Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Review: Minhas Brewery - Brewing Up a Damn Good Story

It was mere few weeks ago and I was sitting at home, typing an homage (paean?) to the barley nectar when Mrs. MBR, in a shimmering glimmer of radiant light and angel trumpets (honestly, that's how she always enters - I have no idea how she does it) holding aloft a rather large and, from the strains on her biceps and lower back, heavy package.

"This is for you"

"What the hell is that?"

"My guess? A book. It's from Minhas."

"What? Why the hell is Minhas sending me a book?" As you can tell, I say "hell" a lot - which is, oddly true. I also say a lot of other words a lot, but I try to keep it clean around here.

"How would I know?" Ah, the literal-ism of two attorney attempting to engage in conversation.

Of course, never the one to leave a rhetorical question alone, especially a rhetorical question phrased as a response to a rhetorical question, I replied "Because you are Ravinder Minhas' sex slave. Admit it! I know it's true! I want, nay, demand a divorce!!"

To which her only response was to roll her eyes and hand the book to me. Another argument won! Woo-hoo!

Inside the package was, yes Mrs. MBR was correct, a book. It's called "Brewing Up a Damn Good Story." With the subtitle, "Youngest Brewery Owners In The World, The Oldest Brewery In The Midwest And A Whole Lot More." Except it said it in all CAPS, which I will spare you. Also included in this package are two copies of the house bi-monthly newsletter called "Brews & News" and six flyers for the brewery tour. Not free passes for the brewery tour, mind you; just six flyers advertising the $10 brewery tour. To be fair, the brewery tour does include an eight-pack of Minhas beer, though it could debated whether the retail value is "in excess of the tour entry fee paid."

Qualms with the marketing speak on the tour pamphlets aside, I turned my attention to "Brews & News" the four-page bi-monthly newsletter. I was sent the Spring 2009 newsletter. The front page story is about the "Fighting 'All-Malt' Billy Bock." Which, given Wednesday's statistics that conspicuously left Minhas off of the "Craft Beer" listings because it doesn't conform to the definition of craft requiring an all-malt flagship, makes the 'All-Malt' in the "Fighting 'All-Malt' Billy Bock" even more glaring.

The text tauts this beer as "what we believe to be the finest American Bock beer being made today." I haven't had the "Fighting 'All-Malt' Billy Bock", so I can neither confirm nor deny this assertion. I just note that "American Bock" is not a recognized style by either the BJCP or the Brewer's Assocation (warning: PDF) - and we're talking about an organization that officially recognizes "American-Style Amber (low calorie) Lager" as a brewing style. So, they are the finest representative of a style that no one else officially recognizes? Congratulations?

Page 2. Interestingly, more information that attempts to link the "Fighting 'All-Malt' Billy Bock" to the 160 years of bock-making at the brewery. As if, since people liked the "Blumer '99 Bock" (that's '99 as in 1899, not 1999), that people today would, obviously, also like the "Fighting 'All-Malt' Billy Bock." Page 3 celebrates Doane Distributing in Ashland, WI as Distributor of the Month.
An interesting aside: as a bi-monthly publication, how do the distributors who win the award in non-published months find out they've won?? I guess "Distributor of the Bi-Month" doesn't have the same ring to it.
And finally, Page 4 congratulated Kathy Jones for 17 years of service (3 different owners: Huber, General Beverage - yes, the distributor - and now Minhas; coincidentally, GenBev as they are lovingly known in the industry, own the licensing/manufacturing rights to the Berghoff brand). Page 4 also promotes the Mutt of the Month in tribute to the dreadful "Lazy Mutt" beer and Chihuahua Rescue USA.

OK, sorry for the diversion. On to the main show here - the book. The first thing I noticed when researching this book, by the way, was the few places where you can actually purchase the thing. Presumably, you can get it at the brewery, but Amazon has only one copy and another site requires you to fill out a form and mail them a check. In any event, the book is $40; let's crack this bad boy open and see if it's worth $40.

I will say, the book is high quality - production, I mean. The cover is solid, the pages are crisp and glossy, the font is easy to read and the colors are bright. I do find it interesting that in the Authors' Note, they start off with "Minhas Craft Brewery is a small, independent and traditional 100% family-owned craft brewery." Not surprisingly, the definition for "craft brewery" that, as we saw leaves out Minhas under its definition, is "small, independent and traditional." Funny, huh?

The book starts with an homage to the beautiful, traditional, cheese-and-beer Wisconsin, Town of Monroe. The next part of the book talks about the "craft" side of the Minhas Brewery; namely, Lazy Mutt, Fighting "All-Malt" Billy Bock, 1845 "All-Malt" Pils, and the Swiss Style Amber. I'm not familiar with "Swiss Style" Ambers and a review of style guidelines, unfortunately, leaves this one out. But, I am assured that "Swiss-Style" beers are fine representations of the Swiss Culture and Neutrality.

