By the end of 2016, this part of the internets will be no more. The blog posts are being moved to the new home of A Good Beer Blog but this place, this tool that has done such a good job helping me share my thoughts will be turned off. After 3,431 posts and over 13,000 comments on this one blog, time has done what time will do. The server is old. It sits in the offices of my pals, former clients and former co-workers at the web development firm silverorange. For almost 14 years, they have been the greatest server masters a boy could wish for. They have taught me much - and also taught me to figure it out by myself when needed. I will be forever grateful.
Two bits of related US big craft beer industry news this week. First, Japan's Kirin has acquired about 24.9999% of Brooklyn Brewery for an undisclosed sum on largely undisclosed terms. Second, Stone Brewery is laying off 5-6% of their workforce. How about we look at the latter first. Part of the news release states in part:
...the onset of greater pressures from Big Beer as a result of their acquisition strategies, and the further proliferation of small, hyper-local breweries has slowed growth. With business and the market now less predictable, we must restructure to preserve a healthy future for our company...
This is interesting. For some time I have been going on about the schism in craft beer. So long I bored myself with the obviousness of it. This statement confirms it. There are three sorts of craft: macro craft, big craft and micro craft. The one in the middle has the shortest shelf life. Boosters will deny it, but the sales slump for big craft has been a thing for a while. So steps have had to be taken and this is what it looks like after things change at the heart of a business. They are not alone. Remember, just last April, Stone tried to suggest that the outside investment funds they took on were "craft" investments. Silly PR committee. No one believed it. The immediate response today from Jason Alstrom reflected what might be going on: "Typical corporate response ... Does not sound like Stone at all. They are having a tough time wearing those bigboy pants." The CEO is blamed but the Board and ownership set out the tasks for the CEO to complete. Likely for very good reasons given the tired brand and founders.
In the other notable story, Brooklyn has taken Kirin's cash. The transaction's obvious and awkward effort to avoid hitting the 25% share level led me to review the Brewers Association's definition of craft. An American craft brewer must be independent and to be independent...
Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.
Notice that careful placement of "or" in that definition. Clearly, it is possible to control more of a craft brewery than owning the same relative measure in shares. How does that occur? By the transaction for the sale of shares including a shareholders' agreement that effectively bars the corporation from doing many things without consent of the otherwise minority shareholder. As a result, the BA's 25% ownership rule is meaningless in the world of creative financing and investment. Strings shall be both pulled and used to tie things down. Jason Notte commented on Twitter on the distinction between ownership and control as a factor in establishing the independence of a brewery:
I often wonder how deeply @BrewersAssoc dives into the details. They have a lot on the plate without auditing every deal.
The Devil is in the details, they say. If the Brewers Association is not able to keep up with the implications of the realities of business like investment terms why bother having the definition at all. Maybe that is the plan for 2017. These are, after all, the days and months of change. The big names of big craft are mostly moving out as the money moves in. It seems that only the man of yogurt is sticking around to bask in the twilight of these dusky days for big craft even after cashing out in his own way. He must be holding out for something more - but what?
I choose the Gose style in particular since it can be approached in so many different ways. Want to talk about the history of the Gose? How about how American breweries are taking this style and running wild with it with different spice and fruit additions? How else has the Gose manifested itself outside its German homeland? Is the Gose here to stay or will it go the way of the Black IPA, once the hot style but slowly becoming a largely irrelevant curiosity? (OK, that might not be your opinion of the Black IPA, but you get the idea.) Of course, we're all on the look-out for a good Gose, so if there are any you particularly like, we'd love to hear about them.
You will see that I put German in quotation marks. Gose isn't really a German style any more than Black IPA has anything to do with India. One of the most telling things about gose was set out in a recent tweet by Ron Pattinson:
Changing times. I used to wish more Goses were brewed.
