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

Belgium: Wallowing In Four Saisons


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Saisons are one of best kept secrets in the world of beer. In the recent book What to Drink with What You Eat, awaiting my review, Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery names “Saison du Fond” – is that a typo of “Saison Dupont”? Yes it is – as his first beer in his fantasy desert island dozen. Early last month I reviewed a book entitled Farmhouse Ales which covers both the southern Belgian and their near neighbours the southern French saisons. In past posts, I have reviewed two Duponts and a Hennepin as well as a funkier form of the Fantome but this collection is one of the best. I am pretty sure I picked up all four at the ever excellent Finger Lake Beverage Center of Ithaca, NY and it speaks to their obvious commitment to quality. I will be particularly interested to note whether the seasonal Farmhouse Ale from Smuttynose of New Hampshire is anywhere near the quality of Ommegang of New York’s Hennepin.

foursaisons2Farmhouse Ale: from Smuttynose of New Hampshire. This beer is part of the their big beer series and comes with its own brewer’s notes:

Like almost every other brewer who read Phil Markowski’s book “Farmhouse Ales” last year I decided that it was time for Smuttynose to try its hand at a saison…We decided that it was all about the yeast so we had White Labs send us a pitch of their saison yeast, which I believe is in the Dupont vein. Dr. White suggested that we ferment the beer without cooling and let the temperature rise to wherever it wants to go. Easier said than done, believe me.

Smuttynose is one of the great brewers these days if only for these notes that set the plan and the background out so clearly. The beer does not disappoint.Glowing orange without the usual underlying amber when I see orange in the beer. Quite still with a slight white rim and a skim of foam. It is as full of fruit as any beer I have ever had – orange, apricot and peach – all coaxed out of the malt without addition. The brewer thinks it is a little too full, too sweet and that is a fair comment but this is in no way sickly. It is more that the fruit overpowers the grain, like a record player with the balance set to far to one speaker – further attenuation would help restore the equilibrium. The fullness has a thick glyceral quality and while there is a spice quality harkening of cumin is it more like the roughness of rye than anything you would have in a Christmas pud. Again, the plan for next year’s version might resolve this. So bigger than Hennepin but well within the ballpark yet respectful of the show of finesse that is Ommegang’s product. All BAers support the cause.

Saison d’Epeautre: from the Brasserie de Blaugies, makers of the fig lambic I tried last June. 2004 marked on the cork. The beer pours a light straw with a white foamy head. On the nose, there is light melony tell-tale saison-ness. The taste is very dry and the body is lighter than I am used to for a saison. Grain huskiness with notes of cantelope, sultana raising and white pepper. Some cream in the dryness but not much. The dry is not an astringent hop-based dry. At the swirl, more milkiness and more white pepper spice. All the BAers like this 6% take on the style. The brewery says this:The german wheat is an unrefined yeast which contains a natural flavour enhancer, giving a good taste to the bread but also to the beer.I don’t think that really makes any sense. Oh, for the lack of decent translation!

foursaisons3Pissenlit: from Fantome of Soy, Belgium. Spring 2004. Once I realized this was dandelion beer I checked out some reviews and wondered what I was in for. Not to worry – at least for me. The beer poured an amber ale under tan frothy foam and rim.
The core flavour is a little hard to put your finger on but it is both familiar and welcome: rich sweetness but biscuity; fresh apple, orange and fresh squeezed lime juices; a bit of white pepper and twigginess; and that tone which must be the dandelion – maybe I am thinking of sorrel in the spring when I go down onto the lawn to eat something growing. It is a mild greenness. The end is a mild bitter with a little huskiness moving into richish cider. Much more attractive to me than other brew reviewers suggest so perhaps beware. This may just particularly suit my tastes. On the swirl, there is cream but much more softly bitter green. At the end of the dregs it is almost like light drinkable cheese.

A beer that reminds me of a white lirac wine I once had whose only accompaniment I could think of was fresh leaf lettuce. This is more robust but in the same range. A beer or a waldorf salad with apples, walnuts and celery. Maybe Thai food, too. BAers see the challenge yet take it on with only 2% saying no despite its thoughtful unconventionality. A beer that makes me wonder if Fantome is the best brewer in the world.

Fantome Saison: also from Fantome of Soy, Belgium. Funnily, I did not like this quite as much as the Pissenlit but I still liked it a lot. Very active amber ale with a creamy white head. In the mouth pear and grape juice with white pepper, biscuit and a drying astringency across the tongue. Chalky notes under the herbal hoppiness not unlike Orval in a lavenderish sort of way. Well hidden strength at 8%. On the swirl, the astringency calms though the white pepper remains. Many BAers ask good questions but still rank it highly. A discomforting beer perhaps but still very attractive.

