What is Craft?

An Men’s Journal article crossed my Facebook this morning entitled “The Complete List of Fake Craft Breweries and Their Real Owners“.  The brewery I work for is on that list.  Does that make me mad? No. It’s true, we’re owned by a larger entity and therefore not eligible for the Brewers Association definition of “craft”.  What irritates me though, is the implication of this article and others like it that circle around every time a brewery gets bought that these companies are lying about being craft and trying to fool the consumer.  In 30 out of the 32 cases on the list that’s simply not true.

The two “Breweries” on the list that I would consider faux craft are Blue Moon and Shock Top.  Those two were started as anonymous branches of their parents, Miller Coors and A-B InBev respectively, specifically to compete against the burgeoning craft industry 20 years ago.  It’s pretty common knowledge now who those are owned by.  Blue Moon Brewing Co. Golden Colorado isn’t too hard to figure out.

Every other brewery on the list is a brewery that was previously considered craft but then got bought by a larger entity.  It seems to happen more and more often these days, but here’s the thing.  It’s not a secret.  These aren’t back room deals.  That’s not how the American market works.  There has to be transparency to prevent monopolies and protect unions and trade organizations.  When 10 Barrel here in Bend, Oregon got bought by A-B InBev it was reported by both the BA and American Homebrewers Association and every beer blog and beer enthusiast website in Portland within *hours*.  Everyone knew.  It was announced publicly, because legally it has to be.

Is there an argument to be made that these larger breweries are using their clout to push other beers off the shelf and dominate distributor channels? Sure, that’s possible.  But, in all honestly, that was happening before they started buying up other breweries.  The big boys have always thrown their weight around.  That’s nothing new.

Here’s the beauty of it though.  Beer is a democracy.  We vote with our dollars.  Everyone is entitled to decide what they want to drink.  Brands that don’t sell will discontinue, it’s as simple as that.  You choose what you support and what you don’t.

Here’s food for thought though when it comes to “craft”.  The BA is a trade organization and they do great work protecting the smaller breweries from “the big boys”.  But, there’s no legal definition of “craft” besides their member guidelines.  It’s not a protected appellate like Trappist.  It’s not a tightly regulated and tested status like “Organic”.  It’s just a word.  The BA recently upped their limit of “small” to 6 million barrels, specifically to include Yuengling as craft.  Do they deserve to be? Sure.  They are America’s oldest still operating brewery and are still family owned.  But they are also a huge industrial brewery that distributes beer across the nation.  The brewery I work for produced roughly 100,000 barrels last year and we only distribute in Oregon and Washington.  Which one is more close to the definition of craft? You decide.

How much is too much?

The other day I bought a bottle of Modern Times City of the Dead Export Stout with Bourbon Barrel aged coffee beans.  Modern Times just got distributed to this area, so this was brand spanking new, a holdover from a release party a couple days prior.  It was $7 for a 22oz bomber.  When I got home I remarked to my wife what an amazing deal that was.  Man, have times changed.

Long gone are the days of $6 six-packs.  Granted, when I was paying that price I was buying macro beer like Miller Lite, or faux-craft like Blue Moon and Shock Top.   Now that I live in Oregon, you can’t get ANYTHING for a dollar a bottle.  16 oz Pabst tallboy will set you back two bucks.  I’m OK with that.  Good beer is worth paying for.  But how much?

The first time I dropped $20 on a 22oz bomber was for Ninkasi’s Ground Control Stout.  This was an imperial stout with cocoa and local Oregon hazelnuts made with yeast that had been grown in space! Yeah, I bought it for the geek factor, but it ended up being a really amazing beer.  Knowing what I know now about yeast propagation, that beer probably wasn’t as quite a small and limited run as I imagined it to be, but still a pretty rare release.

Grocery store beer is always going to be cheaper than beer in a bar (or it should be).  But it still helps to think of things in terms of pints.  Average price for a pint in Portland is about $5, give or take.   So you’re looking at about $3.75 for a 12oz or $6.88 for a 22oz scaled on a per ounce basis.   $22.50 is a hell of a lot for a six pack, so thankfully you get a pretty good deal on the 12 ouncers, which usually run $8-10 depending.  The 22’s not so much.  They hold pretty well onto the per pint price, running $6-8 depending on what it is.  Sometimes you catch a special on something for 3.50-4 bucks and so that’s a good deal.  I’ll think to myself when I’m going to buy something if I would pay for it on draft at a bar.  For Budweiser, no.  For Boneyard, yes.

