Monthly Archives: October 2014

How To Become a Beer Liaison: An Interview with Genesee’s Sean Coughlin

If you have any preconceptions about Genesee and the Genny Light your parents drank, set them aside. Genesee Brewing Company, the venerable Rochester brewery that has been rolling out barrels of beer since 1878, has started serving up heavy-hitters like an Imperial Black IPA in their recently-opened Genesee Brew House overlooking High Falls.

Sean Coughlin is one of Genesee’s more than five hundred employees, but his position with Genesee––Beer Liaison––is unique in that it brings together tradition and innovation. Coughlin plays a key role in assuring that Genesee Cream Ale reaches its legions of loyal fans tasting as it should. But he has also been known to convince the occasional Cream Ale-drinking Brew House visitor to taste beers like Genesee’s Apple Brandy Barrel-Aged Altbier. (You read that right. The pilot brewery that keeps the Brew House supplied also has a Salted Caramel Chocolate Porter coming your way soon.)

Genesee - Brew_House (geneseebeer-com)Coughlin wears many hats at Genesee. On any given day, he’s training the staff in all things beer, participating in the brewery’s daily tasting panel, or educating customers about Genesee’s lineup.

Given his background in music education, it’s not surprising that Coughlin managed to create a niche for himself involving training staff and leading tours for the public. Before moving to Rochester with his wife who is pursuing a doctorate at the Eastman School of Music, Coughlin taught at middle school, high school, and at the collegiate level. Owing to the number of Eastman grads in the region, though, it was difficult to find a job teaching music in Rochester. Explains Coughlin, “My second passion after music is beer, so it made sense to look for something in that field. When we moved to Rochester, it was shortly before Genesee opened up its Brew House, so the timing couldn’t have been better.”

Coughlin is also an accomplished beer judge, and it is in this capacity that I met him this past summer while judging at the New York State Fair homebrew competition in Syracuse. We judged a flight of porters together, but I didn’t manage to get his contact information in the shuffle at the end of the day. In one of those happy twists of fate, I got the judging sheets back from a Kölsch-style beer that I had entered in the competition, and noticed that Sean was one of the two judges who had evaluated my beer.

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A Tempest in a Tankard: So you have what sounds like a dream job. You get to work, and by nine in the morning you’ve got a beer in front of you. Tell us more about what you do on a day-to-day basis with Genesee.

Sean Coughlin: I certainly have a dream job. The biggest perk is that my day is completely encompassed by talking about beer––so it’s never a dull day on the job. I am responsible for the beer education of the entire staff at the Genesee Brew House, managing our online store, giving tours, training employees, cleaning draft lines, participating in a daily taste panel, and pouring at off-site events.

TT: Genesee has a long history and loyal following. How is Genesee trying to position itself vis-à-vis “craft beer”? Is it trying to develop new beers that would appeal to the craft beer enthusiast?

Genesee has actually been at the forefront of the “craft” movement. Genesee began brewing the Dundee line of craft beers in 1994 with the introduction of Honey Brown Lager, a gold medal winner at the 2004 World Beer Cup. The line has expanded significantly since 1994 and now includes twelve offerings besides Honey Brown Lager. With the opening of the Genesee Brew House in September 2012, we have been brewing craft beers on our 20-barrel pilot system.Genesee - cream-ale (www-geneseebeer-com) People who walk in the door expecting Genny Cream Ale will sometimes end up leaving with a growler of Imperial Black IPA.

We have a huge craft beer community in Rochester, but everyone still supports local breweries like Genesee, even if Genny Light might not be their first choice. The craft community recognizes the quality of our pilot brewery beer and is excited about what we’re doing. No one would have anticipated Genesee putting Altbier in an apple brandy barrel a few years ago, but now people are excited to see what we’re going to come up with next. It’s been exciting to see the diversity of people who come through the door––craft beer geeks and Cream Ale diehards all have a place at our bar.

TT: I’m interested in hearing more about how quality control works at a brewery like Genesee––in particular, how the brewery divides up tasks between those who perform analyses in the lab, and those (like you) who rely on your senses. At what stages in the brewing process do you taste the beer?

SC: We’re fortunate to have a state-of-the-art lab and a great staff made up of specialists like chemists and microbiologists. If we want to know the exact levels of diacetyl in our beer, we can run it through a gas chromatograph and find out. However, there’s no substitute for the human senses. After everything has undergone thorough analysis, it is sent to the taste panel for further evaluation. Sometimes we will put product into a “Difference from Control” or a “Triangle Test.” Triangle tests are particularly helpful––two items serve as the control, and one is different. It could be spiked with an off-flavor, or it could be the same beer with different hops or a different base malt.

During the taste panel, we taste everything from brewing water to finished bottled product. Along the way we might taste the same beer that is both pasteurized and unpasteurized, carbonated and uncarbonated, or filtered and unfiltered. Carbonation, mouthfeel, trueness to style: all of these are taken into consideration.

TT: How many other breweries that you know of have dedicated tasting panels for quality control?

SC: Any brewery worth its salt is taking the time to conduct a regular tasting panel. Gordon Strong (president of the Beer Judge Certification Program, or BJCP) says that whenever brewers ask him how to improve their brewing, he tells them to become a beer judge. This is great advice––having high standards for your beer is the best thing you can do to improve the quality of it.

