Category Archives: Zymurgical Musings

Imbibing Culture

Returning for Another Sip of Terroir

I pause from reading the newspaper to take another sip of my coffee. A melange –– a Viennese classic coffee that goes by a French name sans the accent. A true mix: no single-origin beans here. This evening I’m experiencing a mélange as well: a mixture of the beloved Viennese pastime of wiling away the afternoon in an elegant setting with a coffee whose very name blurs its origins.IMG_4688

Place, authenticity, experience ––food for thought to accompany my various forms of liquid sustenance.

Tomorrow I head off on a pilgrimage of sorts: Bamberg. Extending over seven hills in the Franconian region of northern Bavaria and renowned for its medieval old town spanning the river Regnitz, Bamberg is also famous for its uniquely smoky beer. Rauchbier, a beer very much tied to a particular place.

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It’s coming on two years now since I penned the following words:

“Rather than understanding beer as an ‘expression’ or even a ‘sense’ of place, I propose, instead, something more modest: that we consider beer as a reflection of the environment, circumstances, and processes surrounding its production –– in short, that we consider beer as a reflection of place, but dimly.”

In that series of articles, I promised to reconsider the notion of place decoupled from terroir so as to redeem a “place” for place in our discussions of craft beer. But by the time that I had critiqued the ideological underpinnings of the “buy local” movement in my “Romancing the Local,” I found that I had argued myself into a corner. These things happen. I didn’t expect that it would take me this long to get around to arguing myself out of that corner. But drinking that melange in Vienna’s Cafe Central helped turn on a few light bulbs.

Before I catch my train, here are a few propositions and questions. I’ll add some colour to this outline in the days and weeks after contemplating the smoky essence of Bamberg’s beer.

  1. In a July 2015 article for Draft, Joe Stange quotes Tim Beaumont on terroir: “Beer has terroir not for the soil in which the hops or grain are grown, but for the people in the area for whom the beer is brewed, who shape by their cultural expectations how that beer will be.” Much as I appreciate the sentiment, the statement represents a case of putting the cart before the horse. Responding, I think rightly, to Stan Hieronymus’ calls for more narratives about the people who make the beer, some craft beer writers confuse the people –– who indeed come from “a place” somewhere –– with terroir.
  1. I laud the attempts of those who resist mass-produced food and drink in the name of terroir, but I find the effort misplaced when it comes to beer. Elastic as the notion of “terroir” may be, it is not so empty a vessel that we can fill it with any content whatsoever.
  1. Consider this: Back in the day, much beer was stamped with a sense of place due to a number of factors largely beyond the control of local brewers. Nowadays, brewers in Austin are creating beers that taste just like those in Munich, and that’s a fine thing indeed for this lover of lager.

But herein lies the problem in linking craft beer and terroir: How can a well-crafted “Munich Helles” from Austin and a helles Bier from München express “unique” terroirs when they can taste virtually the same in the hands of skilled brewers in different countries?

Not a Munich Helles.

Not a Munich Helles.

  1. Here’s a two-part formulation that, I hope, will invite discussion.

Part I: Beer is not the expression of a single terroir, but rather, by the very nature of its ingredients and production processes, a mélange of terroirs. This mixture reflects the regions, climates, and topographies from which the hops and grains come from. It also reflects the philosophies of those who turn the barley, wheat, and other grains into malt, sometimes quite far from where the grains were grown. As for yeast? When it comes to wild fermentations, yeast (and their symbiotic bacteria) may well present a qualified expression of terroir. In most other cases, though, the yeast has been transposed from its original setting and reproduced in sophisticated labs for use in breweries anywhere.

The question, then, is this: What happens to terroir once the grain and hops have been mashed and boiled with water that may or may not be “of” the region and then fermented in, say, Wisconsin with a Belgian saison yeast? Does the mélange of terroirs do so much to blur any sense of individual terroir as to make the concept meaningless?

Part II: Even if we decide, ultimately, that terroir is a red herring for brewers, drinkers, and writers, the issue of craft beer and its relationship to place is still worthy of debate, as complex an issue as it is. What constitutes an “expression of place”? What are we to make of those creative brewers whose beers aren’t expressions of their own particular locale, but otherwise represent the melding of artistic brilliance with technical acumen?

Memories and experiences: Another way to think of place.

Memories and experiences: Another way to think of place.

The answer, I think, lies in the sense of a shared ethos; in other words, a shared sensibility, a shared knowledge, a shared inspiration, a local synergy.

As Ron Extract of Jester King put it when I asked him a few years back to consider claims that you can taste the “Hill Country terroir” in local favourites such as Jester King beers and Argus ciders, his response was telling: “Any similarity in taste has less to do with terroir than with a similar approach to producing our beverages.”

What is by now a transnational artisanal ethos shared by brewers from coast to coast and beyond nonetheless grounds itself in particular places. The regional stylistic variations that have emerged across North America bear this out. But this has much less to do with the soil and surrounding environment than it does with the people behind the brewing processes: the people who reinterpret existent styles, sometimes with a local twist, the people who create new styles that reflect the beer’s place of origin. A reflection of place, sure. But one that has little to do with terroir.

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Keep an eye out on Facebook and Instagram for photos from my trip to Bamberg.

Sources

Erika Bolden, “Can Craft Beer Truly Express a Sense of Place?” Punch (July 9, 2015).

Joe Stange, “Smell Your Beer: Does It Reek of Gimmickry? More Musings on Sincere Beer,” Draft (July 15, 2015).

Photos by F.D. Hofer

Related Tempest Articles

The MaltHead Manifesto

Pinning Down Place

Terroir and the Making of Beer into Wine

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Sustainable Homebrewing

Earth Day 2015 is now receding in the rear-view mirror, but it’s worth keeping the Earth Day ethos in mind whenever we fire up our brewing systems. With the annual Big Brew festivities rapidly approaching, we may even want to challenge ourselves to put some of the following ideas into practice.

