A Few Thoughts On 2008, 2009, And The Future Of Beer In Boston..

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I know that things here have been quiet over the last few months, with an average of 2 or 3 posts per month and usually just reprints at that. I’d like to say, with the burgeoning new year in mind, that the volume will likely increase here. I can’t. While I have certainly enjoyed covering topics that would otherwise elude popular press publication, for instance several rants on price increases (will be covered again in an upcoming issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine) and profiling great local beer makers, I have to admit that I still find “blogging” a little self-indulgent. Someone recently suggested to me that I consider opening a Twitter account so that readers could follow my beer travels. Beyond my firm belief that people could care less where someone else such as myself is at any given moment, I can’t quite get beyond the self-indulgence of it all. So until I figure out how to better monetize this whole operation, I have to remain firmly in the camps that the “only reason for being a professional writer is that you can’t help it” and that tapping away here doesn’t pay the bills.

With that said, I expect 2009 will be a good year for beer writing and I have one large and a few small projects in the works for the new year that I look forward to completing.

I was reading my father’s copy of the Wall Street Journal this past week and it had a selection of famous and not-so-famous individuals giving their respective takes on their plans for the upcoming new year. In one of the blurbs, high wire artist Philippe Petit said something to the effect that his hopes, dreams, and wishes weren’t based on numbers on a calendar but about the fancy filling his heart on a particular day or even moment. While admirable, the end of the year offers people a rhythmic opportunity to routinely reflect on and reconsider their stations in life.

For the purposes of this site, I’ll keep my focus local on Boston and New England. I hope for the following things in the new year:

    -The opening of a new Boston area brewery focusing on smaller batch specialty beers of any variety. Having considered the efforts and successes of operations such as Surly Brewing in Minneapolis, I’m certain that this area is just begging for an upstart little brewery to come in and shake up the local scene. Just as there is plenty of room in Minnesota for both Summit and Surly to do business, and that any inclination on Summit’s part to rest on its laurels was chopped away by Surly’s emergence, the Harpoon Brewery could use some local competition to spice up and round out the local scene.

    -A Belgian beer bar and gastropub to open in the Boston area. Having traveled to a dozen or more countries in the last five years, I’ve been amazed at just how far the Belgian beer phenomenon has grown. I’ve seen Belgian restaurants, complete with solid beer selections everywhere from Australia to Japan and placed in-between. And while Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and other major American cities have at least one solid offering, Boston does not (beyond the Publick House, which is not a Belgian gastropub in its essence). As food and imported beer friendly a city as Boston is, this is a glaring absence.

    -For Paul Davis (formerly of Troutbrook/Thomas Hooker and Castle Springs) to finally get his damned lager brewery open in New Hampshire near his old stomping grounds at Castle Springs. I mean c’mon man, I’ve had to import cases of quality pils and dunkel from Pennsylvania to bide my time. I’m just hoping he hasn’t changed his concept to British session ales…

    -For Redbones to rebalance the price of its portfolio of beers. While the staff exodus and purported growing pains that sent trembles of fear into longtime regulars has generally subsided and the selection has vastly improved over early this year, prices remain substantially out of whack. While consumers understand that some contributing factors certainly have led to increased prices, Bones’ prices have grown out of whack with other similar beer bars. We regulars would like to stop by twice a week not every other month and we definitely don’t want to have to check the menu before ordering, only to find out we selected a $6 or $7 pint.

    -For local beer bars and brewpubs to offer more specialty events for smaller audiences. I’m also impressed with single varietal events elsewhere in America, from fresh hop fests to IPA and stout events to the barrel aged fest in Chicago. While I enjoy moderating panels at the BeerAdvocate events, the conviviality experienced at the smaller events, such as NERAX, is something I’d like to see more of.

    -Speaking of NERAX…I’d like to see NERAX get a new home and a greater sense of organization and direction. While I respect the atmosphere the organizers have long tried to maintain, it’s been clear since about 2002 that NERAX has vastly outgrown the Dilboy. Add to that incredibly long lines and wildly late opening times and it’s a surprise consumers still come back (I tried on the first night and skipped the rest of the fest). The NERAX North event, from word of mouth, shows that the Dilboy is not some magical place where real ale comes to live out its glory days. I’m not saying you need to rent out the convention center but how about a place that can actually accommodate the 50-100 extra people who would like to visit each night?

Until these things happen (and I start posting with more regularity), I’d like to highlight two quality sites I spent some time with this year. Beernews.org is an attractive site that is replete with information every ticking beer geek, myself included sometimes, could ever pine for. In the opposite direction, Stan Hieronymus and his family, theslowtravelers.org, left the comforts of home behind to travel across the country and then the Atlantic to trek the world in their RV. Although I don’t believe that I’ve ever actually met Stan, I’ve enjoyed tagging along on his family’s follies from Anchorage to Croatia and back again.

