Friday, February 27, 2009

Some Friday Afternoon Fun

Two things:

First, there is less than one day left to vote for Best Brewpub 2008. So, make sure you pick one on the left over there <-----

Second, for your amusement: Defective Yeti, seriously one of the funniest, smartest, sites on these here internets, had an evening much like mine last night. Mr. Baldwin has been able to reverse-engineer his following evening's BAC by the items he's wearing when he wakes up.

Mining Michael Jackson

Here's an article that I had just saved for a rainy day. Sorry, I was out a little late last night; damned Black Albert (and Don de Dieu; and Capital Amber).

As a nascent beer writer, and a lover of beer in general, the master is, of course, Michael Jackson. So, I love going back through his library of articles and reading what he had to say. As I was perusing the list, one title jumped out at me: "The Glass of '93 Blossoms Early." Based on the title, I had no idea what it would be about, but I graduated high school in 1993, so I thought I'd click through (funny how the mind works, eh?).

What I discovered is what may be the first article ever written about what we now call "Fresh Hop" beers and what Mr. Jackson called "Green Hop" beers. I wanted to point some things out that I thought were interesting, 15 years later.

"Their farm, with medieval looking buildings, is hidden behind hawthorn hedges at Risbury, north of Hereford and west of Worcester, England. They grow Goldings, a classically English variety of hop, and they also cultivate some extremely traditional sub-strains."
Knowing how the article ends, I think it is awesome that these fresh-hop beers were made with Goldings. The Golding is a mild, traditional hop with an Alpha Acid somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.5% to 5.0. Brewers today couldn't be bothered.

"Trevor Holmes, head brewer at Wadworth, of Devizes in Wiltshire, was inspecting the harvest a year or two ago when he began to wonder how beer would taste if it were aromatised with hops fresh off the vine. Most working brewers love hops, and would use far more in their beer if they, or their marketing colleagues, were not worried about frightening the drinker with the flower's assertive aromas and flavours."
I love that brewers were concerned about frightening drinkers with too much hops. But there's another point here too - the Golding is so mild all they really considered was its "aromatizing" impact; there doesn't appear to be any concern for the bittering that it would impart!

"Because hops are a condiment, less than a pound of them are used in a barrel of beer."
Pay attention folks. Hops are a condiment. Less than one pound in a barrel of beer. Ha! Americans, for our IPAs, use over seven pounds per barrel.

"I can think of only one other brewery that has tried making such a 'biere nouvelle,' and that is in the far West of the United States."
This would be Sierra Nevada. I love the "biere nouvelle" - literally "new beer" or "young beer" - the Fresh Hop style, at least as made by this particular English brewery, also used malts made from winter barley which would first be available in late summer.

"The possibility of hazy beer is only one of the difficulties encountered when working with newly harvested barley and hops."
This is something that modern brewers don't seem terribly concerned about. Some at MBR HQ call this beer with "floaty bits" and it almost seems like a badge of authenticity - of rusticness. But in 1993 haziness was very definitely not a desirable trait.

"There was the lightest touch of malty sweetness to start; then a surge of cleansing, refreshing, resiny, almost orange-zest flavours; and, finally, an astonishingly late, long finish of fresh, appetite-arousing bitterness."
Or, in the case of American Fresh Hop beers: "bitter; very, very bitter; seems to be lacking any malt at all actually - faint sweetness pokes out, but the peppery bitterness is overwhelming; after the first shock, some of the citrus juiciness pokes through and provides a pleasant diversion from the mouthpuckering tartness."

By the way, where the English green hop ale was a paltry 4.5% ABV, the Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale kicks in at 6.5% ABV.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

OK, turns out we got on after all.

In part two of this week's podcast, we debate our five favorite beers and discuss the pros and cons of best beer lists.

Here's the mp3


Press Release Thursday: Black Albert at Brasserie V

I didn't get a "press release" because I'm having problems with Brasserie V's email newsletter thing. But trust me, they sent out a newsletter.

Struisse's Black Albert (RB. 100) is going on tap tonight (Thursday, February 26th) at Brasserie V on Monroe St. Be there or be square. MBR and Beer Talk Today will both be in attendance, though our schedule is still up in the air right now.

You can tune in to the MBR Twitter Feed for more updates or, you can just go there without us. Either way, get to Brasserie tonight before one of the best Russian Imperial Stouts on the planet goes away (oh. and at least on Tuesday they had Oskar Blues' Ten Fidy on tap, which makes two of the world's best Russian Imperial Stouts on tap.)

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

Or not. Sorry folks, no podcast today. The move to the new studio is making the schedule and technology all screwy.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Instead of Raising Taxes On Alcohol


I've talked about this here before, under the watchful eye of Madison Rep. Teresa Berceau (and current, though presumptively not perpetual, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk) there is a strong push here in Madison to raise beer taxes. The reason given for wanting to raise taxes is much like the excuse given by the Oregon legislature – alcohol places a heavy tax on society because of the financial burden on the health care and law enforcement agencies. They argue that a raise in taxes could help to fund health care for alcohol-related physical and mental health issues, and would help pay for more cops and district attorneys to prosecute DUI cases. The case for taxing beer specifically is rather strained, but basically boils down to: everyone drinks a lot of beer.

I'm not going to talk about that today. Well, sort of. This post came about rather interestingly. I was trawling some beer-industry sites and I noticed a note from October about a Utah Supreme Court case that contrasted with a New Jersey case over what constitutes "visibly intoxicated" such that the state's Dram Shop Act would impose liability on the tavern owner (and servers) for serving someone who eventually causes physical harm (usually car accidents, but it would also include injuries related to bar fights, etc.). The New Jersey case, a trial court case, held that tavern owners could be held liable for damage "even if the driver did not consume alcohol in the bar or appear intoxicated." The Utah Supreme Court held, however, there must be "objective facts indicating a reasonable likelihood of endangerment based on the particular circumstances." These are two opposite ends of the spectrum.

The general rule of law in every state in the United States, including here in Wisconsin, is that tavern owners (or social hosts, or really, anyone serving alcohol to another person) are not liable for serving drinks to people who then go out and cause damage. It's a simple rule that has its basic roots in proximate cause – or the idea that the tavern owner would never serve drinks if they knew that the victim of anyone they serve drinks to who then caused damage could sue them for serving the liquor that may, or may not, have contributed to the problem in the first place.

Most states also have an exception to this general rule. The gist of the exception generally goes something like this: the person who subsequently left the bar and got in a traffic accident that caused injury was so obviously wasted when he left that you, the tavern owner/server/social host, should have known he was drunk and prevented him from getting behind the wheel. This is called a Dram Shop Act. And this is where the dispute between New Jersey and Utah rears its head. New Jersey, like Illinois, has a very broad Dram Shop Act; Utah, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin all have very narrow Dram Shop Acts.

For example, as discussed above, apparently New Jersey will impose liability on a tavern owner even where it wasn't the driver who was visibly intoxicated! In that case, it was the passenger who was visibly intoxicated, which then triggered a duty for further investigation by the tavern owner to prevent the passenger from driving home. The argument in that case is, that while the driver wasn't visibly intoxicated and had, in fact, been drinking soda at this particular bar(!), investigation of the passenger would have revealed that the driver was intoxicated also and the bar should have prevented either of them from driving. If that sounds rather strained to you, well, it seems a bit strained to me, too – and it is quite strict and abnormal.

On the other hand, in Utah, the plaintiff (generally the victim or alcohol board seeking to impose liability on the defendant tavern owner), must prove that not only was the person "visibly intoxicated", but must also "demonstrate proof of potential danger either to the [driver] himself or to others. … The proof of potential danger requirement has been met in cases where the individual was walking down the middle of a street, buying tire chains and indicating an intent to drive, arguing in the middle of the street and resisting arrest, and sleeping in a car in front of a lounge, presenting the likelihood that the individual would wake up and drive home. But it was not met where the individual was in a private driveway leaning on the back of a vehicle." In other words, the victim must prove not just that the tavern owner noticed that the person was "visibly intoxicated" but also witnessed some event (such as grabbing car keys) that would indicate potential danger.

