Trends 2010: Is There Really Simplicity In Beer?

I wrote this in the year end review but I am not sure I know what I mean or even if I mean it:

…bigger craft brewers and even some regionals are making interesting beers which are not bombs. Lew recently noted both Magic Hat Odd Notion Fall ’09 and Narragansett Porter both of which I also found to be stunning for their value as well as their elegance. Yesterday, Andy was thankful for well crafted simplicity. Expect 2009 to be remembered for how we learned that cacophony in glass is not a brewers or a drinker’s “go to” brew.

I think by I mean the opposite of a big bomb. When I used to home brew, I was well aware that it was far easier to make a bigger porter with about 6 sorts of dark malt and a few extra dark sugars than to make a good brew with only one or two pale malts. Bombastic was an entry level approach to tasty beer. Lots of interesting stuff going on. But simplicity should also not mean boring. It should mean balanced where are one or two showpiece ingredients. McAuslen’s smooth oatmeal stout. The bread crust graininess of a Hook Norton Haymaker. The white pepper in Fantome saison. I am having a Margriet by Het Anker right now and I’d call that simple – quenching, lemony, peppery, herbal and creamy but also simple without being basic. Maybe that is pushing it, however.

Simplicity should mean easier, too. You don’t need to pair even if you can eat and drink. You should also not be sent on a quest. An interesting discussion has broken out at Zak Avery’s place. In which I am supporting the validity of good beer at home. Beer should not only be simple but having beer should be simple. Is that too much to ask?

A Week With Softer Side Of German Brews

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It was time to clear out a few obscure brews that have been hogging stash shelf space and I grabbed nothing but the Germans. I thought it was going to turn out to be about sharp hops of one sort or another, the sort of thing I ran into over two years ago. I was absolutely stunned when top after top was popped to expose another soft deep dark brown earthy complex beer of one sort or another. These beers were not particularly to a style or a region that I know of. I bought them at different times and different places without a plan and really without really looking. But it didn’t strike me as a fluke.

I’ve had simple German dunkels before and while I liked them I was not blown away. Too little a step up from black lagers. I was looking for more oomph. But I’ve had hints that the sorts of beers were within reach, liken when I had a Korbinian from Weihenstephaner. But this week was proof – everyone one a keeper. Here is, to quote Joe, my “vaguely pornographic list of bottles opened“:

  • Der Weisse Bock: by Mahr’s. Is this the greatest smelling beer of all time? Black cherry so thick it verges on licorice. All over a mat of pumpernickel. In the mouth, it is bright and sweet with the aroma flavours enhanced by a citric acidic zip as well as a decent level of grain texture. At 8.5%, heavy but not hot. The goat on the label is actually licking the foaming head off the glass. I would too if I had enough of these. So nice I don’t even feel shelted. Great BAer respect.
  • Moosbacher Kellerbier: By Private Landbrauerei Scheuerer. Appled barley candy, a little smokiness in the bitter. Not unlike low carbonation Scots ale like Caledonian 80/ but with a little zag of steel to the hops. Six months past the best before date. Bought at the Galeville Grocery some time ago for $3.69 a 5.2% half litre swing top. I am a big fan of the style this being my fourth. Solid BAer respect.
  • Bavarian Dunkler Weizenbock: by Brauere Michael Plank: Fabulous looking lively carbonated chestnut ale with a well hidden 7.5%. Very light on the usual weizen banana and clove but plenty of flavour date and thompson raisin under wheat grain and grass that adds up to a sort of black cherry effect when you look at it that way. Fresh and moreish even at this strength. Far less spicy than its style mate Adventus. BAers take this one another notch higher.
  • Schwelmer Alt: by Brauerei Schwelm. I got this for 1.90 USD somewhere. It pours a lovely bright chestnut under mocha froth and foam. On the nose, as big and malty rich as concentrated as opening a can of malt extract. Lighter in body that the nose would leave you expecting. A slight smoke note, a little metallic tinge, fresh water and tastes of dry fruit and apple butter. Massively moreish. Oodles of BAer respect.
  • Jubelfestbier: by Mahr’s. How many ways can I say deep chestnut ale with a mocha rim and foam. Another soft water malty gem. Scents of earthy dark dry fruit and cocoa. In the mouth, again, it is lighter than the smell might have suggested. Nutty brown malts, a nod to steel hops sitting very much below the profile. Chalky cream yeast. Again moreish. Extremely moreish. Just 4.9%. You could drink buckets of this beer. Huge BAer respect.

