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Craft Beer, Elysian and Emmanuel Goldstein

Did you hear the one about the successful brewer? Of course you did. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a man who did not like the job that he was doing. He was an (Investment Banker/Accountant/Fry Cook) and all day long, when he wasn’t (underwriting/deducting/flippin’ burgers) he thought that it would be neat to open a brewery. The man didn’t act on the idea of opening his brewery because he didn’t have a lot of faith in his ability. He brewed at home for a while but eventually (Grandpa’s Magic Recipe/Brewing School/Won an Award for Homebrew), which changed everything. He decided that he would take the steps needed to open a brewery.

He opens the brewery and he hires people to work with him. These are typically rather eccentric characters who also don’t particularly like the jobs that they are doing (Bearded Lumberjack/Bearded Mighty Pirate/Wookie). With these new employees, production at the brewery increases and all the while the brewer and his associates are faced with problems like (Quality Assurance/Dilapidated Equipment/Nefarious Competitor). At some point the brewer will run into really significant problems and sacrifice nearly everything (Health/Family Solidarity/Any Kind Of Personal Wealth) in order to make his dream work.

The gamble pays off and the brewery becomes so successful that it is considered a fierce competitor by all the other breweries around it, large and small. Other breweries lag behind and attempt to emulate and compete with the brewery. Shortly after this point in time the brewer realizes he has gotten old and does not have the drive he once had. Rather than being a young man starting out, he is an elder in the industry. The creation of the brewery has gained the (Adoration/Respect/Money) of the public and the brewer has been transformed by the acquisition of that thing from the callow young (Investment Banker/Accountant/Fry Cook) he started out as. He has achieved mastery.

You have heard this story because it is the most popular story there is. It has been defined and categorized by Joseph Campbell as The Hero’s Journey. It’s the single most influential western narrative structure and it covers every story you’ve ever been told from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker. You can switch out the gender. You can switch out the setting. You can switch out the profession. You can add episodes and details as you see fit, but the story is always the same when there is success.

Here we see a Young Brewer preparing to go into Toshi Station to pick up some Citra Hops

Here we see a Young Brewer preparing to go into Toshi Station to pick up some Citra Hops

Every successful brewer tells this story. John Molson, John Labatt, Adolphus Busch, Adolph Coors, Jim Koch, Ken Grossman. Success follows a single narrative arc, while every failure is different. It’s particularly effective in the context of North American capitalism because there is that innate Horatio Alger quality to it: Rags to riches. Even better, it is rags to riches doing something you love doing.

In the 19th century, brewers still had beards. You can keep the beard. You just need to ditch the propaganda.

In the 19th century, brewers still had beards. You can keep the beard. You just need to ditch the propaganda.

Brewing is a business that succeeds primarily during the first generation of ownership. Breweries are either handed off to the next generation (if there is one) or sold. Very few of them survive to a third generation of ownership. In writing about the history of brewing in Ontario this truth crops up again and again. It is the way brewing has worked since before industrialization.

This iconoclasm and independence is one of the reasons the Brewers Association is going to have to come up with a better brand than “Craft Beer.” The sooner this happens, the better off we will all be.

I don’t like talking about “Craft Beer” because it’s a nonsense. It’s a marketing phrase that means less and less with every year. It is mythmaking that will not survive the first generation of small brewers that it purports to represent. “Craft Beer” is a collectivist myth and in being such it must compete with the underlying myth of the individual that all successful breweries will eventually lay claim to.

Collectivist mythmaking starts with a very dicey proposition: That there is an ‘us’ and that we are all on the same side. The only way that works is if you embrace an arbitrary binary division. There must be a party or parties who make up ‘them’. They must be pretty bad if they oppose us. We’re the good guys, after all.

This proposition of binary division is a vast simplification of a complicated reality. The beer industry is, if anything, united by the fact that every manufacturer is producing the same product. It is all beer and everyone is in the same business. There are thousands of breweries and there are an astounding number of moving parts and motivations playing out constantly and concurrently.

It’s great for propaganda to have an enemy. It rallies the troops and gives you something to hate. This hate was on display the other day when Seattle based Elysian was purchased by AB In-Bev. Let’s look at these examples.Elysian Comment 1 Elysian Comment 7 Elysian Comment 6 Elysian Comment 5 Elysian Comment 4 Elysian Comment 3 Elysian Comment 2

That’s not a rational reaction. That’s hatred. “Craft Beer” has conditioned its adherents to launch into a predictable form of hatred when presented with a stimulus. I can certainly think of a collectivist myth in which that behaviour is a central feature. Unfortunately for “Craft Beer”, it’s George Orwell’s 1984.

Let’s look at “Us”. “Us” is a disparate group of approximately 3400 brewers who make up 16.1 million barrels of beer production. The thing that they have in common is that they all produce beer. Now, it stands to reason that the market competition that takes place for the kinds of beer they make is predominantly between themselves. The beer market is finite and shrinking. The total volume made by “us” grows while the total volume sold by “them” shrinks. Who exactly is “us” competing with for sales? Here’s a hint: AB In-Bev isn’t making 4000 different kinds of Saison and 15000 different IPAs. The smaller “us” are competing with the larger “us” and the hope is that no one will notice if we hate “them” enough.

ingsoc

As slogans go “War is Peace” isn’t exactly “Put a Tiger in Your Tank.”

In 1984, there is also a central bureaucracy that announces statistics we are meant to cheer unthinkingly. They are also about “our” progress, but they do not entertain the possibility of victory.

When Elysian sold to AB In-Bev, a number of “Craft Beer” people on social media rushed to pronounce them dead. In 1984, Elysian would have become an unperson. Because they are not deemed ideologically pure, they are erased from the landscape of “Craft Beer.” Realistically, it’s very difficult to claim that ideological purity is uniformly held by “us” because “us” are 3400 disparate companies operating in a capitalist system. They are not 3400 widgets. They are 3400 owners who have dreams and goals and motivations that are not consistent with the 3399 others.

Look at what Elysian did. They started from nothing in 1995 with three partners near the tail of the first microbrewery washout. They were among the first to promote pumpkin beer, which makes up a vast percentage of yearly sales for the entire market segment. In twenty years, they grew production from nothing to 50,000 bbls and were slated to increase to 70,000 bbls before the takeover. They brewed 350 different beers during that time and influenced a large number of subsequent breweries and beer drinkers.

The reality is that Elysian was a massive success by just about any metric you want to use. It did a massive amount for craft brewing. Rather than focus on the positive effect it had or thanking them for the annual pumpkin beer windfall, they’re pronounced dead to “us” in a second because they’re now “them.” Craft Beer is a revolution that will not allow its heroes to succeed. We have always and must always be at war with AB In-Bev.

Remember when Yuengling was the enemy? If you do, please report to room 101 for debriefing.

Remember when Yuengling was the enemy? If you do, please report to room 101 for debriefing.

“Craft Beer” has a problem with ideology. Not entirely unlike the party in 1984, the constituent parts of the ideology are up for grabs. Remember when the size limit was 2 Million barrels and they changed it to 6 Million to allow Sam Adams to stay in? You’re not meant to. That was meant to go down the memory hole. Remember when Yuengling was absolutely not “Craft Beer” and then suddenly it was? You’re not supposed to think about the bump in the statistics that caused in 2013. You’re just meant to look at the statistics and cheer. You’re meant to learn to love “Craft Beer” no matter how it changes from year to year. Sometimes I hear people say “Oh, but Craft Beer means something different to everyone.” That is how effective this propaganda has been: You’re engaging in doublethink.

