St. John's Wort Beery Musings And Amusing Beers

Real Ale and Craft Beer – Live from the GBBF

Ed Note: Inevitably, marching into another country and talking about a situation I don’t have a complete feel for has the potential to rustle feathers. As such, I have changed the subtitle of my blog for the week to reflect that possibility. 

 

One of the things that has interested me about England recently is the speed with which craft beer has taken off. I was here last in 2008, before I had started paying proper attention to things beery. At the time, I think that I was mildly aware that Meantime existed, but I certainly didn’t go out of my way to visit them. There was a very nice pub with cask beer in good condition nearby where I was staying which was good enough for me. What did I know?

I’m not sure how many of the English beer writers I now know were active at the beginning of 2008. I suspect that the answer is not all that many. At some point while planning for this trip, I emailed Mark Dredge and Pete Brown for suggestions about where I needed to go and what I needed to see. The list very quickly became elaborate and almost completely untenable. Brodies and Camden Town, Magic Rock and Kernel and Partizan and Brew Wharf. That was just the first email. The number of craft beers on offer has continued to expand.

The scale of the GBBF is pretty staggering.

The scale of the GBBF is pretty staggering.

Within about five years there has been this massive explosion of non-traditional, North American influenced breweries. I’m given to understand that this is happening all over Europe. Just the other day, I had a couple of Czech craft beers from Pivovar Matuska that were using Apollo and Galaxy hops. I can only imagine the stir that’s causing in Prague.

To me, the most interesting part of this phenomenon is that England is one of the only countries other than the United States that has a definitive sensibility for the marketing of their product. They’ve got REAL ALE.

CAMRA’s definition of REAL ALE is, even according to their materials, something that they’ve made up.  According to my handy CAMRA membership guide fact sheets, Real Ale is “a term devised solely by CAMRA” as “a name for draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed and served without the use of extraneous gas.”

Ok. That makes a great deal of sense since there was a real danger of traditional English ale being supplanted by incredibly bad lager and terrible ale in the 1970’s. All you have to do for context is listen to the utter disdain in Eric Idle’s voice when he talks about Watney’s Red Barrel in the travel agent sketch.

If you can control the perception of what entails a quality beer, you’d be a fool not to do it. From a marketing standpoint it’s brilliant. It plays to a sense of patriotism. It plays to the sense that it has always been thus. Most importantly, those trappings are not actually part of the definition. Real Ale is a technical term. It just has all these connotations associated with it.

Look at the definition of craft beer. If the last year worth of debate on North American blogs has taught us anything, it’s that the definition doesn’t really work properly. It is not a technical, product oriented definition. It’s a trade designation at best and a vague catchall at worst.

The Brewer’s Association basically has three conditions as far as I’m aware. I’m writing this on a train to Birmingham New Street, so I’m listing these from memory. The fact that I do not care enough to ingrain them perfectly in my memory is probably a sign of how poor they are.

1)      The brewer must produce less than 6 million barrels of beer a year.

2)      The brewer must not use adjunct (at least as a money saving ingredient, I guess)

3)      The brewer must be mostly independently owned. (No more than 25% owned by a larger company)

Perhaps you begin to see the problem with the definition when you try to apply it on an international scale. Craft beer is no longer a purely North American phenomenon. Those rules are nonsensical even across the border in Canada. Our economy is on an entirely different scale and we actually like some of the brands Molson has purchased.

When you’re talking about England, those conditions are even less useful. Because “Craft Beer” as a nomenclature exists to describe a purely American phenomenon, it neglects to include anything about heritage.

Take just about any large, regional English brewery. Anything smaller than Greene King will do as an example. They are small, traditional and independent. Some of them are so traditional that they predate the concept of trademarks. More than two hundred years and suddenly there’s a new definition of what you do, thanks to a trade description that has become a catchall term for a global phenomenon.

CAMRA, perhaps unfortunately, has gone the route of attempting to define craft beer as anything that’s served out of a keg. That’s an attempt to lump the craft brewers in with the lagers that have been their bane since the early 1970’s. That’s a terrible idea for two reasons: First of all, lager is not going away. Whatever inroads CAMRA has made into preserving real ale is great and entirely worthwhile. It’s not all support for their side, of course. The number of British Ex-pats I’ve heard refer to anything out of a keg as weasel piss is pretty staggering. Any time people attempt to generalize about an entire category of beer, I’m leery. Some lagers are good, some lagers are bad. Some Real Ales are shockingly poor on their best day with a good cellarman.

Hey, it's still better than a Steam Whistle hat.

Hey, it’s still better than a Steam Whistle hat.

The other problem is that it creates a fairly significant demographic gap. From the perspective of an outsider with no real stake in what happens, I can freely point out that I keep hearing Real Ale being referred to as Old Man’s Beer. The comment crops up again and again on blogs and discussion boards, on untappd and on facebook statuses detailing which beer won at the Great British Beer Festival. Given the crowd at the trade session and the sheer number of sock/sandal combinations on view, I can see how people might be justified in the opinion. (I’m given to understand that the trade session is not representative of the demographic. Part of me wants to believe that. Part of me thinks “sure it isn’t.”)

The question becomes: how does a brewery stay relevant in the face of this divide?

The truth is that many of the Real Ales are excellent beers. These are breweries that have honed their craft for a very long time and they produce some excellent tipples. Since craft beer isn’t going away any time soon and the younger generation of beer drinkers seems to be hoving round in that direction, these breweries are entering a landscape fraught with pitfalls. Do you sacrifice some of your hard earned, long standing credibility in order to maintain or increase sales by capitulating to a trend? Do you put your head in the sand and hope it goes away despite all evidence to the contrary?

There were, I noticed, two large regional breweries attempting to do something about it and their wares were displayed at the GBBF.

Brains is based out of Cardiff. Their foray into craft brewing is based out of a separate 15BBL brewhouse in the same facility as their regular brewery if I understand it correctly. Rather than the properly stylized BRAINS logo, they’ve gone with a sort of riveted font that playfully suggests an industrial heritage, harkening back to the era in which they were founded (1882). This means that they’re playing both sides of the aisle, retaining their popular main portfolio in addition to the new brands. Even the websites are divided between the original and the extra crispy.

Brains brought a bacon beer. I imagine it's only a matter of time before they try making a beer with brains. Zombibrau.

Brains brought a bacon beer. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before they try making a beer with brains. Zombibrau.

The main portfolio has things like Dark, Gold and The Rev. James.  These are pretty highly regarded beers and rightly so. I’d be pleased to find any of them on tap. They may not be the most exciting beers in the world, but they’re solid and dependable. If you ignore the substance of my argument thus far and don’t bother attempting to categorize them, you’d come away with the feeling that they’re good, solid beer.

See the rivets and the vaguely industrial font? Neat!

See the rivets and the vaguely industrial font? Neat!

The new stuff… well, let me put it this way. I tried three of the casks that were on offer at the GBBF and the sense I get is that they’re trying way to hard. They’ve enlisted beer writers like Adrian Tierney-Jones and Pete Brown to collaborate with them on various products. They’ve got single hop variations and the odd wacky ingredient. I tried the Aporkalypse (which was, as far as I’m concerned, the final straw on bacon flavoured beer. The next person who sends one of those for review is going to get a stern staring at and a slow, disapproving head shake), Dissolution and Atlantic White. Certainly, they’re different than anything else that was on offer at the festival, but the real problem is that they don’t stack up to “craft beer.” If I got these in Ontario, which is a little behind the times, they wouldn’t stand out.

If Brains can reign in the experimentation a tad, they’re onto a winning concept. The experimentation is unnecessarily probing. I’m sure they’ve got talented people who would do better to focus on a core range.

St. Austell is making some truly excellent beer, regardless of marketing definitions.

St. Austell is making some truly excellent beer, regardless of marketing definitions.

