Blogs will save us.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lastest AAB Post: What a Portlander Found in Victoria, BC

More content to come today, but I wanted to direct your attention to my latest All About Beer post, of which this is a tease:
It’s possible to think your hometown is in step with larger trends—IPAs are popular everywhere, saisons and barrel-aged beers are reliable beer geek bait. But all it takes is a little travel to upset this sense of sameness. A couple weeks back, I spent the weekend in Victoria, BC, which is roughly as far from my home in Portland as Boston is from New York. In the West, that counts as neighbors. I ended up visiting six breweries while I was there, and by stop number four, I felt like I’d gone through the looking-glass: I was definitely not in Oregon anymore.
As always, please like and share it if you do actually like it and think it's worth sharing.  I'm still trying to make sure they don't regret giving me the platform.  In any case, do at least go have a look.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Several Small, Interesting Things

Over the past week, I had a half-dozen moments where something interesting and beer-related floated by on the digital stream.  None warranted a post by themselves, but I can't help rattling them off, along with an opinion or two.  (You'll find some/all of them interesting, too.)


1.  Will Ohio's Fat Head's Brewery Thrive in Portland?
Does that Fat Head logo suggest a cultural
misalignment to anyone but me?
Fat Head's is a popular brewery from suburban Cleveland, successful enough that it expanded to Pittsburgh and then to ... Portland.  [Correction: Fat Head's started as a beer bar in Pittsburgh, then opened their brewery in Cleveland.] It will open two weeks from today in the Pearl District (13th and Davis), ground zero for the city's priciest real estate.  Fat Head's is famous for an IPA they proudly call "West Coast." 

Comment:  This is endlessly fascinating.  Portland has 978 breweries (estimated), and they're all "West Coast."  Portland is legendarily provincial, a place where locals gleefully eschew anything non-Oregonian.  (Forty years ago, a certain local brewery made some hay with that very concept.)  Many Oregonians are erstwhile Midwesterners who left places like Ohio because they wanted to live in a weird un-Ohio town like Portlandia where, presumably, they weren't seeking Ohio beer.  It seems like a steep and rugged climb.  That said, the brewery says it intends to make Portland-only beer on site, and I'm sure the brewers will quickly integrate into the Portland brewing community.  The Pearl is so expensive that there aren't many mid-range restaurants around, which will help get people in the door.

Will Fat Head's fly?  I have no earthly idea.


2.  Is Cheap Beer Good?
Writing in GQ, David Chang (a chef, Google informs this non-foodie) declares his love for mass market lager.  "And there's no drink I love more. I love it more than any great white wine, more than any white Burgundy, which I love very, very much. In my fridge, the only beer—practically the only foodstuff I've ever purchased for home—is Bud Light bottles."

Comment: God bless him.  I know this is total exhibitionist click-bait, but I'd like to use it as an opportunity to come out against beer-shaming.  People like what they like.  It's long past time we stopped trying to get them to drink what we like.  Over the last ten years, I've found myself in countless versions of the same discussion with someone who'd become interested in exploring beer, but was worried s/he didn't like the "right" ones.  There should be no shame in beer.  You love Bud Light or Shock Top: good for you. If so, I might suggest Breakside Pilsner or Allagash White, but I'm not going to look at you with surprised derision and shake my head in sadness.  And I think anyone who does has missed the whole point of "enjoying" beer.

Comment 2:  For some reason chefs often like light lagers.  I have formed theories that relate to their interest in not having strong liquid flavors compete with their subtle chewable ones, but haven't done a full double-blind study yet.

(Stan Hieronymus directs us today to a rebuttal by Garrett Oliver, which is not persuasive.)


3.  Seawater Beer
Vice points us to Er Boqueron, a Spanish beer made with Mediterranean sea water.  The writer is interested in a related study that shows that deep ocean water, partially desalinated, helps speed recovery time after exercise.  Naturally--it is Vice--this leads the writer to believe that it might prevent hangovers. 

Comment: Sea water?  Based on reviews, it must be pretty heavily desalinated.  But at the very least, the phenomenon shows you how far we've gotten into the exotic beer trend.


4.  Beer in the Non-Beer Press
James Fallows is an old-school foreign-policy journalist writing for The Atlantic.  He has developed a passion for craft beer and occasionally blogs about it.  In the current edition of the magazine, he wrote an article about Jim Koch.  I direct you to it because it's interesting to see non-beer people write about beer.  Fallows did a follow-up piece on his blog, wherein he noted how, despite how superficially unimportant beer is, it has a serious impact.  Fallows has been doing a project for the past year looking at the circumstances and problems confronting small American towns.  Connecting his avocation and vocation, he writes: "I know this seems like a running gag, but quite seriously we've come to think that the locally based, strongly locally branded food-and-beverage outfits we've seen from Maine to Mississippi to South Dakota, are significant business operations and signs of civic health."

