 102 million pounds, or 36 million pounds more than 2008. This isn’t just an American concern, either. Worldwide it is reported that, for the 2010 hop harvest alone, there is a 1,500 metric ton surplus in alpha acids. It is safe to say that the market over corrected. Many brewers and industry experts expect the price for hops will continue to decline and if not properly addressed, could lead to another supply crisis by 2015.

That’s one over-correction. What many brewers fear is the second over-correction, the expected sharp drop in hop prices that inevitably lead to fewer hop farms, fewer hops produced and a strong rebound in hop prices that necessarily follows. If left to its own devices, however, the beer industry should be gearing up for perhaps a greater hop crisis in the year 2015, if not sooner.

*UPDATE: There were 31,251 acres of hops planted in America in 2010, or 8,475 acres LESS than 2009. Forgot to include that.

 

Wet Hops

To Make Matters Worse

There are few who know that would argue Dr. Val Peacock is one of the world’s top minds when it comes to anything to do with hops. With that understood, folks in the know took notice when he published his piece in this summer in New Brewer, an industry publication put out by the Brewers Association. While the article offered many great insights, one key thing to focus on in the context of this piece, is the lack of quality assurance small brewers may have to contend with today and in the foreseeable future, especially when it comes to purchasing low alpha/ aroma hops. Peacock contends, rightfully so, that the large brewers in America worked with farmers to assure quality and improve practices – something the entire beer industry benefited from. After the harvest of 2008, all such programs sponsored by these large breweries ceased. With this in mind, if we can assume a lower yield of aroma hops as acreage declines and new / upstart hop farmers are left to their own devices, we could see significant issues in overall hop quality and production in an already scarce market. Read: poorer quality in an already short supply of hops.

How to Avoid Hop Crisis Part II

To be certain, hop supply shortages are nothing new. If you read old brewing accounts, you’ll see that hops shortages have been part of the brewing world for well over one hundred years. That said, there are things that can be done to avoid shortages of necessary hops in the future. Likely the most effective way to guarantee supply is for brewers to work more with the farmers. Granted, this method requires more work on behalf of the brewer, but the benefits are many. First, communication with the farmer is a good way to see where his/her concerns are from harvest to harvest, and years down the road. Farmers have all this information, too, and will be certainly planning accordingly. Most importantly could be the advice given by Dr. Peacock in his New Brewer piece: “… don’t expect to buy your hops on the spot market every year below the cost of production and still get good quality, or for that matter, delivery of your hops in short years. This will cost you even more in the long run than paying a sustainable price, and sends a signal to growers that you don’t care about investing in hop quality!”

The sustainable price will be the biggest key to mutually assured success in the hop market and beer industry for years to come. Brewers cannot be taken to the wood shed in terms of pricing and long-term contracts, and brewers should become more familiar with the true costs of hops and what farmers need to keep the rhizomes in the ground year after year. The bigger independent brewers in America are already working to assure their supplies; smaller brewers should follow suit.

My Advice

While we don’t have the European model that guarantees a base level of quality in the hops we buy from farmers, we can still work closely with them to express our needs and desires. Most small brewers in American can’t afford the time or money to visit farmers, but utilizing the regional guilds popular in America could be a great way to start. Regional guilds are great because, typically, they’re comprised of brewers that work together on some level and know what each other’s business needs are (more so than a national association or hop wholesaler). Aroma hops are prized among American small brewers, but ultimately not the business of American hop farmers looking to sell hops for alpha acid content. If we fail to work with the farmers, if we assume the aroma hops will always be around because they always have been, I fear we could lose out big time. Additionally, while there were more than a few brewers in America that got burned by negotiating and signing contracts under duress, the best way to ensure supply and quality is to contract it. Farmers are like any well-run business, they plan years out and always keep an eye on the bottom line. While ‘spot buying’ may save money in the short term, relying on this practice could ultimately cost more than brewers are willing to pay.