The brewery I was far and away the most impressed with is Cornwall’s St. Austell. Rather than putting together a second brand, they seem to have decided to simply play to their strengths. This is a brewery that has been around since 1851, but the sense I get is that they’ve taken a longer view of the craft beer problem. Their Tribute Ale was first brewed in 1999 and it feels somehow contemporary nearly 15 years later.

Good enough that I mean to find more of it before I leave the country.

Good enough that I mean to find more of it before I leave the country.

St. Austell has simply expanded on the success of Tribute by keeping the ingredients contemporary rather than attempting to do anything outlandish. Their Trelawny is a combination of old and new, blending English Golding with Australian Galaxy hops. You get peach, apricot, and the strange slightly ineffable tropical fruit note you get with Galaxy. At 3.8%, this is session beer at its best.

Their Proper Job incorporates Willamette, Chinook and Cascade at 4.5% and is a really nicely balanced low alcohol (by craft standards)IPA. The top of their range is Big Job, which I enjoyed so much that I didn’t bother to ask for the ingredients. I will say this for it: It would be acceptable as ‘craft beer’ anywhere in the world and hasn’t compromised  the ‘real ale’ definition at all.

St. Austell is doing all of the things I like. They’re taking advantage of history. They’re using a blend of traditional ingredients and exciting new ingredients. There is a sense of evolution if you look at the timeline on which these products have been introduced. They are clever enough to be just ahead of the market.

That’s how you navigate the Real Ale/Craft Beer minefield: You ignore the definitions completely and you focus on making good beer. Not everyone will be able to toe that line with the level of success that St. Austell displays, but it’s apparent to me that you can accomplish both definitions at the same time.

In Which I Review Two Books About Beer

One of the really nice things about having a column with a big circulation is that people send you things to review. Sometimes, it’s not even beer.

At one point about a month ago, three books cropped up. One of those was Pete Brown’s Shakespeare’s Local, referred to here by its proper name as the transatlantic marketing efforts take away from the character of the thing. “I know,” said some crackerjack in the marketing department on a Friday just after a lengthy lunch, “we’ll call it Shakespeare’s Pub. That’s what people in America call pubs right? They have pubs there, surely? What’s that Bob? Bars? That’s not quite as homey.” This neglects the fact that Pete Brown is a deeply British man and that reading his prose you wouldn’t mistake him for anything else. There’s a lengthy digression on authenticity and the Sugababes, for God’s sake.

They have those in America, right?

Anyway, that’s a very good book (BUY THE BOOK!), but I’m here today to review two other books which I have been sent.

A YEAR IN FOOD AND BEER17466594

This is a book by Emily Baime and Darin Michaels who run Community Tap and Table in Sacramento, California. The idea here is a good one, and it focuses on providing recipes that fit into the four seasons of the year and take advantage of the beer traditions those seasons represent while managing to fit in seasonal ingredients where obligatory.

There are some very good ideas in A Year In Food And Beer including a very clever treatment of crabs in the spring section (I agree with them here that you want the pairing to take the sauces into account and for that reason they’ve provided three sauces and three beer pairings.) I quite like the look of the Mango Caprese in the Summer section and may try that at home at some point. Fall has a tempting Pork Loin with Celery Leaf and Green Peppercorn Cream recipe that I think is a very good idea. There are also sections on Cheese and Chocolate that present cogent explanations of the information that you need in order to pair them properly.

It’s a very good attempt, but it has to be said, if you approach it with a critical eye rather than from the traditional blogger as cheerleader role, that there are some problems inherent here that have mostly to do with regionalism.

One of the reasons I couldn’t have reviewed this book for Sun Media is that it is specific to the experiences of Emily and Darin. From the small amount of interaction that I’ve had with them, I can tell you that they’re competent and enthusiastic. However, they are from Sacramento.

One of the things Garrett Oliver gets exactly right in The Brewmaster’s Table is to focus on classic examples of styles. He waxes rhapsodic about Saison Dupont. This may have been because that book is nearly a decade old at this point and there simply wasn’t the selection of American Craft Beer at the time that there is now. Some of the selections in this book would be pretty hard to find outside of California. In much of Canada, they simply don’t exist: Lost Coast, Russian River, Ballast Point, The Bruery. World class beers all, but not available for purchase.

Also, I think that the difference in climate results in an odd conceptual translation of a winter menu to something comprising comfort foods. I imagine there’s always fresh produce in California. In Ontario, if it’s February, we got turnips.

It’s a good book to purchase if you’re really into the beer and food pairing idea and you’re able to lay hands on some interesting American beer. If you’re in Alberta, this might work out better than it does in Ontario. It is also a good book to purchase if you enjoy chapter spanning metaphors featuring an orchestral jazz saxophonist. On the whole, it’s a good effort even if it sacrifices some authoritativeness for regional applicability. 

CRAFT BEER REVOLUTION: THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO BC BREWERIES.CraftBeerRevolution_cover

Written by Joe Wiebe, who writes under the pseudonym of the Thirsty Writer for various publications, this is an attempt to chronicle a specific period in the development of British Columbia’s craft beer scene. Typically, when you get a book like this that catalogues all of the breweries in a geographical region, you get a pretty bare bones sort of approach to the subject as a result of the temporal constraint. You want to get everybody in the book, and that means even the newest members of the scene. If a brewery opens a month before your comprehensive guide is released, that sucker had better be in there.

Having written a book and having some understanding of deadlines, this would be pretty hard to do. In fact, writing a guide of this sort is becoming more or less impossible due to the scale of the industry and how quickly it is growing. There was a week in Ontario this summer where three breweries opened. Imagine submitting your book the week before that happened. Immediate obsolescence is a bummer.

Joe has gotten around this by listing five breweries that are slated to open, guaranteeing that this book will not be out of date until 2014. Clever boy.

That said, this is not merely a guide to the breweries as they stand. It doesn’t rank them; it appreciates their better qualities. More importantly, perhaps, is the reason that this approach has been taken. Wiebsy has been around the craft beer industry in B.C. for quite a while and has known the majority of these people for a while. His writing conveys a sense of not only why each brewery is important, but why they’re important to him. I suspect that he more or less effortlessly has a sense of everything that’s going on in the B.C. scene.  This is a fine quality to have in a tour guide.

He’s also managed to surreptitiously work a nuanced history of craft beer in B.C. into the brewery listings. You get a really good picture of the scene and how it evolved from John Mitchell to Gary Lohin and of all of the interceding steps. He charts the migration of brewers around the scene and the fall of once popular breweries. He treats the entirety of the subject with respect, which is nice to see.

Whether you’re looking for a simple guide to the best place to get a pint in Vancouver or Victoria or an in depth history (without really realizing that you’re getting one), you’re going to want a copy of Craft Beer Revolution. Joe has managed to do as well as one could possibly do with the format while maintaining a personal, peripatetic kind of feel.

They sent me coasters with the book. That was a nice touch.

They sent me coasters with the book. That was a nice touch.

So You Want To Be A Brewer: St. John Marzen

When I started writing about beer, it was because I was trying to establish some credentials in order to get into brewing school. I did manage, subsequently, to get into brewing school, but then there was a book deal. I found that commuting 5 hours a day to Niagara College and writing a book didn’t mix particularly well. I don’t believe that you can get a book written on a Coach Canada bus, especially when you factor in the 5:30 am start to the day and the slight nausea that comes with that kind of travel.

From inside the brewhouse looking out at the bar. ca. Beer O'Clock

From inside the brewhouse looking out at the bar. ca. Beer O’Clock

Eventually, the book about brewing (You can buy a copy by clicking the link to the right!) won out. It’s a difficult thing. Having now written the book, I’m convinced that I could do it in a shorter amount of time. At the time, the sense of deadline related panic rendered it a full time occupation. After all, the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book.

