The End Of The Year: A Time To Express Less Cynical Thoughts…

With fire-colored leaves gently falling from the sky and intensely fresh and cooling breezes cascading, autumn is the season many people secretly long to enjoy. Despite the inevitable and unavoidable promise of a chilly future, the atmospheric changes of scenery often more than make up for what follows. It also doesn’t hurt that the changing landscape is accompanied by a much anticipated bevy of seasonal beers, from soul-soothing Octoberfests to insanely popular Pumpkin ales.

As I have been accused from time to time of being too critical of the craft beer world, I thought, at this contemplative time of the year, that I’d take a few moments and reflect upon some of the things I am thankful for when it comes to the beer world. From modest, ambitious, and even naïve origins, the beer industry has seen incredible changes in the short life-span of better beer. And we can never take for granted the bounty of incredible flavors, aromas, and textures that talented and passionate professionals, everyone involved from grain to glass, have made available to us.

I am most thankful for simplicity. In an era of bigness, from hops to barrels and alcohol, the surprising complexity of what appear the most simple keeps me coming back for more. Whether it be single hop or malt beers, these singularly expressive offerings acutely capture the essence of their carefully chosen ingredients, demonstrating a clear beauty that can often be lost in more complicated yet less complex attempts.

I was also very pleased to see craft brewers venturing into the world of lager beer. Often a good barometer of what is happening in the industry as a large, this year’s Great American Beer Festival played host to a sizable increase in German and Czech-style pilsener beers. While plenty of Double IPA’s filled the floor, strongly hopped yet artfully crafted pilseners matched their presence. It’s a guilty pleasure to watch craft brewers branch out from the alemonopoly and extend an olive branch to this long-neglected wing of the beer family. I hope to see these creative folks draw greater inspiration from many of the less-represented lager styles at next year’s festival. Maybe craft beer drinkers will someday respond in kind and end lager discrimination forever.

Thanks should also be given to the enterprising craft brewers who took a giant risk in putting their flavorful offerings into the once-dreaded coffin of good taste that was the aluminum can. Starting slowly with a handful of breweries across the country, from the New England Brewing Company to the 21st Amendment, with Oskar Blues and others in-between, this was a sizable gamble that paid off big. An excellent receptacle for protecting delicate craft beer, cans have long stood as an icon of mega-beer. By donning the uniform of big beer, craft brewers have shifted the paradigm and demonstrated that great beer can come in many forms.

After more than two decades of brewing top-notch craft beer, I am also pleased that the Boston Beer Company doesn’t just seem content to brew hundreds of thousands of barrels of its flagship Samuel Adams Boston Lager and popular summer seasonals, such as its Summer Ale. Despite its success and growth, Boston Beer has never lost the urge and passion to innovate and the brewery continues to engage in an eclectic assortment of projects that push the brewing envelope, perhaps long after they became a financially good idea to do so.

And finally, like Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family praying for Old Mister Scrooge, I wish the best for the big brewers, who continue to brew and release new beers, even with their varying degrees of success. It is a testament to the growing strength of the craft beer industry that these breweries have been driven to improve the flavor profiles of their products, even if many beer enthusiasts continue to dislike their efforts. But with the benefit of places like the Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field and the AC Golden Brewing Company, we can see glimpses of how different the future might really be for beer.

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You Know What Would Make For An Interesting Beer Festival…

…one dedicated entirely to small beers. By that, I don’t necessarily mean low alcohol beers but those made with the second runnings of a larger brew, such as a barleywine, imperial stout, or quad. The Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco has long produced such a beer, called Small Beer, from the second runnings of its popular Old Foghorn Barleywine. From its website, Anchor gives the reasons for producing such an unusual beer:

The tradition of brewing two distinct beers from one mash has existed for thousands of years, and for centuries the term “small beer” was used in English to describe the lighter and weaker second beer. By association, the term came to mean something of little importance.

Let’s get small We make our Old Foghorn Barleywine Style Ale from the rich first runnings of an all-malt mash, and Anchor Small Beer is our attempt to duplicate the “small beers” of old by sparging that same mash: sprinkling warm water over the Old Foghorn mash after the first wort has run off, thereby creating a second, lighter brew from the resulting thinner wort. Technically, both beers are “ales” because they are made with top-fermenting yeast.

We believe you will find Anchor Small Beer delicious—similar to what modern brewers call a “bitter”—and we hope you will also enjoy the idea of reviving an ancient brewing tradition, which is something of great importance.

I’ll add another. In an age of economy–by which I mean conservation of resources and funds–it hardly makes sense in many cases to simply discard grain that still has enough combined sugars to produce a second beer. And in this age of inventive brewing, brewing small beers doesn’t mean every resulting offering has to taste like Anchor’s Small Beer.

Such an event, filled with small beers of all flavors and varieties, is an example of what I have been talking about with the need to redefine “extreme beer.”

Maybe we’ll see some at this year’s Extreme Beer Festival. Somehow I doubt it…

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More BrewDog Ridiculousness…

This Thanksgiving morning here in the United States brings news of more extreme beer ridiculousness from across the Atlantic. Usually a level-headed place that only gets its knickers in a bunch when discussing gravity taps, cask breathers, and other real ale intricacies, the British beer scene is dealing with news that the BrewDog Brewery of Scotland has brewed what it claims to be the world’s strongest beer. I caught the story from beer writer Pete Brown’s website, and while I agree with the first line, I can’t say as much about the second.

Slag ’em or praise ’em, you just can’t stop talking about ’em.

But it’s nice to be able to talk about Brew Dog for the right reasons again. Today, the brewery announces the launch of Tactical Nuclear Penguin – at 32%, the strongest beer on the planet, beating previous record holder Sam Adams Utopias by 7%.

BrewDog certainly has a knack for public relations and marketing, born in large part out of its close following of the Stone Brewing Company’s playbook. Of the brewery’s beers I have previously written:

The irony here is, for all of the bravado and boastfulness, BrewDog actually makes very simple, approachable and traditional beers that do not push the envelope of taste or flavor.

So with news of a 32-percent alcohol beer, piggybacking upon the controversy caused by its Tokyo, a 12-percent imperial stout, and its low-alcohol Nanny State, co-founder and lead spinmeister James Watt is beginning to sound a little like the comedian Lenny Bruce, who late in his career spent all of his time on stage railing against censorship instead of telling jokes. Watt himself has invited much of the controversy, including the inexplicable filing of a complaint against its own beer (the aforementioned Tokyo) with the Portman Group, a trade organization representing beverage alcohol producers and brewers in Britain. This act of self-immolation led to the banning of the product from public sale.

While these efforts inevitably raise the brewery’s profile and public awareness of the brand, and perhaps it is even what is required to awaken a staid and conservative British marketplace, it certainly detracts from the brewery’s products and comes across as a manufactured marketing ploy.

So with this mini-jeremiad aside, I imagine the folks at the Boston Beer Company, maker of Utopias, the reigning holder of the world’s strongest beer crown, may have something to say about BrewDog’s claims to that title. Lab analysis and reports will follow and I imagine that the claimed 32-percent ABV TNP will reveal itself to be either a lesser fraction of that amount or mainly comprised of alcohol gained from whisky cask aging, on top of the freeze and water removal process .

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