Friday, October 31, 2008

Leinie's Now Has Even More Influence In Wisconsin

Not sure where I was on this one. But behind my back Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has appointed Dick Leinenkugel as the Wisconsin Secretary of Commerce. So, the legendary brewing family now has its claws firmly in the state commercial system. Miller should be happy. Honestly, his bio is a bit scattered: he's the fifth generation brewing Leinenkugel, but went into the Marines after college, and then to a sports marketing firm in Chicago, he went back to the brewery right around the time that it was sold to Miller and then worked for Miller for a time, then back to the brewery where he was Vice President of Sales and Marketing. He's also a Minnesota Twins fan (traitor!).

Snarkiness aside, it's hard to see from here what the full impact of this is going to be. It's probably best to look at what power the Secretary of Commerce holds and what changes/policies can be effected. According to the Commerce website: "[The Wisconsin Department of Commerce] provides development assistance in areas such as marketing, business and community finance, exporting, small business advocacy, and manufacturing assessments. The agency issues professional credentials for the construction trades and administers safety and building codes. It also regulates petroleum products and tank systems and administers the Petroleum Environmental Clean-up Fund."

So, he putting aside everything else, what this means for the Wisconsin craft brewing industry. The man who everyone talks about behind his back for claiming that Leinenkugel's is "craft" beer - the one who everyone (and by "everyone" I mean "me") claims is deluding the Wisconsin, Midwest, and indeed American public by claiming that Leinie's somehow has some sort of "artistic" or "craft" merit - the one who has the temerity and, well, cajones, to pawn off the Summer Shandy and the "fruit" wheat beers as anything greater than the slightly-more-respectable-than-alcopop that they are - this man is now in charge of getting you your small business development assistance. You should really hope what you said about him and his company doesn't get back to him. You should also hope that he reigns with a compassionate fist and not one that looks to keep "competition" for his company out of the market by making it hard for small breweries to get the small business assistance that they need. Indeed, even if the Wisconsin Brewers Guild were active (and, to my knowledge it is not), it is hard to see how they could ever accomplish anything without the "Leinenkugel's Stamp of Approval."

On the other hand, he could see this as an opportunity to help out the industry that could single-handedly keep Wisconsin-ites employed and raise the stature of this state. Small breweries and brewpubs employ a lot of people in an export industry - brewers, assistant brewer, bar folks, service staff, managers, bottlers, etc. The periphery industries - distribution, retail, etc. - employ even more. It is great blue-collar work for those who have lost their blue-collar jobs to cheaper labor. Wisconsin already has a great reputation for its breweries, keeping competition active only creates more incentive to stay creative and produce high-quality craft beer. Tyranena, Furthermore, Lakefront, even New Glarus - these are not "competition" to Leinenkugel's - in fact, I would argue, the more craft breweries and craft beer that is sold, the more Leinie's sells.

Mr. Leinenkugel could really take this opportunity to boost the Wisconsin economy and craft beer industry by encouraging communities to work with and develop their craft breweries and brewpubs. We talked about the West Bend Chamber of Commerce requesting that a restaurant open as a brewpub - he could be encouraging communities to be doing the same thing by providing economic assistance packages for providing development incentives to small brewers. He could provide incentives to farmers to develop hop fields and barley fields to grow Wisconsin's agricultural base. He could make craft brewing one of the cornerstones of Wisconsin's tourism, and agri-tourism, industry by actively encouraging its promotion to our fellow Midwestern tourists.

So, as you can see, there's a lot of benefit that can come from a Dick Leinenkugel reign as Wisconsin's Secretary of the Commerce. Let's hope he uses his powers for good, and not evil.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

We continue our discussion on the hop shortage with Chris Colby of BYO magazine, covering the effect on homebrewers, price increases, the possibility of brewery closures, growing your own hops, and more.

Here's the mp3.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Update: More on and in Milwaukee - Spooky Brew and Shockingly Good Cheese Tasting

For those of you out there in Milwaukee or anyone else who happens to be reading that will be in Milwaukee on Halloween (does anyone travel from Madison on Halloween?!?), I've just been told that the Spooky Beer and Cheese Tasting is, sorta, being moved.

Lucy Saunders will be holding a "Spooky Brew & Shockingly Good Cheese Tasting" at The Sugar Maple in Milwaukee (441 E Lincoln Ave Milwaukee, WI 53207) on Halloween, Friday October 31, from 6-8pm. Seating is very limited, but the price is very reasonable ($15/person).

MBR = Milwaukee Beer Review?

First things first. The Spooky Beer and Cheese Tasting at Fromagination here in Madison that was scheduled for today, and that we did a write up on last week - it's been canceled. Not sure why. Just got the email last night saying that it had been canceled. So, if you were planning on going, you'll have to wait until November 19th and go to the Holiday Ales & Cheeses class.

Now, for the rest of the story ...

For whatever reason I found myself in Milwaukee yesterday. And having to drop a keg off in Chilton. So, I set out on a beautiful afternoon and headed up US-45. Before I left I had checked out The Beer Mapping Project and found out that there was a brewpub in West Bend, WI. I didn't even know West Bend existed, let alone had a brewpub.

Well, it's not often that I get over to that area of the state, so I stopped in while I was, more or less, driving right past.

The brewpub is in a small, relatively nondescript supper-club looking facility on Main Street right as you driving into downtown West Bend from the South. Riverside Restaurant and Brewery opened 3 years and 1 week ago according to Jess, the friendly barkeep who has worked at Riverside for ... yup, 3 years and 1 week.

The brewing facility is front-and-center when you walk in the door. The bar is to the left and they have 8 of their own beers plus 2 sodas on tap. The regular beers, created by the first brewer Al Bundy (yes, that is his name), are the amber, the honey ale, and the weiss. In addition to the weiss, they have a fruit weiss - the fruit flavor changes periodically - depending on the flavor they use extracts, concentrates and occassionally real fruit to brew it. The Peach Weisse was tart and full of peach aroma with a not-overpowering taste that made it pleasant, if peaches are your thing. Rumor has it that blueberry is next.

Brewer Al Bundy left about a year ago to start his own brewpub and the brewer at Riverside is now a relative brewing newcomer, Chris George. He has added a number of new taps: a stout, an oktoberfest, a "summer quencher", and an Imperial IPA. I had a pint of the IIPA, a nice medium-bodied, hoppy version that had a piney and floral aroma and oily silkiness that was a welcome diversion from the typical cascade hop-bombs that IIPAs have become.

While sipping the beer and polishing off a spinach artichoke dip appetizer, I had a chance to sit down and chat for a minute or two with owner Wayne Kainz. He opened Riverside Brewery and Restaurant 3 years and 1 week ago, but his initial plan had not been to have a brewery. In fact, only when the local Chamber of Commerce found out he was planning the restaurant did they suggest he consider adding a brewing component. While they didn't offer some financing for the additional (fixed) costs of opening a brewery, Mr. Kainz took to the idea and put it into action. It seems to have worked to good success.

I was also given a brief tour of the place. The riverside view looks over the Milwaukee River as it winds it way through West Bend on its way to Lake Michigan. The downstairs, once apartments, and now a built-out dining room and banquet facility. The porch is large enough for a handful of tables, but was a little chilly on a late-October afternoon.

If you live in Milwaukee, West Bend is only about 30 minutes North of you. Otherwise, if you, like me, find yourself driving from Milwaukee to Chilton, or more likely, Milwaukee to Fond du Lac, make sure you stop in for a beer or two and some food.

Over the next few months or so, I want to try to concentrate a little more on the non-Madison markets. We give a lot of attention to Madison-area breweries: Grumpy Troll, Ale Asylum, Great Dane, Tyranena, Furthermore, Capital, New Glarus, etc. And our website is called Madison Beer Review, but think of it like the New York Times or Washington Post - it's more of a home base than a specific market indicator. So, now that gas prices are (comparatively) reasonable, we are going to try to hit the road a little bit - get over to Milwaukee, up to La Crosse, up to Green Bay, and Stevens Point, and the Northwoods, and all of the places in this state that brew great beer.

