Interesting week. Lots of "value in good beer" discussion all of a sudden. Something I was going on about in 2007. David Ort is now naming the benchmark beers in Ontario. Jeff in Oregon is calling out the dumb arguments to support over-priced beer. It is amazing to watch folk make impassioned arguments for paying more than necessary. But if good beer is whatever we want it to claim it to be - for either love or money as illustrated above - who should care? I just had a beer from New Zealand that apparently had some raisin in it. It was pretty bad. Not spit out bad. Dull bad. Why would I care about that beer? Did it simply lack that "great simplicity" that Dredgie speaks of in the video? Or did it just taste like that box of raisins I had in my grade five lunch bag when the folks maybe had a little less money for the groceries than they did the week before? There will be another beer that makes me forget this one soon. Maybe I buy that craft beer isn't a commodity but I'm starting to think craft brewers might be. And good beer consultants now that I think of it.
Back home. Been in the USA since Thursday and, unlike a lot of you who have to cross an ocean or get out a map, I was able to hit three grocery stores on the way home. See, I live 37 minutes from the international Thousand Islands Bridge, the most beautiful border crossing on the planet. So I bought laundry soap. But unlike most trips into the nearby Empire State, the family was not in tow. I don't take off in another direction all that often. Which means I had a lot of time in the car to think about stuff. Or at least stuff other than where Mr. Bunny had gotten himself to. It's always under the swim bag, by the way.
I had all the time in the world to think about what attending the SUNY Cobleskill event Grain to Glass meant. It certainly was the opposite of that stunned big craft celebrity brewer neediness. The room was full of people interested in becoming better brewers, better hop growers, better business people. It was also held on alumni weekend at the school, largely an agricultural college. There were chain saw demonstrations as illustrated past the corn stalk. There was free pulled pork from the hospitality school students, classrooms of diesel engine repair classes to check out and a whole bunch of other stuff. Beer was a topic among topics. It was a trade. It was placed in its proper place. A hipster free zone where no one gave a rat's ass about the next PR twisty line coming out of the national Brewers Association board. Excellent.
Then, there was thinking about where I fit in to that proper place. People were really interested at that event and the others Craig and I attended about their region, their history and their beer. Beer was part of their culture. They were not there to learn about their niche hobby. There was no beer community. There was beer in the community. So, they wanted to know about traditional hops as opposed to new hybrid flavoured hops. Folk there - like at the other events - want to know about US ale brewing history, how there was two centuries of beery life before lager. It's good to imagine how brewers in training might want to emulate those who came before them instead of some big craft guy who they see on YouTube or a TV ad. Are you picking up a theme?
One of the real treats of the trip was talking with a guy who has run a bar called The Lionheart for a quarter of a century who has found the way to sell three dollar pints of US craft beer while making a good living. A lot of it has to do with running a good bar with great staff but a lot of it also has to do with ignoring the next big thing that never turns out to be the next big thing. Taking care. Supporting local. Looking for value. Remembering the customer pays the bills not the suppliers. Including different sorts of clientele. Serving a mix of clients was also the obvious decision Browns of Troy which was running a charity event in another section of the brewery while we were holding forth in another space talking about the city's brewing heritage. In a third section, the bar crowd were kicking back Brown's great oatmeal stout or an IPA made on site as Jeter played his last game for the Yankees on the big screen. And as the Giants beat the Washington Whatchamacallits on another.
What's it all mean? Why do I bother spending holiday time and more money on discount hotels than I will ever make on the book to visit again and again. I was telling someone how weird it is studying and writing about the history of a city I have no personal connection with. Yet when I am there - whether it is Troy or Cobleskill or Syracuse or up in the North Country - it feels like a place that is entirely normal. Not to mention beautiful. Yesterday afternoon I cut out of the SUNY event to take three hours to doddle my way over to Syracuse on a warm Saturday afternoon care of route 28 then along route 20 to route 92. Changing leaves. Pre-interstate main roads though small towns, along river valleys over rolling hills farmed for generations. Took me through watersheds that meet the ocean at Baltimore, New York and east of Montreal. Bought a hot dog at a Stewart's.