TT: On a related note, how much actual smelling and tasting do you do over the course of a given day or week? How much of what you do involves training your senses, either by drinking beer or through the use of sensory calibration kits?

SC: Thanks for this great question! If you don’t use it, you lose it. It’s extremely important to constantly use your senses outside of the workplace too. It’s especially important with regard to aroma, where sensory memories help us to pinpoint exactly what we are smelling. I’m constantly thinking about aromas and flavors, whether pleasant or unpleasant. One of the best pieces of advice I could give any brewer or beer drinker would be to get out to a coffee roaster and do a coffee cupping (tasting), or to visit a few wineries. Try new kinds of food. Try cooking old favorite recipes with different spices.

The use of sensory calibration kits is important––especially trying things in different concentrations so you can figure out what you’re sensitive to and what you may have trouble identifying. For example, I’m extremely sensitive to acetaldehyde (“apple/cider,” sometimes indicative of incomplete fermentation) and can smell it from a mile away, but have a hard time picking up on dimethyl sulfide (“cooked corn/cabbage,” a common by-product of fermentation with lager yeasts). I’m a big fan of practical hands on experience––and that means drinking beer! Commercial beer is helpful, but drinking homebrew offers a better chance to become acquainted with off-flavors. It’s thankfully rare that you’ll end up finding flaws like caprylic acid (a goat-like or sweaty character) in a commercial beer, but it pops up every now and then in homebrew.

TT: You’re also a homebrewer, and a decorated one at that. How long have you been brewing? How important do you think a knowledge of the brewing process is for what you do on a day-to-day basis with Genesee?

SC: I’ve been a homebrewer for only about three years but have made a lot of batches in that time and have learned lots along the way. We have a few other homebrewers who work at our brewpub so it’s always fun bouncing ideas off of one another and offering constructive criticism. I also have the pleasure of working daily with our head brewer, Dean Jones. Dean has racked up quite a few medals from the GABF and World Beer Cup over the years and has more than twenty-three years of experience. I’ve learned a ton from him–– he is a phenomenal troubleshooter with the best palate of anyone I know.

Knowledge of the brewing process is very important for what I do, even though I don’t brew at work. We probably offer more tours than any brewery in the world I know of––seven days a week, every hour on the hour.Genesee - PilotBrewery (geneseebeer-com) Sometimes people are content to hear the basics and sometimes you might get a chemist on the tour that wants to know everything there is to know about ferulic acid rests. Having some street cred, even if it’s just as a homebrewer, makes it possible to elevate things to the next level. People can walk away having learned something new, which always results in greater appreciation for the next beer they drink.

TT: You have both a BJCP certification and a Cicerone certification. Can you tell us a bit about these programs? Which program has proved most useful in your daily activities with Genesee?

SC: The Cicerone & BJCP programs are both doing incredible things to improve the culture of beer around the world, but in different ways. The Cicerone program is directed at people that work in the beer industry––servers, bartenders, sales reps, and the like––and covers a wide variety of topics.Cicerone - LogoWebsite (black) Two things that make the program unique are draft system maintenance, and beer and food pairings. The BJCP program is directed more at homebrewers and focuses more on sensory evaluation and feedback/troubleshooting regarding how to improve the beer in question.

Working in a restaurant, the Cicerone program is a bit more relevant to my job. It is mandatory for anyone who touches beer at our brewpub to pass the first of three levels of certification in the Cicerone program. It’s really important that our employees are able to have a meaningful conversation with our customers about beer. When someone asks about our IPA, we want them to get a better response than “It’s really hoppy.” Also, we often offer specials where we will recommend a particular beer with the item and, most importantly, explain in detail why the pairing works.

The BJCP certification and judging experience has certainly been helpful from a sensory standpoint. It is very difficult to pick up subtleties like carbonation levels or the substitution of Hallertau Hersbrucker for Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops.BJCP Logo BJCP certification really trains you to concentrate while you’re assessing a beer, and that is more difficult than it sounds.

TT: What aspects of your job do you find most enjoyable? Does it ever become monotonous doing quality control on the same beers day-in and day-out?

SC: The favorite part of my job is hosting monthly guided tastings for our staff. I’ll generally focus on a particular category––for example, dark lagers. After discussing the history of the style and the ingredients used, I’ll pour world-class examples and have everyone write down their perceptions. It’s always interesting to see how different people interpret the same beer.

Quality control can seem monotonous at times, but then you remember how important the job is. Sending out an inferior product could bankrupt your brewery in a flash. Being the last line of defense before your product hits the shelves is not a matter to be taken lightly.

TT: I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks your line of work is appealing. What can beer enthusiasts do to prepare themselves for the kind of work you do?

SC: For anyone looking to get into the field, the industry looks favorably on anyone with Certified Cicerone credentials, which is the second of the three Cicerone levels. Getting certified as a BJCP judge certainly can’t hurt, nor can homebrewing experience. Zymurgy - Cover (2014)

I’d also recommend the Morten C. Meilgaard textbook, Sensory Evaluation Techniques. For those who want a more practical approach, every issue of Zymurgy (available from the American Homebrewer’s Association) has a “Commercial Calibration” section, where four distinguished beer judges fill out score sheets for commercial beers. This is a great way to develop sensory vocabulary. It’s easy for all of us to taste a beer. What’s not so easy is putting into words what we just tasted.

Even better, bring in some beer and sit with a brewer (or homebrewer) and discuss. Offer to evaluate their latest batch. Have them do the same for you.  

