Category Archives: beer & travel

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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A Look Back: Visiting Achouffe in 2002

 The following column was written in November of 2002 for the Celebrator, following a visit to the Brasserie d’Achouffe in the Ardennes region of Belgium. Since then, of course, many changes have occurred, including the brewery’s purchase by Duvel Moortgat and the rise of the hoppy Houblon Chouffe as a major brand. Despite or perhaps because of this, however, I enjoyed this trip down memory lane so much that I wanted to share it with you all.  

In 1987, I took a job at a now-defunct Toronto pub managed by a couple who had just arrived fresh from Belgium. Nobody in the city knew much about Belgian beers back then, and of all the experiences I had working at that pub, by far the most positive was my introduction to Belgian ales like Duvel, Chimay and Hoegaarden, the last hand-carried back for me from the brewery itself.

Prior to this experience, my range of experience in beer had been pretty much confined to a few trips to the west coast of the U.S. and the limited offerings of the Ontario marketplace: early craft brews, a handful of German and British imports, and of course, the all-too-homogeneous offerings of what were then the Big Three breweries of Canada — Labatt, Molson and Carling O’Keefe. (Molson and Carling eventually merged to make the Big Three into the Big Two.) The exposure to the first trickles of Belgian beer arriving on these shores opened my eyes to the full flavour potential beer had to offer.

Our productsAbout a year later, already entranced by these new tastes, I discovered another Belgian ale. This one came from a tiny, five-year-old brewery in the Ardennes, Belgium’s densely forested southeast, and sported an easily identifiable label featuring a curious gnome. It was called La Chouffe.

Legend now has it that both the gnome on the bottle of La Chouffe and his ‘Scottish cousin’ who graces the brewery’s other primary brand, McChouffe, are ‘chouffes,’ a type of local forest elf. The truth, however, is that the chouffe idea sprang from the fertile imagination of Christian Bauweraerts, co-founder of the brewery and the affable face of the Brasserie d’Achouffe.

Both the brewery and the beer are actually named after the town of Achouffe, a tiny village near the border of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. And, as I learned during a recent visit, the name truly means, well, nothing.

Like several other Belgian breweries, including its Wallonian neighbour Fantôme and the well-known Flemish brewery De Dolle Brouwers, Achouffe got its start as a hobby of Chris and his brother-in-law, Pierre Gobron. The direction the owners took their hobby, however, was unique and remains today a model for other artisanal breweries in Belgium, especially those plagued by the difficulties of distribution in a market increasingly dominated by the big players. Rather than focus their marketing efforts on domestic sales, the partners elected to look instead internationally. By the time I made acquaintance with the brewery, they were selling between one-quarter and one-third of their entire production in my home province of Québec, where to this day they sell almost double the amount of beer than they do in all of the United States combined.

Of course, those amounts — roughly 600 hectolitres in the U.S. and 1,000 in Quebec, plus another 1,000 brewed under licence in la belle province –  are relatively small compared to the large volumes that Achouffe sells to the Netherlands, where it is far easier to find a draught La Chouffe than it is anywhere else in the world, including Belgium. In fact, Chris told me that those Dutch sales are largely responsible for the brewery selling just over one half of its production in draught form.

In all, Achouffe expects to sell about 18,500 hectolitres of ale this year, roughly three-quarters of which will be the blonde, 8% alcohol, coriander-spiced and curiously refreshing La Chouffe. The stronger (8.5%), darker — made so through the addition of dark sugars rather than dark malts — and rounder McChouffe will make up most of the remainder, with the brewery’s sole seasonal, the concentrated, 10% alcohol and thinnish but intense N’ice Chouffe, accounting for only about 2.5%.

For a regional brewery still unrecognized in many parts of Belgium, and one located in a town so small as to hardly rate a mention on the map, Achouffe’s brewery is large and modern, the result of careful years of controlled expansion. Bottling, kegging and the warm-conditioning vital to bottle-fermented ales are done off-site about six kilometres away, while the pair of on-site brewery buildings are divided into brewing and fermenting facilities. For the visitor, however, the real draw of the brewing side of the operation is the small café built into the back.

While not actually operated by the brewery — they lease the space out to independent operators — the café is without doubt an integral part of the Achouffe experience. To begin with, it may be the only place in Belgium where you can find both La Chouffe and McChouffe on tap. Then there is the beer cuisine offered on the menu, such as the tender though meaty brook trout poached in La Chouffe — only in Belgium would such a dish be offered as an appetizer rather than a main course! — and the wonderfully rich sauce maison which topped my entrecôte de boeuf, made from cream, La Chouffe and a local blue cheese. And finally, it is a place where an air of community dominates, where children run and play and the occasional argument between pet dogs scarcely raises an eyebrow.

