After years of rough sales, precipitous drops in distribution and interest, and a substantial number of closings and failures, craft brewers have finally stabilized their operations and are regrouping for another assault on the American beer scene.
The rumblings of a growing beer culture can be detected across America. On any given weekend, there is likely a beer dinner, festival or event within reasonable driving distance of most cities. In cities ranging from Boston to Philadelphia, Chicago to Denver, and Portland to San Diego, beer enthusiasts and novices alike can join together to appreciate and learn more about beer. It has come to a point that in Boston, the calendar is so packed with great beer opportunities that at least once a month I learn about an interesting event a day or two after it happens. The forces behind these events include a cabal of innovative, determined craft brewers, alongside enterprising restaurateurs and pub owners and savvy event planners.
BEER FESTIVALS GROW UP
During a recent festival in Boston, attendees witnessed the birth of a new model for future beer events. Taking cues from the typical protocol in wine events, the Art of Beer Festival (AOBF) offered patrons more than endless samples of impressive beers. The festival, sponsored by the founders of the website Beeradvocate.com and a local alternative weekly newspaper, placed substantial focus on educating consumers about great beer.
"Our goal with the Art of Beer Festival," said organizer Todd Alstrom in a press release for the event, "is to create an environment that helps attendees to interact with brewers and actually walk away with a better appreciation for beer and those behind the art." The event included a separate area where brewers, ranging from industry celebrity Garret Oliver to local Cambridge Brewing Company brewer Will Meyers, spoke about various beer related topics. The subjects ranged from technical discussions of the difficulties in brewing consistently between multiple brewhouses to esoteric rants on the state of the American beer palate.
Set off from the main rotunda of the festival, the seminar bullpen offered a quieter respite from the energy of the tasting floor. Among a list of brewing notables, two speakers clearly stand out in their presentations. Speaking to an audience of about 100 enthusiasts, a smartly clad Garret Oliver, the BrewmMaster and Vice-President of Production at the Brooklyn Brewery, steped to the dais and addressed a personal favorite topic: pairing beer and food.
Oliver began his speech with a challenge: "Where do we get this idea that wine is more sophisticated than beer?" He then briefly discussed the history of wine and beer, and the development of the English-speaking world's inferiority complex as it relates to wine versus beer. In considering the notion that beer should take a back seat to wine in terms of beauty and complexity, Oliver, a self-avowed appreciator of great wines, immediately rejected the thought. Considering his selected topic, it makes sense that Oliver sets his sites on this sacred cow before returning to making the case for pairing beer and food - the inferiority complex of beer to wine is so strong that even serious beer loving foodies still hesitate to use beer in the kitchen.
Oliver's discussion of the history and popular impressions of beer and wine offer a nice segue to his in-depth discussion of the flavors and textures found in food and beer. He noted that while certain wines offer great complexity, all wines taste like "wine" to consumers. In contrast, Oliver argues that beer does not always taste like "beer", such as Belgian gueze and lambics, but instead can offer light and heavy textures, with a range of flavors that pair better with foods than wine.
While acknowledging that wine and beer both offer a range of flavors and individual benefits, Oliver praised the virtue of carbonation found in beer, and highlighted its importance in pairing with food. He told the assembled crowd that the importance of carbonation in food pairing should not be underestimated. In contrast to wine, beer's carbonation helps refresh the palate and cuts through heavier dishes.
When amateur and professional cooks attempt to match beverages and food, their natural inclination is to find similar flavor components. Oliver, the author of a recently published book on beer and food entitled The Brewmaster's Table, advocates looking for "flavor hooks", or flavors in beer that either echo or include the taste essences in the dish. He offered an example of the French biere de garde, a beer style defined by a light body filled with earthy, cellar-like aromas and mild, fruity esters. Oliver suggested that a strong pairing for a biere de garde, brewed in part with coriander, would be a sauce using orange or the fruit's peel. Oliver next suggested that the malty flavors of beers provided an excellent pairing opportunity for caramelized dishes, a cooking method for which wine has no matching flavor component.
Oliver next tackled one of the cooking world's most sacredly held principles, skewering the dirtiest secret of wine lovers: the difficulty of pairing wine and cheese. While researching his book, Oliver reviewed a range of books on wine and beer and was shocked to discover the willingness of wine writers to admit the relative impossibility of pairing wine and cheese. Again, the problem with wine is its lack of carbonation. As cheese tends to coat the palate, the flavor of most wines get washed out in the balance.
In an amusing segment of his presentation, Oliver recounted his involvement in a recent showdown over the relative pairing benefits o of wine versus beer. In his "Iron Chef"-like challenge, Oliver went up against a past sommelier at New York City's well-respected Gramercy Tavern. In unveiling his strategy, Oliver suggested that wines need an earthy, musty character, as found in corked wines, to properly match with some cheeses. The two titans went back and forth over their various pairings, with each refusing to admit defeat. On the final pairing, the sommelier offered an unnamed desert wine to match a fine, yet reserved stilton cheese. In return, Oliver offered a well-aged, vintage 1988 JW Lee's Harvest Ale to match the rich and mellow flavor of the cheese. In considering the two pairings, Oliver simply asked, "After tasting the cheese, can anyone still taste the wine?" The response was decidedly "no". When he posed the question regarding the deep, rich, port-like Harvest Ale, the assembled crowd took note that the beer not only stood up to the cheese, but helped round its edges and accentuate its attributes.
