Monday, January 30, 2012

More Ruminations on Midwestern Style, Such As It Is.

I went to the 25th annual Great Taste of the Midwest last August searching for "somewhereness" in the beers there. I'm a Midwesterner myself, originally, and I wanted to know if there was anything that sets the region's beers and brewers apart from the rest of the world.

Part of that search resulted in an article in the latest All About Beer magazine, including some fun stuff from New Glarus co-owner and brewmaster Dan Carey. The article's not on the website so look for it wherever the finest magazines are sold. Or subscribe here.

Like most kids growing up, I didn't think my hometown or even my region had any culture to speak of. But, as often happens, I moved away and looked back. Then I saw it pretty clearly.

Tom Griffin is another Midwesterner with perspective. He lives in Madison and is a longtime member of the  Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, which organizes the Great Taste. But he's originally from Florida and recently has become known as the “Barrel Guy” (more on that story here). Griffin has traveled tens of thousands of miles selling used whiskey barrels to brewers, facilitating the barrel-aging phenomenon almost single-handedly. If you've tasted a barrel-aged beer from any brewery around the country, there's a pretty good chance that Griffin sold them the barrel.

For his part, Griffin says the secret to Midwestern beers may lie in the friendly, open communication among brewers. He said he's seen plenty of that same cooperative spirit on the West Coast—and noted that many of those brewers, including Firestone Walker's Matt Brynildson, are originally from the Midwest. And what about Fritz Maytag, often thanked for fathering modern craft beer when he revived Anchor in San Francisco? Yep. He's from Iowa.

“Our culture here has become beautiful,” Griffin said, “and it is infused by the way that people talk to each other.” As far as the beers, he said, “we're very much into balance. ... That sense of balance, between the malt and the hops, we have that here.” Even the hoppier Midwestern beers tend to be “more approachable, less abrasive on the tongue,” Griffin said. “Why does beer have to be challenging? It should have grace and balance.”

What story do the beers tell? To be fair, not all of what I tasted that fine Saturday at the Great Taste could described as "balanced." However, trying to go for a mix of the weird and not-so-weird, I found that the most impressive beers were indeed on the “everyday” end of the spectrum. I tasted several excellent, flavorful lagers loaded with grainy, hoppy, country character. I tasted a series of session-strength pale ales with big hop aromas but nonetheless subdued bitterness—a bitterness that nods and says “howdy” but doesn't caulk your tongue with resin.

One of my favorite examples that day: a crisp, aromatic pale ale from Dave's Brewfarm that weighed in at 3.7% alcohol. Its name: Imperial Double. So maybe there's also something to be said, as well, for the Midwestern sense of humor.
“Brewers are just lazy,” said Dave Anderson, brewer and owner of the wind-powered farmhouse brewery in Wilson, Wisc. At the Great Taste he wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and a name tag that said, “Farmer Dave.”

“It's imperial this, double that. I mean, really?”

A few days before the Great Taste, some words on the Madison Beer Review website caught my attention. Site editor Jeffrey Glazer said that “the Midwest is often dismissed as the 'red-headed stepchild' of the beer industry—good, occasionally great, but often boring.”

The dirty little secret, he said, “is that our 'boring' beer is far better, on average, than the 'boring' beer made by every brewery in the known universe.”

So I hunted Glazer down at the Great Taste and got some more out of him.

"While it might be great to have a sour beer, an IPA, whatever, we're really looking for something we can buy a 12-pack of, or the case that we can keep in the garage," he said. "We throw that in the garage, and that's what we drink.

"What we're really looking for something that we can drink every single day, because that's when we're doing to drink it."

So is there anything to this? Does Midwestern beer find its sense of style in the balanced, in the drinkable? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, for whatever that's worth. As I mentioned in the article, the region's top craft sellers include beers like Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat, Goose Island Honker's Ale and New Glarus Spotted Cow.

Another anecdotal example, off the top of my head: Steve Crider of 2nd Shift in New Haven, Mo., is a wizard with hops and his IPAs are among the best I've smelled and tasted. But his smooth Hibiscus Wit is the one that sells like mad.

On the other hand: More than anywhere else, the West Coast has carved out a beer identity with its hop-forward IPAs—which many people I spoke to described as "unbalanced." Comparisons are inevitable; quite possibly, easterners and southerners would describe their own beers as "balanced" and "drinkable" in comparison.

