Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cask Ale, Craft Beer, and More Important Things to Do.

My daughter was born last Wednesday, about six weeks earlier than expected. She's small and jaundiced but eating and growing like a champ. So that explains my absence. It also makes a lot of other things seem relatively unimportant. Like false dichotomies and straw-man arguments about beer.

As we did with our first kid, we celebrated with some 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze and sushi. We added some fresh, local ceviche this time. The bottle was from a stash shipped over from Brussels before we left there last spring. I wonder how many bottles of 3 Fonteinen have been consumed in Central America, ever.

Anyhow, I see I've missed a lot this week. It pains me to be so late to the party kicked off by the CAMRA chairman at that organization's recent meeting -- not that anyone cares what another Yank has to say about it. He blamed beer bloggers for supporting craft beer, which he essentially defined as keg beer. That makes me sad. And I'm not even British.

I'd like to think that I can view that whole nonsensical real ale versus craft beer debate with a clear set of eyes. My two cents, briefly:

1. Thanks to CAMRA, cask ale is the heart and soul of craft beer in the UK.

2. There is no need to define craft beer precisely. Believe it or not.

It should be enough to know that craft beer began as a reaction to the sort of boring stuff that spurred CAMRA to action in the first place. Like it or not, CAMRA is one example of a much wider, international, intercultural epicurean movement for better food and drink. In fact, CAMRA is one of that movement's greatest successes. Whenever that epicurean movement is concerned with better beer, then most of the time we are talking about craft beer. And that's the closest thing to a definition you're likely to get from me.

A last thought: If we define craft beer precisely then we lose opportunities to argue about it. CAMRA members have been spoiled by years of defending an easily defined method of dispense. But arguing can be fun. Remember Stan's Rule No. 5: It is only beer.

I'd like to say a lot more, if for no other reason than to arm my British friends with talking points for pub-chatter sport. But I'm off to the hospital again. We've got a tiny little girl who likes to be held.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thai Food. West Coast Hopping. Nanobrewing. And Flavor-to-Price Ratios.

What do you think of this?

"Many breweries make simple beers that cost less than 40 cents to make and charge you $5.00 – wow – no wonder the are all millionaires! If we are going to charge a brother $5.00 then it better get to the point on the first sip and you should not have to get more than a couple."
I like the spirit there. If I'm going to pay five bones for a beer, it is nice to be punched in the face with flavor now and then. There is beer as something to drink. Which I support. Then there is beer as an experience, as something that makes you sit up and pay attention with every sip. I can support that too.

I do, however, like to drink more than a couple. But I digress.

The quote is from Jeremy Tofte, owner of Thai Me Up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I told you about that nanobrewing Thai joint about six months ago. Bright, flavorful food and bright, flavorful beers. The 2x4 Quadruple Pale Ale is the one that had me sitting up and paying attention with every sip. The hop aroma was absurd. Bitter? Yes, but not in that overly resinous, unpleasantly lingering way that hinders too many American hop bombs.

A few days ago I got word from Tofte that he's expanded brewing capacity to three barrels and gone from two taps to 10. A little bigger but still nano, in his mind.

Meanwhile Thai Me Up's new head brewer has serious West Coast pedigree: Kirk McHale was previously at the popular Pizza Port in Carlsbad, California. This is a guy who knows how to play with hops.

Jackson Hole locals, visitors, rich folk, celebrities, bikers, hikers and cowboys: Take heed.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Farm Beers. And Smoked Pig.

Farm beers. That's what we call a good many of our homebrews around here, even though we don't live on a farm. We do live near farms. Lots of them. We see the gardener across the road riding his mare to work. We see cows grazing in the ditch on the side of the road. OK, so we live in a condominium. Doesn't matter. We make farm beers. Since I'm in charge of the our homebrew marketing department, it doesn't have to make sense.