The “Craft Beer” narrative doesn’t work because it conflicts with the capitalist Horatio Alger construct. “Craft Beer” demands of its heroes that they build and build and never sell or retire. “Craft Beer” is a state of perpetual war against an opponent which is at once omnipresent and omniscient and incapable of producing a half decent product.

Brewers are going to retire. Brewers are going to hand off their properties to underperforming relatives that do not have the drive to succeed. Brewers are going to sell to whoever will let them monetize their life’s work. Brewers are going to make deals that benefit them. This has always been the case, since the beginning of industrialization. They are human beings and they do not go on forever. The individual narrative is self-contained. Speaking historically, success in the first generation of a brewery is making it to the point where there’s something worth selling. They are incapable of fighting the perpetual war that “Craft Beer” requires of them. They are not betraying anything because they were only ever true to themselves. The irony is that as more brewers succeed and retire or sell, the less powerful the collectivist myth of “Craft Beer” becomes.

A Word of Advice for Ontario Breweries…

If you’re a brewer in Ontario you are probably weighing the changes that The Beer Store proposed yesterday. I’d like to review them for you.

First of all, there’s the concept of ownership. On The Beer Store’s conference call last night Ted Moroz made much of the idea that by offering ownership to Ontario Breweries, we would be going back to the way The Beer Store was intended to be; that we would be reclaiming its heritage.

The offer is a snare and a delusion. The Class E and Class F shares that are on offer do not buy you a stake in the company. You do not get a stake in the capital of the organization. They simply buy you the ability to vote for a representative on The Beer Store’s board. Now, it is worth pointing out that the three positions offered by The Beer Store on their board amount to 20% of the total board vote. There is no feasible situation in which Molson and Labatt will vote against their own interests in your favour. Your three board positions are therefore entirely meaningless. It is pointless busy work. Do not fall under the sway of the idea that your brewery’s President might gain status by being on the board. It’s an empty seat only a fool would covet.

Secondly, much was made of the idea that “owners” would be given five free store listings for two products. The initial product fee would be waved and also the listing fee for the five Beer Store locations nearest you. Let us do the math on this. The listing fee is something like $2650.00 and the per store fee is something like $230.00 per store. They are offering you a one time concession of something like $7600.00 in the hopes that you will stop pressing for reform.

Let me explain something about the changes they are proposing. They are founded in a deep arrogance. They believe that by giving you some crumbs that they will be able to keep the whole loaf. They think of you as dogs to be fobbed off with scraps.

The worst part of The Beer Store’s offer is that it is calculated to divide you. They believe that some one of you will want to claim the role of board member. They believe that you will turn on each other for $7600.00. That’s the amount of money The Beer Store believes will sway you. They want you to be so excited about their $7600.00 that you forget the following key detail.

You will still be in the thrall of a system that has disregarded you until this moment. The Beer Store offers you these scraps in order to prevent having to make any more concessions. They hope that it will be enough. They will not change. Your input will be disregarded. Your stock will not be displayed in the front of the store. You will not be treated equally. They have had thirty years to change the business model. They pretend to do so now only under duress.

We are at a crossroads. You have the opportunity to think of the future of your brewery. There is every possibility that you will have your own stores in the near future. That you will prosper in business and be a scion of your community. That you can build a system of your own and with it bolster the economy of a province that sorely needs the aid. That you can achieve your dream of building a business that might live on in your family.

The Beer Store would have you sell your dreams, would have you sell your future, for $7600.00

The Beer Store did not consult with the Ontario Craft Brewers about these changes. They did not consult with the Provincial Government. They believe that this will be enough compromise to bring you to heel. They believe it will stop you in your tracks.

Let me tell you something. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the sheer bloody number of dogs in the fight. They are worried enough to offer these concessions unprompted and it’s because they fear there is worse coming. They know that the number of brewers that have been maltreated by The Beer Store has increased to the point where their very existence is in jeopardy.

This would be a good time to take advantage of your numeric superiority. Stand together. Make some noise with your Members of Provincial Parliament. Let them know that the time for change has come. Let The Beer Store know that your dignity, your integrity and your future are worth more than the pittance they offer.

Do not ask what they will give you. Ask what you can take from them. It may very well be everything.

The Ontario Problem

Since I started writing about beer about four and a half years ago, the Ontario situation has become more and more interesting. There are more breweries competing for market share and there’s increased media coverage of the beer retailing problem. Martin Regg Cohn, for instance, has been on fire of late pointing out the Beer Store’s lobbying practices. I’m not going to accuse anyone of peddling influence because I don’t have a lawyer on retainer. Instead, I’ve decided to see if I can recap the problem and explain why change is extremely likely to happen in the next couple of years.

The Beer Store was never intended to be for the benefit of customers. What Brewer’s Warehousing was designed to do from the start was to take beer retailing out of the hands of the province. Even in 1927 the idea was that it would take the necessity of warehousing out of the hands of the provincial government. This was a pretty good idea as long as it was a co-op. Breweries were getting larger and the fact that everyone had a hand in the distribution system was a good thing. It made it equitable.

E.P. Taylor exploited the obvious flaw in this system and started buying up breweries left, right and center. By the early 1980’s, there were very few breweries left. Allen Winn-Sneath’s Brewed in Canada suggests there were 40 breweries left in Canada in 1980 and only 8 were not owned by Molson, Labatt or Carling O’Keefe. In Ontario, this meant Amstel and Northern Breweries. I have put the plants on a map so you can visualize what that might have looked like. The vast majority of these plants are now gone. WatPL30858f

This was a pretty good deal for the large brewers. The Beer Store’s organization is such that it works in your favour if you are a very large company. The fact that your beer can only be sold in predetermined locations and that the organization that runs those locations stocks those stores from centralized warehouses means that you don’t have to pay for delivery, storage or a sales force. It’s a gigantic savings. The large breweries don’t generate profit from owning and running The Beer Store and this is something critics frequently fail to understand. The monopoly is not profitable for the owners because it extracts profit on sales. It is profitable for the owners because it saves a frankly ridiculous amount of money on outlay. Large brewers don’t have to pay for a labour force for sales and delivery in the way you might have to in a completely privatized market.

The problem is that the beer industry doesn’t work the way it did in 1980 and never will again. The breweries that operated in 1980 were all capable of producing well over 300,000HL of beer at once. The largest craft breweries in Ontario at the moment hover around 75,000HL for tax reasons. There are currently 220 craft breweries extant or in planning over on the Mom and Hops directory. If you would like to visualize what that looks like, here is a map that was put together for me by a talented young geographer named Kevin Roy. (He would like me to tell you that the brewery data came from the Mom n Hops Brewers Directory 4.0 in March, and the population data is calculated from Statscan’s 2011 Census of Canada.)

CraftBrewing wGraphicsCited

The high point for Canadian beer consumption was 1978. We drank 106.5 litres of beer each. We’re currently down to about 64 litres a piece. That’s about 42.5 litres of beer per person less. That volume loss did not hurt craft brewers. Many of them didn’t exist yet. The large brewers lost that volume. They have shut down plants in Barrie and Etobicoke and Edmonton and Halifax and bottling lines in Vancouver. They lost 40% of their volume in 36 years and that’s terrible.

The truth of the matter is that The Beer Store is losing. Look at this polling data that Lorne Bozinoff at Forum Research was good enough to run for me last spring. People under 45 are equally likely to buy beer at the LCBO and at The Beer Store. The LCBO didn’t really sell beer until the mid-1980’s when The Beer Store had a month long lockout and managed to alienate beer drinkers province wide. Since then they have lost 50% of their customer base in what is practically a monopoly.