TT: What kind of advice would you give to craft beer drinkers who want to get the most out of their tasting sessions?

SC: Fill out a BJCP scoresheet for the beer you’re drinking while comparing it to the style guidelines for that particular beer. This forces you to really concentrate on the beer you’re drinking, and can even result in you being able to enjoy it more! It can also be eye-opening to do a blind tasting. You might be surprised at which ones you liked the most/least when you don’t have the pre-conception of a particular brand going into it.

TT: So you’ve been sampling Genesee beers all day long. When you get home, do you reach for the malt or the hops? Or is beer the last thing you’d like to drink?

SC: My favorite beer is one I’ve never tried before. It keeps me on my toes and helps me to continue developing my palate. That said, sometimes it’s really nice to go home at the end of the day and just enjoy a nice big glass of water. Genesee - No2 Kettle (genesee-com)Odds and Ends

Sean Coughlin took Best of Show at the New York State Fair where we judged together this past summer. He took gold with his Abbey Cat, a Belgian Dark Strong Ale, besting two-hundred seventy-eight other entries. He also took third place in the Light Lager category with a Munich Helles. If you stop by the Brew House in Rochester, be sure to congratulate him.

The Genesee Brew House is located at 25 Cataract St., Rochester, NY, 14605. Opening hours are: Monday to Wednesday, 11am-9pm; Thursday to Saturday, 11am-10pm; and Sunday from noon to 9pm.

The Brew House was established in 2012 in a building that was once part of the original Genesee Brewery over a hundred years ago. The multi-purpose facility is now home to a brewpub, a gift shop, and a pilot brewery that you can tour seven days a week.

With the exception of the Cicerone and BJCP logos and the cover of the November/December 2014 edition of Zymurgy, all images from www.geneseebeer.com.

Related Tempest Articles in the Industry Series

The Industry Series: Tasting Tips from Cornell Flavour Chemist, Gavin Sacks

Beeronomics: An Interview with Trey Malone

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© 2014 F.D. Hofer, Sean Coughlin, and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Wild Mountain: Come for the Great Outdoors, Stay for the Beer and Barbeque

A half-hour’s drive along the winding Highway 119 out of Boulder and just east of the Continental Divide, Nederland exudes a rough-hewn and offbeat charm.IMG_9301 Nederland, which means both lowland and the Netherlands in Dutch, came by its name when a mining company from Holland purchased the nearby Caribou Mine in 1873. Indeed, the name of the town is more than a little ironic, given that Nederland sits at an elevation of around 2500 meters (8200 feet) above sea level. But for the miners who trudged up the mountain to work and then down again in the evening for a cold one after a long day, the moniker was more than apt.

The silver and tungsten mining industries eventually went bust, and not even the farmers and ranchers who came to put down stakes could halt the slide of the town’s fortunes. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Nederland turned the corner again with the arrival of mountain leisure opportunities and a laid-back countercultural vibe that still resonates through the town.IMG_9294 Blessed with a location on the threshold of the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area and the Eldora Mountain Ski Resort, Nederland fast became a popular year-round destination for hiking, climbing, and winter sports.

These days, Nederland is home not only to artisans, outdoor enthusiasts, and the yearly Nedfest music festival, it is also the scene of the Frozen Dead Guy Days. Frozen Dead Guy Days, you ask? Well, according to the official website of the Town of Nederland the festival is “a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Grandpa Bredo Morstoel, who is cryogenically frozen and cared for in a Tuff Shed on private property in town, awaiting the day when science can re-animate him and cure him of the heart disease that killed him in 1989.” What better excuse for a polar bear plunge and coffin races?

If the haunting existence of some Frozen Dead Guy hasn’t already convinced you that Nederland is a town worth checking out, then perhaps the material pleasures of beer and barbeque is just what you need before your hike,IMG_9292 ride, or climb in the mountains surrounding Nederland.

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On this bright autumn day, I followed the scent of wood smoke to Wild Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery. Purple and green walls and a vaulted ceiling and fireplace made me think of a ski lodge plunked down in the middle of a West Coast city. But the views from the terrace of dense pine forests rising up the ridge brought me back to where I was. So, too, did the brew-ski. The brew-ski is just as you’re imagining it and comes with four of whichever house brews are on tap at the time of your visit, along with a guest beer.

I finish sipping my way down the brew-ski before one of the servers leads me through a door and down a narrow staircase to a three-and-a-half-barrel brew kettle and stash of fermenters crammed into a space no larger than a Tokyo apartment. There, I meet Tom Boogaard, the man behind the brews on the ski, hard at work on a batch of beer. Back in the 90s, Boogaard was a comparative religious studies major aspiring to be a doctor, but decided he’d rather make the kind of medicine that soothes and lifts our souls.Wild Mtn - Taproom 1 After several years of brewing that included stints in Wyoming and with Avery, Boogaard decided to strike out on his own in 2006.

Boogaard’s affinity for big beers stems from his days with Avery––where he created the recipe for The Reverend––and these inclinations are evident in his full-flavoured brews. One of the most compelling beers on my brew-ski was the Hop Diggity IPA, a honey-golden local favourite with hop-forward aromas and flavours of mango, pineapple, some dankness, and toasted malt. A piney hop bite takes over from there, and the beer finishes with an appetizing digéstif-like bitterness. Aliyah’s Amber was a bit less impressive, looking as if it had fallen off the brew-ski during a backcountry ride: a bit hazy and shaken up, with much of the carbonation knocked out of it.

