Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Sam Adams takes on Heady Topper, Enjoy By IPA

When I talked to Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company, two years ago, he made pretty clear that he didn't like standing still. He didn't want his company to stand still, either. Keep innovating, keep trying new things, or die. That was the idea.

In today's craft beer world, in which the best beers in the world are always the Hot New Thing instead of the Rock Solid Classic, that's the right approach to take. People demand new. They demand their breweries keep mixing things up.
Photo courtesy of masslive.com, by Michael Beswick

Koch and his mega Samuel Adams brand are going to be shaking things up soon. First, by releasing a huge canned double IPA inspired in part by Heady Topper, and more notably, by demanding that it only stay on shelves for a short period of time, akin to Stone's Enjoy By series but even more aggressive. They're going to mandate that after 35 days it gets pulled from shelves in order to ensure freshness.

That's a pretty bold move, especially for a brewer as big as Sam Adams. It could change how some beers are handled at retail.

First, the beer itself. Koch recently told BostInno, "When you look at some of the iconic big IPAs, like Pliny the Elder or Heady Topper from here in New England, part of what makes them so renowned is people drink 'em fresh ... They get 'em at the brewery. If you have those beers two to three months into their life, they're not the same."

This beer is going to be an unfiltered double IPA clocking in at 10% ABV and available only in 16oz cans.

In other words, very inspired by Heady Topper.

Dabbling in big, hoppy beers is a bit unusual for them. They've done IPAs for years, of course -- they had an IPA way back in the 1990s before almost anyone else, messed with DIPAs several years back with Third Voyage, and these days have a full line of them, including Rebel Rouser (not to mention their awesome single-hop pack from a few years back). So, despite the scorn they get, they can do hoppy, too.

But a Heady clone is new ground for them.

The REAL new ground will be their stringent shelving policies for this beer, though.

They plan to give it a 35-day shelf life. After that, it must be pulled from the shelves. Wholesalers are probably going to do some grumbling about that, but you know what? It's a great move. I've ranted about bottle dating before, and for good reason. You want to be drinking your IPAs as fresh as possible. When they linger on the shelves too long, they go downhill ... some of them pretty quickly.

So why not force freshness? It's done with other types of food and drinks. If we care about it enough for frickin' Little Debbie snacks to get yanked after a time, we should care about it with beer, too, to the point of taking an aggressive hand in getting older IPAs off the shelves.

Retailers might not like it, but I'm all for it.

Though Sam Adams no longer gets much respect among today's beer crowd, I'm generally up for trying anything they do. This one will be released only in select markets (and they haven't said which markets yet), so we'll see if I can get my hands on some.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Busting 5 More Persistent Beer Myths

Some time back, I pulled out my trusty bow and quiver and, after accidentally killing my pet cat and a small family of nearby chipmunks*, took aim at some pernicious beer myths.

It's time to take aim at a few more, because there is no better feeling than lording some pointless piece of knowledge over someone in an effort to make yourself feel a little better about your small, sad little life. This selection is perhaps a touch more subjective than the last, but I have the benefit of being right, so I'm not too worried about any subjectivity here.

Here are 5 beer myths you should totally stop believing:

Contract Brewing is Bad

Photo courtesy of CraftCan on Photobucket
Contract brewing is something of a dirty word in the world of craft beer. Guys like Jimmy Carbone of Beer Sessions Radio routinely rant about how he refuses to support or respect contract brewed beers. Some have proclaimed it will be the death of craft beer. The idea of contract brewing is simple: you have a beer you want made, and you pay another brewery to make it for you. This may be because you don't own your own equipment, because your brewery doesn't have enough capacity, or for other reasons. The bottom line is, contact brewing is when Beer A is brewed down the road at Brewery X instead of by the people who own Beer A. And this really gets some people up in arms.

Which is silly. What matters is what's in your glass. You can't taste "passion." Owning your own brewery or equipment doesn't magically imbue it with magical properties that turn it into "real" craft beer. And guess what? If you've enjoyed some Sixpoint, Terrapin, 21st Amendment, Samuel Adams, Brooklyn, and even for a brief time Russian River, among countless other breweries, you've probably enjoyed some contract-brewed beer. (In order to keep up with demand while installing new equipment, Russian River had Firestone Walker brew Pliny the Elder for them.) Contract brewing is a business decision, nothing more, and despite what some idealists would have you believe, craft beer is a business. If the recipe is good and the end result is tasty, that's all that matters.

