I hadn't planned to do that. But in Canada, taxes are due tomorrow and I had more than the normal responsibilities. And the garden to dig. And naps. It's actually been distracting. Don't worry. Peas are planted. What else got done? I made bacon - sorta. First try. Sure tasty. But I will have to try again. Writing. There is one more book to compete. The draft is 5000 words shy but there is a month to make it read. Not writing it did not help it get written. I have learned that over the last week. It was a simple lesson. But an important one. Replanting a neighbour's rhubarb patch into my backyard is also an important way to not write a book. Learned that, too.
Do you see what I see? On the left is a photo I took for the fourth edition of The Session from back in 2007 on the topic of local beer. It's from the Kingston Brew Pub and I am quite pleased with it after all these years. Apparently I am not alone as on the right is a page from a menu that was apparently used in 2010 at a bar at baseball's Seattle Mariners home stadium, Safeco Field, a place called the Hit It Here Cafe. Hmm.
I found the image due to the issue being raised by Knut of Norway and then, like him, toying with Google Images' reverse search function. Knut had found one of his blog images being used by a bar in the US and contacted them about it. Then he found it being used in other places and he has received some compensation for and from the sticky fingers of others. I have had to deal with this before. Once I had the fun experience of seeing my own photo in BeerAdvocate magazine. I was not particularly satisfied with that outcome but realized it was worth more to repeat the story than to kick directly at Alstrom shins.
In this case, however, I have no affinity for the Seattle Mariners or the operators of their concession stands. I shall send an email and point out my career path choice to be a lawyer as I do. Not to be a jerk. Just to not be dismissed. But what should I ask for? Wiser people than I recommend establishing the print run of the menus, the duration of their use and total beer sales information before negotiating. It is, after all, a hell of a photo. Thirst inducing even.
An excellent story on the state of beer in Belgium by Raf Casert of the Associated Press brings home an interesting point:
Leza Wauters remembers the good times well. "Oh, we had more than 50 cafes in Dworp," she said of the bucolic village 15 kilometres (10 miles) south of Brussels, part of a hilly area of pastures whose landscapes, and beers, figured in the paintings of the famous artist Breughel. "It was incredible — it was almost like everyone had a cafe." Now the village's pubs can be counted on two hands, she said. Her granddaughter Barbara Danis fondly remembers time spent at the "In de Welkom" but recognizes its days may be numbered. Most clients are of an older generation that used to congregate daily in the pubs but that is now fading away. "You used to have card players who came here every day," she said. Now, her grandmother complains, those games are over.
Here's the thing. If Steve Hindy is right, "craft beer drinkers are not brand-loyal the way mainstream beer drinkers have been" - which is a problem. Those card players of Dworp decades ago? They were loyal. They had something in common which was the backbone of both a community locally and, along with their fellows across Belgium, a key underlying element of the nation's beer economy. You see bits and pieces of loyalty when you think about craft beer. A surprisingly large number of small pubs across Maine have Allagash white on tap. Places like Portland, Oregon have clearly triggered a strong level of local pride in local beers. But for the most part, the economics of craft beer have deviated from the idea of the local pub of decades ago and even the local micro brewery of just a years ago. It has too great a level of disinterest for that sort of loyalty - the sort that goes through thick or thin.
If that is the case, if there is a great movable thirst that seeks out the next relationship before the partner has a clue that something is wrong, isn't the hope offered by Casert at the end of the article misplaced? To be fair, he speaks of micros and not craft - and in doing so illustrates something of the distinction. While micros may be able to replicate the old local, craft offers no such chance of assistance. So what is Belgium to do? Protectionist measures to address internationalist brewers whether macro or craft? Not likely. Treaties would never allow it. Money, after all, speaks for money. What is most likely is that mass media TV and digital toys will continue to ensure the card players never come back. Personal entertainments are simply too compelling. Modernity marches on. So is Belgian beer doomed as a result? The comment might Sven Gatz from the Belgian Brewers federation might sum it up best: "you cannot be a strong beer country only exporting beer..."
A mere few days ago we learned that the new strategy for key members of the US Brewers Association was to eat their young and complain that too many new brewers were missing the obvious when it came to quality control. Today, however, a less than venerable but still charmingly high billing craft brewery took a stand against quality control when it issued this press release which offered a clever countering strategy for beer that doesn't pan out as expected:
On the plus side, we are offering these bottles at $20/bottle before your membership discount. The expense of making these two collaboration beers would ordinarily have put them into our $30/bottle category, but given the potential issue we hope lowering the price will give you more confidence in giving these beers a shot. However, given its price point and our desire for you to drink this as soon as possible, we will not be applying wax to the top of the bottle as we originally planned.
Really? You don't dump the batch? And you cite the "expense of making these two collaboration beers"? Don't get me wrong. I am not out of pocket because I have not been impressed with any offerings I have tried by the brewery in question, chalking down the muddle to trucking beer across a continent. So I have, thankfully, no skin in the game. Except to point out that maybe once in a while risk might not be totally assigned to the consumer. Except to suggest that standards might actually matter once in a while. Except to note that it might be good to put away a little cash to self insure against the odd botch and put on our big boy pants while we are at it.
