Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Anheuser-Busch, USDA & Organic Hops

Disclaimer: While this is not kind to a large brewery in the US, I need to say that they were the only brewery to return my email with some substantial thought. Some smaller brewers did reply with an "I'm busy now" message, which I understand and respect. I do want to say thank you to A-B for taking the time to write a thoughtful reply.

To begin, I can't say I'm an expert on organic foods, but when possible (and feasible) my wife and I buy organic and local foods. For about a month now I've been following the story about the USDA allowing non-organic materials to be 'certified' organic. Being a beer enthusiast my focus is on Anheuser-Busch's role in this and their goals with regards to adding hops to the list of allowable non-organic materials. Knowing a thing or two about beer I originally misunderstood the intent thinking that Anheuser-Busch were hoping to label beers "Organic" if they were made primarily with organic materials, and with this I didn't have a big issue. Then I realized what they were trying to do, what they are in fact doing. Anheuser-Busch and Kraft (along with others) are seeking not to call their products 'organic', but instead are seeking to call the hops that are not organic 'organic'. This is flat out insanity and a gross mis-use of the organic standards the USDA is supposed to represent. At least, this is my impression as it stands right now. Again, I am not an expert here; however, I believe I have a better grasp on this than most major news outlets spewing out anything they can.

Here is the issue, essentially, as paraphrased on an organic foods website:
Nonorganically produced agricultural products may be used as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as "organic" when the product is not commercially available in organic form.
This seems somewhat reasonable, but only somewhat. When I consider A-B's role in this and their desire to label non-organic hops as organic and I begin to feel my blood boil. Why? I live not far from Bison Brewing, have been to Ukiah Brewing and have tried other USDA certified organic beers - certified under the CURRENT rules. These small companies have worked hard to source organic materials for years, paying the premiums and working on much tighter profit margins. I know Wolavers has done this too. These guys are essentially proving that product is commercially available, but A-B is insisting otherwise. Sure, if Anheuser-Busch want to market their organic beers they'll need exponentially more hops, and there may not be a market for that right now. But why not change that? Why not contract with the farmers and have them grow the organic hops to meet their business needs? Why not? Profit margins.

Changing what is called organic is a horrible model for the USDA to accept and it appears that there is little public input into this matter. What this will do is essentially remove the market demand for USDA organic beers that smaller companies are currently filling. Bison, for instance, is experiencing unparalleled growth with the more health and environmentally aware market. They operate on tight margins because they spend time finding the hops and grain and reformulating their recipes because the organic materials have an inconsistent yield and quality year after year. They're working their butts off and only now seeing their product widely accepted. What has A-B done? Well, seems as though they didn't want to do that kind of work and figured it was more cost-effective to lobby for this insane change in our governments organic certification for hops. Gee, why didn't Bison think of that? Probably because they had their consumers interest in mind over their profit margins.

Now, according to a recent MSNBC article, small organic beer producers agree that organic hops are not currently available in the quantities A-B is most likely hoping for. This quote is from Amelia Slayton of Santa Cruz's Seven Bridges Cooperative.
"If a large brewery were forced to use organic hops, they would have a very difficult time getting the mass quantities they were looking for right away," Slayton said. "But Anheuser-Busch also has more resources than a small company like us. They are in a better position to start developing more sources for organic hops."

Slayton calls the USDA's proposed rule "shortsighted" because of simple laws of supply and demand. While organic hops aren't yet commercially available on a large scale, she said they would quickly become plentiful if demand was there.
That second paragraph sums up my concern. If Anheuser-Busch is really dedicated to producing a line of organic products for their consumers, they have the influence to make things happen. Additionally, these recipes are their own. If there are hop alternatives that are organic, or were available when they developed the recipes, they should have taken this into consideration when creating these beers.

A compromise should be available. According some organic education and promotion sites, they understand that not all varieties will always be commercially viable in organic form. So, what if Anheuser-Busch simply lobbied for these varieties? I don't know the answer, but I do feel as though adding all hops to this USDA list is a major oversight.

I emailed Anheuser-Busch for some clarification on their part, also to let them get their side in this piece. They replied, thoughtfully, with some of the following insights.

