Where Does Your Beer Come From?

Dallas

Dallas Craft Beer Examiner

As a craft beer fan and dedicated consumer, do you know where your beer comes from? Not the ingredients, not the brewery ownership, but culturally and conceptually?

Most of the classic beer styles we enjoy every day were created somewhere else, mostly in the Old World, and many originally individual and unique to particular regions. Before industrialization, brewers had to work with only the grains, adjuncts and water chemistries readily available to them. And until the dawn of microbiology as a science, brewers were often at the mercy of nature, too.

We enjoy a wealth of beer diversity in America, but we can claim very few formal beer styles as wholly created here. The first settlers in New England were mostly from the British Isles and Northern Europe, and brought with them an ale tradition that served as their everyday beverages long before commercialization. Citizens brewed and blended their own brown ales and porters of varying shades as their households and pubs had done for centuries prior.

Our biggest beer shift came with German immigration in the early nineteenth century, the largest ethnic influx our country has ever experienced. Magnates like Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser built empires of lagers on the heels of the steel and railroad industries, moving the balance away from ales well into the twentieth century. Ironically, “American beer” was defined for a time by uniquely German tastes.

In the twenty-first century, American beer is more an intellectual melting pot than ever before. We threw away ineffectual temperance efforts and with the rise of international travel, we have embraced old English and Scottish ales; sharp Czech pilsners; Bohemian weizen and bocks; Scandinavian sahti and Slavic kvass; soured beers from the Low Countries; bold Russian stouts and Baltic porters; and Belgian ales that are classic, experimental and ecumenical. We have adopted many beer styles as our own despite their origins, and produce distinctly American hoppy IPAs with native-born strains never known to old European brewers.

Lest we ever forget, this cultural fingerprint is still with us today. Kosmos Spoetzl built on Czech and German settlements in South Texas to brew his beers in the little town of Shiner. Pierre Celis almost singlehandedly rescued his native Belgian witbier style from extinction and became an Austin legend. Lakewood’s Wim Bens puts his personal taste on his products for Lakewood that reflect his own Belgian heritage. Fritz Rahr‘s German brewing family predates Prohibition in Wisconsin, and Dennis Wehrmann brews beers from the Franconia region where he grew up.

And the efforts have not ceased. As China, India and South American markets embrace the craft beer industry and their equivalent consumer base grows, what local malt-beverage styles have yet to be reproduced for a widespread American audience? Bradon and Yasmin Wages brought a Vietnamese bia hoi to their Malai Kitchen restaurants, and many local and national brewers continue to experiment with ingredients and influences from ginger to pulque. From Near East to Far East and everywhere between, what new immigrant brewer will bring a rich new flavor to our bars?

American craft beer is incredibly diverse, with thousands of fathers and mothers from around the world, and we are a culturally stronger nation for it. Let’s work hard not to forget that.  SD


Included in the event program for Big Texas Beer Fest, March 31-April 1, 2017

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Texas brewers’ legal victory significant for more than obvious reasons

Texas State Capitol

mask-of-silenus-avatarThis week, Texas craft brewers claimed something rare for their industry in this state. They won a legal victory.

The drama began three years ago with what was then known as Senate Bill 639. Introduced into the 2013 state legislative session by Dallas state senator John Carona (who subsequently lost the next election), the bill stated its intent of “protecting the independence of distributors” by eliminating compensation for craft breweries for territorial distribution rights of their products. Essentially, it stripped small breweries of the right to make money by selling their brand—something the distributors still had the privilege of doing once a distribution agreement was signed.

Craft brewing has the same rights of identity as any other industry operating in this state.

In an unprecedented action, three Texas craft breweries took the state legal code to task in December 2014. Two North Texas breweries, Peticolas Brewing of Dallas and Revolver Brewing of Granbury, jointly filed suit with Austin’s Live Oak Brewing and the Institute for Justice against the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) to have the new law overturned as a violation of the state constitution. For small businesses like today’s craft breweries, the ability to make money selling their distribution rights can be a big revenue source at start-up, not to mention that they would receive no benefit or compensation should a contracted distributor strike a later deal. It was a blatant and vulgar power-grab by the wholesalers lobby, and challenging it was the right thing to do.

District Court Judge Karin Crump agreed this week, finding no compelling state interest in such a law. Although consumers may not see any tangible benefit from such an esoteric lawsuit, it will only contribute to the improving health and strength of craft brewing in Texas (which ultimately benefits consumers). However, more has been achieved with this decision than simply rolling back biased regulations or defending the pockets of small brewers. This decision may be a truly significant turning point for the brewing industry in Texas.

