Category Archives: beer & the web

Repeat After Me: There Is No Such Thing as a “Best Beer City”

Oy!

Just two days — TWO DAYS! — after I responded to a Facebook post about yet another list of supposed “Best Beer Cities,” and sagely decide not to follow further the fruitless path of argument, I come across still another such list. It’s orchestrated in a different, although by no means unique, fashion, but is as flawed as the other and all the rest for one simple reason.

There is no such thing as a frigging “Best Beer City!” Or Cities! Period. End of story.

Look, I enjoy a good list as much as the next guy, and I’m not exactly the kind of person who back down happily from a robust debate, but there are simply too many factors at play to ever resolve the issue of best beer city. In the mind of the drinks guy over at the Seattle P-I, whom I will neither name nor link to for reasons related to past conversations, brewery count would seem to be the defining factor. For Magnolia’s Dave McLean, it’s history, longevity and food and drink culture. For Jeff Alworth, the deciding factor is craft beer in dive bars. And for me, well, I like a great beer bar over a great brewery and think that the ability to get a diversity of local, regional, national and international beers is key, as is the opportunity to enjoy a really good meal with a glass of really good beer.

But that doesn’t mean I know what city is best any more than it means Jeff or Dave or P-I guy does, mainly because, like the beer I drink, where I like to drink it changes with the circumstance! Put me on the west coast and I might be happy as Larry in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco, and in awe of the beer scenes in each city. Pick me up and plant me in Denver or New York City or Philadelphia and I’ll be equally delighted there. Teleport me to Montreal and you’ll soon find me at Dieu du Ciel or Cheval Blanc or Au Pied du Cochon, most likely with a wide grin on my face.

Let me put it another way. The northern German city of Köln, or Cologne, is known for a single style of beer, one which most people find rather unremarkable. It has not — to my experience, at least — fine dining restaurants where you can sample excellent beer with your meal, and neither has it a plethora of good beer bars. Yet thanks to its general pedestrian friendliness, fabulous old city district, exceptional culture and, dammit, the superb quality of some of those kölsches that others sweep aside as ordinary “lawnmower beers,” it is one of my favourite places in Germany, Europe and the world in which to drink beer.

And please note, that was “favourite,” not “best.”

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THIS is the Definition of Craft Beer

People are stressing over craft beer these days. They’re saying it is irrelevant, or that it’s jumped the shark tank or gone mainstream. All of which is probably true, to greater or lesser degrees, but fails to address the central point. Which is that craft beer is simple to define.

But first, let us look at what craft beer is not. It is certainly not what the Brewers Association defines craft beer to be*, which is to say it has little to do with size or ownership or, saints preserve us, tradition. Craft was never the BA’s to define, so there is no reason we should arbitrarily accept their understandably self-serving definition.

(Two notes: “understandably self-serving” because, let’s face it, their raison d’être is to function as an industry representation and lobby group for small breweries, aka craft breweries. And it was never theirs to define because what is to my knowledge the first verifiable instance of its use, in Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer, was published in 1977, long before the BA came into being.)

It is also not “revolutionary,” “honest” or – spare me from this word, please! –  “authentic,” as the fellows from BrewDog seem to think. And neither is it evil-in-a-keg, as the hierarchy of the U.K.’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) sometimes appear to believe.

Simply, craft beer is beer created from the perspective of producing great tasting beer. Not beer that will fit a certain market segment or beer that should appeal to males aged 21 to 29 or beer that will be at its best when served a degree or two above freezing temperature, but beer designed to be full of flavour and character. Period.

Craft beer = birra artigianale = bière artisanale = cerveja artisanal artesanal=  cerveza artisanal = (I think) håndværk øl. It’s beer for the world of beer drinkers who care about the taste and character of what they’re drinking, whether it comes from one of the largest brewing companies in the world or the person brewing in their restaurant kitchen down the road.

Size and ownership and ingredients can have an impact on whether a beer might be defined as craft or not – big brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev have consistently proved themselves to be poor stewards of brands brewed for flavour rather than for perceived market appeal – but mostly they are matters of personal politics. Which is not to say that these factors are unimportant, just that they are not specifically what defines a beer as craft.

Centuries ago, brewers produced the best-tasting beers they could manage, hoping that others would agree and thus purchase their wares. When CAMRA fought back against the rise of bland keg ales and lagers, they were in effect defending that ethic, just as early American microbrewery operators were emulating their spiritual ancestors by brewing beers with greater flavour and character than what was flooding the market at the time.