A Happy New Year to you and cheers to good beer in 2009…

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A Brief Recap and Review of the 2008 Great American Beer Festival…

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The annual Great American Beer Festival has just concluded another eventful run in Denver and I just returned back to Boston after an early morning flight. During the trip, I spent time in both Colorado Springs and Denver, with attendance at two of the 27th annual festival’s sessions. This year’s incarnation continued to build upon the event’s successful history, if with some troubles. There is no question that with more than 2000 beers available on the floor from more than 450 breweries, the GABF remains an impressive logistical undertaking and a feat of coordination. This year’s event sold out for the second straight time and did so two weeks before the opening session. With all of its success, the festival stumbled in one critical area: crowd management. In giving access to the 46,000 people who attended the event, several thousand were forced to stand in line for more than an hour before entering the festival. Inside the convention hall, the festival was packed, even during the normally light Thursday session. Despite its gains, the GABF may have reached its tipping point in terms of population.

The festival gives attendees, especially those in the industry, an unparalleled opportunity to hob-knob with other beer lovers, brewers, and pub owners and this year didn’t disappoint. For those interested, there were countless side events and late-nights at the GABF’s unofficial headquarters at the Falling Rock. For my part, I especially enjoyed meeting Don Younger and getting to spend some time with my old friend Toshi Ishii of Japan (and England, Norway, and countless other brewing locales).

Beyond the usual events and overwhelming number of beers present, the festival this year appeared to lack a bit of the enthusiasm and sense of wonder that it has in the past. It’s a bit hard to put your finger on exactly the cause, be it the down economy or some other reason. In any event, brewers were in shorter supply at their tables and in attendance during the event itself than in years past. The focal point of the week appears to have shifted away from the convention floor itself and into the city and state more generally.

Without question, where the brewers left off, the burgeoning new media picked up. Bloggers were omni-present, with many reporting directly from the festival floor or the adjacent media room. For those who weren’t able to attend the event, you could read near-contemporaneous accounts from a wide variety of sources. I was particularly impressed with Draft Magazine’s work during the event, including its video interviews with a dozen or more brewers and other beer folks directly from the festival floor.

And while I’ll have more on the GABF here and in Beverage Business in the future, including on Anheuser-Busch’s strong specialty releases (excluding its oddly British ‘American Ale’), the Siebel Institute’s sensory evaluation course, and the somewhat surprising announcement of the return of SAVOR, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the event. By the numbers, the BA handed out 222 awards out of more than 2900 beers entered in the competition, rounding out to about 7.5-percent of beers entered picking up a medal. Stop to think about that number for a moment. We often hear beer geeks complain about the GABF and nit-pick particular selections. But in the end, fewer than 1 in 13 beers received a medal and just over 2-percent received the much-coveted gold. When you think about the breweries that win multiple medals, fest after fest, questions about the judging process have to be laid to rest.

Attendance at the GABF by New England brewers, even where the Brewers Association’s Board of Directors is presently chaired by Rich Doyle, CEO and founder of the region’s largest craft brewery, continues to be poor. Of the 472-plus breweries in attendance, only 16 attended from New England. Of those in attendance, New England brewers managed to take home only 3 GABF medals, with Cambridge Brewing winning a gold in the highly competitive experimental category for its Arquebus, a bronze for Amherst Brewing Company’s Ryeteous Red, and a bronze in the aged beer category for Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams Utopias 2003. All told, New England brewers took home just over 1-percent of the total medals awarded. When you compare that to the impressive showings of a town like Philadelphia, let alone the Mid-Atlantic or California and Colorado regions, and New England’s performance is very disappointing.

As a final note, I want to extend congratulations to the winners of the Brewers Association’s Michael Jackson Beer Journalism Awards, including Lew Bryson in the Trade and Specialty Beer Media category. While I personally disagree with journalists participating in the awards, Lew is a good and thorough writer and I look forward to reading his winning piece.

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Harpoon To Release New ‘Big Beer’ Series…

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I have been a little lax on the New England news reporting lately despite having a half-dozen interesting topics lying around. Here is a quick attempt to get one into the beer geek rumor mill.

The Harpoon Brewery of Boston is preparing for the release of a new line of ‘big beers’ to accompany its existing line of mainstream ales. The new series, named ‘Leviathan,’ will start out with draft only offerings and eventually transition into 4-packs and limited availability on draft. The line is designed to appeal to the niche of beer geeks who felt that the brewery’s ‘100 Barrel Series’ lacked sufficient punch as a specialty release. The 100 Barrel Series was initially designed to help Harpoon push beyond its stock lineup of traditional, mild flavored beers. While it offered several ‘extreme’ or higher gravity offerings, the 100 Barrel Series eventually focused on more traditional styles, such as oatmeal stout and wit, that were not designed to push the brewing envelope, the Leviathan series is expected to forage into new brewing areas for Harpoon.

