The Ironic Timing of Fresh Hop Beers and the Great Hop Crunch of 2007

The last few weeks have seen the release of the 2007 ‘fresh hop’ beers. Brewed in connection to the annual hop harvest, the beers are usually made with hops fresh from the field (hopefully within a few hours of picking). The resulting beers tend to have some greatly expressive hop aromas and often flavors. What started with only a handful of examples (with Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Ale being the earliest version I tried) has now grown to dozens of examples.

The fresh hop phenomenon has grown so popular that it even has its own festival. The 5th annual Fresh Hop Ale Festival will be held on Saturday October 6 in the heart of hop heaven in Yakima, Washington (a region that produces more than 75-percent of the American hops used in brewing). The following breweries are scheduled to pour beers and compete in the festival’s competition.

O’Brien’s Pub in San Diego will also sponsor the Wet Hop Beer Festival, where owner Tom Nickel plans to serve 35 beers this year, double the number at the inaugural event two years ago.

The fresh hop craze isn’t limited to the Pacific Northwest. The Boston-based Harpoon Brewery recently released Harpoon Glacier Harvest Wet Hop beer as the 20th installment of its Harpoon 100 Barrel Series. Of the beer, Harpoon’s media team reports:

Wet hop beers are brewed using fresh, wet (hops contain about 60% moisture when they are first picked) hops instead of traditional dried hops. Typically, when hops are picked they are quickly dried and refrigerated to make them more suitable and consistent for brewing. This process allows brewers to use hops that were harvested in the fall throughout the following year. Alternatively, wet hops need to be used within hours of their being harvested or they will begin to rapidly degrade. Wet hops retain some of their natural oils and volatile flavors that dissipate when dried. This yields an immersed, intense hop flavor in the beer.Harpoon brewer Ray Dobens, creator of the beer, harvested the Glacier hops in Seneca New York the morning of August 13th and immediately drove them back to Boston that very afternoon in a refrigerated truck. Ray added the newly harvested hops to the brew within hours after the harvest. The fresh hops were added to a malty, copper-colored ale. The combination is a pleasing blend of fresh hop flavor and sweet malt.

Hell, even Anheuser-Busch is jumping on the bandwagon with its Front Range Fresh Harvest Hop Ale.

All of this exciting innovation comes at a time when hop growers and traders are becoming increasingly concerned about the sorry state of the world’s hop supply. Despite the recent increases in American demand for hops, worldwide hop production is down significantly. The remaining stocks are subject to poor weather, fires, and other catastrophes. While larger breweries, which buy options on ingredients years in advance, and long-term customers will likely continue to receive their hop supplies, the smaller market players may find their access to specific hop varieties very limited.

Man, I hope this doesn’t mean we’ll have to suffer through a resurgence in gruit beers.

In addition to the hop problem, brewers are already starting to get hit with price increases for malt as well. The price of several varieties of base malt has increase 5 to 10 cents a pound. Expect to see the cost of doing business reflected in your pints and six-packs soon.

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A 2007 GABF Preview…

GABF 2007

The beer industry is gearing up once again for the overwhelming experience that is the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Held annually in Denver, the GABF (now in its 26th year) is one of those things every beer lover should experience at least once. It is at once an incomparable tasting event and an unmatched opportunity to rub shoulders and clink glasses with brewers, distributors, bar owners, writers, and beer enthusiasts from nearly every state and dozens of countries.

The GABF is an event I have long-enjoyed and although I am a relative youngster in this industry, this will be my twelfth consecutive year in attendance. My first visit to the GABF was a watershed event for me. I was just beginning to acknowledge and appreciate that there was a difference in American beers. I had just spent a semester in London, where Guinness taught me to taste and feel again. Upon my return, a brewpub opened up in my college town and I stopped by on its opening night to find a stout wholly different from Guinness (the cream stout!). So it was that I happened to be visiting a friend in Denver at the same time the festival was taking place. My friend bought us tickets and upon entering the beautiful environs of Currigan Hall (long since replaced with the cold, soulless Colorado Convention Center) , I actually shed a tear or two at the splendor of American beer.

While the event remains a must attend, today’s GABF is no longer the simple, cozy event of years past. The GABF is a slickly produced show, tightly coordinated, and business first. It is also a place where lazy journalists can coast on information provided to them by the Brewers Association. To get the fluff out of the way, 1408 breweries will be present on the festival floor (24 more than 2006), serving 1884 beers (230+ more than 2006), 474 breweries will participate in the judging event (24 more than 2006), which will involve 2832 beers (442 more than 2006) in 75 categories (a ridiculous increase of 6 from 2006). For a look at the GABF’s judging process, review the article on the value of a beer medal.

I could bore you more data, such as the average number of competition beers in each category (37) , but what would I have left to report?

