Thursday, July 28, 2011

Overheard in the GBBF Pisser.

All this talk of CAMRA and the Great British Beer Festival and the foreign beer tables and cask and keg and Brewdog and so on...

To sum it up: Our British beery friends like to argue about lots of stuff but in the end will all come together and have a swell time.

Just yesterday I was rifling through an old notebook and found this tidbit from my one glorious day at GBBF two years ago. I quote its entirety:

Overheard in the pisser:

"Have you tried any of the Americans? Have you tried Stone IPA? All right, for your last beer of the day, go for a hop monster. You can't taste anything afterward, but it's a bloody great beer."

Riffing on Beer Terroir, Scents of Place, and Belgian Upstarts.

This whole beer terroir chatter has the smell of a dog who's not going to leave my porch for a while. So I'm just going to keep feeding him. We'll see what he adds to the family.

Confluence, that's what's going on here. Lots of the people talking about the same thing and not even knowing it. It helps when you can give it a name or two and maybe even build a framework for thinking about it. A point of view. A set of questions to ask over bar chatter, or to employ when you browse the booze shop.

So: If you haven't already, go and read the Stan Hieronymous piece in the latest DRAFT, The Dirt on Terroir. Clicking on that link, by the way, does not excuse you from the good sense of plunking down a few duckets for the print magazine.

I'm not going to recap the whole article, but Stan's quote (circa 2006) from Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head is so juicy I've got to repeat it: "Je parl francais en peu, and I'm pretty sure the translated definition of terroir is 'dirt'. The wine world has wrapped this one word with mighty voodoo powers and created a cult of exclusivity around it. Breweries have terroir as well. But instead of revolving around a patch of land, ours are centered on a group of people."

Stan's kicker: "Don't call it terroir. Call it beer from a place."

Now, remember that Washington Post article on "Belgium's upstart innovators"? Of course you do. It's the one with the likely-taken-out-of-context quote from Wendy Littlefield of importer Vanburg & DeWulf--the one about how brewers like Alvinne and Struise "really, arguably, are hurting the very culture that they claim to be arising out of."

Well, the Pour Curator recently had a long and interesting chat with Don Feinberg of V&D, which led to a long and interesting post. Feinberg has been deeply involved with Belgian beer for nearly 30 years, and his thoughts are enlightening. Here is part of the Curator's post, relevant to the aforementioned innovators:

When it comes to some of the new Belgian breweries, to Feinberg, the distinction is one of identity versus geography. Think of it this way: is a restaurant in Thailand necessarily a Thai restaurant? Well, maybe, in a grammatical sense, but if it serves burgers and fries, then not in the sense that most people might mean. Likewise, if a brewery in Flanders is making a great American style IPA, it may be making very good beer, but Feinberg and Littlefield would say it is not Belgian in any meaningful sense, other than strictly geographic.

"There are a couple brewers in Belgium who are making beer for Americans. We’re interested in Belgium, we’re interested in their traditions," Feinberg says. "There are certain flavors that are true to a type of culture, and if you don’t believe that, you’re one step away from making soda."
In my own email chat with Littlefield and Feinberg, which naturally followed that Washington Post article, Feinberg asked if I had read Jonathan Nossiter's Liquid Memory. I had not. So I bought it two days ago and have been devouring it since--mainly driven by all the obvious parallels (or near-parallels) with the craft beer world.

(In particular it brings to mind all the petty and more or less public squabbles among brewers, critics, lovers and sellers of Belgian beer. On some days, Belgian beer looks like a snake pit in which everyone talks hell behind each other's backs in a propaganda war to impose his or her view on the open-minded and undecided... Probably I've been guilty of that myself. And I'm not even sure I regret it. By comparison, North American craft beer looks like a church camp, complete with hand-holding and Kumbaya. For the most part, everyone in the North American beer world really does get along. The trade-off is a relative lack of really strong, critical viewpoints. Is it any coincidence that importers Don Feinberg and Daniel Shelton are two of the most outspoken people on the scene? But surely that's a post for another day.)

