Archive | March 2012

Beyond the Pour Podcast Episode 4: Craft Beer in Alabama, Founders KBS, and Pouring Pliny the Younger Down the Drain

It’s time, once again, for another Beyond the Pour podcast. I know you guys have just been itching to hear what Ryan and I have been up to, haven’t you?


Download.

Apologies once again for the slightly rough feel. Allergies and cold-like symptoms struck me the day we needed to record this, so I ended up coughing quite a bit. I’ve edited out as much as I could. Also, eagle-eared listeners will hear my cats begging for attention once or twice towards the end.

Show Notes

0:00 to 24:04 What we’re drinking right now and what we’ve been drinking lately. Lightning Thunderweizen and Three Floyds Lord Admiral Nelson. Also: Stone’s AHA Homebrew Rally, and is Dark Lord is Three Floyds’ worst beer? The growing craft beer scene in Alabama since the passage of the Gourmet Beer Bill, and finally, melony IPAs as the wave of the future?

23:52 to 31:45 Listener email: stores not being able to get specialty beer releases unless the carry the standard line from that brewery. Fair or unfair? (If you have questions or comments for us at the podcast, please email beyondthepour@gmail.com.)

31:45 to 33:22 Ryan opens another beer: the Sam Adams Cinder Bock. A bacon-barbecue kind of aroma.

33:22 to 39:45 San Diego beer bar “The Neighborhood” is fighting against another San Diego location because they want to start selling beer to-go in the area. This made the national beer news websites, so I asked Ryan to talk about it.

39:57 to 46:14 The shitshow that was this year’s KBS release.

46:02 to 59:03 Ryan’s visit to the Churchill’s Finest Hour Release, and nearly dumping a pour of Pliny the Younger down the drain.

Thanks as always for listening, and I am still working on getting us onto iTunes to make this more convenient for everyone. Cheers!

More on Beer Styles… and Chad Invented the Term “West Coast IPA”? WTF?

Noted beer vlogger Chad9976 has commented on my previous post on beer styles, and has written enough that I felt like a response deserved another full post. Chad’s comments in blockquotes, my responses interspersed.

Found this slightly ironic considering, if I remember correctly, you grade according to style. I grade in a universal perspective. When we grade according to style we’re essentially saying some styles are superior to others. While I have a preference towards IPAs and stouts, if I rank a sour or even a wheat or an imperial lager a 10 out 10 I mean it’s just as good as a super rare barrel-aged imperial stout that I also gave a ten too. Would you say the same?

First of all, there’s not such thing as grading from a “universal perspective.” We all have our opinions and biases, and the only way to combat that is to grade with as much self-knowledge as possible, and to confront and report those biases to our audience.

That out of the way, I think you have it exactly backwards. Grading according to style isn’t saying “some styles are better than others,” but simply understanding what a beer is “trying” to be, i.e. what the brewer intended when she brewed the beer, to the degree that we can understand that. If a brewery labels a beer a sour, I’m going to understand that beer in that context, and not try to grade it the same way I would a stout or an IPA or a pilsner. This is basic, Beer 101 stuff.

Giving a beer an A+ means that, for my palate, it’s one of the finest beers I’ve ever tasted in that general category. Doing direct comparison between beers of different styles is much harder — to move to a different world, can we really directly compare a perfectly-prepared plate of carbonara to a medium-rare steak to a jelly doughnut? Comparing these things against one other is just silly, as they’re trying to do very different things and evoke very different flavors.

This may sound egotistical as hell, and feel free to disagree, but I think I was the first person to start describing IPAs as west and east coast. Back in the 2008/09 days when I really started paying attention to them I noticed the ones from the east coast were piney and the ones from the west coast were citrusy. I’m even noticing IPAs from Colorado seem to have a similar taste. I never heard of anyone use the terms east or west coast IPA until I started saying it in my video reviews and writing it in my text reviews. Mr. Red Rooster absolutely despises those terms and trolls any review I post with them in it, lol.

Perhaps other people were using those terms pre-2008. I dont know, I wasnt really paying that much attention to craft beer before then.

Green Flash West Coast IPA has reviews on BeerAdvocate going back to 2005. The very first review calls the beer “good interpretation of the west coast IPA.” I’d be willing to bet that the term dates back at least to the early days of Stone, say 1996 or so, although I don’t have good evidence to that effect.

I do agree 100% with “A style is a label that sets the tone for what I’m expecting from the beer, and in that sense styles are very useful.” That’s what I consider them good for – just a general expectation. Like if you say “Movie A is a comedy and Movie B is a drama – which one do you want to go see?” I’m much more likely to say Movie A because I’m in the mood for it. that’s not to say it’s a guarantee I’ll like Movie A better than Movie B, though. Same thing with beer. One of the things I love about mahar’s is you can sort the menu by style so even though there may be beers on there I’ve never even heard of, if I’m in hte mood for an IPA and Beer X is filed under the IPA category I’m much more likely to buy it than Beer Y which is filed under barleywine (again, there’s no guarantee one will be better than the other – just that the style classification gave me a general idea what to expect).

