Japanese Real Ale In England…

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Last May, I spent three weeks traveling around to various destinations in Japan. On my trip, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the country’s impressive ascendancy into the global craft beer scene. The country boasts more than 200 craft breweries (as many as 280 by some accounts), which, in a show of just how dominant the larger brewers are, only accounts for less than one-half of one-percent of total production. These small breweries produce a product called ji-biru, the Japanese phrase for ‘local’ or ‘craft beer.’

Toshi, Bryan, and Andy CrouchThe development of craft beer in Japan is an exciting story, two parts of which I document in the newest issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine (the article apparently inspired the crazy comic book, fan boy cover). The new column profiles Toshi Ishii, COO and brewery director for the Yo-Ho Brewing Company in Karuizawa near Nagano, and Bryan Baird, founder with his wife Sayuri, of the Baird Brewing Company in the small coastal town of Numazu, an hour south of Tokyo.

I recently received an email from Toshi (who spent his formative brewing years as the Stone Brewing Company’s third employee), who is one of the great breed of traveling brewers. Although he is the head of brewing for a fast growing craft brewery in Japan, Toshi spends nearly half of his time out of the country visiting other breweries around the world. According to Toshi, he’ll be in the United Kingdom three times this year and the United States another three times.

Toshi’s first trip to the United Kingdom, which is presently under way, is what caught my eye yesterday. Toshi learned of cask-conditioned beer, often called real ale, at one of Pizza Port’s earliest beer festivals. After his first sip, Toshi stared down at his glass in amazement and had to ask friends what he was drinking. Fast forward a decade and Toshi is single-handedly leading a cask ale revolution in Japan. He helps run a sizable cask ale festival in Japan and sells his popular Yona Yona Pale Ale on cask at hundreds of locations across the country.

When I met him in May, Toshi told me about his trips to the Great British Beer Festival, where he has served his beers a few times. He clearly loves the event and the opportunity to travel the country that is home to so much cask ale. Toshi’s trips to England aren’t just for fun. Instead, Toshi is happily ensconced at Marston’s Burton upon Trent brewing beer. Toshi was recruited by the JDWetherspoon Group last summer at the 30th GBBF to come to England to brew his Tokyo Black beer. The very drinkable porter is a hit in Japan, where it is very distinguishable from nearly every other ji-biru¬. Toshi is scheduled to make 40 kl of the beer, which will be placed into 1300 casks for sale at 650 pubs in the United Kingdom. The beer will be released at JDWetherspoon’s International Real Ale Festival, which will be held March 27 to April 14, 2008.

Of course, Toshi will be back in late summer for the next GBBF.

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A Comprehensive Update To The Good Beer Guide To New England…

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It’s a running joke in the travel publishing industry that your product is out-of-date before it even hits the shelves. This time-tested maxim has again proven to be true when applied to The Good Beer Guide to New England. Published by the University Press of New England in May 2006, the guide has sold quite a few copies and been critically well-received. While a remarkable amount of the book’s content has withstood the test of time, I’ve been compiling information to keep the book updated online (in anticipation of a second edition down the line). If you have any updates, please feel free to contact me with your information. The comprehensive and dedicated Updates Page can be found here or by clicking on the Updates Page on the sidebar of any page.

The craft breweries of New England, which for you New Yorkers is defined as the six states of the Northeast, excepting your own, have experienced impressive stability in turbulent times. Of the 96 breweries and brewpubs (counting chain operations only once) and 11 beer bars profiled, only two have closed shop (Franconia Notch, which the book noted was in the process of closing, and the Manchester location of the Hops brewpub franchise, which was a victim of a corporate bankruptcy). Two breweries have converted their production operations into contract brewing operations (Casco Bay Brewing and Concord Brewery). During the last two years, we’ve seen nine new beer destinations open. In Massachusetts, the following brewpubs opened for business: Pittsfield Brew Works (Pittsfield), Gardner Ale House (Gardner), Mayflower Brewing Company (Plymouth), Cody Brewing Company (Danvers), and John Harvard’s opened another location at the Jiminy Peak ski area (Hancock). Maine saw the creation of two new places, the Marshall Whaf Brewing Company (Belfast) and the Inn on Peak’s Island (near Portland). Each of the other New England states had one new opening: Southport Brewing opened a new location in Hamden (CT); Pennichuck Brewing in Milford (NH); and Stonecutters Brewhouse (VT). Another two breweries came and went in the time since the guide was published. We hardly knew Hornpout Brewing (VT) and the Whale Tail Brewpub (ME).