Let me say that again. In about 30 years, the large brewers who own the beer store have lost approximately 40% of their volume in sales and 50% of their customer base despite sweetheart deals, lobbying and a practical monopoly. If it were a real company rather than a cost offsetting device operated for the benefit of the owners, a series of CEOs would have had to resign in disgrace.

In contrast, there are the small breweries. Every year we get statistics from the LCBO about how much the Craft Beer retail segment has grown. The number is usually something like 30%. The total number is 575% since 2006. In truth, we don’t know how much Ontario Craft Beer could have grown if there had been an equitable distribution system for it. It has grown as much as the LCBO has allowed it to grow, so the 30% average growth is sort of nonsensical. The number could probably have been much larger than that except that there are really significant problems.

If the 1980 version of the beer industry was built around monolithic brands, the current model is built around niche products. To extend the metaphor from a previous blog post, we’ve got a distribution system designed for Network TV but what people are increasingly interested in is Netflix.

If you are a small brewer, you have a couple of options for distributing your product. First of all, you can attempt to get into the LCBO. The LCBO is not designed for beer sales. It does not have anything like the shelf space required to stock all of the products submitted. The LCBO is not obligated to stock your product. In fact, the shelves are so crowded at the LCBO that it is a nightmare attempting to find anything in a store. Sometimes, instead of your product, they will stock Norwegian Barleywine for no discernable reason.

This one. This cack was on the shelves for nine months in some stores whle other products were sku'ed out.

This one. This cack was on the shelves for nine months in some stores whle other products were sku’ed out.

Any brewery can get into The Beer Store. All you have to do is pay a listing fee for each packaging iteration of your product and then pay a shelving fee for each store. It’s about $30,000 dollars for 100 stores for a single packaging format. If you’re a small brewery starting out, that’s an employee that you are going to have to forego. Additionally, since you are a small brewery, you probably make seasonal products. It would be ridiculous to pay $30,000 to shelve a beer for three months in a retail setting that discriminates against your product. Even Moosehead’s Hop City brand doesn’t do it and they have deep pockets. Barking Squirrel may be at the Beer Store but all the rest of their beers are LCBO only. (Next time you see an Oland brother making an argument in favour of The Beer Store feel free to ask him about this in a loud and vocal manner.)

If you’re a small brewery, there’s no guaranteed avenue of sales that doesn’t force you to pay your largest competitors. People have been making this argument for a very long time. It is not new information.

The difference is this: There are 220 small breweries out there already existing or in planning. There will be more. Each of these represents a business that is going to be someone’s life’s work. Even a very small brewery probably employs four or five people. If you look at the 2014 map from earlier, you’ll see they are everywhere. Until the last couple of years this wasn’t the case. Just about every city in Ontario now has a brewery. More than ever before, the public is identifying with the small brewers because they are their neighbours. The media coverage of the problem is not slowing down even a little and everyone is more aware of The Beer Store’s foreign owned monopoly than they were five years ago. The public is increasingly aware that small businesses owned by Ontarians are suffering at the hands of foreign owned companies.

Those are small businesses that probably employ a couple of thousand people directly and which are going to grow over the course of the next twenty to thirty years. They provide jobs upstream and downstream. More than that, they provide employment locally rather than in a central location. They provide a sense of local pride and let’s not forget those tourism dollars.

The large brewers, on the other hand, are shrinking. They are selling less volume and all you need to do is google Molson or Labatt and “layoffs” to see how they have been trying to achieve more with less over the last half decade.

If we don’t change the system in the near future we force the small businesses which have the potential to grow over the next twenty years and generate tax revenues and employment to stagnate by forcing them to compete in a business model that was outdated by the mid 1990’s. The large brewers will continue to shrink and as their size dwindles so will their ability to generate tax revenue for the province. Additionally, very large craft breweries from the United States who are not hampered by distribution as restrictive as we have here will be able to buy shelf space in The Beer Store eating away at both ends of the Ontario beer market from the middle. Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Oskar Blues, Lagunitas, Stone are names that beer drinkers may welcome but which both Ontario’s brewers and government should fear.

If we do change the system in the near future, we have the prospect of the growth of small breweries over the next twenty years. We have the employment that they create and the revenue that they generate. We might have an export manufacturing industry. The American breweries are coming, but with Ontario’s small breweries freed up to compete, they will mostly take share away from the large brewers who are already losing.

Now, if I were a recently elected Premier of Ontario who had made it into office attached to a large scandal and it was being intimated by the Toronto Star (who recently brought Rob Ford and Jian Ghomeshi down and who do not ever seem to give up) that lobbying is the only reason The Beer Store continues to exist, I would think very seriously about pulling the trigger on The Beer Store’s situation. We are very nearly at the point where it would pay off as both a short term strategy for economic protectionism and as long term investment.

The majority of the public is in favour of getting rid of it and it can actually be spun as a long term economic strategy. What a PR coup it would be to be seen to be investing in the future of Ontario instead of maintaining a status quo which provides dwindling benefit and does not exist to serve consumers! The best part is that there is no reason not to go ahead with Ed Clark’s plan to bleed The Beer Store for a hundred million a year while reforming the system outside The Beer Store. If they complain of unfair treatment, remind them that they had 30 years to change their model and that they spent that time replacing dusty bottles with an iPad.

For the first time since I started writing, I’m actually optimistic that we’re within about 12 months of significant change.

Why Budweiser Lost

(Ed. Note: Periodically, I’m called upon to do an interview on the radio or in print about Craft Beer. The question that comes up most frequently is really two questions: “Why Craft Beer? Why now?” I do not think that I have ever been able to properly answer that question to my satisfaction, but I’ve got an analogy that I feel will explain a lot.)

If you are my age, you will probably have heard from one or other of your parents about seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in February, 1964. Everybody watched Ed Sullivan. 73 million people in the United States saw that show. This is because there were three national broadcasters that produced content. Sure, you had a regional affiliate station that might have had its own material during the day or just before the test pattern aired, but they carried popular programming. ABC, NBC, CBS.

"Right here, on our very big show, right after Topo Gigio we'll have the Flying Zambezi Tribesmen and the World's Biggest Nun."

“Right here, on our very big show, right after Topo Gigio we’ll have the Flying Zambezi Tribesmen and the World’s Biggest Nun.”

Watching TV was a passive act. The total extent of your choice was between three content providers.

After Prohibition in the United States there were not a lot of breweries left. You have probably seen the chart from the Brewer’s Association. In fact, here it is.18qfbm2tf864mjpg

The number of breweries dwindled and dwindled, but what was really happening was that you were left with three breweries that counted on a national scale. Oh, sure, there were regional brewers that produced beer, but for the most part people drank the national brands right up until they saw the test pattern and heard the national anthem. Bud, Miller, Coors.

Drinking beer was a passive act. You had a little more choice than you had with TV stations, but probably less in terms of content. It was going to be pretty standard lager.

In 1976, Ted Turner started the first Cable TV channel. Suddenly Americans all over the country could get programming from Atlanta. Jack McAuliffe started one of the first modern era microbreweries in the form of the New Albion Brewery. Both of these events alerted people to the possibilities and alternatives that were available.