To put this issue in perspective, Anheuser-Busch brews two certified organic beers, Stone Mill Pale Ale and Wild Hop Lager. They are the first of any brewer to be nationally available and both have been growing in popularity since they were launched in September 2006.
So, again, it appears that the concern is not that Organic Hops are not commercially available, but instead that they are not available in the quantities needed to saturate the market. I actually sympathize with this a bit. Afterall, A-B is a business, a big one at that, and they need to do whatever they can to increase their currently decreasing marketshare. This current niche market allows them to do that. Now, as previously stated, my issue here comes in that their ability to use non-organic hops to subsidize their product means their production costs will be significantly lower, while their profit margins remain apparently greater. That just doesn't seem fair.
With proper substantiation, the USDA has allowed for certain non-organic ingredients to be approved for use in organic-labeled products if the organically grown ingredient is in limited supply, or is not available in appropriate form or quality. Our organic beers have always been in compliance with this allowance. Beginning June 6, the USDA’s National Organic Program requires a more specific review process for any exempted ingredient, and those that pass are added to its regulatory list (7 205 606). As a result, several companies, including Anheuser-Busch, petitioned to have hops added to the list as well as several other products.
Again, I have some understanding here. Apparently the USDA opened this door themselves, if I read this right. I don't fully understand why they would do this, but if they did then it only makes business sense that A-B would do what they can to legally make a product for a market they are entering. I'd love to know more on the background here, but I suspect (as previously alluded to) that there was a fair amount of lobbying involved to have the USDA open this door to begin with.
Recently we learned that the USDA’s National Organic Program’s (NOP) National List of the proposed 38 exempted non-organic ingredients, including hops, have not been posted in the Federal Register yet. Since the deadline passed, Anheuser-Busch has not received any communications from the USDA regarding the reason for the delay and we await further clarification on future requirements on organic ingredients and labeling for our organic beers. We have now begun brewing our nationally available organic beers with 100-percent organic hops, although at this time we have a limited amount of organic hops available. We will continue to be in full compliance with USDA NOP requirements for our organic ingredients and labeling for our organic beers.
So, it seems A-B and the rest of those with stake in this have come to a standstill as the USDA considers further their next step. I read this morning that the USDA has extended the period of time before the registry updates will be made, apparently to allow for more public input. I am happy to hear this and hope that those concerned (on either side of the issue) take a moment to email or call the folks at the USDA.

I admit that I largely represent one side of this argument and that I largely don't understand the other side. That said, I generally don't like to bash Anheuser-Busch, they actually do a lot of good for beer in this country, but this seems completely irresponsible and short sighted. Is it their fault? I suppose not, the USDA should have consumers in mind more than corporate interests, but the gall displayed by A-B's lobbying seems offensive for a consumer like me, and so many others who actually care what they ingest. I hope this issue will covered by more mainstream media outlets, and I hope that A-B does right in the end, but the way it looks I don't see that happening. So, look for A-B to market their USDA certified organic beers soon, sold at a higher price with much higher profit margins than the smaller companies who genuinely care about their product's integrity and who have been serving this niche market for years.

- Rick

What can you do? I suppose the only thing to do is to write your representatives and senators. Ask them how the government can allow this to happen and have them explain in what way it makes sense for the consumers. We know how it will benefit big-business.

Additional Info: I found this in an online petition and think it says pretty clearly what needs to be said.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) should not be included on the National List in such general terms. Only specific low-supply varieties should be listed. Although organic hops is in high demand, there are over a dozen varieties of organic hops available on the market (available in both pellet and whole flower form).

Hops is one of the main ingredients in beer. It is misleading to allow a beverage to be labeled as "organic" when its main ingredient was grown with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. By including hops on the National List, consumers will not be able to distinguish truly organic beer from a beer with a main ingredient that is conventionally grown.

Also, putting hops on the National List offers unfair advantages to large-scale breweries. There are many micro-breweries now selling truly organic beers (with organic hops). These companies cannot compete with the prices of larger companies stepping into the "organic" beer business, like Budweiser, who will be allowed to use less expensive, conventionally grown hops (non-organic hops costs less than half as much as organic hops). Breweries need to put more effort into developing organic hop resources here in the USA before they try and make organic beer with inorganic hops.