But as for Wild Mountain’s brown ale? Brown ales tend to get short shrift these days as the boring cream sherries of the beer world, but nothing could be further from the truth. If Wild Mountain’s Round and Round Brown Ale is on tap when you visit,IMG_9304 you’ll be rewarded for ordering it with smoky roast coffee aromas and flavours layered together with mild, pear-like fruit esters and delicate floral-citrus hops reminiscent of orange blossom. Rounding it all out are the malted milk and cooked cereal scents of “mash day” (crushed grain mixed with warm water, for those who have yet to go down the rabbit hole of homebrewing). With a roasted-malt acidity on the palate that lends the beer buoyancy, you’ll have found a beer that goes well with Wild Mountain’s other signature specialty: barbeque.

And what really sets Wild Mountain apart from many other brewing establishments is the personal interest Boogaard takes in the food served at the brewpub. It’s no accident that “smokehouse” comes before “brewery” on the sign hanging outside of Wild Mountain. Boogaard spent months perfecting his recipes for smoked meats, often combining his favourite elements of several barbeque and grilling cultures. His chicken wings, for example, are nothing like the fiery assault that typifies your average plate of Buffalo wings. After marinating the wings in a ceviche-style marinade for two hours, Boogaard smokes the wings before finishing them on the grill with house barbeque sauce. The resulting wings are so succulent that I never once felt the need to dip them in the ranch dressing that came as a side. IMG_9306So come to Nederland for the great outdoors (or even for the Frozen Dead Guy), but stay for the beer and barbeque at Wild Mountain.

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Wild Mountain is located at 70 E. First Street, Nederland, CO 80466, not far off the main thoroughfare running up the canyon from Boulder. Winter hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11-8pm; Friday and Saturday, 11am-9pm.

On tap/coming soon for the fall of 2014: Redemption Stout, a Dubbel, a Saison, and an American-style wheat beer made with Colorado peaches, cinnamon, and orange peel. Sounds like an interesting interpretation of the spiced autumn seasonals we see at this time of year.

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Related Tempest Articles on Colorado Craft Beer

Crystal Springs and the Music Teacher Turned Brewer

Milling Against the Grain: Grimm Brothers Goes All-Germanic

Green Pints at Asher Brewing Company

Images

Tap handles: Wild Mountain Facebook page

All other photos: F.D. Hofer

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

The Uncritical Embrace of Craft Beer?

Act II –– Night. Afterward, dawn. […] The scene represents a forest, and in the forest is a cave. By the cave sits a third actor in tights, representing yet another gnome. […] Enter the god Wotan, again with a spear, and again in the guise of a wanderer. Again his sounds are heard, then new sounds, as bass as can be produced. These sounds signify that a dragon is speaking. Wotan awakens the dragon. […] The dragon first says, “I want to sleep,” but then he crawls out of the cave. The dragon is represented by two men in a sort of green scaly skin, who swing a tail at one end and at the other end open a kind of fastened-on crocodile’s jaw from which the flames of an electric bulb appear. The dragon, who is meant to be frightful, and may appear so to five-year-old children, utters some words in a bellowing basso. This is all so stupid, so like what is done in a booth at a fair, that one wonders how people over seven years of age can witness it seriously; yet thousands of quasi-cultured people sit there, listening and watching attentively, admiring it.    -Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?

RichardWagner (Wiki)Before launching into this sustained invective against Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungen, Leo Tolstoy observes that Wagner’s epic opera “has attained such enormous importance in our time, and has such influence on all that professes to be art, that it is necessary for everyone today to have some idea of it.” Despite the importance of Wagner’s work for the “thousands of quasi-cultured people” who sit there attentively, Tolstoy’s final appraisal is damning: “It is a model of counterfeit art, so gross as to be even ridiculous.” His appraisal also evinces a fiercely independent critical streak that largely went against the grain of his times, and his pronouncements have challenged generations of Wagner admirers since.

Tolstoy’s excoriation of The Ring of the Nibelungen makes for entertaining reading, but his view of Wagner’s work never achieved the status of orthodoxy. Other critics, through their championing of certain works of art or literature, are so successful in shaping our understanding of a particular moment in cultural history that their incisive critiques of the status quo in turn become a doxa to be challenged. Clement Greenberg’s affinities for Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism come to mind here. Closer to the world of food and beverage, Robert Parker’s advocacy of rich, ripe, fruit-driven, powerful wines shook up a complacent wine industry. Parker’s tastes were influential enough that they soon became the norm,Robert Parker - Logo (www-erobertparker-com) and many a critic since has come to lament the “parkerization” of untold wine vintages. A renewed appreciation for subtle grape varieties and wine styles has emerged to counter the preference for jammy, heavily oaked wines.

We see a similar narrative trajectory in the craft beer world. We know the broad outlines of the story. Insipid lager washes over North America like a tsunami in the post-war period, itself answering a desire for lighter beers. But then along comes a new generation of beer drinkers not content to drink marketing form over brewing substance. Hops carried the day, the more bitter and aromatic, the better.IMG_1176 Malt occasionally too, although John Barleycorn has taken a bit of a back seat during the craft beer revival. Welcome to the new normal, where bitterness and high alcohol reign supreme, and just about every craft brewery on the continent needs an IPA among its offerings.