And today, from Seattle to Singapore and Rome to Ribeirão Preto, craft brewers are still supporting that same idea, and in so doing shaking the very foundation upon which the modern beer market has been built. So I guess yes, maybe craft beer is a bit revolutionary, but it’s still principally about flavour.

* Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association wrote me to express the following: “One factual point–the Brewers Association does not define craft beer. The Brewers Association defines a U.S craft brewer.” I countered that it could be argued one begets the other, but his point is well taken. Essentially the BA is providing membership criteria rather than seeking to define craft beer as an entity. This note is added two days after the original post appeared.

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Beer for Thanksgiving: It’s Simple!

So I hear that next Thursday, November 28, is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. I’m a Canadian, so typically I only become aware of the U.S. holiday when I start seeing stories pop up about what to drink with the Thanksgiving meal, like this one, this one and this one. And usually, as with the three just noted, each article features numerous options, all the better for editors to draw audiences and writers to cover their asses.

Me, I’m reckless, so I’m going to tell you about the one and only beverage you need at the table for your turkey dinner. It is traditional gueuze lambic.

Believe me, it works, and deliciously so! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed turkey and lambic on numerous occasions and have served it to my friends who “don’t like beer” and to beer aficionados who don’t particularly like lambic, to unanimous delight. In fact, I cannot think of a single occasion where someone has not expressed great pleasure at the combination, often coupled with a fair degree of surprise. Plate the turkey and pop the corks of gueuze from Cantillon or Drie Fonteinen or De Cam or Tilquin or last month’s category winner at the Brussels Beer Challenge, Lindemans Cuvée René, serving it in wine glasses or straight-sided tumblers or even champagne flutes. You won’t regret a drop.

The reason it works relates principally to the combination of flavours on the plate — bird, gravy, potatoes and veg, maybe a cranberry sauce or some turnips, plus usually a bunch of salt. The lambic serves to cut through all that with its tartness and carbonation (from bottle refermentation) and acidity, striking to the heart of, and accentuating the flavour of, the star of the table, the turkey. It won’t compete with the other flavours, and neither will it drown them. In fact, about the only other beverage that approaches the utility and perfection of lambic at Thanksgiving, in my view, is the beer’s vinous cousin, champagne.

And where next Thursday’s dinner is concerned, that’s all you need to know. You can thank me later.

 

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“More Bad News for Beer” is Actually Good News for Beer

My colleague and friend, Jack Robertiello, recently wrote a story for Nightclub & Bar Magazine entitled “More Bad News for Beer.” I was intrigued and surfed over to the website to read it, and then walked away smiling. Here’s why.

The “bad news” that Jack reports is almost exclusively about the big name, mass-produced convenience beers that we all know and probably don’t love all that much. You know the ones I’m referring to, those that distinguish themselves from the competition by how cold they are, how long they’ve been around or how “innovative” their bottle may be. (Amusingly, the side panel ad that appeared when I loaded the online version of the story promoted the “new bottle” for Miller Lite.) And yes, for such brands the news truly is bad.

At the heart of Jack’s story is a recently published consumer survey reporting declines in the overall popularity of beer and the numbers are indeed, on the surface, at least, bleak. Two percent fewer adults of legal drinking age were identifying beer as their “go to” beverage compared to the same time period in 2012; 21 to 27 year olds were deserting beer in significant volumes, with 33 percent saying it was their favourite alcoholic beverage as compared to 39 percent a year earlier; and three percent fewer men were siding with beer than did in 2012.

Thing is, though, those sad numbers are almost exclusively about big beer. How do I know? Well, check this out: “The major reason given by 21-27 year olds when asked why they are consuming less beer – 39 percent said they are ‘getting tired of the taste of beer.’” Sounds more like comment about a Bud Light or Coors Light than it does a Dogfish 60 Minute IPA or New Belgium Ranger, doesn’t it? And about craft beer, this is about the most negative thing Jack has to report: “…and crafts, while increasing dramatically, offer a wild and ever changing array of selections that can make the average consumer’s head spin.”

Too much selection and variety in craft beer may be an issue down the road, but judging from the bar owners and operators, and consumers, I’ve been speaking with over the last year — not all of them by any means beer aficionados or craft specialists — it isn’t now.

