What The Hell Happened to Fruit Beers?

I know that sometimes it seems like beer blogs exist to be critical of beer and brewers.  Today is good news, though: brewers seem to have really figured out how to make fruit beer.  

I'm dead serious.  This isn't a setup for some kind of satirical take on fruit beer.  Craft (and even some craft-y) breweries are cranking out top-notch beers that also happen to be fruit-centered or fruit-accented (and no, I'm not counting that orange wedge on the side of the glass - that's still a travesty).  Sometime in the last couple of years I've started to notice a dramatic improvement in the quality of fruit beers, and it's really wonderful to see.  

The Dividends of Variety

One reason this came up at all is because I set myself the challenge of drinking a new beer for every beer of 2017.  No repeats - I get one serving (12-22 oz.) of each beer that I have, but that's it for the year for that beer (which has done all kinds of weird things to my homebrewing plans - lots of high-ABV and dark beers that will hold up until 1/1/2018!).  

The first update on how this is going will be posted in two weeks, the short version being "not that hard so far," but one side-effect of it is that I'm going out of my way to order seasonal or "not usually my first choice" beers so that I can preserve (for example) that Sinebrychoff Porter for a special occasion somewhere further down the calendar.

Thus, my recent exposure to more fruit beers than usual.  One dividend of enforced variety.

Long Way's Journey Into Right

I have no problem admitting that I had a low opinion of fruit beers to begin with.  Not so much the Krieks and Peches of the world: though they're fruit beers, I tend to think of them as sours or Belgians first, fruit beers second or third.  But the generic "peach wheat" beers, "cherry stouts," and recently the seemingly-ubiquitous "citrus fruit pale ale/IPA."  

These were beers that, for years, seemed either determined to de-beer the beers they were used for ("Don't like beer?  Try a FRUIT beer!"), or were so poorly balanced that it was like drinking beer that had been over-spiked with citric acid or sour cherry extract and/or a ton of unfermentable sugar.  They were beers made by brewers that seemed to want to change beer into FRUIT beer.


Dancing, Not Fighting

But then - as I say, I came to this recently, but maybe it's been coming for a while now - there seemed to be a change in the approach.  The fruits being used were now much more complementary than substitutive.  It wasn't "apricot malt liquor with a hint of grain" or "blood orange juice with 120 IBUs - you know, for intensity" anymore.  I started getting non-Belgian non-Sours that were actually using fruit as a balanced part of the flavor profile in the beer.

There were still exceptions, of course.  Grapefruit IPAs are always going to be hard if you're not careful.  Grapefruit is a bitter, acidic fruit and creating a balanced beer I could drink two pints of from it is a serious challenge (though I did have one recently that would have fit the bill, but for my stupid self-imposed challenge).  That's what they are, now, though - exceptions.  Of the last half-dozen fruit beers I've had, all have been at least "good," and a couple were in the vicinity of "great."

I now give serious thought to ordering fruit beer.  Not because I'm forced into it by a narrowly-constructed draft list, but because I'm actually curious.  The ingredients now seem to be dancing, not fighting.  The beers are honest-to-goodness beer, not some fruit punch that uses barley or wheat.  The fruit is used as an accent or a supporting player, not a domineering, astringent, tart sledgehammer.

It's just nice to see.

The Blueberry Exception

I still say, though, that there's no such thing as a good blueberry beer.  Blueberry mead or wine?  Excellent.  Blueberry beer?  Never had one that was able to get firm (natural) blueberry flavor.  I'll try again when I head to Maine this summer, but I'm not optimistic.

But hey - hope springs eternal.

Keep it simple.


[Author's Note: For those who are inevitably going to complain that I didn't list any fruit beers for you to try, let me state in advance that I very rarely do that.  First, someone automatically takes issue with it - "I've had that beer, and it sucks.  This guy's an idiot."  Second, someone else automatically assumes I'm shilling for that brewery and getting paid for it - I'm not, but why invite the criticism?  And third, doing so also automatically generates a response of, "who the f**k are you to tell ME what to drink?"  No one.  And I'm not.  In any case, the point of the article (since this is the second thing that happens - "what was the point of that?  This guy's an idiot.") is that you should be more open to trying whatever fruit beers you see - not that a couple of them are doing well.  So, it would be kind of contrary to the spirit of the piece to send you out with a list.  There - done.]


Penetration: At What Point Do We Stop Treating Craft Beer as the Underdog?

There's no doubt that craft breweries benefit greatly from the impression (often true) that they're playing the David role to Big Beer's Goliath.  Craft breweries' customers feel like they're supporting what are often small, local businesses rather than huge multinational beer conglomerates, and by doing so they're also getting a potentially superior product.  We'll leave the "craft beer quality" discussion aside, since it's been done to death (not that it's unimportant, though).  My question is a simpler one: is David even still David?  And if not, does that change how we feel about the beer we buy and drink?

