Friday, June 4, 2010

Market Correction Brewing for Light Lagers?

When you have two companies that enjoy about 80 percent combined market share in their industry, and the nation's leading financial publication says they're doing it all wrong, something interesting, and seemingly errant, is undoubtedly afoot.

Yet that's exactly what happened in the pages of today's Wall Street Journal, which, far from celebrating the titanic status of brewing beasts Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, has served up something rare indeed: a mainstream smack-down of these companies' extremely mainstream beers – brands that, one could argue, have been repeatedly validated by the marketplace over and over again.

With suave and methodical ferocity, drinks writer Eric Felten lays into ABIBMC over everything from the hollow void where flavor ought to be found but isn't; to asinine marketing strategies that mostly insult consumers while leaving product attributes unaddressed; to packaging contrivances as silly as they are useless.

Felten juxtaposes these observations with the major players' souring sales figures to support a thesis that is substantial and everything craft-beer devotees are dying to hear: As the performance of powerhouse brands like Bud Light and Miller Light continue to bring pain to their owners' balance sheets, Felten wonders, could it be that we are "finally witnessing a great consumer revolt against shamefully bad beer, shamelessly promoted?"

The piece is sprinkled with other fabulous nuggets of anti-industrial-beer-ism:

Taking notes in my blind tasting I quickly found myself running out of ways to describe vapid nothingness.


No wonder these beers are so heavily advertised. No one would think to drink them otherwise. And even if there are those who actually like the stuff, the different brews are virtually indistinguishable. Nothing begs for vigorous marketing like products that are otherwise undifferentiated.

Felten's search for deeper meaning behind the brewers' slipping sales figures is both provacative and not out of character for the Journal. Whether he hits the mark is anyone's guess; for the time being, suffice it to say that plenty of people still drink Bud Light, and even like it. Are they merely hypnotized by advertising? Numbed by universal blandness coupled with inescapable ubiquity? It's probably impossible to say.

Nevertheless, kudos to Eric Felten and his employer for taking such a strong posture against the behemoths of the brewing industry. Now, we "real beer" aficionados should not have, nor do I believe we necessarily do have, any illusions of an overnight takeover of the beer market by craft brands and all they represent. But with the help of keen scribes like Mr. Felten, and the circulatory heft of publications like the Journal, we just might see more people asking important questions about the beer they're drinking. And with all due deference to the Coors Light marketing department, that's as refreshing as it gets.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Beer Cocktail Bandwagon?

I've said it here before – I'm not above mixing beers, whether that's to blend away flaws in a batch of homebrew that I'm not too keen on drinking by itself, or to allow two or more beers' strengths to complement each other, or just for the hell of it.

But mostly this type of diversion takes place beneath the faucets of my kegerator. Something I have never been too heavily involved in is blending beers with non-beer liquids and substances. Yet such so-called "beer cocktails" are assuredly out there, if usually a little obscure and out of the mainstream, and mixologists have over the years crafted more than a few time-honored cocktail recipes showcasing the ordinarily solitary suds.

Maybe it's something about the time of year, or maybe it's just coincidence, but inside of the past month, at least two major publications – Esquire and The Washington Post – have picked up on the topic and turned out some great reads for the beer-cocktail-curious.

Or perhaps the timing is neither seasonal nor coincidental, but rather indicative of something more profound afoot – what else would compel the Post to pronounce, "We can declare that the beer cocktail is having its moment"?

Maybe it is, maybe not. I'm sure that I'm too far away from influential places like New York, Philadelphia and even Washington, D.C., to know just how much steam the beer-cocktail movement has built up. Nevertheless, reading about these clever and oftentimes mouth-watering concoctions – some of which I'd heard of, some I hadn't – is both fun and inspiring.

Of the cocktails Esquire and the Post highlight, I'm particularly interested in the Shandy Gaff, a blend of American Pale Ale and ginger beer; The Saint, which combines Schwarzbier with gin, elderflower liquor and Earl Gray-infused vermouth; and of course the Black Velvet, for which I conveniently happen to have both of the ingredients (champagne and Stout), the pale bubbly stuff being something I do not otherwise find myself normally drawn to.

For the time being, my forays into beer-based drinks have been limited. I've had really-delicious and not-so-good Micheladas before; I once toyed around with a holiday drink featuring rich ale, bourbon (or rum) and egg nog; and I've sampled Berliner Weisse mit schuss (with flavored syrup) – a blend familiar to many beer lovers that was mentioned in the Esquire piece.