Clearly then, Utah presents a stronger standard of proof for imposing liability on the tavern owner than that of New Jersey. New Jersey requires the tavern owner to undertake positive duties to investigate whereas Utah requires the plaintiff to prove that not only was the driver visibly intoxicated, but that the tavern owner knew this and the tavern owner saw the driver grab car keys or undertake some action that would indicate potential danger.

Both of these standards are more lenient than Wisconsin's statute which only imposes liability on a tavern owner/social host if the driver is underage and the tavern-owner wasn't given a fake ID!

So, what does all of this have to do with taxes? Well let's first take as a given that imposition of Dram Shop liability on tavern owners would increase the awareness of tavern proprietors on the drunkenness of their patrons (I readily admit that this is not something that we should probably take for granted, but raising the discussion would draw out the statistics and this post is already long enough). The Dram Shop Act would impose a legal duty on the proprietors to prevent said adult drunks from driving. Before you say "but the tavern owner can't keep the drunk there against his will" these laws typically have funding for taxi/ride provisions that the tavern can call a taxi and the ride is paid for if the patron can't afford it. Moreover, if the drunk is belligerent and refuses the cab, the tavern can, and should, call the cops.

By imposing liability on the tavern owners we help to diminish the incidence of drunk driving; particularly by the worst offenders. But, apparently, for all of the talk of reducing drunk driving, Wisconsin is not interested in actually reducing drunk driving, we're merely content to fund the problems that are a consequence of drunk driving. So, we don't set up any deterrence to drunk driving: we don't allow random traffic stops or have a reasonable Dram Shop Act.

We would rather tax the alcohol industry to pay for the hospital bills of the victim than prevent the occurrence of victims in the first place. The Tavern League is one of the most powerful lobbies in this state, they will not roll over and just allow the imposition of a Dram Shop Act. But there are a number of things that can be done that would still help, would still impose some Dram Shop liability, but could ameliorate the burden on the tavern owner. For instance, the legislature could impose requirements like Utah's that require a stiff burden of proof by plaintiffs. The legislature could do what Illinois does and cap liability. But, the state can't simply pay lip service to reducing drunk driving, and then kowtow to the lobbyists looking to place blame, or the financial burden, elsewhere.

Is the Dram Shop Act ideal? No. It's not. But tavern owners are situated to spot problem drunks and to continue to serve them even after they are obviously inebriated is careless at best, and negligent at worst – and to let the tavern owners hide behind an outdated legal shield is endangering our roads. Heck, remove the immunity and require proof of causation; it need not be absolute liability, but it needs to be something. The populace will not take drunk driving seriously until the state does.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

On the first part of this week's podcast we do news in 60 seconds, including new costco beer, Kid Rock's new beer, and Oregon's big new tax proposal. Also, our new segment "Kyle's Editorial" is about soda this week.

The embed html function doesn't seem to be working, so here is the mp3.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Is There A Craft Beer Culture?

Some day when I'm feeling more verbose and intellectual, I want to write about the culture of craft beer. I'm a believer that there are certain tenets, underpinnings, commonalities, in the craft beer lifestyle.

Is "lifestyle" the same as "culture"? Where does "community" fit into all of this? Is there a craft beer lifestyle within the community such that it comprises a culture?

I wish I were a sociologist. I could evaluate all of the craft beer drinkers out there. But even there, would you need separate genus within the species of craft beer drinkers? Industry, homebrewers, everyone else? Or all they one and the same? Or, instead organization by activity, we could organize by personal preferences: imperialistas, the reinheitsgebot nazis, sessionarians, and the caskdorks. We could organize by status: low-income, mid-income, high-income; or, thought of a little differently, by price: low-price, high-price, mid-price. Heck, we could organize by website: BeerAdvocate or RateBeer? Or, maybe there's commonality amongst package sizes: 4/6-packs, 22/750, cans, growlers.

Which raises another interesting point. Where do brewpubs fall? There are folks out there that are completely loyal to a brewpub, or even brewpubs in general, but could care less about craft beer at home. Are brewpubs part of the craft beer lifestyle/culture? Is it an inclusive sub-culture?

I only ask because I spent all day brewing my first all-grain batch of homebrew (a Dortmunder Export that ended up with a way lower OG than expected, we'll see how it ferments out - I was planning on 5.5% ABV, but it's looking more like 4.5-4.75% or so, which is still fine). During the course of brewing, I discovered some bottles lying around: Stevens Point Original, a City Golden Leaf Wheat Ale, a New Glarus Alt, and a New Glarus Bohemian Lager. And, I realized that this really runs the gamut from cheap "craft" (the City) to mid-level (Point) to high-end (the NG). And, I got to wondering whether other craft beer folks out there run this gamut or whether we tend to compartmentalize more? I find when I'm at home, I tend to the more "high end" but when I'm out at a bar, I may go for lower or mid-range stuff.

Just spent the day wonderin' and thought I'd share.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hey Barkeep! What Celebrity Would You Use For Your Beer?


This Hey Barkeep! is a bit of a departure from what we normally do. Typically, we take a question that seems silly or basic on its face and show how its answer can actually be quite nuanced and technical. It’s quite fun and hopefully everyone learns a little in the process. Today is not that. Today is that drunken conversation at 1:30 am when you’ve been drinking at Monroe Street Bistro since 9pm, you’re on your seventh beer, ended up spending about 5 beers too long there, and Joseph is prattling on about his kittens or somesuch nonsense. Your buddy is next to you telling you about his girlfriend who dumped him for another chick, for the eighteenth time that evening.

And you suddenly remember: “Some brewery in Michigan named their beer after Kid Rock this week. How much fuckin’ bullshit is that!?” Then you remember that a few months back Jessica Simpson got into the beer game with a brewery in Texas. So, you yell out in a voice probably much too loudly: “HEY! If yooooo were a broooory and you wahnted to use a Wisconsin selllebrity, who would you choooose?”

Of course, the most immediate choice might be Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth. But that might be too specific if you weren’t necessarily targeting the NASCAR crowd. Sticking with sports, there’s Burlington’s favorite son Tony Romo or basketball god Bo Ryan. Or, dare I say it, Brett Favre? Huh? How great would it be if Titletown Brewery had a Brett Beer? But sports stars are tricky beasts, their celebrity is specific and very few professional organizations (NASCAR excepted) want their athletes and coaches so directly associated with alcohol; it’s just unseemly, you know?

Maybe music’s your thing. Viroqua native Bryan David Vigorson is a good place to start (“Vig Wit”?). Or, maybe you want something a little closer to, say, Kid Rock but, well, not quite as much white trash; if so, Juiceboxxx is your man (Stonefly Juiceboxxx Kriek?).

There’s Oregon pilot Jeff Skiles, who helped to land Chesley Sullenberger, III’s Airbus A-320 in the Hudson River. In a few years’ time the name might be obscure, but the legend will live on and it will always make for a great story. The story might be better if your brewery were actually in Oregon. Which it’s not.

Then there’s the historical figures. John Nolen here in Madison, Frank Lloyd Wright in Spring Green, or Solomon Juneau, Byron Kilbourn or George Walker over in Milwaukee. There’s political folks like Robert La Follette and Joe McCarthy.

There’s authors like Stephen Ambrose, who wrote Eisenhower’s and Nixon’s biographies. UW academic and Pulitzer Prize winner Merle Curti. And, if that’s not obscure enough for you, there’s Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and Portage native Zona Gale.

Or, you could just name your beer after one of the most influential people in Wisconsin’s brewing history: Captain Frederick Pabst.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

A short podcast this week because of last weeks technical difficulties, we taste New Belgium's Tripel Belgian Style Ale. Was it a memorable drinking experience? What are the finer distinctions between Tripel and Triple? Listen to see:

Here's the mp3


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This Beer’s Got Style - Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron


Yeah, a lame title to be sure, but is style even relevant anymore? I mean, to the extent that a brewery undertakes to brew a particular style, we should probably acknowledge that. But, at what point does a style designation cease to even mean anything? Yes, we can say that a Pilsner is a light, lean lager made with soft water and, generally, Saaz hops. But what is a light, lean lager made with hard water and Saaz hops? What about a dark, lean lager made with soft water and Saaz hops (dunkelpils anyone? mmm … can someone make that beer for me please?!?)? What about a light, lean lager made with soft water and Cascade hops? You get the idea.