The folks over at CustomMade have put together a helpful infographic in conjunction with a ten-step plan for sustainable homebrewing, and have been asking beer writers and bloggers to spread the news. Since it’s been a busy month in Tempest Land and I haven’t had as much time to dedicate to writing about beer (to say nothing of brewing!), I figured now would be the perfect time to post their ideas here. I encourage you to read all of Abby Quillen’s “10 Must-Do Steps for Sustainable Homebrewing.” In the meantime, here’s a quick outline of what you’ll find, followed by a brief commentary on a few points:Barley Field (Wiki)

  1. Transition to Grains
  2. Use Sustainable Equipment
  3. Go Local and Organic
  4. Grow Your Own
  5. Reuse Spent Grains
  6. Reuse Yeast
  7. Chill More Efficiently
  8. Reuse Water
  9. Downsize Container Waste
  10. Green the Clean

In terms of sustainability, perhaps the most important concerns are Points #7 and #8 on water consumption. Between cleaning and sanitizing, brewing, and cooling, the beer-making process uses a prodigious amount of water.IMG_1409 My partner in crime urged me to think of ways to cut back on water waste, so I started collecting my cooling water in empty plastic carboys. To my surprise, it took roughly 14 gallons of water to cool 3 gallons of wort from boiling to around 70F. We used that water to keep the trees, lawn, and garden happy, but it was still a lot of water. So I came up with a pump system that recirculates ice water from a bucket through my immersion chiller. I add a combination of ice cubes and ice packs to a cooler, and use the chugger pump that I bought for the day when I build a larger system. An aquarium pump would achieve the same purpose. Now it takes only 3-4 gallons of ice water to cool the same 3 gallons of wort that once took 14 gallons to cool. That leaves enough to water our herb planters.IMG_1408

With regard to Point #5, I’d caution against the occasional rock or pebble that gets into grain. I may be the only person this has happened to, but the first time I made black bean veggie burgers with my spent grain, I chomped down on a pebble and nearly broke my tooth. What I do now instead is use my spent grains to feed the squirrels during the winter, and add it to the compost heap at other times of the year.

I have a tendency to go on at length about the merits of lagers and other beers brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, but over half of my own brews are experiments that go well beyond the strictures of the Reinheitsgebot . Growing your own or buying locally are great ways to go. So far, I’ve used home-grown lavender and basil in a few of my beers, and have plans to grow a gruit concoction of herbs at some point. I’ve been the beneficiary of home-grown hops, and have also bought peanuts, pumpkins, and honey for my brew days from the local farmers’ market. One of these days I’ll put together a comprehensive post on my experiences using various ingredients in the brewing process.

Without further ado, here’s the CustomMade infographic.

Click to Enlarge Image

10 Must-Do Steps for Sustainable Homebrewing

10 Must-Do Steps for Sustainable Homebrewing
Infographic by CustomMade

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Stay tuned for my post on bottles versus cans in the coming weeks. I’ve been working on it forever, but it’s almost done.

Related Tempest Posts

Pinning Down Place

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

A Bavarian in Texas: Franconia Brewing Company. Dennis Wehrmann of Franconia (north of Dallas) has been so successful with his combination of solar energy and bio-fuel electricity generation that he sells power back to the grid. That’s quite something, considering how much power breweries need to heat the kettles and keep the fermenting beers cool.

Green Pints at Asher Brewing Company. When I completed this article on Chris Asher’s brewery in the northern reaches of Boulder, Asher was still the only one hundred-percent organic brewery in Colorado.

Images

A Field of Ripening Barley, The Palouse, USA: Viktor Szalvay (Wiki Commons).

Water recirculation system and diagram: F.D. Hofer.

Sustainable homebrewing infographic: Abby Quillen.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Tasting Against the Craft Beer Grain

What do we taste when we drink a glass of beer or wine?

Are we imbibing the liquid itself? Or is there more to it?

What about the conditions under which we consume the beer? Are we with friends at a pub? Is the beer part of a sumptuous meal? Or does the beer conceal its identity as part of a blind tasting? Are we consuming an aura? The reputation of a brewery?IMG_1078 A BeerAdvocate or RateBeer score? Hype? Marketing?

These questions are aesthetic questions that begin with, but go well beyond, the liquid in the bottle. What is both in and on the bottle leads invariably to judgments of taste, that shifting terrain of sensation giving rise to pronouncements based on our subjective dispositions. But does this mean that “it’s all subjective,” a pronouncement I’m sure you’ve heard on many occasions? Well, not exactly.

Taste, according to German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is an eminently social process whereby we attempt to put forward our reasoned judgments as if they were universal pronouncements. At stake for Kant is the search for the grounds of pure, disinterested judgments of taste based on reason. Rather than remain in the realm of mere opinion, or à chacun son gôut, Kant wants to move us to the firmer ground of what he terms “subjective universality.”

Before we can bracket our opinions and pronounce judgments of taste with the lofty status of subjective universality, a potentially insurmountable obstacle remains to be confronted: the extent to which our tastes are always already shaped by and derived from outside influences. When we make statements along the lines of “IPAs are the best beers in the world” or “lagers are naught but insipid yellow fizzy water,” it’s worth noting that taste concerns not only what’s in the glass. The aura that surrounds a particular beer or style of beer (Heady Topper, Pliny the Elder, BCBS), even the way a beer is packaged and marketed –– these are but a few of the factors that shape our perceptions in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways. Taking this one step further, the social and the environmental frames that affect perception and sensation often upset reason’s best efforts at pronouncing disinterested judgment. Inasmuch as taste is subjective, it is also subject to the culture and environment that surrounds us.

Canons of Taste

Taste defines communities. Taste communities engender distinctions by dictating what’s in “good taste,” and what’s not. Canons of taste are born when enough writers at X Magazine or judges at Y Competition suggest that certain styles are the embodiment and ethos of American craft beer.IMG_0985 For a myriad of reasons concerning the relationship between power and aesthetics, certain individuals or groups of people are able to promote their conception of art, fashion, music, or alcoholic beverages as the standard of good taste. Wine is the drink of the refined sophisticate, beer the drink of the working masses. The rise of craft beer disrupted this distinction, but new distinctions have risen up to replace the old. If you doubt this, just break out a Bud at a craft beer event.

