Monday, October 31, 2011

The Spirit of St. Louis.

Here is my piece on new St. Louis breweries for the Travel section of the New York Times. And here is the quote so nice I have to write it twice:

So is there a limit to the number of craft brewers that locals are willing to support? 
“Seriously? It’s beer,” answered Dylan Mosley, the head brewer for the Civil Life Brewing Company in south St. Louis. “You know how many people drink beer? If I opened a hamburger joint, nobody’s going to be, like, ’Hey, you know how many hamburger joints there are?’ They’d be like, ’Sweet! Another hamburger joint!’ ”
For me, this is one of those quotes that put things in Perspective -- as in, the Craft Beer Perspective, which is this: Only about 5 percent of all beer drunk in the U.S. is made by a craft brewery. St. Louis is no different in that regard. Consider that the Saint Louis Brewery, better known as Schlafly, makes about 2 percent of what's drunk locally, and that another 2 percent or so is craft beer made outside the St. Louis area. That means this wave of micros is really making their living off of 1 or maybe 2 percent... and there is probably room for more. (Hip-hop head nod to Evan Benn of the Post-Dispatch for helping me to get a handle on the numbers.)

Over Zwickel beers one night at Urban Chestnut, still a few weeks before his new brewery opened, Civil Life owner Jake Hafner followed the Mosley hamburger-joint quote with this:
But it's a little counter-intuitive than what normally happens in industries. … In our case, there's four new places, but the pie is so big right now. And we just need a small piece of it... We just need a little fraction of it and all of us are fine. And so collectively, we're so much stronger together, like, us working together and getting the word out about craft beer...
It's a familiar story in America's craft beer segment -- folks who compete nonetheless helping each other out -- and St. Louis is only one of many places where that story has played out. The numbers, or rather the smallness of them, help explain the phenomenon.

But are there cultural factors as well, which might vary in degree from city to city?

Joe Esser (pictured) is the assistant brewer and cellar manager at Six Row. He's from New Jersey but went to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis about 20 years ago. He got his master's in literature, so naturally he soon found himself brewing in New Jersey. He returned to St. Louis in October 2010 and started at Six Row, right when the local beer scene was getting ready to pop.

Esser noted the city's underground music and art community, which he's experienced both times he's lived here. It enjoys a spirit of cooperation, he said. “There was always a welcoming, warm scene for that. And it's like that for craft beer too. I mean, the craft beer scene worldwide is sort of like an artist's colony. … And St. Louis right now is kind of like a microcosm of that. We feed our own.”

He continued: “I think that's why craft beer right now is blossoming. … There's something about this town. It's a small big city or a big small city. There's a small hometown vibe that you don't find in a lot of other cities. There's that chemistry and that warmth.”

Meanwhile all the micros remain “ïn the shadow of the behemoth,” he said. They're competing with each other, of course, “but happily we don't look at it that way.”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nougatty Chunks of Belgian Beer News: Jean-Chris, Cantillon, Struise, and More.

Is nougatty a word? Doesn't matter.

Fans of La Rulles or Brasserie Ste-Helene may remember the Jean Chris beers... Rulles brewed the first one and Ste-Hélène the second, both designed for Jean Le Chocalatier in Habay-le-Neuve (run by a guy named, you guessed it, Jean) and the Mi-Orge Mi-Houblon beer shop in Arlon (run by a guy named Christophe). Part of the idea is to pair the beer with chocolate. Jean and Chris are buddies. Remind me to get together with a buddy one day and have top-flight Belgian breweries make beer for us.

One was a hoppy pale ale, the other was a stout. Both were short-lived, or so it seemed. Now I see both are on tap again at the Delirium Taphouse (that would be the ground level of Delirium Imperial Headquarters on Impasse de la Fidélité), according to the emailed newsletter. It's not clear to me whether these are freshly brewed again, or if the bar had been holding some kegs back for later (as it often does). I suspect the latter. Delirium co-owner Joel Pecheur has confirmed to me by email that these are fresh kegs, recently brewed, and he has my apologies for the unnecessary speculation.