Here's the thing: As much as I love Belgian saison and French biére de garde, I'm neither Belgian nor French. Anyway, fancy French words sound pretentious to those with whom I share my beer. For that matter, even the term farmhouse ale is a bit uppity and unfairly excludes lager. Well, why not a farm lager?

What makes me think of all this is an announcement from Crown Valley in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Two new beers: a double IPA called Gunslinger, and a 4.7% abv Farmhouse Lager. See? Farm lager.

Maybe I'll be able to track those two down when I'm in Missouri this summer. If you're looking to try out Crown Valley beers in an appropriate setting, and you can't get to Ste. Genevieve, might I suggest Cuba?

Specifically: Missouri Hick BBQ in Cuba, Mo., right on historic Route 66. And if I'm going to get so specific, why not go on and specify Crown Valley's Black Cabin Smoked Ale with some pulled pork?

When we were there every bottle of beer in the joint cost $3 each. Options included several from Boulevard, Schlafly, Goose Island, New Belgium and Crown Valley. The barbecue itself is worth a long drive, but if you're trucking down I-44 between St. Louis and Springfield, well, it's right there.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More Geuzey News. And Ponderings.

Here's a roundup of some Belgian beery news you can use... and some you can't, but maybe you'll enjoy it anyway.

Gueuzerie Tilquin opens its doors. Wallonia's first latter-day lambic blender plans an open house weekend on May 28 and 29, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Go and see Pierre's big barrels and taste his work in Rebecq-Rognon, southwest of Halle. Conveniently for those of you lucky enough to go, those dates are the same as the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation in Buggenhout. You can do it all.

Speaking of the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation, there's a beer list here. That's an early tentative list, so I think you could expect more surprises. Just scanning that thing makes me hungry for cheese. I wonder if Drie Fonteinen's new Armand'4 Oude Geuze Lente will be there? That would be the first of four high-priced special blends aimed at re-starting brewing operations there.

Geuze-barrel woodchips in the grocery store. Really. Our man Phil Madden in Antwerp says he found them at a Carrefour Express. And he's a barbecue maven. He's also wondering whether they could be used to inoculate some homebrew. Apparently it was a barrel from Timmermans that gave its life for Phil's smoking habit.

What's Mom got on tap? I find it healthy to check what guest beers Moeder Lambic is pouring now and then. Keeps me motivated to make some money and get back there soon. In St-Gilles: Bink Bloesem from Kerkom, Hop Ruiter from Scheldebrouwerij, and Zona Cesarini from Birrificio Toccalmatto. Besides the usual Senne beers and other beauties. At Fontainas, at last check: Mikkeller Sorachi Ace IPA, Schlenkerla Fastenbier, Bi-Du Artigian ale, Schneider Weisse, Uerige Alt, Foufoune, Vigneronne, Cuvée St Gilloise, Bons Voeux, Saison Dupont Dry Hopping 2011, Biolégère, Witkap Triple, Cuvée de Ranke, De Ryck Arend Triple, Sainte Hélène Grognarde.

Are you buying fewer Belgian beers? Maybe because it's too expensive? Here's why I ask: Duvel reports that it's selling more of its strong ales--but not as much as it had hoped, thanks to a weak dollar. Maybe you have fewer duckets to spend, and maybe those duckets don't go as far as you like when facing the price tags of specialty European beers. Just wondering.

I mean, we can say "drink local" and mean it, but it's still nice to splurge now and then on an Orval or whatever your indulgence of choice might be. Right? But maybe we're doing so less often these days.

It's a critical question for Belgian craft brewers, many of whom are largely dependent on the U.S. export market.

*Photo courtesy of Pierre Tilquin.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Pubs About Pubs, and Buzz About Buzz.

I have this fancy-pants idea that this blog caters to travelers who like to drink. I get sidetracked sometimes. But I do like to point out new, drinks-oriented guidebooks whenever I can. (Have you written one? Drop me a line.) Or at least, I say that I do.

