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AMERICA GOING FOR QUALITY OVER QUANTITY

September 27, 2012 0 comments

With the recent release of a beer study by market research firm Technomic, it appears that Americans are slowly turning away from lowest-common-denominator beers to embrace higher-quality (and more expensive) craft beers. As a result, the overall quantity of beer sold in the country is slightly down, while there have been higher sales number for imported beers and American-made craft beers. As most anyone familiar with today’s beer scene would tell you, it reflects what we are seeing in bars, grocery stores and refrigerators across the US.

Yes, the Beer Giants still dominate advertising and sponsorships, and they may always have a death grip on the general public’s brand awareness. But craft beer in America is here to stay—even if people do worry about their being too many new breweries—and the lineup available even at the average grocery store is an inspiration to most any beer lover. At my own local grocer, the selection is probably 4 times as large as it was 10 years ago, and they are even selling draft beer in growlers now (though sadly—not at my neighborhood branch).

I must admit I was also happy to see Yuengling on that top sales list (#16 – over 10 million cases sold, just a fraction of Bud Light’s 269+ million) since I think it’s a very good product and now is happily available in Ohio. Many local bars have in on draught now, and since it has been introduced in our area, has become a common replacement for basic lagers like Bud, Miller and Coors. Why? Well, it tastes better—though still relatively familiar—and is also offered at an accessible price point for the average customer. Even Yuengling’s Light product is touted by one of my local barkeeps as being more flavorful than a standard Bud (this is indeed true) and once they have sampled either Pennsylvanian lager, it may be only a hop-skip-and-a-jump before they’ll check out a Yuengling Black & Tan.

I do believe that older, “traditional” beer drinkers can be educated. A thoughtful combination of the right product and the right price makes entry into the craft beer world easier for those who don’t want to immediately plunk down several dollars for an exotic tri-hopped IPA or seasonal spiced pumpkin ale. Yuengling has expanded its distribution in the right places and at the right time, and is seeing major growth as a result. A-B may try to get in on this taste shift with their “Project Twelve” craft-beer scheme…but my take is that a lot of beer drinkers will see it more as a temporary marketing gimmick than a genuine change in philosophy. Regardless of how these new “test’ beers taste, what happens afterwards? Do you think you’re going to be able to buy that bottle of amber named after a ZIP code next year?
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I’M OLD. I NEED SESSION BEERS.

September 21, 2012 0 comments

There seems to be an ongoing discussion—well, controversy for some—about whether there will ever be an increased demand for session beers in the U.S., what exactly constitutes a session beer, and what is the point of the whole matter anyway.

Part of the discussion seems to revolve around the simple issue of drinkability, since it has become apparent to most responsible craft beer drinkers that it might not always be a good idea to sit around all night imbibing high-powered hop bombs. Another part might be a reactionary response to a contemporary craft beer culture which insists on throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the brew kettle. That approach may, in the best cases, provide something worthy of note, and in the worst…well, we’ve all tasted that at one time or another.
  
I’ve said it before, these exotic recipes can definitely provide some level of individuality to a brew, but they can also serve to cover up a lot of mistakes. Don’t get me wrong; I was never a fan of Bauhaus architecture, either (Less is More) but I figure there was a good reason the Germans came up with the Purity Law. So, while the current crop of heavy, high-hopped, high ABV brews continues to hold sway, I can’t believe that over time, the pendulum will swing just slightly toward beers that maintain quality and flavor while allowing increased enjoyment in quantity.

Of course, any movement won’t be led by younger folks in their 20’s and 30’s. They’ll drink whatever they want anyway—because they can. But I’ve been enjoying beer for some 40 years now; good beer for about 35 years, and while I enjoy tasting today’s “big” beers, I just can’t slam them one after another without settling down on the end of the couch and nodding off. In other words, I’m like a lot of baby-boomers who made their way through the decades-long Rise of Craft Beer; there’s a time and a place for everything, and for me, now seems to be the time to find some good, reliable session beers.

The last beer I made was a simple brown English ale, about 4 or 4.5% ABV. I bottled most of it, but some of it went into 2-liter plastic bottles, and I found I could easily polish one of those off in an evening while listening to a baseball game on the radio. Easy to drink, enough flavor to keep me interested—it still remains my basic “go-to” beer style.  