We believe specific varieties of hops that are in well documented low supply on an organic level could be listed here, but including all varieties of hops on the National List is unnecessary and harmful to organic hops producers.
Petition link & additional info found here:

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Blue Frog "Blonde Frog Ale"

To begin, it should be noted that Blue Frog is a favorite stop of mine when travelling out to the Bay Area or Wine Country. This isn't because they produce a lineup of beers to rival Bear Republic, Russian River or Toronado, but because they make wonderful thirst quenching beers that serve to refresh the palate. Their Hefeweizen, in my opinion, is one of the best in the state when compared to the Bavarian tradition. Blue Frog only recently started bottling and distributing off-site and today their beers can be found throughout Northern California, in 22oz bottles, in places like BevMo and good beer shops. It was in Nugget Market where I found this sample.

I don't know what the Blonde is supposed to be, with regard to style, but I believe it was inspired by the Pilsner, only with American flare.

The Blonde Frog's appearance is welcoming to say the least, the honey-like golden color with brilliant clarity and white creamy head that laces on the glass, all indicating that this isn't your average 'blonde'. In fact, I'm a bit hard pressed to see anything blonde about this beer.

The beer really comes alive with the first wiff, which proudly displays the dry hopping it went through prior to its bottling. The hops displayed are peppery and slightly grapefruity, and I am guessing these have Noble herritage, even though I suspect these were grown in the US. Along with the fruity spice is a subtle sweetness that is a bit toffee like - again, pales in comparison to the hops.

At first taste I am again reminded this beer is more than a typical blonde. Big initial sweetness of toffee - more than was found in the aroma - and quickly balanced by a wonderful hop bite that is not overly bitter, nor is it at all resinous. The blonde finishes a bit clean, sweet and dry, and has a moderate hop bittering that lasts into the aftertaste.

In all, this is a great beer, with a lot of aroma and big flavors and a healthy medium body. The beer seems to have been designed to pair woderfully with a broad variety of meals - from salads to BBQ - and is also great on its own. I think you'll agree.

Score: 4/5

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Miller Chill

I went out to our favorite Mexican place tonight (one of our favorites, it should read) and ordered a Chile Verde Buritto that is a wonderful way to celebrate the Summer Solstice. After placing the order I was told I needed to try Miller Chill - "It has lime and salt". My wife laughed at the notion I'd pay the premium for the beer, which may have made me want to do it. I did it. "Sure, I'll take one" was my spontaneous reply. I debated getting a glass for the beer, but opted out figuring I was going to go all in on this tasting, drinking it the way the scientists/marketing gurus at Miller would want it sampled. It has been a while since drinking out of a bottle, felt weird.

Now, here's the deal. The beer isn't bad. It light in every way and I did pour a bit out to see what color it was (answer: yellow). The taste was what I think they wanted, Corona with lime. The lime was fairly subdued at first and the salt pretty much lost in the liquid. Again, not a bad beer. I don't have a lot more to say about the beers profile, but it should be noted that by the time my burrito showed up the beer's lime and salt came through more clearly - not sure if that was the temperature or the food bringing that out.

So, here's the zinger. This beer sucks. Why? Because it is supposed to. Calling this a good Mexican beer is the equivalent of calling Taco Bell good Mexican food. Sure, they go down easy and you can order both by the case with a good chance you'll finish, but why? Because they're cheap? No thank you. And no, I am not impressed that Miller found a way to put lime and salt in a light beer that otherwise has no character - no more than I believe adding lime and salt will make my six-pack of taco supremes taste better. Mexico puts out some fantastic beer, and sadly very few Americans seem to know. Some of the world's finest "Vienna-styled" lagers are produced there. Hell, one of the best Barley Wines I had this year was Cacupa's version that made it to the best of show round of Toronado's barley wine festival this year.

So what to do? If going on the brewers intention (brewer's intention... funny, more like if you believe what the focus group told the brewer) the beer definitely hit its mark. On top of that, I think this beer is going to be moderately successful for some time because of the way it is being marketed. When you compare it to Corona, it is comparable. I think they've misunderstood the appeal people have to actually putting in their own lime though, and eventually I suspect people would rather pick up the Corona sixers and a lime because that is what they're used to.