For those who have never experienced the carnival that is the GABF, offers you its annual review of the past five festivals as part of our eco-friendly article recycling policy. Enjoy.

GABF At 25 – The 2006 GABF.

A look at the 2005 GABF.

Revisit the 2004 GABF.

The 2003 GABF.

The GABF Turns 21 – The 2002 GABF.

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The BeerScribe Interview with Hugh Sisson of Clipper City Brewing…

Hugh Sisson has long been a pioneer in the Maryland beverage alcohol industry. Starting with his eponymously named pub in Baltimore, he has actively worked in the beverage alcohol business since 1980. In the mid-nineteen eighties, Sisson decided he wanted to add a brewpub to his restaurant. After determining that Maryland law did not allow for on-premise brewing, Sisson and others petitioned the state legislature to change the law. By 1989, Sisson’s was Maryland’s first brewpub. By 1995, Sisson left the restaurant business and decided to open the Clipper City Brewing Company, along with a group of investors. Opened in December of 1995, Clipper City brews several successful lines of ales and lagers, along with a substantial contract brewing operation. In his free time, Sisson writes his own blog of the beer industry and has co-hosted a regular radio program on wine and beer, called Cellar Notes, since 1992.

Clipper City is dedicated to promoting a broad portfolio of beer at the local level, especially in its home market. Named for the clipper ship, first built in the port of Baltimore, the brewery integrates the region’s nautical and maritime heritage into its packaging and promotional materials. The brewery now distributes in eighteen states, including Massachusetts.

I recently spoke with Sisson about the Clipper City brands, freshness dating, and why craft brewers should be leery of growing too big, too fast.

Andy Crouch: How did you decide to move from the pub side to the package side of the beer industry.

Hugh Sisson: There were two reasons. First, I really enjoyed my run in the restaurant and pub side and the place was pretty successful. The hours are really tough and I wanted to get into the manufacturing side because I foolishly thought that was going to simplify my life. The hours are just as long, I just start a little earlier in the day and end a little earlier in the evening. So I don’t know that I’ve improved my quality of life. It’s been an interesting transition. In my heart of hearts, I’d like to find some way to get another pub. I underestimated the value of that as a marketing platform for the brand. That would bring me full circle.

AC: By my count, Clipper City has three sets of brands.

HS: We do. We have three distinct product groupings or brands. Part of it was an evolution of our initial business philosophy. We got started in 1995 to 1996, when the craft segment of the beer market, which had been experiencing enormous growth, started to level out. Clipper City BrewingAll of a sudden we found ourselves in a market environment where getting distribution anywhere outside of your backyard was extremely difficult. So we we’re forced to go to a business strategy where we were going to get local and deep. Everything we did was focused around being locally named and positioned and in some ways more mildly profiled flavor styles. Those brands have evolved into what we call the Clipper City brands. There are four brands, BaltoMärzHon, McHenry Lager, and Clipper City Gold and Pale. The second group is Oxford. The first microbrewery in the Maryland area was a company called Oxford Brewing Company. It was built around doing classic English style beers. I believe their slogan was, ‘American beers with a British accent.’ It was started by two gentleman, one of whom is no longer in the industry. The other is Steve Parkes, who is now of Otter Creek and Wolaver’s. That company had its ups and downs. In 1997 or 1998, we acquired them. It’s been developed into a line of wheat beers, including a raspberry wheat and a hefeweizen. We’re still looking at changing that branding portfolio. Four years ago, we felt there was a need to create something that would allow us to expand our geographic footprint. The Clipper City products wouldn’t do that, frankly because they were just so locally positioned it didn’t make sense. There was probably not much interest from a distributor in Florida for a beer named for Baltimore. So we created the Heavy Seas brand with a richer flavor portfolio. It’s targeted at the real beer aficionados. I probably should have done it two or three years before I did. That’s worked really well. There are currently eight beers in that line, with three year-round and five seasonals.

AC: How are these three sets of brands distributed?

HS: As it stands right now, the Clipper City brands are only in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia. We’re pretty much going to stick with that…The thought process behind that is the Chesapeake Basin. I don’t think it makes much sense to take them beyond that. Heavy Seas is currently in eighteen states plus Washington D.C. Ultimately, we’d like to have it in twenty-three or twenty-four states and then we’ll probably stop. We want to make sure we can supply the sales support and marketing infrastructure, which is critically important. I think that’s where a lot of people fouled up in the late nineties. We’re kind of sitting on the Oxford brand for now. When we finish making our changes, I think we’ll try and put that in all eighteen states as well.

AC: How has your experience been outside your home market?

