I Can Go Home Any Time I Want

There are beers I remember from my past, no longer made or in the same form, I try to recreate.

I do that in different ways: summoning sheer memory; buying a brand of today which closely resembles the avatar; buying the same brand of yore where available; blending two or more beers. Sometimes my Proustian efforts falter; more usually I make the grade.

In the memory category, I’d put Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter, sampled in half-pints in the Star Tavern, Belgrave Mews West, London.

I first started going to the Star Tavern in the mid-80’s, and my last visit was 3 or 4 years ago.

It had hardly changed. A tony pub but still a pub, with excellent beer and food and nooks and crannies galore. The best time to go was autumn or winter, and the best drink was Fuller ESB. It had a rich, winy taste, more malty than hoppy, so kind of strong ale that crossed stylistic boundaries. I know Fuller ESB is still made but admirer as I am of house Fuller, it doesn’t taste like it did then. It is less luscious now, more like a strawberry rhubarb pie than a boozy sherry trifle.

Another beer of memory is Labatt Blue – also of course still made. It used to have a lightly malty taste, and mild but fragrant hop character. Now, well, I just don’t see much connection. Good knocked back cold with a plate of wings though.

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Then Ind Coope Burton Ale, the plummy-tasting bitter ale which the Coach & Horses, Greek Street, London served in perfect condition. The owner, Norman Balon, looked a lot like the American actor Walter Matthau, the guy who played opposite Tony Randall in the film version of The Odd Couple. He could be a little grumpy at times but it was just his way. When I first went there in the 80’s, the division between saloon and public bar was still observed but this died away in time.  I have an almost tactile memory of how that beer tasted, and how fish at Manzi’s around the corner tasted (that English ground-nut oil and feathery plaice), and the smell of the rain on the pavement. This is a hard one to conjure up today but there is a pale ale from British Columbia that gets close if very fresh, Okanagan Spring Pale Ale.

London, London you haunt me in my dreams..

Of beers that can be recreated by buying a similar one, there is, also from British Colombia, the simple but well-made brown ale, Gypsy Tears Ruby Ale from Parallel 49 brewery.

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It uses American hops for the flavouring, and reminds me a lot of Pete’s Wicked Brown Ale in its first years. This was a well-known early craft beer which had the simple honest taste of both England (the caramel malt) and terroir (the loamy soil of the yawning Washington and Oregon valleys). Originally, it was an American’s salute to a northern brown ale, Samuel Smith Brown Ale in fact, but ended by being something different. Today, there are many stronger beers around with more hops in them and cloudier mien, but simple and clear are often best.  This beer reminds me of early trips to San Francisco: North Beach and the Mark Hopkins and the fishy stew, cioppino.

As for blending, and speaking of Samuel Smith of Yorkshire, its inky Imperial Stout, now available again at our LCBO, seems less pruney and sweet than it was. Still pretty good, but not what I remember. I poured some in a pint glass and topped it up with a tar-black American Imperial Stout, Tenfidy. From Colorada. Them Americans learned a thing or two about beer over the years, mostly from the historical and cultural mother land, England.

The result was much closer to Sam Smith’s Imperial Stout as I recall it in years past.

You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe wrote in the 1930’s. What did he know from beer?

 

 

Wet Hop Rules

BEER ET SEQ RE-ACQUAINTS WITH A BENEFICENT BEER TREND

I realized the other day, with an urgency which will only make sense to those uncommonly devoted to beer’s highways and byways, that I hadn’t managed a lip-moisten this autumn with wet-hopped beer. I saw a number of beers, here and in New York recently, in this style but always chose something else for some reason.

This was remedied today when I spotted Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing’s Autumn Hop Harvest Ale at LCBO. Glad I tried it as the hop character is very vibrant. The Cascade hop is used, the famous American variety first released in 1972 and which has since become a star of craft brewing worldwide. When grown in Ontario soil, somehow it acquires both American and English characteristics, which is all to the good. There is pine, orange, and flowers.  Whatever the specific compounds Canuck soils imparted to a West Coast classic, the resultant potion of Toronto-brewed ale is just about perfect.

