Category Archives: social commentary

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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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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Real Beer Tips for Fitness Fanatics

Apropos to the mess of an article described below, here are some pointers for people watching their weight and/or in training who might like to mix a flavourful beer or two into their lifestyle:

1)      Remember that the majority of the calories in beer come from alcohol, and so two chugged 4% alcohol light beers are roughly equal to the caloric content of one full-bodied, 8% alcohol and slowly enjoyed porter, stout or Belgian ale.

2)      Alcohol gets priority when your body is processing calories, so try to stem the impulse to nosh on a plate of cheesy nachos alongside your pint.

3)      Unpasteurized beer still contains all of its nutritional content, whereby pasteurized beer might contain fewer vitamins and nutrients. Also, brewer’s yeast is the source of a wealth of B complex vitamins, so choose bottle-conditioned or unfiltered and unpasteurized beer to get the best food value in your brew.

4)      A great way to enjoy flavourful beer and still stay hydrated and relatively sober is to alternate between glasses of beer and water. It will also keep the overall calorie count down, since you’ll likely wind up drinking fewer beers.

5)      Don’t drink beer purely for the sake of drinking beer. Drink beer because you enjoy what you’re drinking.

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How to Write a Beer Story for a Fitness Site

Step 1: Collect a bunch of beers with “light” or “lite” in their names.

Step 2: Ignore fact that it’s the total number of calories ingested that count, rather than calories per bottle of beer, by oft-repeating phrases like “If you’re someone who likes to have more than a few in one night, this may be the way to go” and “it’s a significant savings — especially if you have more than one.”

Step 3: Regurgitate marketing pap from brewery websites, like “A brewing process that takes about twice as long as the average beer keeps calories and carbs down.”

Step 4: Pretend that the whole craft beer “thing” has never happened.

Step 5: Assume your audience is composed entirely of the feeble-minded.

That’s it. Follow the above and you, too, will be ready to start writing for dailyburn.com!

15 Better-for-Your-Body Beers

15 Better-for-Your-Body Beers

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Calling Out Top Restaurants on Beer Selection

No, I’m not going to waste your time or mine whinging about the lack of decent beer selection at fine dining restaurants. That situation is improving by the day, at least in major North American cities, and besides, it deserves noting that for every good wine place that lacks a decent beer list, there are probably two or three beer places serving crap wine.

No, my bitch today is about restaurants that decide to dip their proverbial toe into the good beer waters and do so in a way that would, if done in a similar fashion with wine, would earn the place naught but ridicule. Exhibit 1 being the new Seafood Fest menu at Toronto’s Nota Bene, a downtown resto with impeccable food credentials.

Seriously, this place has been awarded accolades like they’re going out of style, as anyone can clearly see on their website: Talk of the Town Award of Excellence; Best New Restaurant; Independent Restaurateurs of the Year; etc. Its wine list features 170 selections, and its back bar is certainly decent enough. And the beer selections for its August long seafood promotion?

  • Stella Artois
  • Hoegaarden
  • Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale
  • Goose Island Sophie

If you noted a theme to these picks, you’re right: They all come from the stable of Anheuser-Busch InBev, by several degrees the largest brewing company in the world. So it’s a fair guess that some money was involved in the crafting of this promotion.

While I give fair dues to AB InBev for putting together a beer deal with such a respected restaurant, I can only shake my head at the lack of judgement at Nota Bene. You don’t have to be a beer expert to understand that, with the lone exception of Sophie, these are all astoundingly ordinary beers. (For non-Canadian readers, Keith’s is not an IPA by any reasonable definition of the term, tasting as it does more like a mainstream lager.) And in my admittedly not-so-humble opinion, even Sophie isn’t quite what it used to be back when Goose Island was still independent.

Ten years ago, this might have worked at an upscale Toronto restaurant; people then weren’t terrifically beer-savvy and imported brands still carried a bit of cachet. But today? When the LCBO down the road from Nota Bene is selling Saison Dupont and Renaissance MPA and Founders Centennial IPA and locally-brewed King Vienna Lager? I think not.

To find a parallel, I try to imagine Nota Bene piecing together a month of wine and food pairings featuring Fat Bastard, Little Penguin, Yellow Tail and Fuzion, but somehow that seems rather unlikely. So why, I wonder, do they think they should get a free pass doing the equivalent sort of promo with beer?

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps esteemed chef David Lee tasted his way through dozens of beers before deciding that the ideal match for mussels and frites is Stella and the perfect accompaniment for Maritime lobster is Keith’s, in which case I completely withdraw my criticisms and invite Chef Lee around for a beer tasting sometime, so that I might introduce him to some more diverse and interesting flavours. But if not, then Nota Bene has done itself a serious disservice.

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On Stella Artois, the English Beat and a Unique Bottle of Lambic

(Fair dues: This post was inspired by this post. Cheers, Adrian.)

Many years ago, when I was a much younger man, I had the good fortune to see a band called the English Beat play a show in Toronto. It was in a venue slightly larger than a club, yet far, far smaller than an arena, and the band was in top form. The night previous I had seen a double bill of Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh, so I knew going in that it would take a lot to top my just-past experience. The Beat did, performing balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred ska for at least two solid, non-stop hours. Underneath my heavy coat — it was winter in Toronto — I was sweating buckets, but I didn’t care. I was wrapped up in the moment, the experience of seeing a top band performing in their prime with all cylinders firing.

Many years after that, I paid my first visit to Cantillon, the famed lambic brewery in the dodgy area of Brussels near the Gare de Midi. Jean-Pierre was still then very much the man in charge — he’s since handed the reins to his highly talented and capable son, Jean — and his enthusiasm for lambic in general and Cantillon in particular was infectious. I had enjoyed and appreciated Cantillon before I attended the brewery, but I understood it after that visit, which, by the way, started as a planned hour or two and turned into a full day talking and tasting. Towards the end, Jean-Pierre opened a bottle of a beer called St. Lamvinus, which he would only refer to as “the product” because he felt it was as much a wine as a lambic. “The product” was at that point seven years old, lambic refermented with a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes, all grown in the Saint-Emillion district of Bordeaux. It was spectacular.

The English Beat are still playing and touring, and St. Lamvinus has been made again since that extraordinary first batch. But just as I’ve seen the band since and thought them fun and tremendously entertaining, though not quite the equal of that fateful show, the St. Lamvinus I shared with a friend this past weekend was spectacular in and of itself, but not quite the St. Lamvinus of the late 1990’s. The grapes have changed, for one — the bottle I had recently was pure Cabernet Sauvignon — and the experience was contextually very different.

My point being that there are certain experiences, a concert or a bottle of limited edition beer, that are meant to be fleeting, and are all the better for it. The joy is in sensing at the time that something special is occurring, and knowing it in your bones once it is done. Its lesson is that the key in life is not grasping for what is past, but searching for equivalents to be found in the present, whether a new, up-and-coming band or a remarkable brew.

As for the Stella reference in the title of this post, I mention it simply as contrast, since that beer is quite unlikely to ever provide such a memorable, compelling experience, and neither is any of its modern, mass-market peers. Sure, there may be memorable occasions in which Stella might play a role, but the odds of such a relatively benign, ubiquitous and frankly unmemorable beer actually creating the experience, as did the Beat and St. Lamvinus, are very small indeed.

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Apparently, This Friday is Special

I’ve received a few emails now informing me that this Friday, September 28, is Drink Beer Day.

Really?

I must be confused, because I thought that Drink Beer Day was every day, always and forever.

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