Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Art of Craft Beer

We've had this discussion a number of times in various contexts, but maybe we should just address the 500 pound gorilla in the room. Namely, at what point does brewing craft beer stop being a craft and start being a widget manufacturer? And are the two, really, inherently, at odds. I'm not talking barrel limits, because barrel limits are arbitrary. More to the point, it is entirely possible, in my theory, that a brewery that produces 3 million barrels per year is more in line with the "craft" of brewing, than a brewery than "churns out" 10,000 barrels of the same old stuff day in and day out.

I wrote an article way back in February of 2008 that I think outlines a good working definition of "craft beer".

craft beer: a trade involving the skilled art of brewing beer.

It is the art of beer that is the primary difference between Budweiser and O'So. Side-by-side you (and I) would be hard pressed to differentiate between Genessee Cream Ale and Spotted Cow. Yet we consider the latter a craft, and the former a widget. To the extent that brewing beer is a lesson in replication, anyone can turn on a photocopier and press start. But what distinguishes "craft" from "beer" is the art. It is the art that we love, is it not?

Anyone can make an India Pale Ale, but one particular brewer's vision that stimulates the drinker's senses is, like the perfect golf shot, what keeps us coming back for more. The brewer as artist. How many people have painted their mother? But we remember Whistler's Mother because it strikes a chord, it stimulates our senses and causes us to evaluate ourselves and humanity. Much the same way, how many brewers have made an IPA? But we remember Pliny the Elder because it stimulates our senses and causes us to evaluate ourselves and what it means to be human.*

Thus, a craft brewery is not a collection of beer, but rather a collection of artistic statements. Just like the difference between Claude Monet and Thomas Kinkade, there is a difference between Mikkel Bjergsø and Leinenkugel's.

So, why is it then, that so many craft breweries are so quick to abandon their art for the sake of producing more widgets?

Take, for example, Lagunitas. One of my favorite breweries from the West Coast, and their recent Press Release regarding their new seasonal "Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale":
This sad holiday season we didn’t have the brewing capacity to make our favorite seasonal brew, the widely feared BrownShugga’ Ale. You see, we had a couple of good years (thank you very much) and so heading into this season while we are awaiting a January delivery of a new brewhouse we are jammin’ along brewing 80 barrels of IPA and PILS and such every 3 hours.
Lagunitas the widget-maker.

Then consider Founders' problem with its recent release of its Canadian Breakfast Stout:
We make this beer because we are extremely passionate about creating the best liquid we know how to produce. We started this business as home brewers and still look at ourselves as such. We know that some of you might never get your chance at a CBS bottle, but we feel it would be a greater disappointment to have never shared this product at all.
I understand production constraints; in fact, I probably understand them better than the breweries themselves do. I understand that if Woodman's doesn't get its allotment of 80 cases of Hopalicious the world will come to a screeching halt. That if Avenue Bar doesn't get its 3 kegs of South Shore Nut Brown, the brewery may never see the tap line again. But is it worth sacrificing artistic integrity to placate a vendor? 

The most common justification for widget-ification is "But the consumers!" Yes, they blame you, dear reader/consumer. You have put a gun to their head and demand that they continually produce PILS and Knot Stock and Mudpuppy Porter in such vast quantities that they can't possibly make room in the production schedule for something new.

Picasso could have sat back and sold all the Blue paintings he could ever hope to sell, but then the world would never have his Cubist or Surrealist periods. On the other hand, To Kill A Mockingbird is no less an artistic statement simply because Harper Lee never wrote another book. I'm as happy as the next guy to sit back and listen to ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears" for the rest of my life, but Radiohead was just getting started with "Creep". 

* I use Pliny the Elder as an example, obviously. We've all had that beer that makes us sit back, look at the bottle, and completely change our frame of reference. Whether it's that perfect beer sitting by the fire with buddies that suddenly tastes like the best beer you've ever had, or whether it's a purely academic analysis of a highly regarded, highly rated, beer.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kohler Food and Wine Experience - And the Winner Is ...

You'll recall that we are giving away some tickets to Kohler Food and Wine Experience. And, more specifically, to the Oktoberfest celebration contained therein. There were 22 entrants via web, Facebook, and Twitter. I used to draw a truly random number between 1 and 22.