HS: Some markets are more challenging than others. The New England market is at first glance a little more difficult than if we work south and west. With our North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia sale, we’ve been able to get to a certain sales volume much faster there than in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. I think the southern markets tend to be more chain driven, while the northern markets are more independent. And there are pluses and minuses there. We’re continuing to roll up our sleeves and adding more staff as we need to provide the level of support that is requisite in this market environment.

AC: When did you first enter the Massachusetts market?

HS: We first came into the Massachusetts market about three years ago. We were relatively short-lived in our first foray. There was a gentleman we were working with who was starting his own distributorship and approached us. I think he made a serious effort but was under capitalized and it became evident that it wasn’t going to work. After six or seven months, we terminated that relationship. It then took us probably sevent to nine months to figure out who to work with. We’ve been back in the market for two years now.

AC: How have your attempts fared in trying to enter the Boston market?

HS: The Boston market is very, very competitive. There’s an interesting path that we need to follow…We’re making inroads but it’s scratching and clawing. There are no slam dunks in this business. To be successful, you have to get faucets in on-premise accounts. That’s not the easiest thing to do. By virtue of fact we’re not local, you’re going to get out-flanked by your local players. They’ve got the forces in the market to do it and they should. So you have to find other ways to get your foot in the door. One way we’ve tried, though we can’t do it on the scale we’d like, is that we’ve been bringing up cask-conditioned beers. There are a small number of high-end beer accounts that if you can bring them a firkin of cask-conditioned beer, they may give you a place. That’s a good way to get your foot in the door. Hopefully you can turn that into a regular faucet.

AC: Between all the brands, is there a distinct flagship.

HS: Without question, it’s the Loose Cannon Hop3 IPA. That beer is far and away our best-selling product. It’s part of the Heavy Seas portfolio. Hop3 IPAAll of the Clipper City brands do well, but it’s all local. The Heavy Seas brands should do better by virtue of the fact they are more widely distributed.

AC: How important is freshness dating?

HS: I think it’s pretty important from thew standpoint that it gives you some credibility with consumers. The only thing that is tough about it is that quantifying anything in one simple measurement is typically misleading. For example, because of the nature of the dark malt in darker beers, there is a good resistance to oxidation. Dark beers could be dated a hell of a lot longer than they are. One of the things that people don’t understand is that the most delicate beer we make is the Loose Cannon because of all the hops that are in it. The hop compounds will oxidize quite quickly and that’s kind of counterintuitive. Many people think IPA’s will wear like iron. Guess what, they’re wrong. At least doing something that gives the consumer some sort of criteria in determining whether something is fresh is a good idea. Anything we can do to give a consumer a way of determining whether the product is as it should be is good.

AC: Craft beer has enjoyed substantial growth lately. Where do you see the craft market going in the next five years?

HS: I think a couple of things. First off, despite what the major brewers may say, I think it’s pretty well demonstrated at this stage that craft beer is not a fad. It’s not going away and it’ll continue to develop. Having said that, I’ve been in this industry for twenty-five years and things run in cycles. Right now, we’re in a good cycle. Do I think it will stay at this level? No. I fully anticipate a slowdown at some point in time. Then we’ll have a few years where growth will be difficult to attain and then I think it will pick up again. That’s just the natural flow of business. I’d like to see the numbers stay fifteen percent or below because that’s pretty sustainable growth. The base we’re working on is still relatively modest. If it drops to seven and five percent, that is still a real number. If it heats up to 30-percent again like in the late nineties, then the category starts to overheat. Not to take a Greenspanian perspective, but I think you have to be aware that it will attract people who have no business being in the industry and who are looking for a quick dollar. I think that is what happened in the early to mid-nineties and why we had a bit of a Darwinian correction.

AC: The Brewers Association has begun to assert itself more in the last year, both in promoting craft brewers in Washington D.C. and abroad. It also redefined ‘craft brewer’ to exclude breweries that are owned in part or in full by larger companies, such as Anheuser-Busch. What are your thoughts on the politics of this and the renewed interest of larger breweries in the craft category?

HS: I’m kind of on the fence about this. I don’t think it makes sense to exclude Goose Island and Widmer or Old Dominion from what we consider to be craft beers only because of a business affiliation they have. It was a business move made to open up distribution and market share and I think that’s good. Having said that, I’m not thrilled that most consumers don’t know that Blue Moon is brewed by Coors…I’m not really sure what Anheuser-Busch is trying to do. I’m not sure that their involvement is ultimately good for the craft brand because the people who are interested in what people like me are doing are not interested in anything Anheuser-Busch. The Widmer numbers, however, are a good story of success…I think a lot of this has to do with the maturation of the industry. This is not hobbyist any more. Even for people like me for whom this began as a hobbyist venture, this is what we do. We are professionals in this industry. My fear is that people become so exclusive that we become beer snobs. I don’t think that’s beneficial to anybody.

Article appeared in the September 2007 issue of Beverage Magazine.

