The Crafty Beer Scene or A Tale of Two Cities

hansThe Church of Zymurology is fortunate to have two distinct homes. One is the lovely city of Austin, Texas and the other the equally beautiful town of Boulder, Colorado. During the three years in which we have ambled back and forth enjoying the local beer scene key differences became increasingly apparent.  I covered variances between beer festivals in past posts, so this time I am focused only on the sociological variances I perceive on a very subjective level.  Let’s start with Boulder, after all it does have the longest brewing tradition replete with pictures of Fred, Charlie and other “Craft” beer pioneers hanging on the wall at Boulder Beer Company.  Boulder and its environs have at last count 37 breweries with many more in planning. While many are new, others such as Boulder Beer and Avery have been around for quite some time.  Go North towards Fort Collins or 20 minutes Southeast to Denver and the number of breweries climbs to dizzying heights. Within this context it’s not surprising that people in Boulder and along the Front Range are not quite as excited about new breweries or the goings on at existing ones these days. Certainly, grand openings create buzz, but the market is starting to become saturated, if it is not already.  After being in Boulder for over two months I have yet to visit all of the new breweries around us much less get back to some of our old favorites.  The term “saturation” as applied to beer markets might be defined by some as the point at which some breweries close due to the sheer number of competitors, but for me it’s the point at which I can no longer keep up with new ones and also schedule trips to old ones I enjoy.  As in Portland it seems with a plethora of commercial options many people that would otherwise try their hand at homebrewing simply don’t. There are a large number of commercial brewers in the area. You meet them at happy hours all over town or manning booths at beer festivals, but given their sheer number few if any are considered celebrities and most people in Boulder see little need to push their way through crowds in order to chat with them in order to bask in their greatness.  The people that blog or write paid articles about the local beer scene are no less famous in local circles. They enjoy what they do and some make some money at it, while I am sure others do it in order to get into events. Still, those that cover the scene in the area are seemingly knowledgeable and not overly self aggrandizing. I have never seen any of them trying to curry favor with brewery reps or brewers in flagrant attempts at self promotion.

On that note, let me turn my attention to Austin, Texas.  I love the town and the people that I am fortunate to call my friends.  I might be completely mistaken but I perceive ongoing changes in Austin that will at some point make it more like Boulder. Austin has a robust homebrewing scene that is directly related to what was for some time a very sparsely populated local commercial beer industry impacted by the downturn over ten years ago. That is changing however as breweries continue to pop up and new beers enter the market thanks to revised labeling mandates.  Many homebrewers in the area have aspirations of opening their own breweries or brewpubs, while others enjoy competition. Still, there are some homebrewers that admit brewing less these days given the amount of quality commercial beer available. New breweries in Austin are improving, although the bar is still not set very high as compared to other mature beer producing states. Whereas there are very few breweries in Boulder producing what some might subjectively label as “bad” beer (OK I can think of one), Austin still has a large proportionate number making substandard beer on an inconsistent (or more worrying a consistent) basis that would fare poorly in most homebrew competitions.  One attribute about Austin that extends beyond the realm of beer involves the number of people that refrain from any negative commentary when it has to do with local businesses. From mediocre restaurants to horrible breweries, there are few that speak out and more often than not there are some that are happy to tell the business how wonderful they are, thereby doing a disservice to the business and everyone that walks through their doors. It is frustrating to watch the general public acting like brainless cheerleaders and it is even more maddening when so called “authorities” do the same.  Austin is full of beer “authorities”, many of whom know little to nothing about how beer is made much less anything more substantive. I remember an incident at the GABF one year in which a group of Austin area bloggers that obtained media passes sat in the press room looking over a list of breweries in attendance. One asked another whether 512 was any “good” and the other said they “thought they were.” Yes, self promotion in Austin can get you far regardless of what you know. Similarly, the somewhat insular and nascent Austin beer scene seems to foster the notion that brewers are celebrities.  I am lucky to count some of the brewers in Austin as friends and I value them as people I enjoy talking to, but they aren’t celebrities to me.  I don’t seek people out because I want to bask in their glow or because I want something from them, I talk to them to find out who they are and sometimes to ask questions about their business. It would be difficult to count the number of times self promoting types have rushed in to get the attention of people they deem to be beer celebrities in order to interject something about themselves. In Austin this type of self aggrandizing “networking” is all too common, although in three years I have never witnessed it happening in Denver or Boulder (except perhaps during GABF when people from other states surround celebrity brewers like a pack of laughing wild hyenas).

