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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How to make GABF better, a list the BA will never see or care about

First the easy ones:

Find a larger venue – Seems obvious and I am sure it’s on the top of the BA’s list

Find out ways to cram more breweries in the Convention Center – Again, from what I hear that is being looked at as well.

Eliminate Ticketmaster – They suck and they proved it again this year.

And now for something completely different:

1.       Raise ticket prices – Fermentedly Challenged a blogger in Denver suggested keeping GABF ticket prices low but still giving people more than an hour to get one, which to me seems blatantly contradictory. I know GABF tickets are exorbitant, but let’s face it if you want to weed out people just looking to get drunk with all you can consume beer offerings they might eventually do some simple math and figure out they can head off to a happy hour at Buffalo Wild Wings and down a few pitchers of Bud and save a lot of money. Beer snobs that often seem the minority at some GABF sessions will pay more to get in, after all some are spending hundreds if not thousands traveling from all over the country to be there.

2.       Consolidate large brewing groups – This is something others have also suggested and it has merit, although I bet the large companies get the treatment they do because of what they contribute to the BA’s coffers.  Why not ask large chains like Rock Bottom and Port Brewing to consolidate into a large booth space and bring only their top offerings?

3.       Allow AHA members to only buy one ticket per member number – I am not in favor of simply eliminating AHA pre-buys as it’s a perk of membership, but every year members buy more than they need and end up selling them off.

4.       Add another session – This might help with some overflow and open up attendance somewhat but it isn’t a solution to the growth of brewers wanting to participate

5.       Allocate brewery participation to individual sessions – It seems very unlikely the BA will find a bigger space and they might be able to get some additional nooks and crannies at the Convention Center to stuff new breweries in, but ultimately it won’t be enough. How about setting aside Thursday for breweries that opened in the current year and/or those with production under a certain limit, like 3,000 bbls? Then make the other breweries choose one of the other sessions. Yes, logistics would need a major revamp to accomplish this, but it certainly seems like possible a solution. If people knew what breweries were serving when they could also prepare beforehand and buy tickets for sessions they are most interested in.

*As a final solution perhaps someone should start a NGABF (Not GABF) similar to NSXSW (Not South by Southwest) and invite all of the breweries that were locked out to another event somewhere nearby around the same time.

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Cheesecurds and self loathing, a recap of The Great Taste of the Midwest

thesceneEarlier this month the Church of Zymurology made a long overdue pilgrimage to the land of beer and cheese to attend the Great Taste of the Midwest. It was a last minute decision that required buying tickets on Craigslist instead of the normal route that normally entails sending in a check and a self addressed stamped envelope postmarked on a specific date in order to be entered into a drawing for tickets. With such restrictions in place I assumed attendance might be quite limited, but that was only one of several misconceptions.  Our journey started with a short trip to Chicago to see friends and visit a couple of breweries including Goose Island and Three Floyds (in Munster Indiana about a 45 minute drive South).  Be forewarned Chicago is a sprawling metropolis with an inordinate number of toll roads and it takes a long time to get anywhere. Goose Island beers were solid and the Three Floyds offerings were great, although the tasting room was loud and cramped. We made it by a few other places including the Map Room, which was one of my favorite stops when I visited roughly 10 years ago (just remember they only accept cash).

casksWe left Chicago for Madison and were soon motoring down more tollroads as the countryside changed to rolling hills upon entering Wisconsin.  Madison seems like a great town reminiscent of Austin with both a capitol and a thriving university which contributes to the bohemian atmosphere.  One day was dedicated to a roadtrip that included a visit to New Glarus as well as the Grumpy Troll brewpub.  A large number of establishments hold pre-parties ahead of The Great Taste on Saturday which can be found online, although some can be very crowded. We were able to run by a few that showcased limited edition beers or tap take-overs.  Almost every venue with food served fried cheese curds which became an unhealthy staple during our visit.  My partaking of cheese curds and beer became a love-hate relationship.