I had no idea. Easy drinking yet complex yet comforting beers. These are the sorts of beers you imagine good English milds and browns would turn out to be but those are really are lighter, more guzzlable. These beers are slower, reminding me of the Scots malty beers I got to try on the old tartaned family trips – though different again. Why aren’t these sorts of beers being made in North America? And if they are… where can I find them?

The Birth of Japan’s Third-Category Beer Explained

Wow. Just imagine the thrill I felt this evening when I came across a summary of the history and taxation based reason for Japan’s dai-san biiru or thirdcategory beer, as you know a minor fascination of mine. Thrill along with me to the genesis of the substance caused – as we see all too often – as a response to taxation regimes which create both hardship and opportunity:

In 1994, Suntory began marketing beer-like happoshu with malt content of 65 per cent, while Sapporo developed happoshu containing less than 25 per cent malt. Each attracted lower tax rates, and hence could be sold much more cheaply than real beer. From 1996, however, the government responded by hiking the tax rates for both types of happoshu. In 2003, it also raised tax on happoshu with 25-50 per cent malt content. However, its tax and that of happoshu with less than 25 per cent malt remained less than that on high-malt happoshu or real beer. In 2004, Sapporo and Suntory responded with a zero-malt dai-san biiru, which incurred an even lower tax, and hence retail price, than any happoshu.

Previously I believe I have called third-category beer happoshu. I have failed you. I have failed the honour of beer blogging. I am but a grasshopper the ways of Japanese beer categorization. We also continue to await a brave reviewer who has documented the way of dai-san biiru. Life is so rich, when you think of it.

More Vital Information On Third-Category Beer

I suppose that if I ever tried it or if it had a name that did not sound like something out of Blade Runner I would have less of a fascination with that fluid in Japan that is called “third category beer.” This article in the The The Daily Yomiuri, however, is full of tidbits that make me wonder what this stuff is really like:

“Faced with gasoline and food price hikes, consumers are looking for better deals on some products. Third-category beer, which is often made from soybeans, corn and peas, is priced cheaper than regular beer and happoshu low-malt beer. Beverage makers are fiercely competing to keep prices low, while trying to produce tastes close to that of regular beer. The key to third-category beer’s success is the low price, and shipments surpassed those of happoshu beer in May. A 350-milliliter can of third-category beer sells for about 140 yen at convenience stores, about 20 yen less than happoshu and 75 yen less than regular beer.”

How excellent: “…close to that of regular beer.” Yum. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had similar clarity in our macro-brewing? How many beers would have to call themselves happoshu that now hold themselves out to be beer from barley?

Nothing Says “Yum!” Like Third-Category Beer

While little translates as badly as regulatory text in another language from another country, there is a special place in my heart for Japan and its “third-category” beer which are described as nonmalt beerlike alcoholic beverages. Not third-rate. Third-category. Mmmmm. But apparently the average Joe in the land of the rising sun is switching to the stuff with a new-found zest:

The recent rise in prices of food products and services is hitting consumers, who are in turn cutting unnecessary spending from their family budgets. One example of the cutbacks can be seen in April beer shipment numbers released last week by the five major breweries. The numbers show sales of popular low-priced “third-category” beer, or nonmalt beerlike alcoholic beverages, rapidly growing, while sales of regular beer plunged significantly.

In the case of beer drinkers shifting to third-category beer, a decisive factor seems to be the price of the product. A 350-milliliter can of third-category beer costs about 140 yen, approximately 75 yen less than a can of regular beer. The April shipment of third-category beer increased by 9.3 percent, while shipments of regular beer dropped by 11.3 percent in the same month.