Comment:  In the Koch piece, Fallows describes him as a billionaire.  This goes back to a point I have been making for some time: beer is a lucrative business.  The happy warrior Fallows describes is the public version, but Koch, like all billionaires, has managed to succeed through a combination of hard-nosed (and often controversial) business decisions, political acumen, aggressive competition, and periodic collaboration with some competitors.  I don't fault Fallows for anything he wrote except the sepia-toned filter that colors the piece with a promotional gloss.  It's a bit Pravda-esque.


5.  47,000 Articles About Pumpkin Beer

Comment:  I hate pumpkin beer.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tricks Wholesalers Use, a Pay-to-Play Follow-up

Earlier this week, Dann Paquette made some pretty incendiary claims about how breweries got tap handles in certain Boston pubs: by paying for them.  After I posted on it, a few people emailed to give some insight into their experiences here.  I know all these people and can vouch they are who they say they are--but for obvious reasons they did not want their names associated with their comments.  I think you'll find it interesting, though.

This first comment, from a brewery sales rep working in OR, WA, ID, and AK, summarizes a lot of what I heard:
Pay to play absolutely exists in mature markets like the northwest but it's not typically found in bars except for high volume accounts with few beer choices. You can imagine even if you could convince a buyer at a bar with a great beer selection to put beer on in exchange for money or gifts it would not make the consumer try your beers. The accounts that do this seem to be closer to stadiums and event centers that have huge crowds that pack a place but are not known for beer selection. If you are one of a few beer handles you will pick up some sales. 
But unlike some markets, where it seems corruption is rampant (the source above added "I went on a trip to Chicago a year ago and could not believe what was being asked of me. Buyers asked to buy two kegs get one free. Bartenders asked for money to push our beer"), it's more nuanced in the Northwest.  This comes from a wholesaler:
We do see some of this in Portland, where if distributors don’t give accounts free T-shirts, glassware, kegs etc. then your beer isn’t on.   I know of one distributor that’ll give an out of date keg to an account for free to sell in another tap handle.  Overall it’s not too bad in Portland (& Oregon in general) but it does happen with certain accounts.  My impression is it’s driven by the accounts asking for free stuff vs. distributors pushing free stuff.

We compete pretty hard in Portland but I’m pretty pleased to say it’s mostly above board.  All the OR distributors sit in the room together at OBWDA meetings and get along for the most part.
There seems to be a fuzzy line where breweries are asked to offer inducements of freebies.  (You can see how that would be good for pub business.) A former rep for a NW brewery added a bit of texture.  (The source asked me to paraphrase his comments.)
Wholesalers aren't allowed to give "items of value" to pubs in OR and WA.  You can give things like information sheets or beer mats, but not leather jackets, neon signs or free kegs.  Interestingly, it is legal to give items to customers--things like glassware, given to pubgoers directly, rather than through the pub.  
He went on to describe a practice that is probably not legal, but would be nearly impossible to police.  He actually witnessed this happen first hand.
A brewery was willing to pay $500 to the distributor's representative if he could move ten kegs of the brewery's beer.  This is legal.  As the promotion was about to end, the distributor had sold only eight kegs.  At the last account, he swung a deal so that he essentially dipped into the promo money and sold the two kegs to the pub for the price of one.  (The pub paid for the two up front, and the distributor shared the cost of the keg later.) 
Writing in comments, The Common's Josh Grgas echoed the same thing:
There is a backward pay to play approach some larger craft breweries have taken. In this case, a brewery will provide a cash incentive to distributor's sales reps for each competitors tap handle they acquire. This type of head hunting has happened in Portland, unfortunately. 
Josh added a comment that illustrates how hard it would be to separate pubs who are corruptible from those who just have random preferences:
Committed lines do happen, but it’s not nefarious like in other areas. A bar manager might stock a certain brewery or distributor based on personal preference, superior service or other intangibles. For example, there’s a bar in NE that almost exclusively stocks a certain distributor because the distributor’s warehouse is located nearby and the staff all drink at the bar after work. 
The upshot: Portland and Oregon are probably pretty clean, but every market is different.  We often talk about the ways in which the three-tiered system is so good at preventing market domination--and it is.  But having an invisible layer in between the producer and retailer also offers an opportunity for hard-to-stop corruption.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"A Whores' Market"