Four Innovations that made Beer Better

This isn’t a fluff piece that points to modern personalities often called innovators. Instead, it’s a fluff piece about the things I think were required to make the beer we love the beer we can love. Know this – I didn’t write this for you and this isn’t a dissertation. I’m certain I missed something big and that’s OK – I do think these are the biggest historical innovations that made the beer you love the beer you love.

These thoughts didn’t just spring from nowhere, mind you. I’ve been reading as much as I can about the California Common / Steam beer and have wondered much about how shitty it must have been back in the day. Honestly, the way drinkers of steam beer were talked about in old books and adverts makes you think of the same audience that cherished salted meat and boiled food. What’s this have to do with innovation? Simple. I love Anchor Steam – I think it’s an absolutely beautiful beer that finishes dry and has wonderful subtlety and complexity lost in a world of brash and bold flavors. There are many texts that talk about Anchor prior to Fritz – it wasn’t always the beautiful beer I know today (Fritz would be the first to tell you, too). So, what made it different? For that matter, what made the beers in my fridge (the go-to beers) so good? Here’s the list I came up with.

The Professional Maltster
In reading old documents that discuss brewing one thing keeps popping up – the fact that many brewers (if not most, honestly it’s hard for me to tell) were responsible for malting their own grain. With this understood, it’s easy to figure out why certain regions specialized in certain styles of beer. Yes, a big consideration to beer styles around the world has to go to water quality, but it doesn’t take a lot of thought to figure out if brewers had to malt their own grain, they likely aren’t going to create seven types of caramel malt, varying degrees of roasted malt and dabble with the process of floor malting and whatnot all at the same time. I would also speculate, just by personal observation, that the majority of brewers would be strong in one area of expertise more than the other. That is to say, brewers might have an excellent handle on the process of brewing (as we know it today: mashing, boiling, fermenting) or the process of malting (steeping, drying and kilning grain).

How is this an innovation, you might ask. Simple. If a brewer is freed in both time and education from the labor-intensive task of malting brew-quality grain, the brewer has more time to devote to honing his or her skill as a professional brewer. Think of it another way. Imagine if your favorite independent brewer had the added task of malting his/her grain. Do you think this brewer would be able to successfully brew a pale ale, porter, amber ale, IPA, barleywine, wheat beer and whatever else we come to expect from our local brewpub? I don’t.

It’s also interesting to consider the consistency we’re afforded today by buying malted grain from the experts. Yes, there’s a lot of science involved in today’s malting, but even before the 20th century, as maltsters were seemingly more prevalent, I can’t help but imagine a greater peace of mind for those brewing beer for the local patrons.

The Microscope
This one is sort of a no-brainer. If you’ve read any old documents discussing beer, you’ll know that beers had a consistency issue that was misunderstood – to put it mildly. Sour beers happened. While there seemed to have been a general understanding by some brewers that the brewery needed to be kept clean, it’s obvious that this meant something altogether different in the 19th century. Hell, even Fritz Maytag credits much of the success in Anchor Steam (the beer) to his bringing in a microscope, “I was the guy with the microscope.” Of course, this isn’t something Anchor invented or pioneered. From a broader perspective, stepping away from the microscope, the knowledge base for Maytag and many brewers before him came from Louis Pasteur, most notably from his book “Studies on Fermentation: The Diseases of Beer – Their Causes and the Means of Preventing Them” (published 1879).

Just how influential was Pasteur? Check out this revelation:

It will be our endeavour to demonstrate the truth of the proposition we have already laid down, that every change to which wort and beer are liable is brought about solely by the development of organic ferments whose germs are being perpetually wafted to and fro in the dust floating through the air, or distributed over the surface of the different materials and utensils used in brewing, such as malt, yeast, water coolers, vats, tubs, casks, shovels, workmen’s clothes and innumerable other things.

If you’ve completed high school in the United States (or any developed country, for that matter) this is a pretty obvious statement. It wasn’t always that way. What’s worse, when it was becoming common knowledge in the real world, this didn’t translate in the practices of many brewers around the world – especially small brewers.