By 1982, there had been a small shakeup in the beer industry. 1977 saw the advent of Miller Lite and by 1982 Budweiser had responded with Bud Light. The competition had provided what would be the peak years for alcohol consumption in the United States. In 1981, Americans consumed 2.8 gallons of ethanol per capita. The 1982-83 TV season set a record as well. On February 28th, 1983, 121.6 million people tuned in to watch Goodbye, Farewell and Amen, the final episode of MASH. When that episode aired, better than half of the people in the country watched it.

When you have success like that, you don’t forget it. Both beer and television became obsessed with the high water mark.

Not only was this acceptable in the 1980's, I knew middle schoolers who had this poster. This is no longer acceptable, even for craft brewers

Not only was this acceptable in the 1980’s, I knew middle schoolers who had this poster. This is no longer acceptable, even for craft brewers

There was a statistic released the other day in the Atlantic Monthly that states that 44% of people aged between 21 and 27 have never tried Budweiser. If you’re 27, you were born at the peak of Budweiser’s sales. In 1988, between Budweiser and Bud Light, they shipped 61 million barrels of beer. Everyone seems genuinely shocked by the loss of market share for the Budweiser brand, but they shouldn’t be.

The curse of network TV is the fact that it is a top down non participative media. It broadcasts, but it doesn’t involve the audience. Any system of that kind must by default believe the following about the content they produce and about the audience watching at home: “They will watch it because it is on.” Because of the practical cultural monopoly network TV had before the advent of cable, there was a period of time where they were right to think that. It was the reality. The sheer number of eyes watching the screen deluded networks into thinking that they were making a quality product, but prime time was never about quality. Prime time was about number of viewers watching. It was about the medium and not the message.

Take a look at this ad from Budweiser in 1995 that ran during the Superbowl. It involves three frogs each mouthing a syllable of the name of the beer. They are performing this unnatural behaviour because they are facing a giant neon sign for Budweiser. People complained because they said the frogs appealed to children. In truth, they should have complained because the advertisement is an exercise in recursion. The subtext here is that we are the frogs and that we will buy Budweiser because we are staring at the giant neon sign. At no point is beer shown. At no point is the quality of the beer mentioned. At no point are we told anything about the product. We are merely told that when faced with advertising for Budweiser, we will become obsessed with it and purchase some Budweiser. It is a complete abstraction. This was considered by many to be the high point for advertising, by the way.

Network TV was selling the idea that on Thursday at 8:00 PM there is a show that everyone will want to see. It will define your life. It will be talked about at the office the next day by the water cooler. You better not miss that show if you want to be perceived as normal by your colleagues. The original shows that you had to see in the 1993 lineup? Wings and Mad About You, for God’s sake. The important thing wasn’t the content. It was that you were watching

.

They were promoting normalcy as a standard in an era of increasing complexity. It’s one of the reasons that so much of the advertising around beer was done during the Superbowl. It has the largest audience of any annual televised event. Consider this 2000 ad campaign for Budweiser. Within the context of the ad there is an unspoken tautology: If you are watching the game you must be having a Bud. What is a game without a Bud? It is apparently not a Whassupable moment. The role of the beer drinker in the commercial is that of an automaton programmed for consumption.

“What up B?”

“Watching the game, having a Bud.”

“True.”

It is the jargon of the group, but it’s also a binary evaluation of a statement. It does not matter that the beer is any good. It only matters that there is beer and that the beer is Bud. Normalcy is achieved by the meeting of these criteria.

Craft Beer and Cable TV were busy in the 1980’s. We got Sierra Nevada and the Boston Beer Company out of the microbrewery movement and we got MTV, FOX, UPN, A&E out of Cable TV. In a sense everything done by Craft Beer and Cable TV is alternative programming. Their larger counterparts were able to be dismissive of them.

Consider a major network’s view of MTV. It was started by that guy from the Monkees who wore a toque! We tried Mike Naismith on TV and he didn’t work. We can safely ignore MTV. It’s practically the same with Sierra Nevada. They’re brewing a Pale Ale! We tried Cascade hops in our beer and it didn’t work. We can safely avoid Sierra Nevada.

One of the failings of a major network is that it is locked into the power structure that brought it to the dance. NBC must compete with ABC and CBS. Not only does the network have to fill the programming, but they’ve got to compete against the other networks. If NBC has Friends, you’d better believe ABC and CBS are looking for an equivalent. If CBS has a procedural police drama, NBC and ABC are going to look for something with even more blacklight. At some point in TV history some executive said the following sentences: “What? They’ve got Scott Baio as a babysitter/housekeeper? Get me Billy Connolly!” Eventually, what you end up with a series of television properties that have nothing in common except for the fact that they all somehow involve Richard Belzer as detective Munch.

Here’s a short list of the properties that Budweiser launched between 1982 and 2014. The other brewing companies had equivalent properties or quickly struggled to find them.

1982 Bud Light
1989 Bud Dry
1994 Bud Ice
1994 Bud Ice Light
2004 Bud Extra
2005 Budweiser Select
2008 Bud Chelada
2008 Bud Light Chelada
2008 Bud Light Lime
2008 Budweiser American Ale
2009 Bud Light Golden Wheat
2012 Bud Light Platinum
2012 Bud Light Lime-A-Rita
2013 Budweiser Black Crown
2013 Bud Light Straw-Ber-Rita
2014 Bud Light Raz-Ber-Rita
2014 Bud Light Mang-O-Rita

 

If you’re a major network, you’re not allowed to care that Fox has The Simpsons. The Simpsons is the only thing keeping Fox afloat in their early days. They may as well be UHF except for The Simpsons. Remember Herman’s Head? You’re not allowed to compete against the little guys because the portion of the market that they’re going for is so small.

Would you believe Disney is basically rebooting Herman's Head? They are. It's ridiculous.

Would you believe Disney is basically rebooting Herman’s Head? They are. It’s ridiculous.

The problem is that the portion of the market that the little guys control tends to grow over time. By the time that Budweiser is broadcasting the Whassup commercials during the Superbowl in 2000, two really important things have happened. First of all, people’s trust in mainstream news is replaced by their trust in Jon Stewart’s daily show. Secondly, HBO has started broadcasting The Sopranos.

The strength of craft beer and also cable TV is the fact that it is not a dictatorial medium. Network TV like Big Beer assumed that you would purchase whatever they put out. It’s a good assumption because there was no competing content. As soon as there is competing content that you have the option to engage with, you’re faced with choice. Choice means that you are engaged in a dialogue with the producer. In order for you to choose alternative content, it has to be either of higher quality or fill some kind of specialty niche. Cable TV and Craft Beer frequently perform both of those tasks. You are still paying for a product, but the product is far more likely to conform to your taste than to attempt to dictate it.

What eventually happened to TV is practically the same as with Beer. Instead of remaining a broadcast medium where one product is available at a time, we’ve reached a point where most of the content that was ever made is now available if you know where to look. In the same way that you can get classic TV shows on Netflix, the back catalogue of beer made in the 20th century is largely available and it exists alongside new products that are being released into the market.

If you released this as a beer in 1984, people would have thought you had brain problems. Now it is one of about 58 beers on ratebeer with the word "Zombie" in the name.

If you released this as a beer in 1984, people would have thought you had brain problems. Now it is one of about 58 beers on ratebeer with the word “Zombie” in the name.

This requires a phenomenal amount of choice on the part of the consumer. If you recall the Budweiser advertisement with the frogs where they were held captive by the giant neon sign, that model is no longer really relevant. Currently, the frogs have abandoned monosyllables and are suggesting content they enjoy to each other. In a very real sense we have become both advertiser and consumer of these products.