Nowadays, if I’m in a bar and there’s nothing extraordinary available on tap, I will generally get a Newcastle Brown or lately, a Yuengling Lager—which is reliably good, reasonably priced, and clearly superior to the mass-market swill that a lot of people tolerate. Indeed, the general pattern for me now might be to try out a “big” beer first and then switch to something lower-octane (but still tasty) as the night moves on.  After all, I’m not concerned with trying to impress anyone—so if you scoff at my choices, drop dead.

Even when friends come over to visit, very rich, high-gravity/ABV beers may often be served after a meal, in a sampler-sized glass—almost like a dessert. This provides an easy, restful opportunity to focus on the product in question and discuss its merits.  If those friends want more, they can certainly have it; but eventually most will find their way back to something tasty, moderate, affordable and reliable—and that, perhaps, is the simplest definition of a session beer.
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THOSE DAMN KIDS FROM THE PROJECTS

September 19, 2012 0 comments

Predictably, lots of people are already dismissing the effort by the Evil Empire (read Anheuser-Busch) to try and associate themselves with the culture of craft beer with the pending release of their “Brewmaster Project Twelve” sampler pack. Featuring three beers - a deep gold pilsner, a light amber lager and deep amber lager – the sampler pack is set to be released on Oct. 29 in a 12-pack containing four bottles of each of the special brews.

The beers are named after the ZIP codes where they were created and are the result of a program undertaken by Budweiser brewers nationwide earlier this year. The 12 Anheuser-Busch brewmasters at each of Budweiser's 12 breweries were charged with creating their own unique beer recipe. Dubbed Project 12, the original beers were narrowed internally in July from the original 12 down to six, and finally--down to three.

According to A-B:
"Project 12 was a way for our world-class brewmasters to have fun experimenting with new ingredients, flavors and brewing processes to bring beer lovers some new options inspired by our flagship beer," said Peter Kraemer, a fifth-generation brewmaster who leads Anheuser-Busch's brewing operations in North America.

To make this all legit, the company is requesting feedback from curious beer drinkers regarding the three winning brews, via a QR code on the package, as well as an in-pack tasting guide. The Project 12 packaging will also include tasting notes and details about each beer for in-home tastings.

I have already heard lots of hissing from craft beer fans, assuming the beers could never be any good, or dismissing the whole effort as nothing but a marketing ploy. I’m sure marketing—and the desire to generate any kind of interest in the face of slipping sales—is a primary consideration for A-B. But regardless of how you feel about that, I would at least caution that, if out of fairness only, it might be best to reserve final judgment until one has actually tasted one of these beers.

After all, I’m sure the individual brewmasters at A-B who have been tasked with this effort do actually care about beer, and have become quite skillful at making it within the parameters of quality and quantity that their employer demands. These sampler beers may not be what they would freely cook up in their own basement, but given a huge brewing facility, corporate directives, mass quantities, and large-scale economics, this might be the best that they could do.

Will it make any difference? Not to most people. The worst that could happen is…nothing. The best? Well, if enough Bud drinkers tried an even slightly more flavorful beer and decided they liked it better that the standard brew, either A-B would make more of the new beer, or the Bud fans might go on to try something else that has more taste. Like a craft beer
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UH…IT DIDN’T START OUT SKUNKY

September 18, 2012 0 comments

With all the beer-rating apps available for smart phones, there’s never any shortage of viewpoints when it comes to the quality of one brand of beer or another. Of course, there have been websites and blogs with taste-tests and ratings for years, too (something I have chosen—for now—not to bore you with) resulting in the fact that there are plenty of opinions out there, should you ever need one to help shape your beer-drinking decisions.

Me? Usually it’s whether I think the label is attractive or not. Or the tap-handle, if we’re talking draught beer.

But I digress. What does tend to irk me is how many “raters” or commenters will take what we know to be a perfectly good beer and whine about how it smelled skunky—as if that quality was brewed into the beer at the outset.

The recent example I came across was a rating on Pintly for Stella Artois, which I have enjoyed for many years, and still do upon occasion. I’ve been lucky enough never to have had a bad one (most were on draught) or an old one in the bottle. And that is the key.


