Friday, June 26, 2009

Don't forget the little guys

As we ride the craft tidal wave it's easy to get pulled along by the current of massive hops and coffee, chocolate, caramel, toasted, roasted, dark fruit grains that largely typify modern craft beer. In all fairness, these big beers are the exciting newcomers and have been the driving force behind this growing and flourishing craft beer revolution. They are the very beers that press the boundaries of what we imagined was possible with beer and have forced the industry to create whole new style designations to capture them accurately in our current vocabulary. They are the beers that win the fancy awards, get the hot articles published about them, and compel beer enthusiast to stand in line for hours just to get a 6 pack.

It seems that in all of the excitement, their little brothers have been a bit left out. This occurred to me the other day as I was sipping a Wells Bombardier and marveled at the amazing balance and complexity that had been packed into this very approachable and low ABV beer. I also thought back to the many 4-5% abv beers that I had brewed over the years and was reminded of how very difficult it is to craft a truly interesting and tasty session beer. Extreme flavors generally strike the palate as something exciting and arresting which is why big hoppy beers and Russian Imperial Stouts get the consumers attention right off the bat while the more subtle malts and hops of a British Bitter or a German Pilsener take a bit more pensiveness to tease out. 

It is amazing what you will find upon further consideration of these great beers. Because the hops and malts are not blasting your taste buds where they become quickly overwhelmed, you can really begin to experience the light caramel and toffee malts as well as the delicate herbal and floral hops typically found in the Blonds, Lagers, Bitters, and so on. Achieving balance in this more naked environment is a tremendous challenge. Brewers have very little to hide behind when the big roasted malts and the resinous hops are diminished in the recipe. These are the beers where technique and skill matter most - where a temperature spike in fermentation, or a bit too much hops can quickly turn the beer into something very different that what had been planned. Off flavors and improper cellaring or conditioning of these beers shows up as a major flaw as opposed to something that gets conveniently intertwined with the colossal flavors of a big beer. 

So, the next time you're browsing the bottle cooler of your favorite store, consider taking a second look at the many wonderful beers that have fallen off the radar because they can't boast "120 IBU's". I think you will be refreshed to become re-acquainted with the subtle beauty these beers have to offer and will be challenged to pause and think about the ingredients that would otherwise flow right past your tongue on the way to your belly. These more diminutive flavors are easily and often overlooked but they are there and are often well worth the additional effort needed to find them. 

Remember, the unexamined beer is not worth drinking.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Saison: The new American summer ale?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of tasting Terrapin's upcoming Sideproject. It was very young and still in the primary fermenter but I could already tell that this beer is going to shape up to be something quite nice. Spike's latest creation is a Saison - a style that has been around for eons in Europe but has just recently surfaced as the seasonal of choice among many of America's best brewers. 

In the past few years breweries like Lagunitas, Great Divide, Victory, and many others have released their versions of this traditional Belgian farmhouse ale that have been met with broad acceptance from craft beer lovers across the country. America's growing love for the Saison has prompted Belgian breweries like St. Feuillien to brew a Saison that is designed exclusively for the US market. Other breweries like Brasserie Dupont and De Glazen Toren have seen a steady increase in their US sales of Saisons as well. 

To take a step back, Saison's originally were low-gravity, open fermented ales with moderate amounts of wheat that were produced in the winter for the farm hands to drink during the late winter and spring. The Saison's bigger brother - the Biere de Garde was a higher gravity version that was a beer for storage (as the name indicates) that was consumed during the summer and fall. The pioneers of the commercial Saison adapted the practice of very high temperature fermentation as the native yeast were very slow to ferment at lower temperatures. In Phil Markowski's authoritative book Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition he reports that Brasserie Dupont ferments their Saison Dupont at 92 degrees F in an effort to attenuate the beer in a reasonable period of time. In talking to Spike at Terrapin, he is fermenting his Saison at 90 degrees - which is a radical departure from the typical 64 degree fermentation of pale ales. This high temperature fermentation not only produces a relatively dry beer but also leaves a wonderful bouquet of citrus and tropical fruit esters along with grassy yeast notes that has become the signature of the Saison. 

So why the recent rise in popularity for this little-known Belgian style? I think it has much to do with the fact that the Saison is one of the few styles that is massively complex while being light and infinitely drinkable. The dryness of the Saison makes it a crisp and refreshing beer for the hot months and the citrus and tropical fruit esters and the wild grassy yeast notes make it a rewarding and interesting beer for even the most demanding palates. 