After spending but a single evening at the brewery tap, eating my fill and discovering how surprisingly easy to drink an 8% alcohol draught can be, I was left wondering how the inhabitants of a country as impassioned about beer as is Belgium could possibly ignore such a delight within its borders. It must be that they simply don’t know what they’re missing.

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Shifting Sands in the Northeast

Craft beer in North America was born in the west, that much is pretty well documented – Anchor and New Albion in California, Horseshoe Bay and Granville in British Columbia, Yakima Brewing in Washington, etc. It thrived there, too, in the early days as well as still today, but thanks largely to Jim Koch, what we then called microbrews came to national prominence via not the west, but the northeast.

I refer, of course, to the Boston Beer Company, based in and typically associated with its namesake New England city, even if its beers were then, as they still are now, largely brewed outside of Massachusetts. The somber face of Boston Beer’s “Brewer Patriot” Samuel Adams was what introduced most Americans to craft beer, and the expansion of the Boston Lager to state after state after state played a huge role in opening up the national beer market to small, independent beer brands.

It was with this in mind, and after far too long a hiatus, that I returned to the U.S. northeast this past summer. After one hundred-plus beers, about 1,600 miles of driving and a whole lot of thinking, I arrived at the following conclusions and observations:

(Read more at The Celebrator…)

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Growing Up, Growing Big

Back in the 1980’s and right up until close to the turn of the century, what we today call craft breweries were referred to as microbreweries. The reason for this was that, relative to the massive brewing companies that dominated the marketplace from New York to Vancouver and Rome to Tokyo – pretty much any place beer was sold, in fact, other than Germany – these new, upstart breweries were indeed “micro.”

The above will not come as a revelation to most readers of Ale Street News. What may surprise you, on the other hand, or at least serve as a reminder of something you take largely for granted today, is that the size relationship that defined microbreweries then is still largely true today. Yes, even in these times of exponential growth, of craft market share approaching double digit territory, of Boston Beer’s Jim Koch being ‘outed’ as a billionaire, and of companies opening second or even third brewing facilities, the constant expansion and consolidation of the majors still make the largest of the craft breweries look pretty much, well, micro.

(Read more at Ale Street News…)

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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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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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Best Beer Place of 2012: A Tie!

I travelled a lot last year, covering around 70,000 miles by air and plenty more on the ground. Along the way, I visited a lot of beer places and enjoyed a lot of good times with good people.

Such plenitude makes choosing a favourite, or even five favourites, a difficult task, but in the end I arrived at two beery destinations that stood out for me. They are, in some ways, very similar enterprises, and in others quite different. But they share in their hearts a commitment to great food and excellent beer.

They are: The Meddlesome Moth in Dallas, United States, and Bir & Fud in Rome, Italy.

The Moth was the first I visited in 2012, so it shall be the first discussed here. Offspring of the beer bar chain, Flying Saucer, itself with 15 (about to be 16) locations mostly in the southern U.S., the Moth is a creature of a decidedly different sort, with a more formal but still casual aesthetic, a fine list of beer offerings on tap and in the bottle, and a creative menu that veers from basic sandwiches in the afternoon to steak frites and other brasserie favourites at night, each listed with a recommended beer pairing.

Other places do the same, of course, and some execute it with equal or even greater success. But the Moth does it in Dallas, not exactly a long-standing craft beer Mecca, and does it with grace, style – quirky though it may be – and taste. In three meals enjoyed thus far, I’ve yet to sample anything I would consider even mediocre, much less sub-par, and the beer list is always as carefully selected and stylistically diverse as its Texas location allows it to be. Kudos to Moth navigator Keith Schlabs, Chef David McMillan and the whole Dallas crew on a job very well done.

Bir & Food, although showing equal dedication to the victual side of its menu, is the pizzeria yin to the Moth’s Belgian-esque, gastropubby yang. Smaller in size but no less selective in its offerings, it sits on a back lane way in the Trastevere neighbourhood of Rome, almost directly across the street from another great Italian beer destination, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà, informally known as the “football pub.” It’s sometimes cheek-to-jowl crowded and jostlingly busy, but inviting even on a cool late autumn Roma night.

With fewer taps and a lot less space, management at Bir & Fud has to be circumspect in what they carry, but that doesn’t mean quality need be at all compromised. The eighteen taps pour all Italian craft beer and the international bottle list is judiciously chosen, all waiting to accompany quite excellent pizzas and other dishes. Judging by the crowds on what I was told would be a “slow day,” the people of Rome appreciate the effort.

So, for 2012, I salute two beer places that highlight the joys of great beer and fine cuisine: The Meddlesome Moth and Bir & Fud!

Tomorrow: 2012′s Ontario Brewery of the Year!

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Interesting Numbers from the World of Beer

Item 1: People keep asking me why I see a bright future for craft beer in Brazil despite all the significant obstacles – lack of distribution infrastructure, high prices, no “cold chain” of delivery in which the beer is kept cold from brewery to consumer – and sometimes I wonder about it myself.