I’ll prove it to you. When you watched The Wire, you probably did so because your friends were talking about it. Sure it was on HBO, but it was probably on season three by the time you started watching it. You binge watched it. You probably got the box set or watched it on Netflix. Same with True Detective. And Archer. And Downton Abbey. The result is a landscape of people who are building a referential language and bringing more people to these shows.

You come at the King of Beers, you best not miss.

You come at the King of Beers, you best not miss.

We talk about Craft Beer the same way as we talk about shows on Netflix. “Have you tried” and “Is that any good” and, kind of similar to when an actor is in something else “I liked that other beer they did.” We have actually become a distributed advertising model for craft beer because we have self-selected the content and we want to share things we like.

When Budweiser acts surprised that 44% of people 21-27 have never tried Bud, they’d do well to remember those people were born between 1988 and 1994. The eldest of them might be old enough to remember the frogs. The youngest of them might have been coached by their parents to say “whassup” for comic effect at family gatherings. As adults, they have only been able to drink since 2009 in the United States but they’ve been subject to the internet’s media distribution model since they were in middle school. This is a generation for which unidirectional advertising is more or less moot. They grew up fast forwarding through it on their DVRs.

The result for Network TV is that the ratings are never going to be what they were. The networks sometimes try to capture what they think the audience looks like. The Big Bang Theory, for instance, is a broad caricature of the mainstreaming nerd culture that online media portals might have been viewed as. The shows will always lack something because 30 years on the Networks are still worried about filling the 9:00 slot on Thursday. The focus is still on getting the largest audience rather than creating a quality show.

The result for big beer is that sales and market share are never going to be what they were in North America. People are drinking less overall and their attention is split amongst 3000 US and 450 Canadian breweries. Something like Budweiser Black Crown, for instance, is a broad caricature of what craft brewers are doing and it lacks authenticity because the goal is sales rather than quality. Craft beer has succeeded to the extent that it has because people have got used to curating their own experience out of a practically impossible to navigate landscape of options. In that situation quality products tend to win out.

December Book Reviews: The Handbook of Porters and Stouts

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This does not stop other people from delivering books for him to review even while he signs his own book at Christmas Markets. In order to continue to reduce the stack, he must review. Get some.)handbook-of-porters-stouts-9781604334777_lg

The Handbook of Porters and Stouts is a good sign for the resurgence of local brewing across the world. If we’re to take it that the medium is the message, the fact that there is enough variety in brewing to support such a book is a positive signpost for the future.

Written by Josh Christie and Chad Polenz, the Handbook makes good use of a number of expert contributors including short essays from Stephen Beaumont, Martyn Cornell, Greg Clow and (perhaps in a sign of the times) a Buzzfeed style listicle from Joshua Bernstein about Extreme Beers. While there is a great deal of information about the history of Stout and Porter and the nuanced differences between the styles and various subsets of each style, that’s not what this book is really intended for.

It’s an attractively bound hardcover volume with bright, colourful illustrations on every page. It’s vibrant and entertaining to look at and makes good use of the variety of plumage that each brand displays. Let’s face it, the special edition Imperial Stouts do tend to have some pretty entertaining labels and stories to go with them.

The ideal audience for this book is the drinker who realized just last weekend that they like dark beer. This is shock and awe for someone who didn’t realize beer could do that. It reminds me of leafing through the ads at the back of All About Beer when I was 20 or so and thinking “wait, there’s all that stuff out there?”

The draw for the intermediate beer drinker is the fact that beer writers from across North America have been enlisted to provide a larger context than would have been possible otherwise. Josh Rubin, Julia Burke, Darren Packman, Campbell Gibson and Zach Fowle have all contributed to the book in order to give it the depth of a proper ornithological birdspotter’s reference.

This book will highlight beers worthy of your attention that you might have missed otherwise.

That said, there are a few issues with balance that are understandable in a work of this size and shape. Each of the contributors has a different style and each listing might differ in length from a single paragraph to two pages. Some might give cursory description of what might be considered a classic in a style while others might tell the story of the brewery. Does that give it novelty and vary the pace or does it simply seem uneven?

There is also, despite the recruitment of far flung experts, a tendency to focus on beers from New England and the Great Lakes region. Polenz is based in Albany, New York so it’s easy to see why the context on those entries is somewhat deeper. (I do not know that this is an actual criticism. Some of those beers look pretty good and I’m sure that if I were in charge of a book like this it would probably be Ontario heavy. We all gotta be from somewhere.)

The Handbook of Porters and Stouts would be a good gift for a novice or intermediate craft beer drinker this holiday season. It succeeds admirably at its Pavlovian primary objective: Getting you excited to drink some Stouts and Porters. It made me want a Narragansett.

December Book Reviews: Pocket Beer Guide 2015

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This did not stop other people from sending him books to review. The stack is nearly as high as the sense of obligation. Let’s crack on.) 71+bcJLxBaL

When you hear about Thomas Jefferson and beer, it’s usually about the fact that he had a brewery planned for his property at Monticello. More impressive than that is the library at Monticello. It represents (more or less) the sum total of the world’s practical knowledge ca. 1770. Thomas Jefferson was maybe the last man on the planet who had the ability to know everything. It has less to do with the idea that he was a genius (he was) and more to do with the fact that information tends to develop exponentially over time.

We’ve reached the point with beer where no one can hold the entire world’s variety in their mind. The scope of information increases daily. The best single overview of the development of independent brewing scenes across the world was 2012’s World Atlas of Beer by Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb. It was comprehensive and well thought out.

The severe difficulty is that time marches on and within five years the information in that book, although basically correct and fundamentally accurate, will miss nuances that have developed in the interim. As such, the companion works to that piece, The Pocket Beer Guide(s) 2014 and 2015 are attempts to provide a portable field version of the larger reference work.

The 2015 guide contains an additional 500 listings in addition to explanatory notes on ratings, beer styles and food pairing. It is an incremental improvement in scope over the 2014 version.

I will be honest. It’s a hard book to review because with the advent of the internet it is not as handy as it would have been a decade ago. The beer world is in an interesting place because we are none of us Thomas Jefferson. More beers will launch in North America this month than a single drinker could get through in a year and that will be the case indefinitely. No one will ever have total context again.

What you’re paying for in the Pocket Beer Guide is not total world knowledge. That’s an impossible goal.51+lIaoxKWL

A book like this is only as good as the people who write it.  It is more or less the descendent of Michael Jackson’s Eyewitness Companions Beer from 2007. Even in 2007, such a book was not the best way to convey the information contained within. We weren’t paying for the specific beer reviews so much as Jackson’s referential context.

We are meant to trust that a brewery has made it into the book because it is worth our time. That the beers they make will not disappoint. We must be assured that, as readers, we are in the hands of people who know what they are talking about.

Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb have something like 60 years of professional experience with beer between them. Stephen has been writing about beer since the late 1980’s and Tim Webb was with CAMRA before I was born. What you’re paying for in the Pocket Beer Guide is their breadth of experience. They have seen breweries come and go and trends pass. Between them, I cannot think of people who are more qualified to attempt to convey a relational system of criticism that covers inequal international beer scenes.

What you’re buying with the Pocket Beer Guide is 60 years of attention paid and for the recommendations of men who have earned the right to be unimpressed. That’s always going to be worth an annual update.

The Fermentation of David MacEwan

(Ed. Note: About once a year the family doggerel gene takes over. I try to fight it. Believe me. This is a cautionary tale in the style of Robert Service’s Songs of Sourdough. It is meant to be a warning about putting too much of yourself into your work. I hope it doesn’t offend.)