But for us beer fanatics, it may seem a little counter-intuitive to take our favorite beers and add things like ice, mixers, liquor and other flavorings – after all, if you're like me, we drink mostly beer because we prefer it to other beverages like cocktails. So why make a cocktail out of beer? Isn't that going backwards?

Perhaps, but then again I think I like the perspective of D.C.-area bartender Rachel Sergi, who offered this sublimely self-evident nugget: "Some might say that beer on its own is better, but I say everything is better with beer."

And when you put it that way...

Beer Cocktail Recipes:
- Esquire
- Washington Post
- That's the Spirit!
- Drunk Drinks

Beer Nog Recipe

(So this isn't the most seasonally appropriate recipe, but hey – I have only so much to offer. Keep this one in mind for the winter holidays. All measurements are rough and from memory. Play around and find proportions that you like.)

10 oz. rich, malty ale*
1.5 oz. bourbon or spiced rum
4 oz. egg nog
grated nutmeg and cinnamon to taste

Serve in an earthenware mug or something similarly rustic-looking

* I used Saint Arnold Christmas Ale, which can only be found in Texas. Something rich, malty and not too hoppy should fit the bill. Dark Belgian ales could be great.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Growing Up Isn't Hard To Do

When it comes to yeast ranching, I'm usually a mason-jar kind of guy. I scoop up a big helping of slurry and store it in the back of the fridge until I'm ready to reuse that strain – normally not waiting too long so that the yeast stays healthy, fresh and viable.

That's one method for saving yeast at home. Another one is using slants. These are relatively small volumes of yeast grown and kept inside test tubes filled partly with malt agar. (The name derives from the technique of allowing the agar to firm up while the tube rests on an angle, thus maximizing the surface area available for the yeast colony to grow on.)

There are advantages to using slants, including the ability to store the yeast for a very long time (some say indefinitely) and the ability to keep a clean, pure strain on hand to grow from as desired.

I was eager to try my hand at growing yeast from a slant – not creating my own, mind you; that may come down the road – and I was also eager to get my hands on Wyeast 1028, a strain I'd not yet worked with. Enter a friend in my homebrew club, a dedicated slant-keeper and yeast horder, who offered to give me a fresh slant of Wyeast 1028 from his stash after I'd mentioned my interest in it.

When it was time to start growing up a starter of the yeast, I took my slant out of the fridge, made 20 mL of a 1.040 wort with DME, fashioned a loop from a paper clip, sterilized it with a flame, and simply scraped some yeast off the slant and inoculated the wort (a volume so small I was able to start it off in a used White Labs yeast vial).

Following my friend's instructions, I stepped the volume up to 200 mL about 24 hours later, and then up to around 1.2 L another day after that. And with that I had a starter ample enough for the British Bitter I'll be brewing tomorrow.

The exercise has been moderately labor-demanding – there are worse things than doing a small homebrew task every night for a few nights, but plan accordingly – but not anywhere near as intimidating or unreasonable as one might think when first considering entering into the world of slants. Things have gone so well, in fact, that I might even consider setting up a yeast ranch of my own, monopolizing every vegetable and cheese drawer in the process but ensuring an ever-growing and ever-ready stable of strains to suit whatever my brewing fancy demands.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Kölsch 2

My decision to brew another Kölsch had roughly two sources of inspiration: first, I have a sort of standing desire to keep something light and drinkable on draft at all times, even if I don't always follow through on that desire; second – and more acutely – I had been to visit the new outfit Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in Charlotte, N.C., and when I tasted their delicious, authentic-style German "lagered ales," I knew I had to make some of my own.

A chat with John, one of Olde Meck's very friendly and gracious co-owners, revealed that their Kölsner (a Kölsch with a little extra, Pilsener-style hopping) and Copper (a Düsseldorf-style Altbier) are both fermented with White Labs 029, a strain reputedly sourced "from a small brewpub in Cologne, Germany."

This was good news to me, for among homebrewing circles, the two styles are typically associated with distinct, if similar, yeast strains. Wyeast 2565 is seen as the paradigm of Kölsch yeasts, while for Altbier the choice is usually Wyeast 1007. I had worked with 2565 previously, and while it made an adequate Kölsch on my first and only prior attempt at the style, it did impart a bit more of a fruitiness than I prefer, even in a style that makes allowances for this character.