And so the wheel turns.

The art world has its Tolstoys and Greenbergs, and the wine world has its Parkers and subsequent critics concerned with the side-effects of “parkerization.” But what of the critical voices in the craft beer world? To whom can the craft beer enthusiast turn for frank and honest assessments of the burgeoning craft beer selection, or for advice about a beer that isn’t an Imperial Stout, barrel-aged beer, or intensely-hopped IPA?

Beer writers, most likely. But who are those beer writers, and how do they envision the role of their craft? Are they advocates, reporters, critics, conveyors of information, storytellers, cheerleaders? When does advocacy shade over into uncritical admiration of anything “craft”?

Not long ago I stumbled upon an article that appeared around the time of the Craft Beer Bloggers’ Conference held in Boston last year. The article’s author, co-founder and marketing director at Somerville Brewing Company (aka Slumbrew), Caitlin Jewell, offered advice to beer bloggers about how best to reach a wide readership. Now, some of the advice is sound, but much of it reads like a rallying cry to the troops steeling them in their missionary zeal to promote the craft beer industry. What struck me about the piece was its stark contrast with concerns expressed less than nine months later by Brewers’ Association director, Paul Gatza. The issue at stake for Gatza?IMG_0514 Quality––especially in light of the rapid pace of craft beer expansion. Jewell slots the beer bloggers she addresses into the role of what I would call “craft beer evangelists,” faithful supporters of the scene and generous bestowers of Untappd stars. Gatza notes that even though craft beer quality is at an all-time high, an alarming number of beers he tasted during a recent festival visit exhibited flaws that were apparently lost on the brewers. Gatza’s concern with the potential for diminishing quality highlights a radically different imperative: the need to reflect more deeply on the state of craft beer criticism.

Regardless of whether beer writers see themselves as journalists, bloggers, promoters, consumers, enthusiasts, cultural commentators, or some combination of all of these, it would seem that the figure of the critical craft beer writer is more important than ever. But herein lies the tension (and the problem) at the heart of craft beer writing: most craft beer writers and bloggers have an interest in promoting the industry as a whole, even as fewer understand that their work involves advocating for craft beer while at the same time maintaining a critical stance vis-à-vis a product about which they are so “passionate.”

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In the space that remains, I offer constructive comments directed at brewers and aspiring beer writers alike. Before going any further, though, I want to stress that even if I take Jewell’s article as the starting point for my commentary, this piece is in no way directed at Slumbrew. I have not met the people behind Slumbrew, and nor have I tasted their beers. From what I’ve read, both the brewery and its beers are well received. Jewell’s publicly expressed views on how she envisions the role of the beer blogger is an all together different matter, however. Her article serves as a touchstone for my comments for two main reasons. First, she makes what I find to be startling assumptions and claims regarding the role of the beer blogger or writer. Second, even if Jewell’s views represent a minority position within the craft beer community, I find it preferable to counter these assumptions lest they take root and impede the kind of rigorous critique that should underwrite a thriving craft beer industry.

Caring is Sharing … ?

Jewell begins her advice to beer bloggers by focusing on what makes a blog post or tweet shareable: “You might be surprised to know that any brewing company with a Google Alert on their own name will read your blog post but choose not to write you back, share it or retweet it. If you’re scratching your head as to why here are some things to consider before your next blog.”

As it turns out, what makes a blog or tweet more “shareable” is related to how helpful the post is “to your favorite brewing companies.” Show us the love. IMG_4833

Now, for what it’s worth, I’ve had overwhelmingly positive interactions with the vast majority of brewers I’ve met. But let’s suppose, for a moment, that a brewer may not think it worthwhile to post a beer writer’s article or blog piece on Facebook or on Twitter. Here are a few points for those brewers to consider.

One: How did the beer writer find out about your brewery in the first place? Not all craft breweries are household names in all parts of this continent, after all. North America’s a big place, and even the most plugged-in beer writer cannot keep tabs on the more than three thousand breweries in the U.S. alone. How do I find out about breweries in places many leagues from where I live? That’s right: For the most part, I’ve read about the brewery somewhere.

Two: Posting a beer writer’s article to your Facebook or Twitter network is not necessarily akin to preaching to the choir. For one thing, people like to have their tastes and choices validated, and for another, your fans might even share the article with some of their (local) friends who may not yet have been to your brewery. Beyond that, say someone is passing through Wisconsin, or Indiana, or New York State en route from the Southwest, or from Germany or Japan for that matter. Remember that beer writer/blogger from XYZ who visited your brewery on his or her last road trip and then took the time to write about your brewery? People from all over the U.S. and beyond might be reading his or her blog while passing through your area, and may one day pay your brewery a visit on account of that article.

Everyone Gets a Prize

Jewell continues: “If you say in your untapped comments a glowing review but then are stingy with your stars don’t expect to be retweeted. Sure I’d like to save that fifth star for fresh Pliney (sic) in Santa Rosa but stars are free. I just don’t know how someone can say ‘This is my new favorite beer,’ yet give it three stars. Stars are FREE.Sunflowers - Trevor Bauer - Field_of_sunflowers_Manitoba_Canada (www-trafficmedia-ca) Hey buddy can you spare a star?”

Sorry, I cannot. Why? Integrity. If everyone gets five stars, the whole exercise is meaningless.