As time goes on, we find things that we’re willing to pay for and that recalibrates our inner scale of what we think is a good price.  $10 for a 16 ounce bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout? I felt that was a worthy price, so I bought some.  $25 for a 22ounce of Deschutes Black Butte 29th Anniversary? Yes, in my mind I feel like that’s worth it.  Learning what all is involved in barrel aging beer and making of sour beers and blends really helps put a value to the price you’re paying.  $14 for a 22oz bottle of New Belgium 2015 La Folie? After finding out what goes into making that beer, to me, that’s a steal! $6 for a 6 ounce draft pour of a blended lambic imported from Belgium? Sign me up.

Everyone has a limit though right? Even though it counteracts my pint argument from above (because it’s still under the $3.75/pint guide) I have to draw the line at Ballast Point.  I just cannot bring myself to pay $16-18 for a sixpack.  They are priced well above the rest of the market, with no one else at that pricepoint, I don’t understand how they sell a single bottle.  Then again, they just sold themselves to Constellation brands for a cool one billion dollars, so what the hell do I know? What also hurts is that I don’t like Ballast Point’s beers.  We only get a few of their brands up to Oregon, and the one that is the most popular, Grapefruit Sculpin, in my personal tastes, is disgusting.  Way too bitter, lots of pithy grapefruit peel rather than fruit, and from what I’ve heard it’s not even real fruit.  To me that’s not worth paying for at any price.  If you like it, knock yourself out.

The other side of this coin is a conversation I recently had with a coworker about how “if you got into homebrewing to save money you’re going to be disappointed”.  I got into homebrewing for the science and creativity.  My favorite part is formulating recipes.  Can I buy beer for cheaper than I can make it? Yes of course, but the key factor is the quality of the beer in question.  My last batch of CDA cost me around $10 a gallon, or about $1.25 a pint. (This does not account for my time or equipment costs, this is ingredients only)  This is a 7% ABV beer with a ton of flavor and lots of hop aroma.  This is “craft” beer.  What can I buy on the market for that price or cheaper? Miller Lite, Coors Light, PBR etc.  4% ABV beers with no flavor and no hops. So homebrewing might not be cheaper, but it’s a better value.  I get more bang out of my buck by making my own.

What’s your limit?

Rate of Discovery

I use the app Untappd to log and track the beers I’ve tried over the last three years.  So far it’s a shockingly large number (1695).  I’ve mentioned the check-ins in several blog posts such as the East Coast Trip and Denver Brewery Tour.  Because Untappd tells me when I started and you get badges for certain number milestones, it’s easy to go back and look to see how many beers I had within a certain number of days and overall how many beers I’ve had total per day over the entire length of my time on the app.  This is a totally meaningless statistic, but just one of the ways I enjoy crunching numbers.

July 31, 2014 – This is the day I logged my first sample and earned the “newbie” badge with one log in.  For the record it was Fat Chance by Redhook. Interesting.

August 6, 2014 – 6 days later I get the badge for 25 unique beers.  At this point the discovery rate is very quick.  Not only am I seeking out new beers to try, but also at this point every single beer I try is “unique”.  Averaging a little over 4 beers a day. Beer 25 was a Golden Ale from McMenamins at Edgefield, so something tells me there was a taster tray involved somewhere.

August 18, 2014 –  12 days later I hit 50.  Still really fast growth but already starting to slow.  This time period is averaging 2 beers a day, which drags the total average down to just under 3 a day (2.777777)

October 6, 2014 – 51 days to add another 50 beers and hit 100.  Probably at this point starting to hit some duplicates that don’t get counted as unique, and also there was no way I could sustain that growth rate anyway (4 beers a day!). #100 was Blue Dot from Hair of the Dog and judging by the date I’m sure it was at the OBC Hair of the Dog out meeting.

March 17, 2015 –  Now the milestones start getting further apart.  162 days to add another 100 beers and hit 200.  0.67 beers a day now at this rate.  Still not a bad overall rate of 0.8 beers a day.  200 beers in 231 days.

October 22, 2015 –  A little over a year after hitting 100 I finally make it to 500.  Must have had a couple good festivals and events during this period to add 300 more beers in only 219 days. The National Homebrewers Conference in San Diego was also in this time period.  1.36 beers a day during this stretch.  #500 was Oskar Blues Ten Fidy which I got from a beer ordering service I used for a while.  It’s not available around here.