The lucky winner is ... Number 5.

Number 5 you can claim your prize by sending me an email with your name, email address, and the name of the lucky person attending with you. I will put you in touch with the fine folks at Kohler and they will get you set up with your 2 passes to Kohler Oktoberfest on Saturday Night!

Oh. You probably want to know who Number 5 is don't you?

Jen Jeneric who entered via Facebook. Congrats Jen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Capital Gets Its Man

While Carl Nolen still gets his shit figured out, Capital Brewery is quick to move on. Capital Brewery has named Tom Stitgen as its new General Manager. Mr. Stitgen is a CPA, paper pusher, bean counter, number cruncher, squint, etc. etc. He comes from a CPA firm and, according to the press release at least, has "experience in all areas of distribution based business from sales to back office operations." 

Tom has the ideal background to turn Capital Brewery into Capital Brewery, Gift Haus, and BierGarten and to implement the strategic goal to have each of these be a "profit center". 

Look, I don't run Capital. They didn't ask my opinion, but like most of you, I have an asshole, so I'm going to use it: Capital's problem isn't an accounting one. The problem at Capital Brewery is not that they aren't selling enough t-shirts and are losing money on the Gift ("Geschenk", thank you very much) Haus. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Five Gallons At A Time: Choosing Mash Temperatures

I wish Jamil Zainasheff would stop recommending that brewers mash at high temperatures in his BYO articles. Until I'm a world-renowned brewmaster, though, my opinion is unlikely to count for much. After all, would you take my advice over a guy who's won the freakin' Ninkasi award twice? I wouldn't… at first. But it's important to keep in mind that competition-winning beers are chosen primarily by how well they match a series of written descriptors, not how enjoyable they are or even how much they resemble the commercial beers that inspire the competition style guidelines. Unless you're trying to win medals, your decision-making process should be driven by "which option will make the most pleasing beer?" You'll be constrained by time, money and convenience, but those boundaries aren't very relevant in choosing one single-infusion mash temperature over another. If I were to re-brew all the beers I've ever made, the only ones for which I might choose high mash temperatures (153+ degf) over low ones (149-152 degf) are sour beers.

I've read about commercial breweries conducting short conversion rests at high temperatures and still being able to make dry beers. They may specifically source malt with high levels of beta-amylase. They might employ step mashes that produce a lot of maltose during their temperature ramps. Maybe their mixing methods are particularly efficient. Whatever their reasons, good for them. In my homebrewery, single-infusion mashes at high temperatures do not result in dry beers. They result in high final gravities and syrupy viscosities that make each pint feel like an endurance test. According to some brewers, dextrins - unfermentable (by Saccharomyces cerevisiae, at least) simple starches that are produced in greater concentrations by high-temperature mashes than low-temperature mashes - do not contribute to mouthfeel or body. Maybe dextrins aren't the direct cause, but I'm confident that mash temperatures and mouthfeel are strongly correlated in most homebreweries.

I once had blind faith in the dogma that high mash temperatures were required to combat the inherent wateriness of session beers. The problem? After repeated attempts to get it right, I've still never brewed a good session beer by mashing at a high temperature. Since the time of this happy accident, I've made a number of delicious session beers with low mash temperatures. Not only did they taste great, but they weren't remotely watery. In my opinion, ethanol is an important component of mouthfeel. If I can choose ingredients to layer flavors and build body (or the perception of body) in session beers without high mash temperatures, I don't see any reason to mash high for stronger beers. It's like The Low Budgets say: Aim Low, Get High.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

New Ale Asylum Brewery - A New Take On A Familiar Place

I'm sure you all diligently read The Cap Times piece describing the new facility for Ale Asylum: 46,000 square feet of gleaming steel to be filled with a brewery, restaurant, and rooftop patio lounge.

Sounds fancy, eh?

But, you're going to say, how can Ale Asylum have a restaurant? They aren't a brewpub! But here's the catch. Ale Asylum doesn't own the building, it just rents the space. It's just one of many tenants in a larger space. Another tenant is a restaurant (that independently purchases its beer supply from a distributor). Another tenant is a rooftop lounge.

If this sounds familiar, it's because we are all familiar with this type of building: it's called a mall.

