Friday, October 2, 2015

Session #104: Our Navels Are Dark and Cavernous, Yet We Must Gaze. Alan Said So.

My policy on this blog, until today, was to never write about writing. I might have wavered once or twice, but mostly I thought it would bore people. Which is odd, since I happen to like the topic. I'm a writer after all. So are you, I reckon.

So with this post, my contribution to the 104th Session, I'd like to formally announce my rejection of that policy. From now on I might write about writing here, or blog about blogging. Executive decision. I won't even bring it up with the committee (which anyway only has two standing members: myself and the beagle intern-for-life).

The thinking behind the policy was that anyone reading a beer blog was interested in beer, not beer writing. In retrospect that was wrong -- or at least it is wrong now. It now sounds like plain common sense that most of the people who read blogs are bloggers themselves. The others left, or were never here. You are a writer, probably. Or maybe you are one of those "beer communicators." I'm not 100 percent sure what that is -- like beer evangelism, except more honest since everyone knows you're getting paid? -- but fuck it, you're welcome here. I've been reading your stuff too, when I should have been working.

It's almost liberating, dispensing with the fiction that you're a general audience. Of course you're not. You never were, excepting that large subset that found the blog by googling Westvleteren. But they left. You came back, even when I didn't. You're (we're) the niche within the niche within the niche. Maybe what I naïvely imagined as a general audience was just a writing circle all along. Well, that's OK. We need those. The beagle is a good listener but he never really contributes much to the convo, you know?

Is it the writers' circle within the geeks within the beer world? Or is it the geeks within the beer people within the writing world? Maybe both. I'm not sure if I can draw that Venn on the back of a deckel. But I'm going to try, and you'll find the inevitably awkward result there on the right.

Seems like the two-pronged spirit of blogging was that (a) it was fun and (b) eh, maybe there is a professional use for it. To me -- a freelance writer's perspective -- "professional" means working for money. There are two important parts of that: working, and money. So much for (b). Blogging never stopped being fun for me. It just... stopped.

It's not like I ever look at my blog sitting over here, gathering dust in the corner, and think: "Can't be bothered, there's no money in it." On the contrary, I suspect that is exactly why I should do it. But lately -- and I reckon this is a good problem to have -- I must look first to a stack of projects that do pay. Can't do it all, so paying the bills comes first. Doesn't stop me from fucking around in any number of other ways though, does it? In retrospect blogging is one of the healthier ways to fuck around.

Oh dear. Next thing you know I'll be blogging up beer reviews. That was another thing I vowed never to do here.

Nah, on second thought. Boring! Who wants to read about beer anyway?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Postcard from Oberfranken

Sitting in the small courtyard beer garden of the Gasthaus Dotterweich in Reundorf. Not the Reundorf north of here near Lichterfels; this is the one in Bamberg Landkreis. You have to now your Reundorfs.

It's not a great biergarten, and it doesn't have a great playground. But it does have a box full of large lego-like blocks. The boy just built a towering church. The actual village church is just across the road. We can hear the singing, now the bells. I think I prefer the hubbub of the Stammtisch over there, well under way by 10:30 a.m.

Mönchsambacher Lager here. Smells of bread and honey, fairly sweet taste with just enough dusty bitterness to pull it off. A comfort beer.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Session #99: What's YOUR Mild?

I have an hour left in my somewhat arbitrarily self-determined work day before I go an open a bottle of something easy to drink. And I see that today is the day of the Session, the first Friday of the month, when a bunch of beer bloggers tackle the same subject. And then I think, "Oh shit! I still have a blog. Why not?"

Alistair Reece at Fuggled has an agenda with this one. He is promoting mild. That is ostensibly a style of beer. And Al is simultaneously proposing and promoting American Mild Month. Which starts today. This is one of the noblest goals I can think of, and not just because I like the style "mild." To be honest I'm not sure mild represents a style or vice versa. But I love what mild stands for: flavorful yet easy-to-drink. To me it's comfort food in a glass.

I have had a few great British milds and a couple of good American ones. Stuff I would drink again without hesitation. But that was not Al's question. He wants us to localize it.

Localizing is tricky for me.

[Stands up from desk. "HONEY! WHAT COUNTRY ARE WE IN TODAY? GERMANY? OK!" Sits back down to write.]

I grew up in Missouri. The one there that pops into my head is the Bird and Baby from Rolla's Public House -- a brewery largely devoted to session beers -- but all of that came long after I left the state.

But right now I'm in Berlin and will live here for a few more years. The local I have chosen to be mine is called Foersters, and I can walk there in 20 minutes. I happen to think it's the best bar in Berlin, but I'm also biased because a lot of the hip beer joints are across town. So far.