Ron pretty much reintroduced at least the English-speaking world to gose with his 2007 post "Gose" but what he described as gose in that post is not really what is called gose today. Does it matter? I live in a town, a region without regular access to Gose. When I think of comparables, I have always ensured I have backup gueuze in the stash but I have never hoarded gose. Not because gose is not interesting. It's just that most gose is not gose. It's a Gatorade alcopop. In just 2010, I could describe gose as "now lost" in my review of a book by Stan - though it was beginning to make craft brewery appearances in a truer form months later. In 2011, it was noted by Pete and Stan that the Oxford Companion to Beer missed, among many things, any reference to gose, though Garrett explained. Then the word "gose" - if not the beer - took off. It was already worth ridicule in 2012. By 2014, I was being offered low alcohol, salty Sunny D in one of the best beer bars in Toronto. Infantiled fruity gak. By 2015, it is the sign of the end times.
I have had lovely light, tangy, sea pinched gose. When it is done with respect, it is singular. Sadly, as with too much with craft beer, the low path is too often taken. The easy option selected. In the hands of a thoughtful brewer with a sense of tradition there is a memorable play of wheat, salt and herb that satisfies. It is fulfilling in a way that never attracts the idea of moreish. If I could I would put a small clay jug of cool real gose on the Thanksgiving* table this weekend to drink along with the turkey and cranberry. If I dared trust the word on the label. Which I don't. So I likely won't. If I could find it.
*Of which the New York Times is suddenly obsessed.
Confession. I have fed Stan in my home. I have been asked by Stan why he bothers discussing things with me. My name appears in this book. I am very fond of Stan. All of which may influence my opinion of his writings, of this book. Along with the fact that this was a review copy kindly forwarded from the publisher. Can't help it. Heck, if I run the photo contest again this Christmas I might just give it away as the only prize. I'm like that.
But let's work around that for the moment. As with his other books for the Brewers Publications series, Stan has written a practical guide. Starting with the second half of the book, we see it contains discussions on foraging, a directory of ingredients one might consider adding to a beer to capture locality in the glass and, then, a collection of brewing recipes - including one for an 1835 Albany Ale supplied by Craig which has its roots in a report to the New York State Senate from that year which I discussed now over six years ago. It is flattering but at the same time something I consider important. Beer and brewing in the north end of the Western Hemisphere has a history which goes back at least 439 years - not counting the Viking expeditions. You would think it was invented by the immigrants who moved here after the varying successes of the 1830s revolutions in Europe. It wasn't.
Much to his credit, Stan goes even further back and documents one beverage of one of the peoples who were here before European colonization: corn-based tiswin of the Apache. He also ties late 1800s Okalhoma choc with the Choktaw people who were relocated in the genocidal trail of tears two generations before. There would have been others - but they were not by any means pervasive according to a Senacan cultural botanist pal of mine. Yet it is hard to believe that the brewers of New Sweden in the 1650s making beer from local pumpkins, corn, persimmons and watermelons didn't learn something from the locals.
What the depth and breadth of Brewing Local conveys is a picture of a complex and largely unexplored understanding of indigenous vernacular brewing on this continent. It is an exciting time to have an interest in such things. Stan emailed me earlier this year that he would have included my idea of "four eras of cream ale" had he come across it in time. I suspect I hadn't even written it in any proper manner before he saw it. Months later, I got to hunting around "cream beer" dating back to the early 1800s with the hints of its pre-lager existence, its earlier German immigrant foundations and its potential links to later 1850s Kentucky Common. All of which might also be worthy of a footnote or two in this book. Had I written it. Had someone - anyone - looked it up. There is so much yet to be pursued.
Which is a good thing. Which makes for a very good book. Because the book is both history and guide, both a "how to" and also a "why" which ties a lot of things together in a way that hasn't been done before. It's a part of a bigger collective work in progress. [I don't find fault that Stan, for example, doesn't mention the reason I think steam beer is called steam beer but that is also part of the bigger working out of things. I could be dead wrong.] Does this make it a milestone book in North American brewing history? Could be. I'll have to read it a more few times to form a full opinion on this book. You should, too.
