Best Posts 2017
Tis the season ... for retrospectives. On this eve of Christmas Eve--or more properly because it's a long holiday weekend--I offer you the best posts that appeared here over the past calendar year. This is an entirely subjective list, and does not overlap very much at all with the most popular posts as measured by incoming traffic. (The most popular post on the site was a throwaway, Gentleman Brewing in California, but it was snarky in the way that encourages virality on social media.) But they're the ones I think have the most lasting power, and which may have been interesting or unusual in a landscape where beer writing (including my own) can feel disposable. For an expanded list of my bests, look at my list, by topic, of the site's keepers. In no particular order, here they are.
Memories of Shakeouts Past
The rolling catastrophe lumbered forward. Pyramid, the country's sixth largest craft brewery when it bought Portland Brewing, went through its own collapse and Vermont's Magic Hat ending up buying Pyramid/Portland in 2008. Magic Hat, in turn, was purchased by Genesee's parent company, North American Breweries, in 2010. To complete this delightful tale, the final purchaser of Saxer/Nor'Wester/Portland/Pyramid/Magic Hat/Genesee was the Costa Rican company with a Simpson's-like name: Florida Ice and Farm Company.
The Most Interesting Brewery in Oregon
If you're planning on making beer from barley or wheat, there are hundreds of resources available. They'll tell you how much water to use in your mash, how warm it should be, how many rests to use and at what temperature and for how long. They'll tell you what happens when you alter anything. But what happens if you start with lentils? Or chestnuts? Or brown rice? "If it has starch and doesn't have oil, you can use it to make beer," he discovered. But as anyone who's tried some of the odder or poorer examples can attest, that doesn't mean you get a tasty beer. Ground Breaker uses grists that include sorghum (the main fermentable), lentils, and chestnuts. Neumeister uses a standard 7-barrel brewhouse and standard mash. Of course, he had to figure out how to use it himself. The first time he made a batch, he did a two-hour mash and pulled a quart of wort every ten minutes. He did gravity readings on each one and came up with a mashing regime that works with these ingredients.
Alworth's 9.5 Theses
People, particularly people new to a hobby, mistake intensity for quality. When Americans first discovered good coffee, the fashion was gnarly roast bitterness. With wine, it was jam and oak. In beer it was bitterness, booziness, tartness--anything so long as there was a lot of it. Aesthetic maturity arrives when the taster is able to appreciate the elements of a beer when they don't overwhelm. Subtlety lays bare a beer's elements for those able to identify them. Appreciation of subtlety, not intensity, is the higher achievement.
Breweries, Know Thyself
When a brewery doesn't understand its own identity, it's easy for its leaders to make mistakes that dilute it. They release products that cut against expectation. Their brand is off-message. Their communications are banal or confused. The story a brewery tells must be consistent with its identity. If it's not, we customers immediately see through it. There's a serious consequence when this happens.
Visiting Boston's Big Brewery
Kenary continued to work for a bank for years after the brewery was founded, and despite decent sales, it still wasn't profitable. The change in fortunes came when they introduced IPA in 1993. The original recipe was designed by Tod Mott, a legendary New England brewer who would go on to Portsmouth Brewing and make Kate the Great Imperial Stout, finally founding his own brewery in Kittery, Maine. But in the early 90s, he was getting his start as a brewer and was trying to figure out the grist for the brewery's IPA. Harpoon's early beers looked toward London, and the IPA he create bears those hallmarks. Mott was trying to produce a warm, biscuity flavor, but couldn't find the malts to do it. As a desperate measure, he started sending regular pale malt home with twenty employees, telling them to toast it in their ovens. There was a diner across the street from the brewery, and Mott struck a deal with them to toast the malt in their oven during off-hours. Thus was IPA finally born. (The brewery uses Victory malt now.)
Remaking a Flagship
Tastes change. Any brewery that has been around a decade or more and built a customer base on popular brands has encountered this. Sometimes that means trends have moved away from a style that was once more popular (amber lagers, anyone?). More problematic is the situation in which IPA-makers find themselves. The style is wildly popular, but it has evolved. Breweries like Hopworks helped popularize IPAs, but made a version of the style that now seems old school, with more sweetness and body, assertive bitterness, but less focus on the flavors and aromas of hops.
The City of Portland vs Old Town Brewing
Have you heard the one about the big brewery that sends the little brewery a cease-and-desist letter for trademark infringement? Of course you have—it happens every month or two. It’s usually not great press for the big brewery, and sometimes it even metastasizes into a David-and-Goliath morality tale. Last Wednesday, Portlanders learned of a through-the-looking-glass variation on the story. A little brewery owned a valid, long-standing trademark, but a deep-pocketed large city refused to acknowledge it and told the little guys they planned to license the disputed image to AB InBev. And despite having no clear legal avenue to securing these rights, the city keeps dumping thousands of dollars into their effort to defeat Old Town.
Trust Your Judgment
Massachusetts has 110 breweries, give or take, and non-New Englanders have probably heard of maybe ten of them. Two in particular, Tree House and Trillium, blot out the sun among the geeks; of the top-rated beers in Massachusetts on BeerAdvocate, you have to go the thirty-sixth beer (!) to find one not made by these two. It’s not as if there aren’t other notable breweries here. You may have heard of a little join called Sam Adams. Harpoon has also managed to sell a few beers in the area. Clown Shoes, which lately has been getting nearly as much attention for what’s in their bottles as on the outside, are another. Notch, Cambridge, Mystic—we could do this for awhile. None of them are considered to have single beer that rivals the twenty best Tree House beers by the beer raters of BeerAdvocate. On Untappd they call it America's third-best brewery. You will absolutely not find the Eagle Brook Saloon (Norfolk, MA) among the lauded breweries.
Yes, Dry-Hopping Does Add Bitterness to Beer
What happens when you add forty times as much hops to a beer? Tom explains that "BUs--and the sensory bitterness--is creeping up in dry-hopping or late-kettle hopping or whirlpool hopping for a number of reasons." And "the most significant reason is that there are oxidation products in hops." These are called humulinones, and they look almost identical chemically to the iso-alpha acids that produce bitterness the normal way. We've known about them since the 1950s, but they were at most a curiosity--no one was extracting them in concentrations high enough to move the needle on a beer's bitterness. Until now.
Chasing Trends and Trashing Brands
When breweries are building up their "brands," what they're actually building is this connection. The personalities of breweries are as different as those of humans--think of Sierra Nevada, Hill Farmstead, Schlenkerla, and Genesee. To go back to that communication of the first paragraph, they are built in collaboration with their drinkers, who begin to expect that the beer will embody that personality. Breweries have a fair amount of latitude to release beers that may send their customers to a new flavor realm, but only to a point.
Inside a Czech Floor Malthouse
A few traditional malthouses still exist, mostly in the UK and Czech Republic. They take advantage of natural refrigeration—winter—and are tended with implements like the one David Mareš was dragging through a bed of barley. We were in the cellar of Pivovar Ferdinand in Benešov, 30 miles south of Prague in the Czech Republic. Barrel vaults ran lengthwise across the ceiling, supported by arches and columns painted safety yellow, exposing thousands of square feet of stone floor. The vast space was checkerboarded with different plots of germinating barley at different stages; they were separated by small channels so the workers could move about. Mareš wielded what looked like an iron rake with three thick prongs, except that the tines poked upward, like fingers, out of the grain.