Reading what I just wrote, if I am Stan I might think about how beer comes from this place and with the farmstead brewing and hop yards and cideries there is a lot to be said for that. But it is also a great place that you can learn about through its beer, its bars and its breweries. Beer isn't a community. It is a window through which you can get to know about a community. That is why I am actually optimistic. You may not catch that from time to time but I do disagree with the idea posted by Boak and Bailey last week that beer is not as rich a seam as food, or music, or film. Beer is as rich but you have to know what beer isn't to appreciate the point. Beer is not passive and it is not haute or elite. It is pervasive and innocuous. When we say beer is like bread we have to remember it is really like bread. An everyday thing. But we live and have lived in the everyday for hundreds and thousands of years in communities built around the brewery as much as the church and the town hall. That's what people do as they do other stuff with their lives. Like these guys who you can see in the background of the picture above. People of the beer, I'd say.
That's worth writing about.
Jeff has written a good piece on the results to be drawn from the experience of being part of a NAGBW judging team:
We had 34 entries that were published in probably ten different publications, and they ranged from very short reviews to lengthy pieces on styles, equipment, or process. One entry on a bit of brewing history ran on for thirty pages. When you immerse yourself that deeply into something, you have a chance to see patterns and habit--not all of them good.
He gives four themes for better writing and then concludes that for "... those of you who read beer books, magazines, and blogs, what would you like to see change? Where do we need to go as we evolve?" Good thoughts. I know not who the "we" he speaks of are but the structures of his thinking are top drawer, spot on. I appreciate his experience as I was on the beer book judging panel. We reviewed more books than I have toes. While I have the normal number of toes I still consider that a reasonably sizable number so, as a tool for use in counting like books, I am sure you will agree it represents a fair quantity indeed. And while I won't spill the beans on the jury room deliberations, it is fair to say that I also drew some lessons, like Jeff, from the experience. What shall they be? Let's see:
=> Write something new: There are subject matter themes, structures and literary tricks that look awfully familiar. This may mean they are comforting. That also means they are ruts. Deep ruts. Want expend some intellectual value into the book? Don't bother with the preface by the guy who once brewed but now plays, takes sabbaticals and owns a lot of shares in a big craft brewery. Want to write a "complete guide" to understanding beer? At least acknowledge all those who have written the same books before you. Better? Don't write it. We have enough.
=> Do some reading. If you find you have used a whale analogy about over-priced beers but haven't clued into that this might be a Moby Dick reference, you might want to do a bit more research to understand the implicit implications. And if you don't know that much about beer history, don't bother jabbing down that ale in America before lager brewing came along was sour, murky and foul. You will be wrong and look silly.
=> Don't expect moolah: There is no money in beer writing. Few live on the stuff and many find a way to turn a large investment of resources into a very small return. Read this. See? Plus, a chunk of beer writing is aimed at placing a name in the media, getting the author to the next writing or leveraging the next, wow, collaboration opportunity. It shows. No one cares. Nothing dates a book more quickly than goals beyond the covers. Focus on the text. Don't waste my time (... and I get review copies.)
=> Don't write to be liked: Stan warmed my heart when he wrote "I’m not certain what sort of audience this... will reach" when he discussed The Unbearable Nonsense of Craft Beer at the beginning of this year. As I explained, it was written to express. It was also meant to challenge and offend and make people laugh. And it did. The two brewing histories - Albany and Ontario - have been more traditional in structure but have raised lots of interesting questions and solve some puzzles, too. They were itches that needed to be scratched.
Good lessons? Could be. Now, Jeff asked questions at the end. I won't poach his questions. Answer those questions over there. If you need to respond, if you are dawn to react to me you might want to ask yourself things like "is Al nuts?" or "how bitter can he get?" Frankly, I don't care what you think or do but if you are going to write don't be fawning, boring, dumb or wrong. Be yourself. Unless you like to be fawning, boring, dumb or wrong. Then be someone else..
Beer prices in North America may rise next year as brewers and maltsters face higher costs after cold, wet weather damaged Canadian barley crops and left farmers and tipplers crying in their beer. Canada, the world’s second-biggest exporter of malting barley, was already harvesting its smallest crop since 1968, before a recent dump of snow and freezing temperatures in Alberta, the biggest barley-growing province.
So... that's what it's all about. Really. All that snickering about August snows on Canada's Prairie provinces is all fun and games until - WHAMMO! - all the barley is DEAD!!! Fortunately, as Oliver recently pointed out, malt barley actually represents around 21/700th of the actual price of your beer. The problem is that we have that other little thing called opportunity. Which means that beer fans can expect the selling part of the "community" might stick the buying part of the "community" with a new price structure. As with the great hop crisis of 2007-08, the chance to impose a new structures might mean a 20% short term increase in the cost of malting barley of, say, 20% x 21 cents = 4.2 cents undergoes magical beeronomics to add to a buck to the price of a six-pack as a permanent reality. Notice that the 2009 inaugural Portland Beer Price Index was based on the question how the $5 six-pack became the $9 six-pack so quickly. Hmm.