I have referred to brewers like Struise, Alvinne, Mikkeller and Brew Dog as not so much Belgian or Danish or Scottish but part of a postmodern, transnational craft beer scene--one for which globalizing forces (such as the Internet) can take some share of the credit or blame. I think it's a fair characterization. With that in mind, here is a snippet from the Nossiter book:
Terroir has never been fixed, in taste or in perception. It has always been an evolving expression of culture. What distinguishes our era is that instantaneousness and universality of change. Before, the sense of terroir would evolve over generations, hundreds of years, allowing for the slow accretion of knowledge and experience to build into sedimentary layers, like the geological underpinnings of a given terroir itself. Today layers are stripped away overnight, and a new layer is added nearly each vintage. "Why is this dangerous?" ask those genuinely eager for progress and modernity, as well as the conscious (or self-deluding) profiteers of this new world order. Because it risks wiping out historical memory, which is our only safeguard against the devastating lies of marketing and the cynical exploitation of global markets, culture and politics.
A lot to digest there. Thoughts?

I don't know whether this dog'll hunt, but at the least I'm taking him with me to the bottle shop next time. With all the options out there today, there are worse ways to narrow things down by sniffing out a sense of place.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Drinking Local in Costa Rica at That Craft Brewery.

So they threw a couple old sofas, tables and chairs into the warehouse half of the brewery. They posted up some visiting hours. The taps for tasting include the two flagships plus an experimental brew or two. Now, rare is the weekday that there aren't customers or clients or tourists or other interested parties stopping by Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Company to have a look-see and sample the wares.

OK, maybe I'm a touch nostalgic for the days when I was one of the few who knew how to find the damn place. But the tasting area more than makes up for having to share it.

"That craft brewery," which is what folks around here seem to call it for lack of a better nickname, opened just seven months ago. Today it counts more than 80 bars and restaurants among its bottled beer accounts. Its most prolific clients are 17 or so keg accounts whose beer add up to about 65 percent of the brewery's sales, according to co-owner Peter Gilman. Draft beer wins again.

At the moment, would-be accounts are on a waiting list to get the beer. The brewery is selling every last drop of red, hoppy Segua and golden, Kölsch-like Libertas, and it wants to make sure it won't run out of beer for existing clients. Additional fermenters are on the way to widen the bottleneck and allow more production.

The Missus and I popped in there last week to say hello and buy a case of Segua. While there we sampled a few of brewmaster C.S. Derrick's latest experiments. They included a ruddy, fruity Scottish ale made with a touch of smoked malt. (That one may appear as a seasonal at the draft accounts this fall.) We also tried a couple of tart saisons, including one with pepper and flor de jamaica, a.k.a. hibiscus (pictured). More refreshing than I would have expected, given that spiced beers can raise my hackles a bit. Meanwhile a dusty-hopped session-strength bitter hit my sweet spot.

If you go: This map shows where to find the brewery, outside of Cartago. It's open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m to 5 p.m., but tours are possible Wednesday to Friday, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., by appointment only.

If you come to Costa Rica and want to find the beers: Bottle accounts here, draft accounts here. Plenty of options these days.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Show Me the Brews.

I'm a Missouri guy, but this isn't a Missouri blog. It's a big world, after all. But several times in the coming weeks you're going to have to indulge me. We're getting ready for a trip home in August and I've got a fat steaming pile of research to do. The notebook spills over into the blog. You know how it goes.

So today my theme is the Cave State. (Ah, now there's an idea: Some Missouri micro needs to start cave-aging their beers, a la Grottenbier. Or Kellerbier.)

Brew in the Lou: For weeks I've been meaning to tell you more about Evan Benn's new book. So here goes: It's not so much a guidebook as a primer on the local beer history and current beer scene. It's exactly what a beer geek would want to read if she were moving to St. Louis and wanted the lay of the land. It's not a reference so much as a collection of feature articles that focus on different themes--from the city's natural beer caves (hello? anyone listening?) to food pairings to future breweries. For sheer usefulness, my two favorite pages are 152 and 153, which include contact details for every present and near-future brewery in the metro area. Evan's writing is lively, there are lots of gorgeous photos, and the book will make you thirsty.