Should the designation "Imperial Pilsner" even exist? Sure, to the extent that it is descriptive, it provides a useful function; it tells you that the beer is like a Pilsner, except that it isn't lean, and probably has a lot of Saaz hops. But, really, when does it stop being a Pilsner and become a maibock? Or a blonde dopplebock?

Which brings us to today's beer: Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron. I have a love-hate relationship with Dogfish Head; some I love (120, Midas Touch), some I hate (punkin', aprihop). And DFH's approach to brewing has been well-documented. I have no qualms with DFH and the way they approach the brewing process; in fact, I encourage it. The bigger problem is how do you fund this type of brewing? It seems that charging premium prices for a love-it-or-hate-it brand simply results in people not buying it until a general consensus forms about the beer, generally from fanboys of said brewery – in which case, you run into the "groupthink" problem. So, there needs to be a way to sample at a low price; thankfully, many retailers pull out singles of DFH beers, but not all do – which means I need to spend $7-15 on a 4-pack (or 6-pack) to find out if I even want one.

Alright. What does all of this have to do with the Imperial Pilsner problem I was talking about? Well, we use "styles" to cue to consumers what to expect in the bottle. So, by calling my beer an "Imperial Pilsner" I'm cueing to the consumer that my beer is like a Pilsner, but it's "bigger". We'll leave "bigger" undefined since there doesn't really seem to be any real industry standard for what "Imperial" means other than "bigger". However, there is a disconnect because the "style" 'Imperial Pilsner' doesn't mean anything – and in fact makes not only zero sense at technical level, it makes negative sense. The whole purpose of a Pilsner is that it is a light, refreshing beer; by making it 'Imperial' you destroy its entire purpose. So, we see that stylistic conventions have cropped up over centuries of use to denote not only characteristics of the beer, but also the function of a beer. If you make a light lager that is "bigger" we, traditionally, call that a Maibock (though, to be fair, that implies a spring release). But we can also call it a "blonde doppelbock". Heck even "Weiss Bock" or "weisbock" if it contains wheat. So, really, might "Pilsbock" be a more precise designation? We can quibble over extreme technicalities in the brewing process; but the sheer fact that New Glarus released a proper pilsner as its Unplugged should be an indication about whether the things we generally think of as pilsners abide to proper convention in the first place.

So, again, circularly, what does this have to do with Dogfish Head and the Palo Santo Marron? Well, I'm glad we've finally gotten around to it. The front of the label identifies it as "Malt Beverage Aged on Palo Santo Wood." To most people this doesn't really mean anything, unless you happen to know what Palo Santo Wood is. That story is beyond the scope of this article, but the New Yorker article I linked to above covers it in some detail. In fact, the fact that we don't know what Palo Santo Wood is makes the point even better, because it forces the consumer to seek additional information. On the bottom of the label we see "12% ABV" which is, obviously, pretty high. On the side we see the following text:

An unfiltered, unfettered, unprecedented Brown Ale aged in handmade wooden brewing vessels. The caramel and vanilla complexity unique to this ale comes from the exotic Paraguayan Palo Santo wood from which these tanks were crafted. At 10,000 gallons each, these are the largest wooden brewing vessels built in America since before Prohibition. It's all very exciting. We have wood. No you do too.

Ignoring the "marketing speak", and just purely looking for cues as to whether you'd want to purchase this beer or not, there is some stylistic guidance:
Brown Ale. Conveniently in big letters and bolded. That gives me a style to wrap my head around. I know what a brown ale is. Sometimes nutty, sometimes caramel-y, sometimes roasty, and low-hopped; it is a lean to medium-bodied, sessionable ale popular in the fall and winter. It's typically from 3-6%ABV.
12% ABV. Well, this seems to contradict "Brown Ale" somewhat, so I'm pretty confused again. I'm starting to think maybe it's more of a porter, or stout ("big" brown ales)
Vanilla and Caramel. OK, tasting notes. I get the idea.

Yet, really, the only thing that the beer in this bottle shares with a "brown ale" is a slight roastiness, the color brown (sort of), and the use of ale yeast. A commenter on our post about the New Glarus Alt made some interesting statements: "What's in a name, you might ask, but I'd respond by asking what happens when someone who isn't really familiar with Altbier tastes this, and reading numerous rave reviews, accepts it as what an ideal Alt should be? When presented with the real stuff, not only will this person not get it, they won't even understand what it is that they're supposed to get. … I'd argue that the whole concept of 'style' as it's typically used is fundamentally misguided, but if you're going to use terms with very clear, historically established meanings to describe your beer then don't make it completely unrecognizable to anyone who's actually familiar with these terms." While I gave New Glarus' Alt a pass, primarily based on what a different commenter had noted: "From an online article at the german beer institute website 'many Altbier makers have now revived the Sticke tradition, by making a deliberate 'mistake' occasionally as a surprise. They let their brewmasters 'loose' to give them a chance to play with their ingredients and create a free-style, strong Altbier.'" Though one does have to consider that this 'mistake' theory presupposes a "regular" altbier exists in the first place – in this case, it does not. Moreover, as it has subsequently come to my attention, even the Sticke tradition is generally not as "loose" with the style; as evidenced by the German Beer Institute's definitions: "[Sticke Alt's] typical alcohol level by volume is about 5.5%—sometimes higher—compared to the 4.7 to 4.8% of a regular Altbier. The Uerige brewpub also makes an even stronger Sticke, called a Doppelsticke, at about 8.5% alcohol by volume."

So, perhaps "Doppelsticke" might have been more appropriate; but if New Glarus had stuck that on a label no one would have any idea of what is in the bottle. Though, as our commenter pointed out, by labeling it "Alt" it's still true that no one has any idea what is in the bottle. In the case of this "brown ale", perhaps "Imperial Brown Ale" would have been closer, but really, why bother? Why not just add some more descriptive terms to the side and be done with it rather than shoehorn a beer into a style that doesn't do the beer any justice?

Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron

Appearance: dark, dark brown with ruby tints on the edges; a light, brown-ish head
Aroma: vanilla and coffee with a light grassiness; a slight scent of coca-cola
Flavor: soft, oily and sweet, more chocolate than coffee and little of the vanilla aroma comes through in the flavor; a slight booziness, with a finish like a cross between wine and coffee; the oils just coat my mouth and refuse to allow the flavor to finish
Body: soft and heavy but burly; like a sumo wrestler
Drinkability: every time I drink one and as it goes through temperature changes, a new flavor comes forward; way too filling and high-octane (12%+ ABV) to be sessionable, but would compliment any number of meals
Summary: If my wine rack would hold 12oz bottles, this would be great to just keep on hand and open on occasion; I tend to stay away from Dogfish Head – the prices are too high to justify the risk, but every now and then one gets hit out of the ballpark and makes me want to drink more and more DFH beers; anyone that meets me knows that I'm a big fan of the 120 (and the 90 – though less-so of the 60) and the Midas Touch, but I've had quite a few DFH beers that just haven't been my cup of tea – though I've been told that it's possible that their beers just don't travel well and many styles are infinitely better at the pub. To which I would say, "then keep them there." Nonetheless, I found this one to be very enjoyable.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tuesday Press Release

Here is an item to post on your page. Beer related, history related, Fauerbach related, and totally self serving. :)

Check out Doug Moe's column from yesterday's State Journal.

Neil Fauerbach
Fauerbach Brewery

Ed Note: A clip from the article, so you know what you're clicking on:
Fauerbach, who with his brother, David Fauerbach, and their cousin, Peter Fauerbach, four years ago resurrected the fine Madison beer that bears their name, wants to try to identify as many people as he can in the photo accompanying today's column.

The photo was taken at the Fauerbach Brewery at the corner of Williamson and Blount streets on April 7, 1933 -- the day Prohibition was repealed, making it legal to drink beer in Madison for the first time in more than a decade.
Hopefully you can help Neil and the Fauerbach folks out; this is an historic and iconic photo of Madison and the repeal of prohibition.