Of course, this could go the other way. We Canadians could just shut the border and keep all the remaining crop for ourselves and you southern North Americans could be living in the land of the $32 six-pack. So... just mind your step.
Look at that. Taylor's Brewery from around 1900. Craig posted it up on Facebook the other day and I immediately thought... too bad that bridge is in the way. So, I pulled out the fire insurance map from a few years yearlier and thought some cross referencing of the image would help clarify things. Click on the image for a larger version.
Why is this important? Well, is anything important in this mortal coil? OK, why is this sorta neat? You will recall that Taylor is the biggest brewer in Albany, in New York State and maybe in America. Maybe even in all the Americas. But not in around 1900 when the photo is taken. By this point, the firm is well in its decline. Half a century earlier, the property looked like it does in this ad, Click on that. The guts of the 1850s-60s structures are still there in the photo but much has changed. The small harbour between the buildings has been filled in as the world shifted from sail to rail. Taylor actually no longer runs it's business from the river side of the building to the left. I believe the Taylors themselves are no longer running the business by that point - though I stand to be corrected. Also, the gables are added to that building to the left and it is widened to the north covering over some of the area which once was the harbor. Or it is a new building. Or the old one expanded. Not sure that its an entirely new building as the grain elevator, that thing built out towards the river on stilts, is in the same place. The windows of that building to the left are the same size, spaced the same and in the same number... if you accept that the building widens through to the north. Maybe. The creek lives on still. It would have emptied into the small harbour mid-century.
Anyway, just some thoughts on built brewing heritage. For more thoughts, you might want to come out to some of next week's book tour events. Did I mention there is a book? Craig is doing the lion's share of book promotion but I will be in the area on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
LATER: Craig the rectifier sent me this updated image below with the further comments below the below. I need to absorb this all...
So sayeth Craig:
"I think you're thinking the gabled building in the 1900 photo is the building to the left in the 1850s ad. It's not. The left building in the 1850s ad (the taller of the two, with the TAYLOR BREWERY sign across the roofline and the grain elevator) is the second building in the 1900 photo (the one that says TAYLOR'S PORTER & ALES vertically). The vacant lot (the former harbor) is to the right of that, but to the left of where the bridge meets the shore. The building in the 1850s ad, which reads CREAM ALE (apparently a malt house) is not shown in the 1900s photo. It's a little confusing because of the bridge. What you have labeled as "six story building" and "North facing Taylor ad on side of building," are the same, long building—the one with the TAYLOR BREWERY sign across the roofline and the grain elevator in the 1850s ad. The creek outlet between the gabled building and the building reading TAYLOR'S PORTER & ALES in the 1900 photo is the creek outlet to the left of the building on the 1850s ad that reads TAYLOR BREWERY.
The race towards abandonment of actual craftwork in the making of craft beer races ahead, lead by the forces of big craft. Just look!
Scoff if you must at mass domestic beers, but lessons learned from the makers of Budweiser and Miller Lite are helping to make sure your craft beer tastes the same from pint to pint. Far from the small and scrappy crew of home brewers that started the movement, craft brewers increasingly are turning to employees of much larger shops like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors to tap their experience in creating beer with a consistent flavour and quality time after time on a large scale... Craft beer drinkers have simply come to expect that every time they crack a can or bottle it will taste the same as the last. If that doesn’t happen, breweries risk losing customers, says Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Colorado-based Brewers Association.
There are a number of reasons why this is such an unfortunate concept. One of the hallmarks of something actually "crafted" is an expression of its making. The microbrewing trade - and its pushy offshoots big craft and experimental pop fad beer - is challenged to provide that sort of expression primarily due to being thirty years into its medium scale industrialization. Brewing is an automated process. From nano to macro, computers and monitors and scales and bottling lines all run to a level of precision and speed that only modern gleaming stainless steel and the digital screens of computers can provide.
But with that embrace of the machine comes loss and, in the case of beer, it means the loss of variation. Variation is actually good. Very good. It is praised in wine. Not only from vintage to vintage but bottle to bottle and even the same bottle over time. A lump of good cheese in the fridge shifts from day to day. Jeans wear in. Ball gloves improve with age and use. These realities, however, are slipping beyond the grasp of big craft not only due to industrial methods but scale and speed not to mention anonymity. For most big brewers, whether macro or craft, the customer is distant. Or rather distanced. In a variety of times and space. Their beer can't be expected to be an expression or a conversation as no one can hear them. As a result, the beer must be less than it could be. Managed. Sterilized. No longer taking its own path. Spoken for by PR staff as it can no longer speak for itself.