If you are in one of these places and a regular reader (or even a non-regular reader for that matter) leave us comments and let us what not to miss. Shoot us an email and we'll try to meet up with people when we know we're going to be around.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

This week we have beer news, including a discussion of presidential candidate's beer baskets and the end of Zima, as well as part one of our interview with Chris Colby, the editor of BYO Magazine, discussing the hop shortage and other challenges facing the craft brewing industry. Will cascade disappear? Will we all be drinking gruit? Thinking of brewing with cow bile? Chris addresses these and other issues. 

Here's the mp3


Monday, October 27, 2008

Movie Review – 99 Bottles

If you are in Milwaukee on the weekend of November 6, you can catch the premier of this movie at the Times Cinema ($9, $7 senior/matinee). The Madison premier will be the weekend of November 13 at the Orpheum Theater.

Producer David Oplinger, says that "we explore the history and culture of the craft brewing industry in Southeastern Wisconsin. Our goal is to promote the industry by presenting a fun overview of some of the fine breweries that Wisconsin has to offer. We covered 16 breweries, brewpubs and contract brewers and asked them questions that had been collected from the general public. The end result is a film that really draws the audience into world of the brewmaster, leaving them wanting for more."

I'll be honest, what are my expectations going into the film? Well, beer-related television and movies are notoriously terrible; so, anything of quality is an improvement. There is a fine line in the craft beer world in appeasing everyone involved. I've found that there are three basic types of people in the craft beer universe: Industry folk, Geeks, and Drinkers. Drinkers are people who are usually hanging out with the geeks, but often they are people who just like good beer, aren't really that interested in thinking about good beer, they basically substitute Spotted Cow or Capital Amber for Budweiser. The craft beer universe needs Drinkers because they buy beer a case at a time. Geeks, on the other hand, don't buy a case of anything. Heck, getting a Geek to commit to a six-pack can be a challenge. Geeks are always looking for the next new thing, the next best thing, the next thing that they can run out and tell all of their friends is the most obscure style, brewery, or bottle that can be found. Geeks are the ones being targeted by New Glarus' new R&D line (we'll talk about this later, but, you want to see bottles sell for hundreds of dollars? Just wait until these things are released – it will be ridiculous. Champagne yeast?! Bring it on Dan Carey!!). Some are more knowledgeable than others, but most know the basics about hops, barley, malting, yeast, water quality, and the brewing process. They may not be able to tell you what krausening a triple decocted Munich, Vienna, and Maris Otter wort means or how it is accomplished, but they know what a cascade hop is and some basic differentiating characteristics between, say, a Belgian Blonde and an American Pale Ale. Then you have the Industry folk. Not that they know everything, but they definitely live in their own, self-perpetuating, universe. The Industry are not only brewmasters and assistant brewmasters, but bartenders, tour guides, distributors, janitors at the breweries, the guy who unloads the truck of grain into the large hoppers, etc. They have a unique perspective on their "product" and talk about "SKUs" and "pallets" and "brands."

To a Geek, it can be pretty ugly to see the actual Industry machinery as Geeks often have an over-romanticized notion of what goes on behind the scenes to bring that bottle of Bell's Hopslam to your table. Of course, like the wine industry, the Beer Industry glorifies the romance, the blood, sweat and toil, of the brewer – images of large copper boiling kettles, large wooden hop paddles, oak casks, and rows of large (but not too large) stainless steel fermenters. Interestingly, Drinkers take to the Industry better than Geeks – perhaps because the Drinker holds no illusion after having decanted a 10-year old bottle of Thomas Hardy into a fine brandy snifter. For Geeks it is hard to imagine that this bulk of industrial equipment and flashing lights that direct fluid through this mechanized, completely inhuman process, could result in such a human, warm, and satisfying beverage.

So, that brings me back to the challenge of this film. It is keeping all three of these audiences "wanting more" that is such a big challenge. Each of these demographics has such different notions, understandings, and interactions with each other that finding a common middle-ground can be difficult. Breweries have failed trying to find this middle ground. Television shows have failed trying to find this middle ground. Movies have failed trying to find this middle ground.

This movie gets some things right, it gets some things wrong, but ultimately it meets its purpose of offering a fun overview and leaving the audience wanting more. Particularly wanting more beer. It gets right the balance of presenting difficult and complex topics – the brewing process, three-tier distribution, SB 227 – to both Drinkers and Geeks. However, by using Industry folks to present this material, it sometimes gets bogged down in the Industry universe. For example, while discussing the brewing process one of the brewers is discussing the boil, and he mentions that his brewery uses "gas-fired kettles." We, Drinkers and Geeks, know what all of those words mean – we know what gas-fired means, we know what a kettle is. But, what isn't exactly clear is the brewer's implication that this is relatively uncommon; there is no background for understanding why others don't use gas. When the brewer immediately starts talking about caramelization from long gas-fired kettle boils, these are the types of discussions that even knowledgeable Geeks have a hard time following – but, for brewers, these are "Brewing 201" and so they talk about them like everyone knows what they are talking about.

Another place that the movie gets bogged down in the Industry universe is the discussion on yeast management. Yes, it is important. But Drinkers don't care, and Geeks either don't understand it, have a misunderstanding of it, or have such strong biases about it, that the handling of it here really doesn't seem to add much to the discussion. At the end of this section, I was left confused about whether having yeast strains propagated for hundreds of years is a good thing or a bad thing and I wasn't really given any compelling arguments for either side (good: see Chimay and the Belgian and German breweries; bad: see Anheuser-Busch and inexperienced craft brewers).

It would have been interesting to see a little more confrontation to Eliot Butler about SB 224, the Brewpub Law. The movie does a great job of showing why brewers in the state are not happy about SB 224, but it leaves The Great Dane, the progenitors of this bill, largely unscathed. It is during this section that Dean Coffey, brewmaster at Ale Asylum, cements his status as star of this movie. He does a great job of bringing relatively complex topics, such as SB 224, down to language that everyone here can easily understand: "If this bill had passed before we started, we would have failed." Period. Then he explains why this is true. "It's fine for us. But as the old guys die off there will be no new breweries starting up." Period. Easy to understand.

But Dean Coffey's explanation of the Reinheisgebot is the centerpiece of this film: "The guys that put that law down into the works had a moment of vision, of divinity, an epiphany, because they didn't know what they were doing. They just thought they were making some neat tax code. But what they did was, they forced brewers to follow this tight and narrow path of only using four ingredients. I like to compare it to haiku. As I recall, it's a three line poem and it's, uhhh, five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, something like that. It's difficult, it's hard to write a poem in the form of haiku, but if you do it, if you follow those tight rules, something really beautiful comes out the other end. And I have come to believe that if you follow the tight rules of those four ingredients of the Reinheitsgebot that something beautiful comes out the other end." In that one statement, Dean Coffey and 99 Bottles defines the art, the craft, of craft brewing into a simple, easily understood example that demonstrates not only the difficulty but the passion that these folks have for their craft.

Is this movie fun? Heck yeah. The discussion on naming beers is hilarious. Stonefly's brewmaster, Jacob, is hilarious about his Mustache Ride and Star Wars themed naming schemes. Deb Carey's discussion about being in England, and seeing the sheep, and coming home and seeing Wisconsin from the tourist perspective "What's with all the spotted cows?" is classic. The ending titles "Can I have free beer" is fun – Aran Madden's answer of "if you have the ask, the answer is probably no" is spot on.

I think the movie ultimately succeeds because it hits all of the important discussions around craft beer. The dichotomy of having to please both Drinkers and Geeks. The problems of the three-tier distribution network. The "romance" of the brewing industry which The Grumpy Troll's owner sums up perfectly: "I think one thing that [everyone] needs to do is come to a place like The Grumpy Troll, meet the brewmaster here and watch what he really does on a day-to-day basis. Because Mark [Duchow] doesn't spend very much of his time actually stirring the mash, as it were. He spends the majority of his time cleaning and sanitizing equipment. And it's very time consuming and it's a lot of hard work." Being a brewmaster, working in the Industry, as the brewmaster at Water Street in Milwaukee points out, is quintessential American blue-collarism – craft brewing is really the last great American blue-collar job: "It's little bit of plumbing, a little bit of electrical, it's hauling grain sacks, you may be driving a truck, it's a little bit of all of these things and it's hard to teach somebody." And the final quintessentially American product is really one of the last great shining examples of the American work ethic – great tasting beer.