Craft Beer Everywhere?

At the risk of pitching some boring stats, it's worth mentioning that craft beer now commands about a quarter of all beer dollars spent in the US (US Dept. of Commerce), exports of US craft beer are up by 16% (Brewers Association), and the number of permitted breweries in the US is more than 7,000, with nearly all being small, independent breweries (TTB).  Americans now drink about as much craft beer as they drink imported beer.  

It's still no small thing that big beer commands 3/4 of the market.  I'm not suggesting that they can't still use that size advantage to tilt the field in their favor.  But does craft beer really have a legitimate claim to underdog status?

Three years ago I was on a Christmastime pub crawl, traveling with a group decked out in Santa suits (having just completed the annual Philadelphia "Running of the Santas") - oh, and this has nothing to do with the point that'll follow in a second, but I just wanted to set the scene, because how often do you see that?  Anyways, there we were, celebrating in a variety of bars, several of which can be legitimately described as typical, run-of-the-mill, maybe-a-little-dive-y, corner, neighborhood bars.  In nearly all of them we found the usual suspects - big beer, macro lager.  But those boring big beer lagers had company: anywhere from half to three-quarters of the taps in these places were local craft brewery beers.  Even then, I thought, "we're winning."  Three years on, and it's becoming increasingly rare to find bars and restaurants that don't at least act like they care about craft beer, and a huge number actually do. 

I recognize that's not true everywhere.  But when I find a brewery in Lubec, ME (population 1,359, located at the extreme northern tip of the East Coast, several hours from the nearest small city), then it's certainly not unfair to ask the question.

Cultural Penetration

And forget market penetration (well, don't forget it, but don't only think of it) - what about cultural penetration?

One of my professional responsibilities is to advise students who are considering law school as an option, so I routinely browse internet sources for information on the kinds of questions they'll see on a certain graduate legal study admission test.  Last year a question appeared in the Writing section, and a small group of Reddit folk discussed it.  The question began thusly: "Tony is opening a craft brewery..."  The prompt asked examinees to explore the benefits of opening a brewpub vs. a small production brewery, given "Tony's" goals.  

What's remarkable about it is that these questions are designed to ask about topics which would be familiar to most people taking the test.  Other prompts on the same exam ask about public vs. private school choices for a hypothetical family, budget priorities for a municipal government, choosing to drive or fly on vacation, etc.  So when a question pops up that asks about a young person establishing a brewery and asking law school applicants to weigh in on Tony's desire to brew a variety of beers and his marketing plan to win over beer writers and critics, that's pretty telling.

Shaping the Discussion

I'm not suggesting that the local, independent, small-business brewery is a lie or a myth.  Individual craft breweries are definitely dwarfed by macro brewers.  But there's a collective strength to craft beer that begs the question.  It's the "many hands make light work" argument.  Your local brewery can get trampled by ABI.  5,000 of them can't, at least not nearly so easily.  As the saying goes, "quantity has a quality all its own." 

The reason I'm even writing about this is that a criticism lobbed at craft breweries (and craft beer people, to an extent), personified by the Super Bowl ads that knock craft beer, is that craft beer takes itself a bit too seriously.  That criticism can start to look like part of a larger inferiority complex if craft beer continues to treat itself as though it's still just a tiny part of the segment when in fact it's now the source of a great deal of the energy and growth in beer.  

So as we think about and talk about craft beer, maybe it's time to stop talking about it as the spunky upstart.  It may not be universally available, but it's getting there, especially if you're willing to look for it.  It may not be as big as "big" beer, but it's sure as hell growing into it (while big beer actually gets smaller).  On average, it's just not the underdog anymore.

I don't think this means we shouldn't keep buying it, or that we should think of craft beer "collectively" and suggest that it's the effective equivalent of big beer, but I also don't think we should open ourselves up to charges of hypocrisy by pretending that we're not part of a multi-billion-dollar market segment.  It just rings false, like a person that pleads poverty but lives in a sprawling McMansion.

Now, about those small brewery quality issues...

Keep it simple.


Beer & Popcorn: Movie and Beer Pairings for Oscar Night

This Sunday is one of my favorite nights of the year.  Yes, I know that the Academy Awards and its ilk are self-congratulatory and rarely identify the "best" films, but I don't care.  I love movies.  And I love beer.  And if we pair food with beer, why not movies?

Enjoy your Oscar Night, with this as your guide.  Pick these up, have some friends over, and enjoy the show!