I don't know though, I just can't buy into the 'innovation' train the folks at Miller are on. I'd actually respect them more if they focused more on their flagship beers and didn't try to wow us with new packages and fun ingredients. So, with all this in mind, here's the score: 1.7/5

Yes, this is a harsh review. Again though, you can't convince me that Taco Bell is 'good' just because they have 'steak strips' in their otherwise crappy burritos.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Auburn Ale House

Auburn Ale House website...

With their official 'soft' opening TODAY (6/21) I figure I better get something up here ASAP. Recently, Mike, Mark and Rick (along with spouses and friends) enjoyed a great evening at Northern California's newest brewery, Auburn Ale House. (see pictures)

First off, this place is beautiful with the tall and welcoming glass windows up front and the long friendly bar inside - not to mention the tables, booths and outdoor seating. We started at the bar, chatting it up with the barkeeps while enjoying the fine house-made beers they were pouring (all six). After trying each of the beers we were kindly seated (all 8 of us) at a large table next to the visible brewery. Following are some highlights.

The Beers:
There are three beers I could gush about, two of which are nearly perfect representations of their styles.

First is their IPA. I loved it. Big aroma, dark caramel color with a great initial sweetness that is greatly complimented by the assertive bitterness. Man I loved this beer.

Second is their American Wheat Beer. I admit, I don't care for the style in general, but this beer was exactly what a brewery needs - light in color, beautiful in aroma and full of flavor. This is a nearly perfect 'training-wheel' beer for those unfamiliar with crafted beer.

Finally, you simply need to sample the Oldtown Brown, perhaps the best brown ale I have had in years. Seriously. At less than 4% alcohol you will be greatly impressed at the wonderful aroma and taste, grainy and refreshing. This is just a fantastic thirst quenching ale for those looking for something with a bit less hops than a Pale Ale and I think you'll agree. If I were scoring beers to style tonight, this beer would win in a heartbeat.

The Food
As good as the beers were, we were equally impressed with the food - and with eight of us there we ordered quite a bit. Following are some highlights.
  • Cheese Bread appetizer: Holy crap, this is a round loaf of what appeared to be housemade bread, stuffed with cheese and goodness and sitting atop balsamic vinegar. A great way to begin a night of festivities with friends.
  • Rib appetizer: Not as good or popular as the bread, but a great starter with an IPA. Seriously, don't bother with the wheat beer if you think you want the ribs.
  • Stuffed Pepper entre: Oh dear lord, a stuffed green chile (no, this isn't a bell pepper) wrapped in spiced chicken breast... how can you go wrong? Served atop risoto (sp) this meal paired wonderfully with the Oldtown Brown.
  • Blackened Chicken Sandwich: A well priced meal packed with texture and flavor and great alongside the Pale Ale.
  • Jalepeno Popper appetizer: Almost forgot - this appetizer is NOT for the weak of heart. Spicy, full of flavor and a lot more than you'd expect in a Popper. Another great dish with IPA.
The Patio:
The outdoor seating at AAH is prime real estate in old Auburn, and for good reason. Under a mature tree and with a view of the historic building and grain silo, this place has an ambience that is among the best in the city. Additionally, the owners saw fit to put a service station behind the bar that is dedicated to the outdoor guests, meaning you don't have to worry about poor service when outdoors.

Overall, this place can't lose. Great ambience, wonderful food and beers that are unique and full of flavor. I give it a year before it gets listed as a top destination in the region for beer lovers - only half a step behind the great Rubicon in Sacramento. It is that good.

Pictures from Wine Country

I have posted a few pictures up for public viewing.

If you view the pictures individually you can read the captions below, which explain each picture.

Rick @ Russian River Brewing this weekend

Rick @ Hop Kiln Winery this weekend

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Anchor Small Beer

It has been way too long... way too long. I don't see this beer very often so when I was in Wine Country over the weekend and saw this in a local grocer I didn't hesitate in picking one up. Now I wish I'd bought more.

About 'Small Beer'
If you're not sure what Small Beer is, it isn't just a label name for Anchor's product, but an actual style of beer that goes back centuries. Essentially the beer is made from the second runnings of a brewers big barley wine. With most of the grains' sugar extracted in the first running there isn't a lot of sugar to make the second batch from the grist. This means the beer has a fairly low orginal gravity, resulting in an equally low alcoholic content. The beers are generally thinner in the body but with a great flavor for the smaller alcohol content. A wonderfully refreshing beer.

