Saturday, August 24, 2013

For the Loathe of Beer: How Big Liquor Proves Beer Has a Long Way To Go

Disclaimer: It is not my intention to "expose" any particular chain with this editorial, but rather to highlight the plights of the beer industry utilizing said chain's flaws as demonstration of this fact.

Retail Hell

Up until very recently I held a position with a large West-Coast beverage chain, "working my way up the ranks" from beer bitch to overburdened-beer bitch in the span of about 9 months. In summary, my CG career had hit quite the snag, and I needed something, anything, to incite a bit of money flow once again. Luckily, I had this little project of mine, Ben Likes Beer, which proved sufficient enough to suggest that I had a bit more than a casual knowledge of the product, and would be a fine fit for the position. Over the duration of the job I, in addition to the honorable positions of manning the cash register and swishing a mop around in the vague hope that it constituted "cleaning," found an entire beer department under my "ward," with the tasks of stocking, sales, and eventually buying under my belt.

It was about as glorious as you might expect, wrought with all of the miseries that come with a low paying retail position: erratic hours, monotonous work; all of the fun stuff that you studied in school for. This was especially true given the eclectic collection of customers the store saw on a daily business, ranging from the swipe-happy house wives with little to do but complain about your cabernet selection to the homeless man who reliably pays for his cold Fosters with a wet 10 dollar bill (Don't ask. I certainly didn't).

I genuinely believe everyone should be forced to work at least a few months in retail - if only as a crash course in treating people like people and realizing how damn annoying you are. Every time you decide you don't want something and put it back wherever you want, you doom your soul to another circle of hell. Seriously. It's in the bible somewhere.

But the purpose of this piece is not as a public service announcement for how damn awful working in retail is (that would take me an awful long time and I'm sure merely reliving it would only prove to raise my blood pressure). Nor is it to "get revenge" on the company that left me so frustrated that I had to seek employment elsewhere. Rather, it is to bring to light the situation in which the craft beer industry quietly finds itself, and how it has a retail battle to fight before being considered as significant in the market place as wine or spirits.

Second Fiddle

It was not tremendously difficult to discern that beer is of tertiary significance to this particular chain, and it was apparent from the outset; I was required to take a Wine Tasting class before I ever clocked in. I don't deny the importance of this - though not really a wine drinker myself, the knowledge I osmosed regarding wine and spirits has actually proven quite useful, and was of course pretty valuable in calming down the errant wine snobs that cycled through. What was concerning, however, was the utter lack of any resource or event even remotely comparable in regards to beer education. As such, I had many a customer placed in my lap when a beer question would arise. Though, to be fair, I would often do the same with wine queries. ("You don't want my wine recommendation. I'm the beer guy.")

From the break room to the cash registers, the entire store was awash with pairing guides, recommendation guides, holiday guides; one need merely to be awake during their shift to find some ways to help someone pick out a wine. Such resources for beer, however, simply didn't exist. Meanwhile, while the chain is proud to support and pay for the development of sommeliers (wine experts), the beer equivalent (the cicerone program ) is scarcely even acknowledged.

Wine is their bread and butter and, naturally, would be the most aggressively priced. "People plan their weddings around our wine sales," it was proudly proclaimed, while an "on-sale" beer was rarely more than a dollar off of a six-pack. Most alarmingly, such sales would commonly, and much to my frustration, be focused on "Big Beer." That is to say, oftentimes the big guy's wares - including "wolf in sheep's clothing" (brands parading as craft brew) - would be the most frequently discounted sales. I don't blame the chain for this, of course; the girth of such companies allow for lower prices than "little guys," can (or want to) contend with. But when said Big Guys get to stack the deck even more in their favor, it's the consumer who suffers. When Budweiser came in and rearranged our cold case, fewer than a half dozen craft, independent options were left in the fridge.

My manager and I worked quickly to reverse what they had done.

The most concerning aspect of this is the reluctance to give the craft brews center stage, even when their sales were increasing at a notable rate. With such a tremendous amount of dedication to wine and mass brewed options, it is difficult for craft beer to prove itself as a significant aspect of their sales. When the odds are put so decidedly against them, it's no wonder they look so darn unappealing. And that means people will continue to fall victim to the same timeless traps: too afraid to try something new, to discover something better. It's an uphill battle suddenly covered in ice.

Hops and Punishment

I can hardly decry an emphasis on wine when the business plan revolves around it, and the above issues were rarely more than mild frustrations. Wine is their focus, so it's not a tremendous problem if the beer department had taken a support role, right? It's not as though they actively sabotaged the department, did they? Except that they did. Often.

Beyond a poor distribution of sale focus, the errors go from casual grievances to downright insulting. I've heard tale of certain store locations situating its beer section next to pane glass windows (for those of you just joining us, light is the mortal enemy of beer). My particular location wasn't guilty of anything so heinous, and I can only imagine that the health of the beer section depended largely on the staff that was running it. Our particular location had some luck in collecting a lineage of employees with some passion for the beer industry. On a corporate level, however, the entire department was reliably dicked over, try as we might to defend it. It wasn't a position I ever regarded of anything other than one of necessity, but I did my best to use my interest in beer to properly run the department. Under the Age of Ben, our craft beer sales increased over 13%, and our line up went from 800 some beers to well over 1000. Not that anyone noticed, or cared.

The first strike down came with the discontinuation of an already pathetic single bottle program (ours took up a laughable 3 shelves on an even more laughable miniature shelf). Instead of expanding (we didn't really need three shelves worth of the same brand of pub mix), it was dismissed as too bothersome to deal with, despite the fact that a rival chain has had a tremendous amount of success with the concept. It's a safe way to experience new beers without investing too much on something that doesn't resonate with you, and I thought that the lack of a single bottle problem - admittedly difficult as it presumably is to maintain - was a true sign of a ambivalent beer seller.

Strike two came with an unrivaled stubborn streak that meant that they'd rather let beer sit on shelf until it was out of date before they priced it to sell. Christmas beer was a great example of this - many sat on the shelf until well into 2013. That an IPA is allowed to sit on a shelf for more than a couple of months is one thing. But to let one stick around for more than half a year is pathetic.

Strike three - the real deathblow - was the appalling mistreatment of the beer tasting. At first a fine demonstration and platform for beer education, beer tastings were a great weekly event in which I'd choose a themed flight (Beers of England, Beers With High Levels of Bittering Hops, etc.), it was something I actually looked forward to. And so did everyone else - I had regulars - crowds, even - and I sold quite a bit of beer. And then they happened.

Corporate. Though there were murmurings of change rumbling around months in advance, I had been optimistic that their proposed "upgrade" of tastings would be recognized as ludicrous and dismissed. I was not so fortunate; downgraded and combined with wine tastings, the beer tasting aspect became something of an insult: Please...enjoy these 4 lovely wines. And this one beer. It's called Blue Moon, maybe you've heard of it? I slapped my forehead at the "craft beer" line up more than once. Though, to be fair, one guy would later come in and tell me it was a great discovery. So at least we made him happy. Good for you, you sheltered bastard.

"The chain showed no loyalty to established customers," says one manager who felt as burdened as I did by the worrying changes, "[and it] left established customers insulted and wanting to go to another store." From Brasserie Scotch de Silly to Blue Moon, Trappist Orval to Stella Artois; a uniform destruction of the beer experience I had helped beer-curious locals to. I died inside. And so did the fans of the beer tastings - outcries of bullshit resonated as strongly with the customers as they did with the brokenhearted beer clerk. And the worst? This, so far at least, is still the case. That's right - even after a summer's worth of complaints, the tasting schedule has yet to revert to its superior version.