A Beer for Every Best Picture Nominee

Let's face it, you didn't watch most of these movies.  They're mostly sad, long, depressing stories with an absurdly high percentage featuring dead fathers or other relatives.  But you know who DID watch all of these?  Me. [...and my long-suffering spouse, who has little choice but to accompany me]

So, without further ado, a beer pairing for each of the nine Best Picture nominees (in ascending order by movie quality - not necessarily beer quality):

9. LionThe sad story of an Indian boy who falls asleep on a train and wakes up thousands of miles away from home, gets adopted and taken even FURTHER away, and then uses Google Earth to identify his home village based on landmarks as seen from space.  WHY DIDN'T HE JUST USE GOOGLE GOOGLE INSTEAD???  HE KNEW THE NAME OF HIS VILLAGE!  In any case, it's a predictable slog of a movie (apparently based on a true story, so I might one day hunt this guy down and ask why he wasted months looking at satellite pictures instead of typing into Google the name of his village and the name of the station where he got on the train), and it deserves a beer that's likewise generic, and not that interesting, and Indian, I guess.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Lion Beer (some of these just write themselves, folks)

8. Manchester by the SeaA lot of critics loved this movie.  I didn't get it.  Much like Lion, we have a cavalcade of cliches, not much originality, and a lot of grief - but at least it's long as hell.  Having said that, it does feature some gorgeous scenery and a competent performance from Casey Affleck (though a bizarrely horrible one from Michelle Williams, whom I usually love).  So we need a beer that's highly predictable and too much of it.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Sam Adams Boston Lager - and make everyone drink a 22oz. mug of it even if they just want one 12oz. bottle.

7. Hell or High WaterThis basically felt like the best TV movie you'll ever see.  A semi-interesting crime story about two brothers robbing banks to avoid foreclosure on a family ranch in Texas that's suddenly worth a fortune because of an oil discovery (and btw, they soft-pedal this plot point so hard in the movie that it isn't until the end that you realize it isn't just a joke made up by one of the brothers).  Competent, but not anything to write home about - and Jeff Bridges chewing so much scenery he probably could use a beer to wash it down.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: I know a lot of you are expecting Hell or High Watermelon from 21A, but that's actually a bit too original here.  Instead, since we're getting a movie that's really good for what it is but might not really be in the top tier, out of Texas, I'm gonna go with basically anything from Jester King.  It's great, but not clear if it isn't just a big fish in a little pond...

6. Hacksaw RidgeAn incredible true story of a pacifist who saved 75 Marines during a battle on Okinawa in WWII, this is a war movie that indulges in lots of cliches but gets by on the strength of its source material and a sterling performance from Andrew Garfield.  Directed by Mel Gibson, we need a beer that pairs with a movie that's kinda conventional but gets by on its charm, made by a recently-disgraced figure looking to get back into your good graces.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: I'm thinking one of our Big Beer Buyout people - Devil's Backbone Vienna Lager fits the bill (and Devil's Backbone sounds like a place that's just down the road from Hacksaw Ridge).

5. Hidden FiguresCharming and super-competent film about African American ladies being recognized for their contributions to the early successes of NASA.  Good fun, an important story, and well-made - it stops short of being great, though, and left me wanting to go home and watch The Right Stuff again (which lacks the diversity but delivers as an epic of the new Space Age).  PAIRING SUGGESTION: If you can get it, anything from Ninkasi's "Ground Control" series of space-traveled-yeast-fermented beers.  If you can't, Victory Moonglow Weizenbock seems like a good alternative...

4. MoonlightA touching story about a boy from a rough neighborhood in Miami who has to navigate a complicated childhood and a drug-addicted mother, told in three chapters at ages 9, 16, and 25 (give or take).  There's some great advice in this movie, particularly from Mahershala Ali's character: "Sooner or later, you just gotta decide what you're gonna be."  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Cigar City Jai Alai IPA.

3. Arrival: Aliens arrive to preach a message of unity and cooperation.  Collaboration for greatness - simple, beautiful, and impactful.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Russian River & Firestone Walker STiVO Keller Pils.

2. FencesThe movie adaptation of an award-winning Broadway play set in post-war Pittsburgh, this is a real showcase for the power of dialogue and ensemble performances.  The movie's complex family dynamics and statements on the nature of strength make it a great pairing with a complex beer.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Great Divide Barrel Aged Hercules DIPA.

1. La La LandAn outstanding modern fairy tale, love story, and musical about the need to care for the things you love even if you're the only one that believes in them.  PAIRING SUGGESTION: Your favorite beer, whatever it is, and even if other people think it's terrible or a waste of time.  


Some quick hits for other noteworthy or nominated films, for the real film geeks out there:

  • Jackie: Sawtooth Amber from Left Hand ("Back, and to the left...back, and to the left..."  Too soon?)
  • Kubo and the Two Strings: Hitachino Nest White Ale (because for some reason a story set in feudal Japan features a ton of white voice actors...)
  • Deadpool: Anything from Unibroue in honor of Canadian Wade Wilson
  • Sully: 21A beer in cans, obviously

Call in sick for work on Monday, really make a night of it, and stay up right to the bitter, played-off-the-stage end.  