Alan McLeod alerts us to a fascinating story on Esquire.
Source
What’s “pay to play”? It’s when breweries bribe bars under the table to stock their beers and freeze out competition and is, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulations, an illegal practice. [Pretty Things' Dann] Paquette even dared “name names,” accusing some popular Massachusetts’ joints such as Bukowski’s Tavern and The Lower Depths of accepting this dirty money. Paquette further noted, “Ever heard the term ‘committed lines’? This is what it means. Breweries buy draft lines so their lame beers aren't irrelevant.” He didn’t name any of these “lame” breweries though he hinted at one, saying “Right now one of the hottest newish brewers in MA pays for lines all over the place....”

But, in fact, it’s not just Massachusetts where this is a major issue. In 2010, a Crain’s investigation found that a trendy Chicago hotel bar had been taking payouts and other bribes from a powerful MillerCoors distributor. Deb Carey of New Glarus Brewing went so far as to call the city of Chicago “a whores' market,” noting, “Everyone has a hand out and everyone wants some cash, (free) beer or a discount.”
I have no idea whether this is a real thing or not.  Accusations are not facts.  Much as Dann Paquette is respected by beer geeks, this is nothing but rumor-mongering.  Based on the reactions, I have a strong suspicion it is happening--but I wish Dann had some actual evidence to offer.  The issue is a rich one, and if you want to get a sampling of opinion the issue has sparked, look here

I'm interested in informed thought on this, as well as straight-from-the-arse opinion.  I only have the latter, but to get a conversation started, here it is.  Although this practice sounds bad, I wonder how big a problem it actually is, at least in mature markets.  In towns along the West Coast (and I suspect this applies to Boston, too), pubs would be making a poor decision to take uninteresting beers along with a small handout.  The competition among bars is such that those offering anodyne choices aren't going to attract many customers.  It doesn't really matter how much a brewery is paying you under the table if no one's coming to drink your beer.  Seems like the market would be self-correcting.

If anyone has had direct experience with this and wants to chat on or off the record, you can shoot me an email at the_beerax (at) yahoo.com.

Your thoughts?

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Beery Overview of Victoria, BC

A couple weeks back, the fine folks at Tourism Victoria invited me to visit their fine city to see what I thought about their fine beer scene.  (Full disclosure: they paid for the trip, but I selected the breweries to visit and was left to follow my bliss while I was there.)  I wish I could do this for every major city in North America: it is so interesting.  Every town has different rhythms, different interests, and the vibe of the beer scene always has a particular local flavor.  Some towns are better than others beerwise, though, and Victoria, after a couple decades of inaction, has really started to blossom.  In today's post, I'll give you an overview of the city and the state of beer, and then I'll follow up with some in-depth posts later this week.



Bend by the Sea?
There are some ways in which Victoria reminds me of Portland: it's a small, insular town that has a bigger, more famous city nearby; it simultaneously knows it's one of the prettiest, coolest towns there is, but also a little anxious because the rest of the world may not realize it.  But even more, it reminds me of a different Oregon town--Bend.  The metro area is 350,000 people, but Victoria proper--the place where all the breweries are--is just 80,000 people.  No city can touch the density of breweries Bend has;  Victoria, with ten breweries, ain't too shabby, though.  Like Bend, the downtown area is compact and walkable, and you can stroll pretty easily from brewery to brewery.  And like Bend, the quality is high across the board (with one exception--Canoe--but I'll get to that in a later post).

Unlike high-desert Bend, though Victoria is all about water.  Locals are keenly aware that they live on an island (one of the Canadian-subtle ways of digging Vancouver is by referring to it as " the mainland").  The town is built around a harbor with geometry like interlocking triangles; because of he way the harbor zigs and zags, you have the sense of water all around you.  Sea planes from Seattle and Vancouver glide in and let travelers off downtown; sea taxis shuttle people from one side of town to the other.  Smaller boats glide across the inner harbor, and giants loom on the horizon.

In terms of the physical city, Victoria definitely feels like a West Coast city--I recognized Astoria in some places, Seattle in others--but also has a strong European quality.  The Parliament buildings have a distinctly British flavor, as does the famous Empress Hotel.  The scale of the streets, the ease of walking around, the ready availability of pubs--these elements reminded me of some of the small English towns I've visited. (It doesn't hurt that there's a giant gothic statue of the namesake queen overlooking the inner harbor.)