I’m glad you brought up this comparison. One of the biggest criticisms of movie critics and awards groups (like the Academy Awards) is that they consistently fail to recognize great comedies, action pictures, et cetera, in favor of the more standard dramatic fare. This is similar to my criticisms of BeerAdvocate and Ratebeer lists that have a Top 100 list that’s composed almost entirely of DIPAs and Imperial Stouts, usually those that are incredibly hard to get. I agree that KBS is one of the best beers in the world, but there’s a lot more to the world of beer than just that.

I recently got into a discussion with Shane Welch from Sixpoint over this. I was about to review their “Righteous Ale” and I asked him should I tell my viewers this is a rye, an IPA or something else? His basic response was “Who cares?! just drink it!” I said I agree, but I made the same point you did that knowing the style gives me an idea of what I’m about to encounter. He said styles have the opposite effect – that they pigeonhole beers and thus drinkers. There’s certainly a truth to this, too. I forget who said “To label it is to limit it”. (I think it was Foucault), but it’s something I agree with.

Neil Gaiman is on record as saying that he believes that bookstores should have only two sections: fiction and non-fiction. Which is a great deal if you’re Neil Gaiman and your work doesn’t fit neatly into a genre, but most books are best served by putting them alongside other, similar books, and readers tend to like to search within categories of stuff they know they like.

So yeah, it might make sense for Sixpoint to argue that their beers stand outside style or that they’re being pigeonholed (I can’t say for myself, having not tried any Sixpoint beers), but that doesn’t make style obsolete. Most beers fit pretty comfortably within at least a broad style.

The point being that styles definitely serve a purpose. I think it’s when upper echelon beer scientists start to break them down further that they become really masturbatory and arbitrary. For example, a year or so ago there was this big debate over whether it should be called a “Cascadian dark Ale” or a “Black IPA.” Some said they’re different styles because of where the hops come from. My friend Kevin from The Foaming Head made an excellent point on this that that line of thinking is absolutely absurd because you could then apply that principle to already existing beer styles (and to some extent we do, i.e. American vs English IPA).

I suspect that if the Black IPA thing really catches on, in a few years there will be enough examples that you can reliably make a statistical cluster around different sub-types. To try to do it this early with only a handful of fuzzy examples is just silly. That’s another thing about styles: they’re always changing, always in flux as tastes change and brewers experiment.

I think we have reached a point of over-analysis, though. For example, lambic vs wild ale. That only beers in a certain part of belgium should be called lambics. If they’re brewed using the same (more or less) process and the outcome is essentially the same – what’s the difference? Why do we need distinctions between an Oud Bruin and a Flanders Red and a lambic and a gueuze and a sour? To me they’re all just sour.

That last may be a palate thing. There are definitely differences between a Flanders Red and a lambic. Different types of malt, different types of yeast, different souring agents, some oak-aged, some not, different length of time aged….

So you’re right for the wrong reasons, and wrong for the right reasons. LOL

I suspect we agree more than we disagree. Looking forward to any further response you might have.

Terrapin Wake-N-Bake Coffee Oatmeal Stout — A Comparison with Founders Breakfast Stout

Tommy sent me this bottle of a beer that I’ve had in the past, most recently about five years ago. I decided to first do a short review of it on its own, then compare it directly with a beer that it is often compared to: Founders Breakfast Stout.

Beyond the Pour grade: A-

Hop Bombs Better With Age and Travel?

I’m travelling today so I don’t have time to really get into it, but Pivni Filosof posted this today:

Taking this [the faster maturation of beers due to heat variations as they cross the ocean] into consideration, could it be that American hop bombs taste “better”* on this side of the pond than at home? Has anyone had the chance to taste one of those beers “fresh” and after it had crossed the Atlantic?

I didn’t drink any American beers in Prague, but I did get to try BrewDog’s Hardcore IPA in Europe and over here in the States, and there’s no comparison: it’s much better when fresh. I’ve also had fresh hop bomb Stone beers both at the brewery and after a few months of age back here at home in Michigan, and those fresh hop flavors fade almost immediately.

Of course, this is all ultimately a palate issue, but I’d say the only hoppy beers that might actually improve with age would be those with a high level of bittering hop with low levels of hop flavor. The age would actually slightly de-bitter the beer, while giving the malt a chance to shine. In general, though, any brewer designing a beer with an emphasis on hops should be brewing beer to be consumed as soon as possible, and thus hoppy beers should be consumed fresh.

