Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Best Beer is Right Here

It is a classic cliché as the year comes to a close to reminisce and take stock. The highlight of my year in beer was this summer as I managed to find myself on three different continents over three successive weeks when my European vacation dovetailed with a business trip to the Gordon Biersch in Taiwan. It was a bit discombobulating. There was a wide diversity of environment and cultures I witnessed with the quick juxtaposition of the Old World that inspired me both personally and professionally, followed by a sojourn to the New World, at least as an emerging beer market, that got me thinking about what I call the “American Exceptionalism” in brewing.

According to the always accurate Wikipedia, “That is the philosophy that refers to the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other states. In this view, America's Exceptionalism stems from its emergence from a revolution, becoming ‘the first new nation,’ and developing a uniquely American ideology; based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire.”

Ironically, though the concept originated with Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, and the term is most often used by neoconservatives in the political arena when implying that the USA is superior to every other country on Earth, it was actually coined by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s.

What I mean by applying the phrase American Exceptionalism to beer is that it is here in the good old US of A where you find the widest variety of consistently delicious and innovative beers in the world. American brewers have fermented a revolution by taking bits and pieces of all other nations different zymurgical traditions and mashed them together with our melting pot zeitgeist. On tap at any respectable beer bar in America you can find a cavalcade of craft beers; complex and extreme ales, drawing their pedigrees from England and Belgium but going far beyond their progenitors, exhibiting all manner of sweet malt character, enigmatic yeast esters and mouth puckering hop bitterness.  They will be living in harmony beside some elegantly smooth clean lagers of German and Czech origin. With very few exceptions, this is not something you see in other countries whose faucets are dominated by the ersatz suds of massive multinational brands.

Of course, it was not always this way in the USA. Turn the clock back a few decades and America was the laughing stock of the brewing universe, as Prohibition and the privations of the Second World War left us with nothing save light lager styles. These were made with rice or corn by gigantic conglomerates that seemed to be in a race to increase their bottom lines by removing all characteristics of their beers that could be defined as flavor.

Those were dark times back when I started my personal journey with beer. I was just thirteen in 1979 and my mom would pick me up a colorful bottle of some exotic, esoteric and usually European beer each weekend.  I would add it to my collection of colorful bottles that eventually took up a wall in my room. (Sad that if I were to do the same for my kids today I’d certainly be arrested and probably end up the subject of a Nancy Grace venom spewing rant.) They were moslty imports and they were the only alternative for a budding yet ignorant young beer geek. At the time I didn’t realize that the old oxidized imports weren’t meant to taste like the box the bottles came it. I thought they were delicious, even though drinking them offered the same sensation as sucking on the Sunday paper.

Fast forward ten years, while still in college studying history, I started brewing professionally at the first brew pub in Colorado, and we looked to the English and Germans as our guides. Since I never got to backpack across Europe I relied on others to reassure me that the Bitter, Stout, Pilsner and Hefeweizens we produced closely resembled the piquant perfection you would find in pubs and bier gardens back on “The Continent.”

It took another twenty years before I finally got to take a business trip to Deutschland and sit in a beautifully bucolic Bamberg bier garden and experience Gemütlichkeit, the feeling of profound joy that comes from imbibing impeccably poured clean crisp lager. It was compounded by the confirmation that, yes I was doing the right thing with my life by trying to bring this sense of comfort and cohesion to people back home.

Although Gemütlichkeit was great for both professional and personal reasons Germany was not the “trip of a lifetime."  That would be how my sixteen year old son Liam aptly described the vacation we took to England and Ireland together last June. I grew up immersed in my Irish heritage. My father was the kind of American Irish Catholic who would vote for a Kennedy who wasn’t running, or even alive. It was sipping out of his beer mug as a boy that I found my professional calling, and he always promised to take me to the Emerald Isle of our origin.

Tragically “Poppy” passed before we had the opportunity to make the trip. So it was a big check off my bucket list when Liam whispered, “I can’t believe we’re finally here, the great green land of our forefathers...” into my ear as our Ryanair flight was touching down in Dublin. It sounds schmaltzy but since his autism usually keeps him quite quiet, this comment hit me like a musical mash up of “Danny Boy” and “Cats in the Cradle.”

We had flown over from London where we had a fantastically frenetic and fun filled week of castles, museums and monuments with a big group of extended family. “Hey look kids: Big Ben, Parliament.” There I was excited to drink true British cask conditioned Bitter, only to be let down time and again by pubs that hadn’t cleaned their beer lines since the Blitz. Thankfully, I had the advice of colleagues who unanimously recommended the Borough Market area, which did not disappoint. There was one tiny pub called “The Rake” that made the biggest impression, as it not only had the best of British beers but also a decent selection from across the Channel, and even a few crazy craft beers all the way from Colorado.