What About Anchor's Small Beer?
The beer pours a gold color and, because I had it chilled too low in my fridge, has a bit of a chill haze to it. Sure, I could let it warm a bit, but I just finished a workout and am finding this to be too much to let sit. The color has a bit of an orange hue to it as well. White bubbly head with moderate retention.

Mild overall, which is no surprise. I'm going use a word that sounds obvious, but oddly appropriate - grainy. Very low hop character, but decidedly spicy. No alcohol noted.

The beer is just good, does that sound credible? No? OK, then I guess I'll expand a bit by using that grainy word again. If you've never tasted malted barley it may not make sense to you, but I find this to be pretty much a combination of 2-row and some lightly toasted caramel malt. This beer is not sweet, not bitter. The sweetness that is found is quite mild and shortlived, being overcome with a mild citrusy & spicy bitterness. It finishes a bit dry, with a lingering mild bitterness. A very refreshing beer.

A light bodid beer with moderate carbonation and no noted alcohol warming in the throat. Mild astringency, which I expect with the process this has gone through, and very easy to drink.

This isn't a sipping beer like the Old Foghorn is. Instead it is a near perfect summer beer when you're looking for liquid refreshment. If you think a great beer has to be big or imperial, Anchor will do what they can to let you know sometimes Small is great.

Score: 4.1/5

Sunday, June 17, 2007

An Incredible Weekend

note: more photos online @ Rick's facebook page...

While I can't go into a lot of detail here regarding my trip to wine country this weekend, I must at least provide some killer highlights in hopes that you can use the notes when planning your next winery tour.
  1. To begin, there are just fantastic brewers in this region! While not every brewery out there produces the most memorable beers I have had, they all seem to make 'good' beer that is a welcomed break from the wines of the region. We stopped at Silverado, Calistoga Inn, Stumptown, Bear Republic, Downtown Joe's & Russian River, each having something that made the stop worth while - simply incredible.
  2. Hop Kiln Winery (pictured above) is an absolute MUST SEE winery in Sonoma Valley - just outside of Healdsburg. This place was originally built in 1903 by 20 Italian immigrants and errected in 30 days, using rock for the structure. They were forced to struggle with the World Wars and America's "Nobel Experiment", and eventually left the facility to the bats and squatters. In the late '70s it was turned into a winery and in the '80's it was refurbished to it's original look. They are a winery to be certain, and their Zin is worth the purchase, but this place is a wonderful reminder that before California was "Wine Country" our history was all about beer. I can't say enough about this stop, the generous tour of the old kilns and machinery that is largely off-limits really sunk in as something I'll not soon forget. If you love beer and are planning a winery tour in Napa/Sonoma valleys, add this place right now - you won't regret it. Oh, and next door to these guys is another wonderful winery - can't recall the name, but you'll see it.
  3. Breakfast at Russian River was a great way to start my day - the Sanctification with its 100% brett fermentation was absolutely perfect!
  4. Closing Russian River down the night before certainly didn't suck either.
  5. Calistoga Inn may be the most picturesque brewery I've every seen - the whole package just worked. Outdoor seating, fantastic food, good beer and great live music made this a stop my wife and I plan on repeating. If you're there on a romantic tour, this place is perfect. When you're out on a crazy weekend with friends, the outdoor beer garden is the best spot to drink.
  6. Bear Republic, on the other hand, seemed to offer little more than the beer and food experience you find in a good restaurant. Granted, I sat indoors and wish I would have enjoyed their wonderful outdoor seating. These guys, by the way, make a lot of beer right there in Healdsburg and have recently opened up a new facility in Cloverdale that allows them to sell in six-packs!
  7. I don't think I said enough good things about Hop Kiln. The scenic valley view they have there seriously make this one of the most beautiful stops I have ever had in my many trips to wine country.
  8. I got to try a 100% spontaneously fermented beer this weekend... and it was fantastic. Won't say where it was or when you can find it, but know that the rumors are true and the buzz is warranted.
  9. I finally got to see what a 'ropey' beer really looked like. Incredible, a bit ugly, but the beer was quite nice.
  10. Downtown Joe's in Napa - this place is one of those places I went in not liking, but walked away with a ton of respect and appreciation for what they are and what they do. Good beers all around and a clientelle who just seem to love a good cold beer after a warm day of beer tasting. Yeah, I need to say I was wrong in thinking they were something they weren't - luckily you all never knew that. :D
I guess that's it. You'll read more about this in weeks to come.
- Rick

Saturday, June 16, 2007

On the road...