Can I coin a new term? BrewMall. BeerMall? Mallt?

Coming soon: Forever Over-21.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Have Your Wits About You: Alaskan White Ale

As you are no doubt aware (or maybe you aren't aware, I sometimes forget whether people know these things or not), Alaskan Brewing Company has entered Wisconsin. The opening salvo consists of product staples Amber and White (Red and White? In Wisconsin? Coincidence? Probably.).

First up is the Alaskan White, a hazy wheat beer spiced with orange peel and coriander. The style ranges from dry and crisp (Wittekerke) to malty and heavily spiced (Great Lakes Holy Moses). The classic for the style is, of course, Hoegaarden [ed note: Hoegaarden is NOT pronounced "Ho Garden", it is properly pronounced "Who KHarden"]. Here in Wisconsin it is not a terribly popular style: Tyranena, Potosi, and Vintage [ed note: Vintage made theirs based on votes here at MBR!] are the only ones I know of that make one consistently.

I don't know about you, but wheat beers, and witbiers in particular, are a mixed bag for me. I love some of them but dislike others. I definitely prefer the dryer, crisper versions; though the more heavily spiced can be OK if the carbonation is high enough. Some, though, can be unbearably spiced and fruity and the wheat can often take on a musty quality; the especially fruity versions can be cloyingly sweet.

The BJCP classifies witbier in Class 16a and has this to say about the flavor profile of the style:
Pleasant sweetness (often with a honey and/or vanilla character) and a zesty, orange-citrusy fruitiness. Refreshingly crisp with a dry, often tart, finish. Can have a low wheat flavor. Optionally has a very light lactic-tasting sourness. Herbal-spicy flavors, which may include coriander and other spices, are common should be subtle and balanced, not overpowering. A spicy-earthy hop flavor is low to none, and if noticeable, never gets in the way of the spices. Hop bitterness is low to medium-low (as with a Hefeweizen), and doesn’t interfere with refreshing flavors of fruit and spice, nor does it persist into the finish. Bitterness from orange pith should not be present. Vegetal, celery-like, ham-like, or soapy flavors are inappropriate. No diacetyl.
Alaskan Brewing Co. White Ale
BA (B-) RB (49)

Appearance: the color of an early fall tall-grass field, hazy, with tints of orange, yellow, and tan; a lazy white foamy head sits and the slumps over on top
Aroma: muted coriander dominates, orange peel comes through later, a lemony aroma from the yeast asserts itself and a faint wheatiness is also prevalent; the aroma hits all the right notes, though isn't as assertive as I might like
Flavor: although restrained, the wheat and malt are most noticeable, with a slight peel-i-ness, a hint of rind, coming through; the spices are subtle at first, but come through in force later: grassy, coriander, cumin, lemon balm all seem to make appearances
Body: medium-light body with a crisp, semi-sweet finish
Drinkability: I could drink a whole 22 of this in one sitting and have room for more
Summary: I really enjoy this white ale; it has great flavor but doesn't hit you over the head with it; the body is right on and finishes nicely; I don't understand why it doesn't rate well, except to say that RateBeer's statistics might tell you something: while it has a 49 on RateBeer, the average for the style is a mere 60. It's not a trendy style, it's not a trendy brewery, it's not a trendy flavor profile, or use trendy ingredients; but it is a good beer that I have enjoyed drinking.

I did receive this bottle in the mail from Alaskan Brewing Co. However, they made their money with bottle since I will most definitely be buying more.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Great American Beer Fest Winners 2011

This past weekend was yet another Great American Beer Fest. While MBR went last year, we were unable to attend this year. Nonetheless, they held the event anyway.

Congratulations to the following Wisconsin breweries (and brewpubs). They each brought home some bling (do people still say "bling"?):

New Glarus Brewing Company: Blacktop IPA: American-style Black Ale: Gold
New Glarus Brewing Company: Raspberry Tart: Fruit Beer: Gold
Capital Brewing Company: Autumnal Fire: German-style Doppelbock or Eisbock: Gold
Capital Brewing Company: Eisphyre: German-style Doppelbock or Eisbock: Bronze
Lakefront Brewing Company: New Grist: Gluten-Free Beer: Silver
Vintage Brewing Company: Wee Heavy: Scotch Ale: Silver