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WHAT’S NEXT? EXCREMENT ALE?

October 19, 2012 0 comments

IS THIS REALLY WHAT IT'S COME TO?
Having spent most of my working life in advertising, I know only too well that marketing is often about dreaming up some gimmick that will get people’s attention.

Now you don’t need to get their attention for long; maybe just long enough to get noticed—or if you’re really lucky, long enough to make a buck or two.

So it was with a bare smile that I noticed the recent introduction at GABF of Wynkoop’s Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, reportedly brewed with real (roasted) bull testicles. What started out as a joke last spring morphed into reality, as beer drinkers took the April Fool’s day jest seriously and started asking about the nutty brew. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the brewmasters at Wynkoop decided to bag it and deliver a tasty, palatable package.

Reportedly, the 7% ABV brew tastes pretty good, which is certainly a relief. I’m sure a lot of beer drinkers gravitate toward this sort of crazy stuff—inspired by an “I dare ya” attitude toward brewing big, brash, ballsy beers made with all kinds of crazy ingredients. It used to be stuff like chile peppers, unusual herbs, bananas…but these, while out of the ordinary for beer, were still commonly enjoyed foods. Now I feel we’re gravitating toward even stranger stuff—not for the taste possibilities—but for the shock factor. Like the beer recently made with yeast from some the brewmaster's beard.

I’m all for fun and experimentation. But I’m also kinda wondering how long before we see Donkey Wang Weisse, Armpit Ale or Bird Poop Pilsener. Gimmicks can be fun. But enjoying a simple great beer can be a memorable experience that lasts a lifetime – or at least one you’ll want to return to now and again.
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REMEMBERING YOUR WORST AND BEST BEERS EVER

October 12, 2012 0 comments

            When you’re writing about beer, you feel it’s only fair to let people know a little bit about your background and tastes, so they can put your commentary into a context that makes sense. With that in mind, I thought I might share some thoughts about the worst and the best beers I have enjoyed up to this point—which includes about forty years of beer drinking.

            It’s important to keep in mind two things here. One, it’s quite possible that I have yet to come across the absolute “worst” or “best” beer, since we never can really know what the future holds. Two, when categorizing these beers (especially when you’re talking best beer) other factors come into play, like the impact of the moment, the color of one’s memory, and the context of drinking. Think of it this way: that ice cold Coors Banquet beer you had when after you just finished mowing the lawn in 100+ degree, record-breaking heat 15 years ago might be remembered quite fondly. Likewise, the first really good beer you had of a certain type might be remembered as the best, even though you may have had better examples since then.

THE WORST

            This one’s easy. I was working at an ad agency near Cleveland, and a new Indian restaurant was just opening up in the ground floor space in our building. To help introduce themselves and build word-of-mouth business, the new proprietors invited most of the other tenants in our office tower downstairs one late afternoon for a buffet, where we were encouraged to sample a variety of their dishes. The food, as we all had hoped, was really excellent, and after sitting at a table for a few minutes, one of our hosts graciously came out to offer us something to drink.

“Well, a beer would be nice,” I replied. “If you happen to have any.”

            My host's eyes lit up. “Oh yes, of course,” he said. “I have just the thing; I can bring you some beer from India!”

            He returned a moment later, cracking open a tall, 16oz. brown bottle with an ornate gold label and majestically pouring into a tall pilsner glass. I looked at the label, which said World Famous Bombay Beer. I thanked him as he stepped away to help another table.

            Now, before I disparage any hard-working brewer on the subcontinent, please understand that I seriously doubt this beer is a relation to any currently-available beer of this name—blonde or otherwise. This was, after all, over 15 years ago.

            As I raised the glass to my lips and took some long gulps (the food was a little spicy, after all) the girls who worked in the media department observed my reaction carefully, since they were thirsty too, and were wondering if they should follow my lead. As I swallowed, I could see the looks on their faces, no doubt mirroring the confusion, bewilderment and revulsion on my own.
           
            “What…thefuckisthisshit???” The words were hard to pronounce, since my mouth was probably contorted into the shape of a dog’s anus. Which was kinda what this beer tasted like.
           
            “What is it?” asked the girls. “Whatsa matter? Isn’t it any good?”

            I set the pilsner glass down in front of me, took a long look at it, and then inspected the bottle label again, just to make sure it did, in fact, say “beer.” Crazy as it seems, I actually found myself tasting it again, as if to confirm my disbelief.
           
            “This,” I announced slowly, “is-absolutely-the-worst-tasting-beer-I-have-ever-had-in-my life.”
           
            “That bad, huh?” someone asked.

            “Yes,” I confirmed. “You know the Ganges River, where all those people go to bathe before they go into the Hindu temple? I think they stand downstream and collect the water for this beer there.”

            In fact, after some consideration, I surmised that it wasn’t that they collected water from the Ganges to make the beer, but that the dirty water itself was actually in my bottle. It didn’t even tasted like beer—truly an indescribable mouthful of—something. Worst part was, it was a 16oz. bottle to boot. I left the other 14oz. on someone else's table.