Ironically, Harpoon’s first release in the Leviathan series is a throwback to the tenth beer the brewery produced as part of its 100 Barrel Series. The Leviathan Triticus, a beer originally brewed with help by Jason and Todd Alstrom of BeerAdvocate.com, will debut at the American Craft Beer Fest in June (Harpoon and BeerAdvocate are partners in the ACBF venture). The Triticus is a wheat wine of 14-percent alcohol.

This isn’t the first time the Leviathan name has been used by an American craft brewery in connection with a series of stronger beers. The Sleeping Lady Brewing Company of Anchorage, Alaska, produces the Leviathan Double I.P.A., the Pacific Coast Brewing Company of Oakland, California, brews the Leviathan Imperial Stout, and the Fish Brewing Company of Olympia, Washington, brews the Fish Tale Leviathan Barleywine.

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Harpoon Scores A Rare Twofer…

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Congratulations are certainly due to the Harpoon Brewery for its impressive performance at two recent international beer competitions. Harpoon scored three gold medals at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival and the European Beer Star Competition.  Harpoon’s flagship IPA won a gold at the Stockholm event in the Ale 4.8% to 5.9% category and a gold in the English-style India Pale Ale at the Beer Star competition, held as part of the BRAU Beviale event in Nuremberg, Germany. Harpoon also collected a gold medal in the Maerzen category at the Beer Star event for its Octoberfest. No comment from the competing German brewers on being bested by an ale interpretation on the classic lager style.

As with any competition, it is difficult to deduce the meaning of a win unless it is put into context. I’d like to know more about the number of competitors that participated in each category (how meaningful is a gold medal when you only beat five other beers?).

I have to admit, I find it a little odd that Harpoon chose to send beer to these international events when it does not participate in the Great American Beer Festival. I expect to see Harpoon at next year’s GABF as founder and CEO Rich Doyle will take over as the chairperson of the Brewers Association’s Board of Directors.

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Harpoon’s Warning Alert Level Goes From Yellow To Peach…

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The Harpoon Brewery here in Boston issued a consumer warning today regarding the release of its most recent ‘100 Barrel Series’ offering. The advisory reads a little like the welcome speech given to new bomb squad employees.

Since offering the Harpoon 100 Barrel Series Pêche, a limited edition product, in May, Harpoon has been notified by a few loyal customers that a small number of the 22 ounce Pêche bottles have broken under pressure, creating a potential hazard to handlers and consumers. The risk is not from the beer, but from the added pressure in the bottle caused by the secondary fermentation. To protect the safety of our loyal customers and beer lovers everywhere, we have decided to issue this warning along with safe-handling instructions for all 22 ounce Pêche bottles. In addition, we have removed existing inventory from wholesalers who carry the Pêche, our brewery stores in Windsor and Boston, and have instructed our wholesalers to pick up any remaining bottles at retail outlets throughout New England and New York.

If you have any 22 ounce Pêche bottles, please carefully un-cap the bottles – if possible without moving them. We would recommend wearing protective eyewear and/or shrouding the bottle with a hand towel while un-capping. The beer itself is fine. Once you safely remove the cap and release the pressure, feel free to enjoy it. If you choose not to consume it and would like us to refund your purchase price, simply send us an e-mail at pecherefund@harpoonbrewery.com with your name, mailing address, the location and the approximate date of your purchase and number of bottles purchased; and we will promptly send you a refund.

If you have any additional questions, please call Jaime Schier, Quality Control Manager, at 888-427-7666 x-538 or email at jschier@harpoonbrewery.com.

We apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your loyalty to Harpoon.

Al Marzi, VP of Brewing Operations

Harpoon’s Quality Control Manager, Jaime Schier, elaborated about the problem on BeerAdvocate:

Some details about what happened: the issue involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle that was conducted by our own house yeast: unfortunately the bottles we use for the 100 Barrel Series aren’t designed for such a product, and there is a very small number of them that have cracked under the added carbonation pressure. If you like the beer, we want you to know that it’s character hasn’t changed from the time we bottled it, it just has a higher carbonation level than we intended, so if you want you can just remove the crown to release the pressure inside, chill it and enjoy. In the vast majority of the bottles there’s no problem whatsoever, the beer tastes just as it did the day we packaged it with the exception that it’s more highly carbonated.

Harpoon’s had a bit of a rough go with its specialty beers recently. Some may recall that the Pre-Prohibition Lager, offered as ‘The Official Beer of the 2007 American Beer Fest,’ had to be dumped prior to sampling at the festival due to autolysis. So if you’re interested in the light-flavored Peche, check with your local beer bars.

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