While some of the best examples of the style still reside in Belgium with De Glazen Toren's Saison d'erp Mere, Brasserie Dupont's Avec Les Bons Voeux, and Brassiere Des Geants Saison Voisin, American brewers have come a long way and are making world-class versions of this old world ale. The new American Saisons are a shining example of the tireless innovation and creativity of craft brewers and, as far as I'm concerned, they are welcome to occupy our taps for the hot summer months to come. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What's your favorite beer?

It's an innocuous enough question. Many of my friends have a beer that is near and dear to their hearts. One that conjures up memories of that corner pub in London or the intimate cafe in Amsterdam where they spent some summer evenings years ago. The question has often been posed to me by fellow beer lovers and I have never been able to come up with an answer for them or for myself. Some days I can't imagine anything nicer that a tart Ommegang Rouge, other days I crave a Peche Mortel and just yesterday I had a Moylan's Hopsickle that was quite nearly perfect. There are so many great beers out there that it would seem almost unfair to crown one as the king - especially knowing that next week I'll simply have to change the list. 

Over the past few years there are numerous beer rating sites that have cropped up that allow participants to rate their favorite beers, pubs, bottle shops, and brew pubs. I can understand the attraction. These sites have provided a platform and a forum for beer lovers all over the world to discuss and chronicle the great destinations they have visited and the many great beers they have found along the way. These sites have also proven helpful when visiting  an unfamiliar city to find that off-the-beaten-path pub with the private stash of vintage beers or the bottle shop with the best selection. There's plenty to like here. It's useful to log on to check the ABV's of a new beer before listing it in the menu or to double-check the exact style of a beer (even though, from time to time, this information proves to be less than accurate). 

The problems come in when these sites process the individual ratings and assign a hierarchy to the beers. There is a built-in subjectivity to beer that makes these kind of assertions seem odd at best. Who specifically is assigning the value or importance of particular attributes or ingredients to each style? In a foot race it's easy to say that whoever crosses the finish line first is the fastest, and the second guy or gal is the next fastest, but how are we able to say that Dark Lord Imperial Stout is an objectively better stout than Storm King or Old Rasputin? It would be at least possible to speculate that if all stouts had thousands of ratings that the law of large numbers (a theorem in probability that describes the long term stability of the mean of a random variable) would provide some degree of accuracy but that is rarely, if ever, the case inside of any given beer style category. In the above mentioned example, Dark Lord Imperial Stout is only available to a handful of enthusiasts who are willing to stand in line for hours to have the honor of taking home a 6 pack. On the other hand, North Coast Old Rasputin and Victory Storm King are widely available year round, thus subjecting themselves to a higher degree of scrutiny and also not having the advantage of scarcity that Dark Lord enjoys. 
Another recent example would be Westvletteren 12's domination of the top spots on every beer chart for years. This is a beer that is only available at the brewery or pub across the street from the monastery in Belgium and sometimes through select Belgian and Dutch bottle shops that bootleg it. It is in it's own right a legitimately good beer, but there is little question of the weight that is given to scarcity in the online ranking world. In James Surowiecki's recent work 'The Wisdom of Crowds' he makes a compelling argument for the corrective value and relative accuracy of large numbers of people's contribution. Numerous examples are cited that demonstrate how (in theory), at some critical mass, the hopheads would be balanced by the maltheads and the lovers of dry, tart beers would be balanced by the lovers of sweet beers inside of any given style of beer. Even if this were statistically true about many things in life are you really buying it when it comes to beer? Drinking great beer is very much a subjective sensory experience and the enjoyment of it is influenced by so many different factors that are difficult, if impossible, to measure - not the least of which is experience and context. 

While recently reading assorted reviews of Cantillon's Rose De Gambrinus a reviewer describes the beer as being 'punishingly bitter with the overwhelming flavor of vomit. Unquestionably the worst Belgian beer ever made'. Granted, Cantillon is by no means for everyone (obviously not for that reviewer) but this review underscores the subjective nature of beer enjoyment. There are plenty of people with an acquired taste for lambics who would argue vehemently with the above reviewer - and they could both be right in their own minds.