Lagers Are Boring

These lagers are delicious, you fool! Image from heavemedia.com
Chat with some beer geeks (especially those just starting their exploration of beer) and you're bound to run into more than a few people who are quick to proclaim their disdain for boring old lagers. So bland! So dull!

Guess what? You're probably talking to someone who isn't as familiar with beer as they claim to be. "Lager" is a broad category, just like "ale," and it includes many styles. Lagers are simply beers brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast, usually at a colder temperature and often (but not always) stored in cold temps for a time after brewing. Legendary beers like Ayinger Celebrator or Aventinus? Lagers. Landmark smoked beers like Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Urbock? Lagers. Baltic porters? They're lagers. Marzens aka Oktoberfest beers? Also lagers. Dunkels, schwarzbiers, bocks of all types? Lagers, lagers, lagers. If you really think all those beers are boring, you're either lying to save face or you have the most one-dimensional palate ever.

IPAs Were Invented To Survive The Trip to India

This one involves a little bit of hair-splitting, but if the Internet was invented for anything, it was for hair-splitting. According to this myth, the beloved India Pale Ale (IPA) was invented by George Hodgson in order to survive the long trip to India, something other beers couldn't do because they didn't have the copious amount of hops that IPAs did. He jacked up the ABV and hops to survive the trip, and that was that.

It's a great story, but it's not so simple. For this one, I'm going to turn things over to people a lot smarter than I am. First, take a gander at this excellent breakdown of some IPA myths by the outstanding beer historian Martyn Cornell, then throw in this one for good measure. This fantastic post from Beer Church tells the real story in clear terms. And one more to wrap things up from the superb Shut Up About Barclay Perkins. It all boils down to this: Other beers made the voyage to India just fine (especially the ever popular porter) and what evolved into today's IPA was largely an accident. It was never "invented," it merely evolved, and even that wording is a bit dubious. So there.

The Guys At (Insert Big Brewery Here) Are Terrible Brewers

Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone
Visit any thread on any beer discussion group that happens to mention Budweiser or one of the other mega breweries and inevitably you'll see a slew of comments about how awful those brewers are, if only they knew how to brew real beer, maybe Bud should hire someone with talent, blah blah frickin' blah.

There's no two ways about it: those comments are stupid. The fact of the matter is, the big breweries employ some of the most high skilled, best educated, most thoroughly trained brewers on the planet. Yes, even Budweiser. If they brew boring beer, it's because it's their job to -- and make no mistake, being able to make every can of Budweiser in America taste exactly the same is really damn hard. Even excellent craft breweries sometimes have some variation from batch to batch. Try doing the same with a beer so "simple" there is no place for off flavors to hide. Further proof can be found in the craft beer world. Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone, is just one of many former big brewery brewermasters who have moved into the craft wold (and who have done a killer job at it). Chris Lohring, founder of Notch Brewing, calls the big guys "the most technically proficient brewers in the world." Basically, hate their beer all you want, but respect the skills of the guys who make it. They're some of the best, even if their bosses don't let them show it.

The Big Breweries Use Sub Par Ingredients

Hops and barley. Photo by Algerina Perna
At the risk of being called an apologist for the big brewers -- two entries about them in a row will do that, despite this blog being a clear indication of what I tend to drink -- I'm going to go ahead and tackle this one. This myth is simple: the big brewers like Coors and Budweiser buy all sorts of cheap, shitty ingredients and bottom of the barrel hops and grains so they can make their lousy beer as cheaply as possible.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. The fact is, those mega brewers have contracts with the same hop and grain producers who provide the ingredients for craft beer. They've invested a lot in them. Further, because of the huge volume of business they provide these farmers, they get first dibs on the product -- and they're known to have stringent standards. "Each truckload of barley is sampled and tested at delivery. If it fails to meet company standards for quality, the barley is rejected and likely becomes cattle feed." Stone's Mitch Steele has discussed this on podcasts, saying that the folks at A-B were damn near tyrannical about buying the best on the market before anyone else could. And as for the adjuncts, I've already addressed that. The finished product may not be for you and me, but it's not because they're using lousy ingredients. It's because they're tying to reach Joe Six-Pack who just wants to down some beers and watch the game.

So there you have it. Five more beer myths that needed busting. Agree, disagree? Comment down below and give me the validation I crave.

The End.

*This is probably a work of fiction. I probably didn't kill any animals in the writing of that post.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

U.S. now has over 4,000 breweries. How many is too many?