It's a mountain of mistreatment that of course puts craft beer in a negative light. What should be one of the biggest vehicles toward its success - a big-name liquor chain - has actually stood to do little than paint its beer department as a distraction from more (perceptively) lucrative departments in the store. For my Californian readers, I recommend speciality beer shops, filling growlers at breweries or other more focused, passionate endeavors that will regard the beer in a manner in which it ought to be. Craft beer is an ingrained, significant, and most importantly, growing, aspect of our culture. Seems foolish to ignore it so readily. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Beer Snobs And The People Who Hate Them

We can all agree, beer is a fun product, right?

That's the crux of its entire format; beer is the fun beverage. The patron booze of great times, beer is represented whenever people want to kick up their frivolities another notch with the help of something alcoholic - from frat parties to stadiums, beer is simply a reliable and approachable libation, comforting as an old friend. Upon inspection, it could be this very fact that has set beer's significance and presence as a significantly sophisticated beverage has been arguably stunted, but that, as so often, is a discussion for another time.

I don't likely have to sing its praises for you but I'll go ahead do it anyway: beer tastes good, it looks pretty, it gets you buzzed (or stupid silly wasted if your dad is paying, the beers are strong, and there's an important debate to have with friends regarding app development). It can have fun names, like Raging Bitch or Santa's Butt, gorgeous labels and elegant representation and supreme chuggability and unparalleled sophistication and everything in between and, oh, hey, I love beer.

But as much I adore beer and how it has ingrained itself into my life, I still recognize one significant fact:

It's only beer.

What do I mean by that? Well, beer has become, for a lot of people, a very snobby product. While the trend isn't necessarily new, it appears to be manifesting in a much more visible manner in the past few months, and the trend is, at best, pretty annoying, and at worst, potentially damaging to the craft beer industry.

"But Ben," you guys wonder, possibly aloud and to no one in particular, "aren't you a beer snob?" True, I have used that term to describe myself in the past, casually and playfully, abstracting to a point that I had intended to succinctly convey that "I'm a dude who knows his beer."

But upon some delightful interaction with some individuals who truly deserve the title, I've decided to retire it from my vernacular. Call me a beer aficionado. Or better yet, a ZythologistBut some would probably disagree: I am absolutely a beer snob.

Which is why I propose the "Ben's Super Official Hierarchy of Acceptable Levels of Beer Snobbery." Let's take this chart from FunnyOrDie as an example.

According to this, I'm some sort of hybrid between Snob, Egalitarian and Explorer, which I'm ok with, really. I suppose the snobby aspects that remain ingrained in me are the, dare I say it, disdain, I have for Big Beer. I die a bit inside every time I watch someone walk away with a Bud Light Platinum, which pulls me away from Egalitarian and into the snob territory. Super Bowl proved to be especially tortuous; after drinking the wonderful offerings from Abita, to be subjected to dramatically overpriced Bud Lite Lime on game day.

In the absence of good beer, I will drink "pondwater swill" (I was in a frat, after all), but it's not a good product, and for every instance where an InBev product would be appropriate, there's almost certainly a craft beer that will do it better, and, increasingly, for a similar price.

A bizarre local "cocktail" we had on a trip back home to MD. When in Rome, I guess. (It was surprisingly "not bad").  

"But I want something I can drink all day outside." Don't we all? How about Lagunitas Pils? or Scrimshaw? Krombauer? The point is, if occasionally scoffing at a lesser product puts me in the snob category, I guess I deserve it. But I'm far from the worst out there, which brings us back to the original point: Beer Snobs (the extreme ones) beer snob culture sucks.

It's especially apparent in Los Angeles. Allow me to offer a few bullet points that I have experienced with these lovely zealots:

  • A beer bar that considers itself so exceptionally wonderful that they won't let you alter anything on the menu 
  • Customers who say things like "I don't drink an IPA unless it's never been warm."
  • Breweries that would rather opt out of an entire beverage chain if they can't be promised fridge space 
  • People who hunt down special rarities with obnoxious fervor and will accept no substitutes

It's all a bit silly, really. I think the beer industry, by and large, does a very good job of maintaing a sense of self-awareness and the sense of fun that I so appreciate about beer. In the era of barrel-aging and dry hopping and champagne styles, there is still a sense of adventure that manages to stop short of being stuffy. Still, some beer snobs seem hellbent on taking beer into the direction of the stuck up wine tastings, where they conjure into their self-congratulatory circles discussions of flavor profiles they may or not be perceiving. 

The guy who told me, straight-faced, that he did not drink IPAs that were allowed to warm, struck a particularly hilarious chord to me. Hop Jocks (the bros who dismiss a beer if it's under IBUs) are annoying to begin with, but this guy was particularly if only because of the tremendous number of flaws in his logic:
  1. IPA...means India Pale Ale. Ale means the yeast require warmer temperatures. Meaning that the beer was warm at one point.
  2. Decent as the transport system is with beer distribution, there are bound to be some hiccups where the beer isn't going to be kept cold, especially where companies lack the space/resources to maintain cold storage (read: almost everywhere). 
  3. I appreciate where he was coming from: the fresher the hops are allowed to remain, the better the flavor, and refrigeration allows the flavor to maintain longer (this is the whole idea behind Stone's Enjoy By). But those are special releases - for the casual (but still excellent) IPAs, a bit of exposure to room temperatures (not hot temperatures) will not affect the flavor in any discernible way. 
Equally frustrating are the accept-no-compromises, devout beer soldiers, who call ahead and demand you set aside their barrel-aged, limited edition-what-have-you and get visibly angry when told it, despite your efforts to conjure their requests out of thin air, has not arrived yet. 

And don't get me started on Pliny the Elder...(yeah, I went there. It's really good. But damn people your Pliny the Elder boners are getting out of control, it's a great IPA not a damn miracle elixir). 

I suppose that my ranting at all about anything concerning beer would be construed as silly by most and automatically relegates me to "Snob" status, and I suppose I must accept it with some grace. I just hope that the industry is able to maintain its lighthearted and jovial nature while it takes the steps toward wider acceptance of its sophistication.

Just a thought.


Friday, May 31, 2013

Beer Tripping Volume III: The Neighbors - Smog City and Monkish

Malt Mecca 

It's no secret that Southern California - especially San Diego - is a mecca of the craft beer world. Plugging in "craft brewery" into Google Maps while you're in the area is a great way to turn the map into a pincushion - to say there's a ton is a bit of an understatement, and if you ever have the pleasure of being in the area, you owe it to yourself to pick one or two (or three or four...) breweries to seek out.

They have a guild. Does your Guild have beer?

What you might not know, however, is that a short trip north (about two hours by car...and on a separate occasion, please, I don't think "I'm studying craft beers!" will hold up against a DUI charge) will put you in Torrance, a beer-fertile region, ripe with brewery-friendly industrial parks, that is sprouting up baby-breweries and quickly becoming a more local bastion of surprisingly talented brewers peddling their wares. From Strand to Dudes to the two we'll discuss in a bit, the area seems to have ambitions of becoming a sort of Mini Diego, a treasure trove of "little guys," and a much more local option for the Los Angeles beerheads like myself. It's going to be a place to watch in the upcoming years.

The notion of the craft brewing phenomenon (a term that is well earned and well suited by now, I think) is indeed a romantic one; a bunch of lil' brewery Davids beating their little hydrometers on the massive leg of InBev and the other Goliaths. But, as much as we want all of those little guys to stick it to the man and end the reign of, as Stone calls it "Fizzy Yellow Beer," the harsh truth is that a lot of the little guys just can't make reliably good beer (yet).