This weekend I'll be doing some beer travels, so I'll be offline and not here. Where will I be you ask?

- Silverado Brewing
- Downtown Brown (Napa)
- Calistoga Inn Brewing
- Russian River Brewing
- Bear Republic Brewing
- Moylan's Brewing

The first three will be new for me, and I have some good expectations. Russian River, Bear Republic and Moylan's are sorta old hat it seems, and I always love the visits. I hope to get some good audio and enough info for at least a few good posts here.

So, happy father's day to all you dads out there. Enjoy the weekend.
- Rick

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Losing Strategy?

With the reported troubles facing the macro-brewers they seem to be scrambling to create more new products that follow a life cycle that is met with initial success and a quick fade into the background after only a few months on the market. So, I wasn't surprised to see this on the Miller blog today:
Headline: "Miller Taps New Innovation Chief"
Among Miller’s innovation initiatives: pushing imports from parent SABMiller plc, including Peroni Nastro Azzurro and Pilsner Urquell; adding line extensions and varietals of existing brands, including Leinenkugel’s; acquiring innovative brands and collaborating with experienced innovators, namely McKenzie River Corp.; and rolling out high-potential new products such as Miller Chill.
Now, I am not here to bash the new guy, in fact you'll notice I didn't even pass on his name. However, I do find it interesting that Miller a) has an "Innovation Chief" and b) has such uninterested initiatives. The initiatives they list seem like more of the same, the same that A-B is doing and in line too with InBev.

I don't know, obviously, what this guy will do or what level of success he will have with Miller, but my gut says he'll follow the trends of their products: he'll be met with initial success and praise, then after a while will be an afterthought to no fault of his own - we'll only come to realize once again that he was working with the same flawed business plans as those before him.

A final note to the big guys: Focus on what you're good at. Bud, Miller and Coors are solid offerings and your audience isn't going to have a long term love affair with products that are more flash than substance (like Miller Chill). Be a beer company once again, and stop being a Marketing Company who happens to make beer.

L.A. Times on Santa Barbara Brewing

As much as I'd like to just cut and paste the whole story here, you all know that would be all kinds of wrong. However, I do want to mention a great piece in the LA Times regarding brewing in the SoCal coastal town of Santa Barbara. To begin, here's the link...

While they got a few things 'off the mark' I think they did a good job portraying a thriving beer culture in this coastal community. Here's one thing I have issue with.
THE wine country milieu seems to color Santa Barbara beer. Three of the breweries — Telegraph, Hollister and Walker Firestone — age or even ferment some of their beer in wooden barrels. Most of the brewers say their beer is designed, like wine, to go with food. Typically, Santa Barbara's brewers (by contrast with certain outfits in San Diego, notably Stone Brewing) do not like a lot of hop bitterness in their beer, even when they're going for a strong hop aroma.
I know they didn't say all San Diego brewers, but I felt some implication there. That catches my attention because Lost Abbey in San Diego's suburbs does about the best job in the US at barrel aging their beers. Again, small stuff and this isn't to discount on the point that the folks down there are doing a good job themselves at making rich and complex beers using alternative methods for achieving their great flavor profile.

This next quote features a new-to-me nugget.
The wine country connection is clearest with Firestone Walker, owned by Adam Firestone — a third-generation winemaker and current president of Firestone Vineyards — and his brother-in-law, David Walker. When they decided to try brewing, they automatically thought of using wine barrels. In time, they developed a system of fermenting beer in Bourbon-style charred oak barrels.
I wasn't aware of the wine connection at one of California's most celebrated breweries. There seem to be several brewers in this state with wine connections, and I guess that all makes since. As much good beer as we have in the Golden State, this is clearly "Wine Country" and I don't see this changing anytime soon... not sure I would want to see that change either.