 

Odd deeds are committed in breweries fitted by men who don’t know what they’re doin’.

A rookie mistake is all it might take to bring a craft brewer to ruin.

Ontario’s shores have seen overpriced pours and cans that are not fit for SKUin’.

But none were so rank as we found in the tank of a brewer named David MacEwan.

 

Now David was placed in a job he thought wasted his talent (although he had little).

An accounting degree led to KPMG but he knew he was stuck in the middle.

He never wore jeans and he stared at a screen, it was pushing him over the deep end.

He discovered craft beer and for nearly a year he got drunker each subsequent weekend.

 

On a boxing day spree, he purchased with glee a bucket and carboy for home.

He scrounged swing top bottles and hoses and throttles and tubing to blow off the foam.

He waited two weeks to show off to beer geeks the ale that he’d made in his kitchen.

Anyone who had taste couldn’t look in his face when they said, “Uh, yeah, Dave… It’s bitchin'”

 

No one had the heart to say at the start that David should not have persisted.

His palate was bad, his skills less than mad and his talent had never existed.

He hated his job and they thought the poor slob would continue to brew as a hobby.

Their mildest of praise ignited a blaze. David became increasingly snobby.

 

It’s a familiar story of striving for glory when craft brewing becomes the fashion.

Now Dave had no skill, but developed a will: His only attribute was passion.

Passion is great, but it doesn’t equate to knowledge or skill or ability.

The passionate can, when absent a plan, become a severe liability.

 

The development board of a backwater ward was looking for brewers and pronto.

They’d pay half a mil if a brewer could fill in a spot just outside Deseronto.

David resigned, left accounting behind, said goodbye to a life of security

The poor ignoramus thought his ale would be famous and escape historic obscurity.

 

Now five hundred grand isn’t much for a man who knows nothing of buying equipment.

He purchased new steel that he thought was a deal and waited a year for the shipment.

The shipping container did a half gainer and sank somewhere in the pacific.

With each perceived failure he’d sit in his trailer using beer as a mild soporific.

 

The concrete was poured and drainage was bored and the brewhouse was finally ready,

But the money was gone and the bank overdrawn; his hands and his actions unsteady.

Circumstances were dire with no money to hire a receptionist or an assistant

Some men would give up, but Dave, in his cups, found the passion that made him persistent.

 

He worked, at his prime, three shifts at a time. His back ached from mashing and raking.

He’d facebook and tweet (while soaking his feet) to promote this, his new undertaking.

He’d jump in his jeep on two hours of sleep, delivering coasters and glasses.

He thought that his ale was unlikely to fail to bring kudos and coin from the masses.

 

It must have been hell when the beer didn’t sell. The public reception was dodgy.

They’d sip at his beer and say with a sneer “it’s boring and terribly stodgy.”

He increased the BU’s and cranked up the booze and added in brettanomyces.

The brewing defects made his projects rejects even under six layers of spices.

 

The bankrupted dope, at the end of his rope, still believed in his talent for brewing

Although if you asked any customers past, they’d have questioned just what he was doing

Then one fateful night, in the depth of his plight, defeated and visibly ashen

He climbed in the hatch and brewed up a batch with his secret ingredient: passion.

 

I arrived the next day, quite unsure what to say when no one was present to greet me

I’d come to review his penultimate brew and I thought that he’d be happy to meet me.

With no one around, the prevalent sound was the hum from the largest fermenter

As I drew near, I trembled with fear as a voice seemed to come from its center.

 

“I’ve found my home, down amongst the foam. I find carbonation just tickles.

It’s comfortable here, in these barrels of beer, if nobody opens the zwickels.”

For David McEwan, No talent for brewing, but some for transubstantiation.

He died for the sins of your firkins and pins in a beery transmogrification.

 

Odd deeds are committed in breweries fitted by men who don’t know what they’re doin’.

A rookie mistake is all it might take to bring a craft brewer to ruin.

Ontario’s shores have seen overpriced pours and cans that are not fit for SKUin’.

But none were so rank as we found in the tank of a brewer named David MacEwan.

December Book Reviews: African Brew

(Ed. Note: In 2014, while sequestered in a hermetically sealed writing bunker, Jordan St.John produced two books. This did not stop other people from sending him books to review. The backlog is high and the conscience is guilty. Let’s crack on. )41QwNbx4R+L

One of the more interesting books on beer I’ve seen this year is African Brew: Exploring the Craft of South African Beer by Lucy Corne and Ryno Reyneke. It’s easy to review a straightforward book on beer and food or a guide to the world’s beers. I have context for that kind of book and there have been a lot of them published in recent years.

African Brew is interesting because it performs the difficult function of explaining the past and present of brewing in a country that I cannot say I know very much about. The entirety of my context for South Africa is Bryce Courtenay, J. M. Coetzee, a handful of Tom Sharpe novels and a Matt Damon rugby movie. I don’t know the Transvaal from Transylvania. All I know is that you shouldn’t leave a coke bottle lying around.

What I have learned, and what this book helped me realize, is that brewery scenes seem to be subject to convergent evolution. Starting from the early 1980’s beer scenes in various countries have developed in largely the same way.

That said, the book is not formatted as a history. It is a layman’s guide with the usual appointments that style of book requires. There is the obligatory explanation of the brewing process and a short history of the brewing industry in South Africa. There’s an admirably concise section on beer styles, the brevity of which has partially to do with the fact that South Africa’s craft brewers have not yet caught up with North America stylistic diversity. There is a brief introductory section on beer and food.

At first glance, these sections seem too brief. What Corne and Reyneke have managed to do is fold much of the material into the other sections of the book as pop out windows with information or, in the case of recipes, as full page affairs tied to the brewery or brewpub that has supplied them. It lends a good deal of character to each chapter. The book does an excellent job of making the stories of the brewers the focus of an understanding of the South African beer scene.

It seems as though their scene is going through much of the same process Ontario’s went through. There was the first generation of craft brewers in the 1980’s and they were a wild, windswept bunch of eccentrics, engineers and disgruntled professionals. They seem to have developed a number of newer school breweries over the last few years (probably the impetus for the book) that mirrors our own development. Some of them I desperately want to try (Triggerfish, Darling Brew, Bridge Street) and I sense that some of the breweries suffer from early adoption. It’s just like here.

It is also nothing like here. Ontario was a British Colony. South Africa had both Brits and Boers and Zulu and Xhosa and instead of being in a similar climate, it’s much more temperate. The Dutch and European brewing influences seem more widely accepted on a historical level than they were in Ontario. Perhaps most importantly, the location of South Africa as a trade route means that the food is influenced by neighbouring countries on the Indian Ocean.

While the storytelling in African Brew is very good, the included recipes are a real surprise and paint a picture of an increasingly multicultural society with a wide swath of inherited foodways. It’s not all biltong and boerewors. It’s Weissbier and Waterzooi from the Dutch. Pilsner with a Veal and Bacon Meatloaf shows some Bavarian influence. There are curries borrowed Thailand, Malaysia and Alleppey. Some of the cuisine displays a really deft touch with seafood.

African Brew succeeds as a basic guide to South African beer, but it exceeds expectations to the extent that it makes me want to know more about South Africa’s brewing scene. If I were writing about beer there, how would I talk about the flavours in a cuisine like that with new hop varieties and beer styles? With the stories of the individual brewers, how could I frame the effects of Apartheid on a manufacturing industry like brewing? It seems like the rich variety of influences on the culture seem to be winning out as the country becomes more progressive. It would be a fascinating beer scene to work with over the next five years.