The funniest thing, of course, is that it is not true. Beer degrades as soon as it leaves the tap. And it degrades according to the conditions present for each beer. The beer in the cooler for a couple of weeks is brighter than the beer stocked on the warm shelves. The beer dated a week ago takes different from the one that left home a couple of months ago. The most interesting brewers know this. Bottle conditioned beers contain the smidgen of yeast to keep the development going are intended to make their own way in life. Brewers experimenting with wild yeast and other experimental ingredients know that they are handing away a measure of control. And there is the reality of recipe tweeking. It's good. If you don't believe me, ask Mr. B. And all for the good. There is a word for it all: interesting.
So what to make of this next assertion that good beer needs to be less crafted to be craft? It's branding. Branding is what you tell folk to make that what isn't what is. Many will accept it. Many accept Bud. This is not a call for unsanitary beer. But it is a call for living beer. Beer that gets a good education and moves on with its own life. If your beer isn't like that... what is it?
I wrote this quickly over at Stan's this morning. Govern yourselves accordingly.
I have to say I find this a very unsatisfying approach. I want to preface this by saying I do not believe I am being contrarian or a prick. I am also not talking about any one person. At least I have no intention to be so. Yet this shall be firm… so, jumping in the deepend, while I appreciate the honesty of this argument (1) it smacks of a desire to prop up the concept of style, (2) there is a touch of the quest for the “new unified theory” brass ring, (3) it fails to take into account the continuity of beer in time and space, (4) it does not take into account some obvious themes that run opposite.
I am coming more and more to an understanding that there is nothing called style. If we line up concurrent beers, beers over time and beers across geography, there are few dividing line and as much complexity and evidence at the points of overlap between styles as there is in the core examples of style. I still come back to Jackson’s definition of style as just an homage to a classic beer and can go no farther.
This has been confirmed again recently. I am judging the NAGBW book entries right now and if I read another attempted statement of a unified theory I shall scream. Understanding all beer is impossible so we layer an abstract overlay that is with reasonable grasp and stand back to state (a) it explains everything and (b) I came up with it… so therefore I am clever and worth being paid as a beer writer. I understand the natural desire for achieving excellence in thought. I weep when I see the road to that excellence being based only on first constructing a unique proprietary analysis for that thought and staking a claim to authority. But I see it again and again. Thought needs building upon and yet surpassing what has gone before. Something seems to keep us spinning our wheels.
Further, that approach leads to grasping at the straws that can be assembled to prop up the new analysis and rejects alternate explanation early on. When I read about these local beers, I see “eureka” moments based on finding a reference to what happened in one place based on a scrap of evidence without the thought that the neighbouring town or county did not have its records survive. Why presume that there was not continuity with neighbours? When one reads Ungers books you see the path of jurisdictional autonomy that preserved the beer of Hoegaarden but you also see neighbouring towns and principalities being absorbed and modernized too. Wheat beers were common in the Low Countries, likely lots similar to that one. But because the evidence is not there, it’s like they never existed, conveniently now for the modern unified theorist of partitioned styles.
Finally, real themes appear to contradict niche style theory but seem to be rejected. How can beers like Kentucky Common be accepted while US beer thinking is blissfully walking around that tiny gap in history about ale brewing from, oh, 1600 to 1900. How can a part of a likely much larger whole be proclaimed as being autonomous without connections and continuities being defined. It’s not just that Albany ale still is not considered to be what it screamingly it, but it is only an example. Masses of unexplored town and city brewing and drinking experiences go unexplored I suspect because they do not fit neatly into the twin requirements of tight stylistic definition and proprietary unified theory.
Not a rant. Nor an accusation. An invitation either to prove me stupid (always a possibility) or at least see a concurrent bigger analysis that might undermine indigenousness and its kin fatally. Offered with greatest respect to the above.
An interesting event in Vietnam. The apparent imposition of the first regulation of beer:
The ministry has also proposed forcing beer companies to place stamps on their products to fight counterfeits, warn drinkers of alcohol abuse, and prevent tax evasion. The draft document was announced early this month and immediately greeted with objections from brewers, beer vendors, and drinkers, who say it lacks feasibility. The ministry thus held the conference in Hanoi, asking brewing companies “to share solutions to improve the decree, instead of criticizing it.”