The beer too surely gets us closer to the time hops were first used in brewing (at least systematically), circa 1000 A.D. Initially hops would have been pulled from the vine and tossed into the expressed mashy juice forthwith. The refinements of drying and baling would have come later, when brewing had become an occupation or trade versus an intermittent or haphazard bucolic pursuit.

We hail the fine taste of Amsterdam Beer’s Autumn Hop Harvest Ale, it has the ring of the pale ale that made Albion envy of the brewing world around the time Victoria gained her throne.

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The Session Looks at a Holiday or Christmas Tradition in Beer

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 Session 106 is hosted by Jay Brooks this month. We are asked to consider the Holiday/Christmas/Kwanza etc. beer tradition, whether it has any specific meaning for us, and give examples of beers enjoyed as the Season approaches or other thoughts on the topic.

In many years of tasting beer, Christmas or holiday beer as a category has never made a real impression, and this is probably because the concept is and always was amorphous. It is true that references to a special beer at this part of the year are scattered in general and poetic literature. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, Christmas beer was something to be enjoyed along with other special things of the season: oranges, mince pie, roasted birds (goose), chestnuts roasted, and spiced beef, the delectable, scarlet-coloured round or brisket which is almost forgotten today even in England. (Out of sheer habit I think, a purveyor still makes some in a corner of Toronto, and I’ll write of this soon).

But that beer had no specific form or content other than possibly being stronger than the normal type, and often spiced. Spices were costly in the old days and it makes sense some sugar and spice went into the local ale to give it a festive touch. One old poem specifies that Christmas ale must not only be spiced, but also eaten with toast, the old English idea to immerse crispy bread in beer which made it a kind of gruel or soup.

When bitter beer – beer intended to keep – was laid down in March in Britain, it was considered best to broach it by Christmas of the same year. Some of the Christmas associations with beer in English tradition, at any rate, derive surely from that.

So all these ideas merged in the English conception of a Christmas-time beer: something strong, often spiced, something kept for a while to age and improve until opened with ceremony by paterfamilias at the Christmas table with hearth aglow.

Brewers in North America often put out a Christmas or Holiday beer with a nicely decorated label – more in the U.S. than Canada from what I can see. I used to buy these when I saw them on trips to the Northeast years ago. Most seemed not much different to the standard issue and any that weren’t were just a bit stronger or darker, no style ever emerged of a Xmas beer with its own characteristics. That was true in England too: Christmas ale has literary and social-historical resonance but you won’t find the recipe in the great Victorian brewing texts.

Under craft conditions in Ontario today, Great Lakes Brewing has a Winter Ale which one sees around this time on the shelves. It is on the strong side with a good spice character and exemplifies the English idea of a spiced holiday beer to the extent any firm idea of it exists.

This fine beer from Albion itself, Harvey’s Christmas Ale, also exemplifies a rich, spicy character although no spices are (I believe) actually added, the effect is from the malts and hops used, probably some brewing sugars as well.

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It’s good that in a day when beers have been categorized to within an inch of their life, a fairly hazy notion endures about Christmas beer. Hazy suits the idea of a strongish ale sipped indolently at Christmas anyway.

 

Of Sulphides in Beer and Gastronomy…

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Brookston Beer Bulletin has just published a very interesting technical paper from 1970 which describes the problem well of excess hydrogen sulphide in beer. Other sulphides, especially “DMS” (dimethyl sulphide) can add similar objectionable tastes to beer.

The tastes in question are often described as an over-boiled vegetable taste, or a barnyard or sulfur smell and taste – most have tasted water from a country well which has this taste: not very pleasant. The spa waters of some areas offered the same kind of aroma but in time became regarded as healthful, perhaps by analogy to the usefulness of night soil in agriculture or indeed the popular idea that a medicine which tastes bad can be good for you.

The paper is by two scientists who describe a method to eliminate the taste from beer, it involved an electrolytic process to add copper to precipitate out the compounds in question. The applicants obtained a patent, but I don’t know if their process was ever or still is used in commercial brewing.