In fact, where bars and restaurants are concerned, variety in craft beer appears to be a big selling point, since people generally go out for experiences they can’t otherwise get at home, ie: new varieties of draught beer. But don’t believe me, believe the Adult Beverage Insights Group of the research firm Technomic, who report that when only bar and restaurant sales are accounted for, craft beer’s overall market share skyrockets from about 6.5 percent to an impressive 15 percent of total beer sales.

So yes, this really is a good news story.

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Bigger, Stronger, Hoppier…Just Stop It!

In case you missed it, a Scottish brewery called Brewmeister announced yesterday that they had topped their own record for the world’s strongest “beer” – reason for the quotation marks to follow – with a 67.5% alcohol liquid called Snake Venom. The bottle, The Scotsman reports, comes with a warning that no more than the contents of a single, 275 ml bottle should be consumed per sitting.

There is so much wrong with this that I scarcely know where to start. But I’ll try.

First up, unless Brewmeister has somehow come up with a way for yeast to survive in a ridiculously high alcohol environment, this is not a beer and neither is it the product of brewing per se. It is something that was once a beer before it was freeze distilled into a spirit, as are the slew of other “world’s strongest beers” that have come to market in recent years. (I’m looking at you BrewDog and Schorschbräu.) When you brew a beer, you ferment out sugars and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. When you concentrate that alcohol by eliminating a large amount of the water content, that’s distilling. Period.

Secondly, who cares?! Producing the world’s strongest “beer” is right up there with producing the world’s most caloric hamburger and the world’s most tannic wine. It’s an empty, useless gesture than has nothing to do with the item intended to be consumed and everything to do with laying claim to a pointless title.

Thirdly, this is irresponsible to a massive degree. The one bottle per sitting that the brewery recommends you not exceed contains an enormous amount of alcohol, 185.625 millilitres by my calculations. To put that in perspective, it is the equivalent in pure alcohol of drinking just under 62% of a 750 ml bottle of 40% alcohol spirits, or in other words, enough booze to potentially make a person very, very sick.

And fourthly, this kind of “bigger, stronger, hoppier” bullshit is precisely what craft beer is NOT about! Beer should be about flavour, not strength or massive, unbridled bitterness, and headline-grovelling attempts like this simply undermine everything that skilled and dedicated artisanal craft brewers around the world are trying to achieve. As Garrett Oliver once famously stated, no chef goes bragging about how they make the saltiest soup, and neither should anyone proud of their brewing skills be wading into the “bigger, stronger, hoppier” realm.

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Beer is NOT the New Wine!

My late friend and colleague, Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter and Whisky Chaser, once stated, “People ask me if I also drink wine, as if beer is a prison rather than a playground.”

With that statement, Michael deftly summarized the problem with headlines like this one, which imply that people might or even should drink one thing over another to the point of exclusivity. Like Michael, I am fond of a glass of wine or whisky, or a pint of dry cider or a well-made cocktail. And even though I’ve written or co-written eight books on beer, I would balk at ever suggesting that ale or lager is categorically better than wine or spirits.

The point being that a multitude of different flavours exists in all three broad categories of alcoholic beverages – beer, wine and spirits, plus cider and saké – and still more flavours might be obtained when any of the above are mixed together into a cocktail. Each of these deserve exploration by curious imbibers, and if one or another proves not to be to your taste, then so be it.

Just don’t suggest to me that because of the size of shape of the bottle, or the trendiness of the advertising and marketing, than any one beverage is the “new” version of another, entirely different beverage. Beer is beer, wine is wine, and spirits are spirits. Period.

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A Big Batch of Beer Books – Part 3

Northern California BreweriesI’m not even going to feign impartiality when it comes to reviewing California Breweries North by Jay Brooks.

First off, Jay is one of my oldest friends in the beer world. We’ve eaten together, drank together, travelled together, I’ve stayed at his house and he even hauled his entire family across the continent to attend my wedding reception five and a bit years ago! Secondly, I contributed a quote for the back cover of this very book.

So let’s instead just look at the facts and figures of this paperback. It has 406 text-dense pages. It covers 161 breweries from the Central Coast north to the Oregon border. Jay logged literally thousands of miles researching it. And even though it lacks the critical evaluations I just two days ago was complaining were absent from Joe Wiebe’s book, I can’t fault Jay for that, since it is the established style of this series of Stackpole beer guides to offer a single stand-out beer, known as “The Pick,” rather than rate and review multiple brews.

