Bigger, Stronger, Hoppier…Just Stop It!

In case you missed it, a Scottish brewery called Brewmeister announced yesterday that they had topped their own record for the world’s strongest “beer” – reason for the quotation marks to follow – with a 67.5% alcohol liquid called Snake Venom. The bottle, The Scotsman reports, comes with a warning that no more than the contents of a single, 275 ml bottle should be consumed per sitting.

There is so much wrong with this that I scarcely know where to start. But I’ll try.

First up, unless Brewmeister has somehow come up with a way for yeast to survive in a ridiculously high alcohol environment, this is not a beer and neither is it the product of brewing per se. It is something that was once a beer before it was freeze distilled into a spirit, as are the slew of other “world’s strongest beers” that have come to market in recent years. (I’m looking at you BrewDog and Schorschbräu.) When you brew a beer, you ferment out sugars and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. When you concentrate that alcohol by eliminating a large amount of the water content, that’s distilling. Period.

Secondly, who cares?! Producing the world’s strongest “beer” is right up there with producing the world’s most caloric hamburger and the world’s most tannic wine. It’s an empty, useless gesture than has nothing to do with the item intended to be consumed and everything to do with laying claim to a pointless title.

Thirdly, this is irresponsible to a massive degree. The one bottle per sitting that the brewery recommends you not exceed contains an enormous amount of alcohol, 185.625 millilitres by my calculations. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent in pure alcohol of drinking just under 62% of a 750 ml bottle of 40% alcohol spirits, or in other words, enough booze to potentially make a person very, very sick.

And fourthly, this kind of “bigger, stronger, hoppier” bullshit is precisely what craft beer is NOT about! Beer should be about flavour, not strength or massive, unbridled bitterness, and headline-grovelling attempts like this simply undermine everything that skilled and dedicated artisanal craft brewers around the world are trying to achieve. As Garrett Oliver once famously stated, no chef goes bragging about how they make the saltiest soup, and neither should anyone proud of their brewing skills be wading into the “bigger, stronger, hoppier” realm.

On Bubbles, Craft Brewers, the BA and Naysayers

On Facebook yesterday, I posted this link. Then all heck broke loose.

(In truth, it wasn’t that big a deal, hence all “heck” breaking loose, rather than all hell.)

Various people chimed in, some of whom mentioned to me privately that they had already taken Mr. Watson to task for what they viewed as, at minimum, a too rosy view of things, and at worst, a full-on effort at propagandizing. Me, I thought it was a pretty decent response to what I’ve been reading in the media of late and hearing from certain brewers for over a year now. (Remember that the BA’s main audience is the craft brewing community – the article actually appears in their “community” section –  and therefore it is reasonable to assume that those nay-saying brewers were at least high among their intended audience targets.)

Here’s why:

–        There have been plenty stories of late about the craft beer “bubble” and whether or not it shall shortly burst. The article is, to my mind, clearly intended to balance those stories, many of which have repeated what I would view as misplaced assumptions – more about those below – and I think did a reasonable job of it.

–        In terms of brewery numbers, what Mr. Watson states is true in that the United States is not even close to brewery saturation when compared to other markets, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. In order for parity with those and other countries to occur, on a brewery per population basis, the U.S. would need to double the number of breweries it currently boasts.

–        The suggestion that the market for craft beer is not growing is false. Critics point to the relatively stagnant nature of the American beer market, but that misses the point. Major beer brands have been in free-fall for the past several years – Bud Light has experienced five years of declining sales! – which has freed up major amounts of market share for the craft brewers. (And even so, the U.S. beer market grew 1% last year, which amounts to an additional 2 million barrels of demand.)

–        New breweries regularly come to market with small amounts of brewing capacity, as little as a few hundred barrels. As such, the impact of the regularly reported 1,200+ planned – note, not work-in-progress, but planned – breweries will be minor. (1,200 x 500 barrels = 600,000 barrels, and that’s being extremely generous on the production numbers side.)

–        New outlets for craft beer sales are coming online on a very regular basis. As someone who has worked with hospitality companies numerous times over the past several years and annually speaks at conferences involving top hospitality executives, I have seen the interest develop and grow first hand. I noted last year that when the restaurant company Darden (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) bought the multi-tap chain Yard House, it represented a sea change in the market for craft beer. That Yard House has been Darden’s top performing brand over the last year only cements that observation.