The problem, especially for pale lager beer, is still very much with us based on many years’ tasting of both mass-production and craft beers. On a trip to Munich and area a few years ago, a good many of the helles beers had the taste in high concentration, I could not finish some glasses due to this.

Some beers there, however, and some here, avoid the taste. Pilsner Urquell has never featured hydrogen sulphide or DMS in my experience. In the past, I found Heineken usually had it but recently the beer seems much cleaner and this is a great improvement, IMO. In a recent U.S. sample of PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon), I thought the characteristic whiff quite evident. Many craft lagers have the taste, but certainly not all.

Some would argue the taste has become part of the profile of quality blonde lager. Over a swath of Europe on my last trip, I saw people happily drink beers with the taste, I think they just don’t “see” it – have become accustomed  – and some too may have low sensitivity. From a strictly gastronomic viewpoint though, no beer which offers the flavour can ever be a great drink, in my opinion to be sure. And the fact that scientists recognized the problem, not just in the 1970 paper mentioned, but in many other studies starting from the mid-1900’s, shows breweries have been concerned about it. Even before then, the flavour was noticed and objected to, some English brewers complained of a “garlic” flavour in the European lager starting to reach British shores at the end of the 1800’s.

The reason pale lagers are susceptible is, many pale malts used to brew lager contain a “precursor” which, after mashing and fermentation, produces the compounds in question. It may come from fertilizers used in agriculture. Other brewing materials can contain sulfur, hops too, but generally scientists have ascribed the cause to precursors in pale malting barley, especially varieties used in Continental Europe. Interestingly, some English ales have a similar taste. Many pale ales from Burton-on-Trent, or the Trent Valley generally, had what was called the “Burton snatch”, and some English beer still features the taste. Whatever the specific cause in that case (some have pointed to brewing waters), generally, ales and porter – top-fermented beer, that is – avoid the taste.

Also, the darker the malt, the fewer the precursors because the higher temperature in kilning the moist barley malt inhibits their formation. Brewers have also told me that the caramelized flavours of a darker beer can cover over the taste, whereas in a pale beer “there is nowhere to hide”.

It is hinted at but not expressly stated in the 1970 paper why the problem needed attention. The authors state that in aging or conditioning of beer, the secondary slow fermentation produces further CO2 which carries away the smelly sulfides. This is surely one reason why lager was traditionally cellared for many months before sale. True, the containers were enclosed but one can imagine that porous wood allowed the vapours in the vats or barrels to percolate out. Anyway, the containers once opened would have flushed out their surface vapours to the air. But from later in the 1800’s, traditional cellaring times became shorter and shorter to ensure availability of beer in the market and not lock away capital for too long. The adoption of mechanical refrigeration assisted doing away with long conditioning in naturally cold cellars or caves. The general adoption of closed fermentation systems, later in the 1900’s, compounded the problem, for reasons that will be obvious.

Hence in my view, how the “garlic” problem arose. In the 1970’s, brewers spoke of “7/7” beer: brewed in seven days, aged in seven, then out the door. I can’t speak to aging practice today either in big or small shops but from what I’ve heard, extended aging is not typical for most pale lager. Homebrewers however are familiar with the sulfide issue and some ensure a proper aging time to “clean up” green flavours such as hydrogen sulphide.

A fine lager should feature prominently the flavour of fine malt and hops. Yeast contribution if benign is certainly to the good, yeast always contributes palate-character to beer. But the sulfides mentioned do nothing for it, IMO.

 

Note re image used: the image shown is in the public domain, and was sourced here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hydrogen-sulfide-2D.png

The Malt And The Grape

Some taste notes:

Rickard’s Red IPA

Quite good, the first Rickard’s brand (Rickards is from Molson Coors) that has a craft beer taste IMO. The hop flavour is genuine Pacific North West. The malt is a little flat and thin, at least by craft standards (if pasteurized that may have some impact too) but still a worthy beer, I’d like to try it on draft. More proof that the megas and micras are slowly merging in character.

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Stratus Tollgate (red wine blend).

