Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

The Moot Case Against Big Beer

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

The Independent today published a scathing analysis of the extreme beer “craze”. Among their points:

  • these beers have “intense flavours”, “alcohol contents of up to 12 per cent”, and “10 times as much hops as a traditional pint”
  • they are produced by “young entrepreneurs trying to capture the attention – and cash – of lager-guzzling twentysomethings”
  • drinkers may be “unaware of the strength of the new products” which may “exceed [the] daily recommended alcohol intake”

Most frustratingly, the article quotes the head brewer of BrewDog saying, “There’s no way someone can drink 20 a night. It’s probably the least economic way of buying alcohol. You can get a bottle of vodka for £5.” Somehow they just ignore this perfectly reasonable, well-articulated point.

Fortunately, there is some rational writing about beer out there as well. For example, that of Pete Brown. His clear, thoughtful, and bulletproof reply includes several important points:

  • “To suggest that stylish packaging can only be appreciated by the under-25s is patronising to the people these beers are really aimed at – affluent, stylish drinkers in their late twenties and older – in other words, your readership.”
  • “Thirdly, anyone who works in the drinks industry would tell you that the trend among young binge drinkers is for drinks that combine a high alcohol content with an unchallenging flavour. The whole point of these beers is that they are full-flavoured, designed for savouring and almost impossible to glug quickly.”
  • “Wine is sold in 75cl bottles, which are commonly shared between two people. If a 33cl bottle of beer at more than 10% is more than daily recommended alcohol intake (and almost all the beers you mention are not this strong) what’s half a bottle of wine (37.5cl) at 12-14%?”

Because it is so eloquent I will just quote entirely the last two bullet points (emphasis mine).

* Building on these points, Saturday’s Independent demonstrates breathtaking hypocrisy which does a disservice to its readership. The magazine carries its usual page of wine hagiography (funny how you hardly ever feature beer in this way, even though a cursory look at TGI readership data would show you that your readership are enthusiastic consumers of quality beer). This week Anthony Rose talks us through Italian whites. In total 18 different wines are given enthusiastic endorsement. There’s not even a single mention of the alcohol content of any of these wines. And yet I can promise you that every single one of them has a higher ABV than any of the “mindblowing” beers in your extreme beer article, three of which are illustrated with alarmist starbursts drawing attention to their alcohol levels – levels that are so low that if wine was to be produced to that strength, EU law would prevent it from being called wine because it would be too weak.

* But it gets better. In the main paper, 24 pages after the “extreme beer” feature, there’s an article entitled ‘War of the rosés’, about a scheme to make French rosé wine more popular. Here is a direct quote from that piece: “If we are forced to put the word ‘traditional’ on our bottles, people will think, especially young people, that it is a fuddy-duddy wine, an old-fashioned kind of drink. That will ruin everything we have achieved.” That’s from a winemaker. And here’s the journalist himself: “Young people, especially, have taken to rosé as a fun drink, which is refreshing, uncomplicated and relatively cheap. (Anjou rosé sells in the UK at between £5 and £8 a bottle. Other French rosés sell for as little as £3 a bottle.)” Despite the clear admission that rosé winemakers are targeting younger people, despite the fact that rosé wine is being sold cheap and marketed in a contemporary fashion in order to lure these drinkers, there is no worried quote from Alcohol Concern. No sensationalist headline. No mention of the ABV of rosé wines. The attractive illustration of three glasses of rose – unlike your illustration of extreme beers – carries no bold starbursts. The inference is clear: when winemakers admit that they are selling cheap wine (12-14% ABV) and actively targeting young people with 750ml bottles for as little as £3, that’s OK. But when a brewer creates a beer (6-12% ABV) and sells it in a 33cl bottle that retails from £4 upwards, and tells you it is emphatically NOT targeting young drinkers, you run the piece with a ‘health fears’ headline and a subhead that claims the beers are, in fact, targeting younger drinkers – despite the fact that this is a lower ABV drink, being sold at a higher price.

Independent, you just got lawyered.

Also, finally some coverage (warning: website issues) in the “Newspaper Iowa Depends On” of Iowa’s big beer debate. Some background: in Iowa, any beer over 6.25% alcohol is considered liquor. There are three ramifications for this:

  • brewers wishing to make such beer must hold a distiller’s license (even if they don’t wish to distill)
  • strong beer must be sold through the state only
  • good beer is unavailable in Iowa, because brewers don’t want to deal with the state

The article doesn’t seem to take a position but what do you expect from the Reggie?

Chunks of Stuff

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

One of the pleasures of the stats afforded by WordPress is the list of search terms that lead people to my blog. One caught my eye today: “chunks of stuff in my imported beer”. I was only hours ago having a conversation about chunks of stuff in beer. This is a topic that deserves some discussion. Hopefully the above searcher can find this information helpful.