Beer Styles and Trends
Victoria was one of the first places in North America to get a brewery when Spinnaker's opened in 1984.  They created the palate for the first generation of Victorians: English-style ales, served on cask.  Five years later, Swan's opened up and followed suit.  (Vancouver Island Brewing, older than Swan's, didn't move into Victoria proper until 1995.)  Call this the first layer of sediment in the Victorian soil. Another batch of breweries opened up about fifteen years later--Lighthouse, Canoe, Phillips--and they moved the city into what you might call "standard craft."  The pales, browns, wheats, and IPAs that persisted until the aughts, when breweries started to branch out and find their individual voices. 

The final group came up in the latest wave of breweries in the last five years.  Second- or third-gen breweries (how long is a brewery generation?), they make the kind of beers we associate with 2014--experimental and hoppy beers.  They are also the breweries that make the most noise in the geek media, led by Driftwood (2008), Moon Under Water (2010, relaunched 2012), and Hoyne (2011). 




I think it's worth knowing about these different layers of sediment, because as you're wandering in and out of pubs, you encounter each one, preserved as if in amber.  This is different from cities south of the border, where the breweries tend to all be pulled together in certain directions.  If you visit breweries, you may find older styles of beer still in production, but walk into a pub, and you'll get a sense of the trends of the moment.  In Victoria, though, you might find a classic English-style bitter or a saison or a super-hopped IPA.  And unlike the US, it seems that when it says "English-style," a brewery means it.  You will find a balanced ale with rich malt character and only modest hopping--not a hoppy fireball that may have been made with Maris Otter.


I wouldn't want to predict which styles will be popular in five years--things are volatile and evolving--right now there are three types of beers I kept finding over and over again: super bitter IPAs (a stable variety), light, Saaz-hopped lagers (a growing style), and balanced cask ales (declining).  There are distinctive features to these styles, too.

The IPAs taste like American versions did in about 1999.  They are cuttingly bitter and buttressed very little by late-addition flavor and aroma hops.  The first two or three places I went, I thought this might be exceptional, but it turned out not to be.  These beers are not considered especially bitter and are brewed the way people expect.  As I smacked and choked after sips of these IPAs, Victorians looked on placidly, as if their tongues weren't dissolving.

A (successful) beggar at Fisherman's Wharf


The second trend, which contrasts quite a bit from the first, are these lovely little 5% lagers everyone seems to make.  They're a hybrid between German and Czech brewing, with the soft, grainy malts of German pilsners, but the deeply saturated, tangy flavor of Saaz hops.  Unlike the IPAs, these aren't bitter--they have loads of Saaz flavor, but run around 30 BUs or less.

The English/cask ales round out the regular offerings, though they are confined more to the breweries that make them.  They are brewed classically and taste almost wholly English: light esters, aromatic, rounded malts, gentle herbal-to-fruity hops.  The one thing I found at both Swan's and Spinnaker's  was a subtle flavor I've never encountered in a beer.  I wrote down "whisky" for lack of a better word--intense maltiness and a hint of peat (not smoke, peat).  I have no idea where it comes from, but it's quite a treat.

You can, of course, get a range of other beers there (we encountered two or three Earl Gray IPAs).  As in the US, the breweries are experimenting with style, ingredient, and method.  Barrel-aging is less common, but coming on.  Saisons are still rare, but appearing more and more.  So far, none of these have become local standards yet--but things are happening fast.

In terms of beer, Victoria is blossoming.  There's a lot of excitement about beer, and it's permeating the whole city.  A few of the breweries are production-only, and when we visited (Sally was along for the ride), troops of growler-toting fans filed through.  They were young and old, male and female--a cross-section of the city.  The brewers are watching beer spike in popularity and are full of excitement about what comes next.  Oh, and this is interesting, too: despite their proximity to Vancouver and Seattle, the town that seems to most inspire the breweries there is Portland.  Rose City beers were far more common than Seattle beers, and the brewers regularly referenced Porltand as a model.

More to come as I get into the specific breweries.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Cider Sunday: Gorge Cyder House, Rack and Cloth

It is that time of year again: the annual Portland Nursery apple tasting (this weekend and next), trips to local pumpkin patches for the October jack-o'-lantern, and treks down the Gorge for freshly-harvested apples and pears.  If you're doing that latter activity--and you should, it's fantastic this time of year--make time to stop into one or three of the local cideries that have cropped up there in the past few years.  They're so new that most people aren't even aware they exist.  Not only do they exist, but they're set up with nice little tasting rooms that make a perfect pit stop. 