As competition within the industry grows, intelligent beer drinkers will seek out experienced and reliable beer writers who offer a frank appraisal of the beer in front of them: not 100 points just because it’s Heady Topper or Pliny the Elder. And not a mere 75 points just because it’s a lager. Let’s face it: craft beer does not equal excellent beer in every instance. And critique can’t help but strengthen the craft beer scene.

This Beer Smells Like a Monkey’s Armpit!

Now, I’m well aware that many beer writers and bloggers spend several hours if not days out of their lives to visit a particular brewery, concentrate on its beers, give the beer and brewery a fair shake, and then write about it all.

But allow me to pivot in a different direction for a moment.

I understand the legitimate concerns and frustrations expressed by the brewers and staff at some breweries and brewpubs I’ve visited. Joe or Jane Six-Pack shows up and announces that he or she writes a blog––and then proceeds to get hammered at the bar and is never heard from again.

I’m also acutely aware that a not insignificant amount of what passes for beer writing is of sub-par quality. A Facebook page or Twitter account does not automatically a writer make. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s the loudest, brashest, most media-savvy voices that get heard over the din––and these people aren’t always embodiments of literary genius. As we educate our palates to appreciate more flavourful beer, we would also do well to learn how to spot and promote quality writing about beer.

And yes, writing skill aside, scores of people who check in to Untappd, who blog casually about beer, or who write copious reviews for BeerAdvocate or RateBeer have no real training in evaluating beer.

Beer Flavor Wheel (www-beerflavorwheel-com)Aspiring beer writers: It serves us well to learn about off-flavours before we slam a beer for its ostensible off-flavours. And if the beer is off, let’s be tactful and diplomatic with our appraisal. A discussion of the merits and drawbacks of style categories is something best left for a different article, but suffice it to say that it never hurts to deepen our familiarity with what sets one beer apart from another. Maybe that “off” aroma is meant to be part of the beer’s profile. Even if the BJCP Style Guidelines isn’t the most riveting work of literature out there, a rainy Sunday afternoon flipping through it is time well spent.

Between Advocacy and Adulation

If you’re a brewer, ask yourself what you think the role of the craft beer writer ought to be. If you’re a beer writer or blogger, how do you envision your role? If you’re a craft beer enthusiast, what do you expect from the beer writers and critics to whom you turn?

Jewell raises a valid point in her advice to bloggers: “If you have a passion for craft beer you have the power to HELP our community. Craft beer is only 6.5% of the total market. Wait? Can you believe that!? 93.5% of the beer drunk in America TODAY is big beer macro. If that bums you out, you can help the craft beer world by writing blogs geared to your friends that are just learning about craft beer, might be a little intimidated by the options or love to say broadly‘ I don’t like beer.’ YOU have the power to help introduce new fans to the world of craft beer and I promise your help will be appreciated.”

True enough, and I think we all get it. But our role as advocates should not hinder a healthy critical attitude toward a beer or brewery in particular, and craft beer in general.

More troubling, though, is the relationship with the world of craft beer that Jewell would have beer writers assume: “MIKEY! Say you really like it! No really, I loved this beer because…. This beer is great because…. […] Go ahead, whoop it up! Show some love. It’ll come back to you. Be Awesome […]. When you’re so good you get NATIONALLY Syndicated (sic).”

What would Tolstoy say to this, I wonder? Tolstoy - EfimovichRepin_(1844-1930)_-_Portrait_of_Leo_Tolstoy_(1887) WikiCommons

We’ve come some distance now since we encountered Fafner’s leitmotif in Wagner’s Ring. Some people were and are quite passionate about Wagner. Tolstoy was well aware of Wagner’s stature, but elected to maintain an independent stance that ran counter to much of the prevailing acclaim for Wagner’s work.

Even if we craft beer writers find ourselves more invested in our contemporary craft beer industry than Tolstoy was in the Wagner industry of his time, we can still find plenty to emulate in Tolstoy’s critical stance. Maintaining a similar level of independence when we write about craft beer ensures that our advocacy does not slip into blind adulation.

So let’s all take a step back from the brink and think about how our affective investments in the craft beer scene could, potentially, cloud our judgment. “Passion” is one thing, but an enthusiasm that crosses over into a fetishization of all things craft beer only results in a dulled critical consciousness.

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The opening segment draws from and combines two translations of Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art? The first is Aylmer Maude’s translation (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1899, p.118). The second is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation (London: Penguin Books, 1995, p.107).

Images

Richard Wagner (1871): Franz Hanfstängl (available on Wiki Commons)

Parker logo: www.erobertparker.com

Fields of barley: F.D. Hofer

Malted barley (FarmHouse Malt): F.D. Hofer

Ampelmann with drink: F.D. Hofer

Field of Sunflowers in Manitoba: Trevor Bauer (www.trafficmedia.ca)

Beer Flavour and Aroma Wheel: www.beerflavorwheel.com

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy (1887): Ilya Efimovich Repin (available on Wiki Commons)

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© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Green Pints at Asher Brewing Company

Asher - PintsEvery night is Green Drinks Night at Asher’s all-organic brewery and taproom in Boulder, Colorado.

