Saturday, September 14, 2013

The New Extreme

Today's hot fashion statements are yesterday's out-of-style trends.  The highest tech cars of today are ultimately the antiques of the future.  New wave music of the eighties is now considered classic.  The most current ways of today are destined to be replaced by fresher attitudes and approaches.  Where are we along this continuum with "extreme beer"?

We may each have our own definitions of extreme -- high alcohol, aggressive hopping rates, barrel aging, wild fermentation, stylistic mash- ups.  The most common and possibly the genesis of extreme beers is a combination of the first two in this list to produce the Double IPA style.

At first, these beers were innovative, and provided a whole new experience in beer brewing and drinking circles, despite being somewhat simplistic and unimaginative. The beer nerds crave and demand extreme beers, so breweries produce them.  Some of the noteworthy examples are Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA , Russian River Pliney the Elder, Avery Maharaja, and Green Flash Palate Wrecker.  These are some of the largest and most talented and respected breweries in the craft beer world, so extreme does have a credible place in the product set.

Why simplistic and unimaginative?  There's not much artisanal about these beers.  They're based on the premise that if something is considered to be good, then more of that something is even better.  From a brewing perspective it's simply a matter of adding grain to the mash, sugar to the boil, and/or hops to the boil.  It has very little to do with recipe development or flavor nuances.  I've personally made beers approaching some of these by mistake.  It's actually harder to not do so.  By way of an analogy, if I want to make spicy chicken wings even spicier, all I have to do is add more hot sauce.  And if I want to make them so hot and spicy to be able to issue a challenge to those who might dare eat them (like Stone Brewing Company's admonition that I may not be worthy of their beers), then all I have to do is add capsaicin extract to make the heat unbearable for the average person.  It's extremely hot, but most of the true flavor is covered up.
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I recently tried RuinTen from the aforementioned Stone Brewing. RuinTen is a double IPA of 110 IBU's and 10.8% ABV with very high scores from reviewers on Beer Advocate.  I enjoyed RuinTen, as I do so many other Stone beers, but there was a certain harshness about it that masked the malt and hop flavors and detracted from the overall experience.  I couldn't help asking myself  -- To what end?  Is enough enough already?  Is it time for "extreme" to come full circle back to quaffable, lower ABV beers with a focus on flavor?
Here in Connecticut, Cavalry Brewing is dedicated to producing sessionable English style ales with lower than average alcohol strength and deep flavor profiles.  BruRm brewpub in New Haven commonly brews moderate strength beers with a focus on ingredients and flavor development.  Many breweries in Utah face a unique challenge as a normal course of business since local laws simply do not allow them to produce beers with alcohol levels above 4% ABV.

Are these producers at the forefront  of a new extreme movement?  Maybe not, since we've been here before.  Maybe it's a reset, a return to normal.  I for one hope that it's the beginning of a new innovation, a bold fashion statement in the beer world, a return to full flavor for the sake of flavor.  Sounds a little over-the-top.  But I think I'm worthy.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

House Rules

What's better than enjoying a game of friendly competition at a pool table or foos ball table with your friends while enjoying a few beers? (Even better if it follows a day on the slopes.) Anyone who's done this a few times knows that often the establishment will have a posting of "House Rules" nearby to let patrons know the establishment's interpretation of the rules of the game. Many times the House Rules are actually the real rules of the game, but many people unfortunately just don't know any better. Likewise, I have my own set of rules that should be posted up in the world of beer, because, unfortunately, many people just don't know any better:
- Guinness is spelled with two n's and two s's. If you can't get it right on your beer menu or tap list, you have zero credibility as a beer-centric establishment. And if you're an Irish pub, you're obviously a themed poser.  On a related note, Newcastle is one word, not two.

- There is no US brewery by the name of Anchor Steam. There is, however, a particular style of beer called steam beer (or California Common), and the flagship of that style is brewed by Anchor Brewing (who also brews many other wonderful styles).

- Beer that is made in Belgium is referred to as Belgian beer, not Belgium beer. Just like beer brewed in Germany is not referred to as Germany beer, and beer brewed in England is not referred to as England beer.

