Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Impartial Pursuit: Part Deux

It seems like an age since I sat down on a Sunday afternoon in June and drank a 25oz can of Budweiser. Not Bud Light, not any of the rita sisters that are brand extensions of Bud Light, but good old classic Budweiser. I didn't love it, but neither did I loathe it. I was wet, it had alcohol, and I could imagine drinking it at a party rather than being a sneering craftophile who refuses to drink beers not made with navel lint and then aged in the barrel that took the body of Admiral Nelson home for burial.

That rather large can was never intended to be a singular event from which I would denounce all beer made by the multinational breweries. Nope, if you want to really know what something tastes like you have a buy a bottle or two and then drink the damned stuff. Anyone who says shite like 'I don't need to drink it to know it is bad' is a poseur of the highest magnitude and deserving of the showers of opprobrium coming his or her way, they are also complete twats, but that's a different story.

Anyway....my parents are visiting from Scotland for a few weeks and a couple of days ago we were in a local supermarket picking up bits and bobs while Mrs V was off doing her running in preparation for a 10 mile run in the new year. Looking at the collection of singles (a phrase which still puts me in mind of the latest 'Best of....' album by a favourite band) I noticed that the store in question actually sold singles of some of them there dreaded 'macro beers', in this case aluminium bottles of Coors Banquet.

Coors Banquet is the 'premium' pale lager offering from Coors Brewing in Colorado, premium here of course being shorthand for 'full strength', weighing in a 5% rather than the 4.2% of the various light American lagers produced by the behemoths, and this was the first time I had ever drunk it....so on with the modified Cyclops tasting notes:
  • Sight - pours a light gold, rich yellow colour, with a healthy half inch of pure white, tight bubbled foam that lingers basically for the duration of drinking while leaving a reasonable lacing down the sides of the glass, if you pay attention to such fripperies
  • Smell - the aroma is mainly grainy but with some herbal and spicy hop notes making their way through the head
  • Taste - again cereal is the dominant flavour, mostly smooth buttered corn, there isn't much int he way of identifiable hop flavour, but there is a bite in the finish that works well with the honeyed grain
  • Sweet - 2/5
  • Bitter - 1/5

In some ways this is very close to the Budweiser that I drank back in June. Fairly bland without being offensive in any way whatsoever, though I would say that Coors Banquet is several steps up in terms of taste and drinkability from classic Budweiser. I actually wouldn't complain if I had to spend a night on the lash just drinking Coors Banquet. The beer is pretty light bodied, but not thin and watery as some mass produced pale lagers have a tendency toward, actually to be bluntly honest, it reminded me of a lot of many 'craft' iterations on Kölsch I have had this side of the Pond. The beer leaves a slickness on the tongue as you drink, but the fizz of the high carbonation soon strips that away.

In common with classic Budweiser, this is definitely not a bad beer, even if it is something that would not be a regular in my fridge, but let's face it, even highly regarded beers like Rochefort are not regulars in my fridge.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Coming Full Circle?

As I took my dog for a walk this morning I was thinking about beer. Not about the beer I drank yesterday to mark my 40th birthday, the highlight being a couple of litres of Rothaus Pils at Kardinal Hall in Charlottesville, but rather how my tastes in beer seem to be ever increasingly skewed toward classic styles well made.

As I said, the highlight of my drinking yesterday was as simple a German style pilsner as is humanly possible. Other recent highlights have been a Helles lager from South Street, positively gallons of Sierra Nevada's collaborative Oktoberfest, and in the summer plenty of Three Notch'd Session 42 best bitter.

The thing that ties all these beers together is simplicity. There are no extraneous ingredients, no aging in barrels that once upon a time held a spirit of one kind or another, nothing experimental at all. I would say that my drinking life has never been richer.

Sure, it helps that each of the beers is very well made, but simple beers made poorly are often the worst beers a brewery puts out because the brewer can't hide behind the innovative band-aids that disguise their shortfall in brewing technique. I have said it many times, but show me a brewer that can put out a consistently high quality, and flavourful, classic beer style, such as pilsner, and you are showing me one worth his or her salt.

