The Kind of Beer That Makes You Say “Wow!”

The other day, Sunday to be exact, I enjoyed a most entertaining time being interviewed on The Brewing Network. During our chat — at least I think it was during that particular chat; I haven’t listened to the mp3 yet — I commented on what separates a good, solid, mid-range beer from an exceptional, that’s really frickin’ good beer. It is, to paraphrase myself, the “Wow!” factor.

I have in my fridge and cellar a number of beers from Squatters of Salt Lake City, Utah, that I am sampling my way through in preparation for a forthcoming book, The World Atlas of Beer, which I am co-authoring with Tim Webb. Tonight, I opened one of those beers, a tart ale aged 529 days in oak with pediococcus, lactobacillis and “wild yeast,” presumably Brettanomyces, then blended with younger, hoppeed beer and bottle-fermented wwith Champagne yeast. It’s called 529.

Wow!

On the nose, this beauty shows candied orange and lemon peel, vanilla, tart raspberries and oaky woodiness. The start is a bit sweet and berry-ish, but moves quickly to a tart and very oak-accented body — one in which the oak works very well, I might add — with notes of lemon and vanilla, cherry pit and mild nutty hop. Funky spice and a dry, moderately tart and lemony finish complete the picture.

Overall, this ale has great complexity, great balance and great flavour progression. Again, wow!

(Halifax) East Comes (Alberta) West

My friends at Delancy Direct tell me that some Garrison beers from Halifax are headed to Alberta, including the very fine Grand Baltic Porter I am now enjoying as the Blue Jays dismantle the Twins. It’s perhaps a bit fuller bodied and ale-ish,and  almost certainly more licorice-accented, than I remember it, but nevertheless it is a thoroughly enjoyable brew.

I wrote recently that since Garrison developed an affection for off-kilter styles like so-called “Imperial” IPAs and Baltic porters, they seem to have found their brewing groove. Albertans, get a case of the Baltic and serve it chilled late on a balmy summer night.

Housekeeping & the Great Disconnect

First, the housekeeping. I haven’t been posting much during March and I don’t expect that situation to change much in April. Or May, for that matter. This has to do with a bunch of projects that all converge over the next sixty days or so, including the new book I’m co-writing with Tim Webb, a consulting job to develop a new bar-restaurant on the Toronto waterfront and a number of events I’ll be hosting, like the whisky tasting I have coming up April 7 at the Monk’s Table — call (416) 920-7037 for info and tickets — and the Great South Beer Cup in Buenos Aires.

So while I will do my best to keep things interesting in this space, I can promise nothing. Sorry.

Now, the Great Disconnect. Like many other beer scribes, I recently attended the remarkably large — almost 4,000 attendees strong! — Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco last week. And like most if not all of my peers, I was amazed at the energy and enthusiasm on display there. This craft beer thing, in case you haven’t noticed, is red hot.

One of the things I felt to be of particular note, however, is the gap that is developing between the committed beerophile and the average, ordinary beer drinker. Take sour beers, for instance. At what must have been one of the most popular seminars of the event, a standing room only crowd crammed a large ballroom to hear Vinnie Cilurzo, Jean Van Roy and Yvan De Baets talk about what have become known as “sour beers,” or in other words, beers affected by certain yeasts and bacteria, notably Brettanomyces, which contribute a tart and often fruity flavour. Sour beers, in case you haven’t noticed, are the latest craze in US craft beer circles.

Thing is, while sour sells in craft beer land, most restaurateurs, bar managers and patrons will look at you askance, to say the least, when you start talking about sour beers. To them, sour means bad, and bad ain’t good. (I know this because I do a lot of work with the hospitality industry in the United States.) Hell, for the most part, they’re still trying to get their heads around hoppy!

Now, I’m not saying this is a bad situation or something the craft brewing industry needs to rein in. Craft beer has always been led by styles and flavours the general public doesn’t understand, from the cascade hop to fruit beers, and whether it’s sour beer trends or the barrel aging of beer, I see no reason to stop now. But as we craft beer consumers continue to get all hot and bothered over the latest sour this or tart that, and more brewers join the stampede to acidified fermentation, it’s probably wise to bear in mind that the public, that great morass of drinkers trailing our leading edge, are still largely wondering what in hell we’re talking about.