As a humble blogger (with a phenomenal beer pallet and nearly unrivaled penchant for the written word and other such skills you should be jealous of), I don't think I'm in a position to give a bulleted list of breweries that aren't quite there. A homebrewer myself, I cannot imagine the difficulties of translating your little homebrew recipe that you've toiled over and multiplying it to a degree that makes it viable for distribution, so I do think that some patience is required - I'm not so arrogant to assume that just because I didn't care for a beer or two the brewery is doomed. I genuinely believe that any hiccups in the brewpot can be sorted out, and besides, even a bad craft beer is leaps and bounds better than the uninspired stuff being sold by the truckload (literally) by those Goliaths. But still, the concern remains; just because you want to open a brewery (and it does indeed seem to be a popular dream) doesn't mean you should. Lots of those aforementioned "little guys" get caught up in the dream, and their plans spiral into the impractical and poorly realized.

That said, the breweries you're going to experience in Torrance do not seem to have fallen victim to any such kinks in the line. Especially these two:

The Neighbors

It's common for breweries to be a stone's throw away from one another; it's what makes brew tour buses so feasible in San Diego. But for breweries to be literal neighbors is practically unheard of. And yet, Torrance start-ups Monkish and newbie Smog City are walking distance from one another, and make for a wonderful afternoon of some truly inspired beers.

Smog City Brewing

The newest brewery in a town of old friends, Smog City represents the efforts of Jonathan and Laurie Porter (talk about destiny), a talented couple that just seems to be excited about being a craft brewery. I was lucky enough to be in attendance for their tasting room's grand opening earlier this month, and it was one of my favorite beer memories. They seemed to be overwhelmed by the turnout - but responded not with panic, but rather gracious smiles. It was abundantly clear they were having the time of their lives.

Before the rush began, the brew room was quiet . Too quiet. 
"We sometimes feel like we're working in a bubble," says Laurie, "and don't see the buzz surrounding our work/beers." That ethic is noble (and palatable, but we'll get to that in a moment), but the bubble was certainly burst: after that Saturday, it was undeniable that Smog City was onto something great. But even better, Laurie managed to stay entirely likeable, excited and humble about the whole thing, even as people downed samples and pints with supreme gusto.

Given that it was the grand opening, the line twisted around the entire tasting area. The wait was notable, but as Laurie noted, no one seemed to mind the wait, especially when there was handcrafted beer waiting on the other side.

After all Helles broke lose (Haha!..Hop puns)

Offering both a selection of dependable standbys (Penumbra Stout and their IPA, Sabertooth Squirrel- seriously) and oddities (Quercus and the aptly named Weird Beer), the gamut present is unexpectedly excellent. They don't appear to have a clear-cut inspiration, opting to instead pick and choose their favorite influences from throughout the industry or, better yet, whatever they feel like doing. Here's a quick breakdown of some of the excellent brews on showcase at Smog City's tasting room debut:

Tell me this wouldn't look good framed above their bar. THANKS ART SCHOOL. 

  • Groundworks Coffee Porter - Coffee and beer isn't a particularly new concept, but it does have the unfortunate potential to come off as sort of gimmicky ("You got coffee in my beer! No, you got beer in my coffee!"), but if done well, the natural roast flavors of both unite to make a wonderful concoction. Groundworks, for the un-caffeinated (and the East Coasters), is my favorite local coffee chain, so putting it in beer is is sort of awesome by default, and was innately tempting. The distinctly rich flavor Groundworks coffee is on the pedestal here, and is full-bodied but surprisingly light and crisp. Potentially could replace your morning cup, if you seek two sorts of buzz at once (and I, for one, wouldn't judge you for an instant). 
  • Quercus Circus - Smog's funky beer evokes those crazy sours that are so en vogue right now. Cidery with a touch of that oaky and acidic goodness. Fun and approachable, it may not impress those who prefer their beers pucker-worthy, but Quercus is, well, quirky enough to warrant a taste. 
  • Sabre-toothed Squirrel - Their entry in the obligatory "We're From California So Let's Make Something Obnoxiously Hoppy" category, this squirrel has quite the bite (hehe). It's undeniably hop-forward and should please the hopheads in search of the next tongue-scraping experience.
  • Weird Beer - As advertised, this beer has a unique pedigree that made me think my Christmas had crashed into my summertime. Vanilla, cinnamon,  spiciness, lemon - it sort of reminded me of a lighter, more drinkable version of The Bruery's 5 Golden Rings (that Christmas beer I loved so much; needless to say I dug this one quite a bit). 
  • Penumbra Stout - By the books stout, with no frills (or thrills, really). Solid, but the least memorable of what I tried. 
  • Bourbon Red - For me, the crown jewel of the whole lineup was this beautiful ruby-colored goblet of burning love. Tremendously oaky with a wonderful collection of robust aged flavors, the smoothness of this one belies its strength. Very excellent. 
If you've had the pleasure of drinking extensively with me (it's awesome and highly recommended), you know I have a bit of a bone to pick with the craft industry: as craft beer finds its place grow in the market, so too do the egos of many of the brewmasters, who consider their work to be godlike, as though beer has suddenly transcended the bar and bottle and has become the burden of some deity ("Solve overpopulation strain" is right up there with "brew a killer stout using cumin," as it were). I don't decry a sense of adventure, but I do grow weary of snobby beer bars and craft elitism (a recent encounter at work told me that  he "doesn't drink hoppy beers that aren't refrigerated." I'm still trying to find my eyeballs after they rolled out of my head). 

Which is why I'm a fan of the Davids out there, the Davids like Smog City. It's an excellent and wonderfully welcome place that I genuinely wish great things for. They're not bottling, yet. That'll supposedly happen before the end of the year, and it'll be considerably longer still for their saturation to increase, but I'm tellin' ya (and you should listen to me because of my many, many books), Smog City is going places. They're just, you know, starting in Torrance. 

Monkish Brewing

A few uncoordinated stumbles to the left will put you at Monkish, a homebrew-turned-brewery with a decidedly Belgian influence and a veritable pantry's worth of unique and unexpected spices. Like the beers brewed by the brewery's namesake, all of the offerings are yeasty and malty, but make use of interesting ingredients that add a level of fascination to each brew.

Trade tokens for different tasters of Monkish's impressive lineup. 

Crux, a Beglian style single with elderflowers, and Feminist, a Trippel with hibiscus, were born of small batches before being joined alongside the likes of Lumen and Vigil as the brewery grew. Pink peppercorns, rose hips and thyme are just a few of the unique ingredients that have found their way into the beers, and the brewers claim that they have a dozen more in their back pocket for future adventures.

Magnificat was the leftover Christmas offering from Monkish, a delicious and warming ginger-wrapped brew that rocketed me straight into December. Anomaly was also another favorite, a rich and silky dark Belgian strong ale with tremendous yeast and caramel character. I was so taken with this one that I walked away with a growler's worth. It was gone within a day. 

Monkish is a bit closer to being ready to bottle and distribute, and the head brewer claims they should be up and running in about a month or two. Naturally, I asked if collaborations were imminent with their new neighbor. They seemed to think that was certainly the case, and were excited to have the company. 


Go to Torrance, if you happen to be driving between two of the big southern cities in California, or even if your Saturdays need some variety. It's a goldmine of fantastic David breweries and should certainly be experienced, if only to gain some hipster points. 

Just remember, I liked them before you ever heard of them.

Quick Plug

Oh...! Plug for beer friends that I made at Smog City! Please check out Girls Who Like Beer for a wonderful look at one girl's LA Beer Adventures, and follow @TheHoppyBeer for another's IPA fascination.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Beer Tripping Volume 2: The Bruery

Depending on where you live, it should absolutely be a priority to dedicate a weekend to taking a trek to whatever local brewery might be around. In fact...if you dig around just a little bit, you might discover a hidden treasure that you didn't even know about. Expand your beer horizons - any brewery of a sizable scale will probably offer some sort of a tour. Worst case, there's probably a tasting room where you can get affordable pints and tasters right from the source (or at least nearby - some tasting rooms are at satellite locations that should be fairly close by).