If it is good enough for big beer and the jet setting purveyors of sucker juice to suggest that if "a beer drinker has a bad experience, they are just going to go back to companies they know and trust" it is also worth the same pile on when an established brewer is passing off unstable and unintendedly sub-par beer - even at an embarrassingly inflated discount. But, as I say, I avoid this sort of problem by educating myself well in advance, by knowing how the world works.
... and what did I learn? I confirmed a lot of things. Like I like a good hotel. I like interstate highway driving. And I like red pandas, the greatest looking creature ever to walk upon the planet. Oh, and I learned a bit about local good beer, too:
-> The Galeville Byrne Dairy which replaced the old Galeville Grocery in Liverpool, NY, to the north of Syracuse has taken the good beer tradition of the old store and, five years after it closed, run with it. A fantastic selection with a few beers I did not see in Oliver's of Albany last weekend. Another shopper said "better than Wegmans" which it was.
-> The Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs have craft beer on sell... well, at least one - Saranac Pale Ale. Which means they have 100% more good beers than the rather embarrassing Toronto Blue Jays. The Chiefs also had 1911 on tap, a local draft cider. Again, at least 129,842 times what is offered by Canada's dullest pro sports franchise.
-> Middle Age's Syracuse Pale Ale remains a local standby along with its Saranac cousin. It appears on many menus that passed by my eyes including at the quite rewarding Santangelo's restaurant, an Italian place with dandy steaks and Utica greens.
I took a pass on the World of Beer at the mall known as - no, really - as Destiny USA. WoB was packed, which was good, but looked like a lot of guys drinking beer at a shopping mall. Never got that concept myself. I brought a few new things at Galeville. A insanely strong IPA from Dark Horse, a smoked porter from Evil Twin, a brown ale by Jolly Pumpkin, an IPL from Jack's Abby and a pale ale by Captain Lawrence among other things. I buy a fair bit against my prejudices... just to make sure.
Three of my favourite people in beer. Working together. Making a beer that few thought twelve months ago was worth remaking. What is 1955 to you? In my family, it's the year of my parents' courting in Scotland. The year before the wedding. Mom is serious and twenty-one. Dad is 25 and bookkeeping in Hasties, a shipyard subcontracting specialty firm. Before they decided to roll the dice on each other and a few more before they decided to roll the dice on Canada.
Pretty Things 1955 Double Brown pours bright chestnut under mocha cream rim and foam. The aroma is subdued twig and brown bread crust. In the mouth, there is greater intensity. Ron discussed the beer just before Christmas in 2008. Two types of sugar in the Whitbread original but low 70s% attenuation leaves a lighter body but still nutty richness. A bit of an almond or black cherry note. Very attractive. Plenty of hedgerow bitter herb hops.
Solid BAer respect.
I am about 80% through a mad 140,000 experiment over the last year in serial co-authoring with Max, Jordan and Craig. We have worked well together, seldom snapped and explored things that I have wondered about for years fairly deeply. It has been fun and more than fun. I am grateful. But this is not about me. Because while I have been doing that I have been watching Boak and Bailey write and discuss their upcoming publication, Brew Britannia. They wrote something today that struck me. I have no idea what it was. Not because it was a passing comment but because it was and is a comment among so many over the years. There are so few of us left, the non-journalist beer bloggers who wrote before the great recession. Maybe I cling to them. There was even a tiny Oldie Olson tweet-fest about it this week. That was nice.
But is not that sort of past that has me interested in this book. If I have learned one thing from writing so much beer history is that each door opens a room with seven doors as each of those doors do and so on and so on. I fear I have summarized too much here, left an anecdote out there. But I don't care. And I don't care because I know others are doing the same and especially that these two have taken on a massive topic that I have not really drilled into - Britain in my lifetime. Nor have many else. Sure, there are plenty of guides, biographies and articles. But modern history? Brave, that's what that is. Nuts but but brave.
OK. here's a simple puzzle for you:
The owner of a downtown Fredericton fixture says for years men used to pop into barber shops to get a haircut or shave and a drink. Troy Ashfield decided to make that tradition legal and became the first licensed barber shop in the world. “The guys were coming in and seeing an old friend, asking what they wanted to do after the haircut. I’d hear ‘Do you want to go for a beer?’ so I decided if I sell beer here, they can stick around and chat,” Ashfield said.
See? You do see, right? I just can't believe in Greece or Peru there isn't a licensed barber shop. Any ideas? Any examples? Hmm?
Don't get me wrong. I think it makes a lot of sense. I'd quite happily head to someplace with good beer for a hair cut. Or doing laundry if there was no machine in my basement. There used to be one of those on Fenwick Street in Halifax NS but its now some sort of food court thing. Too bad. There is a motel on Cobleskill NY between Albany and Binghampton with a bowling alley attached with a bar in it which means you can go get a beer in your slippers and take out some pins while you are at it. That is a good thing.
