Best Beers in America (?)

Everyone loves lists.  Everyone hates list.  Top Ten and “Best of” lists are always the worst.  Hotly debated, whether it’s the Best rides at Disneyland, Top Ten Ballpark Hotdogs or the Best IPAs in America, someone is gonna be disappointed.  In today’s social media society, those people get to express that dissatisfaction.

When Buzzfeed or whoever do a Top Ten or Best of list of beers it’s almost universally panned by the beer community.  There’s so much beer out in the world to try to whittle it down to 10 is impossible, but someone will always complain.  All ten are from the Northeast/Northwest/California, X brewery has three of the top ten, all ten are IPA’s, all ten are barrel aged stouts 10%ABV and higher.  The list goes on ad nauseum.  Most complain that they are just popularity contests, best selling, most name recognition, most sought in trade etc.  Most of them are right.  Sales focused lists do have “hard data” to back it up.. but come on… we all know what’s #1 on that list. Budweiser.  And it ain’t about taste.. it’s called 9$ for an 18 pack suitcase so you can get lit up like the fourth of July (and it will take all 18….)

Zymurgy (The magazine of the American Homebrewers Association) publishes a list once a year that is absolutely a popularity contest.  They urge readers (AHA members) to “vote” (read: create a list) for up to 20 of what they think are the best beers in the US. (read: personal favorites). Beers with “cult followings” have held the top ten for years and everyone complains but it never changes.  Russian River’s Pliny the Elder had the #1 spot for 5 or 6 years, it dropped to #2 this year being barely edged out by Bell’s Two Hearted.  Pliny is barely available outside San Diego, so I have a hard time believing that many people have had it to list it as a favorite, I wonder if it’s just the mystique of the “best beer in the world” type status.  Tied for 6th is Alchemist’s Heady Topper, which is another one of those cult beers that everyone seems to love, but no one seems to be able to get.

Did I vote in this? Of course I did.  Did I game the system? Of course I did! They encourage it.  I don’t remember what all beers I voted for, but I used my votes mostly for beers that I feel don’t get the recognition they deserve.  Is Foothill’s Jade IPA ever going to make this list? Probably not, but I’ll keep trying. I think Deschutes Abyss is possibly the only one I voted for that made the list.  And that’s OK.

I don’t totally remember the “requirements” for the list, but the main one is “Commercially available in the US”.  I don’t know if they specify “readily available” or not.  One beer that snuck on the list that should not be on there is Westvleteren 12.  As much as it’s touted as the “best beer in the World” it’s not sold in the US.  In fact it’s not sold anywhere besides the brewery at the monastery.  Yes, some people resell it, but that’s technically against the law, both in Belgium and the US. You also sign an agreement with the monks that you won’t re-sell, and do you really want to piss off a bunch of monks who make the best beer in the world? Westy 12 is on the “Best imports” list which is not part of the top 50, but it still shouldn’t be on there.

My personal opinion, which I’m sure others will disagree with, is that draft only, brewery only, beers that sell out in one day and people camp out for, shouldn’t be on the list, because you can’t just go out to a store, or even visit the brewery and buy that beer across the counter.  Obviously, the whole camp out and sell out in a day deal is a testament to how good these beers are, but they aren’t what I would refer to as “readily available”.  Do I have to go to Wisconsin to get New Glarus Spotted Cow? Yeah, but it’s available year round.  Do I have to go to Texas to get Jester King? Sure.  Some of the stuff on the list like Founders KBS and RR Pliny the Younger maybe don’t belong on the list. I’m sure I’m the only one who thinks that because now people will seek out these hard to get beers.  They do suffer a little though from availability.  Pliny the Younger is all the way down tied for 27th.  It’s supposed to be “better” than Elder, yet Elder is #2.

Anyway, that’s just my thoughts on it. Your mileage my vary. Relax don’t worry have a (home)brew.

Dick’s Brewing Variety Pack

The standard 12 pack variety pack contains either four bottles each of three types of beer, or three bottles each of four types of beer.  Makes logical sense.  However, the variety pack from Dick’s Brewing out of Centralia, Washington, boasts no less than eight varieties.

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This was intriguing since it was a chance to try even more stuff in one go.  I expected a complete random assortment, some one bottle, some three bottles etc.  Turns out it wasn’t quite as random, which made sense from a production standpoint.  The box was arranged with eight of the bottles in four sets of two, and then four singles.  So by minimum of eight, it usually means exactly eight.  This box contained two IPA, two Mountain Amber, two Cream Stout and two Golden Ale.  The four singles were Irish Red, Best Bitter, Grand Cru (Belgian) and Dick Danger (Cascadian Dark/Black IPA).