In the first edition of the guide, I limited my selection of Great Beer Bars to 11 places in New England. In so doing, I defined a ‘great beer bar’ as being “comprised of a combination of rarely achieved elements.? These places excelled in several crucial respects, including “extraordinary selection of craft beers, respect their clients in terms of keeping prices fair, hold events promoting craft beers (from beer dinners to brewer meet-and-greets), make craft beer key to their business, and also offer true character as pubs.?

By these hard-to-meet criteria, I would now add the following four places to round out the list as the “15 Great New England Beer Bars.?

The Dirty Truth, Northampton, Massachusetts. Proprietor Daniel Lanigan has built a massive multi-tap destination in downtown Northampton to rival his sister pub, Amherst’s the Moan and Dove. The Dirty Truth doesn’t capture the attitude of the M&D but it does provide another worthy addition to the local nightlife and the Massachusetts beer scene.

Ebenezer’s Pub, Lovell, Maine. Owner Chris Lively goes all out to provide the ultimate geek adventure for true beer enthusiasts deep in the Maine tundra. A big fan of Ebay, you’re likely to find a lot of unexpected offerings both listed on the menu and on reserve if you know to ask for them. Make sure to ask for Chris if you visit (he lives in the house attached to the bar).

Cambridge Common, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The dedicated ladies who run Cambridge Common probably sponsor more beer events than any other beer bar in the Boston area. The tap lists often favor hard-to-find regional beers, including usually never seen offerings from Sebago and others.

British Beer Company, multiple Massachusetts locations. A powerful influence for beer good on the south shore, the BBC locations have an even mix between imports and American craft beers. I had the opportunity to review the Walpole location last year.

With any luck and some free time, I hope to keep the Guide’s page on BeerScribe.com updated with any news or changes, before a second edition of the Guide is published.



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Advice for a New Year of Beer…

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The end of the year is always a time for self-reflection, a time for people to stop and consider how they’ve lived their lives over the previous twelve months. While pondering whether to quit that crappy job you hate (yes) or spend more time with the family (also yes), it’s also a good time to take a moment to consider your relationship with beer.

Over the last year, I’ve focused several columns on how the beer industry can improve its performance and better treat its customers. To quickly recap: adopt freshness dating, maintain fair pricing, and print up beer menus. Now it’s time to turn the tables and tell beer drinkers how they can be improve as patrons of good beer. Here are some beer resolutions to make you a better beer drinker in the New Year.

Drink with an open mind and mouth. Tucked deep down in our personalities, in a place where we don’t like to dwell, we are all stubborn people who hold views that aren’t easily swayed. This year is the time to tackle some of your common beer prejudices. First, try five or ten examples of a style you think you hate. Every beer drinker, no matter how hard core, has a few styles they can’t stand. I’m not a coffee drinker and don’t particularly enjoy roasted flavors so I once avoided porters. A few years ago, however, I forced myself to try porters when they were available and something changed. While I still don’t drink coffee, I’ve come to adore Berkshire Brewing Company’s Coffeehouse Porter and believe it to be one of New England’s best beers. The experience gave me a newfound respect for this classic style.

Let your palate be your guide and don’t judge a beer by who brews it. Bashing the big brewers is a tired and out-dated way of thinking. While big brewery representatives sometimes defensively sniff that craft beer is a fad, their operations can be forces of good that spread the word of better beer. It’s hard to argue that the Coors Brewing Company’s Blue Moon Belgian White product has not brought regular beer drinkers into the outer folds of the better beer segment. And when a brewery like Coors treats its flavorful beer products with respect, it’s a win-win for better beer fans. With this said, it is equally important that consumers and writers be ready to take big breweries to task when they don’t treat beer with respect.

Don’t (exclusively) worship at the altar of big beers. Big can be beautiful but it is not always better. There is no question that the extreme beer phenomenon has led to a gradual shift in the collective palates of beer drinkers. Alcohol levels on average, even in flagship pale ales and ambers, have slowly risen in recent years. While beer geeks are crazy for hop, malt, and alcohol bombs, their rise in popularity has caused a loss of perspective. There is much beauty and complexity to be tasted and appreciated in smaller, session beers that don’t ruin your palate after a few sips. Make a point to try the lowest alcohol beers at your local pub and see what you’re missing.

Travel is important. With very few exceptions, beer is best enjoyed closest to where it’s made and in the presence of the kind souls who make it. While your local beer store probably carries products from around the world, don’t let complacency sit in. Arm-chair beer drinking, while relaxing, is no substitute for experiencing beer at the source.

Don’t be a ticker. Far from a solitary beverage, beer at its heart is a sociable drink that calls out for the company of fellow comrades. Note taking is fine and can help build your vocabulary and shape your knowledge about tasting. But remember, it’s ok to occasionally lift your head out of your notebook and clink glasses with your friends.

