Autumnal Splendor and Things that Inspire

As the weather turns cooler, and the leaves crunch beneath your feet thoughts often stray to hearty stews, cozy fires, and good company sharing a delightful libation. Fall often evinces thoughts like this, inspired no doubt by the splendor of the season, and the crisp breeze carrying the scent of autumn through the air. I find that I become more selective with regard to the beverages chosen to mark the season, and those moments that take on a greater significance. Many people intentionally pair their beer with the evening’s planned victuals, and often do so with painstaking precision. I am perhaps not that particular, but I do enjoy the process of merging flavors in a way that elicits the best qualities of both the food and accompanying brew. What I have more recently taken note of is the story behind both, and how much that factors into my decision.

Cooking heals, and the process has an almost meditative power. Selecting a recipe is more than meeting a list of dietary restrictions, and flavor preferences; it also involves the history of the dish. How, why, and for whom was it created? Granted there are not always answers to these questions, but it certainly is intriguing to embark on the voyage to uncover them. The national dish of Cuba, Ropa Vieja is a perfect example of this. Legend has it that a peasant had no meat to feed his family, so he decided to take his old clothes and put them in the stew pot. While it cooked, he thought about how much he loved his family. When he uncovered the stew, the threadbare garments magically transformed into the delicious shredded beef stew (resembling tattered clothing.) Miracles, inspired by love, created this dish. Fanciful? Perhaps. Delicious? Definitely!

This wee tale leads me back to the accompanying beverage. What inspired a brewer to make a particular beer? Was it love? Was it history? Was it something more? Not all brewers share the muse behind the conception of a brew, but when they do I find myself intrigued and more inclined to give it a go. Make no mistake, a well told story behind a creation will not make up for lack of quality, or cleanliness in the process. Will consumers select beers with no significant story? Absolutely- if they are well crafted. Often however, one can tell when a brew was uninspired, as it shows on the palate. Similarly, a thirsty connoisseur of malted beverages can taste the inspiration behind it. Brewer’s Alley Wedding Alt is an example of an extremely well-crafted alt beer with an equally inspired story. Brewer Tom Flores created this very personal beer to mark the most auspicious occasion of his very own wedding. It was brilliant, and so well received that it became an (annual) seasonal offering, much in demand.

Other breweries in Maryland have also created beers motivated by personal stories, or historical events; just take a gander at Union Craft Brewing’s Duckpin Pale Ale. Duckpin bowling was invented in Baltimore, and neared the point of extinction (if you can use that terminology for a dying sport) when Union Craft released their homage to the Baltimore institution. The sport was invented around 1900 by a couple of Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famers while drinking beer in a billiards hall (although the specifics of this are open to historical debate.) Union wanted to get in touch with what made Baltimore great, and its rich history of craft brewing was a perfect analogy to the once thriving sport of Duckpin bowling. The sport and the beer have both surged in the past five years, and it would be impossible to separate the revival of one from the success of the other!

To have a muse behind the crafting of a fantastic beer may not be a significant factor to some consumers, but for many it will most assuridly lure them to open their wallets and give it a try!

Beer for thought!

Craft Brewers of Maryland Welcome Guinness

October 20, 2017

The arrival of Guinness in Baltimore was met with mixed emotion, instead of the expected anticipation of a new brewery opening in the state. In large part this jubilance was muted due to the legislature in Annapolis cutting backroom deals at the behest of special interest groups while ignoring the welfare of the craft brewing industry in the state. This was carried out with absolutely no regard for the breweries and their role as a driving economic force in so many communities across Maryland. Despite the legal wrangling, the brewers of Maryland rolled out the welcome mat for the new Guinness Brewery in Relay on Friday for their (pre-opening) Industry Night. Union Craft, Denizens, Pub Dog, Monocacy, Jailbreak, Checkerspot, Key, Heavy Seas, and a host of others were represented. The event revealed a first look at the taproom and the sampling of what Hollie Stephenson (Head brewer) and Peter Wiens (Brewmaster) had in store for those experienced palates in attendance.