Mans Best Friend

Man's Best Friend

Beer is life. That is, beer is living. But some brewing companies who-shall-not-be-named repeatedly assault the natural origins of beer. They feel they can turn beer into a commodity, treating their beer like soda pop, expecting to extend “shelf life”. They see this as a matter of economics: the less beer they lose to spoilage the better their margin. However, they forget the time-honored methods of long-term storage of beer – strength, hops, and live yeast. In an effort to make their beers more like water they brew them to low strength with few hops, and go on to filter them crystal clear. As if that wasn’t enough mistreatment, they run the beer through a pasteurizer that raises the temperature to destroy any semblance of life.

Don’t get me wrong, the pasteurizer is one of the greatest advancements to food safety, for milk and other foods that spoil. However, the entire reason humanity has brewed beer for millenia is that it is an ideal method of preservation. No known pathogen can survive in beer.

My Best Friend

My Best Friend

The ancients referred to yeast by the only name they felt gave the phenomenon justice: the single word ‘godisgood’. They appreciated, even with a primitive understanding of science, that the cake of sediment is the secret behind the drink. Strike that, is the drink. Without it we just have sweet water that pretty soon will look and smell foul (not to mention the taste).

With it we have majesty. We have the wonder of zymurgy. We have beer. Beer is yeast and yeast is beer. That little sediment at the bottom of craft-brewed beer is the proof that what you hold in your hand is truly natural: the product of a centuries-old collaboration between microorganisms and macroorganisms, between yeastkind and humankind. In the hands of a competent master, those little critters will work wonders.

So getting back to the question that was never specifically asked: it is a good sign if your import (or craft or microbrewed) beer has a layer of sediment on the bottom. In general, chunks of stuff are good. If you prefer, allow your bottles to sit for a few hours and carefully decant into the glass, and you can quite easily leave most of it out.

But in the end must you? There are several reasons I go ahead and drink it anyway. Yeast is incredibly healthful. Witness the prevalence of brewer’s yeast resold in health stores or as a supplement. It is rich in B vitamins (all but B12) and loaded up with protein and a variety of minerals. It adds a lot of body to beer and has a characteristic bready flavor.

That’s why many craft beer drinkers use this method: decant half the beer, drink it. Swirl the rest of the bottle, pour, and drink that. It’s the best of both worlds for a beverage defined by such things.

Brew Better Beer

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

DJ Spiess over at the Fermentarium has some tips on improving your homebrewing. Whether you are a newbie or you’ve been brewing for years the advice can be helpful. Many of his suggestions don’t require any more equipment or effort than you are doing right now! For instance, pitching liquid yeast instead of dry, adding specialty grains (such as roasted or caramel malt) to improve flavor and head retention, or oxygenating your wort. He also suggests the no-brainer of using a one step sanitizer such as Star San. The most important, yet perhaps least obvious, recommendation is that you drink as many different beers as possible. It’s only by drinking interesting beer that you can understand and appreciate the component flavors and their interactions.

My Homebrew Strategy: Serendipity

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Style. Possibly the most contentious issue in beer. It could be argued that beer styles didn’t even exist until 1977 when the late Michael Jackson (The Beer Hunter, not a particular recording artist) published his comprehensive World Guide to Beer. In one stroke he redefined what it means to appreciate beer, comparing local varieties from all across the globe. From Wikipedia:

However, despite an awareness by commentators, law-makers, and brewers that there were different styles of beer, it wasn’t until Michael Jackson’s World Guide To Beer was published in 1977 that there was an attempt to group together and compare beers from around the world. Jackson’s book had a particular influence in North America where the writer Fred Eckhardt was also starting to explore the nature of beer styles. The wine importing company Merchant du Vin switched to importing beers mentioned in Jackson’s book. Small brewers started up, producing copies and interpretations of the beer styles Jackson described.

Many brewers outside the U.S. microbrewing scene, Belgians especially, continue to brew without regard to style definitions such as those supported by the Beer Judge Certification Program. Many refuse even to acknowledge the existence of such a rigid framework. There are many good reasons for this repudiation. The history of categorization of beer is byzantine at best: spend a few moments reading Shut up about Barclay Perkins and you will get an idea of how convoluted nomenclature can be.

Further discussion on this topic will have to wait for another time. I am using this simply to illustrate the rationale for my strategy when homebrewing; that is, serendipity. To put it simply (as a certain homebrewer said): Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. Beer has been brewed for millenia. In this modern age of scientific inquiry and quality malt, hops, and yeast, you can’t possibly make a beer any worse than somebody before you made. In fact, it is quite likely that it will turn out at least decent, and probably pretty good. It certainly won’t kill you. That’s the beauty of beer!

So when I sit down to hammer out a recipe, I am rarely thinking in terms of style, and never in terms of a single beer. Many go to great lengths attempting to recreate a particular commercial beer. This is entirely unproductive, as the adaptation considerations are uncountable. You will end up with a product somewhat similar but in truth not at all like the beer you were aiming for. It is much better to brew a beer and afterwards categorize it. Not only will you be more satisfied with the end product, you will learn more. You will get to know the tendencies of your yeast, the hardness of your water, and the flavor and aroma of your malt and hops. Following a recipe does not make a brewer. Enough didacticism.