Don’t let beer websites or competitions tell you which beers you enjoy. As a corollary to the ticker resolution, beer rating websites, including BeerAdvocate.com, and judging competitions, including the Great American Beer Festival, are not the final word when it comes to beer. If beer judges or fellow users don’t like your favorite beer, don’t sweat it. These helpful resources, and others like them, are not bibles but mere tools to use on your beer explorations. And remember, not all competitions are created equally. Every brewery can dust off a medal or award somewhere. As always, let your own palate be your guide.

As we look back on 2007, it’s clear that craft beer’s reign of terror continues and will not “fade? anytime soon, as one beer industry recently suggested. But consumers, as the foot soldiers of the better beer movement, need to do to do their parts to ensure that flavorful, fresh pints keep flowing freely from the taps.

Article appeared in January 2008 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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An Extreme Beer Festival Post-Script

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It was certainly a busy weekend for beer here in Boston with the fifth annual Extreme Beer Festival, sponsored by BeerAdvocate.com. Sold out weeks in advance, the festival was an unparalleled opportunity to sample some of the geekiest products out there, including popular Ebay favorites, Surly Darkness, Port Brewing Angel’s Share, Portsmouth Brewery’s Kate the Great, among dozens of others. The list was so strong that it was only after the event that it dawned on me that there were more than a dozens beers that I have wanted to try that I didn’t even know were going to be there.

One of the things that sets the BA festivals apart from most other events is its long-standing dedication to consumer education. Over the years, the BA fests have played host to a range of industry pioneers, stalwarts, and rock stars. Whether individual soapbox speeches, tutored tastings, or the more recent advent of panel discussions, the events give attendees a great opportunity to listen to and question their favorite brewers.

For the last several years, I’ve had the good fortune to play moderator on many of these panels (after participating as a member of the very first panel at the New England Beer Festival several years ago). This year’s panelists represented a wide swath of breweries from around the country and didn’t disappoint. For the second annual Friday ‘Night of the Barrels’ session, we played host to Bryan Selders, head brewer at Dogfish Head, Jason Perkins, head brewer at Allagash Brewing, Tomme Arthur, of Port Brewing and the Lost Abbey, Will Meyers, head brewer at the Cambridge Brewing Company, and Chris Lively, publican proprietor of Ebenezers in Lovell, Maine. While the topic was supposed to be, “Aging Beer in Wood; what it does to why this old-school technique has become popular with brewers and consumer,” we frequently veered off topic to hit some interesting areas. One of the most memorable exchanges was the point-counterpoint debate between Tomme and Chris on the positive and negative sides to beer trading on Ebay. Chris stood up on behalf of beer traders everywhere, sheepishly acknowledging that he had paid more than $2,000 for a single keg of beer during one auction. Tomme’s comments, following closely on the heels of his recent ‘Fuck Ebay’ article in BeerAdvocate Magazine, solicited a mixture of applause and boos from the active audience. One attendee from Pennsylvania, who lamented his inability to get the Port Brewing line in his local area, even took to the mic to chide Tomme about his article. The rest of the panelists judged the debate a draw and Tomme happily visited Chris’s pub for a beer dinner a few days later.

The Saturday afternoon session was no less lively. After some delays thanks to the MBTA, I hosted Matt Cohen, head brewer at Magic Hat, Jeremy Cowan, proprietor of Shmaltz Brewing, Jeff O’Neil, head brewer at Ithaca Beer, Todd Charbonneau, brewery at Harpoon Brewery, and social wallflower Jim Koch, founder and brewer of Boston Beer Company. I was impressed at how each of the panelists handled a wide range of questions on extreme beer and its impact on craft beer and beer drinking culture. I arrived to find more than a hundred people jammed into the friendly confines of the designated speaker section at the Cyclorama. With all the chairs filled, people sat on the floor and lined the walls all around. Without question, many attendees were there for the chance to hear Jim Koch speak, and as usual, he didn’t disappoint. Always quick with a joke, a story, or an amusing anecdote, Jim even recounted his brewery’s playful recreation of an old beer recipe using recently slaughtered chickens for a friend’s 50th birthday. The beer was aptly named, ‘Old Cock Ale.’ The story elicited a mixture of laughter and horror from the attendees. Looking down the table at Jim, Todd Charbonneau slyly inquired, ‘what’s the head retention on that beer?’ Without missing a beat, Jim replied, ‘At 50, not much.’

Congratulations to the folks at BeerAdvocate, and to all the brewers and attendees, for another successful festival.

–Disclosure: I write for BeerAdvocate Magazine and, as noted above, moderate many of the panel discussions at these festivals.

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