So imagine you’re brewer with beer that is sometimes great, sometimes OK and sometimes awful –I mean, really bad. Before microscopes became common, before folks knew what they were looking at under the scope, all brewers could do was assume (often wildly) about the causes of the contamination that spoiled the beer. It’s pretty hard to fathom just how spoiled we are (as in blessed) in that we assume a very high standard in the quality of every beer we buy.

Refrigeration
Another no-brainer, but it needs to be included. Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century the world had one sure-fire method of keeping cool those things that out to stay cool: ice. This was big business, too, but obviously had its limitations. With the advent of mechanical refrigeration, which was peddled first to breweries and meat packing plants, beer could kept ‘fresh’ longer (I know, I just couldn’t figure out a better way to say that – sorry) and avoid bacterial growth. Of course this also aided the lager manufacturers of the land that perhaps didn’t have the most effective means of keeps their beer at the proper temperature. Of course, we all know that cold beer tastes better, and the pinnacle of refrigeration was achieved with the introduction of the cold-activated can that turns mountains blue. Oh, wait, that last sentence was totally off-base.

Where was I? Oh, yes… refrigeration. Important for improved quality in the beer you love.

Distribution
“This is an innovation?” I can hear you muttering that from here. Yes! For better and for worse*, this is something that made Budweiser a national brand. According to its own site, Anheuser-Busch began utilizing refrigerated railcars back in 1877 (three years before it began pasteurizing its beer). This of course allowed them to send beer further and more effectively than the old fashioned way – horse & buggy. From what I can tell, this started large-scale beer distribution as we understand it today. Beer nerds, say what you will about the company, but know that small brewers the world over benefit greatly from the distribution system set up by A-B and other large breweries in America. You like getting your Pliny fix in Philly? Enjoy Lagunitas in Baker City, Oregon? If you do, you can thank the big boys for setting up the system to deliver said beer to your neck of the woods. Yes, I do think that much of the success of the American ‘craft beer’ industry is credited to the major brands of America. Sure, quality of product helps, too.

* I say “for worse” only in that I love the idea of local, regional breweries.

Beer is Not the New Wine

It’s been said before by people far more eloquent than myself, but sometimes it bears repeating. I only mention this today because a nation of casual beer fans just got a dose of beer’s attempt to be bedfellows or kissing cousins to wine. In the most recent episode of Brew Masters on Discovery, host and Dogfish Head founder Sam Calgione talks about the “terroir” of beer. Look, it’s fun to think about, but honestly – the beer scene we have today does not have a ‘terroir’.

Loosely stated, wine defines terroir by the grapes in that share soil, elevation, sunlight and temperature ranges – that is, vines grown in essentially one location versus another. The fine-tuned wine nerds can distinguish such things when they sample their wine – same is true with those who really know their olive oil, believe it or not. Now, I ask you, what similarity does beer have to terroir, as the wine and olive oil folks know it?

Still thinking? Well, I can’t think of an answer. If anything I suppose we could really stretch the term to discuss hops of Yakima Valley versus the Willamette Valley, or those grown in Idaho. But even that is a stretch; given hops constitute such a small ingredient in a batch of beer and are influenced in the brewing world by process more than place of origin. I’d even sort of understand if you wanted to talk about yeast, but only if you’re referring to the bugs and whatnot found in the Senne Valley that create the wonderful world of Lambics and Gueze you either love or loathe.

Beer is not the new wine – and that is a good thing, isn’t it? I mean this not as a dig on wine – wine rocks – but just an observation I’d think we call all agree on. While talking on this point, craft beer is also not the new beer – it’s got more in common with traditional brewing than what we’ve come to embrace in a post Industrial Revolution world. (And yes, I still hate the phrase “craft beer” – an attempt to define something by what it’s not more than what it is, if you were to ask me my specific complaint on the issue.) Beer is made primarily of malted grain – mostly barley. We malt the grain to create enzymes needed to convert starch to sugar. We convert to sugar to feed to yeast. Yeast eats to create alcohol and its necessary bi-product, CO2. In relatively recent history, we began using hops to balance the sweetness and make it a more stable product, but I’d suggest you don’t actually need hops to brew a beer (technically speaking, of course. I love my hops!). That’s what beer is.