What constitutes “good taste” in the craft beer community? Is a given beer “good” only if it has received the imprimatur of a large portion of the craft beer community tuned in to BeerAdvocate?

Against the Grain: Challenging the Canons of Taste

French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, theorizes the culture of everyday life in terms of what he calls habitus. Cultures like tasting communities envelop us to the point that it is difficult to gain a vantage point free from the embrace of a particular context.Ayinger Ur-Weisse (ayinger-bier-de) North American hop varieties and intensely flavoured beers are the signature notes defining the dominant culture of contemporary craft beer. This has a profound effect on how we rate and evaluate beer. Can the casual contributor to a beer ratings site separate him- or herself from this cultural context? To what extent is the skilled or certified beer judge aware of unconscious cultural dynamics that have molded his or her palate? Is Ayinger “better” than Stone? Are hoppy beers “better” than malty beers?

How can we simultaneously challenge the dominant canons of craft beer taste and expand our own taste horizons? Drinking mindfully is always a good start. Beer appreciation is nothing if not an education of the senses. And at a fundamental level, educating the senses involves a resistance to hype, marketing, and the prevailing doxa that defines taste according to geographical origin, provenance of the hops, or levels of alcohol.

In recognizing the extent to which our tastes are received notions that bear the stamp of the culture that surrounds us, we’ve come that much closer to pronouncing the kinds of judgments of taste at which Kant aims. From here it’s just a matter of stepping out of the long shadow of canonical tastes and asserting the reasoned validity of our own tastes in beer, be they for fruit beer or lager.

(It’s always about the lager, isn’t it?)IMG_2512

Just as culture itself is not a static entity, canons of taste are temporally contingent. If the transformation of communities of taste rests on persuasion, persuasiveness is borne of experience. So drink on, fellow imbiber, drink on!––For the cumulative experience of drinking all that beer, wine, bourbon, Scotch, and Armagnac plays no small role in the validity of a judgment pronounced in favour of this double IPA or that Pilsner.

Related Tempest Articles

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

The MaltHead Manifesto

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3)

Every Day Is Craft Lager Day at Kansas City Bier Company

Sources

Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979). Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Immanuel Kant. The Critique of Judgment (1790). Trans. J.H. Bernard. New York: Prometheus Books, 2000.

With the exception of the Ayinger Weissbier, all photos by F.D. Hofer.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

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Five Ways to Become a Better Drinker in 2015

A belated Happy New Year to all ye faithful Tempest readers! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season filled with plenty of good cheer.

It’s been a few weeks now, but I’m back at it after my Kentucky adventures tracking the shy and retiring Pappy and the increasingly elusive Weller.IMG_2231 For this, my first post of 2015, I’m going to share some tips that have helped me become a better drinker over the years. No, not the “Dude! I just slammed ten tequilas and I’m just getting started” kind of drinker, but a more informed and engaged beer enthusiast.

Tasting beer, wine, saké, and spirits is one of life’s more enjoyable rituals, but it’s also an aptitude you can hone with a bit of practice. True, some people have a keener sense of smell than others, and some people have a more refined palate. But despair not! A modicum of attention to what you’re drinking and how you’re drinking it cannot help but enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of what’s in your glass.

Glassware

Glasses are as good a place to start as any. A Hefeweizen’s towering foam cap is epic in its proper vessel, and the Chimay chalice adds a certain gravitas to your drinking session. Fortunately, though, you don’t need to go out and buy a whole cabinet-full of glassware, nice as it all looks on display.

If you buy one new glass in 2015, make it the versatile tulip glass. Its bulbous mid-section will contain the most vigourous of Belgian beers, and its tapered rim concentrates the aromas of those IPAs so many of you love to drink. You can also use it as a snifter for your barley wines and imperial stouts.IMG_2583 The tulip glass is a far better option than the standard pint glass, which, despite the fond attachment we may feel for this iconic drinking vessel, does a poor job of showcasing the aromas of a well-crafted beer.

Serving Temperature

Now that you’ve acquired shiny new glassware for your precious elixir, give some thought to the temperature at which you’ll drink your beverage of choice. In North America, it’s been hammered into our heads since birth that beer is to be drunk ice-cold. Warm beer? That’s what the Brits drink. Old cultural habits and stereotypes die hard.

I know it’s difficult with that beer sitting there calling out to you to drink it, but let’s resolve in 2015 to wait for the beer to come up to its ideal temperature. (To get a sense of the temperature ranges over which you can drink your various styles of beer, check out Ratebeer’s extremely useful “Serving Temperature Guide.”) Our patience will be rewarded with more complex hop aromas and a more intense malt character.

Try this experiment with two bottles of Fuller’s ESB. Chill one in the fridge, and store the other bottle as close to cellar temperature (13C/55F, give or take a degree or two) as you can. When you drink them side by side out of your new tulip glasses, I’m betting that you’ll get more out of the bottle that has been resting at cellar temperature. As for all those barley wines, Doppelbocks, imperial stouts, and Belgian quads? It pays to throw to the wind all those inhibitions we may feel about drinking warm beer.

Eat and drink with a catholic embrace

Or, if you prefer, drink promiscuously. Drink every beer style you can get your hands on. Drink wine. Drink rum. Eat chocolate. Order some coffee from a good roaster. Learn more about the art of the cocktail.IMG_2340 There’s a whole world to be explored beyond craft beer, and all of it will augment your understanding and appreciation of beer.

Earlier this year, I asked Cornell flavour chemist, Gavin Sacks, about what he does to get the most out of his research and tasting sessions. His advice bears repeating:

Remember that there are no unique flavor compounds or flavors to be found in wine or beer. So, try to smell and taste lots of things, not just wine or beer. Go to a perfume shop or a candle store or an auto parts store and sniff everything. Buy a bunch of obscure fruits from the local Asian market and taste them.