Keep it simple.


Waiting: The Oddly Divisive Phenomenon of Standing in Line for Beer

I don't care if you stand in line for beer.  It's your time on this planet, and you can choose to spend it pretty much any way you want.  Liberty, you know?

This is one of those things, though, that lots of people seem to like to weigh in on, criticize, laud, judge, defend, or justify.  I'm not interested in taking sides here, but that doesn't mean I don't have anything to say on the question.  What I'd like to do is draw a distinction between two different kinds of beer-waiting (at the brewery and at a beer festival) and suggest a general approach.

Staking Out the Brewery

I know some who do this, and if you're that committed, go for it.  I don't, but I also wouldn't wait in line for Super Bowl tickets even though I'm a big football fan: I have a less-challenging option (watching at home) that gives me about as much utility for a lot less cost and a lot more convenience.  Same thing with beer.  I might not get that super-rare bottle of whatever, but I can get something that's probably really close to it (or better, if I'm lucky) without the wait.

If you are going to wait in line for beer at a brewery, I have to say that in my mind the only kind of beer that it makes sense for is for an especially hop-driven beer that needs to be consumed right away.  In that one instance, you're presumably getting it as fresh as can be, which matters if we're talking something with hop character as a defining attribute.  So get your bottle(s), cool to serving temperature, and enjoy!  That seems rational to me.

But as I said, if you're just a devotee of a particular brewery, or really like the novelty of limited-release beers, or just want to show up your not-as-committed beer friends, then that's an end in and of itself.  Set up your folding chair and enjoy.

The Beer Festival Queue

This is the much more fluid and fascinating scenario: what's your general approach to lines at a beer festival?  

I'm an "opportunity taster" at the beer fest.  I don't wait in line for anything.  I'll be there for a couple of hours, and I almost certainly won't get to every booth no matter what I do, so I'm looking to maximize the number of different breweries I can "touch" in the time I have, since I look at these things as a way to test-drive breweries I haven't experienced or check back in with some I have experienced but just didn't like that much.***  If I'm waiting in line at Brewery A, I'm missing my chance to hit Breweries X, Y, and Z in that same span of time.  I know that this could mean that I'm self-selecting my way into less-popular beers or breweries (since maybe there's no line there because their stuff sucks), but I'm happy to balance that risk against the counterbalancing likelihood that these breweries aren't bad as much as they are unknown, and thus don't draw a crowd.  

Which doesn't mean it's irrational to wait at the festival.  It makes sense to me to wait in line if you're at/from a place that doesn't get a big selection of highly-regarded or popular beers.  We're spoiled here in/around Philadelphia because we get damned near everything (hell, during Philly Beer Week you can get two-dollar six-ounce pours of Dogfish 120 and World Wide Stout, Pliny the Elder and Blind Pig, etc.).  But if you're from Nebraska and don't see as much of this stuff and you see a booth that's offering something you might not get access to, then it makes all the sense in the world to wait for it.  

It also makes sense if, like my wife, you have very specific tastes in your beer/alcohol products.  At the Opening Tap Beer Festival at last year's National Homebrewers Conference, Barbara basically just camped out in the Moonlight Meadery line to get a steady-but-small supply of their braggot.  Hell, in that case I was grateful for the line - if it wasn't there, she'd have likely been hammered by the end of the night...

Though, as I said, it's your time and your glass.  Do what you want.  Heck, if you're a line-waiter, you're actually helping us non-waiters, creating a symbiotic and helpful beer fest ecology.

Let It Go

[You're hearing the song in your head now, aren't you?]  In any case, though, maybe don't spend time thinking about this or expounding upon it, either to express your disbelief ("Why would anyone wait hours for a just-OK DIPA?") or disparage the action itself.  And if you're a "waiter," maybe don't take umbrage when your "Been in line since last night!" social media post isn't an immediate hit.  

There's lots of beer out there, and lots of ways to get it, and lots of ways to approach it.  My advice isn't to wait, or not - it's to make a choice and take a deliberate approach to it.  Make a decision about what and how you want out of beer, and then do what flows logically from that.  

Keep it simple.


***And no, this doesn't make me a hypocrite.  I know that only two weeks ago I argued against the idea of judging beers based on a 2-ish ounce pour of them, but at a festival I don't have any other option.  Requesting a full pour would result in a "Sideways"-esque scene, and/or endangering someone's liquor license or insurance.  But I'd note here that I don't make determinations at festivals - it's just data for the computer, and I'd never write off a brewery or even a single beer based on that one pour at the fest!

Don't Order Tasters: Samples, Pints, and "Drinking 'Til You're Happy"

"Can I have a taste of that beer, please?"

God, I hate that question on so, so many levels...

The First Taste

First, your initial sip of almost any beer is a very, very poor predictor of what you'll ultimately think of that beer.  