Tasted at Cork’s Wine and Beer Bar at Longo’s on Laird. This classic Niagara marque is an outstanding, rich wine, blended from 8 grape types grown on the property. I believe it is similar to the Stratus Red at LCBO which goes for about $44.00. (The Tollgate line is limited distribution and not available at LCBO). The varietals blend seamlessly to produce a pinot-type flavour, or perhaps pinot-and-cabernet if that makes any sense. No green veg aftertaste as in most Niagara reds as of yore. Showing the maturity of the Canadian wine industry. (Image sourced from the excellent Vivino website).

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Wells Young Courage Imperial Russian Stout 2013 Vintage.

Cocoa-like notes, which show a light oxidation, characterize the beer after two years’ cellaring. I think I still prefer it fresh but this is a fine sensory experience by any definition pertinent to the bibulous world. This is the gran-dad of all imperial stouts, gratefully brought back a few years ago by current label-owner Wells Young in England. I hope they are still making it though.

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Context Changes Everything, Usually – Part II

making-changeIn my post yesterday, I discussed how the image of a beer, wine or food can change when a smaller company is bought out by a larger one. I also pointed out that even without such a sale, longevity in the business or increased competition will alter public perceptions over time, except when they don’t for magic circle products like Coke or Heinz Ketchup.

Today I want to raise an aspect often overlooked in these discussions, which is that something vital is often lost when a small company is sold to a much bigger one. It’s not that the products purchased will change over time (although they may). But the products will be integrated in the company’s existing range, usually as a specialty line or in a separate division. Former management may stay on for a few years, but in time will depart. The specific vision and mindset they had which, had the company remained independent, might result in the adoption of new products or positive changes to existing ones, are unlikely to exist in a large company staffed by professional managers which reports financial results to public shareholders.

In the last 10 years or so, the core products of an acquired small brewery are usually continued – this is unlike the typical pattern of brewery takeovers in previous generations. Indeed, the same or a similar standard often is maintained. Ontario’s Creemore Lager, say, tastes as it always did despite being made for 10 years now by Molson Coors. To be sure, new Creemore beers have been added since the purchase, including pilsener and keller (unfiltered) versions. In my view, these are very similar to Creemore Lager itself though. There is also a darkish altbier, although its background taste (to me) is very much “Creemore”.

Had Creemore not been bought 10 years ago, might the brewery have issued completely different new products? Maybe a line of English-style ales, or an IPA, or a Belgian range, or a pumpkin beer or sour beer? I think this is likely, whereas in the hands of the current owner, the brand line is fairly static. There are pros and cons in this of course. Creemore has much wider distribution than when its founders ran it. You can buy it in Quebec. It’s available in hundreds of bars and restaurants across Ontario, when at one time it could be hard to find.

But something vital may have been lost.

Take Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, one of the great successes of the craft brewing revival. It has remained independent for over 35 years and is still controlled by one of the founders, Ken Grossman. After many years of sticking to the original product line, it blossomed some years ago with a range of creative and interesting styles. Some bear only a tangential connection to the original line-up of Pale Ale, Stout, Porter, Celebration Ale and Bigfoot. There’s the Ovila Belgian-style range, a reconfigured Celebration Ale, numerous collaborations, a fine red IPA, etc. Had Sierra Nevada been sold 20 years ago, would this further range of beers and tastes have graced the public market? I doubt it. I think the same is true of Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams Lager and an almost countless number of other beers. Had Boston Beer Company been bought 20 years ago by mega-brewing, there might be two or three of its products only in the market – maybe only two, Sam Adams Boston Lager and the light version.

Innovation and new products or line extensions seem order of the day in Chicago at Goose Island Brewery, taken over by Anheuser Busch InBev a few years ago. Maybe small-company flexibility and creativity can continue at large shops, too. There is an exception to almost everything in life. But it remains to be seen if this trend will last.

It should be said too that a large company focused on the price or mass-market segment can spontaneously adopt small company ways: this happened when Pabst finally re-issued Ballantine India Pale Ale. Unfortunately, the company missed the mark regarding the palate of this product, in my opinion, but that’s another issue.