Gorge Cyder House
oVino Market, 1209 13th Street (in the Heights) 
Hood River

To the extent anyone knows about the Gorge Cyder House, they're probably confusing it with the Gorge White House--a different cidery.  The entire operation exists in a space the size of a pantry in the back corner of a little wine deli in the upper part of Hood River.  And yet despite this modest set-up, cider-maker Stefan Guemperlein is managing to produce some of the best American ciders I've tasted. 

Guemperlein grew up in Bavaria, where his father made cider non-commercially.  He mentions this mainly as an afterthought; at the time, it didn't capture his imagination.  Instead, a trip to Northern Italy sparked his first love--wine.  He started as a self-taught winemaker, and a few years after opening oVino, the wine deli, decided to expand to cider.

Guemperlein doesn't own his own orchards, and so buys local apples, and "99% are table apples."  He favors Jonagold and also uses Newtown Pippin, Braeburn, and some heirloom varieties when he can get them.  It's the process that makes his ciders special: he uses natural fermentation and lets his ciders develop over the course of a year.  Following the rhythm of the year, he presses in the fall and begins fermentation, which takes a month.  After racking the cider, it slowly develop over the spring and summer. 



"Both slow esters and fruit emerge," Gumperlein says, but it's fermentation that creates the most flavor.  The apples themselves are aromatic, giving some forest floor, but they are simple and appley.  Natural fermentation gives the ciders a richer, earthier aroma and add peach and cherry fruit notes.  Gorge Cyder makes three standard ciders, plain apple, hopped, and a cyser (honey cider).  Of the three, Lost Lake Honey is the real stand-out.  It has a lot of black pepper up front and then turns distinctly almondy.  It's full-bodied and strong (7%), but finishes crisply. 

Great ciders, and a hidden gem in Hood River.


Rack and Cloth
1104 First Ave.
Mosier, OR

Source
No one will blame you if you can't remember where Mosier is.  A little pocket of activity about five miles east of Hood River, Mosier's the kind of place you skip unless you have a reason to go there.  There is a stretch of downtown, though, and along it you'll find a pretty little building that looks like it might have been a coffee shop once.  That's the Rack and Cloth Mercantile, and it was a coffee shop until Silas Bleakley and Kristina Nance turned it into a focal point for the fruits of their farm.

"We're trying to do closed-loop farming," Bleakley explained.  At the Mercantile, you get more than just cider.  Silas and Kristina have an expansive farm, and the food they serve is made from their farm.  As we were chatting, Kristina sliced up fresh veggies and cheese.  The menu follows the seasons.  "We don't make the sauce for the pizza until the tomatoes are ripe," he said. 

This is the approach Bleakley takes into his cider-making.  "It goes beyond cider--it's farming."  Visitors who stopped in for a pint this summer recognized the downside to this approach; last year's stocks were running low so there was a limited amount available each day.  Once the sixth barrel had blown, they were out of cider.  (This year production will triple.)  Bleakley has a background in winemaking, and it's evident in the sophisticated ciders he produces.  The main cider is an elegant, sophisticated cider called Stony Pig.  It reminds me a lot of a pinot gris.  It's acidic and dry and marked by bright fruit flavors of peach and apricot.  There's a vein of minerality that adds a quenching quality.



The nearby farm had a few trees left over, but Bleakley planted two acres in 2008 (he now has 2.5).  "You have to know your fruit," he said, before pointing out the cultivars: Johnagold, Winesap, wild crab.  "Cox's Orange Pippin is my favorite, hands down."  He divides the early harvest into halves and ferments on wood and steel, then blending back in and aging on steel.  There is an actual rack-and-cloth press, and it will be located on a new cidery building near the hundred-year-old farmhouse.  The second harvest goes into wood and ages more slowly.  (It's pretty common that orchardist-cider makers to try to get an early vintage out right after the harvest.) 

Bleakley is never going to make a lot of cider (he referred to Rack and Cloth as an "estate cidery"), so the surest way to try the cider--along with Guemperlein's, the best in the valley--is to trek to the little shop in downtown Mosier.  It's well worth the trip.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Locals and Tourists

My latest All About Beer post is up--a survey of five Prague pubs to visit that will get you up to speed on the current moment in Czech brewing.  This is how I framed my choices:
But if you happen to have the good fortune to visit you’ll find one of the easiest cities in the world to navigate, a feast for the eyes and surprisingly cheap travel. And within two days, the scales will have fallen from your eyes and your entire understanding of Czech beer will have blossomed.
In any town with as many drinking holes as Prague, there is always going to be room for disagreement.  And indeed, on Facebook, a Praguer (please tell me residents of Prague are Praguers) lodged his complaints:
U Fleku is full of tourists. Which is not always a bad thing. But in this case it's full of tourists because no locals would ever go there. The single beer they serve is nice enough, but it's ridiculously overpriced, and totally not worth the money...