My friend Jen recently gave birth to an adorable girl. Back in April she sent me this message:

You’re going to be an uncle! Well, you would be if you were my brother. Try to find the perfect beer for that!

So I started thinking about making her a fest beer to celebrate when she could drink again. It’s supposed to be a secret so don’t tell anyone, ok? Sure I had five months to plan, but I still didn’t get it done in time. Fortunately now she’s not getting any more not pregnant – as far as I know! Though I had decided on a recipe by August, I still didn’t get around to brewing it till September. Anyway, I went all out for this one: a ton of munich malt, real Hallertauer hops, and a double decoction mash. I lagered it for two and a half months in the cellar at Millstream and force carbonated (my first time!). It is obvious I am inexperienced, as the carbonation came out a little low, but not unpleasantly so.

The beer is named in honor of Skeletor, Jen’s daughter. Don’t worry, that’s not her given name, just what we called her in the ultrasound. It pours clearer than any homebrew I have made, just the faintest hint of haze. It is a shade of burnt orange and the head (what there is) is off-white. The aroma is supremely malty. Bread and caramel notes dominate, but some fruitiness comes through.

This beer is quite quaffable, but I must say the flavor is somewhat strange. Strong malt and bready character is most apparent. There is also a serious fruitiness that reminds me of raspberries or black caps. I notice a saltiness that I attribute to yeast autolysis (PDF warning). This beer is as dry as you can get. The light hop bitterness comes through the clean flavor. Even though the carbonation is much too low, the palate is quite lively.

So this beer is not too bad. But back to my point about serendipity. I had originally planned on brewing something like an oktoberfest for the celebration. Despite using lager yeast it ended up very fruity, and the remaining yeast gives a strange character. Fortunately in Germany they make a style of beer much like oktoberfest in strength and color, but with yeast in the bottle. They call it kellerbier (or cellar beer for germanophobes). That’s what I mean when I say don’t worry about style. Beer is beer is beer, and like that stupid quote goes, “shoot for the moon cause even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.”

By the way, that Alt I referenced earlier is pretty good, I’ll post about it sometime. Now if only my Young’s glass didn’t have a chip.

+Skeletor Oktoberfest Kellerbier

RateBeer: 3.3 (3-7-6-3-14)

7 lbs. Munich malt
2 lbs. 2-Row malt
2 lbs. Victory malt

1/2 oz Hallertauer Tradition, 75 minutes
1/2 oz American (PNW) Mt. Hood, 75 minutes
1/8 oz Hallertauer Tradition, 30 minutes
1/8 oz American (PNW) Mt. Hood, 30 minutes

– Mashed in with 3 gallons 140F water to stabilize at 122F for 10 min protein rest
– Pulled first decoction (thickest 1/3), boiled, added back to stabilize at 150F
– Pulled second decoction, rest 20 min at 160F, boiled, added back to stabilize at 170F

More Thoughts on Prohibition

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

I’m not trying to rain on the parade of Nico and Shaun over at The 21st Amendment Brewery Blog or steal their thunder for the roundup of Session #22. However, on a few common themes I feel the need to elaborate. Here’s my original post.

Alan McLeod wrote a relatively thorough treatment comparing the history of Prohibition with the current drug war (this was touched on by Lew Bryson and Jay Brooks as well). Alan gets right to the most critical point: that smoking marijuana is a fundamentally “inherently personal” act and that its continued prohibition is a result of cultural precedence. That is, though Alan never explicitly states it, racism.

I was also glad to see I wasn’t the only one to make a comparison to Proposition 8, though Rob DeNunzio made only a hyperlink aside.

The biggest issue raised by the commentaries of many was the need to prove teetotallers wrong in their characterization of alcohol as evil. We as (let’s face it) professional drinkers must set the standard for responsible drinking and alcohol education. To that end I was buoyed by the mention of the Amethyst Initiative by both DeNunzio and E.C. Delia. For those who are unaware, the Amethyst Initiative is the all-too-overdue campaign to bring discussion of the drinking age back to the national spotlight. It is supported by (at this point) 134 college and university presidents and chancellors. From their website:

In 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which imposed a penalty of 10% of a state’s federal highway appropriation on any state setting its drinking age lower than 21. Twenty-four years later, our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that twenty-one is not working. A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”—often conducted off-campus—has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.

For their efforts the Amethyst Initiative has been given the new “Millstone Award” by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. That’s right, the group that largely gave us Prohibition has recognized this cause as promoting “unhealthy, illegal or immoral behavior that [they] believe places children at risk”. According to the post on their website, other organizations considered were “groups responsible for placing pornography on the Internet” and the Montgomery County (MD) Council, for their efforts to eliminate transgender discrimination. In my mind receiving this award seems like quite a high honor.

Additionally I’d like to point out this article over at Madison Beer Review. There are many exciting Prohibition-era bootlegging stories but this one is with the best of them. The Eulberg Brewery brewed full-strength beer illegally for 12 of the 14 years of Prohibition. Features a few good quotes from The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal.

[edit: I originally misspelled the name of Shaun from 21st Amendment. In my defense, that’s how another Sessioner spelled it.]