My biggest knock against it: No index. Being able to look up local breweries or beers by name would have added a lot of utility.

St. Loser beer enthusiasts ought to own it. Geeks coming for a visit ought to give it some serious thought. It can be had for 20 duckets from the Post-Dispatch. (Full disclosure: I received a free copy to review.)

St. Louis Craft Beer Week runs from July 30 to August 7, which means that I am going to miss the whole damn thing by exactly one day. That might be why newly christened St. Loser Stan Hieronymous told me, and I quote, "There will be no beer in St. Louis when you get here." So I would like to formally discourage all of you from attending any of these events, and suggest that maybe you should stay home and drink water. Awful hot out there.

Will radio kill the banking computer technician star? My brother Ben Stange is so geeky about beer that he makes me look like a Miller Lite. Down in Springfield, Mo., he's launching a radio show called Beer Buzz, sponsored by Mother's Brewing Company. It'll air at 4 p.m. this Sunday, and every Sunday until he is told to stop, on a couple of local stations and online at

Topic of the first show is hops. His first guest? None other than the aforementioned Mr. Hieronymous. Should be fun.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New DRAFT, Selling the Session, and the Cloudy Future of Beer Distribution.

The latest issue of DRAFT Magazine is out, and it includes my article on Selling the Session. Pegged to that: 10 Session Spots, i.e. bars and breweries dedicated to lower-strength beer. Maybe somewhere in all that is something you didn't know before.

In the same issue: Tim Cigelske takes a serious gander at a new Wisconsin law that was opposed by many craft brewers. It raises big questions about the three-tier system still used by most states--a system built for a different era, which is not to say tat it can't work in this one.

My question for you: Now that smaller breweries have a firm foothold on the American landscape, what will beer distribution look like in the future? Since it is apparently not yet possible to drink the stuff directly via the interwebs.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Struise, Beer Cities, and Berliner Weisse.

There is a unifying theme today. That is: You are all grown-ups who can make up your own minds about these things. (But there's no reason we can't argue about them in the spirit of deliberative democracy.)

Struise and Alvinne in the Washington Post: Read the article here. A very savvy piece from Daniel Fromson.

Two questions for you. First: What do you think of Wendy Littlefield's suggestion that non-traditional brewers like Struise and Alvinne "really, arguably, are hurting the very culture that they claim to be arising out of."

Second, a bit more obscurely: De Leite and Senne are mentioned in the next paragraph as other young upstart innovators. For those relative few familiar with all four breweries: Does it make sense to include those with Alvinne and Struise?

Another Best Beer Cities List. This one from Travel + Leisure. In theory it's about the best places to drink craft beer, according to a reader poll. I'll save you having to click through all 21 pages:

1. Portland, Ore.
2. Denver
3. Seattle
4. Providence, R.I.
5. Portland, Maine
6. Savannah, Ga.
7. Boston
8. Austin
9. San Francisco
10. Nashville
11. Kansas City, Mo.
12. Minneapolis/St. Paul
13. Charleston, S.C.
14. Chicago
15. Anchorage
16. New Orleans
17. Philadelphia
18. San Diego
19. Phoenix/Scottsdale
20. Houston

Lots of notable omissions, including NYC, D.C., and St. Louis (which surely ought to rank higher these days than Kansas City). Seattle and Providence seem awfully high. What is it that makes a great beer-drinking town anyway? Where da pubs at?

To Schuss or Not to Schuss? That is the question asked by Joe Sixpack in regards to Berliner Weisse. He tells us his answer up front, as he's a "total sucker for that green syrup."

Cheers to him for confessing his sin. But remember what I said about you being able to make up your own minds? Forget it. Just say no!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Session Beer Truthiness.