If it's your first beer of the night (or day, if you're lucky), then your palate is reacting to the initial hit of alcohol, which (alcohol being what it is) is going to get numbed down pretty quickly.

Even if it isn't, flavor perception is an additive process.  What tastes good might not taste good after more of it.  A fingertip in the sugar bowl tastes good; eating spoonful after spoonful of it is disgusting.  And something that tastes not-great initially might grow on you.  But you won't know that, because you ordered a thimbleful of it and tried to make a prediction.

Palate Deafness

Second, as you drink more of something, the experience of it changes.  Your palate will adapt to what it's tasting, and things that are unpleasant at first can fade away or mutate into something pleasant or even transcendental.

That 120-IBU monster might seem too intense for you if you just drink one ounce.  But eight or 16 ounces later your palate has gone a bit deaf to it the bitterness and instead you may be tasting something very, very different thanks to that high IBU burn-in.  

And we're not only tasting - we're feeling.  That sharp sourness will seem much less so after a few sips, but the puckering tightness will still be there, and that might be something that changes your evaluation.

You'll never experience that, though, because you took one sip and moved on.  


Third, beer is volatile.  It changes.  Some flavors will come right out of solution and dissipate in seconds - if you reject the beer because your little taster had that flavor and you didn't like it, you're walking out of a movie five minutes into it.

What if the beer is overcarbonated?  As it sits and approaches the "right" carbonation level, it will change, and its flavor will change.  You'll never know, because you passed after two sips or your sample.

Use the Right Tools

Your taster probably came in a completely different glass than your beer would have.  You probably aren't getting much of a sense of the aroma.  Any fault from a not-beer-clean glass is hugely magnified because of the surface-area-to-beer ratio in that tiny glass.  CO2 is being released differently on that lip.

In other words, you're not even tasting the beer you'd be getting by the pint.

Pouring These Sucks

It sucks for the bartender, but it also sucks for you.  Beer service off of a tap into a 2-ounce glass isn't the same as the same pour into a pint.  The system isn't designed for tiny pours.

And it's a pain in the ass for the bartender - have a heart.

Drink for the experience

I don't order a sample of anything.  What's the worst case scenario?  I drink it fast or give it away?

When I order a beer, I want the full experience.  I want several sips of it.  I want steadily declining carbonation.  I want all of the palate sensations.  I want to work through what I might consider "off-flavors" and maybe come to appreciate or understand or learn to ignore them.  

And I want to be a considerate patron, because a) I used to tend bar, and b) it gets me my next beer faster because they know I'm not going to ask them to pour three or four or seventeen tiny samples, and c) I'm only human and want people to like me.

So please, don't order a taste of anything.  

Keep it simple.


Hazy Logic

I couldn't care less if a beer is hazy or not.  If it tastes good, it tastes good.  Hell, some even look good, turning the brilliant jewel tone of a crystal-clear beer into a frosty glow.  What confuses me is the militance with which so many beer folk approach this issue.

You find partisans on both sides spitting and snarling at each other (and, on occasion, discussing politely) the merits and dangers of the other's position.  I find it baffling.  

I can understand a discussion of the flavor impact that the additional matter in the beer can impart.  I can understand those who express a concern that it encourages breweries that aren't named Tree House to push out beers that aren't ready yet.  I can understand the position that young beers that haven't yet cleared might be a phenomenal and unique delivery mechanism for new and different flavors in beer.

What I can't understand is...

"Respect the Haze!"

That's what I read in a beer group on Facebook.  "Respect the haze!" 


A beer being hazy is not, in and of itself, some kind of signal that it's a better beer, or produced a certain way, or will have specific advantages over other beers.  So what's with the glee over seeing a hazy beer?  And why do some people seem to revel in it?  And why do some breweries actually introduce stuff like flour into their beer to make it hazy???

Maybe it's just some kind of beer anti-establishmentarianism.  What could be a bigger slap in the face to the hyper-controlled and over-processed and machine-made beers of the macro breweries than to release a beer that looks like someone just crushed chalk into it?  

Or maybe it's that some people only get exposed to the best versions of these hazy beers, and so they actually do believe that there's some intrinsic advantage to it.  I hope not, because they're in for a bit of a disappointment, eventually.

Or maybe they're just looking for anything "sophisticated" to say about beer, and they fixate on things that aren't debatable - it takes a bit of nerve to declare that you're tasting butter and grape and therefore you believe that there's a pedio infection in a beer.  What if no one else tastes those things???  But everyone can SEE that the beer is hazy, and so it's an evaluation you can react to without fear of being wrong!

Trust - but Verify

Let me say this: anyone who celebrates or denigrates any beer just because it's hazy is probably approaching this stuff from a way-too-superficial perspective.  