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

Sorry, but no Beer Talk Today today. If you didn't know, WSUM, the University of Wisconsin student radio station that broadcasts Beer Talk Today, recently moved. During the move a lot of stuff was upgraded and switched around; the archive/record function is one of those things. Unfortunately, we lost a great interview of James Altweis from Gorst Valley Hops - one of the leading hop farms here in Wisconsin. We'll be bringing you more about Gorst Valley soon enough, but in the meantime, apologies to James and to you for not getting you the podcast up.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rubbing Salt In The Wounds

Although, I'm not sure who's wounds, to be honest.

Jeff Alworth, over at Beervana, a blog based out of Oregon, is getting all uppity about beer tax increases in Oregon. Apparently, the fine legislators in Oregon are proposing a beer tax increase there that sounds awfully familiar:
Backers say the extra money would help defray the $5 billion in health care, law enforcement and social services that untreated substance abuse costs the state each year.
And Jeff gets downright indignant (rightfully so, I might add):
There may be some hare-brained calculation somewhere that adds up to a total expense of $5 billion a year in total costs, but it damn sure isn't the state's cost. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but the cost, whatever it is, damn sure isn't all the fault of beer makers.

He goes on to point out that this what the West Coast pays in state beer taxes per barrel:
Idaho - $4.65
Nevada - $4.96
California - $6.20
Washington $8.08
Oregon - $49.61

Wisconsin? About $2 per barrel. It's actually less than that for most craft breweries because if you produce less than 50,000 barrels you only pay $1 per barrel in tax.

So, sorry Jeff, maybe some of those Oregon breweries might want to relocate to Wisconsin? And, yeah, we still have it pretty good here. But, strangely, even with these huge tax discrepancies beer here still costs about the same as it does there. Or, maybe the breweries that complain about taxes here, might want to consider the fact that it could be a lot worse.

[ed note: there a few complicating factors in the math - namely, Oregon doesn't have any breweries the size of Miller to "subsidize" the tax rolls like we have in Wisconsin; so, as much as craft brewers like to complain about Miller and Leinie's - Miller keeps you, at least in some sense, from having to pay higher taxes]

Friday, February 13, 2009

MBR In Chicago - Sorry, Actually In Chicago

Sorry, no post today - or at least not till later, if at all. I'm actually in Chicago and last night I didn't get a chance to post about New Belgium. I had a great post in mind all about how Wisconsin should start getting New Belgium and their Pale Ale that's now available (Mighty Arrow). It was good stuff. Unfortunately, last night and today is too busy for a post proper. So, a brief commandment will have to do:

NOTE TO WISCONSIN DISTRIBUTORS. GET YOUR ASSES IN GEAR AND START IMPORTING NEW BELGIUM. Heck, we got Steamboat Willie, or Steamengine, or Steamwhatever and seemingly every other beer made in Colorado. What's holding up New Belgium?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Press Release: Madison Malt Society

In 10 days the "Celebration of American Distilling" tasting event will be taking place at the Edgewater Hotel. This is just a note to remind everyone that tickets are going fast and to give an update on what the event is going to be like.

Many of the owners and distillers from their respective distilleries will be attending the event.

Some of them from Kentucky include:

Mr. Jim Rutledge, Head Distiller Four Roses
Mr Tom Bulleit, Founder and Brand Ambassador Bulleit Bourbon
Mr Eddie Russell, Distiller Austin NIchols

Some of the Micro Distillers from around Wisconsin and the country include:

Mr Guy Rehorst, Great Lakes Distilling in Milwaukee
Mr Steve McCarthy, Clear Creek Distilling in Portland, Oregon
Mr Nick Quint, Yahara Bay Distilling in Madison

Some of the Distillers not yet for sale in Madison:

Anchor Distilling
Dogfish Head Distilling
New Holland Distilling
Black Star Farms Distilling
North Shore Distilling

So you can see that there is a lot of exciting stuff to sample and you get to meet the people that are making it. We have not even mentioned that the event is for charity. So you even get to feel good about yourself while enjoying the event.

Tickets are available right here at Star Liquor and they are going fast so don't delay.

They are $55 and include a glass for sampling, samples of over 100 different spirits (no you don't have to try them all), and appetizers.

For a more complete list of distillers and links to their products check out:

These events are always a blast so don't miss out and regret it later.

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

February is the traditional time to release seasonal Bock beer in the US, so we decided to do some Bock tastings. Leinenkugel's new 1888 Bock and Viking brewery's Invader Dopplebock get the Beer Talk Today treatment. Did the dopplebock inspire us to pillage cities? Were artificial flavoring syrups invented in 1888? Listen in to find out.

Here's the mp3

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

MBR In Chicago - Victory Weizenbock

A few months back MBR received some knowledge regarding weizen bocks. Friend of MBR, Ron Extract, filled us in:
Weissbier and its close variations are always top-fermenting. The unique banana-clove flavor is not so much from the wheat as it is from a particular strain of top-fermenting yeast, and the production of those esters requires a rather warm primary fermentation, even by ale-brewing standards. Some Weissbiers may undergo cold aging later in the brewing process, but this isn't uncommon in ale brewing and isn't really cause to think of them as a kind of hybrid style. If anything, Weissbiers are among the more extreme examples of ales.

Bockbier, in Germany, normally indicates a lager. Terms like "Weizen Bock" or "Weisse Bock" were initially applied metaphorically, to mean something like "Weissbier's answer to bock". Having said that, there probably were top-fermenting bocks in Germany at one point, since historical records of Bockbier predate the specific use of bottom-fermentation. Also, most Dutch bokbiers are top-fermenting, though the connections of some of these to German bock are somewhat tenuous, at best.
This is relevant, because Victory, a brewery out of the Philadelphia area has a weizen bock out called Moonglow. We get some Victory beers here in Wisconsin, but I haven't seen this one (although, admittedly, I haven't looked very hard).

Surprisingly, there are not a lot of weizenbocks made here in Wisconsin (Capital, I'm looking at you).

Victory Moonglow Weizenbock [BA (A-). RB (93)]
Appearance: white, creamy head; tawny and bronze body; sedimented yeast throughout, served at slightly above refrigerator temperatures
Aroma: lemony brightness with a subtle smoky spiciness; bready, with a slightly sweet malt, muted aroma
Flavor: super fine, bottle conditioned, carbonation; tastes of alcohol and lemons; a slight caramel and light wheatiness; slightly smoky and toastish in the back; not a lot of the typical weizen banana/clove fruitiness
Body: medium to full bodied with a long, boozy finish
Drinkability: Easy sipper and warms up well; dangerously, one could drink a six-pack of this if one wasn't paying a whole lot of attention - and at 8.7% ABV one would be on one's ass by the end of the evening (ahem. not that I would know or anything)
Summary: An excellent weizenbock that is a surprisingly easy drinker; this could very easily be a go-to late-winter/early-spring beer

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Comfortable Compromise - Grumpy Troll Valentine's Dinner

I mentioned before that I don't want this site to just devolve into press releases, but I do want to make sure that the cool events that get sent to me get forwarded on to you. So, I begrudgingly offer this compromise: if you are a Wisconsin brewery or brewpub (or contract brewer) or you are a brewery sponsoring or holding an event in Wisconsin, I will post your press releases, unedited and without comment or sponsorship, on Tuesday and/or Thursday afternoons. Of course, the caveat is, that I can't guarantee everything will get up, but I will do my damnedest.

With that said, the first is a timely press release from The Grumpy Troll about their Valentine's Day Dinner:

Enjoy our Menu for Two!
Price is $42 per couple (Does not include tax or gratuity.)
Reservations available and recommended (105 S. Second St. • Mount Horeb • 608-437-2739)
Includes main course, two beer or wine, dessert and two glasses of sparkling wine.
Meal choices include:
• Tortellini Valentino
• Our soon-to-be-famous Bacon-Wrapped Sirloin Steak and Shrimp
with 3 beer-battered Shrimp
• Our already-famous Pan-Seared Walleye Dinner
• Dry Aged Baltic Porter marinated Prime Rib
• 12 ounce Veal Chop with Rosemary Demi Glace
Seasonal fresh Vegetables
Potato Specials, Salad and Soup
Dessert: Heart-shaped Cheesecake with topping choices for two

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

Part one of this weeks podcast has beer news, including Sierra Nevada's ethanol plan, good bye to born on dates (some of them), and mile high advertising by Budweiser. Also, Kyle has a cool beer shirt.