The Boston Globe took on session beers in a Saturday article. Writer Steve Greenlee calls them "sessionable beers," which strikes me as two syllables and four letters more than necessary for news writing style, but that's just a quibble. What's more important is that he stays below 5% abv with his recommendations: Narragansett Summer Ale, Haverhill Haver Ale, and Samuel Adams Rustic Saison.

This was the first I'd heard about the Rustic Saison. How about that, only 4.35% abv? OK, it's only available in the summer seasonal variety pack. And while the product description emphasizes spicy yeast character over the hop character, that's a matter of personal taste.

Best of all, the beer leads to some basically accurate historical info about saisons in a major metro newspaper:

Rustic Saison is more in line with the original saisons, or farmhouse ales, that were brewed centuries ago in Belgium to refresh field workers (since drinking water could prove fatal). These days we have become accustomed to saisons that are anywhere from 6 to 8 percent alcohol by volume, but the original saisons were only 3 to 4 percent.
To me, that's nearly as refreshing as the beer itself must be.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Zwanze Day Aims to Undercut the Pirates.

For Jean Van Roy of Cantillon, the Zwanzes are his experiments, his toys, his babies. It must he hard to see one of your babies go up on eBay for 13 times the price at which you sold it. Especially when you assumed the person who bought it in the first place was someone who would enjoy the beer.

It's that sort of chicanery that led Van Roy to an interesting idea: Why not release the whole lot of it on draft, one day a year, to a smattering of the brewery's most loyal cafés around the world? Well, almost the whole lot. Two-thirds of Zwanze 2011 will go to kegs, Van Roy says. The rest will go to bottles meant for tasting only at the brewery in Brussels.

Zwanze Day 2011 is on September 17. Click on that link for the whole story from Van Roy himself. Luckier lambic enthusiasts will learn that there is a café, shop or bar near them that will be partaking in the event. Ten of them are in the U.S., 10 in Europe (including both Moeder Lambics), one in Canada and one in Japan. I reckon you Brits will have to ponder hopping on the Eurostar.

Says Van Roy:

There is no such thing as a perfect idea and I'm well aware that many Cantillon enthusiasts, bar owners and fans of lambic beers will be disappointed because they won't be able to taste or have their customers taste this Zwanze 2011. I hope they'll accept my apologies but the brewery's maximum production threshold is currently 1500 hl (1300 barrels) and I only have about 1000 to 2000 litres of lambic available each year which I can use to make Zwanze.
Zwanze 2008 was a rhubarb lambic (a bottle of which my wife and I recently opened; it's holding up very nicely thanks very much). The 2009 version got a steeping of elderberry flowers. Last year's was a mixed-fermentation experiment in blanche (read: Witbier) done in cooperation with Yvan De Baets from Brasserie de la Senne.

The 2011 version gets its twist from organic Pineau d'Aunis grapes--and from a very interesting idea about how a brewery might release a beer to its best customers while avoiding the profiteers who would extract the most money per ounce.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Soda Jerks and Beer Terroirists.

We're getting eclectic today. More so than usual.

Jerks: Two days in a row I mention Imbibe, this time because of its July/August article on old-school soda fountains. It features some beautiful photos of frosty glasses, handle-bar mustaches, bow ties and flat caps. Then yesterday comes the article on the very same topic in the New York Times.

So now we're talking full-blown buzz. The most useful bit in any of it is this listing on Imbibe's website of soda fountains across the USA. My shame: I lived in St. Louis four years and never went to Crown Candy Kitchen.

Terroirism: Clever conversation going on over at Adrian's place about terroir and the extent to which the idea can be applied to beer. It starts with the salty March winds that are said to give East Kent Goldings their distinctive aroma.

Flagon of Ale has an attractive argument:

Beer is more democratic because it does not have or require terrior: anyone can make it anywhere. ... [T]ime and history [are] the terroir of beer. ... Beer tells a story of culture and time, where wine tells a story of a specific place. When I drink a porter or an IPA, I'm thinking about the period in time that gave birth to it more than the soil conditions and sunlight etc that gave birth to it.
My own thought is that terroir remains an option for those with access to local product. Beer for localvores or clever marketing, either way. Meanwhile this is an age when a brewer gets an idea from one place or origin, yeast from another, hops from another, malt from another... Terroir gets muddled, but in the right hands the product can be more interesting than before.