I continue to enjoy brewing. There are the wonderful aromas that you only get in a brewhouse. After eight months away from it, even the sharp vinegar whiff of the paracetic acid used for sterilizing equipment conjures up a temporal sense of place. You get the aroma off the kettle five minutes after the first hop addition, and that’s a marvelous smell. There’s the edifying sense in that aroma that you’re accomplishing something. You’re making something that will, if everything goes right, give a number of people a small pleasure at the end of their day.

Freshly milled grain is one of those healthy smells that I think we're all sort of programmed to recognize.

Freshly milled grain is one of those healthy smells that I think we’re all sort of programmed to recognize.

It was for this reason that I put up a notice on facebook a short while ago that I missed brewing, and would any generous Ontario breweries like to host a one-off collaboration. It got slightly more response than I suspected that it would. No fewer than four breweries came forward to suggest that I could work with them on a project.

Faced with that potential, the seemingly ideal thing to do would be to thank your lucky stars that anyone is interested and then maybe choose one of those four breweries to work with. I gave the calendar a glance and realized that Toronto Beer Week is coming up, meaning that the beer writer’s Barrel Bragging Rights event was right around the corner.

Last year, Josh Rubin from the Toronto Star won with a pretty nifty Dopplebock that reminded me of nothing so much as Schloss Eggenberg’s version. It was an absolute corker. This year, I wanted to beat Josh Rubin if only to maintain the completely fictional inter-newspaper rivalry that we enjoy as banter. I decided that the thing to do was to create four one off beers so that I could choose the one that was most likely to be successful served out of an oak barrel. After all, Rubin must be crushed!

The only problem is that I haven’t heard anything about the Barrel Bragging Rights competition this year, and I believe it may be taking a short hiatus until 2014. Perhaps you’re beginning to see the problem: Four beers and no event at which to serve them.

It was at that point that I decided to create my own event for Toronto Beer Week: The Feast of St.John.

You know you've got quality when you've got Weyermann.

You know you’ve got quality when you’ve got Weyermann.

The intent here is to host a four course beer dinner in which all of the beer and food is designed from the ground up to fit into a cohesive menu with a progression from start to finish. I’ve been to beer dinners where the chef has to fit the menu to the beer. I’ve also talked with Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn a little bit about how he created a beer specifically to go with a roast chicken at NoMad in New York.

I don’t know that anyone has tried to pull off an event like this before. I figure I’m qualified, what with a certain amount of training as a brewer, a Certified Cicerone designation and a pretty decent depth of food knowledge. I’ve got a great cook to work with and a venue to host it in. Plus, why the heck wouldn’t you do it? I mean, it’s not exactly like you’re going to take a credibility hit for trying something really difficult. The details are still coming together, but brewing began on Friday.

The marzen will eventually be approximately this colour. I love that bright orange melanoidin burst.

The marzen will eventually be approximately this colour. I love that bright orange melanoidin burst.

The first beer is a collaboration with The Beer Academy, which now occupies the downtown brewpub location that housed Duggan’s and, once upon a time, Growler’s. It’s going to be a Marzen, which should be just the thing for mid to late September with Oktoberfests popping up all over the place. I was a little surprised that they’d let me try my hand at a lager, what with the longer aging time and the fact that lagers just aren’t very trendy at the moment.

Sometimes it seems that if you want to sell a beer these days, you’ve got to get a gimmick. With the prevalence of IPAs and the number of sub-varieties that the style has spawned (white, black, double, imperial) the big bitter kick is pretty popular. I confess to a certain amount of fatigue on that front. There are only so many times you review vastly similar things without wearing out your vocabulary and attention span.

During the planning meeting, we were looking for a style of beer. One of the things that you need to know about The Beer Academy is that rather than working with brand new state of the art equipment as you’d expect at a Molson owned property, they’re using the equipment that came with the building when they took over.

One of the things that struck me about brewing at the Beer Academy is the care being taken of the equipment. They're very respectful of it.

One of the things that struck me about brewing at the Beer Academy is the care being taken of the equipment. They’re very respectful of it.

I believe that Growlers was started in 1989, so some of that stuff is probably nearly a quarter century old at this point. The fermenters are what I guess you’d call round bottomed grundy tanks, which are pretty much what there was at the time. Round bottoms mean that dry hopping is going to be messy, so they tend not to make beers that would require it. Additionally, the boil kettle is electric, meaning that you do get a small amount of smoky flavour as a house character because of hotspots.

Given that information about the system, you want to work with it instead of trying to force it to do something it’s not suited to. If you look at the lineup that was featured at Growlers, it heavily featured German styles. Marzen was a great choice, even if it’s slightly intimidating to be doing that on Michael Hancock’s old equipment.

This is really clever. They have produced a grant for the mash tun that operates on a float arm and empties once it reaches a certain fill level. It's the same principle as a toilet tank and it means that you can safely ignore the exact rate of flow. Very clever.

This is really clever. They have produced a grant for the mash tun that operates on a float arm and empties once it reaches a certain fill level. It’s the same principle as a toilet tank and it means that you can safely ignore the exact rate of flow. Very clever.

We came up with a malt bill that is a pretty standard blend of floor malted bohemian pilsner and some slighty more melanoidin heavy malt for colour and flavour. In addition to doing the typical beer collaboration photo op activities like hoisting grain into the mill and raking out the mash tun, I got to choose the hop bill on the day. I went with three varieties of hallertauer and some saaz. The neat thing about the hallertauer varieties are that they’re pretty humulene heavy noble hops and provide some woody, spicy notes on the palate. We used Hersbrucker and Tradition for the boil, but found a lovely variety of New Zealand hallertauer in the hop room that has that signature mineral and tropical fruit kick that you get out of New Zealand hops. The saaz is there because I like that peppery aroma and I’m hoping that it’ll provide some depth of flavour without confusing the issue.

At some point during the brew day, the previous day's Belgian Tripel kicked into overdrive. Krausen cascades all the way to the floor.

At some point during the brew day, the previous day’s Belgian Tripel kicked into overdrive. Krausen cascades all the way to the floor.

From the point of view of pairing with food, Marzen comes with a cultural heritage you can’t ignore. The hope is that the aroma from the New Zealand hallertauer will open up some options to expand on German tradition.

Thanks go to the nice folks at The Beer Academy. Stephen, for displaying the depth of his beer nerdery during planning by whipping out the smartphone BJCP app. Quentin, for walking me through what is basically a refresher course after a year away from brewing. Todd, for handling the calculations and for letting me in the building in the first place.

 

Beer and History: Mesopotamia at the ROM OR Sumer Lovin’

A couple of weekends ago, I signed a contract to write a new book with m’colleague Alan McLeod of A Good Beer Blog. The book will be called Ontario Beer: A Heady History of Brewing from the Great Lakes to the Hudson Bay. We’re just kids in a candy store over the possibility of leafing through dusty archives and creating indexes and bibliographical footnotes. What can I say? We’re nerds.

As I was on my way to the subway, I noticed that we’re not the only ones working on beer from a historical perspective. The Royal Ontario Museum currently has a Mesopotamian exhibit that highlights some of the innovations that sprung from the fertile crescent. As an early agrarian society, Mesopotamia certainly had beer; a fact which is highlighted on the large advertisements for the exhibit encased in bus shelters around the city.

Since I was already in a vaguely historical frame of mind, I decided to get in touch with the ROM and see whether they could offer some guidance towards the exhibit. They actually provided an expert in the form of Dr. Clemens Reichel, an Associate Curator at the ROM, who took some time out of his schedule to show us around.

I say “us” because I was joined by Robin LeBlanc who writes about beer over here, and who was featured in a nice article today.

I suspect it’s fair to say that there’s not a great deal of planning that you can do for an exhibit like this if your intention is to write about it from a beer writer’s perspective. I have read beer books from the period between about 1880 and 2013 and the ancient world really only ever gets a couple of fundamentally similar paragraphs.