So, Charles Perry, good job on this, really. I have had the privilege of meeting some of the brewers from this region and am happy to see them getting some good press.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

From Lebanon with Love

A friend of PBN recently brought a few hand-delivered bottles home with him from a trip to Lebanon. They were brought back in good condition and tonight I had my first opporunity to give one a try - the Almaza Pilsner.

I must say I was a bit leary giving this a try; afterall, I hadn't read a lot about Lebanon's proud brewing traditions. I am more than happy to say, however, this is a great beer with a light malty sweetness up front that is a bit bready and balanced nicely by a surprisingly crisp hop character that was a bit spicy. The beer finishes slightly dry and has a pleasant lingering bitterness that is very refreshing. Overall, this beer is wonderfully thirst quenching and ideal for warmer weather like we're having out in the Sacramento area.

Thank you Mark for sharing, this is a real treat. For you readers, next time you're in Lebanon be sure to look this beer up and let us know what you think. Score: 3.9/5

Homebrewed Porter

Over the weekend I finally got to get back to some beer making, and it was time for a porter. I won't go into a lot of detail, but I've had a few request to see some pics of my 'system', which you can see is a make-shift tier system.

Now this is my 1972 Ford with a homemade kayak rack (hey, it gets the boats to the water).

Hey, ain't that fancy?

My version of fly sparging...

Woot! I'm making beer! Nothing to get overly excited about, but here are some details.
You see:
- a 10+ gallon brewpot
- a 10 gallon mash tun (yellow Igloo)
- a 5 gallon hot liquor tank (orange)
- Growler carrier, currently empty
- Propane burner, a 5 gallon brew pot on the ground, a sanitized bucket of water, a cooler of beer (Anchor Liberty & Deschutes Mirror Pond)...

Boiling? Yes, I believe it is.

Out of order? Indeed. Here I am getting the wort out. Dang, looks like motor oil when it first comes out - but it did get more watery at the end.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Pre-Order! Stone Vertical Epic 07/07/07

Stone Vertical Epic 7-7-07

Well, it is not yet released, but if you're wanting to make sure you get your hands on some (and you're not sure your local shops will pick it up) Liquid Solutions is taking 'pre-orders' for this years Stone Vertical Epic, which is set to be released 6/20-ish.

By using the link above, you not only get the beer at a good price, you also help support the PBN site. Thanks, and enjoy - we'd love your tasting notes.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Micro Brew?

Warning: This is a post of thoughts, incomplete and unedited. I don't have conclusions, and barely can claim to have points.

The Brewers Association recently put out their top 50 list of craft brewers in the USA, and the list had few surprises for those who keep track of these things - Boston Beer Company at the top of the list, followed up by Sierra Nevada. Many beer writers around the country have noted the continued growth in the craft beer segement, holding the stats out whenever possible. While that is very good news, there was one stat amongst them all that really stood out to me. I'll warn you now, I don't have a developed and tested theory here, just the beginnings of a thought process I'd like to share.

The stats?
- just under 1,400 "craft" brewers in the USA
- 34 of the top 50 brewers in the US are "craft" breweries, as defined by BA
- 77% of all craft beer sold in the US comes from the top 50 craft brewers
(see all the stats)

Overall, great news for those who like good beer. However, I can't help but wonder about a few things. Primarily, there are nearly 1,400 breweries in the US making "craft beer", yet nearly 80% of all craft beer sales come from 50 companies. I would dare to suggest, without a lot of investigation, that this indicates a regional brewing trend around the country - which is cool, but certainly not synonomous with "micro brewing" as we seem so apt to say. Did that come out right? Seems like most beer enthusiasts I know interchange the words "Craft Beer" with "Microbrew", yet if 50 of the 1400 brewers sell the lion's share of the beer - they certainly aren't 'Ma-n-Pop' places I often think of with small brewers.

Are they good? Well, this is also a touchy thing. Yes, Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium (#3) all make wonderful beers, by any measure. What about the others? After looking at the list in depth, I'm a little shocked and happy to say that they're all good breweries - with some hesitation around Pyramid at number 4. You've seen my thoughts on the chain brewery BJ's, and I was at first aprehensive about Gordon Biersch - then remembered how much I liked their doppelbock... so, yeah, a good brewery.