My favorite pub in Dublin actually had a similar wide selection in addition to making several well crafted ales and lagers of their own. It was quite a coincidence to find Brian Taft, one of our former Gordon Biersch brewers, back brewing for The Porter House where we met for a pint. A true imperial pint where the glass holds 20 plus ounces and there is a line guaranteeing the guest that that they are getting a full amount, a not so precious pet peeve of mine.

Since Brian brewed in both cultures he as a perspective that eludes most observers. He said it was tough going for small breweries in Europe because people were hyper loyal to their own brand, resisting change and not particularly open to extremes in taste, whether that be malt, hops, alcohol or yeast esters. He lamented the “dumbing down” influence of light American and European lagers preferred by younger Irish drinkers. He recommended several places to get the perfect pint of The Black Stuff however, based on freshness and who had mastered art or perfect pour.

The pinnacle of these places was the Gravity Bar atop the Guinness Store house at the St. James Gate brewery itself, with a spectacular 360 degree view of Dublin. It was there a Joyce like epiphany came to me. We taste not just with our eyes, noses, and tongues, but with a ton of archetypal cultural baggage that flows through our veins. That Guinness was the greatest because I was imbibing it in Ireland. The Black Stuff tastes better in a Dingle pub for the same reasons that Dinty Moore Stew is delicious when cooked over a camp fire, even though it is indistinguishable from dog food when prepared on a stove at home. And Corona is slightly less reminiscent of the liquid coming from a dogs lifted leg when you are on a white sandy beach with your beautiful wife by your side. Beer brands carry national, culture, and aspirational identities and Guinness is perhaps the best example of this, never mind that it is no longer an Irish Company and it is produced all over the planet. Corona is barely Mexican, and none of the big American breweries, who wrap themselves in the Stars and Stripes at stock car races, are American owned. All are merely smoke screen brands in the stable of multi-national consortiums.

Yet we cling to these faux experiences paradoxically because they make us feel more real. Donning lederhosen and drinking Oktoberfest Marzen style lager out of a giant liter Stein while noshing on a knockwurst is a way of celebrating your cultural heritage, or at least participating in a tradition that helps us feel comfortable and connected, if only for a few hours in the suburban sprawl comically called a “lifestyle center.”

Since our mind and memory is so strongly stimulated by our olfactory system it makes sense the particularly pungent aromas of beer play a big part in celebrating and defining who we are as humans. It is why Paulaner even has a pub in Taipei serving pretzels and beer they make themselves in Taiwan. The whole scene seems surreal, as did going to Gordon Biersch there. Yet I was blissfully blown away by just how good our beer was and a single sip caused my homesickness to subside.

I was more than a little concerned as I headed to Taipei, the brewer William Chang did not come to us with any experience or formal brewing education. On top of that he spoke almost no English and if you poured several gallons out of a keg of beer it would still weigh more than his slight self. I was sure if the confusing nomenclature of brewing did not trip him up, the shear physicality of the profession would kill him. If success of his mission wasn't impossible it was certainly improbable, and he was succeeding sensationally.

William was making some of the best beer in company thousands of miles away with little support. His brewery was immaculately clean and impeccably organized as was every one of the three GB restaurants he supplied. This made my job of auditing operations joyously simple, and provided the opportunity to check out the other small breweries and beer joints in Taipei.

The food in the densely populated metropolis of over six million was diverse and delicious, but I wish I could say the same for the malt based libations. Thankfully it had radically improved from the decade before when I had last visited to open a brewery with my previous employer. Still, selections were limited outside of the ubiquitous Taiwan Beer, produced by what was until recently called the Taiwan Beer and Wine Monopoly and is actually owned by the state. It will never sell outside of the country because it oxidizes instantly and tastes like one of Abe Vicoda’s suits.

There were the usual suspects of international light lagers and a handful of brewpubs in addition to the Paulaner location. Suffice to say there was no IPA to be found, but quizzically some prestigious Belgian Beers had made their way into the restaurants and markets. I gather the Asian palate is not keen on the blast of bitterness that American Craft Beer tends to bring.

I would wager that it is just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches onto Craft however; God knows we have to atone for the contribution of the Kardashians.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Q:What's the number one selling Craft Beer style?

A: Seasonal

A former brewer friend is fond of saying, “You guys way over think this thing, the only beers you need to offer are the basics: a light, a malty, a hoppy, a dark, and a weird. Then you spice it up with styles that rotate. Because the first question every guest asks now is, ‘What’s your Seasonal?’”

