Interesting Numbers from the World of Beer

Item 1: People keep asking me why I see a bright future for craft beer in Brazil despite all the significant obstacles – lack of distribution infrastructure, high prices, no “cold chain” of delivery in which the beer is kept cold from brewery to consumer – and sometimes I wonder about it myself.

Then I come across an article like this one in The Globe and Mail newspaper and it all comes together. In case you don’t want to read the whole story, or the link breaks because the Globe puts the story behind their pay wall, here’s the gist: With 50 million Brazilians joining the middle class in the last decade, that segment of the population is now about equal to the percentage that is poor, about 30% each.

This new middle class is aspirational, and they want to spend their money on items to which they previously had not enjoyed access – the story highlights perfume and cell phones – like craft beer. I’ve seen the gestation of this at bars like Melograno and FrangÓ in São Paulo and I expect to see a lot more of it on my next visit, whenever that might be.

Item 2: I continue to hear American brewers fret about the number of breweries popping up in their country, worried about the so-called “bust” that they think must surely follow the boom. Too many breweries, too many SKUs (brands listed with distributors) and too confusing for beer drinkers are a few of the concerns I regularly hear voiced.

Umm, folks, ever heard of the United Kingdom? It’s a land of about 62 million people, where the total number of breweries just surpassed 1,000! And while they have their own issues to deal with over there, I’ve not yet heard much in the way of griping about the number of breweries and possible saturation of the market.

To put that in perspective, to achieve the same ratio of breweries per capita, the United States would have to add about 2,900 breweries to their existing total, more than doubling the number in place today.

Item 3: This is not so much a numbers thing as it is a bit of a rant. Although it does relate to Item 2 above.

Yesterday’s Shanken News Daily carried a story headlined “Craft Controversy: Rotating Drafts Spark Concern Among Brewers,” in which it was suggested that “some craft brewers are beginning to show concern that the very diversity that they have long promoted…may actually be damaging to their companies and the craft beer category.”

The piece goes on to quote Bob Sullivan, vice president of sales and marketing at Kansas city’s Boulevard Brewing – a craft brewery I know and quite like and the tenth largest craft producer by volume in the U.S. – as saying that bars which rotate their draft taps rather than sticking with a specific line-up of brands are hurting the industry by not giving breweries an opportunity to build their brands.

More egregiously, the story quotes Jim Gray, national draft director at the beer importer Crown Imports, purveyors of Corona and Tsingtao, among other brands, as complaining that “retailers who are focused on rotating draft handles aren’t focused on building brands” and that these beer sellers are only interested in “the shiny new toy that is offered to them each month.”

Here’s a piece of advice for you, Jim and Bob and any other salesperson out there trying to flog draft beer: The job of the licensee is to keep their customers happy, not to build brands. (Ahem, that’s YOUR job.) And if customers want variety in their beer selection, as a vastly growing contingent of beers drinkers do, well, that’s just the new playing field. Get used to it!

The Futility of Either/Or Thinking

As he is wont to do, Andy Crouch set tongues a-wagging this week with a rant against both beer cocktails and collaboration beers. He received a quick rebuttal from the Wench – or rather a Facebook-driven revival of an older post in defense of beer cocktails – as well as kudos from the inestimable Mr. McL, and who knows how many other yeas and nays.

To explain my position, I must retreat first several years, about twenty or so, in fact.

As a neophyte beer writer, I regularly encountered people who would approach beer of any variety with the simple dismissal of “I don’t like beer.” (I still do hear this, though not nearly as often, but let us leave that matter aside for now.) To these people, or at least the overwhelming majority of them, “beer” was mainstream lager. They had tasted it; they didn’t like it; ipso facto they did not like beer.

My response to these self-depriving souls was the same then as it is today. “Beer is a multi-headed beast,” I say, although not necessarily in those exact words, “Just because you don’t like what you have tried thus far needn’t mean that none of it is to your taste.”

If you have read Mr. Crouch’s self-described “rant,” you may have some idea of where I’m going with this. Having partaken of both beer cocktails and collaboration brews – we know not what sort of quantity of each, since he offers no such information – he declares that he has found both lacking and thus declares “Death” to them.

I’ve made a few beer cocktails in my time, and have sampled the mixology of others, and several, indeed I’d go so far as to say many of the combinations I’ve tasted have been quite delicious. At their best, as I have stated time and again, they are neither better nor an attempted improvement on the original beer, just a flavourful attempt at something equal but different.