The evening was a success, and the brewers of Maryland demonstrated their generosity of spirit, and the brother (and sisterhood) that Maryland breweries are so well known for. The offerings ranged from expected staple beers Guinness Stout, and Guinness Blonde Lager, to the rare and small batch. These special delights included the dense, luscious Foreign Extra Stout on draft (apparently for the first time in the USA), and the small batch Golden Series #1. This blonde ale was exceptional, a favorite for most in attendance. It comprised a beautiful compilation of hops (Mosaic, Amarillo, and El Dorado) that complimented Guinness yeast as the ale was fermented at higher temperatures. This brought out an abundance of aromas and a distinct, yet not overwhelming note of peach that married the flavors beautifully. To the credit of Diageo, they have brought together a winning team in the brewery. Maryland is looking forward to what they have in store for future brews in their Golden Series, and beyond.

The taproom is clean, industrial, and spacious. The expected barrel tables accompanied stools for a brief respite while sampling. This however is merely the beginning. Guinness plans to finish off the taproom, and construct an expansive beer garden that can accommodate several food trucks. Additionally a small hop farm is planned for a sensory experience, along with a pub style restaurant on the third floor of the facility where beer and food pairings will take center stage. Of course much like the St James Gate Brewery in Dublin, tourists will be guided through the history of Guinness, and the brewing process with substantial displays, and a retail store from which to purchase remembrances. The 100 hectolitre brewery will be housed in a separate facility, to accommodate the needs of the anticipated 300,000 tourists per year. Coincidentally, Greg Norris of GEA Brewery Systems (formerly the owner of Clay Pipe Brewing in Westminster) happens to be responsible for supplying this brewing system to Guinness.

With a 10 hectolitre system (in addition to the 2 barrel test system) there is much room to experiment with new brews from a hazy New England IPA, to a Belgian, and a host of other brews. It also provides the perfect opportunity for collaboration brews. In just a few hours, collaborations between Guinness and a few different Maryland breweries were already lined up. There is quite a bit in store for beer aficionados in Maryland and beyond! Guinness will no doubt draw a large tourist population, but all of our breweries should benefit. Collaborations will bolster that. Beer tourism was already thriving in the Free State due to our incredible craft brewers, and the arrival of Guinness will foment that trend. All we need now is an adjustment to the legislation and Maryland will become the premier destination for breweries in the United States!

Sláinte!

“Women Brewing in Maryland”  Left to Right Julie Verratti of Denizens, Judy Neff of Checkerspot, Lynn Pronobis of Union Craft, Hollie Stephenson of Guinness. Photo by Author.

Breweries and Neighborhood Revitalization

There is much excitement surrounding craft beer in Maryland. Over the course of the past two decades the number of craft breweries in the state has risen dramatically, along with a growing foundation of not just local, but regional and national fans of the Free State’s malt beverages. Coming off of the most recent Great American Beer Fest (GABF), many turn their thoughts towards medals and the ability to place ‘GABF award winner’ next to their beers in the taproom. That is all well and good, and Maryland has many GABF champions among her ranks; but is it the most important thing?  It would be easy to digress and discuss quality beer, and the varying palates as I have in the past, but that is not where this post leads. Instead, it is time to discuss what the breweries are doing on the ground, in your local community, and what benefit the average citizen (beer drinker or not) derives.

 

The phrase ‘economic impact’ sounds exciting, full of promise, and pleasing, particularly if you throw in a figure over $800 million. Often those numbers are viewed (and ogled or challenged as the case may be) from a somewhat esoteric and detached frame of reference. It all sounds good (or bad) but what does it really mean for the people living there? The easy answer is that breweries are building and rejuvenating communities. When Union Craft Brewing announced the Union Collective opening in 2018, the anticipation was great. Why? Primarily because of the impact they were already having upon their community since opening. Union Collective will extend its economic tentacles well beyond the initial brewery. Yes a larger space equates to more craft beer produced, more equipment to buy, more sales, more jobs that need to be filled, and more people visiting the taproom.  The oft misunderstood part of this is what it does for the neighborhood at large. Union is taking a vacant, deteriorating structure in a forgotten part of town and revitalizing it. Many partners have signed on to operate within the collective including Baltimore Whiskey Company, Earth Treks, and Charm City Creamery. This will not only draw a diverse market of consumers, it will also continue the critical process of revitalizing the community. Money coming in via jobs and tourism feeds the regeneration of the neighborhood. This includes buildings undergoing repairs, remodeling, and repurposing to attract businesses and new residents. It forces improvement in vital infrastructure like roads, schools, and utilities. Often property values rise once the first dominos (like the building of a new brewery) have fallen. Additionally, the purposeful community outreach and philanthropic work breweries across Maryland engage in must also be factored.