Before concluding I should also admit other cities such as Houston are similar to Austin in some ways due in part to the same dynamics. The good news from my standpoint is that Austin will likely be among the first to undergo fundamental changes in the years to come that will make it more like mature beer markets such as Denver and Boulder. Hopefully more and more breweries open saturating the market and employing a large number of brewers.  At some point the majority of area breweries will be judged on the product they make by a public that can make their own decisions without reading the latest “Top Ten Austin Beers to Drink this Fall” article pushed out by the latest celebrity “expert”.  With the demise of celebrity self promotion will also hopefully decline…although I am sure those with the propensity will find another avenue.

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A Road Trip to Madison

Bless me O fermented one for I have sinned. I have been remiss in my duties to post mundane banter in the internet. Instead I have sat idly by as others took up that mantel by creating tip ten lists or reviews of beers sent to them free of charge by breweries seeking the approval of “experts”. Today as I write we are making our way across the country to Madison Wisconsin where we shall make pilgrimage to the Great Taste of the Midwest. Along the way we stopped in Omaha to visit Nebraska Brewing. Preconceptions are always interesting as its location in an upscale shopping center surprised me for some reason. We did learn they have just opened a larger facility nearby in a warehouse strip that looked very large in the blueprints we were shown. They maintain a 10 bbl brew house at their original location but have installed a 30 bbl one at the new one. In addition they have several rows of 120 bbl fermenter and a barrel room large enough for 450 barrels. There core offerings were solid and included a nice English style brown as well as an American IPA. They had several bottles of the barrel aged variety available to consume there or to take with you. We opted for a bottle of Black Betty, their barrel aged Imperial Stout, a most excellent elixir. Next stop Madison.

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BA Brewery Statistics – how reliable are they?

In the most recent edition of The New Brewer published by the Brewers Association they rank microbreweries and brewpubs by capacity and draw conclusions about the growth of the industry using the statistics. Its an admirable endeavor, but quantitative analysis is only as good as the data you generate to come to conclusions – in other words garbage in, garbage out.

From what I understand the BA sends out surveys every year and relies on the responses to generate data. While this is an easy route to take, it leaves open the very real possibility for errors that then bring in to question the overall accuracy of everything they subsequently present. This is going to become an even more daunting task as new breweries open and old breweries expand, but perhaps they should hire some telemarketers to call around in an attempt to at least verify their assumptions are correct. I thought of this as I perused the most recent issue and noticed that the Draughthouse in Austin, Texas was listed as having produced 375 barrels of beer in 2013 – despite the fact that they sold off all of their equipment and did not brew a single drop last year (they do intend to brew this year once a new system is installed late this summer). Also note there is along list of breweries that refuse to comment at the end of all the tables. Data is then used to create info graphics showing the rise of craft beer in each category.

Draughthouse miraculously makes beer without equipment according to the BA.

Draughthouse miraculously makes beer without equipment according to the BA.

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Musings on homebrew clubs

Homebrew clubs come in all shapes and sizes. Every group is distinctively different and many undergo gradual transformations that in time on occasion totally change their form and substance. In some way or another I have been a member of a homebrew club for roughly 20 years and I’ve been fortunate to have been a member in six very different clubs while also visiting a number of others within the US and as far afield as Singapore.  Recently a visit to a Foamranger homebrew club meeting in Houston after a lengthy hiatus gave me pause to consider what makes a homebrew club great, from a very subjective point of view of course.

Homebrew clubs are ultimately a tangible reflection of their members, and demographics often change. Many years ago a club called Deja Brew once met at member’s homes, they initially fostered homebrewing and entered competitions, although in later years its ranks only comprised a handful of members interested in sharing commercial bottles and socializing at restaurants that allow outside alcohol.  In Singapore when homebrewing was still nascent in the small Asian nation members of the local club met at a local brewpub that didn’t allow outside alcohol, although one of its early members subsequently opened the country’s first homebrew stores and the club started to transform into something more reminiscent of clubs in the US.

So what in a very subjective sense makes a homebrew club great? There are two broad precepts and their respective roles in a club’s organization and operation can vary greatly.