99 Bottles succeeds because when I finished watching it I wanted a fine Wisconsin craft beer to raise as a toast, "Cheers!", to all of the people that bring this fine product to my refrigerator and my local bar!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Fromagination – Spooky Beer and Cheese Tasting

I try not to just randomly plug events. Unfortunately, with the limited staff here at MBR and the sheer number of events going on, it's hard to keep you updated with all of the beer news going on in Wisconsin. So, instead of trying and failing, we choose to just pick and choose stuff that sounds interesting to us and try to point out places to find the information on your own if these are the things that interest you. Although, if you are the type of person who can meticulously go through a few dozen websites every week, keep a calendar updated and make some sort of sense of all of the events in the State, I invite you to send me an email – because I may have a job for ya.

So, with that said, on October 28th at 6:30pm the artisanal cheese and craft food shop on the square here in Madison, Fromagination, will hold a cheese and beer tasting called the "Spooky Beers and Cheeses Class." What's the deal? What makes it so darn spooky? And where can I sign up? We caught up (finally!) with Fromagination's cheese and beer buyer, Bill Anderson, and the leader of this class Lucy Saunders.

I should note that if any of this sounds good to you, you should pre-register for the $35 class by either stopping in to Fromagination (12 S. Carroll St., Madison, WI) or giving them a call at 608-255-2430. Space for these classes goes quickly – I tried to attend one of their beer and cheese classes earlier in the summer and was shut out because the class was full.

Madison Beer Review: What gave you the idea for pumpkin beers and cheese? This isn't a combination that seems immediately obvious. What kinds of cheese go well with pumpkin beer? Or even just pumpkins or, more generally, fall foods. What kinds of recipes take advantage of cheese in cooking with these fall foods?

Bill Anderson: It was Lucy's idea. 
Lucy Saunders: The name of the class is Spooky Beer & Cheese – so the theme is very seasonal. I was interested in showcasing a variety of autumn ales and lagers and chose ones that fit the Halloween week. It's a little late for most of the pumpkin ales; in fact, I think that Lakefront has already sold out.
Bill: We'll actually be using a crème fraiche with cinnamon on pumpkin bread for the [New Holland Brewing Co.] Ichabod pumpkin ale.
Lucy: Another interesting fall pairing is a crostini of habenero jack cheese with Lagunitas' Hairy Eyeball beer, which is a strong ale. I'd love to tell you more, but I shouldn't give away the whole class.

MBR: Do you have any favorite pumpkin beers? Not necessarily just the ones that you will have available at the tasting, but, really any favorites?

Bill: I've only had the Ichabod and Lakefront Brewery's Pumpkin Lager.  I didn't taste them side-by-side, so it's hard to say which I preferred.  Both were good.
Lucy: I like several varieties of pumpkin ale, and have even used them in cooking, baking and ice creams. But at the October 29 tasting, we're featuring Spooky brews - including: Tyranena Headless Man Amber Alt, Great Lakes Brewing Co. Nosferatu, Rogue Dead Guy Ale, and a surprise or two ….

MBR: How did you, Fromagination, get hooked up with Lucy Saunders?

Bill: Ken [Monteleone – Master Cheesemonger at Fromagination] kept finding her name when he was doing research before he opened the shop.
Lucy: I met Jeanne Carpenter, who is involved in the specialty cheese blogging world, through a beer and cheese tasting at the Milwaukee Public Market. I present beer and cheese tastings for fundraisers and all kinds of events, so it was a natural to work with Ken. Jeanne and I presented a class together and then when Bill joined the shop, we worked together.

MBR: What kind of tasting/foodie experience do you find is most represented in her tastings? Hardcore? Casually curious? A good mix?

Bill: Just people who want to have a good time and taste some good food and good beer!  Its always a pretty laid back group, but we welcome people who are hardcore about food and beer!  There are always those kind of folks around the shop.  I'm one myself.
Lucy: I think there are more people who are casually curious and open to tasting. The October 29 event is more playful, based on a theme that's not driven by terroir, or technique, but just the conceptual element of seasonality.

MBR: What can someone attending this tasting hope to get out of it? Do you find people are more interested in the cheese and are surprised about beers? Or do you tend to get beer-knowledgeable people?

Lucy: I find that people are most often open to the experience when they approach the pairings as a way to explore new flavors. Sometimes, people are unfamiliar with a cheese or a beer, and I encourage people to taste in their order of preference. For example, if I know how a beer tastes, I'll sample the cheese first, then the beer, to experience the flavor progression.
Bill: Some of both.  I find that they often go hand-in-hand.  After all, this is Wisconsin.  We have a lot of good beer and a lot of good cheese.  It's hard to be interested in one without being interested in the other.

So, if all of this is making you drool. Head over to Fromagination or give them a call and get signed up for the class!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rowland's Calumet Oktoberfest

It finally happened. It only took 2.5 hours and the pretense of a wedding, but I finally made it back up to Chilton, Wisconsin to visit Rowland's Calumet Brewing Co. for their Oktoberfest. And during Oktoberfest season no less!

Today I'll finally sit down and review the beer for you. But first, even without drinking the beer, the reason why Rowland's is one of the top breweries in the state if not the country or the world: they both care and don't care simultaneously.

Taking the "don't care" part first, what I mean is that they do their own thing - and they are relatively unconcerned with the opinions of others in determining the course of their brewing operations. They have a tried and true operation - if you live within 30 miles of the brewery, or have the wherewithal to truck out there, you can be one of the privileged few to drink it. But, they are not about to compromise quality just to chase down every last person who wants their beer. I had a really interesting discussion with Bonita, wife of the late Bob Rowland, about the state of the Wisconsin craft brewing industry. About the chasing of trends. About the hard work that these "old timers" have put in to lay the groundwork for these new breweries. About not sacrificing quality.

Which all goes to show that they do care about their customers. They are concerned about their customers getting the absolute best beer experience. While I was driving to Chilton from Madison I got a phone call: "Bonita Rowland just called the house to see if you were coming up to pick up the keg." At the time I was about 20 minutes from the bar. When I arrived and introduced myself I was grilled by Bonita on my preparations for keeping the beer chilled - she didn't want the beer sitting out and warming up because it tastes better chilled. Chilling a keg can be a daunting task for the average person, not everyone has large enough vessels to chill a half-barrel keg - to solve the problem she offered me a large plastic tub to keep it in (I didn't need it). She also gave me a CO2 tank and regulator pre-set to serve the beer at optimum carbonation.

But the absolute deal-clincher showed, to me, how Bonita and Rowland's Brewery care about their customers. When the keg was loaded into my car, I stopped back at the bar because I wanted to have a beer before I left. As I sipped on my rye beer (one of the best I've had, by the way) and purchased a growler of the dark to take back to Madison for a friend (he raved about it), we started discussing some of the things I related above. In the course of the conversation it was revealed that I had purchased the keg to serve at my wedding reception being held on my finacee's family farm. As we were talking, Bonita wandered to the back and came back with a bottle champagne that was kindly gifted to my now-wife and me. Completely unnecessary. But, it's how things are done there.

So, if you take the trip to Chilton - and I highly recommend that you do - tell Bonita that Jeff sent you. Have a beer or three, sit back, relax and enjoy some of the finest beers, breweries, brewers and bars in the world.