Surprised? Probably not, though you should be. In a town with as progressive a reputation as Boulder has, you’d be forgiven for expecting to find a handful of all-organic breweries. After all, you can’t throw a hop cone without hitting an organic food store. Not so on the brewery front. In fact, Asher Brewing Company was the only one-hundred percent organic brewery in the entire state of Colorado when it opened in late 2009, and still is today. And not only that: Chris Asher’s penchant for organic ingredients extends to a healthy respect for the environment as well. The brewery and tasting room are one-hundred percent wind-powered. And those chairs you’re sitting on and the table on which you just set your Green Bullet Organic IPA? Repurposed.

The sun is starting to set behind the angular Flatirons as I step into the by-now bustling taproom to meet with Asher, head brewer and co-owner of the eponymously-named brewery. Like many in Boulder, Asher is a transplant, having studied in the Northeast before heading west to hone his brewing skills with Golden City BrewingAsher - FrontRangeCan II (Organic-Soul-Imaging) and the now-defunct Redfish in downtown Boulder. Asher is a soft-spoken and unassuming person, not the type to seek out the spotlight to promote his organic lineup of beers. But when the discussion turns to organic food, environmentally friendly brewing practices, and the organic beers he produces, Asher’s eyes light up. He argues that organic beer makes sense on three counts. First off, sustainable farming practices take less of a toll on the environment. Second, naturally occurring antioxidants that consume oxygen are inhibited by pesticides, Asher claims, and removing the pesticides means a longer shelf life for the beer. Finally and most importantly for Asher, drinkers of organic craft beer aren’t ingesting pesticides.

Even though Asher holds an M.B.A., organic beers are not just about market niches for him. Sure, Asher is more than content that some people make the journey to the taproom strictly because his beer is organic, and he’s rather bemused that some restaurants in town carry his beer for its organic cachet alone. But right from the top,Asher - Chris-FreshHopsTrio it was not some bottom-line notion of cashing in on organic food and beverages that motivated Asher and his business partner, but rather principle. If anything, the decision to go all-organic engenders a series of challenges due to the relatively restricted availability of organic malts and hops. Unlike many other brewers who envision a final product and then go shopping for ingredients, Asher has to build his recipes around what kinds of organic malts and hops he can source. As Asher notes, many breweries express interest in using organic ingredients, but usually balk at the prospect upon learning of the difficulties involved in acquiring organic certification.

If environmental awareness forms the bedrock of Asher’s brewery, Asher, like most any craft brewer, is just as concerned at the end of the day that you walk out of his taproom satisfied with the beers you’ve just drunk. Asher’s Kölsch-style beer, the Green Lantern, is clean and crisp, hitting the sweet spot of hoppiness for the style. Hopheads will will want to pull the pin on the weightier Greenade Double IPA and wait for the floral-citrus explosion. (Couldn’t resist that one … ). Asher sees to it that a steady stream of seasonals run through the taps. When I visited, he had an intriguing Brett- and lacto-spiked wheat beer aged over tart red cherries in red wine barrels. Despite this latter detail, the beer revealed an intriguing white wine character, pleasant acidity, and bright but subtle tart cherries. Right now the seasonal on tap is a ginger beer based on the Tree Hugger Amber, with a winter oatmeal stout planned for later in the year. Asher just brewed up a fresh-hopped pale ale with organic Cascade, Columbus, and Chinook hops from nearby Niwot Hops, so keep your eyes open for the tapping of those kegs in the very near future.Asher - 4PackBarrel

Asher Brewing Company is in the rather anodyne Gunbarrel area of northeast Boulder, tucked into a cul-de-sac in the Twin Lakes Tech Park. Prius driver or not, though, you won’t regret the drive (or bike-ride) out to Gunbarrel in search of something a little different.

*Hot off the press: Asher Brewing Company just started canning its Treehugger Amber. To celebrate, they are having a party this Saturday, October 11, starting at 2pm. Free food!

  • Address: 4699 Nautilus Court (Suite 104), Boulder, CO 80301
  • Taproom Hours: 2pm-12am, seven days a week
  • Tours are free. Call (303) 530-1381 to schedule a tour.

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Other Tempest Articles on Colorado Breweries:

Crystal Springs and the Music Teacher Turned Brewer

Milling Against the Grain: Grimm Brothers Goes All-Germanic

Wild Mountain: Come for the Great Outdoors, Stay for the Beer and Barbeque

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All images courtesy of Asher Brewing Company and Organic Soul Imaging.

© 2014 Franz D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Seven Steps to Surviving the Great American Beer Festival

It’s that time of the year again when the leaves start to turn and the National Hockey League season begins. It’s also the time of year when thousands of thirsty craft beer enthusiasts converge upon Denver for that annual pilgrimage known as the Great American Beer Festival.

GABF 2014 1

Equal parts serious beer connoisseurship, Bacchanalian revelry, and street carnival, the GABF may not be as large as Munich’s Oktoberfest, but it boasts a truly impressive cross-section of American breweries and an array of beers to match.

Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who scored a ticket to this year’s GABF. Or maybe you’re putting your trust in all that “beer karma” you’ve built up on Beer Advocate and are heading to Denver in the hopes that you don’t get hosed too badly on a last-minute Craigslist deal. (It has worked for me in the past.) Whatever the case may be, and whether you’re new to the beer fest circuit or a seasoned veteran, I’ve compiled a few tips to ensure that you don’t expel all your hard-earned Untappd badges into your tankard at the end of the night.GABF 2014 (Alaska-GABF FB)But first, some fun facts from 2013:

The annual GABF offers the avant-gardists of the craft beer world plenty of compelling styles and ingredients du jour. 2013 was all about key lime (usually in saisons and lagers) and cocoa nibs (often in conjunction with coffee). Speaking of coffee, the seemingly perennial chili teamed up with shots of java and sometimes chocolate in many a stout and porter, often to convincing effect. Central American hot chocolate, anyone? Nelson Sauvin, Motueka, Galaxy, and Mosaic hops featured prominently, especially in American-style pale ales and IPAs. Cucumber also made the occasional cameo (Cigar City, Trinity, Wicked Weed), lending those beers an intensely refreshing quality reminiscent of running through the sprinkler on a sun-baked day.