May 30, 2016 – Apparently I kicked it into high gear again adding 500 more beers in just 221 days, a rate of over 2 beers a day.  The East Coast trip happened during this time period as well as the Inaugural Pacific Northwest Homebrewers Conference, so lots of small samples getting logged in a short period of time. #1000 was 2008 Russian River Consecration (Batch 008) which was from the OBC Sour and Wild Camping Trip, so another event with 50+ samples in 3 days, most of which I only took a sip of.  Total from this point to day 1, 1000 beers in 669 days, an overall rate of 1.49 beers a day.

March 8, 2017 – 1695 beers and counting…. the next milestone isn’t until 2500, which will take quite a while to get too, but in the slightly less than a year since I hit 1000, I’ve added almost 700 beers in 291 days.  A rate of almost 2.5 beers a day.  All of the summer festivals, another trip to the East Coast, and a trip to Denver are included in this time period.

The overall rate is 1695 beers in 951 days, or 1.78 beers a day.  I don’t drink a beer every day, so obviously the 20 in a day at a festival bumps that average up, but it does still kind of make sense to average about 2 a day, since when my wife and I go out, if we both order a beer and I get to taste and log them both, that will be two beers each time I log.

I have changed the way I order beers at some point in this timeline.  I used to get taster flights everywhere I went to make sure I could taste as many beers as possible.  Whether it was my judging experience or just real life that taught me about palate fatigue, I realized halfway through the flight I couldn’t taste much anymore.  So now I’ll mostly just find what looks best on the menu and order a pint, knowing for the local places, that we can always go back some other time.  For travelling, like to Denver, we will still get flights since we’ll be less likely to get back any time soon.  But I also picked up the trick at some point of taking a sip of my wife’s beer (or a friend, if they are willing) and logging that as well, so at a dinner where I may only have one beer, I get to log two (or more).

So there you have it, just some fun with numbers.  I’ve still got almost 1000 to go till 2500 and at this rate it will take almost another year.  The milestones left after that are 5000 and 10,000.  Who knows how long those will take, but we’ll find out!

The question of style.

Hang out in homebrew or beer geek circles long enough and eventually you will hear an argument about styles.  Not whether stout is superior to IPA (which also happens) but whether styles should exist at all.  One of the freedoms of homebrewing (and sometimes pro as well) is the ability to make whatever the hell you want.  Want to brew a stout, use a Belgian yeast strain and then add in sour dregs of Rodenbach Grand Cru? You can.  In fact I have a friend who does just that.  However, what happens when you want to enter that beer into a competition? You have to call it something.

The two style guides that I am most familiar with are the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) style guide and the BA (Brewers Association) style guide.  As I mentioned in the best of craft beer post, BJCP is about 32 styles and used mostly for homebrew competitions while the BA guide is over 160 styles and is used for commerical beer competitions, most notably the Great American Beer Festival (GABF).

A piece of advice that I heard as I became more competitive was “If you want to get feedback on your beer, enter it as the style you intended it.  If you want to win medals, enter the beer as the style is most closely resembles.”  Say for example you make a Cascadian Dark Ale (aka Black IPA) and it doesn’t turn out hoppy enough, you basically just made an American Stout.  For me personally, these two ideals are not as mutually exclusive as they may seem though.  If I’m brewing a CDA (a style that I really enjoy and have had moderate success with, two 2nd place medals) I’m not going to be happy if that beer takes a medal in “American Stout”, even if it was first place.  Because to me, in my mind, it’s not an American Stout.  I’ve only done the category switch one time, and in essence I didn’t even change categories.  I had a batch of my CDA not pull enough color, so I called it a Red IPA instead, but it was still within the “Specialty IPA” category.  It didn’t score well.

Pro brewers I’ve noticed also seem to follow the “Enter what it’s like” advice when it comes to major competitions.  Looking at last years GABF results I see a few odd balls that stick out to me.  Pabst won a silver medal in “American Style Cream Ale” with Old Style Lager.  Well, Cream Ales aren’t lagers.  To me, that’s in the wrong category.  In the past I’ve seen other things like an ESB win a medal in American Amber.  I’ve seen beers with label graphics proudly announcing the fact that their Red IPA won a silver medal in the German Dark Lager category.  To me, that’s not something I would announce and be proud of, but again, that’s just me.  I don’t want to win a medal for the wrong category.