Rowland's Calumet Brewing Company - Oktoberfest
Appearance: a thin, wispy head on top of a crystal-clear deep amber body; moderate bubbling
Aroma: caramel and bready malts dominate with a slight grassiness on the finish of the aroma; smells of dark honey sweetness
Flavor: strong and caramel, with a fast, clean finish that leaves you waiting for the next sip
Body: medium-light to medium body, firm, with a light mouthfeel and no lasting presence
Drinkability: while firm enough to feel like you are drinking something, I can, unfortunately, drink way too many of these - it is highly sessionable and the up-front, clean sweetness leaves me wanting more and more
Summary: If I were putting together an island top-5, this would be in the top 2 and I'm not really sure what the other one would be (maybe Jolly Pumpkin's La Roja or Bam?)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

There was no show this week, so here is a tasting we did a while back of the classic Belgian ale Saison Dupont.

Here's the mp3

Monday, October 20, 2008

How Do You Know If A $700 Bottle of Wine (or Beer) Is Any Good?

Man, there's just been a lot to talk about lately. Interesting article, here, from England that summarizes what quite a few articles over the past few years have been saying, particularly about wine. The basic gist, and we talked about this a little during the podcast on our Oktoberfest tastings, is that except in the case of a pure blind tasting, your consumption is tainted by any number of factors that may influence whether some consumable (wine, beer, cheese, etc) is "good" or not.

The implication, and sometimes the explicit underpinning, of these articles though, I disagree with - the idea that we can have "taste experts." And the usually associated statement that the experts are fools because even they are fooled in true blind tastings! HAHA! Understand this first though: just because I like something doesn't mean you will. Moreover, just because I like something doesn't mean it is "good" or "the best" in any empirical way. We try to avoid using relative comparators on this site for that exact reason. It's also one of my biggest problems with sites like BeerAdvocate and RateBeer - this idea that one beer can be an "A" and this other can be a "B."

But, what I see as a "taste expert" is not someone, like the stereotypical sommelier, who looks down his nose at the wine list and says " will enjoy this California Pinot Noir, it is the finest pinot on the west coast." That statement really doesn't mean anything. How does he know I will enjoy it? Is it really the finest pinot, or just of the pinots he's tried? or just the pinots that are that particular list? according to whom? according to who's tastes? Just on the West Coast? What about Europe or Australia or South America? These are the kinds of comments that we need to be leary of and ask questions.

What I do see as a "taste expert" is someone who's opinion you trust because they are upfront about their biases, can objectively explain flavor components (the extent such a thing is possible) in an easily understandable manner, and tell you something about the beverage and its maker. In other words, give you all the information possible to allow you to make your own decisions. We try to do this on this site.

Which brings us back, for the second day, to that $700 bottle of wine (or beer). How do you know it is any good? If you buy it and then drink it, you must convince yourself it is good because you can't have thrown away $700 on a bad beverage. If the label is a fancy producer, well, the producer must not have screwed up. If the style is a trendy style, well, you must like the style. But, you're also not likely to buy a $700 bottle and put into a blind tasting with 3 other bottles of varying vintage and quality. As the studies show, there is strong correlation between knowing the price and enjoying the beverage.

But, you are not paying, entirely, for the taste. You are paying for all of the things that we talked about on Monday. You are paying for the fact that someone else will pay for it if you don't. You are paying for the right to be one of a few people on the planet even capable of evaluating its taste. You are paying for the privilege of opening it up for friends and celebrating an occassion with a special bottle.

But price isn't the only factor that influences taste. Labels, or more precisely, names, can affect taste as well. Well so-and-so can't possibly make a bad wine. It's a Pinot Noir, I love pinot noirs. Ohhh...Tomme Arthur brewed this. Ooooo...Mikkel brewed this and he only has one name, so it must be good. Ooooo...this comes from Stone Brewing, it must be good. Or, conversely, Leinies made this, it must suck. I hate anything by Coors. A rauchbier, it must be awful. Knowing the label skews our perceptions, both positively and negatively.

The one we had a problem with in the blind tasting is other peoples taste. One person would say "I think it's X" and all of the sudden all four of us agreed that it must be so. This is particularly true where one person at the table is considered an "expert" in the area. I sat at a dinner table with 15 guys, a few of whom are respected amongst our friends as knowledgeable about wine. And each time wine was poured we waited for their pronouncement before we would chirp in with our agreeance. Group dynamics and peer pressure are very hard to break.

Of course, Timothy Leary recognized that what he called "set and setting" can influence your trip, so to speak. If you're in a bad mood, if you are in a fancy restaurant, if you are celebrating a special occassion, if you have a nagging pain in your foot; all of these things can influence your openness and acceptance of the thing in front of you and your perception of whether that thing is "good" or "bad." Leinenkugel's makes their living on reminding people of their adventures in the Northwoods. The good times people have while drinking a beer gives them a positive association and overall sense of "good" about the beer as well.

Moreover, a lot of this agreeance and persuasion comes from our own internal doubts about our tastes and our knowledge. The wine industry in particular (mostly because the beer industry hasn't picked up on it, for the most part) likes to let consumers think they know a lot, but constantly remind us that there are those out there who always know much, much more. They perpetuate this idea that wine is so complex - that while having a basic grasp is to be lauded, you need to let the experts really separate the wheat from the chaff; heck, even the experts have rankings. And we let it happen because we aren't confident in our tastes and knowledge - we always think, man, if I just knew what Barolo meant. I remember someone saying something about caramel and munich, but what does that mean? Is "double" misspelled on this bock? Well, Michael Jackson liked it so it must be good. Geez, Todd Almstrom thinks this is great and he runs a huge website about beer - it must be good. Man, Capital is known for great German beers, the Autumnal Fire is awesome.

So, how do you know if it's good? Can you afford it? Irrespective of taste, did you enjoy drinking it? Was the taste pleasing? If you answered "Yes" then it was good. That's really all there is to it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

New Glarus Alt Bier

Today's guest post from Matt Lange of Beer Talk Today about New Glarus' new Alt.

There has been a bit of buzz in the Madison beer community surrounding the upcoming New Glarus release, Alt. The description on the New Glarus web site (“this might be more accurately termed a Triple Alt”) is enough to stir up some intrigue. The excitement is not misplaced.

Last week I was down in New Glarus with my co-hosts interviewing Dan and Deb Carey for the Beer Talk Today/Madison Beer Review Podcast. (You’ve listened to it, right?) When we first got to the brewery Dan was in the middle of some kind of intense conversation with New Glarus’s head of quality control and former Ommegang brewmaster Randy Thiel, so Deb showed us around the original brewery for a bit. After sitting down for a formal interview and showing us around the impressive new brewery, Dan asked us what beers we’d had so far. We all shrugged. “What?” Dan said, “you guys haven’t had any beer yet?” We had not.

Dan then went over to a couple of his brewers for advice. “Should I give them H7 or H11?” Dan asked. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but I knew I liked the sound of it.

He then led us to one of the giant fermenters, which we found out was “H7,” and with the help of one of his brewers pulled up a ladder to begin the surprisingly difficult process of giving us a taste of his aging Alt beer. The difference between H7 and H11 was that, while the two are filled with the same wort, H7 is being aged on 250 lbs of oak chips. The two will be blended together in the bottled version of Alt.

So, the version we had was probably a bit more oaky than the final product will be, although the beer was going to stay on the oak for a few more days and likely took out some more oak flavor before being blended back with the rest of the beer. As we had it the oak was very prominent, as well as strong toffee and caramel flavors. It was dry and very drinkable for a beer of about 9 percent abv, the dryness probably due to the use of raw turbinado sugar. The dryness made me think of a Belgian dubbel, and in a way it was much like an oaked dubbel without the pronounced estery Belgian yeast flavor. It had a bit of a noticeable alcohol bite, which Dan said he thought would fade with more aging. “It’s a good thing you guys weren’t here a few days ago,” he told us, “it still tasted like rubbing alcohol.”

Rubbing alcohol it was not, and as it was it was a very fine beer. I’ll be very interested to see how the packaged version tastes after being blended back to reduce the oak flavor and with a bit more time to mellow. And being a bottle conditioned beer, this is one to add to the beer cellar.