And let’s face it, beer cocktails are in their infancy, so there are bound to be any number of sad and ugly ones taking up beer menu space. That’s the way it goes, indeed the way it was in the early days of craft brewing. (Lord knows, at the GABFs and other beer fests of the early 1990’s, and in bars and restaurants and my own tasting cubicle during the same period, many an unbalanced or poorly designed or unintentionally sour or buttery beer crossed my lips.) But the industry improved with time and experience, as beer cocktails are bound to do should the “death to” hoards fail to get their way.

Mr. Crouch’s position on collaboration beers I find much harder to comprehend. For the sin of being the product of two or more brewers working together a beer should be condemned? Really? That makes as much sense to me as do those who scream “anything but chardonnay!” when, in fact, they really mean “I’m tired of over-oaked butter-bombs.”

Granted, Mr. Crouch goes on to proclaim his distaste for “confusing and disjointed…beers,” with which I heartily agree, but why tar all collaborations with a single brush? I have tasted many fine collaborative brews from producers both prodigious – I’m looking at you, Stone Brewing – and selective, and one of the finest beers I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing in my almost seven years on All About Beer Magazine’sBeer Talk” panel was Fritz & Ken’s Ale, an Anchor-Sierra Nevada collaboration. Others have been less successful, but so what? I could say the same about any number of single brewery beers.

So you’ll hear no dismissal or “death to” from this writer. I’ll take each beer or cocktail (or spirit or wine) as it comes and judge accordingly. In fact, the more the merrier!

10 Words NOT to Use When Writing or Talking About Beer, Pt. II

6. “Lovingly”: As a youthful scribe, I once wrote that a beer’s foam “clings lovingly to the side of the glass.” I still cringe when I think of it. (And as an aside, this applies equally to label and press release copy. I’ve seen bottling lines of all shapes and sizes in action and I am quite certain that no bottle of ale or lager ever released has truly been “lovingly” bottled.)

7. “Suds”: Is it soap? No, it’s beer. There is therefore nothing sudsy about it.

8. “Hoppy” (without further qualification): Forget that a generous proportion of the beer drinking public still doesn’t understand what “hoppy” means, to use it without adding a sense of what is meant delivers no information to the recipient. I had a “hoppy” beer on the weekend that was spicy and nutty bitterness wrapped in a comforting blanket of caramelly and mildly fruity malt, and another that was a citrusy, piney assault. Both were “hoppy,” but they could scarcely have been more different.

9. “Pretty Good for a…” (with further qualification): Good beer is good beer, period. If it’s only “pretty good for a big brewery beer/brewpub beer/beer from X country,” then maybe it’s not really all that good. (And yes, I know that technically this entry means that I have listed 13 words not to use, rather than 10. Call it creative licence.)

10. “Quad”: Where to begin? That it’s a diminutive referring to a beer that is presumed to be big, malty and alcoholic? That it derives from an ale first brewed in the 1990’s and is now used retroactively to describe beers developed decades before? Or that it’s simply a lazy shorthand with no real meaning? Okay, I’ll take all three!

10 Words NOT to Use When Writing or Talking About Beer, Pt. I

1. “Authentic”: Means next to nothing. Is it a real beer, of “undisputed origin” according to the dictionary? Fine, it’s authentic, and so is every other beer not claiming to be something else.

2. “Genuine”: See above. (Ironically, the one place where this word is most widely used, by Miller for its brand commonly known now as MGD, its use is bogus, since there is little doubt that bottled beer cannot be “genuine” draft.)

3. “Traditional”: There is a brewery in Toronto where barley and hops are grown, wort is air cooled and all fermentation takes place in wooden barrels. THAT is traditional. The ale made on a gleaming stainless steel, computerized brew kit? Not so much.

4. “Cold”: Yeah, like that’s an achievement.

5. “Drinkable”: You know what’s really drinkable? Water! I drink it all the time, but that doesn’t mean I want my beer to taste the same way.

Pt. II will arrive early next week.   

Gift Idea #9: A Drinks-Focused Magazine Subscription

It’s getting down to the wire now, and so online sales are growing a little less desirable, since the clock is ticking on the likelihood of something ordered reaching its destination in time. Except if you pick something that is specifically intended to arrive late, and then continue arriving throughout the coming year. I refer, of course, to a magazine subscription.