What a great hobby I have. I could consider saisons all day most every day. It is a real shame that so few craft brewers in North American have taken on the style with two major Belgian-style brewers in the north-east Unibrou and Allagash even ignoring it.

Delaware: Golden Shower, Dogfish Head, Milton

An imperial pilsner. This is a sort of beer I never imagined I would need to concern myself with. Unlike stouts or pale ales with their history of bigness, surely no one would bother upping the game of brewing the steely king of lagers. No one told Dogfish Head from Delaware, however, and they went ahead and did it as they tell you about at no lack of length on their website, including this:

The big breweries are as guilty of any company in any industry of brainwashing the consumer through the sheer oppressive magnitude and breadth of their marketing efforts. They are selling a brand name and an image with such zeal that they have forgotten about the product behind all of this horseshit and hyperbole – the beer itself. Dogfish Head Golden Shower is the beer itself. A true Pilsner brewed with 100% Pilsner Barley, and impressively hopped using our self-developed continuing-hopping method. At 9% abv it’s also nearly twice as strong as the American, wanna-be pilsners made by the big boys.

If you have read my reviews here before you know I have questions about my relationship with pilsners. I respect the fact as much as the next guy that it is a noble and traditional style but then there is that metallic zing…or is it a zang…that fills my mouth as if I was chewing a quarter pound of four penny nails that have been laying around the shed. So I approach this beer with some trepedation. And some of the low rating BAer reviews are backing that up – like this one:

…Not drinkable at all. Really sad for such a great brewery. I dumped the remainder of my $12 bottle in the toilet, where it belongs. Don’t waste your money on this golden shower…

Yikes. I only paid $8.99 for mine but still. Intersting to note, however, that the highest BA raters consider many of the same elements but like them. I don’t know what to expect now.

The beer pours a very attractive bright burnished gold with a white head that resolves to a rim what with the low carbonation. When you shove your nose into the glass there is plenty of sweet apple and pear concentrate. The first thing I think of when I sipped was triple. It is sort of like a Belgian triple – candy-ish sweetness and all – but also with a fall fruit aspect like calvados. It is also thickish and does not have the overly metallic hop profile I feared – the hops are tightly herbal as much as anything. In fact, it is far more pale malty than anything else. And that is a remarkably well hidden 9%. The beer is not hot in the mouth but it certainly does warm otherwise.

Where does this beer fit in? It is a near neighbour to Belgian golden strong ales like Duval or triples like Chimay Cinq Cents with the white label – but without the bubble gum or candy floss notes Belgian candi sugar provides. A beer to contemplate the coming autumn. A beer to eat apple pie and vanilla ice cream along with, oddly enough. It would be interesting to have this beer condition in a wood cask as there is that butter and/or vanilla richness that could be umphed one notch for experimental purposes.

Is Twisted Thistle An IPA?

twisted1I picked up this beer while on the road and I was immediately in a fix, dealing with cultural confusion. As a son of Scots I know that Belhaven is a fine and reputable brewer of Scots ales bought last year by Greene King… yet I know IPA is not a Scots style. I have discussed this before in relation to Deuchars IPA but this beer – or more particularly the comparison between the two beers makes their labelling as IPAs a wee bit problematic.

Look – here is what I thought about Twisted Thistle. When I had it the other night I wrote:

Caramel ale under light tan foam and a thick cling and ring. A very fruity ale, berry fruity but mainly crusty sweet country loaf of bread. Rich with some smokiness and creamy yeast. Then it opens into light dry fruit apple and raisin with a note of honey. Grapefruity hops balance but in a recessed position, a subordinate role. Definitely more like a pale ale in the zzap-tastic north-east US scale. But richer.

Then note what I concluded about Deuchars in October 2004, a year and a half ago:

You can see they are really different ales, Deuchars being is light and crisp while the Belhaven IPA was to my mind more like a Bombardier with a lighter touch on the same heavy elements, especially the dry fruit characteristics – dry apples and light raisin rather than, say, figs and dates but still dry fruit.

Don’t get me wrong. Both are good bevvies you should try. My point is IPA is becoming a very broad term, so broad I am finding it a little meaningless as an indicator of what I will find when I pour the bottle. Terms like “stout” and “mild” or “dubbel” do not generally pose this problem for the thoughtful buyer facing a new beer. It reminds me a bit of white wine and the labeling of them according to grape varieties which became popular in the early 1990s. People then came to say they like Chardonnay or Merlot but then were surprised when this Chardonnay or that Merlot was nothing like the wine they could they recognized. Like with IPA, too much is due to the actual wine making techniques for the comfort of those wine drinkers relying on the label for guidance. Key terms then become the opposite of what they were meant to be – they come to deter rather than attract.

So try Twisted Thistle. It is not a Scots style /80 or wee heavy or an IPA or like Deuchars IPA. But it is really really pleasant.