To the purists who say that hazy beer is much more often a sign of improper handling or immaturity and that we shouldn't encourage this in brewers/breweries...well, I agree, but I also think you should make allowance for reasonable experimentation and evolution in beer.  

To the rebels who revel in haze for its own sake and say that some of the best beers in the world right now are hazy...well, I agree, but I also think that you should realize that throwing paint up against a wall doesn't make you Jackson Pollock.  OK, some breweries make incredible beers that also happen to be hazy (like Tired Hands, pictured above).  But a whole hell of a lot more are making beers for which haze, cloudiness, turbidity and the like are a sign of a weak brewery.  And if you still like their beers, then great - drink them.  But don't be surprised or offended when others point out that they don't, and that the haze might be a warning sign.

So, for everyone, maybe the right answer is to be wiling to believe that a hazy beer can be great - or that haze might suggest a problem.  Don't be a hazist.  

Who Cares?

Clarity matters.  Quality matters more.  If it's a great-tasting beer, I'll forgive happily an irregularity in appearance even if it doesn't work as well for me as that brilliantly-clear beer.  Hell, for some beers (basically everything Maine Beer Co. makes) I wouldn't care if it's brown sludge with the yeast lining up to spell out "Die, Josh, Die," I'm still going to drink it. 

So let's not judge a beer by its cover.  Don't assume that a hazy beer means a bad beer.  But this also means that those of you parading around celebrating haze need to rein it in a bit, too.

And let's all, instead, join together in unified opposition to the idea of White Stout.

Keep it simple.




10 Beer & Brewing Resolutions for 2017

Happy New Year from Beer Simple, everyone!  Since last year's list was highly constructive (and at least 8/10 items on it were actually completed), I thought I'd start this year by resolving another ten beer-and-brewing-related things to do by the end of 2017.  Join me, if you will - maybe not for all of these, but just a few.  And for anyone who might care, 2016's recapped list and feedback are at the end.

So off we go, into 2017...

1. Drink all unique beers in 2017

This is a big one, and it came to me when I realized that I drink almost exactly 365 pints a year (I was curious, so I kept track of how much overall, and when).  I thought, "what if I didn't repeat any beers at all next year?" and once a thought like that gets into my head it's hard to shake.  The downside is that I get only one can/bottle of a lot of beers that I love, but the upside is that I have a built-in reason to try lots of new things.  With the continued growth in the craft brewing sector (we're over 5,000 breweries now, and at times it feels like 3,000 of them are in the Philadelphia area), the timing couldn't be better.  What's going to be weird is how I deal with my own beer - the current plan is to only brew a) beer for parties that I'll put in kegs, and b) age-able beers.  There's a lot of Old Ale, Barleywine, and Baltic Porter in my future.  Maybe a lot of sours, too!

So - no repeats.  Already off the list following yesterday's New Year's dinner are Lagunitas Stoopid Wit, Sierra Nevada Celebration, Short's Brown, Goose Island Fulton Street Blend, and Heavy Seas Winter Storm.

2. Make a perry

I've never made perry, but I have pear trees, and someday I might even use my own pears for it!  For the first time, though, I'll probably get some reliably good pressings from a local purveyor.  But everyone should brew something new every year, if only to avoid ruts.

3. Revisit my least favorite brewery and drink at least four of their beers

Sometimes we write off a brewery, and it becomes an article of faith that their beers suck.  This year I'm going to revisit my least-favorite brewery - and it's the clear frontrunner - and drink four of their offerings.  If nothing else, it keeps me honest and gives them another shot, and even if they still make beer that should just be called "IPAcac" at least I'll know that I'm correct in continuing to steer people away from them.

4. Replace my Better Bottles - all of them

I'll likely just replace them with new Better Bottles (they've done very well by me), but it's been several years since I've replaced my fermenting vessels, and I get the feeling I'm mostly coasting on luck these days - there might be some bug in there waiting to bite my brewing ass.  I want to get ahead of him.

5. Visit more beer bars, and fewer breweries

For some reason it seems easy to get people pumped to visit a brewery - probably because the presumption is that the beer is better right at the source - but I find it harder to get psyched to visit a new (or new to me) bar, even though they're all over the place.  The power of habit, I guess: you find some comfortable places to drink at, with great beer lists and excellent food, and you start to get lazy.  I want to break that paradigm this year - get out there and try out some new places.

6. Convince a friend to give their child a beer-related name

Preferably without them knowing it.  "Porter" is too easy, but I'll take it.  I'd much rather talk them into Vorlauf or Citra, though.  "Citra's a nice name - she's the Greek goddess of the orange harvest!"  I can sell that. 

7. Use honey as a flavorful adjunct

I'm not talking about making more Braggot or Mead - I just mean using a pound of buckwheat honey in an ESB, or a pound of Raspberry honey to add some light honey sweetness to a wheat beer.  I feel like it's being overlooked as a secondary or tertiary ingredient.

