Dates Announced for the Pocket Beer Guide 2015 October Tour!

Cover North AmericaThe new edition of my and Tim Webb’s Pocket Beer Guide, officially titled Pocket Beer Guide 2015, is out next month, and as per my recent habit, I’ll be taking to the road to do a bit of promotion. Here’s the schedule:

September 30, Seattle, WA: I’ll be signing books and sipping rare beers at the new Toronado Seattle, 1205 NE 65th Street (at the corner of 12th Ave), all night long. Drop by to say hi, share a beer and maybe even buy a book! (NOTE added 9/29: Unfortunately, books will not be available in time for this event. If you want to come out and chat beer for a while, though, I’ll still be drinking at the Toronado. Look for me or ask the bartender!)

October 1, Denver, CO: In my first ever appearance at a cabaret venue (!), I’ll be onstage with Charlie Papazian, Green Flash’s Chuck Silva, our host Marty Jones, plus several bands and burlesque dancers at Marty Jones Brew Night Show. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what will be happening, but I’ve known Marty for a number of years so I’m sure it’s going to be fun, and there will be great beer, too.

October 2 – 4, Denver, CO: I’ll be signing copies of the new book plus a few older ones in the Bookstore at the Great American Beer Festival. Check here for times.

October 5, Nashville, TN: I’ll be hosting a very special, 5-course beer dinner at the Nashville location of the Flying Saucer. At a mere $45, and with the beers and food we’ve got planned, it’s a bargain and a half!

October 6, Austin, TX: Another Flying Saucer appearance sees me in charge of what they’re calling a “Brewer’s Summit,” featuring Real Ale, Jester King, Austin Beerworks, Thirsty Planet and Karbauch. Taste beer, eat food, listen to me talk about the beers the brewers bring, and hear them tell me why I’m wrong. What’s not to like?

October 7, Garland, TX: The Flying Saucer again, and another “Brewer’s Summit,” this time with Rahr & Sons, Real Ale, Sierra Nevada and Founders Brewing. Worth it just for the opportunity to sample great beers in an idyllic setting on Lake Ray Hubbard.

October 8, Addison, TX: I admit to being a little nervous about hosting a beer dinner in what the Addison Flying Saucer people call the “Pub of Love,” but the menu and beers look great and I’m assured that the setting will be cozy and, dare I say it?, intimate.

October 9, Fort Worth, TX: This is going to be a fun one! Taking a break from the tour’s all-beer theme, I’ll be hosting a beer, wine and spirits dinner in the Bird Café, located where the original Fort Worth Saucer used to be, collaborating once again with ex-Meddlesome Moth chef David McMillan. The menu looks spectacular!

October 10, Fort Worth, TX: Another Flying Saucer and another “Brewer’s Summit,” this time with Rahr & Sons, Community Brewing, Lakewood Brewing, Revolver Brewing and Martin House Brewing. Keith Schlabs, the head beer wrangler for the Flying Saucer group, assures me that all the brewers have promised to bring their “crown jewels,” so this should be a tasting for the books!

October 11, Fort Worth, TX: I’ll be taking things a bit easy on the last day of my tour, if you can call attending the Flying Saucer’s 9th Annual BeerFeast “taking it easy.” I’ll have books available for signing and look forward to some casual chatting about beer.

Sometime in October: Once I’m back in Toronto and sufficiently recovered, I’ll be hosting a book launch event in the city’s downtown. Stay tuned for date and details.

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Not ‘Locals Only’

Okay, so before everyone thinks I’ve taken direct aim at southern Ontario breweries with my series of recent tweets, let me assure one and all I have not. And for those of you not in Ontario, please bear with me, as I guarantee some more universal observations by the end of this post.

Before I explain, however, a pair of the pertinent tweets for those who missed them:

Seems to me that @TorontoBeerWeek is unintentionally highlighting the severe lack of imported draught beer in #Toronto.