Thinking over my 22 years of legal beer drinking, from that first pint of Guinness to last night's Rothaus, put me in mind of Bunyan's pilgrim who sets out on a journey of discovery that takes him through many adventures but eventually comes full circle home. I feel as though I am coming full circle, where all I really want when I am having a beer is something that tastes great, is a well made iteration of a recognisable style, and is an aid to the occasion not the whole point of it.

I almost had a sense this morning that craft beer is starting to grow up and appreciate simplicity in all its glory, though in all likelihood reality is less prosaic and more a case of my having found my sweet spot in beer, and it is really isn't all that far from where I left from when I started this blog.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Proper German Pilsner

There's a new pub in Charlottesville called Kardinal Hall, based on the concept of the great German/central European beer hall and garden. I went for the first time last night, not being much of one for going to places on opening night, as I had a meeting to plan the next few months of events for my homebrew club. This post isn't a review of Kardinal Hall, I like to let places hit their stride before writing them off or praising them to the heavens, this is about the beer I drank....

I didn't even realise that Rothaus Pils Tannenzäpfle was actually available in the US, but the minute I saw it on the menu I knew I wanted it, and I wanted a litre of it - major bonus of Kardinal Hall is the option of 1 litre mugs of proper German beer. There are no tasting notes as I didn't make any, it not being the time or place, and anyway I have basically given up taking notes of the beers I drink unless I am at home. Suffice to say that this was German pilsner perfection, clean, crisp, with a real bite of noble hops in the finish, and drinkability that would make many a weird shit craft beer simply weep.

Coming on the back of my post the other day about how Pilsner should not be equated with adjunct laden pale lagers, it was fantastic to drink a superb iteration of probably my favourite style. It is safe to say that I will be visiting Kardinal Hall a fair bit until it runs out, and hopefully they'll continue with having good central European lagers available in Charlottesville, and if they need a list of worthwhile stuff, they know where I am....

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cost, Price, and Value

Yesterday on the Yours For Good Fermentables Facebook page, Tom Cizauskas posted a 2014 article from the Huffington Post which purported to breakdown the cost of a 6 pack of beer. Below is the chart from that original article.

This chart got me thinking more about the cost of being a craft beer drinker, and frankly I find some of it really rather disturbing.

We hear much about craft beer being expensive because of the use of expensive ingredients, but if this chart is correct then the ingredients themselves constitute just 10% of the cost of the beer in your 6 pack. The bottles and the cardboard carton said beer is sitting in is far more expensive than the beer itself. I would love to see a comparative chart about the cost of creating a 6 pack of industrial beer and see what proportion of the final cost is the ingredients.

More disturbing is that the cost of labour is a mere 1% of the overall cost of a six pack, think about that for a moment, that six pack in your hand at the shop contributes just 9.9 cents to someone's pay cheque. Add that 1% to the ingredients and only 11% of the cost of the six pack is actually involved in the production of the beer, everything else is margin, distribution, and tax. The actual cost of your beer is likely not much more than $1.09, chuck in the packaging costs and the total package on that six pack is $2.39, and that's before the brewery themselves have added a markup, which takes the total so far to a mere $3.19 for a six pack, less than a third of the final cost.

Why then is craft beer so expensive? It's really quite simple. 52% of the cost of a six pack of beer is margin added by the distributors and retailers. Now, I understand that businesses need to make money to survive, but when more than half the cost of my six pack is being taken up by people not actively involved in the production of the beer then I start to wonder whether that is really justified or whether they are just scalping the consumer because the product is so popular at the moment? It also reinforces my belief that the 3 tier system that exists in the US booze industry simply serves to line the pockets of middlemen. Imagine a world where breweries could sell directly to retailers and a healthy chunk of that 21% distribution markup saving could be passed on to the consumer, thus the 6 pack drops to $7.82 in the store.