I brought this up way back at Gift Idea #5, mainly because that was — and still is! — such a good deal, but it bears repeating. Because frankly, the quality of drinks writing in specialized periodicals today is higher than it has ever been, at least during my now more than two decade tenure as a drinks writer.

Certainly the grande dame of beer publications is All About Beer, and it’s still a keeper, IMO. Yes, I’m on their tasting panel, but that doesn’t bias my opinion in this regard. The old lady is better written, better laid-out and more compelling than it has ever been, and so definitely worth consideration.

Another mag I like, even though I’ve never written for it, is Imbibe. It’s appeal is mostly to the omnivorous imbiber, someone like myself who might on any given evening have a cocktail or a beer or a glass of wine or whisky, because it covers it all, and does so with style and panache.

I’ve likewise never written for DRAFT, although I do enjoy reading it. It’s a bit like AAB simply because of its nature, of course, but more prone towards what I might call the “grand gesture” article, like the current ’25 Beers of the Year’ cover story. So if that’s the kind of pronouncement you enjoy, this could be the one for you or your friend/family member.

Other publications I’d endorse are more regional in scope, great if you live in their area of specialization, less useful if you do not.

The Celebrator is now national in scope, and has been for some time, but still displays a distinct west coast prejudice, just as Ale Street News espouses principally an east coast view. Another left coast focused mag I’ve been enjoying of late is the aptly-titled Beer West, which I’ve found to be clever and well-organized, and entertaining even for a non-westerner. Canadians are sure to enjoy TAPS, although its expanding coverage means that beer aficionados south of the border might be tempted, as well.

And if absolutely none of the above work for you, you can always fall back on that men’s lifestyle standard Esquire, which is consistently well-written and worth the subscription price for David Wondrich’s superb drinks writing

British Beer Writers Honour Their Best

In case you missed the tweets, last night the British Guild of Beer Writers held their annual awards dinner and honoured some of the best scribes in their field, plus one brewer. Here are the awards in total:

Brewer of the Year 2011 – Evin O’Riordain, Kernel Brewery

Budweiser Budvar John White Travel Bursary – prize £1,000 plus trip to Czech Republic. Winner: Des de Moor

Shepherd Neame 1698 Award for Beer and Food Writing – prize £1,000. Winner: Mark Dredge

Thwaites Award for Best Corporate Communications – prize £1,000. Winner: Pete Brown.

Brains SA Gold Award for Best Use of Online Media – £1,000 & £500. Winner: Martyn Cornell; Silver Award: Mark Charlwood

Adnams Award for Best Writing in Regional Media – prize £1,000 & £500. Winner: Marverine Cole; Silver Award: Gavin Aitchison

Fuller’s ESB Award for Best Writing for the Beer and Pub Trade – prize £1,000 & £500 . Winner: Ben McFarland: Silver Award: Glynn Davis

Molson Coors Award for Best Writing in National Media – prize £1,000 & £500 Winner: Adrian Tierney-Jones; Silver Award: Will Hawkes

The Michael Jackson Gold Award – Beer Writer of the Year 2011: Ben McFarland

In my considered view, every winner is a deserving soul, and scanning this list frankly makes me realize how good British beer writing has become. Kudos to you lot for continuing to raise the bar!


An Unapologetic Plug

I have been writing on a regular, long term basis for several publications, dating back as far as the early 1990’s for some of them. Included in this august company is Malt Advocate, which started life, as the name would indicate, devoted to all things fermented or distilled from malt, but has since morphed into one of the world’s leading whisky publications, if not THE leading one.

Several months ago, Malt Advocate was purchased by the Shanken Group, publishers of such well-known mags as Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado. I was as surprised as anyone by this development, but recognized it immediately for what it really was: not only an opportunity for my good friends John Hansell and Amy Westlake, the husband-and-wife team behind Malt Advocate, to pocket some well-earned reward for their efforts, but also a chance to take the magazine they still helm to the next level.

With the new issue, they have done just that.

The minute I opened the Spring, 2011, issue, with its 17th Annual Whisky Awards cover, I knew something was different this time out. The pages seem crisper, the colours pop, and the ads, including a few pages for cigars, appear sharper and more vibrant. All in all, graphically speaking, it’s simply a better magazine, and I have a feeling that this is only the beginning.