Having sold beer, I know the importance of regular stock turnover and rotation. And everyone should know the effect that things like light and age have on beer. So if the “rater” a) didn’t notice that the bottle may have been dusty, or - b) wasn’t fully confident of the beer’s freshness, they may have wanted to delay final judgment until a proper sample could be obtained.

It’s not uncommon to come across a beer with a strange, unpleasant or slightly-off taste / smell, even when fresh. But generally-speaking, skunkiness should be a red flag that says “dammit – this beer is past its prime, or hasn’t been stored properly.”  That’s probably not the brewery’s fault, though it’s true some styles and some bottles (green) are more susceptible to this odiferous condition. For more on this, check out a nice article here.

You would hope that an educated beer drinker would realize that it was more likely that the particular “sample” was skunky, rather than the “beer” being skunky—and perhaps not representative of the product as originally produced. To some, that’s a fine line, but bad things can happen to beer after it leaves the brewery and before it gets to your mouth.

Which, in the end, is a pretty good endorsement for the idea of enjoying your local craft beer, anyway. It should always be fresh. Right?



Note: I did come across a story headlined "Skunky Beer Recalled by Stella Artois" in 2010 - but that problem was not skunkiness at all (innaccurate headline) but a "sour" taste due to a production problem...and none of that beer reached US shores, anyway.
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ASHEVILLE GETS A CRAFT BEER BEAT-DOWN

September 17, 2012 0 comments

I had to smile a little when I came across this article and the accompanying comments on Fast Company, highlighting the fact that Asheville, NC had been selected as new East Coast home to not one, but two—of America’s largest craft breweries, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. The piece touted Asheville’s “beer friendly infrastructure” and a number of other factors, such as its “active outdoor vibe.”

Now I know Asheville is a great town, and a nice place to live, and I’m sure the quality of life it has to offer was an important element in both breweries’ choice. But the fact that—in at least New Belgium’s case—the final choice came down to Asheville and Philadelphia made it clear that they had not simply focused on finding a bucolic, small-town, beer-friendly atmosphere. I suspect that additional deal sweeteners, like state or local tax credits of some sort, were also an important contributing factor.

Regardless, the real trouble with the article was not its content, but the headline: Asheville: The New Craft Beer Capital of America?”  Asking that question was like pulling the pin on a grenade, stuffing it in a pie, and serving it to a table full of people who take their craft beer very seriously. You just knew you were gonna get some on ya…

Of course, it wouldn’t take long for a few readers in Portland and Denver to log in and deliver a verbal beat-down in the story comments, reminding everyone who has the most breweries, beer festivals and uber beer kultur:

“It's like giving the finger to Portland, Denver, San Diego, etc. So please stop using phrases like "Beer City USA" and "The Craft Beer Capital" as it's just inappropriate and simply not true.”

“Um No. The craft beer capitol of America is Portland, OR with more breweries than any other city in the world. That would be 51. And there are 120 brewing companies operating 153 breweries in Oregon. You got a ways to go Asheville.”

“I'll add while we have 23[breweries] in city-limits in Denver (not including metro area suburbs), there are 89 (read: EIGHTY NINE) all within a 60-mile diameter in the area.”
 
Well. Okay, then…

The one poor Asheville defender was eventually reduced to admitting that the notion of the town being a Craft Beer Capital was not to be taken seriously. And while defending the region’s craft beer culture, they went on to beat a general retreat, noting that “Asheville is in a relatively unfashionable and...undesirable area.”

Residents of Portland or Denver should never be so self-conscious as to feel the need to go off on any little challenge to their openly-acknowledged craft beer mightiness. Besides, the fault here was not with fair Asheville, but with reporter or editor who penned that silly headline. Nevertheless, nothing can be left to chance when one’s Beer Honor is at stake.

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THE PERFECT PUB. OR NOT.

September 12, 2012 0 comments

There was an interesting back-and-forth in the Telegraph a few days ago, starting with Adrian Tierney-Jones’s observations on what makes a perfect pub, followed by Harry Mount’s next-day semi-rebuttal, where he characterizes most pubs as “a little inadequate” – prefaced by the admission that he doesn’t like pubs very much to begin with. The exchange seemed a little like one guy ruminating on what makes up an ideal IPA, while another one responds with “IPAs suck anyway and besides—I prefer wine coolers.”