It is also painfully obvious that the contributors here are not the beer equivalent of a sommelier. Perhaps some are, but they are very few indeed. That's not to say that there is not value in the collective voice of thousands of amateur beer enthusiasts. There is. My issue with the rating frenzy has more to do with the weight that they carry in the marketplace and oftentimes the way that they marginalize great beers that have been designed for a niche group of drinkers that end up being buried because they are unappreciated by the larger pool of craft beer reviewers (example: Avery Fifteen).

Perhaps the biggest problem with such lists is that they deliver to us the top 50, 100 or more beers that span everything from Pilsners to Belgian Dark Strong Ales. Saying that Chimay Blue is an objectively better beer than Victory's Prim Pils is an inherently ridiculous statement. It's like saying that oranges are 'fruitier' than apples by five points. 

Ultimately, it's about enjoying beer and enjoying people in the context of great beer. The overwhelming need to call something #1 seems to defeat the spirit of the brewmaster. Not every beer is built for you. Some you will love, others you will hate and many will go by largely unnoticed. Craft beer is a celebration of the simple things in life. It is not the elegant elixir of debutants but is, historically, a beverage designed for the everyman. The wine industry lacks sorely for innovation and creativity in part because they have built their industry on the narrow and rigid dictates of thought-leaders like Robert Parker. Mr. Parker certainly knows much more about wine than I do and I don't question the discernment of his palate. My point here is, do we really want craft beer companies to stop making cutting edge experimental beers or brewing risky styles because they might be poorly received and effect the overall rating of their brewery?  

These sites are full of pages of useful information and provide an arena for thousands of beer enthusiasts to dialog about beer and journal about ones they loved and others they didn't. There is great value in many aspects of what they do and the way that they have worked to galvanize the craft community. Even the most brilliant ideas and solutions can evolve into something they were never intended to be and, if unchecked, can create bigger problems than the ones they were designed to solve. 

Think for yourself, drink the beers you love, and never stop exploring.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Oak aged Beer - Is it a fad?

In a recent edition of Beeradvocate magazine the question was posed - is oaking beer a fad? The article included quotes from folks like Jim Koch of Sam Adams, officially declaring oak aged beer a fad. Jim Koch is no stranger to oaked beers. Samuel Adams produced what was one of the first commercially viable Oaked American beers with his Utopias - a beer that would probably be undrinkable without the oak that balances out the scorching 27% alcohol. It is also worth mentioning that Utopias has only been produced for 6 - 7 years and is produced in extremely limited quantities. 

Many others have followed suit and released oaked versions of their biggest beers which sometimes even eclipse their parent in popularity and sales. So I suppose ultimately the question is - is this a fad or is it the natural outcome of an evolving American palate that is constantly looking for something new and more extreme or just something different? Is adding chocolate to beer a fad? Are fruit beers a fad? What about adding maple syrup to beer? I would speculate that the first Belgians who made bigger beers with candy sugar took some heat for not respecting the German Purity Act. It probably was dismissed at the time as 'faddish'. 
It looks like there are two components to this definition that are key: 1). That the practice or interest is short-lived. 2). That the practice or interest is followed with extreme zeal. It would be difficult to comment on the first point until sufficient time has passed. The second point could definitely be explored in the present. If we think back to fads we knew well growing up, one that comes to mind right off is the Swatch Watch. For those of you who don't remember, the Swatch Watch was a colorful, low quality watch made from rubber and plastic that every kid had to have if he was to avoid all of the stigmas that come from possessing bad fashion sense. Inside of a couple of years Swatch had sold hundreds of thousands of these garish and impractical timepieces (most did not have any hour markers and were very difficult to actually tell time with). Only a few years later, any cool kid wouldn't have been caught dead with a Swatch. The 'exaggerated zeal' aspect of a fad has to do with folks blindly following a convention in the interest of not feeling like the odd man out. Isn't that why we call it a fad- because we all recognize the ephemeral nature of it and the silly 'me too' zeal behind it? 
For my part I would hesitate to put oaked beers into this bucket. There is a very practical aspect to oaking beer that is likely to have it hanging around for a long time. That is, the fact that oak beers really taste good to a lot of craft beer drinkers and that oaking big beers helps to bring into balance big hop profiles, massive malty sweetness and alcohol heat. Some beer drinkers don't mind any of those flavors being out of balance and prefer the non-oak version. I've found though, that plenty of people are excited to try their favorite beers with the added toasty, smoky, vanilla oak goodness in it - and actually prefer it. I might be going out too far on this limb, but maybe it's like putting Ketchup on fries. French fries taste pretty dang good on their own and we've all eaten them without Ketchup and enjoyed them but it takes them to a whole new level when they are dipped into a fresh dollop of Ketchup. It's a new way of experiencing the fries that, for many, adds greatly to the experience. 
Ultimately only time will tell if oaking beer ends up going down in history as a fad. There are allot of brewers putting their beers on oak in response to a market that is developing a palate for oaky beers. It's still on the fringe but is growing. My money is on it sticking and becoming another one of the many options presented to customers when they visit their favorite pubs or bottle shops. What are the 'fad criers' really saying? That people shouldn't oak beer? That it is no longer cool to oak beer? That oaking beer is passe because they have already been doing it for years? Does anyone who is still reading this rant even care? 

