Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ticking Away The Moments That Make Up A Dull Day

So, yeah, my posting has been less than consistent lately. A new job is part of the reason (yes, you can still hate me for being an attorney), but the other reason is the complete and utter lack of any news in the craft brewing world. To wit:

Harpoon Cans Some Beer - I can't remember if I posted about the Harpoon Summerfest I went to a couple of years back - it was, admittedly, a blast - but Harpoon's beer isn't exactly something that you wait with baited breath for. It's good, to be sure, but good in kind of the same ways that Bells or Goose Island is good - it's ubiquitous, and there's nothing, save a few brands, to really get your panties in a bunch over. But they're now jumping on the can-wagon. Cool. I guess. I'm digging that more and more breweries are putting beer into cans - it's easier to handle and store and not to mention cheaper than bottles.

For Some Inexplicable Reason The Chicago Tribune Wrote About Horny Goat - I'll save the review because frankly the beer isn't worth either my time to write it, or your time to read it. Apparently, Michael Burke at the Tribune had nothing else to do that day.

It's A Travesty Of Freedom That You Can't Carry A Firearm Into A Bar - the first sentence is hook, line and sinker: "Lovers of freedom suffered a defeat yesterday when Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature 'that would allow Tennessee's 270,000 gun permit holders to carry their firearms into bars, nightclubs, museums, zoos, and other establishments that have liquor licenses'" Can't take a gun to the zoo!? Come on, Gov! How else am I gonna bag me a rhinoceros?

Some Navel Gazing - Dipsomaniacs? Beer writers? Moi? An interesting back and forth about not beer writers not talking about getting and/or being drunk. Frankly, I think it has less to do with "adher[ing] to taboos of those realities that make brewery accountants in ill fitting suits uncomfortable" [i.e., liability for when drunk people do stupid things] and more to do with simple common decency. I don't need to tell you that when I went to a festival I got hammered - everyone gets hammered when they go to festivals. You're probably more interested in who or what was at said festival. "When one reads the exploits of beer writers reporting from shadowy marketing meetings, on PR junkets, of the event that they are at that just happens to be sponsored or another fest where they meet all their friends the brewers for hours of clinky clinky and you can, too... well, why not? It's not only the free samples that friends envy not to mention the ad money - but the role of being that bit nearer to the beloved fluid so as to earn favour." For what it's worth, I try to be very upfront about being given things. Often if I AM given something I don't write about it. If I am given something and write about, I try very hard to disclose that fact. The reality is, I buy almost every beer that I review or write about here. Do I have my favorites? Of course I do. But so do you.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Battle of the News: La Folie v Enigma

On Tuesday I tried the New Belgium La Folie, a sour brown/red from the fancy-pants brewery in Colorado. Today, I try the sour brown from the fancy-pants brewery right down the street.

Allagash Cooling Ship - Empty
So what makes these beers sour? Well, any number of agents can work to sour a beer. The first of which is the "yeast" itself. Some sour beers use a "natural" or "wild" fermentation. In most cases, the beer is inoculated with tame bacteria (lactobacillus, pediococcus). In some cases it is inoculated with wild bacteria yeast (brettanomyces). And, in yet other cases, the windows are thrown open and, world-be-damned, whatever works, works.

Breweries like Jolly Pumpkin use a combination of all three; Allagash Brewery in Maine has the only cooling ship in the United States. What is a "cooling ship"? Well, after beer is boiled with hops and whatnot it is typically cooled to around 60 degrees and yeast is added. In the normal course, this happens very quickly - beer is siphoned out of the kettle, through a chiller of some sort, and into a (typically conical) fermenter. This process goes very quickly because, usually, you don't want beer sitting in the "bacterial danger zone" - between about 130 and 75 degrees - very long. The beer might get infected.