Then I come across an article like this one in The Globe and Mail newspaper and it all comes together. In case you don’t want to read the whole story, or the link breaks because the Globe puts the story behind their pay wall, here’s the gist: With 50 million Brazilians joining the middle class in the last decade, that segment of the population is now about equal to the percentage that is poor, about 30% each.

This new middle class is aspirational, and they want to spend their money on items to which they previously had not enjoyed access – the story highlights perfume and cell phones – like craft beer. I’ve seen the gestation of this at bars like Melograno and FrangÓ in São Paulo and I expect to see a lot more of it on my next visit, whenever that might be.

Item 2: I continue to hear American brewers fret about the number of breweries popping up in their country, worried about the so-called “bust” that they think must surely follow the boom. Too many breweries, too many SKUs (brands listed with distributors) and too confusing for beer drinkers are a few of the concerns I regularly hear voiced.

Umm, folks, ever heard of the United Kingdom? It’s a land of about 62 million people, where the total number of breweries just surpassed 1,000! And while they have their own issues to deal with over there, I’ve not yet heard much in the way of griping about the number of breweries and possible saturation of the market.

To put that in perspective, to achieve the same ratio of breweries per capita, the United States would have to add about 2,900 breweries to their existing total, more than doubling the number in place today.

Item 3: This is not so much a numbers thing as it is a bit of a rant. Although it does relate to Item 2 above.

Yesterday’s Shanken News Daily carried a story headlined “Craft Controversy: Rotating Drafts Spark Concern Among Brewers,” in which it was suggested that “some craft brewers are beginning to show concern that the very diversity that they have long promoted…may actually be damaging to their companies and the craft beer category.”

The piece goes on to quote Bob Sullivan, vice president of sales and marketing at Kansas city’s Boulevard Brewing – a craft brewery I know and quite like and the tenth largest craft producer by volume in the U.S. – as saying that bars which rotate their draft taps rather than sticking with a specific line-up of brands are hurting the industry by not giving breweries an opportunity to build their brands.

More egregiously, the story quotes Jim Gray, national draft director at the beer importer Crown Imports, purveyors of Corona and Tsingtao, among other brands, as complaining that “retailers who are focused on rotating draft handles aren’t focused on building brands” and that these beer sellers are only interested in “the shiny new toy that is offered to them each month.”

Here’s a piece of advice for you, Jim and Bob and any other salesperson out there trying to flog draft beer: The job of the licensee is to keep their customers happy, not to build brands. (Ahem, that’s YOUR job.) And if customers want variety in their beer selection, as a vastly growing contingent of beers drinkers do, well, that’s just the new playing field. Get used to it!

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Good News/Bad News for Craft Beer in Brazil

If you’ve had a chance yet to look at the Emerging Markets chapter of the new World Atlas of Beer, you’ll know that my co-author and I are quite bullish on the future of craft beer in Brazil. With a fast-growing middle class, rapidly improving craft breweries and both the summer Olympics and football’s World Cup around the corner, we can’t help but think that things look bright for the country’s ever-expanding premium beer segment.

Since I’m writing about Brazil, I figure I might as well add a gratuitous cover shot from the Brazilian edition of The World Atlas of Beer.

And apparently we’re not the only ones.

The global research firm, Mintel, has just come out with a report that suggests “strong and premium beer” are the big growth segments in Brazil, with data showing sales had improved 18% year-on-year to 2011.  In the report, Sebastian Concha, research director, Latin America at Mintel, is quoted as saying:

“The fact that premium beers are gaining more market share from the standard beer sector highlights the changing consumer mindset in Brazil and how beverage habits relate to this. Huge opportunities lie with Brazil’s hosting of key live sports events in the coming years. With a strong sporting prowess in Brazil and a product closely linked with sporting culture, beer manufacturers who can capitalize on local enthusiasm and blend this to ensure a premium product positioning stand to benefit.”

Now, admittedly, by “premium” Mintel means primarily imports and niche domestic brands like the Kirin-owned Devassa and Heineken-owned Kaiser Bock, but it doesn’t take much imagination to figure that the crafts should be able to capitalize on this movement, as well. After all, what was then just InBev unwittingly helped along the rise of craft beer in North America by promoting the hell out of its imported brands.

Which, unfortunately, is also where the bad news comes in. Moments after I received the Mintel report, I also found in my inbox a news item about the intent of Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Brazilian division, AmBev, to open a chain of bars called Nosso Bar across the country. Organized via a semi-franchise arrangement, the bars will reportedly present a clean and gender-neutral image and be designed, of course, to fiercely promote AmBev brands such as Brahma and Sköl.

To be clear, I don’t believe that the latter news in any way outweighs the former — I remain convinced that the future is bright for Brazilian craft beer, despite the barriers the breweries still must overcome — but with AmBev and the other large breweries seeing great revenue potential in South America, the road ahead will likely be anything but smooth.

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