First significant legal challenge in Texas craft brewing

The craft brewing industry has made monumental advances in Texas brewing laws in recent years, probably the largest favorable gains since legalization of brewpubs back in 1993. They have struggled tirelessly to change laws both state and municipal; they have fought zoning, distributors, retailers, even conservative anti-alcohol groups who have no interest in craft beer. They face down the TABC and lobbyist groups every two years when the legislature meets in Austin.

What makes this result any different? This was a legal challenge to an existing law enacted in 2013, not a state-wide popular movement for incremental change. This was not grass-roots anything: these were some of the most knowledgeable, seasoned professional brewers this state has to offer taking on an unjust law forced upon their industry by a much more powerful special-interest group.

And the judge agreed with them. This giant is not as invincible as we once thought.

Intellectual property matters, even for breweries

What also sets this struggle apart are the stakes over which it is being fought. Of course, every legal matter regarding business and regulation can usually be boiled down to money and, truthfully, this decision is no different. Laws are enacted to win economic power and either project it or protect it. The parties behind laws are always fighting to control bigger pieces of their respective pies.

However, this lawsuit was not explicitly about commerce or access or territory or financial advantage over a competitor. The lawsuit just won was brought over control of a brewery’s intellectual property, the ownership of their fundamental rights as a business at the point of distribution and thereafter in future transactions. Too long has craft brewing been singled out as an industry, operating under a legal double-standard not even shared with wine and other alcohol manufacturers. Craft brewing has the same rights of identity as any other industry operating in this state.

Craft brewers can collaborate on more than just beer

Collaborations are nothing new for the craft beer game. If not simply a business partnership for a combined venture, genuine friendships develop and result in new and inventive beers. Brewery X will meet Brewery Y at a common event like the Great American Beer Festival and decide to collaborate on a flashy, co-branded product. The industry is embarrassingly amicable to direct competitors, even those in the same market, and these ventures usually result in a win-win-win for both parties and consumers.

But this collaboration is a brand-new animal. Texas craft breweries have now demonstrated that they can band together not only for a united front for change before lawmakers; they can also work together to fight for a focused, tactical purpose on behalf of their entire industry. Craft brewing is no longer a domain of hobbyist businessmen selling in a boutique marketplace. This was a grown-up lawsuit, and we walked away with the W. SD

The Greatest Crime in Craft Beer

With a title that makes a claim such as this, the mind races through probably dozens of possible offenses perpetrated against or even by the craft beer industry itself. Any of these offenses may qualify, depending on your personal drinking preferences and level of passion for today’s craft beer movement. Could it be the bland light lagers forced upon us by the major commercial breweries, whom we all know to be evil incarnate? Could it be the radical and experimental (and often mediocre) brews put out by craft breweries in an attempt to recapture their bleeding edge? Could it even be the overzealous online fans of craft beer themselves?

In fact, the greatest crime in the craft beer world today is something so innocuous and subtle that it most likely has escaped notice by most craft beer consumers. It has crept upon us silently over the past few years and has spread now widely in some areas, especially with the advent of the more upscale drinking establishments and fashionable gastropubs. It is not something new that has been added but instead something that has gone missing: the simple
16-ounce pint glass.

The pint glass has been the standard of goods exchange for draft beer retailers for generations of beer drinkers. A  U.S. liquid pint is a volume of measure defined as 16 ounces, or around 473 milliliters. (The British went so far as to regulate the servings of beer by law centuries ago, hence their 20-ounce imperial pint.) The name pint has its roots in the Old French and ultimately in the Latin picta, meaning “painted,” referring to the serving line painted on an ale vessel. The very definition of this word has historical origins tied to the selling, serving and consumption of beer – but all that may have now come to an end.

This crime is not one committed by the craft beer brewers themselves but by on-premise retailers, who have quietly started to replace their standard pint glasses with either similar-looking 14-ounce glasses of the same shaker pint design or stylized glasses of 12 or even 10 fluid ounces in volume. This is ostensibly a cost-cutting measure – one often accompanied by a price increase as well, so the consumer sometimes now pays more and receives less beer pulled from the tap. Understandably, a business must cover its expenses and ultimately make a profit but the consumer’s salary is not rocketing skyward, either.