In thinking about the beers I tasted that day, I can remember a few that I thought had some "sense of place" without even checking my notes. There was the Moon Man No-Coast Pale Ale from New Glarus, for its balance and its name. (On the other hand, it is difficult to avoid thoughts of terroir with the brewery that advises us to "drink indigenous.") The Founders All-Day IPA hit a similar sweet spot. There was the Hopfenstange Pils from Delafield Brewhaus, one of many grainy and well-hopped lagers at the festival. Lots of potential in that vein.

Painting with broad strokes: Clean beers, pale, in which the bitterness is restrained so that one can taste the grains, but with the hops often making a comeback in the flavor and aroma. They are, in short, the sorts of beers that I especially like to drink. Which proves absolutely nothing, except that I'm looking forward to more field testing when I go home this summer, and every time I go home.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Just a Year Old, More Props for Urban Chestnut.

Yesterday was the first birthday of Urban Chestnut in St. Louis. I drank a half-dozen or so of their beers last summer, a couple of them repeatedly. What I now tell people who say they're visiting St. Louis: Go to Urban Chestnut and drink the Zwickel.

Coincidentally, we must assume, yesterday was also the day that Ratebeer announced its annual Best awards, based on individual scores by, effectively, thousands of active raters around the world. Say what you will about their biases, but these are folks who have tasted a lot of beers from a lot of places. We can criticize the herd and its findings -- and they make a nice big target, don't they? -- but these awards are nothing if not democratic and educational.

No. 5 on the list of top new breweries in the world: Urban Chestnut. And easily making the Top 50 Best Brewpubs in the world: Urban Chestnut.

This says good things about the brewery, obviously, but also about Ratebeer. Urban Chestnut is succeeding there without the beers that stereotypically succeed there: no barrel-aged imperial stouts, yet, made from coffee passed through the intestines of Indonesian weasels (although who knows what the future holds?). Its top-rated beer is Hopfen, a heavy-on-the-Hallertauer "Bavarian IPA" that weighs in around 6% strength. The Winged Nut chestnut ale (pictured) gets high marks, but so does the hoppy Half Crown session ale (4%).

More stuff from the area: I wrote the bit in the latest Draft magazine about how St. Louis is one of the spots "Where to Drink Next." It'll likely show up on the website one of these days soon, but really shouldn't you go and subscribe? Also mentioned, besides Urban Chestnut (and I would've liked to include more): Iron Barley, Civil Life, Schlafly, the Bridge and 4 Hands. I had nothing to do with this, but across from the article is a full-page Urban Chestnut ad that says, "We're proud to be part of the St. Louis craft brewing community."

For more on that community, see my post on The Spirit of St. Louis and my article in the New York Times. Not bad for a couple of weeks "work" last summer.

Finally, a pleasant surprise: Beer Advocate has an article in its latest issue about Augusta Brewing, about 40 minutes drive southwest of St. Louis. I might have mentioned before, I pay taxes and vote in Franklin County, where Augusta is setting up its new brewhouse in the old Droege's grocery store. The store was there in Washington, Mo., since 1896, having moved from a nearby spot in 1867. I shopped there a few times, with my wife and her family. Looking forward to drinking there too.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Wine Has Parkerization. Does Beer Have Tickerization?

For starters, it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. Were talking about a phenomenon that has allegedly taken over all or virtually all wine's largest producers, compared to a niche within the craft beer niche.

But there are similarities. And the way that craft beer is booming these days... Well, it's always fair to wonder what awaits us down the road.

Wine: Shops and shoppers pay attention to the ratings of critics. Bigger, more obvious, fruitier, sweeter, stronger wines tend to get better ratings (for which Robert Parker often gets all the blame, which is both unfair and a compliment to his influence), which leads to bigger sales. And winemakers naturally want to both (a) make money and (b) give the people want they (think they) want... mutually beneficial goals. Meanwhile, a high rating sends a bottle's price skyward in the speculative market. New international markets are now hip to those ratings, sending prices even higher, creating further incentive to help homogenize the wine world. Sip, swirl, spit, rinse and repeat.

The obvious downside of this cycle: lack of diversity. It can be difficult to near-impossible for a casual wine buyer (like me) to know where to find something different -- which often means subtle, acidic, lighter. Vinho verde I know, but beyond that we are often outside the shopkeeper's comfort zone.