Given also my fondness for reusing the same yeast strain in a series of beers, I was further pleased to hear that a commercial brewery, in addition to the homebrewers who gave their own endorsement of the idea, had no trouble at all making delicious Kölsch and Alt with WLP029.

With plans already hatching to follow this up with an Altbier, and a Sticke Alt, and possibly the even the likes of a Foreign Extra Stout and a Baltic Porter, I set about designing my Kölsch recipe*:

OG 1.050 FG 1.009
ABV 5.4% AA 82%
IBUs 25 SRM 3

8.75 lbs. / 92% North American Pilsner
0.75 lbs. / 8% German Munich

0.63 oz. / 22 IBUs Magnum – 60 mins
0.38 oz. / 3 IBUs Santium – 10 mins

White Labs 029 "German Ale/Kölsch Yeast"

* The ingredients here actually represent 50% of what was used during this brew session; this was part of a double batch, the other half of which became a Belgian Blonde Ale following a simple-sugar addition.

The Kölsch was fermented at a wort temperature of around 63°, with a primary fermentation length of 20 days. It tasted great already following only around 2.5 weeks of lagering/carbonating, and at nearly three months old the beer still tastes great even if I fear it must certainly be nearing the end of its life.

The nose offers some light fruit esters including perhaps faint berries and even a whiff of mead-like fruitiness. The flavor is crisp and clean with apple-like fruit, a decidedly unobtrusive bitterness, and easy malt on the dry finish. It's pale gold and brilliantly clear.

Given the inherent difficulties with brewing a delicate style like Kölsch, and my inexperience with this particular yeast strain, I can't help but be pleased overall with how the beer turned out. Moreover, I remain very excited about my future adventures with this yeast – as I type 10 gallons of Alt are carbonating and I can't wait to see how that one turned out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Keep Your Lines in Line

Kegging. The mere mention of the word sends homebrewers' hearts aflutter as the imagination drifts blissfully to thoughts of wondrous beer variety, nectar of any quantity no more than a tug of the tap handles away, with the onerous chore of cleaning and filling bottles having become a distant memory. In a hobby not short on achievement milestones and plateaus, the transition from bottled beer to kegs for many brewers represents a coveted accomplishment; those who have made the switch find themselves extraordinarily glad they did so.

Ah, but kegging does not come with out its own obligations for the amateur cellarmaster. Proper line maintenance is chief among them. Over time, beer lines will accumulate gunk such as yeast and beer stone, leading not only to an unsightly display but also problems such as excessive foaming and off-flavors. In other words, not something a proud kegging homebrewer will want to contest with.

Since creating my kegerator (outside/inside) in 2006, my typical line-maintenance procedure has been: 1) rinse line with water as soon as a keg empties; 2) give lines a periodic soak in Oxyclean and iodophor solutions. At some point, not too terribly long ago, it became evident this technique was not adequate for maintaining proper line cleanliness.

Thus I acquired some PBW (Powdered Brewery Wash – a heavy-duty alkaline cleaner originally developed for Coors), mixed up a fairly strong solution, flushed the beer out of my lines with water, and then filled them with PBW. I believe I allowed them to soak overnight, after which I rinsed with additional PBW followed by a good rinse with potable water.

The results were remarkable. Though PBW and Oxyclean (or generic equivalents) are similar in composition, PBW was able to rip away deposits that Oxyclean simply couldn't touch. The solution that had soaked overnight came out an unmistakable golden color, tinted by the deposits alone. Simply looking at the lines after the cleaning versus before, the difference is night and day.

It's frightening to think that I had let my lines get to such a sorry state; naturally, they had attained that condition slowly and gradually, making their degradation a little difficult to fully grasp as it progressed. But seeing them restored even close to their native state illustrates just how far gone things had wandered.

A stricter, more regular line-cleaning regiment will obviously become part of my routine. Draft beer at home is among the more wonderful household features I can imagine, and a little effort here or there is more than worthwhile to ensure my beer stays as well taken care of as it keeps me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Beer Wars" Swings Hard, Doesn't Always Connect

Within the relatively insular community of craft-beer lovers (at least, Internet-enabled ones), there has been a modest amount of buzz and excitement, for nearly a year now, about the beer-industry documentary "Beer Wars." The film, conceived and executed by Anat Baron, hoped to do for (or, perhaps, "to") beer what "Food Inc." did for big agribusiness and the American food industry – that is, pull back the curtain on corporate abuses and legal injustices, and draw a stark line between the little guys just trying to make it – trying to get by on wholesomeness – and the evil behemoths bent on squashing competition while not giving a damn about the category itself where they make their billions. (Right: "Beer Wars" poster via

Now that "Beer Wars" has recently attained more widespread availability, primarily through Netflix, more beer lovers who missed last year's special theater screenings have had the opportunity to view and evaluate Baron's efforts. Today I count myself among that group.