The tweeted response from Nickel Brook Brewing this morning read "how bout them pumpkins?" It was sent in reply to today's hurried announcement of A Good Beer Blog's Pumpkinness Assurance Certificate Program. The program was launched after many many minutes of study and consumer outreach consultancy upon reading this post by the venerable Boing Boing which explains:
Pumpkin is too watery and stringy to can, and the USDA has an exceptionally loosey-goosey definition of "pumpkin," which allows manufacturers to can various winter squash varieties (including one that Libby's specially bred to substitute for pumpkin) and call it "100% pumpkin."
WHAT??? Boing Boing was/were just quoting an article at Food + Wine which contains this bombastic statement: "pumpkin puree is not pumpkin. It’s squash." Oh gourd - no... we live in a land of LIES!!! Now, as Stan testified a few days ago, pumpkin beers are more popular than the chorus of complaints would have us understand. He told us to look at what people are putting in their shopping carts. Sounds like he should have told us to look at what brewers are putting in their mash tuns.*
How many pumpkin ales are actually being made of this year's pumpkin patch crop as opposed to last year's bucket of miscellaneous variety gourd glop? How many other ingredients in your beer could be treated with such callous disregard? I posted a tweet bearing witness to the scene at Cambridge Brewing Company near MIT in Massachusetts on 18 August 2013. You can click on that thumbnail to see the volunteers at work. How many other craft brewers put in the effort that Nickel Brook and CBC are putting in? Speak up! Do you know of one? Send in some compelling evidence and we can issue an official Proof of Pumpkinness Assurance Certificate Notification. For an unnecessarily large fee I am sure I could even draw, sign and mail a certificate to someone. And make sure you ask to see the paper before you buy your next pumpkin ale. Accept no imitations.
*By the way, I get it. I have seen a Blue Hubbard Squash. I have even grown them. Ugly as sin even if tasty as all get out. No wonder they keep them hidden from view. Might make the greatest ale in the history of mankind but no one is putting that on the label.
One unfortunate consequence has arisen, as far as I see, from the relatively (or perhaps just otherwise) good thing that is the swapping out of amateur beer blogging for fewer paying opportunities for the writing. I wonder whether its only me but over the last year or so I have seen more and more comments like a topic being too nuanced for open discussion or, worse perhaps, the idea that one's research is too personally important set out in a blog post. Concurrently, I have seen a lot of interesting voices drop away from the discussion even as, yes, some other interesting ones show up. Makes me wonder.
A few unfortunate things seem to have resulted. The research never ends up getting presented - or perhaps even finished - which makes us all the worse off simply through lack of information sharing. Publishers don't turn out to be that interested, I guess. Then, because it is already labeled as important, when it is published there is an implication that it is not open to scrutiny. The good beer discourse seems especially immune to the normal sort of semi-academic rigor that other topics normally attract. Third, there seems to be a resulting shift such that the cleverness now sits in the person rather than on the page. It never does.
This is not an accusation. Just an observation. It may just be something driven by a tinge of regret that the golden age of beer blogging - and the inherently zesty dynamics - are more than a few years past us. It may be the bleat of the buggy whip salesman seeing his first automobile. Pity me. Yet, there is a more recent combination of homogenized perspective and disengagement that saddens a bit.These things do not seem to be happening in other areas of pop culture like baseball or music. I can openly proclaim that I think the Blue Jays suck but who speaks against the new hops?
Perhaps it's just an intermediate stage. We may be at a point at which risks are too great so things naturally get clenched. Maybe its just part of a greater thing. While I was talking about the sorts of stories that appear in an daily Google news search for "beer" when I rushed off the footnote the other day, I wonder if I might have as easily created a similar list for beer writing. I hope that isn't the case.
Happy to hear other views, by the way. If anyone is left who does that sorta thing. And links to interesting new writing most welcome.