The hops in the photo, incidentally, are from Steve Crider's hop trellises at 2nd Shift. Cascades from the Missouri River Valley.

Did you know that the first Cascades were the children on British and Russian hops?

Speaking of globalization: I remember the days when it was tough to find a non-Belgian beer in Brussels. That was just a few years ago, in fact. Today, Delirium's Hoppy Loft has a bunch of Rogue beers on tap. Moeder Lambic Fontainas has Italy's Montegioco, France's Theillier, Germany's Schneider Weisse, and Planet Earth's Mikkeller. Among others.

That's the age in which we drink.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beer Cocktails and Other Hackery.

I'm a big fan of Imbibe magazine. While beer and wine magazines tend to look at things through the eyes of quasi-geeky enthusiasts, reading Imbibe is like getting inside the head of an obsessive-compulsive bartender. It's a holistic, mischievous, mad-scientist way to view the drinks world. I'm hooked.

So, beer cocktails. What do you think? Isn't there a part of you that bristles at taking the work of a brewer--who ideally meant that beer to turn out just the way it did--and throwing in bitters and rum and orange peels and shit? I admit: I bristle, just a little.

Then there's the hedonist inside me. You know, the one usually in charge. There is a certain freedom and power in doing whatever the hell you want with what you own, or, better yet, paying someone with expertise to do it for you. What would happen if if I cut this Guinness Foreign Extra Stout with a dollop of white port? Well, nothing good, as it turns out. But it was fun to try.

The July/August issue of Imbibe offers, among many other things, a list of five places "brewing up a new school of beer cocktails." One of them, JoeDoe in New York, makes one called Honey Beer. Bartender Jill Schuster's recipe is online. Gin, lemon juice, lemon zest, pale ale--the print edition states that it's Dale's Pale Ale from Oskar Blues. Honey and salt line the rim of the glass. Of course there is a lemon twist.

I'll be honest: It sounds terrible. But would it be fun to try? Yeah.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Useful News from Brugge and Clerkenwell.

What's it mean to be a new wave craft brewer in the global age? I don't know. Maybe ask the guys at Struise, the Belgians once made an American-style India pale ale specially for a pub in Sweden. Just to name an example.

Whatever you think of Struise beers--and plenty of geeks have been head-over-heels since first sip--the team behind them are obviously guys who think outside of the box. I'm not even talking about the beers themselves. I'm talking about things like opening the Struise webshop to reach customers directly, in an effort to undercut the eBay pirates who auction rare beers to desperate people at high prices.

Next up: A real brick-and-mortar Struise bottle shop in the heart of Bruges, complete with two taps for sampling the beers. According to the brewers' Facebook page, the idea is to serve all those beery travelers who'd love to visit the brewery but can't get out to Oostvleteren. More details later.

From Brugge to Clerkwenwell. From new wave craft brewer to new wave craft pub. Those who follow the British beer scene will already know about the Craft Beer Co., which opened last week in Clerkenwell. You can see its opening night draft list here (hat tip to the Babblebelt). It appears to add another world-class, internationally minded beer destination to the London scene.

I put internationally minded in italics because the draft list reminds me of some other places in other cities... like Moeder Lambic Fontainas in Brussels, ChurchKey in D.C., and we could think of lots of others if we tried. These are places with an eye toward artisanal beer as an international phenomenon, even as they keep their eyes on local strengths. Eventually I'll persuade you to stop blaming/thanking Americans for craft beer. Plenty of blame and credit to go around these days.

Best of all for pub crawlers: The Craft Beer Co. (82 Leather Lane) is easy strolling distance between Stonch's Gunmakers and Ye Olde Mitre. I suspect the hardest thing about trying to hit all three in a day, in whatever order, would be leaving the first and second ones.