In general from what I’ve seen, large companies think differently than small ones. They are not as good at certain things and better at others. In a perfect world, I’d rather see all small companies continue for generations and stay family-owned unless sold to key employees. But the world is not perfect. Small companies need access to capital, and good distribution to expand and even (sometimes) survive. A founder may take sick, or want to retire, and not find someone suitable to continue the business. When small breweries are sold, some of that risk is reduced. But something is often lost, too.

 

Note re image used: The image, entitled Make Change, is in the public domain and was sourced here.

Context Changes Everything – Usually

Ontario beer writer Jordan St. John, in this posting, raises toward the end an interesting issue, whether a change of context such as sale of a craft brewery to a mega-brewer changes perceptions of a beer.

The answer is clearly yes.

This is not peculiar to takeovers of hitherto mom and pops by large, publicly-traded entities. Even where a well-regarded brewery retains independence, increased distribution and availability of its beer and of course competition by new entrants tend to ratchet down its amperage over time.

No one regards Anchor Brewery of San Francisco, or California’s Sierra Nevada Brewery, with indifference much less derision. Still, the magical aura surrounding them twenty and thirty years ago has largely dissipated. Ditto for the Belgian white beer, Hoegaarden, the Belgian Trappist beer, Chimay, and the Imperial-type Sinha Stout from Sri Lanka (a former British colony under a different name) – all lauded decades ago by the peerless beer critic Michael Jackson. Countless other beers fall in this category.

pink-elephant-peanutJust the other day, I was struck by a signboard in front of a pub advertising the strong Belgian specialty beer, Delirium Tremens. The pub was not a beer haven as such, but this distinctive beer was available there – an example of its success in getting into the wider market. Today it’s another import, one of almost an endless number available…

The answer is, and this applies to wine, whisky, a restaurant’s cuisine, or a cheese, to assess them strictly on merit. One must try to abstract out all other considerations. It’s not always easy. Assuming no significant production changes over time, a classic is still a classic whether sold by a community of cloistered monks or a multinational behemoth.

Some products seem to resist changes of context, they have a beguiling power which ensures that familiarity will never breed contempt. Champagne is like this, or Coca-Cola, or Heinz ketchup. In beer, Pilsner Urquell occupies this territory, and two others at least: Heineken and Guinness. They have preserved the mystique they acquired early on, whether that is deserved is another question. (I think it is for the first two, not for Guinness). Various factors play into it. Urquell was the first blonde pilsner beer (1842) and took Europe and then the world by storm. Even the long Communist interlude in the former Czechoslovakia could not shake that.

Heineken was the first European import to reach American after Repeal in 1933, and acquired an ensconced position it never lost in American bourgeois and haute circles. Guinness soldiered on long after porter and stout almost died out in their homeland of England, and shone by being “the” widely available black beer when most were blonde or amber.

Sometimes superstars of long standing do burn out, this has happened in my view to Budweiser (not the Light) and also to Coors Banquet (not the light version again).

The takeaway: use your own judgment. Be swayed neither by trends nor common perceptions unless you are a brewer or a retailer of liquor products, if so then it’s different. Maybe*.

 

*Note re image used: The image above is entitled, “Pink Elephant, Peanut”, and is in the public domain. The source used is here.

Reflections On The Wallace Gastropub, Toronto

As an always-enjoyable respite for a quick one, The Wallace Gastropub in the Davisville area of Toronto is hard to beat. (Davisville is midtown, a mixed use area, but the towers surrounding are getting ever higher).

I only get there occasionally, but always enjoy it when I do.

The Wallace has an excellent draft beer selection, not quite like anyone else’s. It has a number of fine craft local beers, some great imported ones including the impressive Lagunitas IPA, Sierra Nevada Draft Pale Ale, and Rogue (varying brews) in Oregon, and a clutch of interesting European imports. The latter include some top British and German names, plus the Czech Pilsner Urquell.

In a profession noted for amiable proprietors, majordomo John Pirathap is second to none.  Last night he threw his annual guest appreciation party, the first I’ve been able to attend. The food and the beer were first rate. I enjoyed Side Launch Pale Ale, one of the best Anglo-American bitter ale styles in Canada, and the awesome Muskoka Harvest Ale. If one is having both, they are useful to drink in that order as reversing would risk losing the more subtle but flavoursome notes of the Side Launch.

roast-pig (1)John’s generous finger food included slices of a medium-size pig roasted whole – it was displayed early in the evening and made quite a sight. I must have been so taken I forgot to capture it on my phone, but it had a golden crispy look and was done to, well, a turn*.