As polite people do, let's start with the positives. The film is mostly well-produced, with crisp graphics and animations and a snappy original soundtrack. Baron manages to recruit some high-profile names on both side of the good/bad divide, including executives at Anheuser-Busch (back then pre-InBev), Miller and Coors. And, no doubt of greater interest to the film's target audience (whether by design or by default, anyway): Stone's Greg Koch; homebrewing icon Charlie Papazian; Brooklyn's Garrett Oliver; Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione in a prominent role; and others.

The narrative Baron is trying to weave is clear, and she provides ample evidence to bolster it: The major industry players produce bland, largely indistinguishable commodity products, spend astronomical sums on marketing support to create the illusion of differentiation, out-muscle competitors both large and small, and wield frightening influence over lawmakers for their own – and not necessarily the consumer's – benefit.

Baron rightly shines a light on the outmoded three-tier system, which preserves above all the interests of the monied, powerful beer wholesalers while artificially restricting the public's access to beers they may want to drink, and likewise brewers' access to the market. Though Baron does not explicitly highlight the juxtaposition, the contrast between this system of market-restricting, power-maintaining government interventionism and the brewers' stated (through archival footage, et cetera) devotion to old-fashioned American self-advancement and capitalist ingenuity is quite clear.

The many interviews with craft-beer industry luminaries and aficionados bring into sharp focus the regard this segment of the industry has for the big companies – their products, their practices, their philosophy. And it's an unapologetically antagonistic posture. Which is fine and warranted – Bud, Miller, Coors et al. deserve to be called out for their lowest-common-denominator approach to product development, their crotch-shot-ads-as-core-brand-values approach to marketing, their heavy-handed approach to distribution – but at some point it does feel like piling on. The points are made, and made again. And again. By seemingly every "good guy" speaker who appears onscreen.

What Baron and her sympathizers leave largely untouched is the fact that, like it or not, millions of people do purchase and enjoy American light lager brands, out of their own free will. While conditions and behaviors may conspire to nudge a brewer higher and higher up the market-share chart, there are still innumerable other economic actors helping that corporation along, and it is their prerogative to do so. If it were more economically feasible for AB-IB to brew and market nothing but Dogfish-style crafts, they would undoubtedly do so.

Some of Baron's choices puzzle as well. There are essentially two main characters in the film: Dogfish Head's Calagione and Rhonda Kallman, a former Boston Beer Co. executive. In 2001, Kallman launched the beer-marketing company New Century Brewing Co., initially to produce (or rather, have contract-brewed for them) a new brand of light lager called Edison and, in 2004, a caffeinated lager called Moonshot 69.

Baron returns considerably often to Kallman's story, which mainly consists of her having trouble finding accounts to carry Moonshot (the film makes no mention of New Century's other product) and investors to fund her effort. By juxtaposing Kallman's woes with the unfolding tale of the abuses committed by Big Beer, the implied message here is that Moonshot's troubles are somehow related if not directly caused by the inherent inequities of the industry. But that's a tough case to make, especially considering the evidence. Aside from an anecdote about Moonshot being muscled out of accounts by dubious, possibly illegal means (a legitimate beef), the viewer is left to conclude that Kallman's problems stem mostly from a lack of interest in her product. Baron tries to play up the sympathy card by showing footage of Kallman's husband fretting over family finances and young children crying when mom has to go back out to pound the pavement, but this does not make skeptical would-be investors seem cruel or heartless, nor does it do the same for Anheuser-Busch, of all companies, who rejects Kallman's bid for a partnership.

(I could go on and on about the curiousness of giving so much screen time to a business whose model couldn't be any more different from the quality-first, craft-centric approach embraced by protagonists like Dogfish Head. Baron never bothers to tell us Kallman had been trying, and evidently failing for the most part, to get her business off the ground for about 7 years when "Beer Wars" was made; that New Century thought it'd try its hand in those ghastly light lagers first; that one trip to the Moonshot Web site reveals Kallman's product is clearly marketed to the Red-Bull-and-vodka party crowd, not to quality-conscious, independent-minded craft lovers. That may be slightly beside the point, but it juxtaposes rather oddly with the outright sneering the film otherwise projects toward light-flavored, mass-market, Average Joe beers and everything they stand for.)