This is the greatest craft beer crime because it has broken the standard metric of exchange between craft beer consumers and the retailers they support. No longer can we compare one establishment to another on the basis of price as their serving sizes cannot be relied upon to be equivalent, and some retailers are unjustly accused of being more expensive when they are actually the same or cheaper on a per-ounce basis. The consumer metric between the ultimate purchaser and the brewery, the 12-ounce bottle, still stands but for how long? Will brewers begin to adopt a 10-ounce bottle size or 8-ounce can for the same purpose?

(Actually, this trend has already started, albeit on a very isolated scale. Some breweries use the “stubby” bottles for their product, a throwback design from decades ago. This bottle style does have some distinct and practical functional advantages for brewers but it holds only 11.2 ounces in volume instead of the standard 12 ounces. Fortunately, the ubiquity of the iconic longneck brown bottle is a difficult tradition and marketing package from which to deviate.)

Nor are craft breweries entirely innocent in this practice. Customized brewery glassware is often provided to retailers, specialized glasses etched with the company logo that are meant to be the ideal serving vessel and volume for perhaps a boozy barleywine or pungent sour ale. For high-gravity products or limited-edition exceptions such as these, smaller portion sizes are understandable and acceptable but too often a simple sessionable amber or wheat ale is served in the same glass. Breweries do not object because they are eager for the logo to be displayed and happy for the free promotion.

As consumers, the only force we have is the budget we choose to spend on purchasing such products and supporting these retailers. Watch for the serving size you are offered next time you enjoy a craft beer from a fresh tap, and verify its volume if necessary. Challenge retailers that do not use the 16-ounce pint as their serving standard, and patronize those that still adhere to a reliable and universally accepted metric of sale.


Originally published March 25, 2012, at craftbeerusa.blogspot.com.

Black IPA and What Makes a Beer Style

A rising trend in modern craft brewing today is toward an ill-defined beer known as the black IPA, which breaks down into an American-style IPA brewed with darker malts not out of place in porters and stouts. Beginning with a disclaimer, I am not a fan of this trend as the citrusy, pine-resin bite of domestic hops does not sit well on my palate with the dark-roasted malts used in these beers.

However, many do enjoy this flavor combination, which is why brewers are so keen to rush into this brand-new beer style. But this only begs the question: Is black IPA truly a new style or just a variant of an existing category? What, if anything, defines a craft beer “style” as distinct and official? Can such discrete lines be drawn, or are beer styles a squishy continuum that can accommodate most anything used in a brew kettle?

The categorization of beer styles comes down to just two elements, those being ingredients and tradition. Note that prevalence nor popularity is mentioned at this point; neither should be considered in defining a beer style, especially a brand new one. A new style is a new style, whether brewed by one brewer or adopted across the country. The science of grouping beers into styles should be approached as objectively as the senses can allow.

A beer’s ingredients may seem to be the simple part of this formula, but this element is deceptively complicated. It is easy to enumerate the constituents of a craft beer, and not much more difficult to quantify each in turn. However, modern beer styles have been fairly complete and well-defined for decades now—some for centuries—and wedging a new style into the grid is (and should be) a struggle. If defining new styles were an easy task, we would be left with thousands instead of the hundred or so recognized today.

For example, the black IPA has ingredients that are distinct from the American IPA as well as ingredients that are separate from the robust porter, but does that meet the threshold of a new style? Does the flavor profile of the black IPA reside within one of these other styles? Might it be considered a hoppy porter instead, or an off-style mistake that is too dark to judge within the existing IPA guidelines? If “dark” makes a new IPA style, does “light” do the same if using pale pilsner malts? This latter equivalence should hold for both or neither.

More important than the actual ingredients is the tradition surrounding the beer itself. In this sense, popularity does matter but not in the same way as in modern beer-rating website status. Instead, tradition implies a regional origin and prevalence, something identifiable with a particular locale either for cultural or societal reasons. Does a beer have a unique backstory, or does it exist due to some exceptional local demand from consumers? Does the beer stand the test of time, or will the black IPA fade out of our consciousness in a few years?

This last criterion is probably the most critical, and what will ultimately determine if the nascent black IPA style is to be formally recognized. Like adopting words into the English lexicon or scientists evaluating new species, these professionals must make sure that new changes have some true and meaningful persistence, and not minor blips that fade into obscurity within a few years. If it does just this, the black IPA will be remembered as merely a twist on an existing beer style, not something distinct unto itself.