Or, you could do what I did - work at a retail liquor store and convince local breweries that a private tour would absolutely, totally spur sales of their beers. I don't necessarily recommend it. Customer interaction is soul-crushing.

But somewhere between restocking the cold case and picking up the fractured tatters of your spirit there are occasional perks involved, like when your manager comes and mentions that he managed to secure a private tour of The Bruery, one of your favorite breweries.

The Bruery At-A-Glance
Location: Placentia, CA
Founded: 2008 by Patrick Rue
Production: Around 3000 US Barrels

The Bruery, specializing in wonderful beer and soft focus since 2008.

If you haven't procured a bottle of anything from The Bruery, I highly recommend you do - their distribution is actually incredibly impressive given the relative small-scale nature of their operation.

Founded in 2008 (by Patrick Rue - hence Bruery), the young brewery specializes in the sophisticated and elegant, taking the Belgian tradition and running away with it in a wayward but suave manner (picture a symphony orchestra running a marathon, maybe). Fiercely experimental, The Bruery uses a tremendous variety of ingredients - from Thai basil to what is essentially blueberry oatmeal - most would never consider putting near their brew pot. And their entire lineup is available only in 22 oz bottles, where their beer does much of the conditioning. That means no six packs - though they do the occasional keg.

Their year-round staples, including Hummulusan Imperial Pale Lager, and Saison Rue, a Belgian farmhouse ale, are wonderful pairing or special occasion beers, and their seasonal and occasional stuff is the stuff beer nuts totally geek out over (go ahead...mention Black Tuesday to a beer geek and watch their equivalent of a beer O-Face). You might recall 5 Golden Rings from my 12 Beers of Christmas - that was from The Bruery, and was undoubtedly one of my favorite beers of 2012. They've made so many its a challenge to keep track of them all.

The Bruery also features its own "Reserve Society" - a sort of high-class "Beer Club" that allows access to the Provision Series - a collection of "small batch beers that will only be made once." The whole thing might come off as a bit "hoity-toity" but the brewery actually manages to remain very humble and down-to-earth, which is refreshing in an age where beer-snobbery is at all time high. Falling well short of snobby, the exclusive club comes across more as, well, special, and seems to be a celebration of beer and beer sophistication more than themselves.

Featuring more aging barrels than any other craft brewery (excepting Goose Island), The Bruery is fond of aging its collection, meaning its beer does an awful lot of waiting around before it reaches you, allowing the wonderful pallet of robust flavors to fully mature (think of that terrible Cheezit commercial).


Furthermore, you might say they're leading the pack with the American wild and sour beer phenomenon that has been picking up steam as of late - Sour in the Rye, Rueze, Tart of Darkness, Sans Pagaie... if you're a Sour Seeker (and I know there's an increasing number of you out there), Bruery is absolutely one to follow.

The Super Private Awesome Tour 

It was a Tuesday, and I got to go on a field trip. The grown-up kind, where I don't have to wear a name tageand I get to drink samples of awesome beer.

The Bruery tasting room wasn't open yet, and yet three beer enthusiasts were allowed to take a seat at the bar anyway, graciously hosted by Mass Olesh, Bruery's Director of Retail Operations and all-around cool dude. We were poured a small but potent array of the Bruery's new and favorite offerings as he mused about what they were up to these days.

First up was the Saison Tonnellerie, a hoppier, slightly drier Saison with the tiniest touch of sour and brettanoymces disruption. It was positively delicious but will - alas - see only "extremely limited SoCal distribution."

Next was their Loakal Red, a year-round favorite that features well balanced Cascade hops with great oaky, caramel flavors to back it up. We also got the scoop that, while originally only available in Orange County (hence "Loakal"), this tasty beer is going to be seeing CA-wide distribution soon (if not already). After that was its older, burly brother, Imperial Loakal Red, a bully of a beer that featured an definitive "aged" flavor, with mellowed hops and a pleasant burn of alcohol. I picked up a bottle of this for myself before we left.

I was curious about what they were up to, if anything yet, with the next beer in their Christmas-themed lineup, which by lyrical organization would be Six Geese-a-Layin, so I asked what we might expect. Turns out they would, cleverly enough, be using gooseberries, and that they should be doing some test batches pretty soon. I'm excited.

The final tasting we were offered practically had beams of light and angels singing as it was placed in front me - Matt was super awesome enough to let us experience (not merely try, mind you) Chocolate Rain. To put it in perspective, there's only 138 bottles of this stuff, is going for 150 bucks online, and was only available to members of the aforementioned Preservation Society. We felt special. And Great Ninkasi was this beer special.

[Edit: It's special indeed, but as reader Zach has informed me, it's actually relatively easy to nab if you're in Bruery's Reserve Society...for a "normal" price of about 50 bucks. In the "wild" it's considerably more difficult to come by]. 
We are not worthy!

Chalking in at nearly 19% ABV, it drinks very much like a port or sherry, with a decided thickness and a bevy of flavors that hit hard and seemingly in rotation - raisin, chocolate, vanilla. It was syrupy, sweet and was born of a very simple concept - "We thought it sounded good," said Matt. Their vision is flawless. 

From there we descended from our bar stools begrudgingly (and, admittedly, with some difficulty - 19% beers will do that) and were given a taster for the tour - Humulus Rice - a draft only offering that mixed the leftover rice from Tradewinds with Hummlus for a refreshing and coconutty session beer.

From there we got a peak at a few sections that aren't featured on their regular tour - their science lab, where the beer is poked and prodded (with science), looking at all manner of important details, including ABV, yeast strain health and possible taint issues.

...and their barrel aging room (as seen above, in the previous section), where hundreds of barrels lay in wait, their labels dictating what beer is inside and which ingredients have been added. I noticed one Barrel Labeled Smoking Woood (with three o's), and demanded to know if it's a special edition of Smoking Wood. Matt claims that even brewers make typos but I remain suspicious.

From there was the most important part of the tour...the Sticker Room. Spools upon spools of the labels on the Bruery's bottles - even the obnoxiously rare ones- sat there. The design geek that I am (or 25 year old who still plays Pokemon, whichever angle you want to go with here), I simply had to have a sticker. So I giggled joyously and nabbed a Black Tuesday label. It's now on my PC tower. Score.

This was as equally, if not more, tempting as the beer itself

The tour completed at the conditioning room, where the bottled and boxed beer waits for a few extra weeks to finish developing, and one more quick stop at the bar for a taste of Mrs.Stoutfire, a delightfully named rauchbier for those of you who like em' smokey.

I can't recommend The Bruery enough, really. If you live in Southern California, please give them a visit. I can't promise that you'll get the VIP treatment that I, a modest internet beer celebrity (or, you know, retail worker) got, but it's an exceptional tasting room in its own right. And if you're not in SoCal, do yourself a favor and pick up a beer from them anyway. You won't regret it.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Great Blog Crossover: Dessert Pairings

The internet is a wonderful place, isn't it? Ignoring comment sections, obviously - they sort of make me lose faith in humanity. But it's a great platform to shout to the world, "LOOK HOW MUCH I LIKE SOMETHING." Ben Likes Beer is obviously my little corner of the internet that allows me to share my passion for the miracle elixir known as beer, and I'm grateful that you fine people come over and read what I have to say. I know there are other beer blogs out there... and you better not read them. Seriously. So help me I will find out...

Anyway, for whatever reason, other people are passionate about things that aren't beer, and happen to write some truly splendid blogs themselves. One of these creative scribes is a friend of mine named Rachel Rice, a lovely lady who specializes in all things "totes adorbs," including bunnies, handcrafted knickknacks and cup cakes  that will totally make you go "squeee." Her etsy shop can be seen here: - second only to pictures of baby pigs in terms of internet cuteness generation.

