Who Is Afraid Of Facts On Beer Bottles?

Interesting if light-ish article from the publication The Drinks Business on the question of labeling beer with their caloric content:

According to public health minister Anna Soubry, officials have been in talks with the drinks industry about the possible inclusion of calorie content on labels. Ministers are hoping that displaying the calorie content in beers, wines and spirits could encourage those who are watching their weight to drink less. Most manufacturers already include information on units of alcohol on labels in a voluntary agreement with the Government. A recent study by the Drink Aware Trust has linked the large amount of calories in alcoholic drinks to people being overweight and obese.

Makes perfect sense to me. Every box of crackers in the cupboard tells me how many calories are in a handful already. I can look up the calories in meats and other ingredients because they are fairly standard measure as these things go. But a beer is not a beer is not a beer. Who knows what people are sticking in there and what it means over the long term? Some of the big bombs out there might as well be mugs of piping hot icing and should be handled with great care. And the drive to have more proper sessionable low alcohol beers might get a kick if the truth about stronger stuff were wildly known. Makes sense.

And why stop there? One thing that drives me a bit nutty are abstract standards like the UK’s absolutely silly use of “units” as a measure of alcoholic strength. What we need on a bottle is the actual ml of pure alcohol. A 500 ml can of 7% of semi-DIPA has 35 ml. Two of these innocent pals are well within the ball park of a 750 ml corked top bottle of that swell 10% beer but far less, err, red flaggy. Is it too much to ask for a universal standard based on a standard that is basically universal?

Is there pressure to keep this sort of information away from the beer buying public? Or do you actually just not want to know. Are they, like price, things of no interest to the… umm… passionate?

Are Contract Brewers Posing As Gypsy Brewers?

Because we are having so much fun with terminology and meaning, I thought I would mention this:

As the name suggests, all the breweries involved, save for one (the host), are gypsy brewers. The Brewers Association (BA) defines this type of brewery as a contract brewing company—essentially a business that hires another brewery to produce its beer. The contract brewing company is often responsible for recipe development and handles the marketing, sales and distribution of the beer. “Not-owning a physical brewery doesn’t stop us [gypsy brewers] from being extremely passionate, innovative and community-minded,” notes Band of Gypsies ring leader, Ashley Routson of Bison Organic Beer. “Our mission is to work together to promote and celebrate each other, and educate the craft beer community on the world of gypsy brewing.”

Now call me goofy, but I do think words should have meaning and my understanding that a contract brewer hires someone else to make their beer while a gypsy brewer uses the surplus time on the brewing equipment of another to make a separate line of beer. In each case, the owner of the brewing equipment does not own the beer… unless that is part of the behind the scenes deal to get access to the equipment. The contract may or may not include marketing, shipping and the rest. Depends on the terms of the contract, doesn’t it. Pretty Things, for eastern North American example, does not own its own brewery but makes the decisions so it is an example of the gypsy. These BAers have been forming a shortish list of likely actual suspects. You can provide your thoughts and accusations on that as you feel appropriate in the comments.

But there is something else to note. The fudging of the idea is alleged in the article to be based on the brilliant linguists of the Brewers Association whose recent work has been noted. The two ideas are muddled here, too. I am not sure that is correct, however, from this BA webpage which clearly described contract brewing for what it is – despite some of the other head scratcher definitions in there. Why would one widen the definition of “gypsy brewer” to include anyone who hires someone else to make beer? Because “gypsy brewer” sounds neato and swell while the more accurate “contract brewer” is laden with… accuracy? The trend towards adulteration of the language in the name of good beer is a bit weird, isn’t it.

This is not a crack at all against the project which I suspect includes far more hands on involvement than a contract brewer would sully themselves with. But there is something unseemly even needy in all the slipperiness, isn’t there. Again, thoughts and accusations on that as you feel appropriate.

What Does A Critique Of Beer Culture Look Like?

I’ve been thinking more and more about the framework of the beery discourse and what has gotten us to this point. Still no comprehensive US history of beer. Still we live with the very language of beer controlled by organizations with middle managers, accountants and committees. And a growing trend such that, like things polysynthetic, the task of learning and describing the state of good beer appears to include a lot of creative writing – as in creation of the thing purported to be the subject of study. Not sure these are good things. There are stands being taken. I keep coming back to a post Jeff wrote a few weeks ago called “I Feel A Veto Coming On” in which he announced his rejection of a certain sort of beer:

…I must institute a similar policy with any experimental beer using crazy ingredients. I’m going to start from the position that anything that might plausibly be sold as a candy bar, salad, or entree is not worth drinking.