Compare and Contrast

Flights are the way to go. They also make for a great excuse to get your friends together for some postprandial entertainment. Here’s Sacks again:

Never, ever taste a single wine or beer at a time. Humans are lousy at doing sensory evaluation on a single product in a vacuum; we’re much better at doing comparative studies.

If you’re just getting a handle on what kinds of beer you like, flights enable you to sample a wide range of styles. If you’ve been drinking craft beer for some time, you can arrange a flight of, say, stouts to see which iterations of the style you like more than others. It goes without saying that flights also allow you to try a number of beers at a bar or brewery without getting totally hammered. Spend some time with the beers, and take a few notes.IMG_0508

Tasting Notes

Drink. Write. Repeat.

Whether you’re an Untappd junky or whether you prefer to write your notes in a notebook, take notes on at least a third of the beers you drink this year. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll develop your abilities to describe how your beer smells and tastes.

While you’re at it, pair the BJCP Style Guidelines with your tasting sessions to get a better sense of both what the brewer was trying to achieve and what flavour and aroma characteristics you might encounter in your bière de garde, Altbier, or American pale ale. Then write down your impressions. With a little practice, your sensory memory will grow into a well-stocked repository of aroma and flavour descriptors.

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Should you find the “practice” element of beer appreciation too onerous on occasion, just grab a beer out of your fridge or cellar and kick back. Becoming a better drinker isn’t meant to be hard work, after all.

Cheers to a healthy and prosperous 2015!

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Related Tempest Articles

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

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

Images

Willett Distillery, Bardstown, KY

Tulip glass

Barrels at Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, KY

Flights of beer at Ithaca Beer Company

All images by F.D. Hofer.

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© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

The MaltHead Manifesto

A spectre is haunting the craft beer world –– the spectre of Sir Maltalot. Laid low by a tsunami of IPA, the wild yeasts have set in to consume his legacy. Extreme beerists have entered into an unholy alliance with sharp-fanged sours, enlisting sturdy barrel-aged beers to confine Sir Maltalot within their cavernous depths. Buried under layer upon layer of rum, oak, bourbon, and peppers, his spirit lies in wait.

Like an illumination of the darkest night, the repressed memory of Sir Maltalot’s lush aromas has begun to stir. Lovers of Scotch Ales and Doppelbocks, aficionados of lagers light and dark, let us band together to fight for a craft beer world in which value is not measured by the bitterness unit,IMG_0152 in which a hundred IBUs does not automatically equate with one-hundred Beer Advocate points! A revaluation of values! A world in which brown ales are not cast aside for their seeming ordinariness!

Maltheads, conceal your views and aims for not a moment longer! Emerge from the shadows and proclaim with unfaltering voice your affinity for Munich malt, crystal malt, Maris Otter, Pilsener malt, and Golden Promise! And let the lovers of the Seven Cs tremble at the prospect of a Malthead revolution. Maltheads of the world, unite! Come together to break the bitter tyranny of the IBU imperium. We have nothing to lose but our scythes.

PostScript

Installment #94 of The Session comes to us courtesy of Adrian Dingle at DingsBeerBlog, and inquires after our perceived role in the beer scene. Friday took me by surprise,Session Friday - Logo 1 as did December in general, so I wanted to write something short that was playful yet pointed at the same time. Hence my Malthead Manifesto.

I love sitting down to a rich imperial stout (as a matter of fact, I’m drinking one with chilis as I write), and my fridge is stocked with Belgian sours, American wild ales, and all sorts of beers containing ingredients that would make the crafters of the Reinheitsgebot roll over in their graves. But I do think that some styles have gotten short shrift in recent years. Lager of just about all stripes springs immediately to mind, along with other styles that don’t push the proverbial envelope in any appreciable way.

Anyone care to join me for a glass of Munich Helles later?

High ABV, high IBU, intense sourness, and anything else “extreme”: these are the discursive markers that dominate the contemporary North American craft beer landscape. What’s more, these markers have become conflated with quality. (A glance at any of the “best-of” lists making the year-end rounds quickly bears this assertion out.) People new to the community enter a world of predetermined codes, a canon of taste that prescribes which beers are worthy of attention, and which ones aren’t.

Anyone up for grabbing a six-pack of brown ale this evening?

Aside from the pleasure I derive from writing about the stuff I like to drink, I suppose one of the main reasons I approach writing about beer in the manner I do is because I’d rather not see our choices diminished by powerful taste trends. There’s a certain irony here: Our current range of beverage choices in North America could not be more extensive, but with increasing competition for shelf space and tap lines, I’m wary of a consolidation that favours the dominant tastes I mentioned above. And I’m wary of perfectly good beer styles –– beer styles excellent in a subtle way that doesn’t call forth a cascade of adjectives to describe them –– being eclipsed by certain styles deemed “better” merely be virtue of having higher this and more intense that.

Maybe we can order a few pints of Scottish ale when we’re done with our English mild.

I drink with a catholic embrace. I drink wine, bourbon, Scotch, and tequila. And I drink saké. I even drink my share of IPA. Better yet, make it a double IPA. But when we’re in Berlin, let’s head to a pub in Neukölln instead of lining up at Stone’s new location.

The first round of Hefeweizen is on me.

Related Tempest Articles

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3)

Every Day Is Craft Lager Day at Kansas City Bier Company

Celebrating Craft Lager Day with a Landbier from Kapsreiter

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

Hefeweizen: A Beer for All Seasons

Brown Beers Get No Luvin’: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.2)

Becoming Munich Dunkel.

Becoming Munich Dunkel

With the exception of The Session logo, images by 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.”

*  *  *

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.

_______________

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)

__________________

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

When Once They Drank Beer Warm: Cocktails and Concoctions from Olde Albion

Nose, nose, jolly red nose / And what gave thee that jolly red nose?

Cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg, and cloves / And that’s what gave me that jolly red nose.