The other great thing about this beer is that although it cost a lot for them to make, they are selling it at the normal price point for their six-pack beers as a “Christmas present to our customers.” Well, as far as Christmas presents go, I think I know what I’ll be getting my beer geek friends back in Minnesota.

Matt Lange

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Interview with New Glarus, Part II

The second part of our interview with Dan and Deb Carey of New Glarus brewing company. In this installment we talk about their new Alt beer, the unplugged Imperial Weizen, Bohemian Lager and Berlinner Weiss, their new R and D series, and our thoughts on our time at New Glarus.

Here's the mp3

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How To Sell Beer For $700 A Bottle

7 comments published an article the other day, and, while it's about wine, not beer, I thought it worth looking at because it shows an excellent opportunity for the craft beer industry.

One thing caught my eye: On the day it became clear that Lehman was kaput, the trader pulled a 1997 Barbaresco Santo Stefano out from under his desk, and he and some colleagues proceeded to drink it from paper cups. The producer went unnamed (Santo Stefano is a vineyard), but the story said the wine cost $700. I e-mailed the writer, Gabriel Sherman, who told me the bottle was a double magnum. Piecing together these details, I'm reasonably certain that the Lehmanites were numbing themselves with the 1997 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano. Giacosa is a winemaking god, and reading about the shabby treatment accorded his wine—stored under a desk! drunk from paper cups!—prompted the first real schadenfreude I've felt since Wall Street went on life support.
I'm not the smartest person in the world about wine – in fact, wine has always baffled me. But, my nascent appreciation for beer has brought out some information about wine that I didn't necessarily understand before. Like what the hell this person, Mike Steinberger, is going on about. Ahh…yes…a 1997 Barbaresco Santo Stefano. Fools! Unfortunately none of that makes sense to me, and, really, without Mr. Steinberger's help in the second half of that paragraph I would never know that any details were missing from that. Turns out, it's sort of like saying, in the beer universe, a 1997 Willamette Pale Ale.

I'll get the less interesting part of the article out of the way now: blah, blah, blah; rich people are still making money and drinking expensive wine.

But it's that first paragraph that has me interested. By now you're probably wondering why. Well, if you're anything like me, you wonder why the hell anyone would pay $700 to keep a double magnum (128 ounces) of wine in their desk drawer. There's a few things at work here: first, why is the wine $700 to begin with; second, given the reasons for one, doesn't it make far more sense to keep it on a shelf or displayed so that you can show it to others? I'm relatively unconcerned about the drinking from paper cups part – everyone likes the irony of drinking expensive things in cheap paper cups (although, frankly, I prefer to go the other way, and have been known to drink PBR from a Waterford crystal tulip glass). But the whole scenario reeks of "I'm too good for high quality" elitism, snobbery, and fakery.

But, what I am interested in is the nomenclature of wine. I am far more interested in the reason why bottles sell for $700. In fact, it's fairly safe to say that this Lehman trader probably owns at least two bottles of this particular vintage (which makes me think, if I'm a Lehman Brothers client, that I am paying way too high of a commission to the traders!). And, the answer, as Mr. Steinberger points out, is right on the label. By looking at what these things tell us, we can maybe apply them to the brewing industry to better educate and drive interest to consumers.

  1. 1997 – the vintage date
  2. Barbaresco – the style
  3. Santo Stefano – the vineyard
  4. [Bruno] Giacosa – the vintner
First, the date. The macros have instilled in the beer consumer this idea that consistency is super important; in their world every bottle must be exactly the same or something is wrong – the process has been corrupted. Their processes have become so mechanized that if one bottle is any different from another there is clearly something wrong. Indeed, much of the to-do that the macros make about their "forays" (such as they are) into "craft" beer is that their American ale is "better" because they have a better control of the process and thus every bottle tastes exactly the same; with the concomitant negative implication that "and craft brewers don't." And this is borne out in their marketing when they tell us that their beer is flown in from all over the country to make sure that every single bottle tastes exactly like every other bottle despite the fact that they come from different places within the country, are produced under different brewers, and are being sold to different markets. Market factors aside though, this dogmatic obsession with consistency is a result of the strong-arming of the realities of brewing. Wineries put dates on the bottle because, quite frankly, some years are better than others. 1997 becomes famous as a good year, so any bottle carrying the 1997 imprimatur instantly becomes more "valuable." Well, much like the wine industry, some years for brewing are better than others; in a minute we'll get to some of the agricultural factors that make a slight difference between the industries, but even if it is brewery specific that still makes the date of great import. Note that this doesn't excuse inconsistency in quality it only recognizes that every batch is not going to taste exactly the same. Of course, the macros want you to drink great quantities of their swill in rapid succession, so they perpetuate the myth of "born-on" dates and beer "expiring." The reality is that while some beer is "better" fresh, absent spoilage, the beer doesn't go "bad" it just changes its character over time. Typically you can expect a beer to lose hopiness, meld malt characters, and become a little softer. In a light lager, these are not necessarily beneficial changes. In an imperial stout, or even an IPA, these can completely change the character of the beer and make it infinitely "better." Luckily, putting the date on the bottle accomplishes both tasks simultaneously – it lets you know both if it is fresh and how long it has aged. But, you say, it is not unusual for brewers to brew the same beer multiple times a year; in that case, use batch numbers or some combination like 1997 batch 1, 1997 batch 2, etc. This puts some impetus on the consumer to know that 1997 batch 2 might be great if the bottle you are holding is an imperial stout, but in 2008 it may not bode well for the pilsner. Word of mouth, that 1997 batch 2 is better than 1997 batch 1, will take care of the rest. In this way, in 2008 when said bottles come up in an auction market, the bidders can know that they are bidding on a 1997 batch 3 vintage Rasputin Russian Imperial and adjust their bids accordingly.

Second, style. And, for a single word, the style is very specific. Barbaresco: a red wine produced from the Nebbiolo grape in the Piedmont region of Italy " and specifically in the communes of BarbarescoTreiso and Neive plus that area of the frazione San Rocco Senodelvio which was once part of the commune of Barbaresco and now belongs to the commune of Alba. … The soils of Barbaresco zone are composed primarily of calcareous marl dating from the Tortonian epoch. The area is typically divided into three regions based on the principle town of the area-Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso. The soil and climate of the three areas are very uniform to each other which creates more across the board consistency than what would be found among the 11 communities in the Barolo zone." All of that is said in just one word. What does "Pale Ale" tell us? Or even "Imperial Stout"? Not really a whole lot in contrast. Ah. But what about "Washington Island Wheat" (for those of us here in Wisconsin at least)? We all know intuitively or at least through trial-and-error, that different parts of the country tend to make styles differently and that different areas have different topographies. For instance, we know that the American West Coast tends to make hoppier beers focusing on the cascade hop that grows well there. We know that Midwestern beers, with a few notable exceptions, tend to make more subtle, nuanced, complex beers derived mainly from the lack of availability of hops to this area for many, many years. And to some extent we recognize this with the prefix "American" in front of a style name, as in "American Pale Ale" which designates a more highly hopped pale ale in the West Coast style. But, a Minnesota American Pale Ale is a different beast, or carries a different subtext, from a true West Coast American Pale. We can do our damndest to replicate a Bavarian Dopplebock here in Wisconsin, but I'll be damned if our Midwestern sensibilities don't get in the way. The wine industry has developed different names for similar styles based on the area and technique of production, even similar styles that use the same grapes, but are produced in different places; to wit, Barbaresco and Barollo styles that use the same grapes, with the same techniques, but are produced less than 10 miles from each other and end up with noticeably different wines. The fact is, that while the macros would have you believe that a light lager is a light lager, there is a very big difference between those made in Pilsen and those made in Munich (Helles lager) and those made in the US (pre-prohibition and American/Corn-adjunct light lagers).