Allagash Cooling Ship - Full
A "cooling ship" is intended to infect the beer. Basically, the way it works is that beer is poured out of the kettle into what basically an over-sized cookie tray - it is very shallow and long with some width to it. The cooling ship is traditionally in an open room with windows on either side of the room, and it has no top to it, so that the most amount beer possible is exposed to the air. The beer is allowed to naturally cool to around 60 or 65 degrees or so (it takes about a day) and hopefully it picks up as many bugs (bacteria, not real bugs) as possible to aid the yeast in the fermentation process. So, that's what Allagash has. Neither New Glarus nor New Belgium use a cooling ship - I just thought it was a cool story, and the pictures are pretty neat, huh?

New Glarus and New Belgium, while I don't know for sure because breweries tend to be pretty secret about souring techniques, probably use some combination of the first two with a more controlled version of the third. In other words, they don't use cooling ships, but they do use oak barrels that are known to have active bacteria in them. Jolly Pumpkin does this as well.

After primary fermentation, the beer is left to age where the bacteria does its work, eventually calms down and the beer begins to mellow. If the young sour beer is unblended we typically call that a Geuze Lambic. Sometimes (usually) the beer is so sour that it is blended with progressively older agings (typically a fresh, 2 yr and 3yr) and we call that a Lambic Geuze. Lambics are often combined with fruit. If it's combined with raspberries you have a Framboise, if combined with Cherries you have a Kriek. Sometimes with Peach you have a Peche.

So, there you go - Belgian wild brewing in less than 500 words. Somewhere a brewer is crying.

New Glarus Enigma
BeerAdvocate (A-). RateBeer (99).
Appearance: 52 degrees; color deep, old amber; thick, dense white foamy head that clings steadfast
Aroma: malty with a slight fruity, cherry brightness; much more muted than expected; a bit musty
Flavor: cherry and oak with a dry finish and a strong, but subdued sourness; a quenching sourness in the finish
Body: medium bodied and soft with a clean finish
Drinkability: restrained and refined; the flavors are not nearly as "big" as La Folie which makes is more approachable and drinkable; reminds me of Duchesse and Monks Cafe
Summary: You know, it's super-sour beers like La Folie that all the beer snobs love; but, frankly, I'll take this, and Monks Cafe and Duchesse (two of Mrs. MBR's favorites, by the way) any day. I'm a fan of Rodenbach and their Grand Cru and this isn't quite that sour. La Folie is certainly in that direction and probably even more along the lines of a Cantillon Gueze even. But, where those are definitely of a certain strain - and, don't get me wrong, I love 'em - for a more frequent treat, I'm a fan of these more subdued sours. Indeed, New Glarus could make this seasonal or as one of their regulars and I would be very happy indeed - as one of the nice things about sours is that because they have that quenching attribute even with a pretty solid body like this one, you can drink them anytime of the year.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Battle of the News: La Folie v Enigma

In theory they are the same style. La Folie and Enigma. They are both sour brown ales. Modeled on Goudenband, this style tends to be, though not always is, darker in color than, for example a Flanders Red. This might indicate that flavors would be more along the roasty, chocolate, or smoky ranges. However, often the sour overpowers much of the flavor. In fact, the sour can be more intense; but the flavors are also typically more refined. Where the "red" is an everyday drink in Belgium (oh! to be in Belgium!), much like it is here (though without the sour), the brown is a drink to be savored. Find the fanciest glass you own, raise up the pinky finger in solidarity.

Much like porters from days of yore and lambic of more modern fame, these sours are intended to be blended. Indeed, the blend is representative of the brewery. Some are tarter, some are sweeter, some more malty, some heavier on the brett. In any event, the range of character in the "oud bruin" style can be vast. From the malty "Oud Zottergem" to the uber-intense (as we'll see) La Folie, there is wide range for just about everyone.

So, what's the point of pitting two giants of the brewing world head-to-head? Shits and giggles mostly.