- Beer in the UK is not flat and warm. It's actually more so that beer in the US is over-carbonated and served too cold. If you believe the former, it's possible that you may have stumbled upon a cask beer, which must first be understood before it can be appreciated.

- Do not chill a pint glass or mug before filling it with beer. It numbs the taste buds and introduces moisture that waters down the flavor.

- Drink beer out of a glass, not a bottle.  Mason jars, jam jars, and glass boots don't count.

- Drink out of the appropriate glassware for the beer style.

- Pour beer appropriately out of the bottle - there is a correct way! Beer bars, pour beer appropriately out of the tap. Blowing foam down the drain for five minutes is an unnecessary waste and an insult to the brewer.

- Hard cider is not beer. It doesn't belong in beer bars.

- If you have a beer blog, know what the hell you're talking about.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Importance of Beer in History

The existence of beer dates back thousands of years, and its importance and influence are reflected in many and various cultures:
The earliest proven records of brewing beer date back to the ancient Sumerians, approximately 6,000 years ago.  Brewing recipes were recorded on clay tablets, and the beverage was noted for putting imbibers into a blissful state.

In the book "Noah's Arc and the Ziusudra Epic," author Robert Best reconstructs the biblical story of Noah’s Ark focusing on what would have been physically and factually possible, and concludes that the ark was actually a commercial barge loaded with beer.

It is theorized that errant translations of bible passages over time have led to the misinterpretation that Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana, when in fact he turned water into beer.
According to the log of the pilgrim ship, Mayflower, one of the main reasons for pulling into Plymouth Harbor on December 16, 1620 was that the supply of beer had run low.

Our nation’s two greatest founding fathers were brewers. George Washington maintained a brewery on his estate at Mount Vernon, and his handwritten beer recipe is on display at the New York Public Library. During Thomas Jefferson’s retirement, he enthusiastically pursued brewing on his estate at Monticello.

Today, Americans drink approximately 28 gallons of beer per capita per year, nearly seven times more than the combined amounts of wine and spirits.

About Me and This Blog

I had my first beer when I was about twelve.  My Dad offered me a Miller High Life pony can while we were watching TV one night.  It was his way of making sure that he was the one who introduced me to beer rather than having me go out and experiment on my own.  His plan worked.  He quenched any thirst I might have had for the mystery of it by showing me that it was bitter and gassy and that I didn't really care for it.  I couldn't finish the can, and had no interest for many years.

Four years later I was at a party and discovered Bud from a keg.  Still didn't taste so great, but I was able to finish enough servings to have my speech and balance challenged.  Fast forward through high school and college, and numerous keg parties drinking American and Canadian brand adjunct lagers.  By now I was used to the taste.  This is what beer tastes like, right?

Then one night a year after college, out with some friends at a tavern that boasted a giant selection of beers, a friend recommended that I try a Samuel Smith Taddy Porter.  

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I thought the bottle was brown until I emptied it into a glass, and realized that the bottle was clear and the beer was black as night.  I couldn't believe the depth of flavor in that beer.  My eyes and my palate were opened to a whole new world.  From that day on I wanted to try every new beer that I could find, and to this day porter remains one of my favorite styles.

In the 20+ years since that night, I've sampled countless beers.  I look for new brands and styles in stores near my home, and have sampled local beers when travelling domestically, as well as in Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Spain, France, and Belgium.

I read everything I can find on beer styles and brewing history, and am very tuned in to the American craft beer (r)evolution.  I have been a regular contributor to Beer Advocate for over ten years, with over 1,000 beer reviews.

I have been an all-grain brewer for several years, and find myself addicted to this hobby like so many others get addicted to golf.  I'm constantly on the hunt for new equipment and techniques to help me improve my game.  I credit the Beer Advocate homebrewing forum and the Brewing Network podcasts for honing my brewing talent.

This blog is a way for me to express my thoughts on the world of beer, mainly for myself, but also for anyone else who cares to take a look.  I'm not in the beer industry, I'm not getting paid, I'm not endorsing anyone or anything.  Just my opinions.  I hope they make you think, and maybe see things a little differently.  You don't have to agree, but feel free to share your opinions.  Beer can be a social lubricant in the cyber world too.