Socialization – We are social animals and every homebrew club is founded upon the precept that like minded individuals want to be among those with similar interests. Of course defining those interests becomes a very personal thing. Unfortunately very few clubs take the time to poll their members to make sure it is catering to their desires, and ultimately that is one possible reason why some lose members over time. Others do shift their focus and perhaps become more social thereby disenfranchising those that want to remain focused on sharing homebrew or furthering their education with regard to brewing or beer styles.

Education – While most clubs are first and foremost social entities, the best of them also incorporate educational opportunities and foster the ongoing education of their members. In Boulder, the Hop Barley and the Alers homebrew club often hosts speakers covering a wide range of topics, from members discussing recent beer related travel to local brewers talking about a technical aspect of the brewing process. In Houston the Foamrangers educate members about beer styles by providing a selection of specific styles each month paid for through membership fees and proceeds from their annual Dixie Cup Competition.  At the other end of the spectrum there are clubs like the Austin Zealots homebrew club that focus only on sharing homebrew with no adherence to styles or educational structure.

From a very subjective and personal standpoint my ideal homebrew club is one that combines a welcoming social group with one that collects membership fees or holds an event such as a homebrew competition in order to fund ongoing educational endeavors. Personally I believe focusing on specific beer styles every month and taking the time to organize example beers to showcase how each is different can be key to developing a more refined palate and enhancing beer judging skills. Where you meet also has a profound influence on a homebrew club. In my limited experience a homebrew shop is the perfect place to meet after hours. Often the proprietor or an employee will remain onsite and pickup extra revenue making it a win-win for the club and its host. Alternatively in some clubs members take turn hosting meetings at their homes which can also be a good option as people can often see firsthand what equipment others are using. Again, every homebrew club is different and my preferences are just that- my own.

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Bursting Foamy Bubbles

Texas BeersAn ancient curse admonishes “may you get everything your heart desires.” Remember that in the months to come. Lets face it how special will that next limited release beer be when you are inundated with an exponentially larger number of choices. Often its the lure of something difficult to get that makes it so special and sought after in the first place.  Will crappy Cuban cigars be worth as much once the US embargo ends? I was reminded of that when Alaskan Brewery launched in the Texas market making whatever Alaskan beer I had in my coolers something not quite as special anymore. According to the Brewers Association we now have more breweries operating than we had before prohibition (in fact more than have ever existed in the US) and this means we are in uncharted territory.

In my secular work I am constantly examining supply and demand as it applies to commodities and the trends within both the US market as well as Texas in particular suggest a big foamy bubble is forming. Let me follow that by saying I haven’t had time to look into any recent statistics beyond the overall growth listed by the Brewers Association and some quick stats from the breweries listed on the right, but simple observation of what is happening at local bars should be an indication of what’s to come. Take a look around next time and see if you can spot the trends. Texas now has around 35 microbreweries (about 20 have started in the last two years) and about 35 brewpubs, we will shortly add another 5 or 6 micros and probably 2 or 3 brewpubs. Of those 12 micros and 8 brewpubs are located in the Austin area.

The interesting point is that of the 35 or so microbreweries in Texas more than half are less than two years old. At beer bars with huge tap selections like the Flying Saucer and the Gingerman local selections slowly replaced out of state options as new Texas micro breweries started up. At this time local microbreweries continue to report that they have a hard time keeping up with demand and that trend might continue for another year. Still, if you carefully examine the tap lineup at area bars in Austin you find that real estate dedicated to Texas beers is limited. It will be hard to get those taverns selling cider to a specific clientele to drop it in favor of beer. Similarly, it’s doubtful those selling any number of light beers or the ubiquitous Guinness will be persuaded to give up those taps for another local craft. As new high quality established brands like Alaskan enter Texas they too will be given tap space, and with labeling laws now less restrictive it seems inevitable that more high quality US beer will make its way here (Ballast Point is coming). At one local beer bar I counted 29 taps dedicated to Texas micro breweries several months ago. At the time they had multiple taps representing several styles made by one company, for instance two or three beers from Rahr or the same from Saint Arnolds. More recently the same 29 taps rarely include multiple beers from the same company as new Texas breweries are included to keep up with demand for the next big thing. So what does this mean? In my humble opinion, its great for consumers and not so great for starting microbreweries. Over time it’s logical to expect that those breweries with a “better” product (I use that term  subjectively) should survive while those with more mediocre product will find their market share eroding. Remember every market is finite and Texas is a state that lives on light beer, only changing the tastes of the populace as a whole will ultimately create the additional space needed if current trends continue. Of course marketing and promotion can influence consumer choice, but I hope quality beer rather than large breasts remains the key factor in a brewery’s success.