Should beer writers/bloggers “support local”? IMO, no, they should support good! #localnotsameasgood

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, taken outside of the context in which I was trying to frame them, those could be seen to be voicing vocal support for ‘outside’ beer and foisting criticism on the local stuff. But really it’s all about drinking quality, opening the market to greater choice and, frankly, raising the bar for craft beer in general.

Let me explain.

In Ontario, a government policy restricting draught beer importing licenses to four companies severely limits the availability of imported beer – even from other Canadian provinces – and makes it more expensive when it does get in. This causes a resulting overabundance of local beers on the taps of our beer bars, to the point that many are unintentionally exclusive or near-exclusive Ontario-only bars.

In my view, this situation has multiple effects, at least one of which plays into my second tweet.

  • Lack of selection for Ontario beer drinkers;
  • Lack of context for products and styles brewed locally;
  • An unwitting ‘free pass,’ or at least less critical critique, given to certain local beers because, as per point 2, there is little or nothing of the same style/type/flavour profile available for purposes of comparison.

(I have personally witnessed point number 3 in action, both locally and elsewhere, many times.)

None of which to say there is no excellent beer brewed in Ontario – there is, and even more very good beer and still more good beer – but in my view it is not enough to say ‘buy local’ or ‘support your local brewer’ without excessive care being given by the brewer first to character, quality control and, to at least some degree, consistency.

Further, the presence of great beers from around the world gives local brewers access to breweries that can inspire them to even greater things. (This, too, I’ve seen in action.) For multiple examples, take the opening up of any formerly closed economy and the corresponding rise in quality products once competition arrived.

And finally, I object strenuously to the notion that beer writers should champion local products. We are not, or should not be, champions for breweries, but for consumers. A writer’s role, whether columnist or blogger or freelance scribe, is to serve the reader, in many cases by sorting through the morass of beer and saying “yes, this is great, but this one not so much.” Regardless of whether the beers in question are local or not.

This approach also works to the ultimate benefit of the brewery, too, since a body of critical reviews should be sufficient to convince the brewer that perhaps something about the beer is flawed or at least not as good as it could be. Resulting in better beer, better sales and happier customers, which is, in the end, the ultimate goal.

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Yesterday I Binge Drank

It’s been a rough summer. Following a dreadful winter, the worst I can recall, I was hoping for a hot, beautiful summer this year, but it never arrived. Instead, we got rain, unseasonably cool temperatures and clouds, clouds, clouds.

And then came Labour Day. Nature being as perverse as it is, the weather since the unofficial start of fall has been more summery and beautiful than was any of the time in July and August. So yesterday, rather than working as I should have been, my wife and I decided to make a lazy Sunday out of a warm and sunny day, beginning around mid-afternoon.

I went out and bought some cheese, olives, crackers and other assorted victuals and then gathered together what we would need to enjoy our snacking repast on our condo building’s common outdoor area. We then repaired to the third floor with our food and some wine, all of which we enjoyed in the sun until a swarm of wasps eventually chased us back upstairs.

We continued our idyll on our balcony, switching from wine to gin and tonics, of which I had two over the course of an hour and a half or so. I then pulled together some more food, since hunger had once more reared its head following the sunset, and opened a beer as my final drink of the night.

Around 9:00 or so, I switched to carbonated water, having tallied a drink total of two and a bit glasses of wine, two G&Ts and one beer over the course of about six hours. Which meant that, according to most of the ‘expert’ definitions bandied about in the media these days, I had been binge drinking.

Oh, what an exceedingly pleasant “binge” it was…

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R.I.P. Ed McNally 1925 – 2014

1306679703384_ORIGINALCanadian beer drinkers should bow their heads and raise their glasses to the memory of Edward McNally, who founded Calgary, Alberta’s Big Rock Brewery in 1984. Ed passed away last night, as reported just a few minutes ago on the brewery’s Twitter feed.