Third, vineyard. This is where the history of viticulture and American macro brainwashing make the biggest leap between $10 beer and $700 wine. The beer consumer, even the beer producer, has been led to believe that grain, is grain, is grain. Grain is a commodity. It doesn't matter where it is grown, how it is grown, what the soil conditions were like, how much sun that area got; it all gets mixed together in the end. The high-quality stuff is sent to maltsters like Briess in Chilton, WI; the low-quality stuff is used for livestock feed. Grapes, on the other hand, are treated like each is a mini-god. Each delivering a geographic and cultural story in its shape, and size, and liquid content, and sweetness, and bitterness, and mascerability (is that even a word?), and fermentability, and on, and on, and on. Could you imagine a central grape market where grapes from Wisconsin, grapes from "California" (where in California? Napa? Sonoma? Baja?), grapes from New York, grapes from Washington, were all mixed together, and shipped off to vintners under the names "syrah grapes" or "cabernet grapes"? Can wine connoisseurs even conceive of such a universe? Is that sentence sacrilege? Well, I would argue, the brewing industry, if they want to see $700 bottles of beer, should stop with the commoditization of raw materials. Capital's Island Wheat, and the subsequent non-stop marketing of the fact that the wheat is sourced locally, from Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin, provides an excellent example of how non-commoditization can provide a price premium in the market. Of course, Capital has squandered this goodwill on a cheap golf-cart beer, but the point is valid nonetheless - how much of this mass-market-clone do you think they would sell if consumers had no idea that the wheat came from Washington Island? David Anderson's BrewFarm is a good step in the right direction. Lost Abbey's agreement to use hops from a neighboring hop farm is a good start. But those designations need to end up on labels. And not just "New Zealand hops" but where in New Zealand? We already do this to some extent in the brewing industry: Saaz hops were originally hops grown in a specific area that had a specific character; I think it is fooling yourself if you think that a Saaz rhizome grown in the Czech Republic will produce the exact same flower as a Saaz rhizome in England or a Saaz rhizome in the Yakima Valley. Of course, the fear is that the same rhizome grown in Yakima will somehow end up with an "inferior" reputation to their Czech brethren. But, so what? Chardonnay grapes grown in the Burgundy region of France enjoy a "better" reputation than their Sonoma Valley counterparts put people still buy American Chardonnays – and reasonable arguments can be made that the student has surpassed the master in many regards.

Fourth, vintner. Apparently, Mr. Giacosa is fairly well-regarded. And his winery happens to be named after himself, so separating the man from the apparatus is a bit problematic, but in this case, it doesn't really matter – the name Bruno Giacosa, means quality. But, so do Garret Oliver and Brooklyn Brewery. So do Tomme Arthur and Lost Abbey. So do Ron Jefferies and Jolly Pumpkin. But name alone is worth maybe, what, $20 per bottle? Mr. Arthur's beers sometimes fetch into $100 or $200. But none of these, generally regarded as three of the best brewers in the world, have sold an entire case for $700 per bottle.

To sell a case for $700 per bottle, you need 12 consumers willing to shell out $700 for a bottle. To convince a consumer to spend that much you need to tell him why he is spending that much. He's buying a beer from one of the best brewers in the world (name) made from the finest raw materials available (vineyard) to an exacting style and specification (style) in a year and batch widely regarded as one of the best of the generation (year). Investors aren't idiots (OK, sometimes they are). By providing consumers all of this information comes not only the person who knows all of this and what it means and seeks it out because they want to appreciate the hard work and craftsmanship, but also the jackass snob Lehman Brothers trader who wants to drop that kind of dough because he can and because he thinks it will impress somebody. Unfortunately, it takes both types to sell that $700/bottle case.

As you can see, a lot of factors go into making a $700 bottle of wine: the person who makes it, the place where it comes from, the style, the year. Which makes it all that much more galling when some overpaid snob jackass stores the stuff in a hot metal desk drawer and serves it in paper cups to his moron buddies to celebrate the failure of his own damn company and the impending havoc on the American economic system. What? You ran out of ice to put in the bottom of the cups? No soda water? Bah. I hope you spilled it on your tie.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Interview With New Glarus, Part I

This week we got a chance to go down to beautiful New Glarus Wisconsin and interview Dan and Deb Carey, the brewmaster and owners of New Glarus Brewing Company. In this first installment, we discuss their background, the beginnings of their brewery, Dan's rejection of beer styles, their new brewery, their Octoberfest beer, their fruit beers, our homebrew and long boarding from Madison to New Glarus with a bottle of Raspberry Tart and a box of hard boiled eggs, and spies.

Here's the mp3/


Monday, October 13, 2008

Great American Beer Fest - Wisconsin Edition, Part II

And just like that ... it's over. Awards are handed out, and everyone come on home.

Wisconsin Winners:
American Style Cream Ale or Lager
-- Silver: Hamm's - MillerCoors, Milwaukee, WI
-- Bronze: Henry Weinhard's Blue Boar Pale Ale - MillerCoors, Milwaukee, WI

American Style Hefeweizen
-- Gold: Henry Weinhard's Hefeweizen - MillerCoors, Milwaukee, WI

Gluten Free Beer
-- Silver: New Grist - Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WI

Wood and Bourbon Barrel Aged Strong Beer
-- Gold: Bourbon Barrel Barleywine - Central Waters Brewing Company, Amherst, WI

International-Style Pilsner
-- Bronze: OE 800 - MillerCoors, Milwaukee, WI

American-Style Light Lager
-- Gold: Coors Light - MillerCoors, Milwaukee, WI
-- Bronze: Keystone Light - MillerCoors, Milwaukee, WI
-- [ed note: the silver went to Old Milwaukee]

American-Style Lager
-- Bronze: Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve - MillerCoors, Milwaukee, WI

American-Style Dark Lager
-- Silver: Leinie's Creamy Dark - Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company, Chippewa Falls, WI
-- Bronze: Henry Weinhard's Classic Dark - MillerCoors, Milwaukee, WI

German-Style Strong Bock
-- Gold: Autumnal Fire - Capital Brewery Co., Inc., Middleton, WI

Scottish-Style Ale
-- Silver: Dells Chief Amber Ale - Dells Brewing Company, Wisconsin Dells, WI

German Style Altbier
-- Silver: Railyard Ale - Titletown Brewing Company, Green Bay, WI

Old Ale or Strong Ale
-- Bronze: Old Scratch Barley Wine '99 - Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., Madison, WI

There you have it, your 2008 Great American Beer Fest Winners from Wisconsin. Congratulations to everyone that won. I'll keep my opinions to myself on this one and just leave it at congrats.

I have two comments:
1) What is Henry Weinhard's? Where is it available? I've never heard of it. Have any of you readers ever had any of it?
2) I've got to try the OE 800. Any competition that can give a medal to Old f-in' English is A-OK in my book.

Some notes on perusing the winner's list:
- Anheuser-Busch was Large Brewing Company of the Year despite having gotten bought out this year - guess InBev bought a good brewery, to wit, the item directly below
- Anheuser-Busch swept the American-Style Specialty Lager with the powerhouse lineup of Hurrican High Gravity, Natural Ice, and Busch Ice
- No brewery East of the Mississippi won any of the 'hop' categories - in fact, only Rock Hopera, an Imperial Red Ale, from Vino's Pizza Pub and Brewery in Little Rock, AR was East of Colorado.
- Dogtoberfest from Flying Dog Brewery won Gold in the German-Style Marzen category - this was one of the Oktobers that I had wanted to include in our Oktoberfest tasting, but didn't happen.
- Obscure Style Award: Kellerbier/Zwickelbier - all three medalists are in Texas or New Mexico. I've never even heard of these styles. A kellerbier is "an unfiltered lager, usually strongly flavored with aromatic hops." Zwickelbier is a highly effervescent (carbonated) version of the kellerbier.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Since The Subject Seems To Keep Coming Up Lately

All right, it's time for the boring tax issues. What a great intro, eh? Hey, I know a great way to ensure that no one reads the article! Really? How!? Tell them it's going to be boring and that it's about taxes. But it probably will be boring. Then why are you publishing it, dimwit? Two reasons: first, it's an important issue that affects producers, distributors, and consumers of beer; second, I find it interesting and I get to publish whatever I want. Besides, we haven't done something like this in a long time, so, hey, if you like it great, comment and contribute to the discussion; otherwise, stop bitchin' and find a different website. Sheesh.