–        To suggest that the graph Mr. Watson presents is comparing apples to oranges – ie: financial data to brewery numbers – is to miss the point. In my view, he is clearly observing that the shape of the dotcom bubble and the craft beer “bubble” are apparently quite different.

Of course, none of the above is to suggest that unrestrained growth in the craft beer sector is sustainable indefinitely – you’d need be an idiot to infer that. But the likening of the current times for craft brewing in the United States to a “bubble” connotes the idea that the “bubble” is about to burst, and I’ve seen nothing that suggests it will any time soon. Mr. Watson’s analysis might be the most cogent or thoughtfully presented, but its conclusion is, I believe, correct.

There will be failures in the craft brewing sector. There may even be a number of them within the next, say, five or seven years, but even a few hundred mostly small and off-the-radar breweries going out of business is not about to burst any “bubble.” Craft beer is on track to continue its growth – all market indicators suggest as much, including the travails the big brewers in North America are experiencing these days – and that means there will be market share to fill, as much as 2 million barrels this year and perhaps as much or even more in 2014.

It will require a lot of brewery expansion à la Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, plus a large number of new brewery arrivals to fill that capacity. The thirst is evident, and I see nothing to suggest it is even close to being fully quenched.

Real Beer Tips for Fitness Fanatics

Apropos to the mess of an article described below, here are some pointers for people watching their weight and/or in training who might like to mix a flavourful beer or two into their lifestyle:

1)      Remember that the majority of the calories in beer come from alcohol, and so two chugged 4% alcohol light beers are roughly equal to the caloric content of one full-bodied, 8% alcohol and slowly enjoyed porter, stout or Belgian ale.

2)      Alcohol gets priority when your body is processing calories, so try to stem the impulse to nosh on a plate of cheesy nachos alongside your pint.

3)      Unpasteurized beer still contains all of its nutritional content, whereby pasteurized beer might contain fewer vitamins and nutrients. Also, brewer’s yeast is the source of a wealth of B complex vitamins, so choose bottle-conditioned or unfiltered and unpasteurized beer to get the best food value in your brew.

4)      A great way to enjoy flavourful beer and still stay hydrated and relatively sober is to alternate between glasses of beer and water. It will also keep the overall calorie count down, since you’ll likely wind up drinking fewer beers.

5)      Don’t drink beer purely for the sake of drinking beer. Drink beer because you enjoy what you’re drinking.

How to Write a Beer Story for a Fitness Site

Step 1: Collect a bunch of beers with “light” or “lite” in their names.

Step 2: Ignore fact that it’s the total number of calories ingested that count, rather than calories per bottle of beer, by oft-repeating phrases like “If you’re someone who likes to have more than a few in one night, this may be the way to go” and “it’s a significant savings — especially if you have more than one.”

Step 3: Regurgitate marketing pap from brewery websites, like “A brewing process that takes about twice as long as the average beer keeps calories and carbs down.”

Step 4: Pretend that the whole craft beer “thing” has never happened.

Step 5: Assume your audience is composed entirely of the feeble-minded.

That’s it. Follow the above and you, too, will be ready to start writing for!

15 Better-for-Your-Body Beers

15 Better-for-Your-Body Beers

Calling Out Top Restaurants on Beer Selection

No, I’m not going to waste your time or mine whinging about the lack of decent beer selection at fine dining restaurants. That situation is improving by the day, at least in major North American cities, and besides, it deserves noting that for every good wine place that lacks a decent beer list, there are probably two or three beer places serving crap wine.

No, my bitch today is about restaurants that decide to dip their proverbial toe into the good beer waters and do so in a way that would, if done in a similar fashion with wine, would earn the place naught but ridicule. Exhibit 1 being the new Seafood Fest menu at Toronto’s Nota Bene, a downtown resto with impeccable food credentials.

Seriously, this place has been awarded accolades like they’re going out of style, as anyone can clearly see on their website: Talk of the Town Award of Excellence; Best New Restaurant; Independent Restaurateurs of the Year; etc. Its wine list features 170 selections, and its back bar is certainly decent enough. And the beer selections for its August long seafood promotion?

  • Stella Artois
  • Hoegaarden
  • Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale
  • Goose Island Sophie

If you noted a theme to these picks, you’re right: They all come from the stable of Anheuser-Busch InBev, by several degrees the largest brewing company in the world. So it’s a fair guess that some money was involved in the crafting of this promotion.