At the beginning of his chapter on warm beer, W.T. Marchant expresses regret that “some of the more comforting drinks,” such as wassail, had waned in popularity over the years. “When beer was the staple drink, morning, noon, and night,” he continues, “it was natural that our ancestors would prefer their breakfast beer warm and their ‘nightcaps’ flavoured, hence the variety of their comforting drinks” (599).

* * *

IMG_0283

 

Marchant’s undeservedly obscure 1888 classic, In Praise of Ale, is much more than a “compendium of songs, ballads, epigrams, and anecdotes relating to beer, malt, and hops.” It is, rather, nothing less than a compendium of traditions, gender roles, social relations, and the customs of everyday life. I will leave all that richness to the side for now, save for the following observation: If the past is a foreign country, it is one in which the inhabitants drink warm beer.

* * *

Before heading off on my most recent road trip, I spent some time perusing the list of upcoming topics for The Session, that monthly virtual symposium that gathers together beer writers from across the interwebs. For June’s edition, the scribes behind Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog suggested that we take a deeper draught of traditional beer mixes. No beer cocktails, they admonished. Instead, they proposed experimenting with some classic two-beer mixes of times past, inspiring us with a few examples:

  • Lightplater–– bitter and light ale.
  • Mother-in-law—old and bitter.
  • Granny—old and mild.
  • Boilermaker—brown and mild.
  • Blacksmith––stout and barley wine.
  • Half-and-half––bitter and stout, or bitter and mild.
  • B&B––Burton and bitter.

Alas, I was not able to participate in this exploration of what remains a more vibrant aspect of British pub and tavern culture than of North American craft beer culture, but the idea traveled with me this summer.

* * *

A few weeks back, I spent some time with Marchant’s gem during one of my trips to the rare manuscripts reading room. Leafing through this old 600-odd page tome, I found myself drawn to the chapter on warm ale; as it turned out, a few days previous I had come across another reference to warm beer in the library’s catalogue:

A Treatise of Warm Beer, Wherein is declared by many reasons that Beer so qualified is farre more wholesome than that which is drunk cold (1641).

What’s up with all this warm beer, I asked myself? Marchant even had a reference to this 1641 treatise on warm beer in his work published more than two hundred years later.Dauphin - Francis (Wiki) These deep concern with the iniquities of chilled beverages reminded me of my Swiss grandmother, who used to give my brother and me grief about drinking our soft drinks ice-cold in a hot summer’s day, muttering vague prognostications to the effect that our stomachs would perform some grievous trick like turning somersaults. A similar fate seems to have befallen “the Dolphin of France, son to Francis the French King,” who, “although he were a lusty strong gentleman, yet he being hot at tennis, and drinking cold drink fell sick and died” (cited in Marchant, 601).

But maybe they were on to something, my grandma and those critics of the dolphin tennis players of the mid-1600s.

Even if no one I know has dropped dead upon knocking back a cold one after mowing the lawn, nowadays we tend to drink our ales far too cold, and our lagers, too.Bourdieu - OutlineTheoryPractice For the most part, the notion of an ice-cold beer is so culturally ingrained as to be a part of our habitus. It would strike many of us as odd––even some of the craft beer enthusiasts among us––to even begin to contemplate drinking our beer at cellar temperature, let alone at room temperature or warmer.

* * *

To my pleasant surprise, as I read on about the deleterious effects of cold beverages, I found not only a discussion of the benefits of warm beer to health, countenance, and constitution, but also a collection of recipes for beer cocktails of yore.

Marchant was well-versed in the kinds of traditional beer mixes that Boak and Bailey bade us try, but his account of beer’s versatility as a bit player in a panoply of curious drinks reveals yet deeper layers of possibility for the mixologist with a zymurgical bent. Marchant cites a seventeenth-century traveler to England who wrote the following: “In the evening, the English take a certain beverage which they call buttered ale, composed of cinnamon, sugar, butter, and beer brewed without hops” (612).

Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene’s Elizabethan-era stage play, A Looking Glass for London and England, provides another indication that beer played best in concert with other foodstuffs:Crab Apples (Wiki Commons) “Mark you, sir, a pot of ale consists of four parts: imprimus the ale, the toast, the ginger, and the nutmeg” (604). Marchant is quick to point out that these lines leave out the roasted crabs. Crab apples, that is; for “to turn a crab is to roast a wilding or a wild apple for the purpose of being hissing hot into a bowl of nut-brown ale, into which had previously been put a toast with some spice and sugar” (605).

* * *

And so, here are a few recipes for your historical cocktail hour, straight from the pages of In Praise of Ale. Try some of these now, or tuck the recipes away for the winter holiday season or for your harvest wassailing.

The Crafte for Braket [Braggot]:

When thou hast good ale, draw out a quart of it and put it to the honey, and set it over the fyre, and let it seethe well, and take it off the fyre and scume it well, and so again, and then let it keel a whyle, and put thereto the peper, and set him on the fyre, and let him boyle together, with esy fyre, but clere. To four gallons of good ale put a pynte of fyne tried honey and a saucerfull of poudre of peper (606).

Flip:

Keep grated ginger and nutmeg with a little fine dried lemon peel rubbed together in a mortar. To make a quart of flip:––Put the ale on the fire to warm, and beat up three or four eggs with four ounces of moist sugar, a teaspoonful of grated nutmeg or ginger, and a quartern of good old rum or brandy. When the ale is near to boil put it into one pitcher, and the rum and eggs, &c., into another; turn it from one pitcher to another till it is as smooth as cream (607-608).

Cool Tankard, or Beer Cup:

A quart of mild ale, a glass of white wine, one of brandy, of capillaire, the juice of a lemon, a roll of the peel pared thin, nutmeg grated at the top (a sprig of borrage or balm), and a bit of toasted bread (608).

Warm Ale Cup:

One quart of ale, one glass of brandy, two glasses of sherry, and a quarter of a pound of lump sugar. Spice according to the palate. Boil the sugar in half the ale, and then mix the whole together (608).