The first one we opened was the Dick Danger Ale, which they list as their “Flagship” and also as a Cascadian Dark Ale, or Black IPA. Upon opening it was obvious there was a problem.  The beer was light brown, see through, very fizzy but like soda, huge bubbles clinging to the side of the glass and no head retention.  It tasted flat and caramelish.  No hops, no bitterness.

Next we had the Cream Stout and the Mountain Amber.  These two weren’t too bad.  The Stout was roasty enough to be almost smoky, the Amber was oxidized but not as offensive as the CDA.  The last one we tried the first night was the IPA and it was not good.  Hoppy beers just don’t age well at all.  At this point I’m realizing that all of these beers are just old.  Dicks does not print package dates or best by dates on their bottles or the cases and it shows.  Who knows how long these have been sitting in the store.

The next night I tried the Golden Ale and it wasn’t too bad.  Less hops to go bad, and a milder flavor profile to begin with.  The last one I tried was the Grand Cru Belgian, figuring out of any of the styles that one could hold up the most to age.  It was OK, but it was still obviously oxidized and it was very sharp and alcoholic.  I would wager it may have been higher than the label claim of 10% ABV.

The last two I haven’t tried yet are the Irish Red and the Best Bitter.  They are in the fridge right now, but I’m not holding out much hope.

It’s sad really that this could have been a really great variety pack, but just ravaged by time.  I don’t think a lot of people realize just how perishable beer is.  Just like any food product it has an “expiration” date.  Granted, it won’t “spoil”, meaning it won’t go rotten and make you sick, but it can lose a lot of it’s flavor and aroma and just end up not tasting very good.

If we’re ever in Centralia and get a chance to try some fresh, maybe it will be better, but likely not going to take a chance on the variety pack again.

2017 Portland Fruit Beer Fest

I haven’t blogged in a while (apologies) but festival season is upon us! This past weekend was the Portland Fruit Beerfest, which due to other obligations and just life in general, was the first Fest my wife and I attended this year. We missed Spring Beer and Wine and Nanofest which was unfortunate, since those are a couple of our favorites, but there’s always next year.

My wife and I like to volunteer to pour beer at these festivals, which is you haven’t done it before, it’s the best way to do a fest.  You “work” for 3-4 hours, pouring samples and taking tickets/tokens and then you are released from your shift and given a cup, tokens and wristband to go enjoy the festival, for free! One of our friends from the homebrew club is the volunteer coordinator for a couple of fests in town, including this one, so of course we signed up. Sometimes it can be boring, sometimes it can be hectic, usually it’s a combo of both.  A sudden burst of activity followed by a lull, rinse, repeat. A few festival require you to have an OLCC Servers Permit (Oregon Liquor Control Commission) but most don’t.  Usually they just have a pamphlet that tells you how to determine if someone has been overserved and then you sign on the dotted line that you solemnly swear you’re up to no good.

They moved the Fruit Beer Fest this year, back to Burnside Brewing, compared to the last couple of years at the North Park Blocks, and I get the reasons why (cost, access to water, electricity etc) but it did make for a smaller, more crowded venue.  That’s typical beer fest, but it still stinks.  The good news is it gave me an opportunity to visit Burnside Brewing after I shockingly realized I’d never been there.

Fruit Beer Fest can be interesting.  Most of the beers are small, one off batches made specifically for the fest with some wild flavor combos.  I tried 13 unique beers at the festival, counting my samples, my wife’s samples and one last one that we split.

In no particular order, we had:

Blueberry Lemonade – HiWheel Fizzy Wine
Fruitlands Blood Orange and Hibiscus – Modern Times
Pineapple POG – Portland Cider Company
Key Lime Pie – 10 Barrel Brewing
Hop Berry IPA – Culmination Brewing
Clown Pie, Banana Cream Ale – Portland Brewing (I poured this one)
There will be Blood (Blood Orange IPA) – Fort George
Kumquat Farmhouse Ale – pFriem
Biere Royale – The Commons
Tiki Club IWA – Sunriver Brewing
Orange Crusher – Cascade Brewing (one of the best of the day!)
Cherry Pilsner – Reubens Brews
Benny Appleseed – Lompoc Brewing

Quite the assortment yeah? Some are better than others, welcome to beerfests, but they are all interesting and unique.

Next June I would highly recommend it.

Untappd Update

So, I’ve still yet to hit the next milestone of 2500, but I’m getting pretty close to 1900.  The summer festival season is upon us, so I’m expecting the number to climb quickly in the next couple of months.  Case in point, I added 14 beers in one day this past weekend at the Portland Fruit Beer Fest.  4 ounce tasters are a great way to try a bunch of stuff and not stumble away (still have to be responsible though.)

Looking back at my previous post Rate of Discovery, we see that on March 8, 2017 I was sitting at 1695 beers.  As of today (June 14, 2017) I am at 1864 unique beers.  An addition of 169 beers in 99 days. (Should have waited till tomorrow I guess!).  This is a rate of 1.70(70repeating) beers per day.  Going back to day one, this is 1864 beers in 1050 days, or a rate of 1.775 beers per day.  So it looks like the rate of discovery is starting to level off, which is not a surprise.  Any statistic will be more stable over a longer time period.