While I give fair dues to AB InBev for putting together a beer deal with such a respected restaurant, I can only shake my head at the lack of judgement at Nota Bene. You don’t have to be a beer expert to understand that, with the lone exception of Sophie, these are all astoundingly ordinary beers. (For non-Canadian readers, Keith’s is not an IPA by any reasonable definition of the term, tasting as it does more like a mainstream lager.) And in my admittedly not-so-humble opinion, even Sophie isn’t quite what it used to be back when Goose Island was still independent.

Ten years ago, this might have worked at an upscale Toronto restaurant; people then weren’t terrifically beer-savvy and imported brands still carried a bit of cachet. But today? When the LCBO down the road from Nota Bene is selling Saison Dupont and Renaissance MPA and Founders Centennial IPA and locally-brewed King Vienna Lager? I think not.

To find a parallel, I try to imagine Nota Bene piecing together a month of wine and food pairings featuring Fat Bastard, Little Penguin, Yellow Tail and Fuzion, but somehow that seems rather unlikely. So why, I wonder, do they think they should get a free pass doing the equivalent sort of promo with beer?

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps esteemed chef David Lee tasted his way through dozens of beers before deciding that the ideal match for mussels and frites is Stella and the perfect accompaniment for Maritime lobster is Keith’s, in which case I completely withdraw my criticisms and invite Chef Lee around for a beer tasting sometime, so that I might introduce him to some more diverse and interesting flavours. But if not, then Nota Bene has done itself a serious disservice.

On Stella Artois, the English Beat and a Unique Bottle of Lambic

(Fair dues: This post was inspired by this post. Cheers, Adrian.)

Many years ago, when I was a much younger man, I had the good fortune to see a band called the English Beat play a show in Toronto. It was in a venue slightly larger than a club, yet far, far smaller than an arena, and the band was in top form. The night previous I had seen a double bill of Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh, so I knew going in that it would take a lot to top my just-past experience. The Beat did, performing balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred ska for at least two solid, non-stop hours. Underneath my heavy coat — it was winter in Toronto — I was sweating buckets, but I didn’t care. I was wrapped up in the moment, the experience of seeing a top band performing in their prime with all cylinders firing.

Many years after that, I paid my first visit to Cantillon, the famed lambic brewery in the dodgy area of Brussels near the Gare de Midi. Jean-Pierre was still then very much the man in charge — he’s since handed the reins to his highly talented and capable son, Jean — and his enthusiasm for lambic in general and Cantillon in particular was infectious. I had enjoyed and appreciated Cantillon before I attended the brewery, but I understood it after that visit, which, by the way, started as a planned hour or two and turned into a full day talking and tasting. Towards the end, Jean-Pierre opened a bottle of a beer called St. Lamvinus, which he would only refer to as “the product” because he felt it was as much a wine as a lambic. “The product” was at that point seven years old, lambic refermented with a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes, all grown in the Saint-Emillion district of Bordeaux. It was spectacular.

The English Beat are still playing and touring, and St. Lamvinus has been made again since that extraordinary first batch. But just as I’ve seen the band since and thought them fun and tremendously entertaining, though not quite the equal of that fateful show, the St. Lamvinus I shared with a friend this past weekend was spectacular in and of itself, but not quite the St. Lamvinus of the late 1990’s. The grapes have changed, for one — the bottle I had recently was pure Cabernet Sauvignon — and the experience was contextually very different.

My point being that there are certain experiences, a concert or a bottle of limited edition beer, that are meant to be fleeting, and are all the better for it. The joy is in sensing at the time that something special is occurring, and knowing it in your bones once it is done. Its lesson is that the key in life is not grasping for what is past, but searching for equivalents to be found in the present, whether a new, up-and-coming band or a remarkable brew.

As for the Stella reference in the title of this post, I mention it simply as contrast, since that beer is quite unlikely to ever provide such a memorable, compelling experience, and neither is any of its modern, mass-market peers. Sure, there may be memorable occasions in which Stella might play a role, but the odds of such a relatively benign, ubiquitous and frankly unmemorable beer actually creating the experience, as did the Beat and St. Lamvinus, are very small indeed.

Dogfish Head vs. A-B InBev in the Percentages Game

Thanks to Shanken News Daily for this bit of contextualized good news:

On the one hand…Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) said selling-day-adjusted sales to retailers in the U.S. inched up 0.2% in the first half of 2012, giving cause for optimism to a mainstream U.S. beer market that’s been in low-single-digit decline for months.