See that? That’s a position being taken. And one that makes sense. If you think about it, if the experimental beer is based on the adding of “not beer” to “beer” it is clearly a distancing of itself from beer. A dilution. A covering up. A distraction. One need not inaugurate the Protz Shield and Papazian Cup to point out the weakness in a trend or a shape shifting of the market. So, I take up Jeff’s policy and ask you to consider doing the same thing. Maybe 2013 is the year we can put the focus back on the beeriness of beer.

This Is How US Craft Beer Will Kill Itself

An odd, coordinated set of press releases today from the US Brewers Association (BA) and its leading members via any number of media can be summed up in the final section of the statement:

The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking. And for those passionate beer lovers out there, we ask that you take the time to familiarize yourself with who is brewing the beer you are drinking. Is it a product of a small and independent brewer? Or is it from a crafty large brewer, seeking to capitalize on the mounting success of small and independent craft brewers?

The first sensible reaction is, of course, who cares. But then you read the variation on the theme by Papazian with its needy and slightly offensive reference to Founding Fathers and blindness to the good jobs offered by the 94% of the beer market served by big beer, well, you just shake your head. Never mind that some US craft brewers are big enough to have multiple breweries and large ad budgets. Never mind that many US craft brewers use much the same processes slammed by their trade association as marks of falsity if not signs of the end times. What is most annoying is that the whole construct is based on the faulty definition of what is craft – therefore good – by the BA itself.

Whether it is the BA-named Shock Top or its step-cousin the BA-silent Matilda, each ultimately produced under the Anheuser-Bush InBev corporate umbrella, there are plenty of examples of perfectly good well priced beer made by brewers who do not qualify for BA membership. There are also plenty of duds and plenty of highly questionable value propositions placed on beer store shelves by BA members. Again, few are special, most are solid work-a-day folk and some suck. Given that, launching on another David v Goliath fight based on a questionable self-generated definition of “craft” without reference to the sort of quality and price determinations the consumer has to make when out buying beer is a dead end. It is thin stuff that most can spot. All that I can see is that I have been reminded that the bigs are making some tasty beer now at a pretty good price.

As I said, odd. But these are instructive moments. Look to see who lines up behind the press release, repeating the arguments. Ask yourself why. As long as the view of the consumer is not the focal point for the discourse, one has to be very careful about such things, sifting what is independent opinion from what is generated due to one’s job description.

Wicked Beer Fan Related Finger Pointy Gossip Action!

I have to say I have no idea these sorts of things went on but, even though it is Easter and I should be nicer especially having attended an excellent morning service, I just can’t stop reading the comments after the post that contains this:

…I have had to explain, and apologize, for certain “Toronto beer celebrities” as if they are actualy goddamn relatives of mine, for their obnoxious, entitled behaviour in bars I have only been two once – like it’s my non-existent brother we’re talking about… I doubt if this gets through to anyone in particular, but PLEASE, do not ruin any more places in Ontario or upstate New York for me – I am tired of having to explain that “no, I am NOT associated with that dickhead” to servers, bartenders and pub/restaurant owners from central Ontario to south of Buffalo. I have tried to be nice, but frankly enough is enough.

Never have I been happier to have created the idea of Easlakia… OK, once but that was really really personal. But where in the world does the idea of “Toronto beer celebrities” (sic) come from?? I mean even the idea of “Toronto celebrities” alone bends the space time continuum a bit, right? No, this is weird. Yet honest. Yet a car crash. And makes me wonder what stamp collectors say behind each others backs.

I live in a bubble out here. If this is what beer nerds are, I don’t know. I am taking another good hard look at Miller High Life. Just saying. Add a slice of lime, it’s a Mill-rona. It works.

Delaware: Theobroma, Dogfish Head, Milton

Mark Dredge has a piece in this morning’s Guardian out of the UK entitled “The Beer of Yesteryear” which scans the range of recent brewing efforts to recreate beers older than, say, 500 years ago. These are beers which use ingredients available to former culture including Theorbrama by Dogfish Head. I had one on hand and thought I would see if it has any appeal. Mark tells me:

Theobroma, part of Dogfish’s Ancient Ale series, is based on “chemical analysis of pottery fragments found in Honduras which revealed the earliest known alcoholic chocolate drink used by early civilizations to toast special occasions.” It contains Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs, honey, chillies and annatto.

The bottle adds that it is based on chemical residual evidence from before 1100 BC with additives from later Mayan and Aztec drinks. So, seeing as the Aztecs come from about 1300 to 1600 AD, it is sort of a made up mish mash. Its as much a traditional drink as one from, say, that one Eurotrash era that stretched from the Dark Ages of around 800 AD to the world of George Jetson in the year 2537 AD. That would be an excellent era… right?