It was not long off the spit as the slices came hot and fresh with that great crispy skin. A hoisin-type sauce was served with it. I suspect Chinese methods were used in general to prepare the hog, as it tasted great and the Chinese are masters of pork roasting in this way. John’s pakora-type triangular pastries were superb too, in this case with beef and I believe there was a vegetable version as well.

The place was very busy, not just with invited guests, it was a bustling pre-Black Friday night.

The location was originally (years ago) the Bow & Arrow, which had its own charm – Sussex meets Canuck, one might say – but I like it as much now; it is both the same and different.

One should never take for granted expressions of amity and generosity as occurred last night, they come at bottom from the heart of the man who makes everything happen there, John. His excellent staff should be mentioned too, all pros in my experience.

 

*The image shown is in the public domain and the source is this link back.

 

 

Bourbon and Friends

IMG_20151114_165525Some good friends at www.straightbourbon.com – the world’s best bourbon site – have said nice things about this blog. I want to return the favour by putting up a bourbon whiskey review unadorned: no beer, no food history, no ten dollar words.

The bottles pictured were bought on my recent trip to New York (Manhattan). Bought in New York, yes, but it’s all genuine Kentucky Bourbon.

They are all in the “price” category, inexpensive. Having been involved in the bourbon renaissance since, well, forever, and with straightbourbon.com since 2002, I recall times when fine bourbon and U.S. straight rye went for a song. Yes, we had it good. But times change. Due to the buzz caused in part by groundbreaking forums like straightbourbon.com, bourbon, particularly aged bourbon, became more scarce in the market. Today, one can pay double or more to what was asked 8-10 years ago for the same bottle… It’s the price of success.

In fact, even if one ignores the price difference, many brands still on the market from then (some were withdrawn) aren’t the values they were since the whiskey is not as old as it was. The glut then – from barrelled bourbon sitting long in warehouses when it wasn’t a fashionable drink –  has disappeared, in other words.

I tend therefore today to look for values, and some can still be found.

One reliable brand, Four Roses Yellow Label, goes for $27 (CAN) or so at LCBO and is an excellent product: soft and reminding of certain yellow fruits.

Of those pictured, Very Old Barton at six years old expresses the vigorous palate of the true whiskey taste of Bardstown, KY. It’s got lotsa wood and lotsa taste, it’s not that refined but it ain’t chemical moonshine either, not by a long shot. It mixes well, especially with Coke, but goes down on the rocks or with a splash just fine.

The Zackariah Harris bottle is a litre of good times for only $15 (U.S.), and that’s midtown prices in N.Y.C., it’s even less in the regions. This is what the straightbourbon crowd call a NDP brand – non-distilling producer. A merchant bought the whiskey in bulk from an established distiller, put a cool name on it and put it on the market. Many of these are variable in quality but Zackariah Harris is a winner. Although it is, according to the neck label, only 36 months old, this is mature, very palatable bourbon. (Sometimes the whiskey in the bottle, or part of it, is older than the claimed age).

It’s excellent sipped straight with a soft feel on the tongue and no off tastes of cleanser, soap or raw corn as you sometimes get in young whiskey.

The Evan Williams bourbon is a classic from famed Heaven Hill distillery, also of Bardstown KY (spiritual centre of distilling in old Kentucky). It’s got a strong, clean taste with a little caramel, and while not as old as it once was, has plenty of old-time whiskey character. And it is under $20 a bottle for the regular 750 ml size.

All bourbon is good except the young corny or chemical stuff. I will hardly knock the great bourbons aged from 8-21 years, I’ve had almost all of them in my time. They offer charming experiences peculiar to the distillery which made them or NDP who sold them. And your Knob Creek from old Jim Beam of Clermont, KY, at 9 years old (or it was last time I looked) is very sound by any measure.