New Belgium La Folie
Beer Advocate (A-). RateBeer (100).
Appearance: dark brown with saddle edges; a tan foamy head, solidly packed carbonation; served at 53 degrees
Aroma: sour and fruity; complex aromas of raspberry, cherry and oak; sweet malt and an unexpected nuttiness
Flavor: really, really sour; like sucking on a sour patch kid; slight alcohol in the back of the throat
Body: soft and long finish; metallic and fruity
Drinkability: intense, intense sour that does not abate; almost overpowers all other flavors
Summary: OK, so a 100 is a lot to live up to; I can see how people like this; is it my thing? eh, it's good-ish; interestingly, while drinking it is not particularly pleasant, the malt and residue is quite pleasant - like a cherry Lifesaver; facing the facts, there are not a whole lot of people for whom this would be a pleasant experience, which makes the 100 a little hard to swallow; and, frankly, I've talked to people, who would surprise you, that have called it "vinegar" and "cat piss" and "awful" - and these are people that love sour beers; me? it's fine enough, and I like sour beer; would I give it a 100? probably not; for my tastes the blend (if there is any) is all wrong, and there is no balance whatsoever; even Cantillon Geuze, an intensely sour beer, has more balance in the funk and malt than this; so, yeah, go out and try it, it's good, and you might even think it's great, but don't surprised if you end up using it for salad dressing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Press Release Tuesday - New Glarus Enigma

I'm pretty sure at this point that Dan Carey is only brewing this unplugged series for me. Bohemian Lager, Berliner Weisse, Old English Porter, Imperial Saison, and now Enigma.

The '06 (I think) Enigma was one of the first New Glarus beers I'd ever had. I was amazed by it (in fact still have a bottle or two floating around), but others I have spoken to were less impressed. Personally, I'll be buying a case of this stuff.

--------------------START PRESS RELEASE---------------------

New Glarus Brewing Company's Enigma.
New Glarus, WI
May 10th, 2010:
New Glarus Brewing Company's Daniel Carey (Diploma Master Brewer) loves to play with flavor in unexpected ways. Due to this drive, New Glarus Brewing Company's offerings of over 50 different brews since their inception in 1993 are extremely broad and varied. There are few breweries, if any, that can make such a claim. Often, the brews that are created don't fit into the nice, neat categories that the majority of brews in the world are known by. Daniel Carey continues to defy descriptions with his latest Unplugged brew, Enigma.

Historically sour beers are often ignored and misunderstood. Daniel Carey, however, has "always been drawn to this style, as long as I can remember". The sour brown ales from Belgium rank in his top favorite brews. To play to his love of this style, he has taken this brewing method and made it his own. The result of this exclusive experiment leaves all fans of New Glarus Brewing Company with a truly unique beer. Not really a sour brown ale, not really a fruit beer. Truly an Enigma.

Beer writer Stephen Beaumont's innocent inquiry to Deborah Carey as to the description of this brew's flavors is how this beer acquired it's name. Since that time, Enigma has received medals in both the 2003 Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup in 2004. Originally released in 2003, Enigma is making a return to shelves throughout Wisconsin, despite the fact that New Glarus Brewing Company makes no promises to brew any of their Unplugged beers again. The comeback this spring of Enigma is entirely due to overwhelming demand by New Glarus Brewing Company fans in the vote for this year's line up in the fall of 2009. (If there is a New Glarus brew that you are hoping will be brewed next year, be sure to check in the fall for the vote for next year's brewing schedule.)

A complex and intriguing original. The mystery began with wild yeast spontaneously fermenting a rich treasure of malted barley and cherries. Unlined Oak casks breathe deep vanilla hues and chords of smoke into this sour brown ale. Master Brewer, Daniel Carey, has forged a smooth garnet tapestry that defies description. Wander off the beaten path.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Trademark Infringement Cheese?

Spotted Cow Cheddar from Brennan's in Madison, WI
You make the call. Is this trademark infringement?

Would you think that this cheese was:
a) made by a cheesery using Spotted Cow beer;
b) made in conjunction with, or by permission from, New Glarus Brewery; or,
c) not in any way related to New Glarus Brewery or Spotted Cow beer?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Consistency Is the Key

No, I'm not talking about myself. Yes, I understand that my posting has been less than ... shall we say ... consistent lately. But, it actually sort of fits into this discussion and what we mean when we say a brewery or its is "inconsistent."