Here's the mp3

Stay tuned for Thursday's podcast, when we look at springtime Bocks.


Monday, February 9, 2009

MBR In Chicago – Lost Abbey, Inferno Ale


A few weeks back we talked a bit about The Lost Abbey, a brewery in San Marcos, CA about 30 minutes North of San Diego. It is brewed at Port Brewing Company. Port Brewing also brews some of the beer for the Pizza Port, a nearby local chain of pizza brewpubs. The head brewer of Port/Lost Abbey is Tomme Arthur, who used to be the head brewer at Pizza Port. It's a weird little triangle of brewing, all of which are world-renowned for their high quality.

You can go here to decipher the brewing details of The Lost Abbey. Basically, The Lost Abbey is a line of beers brought to you by Tomme Arthur. The beers under this brand are in the Belgian Monastic Abbey and Farmhouse tradition. What does that mean? Belgian brewing has two great traditions: the Trappist beers brewed at monastic abbeys by monks, and farmhouse ales, often called Saison.

In the first case is the line of Trappist beers brewed for centuries by the seven breweries that are members of the International Trappist Association ("ITA"). The ITA a certification group that assures both quality and source; the logo of the ITA assures consumers that beers (and in some cases, cheese and other monastic products) bearing the logo are produced in accordance with the monastic tradition and by monastic breweries. Thus, any brewery bearing the logo is certified as complying with both the subjective and objective standards required by the organization. Of course, other breweries can produce similar beers, but none can be called "Trappist" (or, even "trappist-style"). It's a very powerful source of protection and a guarantee of source and quality.

The Lost Abbey makes beers in the same style and spirit as these Trappist beers. Some of the beers are lighter, some are darker, but they are all handcrafted and bottle conditioned and made to exacting standards.

The other type of beers made by The Lost Abbey is another traditional Belgian style called Farmhouse ales. Farmhouse ales brewed in Belgian Flanders (the border along France and Belgium) are often called "Saison." They are brewed in the winter using the best barleys from the summer/fall harvest, they are then bottle-conditioned in large bottles and set to age through the winter and spring and consumed in the summer. Stereotypically, they are light and refreshing with a refined, complex malt character. Saison used aged hops for preservation and very subtle bitterness and impart a somewhat grassy high note. But they can also range to darker, or more sour (if blended with the third Belgian traditional style of "lambic").

The Lost Abbey thus makes traditional Belgian beers. Unlike many other US breweries, Tomme doesn't seek to American-ize them; he would never make something like Furthermore's Makeweight – a mash-up of an American Pale and Belgian Tripel – under the Lost Abbey label. Tomme seeks, and often achieves, authenticity by transporting Belgium to Southern California. Unfortunately, The Lost Abbey is not available in Wisconsin (yet!), but it is available a short drive down I-90 (or I-94 if that's easier for you) in Chicago. So, MBR picked some up. This is the first Lost Abbey beer I've ever had.

The Lost Abbey, Inferno Ale [BA (A-). RB (92).]

Appearance: lemon and straw with a dense, white thick head
Aroma: huge hoppy bright aroma with a light maltiness; aggressive Belgian yeast aroma (fruity with a slight spicyness)
Flavor: hoppy Belgian blonde; perfectly balanced with sharp, bone-dry and fruity flavors
Body: light and dry
Drinkability: only $10 and perfectly compliments virtually any light vegetarian or chicken meal; a little "fancy" to be sessionable, but I could easily buy a case of this and keep it on hand as a regular
Summary: labels are pretty weak – the text sounds like it's trying to be Stone (which has awesome labels) but fails as over-dramatic, corny, and silly; beer is fine to great – best beer ever? Maybe not; I like Ale Asylum's Mercy and even the Makeweight as good local competition for this beer, but it's still very, very good

Friday, February 6, 2009

Contract Brewing, Part IV - Some Thoughts From The Industry

OK, I know everyone's eyes are starting to glaze over from all the contract brewing talk and this is the last one, I promise. Heck, I didn't even write this one. I asked Ron Extract, Vice President with Shelton Brothers Importers, some questions about contract brewing. Shelton's lineup contains a number of European breweries, brewers and beers that are contract brewed or are contract brewers. For example, Shelton imports Mikkeller, a highly regarded Danish brewer who contract brews at top-end breweries all over the world. For example, his recent collaboration with Three Floyds, the Oatgoop.

I asked Ron to answer some questions about contract brewing, hoping he might have some insight from an industry perspective. Oh did he ever. I'll basically set up the questions and stay out of Ron's way on this one.

MBR: Are European and American attitudes on contract brewing different?
Ron Extract: Oddly enough, I'm not sure I've ever really thought about this question in exactly these terms, and I can't say that I've ever really discussed the issue with many European consumers who aren't also actively involved in one aspect or another of the trade. It probably depends on where in Europe you are and what sort of history there is with respect to contract brewing and all its variations, but my general sense is that in most of Europe, the attitude is likely to be a bit less cut and dry than it tends to be among a lot of American consumers.

MBR: Where does "alternating premises" or "alternating proprietor" brewing fall in the "contract brewing" universe? Is this arrangement lumped in with "contract brewing" or is it considered something different?
RE: I'll confess that I wasn't really familiar with these terms, which, itself, says something, I think. If, as a member of the trade who works closely with small brewers, I didn't know what they meant, what are the chances that the average consumer is going to know? So if you're asking about public attitudes, I'm not sure how much of a distinction is really going to exist between these arrangements and "contract brewing" in a broader sense. I think that for most people who pay attention to such things, if they see a bottle with an unfamiliar "brewery" name but a familiar address, the immediate assumption is going to be that it's a "contract brew" with all the negative connotations that may carry, and the burden of proof is going to be on the producer and/or brand owner to prove otherwise.

Alternating premises or alternating proprietorship type setups do seem to require a lot more direct involvement on the part of the non-facility-owner, which ought to address some of the typical concerns about contract brewing, so I think that once the issue is explained, most people would probably be willing to accept alternating proprietors as "real" brewers, but that doesn't necessarily mean that other forms of contract brewing aren't "real". Commercial brewing is very rarely a one-person operation, and whenever you have an end-product that is the result of the collective efforts of multiple individuals, the proper assignment of authorship becomes a rather complicated task. [ed note:this 'assignment of authorship' issue is a pretty interesting one and reminds me of some comments from Aran Madden, I think that was in our podcast yesterday, about the creative process or the perceived lack of 'soul' in contract brewing]

MBR: Could you specifically address some of the ethical issues related to disclosure of contract brewing/alternating premises relationships and the consumer expectation of contract brewing/alternating premises disclosure.
RE: Much of the American public's problem with contract brewing, I think, stems from what I believe is a rather legitimate sense of having been lied to in the past. Countless beers have found their way to retail shelves over the years, pretending to be something other than what they are. Familiar brands like Foster's and Guiness have banked heavily on their respective national identities, and the prominence of the word "Imported" on the label, without going out of their way to tell American consumers that what they were drinking was actually coming from Canada, rather than Australia or Ireland. Worse yet, rights to brand names like "Löwenbräu", "Andechs", and place specific names like "Augsburger" or even "Budweiser" were gobbled up by American companies, who then proceeded to apply them to products with absolutely no semblance to those that bore them overseas. With the consolidation of regional breweries, even more brands changed hands, and beer-drinkers around the country, if they were paying attention (and if breweries were being honest), discovered some of their favorite home-town brews coming from factories far from the towns these brands once called home.