But good American whiskey doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. When I took that first sip of the Zackariah, it immediately brought back those first visits to lovely Bardstown, before the days of the celebrity distiller and master bartender. Before the time when the names of great whiskey writers were on the tongue of hipsters haunting the aisles of liquor stores.  It was just the taste of the country south of the Mason-Dixon: a little smoky, sweet/maple-like, reminding one of good times talking with feet up on country porches and a wood fire going near by.

I am not drinking any now, but I’ll make an imagined toast to the good friends I made in Bardstown, KY all those years: to Jim Butler, Bettye-Jo, Cliff, Jeff, Thad, Paul, Joe, Scott, Cam from Australia (yes), the late Tim Sousley, John Lipman, Randy, and many, many more. They are more important than the whiskey ever was.

 

 

Craft Beer – Once More With Feeling

One of the questions which regularly preoccupies many who write about beer is the meaning of “craft beer” and whether the term is still useful. Craft beer, as an expression, has become standard to describe the kind of beer that arose in the last generation in reaction to mass-market light beer or other well-known “commercial” brands. This alternative beer was rich-tasting and often hoppy from generous quantities of bitter or aromatic hops. Since the small businesses associated with the beer revival often made this kind of beer, and small meant hands-on and one of a kind, the term “craft beer” arose (20 years ago or more) to describe the kind of beer they made. The term then became generalized to describe the good stuff.

This was always a simplification, but business and culture need simplification to facilitate sales and the spread of information in a coherent fashion. There is nothing wrong with that.

An initial spate of talk ensued about the craft beer definition when large breweries, concerned by the market rise of the little guy, started to make their own craft-type beers.

Now that a growing number of craft breweries have been bought out or are taking heavy investment by mega-brewers, concern arises again what craft beer is and whether the term is still useful.

Add to this that brewers’ trade groups often have their own classification (or not) of the industry, and the consumer beer media have editorial policies how to describe beers and breweries in their publications.

Just today, beer writer Stan Hieronymus revisits the definitional issue and links some recent writing of interest.

Since starting up here over the summer, I believe I haven’t written on this issue, although I’ve opined for years on it before that on others’ blogs, so I’ll add this now.

In 1982, all these beers functionally occupied the space “craft beer” does today: Chimay Trappist Ale in Belgium, Ballantine India Pale Ale (U.S.), Ind Coope Burton Ale (England), Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (U.S.), Anchor Steam Beer (U.S.), David Bruce’s Firkin beers in England, Cooper’s Sparkling Ale in Australia, Pilsner Urquell (the then Czech Republic).  I could add a few hundred more.

Some of these were made by large (national) companies, some by old-established regionals, some by boutiques, some by quasi-boutiques such as Anchor Brewing.

Some were pasteurized, some were not, some were all-malt, some were not.

A beer was recognized as valid by its inherent quality, of taste that is. Today, in the semi-post-craft beer era, we are slowly but surely returning to that state. This is salutary, because that is where it began and the criteria applied then by the small knot of world beer fanciers have never been improved.

There were, of course, arguments whether a beer really rated in the league-table, some thought e.g., Labatt IPA qualified, some didn’t, same for Yuengling Porter. Same for the unpasteurized Coors Banquet Beer. By the same token, numerous microbrewery beers of the time, as they were generally called then, were pretty dire: often oxidized, yeast-infected or otherwise poor quality. Just because they were from small independents didn’t mean they were truly craft, a term that always implied a certain quality level. Thus, the term had an inherent ambiguity from the beginning, but this has grown recently due to the acceptance of craft beer as a permanent part of the market and the acquisition trend lately manifest.

Quality of flavour and fidelity to style, or if you are going to create a new style, then the inherent interest it offers, are all that matter to the question of good beer. The rest, e.g., what a trade association says, or the editorial policy of a consumer beer magazine, may be of interest but are not determinative of the quality issue for a consumer.

Because quality of flavour is subjective and there are many beer styles out there (some of which offer a fairly bland taste), there will never be agreement what constitutes a great, middling or bad beer. I know what I think about it, though. And so do you, the informed beer person reading these notes. And that’s all that matters.