According to the Brewer's Association, the trade group that represents craft beer, there are now over 4,000 breweries in the United States. That's approaching the high of 4,131 the U.S.boasted in 1873, before the Temperance Movement, and later Prohibition, and then after THAT the big corporate brewers, laid waste to beer brewing in America.

That's pretty remarkable, when you consider that within our lifetime (or at least within my lifetime) there were as few as 89 breweries operating in the United States. There are now more than that in the Portland metro area alone!

Chart courtesy of Somethingsbrewing.com

Of course, many of us remember the craft beer boom of the 1990s. It was a glorious time. It was a time when Samuel Adams, Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada and others were just starting to make waves. Between 1986 and 1995, craft beer grew at rate of up to 75 percent a year. That growth dwarfed even today's beer explosion. Sure, I had to drive 30 minutes to get to the only decent beer store in the area, but the fact that decent beer even existed was a revolution.

In 1997, that growth hit a wall. Between 1997 and 2003, craft beer barely budged. Some years, there was no growth at all. It began to slowly tick upwards after that, but didn't begin to surge again until 2010, when the craft beer segment began experiencing double-digit growth that continues to today.

But can it last? Is there a so-called "bubble" that is threatening to burst, leaving hundreds of broken breweries in its wake?

It's a question that many people have been asking the last several years.

Breweries in planning, circa 2011

Despite my misgivings about the quality of many of the newest breweries, I don't think so. At least not any time soon.

Breweries like Stone, New Belgium, Dogfish Head, and Lagunitas are petty big fish, but only in a small pond. They seem big to craft beer nerds, but in truth they border on being nobodies. Really influential nobodies, to be sure, but hardly the giants we often think they are. As Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione recently pointed out, "I guess we are somewhere around one tenth of one percent of the US beer industry."

And these are the BIG craft breweries. Most are reeeaally damn tiny. That 4,000 figure includes nano breweries operating out of garages and barns, small brewpubs that make just enough beer to supply their restaurant, and so on. They serve very local, very small customer bases, just like breweries did over 100 years ago.

As the Brewer's Association points out:

Most of the new entrants continue to be small and local, operating in neighborhoods or towns. What it means to be a brewery is shifting, back toward an era when breweries were largely local, and operated as a neighborhood bar or restaurant

How many neighborhoods in the country could still stand to gain from a high-quality brewpub or micro taproom? While a return to the per capita ratio of 1873 seems unlikely (that would mean more than 30,000 breweries), the resurgence of American brewing is far from over.

That's not to say we're not feeling the squeeze. Talk to the person who runs your local beer shop and they'll probably tell you that there just isn't enough shelf space for all the new beers coming out. I have a solid half-dozen really good beer stores within five minutes or so of my house, and between the six of them they still can't maintain a selection of all the beers supposedly available in our area.

Photo courtesy of a really stupid column.

There is a lot of competition in the craft beer world. There will only be more. A lot of beers will get squeezed off the shelves. One bar owner told Draft Magazine in 2013:

“Frankly, I’m pretty convinced that the market [here] won’t support all of these breweries ... From talking to all of the bar owners in the market, we all have that opinion. There are a few breweries right now that none of us, meaning respected beer bars, support regularly. They sort of get ‘pity handles’ because we’re all on the same team.”

But there is room to grow, especially in areas not yet served by several good local/regional breweries, and even when that growth begins to slow -- and it inevitably will -- it's hard to envision a collapse. Today's beer drinker has been exposed to better beers right from the start. Sure, they will often still buy a cheap 30-pack of something because college + spending money don't usually go together, but from a taste perspective they have different expectations than people from my father and grandfather's generation.

Sure, my shop of choice doesn't stock half of what I want to drink because there is literally too much great beer out there for them to stock, but for the moment all that means is that every good beer shop is unique, with a selection not duplicated by the shop down the road. It makes every store you visit a beer adventure.

And that's hardly a bad thing. It means demand is still huge.

More importantly, people are still demanding good beer made nearby. As long as that demand remains -- and I don't see it waning any time soon -- we'll continue to see craft beer grow.

The sky is not falling. The good stuff is here to stay. Sure, make no mistake, there is NOT much room for competition in the upper echelon of the craft beer world. They're already starting to step on one anothers toes. There is room for only so many Founders and Bell's and Samuel Adams to go around.

The small, uber local guys are another story.