Final surprise - 2 of the top 50 brewers are from Utah. I admit, that surprises me. Why? Probably evidence of some sort of unspoken prejudice. Luckily, I have tried beers from both of these brewers and am happy to say I thoroughly enjoyed both (Wassatch & Uinta).

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Summer Seasonal: Deschutes Twilight

With Summer just a couple of weeks away now, it is time to start exploring the new seasonals hitting the shelves. Over the next few weeks I'll be reviewing a few of the more widely distributed Summer beers on the West Coast, starting tonight with Deschutes' Twilight.

While hard to find within their literature or website, it seems as though the beer is submitted to competitions as a Bitter, a rather misleading name for today's uber-hopped beer enthusiasts. The beer pours a nice light golden color, similar to an orange-blossom honey color, with a big frothy head that lasts for several minutes - a beautiful pour. The aroma is mild, overall, with a definite balance that falls toward the American Hop varieties. Apparently the Twilight is dry-hopped with Amarillo hops - and I can see that. Not an agressive aroma from the dry-hopping as you find in many west-coast IPAs, but certainly pleasant. In addition to the hops, there is a distinct bready quality to the malty sweetness.

The taste is where this beer gets interesting. I didn't quite know what I expected, but this wasn't it - and that isn't a bad thing. Initially sweet, but that doesn't last too long as it is quickly overwhelmed by a peppery & somewhat resinous hop bittering that is moderate in strength and lasting well into the aftertaste. There also appears to be a mild astringency that hits the cheeks, but this actually serves to add a bit of character to a beer with only 35 IBUs.

Twilight finishes pretty dry and has a chewy texture for the medium body - quite interesting. I believe it drinks best in large gulps, rather than small sips, to really enjoy the refreshing qualities. The beautiful thing about summer beers like this is that they're still great when they're a bit warmer than optimal temperature. If there was a fault in the beer it'd be that lingering resinous bittering mentioned earlier - but all things considered this is a great option for days in the yard or by the lake. Score: 3/5

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Hansens Oude Kriek

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be involved in the San Francisco regional judging for Sam Adam's Longshot competition, my second year involved in this. After judging was completed on Saturday night a large group of us headed over to the Toronado for some of the world's finest offerings. I won't detail all the great beers we had while there, but it should be noted we pretty much closed the place down. There is one beer, however, that must be mentioned as it was a WOW moment in my beer drinking life, the Hansens Oude Kriek.

Many beer drinkers are largely unfamiliar with this beer style, which has a rich and celebrated history in Belgium. Essentially we're looking at a Lambic that has been aged on whole sour cherries for a long time. I've been told before that good Kriek's have a subtle almond character, and until I tried this I had no idea what my sources were talking about. The BJCP has this to say about the history of the style.
Spontaneously fermented sour ales from the area in and around Brussels (the Senne Valley) stem from a farmhouse brewing tradition several centuries old. Their numbers are constantly dwindling and some are untraditionally sweetening their products (post-fermentation) with sugar or sweet fruit to make them more palatable to a wider audience. Fruit was traditionally added to lambic or gueuze, either by the blender or publican, to increase the variety of beers available in local cafes.
The numbers are dwindling for a couple of reasons, but primarily due to modern development of the region's orchards which housed the micro-flora required to make a good lambic. Regardless of the numbers, this beer is simply a beautiful representation of this style - it is sharp/tart, full of cherry flavor, but not at all cloyingly sweet, with a wondefully clean finish. I've tried several fruited lambics, but nothing like this - as close to stylistic perfection as I've seen.

There are a couple of things regarding this beer to remember. First, it is a hard find. I can't see where it is available online, so you'll have to use your beer finding sources to the best of your ability. Second, this beer has a broader appeal that you might think. We shared the sample with some die hard hop heads, and they were impressed - even without the faintest trace of hops. Finally, food pairing - no need. This beer needs no help, but if you insist I'd look to a well-made spring salad with a vinegarette (thinking raspberry). If you're in the bay area, find it at Toronado and email us to let us know what you thought.

Score: 4.8/5 (and only because I won't give a 5 out of principle)
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