Well, as a beer it is a bit of a disappointment as well. Booze overwhelms pale malt which is undercut by the exotic herbs all of which has an oddly “beechwood aged” tone to it. I get the cocoa. I get the honey. But I don’t care all that much. It leaves me disappointed like that imperial pilsner experiment of Dogfish Head’s in 2006. Only moderate respect from the BAers. A bit of a boring beer that may be the result of a fantastically interesting bit of archeological work. Who knows? Maybe the sense of taste of those Central American practitioners of human sacrifice wasn’t as haute as one might have expected. Or maybe it paired well.

I Have Never Really Bothered With The Pour

There are many things that can get attached to an idea or experience. I presume the more precious or particular the key advice, the more likely you are dealing with a barnacle that needs scraping off the hull of your given ship of life.. or a consultant hunting for someone to bill. Like this mystic wisdom about pouring your beer:

There’s more to pouring a beer than you may think. Pouring a beer improperly can pollute wonderful aromas, cause an improper release of CO2, and hinder the flavors of the beer. If you want your beer to fulfill its potential, consider this advice…You want to cock the glass a certain way depending on the style of beer. If the beer is highly carbonated, tilt the glass at a 45 degree angle and start pouring down the side. Wait until a third of the pour you want is in the glass, then tilt the glass upright and pour in the center. If the beer is lower in carbonation, start pouring downwards into the center of the glass earlier. A head the width of two fingers is a good rule of thumb for what you are looking for, Deman says.

I have never been particularly anal about how to pour a beer but even I would not look for a two inch head on a low carbonation style like mild. You’d drive the life out of it. But no doubt I’ve been a lifetime beer polluter and had no idea. Better rule of thumb: do what you like when you pour your beer and it probably works for you.

Book Review: A Life On The Hop, Roger Protz

I bought a copy of this book after looking around and only finding Knut’s observations from last summer on the difference between its marketing and that of Pete Brown’s Hops and Glory. There was a press release by its publisher CAMRA, a nibbly bit by the NUJ, a smidge from his editorial assistant but I couldn’t seem to come up with a review other than the one that Knut found in The Westmorland Gazette:

A Life on the Hop is an amusing romp around the beer world and is devoid of beery jargon. It will be enjoyed not only by beer lovers but also by those who enjoy travel writing.

Magic. I’ll miss print journalism when it dies.

There has been much sport made of Mr. Protz but it is not something that I really understood as he is not a often discussed writer in this part of the world. So, being the good boy that I am, I thought I would have a read of his autobiography to learn a bit more to either join in the slag-fest or, more fairly, get a bit of perspective. I was in for a little shock.

The book is subtitled “Memoirs of a Career in Beer” and the key word is “memoirs” – as this really isn’t an autobiography but a series of anecdotes arranged in themes based largely but not solely on geography. I learned this in the first chapter when I thought I would learn about his childhood but where I learned about pubs he liked in around his first London newspaper work in Fleet Street – the Cheese, Punch, Old Bell, Old King Lub, Black Friar and the Globe. I didn’t know what to make of it – not much Roger, lots of tavern. Then you are quickly into chapters take you through the Czech Republic, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium Germany, Mexico and the USA as if someone were gleaning through one’s old note books in search of favorite and perhaps not too often repeated yarns of a wag. About a hundred pages in, I started turning down page corners after I read errors vaguely Canuckois like:

a. Fraunce’s Tavern in New York dates from 1790 “when New York was still under British rule” [p.107] The British left in 1783 (some moving to help found my town) and the building dates from 1719.

b. the Yakima Valley of Oregon was once part of “French Canada” [p.124] even though the French speaking part of Canada was far to the east and I think that the Yakima was south of the part of the area of the British claim.

I folded down more corners until I stopped around page 167. I didn’t really care that I doubted his explanation of the genesis of the term steam beer [p. 117] or that lambic is the oldest beer style known to mankind, being close to beer dating back to Egypt, Babylon and Mesopotamia [p. 129]. Did it really matter that Babylon was a city state within Mesopotamia? Was I missing the point?

I didn’t miss that there is something of a cranky, indiscreet tone to these travels. Targets include Tories who put him up for the night, corporations and two older ladies encountered in Prague having a private conversation:

I was crossing the square with Graham Lees, a CAMRA founding member with an acerbic turn of phrase, when we passed two elderly American women who were eyeing the fabulous architecture of the area. “Y’know,” one of them said to her friend, “it’s nothing like Poughkeepsie.” Lees went red in the face, chased after them and snarled: “Of course it’s nothing like fucking Poughkeepsie. It’s been here for several fucking centuries.” It was his finest hour.