Unless you’re talking about a tiny operation, like is found in this brewery in British Columbia, terroir is a totally nonsensical term when discussing beer.

Don’t worry, I know for whatever reason our TV and radio folks can’t help but make comparisons – like who is the next (King of Pop) Michael Jackson or the next John Kennedy or the new Jazz, new and next whatever. All are equally annoying and equally meaningless. Unless, of course, you’re talking about the simple truth that scones are the new donut… or tea is the new coffee. Those are totally accurate statements.

With all that said, can we just be OK with calling beer “beer” and not trying to associate with something wholly unrelated? Thanks.

Enjoy your beer. It’s the new cocktail.

Hops, Caffeine, Price, Character

Have a quick look at this excerpt from “Records of the Borough of Leicester: 1509-1603 By Leicester (England), published in 1905.

 

I stumbled across this in looking up information relating to another story, but was struck by a few things.

On Hops, Strength and Control

Most notable was the blame placed on hops for the behavior of those who over-imbibed their beer. As you may well know, hops contribute nothing fermentable to the brewing process and thus do not elevate the alcohol content in any beer. Instead, with very little research done on this subject, it would seem natural to me that the introduction of hops to beer made the drink more palatable to the common drinker. We know that before the standard use of hops brewers the world over used any combination of vegetation to balance the sweetness in the malt-based drink. Often these ingredients were locally sourced, making use of whatever grew in abundance and wouldn’t kill you – that’s at least how I’d articulate it. Regardless, when hops were introduced to the brewing world, the folks in Lecester went a little nuts with their consumption it would appear. Honestly, who hasn’t had those hop-focused nights of consumption?

To make matters worse, there seems to have been legislation put in place to curtail this drunkenness issue – the one brought on by the non-fermentable hop. Ironically, it seems the answer here was to use a cereal grain (corn) that actually would increase the ABV of your beer. It would seem, again with little research into the matter, that the answer to the problem of over-consumption was to reduce the quality of the beverage in hand. Nice.

All this seems fitting with the booze news of the day – those bastardly caffeine-infused malt liquors. You see, caffeine is a stimulant and does nothing to actually up the power of the booze in hand. We know this. What’s somewhat unknown, admittedly, is the effect of blending alcohol and caffeine. The Four Loko drinks in the news are 12% ABV bombshells, with a caffeine content equivalent to one cup of coffee. Now, if you’re of age in this country, I assume you can handle a drink with your coffee. That’s just me thinking, though. What we’ve seen in the news is the behavior of a few dumbasses around the country that get loaded, I suspect with other drinks beyond the Four Loko, and getting themselves into trouble. Our media picks up on this and the story becomes how dastardly the combination of caffeine and alcohol is. This of course leads to public mayhem, which naturally leads to knee-jerk legislation that could theoretically impact an entire industry. Yes, this strikes me of the stupidity witnessed in Lecester in 1523.

You see, cutting caffeine from booze isn’t going to stop idiots from acting like idiots. What’s more, if there really was concern for the mixing of caffeine and alcohol, if it really was this new craze that college kids loved to do, don’t you think they could figure out a way to somehow magically infuse caffeine and alcohol? I mean, seriously.

I will try and stop myself short of soap-boxing for a lower drinking age in this country, but can’t help but plead for some common sense among Americans. Is alcohol the biggest danger your children face? No. It is not. Now if your kids insist on driving after they’ve downed a few Four Lokos, then your kid’s an idiot – and it may not be his/her fault. Let’s face it, we do nothing as a country to prepare kids for responsible consumption of alcohol. One day it’s an evil and dangerous liquid that must be avoided at all costs, the next day they’re legal adults able to figure that shit out on their own. Yeah, what could possibly go wrong? Hey legislators, why not get rid of drivers ed classes and that whole drivers permit thingy where kids are taught to drive by someone who’s been driving for years? Just tell them they simply can’t drive before they’re 16, then give ‘em the keys and hope it all works out for the best. Idiocy.