8. Find a pair of brewery-branded pants

I already own lots of brewery t-shirts and sweatshirts.  I've seen and can get brewery underwear and socks.  If I find a pair of brewery pants, I can actually dress head-to-toe in brewing merchandise.  Not sweatpants, either - some kind of jean or trouser.  It seems like an odd ambition, but I've always wanted to, just for a day.

9. Read at least three new beer and brewing books

It's an odd side-effect of doing a lot of beer writing: I don't spend nearly as much time reading other people's writing.  I'll hit articles that touch on old topics in new ways or seem to introduce genuinely novel ideas (I like to keep current), but whereas I used to read new brewing books as much for pleasure as for education, I find I just don't do it much anymore.  I'd like to correct that this year.

10. Support pro-beer legislation at the local, state, and federal levels of government

There are still laws in place that breweries and beer drinkers have to contend with that are either illogical, ineffective, or create inefficiencies.  I've been content to let the AHA lobby on this stuff, but I'd like to set aside time this year to more personally get involved in it.  I'm a political scientist, after all...

And, of course, I'd like to keep writing Beer Simple.  Thank you to everyone for reading this year, whether you just stop in occasionally or read every week.  It means a lot to me that you spend your time here, and every week I try to put something up for you that is worth that sacrifice.  Best wishes in 2017, keep brewing and drinking good beer, and as always...

Keep it simple.




10. BUY A HIGH-QUALITY THERMOMETER – OR AT LEAST CALIBRATE THE ONE YOU ALREADY HAVE - Done and done.  My new Thermapen has been incredible. FAST and accurate.

9. MAKE A POINT OF ATTENDING EITHER THE GREAT AMERICAN BEER FESTIVAL OR NATIONAL HOMEBREWERS CONFERENCE - NHC 2016 ("Homebrewcon" - but I still have trouble with that) in Baltimore was a blast, and the dozen or so members of our club that went all had a remarkable time.  

8. FIND A NEW APPRECIATION FOR A PASSÉ OR OVERLOOKED BEER STYLE – I’M THINKING WITBIER - Oddly enough, it ended up being American Pale Ale.  They're everywhere, but it's amazing how often people (me included) gloss over them en route to looking for something more interesting, using the logic of "I can always go back to it..."  This time I started with them.  Really fun.

7. GIVE UP BEER FOR LENT, EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT CATHOLIC - It was no alcohol for 40 days, and it yielded some interesting conclusions.  I may do something similar this year, but I haven't really thought about it yet.  

6. WRITE A LETTER TO A BREWERY THAT IS MAKING YOUR FAVORITE BEER AND THANK THEM - Burial Brewing in NC got an e-mail, and they were super grateful for it.  Keep up the great work, guys!  And if you readers are in a position to try their Shadowclock Pilsner, it's incredible - but it for the artwork, drink it for the flavor.

5. LEARN ONE SCIENTIFIC LESSON THAT WILL IMPROVE YOUR BREWING - I spent some time on presentation of essential oils in hops, reading through the academic literature.  I can't pretend to have understood it all, but one thing was abundantly clear: we need to know more about this.  They're quite the black box.

4. ATTEND A HOMEBREW CLUB MEETING – OTHER THAN YOUR OWN - Done.  Actually, I attended three!  Always neat to see what everyone else is up to.

3. TEACH A WILLING PERSON TO HOMEBREW, AND BREW WITH THEM AT LEAST THREE TIMES - this is one I didn't get to follow through on.  I'll try better next year.

2. STAND UP FOR ONE NEWBIE THAT IS BEING RAZZED BY AN ALEHOLE - got to do this at NHC actually.  Sad that it was necessary, but glad to have been there to do it.  And the alehole in question had some bizarre beliefs about what an IBU was.

1. CONTRIBUTE IN A MEANINGFUL WAY TO THE BREWING WORLD – HOWEVER YOU CAN - I hope I did this, but if not I'll do better next year.  

Happy New Year, all!

The Full Fridge Dilemma: It's like FMK, but for Beer

Around this time of year (post-Christmas, post-holiday parties, etc.) I end up with a lot of beer in the fridge.  Beer I've bought to serve.  Beer I've received as a gift.  Beer people brought to a party and left behind.  So, so much beer.  

Talk about First World Problems.  

But it occurred to me that, problem of the (over?) privileged that it might be, it's still a legitimate problem.  We're also about to head into a month when, like many of us, I'm looking to give my body a rest and ratchet down the alcohol consumption.  So we have a real supply-demand issue here.  And it occurred to me that this "Full Fridge Dilemma" might be worth approaching in a more systematic way.  Some are going to stay.  Some are going to go (eventually).  And some are going to go right now.  It's like FMK, but with your beer.