But, it's pages 40 and 41 that give me great pause. A big layout of the Minhas brewing process, it's pretty interesting in how uninteresting it is. Surprisingly, they show a direct-fire kettle, but instead taut the kettle's steam coils as the primary heating source. Direct-fire kettles are not the norm these days; so I would expect some attention to this historical detail. But, alas, we are left with "the boiling process darkens the color and caramelizes the wort to give caramel, toffee and licorice notes." Which is true for direct-fire kettles, which is why they are so cool. Then they describe what goes on in the "Government Cellars" (I assume this refers to the bond tanks/bright tanks where beer sits before being bottled):
The alcohol in the beer is adjusted to the exact alcohol per volume as per the recipe by adding pure water ...
The beer is diluted with water. Not blended with lower-alcohol beer. Not brewed to a lower alcohol level. The beer is diluted with water to bring down the alcohol level. Maybe this is more common than I know, but in speaking with craft brewers all over the country, I am unfamiliar with this technique. Maybe Dogfish Head actually brews the 120 IPA to 30% ABV and dilutes it down to 18% by adding water? Maybe New Glarus dilutes the Spotted Cow with water? I don't know for sure. I doubt it, though.

The next bit of the book talks about the Minhas family. Starting a liquor company in Alberta at 19 years of age. Starting "Mountain Creek" at Minnesota Brewing in Minneapolis, then City Brewing in La Crosse, then finally purchasing the Blumer/Berghoff/Huber Brewery in Monroe.

Intermixed in the Minhas family history is an awesome history of the brewery itself. Starting from Page 55 to Page 95, basically the second half of the book, there is a compelling history of Bissinger and Esser and Hefty and Blumer and Huber. It quotes Michael Jackson at length about Fred Huber's love of wheat beers (what would Mr. Huber think of this wheat revival?). Finally the purchase of the brewery in 1994 by GenBev and the expansion of the Berghoff line. It's a compelling story of brewing at the Monroe facility and the pictures are plentiful.

The book then goes on to talk about the brewery's "rescue" of brands: from Hans Kestler's Augsberger (a Chicago mob beer later brewed in Potosi and then Monroe) and Berghoff (trivia: originally brewed Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Berghoff Brewery was purchased by Falstaff which was later purchased by Pabst) and Potosi (though, curiously, the Potosi Brewery is again open but it can't brew Potosi Beer because it doesn't own the rights).

I have an undecided stance on the "rescue" of brands. To one extent, I think it's neat that I can drink a Fauerbach or Esser's Best or Augsburger or Falstaff or Rhinelander. But on the other hand, brewing is a very different beast now than it was then and frankly most (though not all) of those beers are awful. In very few instances does the family still own the brand, so there is no care for the brand, just sheer exploitation. These were, for the most part, beers from a day when workers, and we were all "workers", had beer for lunch and no one noticed a little (or a lot) corn in the grain bill.

Unfortunately, for the most part, we (the royal "we") didn't stop drinking these brands because we found better beer to drink - if that was the case I'd be much more firmly ensconced in the "let 'em go" camp. But we stopped drinking these beers because the brands were purchased and then dropped by bigger and badder breweries - Pabst, Miller, Anheuser-Busch, et al. We stopped drinking these beers because the bigger guys fought dirty (pipe bombs through windows of bars that wouldn't stock their beer: seriously). But when a brewery admits to diluting its own beer, I shudder to think what they are doing to other brands - so I lose a lot of trust in that brewery.

The end of the book is a trip through beer marketing. The Molson ads telling people not to be "Canfused" are pretty humorous (they show a Molson can and a Mountain Creek can next to each other - and they do look awfully similar - but if they looked similar enough to be legally confusing, the courts would put an end to it; my guess is that there is a trademark suit out there that has resolved this issue in favor of the Minhas'). And the boasting of free swag makes me hope that a poker-chip set is in the mail next. (ahem: hint, hint ;)

The final pages are basically advertising for the brewery tour and some of the off-brands that the brewery produces: Hooch Hard Lemonade holds a special place in my heart because their bottle caps, sold at discount price, were the first I used for bottling my homebrew.

So, what comes out of this and would I recommend the book? If I were in a library or at the brewery or sitting in a coffee shop somewhere, I would pick this book up and not feel like it was a waste of my time - the pictures are great and the information is compelling. Would I pay $40 for it? Mmmm...probably not. I'm not a huge fan of coffee table books to begin with, but I can't help feeling that the book is somewhat intellectually dishonest. Not that I'm being lied to, I don't think that at all. But rather that the book is conveniently leaving out the whole story: like the ratio of "Mountain Creek" made to "Fighting 'All-Malt' Billy Bock." And that, as a craft brewery, they are exceedingly lacking.