Simple yet sage advice that guides us as we strive to provide a line-up of beers that is both reliable, and reliably unique. Our main beer menu has examples of:

1. The Light: A golden thirst quencher or refreshing “lawnmower” beer: Light Lager, Export and Kolsch.

2. The Malty: Copper to dark amber or brown styles that accentuate the sweet and caramel characters of malted barley. Red Ale, Marzen/Vienna Lagers, and Brown Ale,

3. The Hoppy: For those who prefer more bitterness as well the spicy, herbal, piney or citrus quality of the Hop flowers: Pale Ale (IPA) and Pilsner Lager.

4. The Dark: Don’t be afraid; though deep mahogany to pitch black they can be relatively light bodied and low in alcohol, or not : Porter, Stout, Schwarzbier.

5. The Weird: The favorite of those who say, “It doesn’t taste like beer.” The weird signature flavors tend to come from the yeast, spices and fruit, or changes in the processing procedures. Hefeweizen, Wit Beer, Belgian Beers, Barrel Aged and Sour Beers. (These might not be full time everywhere.)

We like to think there are suds to satiate every palate on the main menu but, as “Variety is the spice of life,” some crave more. We call them Seasonals, Specialties, or Brewer’s Select (just don’t call them Gap Beers, that was a truly unfortunate moniker.) Be they traditional styles or “extreme beers” with amplified examples of beer’s classic flavor characteristics.

On the Scoville scale for heat in peppers and hot sauce you might equate our regular line-up and Seasonals such as the Maibock and Fire Chief Ale to a Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, clocking in at 450 Scoville Units (SU). While fine for some, this is not enough heat for those who prefer Cholula at 3,600 (SU) on their tacos, washed down by Imperial versions of IPA or Pilsner with hop bitterness of 60 to 100 BU or Bittering Units (Budweiser is 12 BU.)

But making “extreme beer” can be like driving on the freeway, where no matter how fast you are going there is someone who wants to go faster riding your rear. It is a contest that usually ends with someone on the median or the morgue. There is a powerful “more is better” trend in Craft Brewing these days: more malt (alcohol), more hops, more weird.

It can get to the point, as it has with hot sauce, where one wonders what the point actually is. There are hot sauces out there with catchy names like, “Crazy Mother Pucker’s Liquid Lava” that are several million Scoville Units, more than one thousand times hotter than a Jalapeño, on the level with police approved pepper spray. Similarly there is a beer called, “Thermonuclear Penguin” with 32% alcohol by volume! What happened to beer being the beverage of moderation? Although, our Brewers can concoct these more interesting beers, and have recently won GABF and World Cup Medals for esoteric styles such as Rauch or Smoked Beer, Belgian Sour Lambic, Bourbon Barrel Aged Beer, and Eisbock, as well as the finest lagers and ales made with coffee and rye.

So with the health of our prized patron’s, and their GI tracts, in mind we will continue to push the envelope with our Seasonal/Specialty or Brewer’s Select offerings. Yet we can never lose sight of perpetually providing the best light, malty, hoppy, dark, and weird beers in the world. Remember the lesson of Christina Aguilera at the Super Bowl: just because you can sing in every octave, does not mean you should.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

If Bock Could Talk

If the Winter Bock or Nip could talk it would be a loquacious lager. It would say:

“I am a brilliantly bold yet subtly smooth and delicious mahogany hued Weihnactsbockbier or Christmas Bock...strong enough to take the chill out of the winter air and the apprehension out your game. You won’t need mistletoe after you savor my succulently sweet and toasty tastiness. So be a good Boy Scout…prepare, and bring cab fare.

I am a fabulous friend of food, especially our rich and hardy holiday menu that accompanies me this celestial season. My bodaciousness blends with the spicy warmth of the Winter Chili…my flavor is as big as a Buffalo, whether in slider or burger form. My magnificent malty mouthfeel makes me the Bourbon of beer, the perfect partner to the Maker’s Meatloaf and Flatiron Steak. My Hersbrucker hops, imported for Germany, accentuate the herbal essence of the Rocky Mountain Rainbow Trout and Chicken Pot Pie. Finally, my hints of dark chocolate both contrast and compliment the creaminess of Pumpkin cheesecake.

Large life sustaining lagers like me originated a millennium ago, brewed to help devout monks facilitate their fasting for Advent…my higher alcohol content quelled hunger pangs, simultaneously summoning spiritual visions. Now I provide fortification against the elements for the more modern Deutschland yuletide tradition of outdoor Christmas Markets called Weihnachtsmarkt or the American equivalent indoor orgy of unbridled consumerism that is “The Mall.”