 

Recently NPR covered the opening of a small craft brewery in a remote town in Nebraska where they detailed a dying town looking for a way to breathe life back into it. The answer was a brewery.

 

“If your town isn’t growing, it’s dying.”[1]

 

No truer words have been spoken. It must also be said that the demographic that breweries tap into (pun intended) includes a younger crowd that is often the impetus for change. This was witnessed with the yuppies of the 1980’s that purchased and renovated older homes in moribund neighborhoods, improving entire community (and property values) right along with it. On any drive through Maryland and her cornucopia of towns and cities, detritus can be spotted in each and every one. It might be the old abandoned grocery store in Easton, or the long dormant Sellers Mansion in Baltimore, or a boarded up Mom and Pop corner store in Carroll County, but they have a common element- potential. If a brewer has a vision, these buildings can provide a home, and that can start a revolution.

 

We all want our cities and towns to thrive, with a reduction in crime, and greater participation in the work force for its inhabitants. Breweries are a critical driver toward that goal. To achieve this, our voices must be raised in concert and heard through the statehouse in Annapolis to change the laws and allow our great industry to flourish. Foment the brewing industry and we are all partnering in the rejuvenation of our forgotten communities and people.

 

Sláinte!

 


[1] Kirk Siegler, “Tapping Rural America: Craft Breweries Breathe New Life Into Small Towns.” NPR, October 7, 2017.

 

The fine art of Coopers

For over 2,000 years barrels have been crafted to hold liquid gold of varying types. The science behind the construction is fascinating, but the craftsmanship is exceptional and has evolved since Rome ruled the western world. The Romans adopted the method of storing and transporting beer in wooden containers instead of amphorae from the Celts. The process has changed little over the course of two millennia, but the nuances have become more refined, adjusted not only for technological advancements but the expertise and preference of the master coopers constructing them.

Coopers are artists, and each one operates on known, standard practices, but that is where the similarities end. Some coopers prefer uniform size staves for example, while others prefer alternating widths. Like many of the arts, it comes down to the preferences of the master craftsmen, and their own specialized techniques. The starting point is always same- the selection of the wood, traditionally oak. The wood will be weathered (aged) in preparation, and then both steamed to enable bending of the staves for construction (mise en rose), and fired (toasted) to specifications determined by the brewery, winery, or distillery. The characteristics of the wood comes through the process and into the brew, making it the most crucial decision before the first cut is ever made, or the first stave planed. It ultimately constructs the flavor profile of the liquid in the barrel to varying degrees based upon toasting, and length of ageing in the barrel. Master coopers always choose wisely, as that is part of their craft.

An intriguing aspect is the natural water tight seal achieved in the process, without seals, adhesives or other artificial methods. Dowels are used, notably for the head, along with metal hoops to secure the staves, but really nothing else. It all boils down to the craft. This harkens back to the ancient technology of boat building. Ancient shipbuilders also followed a similar process in achieving near water tight construction, but unlike coopers they chose to slather bitumen (pitch, or what is commonly known as tar today) on the finished vessel to procure (and perhaps guarantee) a completely water tight seal. Even when the Romans instituted the Celtic invention of barrel making to store beer and wine, they did not adapt this new ‘bitumen less’ technology toward their seafaring vessels.

Many of the Maryland breweries prior to Prohibition had coopers on site crafting barrels for their touted brews from John Frederick Wiessner to National Brewing. 10,000,000 barrels were in service in United States breweries prior to Prohibition. The invention of steel kegs coincided with Repeal, and threatened coopers traditional role in American breweries. Fortunately it would be another few decades before metal would completely supplant wood. When breweries did decide to turn away from wooden barrels, coopers remained the premier option of wineries and distilleries. All was not lost for coopers and breweries however, as they have seen a much welcomed resurgence in recent decades, not as the primary container for transport, but instead as the vessel to age and enhance golden, malted libations. Although it seems unlikely that barrels would unseat modern metal kegs as the choice for delivery, they have been lauded for their craft, their history, and their contribution to the renaissance of cask ales in America.

All hail the return of coopers to the brewing industry, like Free State Cooperage of Maryland, demonstrating a tradition thousands of years strong, and only getting better and more in demand.
Sláinte!

 

Food and beer pairing: an art, a science, or neither?