I can forgive a craft brewery for just having beer that I don't like (Lazy Mutt). But to make a token amount and advertise with your left hand in order to claim that you then run a "craft brewery" while your much, much, much larger right hand is brewing Mountain Creek and Mountain Creek Lite and Hooch Hard Lemonade and shipping it off to Canada to undercut the Molson crowd? That just seem disingenuous to me. So, ultimately, my problem is less with the book, and more with the brewery.

One of these days I'm going to put Leinie's 1888 Bock up against the "Fighting 'All-Malt' Billy Bock" and the "Lazy Mutt" up against "Spotted Cow" and "Sunset Wheat" up against "Island Wheat" and we can all-low-end craft segment battle.

14 comments:

  1. High-gravity brewing is common practice in large, industrial breweries. It allows the brewers to use fewer fermenters to produce a given volume of beer. The dilution water needs to be sterilized and de-aerated, and I'd wager that it's carbonated on its way to the beer.

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  2. I like the low-end craft battle idea; Spotted Cow will slay lazy mutt. Another not-so-great tasting idea we're throwing around: all mexican tasting for Cinco De Mayo. Although I'm sure there are a few good Mexican beers...like Negro Modelo...and...

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  3. As Joe said, high-gravity brewing is absolutely the norm in big production houses. Rumor has it that the sacred "cow" is also brewed that way.

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  4. I guess that more or less proves the point; is it really "craft" when the only "craft" is determining the correct amount of water to add to dilute it to an acceptable ABV and quantity? These are the kinds of shortcuts that I think need to be exposed.

    And if someone has proof that Spotted Cow is diluted like this, I'd be happy to post it. But it's not so much "New Glarus is doing it so it must be OK", I don't think it's OK at all.

    Now, maybe I'm naive. I'm fully willing to accept that. I'm fully willing to accept that this is common practice in the brewing craft and not just a shortcut to dilute out to a lower abv and increase quantities on the cheap.

    But, I guess the question is, how prevalent is this? Is it "limited" to the bigger producers? Is it limited to certain styles? Do consumers care if the beer is diluted? hmmmm...I smell a post...

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  5. Excellent article as usual. I had to comment on this one.

    When we did our (BBLODGE) interview with Minhas, I noticed they have a 'defensive' attitude which was almost overpowering until we didn't 'attack' them in our interview. We tried to keep it to, what do you have, what are you doing, etc. It's not our best interview, but it's only our third, so cut us some slack :)

    I did take the time to review the Lazy Mutt and was quite surprised at the result. Take note though I have yet to sample any of their other products.

    I did get one response from a beer retailer when mentioning Minhas. I can't remember exactly what was said, but it was something similar to: The rep came in and said, we can sell 8 of our beers for the price of 4 or 6 of theirs. He (the retailer) wont sell their products if that is their first selling point.

    Are they a budget 'macro-like' brewer (Thinking in terms of taste, style, and marketing)? I would say yes. Are they guilty of making their product sound probably better than it is? I again would say yes, with this added comment. Don't the big brewers tend to play on joe public's lack of knowledge on beer production?

    Think of the recent Miller Lite commercials for instance. We add hops at three different times. Gee really? Wow. You add bittering hops, flavoring hops, and aroma hops? Wow. I bet that no one else does that either. Not that it does much for the overall taste of the beer either. It's still my favorite standby, but it's not a great beer by any means. I still enjoy picking on their advertising. I can't wait to see how they market the Home Draft system they are coming out with. That should be good, unless they get a better ad agency.

    I do think that you gave a very good and comprehensive review of the book. We got a copy also. I didn't read it as closely as you did, except for the history part. I would not have paid for it, but it is especially a nice resource for the information on the history, if nothing else. It is a marketing tool, and in my opinion, we should look at it in that light.

    So I will stop rambling now. Have a great weekend.

    I am off to peruse the beer cellar and find a good beer for the evening. :)

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  6. One of these days I'm going to put Leinie's 1888 Bock up against the "Fighting 'All-Malt' Billy Bock" and the "Lazy Mutt" up against "Spotted Cow" and "Sunset Wheat" up against "Island Wheat" and we can all-low-end craft segment battle.

    I would love to 'help' with this if your interested. :)

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  7. I am kind of vague on what your beef is with high-gravity brewing. What is the difference chemically in the beer over making weaker beer in the first place? If you use de-aerated, deionized water for the diluent, it is an inert substance. Granted it makes the beer weaker, but if it was brewed to be diluted down to a target gravity, so what? It is no less craft. It is all malt. You can't taste the difference. All it does is stretch limited fermenter space so you can make more craft beer. It is a process issue, not an ingredient issue. It is kind of like bashing Dean Coffey because he has a callandria boil-kettle brewhouse, just like Bud and the other big boys.