The Big Sort

The way I see it, I have two goals here.  First, I want to drink the beer I have when it's at its best (or, at the very least, before it starts to turn towards its worst).  Second, I want to avoid playing catch-up for the rest of the year.  This dilemma, if un-addressed, will plague me for months, since I'll still be adding beer to the equation - I need to get ahead of it.  Otherwise I'll just be drinking by "best by" date, and that just doesn't sound like fun.  I need to clear out some space in this fridge.

So, first things first: sort.

The first sort will be to split out the things that you don't much want to drink anyway - and start playing Santa Claus.  If I look in my fridge and see a bunch of strong Belgian ales, then you better believe that anywhere I go for the next 2-3 months I'm going to be gifting them out, so pull them out of the fridge now and put them aside.  We all have things we don't often drink but people bring over/gift to us anyway, so treat that Sour Triple IPA like you would a vanilla-scented candle and re-gift it.

The second sort will be to pull things out that you like, but actually improve with age.  Grab that Baltic Porter, Russia Imperial, and Belgian Quad and stick them on a rack in your basement.  Congratulations, you now have a beer cellar.  

Last, sort out beers you know other people will drink: party beer.  Grab that half case of Dortmunder, those spare bottles of Pilsner, and that four-pack of dry stout and just put them in any fridge (a cold winter garage usually works great, too).  If you keep them cold, they'll be in plenty good shape to offer the next time you have people over (Super Bowl, Academy Awards, whatever).  

Congratulations - you should now have much more room in your fridge!

But that was the easy part.

A Question of Priority

Now you need to decide, among those lucky beers still left, what to drink and when.  We need an order.  Someone's going to be first - someone's going to be last.  And whichever beer ends up last on that list is running a risk, because what we're left with (if you've sorted properly) is mostly beer that, like Val Kilmer, isn't aging well.

Lots of people will give you the "hey, just drink what you want!" line.  OK, maybe.  But I think that if you're really interested in getting the most out of your beer you should take a survey of your fridge and drink them down in this order:

  1. Hop-forward amber beers: as their bitterness and hop flavors fade, their malts (and they're often in the rich, caramel, melanoidin-y camp) are going to become really assertive, and without that bittering/hop flavor to balance it they can come off as being unpleasantly sweet.  You want to get these things off your shelf ASAP - and don't let terminology fool you.  Thinks like English Pale Ales/ESBs are basically amber, and they can go bad in a hurry, leaving you drinking papery butter water. 
  2. Amber lagers: "What?  But they're lagers!  They'll keep forever!"  No, no they won't.  Maybe they won't turn quite as fast as the hoppy ambers, but they'll still trend towards the too-rich.  I also notice that the clean fermentations they're subject to make staling/oxidation flavors a little more obvious, too.  
  3. IPAs: Usually, time is a "muting" actor on the flavor of IPAs, so they have a little more staying power.  They lose that super-bright hop flavor pretty quickly (2-3 weeks?), but after that it's a slower trip down during which you still taste the hops, just not as prominently.  They'll be fine for a while.  Time hurts - but doesn't kill - most of them.
  4. Pale Hoppy non-IPAs: So, American Pale Ales, American wheat beers, etc.  They don't have as much hop character to trade off as time goes by, but at the same time they tend to taste just fine without it since they're often a bit lower in alcohol and darker/richer malts, so the worst case is that you end up with a generically grainy beer.  Most will hold up just find for a couple of months.
  5. Light Belgians: Saison, Witbier and the like have some great survivability, in part because there's so much going on in their flavor profiles. You have hops, esters, grain, and even if there's a slight infection a bit of tartness/acidity isn't really a deal-breaker.  At our homebrew club's 100th meeting we popped open an eight-year-old Saison that was our first group brew, and it was still pretty good!  Long story short, even though their flavors will change over time, it doesn't seem to devolve into something that's unpleasant to drink.  But since they're a little lower in alcohol than their Belgian Strong cousins, they're a little more time-sensitive since their oxidation will just taste papery/metallic, not that cool sherry note you get in stronger beers that oxidize.
  6. Everything Else: Most other non-strong beers (I'm thinking of hoppy browns, stouts, sours, German wheats, etc.) keep and drink pretty well, even with some significant age on them.  German Hefe, even old and stale, is still perfectly drinkable.  A hoppy brown ale will probably have enough residual roast to keep it from being cloying.  Pilsner will always work as a simple light malt showcase even if its hops fade.  You can save these for last.

Drink with a Purpose

In a perfect world, we'd always drink what we want, when we want it, and it would always be in great shape.  That's never going to happen, though - so set yourself up for success and give your beer its best shot at making you happy.  Make your beer choices with a purpose.

And as one final tip?  Go the "Wedding Feast at Cana" route - if folks are already a little tipsy (you included), drink the beers that aren't doing so hot.  You'll mind it a lot less.

Keep it simple.