Perhaps my favorite part of Rachel's repertoire of skills is her uncanny ability to make the absolute tastiest desserts you've ever had. Take it from me, a devout anti-cupcake renegade, who took one bite of one of her specialties -a strawberry filled, almost cornbread-like number - and literally uttered "Oh my God." The girl's good.

So from this, two separate passions on different sides of the internet, from two different coasts, came an idea: The Great Blog Crossover. Here's how it works; I picked out a beer - Dogfish Head's Theobroma - and had her design a dessert that would go well with it. I, on the other hand, was sent a dessert recipe to recreate and pick a beer to go along with it. Pretty simple. Here's what she ended up with, please do yourself a favor and check it out.

Beer and Dessert - together?! Well, yeah, of course- practically every dessert out there begs to be paired with a brew, but more on that in a little bit. Here's the recipe Rachel so graciously lent to me:

I'm a decent enough cook, but baking was never particularly my specialty- aside from Christmastime, when I don the apron and pump out enough Christmas Cookies to feed a yuletide army. But a pie? A pie always seemed like the crowning achievement of a baker, but Rachel's recipe removes a lot of the chaos by graciously allowing you to use a pre-made pie crust instead of making one from scratch (which requires a PhD, I'm fairly certain). But this? This was cake. Or, you know, pie. And it's, Hell, I'll say it... yummy.

More or less a bourbon-accented apple pie, it's wondrously easy to put together. If your oven is as ancient as mine you'll need to leave it in a bit longer than 45 minutes, and mine sure as hell didn't come in any form that was "sliceable," but hey, it was really tasty and it pairs really well with beer. 

But what exactly makes a beer pair well with food, specifically dessert? We've all heard of wine pairings, of course, and dessert wines and the like. But Beer pairing is a very elaborate world in itself (and again I find the need to recommend Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer if you want to learn more), with its own set of guidelines, so taking a look at dessert pairings, arguably the easiest course to pair, is a great introduction.

First, let me share with you the beer I have gone with for pairing:

Stone's Russian Imperial Stout is a limited release that gets released in small batches, and the Espresso version, obviously, kicks it up with a robust coffee flavor. Like much of Stone's offerings, this beer is bold and intense, dark and sporting a notably hearty ABV of 11%, though the espresso flavor does well to subdue the burn of the alcohol. That doesn't suggest it's a "drinkable" beer - its richness alone will slow you to careful sips, and there's a fairly powerful background hop bitterness that actually pairs nicely with the associated flavors. It's very much an intense beer, but that works perfectly for what we're going for here.

Food AND Beer Porn. Eat your heart out, Instagram Hipsters

A big aspect of pairing beer with food is balance. Big, robust, bitterness demands a sweet counterpart to even it out, which is what we have at play here. Take a bite of pie, then a sip of beer. If you've paired well, it should be a completely different, and completely improved, experience. The sweet-and-tart flavor of the apple pie balances the rich bitterness of the Espresso Stout, bringing both to even levels. Add some vanilla ice cream and it'll go even better (duh).

But this, of course, is only one example. A lot of the time whether or not a beer will pair well is as simple as reading the "main flavor feature" of the beer, and determining if that ingredient, extracted from the beer, would go with the dessert by itself. Obviously coffee beers are a great option, given coffee's common pairing with a meal's finale. And so are bourbon barrel-aged beers, for a similar reason. In fact, given bourbon's presence in the pie, any of those beers would be a no-brainer pairing. If something boasts a caramel profile from caramel malt, this beer is practically begging to be paired with a dessert and you should do so immediately, preferably in the middle of store. Make some friends.

As a general rule of thumb, the more intense the flavor, the more intense the pairing. So, for example, you wouldn't pair a Pale Ale with a Chocolate Lava Cake, simply because the Pale Ale would get lost in the intensity of the dessert. Likewise, a delicate dessert like a panna cotta might night be able to stand to the richness of an Imperial Stout.

A few other rule stand-bys:

  • Generally, dessert pairings need need a higher ABV to stand up to the flavors associated with dessert. Think 8% or higher.Much less than that is gonna get lost very quickly. 
  • When in doubt, go Belgian. These beers tend to be chock full of flavors - caramelly sweetness, roasty malt, low hop profile - that will blend perfectly. Their elevated ABVs will help out, too. 
  • It seems counter-intuitive but hop-bomb Imperial IPAs can reign in an out of control sweetness some desserts might sport. Again, stick to a higher booze rating. 
So there you have it. You can never have too much of a good thing. Beer is good. Dessert is good. When their powers combine, well... it's almost too good to be true.

Big thanks to Rachel. Remember, check out her half of these shennanigans:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

If a Bottle Can, a Can Can, and Other Can-Related Puns

Change is brewing (See? Beer puns in the opening sentence. When I promise, I deliver).

The bottle has held an iron grip on the craft phenomenon for as long as it has existed, and it's not particularly difficult to discern why: cans were (or are, based on the perceptions of many, including my readers, but we'll get to that in a bit) relegated to second-class vessel, reserved for cheap swill and garbage beer with no place but disappointing frat parties, as though that isn't redundant.

And yet for many more, it's simply the only way to consume beer, though it's unlikely that this market has much interest in craft brew. To this day, preparations for my Christmas Eves are reliably marked with picking up a few packs of Coors Lite for one uncle, and Miller Lite for the other, as though "The Big Three" are the only beers that exist.

Mmmm Generic Beer Goodness 

The quality of these beers (or rather, the lack thereof), is largely regardless of their container, of course, but for those decorated beer snobs out there (I love you all, by the way), the bottle is best.

And this perception is sort of compounded by history, not unrelated to those three canned tyrants. Indeed, the first canned beers were considered novel. They stacked neatly in the fridge, were light to carry - both noted benefits for the demographic that was doing most of the shopping at the time (that is to say, women). Prohibition, naturally, devastated beer consumption and quality, and World War II limited cans as the metal was needed elsewhere, but soon after the popularity took off, especially as the desire for consistent, reliable and "truly American" brands like Coca-Cola found a place in the culture. Canned beer settled in comfortably among this mentality, especially as companies such as Miller were injecting perceptively-female concepts such as light beer with a dose of testosterone, which lead to the Lite phenomenon that would become perilously synonymous with canned beer.

But the noble bottle, steadfast as its prevalence may be, is finding its throne, well, not necessarily challenged - maybe aggressively poked at? - as breweries are adding cans to their lineups.

Let's take a look, for example, at Maui Brewing, a small craft brew on the island of Maui, Hawaii that peddles its wares, including its Bikini Blonde and Coconut Porter exclusively in cans. The brewery defends the can from a purely environmental perspective, keeping the prosperity of their beloved island first and foremost in their minds. Cans, as they astutely observe "don't break like glass bottles," thereby protecting the plethora of beaches and the tourists that peruse them.

Googling "Bikini Blonde" actually, mysteriously, returned much different results. Image from Maui Brewing. 

But the benefits of cans don't dissipate as we travel to the mainland; regardless of how many beaches we're surrounded by, canned beer does offer a host of benefits. For me, the most lucrative aspect is the opaque nature of a can. Hold up a beer can in front of a light. Can you see through it? If so, congratulations on being the most useless member of the X-Men ever. If not, you see a pretty obvious benefit of canned beer - light can't get in. With glass, the best case scenario (brown bottles) can only keep UV damage at bay for so long, with other colors (green and clear) offering considerably less, and leading a beer to its skunky demise far sooner than one would hope for. Canned beer will last far longer than its bottled counterparts.