You can consider one yen a cent. We are, then, talking the difference between $2.15 and $1.40 a can so we are not likely talking about the craft beer fan…except that this could cause a domino effect across the board leaving out the top end of the market or those planning to supply it. And this seems to mirror what Stan noted might be happening in the USA. Beer in Japan has some odd aspects but we’ve been watching this third-category stuff for some time now and have found the description a “beer-tasting alcoholic beverage” the most informative so far though “a product two steps removed from actual beer” is up there. For the unknowing, this is a brief glimpse into the steps that are those two steps away:

A vital technological issue in producing a “third beer” product is achieving the right taste and color. Kirin’s solution, for which patents are pending, is browning, a process in which sugar is added to the fermented soy protein and then the mixture is heated, caramelizing the sugar and giving the beverage the color as well as the taste of beer.

One wonders whether the same machinery and ingredients might also make beer broth or automotive lubricants. Could it be that the there is nothing to gain from comparing craft brew to this sort of product and the budgetary issues which give rise to its production? Or are we all destined one day to be hoping for a bit of the old category three when we leave our underground factory jobs at the end of another thirty day cycle, marching merrily home in unison under the glow of another blazing green sunset? Is it the future?

Ron Meets Zoigl And Zoigl Meets Ron

Ron’s plate o’ meat

Ron’s Spring ’08 central European road trip with Andy has been fun to follow but today’s installment has to be the best. In it he uncovers a local brewing tradition played out in one small German region, watches people eat a lot of meat, finds a new hop-based spirit to drink and decides to spend the night. But the traditions of brewing this one beer, Zoigl, is a little weird:

Back at our hotel, Andy has a chat with the landlord. Yes, he does have Zoigl on. Hooray! Even though the official Zoigl time ended on Sunday (it’s Tuesday, if you’ve lost track). He has a little flyer with the Zoigl schedule for the year printed on it. They’re very well organised. Each of the five brewing families in Neuhaus takes it in turns to sell Zoigl Thursday to Sunday. Like I said, it’s Tuesday. Once a year (3rd of October in 2008), all five Zoigl families sell beer simultaneously. I’ll mark that date in my calendar.

It’s Zoigl-tastic! It’s so Zoigl-tastic I suspect if this beer were called Neuhausbrau or, say, zblat or something else I would not be nearly as interested. But what really amazes me is that there isn’t a TV crew following Ron around on these tours. Surely – if there is a golf channel and a world fishing network – there must be an appetite for a station that follows a group of eloquent middle aged beer hounds around rooting out the back woods beer traditions of small communities. And describing the local smoked meats that go with them. As they get snapped.

We need to put out nickels together and make this happen.

 

Germany: Vitus, Weihenstephaner, Freising, Bavaria

Troy has the story today about who Weihenstephaner is coming to Ontario for a seasonal release. The importer, Beer Barons, is new on the scene but (t)he(y) was good enough at the end of last year allowing the panel here at A Good Beer Blog study both the weisse and the dunkel carefully. We were very pleased.

In celebration, I thought I would pop the brewer’s weizenbock even though it says “Brewed Under The Purity Law Of 1516” as opposed to “Brewed Under The Purity Law Of 1516 As Amended Over And Over Thus Allowing Rather Than Banning Wheat Beer“.¹ Other weizenbocks I have tried include Aventinus and…errr…that’s about it. Though I’ve had the knock-out punch of the 12% Aventinus Eisbock as well.

This brew unexpectedly pours just a notch of gold darker than a hefeweizen, its weaker cousin. Nothing like the darker nutmeggy figgy pudding of a beer that is Aventinus, though I am still unclear on the gradations of these things…maybe Aventinus is a doppelweizenbock. Cloudy and actively carbonated, the white rocky head gives off loads of banana and clove. In the mouth it is very cream banana-ish with herbal notes as well as spice. A nice grainy profile with a biscuity or even sponge cake thing happening. I really like this 7.7% hefty brew. Great BAer respect.