Anyway, here's one that's bound to be useful: Des de Moor's CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer Pubs and Bars. Des says it should be out around July 4. Yes, American Independence Day. If you're a thirsty Yank traveler, what better way to celebrate our independence from the crown than storming its capital and drinking it dry?

In the most recent British Guild of Beer Writers newsletter, Des tells a story very familiar to me from the Brussels research days:

When I tell people that between November 13 and February 8 I visited 297 pubs, bars and other beer outlets in Greater London ... they just think it sounds like the ultimate glorious riproaring pub crawl. Consider the reality, I feebly argue, of visiting 21 pubs in a 14-hour day with no more than a few sips of a half in any of them. In fact I spent more time travelling than in the pubs themselves — by every mode other than my own car, including bus, tube, train, tram, Boris bike and, just once, a taxi to extricate me from the rural extremities of the London Borough of Bromley. I’m grateful for being a keen and fast walker as this provided the most convenient mode for most of the trips.
I also used to explain to deaf ears how it was real work. Funny how I never got any sympathy. Explaining how very little we make on these books doesn't seem to help either. Boo hoo. It's enough to drive a man to... well, you know. Keep his day job.

More Buzz, Still No Substance. Thanks to all who have vetted, which is a nice way to say dismantled, my conclusions in Tuesday's post. I still think there's something there--one piece of evidence that there is not yet a session-beer trend--but I see that it falls short of convincing.

Meanwhile: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's blog picks up on the Advertising Age session-beer thing, thanks to the Redhook angle. The headline asks, "Low alcohol content: The next great thing in beer?" Of course there is no more evidence of it than in the Ad Age article. The post does have this gem: "But one thing’s for sure: You’d have to work a lot harder to get drunk drinking a beer with 5.3 percent alcohol by volume – and that might mean Redhook will sell more in the long run."

So here we are trying to get folks to try genuinely gulpable, all-night-long beers, and the buzz is growing, but... Anyone get the feeling we're going to end up in a year or two with boat loads of beers between 5% and 6%, and not much else? Would you sessionistas be content with that as a minor victory, or is more militancy needed for the 4.5% or lower mark?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'Growth of Session Beer'? Not Yet, Friends.

I've got some data for you today. Good, hard evidence. I was going to title this post "Decline of the Session Beer," because that's what it's going to show. But then I saw the Boston Globe blog headline, "The steady growth of session beer." That was based on this Advertising Age article, "The New Drinking Session: How Craft Brewers Are Drawing in More Consumers."

Not so fast, folks.

Are brewers really drawing in more drinkers with low-alcohol beers? Is session beer really growing in America?

That's what I've been trying to find out, more or less fed up with anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking. I think I finally have a fairly definitive answer: a big, fat NO. That's despite all the buzz, the high hopes of drinkers like myself, new initiatives like Chris Lohring's Notch, and campaigns like Lew Bryson's Session Beer Project.

The data come from Ratebeer.com, thanks to the patient efforts of Joe Tucker and his crack team of site administrators. Whatever else you love or hate about Ratebeer, it probably has the most comprehensive database of beers available over the past 10 years.

These numbers refer to beers added to the Ratebeer database. Generally speaking, that means newly available beers, but they can also be beers that were available for a while but not added to the site until later. The data set begins in April 2000. Older beers that were no longer commercially available at that time are theoretically excluded, since by the site's rules they would not be "rateable." Thus, to say it plainly, these are commercially available beers from the past decade. I'm not saying the data are perfect, but they're pretty damned good.

Also, because we are talking about session beers in America, these are only U.S. beers.

By year: Total number U.S. beers added, number of them at 4.5% abv or lower, and percentage of total at 4.5% or lower.
2000: 1978 222 11.2% (note: partial year, data set begins in April 2000)
2001: 1223 107 8.7%
2002: 2638 188 7.1%
2003: 4523 436 9.6%
2004: 6395 615 9.6%
2005: 4401 318 7.2%
2006: 4555 263 5.8%
2007: 5053 262 5.2%
2008: 5668 350 6.2%
2009: 7860 445 5.7%
2010: 8796 419 4.8%
2011: 3419 152 4.4% (partial year, through the first week of May)

My assertion is simple: If we were truly seeing the growth of session beer as a category, we would be seeing more session beers available in the marketplace. The opposite is true: The rate at which they are entering the marketplace is currently decreasing.