THE BEST BEER I EVER HAD

            If you recall what I said at the top of this article about remembering your best beer, then it certainly applies to this example. By the early 1980’s I had enjoyed plenty of decent beers and some very good imports, though there was not a lot available at the time. But after Merchant DuVin started importing more obscure, high-quality beers from overseas, better stuff could be obtained. Trying to save money for our first home, I found a second job working the drive-thru section at the best beer shop in town, called The Outpost.

            I can still remember coming home one night after work with a few bottles of Samuel Smith’s Pale Ale, from the Old Tadcaster Brewery. This was back when it was still in a clear bottle, and I can recall pouring this lovely brown ale into a small juice glass, gazing in wonder at it’s beautiful creamy head and savoring the rich, fruity esters that tickled my nose. The taste? It was absolutely delicious…like drinking a bite of grandma’s apple pie, but not as sweet, of course.

            What a revelation that was. Who knew that beer could be that good—or that a single bottle of “the good stuff” could give so much more satisfaction than any 12-pack of ordinary American pilsner could ever muster? Like most people who have tasted today's well-made craft beers and suddenly had their eyes opened, that first Samuel Smith’s was my own real eye-opener.

            Since then, I’m sure I’ve had beers that were probably every bit as good, maybe even better. But certainly, none have been more memorable…and that is what makes it the best for me.

            If you have a memory of your worst or best beers, feel free to share them in the comments; I’d like to hear about them.
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HELL IN LISTENING: BEER REVIEW PODCASTS

October 9, 2012 0 comments

The previous post brings me to one of the most useless phenomenons I have come across: the beer review podcast. I can think of few things more uninteresting and offensive to a person who is thirsty than to hear two guys sitting in the kitchen or the garage talking about the beer they happen to be drinking. I’ve done a lot of searches on iTunes and Podcasts and Stitcher to see what’s available, and while there are a few good beer shows out there, I have yet to find any that present reviews in an entertaining and interesting format.

No—what you typically get is two smarmy guys sitting around injecting dull beer commentary into their equally dull small talk—but making lame attempts to be funny. The strange thing is, a lot of these guys all seem to sound the same; like some clones of the Sklar brothers—trying to bounce what they think is clever and witty repartee back-and-forth, but offering only perfect tedium.

To add to the offence, a lot of these podcasts go on for a couple of hours. As a former producer of radio commercials, I have a firm belief that effective editing can improve most anything. But a lot of these jackasses think that listening to them drone on for almost two hours is somehow entertaining. Unbelievable.

In fact, the only part that is funny is listening to some of the tasting commentary:

About a strong IPA: “Mmmmm…hoppy! For sure…”

A Doppelbock:  “Well…the first thing that hits you is the malt. Very rich malt  taste.”

Any Christmas Ale: “Lots of spice here. Some citrus notes…cinnamon. High gravity – for sure.”

AKA - THE RECORDING STUDIO
Really? Why don’t they just read the freaking label to me? Maybe if they provided a clear, concise and intelligent beer review that lasted about 15 minutes, they might get a few more subscribers. C’mon—who the hell has two hours to waste on this kind of crap?

So far, I’ve been talking about audio podcasts, but some of the video podcasts suffer from the same issues. The real difference is that we can see that the participants are generally well-fed, sport some version of facial hair, and are (just as we suspected) sitting around a kitchen table, or in the garage out back.

Again, I’m not saying that audio or video beer review podcasts are a bad thing. But it’s clear that the Craft Beer Scene has inspired a few too many of them, a few too many that are alike, and a few too many that are of questionable quality.

If you know of one that is really good (or any good beer-related podcasts out there) please let me know. I’d be happy to listen – and even recommend it.
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THE PURGATORY OF BEER REVIEWS

October 8, 2012 0 comments

When we first put together this site, we needed to decide what kind of topics we wanted to cover and discuss on our posts. Commentary on whatever is happening (or not happening) in the beer world seemed the obvious choice; for myself, being slightly older, occasionally grumpy, clearly opinionated and naturally suspicious of  “craft beer hype” – this made for a perfect fit. I also do not find that every new brewery opening or bottle roll-out merits coverage—at least not in a post. We do tweet a lot of this news on Twitter and some finds its way onto our Scoop.it feed, but we generally don’t comment on those news items unless there is a bigger issue involved.

Which brings us to the topic of Beer Reviews.

First of all, let me say that I do think beer reviews by knowledgeable and expressive tasters can serve a purpose—particularly in weeding out beers that some drinkers might not care for. Personally, I don’t really like most bitter, over-hopped beers, and if a reviewer notes this as a characteristic, I’ll know to pass on that specific bottle or pint. Of course, I can always offer my own views—I consider my palate as experienced and nuanced as most people—but I’m content to defer to those who have some actual judging background, and who can offer opinions colored with a little more technical accuracy than my own.

I might add here that the only things more yawn-inducing than beer reviews are the Twitter accounts of people who do nothing but tweet whatever beer they happen to be drinking. Warrants an instant unfollow. Do they really think I care? I mean, an occasional untappd share is one thing—but throw in a comment, a thought or an opinion once in a while.