That’s the finest hour for an arsehole, perhaps. It’s that kind of small coarse tone that you hear in a far too graphic and entirely gratuitous of an account of the suicide of a brewer in an early chapter and the tragic affect on the family or, later, the naming of names of fellow beer tourists who may have broken marital vows at Oktoberfest. You may come away wondering what sort of person would make that part of a book.

Yet he is obsessed with beer. And has spent a life following it – a life that I realize the more I write about beer sometimes can mean hard scrabble and closed doors. It’s a little bittersweet when despite all the years he is not able to arrange for proper accommodations on an invite to the US and back on a liner. It’s a little poignant when he thinks that when someone isn’t able to meet with him because Roger is going to reveal the truth about a merger when it is likely the guy was just too busy. It is a tough old road and a long one. It’s likely one that he takes pride in taking – a road not often taken when he started out. That pride and hard effort comes out as well.

One beer writer chastised me for an unkind comment by email a few months ago, saying: “anybody who started writing about beer since 1995 (just picked that year out of the air – maybe it should be 2000… should pause. If it weren’t for people like Roger they might not be able to be doing what they do.” He also said that he wouldn’t use him as a source but the point is still a good one. When it wasn’t easy, when it didn’t pay well and no one could roll out of bed and blog their thoughts within 17 minutes, Roger was out there writing about beer. He probably got you from one stage of interest to another at some point. And that is what the book is really about. You will get irritated, you will not find out the information you might have thought you would find and you will turn down corners when you find another error – but you will get a sense with the man.

So, buy the book and share your thoughts. Just don’t go on a beer tour with him and give him any reason to think you went off for the evening with the buxom lonely lush. You may read about it later.

Craft Or Kraphtt: Porter, Michelob Brewing, St Louis, Mo.

I was going to write “wow” or something but that wouldn’t quite capture my surprise at how good this beer is. Poured at a chilly cellar temperature, there is an immediate mass of dry cocoa that sits in such balance with that bit of hop, a little java and that little nod to dark plum that immediately lets you know this is no ordinary budget beer. Chalky soft water makes it particularly moreish. In fact, if I had not bought this as part of a $10.99 12 pack at the A-Bay Mart the other day I could have been quite happy to pay $4.99 or more for a 22 oz bomber of this stuff.

Definitely craft. Nothing near kraphtt. Perhaps the most surprising value in beer that I have come across so far. BAers rate widely.

Single Cask Brews: Manufacturing Scarcity Or Pure Genius?

I just about flipped out when I saw this post over at 2 Beer Guys (from the April 16, 2008 issue of The Coloradoan) about the Odell Brewing Co. (with whom I am not familiar but which I am sure is nice and run by fine folk, and all) doing a limited run of a series of single cask beers – each brew never to be repeated and the cask retired:

…Each batch of the ale, which will have more vanilla and caramel tones, will make enough for only roughly 120 cases before the recipe is retired, creating an exclusivity factor not usually associated with beer. Each 750 mL bottle – hand-corked, hand-signed and numbered – will sell for $24.99. “It’s a one-time kind of thing,” John Bryant, Odell chief operating officer, said of the process they hope will put them at the forefront of the market.

Excellent. Because we all need another mechanism to raise prices through exclusivity. But am I being fair? Am I being a rogue consumer who is too tight with the wallet. I would encourage, first, that you consider two posts by Stan from last January in which he makes a number of points relating to overly limited runs of barrel-aged beer and the effect on price and popularity. And isn’t that very last point, popularity counter-intuitive? Makes me wonder whether some of these high rated beers are a lot like the 60’s – that many who claim to have experienced them were never really there.

But my point is more, I hope, to the point. What is the basis of a $24.99 price tag on these bottles of beer? Is anything else at that price point? I trust that each of you will consider your responsibilities as an active player in the market and avoid artificial inflationary events. And, sure, it will be a price that is paid but so is “jerk tax”, that premium you pay whenever a vendor can get you for one reason or another. Why not $18.99 or $35.99? Using the math from the story, scrapping the barrel after only one use adds 450/1440 or 32 cents to each bottle or about a tenth that the corked bottle does (if what a US brewer told me last month is true.) Are you so out of control that you don’t care? Are you the sort that will run to this, that will try to profiteer even? Or will you just say no? What do you fall back on to make this decision?