By removing the distribution channel and letting the breweries sell directly to retailers like bars and stores you actually encourage genuinely local breweries whose products are primarily available in the brewery's catchment area. This also means that breweries are not encouraged to expand their presence into markets they can't support sufficiently, sure it might mean a slow down in growth but I would rather have fewer high quality brewers like Sierra Nevada than multitudes of third rate 'craft' swill.

For me, the 'more expensive ingredients' as a primary driver of the cost of craft simply fails to stand up to scrutiny, if this chart is accurate, and having seen the cost per barrel of the leading beers at a local brewery it sounds about right. The true reason for the cost of craft beer is that the people that control the beer once it is out of the brewery door can basically set the price at whatever they feel the market will bear, and as long as consumers keep stumping up the cash without criticism the more the price will rise. That is the very nature of the market, it will charge whatever it can get away with and that will only change when people start voting with their wallets and refusing to pay sucker prices.

Monday, October 26, 2015

More Than Lite

Take a quick scan through this list and tell me what each of these beer styles has in common:
  • Schwarzbier
  • American Light
  • Vienna
  • Baltic Porter
  • Pilsner
  • Munich Helles
  • Märzen
I am sure that if you know your onions, so to speak, when it comes to types of beer then you read that list and got the connection straight off the bat. Still scratching your head? Well ok then, let me put you out of your misery, they are all lager beer styles, as in bottom fermented and then cold conditioned beers.

This tiny little exercise highlights a semantic problem that we have in the independent beer world, the total abuse of the word 'lager' to refer to any pale, adjunct laden, quality control obsessed, beer put out by the large multinational brewers like ABInBev or Carlsberg. All we do when we use the word 'lager' in this way is show a contemptuous disregard for a family of beers that are as diverse, interesting, and worthwhile as their top fermented cousins.

I have written several times before about my love of the lagered arts, but it seems at times as though the use of the term 'lager' as a lazy shorthand for beers being mass produced by multinationals is on the rise, and that bothers me greatly. When I worked in the Starr Hill tasting room, we had a guy come in and ask what 'bocks and doppelbocks' we had on tap and that he didn't 'like lager at all', and that was 'passionate about real beer'. Hmm, well. While being all outward sweetness and light I was thinking 'get the fuck out of my bar you pompous twat' on the inside. I wish I could say that was a very rare occurrence but sadly the level of ignorance about lager is staggering, especially when you consider the hoopla around beer these days.

So let's see an end to this kind of lazy lager language, especially from beer writers, bloggers, and other semi-pro talking heads. Let's highlight lager style beers being made by independent brewers and not dismiss them with nonsense like 'not bad for a lager'. Let's remind breweries that just because they don't have the wherewithal to make lager doesn't mean the fans of lagers are afraid of tasting something. I've said it before, let's have more lagerboy pride.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Pale Lager ≠ Pilsner

Is there any word in the beer world more abused and debased that 'pilsner'?

Sure IPA might give it a run for its money, but as anyone with half a brain knows the use of 'IPA' has become an easy shorthand for boring overhopped top fermented beer of whatever colour is the fad of the week.

I seem to come back to this theme time after time because there is still a raft of misinformation, dumbass commentary, and just plain utter ignorance around the pilsner style and what constitutes one. Before launching into what a pilsner actually is, let's remind ourselves of the post I wrote in 2010 on the subject, and I quote:
Pilsner ≠ light beer
Pilsner ≠ Bud/Miller/Coors
Pilsner ≠ over hopped Bud
Pilsner ≠ any old pale lager
To label any of the above as a pilsner is to simply put on show the fact that you don't know what you are talking about. I don't care if you are a BJCP Grand Wizard of the Judging Arts, on any of the levels of Cicerone-dom, or Mr Marketing Bullshit Man who labels a perfectly reasonable helles lager as a 'pils' because you think it will sell better to the public (yay for craft beer being run by passionate brewers not the marketing bods eh?).

Now, I may have mellowed as I get closer to the age at which life traditionally starts, but when it comes to the style of beer that in my opinion is the height of the brewing craft I still have my standards. To call a beer a pilsner for me is to say that it follows as faithfully as possible the brewing standards and methods of the Czech Republic. So that for me means lots of noble hops, at least 30 IBUs worth, proper lagering times, at least 30 days, an ABV between 4.4% and 5.5%, and being brewed without the use of adjuncts.