Today is National Cheeseburger Day. What does that mean for beer? Consult the Brewer’s Association of America beer and food pairing guide and a hungry consumer would be directed towards a pale ale, with a cheese suggestion of cheddar, or derby with sage. Epicurious also recommends a pale ale to complement any burger endeavor. Other experts suggest a light lager as the perfect accompaniment for burgers. For epicureans, merging taste appropriate food with beer has lagged behind the wine and food pairing craze that evolved decades ago. Perhaps it has. In addition, many would say beer drinkers got it wrong, and often.

Not too long ago the recommendation to pair spicy foods with an IPA was standard operating procedure. More recently, it has been made known that pairing a hoppy IPA (with an often high ABV) with spicy food only enhances the heat instead of complimenting it. For most, not all, dousing, instead of fanning the flames is the desired result. To accomplish balance, one must consume a beer with a higher malt characteristic than usually found in IPAs to accentuate, but not increase the spice. Lobster, a personal favorite, if only an occasional luxury, is even more intriguing. Recommended pairings range from a clean crisp lager, which makes perfect sense, to high alcohol Belgian tripels, porters, or even sours. Well, to make heads or tails out of this might ruin a perfectly good lobster!

What is the answer? Science? Dr. Nicole Garneau seems to think she has the answers. Well, at least some of them. Garneau, along with Lindsey Barr created the new beer flavor map that has standardized flavor descriptors for the craft beer industry, the first update since 1979. Taste is an ongoing scientific experiment. Garneau delves deeply into the taste ‘sense’, and even started a sensory program for breweries called the Draught Lab. She also directs the Genetics of Taste lab in Denver. Garneau argues that there are six, not five basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory), the sixth being fat. Fat! Well perhaps that is what is so tasty about lobster? Well all this science should most certainly guide craft beer consumers to the correct food and beer pairings. Or should it?

I appreciate science greatly. It reveals deeply held secrets, and guides us through a host of things we had no prior comprehension of. Science helps cure diseases, repair injuries, and sends us to the moon. I am just as curious as the next person as to why that delicious IPA pairs so well with blue cheese. The science behind it is absolutely fascinating. Will it however guide my food and beer decisions? Sometimes. I have always said, “Every palate is different.” What tastes mind numbingly rank to one person, may come across as a cornucopia of floral and vegetal wonder to another. That should truly be our guiding force, our individual palate. Do not dismiss the science however, as that is a useful and important advantage to help council us (at the very least) in the direction of what most likely will pair with that cheeseburger.

Cheers!

In times of trouble…

In reflecting upon a country in chaos from two major hurricanes of late, I have been awed by the generosity of spirit people have shown toward one another in their time of crisis. I have also been inspired and humbled by the philanthropic actions taken by so many. JJ Watt thought it would be a challenge to raise $200,000 for hurricane Harvey victims, and instead raised over $20 million! The Cajun Navy traveled at their own expense to rescue so many of those trapped by the flood waters, and returned with provisions to aid those survivors in need. Many volunteers went back to flood ravaged neighborhoods to save quadrupeds left behind and terrified. Several animal rescue organizations like Best Friends and the Humane Society mobilized to help those animals in Texas, and were already in place before Irma struck. We witnessed the creation of Corpus Craft Cares, a non-profit disaster relief fund set up by three Texas breweries (Lorelai, Lazy Beach, and Rebel Toad) to aid disaster victims. Lone Star Brewing set up a disaster relief fund, donating $25,000 as seed money with a goal of raising $250,000 for disaster victims by December.

In light of this, it seemed only appropriate to take this time to address those historic craft brewers of Maryland and their charitable contributions to the communities they resided and operated in. Many brewers provided regular donations of food and goods during extreme weather events be it winter storms, or summer droughts, for the homeless and indigent populations of Baltimore that could not survive without it. This was laudable, and greatly needed but they also rose far above almsgiving. Brewer John Wiessner, son of George F. Wiessner, proprietor of the 19th century Fort Marshall Brewery in Highlandtown started an orphanage in 1905. Originally titled the J. F. Wiessner Children’s Asylum the name has since been changed to perhaps a kinder moniker, The Wiessner Foundation for Children. This institution is still operational today funding organizations whose sole mission is to help children. A remarkable accomplishment considering John’s own brewery was closed down.