I’ll let the real Englishmen fight this one out, regardless of the fact that my mother’s maiden name was Moneypenny. The comments on these stories—as you might expect—were as entertaining as the original content. A lot of readers worried that the future of the pub as an English institution was already in jeopardy, due to high taxes and regulations such as the smoking ban. Here were some of the best:

“Make sure there's Liver & Bacon on the menu, plus Stew and Dumplings, Pork in Cider and other such stodgy old favourites.  And the stuffed head of a vegan above the bar.”

"Personally, what makes a good pub is no TV/gaming machines/juke box/musak, and a pint of well kept real ale served by a barmaid with a cleavage you could land a helicopter on."

"It's simple. Pubs are going out of business because they serve crap beer. This is because most landlords are generally very lazy and don't clean their pipes frequently so the beer sticks to your teeth.”

Rule Britannia.

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PERSPECTIVE – A BEER BIOGRAPHY

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Like many people, I have come in and out of what I might call “beer culture” many times since my first beer forty years ago. I can still taste that first one—thin and slightly fizzy, mildly bitter, half-warm in the can—quickly shared before we got on a bus for a high school trip. Almost as memorable was how bad that single can of beer had made me want to pee over the next 25 miles to the amusement park.

But what I remember, or perhaps appreciate most about the 1970’s, was that I can recall when most beers tasted pretty much the same. As anyone will tell you, short of Prohibition, it was truly the low point in American beer history. In seeking something different, we were forced to settle for “Cream Ales” (ooohhhh, never had one of those before, sounds tasty) or strong malt liquors with exotic, Latin-sounding names (remember Maximus Super). Of course, there were still some quality local brews here and there, but you couldn’t find them at the store.

My college years started on a good note, too—when my first roommate showed up and introduced me to a dorm-fridge packed full of the original Coors banquet beer, unpasteurized and straight from Colorado. This was back when it was not sold east of the Mississippi, and was, for a teenager, the golden nectar of legend. A damn fine beer at the time.

Later, with a little extra money in our pockets, my friends and I became enamored of imports, and although there weren’t that many available in little Oxford, Ohio (Heineken, Bass Pale Ale, Lowenbrau {brewed by Miller), St. Pauli Girl, Carlsberg ‘Elephant’ come to mind) they did allow us to understand what higher-quality, more flavorful beers should taste like. That was what we drank at the beginning of the month, when we had money. After the 2oth of the month, it was back to Little Kings, Miller High Life, or maybe even Falstaff. One of my best college drinking pals was Joe Conway, whose brothers Pat and Dan went on to found Great Lakes Brewing Company several years later.

At the turn of the late 70's-early 80's, however, there was something else going on. Long before the idea of craft brewing had even taken hold, a few of America’s brewers were starting to roll out or re-introduce older-style brews, some with names from out of the past. They were slightly richer, a little more flavorful—and the marketing, which promised a more traditional,  retro-brew didn’t hurt either. Beer drinkers began to take notice of names like Christian Moerlein, Andeker, Henry Weinhard, Jacob Best…and though there were fits and starts, by the dawn of the 1980’s it was clear that at least in terms of choice, things seemed to be taking a slight turn for the better.

Of course, the establishment of Merchant du Vin in 1978 and the expanded availability of high quality imports was going on as well, followed shortly by the emergence of American “microbreweries” as typified by Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewing. In the early 80’s, I had a second job at a drive-thru and carry out that had by far the best selection of beer in Akron at the time. This not only allowed me to try a lot of different beers and ales, but also to learn the importance of stock rotation and how various factors can affect beer freshness. I also bought books about beer, started collecting beer steins, and became intrigued by the idea of brewing my own beer. But that didn’t happen for another 10 years, after someone bought me a beer kit for Christmas.

My first batches were a rich brown session ale, very similar in character to Newcastle Brown. It was delicious, and I happily bottled quite a few batches before stashing the equipment away in the basement several years ago. Since then, work and life have conspired to soften my interest in beer. I still always seek out quality over quantity, and try to add to my stein collection when I can (though I am running out of places to put them).  Whenever I get together with friends, they’ll sometimes ask what kind of “shitty beer” I brought along—not to disparage what I have in my six-pack, but more in joking reference to the fact that—whatever I might have, no one has probably heard of it.