The bigger news is that as of last month there is a third Jean-Chris beer, and this one comes from Cantillon. The Jean-Chris Nomad is a gueuze, bottled and blended from lambics of three different years aged in three different wine casks: a Bordeaux red, a Bordeaux white, and a Côtes du Rhône. So it's not simply a re-labeled Cantillon gueuze but apparently an original creation. Mi-Orge Mi-Houblon was selling the bottles, limited to three per person, starting in late September. It took less than a month to sell out. However, they are still available at Delirium and (I presume) Moeder Lambic as well.

OK, now for Struise: The guys in Oostvleteren have updated their draft list for the Copenhagen Beer Celebration (a.k.a. Mikkeller and Friends). Never you mind that it's not until May 11 and 12! These guys are prepared. And a little advance buzz never hurts. What jumps out at me from the list are the top three beers:

1. Havic - 4% bottom fermented dry hopped lager
2. Single Black - 2% BOB Stout
3. Sniper - 1.5% IPA
In other words, Struise has just destroyed your last hope of generalizing about their beers. And possibly they got sick of smart-asses like me asking when they're going to make a session beer. (Pictured: Urbain Coutteau in repose at the Struise farm.)

Finally: A blog that is right up my alley, and probably yours: Have Beer, Will Travel, there featuring a beery walk around Brussels. Nothing fancy, just lots of photos of beer we'd like to drink in places we'd like to be. The author, I believe is Fred Waltman, he of the Franconia Beer Guide and Mad Brewer. Apparently his blog has been around for a couple of years. But then, so have a lot of them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I Wish More Pubs Did This.

Once every couple of weeks or so I've been getting an email from Bier Circus in Brussels with a handy little photo attached. It's the same one you see to the right: what's on tap... an actual shot of the chalkboard inside the restaurant. (If you want to get on the Bier Circus email list too, just drop them a line here.)

Of course, lots of places publish their tap lists online. Most seem to be "example" lists of what they might have on at any given time. Just to give you an idea. It's better than nothing, but I like to see more effort.

Many places these days will announce special taps via Twitter, which is OK, but not as useful as seeing a whole list. And by "useful," I mean "mighty fun to look at while killing time at work and thinking about what you'll drink when you go out to meet your friends." Also, there is the ongoing problem that everyone on Twitter thinks that everyone is on Twitter.

Some savvier pubs frequently update their online tap lists, often by uploading the menu in PDF format. Examples include the Bridge in St. Louis (updated two weeks ago) and the Churchkey in DC (updated yesterday). Max's Taphouse in Baltimore has a "now serving" list on its front page, but I can't say how live it truly is. I'd guess that most of the prolific taphouses (read: bars with insane numbers of taps) have something like this nowadays.

What I'd really like to see is real-time stuff... I have vague memories of seeing live webcam shots of chalkboard menus... It might have been the Pelican in Pacific City, Ore., or the International Tap House in Chesterfield, Mo. Neither of those sites have them now, but I'm sure there are more. Maybe this is more trouble for the publican than it's worth. But if you can think of websites where you can see draft lists in real time, please post them in the comments below.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Stuff Rich People Like.

Oi, beer geeks, let's be honest about who we are when we're plunking down $10 or more for a six pack or $5 or $6 for a pint in a bar. Generally, we are not poor (although the few of us who technically are poor, according to whatever definition, do have excellent priorities). And we should be careful about assuming that we represent some great cross-section of America.

Have a look through some photos of your favorite beer festival and see what sort of cross-section it represents. Well-fed white folks, that's what I see.

So there is no reason to get upset over this quote from Harry Schumacher, editor of the Beer Business Daily: "The brands that are growing are the brands the rich people drink."

Now, "rich" is a relative thing, and there are many well-off Americans who would hate to think of themselves as "rich," because that's a word reserved for the bad guys in the movies, not for all us equals. But there are a lot of ways to determine whether or not someone is "rich," and to the minimum-wage or unemployed stiff trying to rationalize putting even the cheapest beer into his family's grocery cart, since the food stamps won't cover it... I suspect that one look at your latest bottle-shop receipt might decide the matter for him.

Also let's remember that craft beer is still less than 5 percent of total beer sales volume, and that we are talking about a wider movement toward better-quality and/or non-mass-produced and/or locally made food and drink. It's not poor folks behind this movement. These things come with a price tag.