BS From the BA

The United States Department of Agriculture has released a new set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, something I would normally note with about as much interest as I would a statement from the Department of Health and Social Services. But then the forces of the Beer Institute, the Brewers Association and the National Beer Wholesalers Association combined to release a joint statement commenting on the Guidelines, and my BS detector went wild.

(You can find the dietary guidelines here. Most of the material regarding alcohol is in Chapter 2.)

Here’s what I see as the most offending part of the statement:

The idea of a ‘standard drink’ is misleading to consumers since it does not reflect how liquor is served or consumed. Not all alcohol is equal, meaning one alcohol beverage can have significantly more or less alcohol content than another. For example, depending on the proof of alcohol used, the mixer, and the bartender’s pouring habits, a so-called ‘standard’ mixed drink may contain 2, 3 or even 4 times more pure alcohol content and calories than the average light beer. It is common knowledge that two martinis consumed over the course of two hours could certainly produce a different effect than two light beers consumed over the same period. Furthermore, the false premise of a ‘standard drink’ is even more confusing considering that significant variations in alcohol concentration exist among the three product categories and even within each category. Beer remains the beverage of moderation with an average ABV of under 5%, compared to distilled spirits, which average between 35 – 40% ABV.

This kind of gobbledygook may be fine for the Beer Institute and the NBWA, since their members are primarily concerned with big-selling beers like Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite, each of which is below 5% ABV, as the statement suggests. But for the BA, whose members are responsible for the vast majority of the so-called “extreme” beers, this rings especially hollow.

Let’s look at some of the problems I see:

Not all alcohol is equal, meaning one alcohol beverage can have significantly more or less alcohol content than another.

Very true, and something that applies equally to beer, wine and spirits. Singling out a drink with spirits as having potentially 4 time the alcohol of a light beer, however, is ridiculous, as you would require close to 5 ounces of 40% alcohol spirits to hit that level, and how likely is that to happen, especially without the imbiber being aware of what’s going on in their glass?

(And incidentally, one pint of 12% alcohol barley wine will also meet that lofty mark of 1.92 ounces of pure alcohol.)

It is common knowledge that two martinis consumed over the course of two hours could certainly produce a different effect than two light beers consumed over the same period.

Assuming said martinis were 3 ounces apiece, of course! And the same could be said about two glasses of Californian cabernet or zinfandel, some of which hover in the realm of 14% – 15% ABV, or six 4 ounce tasters of high-octane craft beers.

Furthermore, the false premise of a ‘standard drink’ is even more confusing considering that significant variations in alcohol concentration exist among the three product categories and even within each category.

By which the statement is implying that alcohol content varies wildly among spirits, which are the main subject of the statement. In fact, spirits are without question the most consistent in their 40% ABV, while craft beer is almost certainly the least consistent and thus the most unpredictable in its effect. (Particularly given the habit most restaurants and bars have of not listing the strengths of the beers they carry.)

Beer remains the beverage of moderation with an average ABV of under 5%, compared to distilled spirits, which average between 35 – 40% ABV.

If you look at beer in terms of volume, yes. But if you count up all the individual brands of beer on the market today and work out the average alcohol content among them, I’m betting the picture would be much different. Further, comparing alcohol contents of beer and spirits is ridiculously disingenuous, since the former is normally consumed in 12 and 16 ounce portions — a bottle and a pint — while the latter is typically served in 1.5 or 2 ounce portions.

Now, I like beer, as I’m sure all visitors to these pages know, and I support the BA in its efforts to further the craft beer gospel across the United States and around the world. But considering the members’ products they represent, their signature on this release smacks more than a bit of throwing stones in glass houses.

When Trends Go Wrong

As I was reading Eddie Huang’s excellent treatise-cum-rant on food trends this morning, I was struck by certain parallels to the beer world. Specifically the craft beer world.

(Pause while you go read the article on salon.com. Done? Okay, back to business.)

Where Huang writes “razor clams,” substitute ultra-hoppy ales. Where he writes “Mangalitsa pork,” read instead Brett-influenced beers or bourbon barrel-aged monsters.

Get the picture? Huang was not, and I am not, calling for a stop to such cooking/brewing, just a moderation in our seemingly unstoppable enthusiasm for everything that emerges from a brewery with stupefying strength, tongue-numbing bitterness or cheek-puckering tartness. There are brewers who do such things extremely well, the Mario-Batalis-with-razor-clams and April-Bloomfelds-with-Mangalitsa-pork of Huang’s treatise, but not every brewer out there can pull it off first time out the block. These people, in Huang’s words, “take the time to really understand what (they are) trying to do.”