This article on the lead up to the plan tells us more. Beer production licenses for the first time? No beer with improper labels? Food stafety standards? We are all into beer and like the idea of a free marketplace but... and this is important... if we like a marketplace we have to recall it is by definition regulated. If not, you are talking about anyplace, not the marketplace.
See, beer and brewing have been regulated for a long time. You will see on beer labels and other sources of bad information the idea that the German or Bavarian or some sort of jurisdiction in those parts passed a law called the Reinheitsgebot in 1516 or not. But the regulation of beer in that small part of the British Isles that became today's England enjoyed the protection of the Assize of Bread and Ale in 1266. Whatever the regulation of beer is in the British speaking world now it dates from that time or perhaps earlier. The government of Vietnam hopes that the "[g]ood management of beer production, trade and consumption will bring a lot of benefits to the society, including more jobs generated, more health effects if beer is moderately taken, and more tax revenue to the State budget." The English of 750 years ago could have said the same thing.
Our expectation of what beer is has been framed by law. It is to be pure. It is made of good stuff. It is not to be laced with crap. Law does that for us. Lovely stuff law.
What better to post after having your computer eat the long post about one's feelings as one judges beer books for the North American Guild of Beer Writers than to suggest quantity over quality and yet with quality as "Oliver Stümpfel aus Freising holt den Weltrekord im Masskrugtragen." More here.
I would never be anywhere near as good at the old Masskrugtragen myself. Not a chance.
Although David Turley of Musing Over a Pint did host a great session on Belgian-style triples (A Tripel for Two) back in February 2009, we noticed with no small element of surprise that there has not yet been a Session dedicated to discussing beers from this country generally and so we feel that we are the hosts to bring Belgian beer to the tip of your tongues both literarily and libatiously.... The rules are that there are no rules. There is incredible opportunity at your fingertips; whether it be to write about the first time you tried a Flemish red brown ale or the time you got your taste buds around a traditional Belgian witbier.
I am not sure if I recall my first Belgian beer correctly but I am pretty sure it went down in February 1986. After graduating from undergrad, three of my pals traveled together to Europe backpacking. We were meeting up with another whose parents lived in Brussels. High jinks ensued. But little of quality. I recall being in the Grand Parade. Leaving a bar one cold damp night I got the chance to interact with a machine gun toting black leather coated paramilitary officer suggesting the evening was over. Fabulous. Overdoing the whole machine gun toting black leather coated paramilitary was something of a tourism opportunity for my pal with the local connections. It was always being pointed out how important it was to the culture, like the hundred of them lined up with German shepherds and paddy-wagons to watch the small group of Chilean protesters talk about freedom one afternoon.
Anyway, what about the beer? We drank Guinness primarily. Or the next beer, whatever that was. At one point, we moved the fluid weeks of art galleries and taverns to Paris where I earned a two day hangover if not alcohol poisoning after gunning dimpled pint after dimpled pint of sweet kriek at a place called La Mort Subite where a guy called Brad from Philly saved my bacon by identifying that five guys from Gascony were about to start a bar fight with me and my pals. I thought I was being genial in my butchered backwoods Canadian school French. The next day I was sure I was dying. The pain only really kicked in around suppertime. At another point, we went into a beers-of-the-world sort of bar in Paris with a rotating globe over the front door. I had my first tripel there, mainly because it was the strongest listed beer. Again, it was in a dimpled mug. I think. Soon, I left the guys who headed south for the sun and started working in the Netherlands for a couple of months. On the train to Amsterdam I asked the Dutch lassie my age across from me, she who would not be chatted up, if we had crossed the border. She said "of course, can't you tell?" Boarded with a family and learned the wholesale flower trade before heading home and working in the family shops for a while. I loved Holland. No machine gun toting black leather coated paramilitary officers. I biked to work at 7 am joining the flow of the biking Dutch of Aaslmeer, clear headed.
At some point when I was still with my college friends, there was a calmer bar. Back in Brussels we were talking with some locals our age having a few beers. I botched the difference between "savez vous" and "connaissez vous" in a discussion of dogs. I have no idea why we were talking about dogs. Apparently I suggested someone had a rather personal relationship with a dog. Anyway, I kept the coaster and put it in an IKEA frame when I got home. Been in that glass for 28 years. Sits in the stash room now on a shelf. Next to the Guinness one.