Then of course there's a slew of other relatively small but still notable perks to canned beer: it chills faster, it requires no bottle opener, it is easily recyclable (and requires less materials - no cardboard six pack carrier) and they're lighter and easier to transport (you know, for the drinker on the go). And that crazy thought that beer instills a metallic taste into beer? Well, it's kinda bull, unless you're licking the can (I know you're out there) - we perfected the beer lining awhile ago. A few breweries are embracing the can, either giving you the option of of picking up a canned or bottle six pack of their popular beers (including Avery, Kona, and Ballast Point), while others do cans exclusively, such as Oskar Blues (a favorite brewery of mine, by the way), 21st Amendment and the aforementioned Maui.

Basically, in the can versus bottle debate, it's sort of a moot point. Pour a fresh beer from a can or a bottle, and it's pretty likely that you're not going to be tasting a huge difference (unless, apparently, it's Budweiser, where "64 percent of participants correctly identified the canned Budweiser," according to Huffington Post, and only "17 percent...preferred it", but are we really surprised?)

Still, it bears noting this equality is contingent on the fact that you're doing what you're supposed to and pouring the beer in a glass. If you're at a party without glasses (consider new friends) or are camping, or are just lazy, then the complaints of that aluminum smell and taste are reasonably valid. And, if you need further validation, bottles do indeed come with a few perks of their own: while cans chill faster, bottles stay cold longer. And my favorite point is the perceived elegance of cans, or really the lack thereof; a six pack of cans may be nice for a casual visit to a friend's for the game, but there's something truly beautiful and special about a tall, corked bottle of beer (can you imagine a 750 ml can of Chimay)? Either way, the variety is nice to have.

Of course, we could always try to go back to the "best of both worlds," the cone top can. Image from Beer Can Pro.
But while we're talking about cans...

Caldera Ashland Amber
Ashland, Oregon
6 Pack Cans, 5.6% ABV
Poured into pint glass

They say one of the perks of modern beer cans is that they appeal to the "outdoorsy" types, who are just cool enough to be picky about what they drink as they careen down a river, mountain, or active avalanche. Caldera, with the advice to "GO FISHING... GO BIKING... GO CANS..." may be right up their alley. It also happens to be a pretty solid beer in its own right.

The head is bubbly and very sweet, with a touch of roast. Maybe it's all that outdoorsy "why in the hell are you sitting at a computer" talk that damn label was parading around, but I was reminded of toasted marshmallows. The beer itself keeps the sweetness reserved, but is wonderfully smooth, very drinkable, but very much full of flavor. I detect, somewhat strangely, a touch of buttery flavors that I don't actually mind at all (but it is a bit strange, especially since "buttery" is usually a telltale sign that something went amiss getting that beer to you, especially with the draft lines, but that's obviously not the case here). It has a nice malty richness that is uplifted by subtle hopping, and you could easily put away a few of these very quickly. And, by the way, it is completely devoid of any metallic flavors and the desire to smash it against my forehead.

But then again, I've only had one. So far.

Next time you're at the your favorite craft brew store, give a craft six pack of cans a try. You might be surprised.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Wheat: The Other Beer Grain

We all know how beer "works," right?

Or, at least, the basic concept. Like so many other things in the world, beer gets infinitely more complicated when you look at it under a microscope; getting into the minutiae of the fascinating and incredibly involved chemistry behind beer - that is, how beer "works" - would quickly take a turn for the overwhelming and require volumes to properly explain (it requires science), and admittedly, more knowledge than I  (currently) - possess. I'm working on it!

That said, we don't need to know the chemical makeup of a beer to know if it tastes good, of course, but for the sake of this "beerducation," a small (incredibly abstracted) primer would probably be beneficial:

  1. Harvested grain is soaked in water, which in turn make the grains germinate - that is, begin to grow, ripe with starch. 
  2. The grains are heated to stop the germination and to activate enzymes within the grains. From here, the grains, now called malt, will be mashed with water in order to start breaking those starches into simple sugars - yeast food. 
  3. After a few (integral) steps, including boiling (again, much could be written on these matters alone), the beer will reach its fermentation tank, where yeast is introduced to the wort, and the delightfully named zymurgy (that is, the science of fermentation), takes place, where the yeast eat the sugars and converts into carbon dioxide (the fizzy) and ethanol (the fun). 
Again, this is almost insultingly boiled down (pardon the beer pun), but it does help to convey the message I'm getting at here: grains are the source of the sugars we feed to yeast. Barley is by far the most common grain utilized in the production of beer, but its not the only option. Oats and rye have found their way into many beers, each with their own unique elements to lend to a beer. 

But today, we're focusing on that other beloved grain, wheat.

Wheat Wars

Useful for crushing thin, or inspiring Athlete-themed breakfast cereals, and arch-nemesis of celiacs (and the completely bizarre celiac-wannabe/fad dieters, I guess), wheat has found its way into much of what we eat on a daily basis. In terms of beer, though, wheat's presence in beer extends back for centuries, and has become an integral ingredient in many styles for which it has become a sort of linchpin. Some countries traditionally eschew the grain altogether (See: England), while others fully embrace it as a cherished beer variety. Wheat is also a great ingredient for creating a rich, foamy, cloud-like head, so many brewers will throw in just a touch in order to achieve that effect.

Pictured: Corsendonk Trippel with a head so nice you could nap on it.

Wherever the styles sprout up, they tend to be attributed to the term white, due to either being lighter than other beers available at the time, or to the fact that white and wheat have the same etymological origin.What's interesting, though, is how much those styles vary between the countries in which the grain is utilized:

 An important footnote in wheat's pedigree includes the Reinheitsgebot, a (relinquished but still largely observed) German purity law that dictates simplicity in German beer, was actually enacted, in part, to outlaw the use of any grain but barley in beer, as to reserve the wheat exclusively for bakers. The other part was to stop brewers from putting weird herbs you've never heard of into their brews (we'll get to that in a second, Belgium). 

That aspect of the law was actually rescinded shortly after, meaning brewers were again free to put wheat in their beers to their hearts' content, but the other elements (that is, that beer may only consist of barley/wheat, water, hops and yeast) remained in effect until 1988, and is still observed by many breweries. To this day, any beer that utilizes wheat must be an ale. 

The most classic example of a German wheat beer is, of course, the hefeweizen (hefe- with yeah, weizen - wheat, so a wheat beer with yeast), a beer that remains unfiltered and garners a distinct cloudiness from the yeast still floating around in it. Reasonably sweet, a good hefeweizen should throw notes of pepper and citrus, with a very reserved hop profile. Most German wheat beers make use of a combination of both barley and malted wheat, and the wheat ale yeast should feature a distinctive "banana bread" aroma. Several variants include kristalweizen - filtered wheat beer, and dunkelweizen - literally "dark wheat," a wheat beer that features longer-roasted malts. Every significant brewer in Germany will brew at least one weizen for their lineup, with many carrying two or more varieties. Hopf, Erdinger and of course Weihenstephaner are just a few "big names" to consider, and each of their wheat offerings are dependable. I think the Hopf Dunkel weiss is particularly nice. 

I like this brewery because it keeps the number of  angry-sounding consonants to a minimum. 

Like most German beers,weizens are going to be very simple, very reliable and, usually, very tasty. Content with the classics, German brewers tend to adhere to that adage of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and while German beers are rarely distinctly fascinating, they are dependable.

That said, a few interesting wheat "oddballs" do exist. A Gose, for example, is a sour oddity from Eastern Germany that makes use of coriander and salt (seriously) - and as such, does not adhere to the Reinheitsgebot - but is indeed wheat based. Another is the Berliner Weiss, a quickly disappearing anomaly from Northern Germany that uses wheat and lambic-like sourness. A syrup, usually raspberry or woodruff flavored, is added. It has largely disappeared in its native homeland, but American breweries are trying their hand at the stuff. 