Calm, measured progress, is all I’m saying. Nothing extreme about it…

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.

“And They Were Lined Up For Blocks Waiting to Buy a Bottle…”

“…of Allsopp’s Strong Christmas Ale, a potent, limited edition beer described as ‘mellow as old Burgundy and as nourishing as a beefsteak.’ The latest in the ‘extreme beer’ craze that has swept the nation.”

Well, no, they weren’t. The time was the mid-1800’s and it’s doubtful that anyone was talking about so-called “extreme” beers, even if they were drinking what today might well fit the bill.

Zythophile Martyn Cornell has the skinny on this tale of strong ale, and it’s a good one. Go read it, now.

The reason I mention this, aside from its obvious value as beer history, is in response to the manufactured “feud” between the beer extremists and session beer advocates, as if a fondness for one type of beer precludes an affinity for the other. For the purpose of this illustration, however, let’s imagine that such a feud does exist.

Were there actually to be two such camps, the Arctic Ale/Strong Christmas Ale story demonstrates that the populace of the former group are advocating for something that simply does not exist. There have always been beers of strength, high hopping rates – at least, since hops were welcomed into the brewhouse – unusual ingredients, barrel-aging and so forth, hence there is nothing “extreme” about such beers or techniques in brewing today. They are as old as beer itself.

Session beers, on the other hand, are defined as being of a strength conducive to drinking over the course of an elongated session. You and I (and Lew) may differ as to what constitutes such a strength, but I think we can all agree that lower alcohol beers are session beers and so session beers do exist.

Thus, if the “extreme” vs. session feud did exist, victory must go to the sessioners, since the extremists are arguing in favour of a figment of their imaginations.

Q.E.D.

Beer-Holes

As most San Francisco Bay area beer aficionados will know, last weekend was the always much-anticipated release of Russian River Brewing’s Pliny the Younger, a one-time-only beer that usually sells out the day it is released. Once it’s gone, that’s it for another year.

I was at said launch last year, and while I enjoyed the beer, I didn’t much care for the chaos, crowds, confusion and wait times for service. I wouldn’t do it again, but that’s just me. The beer, as I noted, is good, very good, even, but no beer is going to make me go through that kind of circus.

Others, however, obviously feel otherwise, as this year’s release was as crowded and boisterous as ever, according to those who attended. Which is perfectly fine and great for those who attended and for Russian River, the owners and operators of which go to great lengths to make things go as smoothly as possible.

Then this happens. Via the Burgundian Babble Belt, the Boggle About Beer blog and Nathalie Cilurzo herself, co-owner of Russian River with her husband Vinnie, I learn that some douche apparently smuggled some Younger out of the pub and put it up for sale on eBay. (The posting has since been removed, which suggests to me that either the beer was fake – which is where my money lies – or the seller was sufficiently humiliated by the reaction that he/she removed it from the site. Or maybe whoever it was took someone’s money and made a quick sale. Who knows!?)

This does happen, of course. There are those who want to try rare and virtually unobtainable Beer X at almost any price, as the legions of listings on eBay will attest, and if someone wants to buy a bomber bottle of some hot and talked-about ale or lager – ha-ha, just kidding about that lager part! Let’s face it, the geeks only want ales – and pay through the nose for it, well, more power to them.

But this one is different. Nathalie and Vinnie expressly served this beer as draught only this year, with no take out allowed, because they wanted to serve as wide-ranging a clientele as possible, and hopefully have some fun in so doing. Even so, according to Nathalie’s post on the subject, people were caught slopping beer into a canteen or bottle and trying to smuggle it out of the pub! Never mind that said beer will ultimately have all the integrity and appeal of the dregs of last night’s unfinished and unrefrigerated pint.

Collecting beer reviews, or “ticking,” as it is sometimes known, is always going to happen in our current culture of craft beer, and for those who enjoy it, I say go for it! But when the character of the beer is as compromised as would be a canteen of hastily and surreptitiously decanted ale, then the tickers have gone too far and become, as per the title of this post, beer-holes. It’s one thing to want to taste the beer, quite another to be willing to sample it after it has been subjected to all kinds of abuse. What’s next? Smuggling some out in your mouth and spitting into your friend’s eagerly awaiting gob?