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For the Love of Lager Beer…

For many drinkers, Germany is a beer mecca, the pinnacle of brewing quality, skill, and history. In faux bierkellers around the globe, locals try to recreate gemütlichkeit by listening to oom-pah music while lifting hefty steins of classic beer styles. Tourists dream of attending the real Oktoberfest, while knocking back a few at their local county’s version.

The truth about German beer, however, is an elusive mixture of tradition, battling corporate behemoths, and drinker apathy. While you can still find lederhosen-clad guys jovially clinking glasses in beautiful beer gardens, foreign business conglomerates have consumed many of the grand old names of German brewing. Perhaps due to its indisputable place in the pantheon of great brewing nations, the craft beer movement hasn’t made much of an impact in Germany. Local drinkers often don’t know about the nearby brewing treasures that so many beer tourists come far to visit.

With modernity and consumer disinterest slowly chipping away at the German beer scene’s grand history, I wanted to consider the broader impact on the great tradition of lager beer. Lager BeerFor better or worse, America has become the brewing world’s protective sanctuary for endangered beer styles. In the past thirty years, America has given new life to many moribund styles, from porter to pale ale. While American brewers have also done a laudable job of recreating German-style ales, many recoil at the thought of giving refuge to ailing lager styles.

In America, lager beer has almost uniformly meant derivatives of the classic pilsner style. Since before the repeal of Prohibition, names such as Budweiser, Pabst, Miller, and Coors have dominated the American beer market. It’s hard to believe, especially for those of us who didn’t live through it, that for decades upon decades, consuming American beer meant enduring a nearly uniform tasting experience. While the craft revolution put some cheer in American beer, lager beer has been left waiting for its invitation to the party. With the exception of Samuel Adams Boston Lager and a small handful of brands from dedicated lagerheads, craft beer in America means ale. India pale ales, weizens, and stouts are ubiquitous; bocks, dortmunders, and marzens are not.

So why is lager beer the Rodney Dangerfield of the craft beer world? Some posit that many beer enthusiasts regard lager beer with disdain because of its association with the big brewers, while others suggest that it is part of our craft DNA to rebel against lager beer. Others consider lagers to be uncool and lacking in the bold, striking flavors that are more obvious in styles such as Double IPA’s.

To love lager beer requires an appreciation of subtlety. Drinking a well-crafted, traditional lager is a sublime experience that requires patience, concentration, and the willingness to move beyond the obvious and banal pleasures of so many ales. Drinking an ale is like watching Bill Murray in Caddyshack, while tasting a lager is slyly smiling at him in Lost in Translation. Each has just the right quality depending upon your mood, but both deserve a place in your collection.

With a half-liter mug pressed firmly in my hand, I am a traditionalist who believes that lager beer is a thing of beauty, that each style has its place and time, and that the elegant gentility of malts is too often overcome by our brutish addiction to hop bombs. I frequently thank the beer gods that the extreme beer phenomenon has passed over lager’s house without staining its door with a double espresso Czech-style pilsner aged in a French oak barrel on top of cherries.

In considering the future of lager beers, it is the slow wane of Germany’s noble beer scene and the discourteous response of American craft drinkers scene that have me concerned. With the globalization of the beer world, America may very well one day be called upon to save the noble lager brewing tradition. Before this day comes, I hope to see our local brewers embrace this neglected family member and start producing high-quality, traditional representations of classic lager beer styles. It can start with you, the drinker who shies away from lager beer because you think a few of its distant cousins are soulless corporate tough guys. Crack a Victory Prima Pils, a Capital Maibock, or a Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold and help carry on the tradition.

Article appeared in the August 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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The Passing of Michael Jackson…

The beer world continues to contemplate the news that famed beer writer, Michael Jackson, passed away at his home in London on August 30. A number of thoughtful observances have been written in the last few days, with many recounting their encounters with the Beer Hunter. For beer writers and brewers alike, you can always remember the first time you met Michael. I met him several times over the last few years, almost each time in a different city (London, New York, and Denver, a few times). The first time I met Michael was at the launch of his Rare Beer Club during the Great American Beer Festival many years ago and he was kind enough to sign a copy of one of his malt whisky books for a friend. He was charming during the event, which included several of his signature digressions into far-flung topics.

After publishing The Good Beer Guide To New England, I happily complied with a request from another beer writer that I send a copy of the book to Michael so that he could stay current on the local New England beer scene.

While writing this, I received yet another memorial, this time from importer, Distinguished Brands International. The release cites a remarkable fact: Michael Jackson sold more than two million books during his lifetime. That is an amazing achievement for the author and for beer.

For those who have not yet seen it, I highly recommend taking a look at the tasteful video interview with Michael Jackson recently filmed by the Shelton Brothers.

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