I am produced with prodigious pounds of the finest malted barley imported from the 131 year-old family owned Weyermann Malting Company of Bamberg, Germany. Marvelously bready Munich Malt, caramel-lishious CaraMunich, and dark roasted Carfa coalesce in a nicely nutty, slightly spicy, gumptious glass of goddess kissed goodness that you can’t resist.

Hoppy Holidays…It’s time to ROCK OUT WITH YOUR BOCK OUT!”

Original Gravity: 18
Alcohol by Volume: 7.5%
Bittering Units: 27

Sunday, September 19, 2010

There was a record 3,500 different beers judged at the Great American Beer Festival this last week and we want to congratulate our medal winners.

Dan Satterthwaite (San Jose) won a bronze medal for his Rauch Bier and Rich Lovelady (Vegas) took a silver for his Eisbock.

It is an extremely tough competition and we are tremendously proud of all who entered.

For more information and a complete list of winners of this most massive festival go to

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Two Hundred Years of Beers.

It’s the bicentennial of beer and bratwurst served up by damsels in dirndls and lads in lederhosen. The Munich Oktoberfest commemorates the 1810 nuptials of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese and is far and away the biggest beer fest in the world.

The Great American Beer Festival brags about pouring one ounce samples of 2,200 different beers to 49,000 visitors over 3 days in Denver, meanwhile the tents of Oktoberfest will welcome 6 million people over 16 days, and pour nearly 7 million liters of lager…that’s 236 million ounces.

Beer plays a principal part in German culture, they consume 42% more per capita than we do in the USA and Oktoberfest celebrations have become the St. Patrick’s or Columbus Days for Americans who claim German ancestry, even if just for a day. Although the Irish and Italians make more noise about it, many more of us hale from Deutschland, a full 15% or 50 million, that’s three times the number of Italian Americans. Snooki make way for Schnükie...pumping a beer filled boot or stiefel in the air.

The liquid in that bierstiefel has changed over the last two centuries. Initially the beers of Oktoberfest were dark amber or auburn hued with a distinctive malty sweetness, such as the GB Marzen. While deliciously smooth this style can get a little cloying, so the modern versions in Munich have morphed into dryer, lighter colored lagers with more pronounced hop character to balance the sweetness.

Our pale bronze Festbier is a keller or unfiltered lager style which brings forth the bountiful breadiness of the imported Weyermann Munich malts that are balanced by heavy handfuls of Hersbrucker hops. This makes for an impeccably balanced and easy drinking beer and is the perfect pairing partner for the magnificent menu that we offer this season. Nothing washes down the succulent sausage platter like a luscious liter of our Oktoberfest or Festbier.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Share a quiet beer with 15,000 of your closest friends.

There is something about beer that brings people together; it is a staple of stadium sporting events with many of them named after breweries including Coors Field, Miller Park and Busch Stadium.

Usually beer is simply the side bar social lubricant for such gatherings, but there are thousands of events around the world each year where imbibing fermented malt beverages is the center attraction and sole focus: The Beer Festival.

I have kind of a love/hate relationship with Brewer’s Festivals, though my affection for beer goes without saying as I have thrown my life away brewing, sharing my life’s passion in an “arses and elbows” frat party with tens of thousands is not really my idea of a good time. Often while everyone else is in relaxation or vacation mode we have to work, humping 160 pound kegs through drunken crowds. If only I had a dollar for every tipsy witticism like, “You can just put that in the back of my pickup right outside, it’s the yellow Chevy.” Definitely avoid these comments if you are wearing sandals as my hand truck rolls by.

I have far fonder memories of taking beer to one of my first festivals however. It was 21 years ago that my boss had me trek kegs up to the Beaver Creek ski area from our downtown Denver brewpub to pour at a beer and jazz fest. He also sent along a beautiful waitress with me to help, it’s all about marketing you know. That five hour ride in my brothers broken down station wagon that barely made it up the mountain, and afternoon serving beer on the summer ski slopes led to fantastic friendship, a whirlwind romance, a marriage of nineteen years, and two incredible kids. Now that’s a festival!

Romance is usually not the modus operandi for festival goers though, and while they can simply be an excuse to whoop it up with like minded imbibers, they serve a serious function for the craft brewing connoisseur and industry alike. It is a chance for the unheard of small breweries as well as their bigger brethren to show case boutique beers whose exposure might only be the very small local market inside the four walls of the brewery itself.