For the northern California traveller, it is arguably of slightly less utility than is last year’s Northern California Craft Beer Guide by Ken Weaver. For those interested in the state of northern California brewing today, however, it is indispensable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the two editions complement each other nicely, with California Breweries North being the one to consult when deciding what brewery to visit and what beers to drink, and the Northern California Craft Beer Guide being the one to keep in the car.

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A Big Batch of Beer Books – Part 2

PictureA couple of months ago, I received a preview copy of the galleys of Brewing Arizona by Ed Sipos. Knowing the book itself wouldn’t appear until the fall, I flipped through its pages at leisure, surprised to find that brewing in the state dates back much further than I would have imagined.

Then, a week or two ago, the final, finished book arrived. And it’s a doozy, hard-backed, full colour and 360 pages long. In terms of weight and gravitas, it exceeds even the gorgeous new Boutique Beer by Ben McFarland (a review of which is forthcoming).

All that for a book about brewing in Arizona? Forgive me, but really, in terms of the global impact of a state or province or district, Arizona really isn’t up there in the top tier.

That said, Sipos’ research appears to be remarkably thorough, and at times reveals some very surprising facts. I had no idea, for instance, that Arizona craft beer pioneer ‘Electric’ Dave Harvan stopped brewing  in 1993 not because his brewery went bust, but because he was busted for possession and sale of marijuana. And neither was I aware that Arizona’s most notorious “craft” beer, Ed’s Cave Creek Chili Beer – you remember, the one with the chili pepper in the bottle that I don’t think anyone ever bought twice for themselves – enjoyed a brief status as a cult beer in Japan.

The book is also well-illustrated, which occasionally presents some problems. On page 168, for instance, we are shown a photo of the original Electric Dave Brewery and told in the caption that it was confiscated and destroyed by the BATF, but it is not until page 177, in a different chapter, that the full story is told.

Displaced photos aside, this is a remarkably thorough and mostly well-written history. Whether or not you will find it worth the $39.95 price tag will depend entirely on your degree of interest in Arizona’s brewing past and present.

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On Bubbles, Craft Brewers, the BA and Naysayers

On Facebook yesterday, I posted this link. Then all heck broke loose.

(In truth, it wasn’t that big a deal, hence all “heck” breaking loose, rather than all hell.)

Various people chimed in, some of whom mentioned to me privately that they had already taken Mr. Watson to task for what they viewed as, at minimum, a too rosy view of things, and at worst, a full-on effort at propagandizing. Me, I thought it was a pretty decent response to what I’ve been reading in the media of late and hearing from certain brewers for over a year now. (Remember that the BA’s main audience is the craft brewing community – the article actually appears in their “community” section –  and therefore it is reasonable to assume that those nay-saying brewers were at least high among their intended audience targets.)

Here’s why:

-        There have been plenty stories of late about the craft beer “bubble” and whether or not it shall shortly burst. The article is, to my mind, clearly intended to balance those stories, many of which have repeated what I would view as misplaced assumptions – more about those below – and I think did a reasonable job of it.

-        In terms of brewery numbers, what Mr. Watson states is true in that the United States is not even close to brewery saturation when compared to other markets, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. In order for parity with those and other countries to occur, on a brewery per population basis, the U.S. would need to double the number of breweries it currently boasts.

-        The suggestion that the market for craft beer is not growing is false. Critics point to the relatively stagnant nature of the American beer market, but that misses the point. Major beer brands have been in free-fall for the past several years – Bud Light has experienced five years of declining sales! – which has freed up major amounts of market share for the craft brewers. (And even so, the U.S. beer market grew 1% last year, which amounts to an additional 2 million barrels of demand.)

-        New breweries regularly come to market with small amounts of brewing capacity, as little as a few hundred barrels. As such, the impact of the regularly reported 1,200+ planned – note, not work-in-progress, but planned – breweries will be minor. (1,200 x 500 barrels = 600,000 barrels, and that’s being extremely generous on the production numbers side.)

-        New outlets for craft beer sales are coming online on a very regular basis. As someone who has worked with hospitality companies numerous times over the past several years and annually speaks at conferences involving top hospitality executives, I have seen the interest develop and grow first hand. I noted last year that when the restaurant company Darden (Olive Garden, Red Lobster) bought the multi-tap chain Yard House, it represented a sea change in the market for craft beer. That Yard House has been Darden’s top performing brand over the last year only cements that observation.