Strahov is okay for a brief visit on the way past, but again, overpriced because only tourists really go there, and they don't care about the price because they're happy to pay for the experien
ce of drinking beer which is supposedly brewed to an ancient monk memory...
This raises an interesting division between what locals and tourists value.  It's an especially sharp divide in Prague, which is perpetually awash in tourists and where the standard beer, so commonplace to locals, is new and rare to visitors.  (And where, ironically, the more exotic beer--IPAs, stouts, sour beer--is fairly old hat to American beer geeks.)   The reality is, the needs of locals and tourists differ.



As much as tourists to a country want to be in the know and want to avoid tourist traps, a certain amount of that is critical.  You must understand the basics before you can get a feel for the subtleties. The first time I went to Prague, I skipped U Fleku because of its reputation as ground zero for tourists.  But it's ground zero for a reason!  The brewery has been there since 1499, which makes it far and away one of the oldest in the world.  Perhaps even more impressive, the dark lager has been brewed there roughly the same way and to the same formulation, since the year after Josef Groll first brewed Pilsner.  For obvious reasons, locals probably don't frequent a place with just one beer and throngs of tourists; that doesn't mean beer geeks should skip it, too.

It's possible some people visit Strahov because of a silly invented story, but I guess I'm immune to those.  Trying to embroider a brewery's rep with ecclesiastical thread is so common I always tune it out.  The reason to go is for the beer.  Locals may despair at the price, but once you've spent thousands of dollars to travel half way around the globe, you're not about to let the marginal expense of a pint dissuade you.  As someone who chafes over the price of Rogue and the McMenamins in Portland, I get why price is a relevant factor for locals.  It's just not a reasonable objection for the tourist. 

All of this comes to mind in part because I'm about to start writing about the beer and beer scene in Victoria, BC.  It will necessarily be an outsider's perspective: I'm an outsider.  But I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.  It's okay to try to cover the basics when you visit a new town, to try to interpret things for those who have a baseline of zero experience back home. But Praguers and Victorians (another great demonym) will have to forgive me.

Anyway, go check out the piece at All About Beer if you missed it.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

I Don't Think This Is Right

I finally got around to reading Greg Engert's Esquire piece this morning.  He makes an argument that we shouldn't valorize local beer just because it's local.  I'm not particularly persuaded by his overall point (though I really wish people drank a lot more imported beer than they do), but it's plausible.  This, however, struck me as dead wrong:
All too often, when locally brewed beer gains prominence, a uniformity of offerings ensues. Bars, restaurants, and retail shops begin to showcase a similar roster of breweries and flavor profiles. These lists are often hop-heavy based on the standard session IPA, pale ale, IPA, and Imperial IPA.
One of the problems in assessing this statement is that I don't live everywhere.  It's absolutely not the case in Portland.  Whether you walk into restaurant with four tap handles or a beer bar like Apex, you're going to be offered a range of beer styles.  I just recently went on a whirlwind tour of Victoria, BC--not true there, either.  In the smattering of restaurants and pubs I've visited in Maine and Massachusetts, not true.  When locally-brewed beer gains prominence, more people are drinking it, which means there's more variety in the market. 

But that's just my experience. Can anyone point to a place where a burgeoning beer scene reduces variety?  I'd like to hear about that.

Chalkboard at the Hop and Hound, Bothell, WA

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Book Reviews: Creative Writing With Evan Rail, Max Bahnson, and Alan McLeod

The world of readin' and writin' has been in flux for about a decade now.  The gatekeeper model--print magazine, paper, and book publishers--has broken down.  That means writers now have a more direct avenue to reach readers--one they've happily seized for shorter forms.  In the beer world, the leading pioneer has been Evan Rail; just less than three years ago, he put out Why Beer Matters on Kindle, and suggested that there might be an alternative to the New York publishing mafia.