Without splitting hairs to the degree of substyles, varietals and the unending permutations that can be achieved with both classic and modern beer recipes, we must conclude that the black IPA is not a new and distinct beer style—at least, not yet. This subcategory of beer styles will have to be debated by both the brewing and consuming communities, and only years from now can the stylistic determination be made.

Update: Just this past January, the Brewers Association updated their 2011 guidelines to include the American-style Black Ale, but this has not yet been universally adopted.


Originally published March 27, 2011, at craftbeerusa.blogspot.com.

Writing About Beer

A few recent comments and feedback received through this website have made accusations about me hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet for my unsupportable attacks against innocent craft brewers. Of course, I find such comments almost comical as I have never made any attempts to hide my identity or contact information, which are both easily available through some competent navigation of this page.

However, these objections do raise a somewhat valid point about beer-related content that is published online. With the advent of free blogs, blogging software and online social media, we find ourselves now saturated with craft beer content on all levels—the good and the bad, the interesting and the tedious and the ignorant, those we agree with and those we rail against. How should craft beer consumers choose whose efforts to spend time reading?

The first and primary requirement should not be about the brewing-centric content at all but about the quality of the writing. Craft beer consumers are quick to discount beers brewed with obvious flaws, or even those they simply consider mundane, yet week after week eagerly follow some absolutely horrible compositions that get posted online. The written language may be a dying art in our modern age, but it is still a skill to be practiced and perfected. Demand at least the same level of proficiency from your reading material as you would your own food and drink.

Another requirement of online substance should be originality. This online medium has made it too easy to repost and link to other meta-content rather than working to create one’s own. Too many beer blogs are not blogs at all but rather collections of connections to other material online, some news items and some of other beer blogs, and some not related to the brewing industry at all. A proper publication (even those online) should have a focus, and should be more than rambling content. If you demand original and distinctive in your craft beer choices, demand the same in your craft beer reading.

Naturally, those writing about craft beer should have at least some working knowledge of the brewing process, some knowledge of the industry and relevant ordinances, and some knowledge of how to properly evaluate the final product. Experts and amateurs alike find voices in online outlets, and both coexist on a stage that levels the grounds for the known and the unknown. Just as some extremely learned professional brewers are unable to compose a simple thesis, you also have talented amateurs that may never have entered a homebrew shop.

Perhaps the most problematic requirement regarding writing about beer is in its evaluation, as this seems the most widely prevalent theme chosen while being the most resistant to objective quantification. Many websites have sprouted that allow even casual users to compose a few lines about particular beers, and many participants choose to go beyond this and construct diaries online to journal their tasting notes. And when everyone’s palate and preferences are wide-ranging, how does one evaluate the evaluators?

Independent style guidelines do exist that are written and moderated by experienced committees both amateur and professional, and these are good as a starting point and as references. Ultimately, the value of someone’s craft beer review lies in their ability to adequately identify the ingredients, convey the flavors they can detect and support their impressions of said beer. A good evaluation should be less about whether you concur with the assessment and more about whether the author has effectively analyzed the beverage and effectually communicated that impression to the reader.

Whatever you choose to read online, regard it as intellectual consumption the same as popping a cap on a craft beer bottle is gastronomic consumption. The goal should not be to always read substance you agree with but instead authors that make you think and extend your opinion, understanding and appreciation of the world that is craft beer. And if you happen to learn something along the way, you are so much the better for it.

Is Stone Brewing Still Worthy?

If you are like thousands of other craft beer fans, your tastes will likely have passed through the revelation of Stone Brewing’s beers along the way to forming your beer identity. You most likely remember your first taste of Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale—possibly your first exposure to beer beyond the light lagers of the majors—and its reckless use of hops and strength as they assaulted your palate onto the next level.

Stone entered the nascent craft beer movement with a big splash in 1996 with their rebellious image, the omnipresent gargoyle icon filled with disdain and a chant of “You’re Not Worthy” emblazoned on every bottle. They made their mark mocking the “fizzy yellow beers” by shunning adjuncts and making some style-defying products, most of which pushed the boundaries of flavors with a newfound brashness in brewing and earned for them legions of eager craft beer fans.

Now almost fifteen years forward, look back on their works of the past decade and a half. Their core products are still among the best-reviewed and most-favored in the craft beer world. Beers like the Stone Pale Ale, IPA and Ruination, the Smoked Porter, Imperial Russian Stout and Old Guardian Barley Wine stand out as excellent representatives of each of their respective styles. Of these listed here, I am still a huge fan and regular consumer.