African Brew is so good it made me envy the authors.

On Malt Lightening and the Beer Style Continuum

IMAG0625[1]

As far as I can tell, every single brewery is issued one of these when they get their license. I’ve never been in a brewery that doesn’t have one kicking around. Look at it sometime and note the visible difference in malt colour. A good rule of thumb is that the lighter the malt, the later it was developed.

Last time we talked about German Beer and Food (scroll down a couple of posts) we had established some pretty basic truths about the situation in Germany prior to the advent of Oktoberfest. We talked about how the flavours in German landrace hops more or less matched the flavours in the herbs and spices available in Germany. We talked about Oktoberfest as an expression of the modernization of the German agricultural system. I know that it isn’t Oktoberfest anymore, but sometimes these things take a while to percolate.

A lot of the styles that you think of as German beer didn’t exist at the beginning of the 19th century. Altbier existed in Dusseldorf in a broad sense although it would have been different from the versions we get today. Bock had been around for quite a while, with the town of Einbeck claiming its advent in 1351. Dopplebock had been brewed by the Pauline monks from the mid 18th century. By 1798, the Bavarian branch of the Wittelsbach family had decided to allow their monopoly on Weissbier to lapse, giving license to several entities to produce a similar product. In Munich, the prevailing style was Dunkel. People were also making things like Kellerbier and Zwickelbier with bottom fermenting yeast[i], especially in the northern bits of Baden-Wurttemberg and Franconia, but they would have been darker in colour than we are accustomed to.

The thing that these beers have in common is that they are uniformly pretty dark in colour. The Weissbier is the exception that proves the rule. In order to make a beer that was much lighter than 15-20 SRM in the late 18th century in Germany, over 50% of your grist had to be wheat.

The early 19th century created a sort of renaissance for brewing in Europe due mostly to technological advancement. Beer Styles as we now think of them, catalogued by Michael Jackson, are thought of usually as entirely separate entities, but their development exists on a temporal continuum. Usually the development of a new style is influenced by an old style and a new ingredient, process or cultural influence. At the moment, we’ve got hops in a wider variety than has ever existed and that’s due to technology, genetic manipulation and cross breeding.

You’ll recall that there were really only four varieties of German hops. They didn’t have a roadmap for genetic inheritance. There was only one kind of yeast and they didn’t really understand how it worked yet. The water was however it was. The single most important discovery in the entire history of brewing, the one that caused brewers all over Europe to suddenly create new beers, was the ability to reliably heat a kiln to a specific temperature.

A direct fired kiln is not bad for pottery, but it’s terrible for malting. For one thing, it’s extremely inefficient. You’ve got to fire the kiln and then wait for it to get to about the right temperature. You’re more or less guessing about what the temperature is and where it will be over a long period. You’d develop a knack for that eventually, but there’s only so much you can do with it. The lack of precision means that your malt is going to turn out darker than you want and it’s going to take on some flavour from whatever fuel you’re using to heat the malt. If you’re in a place where you’ve got to use wood or peat for fuel that means wood smoke. That’s a geographical problem. If you’re in Upper Canada in 1820 and you’re making your own malt, you probably don’t have access to coke or coal. You were probably using wood or charcoal because there’s lots of it. Slight smoke flavour.

Another way that it’s inefficient is that darker malt is going to tend to have less diastatic power. In order to get the beer to the strength that you want it to be as a finished product, you’re going to have to use more malt. More malt is going to result in the darker beer styles that we’ve already mentioned. It’s quite expensive because you need more barley to make the same amount of beer.

Gabriel Sedlmayr's Spaten Brewery. Munich Lager changed irrevocably with the adoption of (and improvement on) English malting techniques

Gabriel Sedlmayr’s Spaten Brewery. Munich Lager changed irrevocably with the adoption of (and improvement on) English malting techniques

By the time that Anton Dreher was a brewing apprentice in the 1830’s, he was touring England to see what techniques they were using. This was pretty common practice amongst brewers in the 19th century. Because no one was in direct competition with each other internationally, trade secrets weren’t particularly highly guarded. By 1836, he had brought English malting techniques back to Schwechat near Vienna. It wasn’t exactly Pale Malt. It was darker than that. It was closer to a light Crystal Malt roast and that’s what’s become known as Vienna Malt.

Informational exchange within the region happened almost immediately because Dreher was friends with the brewmaster at the Spaten Brewery in Munich, Gabriel Sedlmayr. Dreher borrowed Sedlmayr’s yeast and Sedlmayr borrowed Dreher’s malting technique. Informational exchange drives progress in any field, but the string of events these two brewers would put in motion would last until the 1950’s on another continent.

Artistry and refinement happen in German beer as a direct result of modernization of agriculture and industry. You can’t have barley to malt without increased yield and you can’t malt it to any degree of precision with shoddy tools. The hops, yeast and water did not change substantially. The lightening of malt leads to the lightening of beer. The styles exist as a basic continuum because they all result from the previous change. Because of the prevalence of rail and the ability to transport goods, each style inspires the next. They don’t exist in a vacuum.

Viennas
Beer Style Creator Date Avg Bus Avg SRM AVG ABV
Vienna/Marzen Anton Dreher 1841 24 13 5
Marzen/Oktoberfest Gabe Sedlmayr 1872 24 10.5 5.25

 

This is the prime example. Functionally there may not be a difference between Marzen and Oktoberfest beer. However, in practice, Oktoberfest beer was introduced by Spaten in 1872 and the primary difference was the fact that they had developed a new malting technique. Instead of Vienna Malt there was Munich Malt. The lightening is only two and a half points on the SRM scale, but that requires a level of precision. How dark can you make the malt and still have diastatic power needed to convert starch to fermentable sugar?

Lagers
Beer Style Creator Date Avg Bus Avg SRM AVG ABV
Schwarzbier Kostritzer 1543 27 23.5 4.9
Dunkel Munich 1800 23 21 5.05
Pilsner Plzen 1842 40 4.75 4.8
Dortmund Kronen 1871 26.5 5 5.4
Northern German Pilsner Radeberg 1872 35 3.5 4.8
Munich Helles Spaten 1894 19 4 5.05

 

If you start with Black Lager and move through Munich Dunkel which is formalized as a style by 1800, the departure once Dreher imports English malting techniques is pretty staggering. I’d put it to you that while people will talk about soft water and saaz hops, the defining characteristic of Pilsner is that it was nearly 10 SRM lighter than the other beers available during the 1840’s. Yes, it’s hoppy, but it’s also light gold in colour. That’s a huge departure. Northern German Pilsner is lighter and less hoppy. Dortumunder is significantly less hoppy and about the same colour.

That's light enough, mein freund. Put the rake down and step away from the floor maltings.

That’s light enough, mein freund. Put the rake down and step away from the floor maltings.

The brewers in Munich actually had some difficulty with Helles. Spaten created it and took a great deal of criticism from the other brewers for doing so. They thought that it was too light! They thought that it didn’t have enough character! That’s as light as German beer styles ever went.

As I’ve shown in the previous posts in this series, because German beer and food contain essentially the same seasoning agents as a result of the landrace hops and locally available herbs and spices, we can assume that we’re dealing exclusively with complementary pairings when we look at Oktoberfest food. Ultimately, the result of the beer getting lighter is that the food also gets lighter. The food needs less fat and can stand being less heavily seasoned. Weisswurst, for instance, is invented in 1857. Additionally, because industrialization has provided more quantity of food, the individual meals do not need to be as substantial. More people are working in cities. In point of fact, a lot of people are emigrating; they are Emigrating to America.