The emergence of digital publishing has had two important effects.  Books always needed to be a certain length to justify a cover price that paid for an author, several editors, an art department, and a marketing team needed to sell them.  When you're publishing your own pieces directly, you can sell them for a dollar or few, which means they can be short.  Why Beer Matters is just 22 pages long--way too short for a regular book, but too long for a blog post.  In many cases, this frees up an author to either tackle a subject that would never have justified a book, or to skip the inevitable padding needed to fatten up a regular book.  The second benefit is that it also frees up the author--for the same reasons--to try something less obviously commercial and marketable.  We have two recent examples that I've been meaning to review here: Evan Rail's latest, The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest, and The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer by Alan McLeod and Max Bahnson.

___________

The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer
Kindle/Digital only, 149 pages, $4 

We have to start this review, as with all reviews, with Steven Soderbergh.  Back in 1997, he released a movie you may have missed called SchizopolisSchizopolis was weird.  It was aggressively noncommercial.  It looked like a student project.  It eventually made a whopping ten grand at the box office (12,000th all time!)  I went to a screening in Portland, and Soderbergh answered questions afterward.  They were mainly of the "what the hell ...?" variety.  It turned out that he had reached a kind of creative exhaustion.  Following Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he made a series of meh big-company movies, and the grind of working in the Hollywood mode drained him of the will to make movies.  He needed a chance to hit the reset, to have 100% control and make a cinematic primal scream.  No one has ever seen Schizopolis, but the movies that followed--Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brokovich, and Traffic--are among the best four-movie runs in history. 

The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer is a literary Schizopolis.  The authors are two bloggers you probably know if you read Beervana much: Max Bahnson and Alan McLeod.  They share a distaste for beer boosterism and, even more, dislike how that boosterism interferes with what they see as beer's true joy--the simple pleasures of drinking it and sharing it with friends.  That's a heterodox view in the beer-writing world, and the form Alan and Max chose to express it is nearly as weird as Schizopolis: a fictive dialogue between the two shared in various fictive settings.  Thomas Hardy gets quoted; Beckett gets alluded to (I think).  There's a fragment from Alexander Pope.  In one chapter, we get stage direction and a script.  There are direct message exchanges and Twitter exchanges. 

All of these techniques are harnessed to give voice to a cri de coeur aimed at the myriad offenses of beer geeks.  They don't want to give us a didactic, reasoned argument, they want to give spleen.  The effect is curious:
While Alan looked for the opener, Max picked the bottle to study the back label. Other than the ABV% there was not much that he considered very useful information. It wasn’t until he took a second look at the front label that he noticed the two words: “Imperial Pilsner”.

“F'ing 'Imperial Pilsner'! The ‘style’ born by ignorance and plain stupidity. You brought me here for this?" Alan shrugged in reply. "A bock with more hops and less sense. Don’t you have anything else?” Max continued, complaining, holding the bottle with one hand and his head with the other. With a shrug Alan gave him the opener and let the man do the honours. The Argentine made a big show of sniffing the beer, taking a short sip, he rolled it in his mouth, gargled a bit and declared with mocked solemnity, “not true to style.”
It is actually the didactic argument, but placed in fictional settings--in a work absent any of the usual trappings of fiction, like plot, climax, or denouement.  If you read it either to hear the argument or to be entertained by the settings, though, I think you miss the point.  The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer is a howl, a primal expression.  You are meant to understand the writers' emotion, not pay close attention to their words. Their real point is implicit and concealed--the joy of beer is in the negative space between the words.

As a work, it is aggressively noncommercial.  No publisher on the planet would have touched it.  But that's what makes it a fascinating artifact of the modern age.  I'm not sure who the audience is or how big it is, but for the souls who find pleasure and solace in this work suffice it to say they have little recourse elsewhere.  This is a strange, singular book.


The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest
Kindle/Digital-only, 60 pages, $3.

Evan Rail's contribution is much less mystifying.  Although it is ostensibly a story about Kout na Šumavě, a mysterious, remote Bohemian brewery, it's really a memoir describing a person's relationship to beer.  In this way, it shares something with Unbearable Nonsense.  Evan is more conventionally excavating his own experience to learn what it is, really, that brings beer alive in his life.  Beer is oddly intimate, and Evan uses his interaction with Kout to slowly reveal why.