The Great American Beer Festival or GABF affords the ultimate opportunity for anyone interested in experiencing sheer volume of variety. It is held in my home town of Denver every fall, and as I write this in mid August has already completely sold out all the nearly 50,000 tickets for these three evenings and one day of debauchery. With 2,238 different beers from 462 breweries there is something to placate every palate.

I usually try to focus on one particular style at a time to see how it is being interpreted by the bevy of brewers, beginning with the subtle lighter styles such as Czech Pilsners for the first hour. Then I might move onto something more pungent like sour Belgian beers or hyper hoppy India Pale Ales, and by the end of the evening evolve to the big Bourbon barrel aged beers as the crowded convention center devolves into a massive mess. Beer may be the “beverage of moderation” but when the event costs $60 a ticket for as many one ounce samples as one can slurp, it pretty much becomes a high end “drown night.”

That is not to say that “pay as you go” beer festivals are tantamount to temperance, but it is a more relaxed environment at the Oregon or Colorado Brewer’s festivals where you pay for each full or half mug of a particular beer, and can sit down and socialize while sipping your suds. In addition there is usually great live music and food creating more of a real festival feel. There may only be 40 different breweries represented with 80 brands, but that should satiate responsible beer lover. Like the British say about their early pub closing time, “If you can’t get enough to drink by 11:00pm than you’re not really trying.”

Chaotic crowds are referred to as “zoos” so it is only natural that every city in America has a Brew at the Zoo festival. Since the beer is usually donated or sold at low cost the organizers of these events can generate copious amounts of cash.
This is the biggest reason why I am so proud of the festival that our company puts on every August in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Southern Brewer’s Festival brings together all of the best aspects I have mentioned while raising over $100,000, not for the brewers, but rather for a very cool children’s charity called Kid’s On The Block.

The 16th annual Southern Brewer’s Festival on Saturday August 29th features 32 breweries pouring 90 different beers. It is a family friendly affair that features fabulous food and incredible entertainment with Big Head Todd and the Monsters headlining the list of bands. (They sell out Red Rocks here in Denver every year at $40 a ticket.) Admission is only $20 which gets you your souvenir mug as well as your first beer free, additional beer tokens are only $3.
Be there, or be thirsty.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Our Beers of Summer: The Irony and the Ecstasy

The kids are out of school, the lawn mower is out of the garage, and the brewery is pumping out Hefeweizen and Kolsch… must be summer.

As the mercury reaches for the triple digits, we reach for the thirst quenching coolness of Summer Wheat and SommerBrau. Both are light and refreshingly effervescent with mysteriously deceptive hints of fruit bestowed by their imported German regional yeast strains. These fantastic fermented malt beverages define the concept of “lawnmower beer.”

The irony is that usually when you think of light and refreshing it’s lagers like the Golden Export or Southern Flyer that come to mind. Yet both of our beers of summer are made with special top fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures, not unlike the common craft brewing work horse yeast strains that start with “A” and rhyme with nail, principally producing IPA, and Stout and whose strong esters are not suited to subtlety.

We don’t filter out the yeast in the straw colored Summer Wheat. In fact, the hefe in Hefeweizen actually means yeast, while weizen is German for wheat, so it is literally “yeast-wheat.” We use over 50% malted wheat in the Hefeweizen or Summer Wheat , and 20% in the Kolsch or SommerBrau. The wheat has a distinctive flavor but is also high in protein which creates rich creamy foam. It is a head that holds the billowing bouquet of banana and cloves in the Hefeweizen, generated by the Bavarian yeast from Weihenstephan. When the Summer Wheat is fermenting the brewery smells like a banana truck rolled over on a Nicaraguan highway.

Our golden hued SommerBrau, is not quite so specific in it its delicately fruity aroma from a yeast that was smuggled out of a small brewery in Cologne, the home of the Kolsch style. When it is fermenting the brewery has the aromatic appeal of a cereal factory predominately responsible for fabricating “Fruit Loops.”

We serve the our Kolsch in the traditional straight sided glass called a “Stange,” which is German for rod or pole, albeit ours is on steroids being nearly 3 times the size of the Stange used in Cologne. Hefeweizen is also served in its own uniquely tall and narrow vessel that widens at the top to hold its incredible head.

These beers are the perfect compliments to our Caribbean themed spicy, salsa, and fruit filled fare of the summer menu, available from June 22nd to August 1st. And though they would never do it in Germany because the beer speaks for itself, this is America, so we will happily apply a lemon or orange to the side of the glass as an accoutrement. But we brewers tend to feel that anyone who orders fruit on the side of a beer would be the type of foppish dandy to use the word accoutrement.