People, as a general rule, don't like feeling as though they're being misled. Unfortunately, questions such as "who actually brews it" and "where's it made" may not always be quite as straightforward as they first seem, and can't always be answered in 25 words or less. If your local brewer, after meeting with some solid success, is able to raise enough capital to take over the old school regional brewery 10 miles up the road, and to hire its highly talented by underutilized head brewer, no one is likely to cry foul. But what if, instead of buying the old regional brewery outright, our brewer instead negotiates a contract to have that brewery make his beer, which, in turn, capitalizing on the otherwise underutilized skills of their talented head brewer. In both cases, the beer is being made by the same person, at the same facility, but the difference in ownership somehow gives the one scenario a very different feel than the other. Drawing on this example further, would it be completely unethical, in either scenario, for our brewer not to want to spend thousands of dollars to print new labels, or to waste his existing stock because the beer was now being made a few miles from where it had been made before, and to opt, instead, to rent a PO Box that would allow him to continue using his previous address? What if some of the beer is still being made at the old location. Is it really ethically necessary for him to print two different sets of labels with the names of neighboring towns, even if it isn't legally required?

Even if everyone involved is as honest as possible about where the beer is being made, though, further complications arise in trying to say, definitively, who is making it. Normally, the answer that one expects to this question is not the name of an individual, but that of a company, however, not all company names will suffice, and the criteria for what constitutes a "real" brewing company are sometimes rather difficult to pin down. The success of brands such as Struise and Mikkeller has helped warm knowledgeable beer drinkers to the idea that "real" brewers don't necessarily have to own their own facilities or equipment, but at the same time, there's still a distinct sense that the marketing company that comes up with an idea for a name or label and contracts a brewery to fill the bottles without particular regard to what's in them is clearly not "real". But what about someone who lacks a technical knowledge of commercial brewing but has a very specific idea of how they want their beer to taste? What about a homebrewer who's competent to make 5 gallons, but needs the help of professionals to translate his or her recipe to a professional scale? In the case of the marketing company with the clever label idea, most, I think would call their beer "real" if they were find a space, buy some equipment, hire a talented brewer, and give that person free reign, but again, how does that really differ, in creative terms, from finding a highly regarded, existing brewery to fill the bottles as they see fit?

One more complexity that needs to be considered is the issue of corporate ownership. The last few years have seen an ever increasing number of small, independent brewers gobbled up by international giants. Whenever this happens, questions inevitably arise as to what this change of ownership is likely to mean with respect to the quality of the beer, and as with so many other factors in brewing, the answer is, "it depends." In spite of corporate interests, some craft brewers may continue to operate with full autonomy, maintaining control of what they make, how they make it, and what ingredients they use, but this isn't how things usually go. Most larger corporations will seek to optimize efficiencies, which tends to be shorthand for cutting as many corners as possible -- using cheaper ingredients, shortening brewing cycles, using high-volume cylindro-conical fermenters, etc... while trying very hard to convey the message that nothing has changed. Their beer may very well be brewed where it says its brewed, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is what it says it is.

As I see it, this ultimately leaves discerning beer drinkers with the following options:

1. Drink the brands you know and love, but bear in mind that whenever it tastes like something's changed, it probably has. Maybe you just got a bad sample, or maybe the beer in question isn't what it used to be. If you keep coming back to it and keep finding yourself disappointed, it's probably time to try something else.
2. Do your homework. If you really care about how your beer is made, what sort of ingredients are used, or who is ultimately profiting from its purchase, seek out that information, and don't necessarily take it for grated that the answers you're given will always be true. Things can sometimes change rather quickly in the craft beer business and not every brewer is always eager to divulge his or her secrets. If you're touring a brewery that claims not to use spices and happen to see several large bags of coriander, ask yourself why they're there. If a brewery with a 20 barrel brewhouse that isn't even in use when you go to visit, claims to be making 50,000 barrels a year, ask yourself whether they're really brewing 7 times a day, or if maybe, some of that beer is being made somewhere else.

MBR - this is where it ends; honestly, Ron has better things to do than spend all day answering my questions, so I really appreciate the information that he was able to provide. I think there are definitely some interesting areas to follow-up and the whole idea of corporate ownership is one that we didn't even touch on but is, as you can see, hugely related to the public perceptions on contract brewing.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

Part two of this week's show on contract brewing, we elaborate on the Capital Brewery situation and have a talk with Furthermore Head Brewer Aran Madden giving us his thoughts on the perceptions surrounding contract breweries.

Here's the mp3.

Any thoughts? Give us a comment.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Contract Brewing, Part III – Capital Brewery, Middleton, WI


When I left you on Monday, I left you with the following hypothetical:

An established but small-ish brewery is particularly well-known and has a strong local identity; it heavily markets and makes a strong connection to the specific location of its brewery. However, this brewery requires more capacity to brew a beer that has become unexpectedly popular. It is unsure if this beer's popularity will be sustained long enough to justify expansion of its own brewery, and in any case needs short term expansion to meet and capitalize on the increased demand. If you are responsible for making this business decision, do you choose a Contract situation or an AP situation? And why?

In light of yesterday's podcast, this hypothetical fits two breweries that we talked about. But, first, let's review for a second. There are two general ways to brew beer – you can either own in your own stainless, or you can use someone else's equipment. If you choose to use someone else's equipment, there are two ways you can do that – Contract Brewing or Alternating Proprietorship. The primary difference between these two is a legal distinction as to who holds title to in-process beer. If the Host brewery owns the beer, the liquid itself, then it is a Contract; if the Tenant, Client, owns the liquid it is alternating proprietorship. In either case, either the Host or the Client can be primarily responsible for the brewing steps; the only real difference is who owns the liquid.

The reason why owning liquid is important is because whoever owns it is responsible for the administrative duties imposed by the Federal and State governments. In the Contract brewery, the Host is responsible for paying taxes and getting label approvals and all of the other administrative duties. In an Alternating Proprietorship ("AP"), the Tenant is responsible. Moreover, as far as labels are concerned, the TTB requires that the name of the title brewery appear on the label. In the case of the Contract, the title brewery is the Host; in the case of AP, the title brewery is the Tenant – even though they are both brewed at a Host.

With that said, let's return to our hypothetical. It perfectly fits the Pennsylvania Brewing Company situation that we talked about in the podcast yesterday. The Penn Pilsner had become too popular and there was not sufficient capacity at the Pittsburgh brewery to meet demand. If this sounds familiar, it's because the situation might remind you of Island Wheat and Capital Brewery. Capital, too, had a beer become unexpectedly popular. And, really, before that was Spotted Cow for New Glarus. New Glarus struggled to meet demand and over-expanded and ultimately reduced distribution and then expanded in order to maintain quality. But, by the time they undertook production expansion the Spotted Cow had been fairly solidified as a cash … umm … cow. On the other hand, Capital ate up most of, if not all of, their capacity in meeting demand for Island Wheat.

Expansion is expensive. You'd rather not spend millions of dollars to expand production if the beer is only a fad. If you do, and it is, you are left with an underutilized multi-million-dollar bank loan (or equity burden; I won't really go into the finance here, but I think it suffices to say you'd rather not spend the money if you don't have to). So, it makes sense to find somewhere to brew in the short term while you evaluate whether expansion is a good idea and bank your money (especially if you are a cash-strapped company like Capital that saw their cash reserves diminish significantly in 2007). During this time you can evaluate and support your brand. You can produce complimentary brands to try to shore up the concept (Rustic Ale, I'm looking at you). You can spend some time to look for good equipment at a good value and figure out how to properly expand – especially if you are in a location where expanding the physical size of the building may not be feasible (like a busy, and crowded commercial district in a rapidly growing suburb).

Alright. That's all to say, no one would blame Capital for needing to brew at least some of its beer somewhere else. But Capital's problem is much like Pennsylvania Brewing Company's problem – so much of their goodwill is tied up in the fact that they brew in Middleton, that they can't just start putting "Stevens Point, WI" on the labels, or they risk backlash from the local community who buys their "local" beer – in some cases, only for the reason that it is local!

Moreover, as we discussed in the podcast, there's a pretty heavy stigma attached to contract brewing. We've tried to counter some of those myths: that the product itself is always worse, less tasty, than beer brewed on your equipment; that the process itself is somehow inferior; that contract beer is a purely marketing beer and that it has no soul, no creative force in it, that it is not, and cannot be, "craft beer." As a brewery that came up during the time when most of these stereotypes were created, it is not surprising that Capital would not want to be associated with it. As the cliché goes, stereotypes wouldn't be stereotypes if there weren't at least some truth to them.