As I say, I have mellowed, if a brewer doesn't have the equipment to do a decoction mash but still produces a tasty pilsner style beer then that is fine with me, and the German interpretation of the style is one that I greatly enjoy. However, there is still no space for having beers like Bud Light, Miller Lite, or Coors Light to be described as 'pilsners', they are not even close. They are in particular not 'low-grade Pilsners'.

I have no problem with people who don't like a good pint of Pilsner as much as I do, what someone else drinks is entirely up to them and I am not going to deride their beer of choice - I'll leave that to the Craft Beer Wankers (side thought, I am surprised Viz haven't complemented their Real Ale Twats with that idea). All I ask is people get their facts straight, and don't promulgate bullshit.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bigger Business As Usual

I rarely post on brewery mergers, quite possibly because I don't believe that the corporate structure of a brewing company really has that much of effect on the quality of beer being produced. If it did, every honest craft beer drinker on planet earth would love for their favourite local micro to be purchased by one of the big boys so that they could have access to superior quality control processes and equipment and thus make consistently tasty beer. but Stonch put out a challenge, and so I will attempt to rise to it.

All too often in the craft beer side of the beer scene (strangely some craft beer fans remind me of the Catholics in Dave Allen's wonderful joke about going to heaven, they seem to be convinced they are the only people who drink beer), we forget that the brewing business is exactly that, a business, subject to the same rules of the market as other industries, supply and demand, blah, blah, blah. Just because you are a little business doesn't make you some kind of special case or immune to the realities of every day business life - as such those small breweries making shit craft beer (and there are a fair few of them in my experience) will, and deserve to, go to the wall, where no-one will lament their passing other than 'investors' hoping to cash in on the bubble.

Anyway....this post is not about ABInBev buying some little brewery and igniting a veritable caterwaul of 'sell out', 'I'll never buy your beer again', and other declamations from love-struck and jilted fanboys. It's about ABInBev (random thought, why isn't it InBevAB? InBev bought AB not the other way around) having agreed to purchase SABMiller in order to go from being the world's biggest brewing company to being the world's biggest brewing company by a wider margin.

It may sound strange, but this deal doesn't really bother me, and for many of the same reasons as InBev's purchase of Goose Island, 10 Barrel Brewing or Elysian didn't bother me. It is very unlikely to actually affect the beer as it is being made, though admittedly there is part of me that looks over at Pilsner Urquell and worries that the same people that fucked up Staropramen are likely to own the brewery that started the whole hoppy pale lager craze back in 1842 (side note, screw 'India Pale Lager', and morons that think Bud Lite is in some way a pilsner just because it is pale and bottom fermented). As long as the beer stays the same, and this goes for all the brands likely to be owned by whatever this new behemoth will be called, then I am happy with that, because from an American side of the Atlantic perspective the control of the factories producing the beer is frankly a secondary matter.

With the daftness that is the three tier system, whereby brewers need to sell to distributors in order to have their beer in the pubs and shops of a state, the power is with neither the producer or the retailer, but with the blood sucking middlemen, and it is those purchases by ABInBev that bother me the most. Rather than opposing huge brewing companies, the craft beer world, if it truly wants to revolutionise the industry in the US, needs to focus on destroying the three tier system and introducing a genuine free market in the beer world, whereby the middle man is cut out and maybe even, and I realise I am likely being idealistic here, prices can go down because the additional cost of the mddleman is cut out.

Big brewing companies are a very useful straw man/marketing device for the chattering classes to rail against, much like the faceless bureaucracies of the civil service, and ABInBev getting even bigger really changes nothing on that front. So my response to this news is to shrug my shoulders and carry on drinking beer primarily from my local breweries, preferably at their tap rooms so all my money goes directly into their pockets. That is the power the consumer has, deciding where his or her money goes, and someone will always exist to be the supply to meet the demand for beer from small breweries, it's called business and it will keep on going.