-        To suggest that the graph Mr. Watson presents is comparing apples to oranges – ie: financial data to brewery numbers – is to miss the point. In my view, he is clearly observing that the shape of the dotcom bubble and the craft beer “bubble” are apparently quite different.

Of course, none of the above is to suggest that unrestrained growth in the craft beer sector is sustainable indefinitely – you’d need be an idiot to infer that. But the likening of the current times for craft brewing in the United States to a “bubble” connotes the idea that the “bubble” is about to burst, and I’ve seen nothing that suggests it will any time soon. Mr. Watson’s analysis might be the most cogent or thoughtfully presented, but its conclusion is, I believe, correct.

There will be failures in the craft brewing sector. There may even be a number of them within the next, say, five or seven years, but even a few hundred mostly small and off-the-radar breweries going out of business is not about to burst any “bubble.” Craft beer is on track to continue its growth – all market indicators suggest as much, including the travails the big brewers in North America are experiencing these days – and that means there will be market share to fill, as much as 2 million barrels this year and perhaps as much or even more in 2014.

It will require a lot of brewery expansion à la Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, plus a large number of new brewery arrivals to fill that capacity. The thirst is evident, and I see nothing to suggest it is even close to being fully quenched.

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Launching The Pocket Beer Guide 2014 – Dates! Places! Beers!

Cover(Update: The tour is over, but I’m still on the road. Hope to catch up with all of you soon, somewhere…)

The Pocket Beer Guide 2014 will finally be hitting stores next month! (In the UK, it’s The Pocket Beer Book 2014, and seems to be already in some stores and on Amazon.) To celebrate and promote this fact, I’m going to be hitting the road with tastings, dinners and signings at various locations across Canada and the United States. Here’s the list and I hope to see you somewhere along the way!

September 5, Victoria, British Columbia: I’ll be joining fellow beer scribe Joe Wiebe for a signing and chat at Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub from 6:00 pm onward. As a bonus, Spinnakers will be pouring ten beers from around BC, as selected by Joe, author of Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries.

September 7, Victoria, British Columbia: I’ll be selling whatever books I have left over from the Spinnakers event at the Great Canadian Beer Festival. It’s a sold-out event, but if you’re lucky enough to have tickets, come over and say hello.

September 9, Seattle, Washington: I’m going to be hosting a special tasting and book signing at the Burgundian, the latest gem from the makers of Brouwer’s Café and Bottleworks.

September 19, Toronto, Ontario: It will be my great pleasure to introduce the Ontario premier of Beer Hunter: the story of Michael Jackson at the Rhino. After the screening, I’ll be signing copies of both The Pocket Beer Guide 2014 and The World Atlas of Beer.

October 6, Fort Worth, Texas: I’ll lead a tasting of beer and cheese and chocolate at the Flying Saucer, with a signed copy of the Pocket Beer Guide 2014 included in your purchase price!

October 7, Dallas, Texas: We’re going to blow the roof off the Meddlesome Moth with an amazing beer dinner! I’m collaborating with Executive Chef David McMillan and am pretty excited about the global menu we’re developing. I’ll be signing books both before and after the dinner, so even if you can’t make the meal, come out for a pint and pick up a copy.

October 8, Garland, Texas:  This one is another beer and chocolate and cheese event, at the Flying Saucer on the Lake. Again, your admission price will also get you a copy of Pocket Beer Guide 2014.

October 9, Little Rock, Arkansas: I’m working with the chef from the Capitol Hotel to create another amazing beer dinner, this one held at the local Flying Saucer

October 10, Denver, Colorado: Join me and three of my beer book writing friends for “Books & Beer: Meet and Drink with the Authors of 4 Great New Books About Beer” at the Falling Rock. From 4:00 to 6:00 pm, I’ll be signing and drinking with Jay Brooks, author of California Breweries North, Joshua Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course, and John Holl, author of The American Craft Beer Cookbook. You should come down and buy all four!

October 10 – 12, Denver, Colorado: I’ll be at another sold-out beer event, the Great American Beer Festival, signing books at various times in the festival book store. Check the website for times, and remember, not only does The Pocket Beer Guide 2014 actually fit in your pocket, it can also help guide your tasting on the festival floor!

October 19 – 20, Toronto, Ontario: I’ll be at Cask Days, North America’s largest cask ale festival, selling and signing books and hosting two special tastings with details TBC. Check the website for details as they become available.

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