So Capital, as a business, is caught between a rock and a hard place. They can't meet demand themselves and there is a heavy stigma attached to putting someone else's brewery on your label. So, what to do? Well, there happens to a form of contract brewing that allows you to put your own company name on the label! Alternating Proprietorship. The only question is: where?

It is common knowledge that Capital bottles at Stevens Point, and before that Monroe. If you were to go on their brewery tours they happily tell you that the beer is put into re-tooled Wisconsin milk tankers and trucked up to Stevens Point, WI. Then the bottles are brought back to Middleton. That trip, from Middleton to Stevens Point, is 115 miles. Our document that we published on our site shows that Capital had 840.19 barrels of beer in Stevens Point in the month of September, 2008. That's 26,045.89 gallons of beer (31 gallons per barrel). A typical, large, milk tanker is around 6,000 gallons. Which means, if we were to believe that Capital is only bottling at Stevens Point, that they are making 5 trips per month with beer for the sole purpose of bottling. How many of those trips do you think they made at $4/gallon for diesel before they looked into brewing at Stevens Point so that they only had to go one way with the beer?

Not surprisingly, if we look at the tax document, we see that Capital pays taxes on all of the beer that goes into bottles for sale in-state at Stevens Point, WI. Tax on bottles intended for out-of-state sales is paid in Middleton. Tax on kegs, both in and out-of-state, is paid in Middleton. While there is some possibility that Capital is sending five trips per month to Stevens Point in a tax-deferred tank, at $3.50 per gallon diesel, think about the risk in doing that! What if that tanker gets in an accident? What would that do to Capital's inventory? It would be a strong, good, business decision to simply brew at Stevens Point.

So. The evidence is very, very, very strong for the suggestion that Capital is brewing, under an AP contract, at Stevens Point, WI – the home of Stevens Point Brewery and Point Beer (a fine beer, I might add). The question now is: so what? What's the point of this very long post about Capital contract brewing, if the whole point is that contract brewing isn't bad? Well, because it's not entirely true. The point of this very long post about Capital contract brewing is not that Capital is making inferior beer (I'll leave that call to the public), but rather that Capital is intentionally obfuscating this fact to the detriment of the consumer.

There are people who purchase Capital beer because it is brewed locally. Would they continue to buy it, if they knew that it was brewed in Stevens Point? Would they continue to buy it, even if it was brewed in Stevens Point, if Capital provided a good, rational decision for brewing there? Would they continue to buy it, knowing that it is brewed in Stevens Point, if Capital hides that fact; continues to tell people on their brewery tours that all of the beer is brewed in Middleton and dismisses anyone and everyone that would say otherwise; that when asked point-blank about whether the beer purchased in a bottle that is presumed to be brewed in Middleton, because of the very marketing and its implications that Capital themselves undertake, is actually brewed in Stevens Point, WI, Capital's response is to evade the question by saying "We do not discuss our business decisions."

I called Carl Nolen, President of Capital Brewery, Inc. (and ex-distributor and ex-Coors employee), to discuss this issue with him. I asked him "Do you brew at Stevens Point Brewery?" His response: "We do not discuss our business decisions." I asked him: "Do you brew 100% of your beer in Middleton, WI?" His response: "We do not discuss our business decisions." I asked him: "There is significant evidence in the public domain to suggest that Capital is brewing, not just bottling, at Stevens Point Brewery; are you comfortable with the public drawing its own conclusions?" His response: "We do not discuss our business decisions." So, you have to at least give him credit for consistency. When I told him that we were going forward with our story and that we would be drawing our conclusions and that Capital would be on record as providing "no comment," he was very adamant in suggestion that he had, in fact, provided a comment: that Capital does not discuss its business decisions. While I fail to see a significant distinction, I at least stayed true to his comment.

Given all of the information in front of you, the reader, you can draw your own conclusions. We have given Capital plenty of opportunity to address and correct the public record. They have refused to do so. Thus, I am left with the conclusion that Capital is, in fact, brewing at Stevens Point.

But again: so what? So what? Good question. So, the fact is that there is public perception that Capital's quality has decreased significantly. So, the fact is that there is public perception that Capital is abandoning its principles. So, the fact is that there is public perception that Capital is deceiving the public about a number of its other business practices (e.g., the amount of Washington Island wheat used in the Island Wheat, and that recipes have been altered***). So, the fact is that Capital has released the keg-only (remember kegs are brewed in Middleton) Imperial Doppelbock (after poor reviews for the bottled Baltic Porter - by the way, I notice there is no mention of the critically panned Prairie Gold on Capital's website) and that there continues to be public perception that Capital's kegs taste different from Capital's bottles.

So, the fact is that there is a significant amount of public discussion, distrust and unrest concerning Capital Brewery and they have refused to address the vast majority of it. And as a result, the craft beer public (and, quite frankly, significant portions of the non-craft beer public) is abandoning Capital Brewery. I see this as a bad thing. Capital represents a great opportunity in the craft-beer segment – high quality, original, creative beers produced here in Wisconsin and it would be tragic to see its buying public abandon it because its caretakers can't hold a non-confrontational discussion and provide a modicum of honesty.

If they are, in fact, brewing at Stevens Point, they are lying to the public by not admitting as such. And, you know what, so was Pennsylvania Brewing Company (at least until they copped to it when confronted). Labeling laws should require that breweries be very specific about where beer is brewed; that way when I, a member of the public, walk into Capital's Middleton brewery and see the very shiny copper kettles and my fellow local citizens hard at work, I know that the beer in my bottle is not produced by them. And when I walk into Stevens Point Brewery, I can thank their workers for attending to the production of Capital's beer. Because we have no idea if Kirby Nelson has anything to do with the brewing process at Stevens Point. Is this similar to Esser's Best, where Kirby sends up a recipe and simply says "send me the bottles"? Or is it more like Furthermore, where Kirby is intimately involved with the brewing process and drives up to Stevens Point on brew days, taking measurements and shadowing, and even participating in the brewing?

A logical example is Nike. What if, when confronted with evidence that its payroll information showed some discrepencies Nike just commented with "We do not discuss our business decisions." That's fine, but it still doesn't change the fact that it had taken advantage of child labor. Instead, Nike used the opportunity to inform its buying public of its foreign business practices and work with consumer opinion to become a recognized leader in community workforce development in the places where it has manufacturing facilities.

So, maybe the problem with contract brewing is that it raises issues of ethics that we simply do not have in non-contract situations. And the problem isn't that the process or the product is inherently inferior, but the problem is that we can't inherently trust the process. In such cases, it makes far more business sense to err on the side of providing too much information, letting the public know exactly what is going on; otherwise, you only leave the public with the option to draw their own conclusions.

***Kirby has categorically denied altering the recipe for the Autumnal Fire. I am not inclined to dis-believe him; I have no reason to think that he's lying about that, and I admitted as such that perhaps it was rumors and perception more than truth that we think that the Autumnal Fire has been made "lighter" over the years. Moreover, Kirby has insisted that Island Wheat is made with 100% Washington Island wheat.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

Part one of our big show on contract brewing, discussing the perceptions and myths surrounding contract brewed beers, the pros and cons of a contract set up and who contract brews, including a favorite local brewery who, unbeknownst to the general public, is contract brewing a large portion of their beer elsewhere. More on that brewery in part two of this weeks podcast. By the way, the source document for this podcast can be found here.

Here's the mp3

Monday, February 2, 2009

Contract Brewing, Part II – Sand Creek Brewery, Black River Falls, WI

Set half-way down the hill to the Black River basin at the half-way point between Madison and Minneapolis is a brewery with a long history in the state. Built in 1856, it was one of the first breweries in the state and now, as if in tribute to some greater karma, is still helping to bring new beer to the people of Wisconsin. Originally built into the side of the hill by a Swiss gentleman named Ulrich Oderbolz, the current Sand Creek Brewing Company contains significant portions of this original, historic, brewery.