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  8. Dilution doesn't enable a brewer to get more beer out of a given quantity of ingredients. It's like the common homebrewing practice of boiling two gallons of wort on a kitchen stove and adding three gallons of water to the fermenter, except the water is added after fermentation.

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  9. All, if it's any consolation, I'm kind of vague on what my beef is with high-gravity brewing, too. I need to think about it some more, but I can't get past this gnawing idea that it's somehow "cheating" or a "shortcut". Part of it is that I have a hard time believing that brewing at high gravity and "diluting" it post-fermentation doesn't adversely affect the taste. Or rather, that it doesn't result in a "thinner" or "waterier" tasting beer than a beer brewed to finish at the target ABV.

    I guess my point is this: if it's such a great idea, why doesn't EVERYONE do it?

    And, I see it as different from calandria system because, as I understand it, it only differentiates in the manner that the wort is brought to a boil. It's not like the wort is brought to a boil by just adding 400 degree neutral water.

    Ultimately, I'm not sure why it upsets me that that they are diluting their beer. I understand what's going on; but I like said, if it's such a great idea, why doesn't everyone do it?

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  10. Even if it tastes different, isn't a high-gravity brewed all-malt beer still a craft beer? Shouldn't the test be if it tastes great, not what specific process was used to make it? How about decoction? Isn't that a perversion of the "standard" craft brewing process as well?

    The craft beer culture seems to me to be mostly about keeping an open mind to innovation. If we turn into a culture of process Nazi's, we will end up like Germany, stuck in a rut that started in 1516 and continues to this day. Rheinheitsgebot was put in place as essentially a protectionist act posing as a "purity" law and the Germans make great beer under it, but Germany has essentially no presence in modern craft brewing. They have been making fundamentally the same beer for half a millennium. To riff on your closing sentence. If brewing style rigidity is so important, why are we drinking any style except German?

    I think that "if it's such a great idea, why doesn't everyone do it?" is intellectually lazy. Take the evidence (as any good lawyer would) and then draw the conclusions. Go get some high-gravity brewed all malt beer and see how you like it. See if you can actually discern a flaw that was caused by the process.

    Every good idea starts with nobody doing it. Popularity of a brewing process is not at all wedded to it's worth. If that were the case, brewpubs would have never come on the scene as an alternative brewing process to regional and national brewers.

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  11. I think Joe's point about homebrewing is important. This is how I homebrew if I'm not doing all grain; I partial mash with all my specialty malts and some base malt, boil usually around three gallons with the extract added, then add more water up to 5 gallons at the end. Doing it this way allows me to get it to a boil faster and also cool it faster (using cool water at the end). It really makes zero difference in the actual beer; either I'm adding more water to the boil, or i'm adding the same amount later to reach the same original gravity.
    A possible answer to the "why doesn't everyone do it" question: sparge efficiency. As i'm sure you know, the sparge is rinsing off the grain to get the maximum amount of fermentable sugars out, and the more water you run though the grain (ie the longer the sparge) the better chance you have of getting a higher efficiency (pulling the most sugar possible out of the grain, thus getting the most bang for your buck grain wise). The typical homebrew practice maximizes sparge water by figuring out how much water is going to evaporate during the boil and how much water will be absorbed by the grain during the mash. Basically, you calculate that X amount of water will boil off, Y amount will be absorbed, add that to your batch size, subtract the amount you need for the mash, and that's your sparge water.
    Basically what I'm saying is, there is an advantage to using more water up front as opposed to diluting it later: greater mash efficiency. Breweries that dilute must calculate the costs of additional fermenter space to be higher than the money they lose with a slightly less efficient mash and choose to use the high gravity brew/dilute method. Again, my assumption would be, and this is only an assumption, that brewing the same recipe with either method would result in the same beer.
    Joe, being a real brewer and all, am I right on this?

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  12. We did the Minhas tour last year for a buddy's bachelor party. The tour itself was interesting if not the most informative (for me at least) but what I really took from it was the workman-like quality of the brewery. It wasn't like a modern brewing facility, all shiny and gleaming. It was a real throwback to what I imagine the old breweries were like.

    The tour is worth the $10 in that there is unlimited tasting after the tour, plus the eight-pack. Now my tasting notes cannot really be trusted, but I liked the Billy Bock and the 1845 Pils but thought the Swiss Amber had a bit of an off-putting aftertaste. That said, after making my way through the taps I thought the Mountain Creek Light didn't taste too bad either, so my opinion may not have been 100% on the ball that afternoon.

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  13. Website extinct..............
    Guess they just brew malt liquors for Canada now.
    They should drop every line and stick to improving the old skool Huber bock.

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