One of the main beer review sites has as its motto “Respect Beer.” Exactly!

You, Sir, Are an Ass

My buddy Lew Bryson pointed me towards this story, but while he had the good sense to dismiss it in two short sentences, I find myself unable to let it pass without greater comment. So here goes…

Mr. Fool…may I call you Pour?…you have completely misunderstood the entire concept of a session beer and, in fact, beer in general. It is a multi-faceted drink, no doubt, but at its very heart is sociability. Meeting with friends and enjoying a beer or three is surely one of life’s greatest pleasures, and while you may enjoy drinking one or two beers and calling it quits, my friends and I, including the aforementioned Mr. Bryson, sometimes wish to stay up and enjoy each other’s company until the wee hours. And we embrace so doing without winding up stumbling drunk.

Which, Pour, is why the session beer exists. It is the social elixir, the pint in our hands as we review the past days or weeks or months, pass judgement on the recent performances of our sports teams or politicians or colleagues and generally shoot the shit, sometimes for but an hour or two and sometimes for considerably longer. It fuels our conversations while sparing us severe intoxication.

And contrary to your belief, Pour, it is only occasionally a pilsner. Sure, if said conversation is occurring in Prague, it might likely be a pilsner or related Czech lager, or in Bavaria it could be a helles or dunkel, or in Downington, Pennsylvania, up the road from where Lew lives, it might be a Victory Prima Pils, but in my local pub it’s just as likely to be a pale ale or weizen or mild ale or other lower strength, non-lager brew. In Pete Brown‘s local, when I’m visiting him in London, it will most certainly be a pint of best bitter, at least for the first one, which it might well also be when I’m catching up with friends at Spinnakers in Victoria, BC. Next month in Antwerp, where I plan to be based for the Alvinne and Zythos festivals, I might start with a bolleke or two of De Konninck. Non-pilsner session beers, one and all.

In short, Pour, in case you’ve missed my drift, session beers are anything but crass imitations of Bud or Coors Light or MGD. They are, in fact, bold and flavourful beers that happen to be lower in alcohol than your standard American IPA or Imperial stout, spiritual if not literal descendants of the British pub bitter or mild from which they appropriated their name. They’re as tasty as the 21st Amendment beer you review, if not even tastier, and millions of us out here in the great, big world of beer diversity enjoy them tremendously.

You should join us sometime.

Unicorns and Faeries and Quadrupels

While I’m on the topic of strong beer, a recent tasting conducted by Young Dredge over at Pencil & Spoon has stirred up some controversy over the style term “quadrupel” (or “quadruple” or simply “quad”). I feel compelled to chime in.

Like Tripel, Quadrupel is a term invented by a Trappist brewery for one of their commercial beers, the former by Westmalle and the latter by Koningshoeven/La Trappe. Both follow logically from the classic abbey designations of enkel, or single, being an everyday beer of low strength, and dubble, or double, being a stronger, more nutritious beer reserved for visitors, feast days and periods of fasting.

So one’s as legit as the other, right? Maybe not.

Westmalle Tripel, by most people’s calculations, was the first tripel, it being specifically created for commercial purposes and marketed under that name. It was “likely created,” speculates Stan Hieronymus, author of Brew Like a Monk, to satisfy “drinkers in the 1930’s who wanted both stronger beer and one the color of trendy, light-colored Pilseners.”

La Trappe Quadrupel, on the other hand, was created in 1991 to be the strongest beer of the abbey’s line, originally intended as only a winter seasonal. As its popularity grew, however, it became a year-round brand and the “quad” tag began to be stuck to beers of all sorts, which is where problems arise.

The style Stan calls “not quite a style” is now said to include beers such as Westvleteren 12, St. Bernardus 12 and Rochefort 10, all strong and dark ales that were included in Young Dredge’s tasting and all beers which pre-existed the La Trappe Quadrupel. The question which arises, then, is can a new style name and definition be applied to beers that were well-established long before its creation?

Why Brewers Make So Many Strong Beers

This is almost too easy.

The list of ratebeer.com’s Best Beers 2011, counting the top rated beers in the world, is out, and as usual, it is just a wee bit big beer-centric. How much so? In the style listing of the top 50 beers, the word “Imperial” appears 39 times!

The word pilsner? Zero times, in the entire 100.

 

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.