What do you guys think out there? Is it good enough just to win a medal period or is it good to be a stickler for accuracy?

Reach Break Brewing

After we got checked in to Astoria for the Festival of Dark Arts, our AirBnB host told us that a brand new brewery had just opened in town.  Of course we had to check it out.  But first we had to find it.  The place was so new it didn’t show up on google maps and we weren’t 100% sure of the name.  Reach something.  After a while we found it.  They don’t have a website that I could find, but they do have a Facebook page which you can peruse HERE.

Turns out it was on Duane street, quite literally a block from Fort George.  So we decided to swing by there on our way to getting in line.  Obviously, we weren’t the only ones who had that idea.  We ran into some of our Portland friends and hung out with them for a while.  They were very ambitious and ordered a half pour of everything on the menu, so we got to try it all.  Being Dark Arts weekend there was mostly Stouts on the menu, but they also had a Session IPA and an English Style Red Ale if you weren’t into the dark stuff.  The Session IPA was super citrusy with huge hop character without being overly bitter.  The red ale had a nice malty backbone.

For a place that had only been open a couple weeks when we got there, they had a very ambitious tap list with several barrel aged offerings.  Of course, if you’re gonna break out a chocolate and vanilla stout aged in Whiskey barrels (Brownie Stout), Dark Arts weekend is the time to do it.

I was really impressed with what they had to offer and I would highly recommend you stop by the next time you’re on the coast.  This is now the 5th brewery in the booming metropolis of Astoria, so you really owe it to yourself to go.  I will be back for sure.

2017 Festival of Dark Arts

I thought I had done a review of this last year, but apparently I didn’t.  This is the second year my wife and I have attended this festival, which is based around only stouts.  Fort George Brewery in Astoria has declared February as Stout Month and hosts this festival every year in the middle of the month.  Last year it was Valentines weekend, this year it was slightly later.  Unfortunately it always seems to fall on Zwicklemania weekend, which means missing that event.

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Last year’s festival happened during a torrential downpour and we got soaked walking from our hotel to the festival.  This year the weather was much nicer, but the downside to that meant it was a lot more crowded.  They rearranged some of the tap locations in an effort to manage the crowds better, but I feel like they went the wrong way and made it worse instead of better.  But besides the crushing crowds and the too loud music (which we just come to expect at an event like this) everything else was top notch as usual.  And of course, we’re all there for the beer!

I don’t take detailed tasting notes at an event like this, but there were quite a few that stuck out as far superior than the rest.  Between my wife and I we tasted 26 of the stouts that were there.  That’s only a third or so of the 63 total available.  Several of the more rare ones run out fast, some we never even saw, and sadly my wife had the dubious honor of blowing two kegs.  She just missed out on the Firestone Walker Parabajava and the Smog City The Nothing.  I was a few people short of The Breury’s So Happens it’s Tuesday, which I knew would go fast.

Quite a lot of the beers at the Festival are barrel aged and double digit alcohol level.  This is one of the few fests where I’m thankful for a 3 ounce pour, because most of these beers it would be hard to drink much more than that.  Thick, rich, boozy, heavily flavored, just a “taste” is perfect.

It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but there were a handful of beers that shone above the rest.  The Lagunitas Willett Whiskey Aged Stout was phenomenal, as was the Ecliptic Bourbon Barrel Aged Oort Imperial Stout.  It’s a coin flip between those two for best of the fest.  Also great was the 2013 Walking Man Bourbon Barrel Jaywalker, the Alesong Rhino Suit, Sierra Nevada Barrel Aged Narwhal, the Stoup Rye Barrel Aged Imperial Stout and the Mill City Brew Werks Raspberry Tripwire.

When I’m at a festival like this, I tend to gravitate to beers I’ve never had before and beers that I can’t usually get in this area.  Nothing against Boneyard’s Suge Knight or pFriem’s BA Imperial Stout, but I’ve had them before and I know they are good.  This also means I didn’t try a lot of the Fort George beers, since I’ve had them before or know I can get them pretty much any time.  Coffee Girl, Kentucky Girl, and Tuesday’s Lunch I know I’ve had, and the rest didn’t really look appealing.  Nothing wrong with weird flavors, but I’m not sure about a stout with Candy Cap mushrooms (Subtle Hyperole) or black tea and plums (Kaiju Stout).