Sort of “development into Agrarian society… blah blah… Hymn to Ninkasi… blah blah… Does civilization exist because people wanted a drink?… and in conclusion, we owe a lot to these proto brewers whom we have included because we’re pretty sure we might have seen an article about it at some point, maybe in the Atlantic Monthly.”

The base of knowledge may well have expanded in the last 133 years or so, but since additional information would require vast amounts of research and records are typically fairly sketchy, these are the highlights that crop up. I mean, take the amount of research someone like Martyn Cornell does on a regular basis and understand how difficult it is to put together brewing history on London before tabloids. That’s nothing compared to 6500 years ago.

As a thought experiment, consider this: You want to know everything there is to know about a now closed Ontario brewery. Let’s use Conners as an example. We have the ability to track down and interview people who worked for them, which would take some research but is not impossible.  We also have the ability to read contemporary articles or books about brewing in Ontario and infer from those sources about Conners as it existed. The most accurate source of information, however, is going to be financial. I can guarantee you the tax information is kicking around in a government archive somewhere.

Oddly enough, the same goes for Mesopotamia. Of course no one who made beer in Mesopotamia is still alive and they didn’t have print journalism. The financial records, though, are more or less intact.

As a spreadsheet, the real downside here is that you can't copy and paste with hotkeys

As a spreadsheet, the real downside here is that you can’t copy and paste with hotkeys

As it turns out, the development of writing was largely due to accountancy. Part of the development of civilization has to do with accountability to each other. Without some manner of allaying mutual suspicion, we’re pretty hopeless as a species. If you were to deposit a number of bushels of grain at your local granary, you’d want there to be a record of how many bushels you had deposited. In part, Cuneiform was developed in order to do just that.

This tablet, from some period between 3300 and 3000 B.C.E., displays cuneiform symbols for various types of grain including Emmer Wheat and Barley. As you can see, there’s a heading and a column with a representative number of marks meant to represent quantity. It’s your basic inventory spreadsheet. The clay tablet technology has preserved this information. Clay had a number of comparative strengths, as Dr. Reichel pointed out. The papyrus based Great Library at Alexandria simply burnt down one day. If you expose clay to fire, it just gets harder. In some ways, clay is preferable to modern spreadsheet technology. Clay doesn’t upgrade its menu options every few years forcing you to learn how to use a styles menu or suddenly crash in the middle of an export.

This likely means that writing developed as a tool to allow us to feed ourselves. I can only imagine that in a culture where they had already developed irrigation and had likely managed to discover fermentation by dint of the fact that there was a lot of damp grain around, this means that writing probably developed in part due to beer. In a very small part. It’s practically not even worth mentioning when you consider all the other things you’d want to use grain for as well. Let’s call it about 10%.

The other illustrative artifact from the exhibit is a golden drinking cup discovered in the tomb of Puabi at the royal cemetery in Ur, dated to approximately 2500 B.C.E.

From this angle, you might think "Alright, I can drink out of that."

From this angle, you might think “Alright, I can drink out of that.”

The cup presents some interesting problems. First of all, as Dr. Reichel was good enough to point out, Southern Iraq is hot. Tomorrow (July 12th) the forecast for Baghdad is 46 degrees Celsius. To convert to farenheit, that’s about 113. What kind of idiot drinks out of a golden cup when it’s 46 degrees in the shade? Think about the heat transfer. No one is actually drinking out of a cup like that. Probably you want something that is thick and made of pottery so that your beverage remains at least nominally refreshing.

The other difficulties with the cup have to do with the dimensions. First of all, it’s not really round. It is shaped a little bit like half of a pita. When you view it from the front, it’s completely normal. When you view it from a slightly elevated angle, it’s obvious that no one looking to actually drink something would have used it. There’s even a completely non-functional straw built into the side that would make it dribble on your shirt.

But from this angle, it's clear that you're better off just drinking out of the bottle.

But from this angle, it’s clear that you’re better off just drinking out of the bottle.

As a cup, it sucks. It’s a terrible cup.

As a simulacrum of a cup, it makes complete sense. It is a representational imagining of a cup. Many of the tombs in Ur had ornamental pieces like this made of gold and carnelian and lapis lazuli: Necklaces that would snap a vertebrae; earrings that would tear a lobe. The tombs were appointed with these things, as well as a number of apparently unwilling servants (as evinced by the skull trauma). You can take it with you, but eventually someone will dig it up.

These simulacra are great for pointing out how important feasting was to the culture of Sumer. To have developed to the point where you’re creating ornamental representations of tableware for an elaborate burial like that of Puabi, you can safely assume that the feasting culture was pervasive and established. It gives you a sense of what was thought of as important in terms of the details of everyday life.

I suppose if you really felt the need for an additional beer artifact, you could tell yourself that this lion is really hungover.

I suppose if you really felt the need for an additional beer artifact, you could tell yourself that this lion is really hungover.

I should point out that these two are the main beer related artifacts in the exhibit. I can’t help but feel that the ROM overstated their case a little on the promotional posters. That said, the rest of the exhibit contains some truly amazing pieces from the British Museum. Tablet VI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance. A stele with the code of Hammurabi inscribed upon it. Perhaps most impressively, a bas relief lion from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon with much of its glaze still intact. You should go and see these things. It’s good for you. And you can pop across the street to the Museum Tavern afterwards for beer if you feel your appetite hasn’t been sated.

Fun With Numbers: Doom and Gloom Edition

The other day, I got a haircut.

This is not news in and of itself, even though I’m relatively pleased with the haircut.

During the smalltalk that goes along with a haircut, I mentioned that I write about beer. It turns out that the stylist had intended at some point last year to open a craft brewery in the city of Toronto. It turns out that he had the funding all ready to go and even had a brewer lined up. There’s always money to open a craft brewery in Toronto, he said. In the states, it’s the only growth industry, he said. The secret is opening with one good brand, he said.

I realize that an anecdote isn’t data, but this is where we are now. There’s money going begging and a guy who cuts hair for a living could open a craft brewery.

Now, as it turns out, the guy was fairly knowledgeable about beer and knew some Toronto contract brewers. I don’t mean to denigrate the guy’s willingness to start a new career but five years ago, this would not have been enough to get investors on board. Venture capitalists would have been leery of entrusting funds to any startup brewery.

Five years ago, the brewing industry landscape in Ontario was a great deal different.

In 2008, there were 38 breweries in Ontario. One off brews were a thing reserved for cask festivals like Cask Days at Bar Volo. Creemore was still independent, Amsterdam was still downtown, IPA was a gleam in the beard of Mike Lackey and nanobrewing sounded like something out of a Michael Crichton novel.Operational Breweries

As you can see here, we have actually just this week hit 100 operational breweries and brewpubs. Number 100, near as I can reckon it, was probably Lake Of The Woods in Kenora, Ontario who poured their first beer yesterday. There were three others this week.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I should point out that I have used the Mom and Hops directory and then combed through the websites of these companies in order to find their first year of operation. I have included contract breweries as breweries. Also, the data does not include breweries which fall under the same umbrella. Brick and Waterloo are counted separately as are Creemore, Six Pints and Mad and Noisy.Small Breweries

This is a graph showing the number of Ontario breweries added each year. You’ll notice that last year we had 22 and that we have 22 so far this year with six months to go. There are 25 additional breweries in some form of planning stage that are not yet operational. We might actually double the number of openings this year because I can guarantee that there are breweries slated to open that aren’t on the Mom and Hops radar yet. It’s possible that within two years the number of breweries in Ontario will have doubled.

It’s not just in Ontario, either. The Brewer’s Association claims 2,360 operating members as of March 2013 and 1250 breweries in planning as of April 1, 2013. That means that in 2012 they added about 360 breweries or about a fifth as many as they already had. If you want to see where they’re laid out, the New Yorker has a pretty nifty map.