There are currently no less than 3 beer-related tax issues to discuss, two of the issues involve the dastardly and beguiling Sparks and Smirnoff Ice and their brethren. The other involves a pending beer-tax related issue here in Wisconsin that might be able to use these other examples to maybe avert the disaster before it hits.

What are you talking about?

On Monday, in a summary post linking to some interesting articles, one of the articles that I linked to was a letter to the Salt Lake City Tribune complaining of the State of Utah's decision to pull flavored malt beverages. While it seems like this lady is referencing Smirnoff's Green Apple Ice drink, her point is somewhat valid. So, what is she complaining about? The state of Utah is concerned that alcohol producers are trying to target kids with super-sweet flavored beverages – sometimes called "alcopop" or "malternatives". The producers, for their part, have decided to use the "cheaper" excise tax alternatives by producing these beverages as fermented malt beverages. Why does that matter? Well, malt beverages (e.g., beer) are taxed at a much lower rate than spirits (aka "distilled liquor"). But, there is some slight-of-hand at work, because these pseudo-"beers" aren't really beer – they use a malt-based beverage (unhopped, highly sugared, super light beer), and add distilled spirits to it.

Although flavored malt beverages are produced at breweries, their method of production differs significantly from the production of other malt beverages and beer. In producing flavored malt beverages, brewers brew a fermented base of beer from malt and other brewing materials. Brewers then treat this base using a variety of processes in order to remove malt beverage character from the base. For example, they remove the color, bitterness, and taste generally associated with beer, ale, porter, stout, and other malt beverages. This leaves a base product to which brewers add various flavors, which typically contain distilled spirits, to achieve the desired taste profile and alcohol level.
While the alcohol content of flavored malt beverages is similar to that of most traditional malt beverages, the alcohol in many of them is derived primarily from the distilled spirits component of the added flavors rather than from fermentation. [cites: CA Board of Equalization via Wikipedia]
Therefore, by being classified as a malt beverage they are taxed at the lower rate. In Wisconsin, producers pay $2.00 per barrel (31 gallons) of beer; on the other hand, distilled spirits are taxed at $.88766 per liter (including administrative fees) or $3.36 per gallon, or $104 per barrel. As you can see, the difference is huge.

The State of Utah has taken a moral absolutist position and banished all flavored malt beverages to liquor stores instead of in the beer-section at the grocery or other beer purchasing locations. [cite: Salt Lake Tribune] "Distributors must file documents with the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, attesting that all alcohol in the flavoring comes exclusively from hops extracts or these products also will be restricted to state liquor stores." The argument being that the flavorings used by alcopop producers contain a tiny amount of alcohol: 22/100 of 1 ounce. [ed note: this number is cited in the article linked above, but on review, it's not entirely clear how much this really is. First of all "22/100" is 22%. Second, while it is 22/100ths of an ounce, in how much flavoring? If you have flavoring that is 22% of one ounce in one ounce of flavoring then that flavoring is 44 proof in-and-of itself!]
Therefore, all of the the alcohol contained in the malt-beverage is not derived from the malt fermentation process, but is actually supplemented by distilled spirits. These flavor extracts are relatively common, not only in these "alcopops" but also in "beers" like Miller Chill and Bud Light Lime; though beer such as New Glarus' Belgian Red use fruit bases instead of these flavorings. Beer that uses "real" fruit, or rather uses flavorings that do not contain alcohol themselves, are still presumably OK under the new law. It is this discrepancy that the letter to the editor linked above referenced (i.e., why can I drink this brewery's pumpkin beer, but not this green apple beer? answer: one is brewed with real pumpkins, the other is flavored with an alcoholic flavoring syrup). But, the law is written fairly broadly leaving producers to wonder exactly what is and is not allowed under the law. And, in any event, complying with the regulations of one state, for example, filing the necessary certifications means that out-of-state producers will simply not distribute there.

The State of California has taken a similar approach, but stopped short of an exile. California has instituted a presumption that all malt beverages (note: this even includes regular ol' beer!) are distilled spirits and will be taxed at the spirits rates. As a producer you must prove to the State that you do not use distilled spirits in your beverage before it will be classified as beer. "The state [of California] already has over 100 pages of a single-spaced list of brewers who've 'proven' that their beer." Again, given the difficulty of complying with state-by-state differences many breweries are simply choosing not to distribute in California. Maryland was considering a similar initiative.

With all of the producers pulling their product, what is the net effect? Yep. You guessed it: $0 of tax revenue instead of the malt-based tax rate.

For now, WI State Rep. Theresa Berceau's plan is simply to raise the excise tax on beer. Her plan would raise the excise tax from $2.00 per barrel to about $2.46 per barrel – it would add about $.15 to the cost of a six-pack. But it is important to keep an eye on these other developments, since, as we can see there might be a temptation to follow in their footsteps.
I'm not necessarily opposed to the non-existence of Smirnoff Ice and Sparks and Miller Chill, but should we legislate it? No. Just don't buy the crap. But, I'm also not thrilled with the latent dishonesty of calling these "malt beverages" either. It gives beer a bad name. It would be like calling Woodchuck Apple Cider "wine." Is it technically? Yes. It is fruit-based (as opposed to grain-based) fermented beverage. But, come on, we all know what the real deal is.
The harder question is how do your write a law that makes the distinction between "beer" and "alcopop"? Well, one answer is drop any distinction between beer, wine, alcopop, etc. and just tax everything by alcohol content irregardless of how the alcohol is derived. The more total amount of alcohol in the package, the higher the payment of tax. So, say the tax is $.10 per ounce of alcohol. Your beer contains .72 ounces of alcohol (6% ABV)? Fine. You pay tax times .72 or $.072 per bottle of beer. Your wine contains 3.6 ounces of alcohol (17% of a 750ml bottle)? You pay tax times 3.6 or $.36 per bottle of wine. Your can of alcopop contains .9 ounces of alcohol? You pay $.09 per can. Of course, this type of taxation ignores the public policy reasons behind, for example, Utah's ban. But, is the tax code really an appropriate place to express public policy? Unfortunately, the commerce clause of the Constitution prevents states from explicitly banning one producer over another for no reason other than that we don't like the product. But, if there is something else, such as targeted advertising, targeted distribution, or flat-out fraud, then it seems maybe that consumer or child protection laws might be the better place to enact this public policy.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

We continue this week with our blind Oktoberfest tasting.

We had some technical difficulties. Not included on the audio but consumed:
7) Weihenstephaner
8) August Schell
On the audio:

9) Capital
10) Tyranena
11) Berghoff
12) Central Waters
13) Hacker-Pschorr

Here's the mp3

ps. If you know anything about the Hacker-Pschorr, please comment.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Great American Beer Fest - Wisconsin Edition

The Great American Beer Fest, the premier beer tasting and judging event in the United States starts on October 9th. Last year, Wisconsin did pretty well; Capital, Leinie's, Lakefront, Miller, New Glarus and Sprecher all won awards.

This year the following Wisconsin breweries are making the trip to Denver:

Miller, Milwaukee, WI
Red Eye Brewing Company, Wausau, WI
Capital Brewery Company, Inc., Middleton, WI
Central Waters Brewing Company, Pro-Am Competition, Amherst, WI
       From the GABF's website: "The GABF Pro-Am entries are brewed by professional craft brewers based on award winning homebrew recipes from American Homebrewers Association (AHA) members. Homebrew recipes are scaled up and brewed at a craft brewery for submission into the competition. ... The medals for the GABF Pro-Am competition do not count toward the Brewery or Brewpub of the Year award."
New Glarus Brewing Company, New Glarus, WI
Northwoods Brewing Corp LLC, Eau Claire, WI
Titletown Brewing Company, Green Bay, WI
Dells Brewing Company, Wisconsin Dells, WI
Fox River Brewing Company, Oshkosh, WI
Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., Madison, WI
The Grumpy Troll Restaurant and Brewery, Mount Horeb, WI
Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., Chippewa Falls, WI
Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WI

From GABF: "The following breweries are submitting beer to the Great American Beer Festival competition, but they will not be available for attendees to sample."
Milwaukee Brewing Company, Milwaukee, WI (Judge Only)
Stevens Point Brewery, Stevens Point, WI (Judge Only)
Stone Cellar Brewpub, Appleton, WI (Judge Only)
Water Street Brewery, Milwaukee, WI (Judge Only)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Oktoberfest! Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

Here's first part of our Oktoberfest show, featuring some history and a blind tasing of Oktoberfest beers with our expert panel, including special guest Jeff Glazer. Included in the first half of the tasting are: 

1. Bells 
2. Spaten 
3. Paulaner 
4. New Glarus 
5. Leinenkugel  
6. Great Lakes 
Feel free to play along at home!

Here's the mp3

Monday, October 6, 2008

I Figured I’ve Give These To You Now

... that way you have all week to read these articles.

