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!

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).