And there is some of the usual teeth-gnashing from the beer industry in this latest article from Advertising Age. The comments come from a National Beer Wholesalers Association meeting in Las Vegas. The big boys are still scratching their heads and trying to figure out why they're bleeding sales while higher-end liquor, wine and beer is mopping it up.

Clearly it's because of branding. Sure. Wouldn't that be convenient? Much easier to fix than a wide-ranging change in public taste. That would be unthinkable.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Westvleteren 12 to Hit Supermarket Shelves for Limited Time.

Beer-savvy Belgians will be buying newspapers on November 3 and clipping a very special little coupon. They will then take that coupon to the nearest Colruyt supermarket and, in orderly fashion no doubt, use it to purchase a six-pack of Westvleteren 12 and two Westvleteren glasses for €25 (about US$33).

Not bad, eh?

Here is the news (in Dutch) from the Standaard (with a hat tip to Jimbo at the BBB). Or here you can read it in French from Le Soir, which is where I nabbed this promotional photo. Check out the new roman numeral branding on the glasses and bottles. I don't know... I think I liked it better when they just recycled the ring-necked Westmalle bottles (among others) and left them label-free.

Those with good memories will remember hearing about this Colruyt possibility nearly a year ago. My hope then was that this would somehow take the steam out of the absurd gray-market sales, but that seems unlikely since this appears to be a one-off deal.

There will be 93,000 of these special little "brick" boxes for sale, with all the proceeds going to a major reconstruction project at the abbey. The monks have resisted selling their ales outside the abbey walls for a very long time, in the face of much international hype that would have increased the market value. It's easy to imagine them fretting over where to get the funds for their renovations when they have been sitting on the gold mine all along.

For more Thirsty Pilgrim posts on Westvleteren, click here. They include what is by far this site's most-visited post ever on how to get the stuff the legal way (as in, one to three cases of of it) from the abbey.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

On Embracing Local Limitations.

Ryan is a friend I made in Brussels. He's one of those diplomatic types. At the moment he is taking up homebrewing in Ghana, which will be worth a whole post of its own one of these days. He sent his take on terroir and beer, and I shared it in the comments of the last post.

Interesting that so far the most skeptical comments on terroir in relation to beer have come from beer people. Then along comes a wine guy (who is now a beer guy too, I guess) who says, "Hey, that fits." I'll share his take again in a moment.

To back up just a bit: Don Feinberg proposed something called "monoculture" brewing. I'm not sold on that term for a whole bunch of reasons I'll save for another day (soon), but for now here is the basic idea:

There may be other ways to create a discernible character that sets a beer apart and above others but to me the surest way is the house character that comes only from the combination of water, climate, brewery configuration and one yeast strain. This character, without exception, limits the styles the brewery can produce. But, when used successfully, it also means brewery X can produce one style of beer better than other breweries.
I emphasized the word that I want to emphasize: limits. I think that might be what resonated with Ryan the Diplomatic Wine-Turned-Beer Guy too. Here's his take again:
It is absolutely more than dirt and rocks and weather, although those are the influencing factors. Terroir is about the confluence of circumstances that, if a producer is interested in making the absolute highest quality product possible, force decisions which limit your options.
To get straight to the point: As others have noted (not just here but in many other discussions on this topic), brewers today have virtually unlimited choices. It has not always been that way, but as Max said, the process of brewing beer has arguably always offered more control over the final product (in relation to wine), thus making terroir less relevant. I'm not sure anyone can dispute that.

But if brewers have unlimited choices thanks to a global marketplace of ideas and ingredients, then they also have this choice: They can subject themselves to some local limitations. It's a bold choice, and it's unnecessary, but I think that's the interesting possibility that Don is proposing. (And of course it's something that more and more brewers are doing all the time, to varying degrees, with the emphasis on local this or that.)

On the quest toward making the best product possible, a brewer can subject herself to the local limitations, forcing a whole bunch of decisions that lead toward a distinctive product.

Now, if you want to get really philosophical, that is inevitably what happens to us as mortal human beings. We are not born into this world as blank slates, capable of being whatever we want to be. From the outset we get parameters from our DNA, our families, the cultures and institutions that bring us up. Within those parameters we make choices, sometimes just for survival, but ideally toward being the best person we can be.

One could argue that those limitations make things a hell of a lot more interesting.