Beer: It has no Robert Parker, nor do beer critics/writers in general have anywhere near the sort of influence over shoppers that wine writers do. The popular theory is that beer is more "democratic" and less likely to inspire fear in the buyer... The difference in price has a lot to do with it, but so does culture. Few bring a pricey bottle of beer to a party in fear that their friends will turn their noses up at it. After all, whatever it cost, it's only beer. Right?

Speaking of democratic: Craft beer drinkers, especially those just waking up to its surprising diversity in flavor, often pay attention to rankings on the big rating sites, Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate -- where they promptly find a surprising lack of diversity. For the same reasons that I reckon obvious wine score well -- it's easy to identify big flavors, even in small amounts -- there are an absurd number of barrel-aged imperial stouts on those lists. There are other flavor bombs too, like sour ales and double IPAs. But huge, strong blackness tends to do the best. It's easy to appreciate the flavors. It's easy to appreciate the color.

There's nothing wrong with that, it must be said. I spent about two hours sipping 11 ounces of imperial stout last night, once the tots were in bed, and it was a joy. I like a big bulbous glass of cabernet with my broiled ribeye.

The problem is not bigness. It's diversity. Can you find a lighter, more acidic option on the restaurant wine list? Is your local micro throwing money and time into a barrel program -- and it seems like all of them are these days -- at the expense of other, more original options? I'm on record gnashing my teeth at the relative lack of moderate and low alcohol beers in brewpubs and taphouses these days, and I've read plenty of similar rants among cognoscenti.

Bonus hypothetical: If a micro is barrel-aging an imperial stout only to satisfy a subset of customers who will pay a premium for it, when the brewer himself would rather not drink the stuff, is it still "craft"?

I would suggest that it is not. Not if we want that word to mean something.
Hip-hop head nods to Stan H., Alan M. and Matt Mothafuckin' Kramer.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Fighting Stance and Higher Motives.

I was hunting for something totally unrelated when I stumbled on this:

There will thus be present brewers producing beers, the majority of which, if not all, have well-defined characteristics. The aim is to support and defend those who have made the decision to turn their back on easy commercial gain but rather have adopted a fighting stance against beers with little flavour. They are thus brewers who wander off the well-trodden path. They work in breweries on a human, rather than an industrial scale, using traditional and natural methods, and are guided by higher motives than an unbridled pursuit of profit. They are small in size, but their contribution to our brewing heritage is enormous: they are the ultimate guarantors of the preservation of centuries old tradition and produce beers with a genuine diversity of flavours.
All the emphasis is mine. Those words are from the 2007 program for the Bruxellensis festival, explaining how the organizers chose which brewers to invite. I submit it as yet another exhibit in the ongoing conversation about just what exactly constitutes "craft." Yes, we get tired of that conversation at times, but it will continue with or without us. So let's keep it on point.

A few weeks ago, I asked Jean Van Roy of Cantillon what "craft" or "artisanal" means to him. To paraphrase, because I didn't scribble that particular quote and I don't have the time to go through my recordings just now, he said it means putting the product over the profit.

It's not a useful definition for tax authorities or industry groups that must decide whom to include and exclude. Luckily, I am neither of those things.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

More, Please: Cas Beer is Out.

Dropped by that craft brewery in Cartago on Monday and learned something useful: Its third and latest seasonal beer is available this week. In this case it's a session-strength wheat beer made with what is arguably Costa Rica's signature fruit: cas.

If I told you the Latin word for cas is Psidium friedrichsthalium, would that help? No. Much better to explain that it's a sour member of the guava family with lime-like leanings. Its most popular use is in the sweetened, fresh fruit drinks enjoyed at roadside sodas (incidentally, it also makes a killer sorbet). It's got a tangy, tart and earthy taste and smell. That shows up in the beer's aroma just enough for me to think, "Oh yeah, that's cas." The tartness is restrained and the beer is highly drinkable at 4.5% abv.

Just between us, I intend to put a serious personal dent in this beer's availability. It won't last long. It's a crowd pleaser with distinct local identity.

If you're keeping track, this is the third seasonal from Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Co. Like the others, this seasonal should be available at the brewery's 16 or so draft accounts (a number that is soon to grow, thanks to increased brewhouse capacity). One of those draft accounts I've failed to mention is the Hostel Galileo in San José, which I gather is a fun place that sells a hell of a lot of beer. Could be just the thing for thirsty travelers looking to overnight in the capital before or after a flight.

Happy new year, y'all.

CORRECTED to offer Latin name for Cas instead of English word "soursop," which is in fact guanabana. And which also makes a nice sorbet flavor, by the way.