Of course, since we’re talking about Czech beer writer, it should go without saying that Pilsner Urquell tastes a thousand times better fresh and close to the source than it does after it’s crossed an ocean even in cans or kegs, let alone the fucking green bottles.

Beer and Boobs

This is what I look like.* I’m male, white, thirty-one years old, wear glasses, and have a big bushy mass of facial hair. On any given day I’m generally wearing a pair of jeans and a brewery T-shirt. I am the very image of what generally comes to mind when you hear the words “beer nerd.”

And god, do I ever find it disappointing how many other beer nerds pretty much look exactly like me.

I caught this on BeerPulse (formerly BeerNews) this morning:

On a day-to-day basis my gender rarely crosses my mind when I’m working. If I’m judging a beer competition for example, I’m not relegated to fruit beers and low-alcohol products lest I am over-challenged — and I am generally on the top-flight panels because, quite simply, I’ve earned my right to be there by being good at what I do.

So writes renowned UK beer writer and enthusiast Melissa Cole in a recent op-ed. In the piece, she briefly sketches some of the problems she has had in being taken seriously in the world of beer as a woman — men relegating her opinions as being somehow lesser, making hasty assumptions about her sexual preferences, making bawdy jokes about her appearance, et cetera. She goes on to bring up how similar issues plague the world of journalism in general (this is far from an issue solely relevant to the world of craft beer), and finishes thusly:

All I can ask is that the media takes a long hard look at its role in portraying women and, also, to advocate that more women stand up and say “judge me on my abilities, not on my boobs” then maybe, just maybe, we will have a slightly better world for the next generation of budding professionals.

To expand on Cole’s point, we’re really talking about privilege. Male privilege, and (though she doesn’t get in to it), white male privilege. If I’m walking around a beer fest or go into a brewery, tasting room, or bar, my white skin and flowing beard give me an automatic “one of us” identification card: just look at that guy! Of course he knows his beer. And I certainly do — I’ve worked very hard over the years to develop my palate and knowledge to the point that I have, and I certainly spend a great deal of time, energy, and no small amount of money on this hobby.

But because of how I look, I’m pretty much automatically going to get to be one of the in-crowd. I can sit down, mention a couple of hop varieties and I’m instantly taken seriously by the large craft beer community (both online and off) that pretty much looks exactly like me. Not so for women and people of color, who often understandably feel left out of the very homogeneous beer nerd groups. How many times have I been to a homebrew club meeting or a craft beer event with only a handful (or less!) of token female faces, and with nary the sight of a person whose face would be darker than about 5 Lovibond on the color scale? It’s not that the craft beer community at large is sexist and racist (at least, no more so than the societies in which it is embedded), but that the attitudes and perspectives of many in that community prove to be hurdles to getting those outside the narrow confines to join us.

How many beer geeks think nothing of making racially-charged jokes about the drinkers of malt liquor, for instance? Or Corona, Tecate, and other Mexican lagers? How many times have I heard a less-than-stellar brew (usually one with fruit) referred to as “chick beer,” or a “panty dropper” by some white guy in his twenties with a scruffy piece of face fuzz? I’ve even seen beers referred to as “faggy,” which just makes me want to punch the jerkwad saying it. This stuff hurts those to whom the insulting names are targeted, and it just makes us look like xenophobic jerks.

Not only does it hurt women and minorities, but it also hurts us, the straight white guys who are already in the “in” crowd. It hurts us because we’re sidelining perspectives and attitudes that can provide information and knowledge we don’t already have. Everyone’s palate is different, and getting the widest possible array of perspectives is the best way of really understanding a beer — I was once reviewing a beer with Shana, and until she mentioned that she was getting dried apricots on the aroma, I wasn’t getting it at all. Once she mentioned it, it was not only present but overwhelming. A wider range of palates and food histories allows a broader conversation that helps us all in our love and appreciation of fermented barley and hops.

So what’s the take-away here? Simple: stop exerting your privilege when you think you’re in the in-crowd. It’s not okay to refer to malt liquor drinkers as being “from the hood.” It’s not funny to talk about how “gay” a beer is if you don’t like it.

And it’s really not a good idea to greet a woman talking about craft beer with a comment on how attractive she is, rather than on how good her palate is or anything else about the actual topic at hand. Talking about a female beer geek’s appearance is a way of belittling her opinions and experience in lieu of her appearance — it diminishes her words and makes her less likely to join us in conversation. Don’t believe me? Imagine if every time you tried to talk about how great the tripel you’re drinking is, you got back a pair of sultry eyes and were told what a “tall drink of water” you are, without actually having your opinions taken seriously.

Guys, we’re better than this. And I think it’s damn time we started acting like it.

*Apologies for the low-resolution image, by the way. I’m using the webcam on my laptop and typing this in the morning while my fiancee sleeps next to me. Hence the low light.