The exception to this was Fort George’s new Matryoshka series.  Named after Russian nesting dolls, the base is a Barrel aged Russian Imperial Stout.  A small batch of that was aged with cocoa nibs, and then an even smaller batch of that was aged with cocoa nibs and raspberries.  A stout, within a stout, within a stout.  I had a bottle of the base beer here at the house, and my wife got a taster of the cocoa version while I got a taster of the cocoa/raspberry version and they were both phenomenal.  The day after the festival we went back to Fort George for lunch and also a bottle release of the Matryoshkas.  I picked up a bottle of the cocoa nib and the cocoa nib/raspberry to complete the set.

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Fort George sure knows how to throw a party! We have to leftover tokens to kick start us for next year.  See you in 2018!

Into the Woods Part 2

My recent infatuation with barrel aged beers has continued.  The season of dark beers is almost over, but February in Oregon is Stout Month and that includes the Festival of Dark Arts this weekend at Fort George in Astoria.  My wife and I went last year and declared we would return every year.  Whether that holds true or not remains to be seen, but we are going this year.  There’s a lot of barrel aged beers on the menu for the fest this weekend, but until then, here’s a couple more I’ve enjoyed in the last couple of months.

Payette Brewing Hoop and Stave 3 (2014): Imperial Rye Ale aged in Whiskey barrels with cherries.  So, this was a very interesting beer.  I read several check-in’s on Untappd claiming the beer was infected.  It was a bit sour, I believe possibly from the cherries and may have picked up some natural bacteria as well.  Personally, it tasted like a Kriek (cherry lambic) and I really liked it, but it may not have been what the brewers intended.  Your mileage may vary.  (4 stars)

pFriem 2016 Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout: As soon as I heard about this beer I had to find a bottle of it. Dark black with a coffee colored head, dark fruit and strong oak aroma.  The bourbon really bursts in the flavor plus vanilla and coconut flavors from the oak.  Dark roast in the aftertaste.  Very smooth.  Very dangerous at 11.5% (4.5 stars)

New Holland Dragons Milk: I’ve read that this is the only barrel aged stout that is part of a year round lineup rather than a special seasonal.  New Holland recently started to distribute to Oregon, so when I saw it I had to grab a bottle.  Dark fruit and strong bourbon aroma.  Slightly sweet with a chocolate and whiskey flavor.  Not roasty, very smooth.  Thick mouthfeel that lingers long on the palate.  I remember this beer being very intense, almost too much so.  Certainly could have shared the 12 oz bottle.  (4.25 stars).

New Belgium Transatlantique Kriek (2016): Fruited lambics are my favorite style of sours, particularly cherry lambics (kriek).  This beer is a partnership between NBB and Oud Beersel in Belgium.  The lambic portion was brewed and wood aged in Belgium and then shipped across to NBB where they blended it with a golden lager and their own sour brown ale, Felix, and then aged in the foeders.  I tasted this at the tasting room in Fort Collins, but it is available in 22oz bottles.  Lightly tart, sweet cherry, very refreshing, not overly sour, but just enough pucker. (4.75 stars)

New Belgium 2017 La Folie Sour Brown Ale: I’m pretty sure I would have liked this beer regardless, but I got to taste this in New Belgium’s Foeder Forest as part of the tour.  I know words don’t do it justice but imagine drinking a sour beer, surrounded by the massive barrels it was aged in, in a room that smells like red wine and whiskey.  Got that? Definitely the highlight of the tour.  (4.5 stars)

Diebolt Vladislav Bourbon Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Stout (2017): This one might require some travel, since I don’t know if they distribute much outside the Denver area, but it’s worth the trip.  We missed the release by one day while we were in Denver, but when we got there the next day they had the original version plus several variants.  Sweet dark fruit, sherry, chocolate aromas.  Roasty coffee, dark fruit flavor.  Dry finish with lingering bitterness, super smooth. Absolutely blew me away.  Another dangerous one at 11%.  (5 stars)

Diebolt Vladislav BBA RIS Variants, Coffee Chocolate and Vanilla Chai (2017): We tried two variants of the Vladislav while we were there as well.  My wife really enjoyed the coffee chocolate, which was a little coffee heavy for my personal taste, but execution-wise was nearly flawless, very well done. (4.25 stars).  The Vanilla Chai knocked my socks off.  Sweet and spicy with great flavor, certainly hides the alcohol very well.  You could drink a lot of this if you weren’t careful. (5 stars).