However, look across at some of their “edgy” product ideas such as the Vertical Epic series, which has met with only lukewarm critical response. Designed as a dozen-beer series to be collected, aged and enjoyed at the end of those twelve years, some have been quality stand-outs but with many of these not nearly as good as anticipated, bordering on mediocre. This latter group certainly will not improve with time, much less age well enough to make the end of the series as intended.

Even some of their “new” products are not truly new, much less innovative. Arrogant Bastard has been oaked. The Double Bastard Ale is almost by definition merely a doubling of the original Arrogant Bastard recipe. Stone Ruination is nothing more than a re-issue of their Fifth Anniversary Ale, formulated as a year-round product. Even their newest releases of the Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale and the Stone Cali-Belgique IPA are reworks of their Eleventh Anniversary Ale and one of the Vertical Epic editions, respectively. Just about the only original standout of the past decade has been the Stone Levitation, a mild amber ale.

The latest sign of trouble comes just recently with an announcement of their “Odd Beers for Odd Years” series. Stone plans to vary the yeast in two solid flagship products, the Old Guardian Barley Wine and Russian Imperial Stout, releasing specialized versions of each in odd-numbered years going forward. Although in some cases such experimentation can be viewed as innovative and progressive, a move such as this that displaces two highly in-demand beers comes across as almost desperate—especially in light of the lack of other original ideas.

More than facing problems simply with the origins of new beers, Stone suffers from a tremendous house flavor. Breweries often become accustomed to using the same ingredients from the same suppliers, and many maintain a particular favored yeast strain used as a base for most if not all of their products. If not careful with recipe formulations, breweries can inadvertently develop the same flavors throughout their product lines no matter the individual style of beer.

Unfortunately, Stone has fallen into the trap of house flavor not only with brewing but also with their thinking and business practices. Their rebellious new beers come across with flavors not innovative and desirable but that are yawningly familiar variations upon an often-abused theme of “extreme brewing” while searching for some sort of style identity. All I am able to taste recently are tinkering experiments with the Arrogant Bastard base recipe that are wholly uninspired and unoriginal.

Stone may have been “extreme” early in their history but as the rest of the craft beer industry has caught up (if not passed them by), Stone has remained static while resting on the same business formula with which they started years ago. Their image has become dated and self-mocking, and their talents have become a creative shadow of the bad boys of brewing they once claimed to be.


Originally published December 12, 2010, at craftbeerusa.blogspot.com.

Welcome to the microbrew revolution

Dallas

Dallas Craft Beer Examiner

424155_10150617909143983_147484638982_9175819_1939426867_nYou are probably unaware of it, but a revolution has been brewing for years right under your nose. That revolution has become known as the craft beer movement, also called the microbrew revolution. You may ask, “You mean those fancy beers right next to my Bud Light?” That is precisely what I mean, only more so. A commercial boom has created an industry this past decade of small and local breweries across the United States, producing close to 100 different recognized beer styles and a few that defy classification. Some beers are historically Old World (re: Europe) styles, and many are uniquely American.

Elevating microbrewed beer

You may also ask, “Why should I care? Nothing’s better than my Corona Extra!” To this, I must respond: Do you prefer choice prime rib or fatty ground chuck? Parmigiano-reggiano or cheese from an aerosol can? Fresh herb-grilled chicken or something resembling a pre-fabricated nugget? So why should your choice of beer be any different?

Wine took this step years ago. Fine wineries began distinguishing their wines from mass-market products, and began to compete with the finest wines available from Europe. Today, American wines enjoy an elevated status, prized in exceptional restaurants that devote separate menus and a focus just for wines—all the while carrying nothing but generic afterthoughts of bland beer brands. There is no reason why beer should not share the same status as a fine vintage.

Craft beer (as opposed to the national brewers) now claims about 8% of the total U.S. beer market. There are roughly some 1400 brewers of various sizes across the nation, ranging from large regional microbreweries to tiny brewpubs, some packaging in bottles and cans and others available only on tap through a local restaurant. The flavors offered in these products can be worlds away from what we have been conditioned to believe that beer should taste like.

You may already be a fan of microbrewed beer, or you may be loyal to your lifelong favorite brand. All I ask is to keep an open mind and open palate, and don’t be afraid to try one of those “fancy” beers every once in a while.

As always, I am open to comments, suggestions, opinions, questions or news about all beer at paul@scientist.com.

Cheers!


Originally published February 7, 2009, at Examiner.com.