finishThe Great Taste of the Midwest is held from noon to 5pm on a Saturday. People staying close can walk, others ride public transportation or catch one of the free shuttles leaving from various brewpubs and bars, although please note that there is usually only one bus servicing each route and some people waited an hour or more to catch a ride after standing in line.  We were lucky in having to wait roughly 30 minutes but there was a long line behind us and considering you are limited to 5 hours of tasting missing out on a full hour is considerable after coming so far.  If we go again we will hail a taxi or perhaps drive then hail a taxi back to the hotel.  Upon arrival there are wandering volunteers with wristbands dispersed in a field that check IDs and take tickets. This was the most streamlined and effective method of dealing with entrants I have seen. With wristbands on everyone funnels through an entrance where another set of volunteers hands out a glass and checks for your wristband – I hope others consider doing something similar for large events as it was very effective.   The wonderful thing about the event once entering was the number of local Midwest breweries unknown to those not of the region. Most brought their mostunique creations for the festival and pours were unlimited, the only problem being sometime pours greatly exceeded the 2 oz mark and a lot of beer was dumped. The location right on the lake with views of the capital was spectacular. There was an entire tent filled with cask offerings, although the scene around it was somewhat unsettling as a pushy mob soon developed. Other booths with long lines managed them somewhat curds better, although a few such as Bell’s also seemed to be a little disorganized.  As alluded to earlier, attendance restrictions led me to believe it would be a somewhat more relaxed event, but make no mistake there are lots of people. There are few crowds and often no wait at many booths manned by the local establishments.  As the day wears on lines get noticeably shorter, even at the more popular ones, although many also run out of their special offerings.  While the event officially ends at 5pm pouring at some booths continues until 6pm. After everyone officially closed up our little group wandered to the German bierhall and outdoor music venue at the University of Wisconsin’s student center. We had discovered the place a few days earlier in an attempt to escape the crowds and it proved a wonderful choice yet again. With three bars serving various craft beers including Bells Two Hearted and Ale Asylum IPA we plopped down at a table and watched a band jam in front of the serene lakeside setting. It was a perfect ending and we will be back.

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Beer and Loathing

gooseislandLast week someone in a local homebrew club admonished fellow members to skip a free Goose Island event because attending such promotions supported “big beer” and was a slap in the face to local craft brewers. A series of equally indignant postings followed by those that possessed similar sentiments along with a small contingent of those that supported the idea of attending the special free VIP evening that involved meeting one of the brewers and getting free samples. Such fervor over the idea of consuming or otherwise seemingly supporting companies owned in whole or in part by large brewing conglomerates is relatively common among those in the beer community.  Many discerning beer snobs get just as irate upon the mere mention of Blue Moon and some go so far as to malign Sam Adams offerings as the company slowly creeps towards becoming another mega brewery (rather noticeably the threshold for what constitutes a “micro brewery” seems to go up as Sam Adams raises production).

Every week I seek out new beers within my locality as well among those offered at the local beer store. Like others of a similar mindset we like to try new beers as they are made available, but a deep seeded divide separates those that drink locally produced beers or beer made by “small” craft brewers almost exclusively from those that do so as part of their ongoing quest to try new offerings and find ones that they would like to revisit. Perhaps it is heresy among some to claim that I will continue to try products produced by InBev, Miller, Coors, or other large brewing conglomerates.  It’s possible I might find a giant burning keg on my doorstep after further declaring that I might order a Bourbon County Stout or an AC Golden Sour Ale on occasion. But I value what I perceive as quality and I will just as gladly turn down free offers of Blue Moon or Budweiser American Ale. My tastes are subjective and to forgo something of quality because it is produced by a company tainted by its ties to a conglomerate goes against my base instincts. To be sure, at this time there is far more locally produced quality craft beer than there are similar offerings emanating from large brewers. It has been some time since I have had a mass produced beer, but I will not turn down a taste of something new simply because of its origin. I do not think entrepreneurial craft brewers have anything to fear from large companies and the rise of the locally produced craft beer segment as a percentage of the whole is testament to this trend. In cities all across the world McDonalds and Burger King remain fixtures, but those that crave quality hamburgers know where to find better options.

While large breweries struggle to make or acquire (and then maintain the standards of) small craft brewed beer, the creativity and craftsmanship inherent in locally produced beer from small micros and brewpubs cannot be matched and its very doubtful the efforts of large breweries will gain much traction over time. That is not to say however that all locally produced beer made by small entrepreneurs is subjectively “good” and that is where my views differ and draw the ire of some craft proponents. Although most offerings fall short with regard to recipe formulation or care in the crafting of something unique, large brewers have the resources to create beers without major flaws. Some small local breweries must step up their game and clean up their operations, because while most are making a quality product, and some are creating masterpieces, a few are making beer that is often barely drinkable to anyone familiar with diacetyl or acetaldehyde. Simply put if given the option between ordering a (subjectively) bad locally produced beer or a high quality offering such as a Goose Island Bourbon County Stout I would not hesitate to drink the latter…and I would wager most beer snobs would do the same despite varying degrees of self loathing.

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