¹…and a law which Unger at page 109 of Beer in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance notes was more for tax efficiency than purity while Hornsey points out at pages 320-321 that it only applied to town or commercial brewers and was more about reserving other cereals for other purposes. And Ron says it’s old bollocks. Now, back to what you were doing.

Two From Weihenstephaner And Four Of Us

It does no good to write about beer and be alone. One has to cultivate a group, at least, who will share the wonderment when the good stuff is at hand. So it was then when the twelve from Weihenstephaner were delivered from Sean of the brewery’s the new Ontario importers, Beer Barons, there had to be a gathering to give it justice now six months before it is due to hit the LCBO shelves.

Knut visited Weihenstephan’s home town of Freising for us two years ago. This oldest brewery on the planet by its own reckoning is the maker of a range of Bavarian beers including the hefeweissbier and hefeweissbier dunkel that we shared. I think I had been unclear on the latter beer as I expected a wheat double bock or weizenbock but this was a lighter take on a brown wheat ale – and a very interesting one.

The first to be opened, though, was the hefeweisse and when it was opened all we could smell was banana cream pie. In the glass it pours a cloudy effervescent orangish amber under a think rocky orange tinged head. In the mouth there is cream of wheat, banana with a rather subdued clove and nutmeg presence. The yeast is whole milk rich and the finish is slightly black tea astringent. All in all, very rich bodied and soft water moreish.

The dunkel sits at an interesting middle point comparable to a balance between Schneider Weisse and its sibling Aventinus but really something different again. More brownish-grey turkey gravy in colour, the beer is virtually identical in strength with the weisse but a little less pungent of banana, clove and nutmeg. In exchange there is graininess and nut, like a good English southern brown ale with slight notes of plum and baseball glove leather.

Both rich gorgeous takes on weisse ales, the dunkel was deemed superior if only because it was so singular without being extreme. BAer reviews here.

Photos From My Visit To Jolly Pumpkin, Dexter, Michigan

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It was a Ron-a-thon last Friday at Jolly Pumpkin. After leaving London, Ontario, Canada at about 1 pm and we hit Dexter, Michigan at about 5 pm just as Ron Jeffries was finishing up a days work. He gave me an hour of his time and by the end of it I was thinking this had been one of the most intense hours of beer I have had without taking a drink. Being the doe-eyed schoolgirl that I was, perhaps a bit like Ron in Bamburg, in awe of the moment of course I did not take notes until I got to our hotel in Ann Arbor. But I did get a brain full.

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Barrels everywhere. Everything is aged in oak. Barrels from bourbon and brandy distillers. Barrels from Firestone and other brewers seeking vanilla where Ron seeks tang. A 2000 litre barrel newly in from France. Being in a room full of barrels of beer is an interesting experience. The feeling was much more like cheese making than other brewers with their steel conical fermenters and bright tanks. These was life around me and it was asleep, seeking slow funkiness. Lame? Deal with it.

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I got an education. While Michigan has twice the brewers of Ohio, it has only 1% of the state’s market, compared to 6% nationwide. This means brewers have to seek markets out of state. I was happy to do my bit and introduce Ontario importers Roland and Russell to Jolly Pumpkin as was announced on Monday. Ron apologized when he explained the price would be high but I had to assure him that ten bucks for a 750 ml of some of the most thoughtful ale made on the continent was quite reasonable given what else we have to put up with.

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Ron makes beers unlike others. Beers that have the dryness of oak with less of the vanilla than others impart. There is a lambic, the only true one in North America, that has been three years in the wood soon to be released on a six month cycle. When I asked about the source of the wild yeast strains, Ron said the make of Cantillon told him you can make lambic anywhere. I have particularly liked the Bam and Bam Noire which I think are up for the CAMWA beers of the year award for 2007. I did, by the way, share the concept of CAMWA and think it is now Jolly Pumpkin approved. They have done well with 50% expansion in each of the first two years and 30% for both 2006 and 2007.