While his presentation was thorough and impressive, and kept a large crowd entertained, most important was not his in-depth discussion of the similar aromatic components found in cilantro and cascade hops, but the very fact that this seminar occurred at all. To many culinary experts, the pairing of beer and food is a subject to which noses are decidedly turned up. The seminar at the AOBF demonstrated not only the industry's increased dedication to bettering the image of beer, but the receptiveness of an audience to that message.
In the festival's most popular presentation, Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione kept a crowd of more than one hundred attendees laughing, all the while respecting beer. He started his talk with a comparison to the American wine industry. Calagione noted that after ambling through the industry with a decided lack of respect, American winemakers jumped several levels in admiration with the bold work of a few small producers. When these winemakers decided to pump up the size of their wines in terms of flavor and body, their shift towards aggressive wines captured the attention of wine lovers.
Calagione suggests that American brewers are entering a similar phase in terms of producing aggressive beers and gaining respect. In suggesting a new age in brewing, he cites the production of his own brewery. Dogfish Head has several beers available at the festival, including standouts from its regular line and some innovative, bold new beers which the brewery is known for producing. At 7:15pm, people started to line up at the brewery's sampling table in hopes of snagging a small taste of the brewery's new 120 Minute IPA, a beer with 120 IBU's, dry hopped every day and aged on whole leaf hops for a month. Weighing in at 21 percent alcohol by volume, the beer is another salvo in the friendly brewing war between Dogfish Head and the Boston Beer Company for the title of the world's strongest beer. Unlike the Sam Adams offerings, however, Dogfish Head's brewers seek to produce smooth, drinkable products with carbonation that still taste like "beer".
The crowd reacted positively to the brewery's aggressive attempts to redefine popular perceptions of beer. The first five gallon keg of the 120 Minute IPA went in under fifteen minutes, and my first sample was from the last few drops of the keg. The 120 Minute IPA has an enormous floral aroma, with distinct citrus notes, a light alcohol presence, and a sharp unexpected sweetness. While it resembles a super-sized version of the brewery's eminently drinkable 90 Minute IPA, it is decidedly larger in body, but somehow lighter overall in hop flavor. A light bitterness balances the beer's strong sweetness in the finish.
BREWERS UNITE for FLAVOR
Outside of the AOBF's seminar bullpen, three brewers, including Calagione, joined together to form a slightly tongue-in-cheek organization to promote craft beer. At a package store west of Boston, Calagione, Greg Koch of Stone Brewing Company, and Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing, announced the formation of Brewers United for Freedom of Flavor (BUFF), a group dedicated to weaning American drinkers off of adjunct-laden beer.
"Television advertising uses gratuitous sex and the party-animal lifestyle to lure beer drinkers, but we know beer is much more than that," said Covaleski in the group's press release. "We don't get how wet t-shirts and entangled bodies can make weak beer taste better. We want the world to know that quality ingredients, brewing expertise and, most important, taste are the only things that should sell a beer."
While it is unknown whether the group will actually proceed past the press release stage, it is a sign of the changes in the attitudes of smaller American brewers. In building support for a new beer culture in America, smaller brewers are not only producing more aggressive products and seeking to involve beer in arenas such as food pairing, but are also challenging the very perceptions of beer in America.
Across the country, brewers are helping to promote flavorful beer by sponsoring a flurry of festivals, ramping up educational efforts, and generally treating beer like a valuable consumer product. In this, brewers are following an example set by the American wine industry. Fighting against popular stereotypes of American beer and brewing is no easy endeavor, but American brewers are showing signs of maturity, a developing sense of place and confidence.
While these breweries remain small in the grander scope of the brewing industry, their growth cannot be ignored. As Greg Koch noted during his seminar, his Stone Brewing Company had its weakest year of growth in 2002 - and the brewery still grew at a robust 45 percent. Dogfish Head recently moved to a larger production facility with a 75,000 barrel capacity. Victory also continues to enjoy sizable growth in its markets across the country.
Surveying the American beer scene, there seems to be a palpable feeling of optimism about the future of craft brewing. The change in attitude, from dejection to aggression, defense to offense, signals a potentially interesting trend. With a solid base of loyal drinkers, and a new generation of drinkers growing up with better beer as a viable alternative to macro-produced products, market savvy brewers dedicated to flavorful beer appear poised to tackle the complex subject of beer culture in America. Will this truly become a new era in American beer? It's impossible to predict, but certainly remains something for those in the industry to watch closely.