  • Attendance: approximately 49,000
  • Competing breweries: 747
  • Judges: 208
  • Beers judged: 4,863
  • Number of categories judged: 84
  • Number of IPAs entered: 252
  • Fewest beers in a category: Dortmunder or German-Style Oktoberfest (29)

Now, that’s a lot of beer and plenty of stylistic variation to take in. How are you going to come out on the other end with any lasting impressions of your GABF experience?

Eat.

Eat a huge breakfast and then follow it up with an ample lunch. Avoid intensely-flavoured foods that will linger on the palate, but don’t be shy about indulging any latent desires for waffles, pancakes, or French toast. Food is available for sale inside the convention center, but perhaps you’re broke because you’ve just dropped upwards of $85 on a ticket, gave blood so you could pay for your over-priced accommodation, and spent your last pennies on those rare beers being tapped around town. What’s a hungry but penurious beer drinker to do? Once you get yourself past the deluge of people lining up to get their beer on, head straight for the cheese tables and stash away as much of it as you can for later. The pretzel necklaces work in a pinch, too.

Drink. (But of course!)

Every seasoned imbiber knows this––and then promptly forgets. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. And then repeat. And then repeat again after every booth you visit. Wear a CamelBak if you have one. You’ll fit right in with all the other mad hatters wearing scuba gear, Viking helmets, Lederhosen, pretzel necklaces, and sundry beer paraphernalia. The downside of all this hydration? You’ll probably spend more time in those interminably long bathroom lineups than you’d like.GABF 2014 (Floorplan-GABF website) But hey, it’ll give you a chance to meet new people, or to mentally sort through the last fifty-odd beers you’ve sampled.

Cartography 101.

Dust off your map-reading skills, folks! Google Maps won’t help you pinpoint where your favourite brewery will be pouring its libations. You’ll receive a map of the (cavernous) venue along with your tasting glass and program when you get in the door. Before you start running around like a kid in a candy shop (it happens to the best of us), take a look around and familiarize yourself with the lay of the land. The convention center is laid out regionally: Great Lakes; Mid-Atlantic; Midwest; Mountain; New England; Pacific; Pacific Northwest; Southeast; and Southwest. Circle your top picks, but give yourself some leeway to explore. You might find that you’d rather not stand in line for fifteen minutes for a sip of one of those “must-taste” brews.

The Serendipitous Find.

Alternately, put that map in your back pocket and just wander around. You’ll find an inordinately high number of quality brewers whose booths have no lineup whatsoever, especially from regions of the country less renowned for their craft beer scene. Advice: Head to the tiny Midwest section (Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Oklahoma). After that, go south. And then head east. You’ll find some real gems.

The Notebook.

Did you really think you were going to remember all those beers? Bring a small notebook or, at the very least, a pen so that you can jot down notes in the program you received.Muji Notebooks 2 If you really must, enter all your beers into everybody’s favourite “record and forget” trophy app, Untappd. Regardless of your chosen method, keeping track of all those beers is going to be one of the toughest things you’ll do at GABF––especially if you’re with a group of friends. But stick with it. You’ll thank me for the tip when you get home and can remember what characterized even a few of the beers you liked.

The Time Out.

Sure, we came here to sample the beer, but it doesn’t hurt to check out what’s happening away from the main stage. Our arms may not get very tired from repetitively hoisting a four-ounce sample glass,GABF 2014 (TastingGlass-GABF FB) 2 but our palates will most certainly suffer a minor beating after drinking all those sours, Brett beers, IPAs, and Imperial Stouts in quick succession. Give yourself a break from all that hard work!

Want a quick primer in judging beer? The Cicerone program offers half-hour workshops that’ll help you put a finer point on what you’re tasting at the festival, or identify common flaws in beer. How about a quiet respite from the colourful mayhem surrounding you? Step into the comparative sanctuary of the “bookstore” and strike up a conversation with beer writers like Garret Oliver, Stan Hieronymus, or Jamil Zainasheff.

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One last tip thrown in for good measure: Stay in Boulder and take advantage of the reasonably-priced and very convenient public transit that runs between the two cities.

Most importantly, enjoy!––or, as the organizers of the GABF put it, “Savor the flavor responsibly.”

Related Tempest Articles

Crystal Springs and the Music Teacher Turned Brewer

Milling Against the Grain: Grimm Brothers Goes All-Germanic

Crystal Springs is in the Boulder area; Grimm Bros. is near Fort Collins. Stop in for a visit if you’re touring Colorado’s Front Range beer scene.

Sources

2013 Great American Beer Festival. Official Program.

2013 Great American Beer Festival. Winners List.

GABF Festival History/Facts and Figures

Images

GABF Site Plan 2014: www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com

Notebooks: www.muji.us

All other images from the GABF Facebook page.

© 2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.