While we all dream of "accidentally" falling into a fermenting tank, falling into the boil kettle would be significantly worse: "On Feb. 15, 1888, 18-year-old Charley Oderbolz fell into a vat of boiling malt at the brewery, after losing his balance while standing on the edge. He fell forward full length, but managed to keep his head above water and climbed out. He was terribly scalded, and his clothing was removed, which only made matters worse by pulling skin off, and he lingered only until the following morning, when he died." In 1900, Ulrich's son Frank took over the brewery, but only 11 years later Frank would die in a boat that slipped over the falls for which the town in named. In 1911, Oderbolz was sold and became Badger Brewing Company, but was closed only 8 years later when Prohibition hit. During Prohibition the building operated as a poultry processing plant. In 1932 part of the building burned, though the first floor and cellars remained. It did not house an operating brewery again until 1995 when Dave and Jim Hellman started Pioneer Brewing Company and was part of the mid-1990s wave of Wisconsin craft breweries. Then in 1998, after Wauwatosa's Wisconsin Brewing Company was pummeled by floods, Pioneer purchased its brands and moved production of Wisconsin Brewing to Black River Falls.

In 1999, a mere 90 miles up the road in Downing, WI, Jim Wiesender and Cory Schroeder started up Sand Creek brewery. It grew quickly and within a few years they were looking for a bigger space than the shed on Cory's farm. The headbrewer at Pioneer, Todd Krueger, called them up and said that Pioneer was looking to sell. In one move Sand Creek expanded and acquired Pioneer's beers and Wisconsin Brewing Company's beers.

Instead of absorbing or eliminating these brands, Sand Creek has made the choice to keep the Pioneer, Wisconsin and Sand Creek brands distinct. As a result of this multiplicity, Sand Creek has a rather unique expertise in juggling brands. Combining that talent with excess capacity in the brewery, it was a natural fit for Sand Creek to take on brewing beers for others as well. According to Mr. Wiesender, contract brewing is around 30% of Sand Creek brewery's output.

So what is contract brewing? In general lay terms, it is commercial brewing at a facility that you don't own. As some in the industry say, it is "brewing your beer in someone else's stainless." Any time a beer is brewed somewhere other than a facility owned by the brewing company, there is a contract situation. There are two basic methods of contract brewing; confusingly, one is called "Contract Brewing", while the other is called "Alternating Proprietorship" (sometimes also called "Alternating Premises" or simply AP). The reason for the confusion is that AP is a relatively new paradigm for brewing with approval being granted for it only in the late-1990s. So, there is "contract brewing" as a general form of brewing, "Contract Brewing" as a specific and regulated method of contract brewing, and AP brewing, another specific form of contract brewing; in both instances, the beer is not brewed in equipment owned by the entity seeking to have the beer brewed.

As Mr. Wiesender notes, "building a brewery is an expensive proposition – contract brewing allows small upcoming craft brewers to check out the business and to see if their product or concept can make a run of it." Sand Creek runs a classic contract brewery and do no have any contracts in the AP form. "The materials that we use for the contract brewing are ones that we keep in stock and use for our own products. Our source for grain is primarily Briess and Hop Union for hops. … We make our recommendations and have some requirements to the type of packaging is used but for the most part the leg work, like finding distributors, suppliers etc is the responsibility of the client.  We do offer bottling services and pretty much all of our clients take advantage of this service.  The customer will design the label however I am the one who handles the submission to the TTB for approval." In this classic form, the Host brewery, the brewery that owns the equipment, generally provides the raw materials, the labor, the storage, the bottling, and the label approval. The beer in the tanks and bottles belongs to the Host. Of course, it is produced in accordance with a recipe and conditions provided by the Client. But, in a legal sense, the title to the beer does not transfer hands until the brewing process is complete and the beer is ready for distribution. In this sense, the beer, at all times prior to leaving the brewery, belongs to the Host. The Host is responsible for paying excise taxes; the Host is responsible for label approval. All of this is, of course, at the direction of the Client.

This is where some of the consumer distaste for "contract brewing" comes in. If the Host is brewing it and it is the Host's equipment, the Host's raw materials, the Host's employees, the Host's bottles, why should the Client get the credit for it? The easy answer is that the Host is basically a robot; the Host only does what the Client is telling him to do. If the Client gives bad instructions should we attribute this to the Host? On the other hand, if the Host does not maintain its equipment, should we hold this against the Client? These are questions that don't need to be asked when the brewery owns and brews on its own equipment.

Within the specific form of Contract Brewing there is a spectrum: from the very hands-off, to the very hands-on. On the one end, you have a situation like Esser's Best where the Client has a recipe. In Esser's case, not only did the current Client not develop the original recipe (it was a family heirloom), but it was written in German and he couldn't even read it. The Client is not a brewer; heck, the Client is not even a homebrewer. The Client had no prior knowledge of the brewing industry or brewing process. The Client took the recipe to the Host and said "Here, brew this for me please." And the Host took over from there, turning over bottles with the taxes paid when the Client takes possession of the bottles. The Client does not participate in the brewing process at all, indeed it is difficult to see how the Client could, in any way, provide instructions that would result in a high-quality beer. In such a case, it is difficult to really attribute anything other than a name to the Client.

On the other end of the Contract Brewing spectrum is Furthermore Beer. Headbrewer, Aran Madden, has a long history in the brewing industry; he apprenticed and brewed in a number of breweries before coming to Wisconsin. He brews all of his recipes on a home test system before they ever make it to the brewery. He attends, directs, and assists in the entire brewing process. In many ways, his interaction with the brewery is not a whole lot different than it would be if he owned the brewery. The only difference, in this case, is that it is the Host's raw materials (selected by Mr. Madden) and the Host's equipment (inspected for proper maintenance by someone who knows what they are looking at). In this case, it is difficult to see what, if anything, should be attributed to the Host. It is the exact opposite of the Esser situation, yet both are Contract beers; it is brewed on a Host's equipment and the Host, legally, holds title to the liquid before the Client takes possession to deliver to the distributor.

"Our clients truly are from all walks of life. Some are just business or marketing people with an idea for a beer. Others are folks testing the water to see if their business plan is a good go and their beer concept will work before they invest the large amounts of capital into building. … Several of my clients actually are very active participants in the brewing process and show up on brew day, pull grain, check gravities etc." Given this range of Client activity, it seems impossible to impose a single stereotype on all types of Contract beer; not to mention the additional, ethical, issues that arise with AP brewing.

Alternating Proprietorship (aka Alternating Premises) was developed by the wine industry to help vintners with low startup funds take advantage of vintners with excess capacity. It differs in one primary way from "Contract Brewing" – the Client, in this case called the Tenant, has title to the beer at all times during brewing process. Thus, the Tenant pays taxes and is responsible for label approvals. But again, there is a spectrum of AP brewing. On the one end, is the situation where the Client provides a recipe and raw materials and the Host's employees brew and bottle the beer according to the Tenant's instruction. On the other end, the Tenant provides its own employees and physically performs all steps of the brewing, bottling, and cleaning processes. It is hard to see any major distinction or practical point of differentiation between these types of AP brewing and the Esser/Furthermore situations.

One catch with AP brewing is the legal implications of title being in the Client. Labeling laws require that label bear the name of the brewery responsible for the beer – the title owner to the beer. Thus, Contract beer bears, somewhere on the label, the name of the Host brewery. AP beers, on the other hand, bear the name of the Tenant brewery. In this way, it can be even more confusing than Contract brewing because of the inherent confusion as to where the beer was actually brewed and by whom. To illustrate we need to only look at the Furthermore, Contract, situation versus an AP beer brewed mostly by the Host. In this case, Furthermore's bottles include both Furthermore's Spring Green identity and the Black River Falls brewing location. On the other hand, an AP beer brewed in a manner similar to the Esser situation would only need to include Esser's name and its home address, with no mention of the location of the physical place where the beer is brewed.

Here's a hypothetical to think about until Wednesday and in light of tomorrow's rather exciting podcast: An established but small-ish brewery is particularly well-known and has a strong local identity; it heavily markets and makes a strong connection to the specific location of its brewery. However, this brewery requires more capacity to brew a beer that has become unexpectedly popular. It is unsure if this beer's popularity will be sustained long enough to justify expansion of its own brewery, and in any case needs short term expansion to meet and capitalize on the increased demand. If you are responsible for making this business decision, do you choose a Contract situation or an AP situation? And why?