On Session Beer, Price Gouging and Machismo

What’s glossed over in the excerpt above is the assumption that brewers made a “good wholesome drink” – even for the poor people. This reminds me of a story I was told several years back, by a brewer I won’t name. This brewer was gaining traction in his local market and was picking up handles left and right in area bars. Being a socially responsible person, this brewer noted many of his brews were fairly high in alcohol and priced accordingly (meaning, more expensive than some other beers on the market). With this in mind the brewer designed a very low alcohol, very good quality beer, priced exceptionally low. His goal was to work with area bars and serve this session beer at a price anyone could appreciate with a couple of goals in mind: broader appreciation for his beer; more responsible consumption. This idea worked. Sorta.

You see, with the reputation of the local brewer and higher prices found in most of his lineup, bar owners quickly figured out they could charge $4.00 or $4.50 for a pint of beer intended to sell for $3.50 or less. The brewer was honest about his wholesale pricing and had hoped that area bars would be equally honest with their retail pricing. It simply didn’t happen. Seeing this and sadly realizing that the noble idea of an affordable session beer just wouldn’t work, the program stopped.

Now, I’m not asking for the government to come in and make sure we have access to affordable “wholesome” beer. But it is interesting to me that at one time, not terribly long ago, beer was seen as just that. While I immensely appreciate the bold flavors found in most American small-batch beers today, I simply can’t go out on a limb to call them ‘healthy’ when they’re leaping north of 8% ABV. In Europe it’s much easier for the consumer to find beers of healthy alcohol content, often below 4% ABV. Now, if I’m going to argue on one hand for a lower drinking age in this country, I must also plead for more rational pricing and alcohol content from our brewers and publicans. We must work together on this issue. Just like we wouldn’t give a kid with no driving experience the keys to a beater 3-cylinder car, we certainly shouldn’t give that same kid the keys to an 8-cylinder muscle car. In the same way, part of the message we need to pass on the younger folk is that it is OK to enjoy a beer that is ‘average’ in strength and flavor.

Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? But damn if we don’t fuck that up, too. On a recent posting on RateBeer I found this opening to a community thread:

I’ve often wondered how anyone could chose Mirror Pond Pale Ale over Inversion IPA, or SNPA over SNCA since they are the same price. The latter must cost more to make simply due to the fact they have considerably more flavor.  It’s like the wimpier beer drinkers are footing part of the bill for those who buy the better stuff.  Next time you see someone pick up the wimpier selection thank them for supporting your craving for the more expensive stuff.

Machismo. There’s really no other way to put this. Look, I won’t lie, I drink IPAs more than I drink Pale Ales, but come on! What the hell is wrong with a pale ale? Especially the two this guy lists? Mirror Pond is a fantastic drink loved my many around this country and many of us can interchange “Pale Ale” and “Sierra Nevada” without thought.

Look, I also enjoy hot sauce on my Mexican food. But damn, there’s some Mexican dishes that are screaming good without the need for excessive spices. I know many people that love the IPA and Double IPA, but they love it in a way that doesn’t belittle those in the world that like a Pale Ale, or Pilsner, or Brown Ale.

I’m getting off track here, I think you see where I am going though.

We need affordable, low-alcohol beers that are rich with flavor and can hold the interest of the palate. We need, as beer geeks, to support the responsible consumption of beer – and that means so many things. We need to educate our youth on responsible consumption. We need to change the way we, as Americans, treat alcohol. It isn’t evil, doesn’t have to be 8% ABV to be ‘good’ and certainly doesn’t have to cost $5 when you can make a profit at selling it for $3.50.