Category Archives: drinking quality

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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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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Three Quaffers from Wisconsin

When I think of Wisconsin, I think of cheese and beer. I like cheese and beer, which is probably why I spent last week in Wisconsin.

The cheese was varied and for the most part lovely — especially the super-secret truffled buratta from BelGioioso! — as was the beer. The difference is that I’m here to tell you about beer, not cheese.

One I found quite enjoyably gulpable was Wisco Disco from Stillmank Beer, presently brewed under contract in Milwaukee but soon to be a Green Bay native son. Rich gold in colour, this ale might have been called a pale ale in the early 1990s, as opposed to simply a “Wisconsin ale” today, with a biscuity, off-dry aroma and a flavour that begins slightly malty-sweet but gradually turns leafy, tannic and ever so slightly citrusy in its hoppiness. The finish is bone dry and mildly bitter, making this a solid ale that is properly packaged in pint cans for simple enjoyment.

Also building a new brewery is Green Bay’s Titletown Brewing, and when they finish it I hope that they will brew some more of their Randy’s Pale Ale, a tribute beer to a now-departed local homebrewer that would do any brewer proud. The nose has a light but complex fruitiness while the body is wonderfully balanced with apricot and berry fruit, biscuity malt and a long, dry and thoroughly quenching finish. This is a pale ale for pure enjoyment.

And finally, on my return home I found a pair of bottles of Yokel, a straight-from-the-conditioning-tank lager from New Glarus that with one sniff sent me to a Munich biergarten. Floral, lightly sweet, softly yeasty and fresh as a spring lawn, this might err a bit too strongly on the grainy side for some, but with its gently sweet body that segues from notes of fresh hay and light caramel to a dry finish that sucks in your gums and cheeks ever so slightly, I think this is a beauty that lives up well to its “every guy” image.

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Last Week in Las Vegas – 4 New Belgium Beers

In addition to having the great pleasure of hosting a terrific beer dinner at Fleur by Hubert Keller in the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort and presenting a seminar on cider to a rapt audience at the VIBE Conference, last week’s Vegas jaunt afforded me the opportunity to sample a bunch of new New Belgium Brewing releases. Impressed? Damn right I was!

The tasting got off to a great start with the Lips of Faith Gruit, a golden and herbaceous brew with a nose of wet grass, jasmine, oily florals and elderflower cordial. Being someone not normally enamoured by gruits – I’ve had a few of these unhopped, herb-and-spice brews that were vaguely appealing, but can’t recall one I’d be inclined to reorder – I wasn’t expecting a lot from this beer, but boy, was I in for a surprise.

The start of NBB’s Gruit is soft and floral-accented, but leads to a wonderfully constructed mid-palate of spicy, earthy-minerally notes and gentle sweetness, accented by a hint of licorice emerging in the second half and a surprisingly dry finish which was, to me, faintly and surprisingly reminiscent of a good gin. Simply, this is the best gruit I’ve yet come across and sufficiently impressive that I held the remainder of the bottle in reserve and chose it as the beer I’d finish at the conclusion of my tasting.

Next up was the new year-rounder, Snapshot Wheat Beer, a sandy-gold ale with a dry, citrus-accented aroma and a light and lemony body with a slight herbal character emerging in the middle. The surprise here is what I later learned is a lactobacillus tarting up of part of the mash, which results in a quite dry and tangy, refreshing finish, something which made me note that Snapshot “tastes like what might happen if a Belgian decided to riff on the Berliner weisse style.”

Third in my tasting was a reinvention of the 2003 experiment, Transatlantique Kriek, which sees a New Belgium ale blended with cherry lambic from Frank Transatlantique KriekBoon. Vibrant red  and nutty with cherry pit and dry cocoa aromas, this most attractive brew segues from lightly sweet and cherry-ish to more a tart cherry and herbal body, finishing with a slight booziness – although nowhere close to its 8% alcohol strength – and a lingering bitter cherry taste. But for its formidable strength and the fact this was a mid-afternoon tasting, I would have hung around to finish this one, too.

The final beer was the latest in the brewery’s Hop Kitchen series – and honestly, is there another brewery around with this many beer divisions? The new RyePA is piney and resinous on the nose, as you might expect, but with a spicy kick of black pepper mixed with something bready and umami-ish. The body is full of hops, for certain, but restrained as well, in the tradition of NBB’s Ranger IPA – spicy orange with hints of tropical fruit giving way to a more profoundly fruity body, dry and spicy but with notes of kiwi and starfruit. With a finish that is both palate-cleansing and bitter, I was left with the impression that, despite its not inconsequential 7.5% alcohol strength, this would be an ideal brew for sipping alongside a medium-heat curry.

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Advice for St. Patrick’s Day

Okay, so evidently St. Patrick’s Day isn’t just a day this year; it’s a whole friggin’ weekend. Which means that the madness and mayhem will commence tomorrow.

While I’ll personally be laying low this year, as I do around March 17 every year, many others will be running riot over the next four days, drinking beer and whiskey that they seldom if ever otherwise drink, calling anything that’s green “Irish,” including bog-standard lager dyed with food colouring, and generally using the feast day of an Irish saint as an excuse to get plastered. Which is fine.

But if you’re going to “do” St. Patrick’s Day, at least do it right! Which means paying at least a bit of attention to the following:

1) If you must shorten the name, repeat after me, St. Paddy’s Day. Not St. Patty’s Day or plain Patty’s Day. “St. Paddy’s Day.”

2) There are many more Irish whiskeys out there than just Jameson. Try one or two. You might just find yourself drinking Irish whiskey more than just once a year.

3) What I said above about whiskey? It applies equally to Irish stout.

4) If you must do shots — and on a day that is sure to be filled with drinking, I would counsel strongly against them —  limit yourself to just one or two. Five or six or more whiskey shots is a sure-fire route to drunkenness and eventual spewing.

5) Wear green, wear funny badges, wear silly hats if you wish, but accept that you are not, in fact, Irish. Not for a day or for a minute. (Unless, of course, you really are Irish.)

6) A cocktail made with crème de menthe is not by definition Irish. Neither is one made with Midori.

7) Imperial stout is not a beer built for all-day drinking.

8) The green-dye-in-lager thing? It shouldn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Just. Don’t.

9) Lining up to get into a bar is stupid. If there is a line-up, go somewhere else for a drink or two and return later to see if the line-up has dissipated. If it has not, just accept that it was never meant to be.. (The sole exception to this rule is when the line-up is covered, heated and licensed.)

10) That “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirt? Leave it at home.

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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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