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An Enlightening Visit to Cantillon

CantillonThere is nothing wrong with pushing the envelope when it comes to brewing, but Zymurologists appreciate historical beer styles, especially those that were saved from the brink of extinction due to the efforts of those that knew how valuable a resource they were at a time, when even their own local population turned their backs on them. Such was the case with Cantillon which faced bankruptcy and closing its doors as local tastes gravitated towards the ubiquitous light lager in the 1980s.  The United States literally saved the company and now comprises roughly 30% of their sales. While they claim a number of other countries are clamoring for their beer including Japan and China, they are turning away new accounts to remain true to those that supported them in the past. While that is good news for those of us in the US, we have watched as domestic demand outstrips available supply here as well. New Mexico which once received regular shipments now gets nothing and states like Colorado occasionally get small bottles that immediately fly off the shelf. In the US the imports are controlled by Shelton Brothers, so perhaps an email campaign might be in order.

geuezeFounded in 1900, Cantillon produces spontaneously fermented limbic beer using methods established before Pasteur “discovered” yeast played a significant role in the brewing process.  Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the current brewmaster, married Claude Cantillon and took over operations. They have a wonderful dog that sometimes shows up at the brewery and loves belly rubs. A self guided and somewhat hazardous tour of the brewery costs Euro 6 and includes two samples of a geueze and a framboise they call Rose de Gambrinus. You can buy several rare bottles to drink onsite but only mainstream offerings are available to go. They no longer allow offsite sales of very rare bottles as some less scrupulous types were selling them at an extreme premium. We were lucky enough to try a 2006 Geueze and also this year’s Zwanze Day edition. The former was fantastic, the latter was a little bitter for my taste. On another note I no longer regret passing on the opportunity to get up at 6am to stand in line for a small sample of it. The brewery itself is located in central Brussels near the Lemmonier subway stop a few blocks walk into a somewhat run down but still seemingly safe part of the city.  Cantillon is open Monday through Friday from 9am until 5pm, although they only brew during the winter months.

bottleWe were very lucky to stop in on a Tuesday while they were brewing, so we were able to watch them clean out the mash tun and then transfer wort into the cool ship. I was also very lucky to be able to talk to Jean-Pierre a little about some specifics regarding the brewing process, something they are very open about.

Cantillon maintains their beers cannot be reproduced and the brewery can never be moved which caps their capacity at 1700 hectoliters (roughly 1,500 bbls) because  their spontaneous method introduces a signature blend of microorganisms only found in their immediate region.  The local university identified 100 yeast strains, 38 lactic bacteria, and 27 acetic bacteria.  If you taste their young geueze brettanomyces definitely stands out as does lactobacillus, but as the beer ages and perhaps oxidizes a little acetic character is also easily identified. So let’s break down the process for those that are interested.

JPVRAccording to Jean-Pierre, Cantillon does not treat its water or add any minerals. The water is simply boiled.  The grist is 35% un-malted wheat and 65% malted barley (I noticed bags of Dingemans).  They use aged hops that have lost aroma and bitterness only for preservative purposes and contract with companies like Hopsteiner who sell them bales of 3 year old oxidized hops (they claim they can use any variety, but I noticed only Halletauer). Their normal batch size is 7,500 litres (roughly 64 barrels), so we can assume they brew about 24 times a year. The 1,300kg of grist is mashed with two steps at 113F and 161.6F for two hours total (I didn’t ask but assume the mash was an hour at each temperature).  They then drain the mash tun and subsequently sparge (assuming around 170F) to get 10,000 liters (around 85 gallons). The runoff flows into two copper boilers for a “three to four hour” boil (although one person there said it was more like two hours). My guess is that they work to reduce down to the 7,500 liters they need and the time to do so can differ. After boiling the wort is transferred into a tub that filters out the loose leaf hops then pumped into the massive copper coolship located in the building’s attic. We witnessed the transfer happening around 3pm. Shutters on either side of the room housing the cool ship are opened or closed to control airflow somewhat in order to bring the temperature down to between 64F and 68F. According to Cantillon the wort is geuezethen inoculated overnight by the multitude of airborne organisms that will spur fermentation.  The next morning, we assume perhaps by 9am or 10am the inoculated wort is drawn into a stainless tank below the coolship within which it is sometimes mixed with macerated fruit or which is simply an intermediate holding vessel (according to Jean-Pierre the wort never stays in it) and quickly thereafter racked into large wooden barrels made of oak or chestnut (and varying in size from 225 to 500 liters).