What would I like... what? If I had my druthers, I would love to find a beer bar with those table top video games from around 1983. Oatmeal stout pairs well with Missile Command. Nothing matches a good beer like defending the planet against a Soviet nuclear attack. Or seventeen. Except maybe throwing axes. Especially axes.
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This story caught my eye today:
Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing Co. of Escondido, Calif., the nation's 10th-largest craft brewery, was blunt in speaking at the conference that began Tuesday and ends Friday. "If you are starting a brewery," he said, "please, for God's sake, hire someone who knows what they're doing." Pioneering Oregon brewer John Harris said that at a time when beer education classes are tough to get into, many homebrewers who have little to go on but rave reviews from friends just open their doors and say, "Here we are." He said new breweries should spend as much money on their quality-control program as the brewing equipment.
There is plenty in this worth thinking about. The obvious one is the direct point. These veteran brewers have a legitimate right to not want newbie screw-ups undermining the quality of the craft beer reputation. Just as a rising tide raises all boats, a receding tide does the opposite. If craft gets tainted by a half-assed reputation all brewers will suffer.
Yet that is not the whole story. Elsewhere in the article, Paul Gatza, president of the Brewers Association is stated to have described diacetyl as an example of a typical error. It's just a news article but diacetyl is perfectly acceptable in certain beers, especial in the open primary sort of brewing that exists in Yorkshire and picked up through Alan Pugsly who trained there and those older north-east US micros who took up his lead. There is a cultural thing about diacetyl that looks a lot like a regionalism being dismissed in favour of big craft's love of global homogeneity. Variety is fine as long as they all vary in a similar way. Difference is not really encouraged.
Then, you read a bit more of the article. There is a statement that this is not about keeping the new little guys out. In a companion blog post, however, the costs of quality testing are discussed. It is stated that "one vendor at the Craft Brewers Conference expo hall was pitching a $40,000 testing machine." Like the new startup brewer can afford that. In the same bloggy article Gatza is quoted as saying, at one recent beer fest, "seven or eight of the 10 breweries needed improvement." He then reports that the brewers disagreed, considering their beers were awesome. Which can only be taken to mean Gatza told each of them so. Maybe through judging. Not sure. But what makes those 70-80% wrong? Maybe their beer was exactly as intended.
I have another suspicion. New smaller brewers have and do undersell the established brewers on price now. You see it all the time in central NY beer stores. The $5.99 bomber next to the $12.99 one... or, worse, the $23.99 one. Me, I like to reach for the cheaper one knowing full well I have been more disappointed by wildly over-produced beers that are far too common today than I am by these well priced new entrants to the market. Could it be that what a least a few of those seven or eight out of ten are doing is making good reliable beer at a decent price that doesn't rely on a bourbon barrel, the use of a marketing gimmick such as making a saison-IPA cross or otherwise buying into the narrative that big craft has set out for the new smaller brewers to buy into?
Don't get me wrong. It is likely that two or three beers at that beer fest did suck. But in a market that has bought into a rarified obsession with off flavours over recent years and which has provided established craft brewers with the sorts of revenue that they can buy into the quality control technology just as macro brewers do, well, there comes a point that their distance from actual micro brewing past is screamingly obvious. What these new brewers are doing is no different than big craft did a decade or two ago. Some suck. Most don't. But few are making the sort of over priced sucker juice that big craft would guide drinkers and their buying dollars towards.
It is refreshing seeing my beer budget go farther with this addition to the available shelf space. Don't believe the competition. It's good news that actual small and local entrant are starting up. Sure a few will suck but that's no different than big craft. The little guys not only deserve your support more than big craft trucking its beer in from outside of your market, they deserve your patience. And a bit of your beer budget.
One of my slowest moving interests in beer comes in the form of a trickle of stories about the origins of lager yeast. In 2008, there was the tale of the two Bavarian caves. Then there was the dinosaur era yeast story. Then in 2011, the ur-yeast for lager was found in Argentina. Now, it turns out that little bit of goodness shows up elsewhere, too:
It is the first time the microbe has been found in nature in North America, or indeed outside of Patagonia. Found by UW-Madison undergraduate student Kayla Sylvester, a member of Hittinger's group, the yeast occurs only at a very low frequency and was likely accidentally introduced, just as an ancestor found its way to Europe and kick-started the production of cold-brewed lager beer hundreds of years ago. "If I had to bet, I'd lay money on ski bums or migrating birds" as the agents responsible for transporting the microbe to Wisconsin, says Hittinger. "What we think is happening is that well-established, genetically diverse populations are sending migrants around the world. Generally, they're not successful, but occasionally they are."
I love this stuff. One of my proudest moments was when the yeasty eggheads jumped in the conversation and gave me more details in the comments. I even got corrected and edjificated that the proper written form is "egg head." The goal of all this is "to tap into biodiversity and find the strains that ferment better" according to study lead UW-Madison Professor of Genetics Chris Hittinger. Which beats the hell out of making synthetic yeasts to get more of that candy store mango taste into out future beer.
As Boak and Bailey noted today, there is an end to the pursuit of the merely novel, the manufactured. The law of diminishing returns demands no less. But the exploration of the actual, the natural and traditional? I'll buy that, too.