She accidentally spilled Mangeya’s drink and he became angry and violent, threatening to beat us up. He shouted obscenities at the top of his voice. He eventually calmed down after some shoppers spoke to him and we reimbursed him $1 for his drink and promised to buy his water glass,” said Miss Mary Shumba, one of the workers at Regal Supermarket. She said Mangeya went away but later came back with some explosives that he connected to power cables while he was sitting at the entrance to the shop.
It is unkind to make light of events in distant and less secure lands. Yet there are only four sorts* of news stories left about beer, one being variations on the theme of beer and crime. And of all those wicked stories blowing up a shopping complex has got to be up there as the greatest over-reaction I have ever seen. The use of "lost his marbles" in an actual report of a thwarted crime of this scale is just an added bonus.
As discussed last year, tales of true crime and beer are a venerable part of our social discourse. Those three mugs of beer for the servant girl in 1729 illustrate the opposite end of the same old measuring stick. For better or worse both moralists and felons often associate beer and crime. Do we deny the truth with the fervour of a semi-amateur craft PR consultant sensing something that might compromise his revenue stream? Or do we embrace the seamy reality as part of beers role in life's rich pageant?
*1. "Beer Fest / Bar / Micro / Wet Hops Coming To Town!"; 2. Interview (with no corroborating fact checking) of Great Figure in Craft Brewing (yogurt optional); 3. Travel Piece on "Wherever The Junket Money Sent The Author"... and it was Amazeballs!; 4. Beer Crime.
It was the opinion of my father, as I have recorded, that all the Baltimore beers were poisonous, but he nevertheless kept a supply of them in the house for visiting plumbers, tinners, cellar-inspectors, tax-assessors and so on, and for Class D social callers. I find by his bill file that he paid $1.20 for a case of twenty-four bottles. His own favorite malt liquor was Anheuser-Busch, but he also made occasional experiments with the other brands that were then beginning to find a national market: some of them to survive to this day, but the most perished under Prohibition. His same bill file shows that on December 27, 1883, he paid Courtney, Fairall and Company, then the favorite fancy grocers of Baltimore, $4 for a gallon of Monticello whiskey. It retails now for from $3 to $3.50 a quart. In those days it was always straight, for the old-time Baltimoreans regarded blends with great suspicion, though many of the widely-advertised brands of Maryland rye were of that character. They drank straight whiskey straight, disdaining both diluents and chases. I don't recall ever seeing my father drink a high-ball; the thing must have existed in his day, for he lived on to 1899, but he probably regarded its use as unmanly and ignoble. Before every meal, including breakfast, he ducked into the cupboard in the dining-room and poured out a substantial hooker of rye, and when he emerged he was always sucking in a great whiff of air to cool off his tonsils. He regarded this appetizer as necessary to his well-being. He said that it was the best medicine he had ever found for toning up his stomach.
Not to mention this one:
...there are still oyster-roasts in Baltimore on Winter Sunday afternoons, and since the collapse of Prohibition they have been drawing pretty good houses. When the Elks give one they hire a militia armory, lay in a thousand kegs of beer, engage 200 waiters, and prepare for a mob. But the mob is not attracted by the oysters alone; it comes mainly to eat hot-dogs, barbecued beef and sauerkraut and to wash down these lowly victuals with the beer. The greatest crab cook of the days I remember was Tom McNulty, originally a whiskey drummer but in the end sheriff of Baltimore, and the most venerated oyster cook was a cop named Fred. Tom's specialty was made by spearing a slice of bacon on a large fork, jamming a soft crab down on it, holding the two over a charcoal brazier until the bacon had melted over the crab, and then slapping both upon a slice of hot toast.
I probably read that passage about that crab and bacon toast sandwich as well as those thousand kegs of beer thirty years ago and it still makes my mouth water. My kind of pairing and breakfast in the free state, indeed.