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Taming the American Strong Ale

Some folks criticize our American obsession with trying to categorize every micro-category of beer in the world. I ran into a guy at our local brew shop who was buying ingredients for a Belgian Tripel. He asked me what I was brewing and I replied, "I'm working on a Belgian Strong Golden with no candy sugar".  He replied "What's the difference between a Tripel and a Strong Golden anyways? F*** BJCP." Well, there's plenty of difference between a Tripel and a Belgian Strong Golden. Not that we should over-intellectualize beer but it is helpful to know what we are drinking. Context and standards are a helpful framework for articulating what it is that we enjoy most as well as a mechanism for staving off confusion. If I mention the plant 'Quercus falcata' to a fellow horticulturist not only will she know that it is an oak tree but she will know that it is a very specific one - the Southern Red Oak. Botany's taxonomic nomenclature system allows for the two of us to be clear on what we are discussing instead of just generalizing that it is a tree as opposed to a shrub. 

Some style designations have cropped up in an effort to categorize the many new types of beer coming down the hatch. The American Strong Ale category is certainly one of them. As innovation in brewing continues to drive the craft industry there is a constant struggle to label and categorize each new product that makes it's way into a bottle. American Strong Ales is a category that does not show up in the BJCP style guidelines unless you include American Barleywines which are a sub-category of Strong Ales. However, American Strong Ales are a well populated style that exists in force on the many beer rating sites we find in .comville. Beeradvocate has an extensive list of American Strong Ales that range from Dogfish Head's Immort to Stone's Arrogant Bastard and Hebrew's Jewbelation. I guess they are all relatively dark beers that are all above 7% (their definition of American Strong Ales includes dark American beers between 7% and 25% ABV). It would be safe to say that these are derivatives of the Strong Ale category that is compiled of Old Ales, English Barleywines, and American Barleywines. This basket is designed to catch the many creative high gravity, non-conforming offerings of American craft breweries. 

After having brewed many Belgian-style ales in the past few years I was longing to make something with bold west coast hops and a clean, aggressive American Ale yeast. I settled on a recipe that involved piles of roasted malt, Special B (I have a hard time making anything without Special B) and a bag of Marris Otter. I used Amarillo, Simcoe, Cascade, and Magma in this 8% beast and steeped course ground Trappeze coffee beans in the finish. After kegging I used 3 different oaking treatments in an effort to see which would yield the best result. 
These big beers take time. They have been on oak for nearly a week and will likely need a few more. We grow accustomed to drinking plenty of flat unconditioned beer in the process of figuring out when our beers are just right and this is no exception. Who knows if this one will be a winner or another notch on the belt of experience. In the mean time I have brewed the above mentioned Belgian Strong Golden Ale in the spirit of Malheur (no candy sugar) and can't wait for this one to come out of the fermenter. It was one of the most beautiful beers I have ever crafted from a standpoint of color and pre-fermentation flavor. I am considering putting half of it into a 7 gallon Single Malt cask I just bought from a distillery in NY. We'll see. I think all of the twists and turns is what keeps this exciting. There's always something we take away from each batch that inspires us to do something better on the next and hopefully create something that stops the mouths of our beer-geek friends long enough for them to enjoy the pint in reverent silence.

