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.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Real Ale Homebrew

I love a good pint of cask conditioned beer, something which is painfully difficult to get in this part of Virginia at times. None of the breweries here has a regular cask lineup, and worse yet when they do decide to have some kind of 'firkin' special they invariably bastardise the beer by adding stupid shit to the beer, and slap it on a bar for gravity pouring without proper stillage. The resulting beer is so murky that it would do London beer proud, and no that is not a good thing.

The only places I have enjoyed pints of well cared for real ale in the last 6 years have been Beer Run here in Charlottesville and ChurchKey in DC, though sadly Beer Run stopped having a regular cask offering a few years ago. What then is a chap to do? Make you own obviously.

I have written before about using a 1 gallon polypin, called a cubitainer in these here parts, for replicating cask conditioning. It really is a pretty simple process:
  1. Put priming solution/conditioning tablets into the cubitainer to achieve about 1.2 volumes of CO2
  2. Rack fermented beer from primary into cubitainer, filling it about 90% full
  3. Close cubitainer with tap attachment (edit: store the cubitainer with the tap on the top of the cube)
  4. When the cubitainer swells bleed off some of the resulting CO2 so it doesn't burst - usually have to do this twice
  5. After about a week drink it
The picture below is of one of my cask experiments, an 80/- ale from a few years ago.

Now, gravity pour is all well and good, but I about a year ago I decided that I wanted to be able to pump my cubitainer real ale. Beer engines are pretty bloody expensive in and of themselves, and I don't have a home bar to add the necessary kit to, and did I mention they are bloody expensive? An answer I found on the old interwebs was to use a 'Rocket' pump, which is more usually used in mobile homes to pump water. One of the guys at the homebrew club I go to had a similar idea, but attached it to a cooler so that he would have portable real ale, so I must admit I nicked his idea to build my own 'caskerator'.

It's a really simple set up, and so easy to build that it took me about 10 minutes to do, and most of that was drilling the holes in the top of the cooler to attach the pump to. The entire outlay for this was:
Real ale for less than $45 can't be bad. To make it work:
  1. put a freezer gel pack in the bottom of the cooler to keep the previously cellar temperature stored beer at about the right temperature
  2. put cubitainer in cooler, tap to one side and pointing upwards
  3. connect the pump tubing to the tap (this can be fiddly)
  4. turn tap on
  5. close cooler lid - taking care not to kink the tubing, though this kind of replicates the behaviour of a sparkler
  6. pump - it takes about 10 pumps to get an imperial pint
  7. drink

There you have it, how to produce a reasonable approximation of British style real ale at home and on the cheap.

Best Beer Ever!

Shock, horror, a new post at Fuggled! Yes, it has been a while, but mitigating circumstances, I have been heads down writing my first book, ...