Purl:

This is a beverage which is held in high estimation in many places. It is made with a mixture of beer or ale (formerly amber ale was only used), and gin and bitters, or gin bitters. The gin and bitters are put into a half-pint pewter pot, and the ale warmed over a brisk fire, and added to it, at the exact warmth for a person to drink such a portion at a single draught (609).

___________

Bonus: Best Title for a Beer Book Ever

Thomas Tryon. A new art of brewing beer, ale, and other sorts of liquors: so as to render them more healthful to the body, and agreeable to nature; and to keep them longer from souring with less trouble and charge than generally practiced, which will be a means to prevent those torturing distempers of the stone, gravels, gout and dropsie. To which is added, the art of making mault, &c. and several useful and profitable things relating to country affairs. Recommended to all brewers, gentlemen and others, that brew their own drink. The third edition, with many large additions never printed before. By Tho. Tryon, student in physick, who hath lately published rules physical and moral for preserving of health, with a bill of fare of 75 noble dishes of excellent food. Price bound 1 s. Licensed and entred according to order (London: printed for Tho. Salusbury, at the sign of the Temple near Temple-Bar in Fleet-street, 1691).

___________

Reference

W.T. Marchant, In Praise of Ale, Or, A Compendium of Songs, Ballads, Epigrams, and Anecdotes Relating to Beer, Malt, and Hops, with Some Curious Particulars Concerning Ale-Wives and Brewers, Drinking-Clubs and Customs (London: George Redway, York Street, Covent Garden, 1888).

Images

Title Page: F.D. Hofer

Francis of France (Francis III, Duke of Brittany), Painted by Corneille de Lyon: Wikipedia

Bourdieu: Amazon

Crab Apples: Wiki Commons

____________

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

 

Tempest Turns Nine Months Young: An Index of Writing to Date

Cue up all the old clichés about time’s swift passage, for it has been three-quarters of a year now since I posted my first article on A Tempest in a Tankard. Thanks for all the support over these past several months! I’ve learned plenty from all of your insightful comments.IMG_9931 I’ve also learned much just by traveling around to do the interviews and research for Tempest’s articles, to say nothing of the people I’ve met who have led some fascinating lives. No two brewers took the same journey to their brew kettles and fermenters.

On the occasion of Tempest’s nine-month birthday, I’m putting together an index of articles that I’ve written to date. I’ve decided to do this for a few reasons. First and foremost, I’d like to introduce newer readers of Tempest to some of the previous articles buried deep in the virtual archives of the blog.

Second, I don’t really write pieces that are “of the moment.” I’d like to think that much of what I write––brewery profiles, travelogues, recipes, reflections on craft beer and culture, beer evaluations––has utility beyond the few days after I post it. Blogs are sequential by nature, making navigation difficult even with the aid of the categories listed across the top of Tempest’s home page.IMG_0153 Pieces written months ago tend to get lost under the weight of a temporality that favours the most recent post.

Finally, I don’t usually write my serial posts sequentially, so an index will give me the opportunity to group series pieces together––and will give you the opportunity to read them as a series, if you so choose. With a few weeks left of summer travel, the regional spotlights and brewery profiles are particularly timely.

I’ll post this index in two installments. First on deck is a list of my articles on beer and culture, together with my regional spotlights. Next up: a list of my brewery profiles and beer reviews, along with recipes I’ve posted to date for those interested in cooking and food/beverage pairings.

If you haven’t already signed up to have A Tempest in a Tankard’s articles delivered via e-mail, please consider subscribing so you can read the articles as they’re posted. Cheers!

Reflections on Beer and Culture

Never the Twain Shall Meet?

My very first article for A Tempest in a Tankard, one that I posted when I had all of three regular visitors to the site. The article answers a provocation unleashed by another beer blogger on the occasion of a monthly beer writers’ forum called The Session. The question: “What the hell has America done to beer?, AKA, USA versus Old World Beer Culture.”

Celebration Time? Women in the Craft Beer World

Times, they are a changing, but the gender gap is still quite wide in the craft beer world, especially on the marketing end. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone told me that women prefer fruity beers.

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

A few thoughts on how our taste is shaped by trends and tastemakers. I don’t mind hops, and Imperial Stouts are up there among my favourite beer styles. But by indulging our drive toward ever more intense and novel flavours, we have, perhaps, devalued more subtle beer styles in the process.

Terroir and the Making of Beer into Wine

Guest writer Kevin Goldberg’s insightful piece debunking the notion of terroir, which generated so much interesting discussion that I wasn’t able to confine my own response to the comments section of the article.

The following three articles approach the notion of place and locality from different angles. A fourth piece will appear at some point that redeems some elements of the notion of beer and place.

Of Isinglass and Other Fine Additives

This response to the “Food Babe’s” article on the “shocking” ingredients in beer is my most widely-read piece to date, likely because the issue of fish bladder in beer flares up at regular intervals on the interwebs.

Celebrating Craft Lager Day

As much as it is an article on a particular beer (Kapsreiter Landbier), it also represents a challenge to prevailing sentiments that sometimes confuse IBU levels with quality.

The Curiosity Cabinet

Donuts? Bacon? Ancient recipes? Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée features here, but expect other articles on beers in my curiosity cabinet in the coming months.

City and Regional Spotlights

Austin: A User’s Guide for the Craft Beer Enthusiast:

This is a comprehensive series that you can take with you as you visit Austin. Break it down into parts, or read the series as a whole.

  • Part I––Brewpubs
  • Part II––Breweries. Saké, too.
  • Part III––Taprooms and Bottle Shops. Craft Pride and Sunrise Mini-Mart. ’Nuf said.
  • Part IV––Tempest’s Tankard Ratings and the Best Brews in Austin. The tankard system unveiled. You’ll see more of this in the future, much as I dislike ranking beers.