Then, of course, there are the writers and columnists, including such noted scribes as Dave Broom, author of the recent and highly recommended World Atlas of Whisky, the always amusing Terry Sullivan and bourbon whisperer Charles Cowdery, not to mention – ahem! – yours truly.

All of which is to say that if you haven’t picked up the Malt Advocate for a while, you would be well advised to do so now. For about the price of a pint of beer, it offers pretty incredible value.

Getting a Few Things Off My Chest

I awoke grumpy this morning. Blame the great night I had out cocktailing last night – save for the roof bar at Toronto’s Thompson Hotel, which so desperately needs a cocktail revamp – although I’ve no swollen head or puffy eyes to show for my sins. Or maybe it was the vapidity of the morning news on the radio as I awoke, the main story of which was the death yesterday of the actor who played Uncle Leo on Seinfeld. (I’m sorry for the man’s family and friends, but really, that’s your lead?!) Or perhaps it’s the daunting workload I have staring me in the face yet again this a.m.

But for whatever reason, I’m grumpy. So here are a few grumpy-ish things I need to get off my chest.

1) Stan asks how you compare a pils to an imperial stout? I answer simply, you don’t. I mean, why bother? What is this obsession we have with quantifying one thing over another, saying that this beer, which bears practically no relation to that beer, other than ingredient lists which include barley malt, hops, water and yeast, is nonetheless somehow better than it. I enjoy a good sirloin steak and I savor a fine rack of barbecue ribs, yet I feel no need to say that one is quantifiably superior to the other, even though both are cooked pieces of animal flesh. And as for how they compare on the basis of style guidelines, well, I’ll leave that grumpy answer to Ron.

2) For a publication that will remain nameless, I just reviewed a beer which will also remain nameless, save for bearing the descriptor “Belgian Tripel.” Except that it’s not Belgian at all. It’s Canadian. So stop usurping a nation’s identity already.

3) On the subject of beer styles, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the so-called “double,” “triple” and – for crying out loud! – “quadruple” IPA styles need to be binned. They are stronger, hoppier versions of simple IPAs, period. Sub-class them if you will – “IPAs over 6% alcohol,” “IPAs over 8.5% alcohol” and so on – but enough with the meaningless adjectives. (And less face it, in the context of these IPAs, “double” and “triple” really are meaningless.)

4) And finally, on a decidedly non-grumpy note, Malt Advocate publisher John Hansell is previewing the magazine’s annual Whisky Awards over at his blog. If you enjoy a drop of amber liquid sunshine as much as I do, you should check them out.

One Sentence, Four Mistakes

On my way home from the Cheers Beverage Conference in New Orleans, I picked up the latest issue of Men’s Journal and found a small item entitled “Super Bowl Party Upgrade: Barrel-Aged Beers” in its “Notebook” section at the front of the magazine. Said item, which highlights some very worthy brews, is introduced with the following sentence:

A handful of U.S. brewers have adopted an old European tradition of aging beer in wooden casks – generally, used bourbon or zinfandel barrels – to impart a richness of taste that modern production can’t touch.

Huh? Where to begin? Okay, at the beginning…

“A handful of U.S. brewers…” – Actually, no. Far from a handful, barrel-aging has been embraced by a multitude of breweries large and small from coast to coast and even – gasp! –  outside of the United States. In fact, the practice is significant enough that, at the aforementioned Cheers Conference, I featured a barrel-conditioned ale in my tasting as an example of a burgeoning trend.

“…an old European tradition…” – In the sense that all beer was once kept in wooden barrels and beer has been brewed for millennia longer in Europe than in the U.S., yes, I guess so. But to equate bourbon barrel use in breweries in the States to the aging of porter in England or Flemish reds or lambics in Belgium is misguided at best.

“…used bourbon or zinfandel barrels…” – Okay, I’ll give you bourbon barrels, but zinfandel? More like, generally bourbon barrels but also numerous assorted wine and spirits barrels, including casks that previously held zinfandel, chardonnay, pinot noir and other wines.

“…impart a richness of taste that modern production can’t touch.” – To impart different flavours, I’ll buy, or even a collection of spirituous or tart, fruity flavours otherwise unobtainable, but don’t tell me that a non-barrelled beer can’t be as rich as a barrelled beer.