On Homebrewing

Homebrewing is something that just gets into your blood and probably doesn't leave until you get a job as a head brewer and have to get up at 5 am to brew two to three batches a day, 6 days a week. Even those guys seem more relaxed than your average blue collar widget maker. Anyways, about 10 years ago after having made many extract beer batches I finally made the leap to all-grain brewing. Brewing all-grain is like making tomato soup from fresh picked tomatoes in a food mill and then adding all of your own herbs and spices as opposed to simply opening up a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup and adding water. That might be a bit of a reductionist view but it is effectively true. The transition from extract to all-grain was, for me, a total brewing paradigm shift where overnight I had sole responsibility for 100% of the flavor outcome of the finished product. This was a bit scary at first but after a few batches the intricacies of different grains and the signatures of each hop became an irresistible puzzle that drew me back to the kettle whether the last batch was exceptional or not. In some ways it reminds me of golf - where you can spend all day in the woods hunting for your drive then chip in on the 18th hole and feel like you won the lottery. That's what lies behind every potential batch. Of course, it's not exactly like winning the lottery. The best brewers I know are guys who are massively creative and also have a solid commitment to the science of brewing. A lot of brewing is in the details - mashing at the correct temperature, not sparging too fast, avoiding hot side aeration, getting a good hot and then cold break and the like. Even the super creative brewers who miss the essentials don't make particularly good beer. They are content with heavy hazes and starchy tannic off-flavors all the while being exuberant over how the cactus flavor comes through in their Chocolate Oaked Altbier. So it's an art and science like most things in life. 

After a year or so of all-grain brewing 5 gallon batches I started looking for a larger kettle. Impatience usually won out or maybe it was curiosity but the result was that very few batches survived very long once they were kegged. A colleague of mine mentioned to me that he had a neighbor who had owned a failed winery in Watkinsville and might still have some equipment left over. I made plans to meet up with him and stopped by the old winery on a Saturday morning. He left me alone to sift through piles of dusty and rusty equipment - most of which were refrigeration related items that went to his many freon chilled dairy/fermentation tanks. Finding nothing, I walked back to his house and asked him if he had a 10-20 gallon pot that I could buy. He, of course, had nothing that small but mentioned a large kettle that he had 'out back'. Walking around the side of a warehouse he presented me with a 50 gallon Vulcan steam jacketed kettle. I asked him what he wanted for it and, after a long pause, he sheepishly said "Would $150 be too much?". So, that's the abbreviated story as to how I started down the road of large batch all-grain brewing. I had a friend who used to remind me from time to time that you should never run your business like a hobby and you should never run your hobby like a business. I have always been better at applying the latter half of that maxim to my life. Our hobbies are the things we do with those few hours of the week that are not absorbed by work and family. They are not designed to be profit centers but are designed to re-charge us emotionally and oftentimes to provide a creative outlet. After loosely adopting this philosophy I stopped doing cost-benefit analysis on every batch and focused rather on just making the best beer I could. That led to conical fermenters, plate frame chillers, wort pumps and so on... The reality is that the enjoyment of the hobby and the satisfaction it brings is so much deeper than had I never made the investment in it. That's not at all to say that I didn't enjoy the many 5 gallon batches I brewed - it's just that each additional piece made the experience that much richer.

The Birth of Trappeze Pub

Trappeze Pub was born on December 21st, 2007 in Athens, Georgia as the culmination of a long love affair that I have had with craft beer over the past 14 years. I have pretty much spent my whole life in Athens (short stint in Statesboro) and have watched the town evolve and grow around it's ever-changing pool of residents. Athens has long been a beer-loving town and it's hard for some folks to imagine an Athens without all of the bars, pubs, and restaurants, but most of them are still fairly young as far as businesses go. Trappeze was dropped down into the middle of a yellow beer town that held tightly to the dogma that all consumers wanted was a dollar pint and cheap shooters. So, in the middle of what seemed like a never ending race to the bottom, we opened a gourmet pub where we were determined to sell only the best craft beers we could get our hands on. We were prepared to struggle for as many years as it might take for customers to find us and fall in love with great beers the way we have. As it turned out, we had underestimated the number of folks who were craft fanatics and ended up with a solid group of enthusiastic regulars right off the bat. The past year and a half has been a journey through hundreds of great beers that we have shared with folks from all over the globe, many of whom have become dear friends. The dust has begun to settle a bit and I thought it would be a worthwhile pursuit to chronicle the many amazing beers and people that we have the pleasure of interacting with every day. For my part I am an avid homebrewer, co-owner of Trappeze Pub, and a longtime beer enthusiast. I am also a beer collector and one of those guys who spends as much time admiring the nose on a beer as the body. Great beer is an amazing thing that beckons all of the senses to pause and enjoy the truly special moment in life that it has just granted you. So here's to each of you who celebrate the simple pleasures in life that often crop up over a well crafted pint!