While on the other…Dogfish Head Brewing tells Shanken News Daily that shipments rose 33% over the first six months of the year, and that the company is slightly ahead of its goal to ship 171,000 barrels during calendar 2012. The Delaware brewer’s 90 Minute and 60 Minute IPA labels led growth over the first half, up 28% and 24% respectively, and its Burton Baton brew—which recently joined the year-round core portfolio—is up 70% from a small base. Dogfish Head’s 750-ml. segment, which features its more exotic offerings and now accounts for 7% of the business, rose 80% over the first half, depleting 38,276 12-bottle cases.

Yes, I know that Dogfish sells but a minute fraction of what ABI flogs, and that it must always be remembered that percentages are relative. But Dogfish is both far from being the kind of youthful start-up that easily posts huge percentage growth and hardly the kind of brewery that boasts broad mass market appeal. And it is experiencing explosive growth, alongside any number of other well-established craft breweries across the United States and, indeed, increasingly around the world.

Seems there might be some staying power to this craft beer thing after all.

The Quite Bearable Lightness of Boozing

As I sipped last night on a dram of 46.1% alcohol Mackmyra First Edition Whisky, I mused on the nature of alcoholic strength and the unlikely conflict and confrontation it has caused of late. My thoughts left me wondering why so many members of a purportedly democratic group like drink aficionados – beer drinkers who can appreciate a powerfully hoppy IPA and an equally malt-driven Trappist ale, whisky fans who can take equal pleasure from a pot-distilled Irish whiskey and an aggressively peaty Islay malt – insist on seeing things in such stark shades of black and white.

Simply, in the situation I described yesterday or the scorcher that this afternoon is shaping up to be, a light ale or lager is precisely what fits the bill. Last night, with a bit of cheese at its side, the uncut beauty of the Mackmyra was an ideal tipple. Later tonight, on my condo balcony, it might be better a 10% alcohol double IPA or vanilla-soaked single barrel bourbon. Tomorrow, when I meet up with friends after work, I might reach for a chilled glass of 17% alcohol Lilley Blanc, or a bracingly dry Tanqueray martini.

Sometimes, lighter is better, and it needn’t be absolutely below a certain percentage of alcohol to suit. (Said he avoiding the use of the dreaded “s-word.”) Sometimes, big and beefy and boozy is better. Three pints of 6% alcohol pale ale might leave me feeling only mildly buzzed, while sending a lighter-weight, over-stressed soul over the edge. It depends on how I’m feeling, and the time of day, and the weather, and what I might be eating, and where and with whom I’m supping, and all the other factors that relate to the enjoyment of alcohol and make brand- or even booze-loyalty such a silly concept.

It’s all good, folks, unless, of course, it’s not.

Churchkey Can Company — Seriously?

I’ve been hearing about this for a while now, each time gritting my teeth and vowing not to let the inner curmudgeon escape. But it’s gone too far. I have to make some sort of comment, especially after this piece of shameless pandering. Go ‘mudgy!

Church-frikkin’-key Frikkin’-Can Company. Oy! It’s not enough that we have stores selling ugly-ass 1970’s furniture, now we must endure retro-obsessed hipsters who think that the ultimate in cool is an old-fashioned “flat top” beer can! (BTW, “flat-top” is an invented term. When these things were actually the norm, they were simply known as “beer cans.”) Why it’s cool they don’t know, but the company has something to do with that dude from Entourage and, hey!, they have a neat video on their website showing you the right way to open the can! So it must be cool, right?

No, dumbass, it’s not. Any more than it would be really, really cool to take your clothes down to the stream and beat on them with a rock or haul around huge blocks of ice to keep your refrigerator cold. It’s called progress, and while it sometimes breeds bad things like beer that doesn’t really taste like beer and hamburgers that taste nothing like beef, it also makes our lives easier in many ways, like not needing to hunt around for a can punch every time you want to open a beer.

Note that this is NOT the same as the twist-off vs. pry cap issue. The twist-off is an inefficient seal that shreds fingers something like three out of every twenty tries, whereas the pry cap provides a nearly fail-proof seal that can be opened with anything from an opener to a lighter to a rolled-up magazine. The modern pull-top can, on the other hand, provides a great seal and opens without any extra equipment, whereas the “flat top” requires a very specific device to open it, which means that the only possible reason to change from the new to the old is pretension, pure and simple.