The growth in the case of Ontario specifically and in North America generally is parabolic in nature and there are some problems with that. I sincerely doubt that there’s a brewery out there whose future business planning is not predicated upon the idea that they will grow and flourish. Confidence is the key to Capitalism, after all. The problems are that customers are a finite resource and the amount of beer consumer is dropping annually in both Canada and the U.S. If you look at the craft beer market segment, it is booming. There’s more reportage on the subject than ever before and experts are getting interviewed left and right.

The thing about parabolic growth is that we’ve seen it as recently as 2007 and it usually doesn’t end well.

Look at the pretty tulips.

Look at the pretty tulips.

I suppose I could use just about any example from Tulips to the South Sea Company to Housing to Bitcoin, but it’s probably easiest just to post the explanatory graph.Bubble Graph General

Coincidentally, I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a movie coming out called Drinking Buddies. It stars Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston and is set partially in a craft brewery. It is a romantic comedy. If the heavily tattooed brewers that you know seem all PUNK RAWK and a little bit edgy, it’s worth pointing out that a romantic comedy isn’t.

I’m worried, you see, that movies are the death knell for popularity. They get released at the height of a trend. Look at the popularity of break dancing following the release of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Similarly, the popularity of skateboarding (although resurgent in the mid 90’s) took a real hit after being featured in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. Movies cash in on trends. The cash in part makes me think that we might be hitting the greed portion of the mania phase of the above bubble graph.

When you add to this the fact that the LCBO doesn’t have shelves for all of this stuff and that privatization in Ontario is pretty much a pipe dream for the time being (I still haven’t seen a serious study on that, by the way), it becomes pretty clear that (and I wish I could do a Sean Bean impression here) Winter Is Coming.

So, if you’re an existing brewery, you’re going to want some cash on hand. If you have an onsite store at your brewery, promote the hell out of it. If you’re a start-up brewery and you’re already brewing, for God’s sake do something interesting to differentiate yourself a little (bamboo beer doesn’t seem so silly now, does it?)

And, if you gave me a haircut about a week ago, you might want to wait a couple of years and see how the market shakes out before launching a new brewery in Toronto. Also, thanks for the nifty haircut.

Flights and Bites @ Fanny Chadwick’s – 2013

It’s no secret that one of the things I look forward to every year during Ontario Craft Beer Week is the comparatively larger number of people thinking seriously about beer and food. Beer dinners, for instance, abound. The version of beer and food pairing that I think is probably most illustrative is not a beer dinner, however.

A beer dinner comes with certain problems. There has to be a flow through the menu. The fact that you’re trying these plates sequentially with whichever beers are provided by the featured brewery can end up being somewhat limiting from a conceptual perspective. I should mention briefly that I’ve heard some lovely things about the beer dinner at The Auld Spot which featured beers by Michael Hancock and Matt O’Hara from Beau’s. If you look at bits of the menu, there’s a framework at play. It’s going to be pork heavy, given the name and nature of the restaurant (If your sign features a pig, you’d better be serving a very large amount of pig.) and the styles of beer on offer and the fact that the brewers are doing German styles of Ale for the most part.

A great deal of planning goes into a framework like that, and when it comes together it’s something to be proud of. It ties together cultural heritage, a restaurant concept, course progression and the taste of two individual brewers and a chef.

Personally, as an experience, I like smaller, encapsulated attempts at beer and food. I like it when the concepts behind dishes are defined mostly by a sense of play. The reason Fanny Chadwick’s excels at this is because they’re doing comfort food in a culturally indistinct sort of way. The menu incorporates the strengths of whomever happens to be working in the kitchen at the time and more often than not it comes together beautifully.

This year for Ontario Craft Beer Week, they’re again doing their Flights and Bites event, which allows the kitchen to cook with a number of the beers on tap and allows you to choose a certain number of beers to try with the dishes they’ve prepared. Compared to a five course beer dinner, it’s affordable and customizable, allowing you to choose from the 12 beers they have on tap (some of which, and don’t tell anyone up high in the organization at the OCB, are not even members).

Here’s the menu for this year. I’ve done something incredibly dull and decided not to play around with beer pairings too much. If the beer is used in the preparation of the dish, I’ve tasted that beer with the dish. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.

Popcorn glazed with a Lake of Bays Riverwalker Reduction

This would actually be a pretty variable bar snack. Someone should steal this idea.

This would actually be a pretty variable bar snack. Someone should steal this idea.

This is an interesting idea. The Lake of Bays Riverwalker is a lemon and ginger summer ale. While the citrus is present on the aroma, the finish of the beer is dominated fairly heavily by gingery bitterness. It’s not a subtle attempt at a summer ale, but it does what it says it’s going to. The question of what to with that is a slightly difficult one. You have to balance out the bitterness slightly and you want to play with the ginger without reinforcing it since it’s already pretty dominant.

In the case of this pairing, the reduction on the popcorn has been sweetened slightly and the popcorn has been garnished with a small amount of cilantro, scallion and lime. It’s a little like a thai cracker jack that never existed. It manages the bitterness in the Riverwalker pleasantly, and the salt perks up the entire experience. It is slightly difficult to eat. You will want a wet-nap.

Sprout Salad with Muskoka Mad Tom Braised Carrots tossed in IPA Vinaigrette

I don't have a clever caption for salad.

I don’t have a clever caption for salad.

This is clever. Mad Tom is a pretty big, brash IPA that I seem to recall weighs in at 64 IBUs. There’s a nice balance of malt sweetness and caramel, and the hop character is dominated by citrus and pineapple. The decision to use it in two different ways in this plate didn’t go quite the way I was expecting. Braising carrots in IPA is, I suppose, similar to a Vichy preparation, but since it’s an IPA I guess maybe Raj would be the more appropriate term. When you concentrate an IPA like that, the hop character increases and in this case the hop bitterness comes through in the braised carrots (which is good because they could have been overly sweet). With the vinaigrette the malt sweetness of the IPA comes through, I’m guessing because of the slightly spiky acidity. These two flavours balance out on the creamy mini bocconcini.

Crostini with Cream Cheese and Beau’s Lug-Tread Fig Jam topped with Housemade Lonzino

Ridges of Lonzino: Plating option or little known Ennio Morricone soundtrack?

Ridges of Lonzino: Plating option or little known Ennio Morricone soundtrack?

As a single plate, this is probably the most successful thing on this year’s menu. I like the vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright construction. I like the fact that it’s the kind of thing you might come up with at home as an hors d’oeuvre on a lazy Sunday. The difference is that at home, you’re not curing your own Lonzino with a small amount of lavender; You’re not making a rustically textured fig jam with a Kolsch. I tend not to think of Lug Tread as a bitter beer, but if you’re using it in a jam the bitterness will concentrate and here it provides some significant interest. This is mostly about four different textures coming together in the same bite. Paired with the Lug Tread, it draws more fruit ester out of the beer, enhancing a quality which is usually in the background.

Mussels and Steam Whistle Fritters with Vietnamese Dipping Sauce

I like the mussel shells as a bed for service. Better than what the Romans used them for.

I like the mussel shells as a bed for service. Better than what the Romans used them for.

I like this mostly because it’s a novelty for me. Usually when mussels are on a beer related menu, they’re simply steamed in the beer with some shallot and garlic. There are entire restaurants predicated on variations of the steamed mussel. What’s happened here is that it has been steamed in Steam Whistle, removed from the shell (probably pretty painstaking prep work there) and incorporated into a sort of cormeal breaded fritter with cilantro. You will remember I was talking the other week about Maillard reaction in malt and in dry heat cooking preparations. The deep fried fritter balances the Pilsner malt Steam Whistle is made with pretty marvellously. That specific sweetness is mirrored in the beer and the crust of the fritter. The fish sauce and tamarind provide salt, sweet, sour and umami. The fritter is actually three textures with the chew from the mussel, light filling and crusty exterior. Deceptively simple. Nice plating.