Ah, my least favourite glass ever meets my favourite brewery of 2016. I got the Kwak glass likely the best part of a decade ago and had to wash a decade's worth of dust off it to celebrate or mark or mourn today's news. I am not sure I deeply care as I have never liked the beers of Bosteels all that much - though I liked Kasteel in 2004. Jeff has some of the early reports. Suffice it to say that the Great Satan now has a maker of muted B grade Belgian malty things in its portfolio. My world has not altered.
Which is not what I said when a number of mid-central Ontario's Sawdust City beers started showing up in tins placed on retail shelves here in south-eastern Ontario. Great value at about $2.75 CND each, they all have more then held up their end of the bargain. This 4.5% ale pours a swell yellow gold with a rich white head. On the nose there's plenty of weedy herb along with a fair chunk of white grapefruit rind over a cream background. The swally is interesting. A brightly ringing bitterness elbows out a modest lemon cream cake foundation. Lots of dry white grapefruit pith from the four hops named on the side of the can. Busy but still attractive. Especially on a day that is hitting 102F with the humidity.
You know, I'll pour the next beer in another glass and put this monstrosity away likely until I hit my sixties. It's all more than a little overdone, pointless marketing for a brewery that really hid in a safe spot in the market. Now owned by the forces of evil. Or of the future. Or just of reality. Gnashing over it all is a bit like being angry about that goldfish that died back in junior high. Things change. Things you have ultimately little to do with. Good beer, however, keeps showing up. Like this one from Sawdust City.
The discussion at hand is "The Role of Beer Books". Participants can talk about that first book that caught their attention, which brought them to get interested in beer; or maybe about books that helped developing their local beer scene. There's also the bad role of books that regrettably misinform readers because their authors did not do their work properly. There are many different ways to tackle this topic.
These are good things to think about. I have co-written three books about beer and also written, imagine if you can, 3,421 posts on just this one beer blog. That is a nutty amount of writing. Which means I must value writing about beer. I must, right? Over 13 years ago in May 2003 my first beer blog post was actually titled "Books About Beer" and it was about the 27 books on my bedside table. I copied the post over from my earlier blog, the one about everything else I thought about. Because in those days that was what I was thinking about, looking to figure stuff out about my interest in home brewing and how this internet thing might help me out.
I do not read that many books about beer any more even though I have many times as many at hand. Books suffer from a lot of challenges when it comes to a topic like beer. It is difficult to hit on a new universal topic that holds up its interest from first draft to publication. Plus publishers want something plenty will want to buy. So we have a glut of samey style guides as well as yawn inducing food and pairing guides. "Shrimp and avocado wrap? Brilliant!" These sorts of challenges were discussed in a comment placed by Martyn Cornell under a post I wrote later in 2003, my review of his book Beer: The Story of the Pint. It is jam-packed with so many good thoughts I thought I would lift it from the archives for reconsideration here:
Thank you for giving me the luxury to respond at length to some well-meant criticism, a privilege authors almost never get.
First, I would say that the two Peters and I were trying to do rather different jobs in our takes on the history of British beer brewing and drinking: mine was meant to be much more specifically about the brewers and the beers they brewed, rather than a concentration on the social context in which beer was made and drunk. That is why you will find plenty of stuff in my book not only about the beers of the past, their likely strengths and tastes, but stuff on the rise and fall of the pub brewer, the crises that hit the family brewers in the 20th century and so on that you won't find in Haydon or Brown, and much less in my book about pubs. Theirs (particularly Haydon) are histories of pubs and drinking rather than beers, brewers and brewing. Both Haydon and Brown use their books for polemics about the state of the British beer and pub scene today: I wanted a pure history book. (I do the current analysis thing in another place, as editor of a yearly guide called Key Issues in the UK Pub and Bar Market.)