Sorry, it was a bit of hectic weekend. By the time this post hits the airwaves, it will officially be 12 days and 3 hours to the moment of Reckoning, so instead of writing a really good article about beer that leaves you thinking about the complexity, profundity, and whimsicality of the neo-malt-fermentation movement in the geographical region North of Illinois, East of Minnesota, and South of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I will instead just link to a bunch of good articles that others have written that you should read.

Beer at Joe's: A quasi-review of New Glarus' Berliner Weiss (guess what? He likes it. Sorry to ruin the article.)
Brew Lounge: A review of one of my favorite places on the planet – La Cav du Vin in Cleveland Heights, OH. Too bad he couldn't stay longer, they have an interesting set-up there – if any of you reading this ever run into me, remind me to tell you about it, because I think their system would work really well here in Madison. Heck, if any of you reading this have any money that you want to give me so I can start La Cav du Vin Ouest, I think you'd make your money back fairly quickly.
STL Hops: An interesting idea – comment in the, well, comments, if you're interested in taking the MBR show on the road and doing a monthly meetup.
Seen Through A Glass: Lew Bryson and the NYTimes beat Madison Beer Review to the Oktoberfest Blind-Tasting Thing. More on this tomorrow (it's a Beer Talk Today thing), but let me tell you , you want, you need, to download tomorrow and Thursday's Beer Talk Today episode. Just please do not sue me when you bust your gut laughing so hard.
Hoosier Beer Geek: Lambics. 'Nuf said.
Andy Crouch's Beer Scribe: Andy talks about some Belgian-Brazilian company or something that bought this American brewery?
Vinography: Yeah, I know, not about beer, but it's a really good blog that has really interesting things to say about the wine industry that maybe the beer industry should take to heart. Things like, you know, counterfeiters.

And from the Only-In-Utah department, we have the latest in dumb: the state of Utah has effectively banned the sale of flavored malt beverages as of October 1. Anyone from Utah have more information about this? I'm going to have to hunt down some more information on this, since, well, it's stupid.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hey Barkeep! What's All The Festin' About?

We take for granted this period of time in late-summer and early-fall that we call "Oktoberfest"; or, as the Americans call it "Octoberfest." During this time breweries are releasing a style of beer called an "Ok(c)toberfest" or even just "fest." There are beer fests held, often under the name Oktoberfest Celebration. It seems to be a celebration of Germanic Heritage, or at least there appears to be relation to German culture and heritage.

The question seems to be, what are we celebrating? While Oktoberfest initially held a very specific meaning, I think now it serves to celebrate two things: 1) Germanic heritage and culture and all of the great contributions that Germans have made to world history and culture; 2) fall harvest.

Taking the second of these celebrations first, we have a long history in the United States, having grown from an agricultural base - particularly here in the Midwest - of celebrating the end of significant periods of agricultural work. Fieldwork is hard and planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall give reason to celebrate the ending of that toil. Throughout August and September the fields are alive with large metal water-spiders raking, combining, picking, and tilling the amber waves of grain.

These harvest times have always and inextricably been linked with beer. It just so happens that if you harvest grain, malt it, brew a beer and let it age for a period, it just so happens to be ready by the planting period the next Spring Hence, we get Maibocks and other hearty early-spring releases. If you harvest early grain (winter grains), malt it, roast it a bit to develop flavors, use yeasts that can tolerate slightly warmer temperatures, and throw it in a dark cool basement for a few weeks, it is ready right around the fall harvest. Hence we get marzens (German farmhouse beers), saisons (Belgian farmhouse beers) and biere de garde (French farmhouse beers). Beers whose origins are in agriculture and whose releases coincide with the celebration of the hard work that the field laborers have put in.

The popularity and commercialization of the German festival that is called Oktoberfest, has helped to blend these celebrations into one. While its own purposes have been long-since been abandoned, it is today a celebration of Germanic heritage and culture.

The first Oktoberfest celebration was actually a two-weekend celebration of the marriage of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The first weekend, October 12, 1810 was the wedding; the second weekend, October 17, 1810, was a horse race. Each subsequent year was an anniversary celebration; though in 1812 the celebration was cancelled due to the Napoleanic Wars. In 1819, the city of Munich assumed control of the festival and has held the festival every single year since. The Oktoberfest Parade began in 1835 to commemorate the wedding; the parade marchers all wear traditional costumes and clothing. This year, 2008, is the 175th Oktoberfest Celebration.

Interestingly, there doesn't seem to be any real political significance for the marriage - the celebration was held simply because Prince Ludwig was a partyin' kind of guy. Over the years, this celebration has become more about Germanic History and Culture through the lens of Bavaria. This tradition includes beer, which was a staple of the Bavarian diet. Many of the finest and oldest breweries in the world are in Bavaria and the costumes of Oktoberfest, lederhosen and dirndl, are tied to the servant history of the region.

In America, particularly in the Bavarian-like region of the Midwest, we use the Oktoberfest moniker to celebrate both the Germanic heritage that many of us share, and the harvests that our farmers reap for us. Of course, it often seems that we just use it as an excuse to drink; but, frankly, I like to think that we never really need an excuse to drink - we can drink for any reason at all - and instead we use these celebrations to take a day to reflect on our heritage and those that have provided much of the raw materials that comprise the food and drink that we consume.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

Beer Talk Today

Part Two of our interview with Jolly Pumpkin Brewmater/owner Ron Jeffries, including insights on specific beers and his first foray into pumpkin beer.

Here's the mp3


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sometimes You Stumble Across Things That You Don't Expect

At the last minute, I ended up getting to attend a beer trade show. It's one of those fun little "hazards of the job." I got asked to help pour for an importer who is distributed through Beechwood/Specialty Beer in Milwaukee. I was able to attend last year and it was pure beer bacchanalia - lots and lots of samples; this year I had to drive so I had to seriously watch what I was drinking. Therefore, I had to be very picky about which beers I tried: Malheur, Drei Fonteinen, and of course some awesome Aecht Schlenkerla.

But, of all things, the hit of the evening was a beer from a brewery that no one had ever heard of: Saint Somewhere. No one had ever heard of this brewery because it is a tiny producer in Tarpon Springs, Florida and the importer is more well-known for its Belgian fare. The brewery started up only a few years ago and its availability is really limited right now as the brewery is struggling to meet demand.

Yet, I spoke with a number of retailers, bars and beer geeks who instantly fell in love with the Saison Athene. While typical of the style in its moderate lightness and supreme drinkability, it has a bold spicing that makes it assertive without being over the top. It would be a perfect compliment to just about any meal and is well-positioned both as a complex beer-geek-drool inducer, but also as an easily approachable brew. Saint Somewhere's other offering, the Lectio Devina, was also well-received. A darker Belgian ale, it had a nice earthy, fruit complexity reminiscent of a dubbel. Look for these beers to start showing up in the area and bringing some more solid Belgian styling.

I will admit that while I like both of the Saint Somewhere beers, I am looking forward to seeing HaandBryggeriet's Haandbakk Sour Ale available anywhere I can get it. "Amazing", sour, insanely dry, malty, acetic, doesn't even begin to explain what going on this bottle.