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The hour flew by and the generosity shared was quite the thing. We took a case of large format beers for just around 75 bucks and others to spare as well. Likely the best value in beverage that I can think of. A couple of hints. Ron recommends, as they age, chilling the beers before opening as they create be quite the fountain. I recommend leaving them to get to that age to get to this state as time enhances their complexity to a degree I have not experienced before with beer.

Sour Beer Studies: Why Did Sour Arise In The First Place?

Writing about what is on other people’s beer blogs is a quick way to fill a day’s obligation to fill up one’s own sheet. But seeing as I have been trying to lead Ron Pattinson and his excellent library of brewing records into figuring out stuff that has piqued my idle sort of curiosity, I think it is well worth noting.

My questioning in these sour beer studies is triggered by one question – who the hell would drink sour beer over fresh? That question is packed with implications like “what is fresh?” and “what is sour?” and even “what is beer?” but it also is packed with the blindness of modernity, a fault that should be admitted from the outset as it is my question after all. It is reasonable to note that only recently that “fresh” was available to most people in the western world most of the time. For the most part food and drink were things that had intermediary storage periods by necessity of the annual cycles of nature. People were used to grain stores, bacon smoked above the fire, cheese with extra-tangy bits which would now see us deem the whole piece fit only for the garbage. So, too, people would have liked beer held for a time with a tang in addition to or instead of the fresh-made stuff.

But tang costs money. To hold beer long enough to gain a degree of souring, you need resources: enough space to store casks, enough money to buy the casks and even enough money not to sell the beer right away deferring the income to later. This is the thing that has niggled at the back of my mind in all this thinking about sourness and it brought me to thinking about cycles of beer storage. Beers like marzen or biere de garde are stored though a season once a year for an annual purpose whether it is to celebrate an event or fuel the harvest. And, like most of the present versions of the Trappist beers, these styles are recently framed, say, only since 1800.

So what gets a beer past its first anniversary? Ron points out one reason: “[i]f you have a good harvest one year, make beer with the surplus grain to be used in poor years. That seems to be the origin of Kriek: a way to preserve a glut of cherries.” And Martyn Cornell added a very useful comment to a recent thread at Ron’s about a very important record, Obadiah Poundage’s letter of 1760. Martyn kindly noted:

Alan, as Ron said, private brewers were storing their beers for a long time pretty soon after hops took off in England. William Harrison, a parson from Essex, writing in 1577, said the March beer served at noblemen’s tables “in their fixed and standing houses is commonly of a year old” and sometimes “of two years’ tunning or more.”

Luxury. Pure luxury. Only those who had the means to store could store. While it is as strange to us as a Victorian forcing house, those who could buy casks did as buying in bulk and cellaring was the only way really, as can be read in Julian Jeffs excellent book Sherry, that pre-mass marketed wines were acquired for the fitting out of the cellar of great house or (centuries fly by) an newly wealthy merchant – with the proper care and handling of the stored drink being part of the deal and expense and status. Martyn’s quote shows this applies to beer. With the industrial revolution, the earliest example of which industry is more than arguable brewing, references to the production and storage of beer by brokers for mass consumption seems to pop up in the records like Obadiah’s letter. Technology and more dispersed wealth make more general consumption of sour and tang possible, replacing the more modestly produced ales and brown beers that neighbourhood brewsters had been making for local consumption since Adam.

Keep in mind this is all sketchy, far too general and likely mostly wrong in that these are merely my own studies. But for now that is what I have come up with. And I would like to learn more about the available industrial archeology of, say, pre-1800 brewing. How much of production was stored for this quality if this quality cost more? And what part of the storage was stored for more that one annual cycle? Demand for sour had to be present such that the increased costs were overcome.

Any ideas where such stuff can be found? I should revisit Haydon, Unger, Hornsey and, of course, Cornell on the point. And pester Ron more. That’s likely the easiest thing to do