Cantillon utilizes mainly old wine barrels, although they more recently obtained Cognac barrels.   The barrels are cleaned after every use with sharpened chains that scrape the staves and then steam is used to sterilize the interior’s surface. Finally the barrels are treated with burning sulphur and quickly sealed to prevent any new contamination. Although a lot of emphasis is placed on the overnight inoculation in the cool ship it is highly likely yeast and bacteria in the porous reused barrels contributes significantly to fermentation and flavor development.  It’s also interesting to note that plugging quantities and liquid volumes into recipe formulators results in an estimated original gravity near 1.040 but with final gravity coming in very dry near 1.002, ABV approaches 5% (which is what is listed on their labels).

coolshipPrimary fermentation happens quickly with the barrels bung left open which results in the loss of as much as 10 liters. Although we didn’t see it, other sources claim when fruit is added a mesh is inserted to insure it is not blown out.  In three to four weeks the barrels are sealed and allowed to mature for one to three years. Geueze is composed of a blend of one, two and three year old brews. The younger beer is traditionally used to essentially krausen at bottling time, although Cantillon also produces several beers under the Lou Pepe labels that are primed.   Once barrels are chose for blending beer is pumped into a stainless tank that feeds a somewhat antiquated plate filter that then feeds into two stainless tanks connected to a bottling machine.  Bottles are corked and capped and allowed to mature on their sides. At one time they were only corked, but a heat wave in the 1930s resulted in huge losses.

Cantillon is a beautiful little brewery making very unique beer and I encourage everyone to make a pilgrimage to it if they are anywhere near Brussels.  Keep an open mind and watch your head.

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Musings about the openness of European breweries

Many large breweries on the continent remain frustratingly innaccessible. Want to visit Samuel Smith’s in the U.K. or Chimay in Belgium? So would I, but alas these iconic breweries along with many others do not open their doors to outsiders for tours nor do they host onsite taprooms. There are exceptions of course, although those that do allow visitors often require reservations in advance or finding an infrequently scheduled group tour. Only a very few European breweries have an open door policy, and many that do like Cantillon in Brussels are very small family run affairs. During this last visit to Europe I noted little had changed with regard to the approach many European breweries take with regard to visitors, although I couldn’t help thinking their attitude will shift over time. Its easy to imagine that in the not too distant past breweries were simply regarded by many as large factories creating regional commodties. People that drank beer made by these often huge enterprises were likely not interested in how the product was made, as alternatives beyond what was produced and distributed within their region were probably limited. In places like the U.K. the tiedhouse system also played a part in the general dynamics impacting demand for alternative brands. But today people are focusing on locally made food and drink even when confrtonted by an expanding selection of imports. Nowhere is this more apparent that within the U.S. where small breweries are growing at the fastest rate in our nation’s short history. Today the small brewer has to garner support locally in order to survive and hopefully thrive. A taproom supplies small breweries with a much needed revenue stream that can be expanded over time. Hosting tours and operating a tap room promotes brand recognition, but it also provides fertile ground for creating lifelong consumers of those brands and brand proponents. To see this dynamic in action visit Saint Arnold in Houston or go on one of their sponsored pub crawls. Although large European breweries are slow to change, it seems likely they too will eventually realize the benefits to allowing more visitors in the not too distant future. Until then I will channel another religious zealot and keep knocking on their doors.

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It’s here…GABF is upon us once again

I have to admit I have mixed feelings about next week as local breweries ramp up ahead of what will surely be another crazy week of GABF. First snow swept across parts of Northern Colorado today, but the weather is expected to clear up as people arrive for the big event. Being in the area we have back to back guests we intend to show around starting Monday, so if you see no additional posts after this one, its likely I am in a hospital or morgue.  As luck or providence would have it I will be serving at both the Denver Rare Beer Tasting on Friday afternoon and also at the Black Star Coop booth at GABF that evening, so feel free to stop by and say hello. For the homebrewers among you there is a competition/symposium at the Marriott on Thursday night with two speakers and lots of free beer. If you arrive very early for GABF consider heading to Boulder on Monday as a bus laden with Texas beers visits Upslope on Lee Hill as part of a fund drive benefiting Prostate Cancer. We will be there as well.  Have fun and be safe! See you on the other side.

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