OK, wait. Let's abstract the mild a bit. Let's suppose my "mild" is the one that's always at my pub of choice, the first thing I order every time I walk in, it's flavorful -- delicious, even -- but unchallenging. It is comforting like a baby's bottle.

That one for me, at Foersters, is Weiherer Kellerbier. Hazy gold, sweetish, bitterish, with a creamy vanilla impression. Oh there are better kellerbiers out there. In fact there are better kellerbiers at Foersters. But it's the one that's on draught, every time I walk in, and I don't have to use my brain to order it, and sometimes I don't even have to order it -- it just arrives, like a friend who can finish your sentences.

American beer drinkers are getting more and more familiar with the word "session" -- which is great, even if it's always attached to "IPA." Time to take the concept further. Mild could do it, why not? At the very least it could be a much needed calming influence.

But if not mild, explicitly, I'd be more than content to settle for what mild represents. I usually am.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Fakery and the Illusion of Variety.

As a reminder that beer is part of the wider food business and its trends, here is an article from the weekend, from the AP's food industry writer: "As tastes change, big food makers try hipster guises."

The headline and top of the article are preoccupied with "hipsters," which is a distraction. What really jumps out are the companies -- I don't care about their size -- arguably using deception to appeal to a crowd searching for something unique.

There are obvious parallels there with the "fake brewers" issue that troubles Belgian beer people. Even the Wall Street Journal covered it. I'm also seeing it happen in Germany, as people naturally want to cash in on "craft" and its higher price tag.

At least one of my editors is tired of this topic. [Deep sigh.] I'm clearly not done beating the horse though. Because nothing has changed, really. It still kicks. Well, it kicks me anyway.

Part of researching Belgian breweries is trying to sort out which ones are actual breweries and which are pretenders. That way we can tell you about them. There are all sorts of pretenders, many shades of gray. I try to stick to this: A "brewer" is someone who actually brews beer, while a "brewery" is a building with a functioning brewhouse inside.

If that seems simple, it's not.

Now, I like really good marketing. I enjoy it. I appreciate it as a skill and an art. But I hate lying. I hate it when it's done to my face, and I hate it when it's done to nobody in particular -- i.e., to everyone -- on a website or beer label. I get annoyed when a home or office address refers to itself as a "brewery," and I get annoyed when people call themselves "brewers" who are not. Likewise, just having your office in one place does not make your hired product local to that place -- not if you hired it from another province or country. Lately these "local" village beers have been popping up in Belgium more often, and many are less than honest about their origins. Most come from the same two or three breweries.

One day soon I aim to compile a list of offenders, rather than just single out one or two. I've been told that's unfair, to name only a few liars when there are so many more. I disagree, a liar's a liar... but it's not a black-and-white issue. This deception is a symptom of a permissive culture. And we -- beer drinkers, writers, whoever -- are the ones who have permitted it. Because it's only beer, right?

We allowed the language to slip because it didn't seem to matter. Even Ratebeer refers to these beer commissioners as "contract brewers" or "client brewers," both plainly inaccurate in my view. If you are a trained, experienced brewer who sometimes hires other breweries to make your recipe, you are not a brewer in the context of that beer. Sorry.

That might sound petty. I prefer accurate. As an ongoing project I'm trying to connect the clearest meaning of those words -- "brewer" and "brewery" -- with a really simple public interest. Specialty beer is getting more attention these days, but more to the point: People just want to know from whence their food comes. Here is an idea -- radical, I know -- but why not put the place of manufacture on the label?

Here is the truth, ask a homebrewer: Any asshole can come up with a good recipe and email it to a brewery. And why shouldn't you? There is money in it, there is margin. "Craft" has market cachet. So does "Belgian" for that matter. It's a sensible business arrangement. Nobody will hold it against you -- just be honest about what you're doing. (Also, be prepared to get your ass out there and sell, or else don't be disappointed when distributors want nothing to do with it.)

Well, I shouldn't say "nobody" will hold it against you. Some real, actual brewers are pretty pissed off about the "beer firm" phenomenon. After all, they're the ones who actually crush smelly hops in their hands and scrub out mash tuns, and so on. Many of them went to school for a while or otherwise learned the hard way. I can't say I blame them. They take risks and if a beer goes bad, they're stuck paying for it. Not so for the beer commissioner -- the contract brewery would have to start over and brew it again, at no extra cost to the hirer. Did you know that? That deal sounds better all the time.

Anyway, I'm not a brewer. I'm a writer and a drinker. I want to respect the words, and I want to know where my beer was made. Somehow that is a lot to ask.

A parting thought, after this morning ramble: People are paying extra not for quality, but for variety. Because it's fun to see so many taps and bottles from so many different places. So, how much of that variety is an illusion?