For all I know, the beer inside the Churchkey can is quite good, and given the chance I’ll be happy to try it and say what I think. But selling a beer of any sort based upon the kind of can it’s in harkens to the worst of the big brewing companies’ marketing manipulations, and if you fall for it, then you might as well also stock your fridge with cans that change colour when cold and bottles that swirl your beer as you pour.

Styles & Why They Do/Don’t Matter

Beer styles. God, but I’m tired of debating them. It’s gotten so we can’t even speak of something so simple as a “session beer” without some people getting the britches bunched up in apoplectic rage over the bar being set too high, or low. Certain folk want to quantify and categorize every last little ale or lager; others are free and easy and don’t really mind if you just call it “beer” and sod the stylistic nonsense.

Me, I’ll admit to freely vacillating between the two poles over the years, but more recently I’ve been steadily shifting away from categorization. Here’s why.

Beer styles help me educate others about beer, which is part of what I do to pay the mortgage. If someone knows nothing about, say, IPA, it is immeasurably helpful to have some sort of style guidelines to help them wrap their brains around it all, preferably mixed with a shot or two of history and a whole whack of context. Which is why I believe Michael Jackson defined two pages worth of “classical beer-styles” early in his seminal “World Guide to Beer,” first published in 1977.

Problems arise, however, when we attempt to create new categories for everything rather than defining them within the context of those style we already understand. Take the double IPA, for instance. A proper double IPA is a strong and very hoppy IPA, period. It doesn’t need any further definition, in this writer’s opinion, just as a coffee stout is a stout flavoured with coffee, rather than a singular entity on its own. A “session beer?” Well, that’s a lower alcohol beer suitable for drinking over the course of a “session,” which for me could be a 4% bitter or a 5.1% pilsner, or even a 7% Belgian ale, depending upon the time and context of the “session.”

In the end, there are probably two or three dozen or so styles we really need to acknowledge, with everything else slotting neatly into some variation on those themes. Experimentation? Innovation? “Moroccan” saisons?  Bring ’em on, says I. Beer is about variety, and variety is, you know, the spice of life. I like it spicy and so I shall embrace all comers, unless, of course, they suck. But I shall not imagine that each and every one of them is deserving of its own new category.

Your Assignment This Weekend – Drink Something Different!

Last night, while chatting with a couple who run a beer and spirits importing business and a whisky sales rep, we found ourselves discussing the curious matter of prejudiced drinkers. No, I don’t mean drunken bigots, but rather that odd breed of individual who swears by one sort of alcoholic beverage to the exclusion of all others.

You know the type, I’m sure. You may even be the type, if you’re honest enough to admit it to yourself. They are the people who scorn beer as a plebeian offering, espousing instead the greater glories of fermented grape juice, or complain bitterly about the taste of the big brewery lager they were “forced” to order because the bar had only a slender beer selection on offer.

(This sort of behaviour is rare among spirits aficionados, primarily, I believe, because it’s tough to stick to whisky or gin in all circumstances, although there are those who will dismiss most or even all other spirits in deference to their chosen tipple.)

The oddest part of this behaviour, to me, is the fact that these folk are usually the first to chastise their opposites to their attitudes. “Why can’t restaurants offer me a decent beer?” the self-professed beer lover bemoans, oblivious to the bottles of plonk their wine aficionado friends must endure at their favourite beer bar. Or: “What’s with the fancy beer?” from an oenophile with a cabinet full of $80 a stem wine glasses at home.

In truth, almost all of us are guilty of this attitude to a certain degree, whether it’s dismissing out-of-hand an entire category of drinks – all spirits, perhaps, or lambics or maybe beer cocktails – or swearing that we can’t stomach a certain drink due to an unfortunate teen-years experience. (I have proven several times that the latter is all in the mind, often starting with a cocktail for the individual and then leading them to different flavours in what is usually a spirit category, but always with their full knowledge.) In some cases, it’s simply due to lack of opportunity or access.

In the end, however, drinking is, or should be, all about taste experiences, and so I present you with your challenge for the weekend. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, pause at some point to try something new. Not a beer previously unknown to you if you’re a beer aficionado or a new single malt if you’re a whisky geek, but something from an entirely new category. Seek guidance, if you wish, through a specialty bar or a friend with knowledge in a field previously off-limits to you, but approach whatever you pick with an open mind and an unjaded palate, and take your time.

You might just find yourself opening up entirely new and decidedly flavourful horizons.