A contemporary of Wiessner, George Guenther Sr. was the son of the mayor of Wirtheim, Germany who immigrated to Baltimore to open a brewery. He successfully produced high quality lager beer for decades. Guenther’s son kept the brewery open during Prohibition to provide jobs for the workers and beer for the neighborhood, but was forced to sell the operation two years prior to repeal. Despite the sale of the brewery, the Guenther family still operated a home for ‘incurables’ which also served as a foundation to support humanitarian efforts across Maryland. Other post Prohibition brewery philanthropists include the Hoffberger family, owners of the National Brewing Company. The brewery opened in 1885 and survived into the modern era due to the acumen of the Hoffberger family, who purchased the brewery in 1933. Often noted for their support of professional sports teams like the Orioles and the Colts, their charitable accomplishments outshined all other interests. They created the Hoffberger Family Philanthropies to support children’s development, health, and education in Baltimore. These consolidated foundations fulfilled that mission for more than 70 years and continue to do so today.

Some historic brewers went far beyond financial philanthropy and were willing to risk their lives for those in need. John G. Lipp immigrated to Frederick Maryland to seek his fortune in the brewing industry in 1840. His brewery was an incredible success and staple of the community for 44 years. The remarkable generosity Lipp demonstrated was not the housing of his workers, or his notable contributions to the city of Frederick, but in offering his home as a safe house on the Underground Railroad, aiding countless slaves in their quest for freedom. Lipp left an enduring humanitarian legacy that far outlived his brewing contributions.

Fortunately for the beer drinkers of today modern brewers have taken up this philanthropic mantle, by supporting charitable endeavors, and honoring the legacy of those that came before. Communities know that in times of trouble they have an ally in their local brewery.

Sláinte

 

 

Pumpkin Style and other Seasonal Musings

I recently read an article by Fritz Hahn (Washington Post) addressing the irritation of Pumpkin Ales and fall seasonals appearing on store shelves in summer, when few consumers show interest in drinking them. I too have often complained about this phenomenon, particularly when October hits (and I am ready to drink a fall seasonal beer) and there is nothing to be found. Hahn engaged a variety of breweries and distributors to get to the crux of the matter. The results pointed to a supply chain cast six months into the future. The concern for breweries was a lack of beer on the shelves once summer seasonals were sold out if fall offerings weren’t to arrive until September.

This debacle is absolutely comprehensible, but I seem to recall a time around a decade ago (give or take) when fall brews came out in September/October not July or August. Certainly things have changed since then, and increased competition is definitely a factor. This does not however address the issue. What is the possible solution, empty shelves? Not the best decision. In reconfiguring the brew calendar and distribution needs, fresh ideas are necessary, and as the old adage implies,

Necessity is the mother of invention. 1

It would be simple to suggest that breweries increase production of their staple or ‘flagship’ beers that are offered year round to combat empty shelf syndrome during these inter- seasonal lulls. I for one enjoy my ‘go to’ beers that I can always count upon for quality, and year round availability. I like the reliability, as the beer shelf in my refrigerator can attest to. Delicious, nutritious, comfort liquid for any occasion or season. I also appreciate the adventure of variety, seasonals, and exploring the unknown. Would it be too crazy to suggest inter-season offerings? Wait- that is already happening. A quick look at any of your local breweries at this time of year produces a cornucopia of special offerings like collaboration brews. Now this is where it gets exciting. Well planned and thought out collaborations have produced some incredible results. Many Maryland breweries have received national recognition for their outstandingly crafted mergers. The Partnership Series Olde Ale between Heavy Seas and Union Craft is just one that comes to mind among several across the region.

Not all breweries have the opportunity to collaborate, or produce quality brews when they choose to brew together. There are other options to fill the void, including an increase in their portfolio of brews. Unfortunately not all brewers can take advantage of this under current state franchise laws. One local brewery (who shall remain nameless for this article) created a tasty new brew to fill that void, but was told by their distributor that they would not even attempt to place that (quite tasty) new beer in retail establishments. They were left with no option but to keep it in their taproom. Hmmm was this competition? Or was this our fear becoming reality- that there aren’t enough distributors in Maryland for the number of craft breweries, thus allowing those remaining distributors to basically dictate to the brewers what will be sold and when?

Perhaps the ancient world has something else to offer us in the form of Archimedes, “Eureka!”2  If he could figure out a solution to his difficult mathematical dilemma, we in Maryland can discover a new approach to seasonal brews…

Beer for thought!

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1. Plato, trans. By Benjamin Jowett, The Republic (New York, Anchor, 1960).
2. Archimedes, trans. by Sir Thomas Heath, Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897).