Also seen restoring health bars in your favorite video game. 


While Germany was clamping down on runaway ingredient lists, nearby Belgium took an "Eh, why not" methodology and added a veritable pantry's worth of herbs and spices to their beer recipes. Before the rise of the hop, Belgians (and, indeed, other brewers worldwide) made use of something called a gruut - a ground blend of different herbs that seemed to serve the same bittering and preservative aspects of hops. Hops replaced this old-world mash due to its reliability and better predictability, but the concept of the grist, and some of the herbs and spices associated with it, especially coriander, orange peel and cumin, were revitalized in recent decades.   

This owes largely to a man named Pierre Celis, whose invention (which harked back to a beer from his childhood) sought to reuse some of the classic spices associated with beer, and would come to be known as Hoegaarden. While that beer may hardly be what it used to be since being scooped up a multinational conglomerate, the trail was blazed for the style. Much spicier and often sweeter than their German brethren, Belgian wheats (called wits or weisse) tend to make use of a higher percentage of wheat in the mash, which may or may not be malted at all.

 They tend to sport the same cloudiness, with a creamy head and bread-like notes, and a very prevalent orange flavor (ditch that orange wedge; it isn't necessary if you're actually drinking a good beer). The flavors here sport a bit more of an impact, but rarely overwhelming, and the hop profile remains practically non-existent. Some good examples include St. Sebastiaan Grand Reserve and Blanche Des Honnelles. 

Of course, Belgium is home to one of the arguably "weirdest" beer styles out there, the lambic, which makes use of unmalted wheat before undergoing its spontaneous fermentation and barrel aging. They are though, in their own unique way, still wheat beers. 

So wheat has earned its keep in a large collection of beers from two of the biggest beer-producing countries in the world. American wheats have their own thing going on, of course, but many, including a few of the incredibly popular "summer beers" like Shock Top and Blue Moon owe their existence to a foreign concept (meanwhile, other breweries truly get the homage right, like Allagash White). A few others, like Lagunita's A Little Sumpin' Sumpin Ale are doing something distinctly American (namely, making the hop flavor very predominant, something vaguely unusual for a wheat-based beer). Still, wheat, whether a small portion with an intended purpose or a highlighted element, is an integral beer ingredient. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Aging Gracefully: The Art of Aging Beer

It is often said that good things take time. It's only a matter of time, or, time heals all wounds. Pick an idiom, any idiom, but the concept's the same: time changes things.

It is this very construct that turns mashed grapes into wine or mashed corn into bourbon. But what about when a product reaches its final destination, when those grapes have become shiraz and that corn is in a manhattan? For some spirits, like whisky and cognac, time stops once the bottle is sealed (a bottle of 10 year cognac doesn't become 20 year cognac because it sat collecting dust in your basement for a decade). Wine's a different story, of course, with many aficionados dedicating entire cellars for their extensive collections. 

But what about beer, you surely ask? Well, that gets a definitive "it depends." 

At first, it's kind of difficult to imagine bothering to age beer, considering the nature of a lot of the beer we drink. Much of the imagery associated with beer highlights how the powers that be (which include a silver-coated train barreling through snowy summits, apparently) work hard to get your beer to you fast. 
And that's because for many styles, including most lagers and the mass brewed junk, are pretty delicate brews; time is the enemy - at the moment it is canned or bottled it is, presumably, in its ideal state. 

From there, the more steps (and by proxy, time) it takes to get to you, the more likely the beer's quality and taste are to deteriorate. Any number of hurdles - drastic temperature changes, light exposure, improper handling, among others - can appear on this journey, all intent on ruining the brewmaster's vision and your beer experience. 

As any devout beer fan will tell you, old beer is a great way to ruin a good time. We've all been there - the wine drinking party host helpfully offers that there's "some leftover beer in the fridge," and you trudge over only to discover an open box of some brewery's Springtime offering - from last year. You sigh and begrudgingly pop it open, only to imbibe some nearly flavorless swill that barely constitutes being called a beer.  You then presumably sob quietly to yourself. 

So how do you know which beers are ready to age? A few simple questions will help you make it easy to weed out quite a few beers that simply aren't meant for aging. 

Is the ABV percentage less than 7 or 8%? 
If so, don't bother. A big part of what lets a beer stand up to time is its alcohol content. Beers with lower alcohol content are often meant to be enjoyed very cold and often very quickly. The fresher the beer the more vibrant the flavors. A notable exception to this is the traditional lambic, a style prized for its tart and sour flavor, but we'll get into that some other time. 

Is it a lager?
Again, if so, you don't typically need to bother. Lagers tend to be lighter and colder than their bold ale brothers, whose warm-fermenting yeast tend to sport fruity flavors, and the flavors associated with lagers are at their peak when they're first packaged. That is to say, lagers don't tend to sport flavors that will benefit from aging. This isn't an all encompassing rule, of course, but it's generally a pretty safe rule of thumb. 

Are hops the showcase? 
Does the beer promise to bitter your face off? Does the beer name some clever use of the word "hop" like "Hoptimum" or "Hoptimator"? If so, then you don't want to age it. Doing so would only ruin what the brewery was getting at - that is, keeping that hop intensity in the forefront. The first thing to go as a beer ages is the aroma and bitterness from the hops, so while taming the hops in some beers could be a benefit, that's not the intention of an Imperial IPA or similar style. 

In certain examples, breweries go out of their way to deter would-be cellarers from aging their beer, such as Knee Deep's Simtra, which sports a pretty clear disclaimer on its label.


An even more extreme example is Stone's Enjoy By series, a collection of beers that sport a very clear date by which you are expected to drink the beer (hence, "Enjoy By _____"). The beers arrive in very small batches, are kept cold, and quickly turn into a running of the hopheads, who anxiously dash into every specialty beer shop in site in hopes of scoring a bottle. I begrudgingly admit that it is incredibly tasty and worth scoring at least a taste if you can. 

Alright, I get it, let me age something, dammit.

Well, ok. If you haven't deduced it, let me help out: the beers worth aging tend to be higher-alcohol ales. Even better if they're "bottle-conditioned" - these "living beers" still have a lot going on in terms of their maturation, even after they leave the brewery. A cork is a pretty reliable indicator that a beer could stand up to some aging. A reliable variety is barleywine. Whatever you chose, keep the temperature as consistent as possible (around 50 degrees is ideal if you can swing it), and keep the beer on its side for prolonged aging (to prevent excess carbonization loss). 


Barleywine - A variety of beer that uses a massive amount of everything - hops and malts, to create an equally massive beer that tends to sport a high alcohol content and distinct sweetness and lends itself well to contemplative sipping. Traditional English barleywines are indistinguishable from old ales, a traditional type of beer brewed in October to stand up to the colder months and lack of beer ingredient harvests. American styles tend to be an homage to American brewing, making big use of malts and hops that you can only get here. Great for use in aging as the flavors change in very discernable ways. 


Bigfoot Barleywine 2011 and 2013
Sierra Nevada Brewery 
Chico, CA
9.6%, 4 pack
Served in Tulip Glass 

There are two ways to compare aged beers. One way is the old fashioned method - wait. Barleywines from "big" craft brews such as Bigfoot tend to be reliably available at your favorite beer spots, so buy a 4 pack and put a few bottles away for a year or two, then buy that year's batch. Or, do what I did, and luck out - I bought a 4 pack of 2013, and managed to find a single bottle of 2011 at a local specialty beer shop. Give it shot, you might get lucky. Otherwise, wait it out!