Surprised? So was I.

Session beers will need more than buzz if they are to become a real trend. In my view, they will also need to make money. For more on that issue, stay tuned for my article in an upcoming issue of Draft magazine.

*I was going to make a handy line graph for you to illustrate this, but I frankly don't have time to learn how. The numbers speak for themselves, but if anyone wants to take a few minutes and plug these numbers into a graph, I'd be much obliged.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Festivals and Cheese.

I've updated the link to the Briggsian Belgian Beer Festival Calendar on the left. What's on the horizon?

How about the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation in Buggenhout on May 28 and 29? Surely the country's most reverent lambic festival.

Then if your search for sour is not sated, head the following weekend to the Day of the Kriek, on June 4 in Eizeringen--home of the world-class Verzekering Tegen de Grote Dorst (Insurance Against Great Thirst) lambic café.

Meanwhile: Jay Brooks has posted his roundup of the Great Beer and Cheese Experience. It amounts to a shopping list of pairing suggestions, with more to come later in the month. Practical.

Finally: Just to tie together today's themes of festivals and cheese, why not plan a holiday around the National Festival of Belgian Cheese, a.k.a. Fête du Fromage, on August 20 and 21? That would be at the Harzé Castle, a leisurely drive from Achouffe or Fantôme. A great excuse to stay at the Vielle Forge guesthouse, home of Inter-Pol.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Munch. Sip. Munch. Sip. Scribble.

The great communal beer-and-cheese experience... OK, I thought about sitting this one out. I mean, come on man, I live in Central America. To vastly understate the problem, Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog is a little hard to come by. In fact the cheese situation is eerily similar to the beer situation: bland and dominated by a national quasi-monopoly.

Fine. So maybe I go with the local stuff, right? Nah. Like the lagers, the local cheeses are generally bland, artificially expensive for what they are, and nothing you'd want to seek out. So scratch the idea of a tasting of tico beers and cheeses. We can do better.

Just like there are a few imported beers available, there are a few imported cheeses. Most of the imports are widely available in the U.S. or Europe, or at least similar to products that are widely available. So what's the use in that, I thought?

Actually, there's a lot of use in that. Some semi-hard, mild Dutch goat cheese, some aged Spanish Adarga de Oro, and Roquefort. Also some generic cheddar and Danish blue thrown in for fun. Paulaner Hefeweizen, North Coast Acme Pale Ale, and Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Not only are they fairly widely available internationally, as far as non-lagers go, but they also happen to be archetypes. So we should be able extrapolate and draw out a tip or two that would be useful to anyone, anywhere a few decent beers and cheeses are available.

So that's the rationale behind the main players. My wife and I took some time tonight to mix and match. Here's what we learned--most of which we already knew, in retrospect, but the data are no less valuable for having been confirmed:

Hefeweizen is a slut. She'll hook up with any old cheese and be happy doing it. It's odd, because normally you don't even give her a second glance. You see her around and take her for granted. But take her out for a meal and she shines. She smells nice. Appetizing, even. She has a knack for bringing out the fruity acidity in certain cheeses (oops, lost the metaphor), which is a really interesting thing to notice in cheese when you can manage it. She also lacks bitterness, too much of which can frustrate the munch-sip-munch-sip experience.

Unexpected: The Paulaner Hefeweizen even got along well with the mighty Roquefort, thanks to that carbonation that cleans up after the cheese and resets the palate. Meanwhile the smooth saltiness of the cheese does a brief two-step with the sweet clove notes in the beer.

Best pairing: the Hefeweizen with the Adarga de Oro, which has an interesting toasted-crusty-bread quality beneath the milk, salt, nuts and acidity. That bready quality draws out the beer's wheat flavor. Time to remember that it all comes from grasses... Wheat, barley, milk. The Adarga, by the way, is made from a blend of cow, sheep and goat milk. Thanks, Internet!

Sad`news: The Acme Pale Ale, bought from a local upmarket grocery store, is totally oxidized. Past its prime. Such a same. Such a waste. Still goes OK with the generic cheddar, but... sad. Smells like a well-aged barley wine. Except that it isn't one.

Late pinch-hitter: some fresh, homebrewed hoppy extra pale. The citrus aroma and dry finish draws out the Spanish's cheeses fruity acidity. That Adarga is versatile with beer and doesn't put a foot wrong on its own. Hard to stop eating it. Find some if you can.

The bruisers: The blue cheeses with Guinness Foreign Extra... not for the faint of heart. The beer's serious bitterness and the cheeses' stank sets up a challenging perimeter to penetrate. Buried deep in that charred bracken somewhere, the saltiness via contrast draws out that bit of sweetness in the beer. But then the lingering bitterness covers it up again.

I was afraid of this: The Foreign Extra is a manly drink. It's challenging in the way of a cigar or glass of whiskey. It demands charred meat. It has little patience for your metrosexual cheese party. A grilled bacon cheeseburger though? Yes please. Throw the Roquefort on there too. Don't hold back.

Big winners: The Hefeweizen and the Adarga. Together they were far greater than the sum of their parts, but they were also able to lift the other players and make them better.

Conclusion: Hefweizen and anything, but especially Hefeweizen and aged Spanish cheese like Adarga de Oro or Manchego. Give it a try.

You know, I once had a thing for a Spanish exchange student. She fell for a German guy. Go figure. I wonder if they're still together?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Further Expansion of the Delirium Imperium.

Just got an invitation to the grand opening of the Delirium Monasterium... Just when you thought Brussels' most popular beer bar couldn't possibly grow any bigger.

The address says Impasse de la Fidélité 1, the same as Delirium's main alleyway location, watched and watered by Jeanneke Pis herself. So this is not the colonization of another street corner, like the Little Delirium over on Pita Street. Instead, like the Taphouse and Hoppy Loft, it appears to be another arm of the central Delirium complex. If it were a tumor it might be diagnosed as malignant, but the cancer analogy is unfair since the whole place will presumably go non-smoking, along with the rest of Belgium, on July 1.

Hang on, what's the gimmick? Taps? Hops? Tequila? No, this time it's monks and vodka. And Fabergé eggs. It will offer 100 Trappist and abbey-style beers, including 10 on tap. There will also be 400 vodkas.

Why vodkas? Now, you might be thinking, "because the profit margin on liquor is much higher than on beer, especially in Belgium where cocktails and overpriced and specialty beers are arguably underpriced." You cynical bastards! No, the real reason is that "in Eastern Europe, as beer in other countries, Vodka enjoyed a long Monastic tradition. ... Amongst others, discover a 50 years old vodkas and fabergé eggs [sic]."

For the life of me, I can't figure the connection between Fabergé eggs and monks. I guess that would be the vodka-Russia connection. Meanwhile I can't get excited about a place for drinking abbey and Trappist beers, which are widely available in Belgium and abroad (Westvleteren won't be there, by the way). But I'm sure the kids will love it, and much better to train them on Westmalle than that Floris fruit nonsense.

Want to go to the grand opening? It's at 7 p.m. on May 12. Drop me a line and I'll send you the invite. The usual rule applies: Everyone must claim to be Tim Webb.

*"I'm Tim." "No, I'm Tim." "Impostors!"

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Beer Styles: Are You a Shaman, Priest, or Just Part of the Flock?

Beer styles. Hard to think of another topic that gets geeks so worked up, even while the Ordinary Drinker--that quasi-mythical creature--couldn't give a rat's ass.

Just in case you are an Ordinary Drinker, and you would like to decide whether to give said ass of rat, allow me to sum it up: Should we categorize beer under descriptors like porter, American pale lager, Flemish red, Northern English brown, and so on? Is that useful, or does dropping beer into boxes like that do more harm than good?

Usually the debate devolves into the usual creaky old dichotomies, but occasionally someone breathes some life into it. Like Alan last week, who was riffing on Michael Jackson. The discussion was a welcome reminder that styles as know them today began as something educational and descriptive--a way to explain what is--rather than something normative--what ought to be. Understanding the difference could resolve a lot of those stale arguments.

Today I attack it from a different angle: theology. The problem of beer styles popped into my head when I read this quote from Joseph Campbell:

The difference between a priest and a shaman is that the priest is a functionary and the shaman is someone who has had an experience. In our tradition it is the monk who seeks the experience, while the priest is the one who has studied to serve in the community.

I had a friend who attended an international meeting of the Roman Catholic meditative orders, which was held in Bangkok. He told me that the Catholic monks had no problems understanding the Buddhist monks, but that it was the clergy of the two religions who were unable to understand each other.

The person who has had a mystical experience knows that all the symbolic expressions of it are faulty. The symbols don't render the experience, they suggest it.
Let's start with the fact that there are all sorts of beers out there in the world to experience. Let's follow it with the idea that styles are a symbolic system that began as a way to explain those sorts to those of us who might never get to visit Düsseldorf for a genuine Altbier. Then let's conclude with the recognition that there are a lot of folks out there who behave as style experts, brewing or judging Alts or Goses or Rauchbiers, when they have never even been to Germany.

So what are you? Beer priest, monk, or layperson? Or is that just a new set of boxes that would do more harm than good?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Shootout at the 2nd Shift Corral.

New Haven, Mo., has a population of about 2,000. My wife, son and I are three of those people; we live abroad but keep a home address, vote, and pay taxes there. Most Missourians wouldn't know where New Haven is, but if you said "between Washington and Hermann" they might get the idea. A tiny Missouri River town between two small ones.

It would be an unlikely place for either (a) one of Missouri's better up-and-coming micros or (b) a promising new craft beer festival. But since (b) follows naturally from (a), it's not an amazing coincidence.

Steve Crider and his 2nd Shift Brewing in New Haven are planning to host a regional beer fest on Saturday, July 9, from noon to 5 p.m. Crider says there will be 400 tickets available: only 100 to be sold at the event, and the rest via Brown Paper Tickets. Several breweries from the St. Louis area and its surroundings have received invitations, though there's no list of participants yet. Should be a hoot, regardless.

More about 2nd Shift: Its beers went on sale in St. Louis in November. The brewhouse is inside a replica Old West town, which is on the sprawling grounds of a conference center complete with golf course, pool, walking trails and hop trellises. Cool spot for a party.

Yeah, hop trellises. Crider grows a lot of his own, though not nearly enough for his obscenely hoppy yet drinkable brews. When I visited last summer his pride-and-joy IPA, Art of Neurosis, was still named Hopfuck. Among friends, anyway. As a journalist who appreciates accuracy and brevity, I prefer the old name.

Art of Neurosis is in the neighborhood of 7% abv, but last summer Crider was already talking about making beers of lower strength. "I'd like to have all session beers that are big on everything," he said. With regard to session beers, he said, "there's a tide turning. ... Even though everyone's trying to come out with the most bad-ass, super-high alcohol, squirrel-lined bottle whatever."

("Squirrel-lined bottle?" Yes, my handwriting is very clear on that. What the hell was he talking about? The End of History, I think. In case your memory of publicity stunts is as foggy as mine.)

Anyways: Crider now makes a 4% pale ale called Little Big Hop. Can't wait to try it. That won't happen for me on July 9, though. That's the week after our daughter is due to arrive. By the time this fest rolls around it ought to be New Haven, populaton 2,001.