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!

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!

 

Independent Craft Breweries vs Macro: It has all been done before…

Today it’s time to take up the macro vs independent craft brewery conversation. Much has been made for quite some time about AB InBev buying up many of the craft breweries and now buying Miller Coors (without a peep from the government despite its likely violation of the anti-trust laws). For years I have heard from the old Anhauser Busch, Miller, Coors, and Heineken salesmen that the macro breweries will always reign supreme and the craft beer market will not see much in the way of growth (I also heard from those same men there was no place for women in the beer industry- but that is a tale for another day.) Let’s begin by noting how much market share craft beer (despite the most recent slip in numbers) has gained, while macro breweries like AB InBev have started to lose. As of March, 2017 there are 5,301 independent craft breweries in America that have seized 12.3% of the volume share (up from a mere 5.7% in 2011.) That is a major gain, while the macro breweries may look at 7 % and thinking that isn’t much, but it is certainly not what they anticipated and cuts into their profits. Craft retail dollar share is up to almost 22 % – a 10% increase in only a year and that is noticeable. Big beer is fighting back.

Now many people will look at the numbers and ask why bother caring because the macro breweries don’t care about what craft beer is doing since the percentages are so small. I will argue they do. If AB InBev didn’t care about the growth of craft breweries cutting into the market why try so vigorously to purchase the successful craft breweries? Why spend millions of advertising dollars on campaigns proclaiming AB InBev to be one and the same as craft? Why purchase a stake in Ratebeer where many go to seek reliable ratings on craft beers? And most recently why bother to spend time and money downplaying the Brewer’s Association of America’s latest move to signify ‘certified independent’ craft breweries with a special label? What does the label mean? More than 25% of a certified independent craft brewery cannot be owned by any other entity, and it must produce less than 6,000,000 (million) barrels per annum.

Much has been made lately of the new label and how “divisive” it is. Really? Technically that is the appropriate term as it divides the beer into separate classification from macro to independent craft. I however prefer to think of it as a line of demarcation for those of us that care whether or not or beer is locally produced, sourced, employed, and crafted. Some beer drinkers (yes even craft beer drinkers) will not care. I do, as do many that prefer to know where their (nourishment) beer is coming from. It foments economic growth within communities at every end of the spectrum from agriculture to community gardens, to increased retail and food sales in neighborhoods where breweries are located. Is the ‘certified independent’ label really that different from a terroir designation on a bottle of Pinot Noir? Or an ‘organic’ label on your produce? Well many have taken pen to paper (or keyboard to internet) to argue the needless futility of the designation, and just as many have hit back challenging that those that prefer to do away with the ‘divisive’ label are predominantly macro brewery stakeholders. Jacqeuline Dheere was just one in a long line of beer writers to point this out. The battle lingers on with no signs of abating.

Curiously, all of this has happened once before, a little over a century ago. Just before the turn of the 20th century a war raged between macro breweries and independent local craft brewers. It started with a British brewing consortium buying up the top breweries in each city as an attempt to recoup financial losses from the former colonies and their now thriving breweries. Next it was a local trust- the Maryland Brewing Company that purchased the top breweries in the beer capital of Maryland- Baltimore in 1899. That failed and was replaced by yet another monopoly (with better management) G.B.S. Locals were deeply concerned by this and lacked any understanding of why their favorite breweries would sell out. Well the answer then as today was a great payoff for all their hard work! That is the American dream isn’t it? The rise of the monopolies also created at times, a vitriolic and divisive atmosphere for both the consumers and the breweries. Many breweries added ‘independent’ to their names just to make it easier to identify that they were not sell outs, and could be relied upon to continue producing that same favorite regional beer. Among brewing families, a sort of dystopian nightmare ensued where family members that wanted to remain independent disowned those that sold out, some even engaged in legal battles over the sales and the family fortunes.

So how did it all shake out? Prohibition shut them all down in 1920. Today I have no inkling that America would ever attempt to recreate that failed experiment, although I have been wrong before. I honestly don’t know what will happen. What I do know is that people will act based upon what is important to them. Perhaps they will look beyond the tasty malted beverages on their lips, and see talented local craftspeople investing their own neighborhoods, bringing jobs, building trust and fomenting communities. Beer for thought.
Cheers!