So… that said.. at this rate, it will take me 358 days to reach 2500.  Almost another YEAR.  So be sure to come back and check on June 6, 2018 to see if I got there.  The next milestone after that is 5000.  That will take 1408 days. Almost 4 years! The next (and final) milestone after that is 10,000 and I don’t even want to think about that. Seems unobtainable, although knowing dedicated Untapper’s like I do, eventually they will tack one on beyond that, say 25,000. I feel confident that will happen.

Another one bites the dust…

New broke last week that Wicked Weed had been assimilated by the Borg acquired by AB InBev’s High End division.  As expected, backlash has been swift and severe.  This time, not just among the beer snob crowd though.  Several breweries who were collaborating with WW and a good chunk (almost 30 at last report) of the attendees of the Wicked Weed Invitational Beer Festival have immediately cut all ties to the brewery.  Don’t feel too bad.  I imagine we’ll eventually find out how many zeros were on that check.  They’ll be fine.

Personally, I’m very conflicted about this buyout.  I can’t really say I’m a huge fan of Wicked Weed’s beer, since I’ve only tried two of their offerings, but I was a fan of the brewery itself.  One of the standard bearers for the quickly growing North Carolina craft beer scene, I was planning to visit them on my next trip out East, whenever that may have been.  Also, listening to the interviews with Walt on the BN’s Sour Hour, not only did I get excited about what he’s trying to do there, but felt like I got to know him and his crew a little bit.  Hence the feeling of deep disappointment and betrayal.

I want to be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone for selling a business when presented with an obscene amount of cash.  Talk about love and craft and artisan all you want, but at the end of the day it’s a business.  The goal is to make money and support your family and support your community.  When 10 Barrel sold for what, at the time, seemed like a ridiculous amount ($10 Million) I thought to myself “Wow… what do you do as a business owner when someone, quite literally, walks in the door with a suitcase full of cash?”  Those of us who are not business owners have no idea how we would react to such a situation.

My ire is more directed at InBev, and I think that’s true of a lot of people, even including the initial knee jerk reaction towards the small brewery of “HOW COULD YOU??” AB InBev is working to manipulate the market, using legal, if not quite moral, ways to do it.  I see it as a monopoly without being a monopoly. “But your Honor, it’s 27 different companies.. that’s not a monopoly.”  It’s not so much that they bought “my favorite brewery” but that they can do so with such ease.  They probably spend more than 10 million dollars taking Wal Mart execs out to dinner.  10 Barrel is barely a blip on their balance sheet.  But it puts them in Central Oregon plus a pub in Portland. It seems as if they just point and say “I want that one….” In the current climate, it’s just another reminder that money is power. “If you can’t beat them, join them” has become “If you can’t beat them, own them.”  You don’t have to work or stand in line if you can just buy your place at the table.  Looking at their acquisitions, they are all scattered across the country in pretty strategic locations.  California, Oregon, Seattle, Chicago, Georgia, New York, Colorado… and now North Carolina.  Adding to the web, adding to the network.  Also, taking another step deeper into “craft” by getting into sour beer.  They grabbed a barrel program when they got Goose Island, but sour beer is a whole different animal.

The immediate reaction by a lot of people is that they will never buy or drink that beer again, and that’s fine, there are millions of choices.  But that can be easier said than done.  I’m not a huge fan of 10 Barrel or Elysian, so those are easy to avoid.  Golden Road I’ve never had before, and suddenly saw it show up in our local Fred Meyer, and then remembered why it suddenly showed up.  This year I did go out and buy some of the Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.  I don’t know if I will again in the future, but I do think it’s really good.  I don’t yet know what I’ll decide about Wicked Weed.  I may still try it, just so I can say I had it, and then not have it again.  Or I may swear off it.  Right now you can’t get it here in Oregon, so it’s not hard to avoid.  If they start distributing here, it might be hard to say no, even knowing they are InBev now.  I’ll have to cross that bridge when I come to it.

For now, there’s no immediate choice to make.  My next trip to NC won’t be any time soon and they likely won’t start selling WW beer in Oregon for quite some time, if ever.  I have time to think and mull on it, but mostly it just sucks.  I know full well that the whole “loyalty” gambit that a lot of fans play when a small company sells is mostly bullshit.  They don’t owe us a damn thing.  Granted there have been cases where a brewery has publicly said “We’ll never sell!” and then they do a few weeks later.  That of course is shifty and worthy of scorn.  Wicked Weed to my knowledge had not made any statements similar to that, but who knows.  They made their choice.  Now we make ours.

Beer is a democracy.  We vote with our dollars. Do with that what you will.

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?