My feelings on reviews being what they are, it doesn’t mean I won’t ever review a few beers (yes, send me a sample, you might get lucky) but god knows you can find beer reviews just about everywhere else on the Internet. Why add to the noise? Beer reviews are a dime a dozen. Some are helpful and interesting. Some are pretty useless…like most beer-related podcasts. Which will bring us to our next post…
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CRAFT BREWING IN AMERICA: SEE SHARK. JUMP SHARK.

October 1, 2012 0 comments

I’m certainly not the first and I know I won’t be the last to talk about “jumping the shark” as far as craft brewing in America is concerned. Last year, there were numerous posts about it when the Hanson’s beer-making project became public. People have talked about it with the growth of beer-drinking among middle-aged women. They discussed it when someone realized Abita was now available in 46 states (and that’s a problem?)

First of all, let me say that while some people seem to be just waiting for the “craft beer trend” to fade away, I am not one of them. Even among those who love beer, however, there seems to be some strange desire to be the first to accurately pinpoint the date, hour and place where the “high water mark” of the craft brewing movement could be notched into the pier.

Trouble is, there’s almost never a single event that marks a transition like that. Usually, it is a series of small, sometimes barely-noticed developments, often followed by a whopper or two—that signals an important change. I remember working in the computer industry in the late 90’s – like everyone else, I was all over the internet, looking for the great opportunities during that boom period. Now, I’m no economic or business genius, but at the time, even I started wondering where everything was heading after reading about some of the deals that were going down.

People were getting crazy money for “me-too” internet plays, after a major segment pioneer had already established a strong customer base. There were plenty of stupid business plans based on unrealistic models, vapor-ware products, poor research or a general lack of business sense. It couldn’t be sustained. More people started to question the numbers…recognize the hype…and pull back their money. Those who didn’t lost most of what they had. That was the Internet Bubble.

Now I think it can be said that brewing is clearly a different type of industry. But what focused my initial thoughts on this subject was a recent article in the Washington Post (Craft Brewer with a Cult Following”) noting that Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse agreed to a distribution contract that will place its beer in 35 states and Europe in the coming months. This is may not seem unusual; it’s only when you note that the proposed output of the brewery is only 1500 gallons a month does the whole thing seem a little silly. It’s also noteworthy that the brewer—according to the article—has only brewed a handful of test batches. You’ll find a lot of “there are plans to…” and “there is talk of…” bits and pieces in the press release, er—uh, I mean article—all  of which sound strangely familiar.

I then started looking back through my Twitter stream over the past couple of weeks. Am I reading more about deals and investments…not only in new craft breweries, but in the beers themselves? Just a couple of weeks ago, Stan Hieronymous tweeted Sure sign of a craft beer bubble?” – linking to an article in thestreet.com about the “10 Best Beer Investments for Your Cellar.”  Are we starting to see a few brewers more concerned about achieving cachet and cult interest among a very few well-heeled “cellar beer investors” – rather than producing something great and memorable that a lot of people can actually drink and enjoy?

Is this exotic beer even going to be enjoyed at all—or is it going to sit in a cellar as an investment, or sold on a secondary market for a profit? Perhaps the primary question here: is the beer actually good enough to warrant any “investment” interest at all? Is it all just about marketing?

Sure, it’s possible to be successful doing both things—that’s been proven. But something just doesn’t feel right about this. And before you think I’m too eager to blame the brewers, don’t forget that a lot of those people who brought us the Internet Bubble didn’t know shit about the Internet. They were outsiders, who didn’t understand the fundamentals of the web, the limits of technology, or even the behavior of the average consumer. They just wanted to cash in on the explosion of interest and make a quick buck.

It concerns me that we might have a little bit of this now creeping into the craft beer world, too. So much concern with “exclusivity”…”investment potential” …”exoticism and rarity.” I’m just worried that people with no real interest in beer, beer culture or brewing may be starting to have a disproportionate effect on the industry—at the expense of the actual beer drinker.

Some say we already had an initial craft beer bubble over a decade ago–and there is much evidence to back them up. Even here in Akron, we had our share of local brewers expand and spring up; Burkhardt’s brewpub grew, moved to a bigger location and went out of business. Blimp City had a great product – then promptly disappeared. And there were others. Maybe some people had the right idea—but had it a little too soon. Regardless, good beer didn’t go away.

No, what we have seen over the last decade is not so much the growth of a fad as what I would characterize as a long term, inevitable sea-change in the beer market, and of course, beer culture. I feel secure we’ll never go back to the pale, tasteless world that was American Beer in the mid-70’s, and I think the big brewers, more than anyone else, know this. Things have never been better…or crazier, or wilder, or more experimental, or more segmented, or more flavorful, or more local. Can it be sustained over the long term? Mostly, I think; the pendulum may swing back toward simplicity, lower alcohol and faithfulness to style  at some time in the future, but even so, like most things—the truth will always be found somewhere in the middle.
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