There's a number of ways that a brewery, or beer, can be inconsistent. And, unfortunately, the word "inconsistent" has a distinctly negative connotation. So, what does "inconsistent" actually mean?

varying and unpredictable
containing conflicting or contradictory elements

Thus, when we say "inconsistent", as in such-and-so brewery is "inconsistent" or such-and-such beer is "inconsistent" we are keying on the "unpredictable" nature of the thing. In other cases, like traditional lager breweries deciding to brew ales, we're talking about "conflicting or contradictory elements."

None of these are inherently bad things. Taking the last item first, take a brewery like Capital or Stevens Point or Sprecher, traditional lager breweries that have recently dabbled in the ale-ish arts. All of these breweries are "old school" - they started brewing when lagers were what the market demanded. Today, the market demands ales. So, they step outside of their comfort zones and try to brew some ales. And doing so makes them "inconsistent" with prior practices - brewing really good lagers. In this case, "inconsistency" with past practice is not bad in and of itself. One of the great parts of craft brewing and craft breweries is the willingness to experiment, to step outside the box and show off the brewing skills a little bit.

Of course, this is where another version of inconsistency steps in. Which is to say, inconsistency in brewing quality. This should be differentiated from brewing defects and brewery quality. In this case, I'm looking at brewers or breweries where some beers are show great skill in recipe creation and beer concepts; yet, other beers from the same brewery fall flat not because of a brewery defect, but because the beer itself just isn't designed to be that interesting. This is a slightly harder position to defend, so I'll some of this play out in arguments in the comments, but I recognize and agree that not every beer needs to be an overly complex flavor monster. My point is, there are some breweries that make world class examples of one style, say a Dortmunder, then completely screw the pooch on another style, say a saison. This kind of inconsistency can be maddening particularly in two situations: one, the brewery is new and you, as a consumer, are trying to figure out if the brewery is one that you like; two, the brewery makes beer that is one the extremes of both good and bad so you never know if a new brand is going to be one or the other.

Finally, there is inconsistency in brewery quality. And this is perhaps most nefarious and hardest to talk about. Brewers never want to admit that their breweries just aren't up to quality or that their sanitary practices are something less than stellar. Yet, you can talk to any number of consumers, or brewers for that matter, who will gladly snicker and talk behind the back to lambast inconsistent brewery quality. There tend to be two primary issues related to brewery quality.

The first is the brewing equipment itself; it's either not maintained properly, being used for the wrong purposes, or simply too old to be of modern commercial use. A good example of this is bottling machines. Bottling machines are ridiculously expensive, so when a cheap one comes on the market, there's a strong desire to try to make due, but bottles end up getting oxidized, infected, or any other host of problems, when they get mis-capped.

The second issue in brewing quality is the brewer himself (or herself). Let's be honest, not every brewer is Dan Carey, or Greg Koch, or Nick Floyd. Even more insidiously, the scrutiny today is simply higher, and beer that might have been tolerated in the 80s or even early-90s is simply not good enough today. So, brewers that refuse to keep up with modern brewing techniques, even brewers that we once thought of as great, will get left behind.

Finally, one last thought. None of these inconsistencies are fatal. A new brand can't be held to the same standard as the same brand that is in its fifth year; recipes change, are perfected, and adapted over time. Brewers have off days and off batches. Brewing equipment gets upgraded. These are all relevant.

So, I make a suggestion for the breweries out there: try batch labeling in a way that is meaningful to the consumer. Because while batch numbering systems are great for brewers to figure out what went wrong when, they are also great for consumers to discuss what went right when. Wines have vintages. Beer should have batches. If the 2010 Batch 1 of Capital Imperial Doppelbock is epically good (it is), being able to recognize it later provides useful information for consumers that increases the value of the brand (not to mention the beer itself on "secondary", or frankly, primary, markets). If a batch is bad, or not as good, it makes it easier for distribution reps to remedy the situation so that you don't have a bad representative of your brewery sitting on a shelf (the beer, not the distribution rep).

And, I have a suggestion for consumers: relax, have a beer. Not every beer, even by the same brewery, or even the same brand from the same brewery, is going to knock your socks off. At the end of the day, it is a craft. It is an art. Yes, the big guys have the process down to a mechanical, boring, process. But there's a reason why we love craft beer - and it's because of the craft, the art, of brewing.