To this day, the largest ancestral group in the USA is German. It’s about 17.1%. From about the time of the revolutions in 1848, there was a huge wave of immigration to the United States. You’ll notice that by that time there was already Pilsner and Vienna Lager in Germany. It was fairly widespread and these people would have had context for that. They had seen the lightening of beer. The largest wave of immigrants came later on and they had seen even lighter beers in Germany. By 1900, Milwaukee, Cincinatti, and Cleveland were all at least 40% German. Every large town in the Midwest would have been at least 25-30% German. We’ve heard the names: Anheuser, Busch, Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst, Yeungling.

This map will explain more about America's brewing history than any other image I can show you.

This map will explain more about America’s brewing history than any other image I can show you.

When you have a population concentration like that, immigrants bring their ideas with them. In this case, they brought their progressively lighter beers along for the ride. If the defining concept of German beer in the 19th century has to do with making a beer that’s lighter in colour, the restraining factor had been how light the colour could be made with malt. Without the restriction of the Reinheitsgebot, these German brewers could pursue making even lighter beers with adjunct grains like corn and rice.

People claim that prohibition was the factor that created light flavourless commoditized beer, that people had gotten used to soft drinks. Really the blame lies with the fascination of making the beer lighter. It’s a construct that depends on industrial production. It was a good idea that got out of hand.  In Munich, they had the sense to stop at Helles. In America it spiraled out of control.

By the 1950’s we had light beer and America had thoroughly adapted the German feasting culture that is Oktoberfest. Bratwurst had become hot dogs. Frikkedellen had become hamburgers. What is a chicken finger but an unflattened chicken schnitzel? The commonality between the food and the beer is that they have been reduced to their least flavourful form in order to appeal to the largest number of people. There’s an idea that beer and food pairing is difficult, but it’s the foundation of American popular cuisine. America was a feasting culture, but without flavour and without joy.

Whether you believe it or not, this is German food.

Whether you believe it or not, this is German food.

We talk about the 3000 brewery mark in terms of craft beer. There’s an idea that it is important that we have reached the number of breweries that existed before prohibition in North America. The fact is though that the makeup of those breweries is significantly different than it would have been before prohibition. The majority of brewers would have been German and would have made lager. It might be time for Craft Beer to attempt to reclaim that heritage, additional ferment times be damned.

[i] A word on yeast: Throughout my career writing about beer, I’ve run into people who are a little confused about bottom fermenting yeast. I have met professionals who think that lager didn’t exist before 1840. Bottom fermenting yeast had been around and in use for a few hundred years before Emil Hansen managed to separate out a pure strain at the Carlsberg labs. I suspect that these are people who are using “lager” and “pilsner” as interchangeable terms.

The real question is how there was suddenly bottom fermenting yeast in the mid 1500’s. I have an elaborate theory involving Saccharomyces Bayanus, Dutch trading ships and the Rhine as a primary trade route to Bavaria. It’s as good as anyone else’s guess.

 

Advent Calendars – But What If You’re In Ontario

This week in the column, I talked about the growing trend for breweries to produce advent calendars. It’s a fun idea and one that I can get behind. With the short days and cold weather, you want to treat yourself nicely and a single high quality beer a day is not a bad way to do that. It may only give you ten or fifteen minutes enjoyment, but it’s a nicely ritualized thing. It’s an Agent Cooper approved strategy for coping with a seasonal lack of esprit de corps.

You’ll notice that there are no craft beer advent calendars in Ontario. The LCBO isn’t allowed to stock packages over six bottles because of an agreement with the Beer Store. It’s an agreement that they’re threatening to rescind. The Beer Store isn’t a good option for stocking something like an advent calendar because they charge the same for listing whether you’re offering a product year round or as a seasonal option. Even when Andrew Oland from Moosehead says that The Beer Store is doing a great job, you’ll notice that his Hop City and Sam Adams Seasonal products only show up in the LCBO. If The Beer Store is so great, why aren’t they carried exclusively by The Beer Store, huh?

Incidentally, you’d think this would be a great opportunity for the Beer Store to score a PR point and maybe make way for something like that “because Christmas” what with them having been visited by the ghost of Christmas future in the form of Ed Clark. They seem to have decided to cover their ears and reap the whirlwind of public opinion.

Let’s not be scrooges. For the moment, let’s be Fezziwigs.

If you’re in Ontario, you might want to put together an advent calendar of your own. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to do that with the beer that’s available at the LCBO. I notice that the  Craft Beer Advent Calendar out on the West Coast is somewhere between $129 and $145. In Newfoundland, more like $188. If you like rare stuff, that’s probably a good deal. The Phillips and Central City/Parallel 49 packs tended to come in somewhere between $65 and $85 depending on the store stocking them. That seems a little more in line with what I’m willing to spend.

The goal I therefore put together was to create advent calendars that you can use. I wanted them to be affordable and fairly specific. The ones that I have put together will run you approximately $75-$80 bucks and they’re suitable for different beer drinkers. I didn’t put together a Canadian Craft Beer version because that’s really easy. You can do it entirely with canned beer and it requires no imagination. I’ve come up with an English Version and a Belgian Version instead.

The “Full English” is actually 25 beers. You can drink the extra Hobgoblin while you put the calendar together for whomever the recipient might be.

The Full English
Package Beers Included Price
Marston’s Classic Ales Brakspear Bitter $18.95
Hobgoblin
Banks Bitter
Cockerhoop
English Pale Ale
Ringwood Fortyniner
Wychwood Beers of Character Hobgoblin $12.95
Goliath
Wychcraft
Scarecrow
Duchy Originals $3.05
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout $2.95
Abott Ale $2.25
Fuller’s London Pride $2.95
Lancaster Bomber $2.65
Bombardier $2.25
Fuller’s London Pride $2.95
Belhaven Best $2.15
Historic Ales from Scotland Heather $9.95
Elderberries
Gooseberries
Spruce
Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome $3.90
St. Peter’s Winter Ale $4.00
Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout $4.25
$75.20

The Belgian Pack actually came in under budget because the leverage the LCBO has over the Belgians is insane. It’s crazy. I included a Dupont Saison for Christmas day which brings it in three dollars over budget. Whoever you give it to will be just that much happier. Because of the darkness of the short days and the prevalence of St. Bernardus products, I’ve taken to calling it “Bleak End at Bernie’s.”

St. Bernardus Pack St. Bernardus Wit $18.95
St. Bernardus Pater 6
St. Bernardus Tripel
Watou Tripel
St. Bernardus Abt 12
St. Bernardus Prior 12
Belgian Beer Pack Piraat $18.95
Gulden Draak
L’Eute Bokbier
Augustjin Blonde
Augustjin Donker
Augustjin Grand Cru
Pauwel Kwak $3.00
Chimay White $3.25
Rochefort 8 $3.25
Chimay Blue $3.55
Rochefort 10 $3.85
Mort Subite Framboise $3.95
Saison Dupont $7.75
Unibroue 6 Blanche de Chambly $12.95
Don De Dieu
Ephemere Apple
La Fin du Monde
Maudite
Trois Pistoles
$79.45

I’m not going to claim that either of these packages is going to be absolutely unique. I will say that at least wrapping them is pretty simple: Take two wine boxes from the LCBO, arrange beers at random in them and slap a bow on that sucker. Wrapping paper optional, but available at dollar stores for cheap.