Ed was a lawyer by profession and a westerner to his core. He came to the brewing industry by way of his position as director of the Western Barley Growers Association, which in the 1980s was experiencing legal difficulties associated with the sale and marketing of brewer’s barley. Researching the issue, Ed came across the story of Fritz Maytag and Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and decided that the best way to get a market for Alberta barley was to use it in an Alberta brewery.

I met Ed in 1983 as I was researching my first book, the Great Canadian Beer Guide. Although by then the head of a sizable business, he had no problem sitting down with, and indeed devoting most of his morning to, a young writer who thought he knew a lot about beer. I remember him still as a magnanimous,  forthright and highly entertaining man. We were to meet again several times in the passing years and never did I have occasion to alter that original impression.

As Big Rock grew bigger and bigger, the inevitable rumours would surface on a regular basis, suggesting that Big Brewery X or Y was about to purchase the company. I knew, however, that so long as there was breath in Ed McNally’s body, Big Rock would forever remain proudly and fiercely independent.

I’d lost touch with Ed through the years and, in truth, didn’t even know if he was still connected to the brewery at the end. But there is one thing I’m certain of, and that is that he remained a devoted Big Rock man to the very end. Rest in peace, Ed. Your legacy will not soon be forgotten.

 

 

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It’s NOT “Belgian” or Even “Belgian-Style”

Hey, you! Over there, the brewer or beer sommelier or certified cicerone or just plain beer drinker. You know that beer you’re brewing/serving/drinking, the one produced in the USA but fermented with a yeast which, many years ago, had its origins in Belgium. There is something you need to know about it, so pay very close attention.

It is NOT Belgian.

Belgian beer is NOT beer fermented with Wyeast #1214 or White Labs WLP550. It is NOT beer affected by Brettanomyces or any odd variety of yeast or bacteria. It is NOT wheat beer spiced with coriander and orange peel. And it is NOT beer fermented with cherries or dosed with cherry juice.

Belgian beer is beer that is brewed and fermented in Belgium. Period.

Okay, so there’s that dealt with, now let’s move on to “Belgian-style.” There IS one sort of beer that may be properly termed “Belgian-style” and that is a wheat beer brewed with a significant portion of unmalted wheat and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. You may also call it a wit or a white beer or a bière blanche, if you wish. But if you’re going to use “Belgian-style” please be sure to include the “style” part – see above – and follow it with “wheat beer.”

As for all other beers brewed and fermented outside of Belgium, regardless of what they contain or how they have been fermented or conditioned, they are NOT “Belgian-style.” They may be “abbey-style” or “Belgian-inspired” but not “Belgian-style.” Here’s why.

Although a small country of 11 or so million people, Belgium is nothing if not a diverse brewing nation. It has been said, and not without some accuracy, that Belgian beers have no style, since each brewer crafts their brands in their own particular style or styles. If you really tried to sort it through, as my colleague Tim Webb does in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, you can probably whittle it down to 30 or 35 very broadly defined sorts of ale and lager – with very few of the latter – but none of those can or should be solely defined as being of “Belgian-style.”

“Belgian,” as I recently noted on Facebook, is not so much a style as it is a huge mix of idiosyncratic brewing philosophies. (Sorry to quote myself, but I really like that line.) To describe a beer not brewed in Belgium as “Belgian” or “Belgian-style” is to do a great disservice to the country’s long brewing traditions and current diversity, not to mention the beer, the brewer and the drinker, the last because it necessitates an assumption that said individual is geographically ignorant.

So, to recap, Belgian beer is beer brewed in Belgium, and “Belgian-style” is a largely meaningless and belittling adjective. Now, get back to your beer.

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No, There Aren’t Too Many Breweries in the United States

Not yet, at least. But for some odd reason, the subject keeps climbing back into the mainstream, most recently in a story by Joshua Bernstein in Bon Appétit online, which when shared on Facebook emerges with the headline “The U.S. Craft Beer Market Is Way Overcrowded – Bon Appétit.”

That sentiment is not actually reflected directly in the story, the online version of which boasts the more equivocal title of “America Now Has Over 3,000 Craft Breweries—and That’s Not Necessarily Great for Beer Drinkers,” but the sentiment has launched a flurry of discussion around the web.