In the face of weightier issues, it may seem petty to now raise minor deficiencies of the film, but here goes. Perfectly nice though she appears to be, Baron is not particularly charming as an onscreen host, nor is she a great narrator. And her upfront self-proclaimed credentials as a "beer" industry veteran, who ostensibly can empathize with independents the likes of Stone, rings a little strange when we learn she helmed malternative producer Mike's Hard Lemonade Co. Not exactly in the thick of the craft-beer movement.

I came away from "Beer Wars" quite impacted by what seemed to be a constant undertone of (not jealousy but) complaint directly at the mere success of major brewers like Anheuser-Busch. The film breathlessly tallies up the Big Three's annual advertising budgets (even though the sneakily self-aggrandizing Jim Koch would himself undoubtedly run more TV ads if he could only afford it), talks in dismissive awe of their production output, marvels and sniffs at their sheer size and accomplishments. Shadiness and unscrupulousness aside (and as noted, there is some of that), most of what the likes of Anheuser-Busch accomplished they did so through the machinations, such as they have been since the repeal of Prohibition, of the free-market system – the same system that has enabled Jim Koch's Boston Beer Co. to attain the size it has, or Kim Jordan's New Belgium, or Dick Yeungling's family-owned brewery, or Calagione's Dogfish Head, or any of the other growing companies that make beer people are willing to spend their money on.

Is absolutely everything hunky-dory in the beer industry? No, of course not. But there are times when "Beer Wars" seems to shift its focus away from the real issues in favor of a broad and gleeful beat-down of the corporate giants and a reactionary pushing of the David-vs.-Goliath narrative, even where it might not apply.

"Beer Wars" is an ambitious film that attempts to say and do a lot. It succeeds in many ways. It comes up short in others, and for all the answers it provides it leaves behind more than a few questions. Personally, I'd like to see a more in-depth, multi-part look at the beer industry. Ken Burns-style, perhaps. There is obviously more than 90 minutes worth of material here. That was a clear constraint Baron had to work under, but I can't help but think she squandered more than a few of those precious minutes.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Session #35 – New Beer's Resolutions

As we find ourselves in the annual look-forward/look-back mode that New Year's inevitably prompts, Christina and Hallie over at Beer for Chicks have asked the beer-blogging community to do a bit of reflecting and prognosticating for this month's Session. Here's the complete request:

So we want to know what was your best and worst of beer for 2009? What beer mistakes did you make? What beer resolutions do you have for 2010? What are your beer regrets and embarrassing moments? What are you hoping to change about your beer experience in 2010?

Some tough questions up there – a deep reach inside my not-always-reliable memory banks is in order for many of them. I can say that I drank many a great beer in 2009 – Ballast Point Sculpin, Founders KBS and Lost Abbey Duck Duck Gooze are a few that come to mind – and a handful that were not so great, as well. (Possibly the worst offenders would have been homebrews that I'd judged at a competition or sampled at a club meeting; heck, maybe my disastrous Dubbel qualifies.)

On that last note, and as for part two of this month's topic, I made an error or two in the course of my homebrewing. It happens – often from unfamiliarity with an ingredient, or perhaps from plain-old absent-mindedness. But in this hobby, often mistakes are learning opportunities, and foul-ups are followed by better times 'round the bend.

Beer regrets and embarrassments? Certainly, I'd woken up to my share of mornings in '09 where rue and throbbing pain dueled for primacy in my head – the two going hand in hand, of course. But that is nothing to be embarrassed about; rather it's simply a testament to the fact that times were sufficiently good the night prior. Pain is temporary; memories (where not covered over by a boozy haze) last a lifetime.

Looking forward to this year, I may just put a little more thought into my brewing calendar and plan batches out further ahead of time than I have in the past. This is especially important for brewers who, like me, harvest yeast and like to keep a couple of strains in the rotation. I'll also continue adding to my brewing gadgets collection, try out more different styles and ingredients, get out of my comfort zone. As repetition is the key to success, I will diligently brew, brew and brew again.

I'll try to get out and judge at more homebrew competitions in the region. I'll try to travel to more nearby beer events and visit some of the hot spots out there. And I'll try to attend and help put together more tastings locally. Beer is so much more fun when you can share it with other people.

And in 2010, I'm looking forward to having more fun than ever.
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