Also, there's a pretty excellent peanut butter banana ice cream sandwich. It was after this I decided to walk home.

Also, there’s a pretty excellent peanut butter banana ice cream sandwich. It was after this I decided to walk home.

I know that OCB week is sometimes about the big marquee events, but the Flights and Bites menu at Fanny Chadwick’s is worth your time. They seem to have knack for beer and food pairing. If you don’t make it during OCB week, it’s still a good choice year round. There are even rumors of a patio going in.

Beer and Food Basics: Hops and the Marshall Stack

One of the things that frustrates me when I’m reading a bottle of beer is when there are food pairing suggestions that don’t tell you anything. “Try this with spicy foods,” the label proudly exclaims, as though that conveys any useful information.

Usually, when the bottle says something like that you can be pretty much guaranteed that you’re looking at a hoppy beer. Wouldn’t it be better for you if you knew why you were supposed to drink something with some kind of food?

Here’s the thing: Hops create a significant amount of flavour in beer, but the level of bitterness in the particular beer you’re looking at tells you comparatively little. IBUs have ramped up steadily since I started writing about beer, but where a beer ranks in terms of IBUs on a scale of 1-100 doesn’t really convey useful sensory information except “hope you didn’t like your tooth enamel, Skeezix.”

There are all these different varieties of hops. If you’re a music fan, you could think of them as guitarists. All of the hop varieties impart different flavours and nuances to a beer, so it’s a little like the pantheon of guitar players. You might have something like Robert Johnson with his soulful playing. It might be like Bo Diddley, thrumming away. It might be a picker like Chet Atkins or Mark Knopfler. If might be some kind of technically virtuousic thing like Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen. All of these players have their own distinctive sounds.

What the focus on IBUs has done is to distract us from the character of the hops being used in various kinds of beer. Focusing on IBUs is a little like focusing on the size of the amplifier. It’s like asking someone whether the concert was any good and being told that the Marshall Stack was the size of a house. All you can deduce from that is that the concert was loud and that someone’s probably going to develop tinnitus.

If you’re thinking about beer and food, the hop variety is almost certainly more important than whether something is a 25 or a 45 or a 70 on the IBU scale. You need to think about what makes that hop distinctive.

If you look at the hop profile listed on a grower’s website, it tends to impart information like Alpha Acids and Beta Acids. Alpha Acids are what make a beer bitter. If you read a little further down the list, you get into essential oil content, and that’s the really important thing to consider in terms of food.

For the most part, these are called terpenes. Wikipedia is telling me that they’re primary constituents of a number of plants and flowers and that they’re responsible in large part for why organic things smell the way they do. This means that these are in hops, certainly, but they’re also in just about all the other plants you’d eat. This includes vegetables and fruits and spices (and grapes. To be fair, there’s some writing about why monoterpenes are important in wine, but comparatively little about why they’re important in beer.)

Rather than come up with some comprehensive list, let’s take a look at three hop varieties and how the essential oils from those hops create flavours. You don’t need to remember their names, but I want you to understand that if you notice a commonality in flavour between your beer and something you’re eating, it’s not by chance: The number of permutations of flavour in nature is finite. You’re not imagining similarity. Everything is made of the same stuff.

FUGGLES

Using this link as a guide, we can see that the hop oils in Fuggles is dominated by humulene, followed by myrcene, caryophyllene and farnesene. If you’ve smelled Fuggle hops, you probably know them to have a woody, herbal, practically minty kind of aroma. That’s because the humulene dominates the list of essential oils. Humulene is a sesquiterpene and it tends not to break down during the boil. Myrcene, on the other hand, is pretty volatile. What myrcene there is contained in a Fuggle is going to dissipate during the boil and you’re going to be left with other aromatic compounds including menthol, citral, linalool, nerol, geraniol and limonene.

In terms of pairing with food, what does this tell us? Well, it’s going to be woody and slighty herbal with some spice notes dominating. You might, if they’re used as an aroma hop, get mint or citrus or floral notes. They’re usually used as an aroma hop because of the low alpha acid content.

The important thing to remember is that just about all the plants in the world smell and taste the way they do because of the terpenes. You might want a beer dry-hopped with Fuggles if you’re having lamb with mint sauce since the commonality is menthol. Or maybe you want to try it with a light thai dish containing lemongrass since the common elements are citral and nerol. The important thing to remember is that these are accents over top of the underlying woody character.

SAAZ

Saaz is similarly used primarily as an aroma hop because of its low alpha acid. If you’ve ever had a Czech Pilsner, you’re probably pretty familiar with the variety. It’s herbal and spicy and I would usually use peppery as a descriptor for the aroma. Saaz hops usually contain about equal amounts of myrcene and humulene. What it contains in larger proportion than just about everything else is farnesene, which is giving it that herbal, vegetation, spice character. Typically, farnesene is much higher in noble hops than in the new world varieties.

You might think of Saaz as being sort of gentle because of the varieties of beers that it usually finds itself in. Think a bit about what it can do for food. The possibility of interplay of spices is pretty impressive, with black or white pepper complimenting a dish. With something like a jagerschnitzel, you’re suddenly playing the farnesene in the aroma of the pilsner off the earthiness of the mushrooms in the sauce. The great thing is that you didn’t know you were doing that, but that’s one of the reasons that pairing works.

CASCADE

I’m using Cascade here to make a point about new world hops. It’s a great deal higher in myrcene than noble hop varieties, as are the majority of new world hops. You’re not going to get much woody character from the humulene because there’s very little of it. It can be used for bittering or aroma because of the alpha acid content. The reason you get citrus and grapefruit out of it in a dominant way is because the myrcene breaks down into other compounds that commonly occur in citrus like citral and citronellol and citronellal.

I think that the preference for big citrusy American hops has a lot to do with California and the cuisine that grew up there. If you have the ability to grow citrus in quantity (try doing that in England or Germany) you’re going to want to mirror that flavour in whatever you’re drinking. Picture a fish taco without that bright spritz of lemon acidity. It’s just not the same.

WHAT DID WE LEARN

If you’re going to think about pairing hops with food, you probably want to think of them not as a main component of your pairing but as an accent. Rather than bitterness the thing to focus on is the aroma and flavour that they’re imparting to the gustatory experience. Since the terpenes that make up the flavours that hops impart occur naturally in spices and vegetables, that’s where you should be looking for commonality or contrast in your pairing.

For instance, if you’re thinking about a steak, the hops really aren’t going to have any interplay with the meat. However, if you’ve seasoned the steak with pepper or you’ve got a chimichurri or mole sauce or you’ve marinated in citrus, you’ve got an element to play with. If you know a little bit about the hops that went into the beers in your fridge, you’ve suddenly got a playground to explore.

The Basics of Beer and Food – Malt and Maillard

One of the things that frustrates me when I read about beer and food pairing is that the subject tends to get filed down into digestible sound bites. I suppose that makes sense given that a lot of communication on the subject takes place on twitter and in short articles. There are things that you hear over and over; notes cadged from Garrett Oliver’s Brewmaster’s Table and Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer.

One of the key rules that I’ve heard is that you want a light coloured beer with fish and a dark coloured beer with red meat. This has the benefit of echoing the traditional framework of pairing wine with food, but I don’t think that it provides enough information for people who are serious about pairing food with beer at home. I’ve been doing some research and I want to explain why this rule of thumb works in a general sense in a way that you can actually apply to your meal.

There are a couple of fairly basic principles that you have to understand about beer and food.

The first thing is, perhaps a little obviously, that beer is grain based. Certainly water makes up the majority of your beer, but grain runs a distant second. People claim that “hops are to beer what grapes are to wine.” I’ve got a t-shirt that says so. The fact of the matter is that the key thing to take into account when pairing beer with food is not the hops, but rather the grains that go into making your beer.