My point being here is that every beer lover has their own history, or “beer biography.” As a result, each one brings a number of beliefs, experiences, prejudices and sometimes crazy notions to the table, usually constructed over years of home brewing, months of taste-testing, or decades of simple beer enjoyment.  I am no different, and it clearly colors my views and my writing.

I suppose all of this goes back to my first post.  We do indeed live in Great Beer Times, and it’s easy to get caught up in the glory of new brewery openings, unending beer reviews, brewer celebrity-watching and ongoing style controversies. But perspective ensures that I don’t forget that there was a time when all beer did taste pretty much the same—though discerning drinkers could sort out and appreciate the differences even then.

It also tends to ease any over-enthusiasm for the “next big thing” and ground one’s expectations—knowing that it’s easier to hide mistakes when you’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the brew kettle. If you think that means I don’t like a lot of today’s big, heavy beers, you’d be wrong. But like most things, bigger doesn’t always mean better.

Besides, I’m older now, and I can’t enjoy those big beers as much. They don’t mix well with my blood pressure medicine anyway, so now, after a while, my eyelids get heavy and I just fall to sleep. That’s now part of my beer biography.

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BEER SPOILED

September 10, 2012 0 comments
No, that doesn’t mean that my beer spoiled. What it does refer to is the notion that in reviewing a lot of beer writing and commenting on the web, it seems to me that a lot of people have been spoiled by all the great beers and ales we have available today. With so much diversity, quality, hype and analysis of today’s products, it seems easy for the beer novice to be quickly overwhelmed—even intimidated—by technical jargon, detailed style descriptions, historical references and expert opinion.

While all of those things certainly have value for anyone who is truly interested in beer and beer culture, I’m not so sure they are absolutely essential for the simple enjoyment of beer.  After all, I’ve often felt that the only beer that really matters is what’s in your glass.

Think of the new beer drinker—one that has recently discovered the world of better beers and ales. Who, having divorced himself from common Buds and Lites, has set a course for true beer knowledge and fulfillment. Must they not soon be asking themselves:

Will I be able to coherently and accurately describe my smell and taste sensations to others?

Will my descriptions and opinions be in line with those of the acknowledged experts?

Can I provide compelling and expansive discourse on regional styles, local breweries, and hop varieties?

Will I be able to count some of today’s “rock-star” craft brewers as being among my personal friends?

Have I tried this style, or that one? On draught, or in a bottle?

Indeed—will I ever be able to taste every brand of beer and ale that is currently available, so I can rightfully claim to have knowledge of every beer made? It’s so damn hard when they keep opening new craft breweries!

Of course, while those are interesting questions for people who desire to be true scholars of beer, they may be overkill for the average person who is simply seeking to understand what makes up a good beer, how to serve it and how to enjoy it. A little perspective can explain what I mean.

I’ll continue this discussion in my next post -
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About IBN

September 5, 2012 0 comments
We created International Beer News as a way to celebrate our interest in beer, home brewing, beer culture and associated topics. The plan is not to spend a lot of time loading up the site with endless product reviews (though we will sneak one in now and then) or listings of every single new product release, brewery opening, festival or award handed out.  We find it easier to just tweet a lot of this information...plus we have news updates via our scoop.it feed or a "10 Next Events" listing HERE.

You'll find, well....whatever comes to mind.

Our Feature Articles and Commentary may be the most important content we have to offer. These are usually provided by our Chief Editor, Mark Schweitzer - who has been consuming beer since 1972, understanding it since 1982, and brewing it at home since 1997.

As he says, "I remember when all beer was pretty much the same, and when the only interesting beer you could get was an import...and most of those were from Canada. For beer lovers, it's probably never been better than it is right now. We need to enjoy the quality, variety and sheer energy that make up today's craft beer world--without drowning in too much hype."

As for everything else here, you'll see news that we think is appropriate, or that we feel has been overlooked--but the goal is to bring you a broad spectrum of information that might be interesting or helpful. 

That means you'll see a little bit of everything, from regional beer news across the USA, to obscure bits and pieces from the other side of the globe. Whatever you find here, it will be written or personally selected as something we actually care about - or feel to be of high quality.

If you have news or information that you want to share or pass along, be sure to contact us:



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Advertising - Supporting IBN

September 3, 2012 0 comments
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The Next 10 Beer Events

September 1, 2012 0 comments


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