The Epic Stillwater to Vancouver Road Trip, Spring 2014:

  • Tempest Hits the Open Road: Dispatches from the Beerways of North America. Not much about beer, but the piece––one of my personal favourites––lays the groundwork for the rest of my Stillwater-Vancouver road trip this past April and May.
  • Wyoming––A Snapshot from a Moving Vehicle. Cheyenne kicks things off, followed by Coal Creek in Laramie.
  • Idaho and Montana––Of Roadtrips and Aleways. I’ve always been fascinated by the routes we travel. The “discovery” of this trip is Trickster’s Brewing in Coeur d’Alene. Missoula has plenty to offer, too, including Kettle House’s Cold Smoke Scotch Ale.

Gorges and Good Beer in Ithaca and Environs:

  • Part I: A brief history of the Ithaca area, followed by a visit to Ithaca’s oldest craft brewery.
  • Part II: Includes features of the newer faces on Ithaca’s craft beer scene: Bandwagon Brewpub, Hopshire, and Rogues’ Harbor.
  • Part III: A guide to some of the best craft beer watering holes and bottle shops in Ithaca.

IMG_1114

Images:

Capital Brewery (near Madison, WI): F.D. Hofer

Malted grain at FarmHouse Malt (Newark Valley, NY): F.D. Hofer

Hop bines and grape vines at Abandon Brewing Co. (Penn Yann, NY): F.D. Hofer

 

The Curiosity Cabinet: Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée

Some beers dare you try them.

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes of your time perusing the offerings at any bottle shop worth its salt or reading the buzz surrounding “avant-garde” beers and breweries, you’ll likely have come across a curious cabinet stocked with beverages containing whimsical and surprising ingredients. Some beers in this display case, such as the ones in Dogfish Head’s ancient ale series, reconnect us with our beer-drinking ancestors, calling on the authority of archeology and anthropology in the process. Other beers make reference to the pop-cultural delights of our quotidian existence. A beer that tastes like donuts with banana and peanut butter thrown in for good measure? Rogue’s got you covered. Or how about a beer that clocks in at over six hundred calories? Just add bacon and maple syrup, like the intrepid Brew Dogs of Scotland did when their road show stopped off recently in North Carolina.

These are only three of the more famous––or, some might argue, infamous––examples that represent but the tip of the iceberg in terms of the creative ferment that has washed across the North American craft beer scene. Some of these beers aim at nothing short of creation ex nihilo, while others are content with a plausible mimesis of some aspect of the world. As is the case with many an experimental movement in art, music, or literature, the fruits of an unbounded creative drive can be truly stunning. Other times the results are decidedly less scintillating.

***

Southern Tier - CremeBruleeSouthern Tier’s Blackwater Series features a rotating cast of Imperial Stouts and Imperial Porters that are, for the most part, of the mimetic variety. Standards such as Choklat (which waxes poetic about the Mayan Popul Wuj and the connection between cocoa elixirs and the gods) and Mokah make regular appearances, while Plum Noir (an Imperial Porter with Italian plums) graces the portfolio from time to time.

Crème Brûlée, a series stalwart, entices with its promise of succulent dessert at the same time that it throws down the gauntlet: taste me and judge for yourself whether this beer is not just like crème brûlée. I succumbed to the challenge a few weeks back, and brought a bottle to a postprandial get-together. I gave the first glass to a friend who’s not a beer drinker, but who is an aficionado of all things sweet. Uncanny! he exclaimed upon smelling and tasting the beer. The rest of us gathered around the table concurred: the beer tasted as advertised. For that, the brewers are to be commended.

Yet none of us was able to embrace the Southern Tier Crème Brûlée wholeheartedly, much as we agreed that crème brûlée is among our favourite desserts.Freud - Uncanny (unbelongme-com) Later, I thought that perhaps herein lay the essence of our collective aversion to Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée: the beer was uncanny in the same way that lifelike dolls and automata are uncanny, and in the same way that waxworks are uncanny. The experience of drinking the beer was almost like that of smelling and tasting a crème brûlée. Almost. In our glasses was a crème brûlée Doppelgänger existing in a liminal twilight between food and beverage––an uncanny entity that had seemingly crossed over from the realm of food, but in so doing, had also severed its connection with beer.

Approached from another direction, Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée is analogous to a photographic representation of crème brûlée, albeit an image of crème brûlée rendered in a bluntly realist mode that does not admit of many possible interpretations. Once I was over the initial shock of the uncanny nature of this beer, it evoked naught more than polite interest: highly stylized, the beer is nothing if not a testament to brewing skill, to be sure. Using vanilla beans and lactose in conjunction with various specialty malts to arrive at aromas and flavours of custard underneath charred and caramelized brown sugar is no mean feat.Creme Brulee (Wiki Commons) But there’s no art here, just technical virtuosity. No mystery, much less magic. The only contingency, the only surprise––this beer tastes like crème brûlée!––dissolves rapidly in the apprehension of this mimetic gesture.

Much as I like most of what Southern Tier has to offer, their Crème Brûlée is literal to the point of extremity––or, what amounts to the same thing, extreme to the point of literality. One of my friend’s fathers was in town that evening and shared a glass with us. His witticism summed things up brilliantly: “Next time, I think I’d prefer my crème brûlée on the side.”

Images

Crème Brûlée: www.stbcbeer.com

Freud, “The Uncanny,” 1919.

Crème brûlée on the side: Wiki Commons

© 2014  Franz D. Hofer. All Rights Reserved.

A Coal Town and a Cold One: My Hefeweizen Craft Beer Conversion

Chur (www-shm-com-au)By noon the early October drizzle had turned into a downpour. Several hours lay between the Alpine peaks and meadows of Chur, where I was visiting my grandmother, and the drab Saarbrücken way-station where the train traveling between Mannheim and Paris had just deposited me. Not unlike many German towns and cities, Saarbrücken’s dominant architectural hue is brown. But under this leaden-gray vault of my very first day in Germany, Saarbrücken exuded none of the Romantic charm of a city like Heidelberg. Instead, the brown buildings – streaked all the darker by the relentless rain – seemed to bear witness to Saarbrücken’s heritage as the capital of a once hotly-contested coal-producing region situated on the historically-shifting frontier between France and Germany. The City of Light this was not.