Most of the grain that goes into your beer is kilned (excepting things like wheat or oats). That is to say that the malting process results in a both the starches being converted into fermentable material. If you’re kilning a pale malt, most of the starches will be fermentable. If you’re kilning a darker coloured malt, two phenomena take place during kilning: caramelization and Maillard browning. Caramelization happens exclusively in sugars and it’s mostly responsible for the nutty and caramel notes you get from malt. The Maillard reaction happens because of a reaction between sugar and amino acids. If you’re getting biscuit or cracker like flavours from your beer, that’s the Maillard reaction.

If malt is kilned at a fairly low temperature, you might not get a huge amount of Maillard browning. However, there are specifically kilned malts that produce much larger amounts of Maillard browning. I’ve provided some pretty technical link there, but you can take my word for the fact that darker malts result in more Maillard browning products. Your darker crystal malts, for instance, are full of that flavour. As are Melanodin malts.

Maillard browning also takes place during the boil. You know that sludgy gunk that forms around the rim of the kettle that you scrape back down in? Some of that is hop sludge and some of that is Maillard sludge.

Why, you may ask, is this important? It will be. Be patient.

I was reading Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, and I want to talk to you about animals. Delicious animals.

Essentially, there are two kinds of muscle fiber in all animals. You’ve got short, fast twitch fibers and you’ve got long strand, slow twitch fiber. To generalize, your large land dwelling mammals like cows and pigs and mammoths and zebras are slow twitchers. Sure, your BBC nature documentary may show them doing dramatic things when they’re chased by lions, but for the most part being a herbivore  type mammal involves a lot of standing around grazing. Most of the musculature of these animals is designed for combating gravity in the long term. Some of the cuts of these animals are more tender than others, but by and large the slow twitch fiber will stand up to some pretty harsh treatment in the kitchen.

Fish don’t suffer the same effects from gravity. They have swim bladders. If you ever came home from vacation to find a floating goldfish, you know this to be true. Their musculature is basically about propelling them through the water with a quick movement of the tail. They’re darters. They’re always moving about. For this reason, they’re usually comprised of fast twitch, short fibers.

The culinary ramifications are important to think about. If you overcook fish, it flakes. That’s because of the short fibers. If you have an off cut of beef, you’re going to need to braise the hell out of it to break down the long fibers. Because of the way these different proteins are composed, we’ve ended up with different cooking methods for them.

You might steam or poach a fish with very light flesh. It requires a relatively delicate approach. Usually, you’re using some medium to transfer heat to them, whether you’re using steam or you’re cooking a sole meuniere in butter. Maybe you’re planking salmon and the ambient heat is doing its thing with a touch of smoke, causing the fish to steam itself. If you’re grilling fish, you’re probably doing whole fish and the skin is holding it together.

The majority of mammal protein you’re eating can be treated pretty roughly by comparison. Meat stands up to dry heat cooking methods like roasting or grilling or pan frying. The interesting thing about dry heat methods is that they create (I told you I’d get to it eventually) Maillard browning. Those grill marks on your steak? Maillard browning. The marvelous crackly bits of pig? Maillard browning. Anytime the recipe is telling you to sear the meat before putting it in your stew? Maillard browning.

So: here’s the important bit. Darker beer includes maillard reactions at a fairly basic and profound level. So do many of the dry heat methods that you’re going to use to cook meat. If you’re going to talk about pairing beer and food and you’re wanting to point out that beer works better than wine as a companion to a meal, it might be worth pointing out that this is something that wine doesn’t really have going for it.

By extension, one of the reasons that wheat based beers work so well with a wide variety of seafood is that they don’t contain as many Maillard components. I’m talking about Hefeweizen and Saison and Witbier here; anything with a significant amount of unmalted wheat in the grist.

If you’re trying to build a beer and food pairing for a dinner party or a beer dinner, it helps to be able to think through these things rather than simply judging a beer by its colour. These things can be designed from the ground up, but you need the information to do it properly.

Book Review – The Audacity Of Hops

Recently, I was sent a copy of Tom Acitelli’s new book, The Audacity Of Hops, for review purposes. I finished it last week and I can tell you that it’s well worth reading. The prose is engaging and the story that it tells of craft beer’s rise to prominence is thoroughly well researched and entertaining. It’s not exactly a page turner, but for a book that has 40 pages of notes and bibliographical references, he’s done a great job of keeping it factually dense without having it become a slog.

It’s a book that has become necessary, especially since we’re now well into a third generation of people for whom craft beer is relatively normal. If you were born in Ontario in 1994, you can now drink. I see people in their early 20’s for whom locally made IPAs have always been around. That’s progress.

The problem is that without a proper chronicle of the good old days, like Acitelli’s book, it can be difficult to understand that this wasn’t always the case. It must seem inevitable if you are just now starting to drink beer that craft beer will continue to grow and expand in infinite ways. It has, in other words, become commonplace.

The Audacity Of Hops is really best compared to something like The Right Stuff. It wasn’t inevitable that Gordon Cooper was going to spend a whole day orbiting the earth. I don’t mean to suggest that craft beer is as important as manned space travel. What I mean to suggest is that the narrative structure is the same.

The analogy might not stand up indefinitely, so I won’t push it too far. Suffice it to say that when Chuck Yeager was flying test planes it was about pushing the envelope and seeing what was possible. It was the Wild West in terms of aeronautics. At the beginning of the exploration of space you had the Mercury Seven astronauts. You had a small number of people capable of doing a difficult and demanding thing. The public knew them and loved them. They were personalities as much as they were pilots and astronauts.

In any endeavor, there’s a brief period of time when it is associated with the personalities that excelled at the beginning. Whether they succeed or fail, there’s a tendency to impose upon their stories, if you’re reporting on them, a sense of dramatic struggle.

This is where Acitelli succeeds. He makes Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman, Charlie Papazian, Michael Jackson and Jim Koch look as though they were all taking on the world from the same angle, all intentionally cahooting. You’ve got independent brewers and people running semi-legal homebrewing shops and people writing about beer, and all of these folks are pushing the envelope of what’s possible. It may not have resulted in the International Space Station and the Mars Rover, but heck, we’ve gotten some pretty good beer out of it.

The book kind of slows down towards the modern day. This is interesting, since there’s more information about more breweries and more brands of beer and more writers than ever there were before. Is it informational glut? Is it simply that it’s hard to put together a comprehensive history of two years ago if you’re attempting to thread a narrative through to the future?

This is a problem that craft beer faces, and it’s similar to the issues NASA faced following the moon landing. The initial narrative has more or less run its course.

The main issue with having legendary exemplars of an industry like Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe and the others is that they’re by nature iconoclastic figures. These are, by and large, highly intelligent people who didn’t like what they were doing and chose a new career. Jim Koch ran against Mitt Romney for the presidency of their Harvard Business School class, for God’s sake. He probably could have done anything, but he chose beer.

I’ve mentioned before, probably in the context of the sale of Goose Island to AB In-Bev, that this iconoclasm tends to be a mixed blessing for the craft brewing industry. Without a certain amount of gumption, we wouldn’t be where we are today. The fact that people took risks on an unproven industry in the late 70’s and early 80’s is the only reason we’re experiencing this renaissance of locally produced beer. In some ways, it’s a good thing.

There are downsides, though. Because it’s one person’s dream, it’s not necessarily a generational, familial type of business. Eventually, the people who started the earlier breweries find themselves to be of a certain age and begin to think about retiring. Breweries are huge businesses with a lot of equity sunk into equipment and branding and it soon becomes evident that you have to sell the whole thing as a going concern. Depending on who you sell to, the public might get fickle. Goose Island got blowback on their sale. Someone like Peter McAuslan, who recently sold his St. Ambroise to Brasseurs RJ, was simply wished well.