Four thousand breweries is a lot ... but we'll get to 5,000. Bet on it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Tipping my hat to Anchor Brewing

Anchor Steam
If you can't appreciate Anchor Steam, you're no beer friend of mine.

Anchor Steam is one of the grandaddies of craft beer in America. It's just one beer from the excellence-filled Anchor lineup, but this one is something special. It's a landmark. It's a mainstay. It's a bottle of history.

Oh, and it holds up wonderfully, too. Many who are new to craft beer scoff at Anchor Steam. After all, it doesn't feature any crazy ingredients or style-busting flavors. Nope, it's just a damn good beer. Not going to blow your mind, not going to take you to new beer places, not going to push the boundaries of taste. Just going to provide a good, basic, "this is a good drinking beer" experience ideal for friends, food and conversation.

For some reason, that kind of thing is rejected by many of today's crop of craft crazies. That's too bad. There is a lot to be said for a beer that aspires to be nothing more than an excellent, impeccably crafted-yet-simple beer.

Beyond Anchor Steam, anyone and everyone who enjoys craft beer in America owes a small debt to Anchor Brewing. They were among the pioneers who helped get the movement started.

By now the story is legend. The brewery had been around since 1896 or so, quietly churning out beers, with their "steam beer," a uniquely American style now referred to as a California Common, being their mainstay. (A California Common is essentially a lager brewed at ale temperatures, giving it the smoothness of a lager with the fruity bite of an ale.) By the 1960s, though, they weren't going very well. Fritz Maytag, great grandson of THE Maytag, however, really loved their beer, so he did what any filthy rich beer lover would do: he bought the place.

Maytag prompted Anchor to reinvent themselves. They improved their processes and brought back traditional styles that had been all but forgotten in America, among them porters and barleywines. By the mid-1970s, they were probably the best brewers in America.

Even more important, they inspired a slew of others to follow in their footsteps and begin brewing craft beer. You wouldn't be enjoying your Stone and Dogfish Head and Bruery and New Belgium and Samuel Adams and Lost Abbey and on and on and on if it weren't for folks like Anchor Steam, New Albion, Sierra Nevada (who themselves credit Anchor and New Albion as major influences), and a very small (very small) handful of others.

Anchor Brekle's Brown
Steam isn't their only beer worth drinking, either. Their Old Foghorn barleywine may not impress those who like today's hopped-up barleywines, but if you like them traditional this is a classic. Their lager is good. They do a great summer ale. Love their brown. And oh, did I mention the porter?

If you haven't had Anchor Porter in a while, or at all, give it a try. Many decades after it was first made -- it was first brewed in 1972, waaaaay before almost every other porter on the market -- it's still one of the best classic porters made in the States.

Consider that for a moment. This is a beer that can go head-to-head with any American porter being brewed today. It's a definitive example of the style. Set it next to some of today's best, like Founder's and Bell's, and it is their equal or better.

And this beer was hitting shelves 40 years ago, during a time when light lagers were pretty much the only game in town! That's astonishing. That was back when good, robust beer was all but dead in America. And here you have Anchor putting out this inky black stuff that was all body and flavor. Talk about ahead of their time.

Loving Anchor isn't all about celebrating the past. All these years later, they're still a fantastic brewery and a model on how to do it right.

I will always, always tip my glass to Anchor. And you should, too.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I've been gone too long. Time to get some beer on!

It feels like forever since I blogged about beer.

It's not that I haven't been writing about beer. I write a weekly beer column for the Philly Weekly, which appears online in a slightly different, daily-dose form and which gives me my regular fix when it comes to waxing poetic about suds. I've written about the beer scene in Atlantic City and bacon and beer coming together, too, among other things.

But blogging?

I've barely touched my main blog. Small chance I'd be on top of this one, too.

I do miss it sometimes, though. There are things worth saying that aren't a good fit for my column. A lot of it is grumpy old man stuff about how much the current craft beer scene frustrates me, but a lot of it is the usual upbeat, beer-positive stuff I prefer to focus on, too.

Reviews? Probably not so much. Everyone and their dog does beer reviews -- you can't spit at a Google server without frying a dozen beer review blogs, podcasts and Youtube channels -- and frankly, how much purpose do they really serve? It all comes down to "is this good or is this bad," and tastes vary so wildly the distinction can be all but meaningless.

But maybe some commentary. And pictures. Or something.

Because hey, beer is awesome. Writing is awesome. They're like my chocolate and peanut butter.

And I love me the hell out of some peanut butter cups. So let's do this thing (at least until I get tired of it).