Germany - Lage_des_Saarlandes (Wiki-En)The Saarland has been the site of many significant events marking Franco-German relations up to the mid-twentieth century. Occupied by France and Britain in the aftermath of the First World War, the region functioned as a tool of reparations. A little over a decade later, the Saarland served as the staging ground of a plebiscite that intersected with Hitler’s rise to power. (Saarländers voted to annul the Saarland’s status as a mandate of the League of Nations and rejoin Germany.) In the immediate post-WWII period, the Saarland was a key component of the Allied policy of industrial disarmament, and was administered by the French as a protectorate until 1957.

The Saarland is also of import as the site of another profoundly significant event: my discovery of a beer that was far superior to Molson Canadian, Labatt’s Blue, and – my personal fave circa 1991 – Kokanee.

After gathering my backpack and duffel bag from the train station platform, I made my way out of the station and braved the driving rain, arriving soaked and bedraggled at what would be home for most of the coming year: a concrete pre-fabricated student residence bearing a quaint name that was, at least, in keeping with its forested surroundings, Plattenbau aesthetics notwithstanding.Waldhausweg (www-studentenwerkDASHsaarland-de) I got into the elevator, pushed the button for the tenth floor, and cursed my fate – to which the other occupant of the elevator responded, “Oh! You speak English!” The dapper chap who had responded so drily yet bemusedly to my imprecations had also arrived in Saarbrücken a mere few days previously. A law student from Bristol who was part of a contingent of exchange students from Exeter, A. and his crew had already been introduced to one of the joys of German student life: the Heimbar. (Lit: “home bar.”)

Each student residence of the Universität des Saarlandes came equipped with a small bar that opened for business on rotating nights so that no evening would be without a Heimbar happening at one of the residences. Our particular residence didn’t have a Heimbar scheduled until two nights hence.

But perhaps, inquired A., you’d like to accompany me to one of the Heimbars on campus where I and my cohort will be gathering for the evening? A splendid idea! I said in my best British accent.

The steel sky turned purple, and a darkness descended upon the surrounding forest. At the appointed time I met my newfound friend in the lobby of the residence, and headed out into the chill evening. The walk from Waldhausweg, our student residence, to the less evocatively-named Heim E was a short fifteen minutes through dripping woods. Once on campus, we traversed the anodyne entrance hall of Heim E and descended the stairs into the epitome of that German word, “Gemütlichkeit,” where A.’s fellow law students from Exeter welcomed us cordially into the cozy and dimly lit surroundings of Heim E’s Heimbar.

What shall it be? asked one of A.’s trimly attired friends who was about to rustle up the first round.

I thought for a moment. Becks (ossifiedonline-com)Germany. Any self-respecting university student with an inclination toward the bottle knew what that entailed: good beer. I savoured the envy of friends back at home. You’ll get to try some great beers while you’re there! Hmmm. Maybe a Beck’s? I was familiar enough with the phrase, “Gebraut nach dem Reinheitsgebot von 1516,” inscribed on its label. Two years of college-level German (and a Swiss dad) helped with that particular translation task. Skunk (yourstupidadvice-files-wordpress-com)And at any rate I was beginning to develop an appreciation for that vaguely skunky je ne sais quoi that I had come to associate with all those premium exotic imported beers in green bottles.

While ruminating over whether or not to order a Beck’s, I had one of those flashes of illumination that strikes a person all too rarely. It was said that H., the trimly attired one, knew a thing or two about wine. If he knew about something as cryptic as wine was to me at the time, surely he could be relied upon to order a decent beer.

I’ll leave it up to you, I replied.

WeizenGlass (www-ukhomideas-co-uk)A few minutes later he came back not with a beer but with a ritual that would mark many a drinking occasion henceforth. Along with a bottle slightly larger than the ones to which I was accustomed back at home he brought a glass of beguiling form: tall, slender at the bottom, opening out like a flower vase at the top, and set atop a round and elegant pedestal.

H. started to pour out the contents of the bottle, at first slowly down the side of the glass and then more vigourously down the center, but stopped short as the beer started to foam up precipitously. He then proceeded to swirl what was left of the contents and roll the bottle on the table. With a last flourish, into the glass he poured what to me looked like sludge.

OK, then.

H. handed me the glass, which was by now crowned with an impressive cap of foam. Down in one!

But something …

… caught my attention.

What’s this? Bananas?! Clove?! The banana was easy enough. And with oh-so-hip, clove cigarette-smoking friends, I was able to pick up on the latter.

Clove and banana. Not something I would ever have expected in a beer. And then came the rich, creamy, brown sugar-like flavours cutting through with just a hint of citrus. The refreshing zing recalled summer, but the fruitiness and spicy malt richness were the perfect riposte to the coming of autumn.

Wow! I’ll have another! And another before heading back into the dripping woods. Maisels-Weisse (Logo)I’ve had many Hefeweizens since, but that first glass of Maisel’s Hefeweizen will always be tinted pink with nostalgia.

*If you’re reading this, chance are you’ve had some sort of “craft beer conversion experience.” What was yours like? Do you remember which beer you drank that wrenched your attention away from mass-produced fizzy yellow swill? Or were you a born aficionado of fine beer? Maybe you’ve had a similar experience with wine, cider, or spirits. Were you with friends, or did you decide, on a whim, to pick up a different bottle at your local liquor store? Whatever the case may be, consider clicking on the “Leave a Reply” button above.

*I’m not the most “fact-driven” person in the world, but in the course of searching for an image of a Beck’s label for this article, I couldn’t find one with the phrase, “Gebraut nach dem Reinheitsgebot von 1516.” This could have something to do with its 2002 sale to Interbrew/In-Bev. I haven’t had a Beck’s since the early 90s.    

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Images:

Chur: www.shm.com.au

Saarland Map: Wiki English

Waldhausweg: www.studentenwerk-saarland.de)

Beck’s: ossifiedonline.com

Skunks: yourstupidadvice-wordpress.com

Glasses: www.ukhomeideas.uk.com

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