At some point, the rest of the pioneers involved at the beginning of craft beer will also fade out of the narrative structure of craft beer. Fritz Maytag is retired. Michael Jackson (who I increasingly wish I had gotten to meet) passed away a few years ago and is already part of a new iconography. Jim Koch turned 64 the other day. Charlie Papazian is 67. These folks will eventually want to (or have to) retire.

The problem is this: You never get the power of the original narrative back. Yes, there are now more craft breweries than ever. Yes, it’s an increasingly global fascination. However, there are now more voices than ever and its becoming increasingly unlikely that they will all continue to sing from the same hymnal.

You can probably name all three of the astronauts involved in the first moon landing. It was a momentous event. If pressed, you might be able to name two astronauts from the 1980’s. You probably can’t tell me the names of the people on the ISS at the moment. Sometimes, NASA lucks out and gets personalities like Commander Hadfield and they manage to bring attention to space exploration. That’s about as good as they’re going to be able to do because you can’t be the first man on the moon twice.

Craft beer is going to be like that. Acitelli chronicles the deeds of Greg Koch, Tony Magee, Kim Jordan, Sam Calagione and Garrett Oliver. The problem is that despite the fact that they’re excellent spokespeople for the industry, the industry is now so large that I’m not sure there can reliably be one spokesperson for any aspect of it.

The milestone Acitelli chooses to end the historical narrative on is the fact that there are now more breweries than there were a century ago, before prohibition. A very reasonable question to ask, and one that Craft Beer should be asking itself far more frequently is “now what?”

Big Rock – Changes in Direction

One of the things that always interests me in craft beer is how larger regional breweries deal with the market. Of course, there are independently owned regional breweries like Great Western who are pretty much devoted to doing one thing and doing it well. Then there are large breweries like Big Rock that make a number of different beers which would have been considered relatively adventurous at one point in their history.

It's Alberta. Each brewery is mandated by law to own a cow.

It’s Alberta. Each brewery is mandated by law to own a cow.

I’ve been compiling notes on beers from Big Rock for a while now, but it wasn’t until February that I got out there to see the brewery. One of the things that’s amazing to me is the amount of hushed respect that everyone I talked to had for the first brewmaster at Big Rock: Bernd Pieper. The brewery produces something like 330,000 HL and I was given to understand that most of it was laid out under his watchful eye. It can always be a little daunting to have a shadow like that around a brewery, especially if you’re trying to change direction.

Now, this is the size that they're making most of their beer on. It's huge. This is the third story.

Now, this is the size that they’re making most of their beer on. It’s huge. This is the third story.

The size is a significant factor in changing the direction of a brewery. If you’re making 200,000 HL of beer and another 130,000 HL of your capacity is tied up in brewing for contracts, then you’ve already got a relatively sure thing going. The beers all have an internal logical consistency for better or for worse. You’ve got a series named after animals which sells pretty well. You’ve got a series named after the brewery’s founder which is, I guess, more highly regarded. You can’t simply change a brand after nearly 25 years. Well, you could, but you’d always wonder whether the market would follow you before you rolled out the new brands.

It's the obligatory malt room shot. Only interesting because of the scale.

It’s the obligatory malt room shot. Only interesting because of the scale.

If you’re someone like Paul Gautreau, who’s brewing there now, I suppose the question is “what do you do to maintain the reputation of the brewery while attempting to keep up with emerging craft brewers who are free to create brands from scratch that feel contemporary?”

You have to stand out from the crowd, but in order to be considered by the crowd you probably need one offs. You could jump on the bandwagon and make a big hoppy west coast IPA, but that puts you square in the middle of intense competition from imports in a style you’re not known for. You could do that, but it would be an uphill climb. Instead, this year, they published a road map545957_10151547253490660_950734235_n

The decision to make a bunch of fairly esoteric beer reminds me a lot of Great Lakes in Ontario. In point of fact, one of the beers in the alchemist is a Stein beer, which is one of the things Great Lakes was doing when I first started paying attention. Superheating a lump of granite seems like a bad idea to me, but I have long since been rendered cautious by those PSA’s with the robot from Saturday morning cartoons.

Big Rock, possibly because they noticed that my column runs in Calgary, started sending me beer about a year ago. Now, some of them have been a touch underwhelming. I think that the Helles Bock was brewed very much to the dead center of the style and as a result wasn’t really a standout. I think the Saaz Pilz could probably have had a touch more Saaz in retrospect. I also question whether I simply don’t like their lager yeast strain. I usually get a slightly sour finish of Big Rock lagers.

I love it when people refer to systems of this size as their pilot system. It makes me wonder whether they homebrew in a small glacial lake.

I love it when people refer to systems of this size as their pilot system. It makes me wonder whether they homebrew in a small glacial lake.

But some of the Big Rock stuff has been pretty good. In point of fact, some of it has been really good.

Some of them I never wrote about in the newspaper. I think they understand that not all of them are going to make it to print. Take, for instance, Barghest Barleywine. Well, first of all, there are only 3000 bottles. Secondly, it’s not for sale in four of the markets in which the column appears.

It was as though I had asked them to send me the beer with the largest amount of Bargh possible.

It was as though I had asked them to send me the beer with the largest amount of Bargh possible.

That said, it was a pretty astonishing little number. It had already been aged in barrels for a year prior to bottling. I think that it was made in the image of the Thomas Hardy, and while I had to drink the bottle that was sent for notes, I had the sneaking suspicion that it would probably have aged and improved for five years. There was a slight character of sherry-like oxidation that I think would have merged eventually with the dried fruit and caramel that was in there. I could see what he was trying to do, which was a good sign. Trying to emulate something that respected while most people are going for big hoppy American Barleywine is laudable. (Next time, larger volume and more bottles so you can do vertical events in years to come.)

Seriously, 3000 bottles is just not a big enough run for something like this.

Seriously, 3000 bottles is just not a big enough run for something like this.

The Purple Gas didn’t really do it for me. I mean, who puts together a wheat based beer with an indigenous fruit variety and blue agave nectar… I mean, other than that time I did it.

The Paradox Light Dark Ale, on the other hand, was pretty darn good. I don’t know why they named it the way that they did. It was essentially a mild bitter. It was nicely balanced and at 3.75% it would have been a great summer barbeque beer. Probably, they should have made more of that one as well. (In my notes I gave it a 3.5/5. The spider tasting chart looks a little like a dyspeptic seagull, which is neither here nor there.)

The Erratic Stone Fired Ale (see, cause it’s a hunk of granite and they’re named after a glacial erratic.) was probably one of the best packaging jobs I’ve seen on a Canadian beer this year. The aroma was a massive caramel and sweet malt hit, but on the palate it dissipates away through some minerally tones. The first sip is luscious malt, but maybe so much of it that it seems to recede on subsequent ones. I have written in my notes “interesting style, good experiment” which I think is all anyone can expect of a Stein Beer.

This is a legitimately attractive packaging solution. If you told me it was from Big Rock without showing me the press release, I would have been shocked.

This is a legitimately attractive packaging solution. If you told me it was from Big Rock without showing me the press release, I would have been shocked.

Last week, they sent a beer called Rosmarinus Aromatic Ale, which is pretty much a Pale Ale with some rosemary infused. The rosemary exists in it as a faint aroma and as an accent on the palate. I don’t know why, but the hop schedule seems to have worked with it. Of the new school, this is probably the best result. Really quite tasty, plus I bet you could marinate a Pork Tenderloin in it.

Here’s the thing: Big Rock and Paul Gautreau are getting better at creation, which is a hard thing to do when you’re brewing a really large amount of only a few kinds of beer. The quality of the one offs has been steadily ticking up since they started them. Some of the ones on the list I’m actually excited about trying. The thing is this: being a creative brewer is different than brewing a brand on a large scale, but Big Rock is managing the transition better than I would have expected. At some point in the near future they’re going to really nail something and shock the hell out of everyone that hasn’t been paying attention.