Evan is one of the beer world's real writing stars.  His prose sings, and as with any good memoir, it's the story that draws the reader in.  There's a central plot point that he uses like a spine to support the body of his story, and in the following short passage, you can get a sense of how he sets up his page-turner:
“Trash still carpeted the furnace room when they arrived, the light coming in through windowless frames and the empty spaces where rusty hinges would have creaked and grated, if only the doors had remained. Around the old steam furnace, thick layers of plaster had cracked open, presumably with the heavy frosts of the previous winters, and the strata of stucco that had been built up around the furnace as insulation lay open and exposed. One of the layers, however, glowed just slightly differently: instead of brick or stone, it looked more like fabric, or even papyrus. The men brushed away the mortar and paint, scratching their own coarse fingers on the equally coarse rocks and crystals in the plaster. Eventually, enough of it gave way, and they were able to remove a thick book that must have been waiting there for many decades, disguised in the thickness of the wall.”
There's a chapter on Anthony Bourdain that doesn't really work and could be skipped entirely, but otherwise, it's a little gem of a book. We are attracted to a lot of lesser things in life--our favorite baseball team, a hobby, movies or video games--but so few of them rouse an emotional response like beer does.  The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest goes a long way to explaining this, at least for one person.  It's the first release of what will apparently be a series of similar pieces in a "Beer Trails" series--and it's a great start.

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For different reasons, neither of these works would have existed ten years ago.  Evan's book is too short, and Max and Alan's is too odd.  But both deserve a chance to find an audience, and I hope they do.  The more diversity we have available for readers, the better.  And as a bonus, little works like this can be had on the cheap--less than the price of a pint.

Monday, October 06, 2014

GABF Analysis: Five States Won Half the Medals

Last update, next day.  Two very interesting analyses came out today that are FAR more interesting than what you'll find here.  Both incorporate the numbers of beers entered per state, which make for a much richer and more accurate picture.  Stats geeks (and Oregon homers) will love them--they're sort of like the sabermetrics of beer.
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Update, 11:55 am: Geoff Kaiser posted an incredibly interesting--and potentially revealing--comment about the number of breweries pouring at the GABF.  His figures are probably a lot closer to representing the number of entries per state.  It could explain a lot.

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As you are probably aware, the Great American Beer Festival concluded this weekend, keyed by the announcement of the annual awards and a storm of joyful tweets.  As usual, I tuned in to see how the locals did, delighted to see some impressive and unexpected results.  Tiny Arch Rock Brewery in Gold Beach took home a gold in the kellerbier category.  (You first read about that brewery and that beer--" the lager, predictably my favorite, is a rustic, slightly hazy beer more in the Czech tradition than German"--right here on Beervana.)  Barley Brown's once again demonstrated dominance in the hoppy categories (CDA, international pale ale, and gold in fresh-hop), and Portland's own Breakside took honors with a gold in the most coveted of awards, American-Style IPA (a fest-record 279 entries).

My own homerism got me thinking: how are medals distributed?  This was the first year in which a new registration system that vastly expanded access to the Fest.  In 2013, many breweries applied and were denied entry--and about 700 managed to get beer into the fest.  This year, the Brewers Association made room for up to 1400, and over 1300 submitted beers.  That's actually a huge number--right about half of all breweries in existence at the beginning of the year.  In all, an astounding 5,500 beers were reviewed.

I often whinge about the ever-growing number of categories, which ensure an ever-growing number of medals.  There were something like 273 medals possible, but judges didn't award medals in some categories, and in at least one category--Koyt beer--there were no entries.  (Is this proof that you can have too many categories?  I mean, koyt beer?)  Overall, 268 were awarded, which seems like a lot until you consider that only one medal was awarded for every 20 entries.  (Harvard's acceptance rate was higher.)  Of the 1309 breweries in the competition, just 234 managed to medal (17.9%).

And yet for all that, when you look at the medals awarded by state, you see anything but an even distribution.  We don't have numbers on how many breweries entered per state, so the figures only tell part of the story--but it's quite a story.  Just five states won half the medals, and just two states--Colorado and California--account for almost a third.  This is especially impressive for Colorado, which has less than half as many breweries (180ish) as California (381).  Here are the top ten, which constitute nearly two-thirds of all the medals won; the other 40 states managed to collect just 35%.


To add a bit more detail, here's a list, with the approximate number of total state breweries included (and keep in mind, I have no numbers for how many of the state's breweries actually entered the competition).

Medals Won
CA - 46 (approximately 318 breweries)
CO - 39 (180)
85 cumulative medals (32% of total)

OR - 22 (181)
TX - 16 (96)
PA - 12 (108)
135 cumulative medals (50% of total)

IL - 9 (83)
WA - 9 (200)
NM - 8 (31)
VA - 7 (61)
WI - 7 (90)
175 cumulative medals (65% of total)

Other states receiving at least five medals: MI (6), MN (6), MT (6), NC (6), MD (5), OH (5), UT (5).

I would be leery about over-interpreting these results.  Nevertheless, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that a very few states seem to be way out in front in terms of making making medal-earning beers.