What’s in a Style, Anyway?

There’s been a lot of discussion online lately about the utility and value of beer styles in general, mainly among some of the European beer bloggers I read. There seems to be a growing consensus that current style conventions are overly complex, “a mile deep and an inch wide,” too beholden to history, etc.

For millennia, there really wasn’t a such a thing as “beer styles,” — beer was quite simply beer. Locally made, typically in the home alongside the daily bread, according to old practice. Only those who traveled widely (and few did) would realize that the beers made according to traditions in, say, Scotland differed from those in Bohemia (to name only two examples). For those situations, it was enough to make some general statement about color — typically “light” or “dark” to some degree — and perhaps to append some place moniker to the descriptor, “of the kind they make in Flanders,” would have been plenty descriptive for the time.

It was only with the work of the Beer Hunter Michael Jackson in the seventies that the modern taxonomic hierarchy of beer styles came into its own. While Jackson’s work was far from perfect, he basically codified the broad outlines of the beer styles that we use today. One of the things he did best in this regard was to set up a nested scheme of styles, much as a biologist uses taxonomic nomenclature to describe a species.

Consider the human species. Even non-biologists will know that we are generally referred to as Homo sapiens, but it doesn’t stop there. The full branching list describing our species is detailed here, and can be summarized Eukarya Animalia Chordata Mammalia Primates Hominidae Homo sapiens sapiens. (The second sapiens is not a typo — it represents our subspecies as compared to the now-extinct neanderthalensis.) Each term in that long chain represents a differentiation of one particular species from a larger group, so that one could speak of all the species of genus Homo, or drill down and speak of one of the subgroups.

Back to beer, then, we can say that we have two large overarching groups that cover some 99+% of beer styles: ales (top-fermented) and lagers (bottom-fermented). From there, we subdivide based on historical and regional branching for the most part, recognizing that brewing regions developed flavor profiles that differentiated themselves from other areas. A German kolsch and an English porter might both have been ale styles developed around the same time (give or take a century or two) but they come from very different brewing traditions and have very different flavors.

I think the issue that people are having recently is the feeling that maybe we’re chopping a bit too finely on the style markers, and judging by incredibly selective criteria. Does it really make sense to argue whether one American IPA is more west-coast or east-coast, especially given that brewers (unlike biological organisms) are not beholden to their regional style characteristics and can cross-pollinate from anywhere (whereas in biology evolution constrains future development, i.e. dogs cannot breed with cats to gain characteristics lost from a remote ancestor)? This is where thinking of beer styles as a nested hierarchy helps us, as we can always back up a rung and talk about a particular beer within a larger sub-group; if we can’t decide of that IPA is more west or east coast, we can always simply refer to it as a simple IPA (a luxury the biologists don’t have, short of declaring a single-species genus or similar).

In short, I’d rather see us spend less time dickering over the details of style guidelines (although it’s all in good fun for those who like enjoying the hobby that way), and more time appreciating the diversity and uniqueness in a particular glass of beer. Whether an IPA is more east or west coast is much less important than being able to appreciate a particular beer for exactly what it is, to admire the exact flavors you get in the glass, and to enjoy it!

That said, styles do have a big place in marketing, reviewing, and understanding. If a brewer calls a beer an English IPA, I have very different expectations that I would if she called it a West-Coast IPA, let alone than if she called it a pale lager or a stout or whatever. A style is a label that sets the tone for what I’m expecting from the beer, and in that sense styles are very useful.

As the industry grows over time and more and more beers become available, I expect the list of available styles to grow as well, as the more basic categories get “filled in” and brewers start to sub-divide more and more finely to properly describe their beer. In the IPA category, I wouldn’t be at all surprised in twenty years to see brewers simply start describing their beers by the hop variety that provides most of the flavor; calling a beer an “Amarillo IPA” tells me a lot more than just “West Coast,” if I know my hops properly. It’s just a natural growth of the market.

Your thoughts on styles? I know this is a bit rambling, but beer styles are such a fundamental part of the hobby that it’s hard not to have some kind of strong opinions on them. Ultimately, though, all we’re talking about when we talk about styles is how we organize things, how we do the “paperwork” of the hobby. What’s in the glass, the beautiful boozy elixir, is really where the fun is.

Beyond the Pour goes to the Michigan Winter Beer Fest 2012

That’s right, time for my video of the Michigan Winter Beer Fest 2012. I considered editing this into several videos, but decided to just throw it all up at once and let you guys enjoy it.

My fiancee Shana shot a lot of this video, and I’ve included quite a bit of her crowd footage to show the extent and scale of the event. A dry recounting of beers consumed this isn’t.

Thanks to Founders for getting me into the event. Sorry I didn’t shoot more video at your tent.