So let’s get this straight: 3,000 breweries are NOT too many for the United States and increased selection is NOT bad for beer drinkers.

Got it? Good! Now, here’s why.

At 3,000 breweries, the United States is now beginning to approach the breweries per population ratio we have in Canada, and in fact, depending on the brewery count for Canada you use – an accurate count in the country is almost impossible to ascertain – could already have reached the same level. But we’re not exactly awash in breweries north of the border, and I have yet to witness the “bloodbath” predicted by Sam Calagione in Bernstein’s story.

That brewery to population ratio, by the way, is about one per every 105,000 people. Which in a global context is actually pretty laughable.

How so? Look at the United Kingdom, for starters, where they boast a brewery for roughly every 55,500 citizens. Or Germany, with one for every 61,500 people. Or little Belgium, where every 70,000 individuals could claim a brewery of their own, should they be so inclined.

And that’s counting only traditional brewing powers. Wade into the numbers of nations that are experiencing their own craft beer renaissances, as is the U.S., and some of the numbers drop even further, like Switzerland, Denmark and New Zealand.

But wait, I hear American brewers arguing, we have the three tier system, which means that distributors are going to fill up and not want to carry any more brands. Which is why, I counter, microdistributors are beginning to appear all around the USA, and will no doubt continue to do so for as long as the demand for their services persists. Besides, more and more states are allowing self-distribution, which is surely sufficient for smaller operations.

But even so, I hear in the distance, it’s not necessarily about the distributors, but the proliferation of SKUs (the acronym for “store keeping units,” the short form for a distinct item in retail sale, such as a bomber of beer, a six-pack or a case, which represent three SKUs even if they are of the same brand). Except that most of these little start-ups are selling not from variety stores or supermarkets, where SKU quantity is an issue, but from their own stores or pubs or one or two of a handful of specialty retailers. And as for bars, well, more taps are coming on-stream daily in the United States, both from new bars and restaurants and existing ones which are changing from regular brews to crafts. (Even Pete Coors sees that happening, although he hasn’t yet quite figured out why.)

Regardless of all the above, however, I’ve still the most compelling reason why a beer bloodbath is not forthcoming in my hip pocket. Now pay attention, because here it comes.

Roughly 92% of the overall American beer market is NOT craft.

That’s about 180 million barrels of beer, folks, which is a whole frigging lot! So long as craft brewers continue to eat away at that part of the market, as they have been doing for decades now, there will remain plenty of room in the marketplace for 3,000 or even 4,000 breweries. And for brewers who don’t think they can chip away at that massive core of the marketplace, well, you might as well hang up your wellies now.

 

 

 

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Toronto’s Festival of Beer

I think I’ve got Toronto’s Festival of Beer sussed, and I can best illustrate my theory by juxtaposing the event, taking place this weekend, with the inaugural edition of the Buffalo Brewers Festival I attended on July 19, to wit:

The Buffalo Brewers Festival is an event people attend to sample new and exciting beers. Some will get drunk.

Toronto’s Festival of Beer is an event people attend to get drunk. Some will sample new and exciting beers.

That said, there are new and exciting beers available for the tasting at the TFOB, notably the following:

  • Barn Door Brewing – Avoid the diacetyl-ish Long Weekend Lager, but try the Summer Storm Lager and tasty but oddly out-of-season Spring Bock.
  • Liberty Village Brewing – A not-salty-enough Gose. (I know, “not-salty-enough” is an odd criticism of a beer, but it makes sense in this case. Trust me.)
  • Kilannan Brewing – Imagine! A new brewery launching with a kölsch and an altbier. And not an IPA in sight.
  • Brimstone Brewing – Hail Mary Ale.
  • Sidelaunch Brewing – Now firing on all cylinders, it would appear. Try ‘em all.

and…

  • Bud Light Platinum! (Just kidding, but it does come with a full “Brand Experience”!)

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