Out of the Mouths of Winos…

Decanter magazine is offering up a batch of multi-discipline jewels this month, beginning with a reminder I posted over here about how much guidance the average consumer needs to sort through the miasma of the drinks world these days. (Don’t start with me! If you are about to comment that “the average consumer is fully able to choose a wine or beer or spirit for themselves,” well, you’re not an average consumer. Trust me on this.)

Then up comes this gem from another prominent wine guy, Jacques Lardière, head winemaker for the French winery, Louis Jadot. In discussing what I might be temnpted to call the pinot grigio-ification of modern wine, Lardière says:

”I’m not after technical perfection. I don’t have much time for the Australian approach, where the ideal wine is the most neutral.’

‘It’s easy to clean up a wine, but by removing faults, unless they’re truly detrimental, you also remove its life.’

‘I refuse to go along with it,’ he adds.

You could, and should, say the same thing about beer.

Zymurgy’s Big Yawn

If you troll the beer blogs, chat boards, websites and such, you’ve likely by now come across news of the results of Zymurgy Magazine’s annual poll naming The Best Beers in America. And you may have even been impressed by the fact that 1,192 different beers from 450 breweries were represented in the poll or that, for the second year running, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder was named Numero Uno.

Not that any of it matters.

I say it doesn’t matter not out of disrespect for Pliny the elder or Russian River Brewing – it’s a very fine beer from an excellent brewery – nor because I’m dismissive of what homebrewers, the target market for Zymurgy, have to say about beer – they’re generally a passionate lot and know their beer, for certain. No, I don’t think the results matter for one simple reason: there were a total of only2,867 votes cast.

For a poll that merited a press release and fairly large amount of repeating and debate within the Internet-o-sphere, that’s a shockingly low number of votes, comparable to the number of “Tasters Choice” ballots that might be cast at a small-scale beer festival. I wouldn’t lend much credence to one of those, and similarly I suggest no one read too much into the Zymurgy poll.

It’s really just a big yawn, is all.

Malt Advocate Joins Shanken!

I’ve written a column for Malt Advocate magazine for more years than I can remember, and consider myself close friends with publisher John Hansell and his wife and business partner Amy Westlake, and this hit me like a bolt out of the blue! Late yesterday afternoon, into the evening, really, I and the other MA writers received a missive announcing that Malt Advocate Inc., which incorporates the magazine and three WhiskyFest events, has joined M. Shanken Communications Inc., best known as publisher of Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado magazines.

The complete release, also sent out last night, is below. One thing is for sure: this spells big things for Malt Advocate! Congratulations to John, Amy and the whole MA crew.

Malt Advocate, Inc. joins M. Shanken Communications, Inc.

John Hansell stays on as Publisher & Editor; Amy Westlake remains WhiskyFest Director

New York, June 15, 2010:  Malt Advocate, Inc. today announced that it is now a part of M. Shanken Communications, Inc.   Malt Advocate, Inc. includes Malt Advocate magazine, WhiskyFest New York, WhiskyFest Chicago, and WhiskyFest San Francisco.

M. Shanken Communications, Inc.  publishes a variety of consumer and trade publications.  They include Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, Food Arts, Market Watch, and Impact.  In addition, the company hosts a number of events across the United States including the New York and New World Wine Experiences, Wine Spectator’s Grand Tours and Cigar Aficionado’s Big Smokes.

John Hansell will remain Malt Advocate magazine’s Publisher & Editor, and Amy Westlake will continue as Director of WhiskyFest events.  Malt Advocate, Inc. operations will remain at their current office in Emmaus, PA.

“Amy and I are very proud of our efforts promoting the whisky industry, both with Malt Advocate, which will be celebrating its 20thAnniversary in 2011, and the 25 WhiskyFest events we have hosted over the past 12 years,” notes John Hansell.

“Our activities dovetail perfectly with those of M. Shanken Communications, Inc. from a publication and events standpoint.  There are definite synergies that will be achieved between the two companies.  The M. Shanken Group will take Malt Advocate magazine and our WhiskyFest events to levels that we could not have achieved on our own.  We are very excited about our future together.”

“John and Amy are pioneers in this industry and highly regarded,” commented Marvin R. Shanken, CEO of M. Shanken Communications, Inc.   “We are proud to have them on board with us.  Their creations—Malt Advocate and WhiskyFest—are benchmarks.”

For additional information, contact Amy Westlake (610. 967.1083 or