Second, I set out deliberately to ensure an accurate account, to destroy the dozens of myths that have encrusted the history of beer, with one chapter devoted to some of the worst errors. If I couldn't verify a story from original sources I wouldn't print it. You will see my version of the Great Meux Brewery Beer Flood of 1814 and Pete Brown's are rather different. He took his more spectacular account from Alan Eames's Secret Life of Beer, an American book that came out in 1995 (which, curiously, gives the wrong date for the flood, October 16 – it was October 17.) My facts came from contemporary issues of The Times newspaper and the Gentleman's Magazine. Where Eames got his version from I don't know, but none of the stuff about people being crushed in the rush for free beer, riots in a nearby hospital and the collapse of the floor at a temporary morgue appear in any British sources that I have been able to trace, either contemporary or more recent. There's an old journalistic joke about never letting the facts get in the way of a good story – unfortunately, a history book can't take that line.
Third I am proud that there is a mass of genuine, verifiable material in Beer: The Story of the Pint that has simply never appeared before in any book about brewing history (and certainly doesn't appear in Haydon or Brown): to mention just a few, Atrectus the brewer and the Vindolanda tablets; Henry VIII and his mobile breweries; John Leeson, the first brewer to rise to the aristocracy; street porters; the true nature of the beers exported to India from Britain (which included, contrary to popular belief, masses of porter alongside the pale ale); and the first histories of two important British beer styles, Burton Ale and AK.
Incidentally, I was aware of the Wind in the Willows reference to Burton Ale. In my original draft (cut from the final edition) I pointed out that in Arthur Rackham's illustrations to Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s tale, his drawing of the Christmas homecoming scene shows the bottles that Ratty found in Mole’s cellar bear labels that carried the red diamond of Bass Burton ale (as opposed to the red triangle of the pale ale labels). Bass No 1 barley wine still carries the same red diamond ?
Let's unpack it, shall we? Setting aside the idea of anyone thanking me for my criticism, that first paragraph identifies a very important point. There are no books about beer. There are books about topics related to beer. Beer is too big a thing to have a book written about it all. Anyone who calls themselves a beer expert is, by any sensible measurement, not a beer expert. There are rhetorical polemics as well as beer histories. There are many other sorts of opportunities for books addressing particular topics within beer and brewing. As mentioned in the second paragraph, there are also good stories which are immune from very much rigor. We learned about that when infamously undertaking the careful reading of the Oxford Companion to Beer and then stopped when the obvious level of error got too depressing. In the third paragraph, Martyn makes his best point. He felt in that book he had recorded some things which were simply not written about before: "...Henry VIII and his mobile breweries; John Leeson, the first brewer to rise to the aristocracy; street porters..."
This is the glory of good beer writing and, sadly, one reason it is so rarely found in books. Or magazines for that matter. The process of writing a book contains too many gates: self censorship, uninterested editors, sales focused publishers. Pete Brown somewhere wrote about the glum day when his publisher let him know that another beer book would simply not be welcome - soon after publishing another winner. So, that being the way it is, we get the style guides as well as the beer and food pairing books. Yet more than a few good ones get through the system. Boak and Bailey's Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer was shockingly good. In fact so good that I am all pins and needles waiting for the promised follow up. And Alistair is entirely correct in pointing Evan Rail's way for a trove of good reading. And I named Pete Brown beer writer of the first half decade last Christmas. It can be done. There are more. Go find them.
Is reading books about beer important? The worthy ones are. You have to judge which those are from your point of view. For a few years now, I have been focusing my writing on pre-1825 history and happy to do so. So I hunt out histories even though I will often find myself disappointed. I myself even have a 10,000 word summary for a book entitled Beer in North America before 1700 - which I appreciate will never be published. Too few care. But what does that matter? Some do. For all I know there are folk out there who day after day find fulfillment in eating their dinner with a beer matched up for them by a stranger. "Shrimp and avocado wrap? Brilliant!" The world is a weird and varied place. Exploring it through books will help guide you even if your decisions will likely be based on your own variety of personal weirdness.