Bigfoot Barleywine: The siblings 


Randy Mosher, author of "Tasting Beer," claims that fresh Bigfoot is "a little overwhelming,"and he might have a point. Bigfoot has a great amount of absolutely everything. The aroma is distinctly hoppy, with just a touch of sweetness, which is a great hint at what's to come. The mouthfeel, though creamy, is intense and sparkling, and a sweet opening turns into a hop overload at the tail (the term "bittersweet" comes to mind). We're talking Imperial IPA levels of hop here, people, which I admit I was a bit surprised at. 

The generous bounds of everything in this beer are pretty clear and the packaging's warning - "a beast of a beer" - is pretty appropriate. Tasty, yes, but not particularly friendly or approachable. Enjoy carefully. 


Step back two years, however, and you have an entirely different beer and a terrific example of what time can do to a beer in a beneficial sense. The hops have been reeled in, which is particularly noticeable in the aroma - previously floral, they've subsided to a yeasty, almost savory sweetness. This is the case with the flavor as well, which has likewise mellowed, though it still features a bitter finish that sticks around. 

Rich is the appropriate word here, and it evokes many of the same senses that a steak might. That might not sound particularly delicious in a beer, but what's at play is fascinating, and a great example of what can happen with the ingredients are left to do their thing. I like this version infinitely more than its younger brother. It has matured, and calmed, and come into its own. 

By the way, in terms of aging beer, 2 years can be just the tip of the iceberg. Many age-friendly beers can be aged far longer, So, get started! Put a beer somewhere!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beer Pouring 101 - A Lesson (Featuring Internet Culture)

Pouring beer is hard.

And no I don't mean pouring a lukewarm can of some mass-brewed swill down your gullet. That's easy. And admittedly kind of depressing (not to say I haven't been there, ya know, a lot...).

What I mean is that pouring a nice bottle of beer properly is hard. Anyone can crank open a bottle, dump out its contents into any ol' vessel and guzzle it down (and for some session beers, that's actually ok, if you insist), but with all that effort you went through to procure that awesome little bottle of wonder, don't you think you want to do everything you can to make sure the little guy is at its finest? There are a few steps between bottle and sip that you ought to observe.

The way a beer "tastes" is an amalgamation of a lot of different factors - smell and mouth feel are just as important as the way it interacts with your sense of sweet, sour, bitter, etc. Paying close attention to these factors is a pivotal aspect of enjoying beer, and this topic alone could fill books (and certainly has). But for the sake of this particular post we'll limit discussion to how you can make sure these factors are "observable" as possible for your next beer pour.

Step One: Pick a Glass to Match the Occasion

Much to the shock of absolutely no one (I hope), the contraption you put your beer in has a lot to do with the way you experience it. Or, rather, it has the potential to - a lot of the run-of-the-mill pint glasses our beer culture has opted for actually aren't doing the beer within any favors (but more on that in a second). Special glasses exist for different varieties of beer, with many companies offering beers specifically for their own brews. Some take it to interesting extremes.

Sam Adam's MIT-developed monstrosity is actually a fine example of a great beer glass. 

While not every beer has its own specific beer glass - nor do they do they need one - some truly change the way a beer tastes. Some attributes, such as a tulip glass' smaller size, are pretty obvious (they're reserved for higher alcohol beers, where the serving is smaller), others may be less so. The rounded "bulb-like" contour of many glasses, including the one pictured above, act as a sort of reservoir for aromas, concentrating them in a section near the rim so that they are more fragrant. Wine glasses and whisky snifters are shaped the way they are for a similar reason, and in fact make fine glasses for beer, albeit a bit counter-intuitive (sort of like drinking cold stuff out of a coffee mug. Totally weird).

Another fun aspect some glasses have, including the Mega Glass from Sam Adams, is a small laser etching at the base that allows for a constant stream of tiny bubbles to emit from the beer, preserving its bubbly, clean mouth feel.

Other glasses that we've grown accustomed to, such as your run of the mill "shaker" glass, don't do much to capture any of those interesting aromas, and as such shouldn't be your go-to when you're planning on experiencing something truly special. Special glasses exist for stouts, hefeweizens, and other archetypal styles, but picking something with the attributes above should lend themselves well to any style. Libbey's Glass has a super solid collection of beer glass that's very affordable, so that's one option. Besides, it's even more important to...

Step Two: Make Sure It's Clean

Like, seriously clean. You'd think this is pretty self explanatory, but nothing ruins the flavor of balanced flavors of a good beer like grime, so it's generally a good idea to give a glass a good scrub before pouring. But then, make sure you rinse it thoroughly. Oils and detergents are beer head's worst enemy, and can diminish a nice frothy head (which is your goal- to be discussed next) in seconds. Ask your favorite frat bro the trick to diminishing foam before a game of beer pong - it's facial oil. And yes, that's disgusting.

But my glass is not. My glass is pretty. LOOK AT IT.

This is from the aforementioned Libbey's Beer Collection, their hefeweizen glass - note the height; it affords extra space for especially heady beers, as wheat beers tend to be. It's ready for beer and so, presumably, are you. So let's get to the pouring - the most important and trickiest part.

Step Three: Pour Your Heart Out 

It's a common misconception that it's a good idea to gently poor the beer down the side of a tilted glass to reduce the overall amount of that pesky head. After all, it just gets in the way of that tasty, tasty beer, right?

You're a bad person and you should feel bad.

I'm walking a fine line of decency here, but since I know you're all upstanding, mature human beings, I'll come out and say it: Head is nice. We all want head. Hooray for head.

Thank you for your maturity.

You see, in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, that beautiful, frothy pillow on a beer offers the greatest concentration of aromas (a lot of the bitterness of the hops goes directly into the head, by the way, so wish as you might, it isn't going to taste like a delicious marshmallow), and is telling about how the rest of the beer will taste, so don't devoid your senses the experience by eliminating it.

The best way to achieve this is to simply pour your beer into the center of the glass until the foam promises to overflow, and hold back. Let the head subside, and repeat.You might make a few spills along the way, but it becomes second nature. It can take longer than you want it to, sure, but the flavors and aromas will be at their full potential this way.

A beer in two stages of pouring. The one in the forefront will settle and more will be poured in.
Ideally, you'll have around an inch of foam when it's time to serve.

Which reminds me:

Robert Johnson's Hellhound On My Ale 

Dogfish Head Brewery
Milton, DE

1 Pint 9.4 Fl Oz. Bottle, served in Hefeweizen Glass
10% ABV
Around $14.00

The featured beer

That lovely golden elixir up there is Dogfish Head's Hellhound, a liquid homage to the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson, and its one of the tastiest, and most interesting, beers I've had recently. The label advertises that it is "brewed with lemons" a somewhat concerning label that beckons thoughts of lemon shandies and cloyingly sweet "summer beers," that you shove a lemon wedge onto, but fortunately that's not even remotely the case.

The head pours thick and the body is ever so slightly cloudy, meaning that a touch of wheat is at play here. It's remarkably creamy and swirls in nice layers as you drink. The lemony goodness comes from both lemon zest and centennial hops, a notably citrusy hop and star of the show, as it's the only variety of hop in there. Even better, the lemon here is hardly a gimmick; it is instead a wonderful accent - and while its role is certainly pivotal, it's content to remain in the background of the act, waiting quietly behind the careful balance of mighty malt and hop heft (of which there are a significant amount - the bottle informs you that it hits over 100 IBU in the brewery).

 But it is remarkably drinkable given its girth, and the levels of sweetness and bitterness (both kept well in check), complete with the sparkling lemon finish, give the beer and almost tea-like quality. Find this one, for now, or for your summer meals. It's worth a bit of searching. And, of course, pour carefully.

Yeah, that's the stuff.
Dogfish's Hellhound gets an: