10 Simple Beer & Brewing Resolutions for 2018

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Happy New Year, gang!  2017 was an excellent beer year, and I managed to keep (almost) all of my resolutions.  I didn't have more than one of any beer (a habit that's proving surprisingly difficult to break, but some pitcher-ed Miller Lite at a bowling alley helped), tried a number of new beer bars (rather than just tap rooms at breweries), made a (passable) perry, and I would have gone back to my least-favorite brewery to try out their beer but (I swear this is true) they closed two weeks before I'd planned on going.  

So, what's on tap for 2018?

10. Drink Around the State, Country, and World

As noted last week, this year's beer challenge will be to see what percentage of PA counties, US states, and countries in the world I can "visit" via their beer.  Should be fun, especially when the "easy" places are checked off of the list!  Just the other day I ordered an IPA from a brewery in Wyoming, because when you're looking at a state with fewer residents than South Philly, you'd probably be wise to take that beer where you can find it!

9. Brew a "Wet Hop" beer

I've played around with fresh hops, thanks to friends with bumper hops harvests, but I've never specifically brewed a beer exclusively with them and designed for them.  I'm hoping to go mobile with my brewery and do it on-site for maximum freshness.

8. Visit every brewery within 20 miles of home

Some might scoff, but that's a lot of breweries.  Every now and then someone asks me if I've been to a brewery, and I'll say no and ask where it is, and it'll turn out to be within a few seconds of a route I travel regularly.  That's wrong.  I'm not a "drink it because it's local!" guy, but I definitely want to support good breweries - and if I haven't visited, I don't know if they're any good.  

7. Brew with five new yeast strains

There's a fine line between consistency and being in a rut, and just to be sure I'm not doing the latter, I'm going to brew ten batches with five new yeast strains this year.  Preferably strains I'm not in any way familiar with.  But never that Trappist High Gravity yeast - there's something really wonky in there...

6. Empty my beer fridge completely, and start fresh

I swear I have beers and meads in there that I've had for so long I have no idea what's in them and/or I've forgotten what the code on the top means.  I wish I could say it's because I've been deliberately aging them, but I don't want to lie to you.  They're just the ethanol-laced debris at the back of the shelf.  This could be an ugly summer...

5. Replace my Better Bottles

I had this on the list last year.  I just didn't do it.  But the same logic applies: I've still never had an obviously contaminated batch, and I'm worried it's lurking in there someplace...

4. Rebuild my taps and faucets

I've never been especially happy with my tap handles, and I have a couple of new stainless faucets, so I think it's time for a freshening up in the service department!  I have three beautiful new black-gloss painted handles, and I'm looking forward to dressing them up with some magnetic tags to indicate what they're serving.  

3. Get back in the habit of bottling

For some reason, I've gotten out of the habit of bottling up a six-pack of my beers and setting them aside for competitions, which I've always done as a form of quality control.  Kegging is easy, but bottling a little bit isn't that hard, and it's a great way to keep a steady stream of beer evaluation data coming in.

2. Use homebrewed beer to raise money for a good cause

As a member of a homebrew club, I've gladly participated in events where our beer is donated and poured, but I don't think I've ever explicitly used homebrewed beer to raise money for a charitable cause.  Once I figure out if that's legal, I'm going to do it. 

1. Keep writing Beer Simple

I love writing Beer Simple.  I'm grateful to all of you for reading, for your feedback, for your ideas, and for your time.  I know that if it's ever time to stop, you'll let me know.  Since I haven't received any voodoo dolls or horse heads yet, I guess we'll just keep it rolling.  Have a great 2018! 

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Homebrewing Has a Gender Problem

It isn't necessarily craft beer's gender problem, but it's a problem nevertheless. Now, before anyone gets all up in arms (in either direction) let me state at the outset that this isn't going to be an overtly political, or social, or legal commentary.  There won't be (much) psychologizing.  There will be some empirical observation, attempts at logic, and a not-terrifying bit with statistics.  The upshot is that we have a quantifiable gender problem, and there's not much point in denying it - nor even in fighting over it.  We should skip that part and just get right to fixing it.

A word of warning about this week's post: this is a simple problem with (what I think is) a simple solution, but the explanation is a little complicated, because it needs to be.  If you're OK with that, read on - if not, scroll to the last section.  Either way, I hope that everyone reading will take it in the spirit in which it's intended, and that if you're offended that you know I don't mean any offense.  

Disclaimers out of the way, let's get to work.

Defining the Problem

Here's the short version: on the question of sex and beer, we homebrewers are probably getting the conversation wrong.  Tell me if you've read any of these articles lately (they come in lots of different forms, under different titles, and by different authors, but these are the possibly-hyperbolic archetypes):

  • "Blatantly Sexist Beer Names: How Men Use Porn to Sell Beer to Other Men, Insulting and Ignoring Female Drinkers"
  • "Hey, Women Can Brew Too!  Did You Know That?  Here are Spunky Women Who Can (and DO!) Lift Heavy Things!"
  • "Women Drink Craft Beer!  And It Isn't Even All Fruit Beer!," AKA "How to Deal With an Alehole of a Bartender Who Assumes You Don't Know Beer Because You Have Breasts"

Now, while I agree that all of those articles have legitimate and potentially important points to make, I'm not sure that they apply to home brewing or homebrewers.  These are things that seem to be common in the commercial beer world, and while I'm positive there are anecdotal examples, parallels, and analogues in homebrewing (since a lot of sexism is driven by broader outdated and unproductive social norms), I'm not sure that we have these problems on anything like the scale in which we see them in commercial beer.

Why do I say that?

First off, I just don't see it much in the homebrewing world I inhabit.  Now, maybe it doesn't ping for me because I'm a man, so I did some basic research.  Just taking the beer name thing into account, I pulled up the results of the most recent competition in our area, which had more than 750 entries across 30 tables with three winners each - that's a list of 90 beer names.  Of those 90, only one had a name that could even be described as sexual, feminine, or female-related (much less sexist) - "Red Belle."  Which means that there were as many potentially-sexist and maybe-sexual beer names in this competition's results as there were beers named after Ethiopian emperors (A Dark Mild named Haile Selassie - is that racist?).  There were puns - far, far too many puns - but no explicit (or even implicit) sexual references.  I realize this is one limited data set, but if I stroll through the beer section at Wegmans (another limited data set) I come away with images and language that would have passed for near-pornography when I was a child in the long-ago early 1990s.  So maybe there's something to the idea that sex and gender don't drive nearly as much of home brewing culture as commercial beer culture (though as I said, as part of a broader social phenomenon, homebrewing isn't immune from sexism).

And maybe I'm sheltered, or privileged, or naive, but the homebrewers I know (of either gender) are no longer surprised to hear that women can brew beer, too (if they ever were surprised in the first place).  I personally find the parade of, "Hey, look, female brewers!" articles a little insulting to...everyone.  To women because they often come across as patronizing as hell, and to men because they assume that we need to be "learned up" on the idea that brewing is something women have been doing for centuries (and while some may not know it, that doesn't mean that they've been excluding women from brewing and now they'll knock it off).  

Nor do I find that male homebrewers talk down to female homebrewers.  If anything, I find that they're positively twitching with happiness to find female homebrewers, beer judges, and beer enthusiasts in their ranks.

But having said that, I still say we have a gender problem in homebrewing.  Just not this gender problem.  Ours isn't a problem of rampant sexism or discrimination.  We don't as a rule, or as a community norm, exclude women.  But we still have a problem.  

Our problem is one of inclusion.  Or lack thereof, to be more precise.  Before you accuse me of stupidity or contradiction, let me say that there's a difference between "not excluding" and "including."  The absence of formal barriers doesn't make us inclusive.  And it's evident that women are not well-represented among homebrewers on a very basic, quantitative level.

I have three questions.

  1. Whose problem is it, anyway?  Are there not that many female homebrewers because they don't want to and/or don't like beer as much as we do, or is there something that's keeping them out?
  2. Assuming we have a problem, why do we have it?
  3. What might we do about it?

I'm not looking to blame anyone here.  I'm not looking for someone to accuse.  I'm not planning on making any generalizations that aren't supported by at least some data.  I just want to talk about this in a dispassionate way, because this can be a very passionate and emotional issue.  

I hope you'll tell me if you disagree, but I think we have a problem.  

Whose Problem Is It, Anyway?

There are two possible answers to this question. Either women aren't common in homebrewing because women don't want to be homebrewers, or there's something that's inhibiting female participation in homebrewing.  

Let's add some context here.  Women represent something like 4-7% of homebrewers (American Homebrewers Association, 2013; 2015).  My own surveys and those of other homebrewing publications, conducted periodically for homebrewing articles or activities, show that between 2-9% of respondents were female, which is consistent with an overall "female participation rate" in the mid-single digits.  So there aren't many female homebrewers out there.

Why not?

When I was president of Stoney Creek Homebrewers, I conducted our initial "meet and greet" interviews for prospective members.  I probably did just over 120 of these in seven years, and literally every one was me speaking to a man who had contacted our club.  The only women I saw were part of couples, and they were rare enough.   One of the first questions I always asked was "what got you interested in homebrewing?"  Our Average Joe brewer profile usually came down to three common denominators.  

First, Joe liked good beer (no-brainer).  Second, Joe almost always either cooks (amateur or professional) and/or works in science.   And third, Joe wanted a social experience - brewing is fun, but brewing and tasting and evaluating with a group is even better.

So, a love of beer and an interest in the culinary/scientific and a social interaction.  Simple enough to define our population of prospective homebrewers.  If they're true for Joe, they should also be true for Jane.

Do women love beer?  Yes.  At least, some of them certainly seem to.  As of a couple of years ago when the BA released a study of "who drinks craft beer" (2014), 15% of all craft beer was consumed by women aged 21-34 alone (as in, just that demographic by itself - not "alone" alone, at least I don't think so).  That right there would suggest that as women constitute a sizable minority of craft beer drinkers, then they should constitute a sizable minority of homebrewers.  But maybe they're not getting into brewing because they don't fit the other profile elements.

Do women engage in science and/or cooking?  Yes, they do.  About a quarter of STEM jobs are held by women (Department of Commerce) - lower than desired, but still more than enough to show robust female interest in the sciences (especially when we consider the percentage that hold science degrees but don't work in the field).  Do women enjoy cooking?  Yes, they do.  35% of enrollees at the Culinary Institute of America in 2012 were women.  Are women social?  Yes, of course they are; like men, they are - to quote Aristotle's Politics - "political animals" who value social interaction as part of the human experience.

So whose problem is it?  I don't see any evidence that homebrewing as a hobby is inaccessible to women, nor that they're hostile to it - indeed, we have good evidence that a substantial proportion of women enjoy craft beer, and thus should make up a comparable proportion of craft brewers.  But they're not.  We under-yield on female homebrewers by comparison to the proportion of female beer lovers.

So why so few female homebrewers?  I think the answer is in that "social" part.  

From here on, I'm going to do some speculating, so bear with me.  I welcome and encourage disagreement and debate, and this is just one perspective (though being a social scientist and the author, I obviously think it's a defensible one).

Why We Have a Gender Problem

As I see it, we have two principle problems.  The first is cultural, and the second is social-psychological - and they're mutually reinforcing.  

The culture of homebrewing can be quite gender-specific simply owing to the overwhelming preponderance of men in the hobby.  We can also state without too much risk that men and women exhibit different behaviors, especially in groups.  As a young homebrew club, we often scheduled events that were barely one step removed from college-era pub crawls by a gaggle of scraggly men, with all of the boisterousness and shenanigans that accompanies such events (that poor stuffed cow will never be the same again, and I think one of our members is still banned from Canal Street Pub).  But even that might not be the biggest problem (since many of the women I know can get pretty rowdy themselves, to the point that I'm looking at my watch and wondering when I can head home for a late dinner and some House Hunters International).  No, I think the real issue is the gender homogeneity itself.  

In other words, because we have such a dearth of gender diversity, we run the risk of not getting gender diversity.  This lack of diversity becomes its own gender repellant.  A female homebrewer walking into a homebrewing event would almost certainly have an immediate visceral reaction to the homogeneity of gender in the room.  To quote an overheard comment at the National Homebrewers Conference in 2013, "There's a whole lot of 'dude' in here."  

That kind of immediate and obvious identity homogeneity may well be strong enough to discourage female participation in the hobby.  We all like to find our "niche" in a community, usually by identifying with a sub-group within it (see Blackwell's Handbook of Social Psychology or the literature on voter decision-making for more details).  You've all been to school - you know how that goes.  You want to find your "people."  And when attempts at "clustering" fail that first and easiest test using common superficial heuristics like gender, that failing can be more than sufficient to cause prospective group members to "roll off" and simply withdraw from that community.  

That's my theory.  Our "Gender Problem" begins simply enough: we need more female homebrewers in order to attract more female homebrewers.  How many more?  Hard to say.  When the first female cadets were enrolled in 1976 at West Point, a theretofore all-male institution, consultants that had overseen the integration of other institutions recommended at least 10% female enrollment to allow for a sufficient "support network."  If it's good enough for the US Army, it's good enough for me.

But if we accept that only about 5% of homebrewers are female, that means we need to double the number of female homebrewers to alleviate what might be the problem.

That's a significant challenge.  So how do we do it?

Fixing Our Gender Mismatch

There are more women who fit the profile of a "typical" homebrewer than actually homebrew.  In other words, we have a mismatch between how many women we would expect to see in homebrewing and how many are evident within the hobby.  That mismatch is what I would call our "Gender Problem."  Beyond even that terminology, though, it can't be a bad thing to increase the number of homebrewers, and since we're over-representing men, then maybe we should focus on some gender diversity.

Note that I'm not talking about "parity."  I don't know if you'll ever see a 50/50 gender split in beer and brewing.  That's not what we've been discussing, though.  We've been discussing how to alleviate a potential demographic barrier that's potentially causing would-be brewers to bail out - where it goes from there is beside the point.  Logic would dictate that some kind of equilibrium would be reached, and it doesn't have to mean perfect gender balance.  

If we accept that it would be a good thing to expand the number of women in homebrewing, then the only question is how we do it.  There are two options that I want to address - and somewhat discourage - right out of the gate.

First, I don't think the answer is for every male homebrewer to bring his significant other into homebrewing.  For one thing, it could be construed as being paternalistic as hell.  The idea that women need a man's helping hand to get into brewing has a strong whiff of benevolent sexism to it.  Nothing in the theory I've been discussing says that women are incapable of getting into homebrewing, just that they may not actually want to given the community profile.  So they don't need our help. Also, there's already ample evidence that we've been trying to address this problem in this way, and it hasn't worked: the AHA survey cited earlier found that about 4% of homebrewers were women, but that as many as 30% of male homebrewers brewed at least some of the time with their female partner.  Despite that, there are precious few female brewers about.  And let's not forget that for some people, brewing is escapism, like golf of gardening or yoga.  There are some things you do to get away from everyone, including your significant other. For many men, that's homebrewing.  Consequently, I don't think a male-led effort is the answer.

Second, I'm also not sold on the "all-female" homebrewing clubs and organizations as a way to address this problem.  While I don't object to them on principle (brew with whomever you want, however you want!), I don't think that they're ever going to be numerous enough to grow female homebrewing participation rates more broadly within the homebrewing community.  They also, as noted earlier, can inadvertently perpetuate the idea that women brewing is somehow a novel or radical idea, when it's anything but.

I think the answer is this: if you're a female homebrewer, recruit one other female you know who likes to cook or grooves on science (and who isn't already related to a brewer) into the hobby, and then encourage her to join a homebrew club (especially if it's also yours).  This solution has a number of virtues going for it.

First, it's a female-led effort to encourage female participation in homebrewing.  It short-circuits the lack-of-fit problems that the male-dominated demographic environment might create, since our prospective homebrewing female beer geek is being encouraged to jump in by another woman, which demonstrates not only that women do this, but also that she wouldn't be doing it alone.

Second, it solves our numbers problem in one fell swoop: this would double the number of female homebrewers immediately.  

Third, the inclusion in homebrew club life both provides an immediate community of homebrewers to engage with and also diversifies that homebrew club a bit more by gender, which should yield more "walk-in" female members, especially if your website and social media feature lots of photos of a diverse club.

And last, it creates and/or preserves a sense of mission and gender identity without making it all about gender.  Yes, the mission is greater diversity.  But it's also about expanding the hobby.  Win, win.

Odd Man Out

What made me think of this?  My wife's book club.  I read like mad - it's the insomnia plus the academia.  I read all the time. I take baths so I have an excuse to read.  My Kindle is hot to the touch (fittingly).  I love books.  I love bookstores (when you can find them anymore - my favorite, a place in Wayne, PA, just had PILES of books in no discernible order.  I'm going to miss that place).  

And yet I was never invited to join her book club.  I wasn't excluded, but neither was I included.

Now that wouldn't have stopped me from forming my own, or just reading on my own and commenting on books in forums and message boards.  But that's not the point.

I might even have asked about joining her club...but it was all women.  When they have their rotating meetings at our house, I stay out of sight, for the most part.  No one ever said I wasn't allowed in, or that it wasn't meant for me or men.  But I didn't feel like it was for me.  And let's not forget that that's without an entire commercial book industry blasting advertising showing ripped men in underwear reading books in sexy locations, being objectified by female librarians.  I think there's an object lesson there.

Yes, we have a gender problem.  No, it isn't the same as the commercial beer gender problem.  Yes, we should still address it.  No, this might not be the whole answer, and certainly not the whole solution.

But it can't hurt.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

[For those who literally scrolled to the end, here's the short version: more women dig beer than brew beer, a reason might be because homebrewers are more than 90% men, this might give an impression that it's FOR men, and as a result we need female brewers to invite another woman to learn to brew if they like beer.  Thank you for your attention.]

 


I Don't Want to Open a Brewery (And Maybe You Shouldn't Either)

If you brew beer, it's only a matter of time before you get this question: "So, when are you opening a brewery of your own?"  For me, there's a simple (of course) answer: "Never."  

I feel like this is the homebrewer equivalent of "So, when are you two newlyweds going to have kids?"  Yes, I brew beer.  No, I may not actually want to open a brewery. One doesn't necessarily follow from the other.  And this isn't because I'm looking down my nose at professional brewers - quite the opposite, in fact.  Professional brewing, owning a brewery, and operating a business in a shockingly competitive environment just sounds like a hell of a lot more effort than I'm personally willing to put into it, and I have a profound degree of respect for those who do.  

But there's another reason: I honestly don't think I'm good enough.  Homebrewing isn't professional brewing.  Winning ribbons isn't the same thing as winning customers.  And maybe that nice feedback you get from your friends is more a combination of "alcohol" and "free" and "manners" than it is evidence of your brewing and business prowess.  

So no, I do not want to open a brewery - and maybe you shouldn't, either.

It's not You - It's Me

A cliche, perhaps, but sometimes cliches are cliches because they're frequently true.

A few years back, a friend of mine and I were discussing a prize at our club's homebrew competition: it was the chance to be "Brewer for a Day" at the brewery that my friend had recently started working for.  

I commented that I couldn't see why anyone would want that prize.  My friend, justifiably, took a bit of offense at my reaction, since it seemed to suggest that what he was now doing for a living wasn't worthwhile, or interesting, or satisfying.  I was mortified - what I said could clearly be interpreted that way, but it wasn't at all what I meant.

I meant that what brewers do is remarkably challenging and difficult.  Yes, I like my little homebrewing setup, but I also make it as easy as I can.  Working a real brewery sounded like, well, work!  To me, this sounded like an invite to be a firefighter for a day just because I like to blow out birthday candles, or to train like Michael Phelps for a day just because I like to take a five-minute swim in the ocean.  Simply put, I'm content to leave professional brewing to the professionals - and to happily pay money to buy what they produce.

So do I want to open a brewery?  No.  No, I don't.

Yes, in many ways it's a wonderful occupation and a gratifying way to spend your day.  But it's also one that demands (not requests) a very high level of commitment, sacrifice, and skill - and success is far from guaranteed.  So call me lazy if you want to, but I won't be hanging out my brewing shingle any time soon.

And then there's the customers.  Now, I'm on record - repeatedly - saying/writing that beer people are collectively a wonderful community of some of the best people on Earth from all walks of life.  But we also know that, well....this.  Owning a brewery also means subjecting yourself to potentially unfair and under-educated and often-mean-spirited evaluations of your work in a way that most occupations never have to deal with.  That takes some seriously thick skin, and in addition you know that many of those less-than-supportable-opinions ("Their beer is too hoppy and not bitter enough") are costing you dollars that your family, employees, and community would benefit from.  That's a rough road to walk.  And while I'm in many ways a very confident person (too much so, according to at least one troll-fan of the blog), I think that over time the criticism would really get to me.

What about the idea of being my own boss and making my own hours and making my own living?  Yes, those are attractive elements.  Plus I get to drink beer all day.  That all sounds great, and I'm not opposed to hard work - after all, no one works harder than someone who works for him/herself - but I also know that there's a price to be paid for all that work.  I might be willing to take that leap anyway, but there's another caveat: the ultimate measure of my success isn't purely the quality of my work product, but how that product is received by others.  That might be a bitter (no pun intended) pill to swallow.

You have to have a lot of respect for brewers (and I do): they're doing a very tough job in a very tough environment with arguably invisible and variable targets that will determine the fate of their families and friends and employees.  Taking that on takes real guts and passion.  

Which isn't to say that I'm a gutless, apathetic coward (I hope).  I know a lot of people who would rather dip their genitals in acid than stand in front of a group of students five times a day and talk about politics.  Lots of people wouldn't ever want to write, or build furniture, or teach, and would be content to let others take on those tasks.  Likewise, I just don't hit that level of passion for brewing beer, however much I love beer and brewers.  And I think that's OK.

Maybe you do - but I still think you ought to reconsider opening that brewery.

It's Not You - Wait, Actually, Yes, it IS You...

Not all of you.  Some of you either are (or could be) outstanding brewery owners and professional brewers.  You might have prepped, trained, saved, and planned this for years.  You all can skip to the bottom.

[Waiting for those folks to scroll by.......OK, they're gone.]

Now that it's just us, let me say that I'm not passing judgment on you.  This isn't me sitting enthroned in wisdom and God-like power, dispensing brewery leases and business loans and liquor licenses.  I'm just saying that I've been to a lot of new breweries (and they keep popping up - I'm doing a "new brewery tour" of the Philly region this spring as soon as the semester ends!).   A lot of these new breweries fall flat and/or produce average-or-worse products, and when they do I'm seeing a lot of overlap in their narratives.  It seems like they're making a lot of the same errors.  I'm hearing a lot of the same statements.  There's a common set of threads that have come to set off warning bells in my head whenever I hear/read/see them.  So this might all be wrong, but if any of this sounds like it applies to you, then maybe you ought to rethink your brewery plans.

Homebrewing only marginally prepares you for professional brewing.  It's kind of like the difference between flying a model airplane and piloting an actual Cessna (and given the "I totally homebrewed for a year" qualifications I see at some breweries, it might even be the difference between flinging a paper airplane and flying a 777).  You'll know that basic process, some of the biology/chemistry/physics, and a bit about beer evaluation.  But that's a far cry from being qualified to produce and evaluate beer that you're going to sell.  This isn't a question of linear scaling.  At larger volumes you're introducing all kinds of new variables to the brewing process, and those are going to change your beer.  This is going to take some humility and a hell of a lot of willingness to learn and adapt.  If the only training you're counting on to guide you in this endeavor is some time (even a lot of time) as a homebrewer, making 5- or 10-gallon batches, then there's a good chance that you're wildly optimistic about what it is you think you're bringing to the table.  

Your brewery isn't going to be unique.  This isn't the 1980s.  Hell, it isn't even the 2000s.  Whatever the plan is for your special, unique snowflake of a brewery is, I can pretty much guarantee that there are already breweries doing it.  "We're going to produce nothing but authentic Belgian farmhouse beers, but with a modern twist."  Got it.  So is everyone else.  "We're going to make extreme beers that push the limits of your definition of 'beer' and totally blow your mind."  Got it.  That ship already sailed.  "We're going to use hops in ways that totally redefine IPA."  I'm not even going to bother with that one.  The short version is this: with nearly 5,000 craft breweries in the US today, there's nothing new under the sun anymore (and get that beer out of the sun, anyway).  So you're going to need to do it better, not just differently.

You might not be that good.  Remember, most of the time we're getting a heavily biased information flow on our beer.  Don't trust that feedback.  It's one thing to have people go back to the tap again on your beer when it's free - it's quite another to get people to pay for it.  Even if your friends, family, and beer-competent associates are sincere in their praise, you still might not be up to the challenge of succeeding in what might be the most hyper-competitive beer market in history.  Being good isn't good enough.  You need to be better than those that are already out there and have been at it for longer than you.  This is going to take a realistic assessment of your current and future skill and creativity, not just a sense that people like the free beer you give them.

Brewing is an activity - but beer is a business.  Marketing.  Legal.  Payroll.  Licensing.  Distribution.  HR.  Health Codes.  Accounting.  Quality Control.  Taxes.  Customer Relations.  Does all of that sound like fun?  Because any one of them (and more) could sink your brewery no matter how good your beer is and/or how hard you work.  The best breweries I know started with competent brewers who were also business jacks-of-all-trades that could keep the curtain up long enough to make some money and hire experts to get their business to the next level.  You don't want to jump into this with the idea that all that it takes is learning to use your new larger-scale brewery to make good beer.

This is all, admittedly, just a layperson's perspective, but I've known, overheard, interviewed, and observed a lot of new brewery owners over the past several years.  Some are succeeding despite their individual limitations - but a lot are struggling and/or failing because of them, too.  Maybe you'll get lucky.  Maybe you'll be able to fix things on the fly.  But if it were me, I don't want this to come down to luck, and at least one local brewery recently went under because they were doing a little too much learning "on the job" and ran out of money before they could get things back on track.  Don't let it happen to you.  You might never get another shot at this, so make it a good one.

Be it Before you Do It

The next step in any piece of this type would be to lay out a plan for you to help you succeed as a new brewery owner.  We have a problem here, though: I don't own a brewery so I have no idea what I'm talking about.  I can guess, though.  So take all of this with a big grain of Burton salt, and read on at your own risk.  Here's what I'd offer as advice, again, based on an observation of successful new brewery owners in their natural environment.

If you want to be a professional, then be a professional.  That might sound like neo-mystic, self-help bulls**t, but it's not.  If you're going to put it out there that you're a "professional brewer," then Step One shouldn't be, "Open a Brewery."  You should build to that.  How?

First, get some professional brewing training, or at least some professional brewery experience.  It's mildly insulting to professional brewers that you think there's "no difference" between your hobby brewing and their professional brewing.  Get out there and up your skill base and broaden your experience before you start to seriously consider opening your own place.  Of course there are stories of successful brewers who jumped straight in and haven't had a day of formal training or other professional experience - just like there are lots and lots of stories about actors or athletes who "never considered doing anything else, even when everyone told them how long a shot it was."  You hear those stories because you're selecting on the dependent variable - in other words, you're only talking to people who have already succeeded.  They're probably the exception, not the rule.  You're not hearing from the many, many failed actors, musicians, athletes, and brewers who make up the statistical bedrock.  Even if it isn't necessary, it's almost certain that getting the experience won't hurt, right?

Second, get some business education.  Just like brewery knowledge is valuable, so is information about the non-brewing elements of your business.  This is true even if you have a partner that's running that side of the shop - even more so, in fact.  Do you know how common it is that people are screwed over (deliberately or not) by business partners?  You might think, "Oh, that wouldn't happen to me - we're like family."  Right.  But the thing is that we only get really screwed over by people we trust.  Otherwise, those people wouldn't be in a position to screw us.

Third, get used to hearing nonsense about your beer and brewery - because you need to hear it.  Their opinions may make no sense at all, but they're going to form part of the atmosphere and reputation of your brewery.  It's not practical or desirable to tune it out completely, and you're going to have to figure out how to make it work for you while not letting it get under your skin.  Once you're more-established then maybe you can hew to what a particularly-blunt brewer-friend of mine says: "Just make good f***ing beer."  But in the early days, you're going to need that feedback, and getting it is going to mean dealing with some absurdity.

And last, have a plan.  I tell everyone who asks (and many who don't) that with a good plan you can do almost anything.  Some subscribe to the "fly by the seat of your pants and make it up as you go" school of thought, but that seems both unnecessarily risky and awfully cavalier when what's at stake is your reputation, financial future, and career.  I love a good plan.  I don't even care if it doesn't work out - that's not the point of it.  The point of a plan is to force yourself to consider the details, permutations, and goals of any enterprise.  Once you have some real-world data to compare to your goals, you can see where you're off and begin to answer the "why?" and "does it matter?" questions.  That's worth a lot.  In my life it has often meant the difference between success and failure, and I've never been sorry to have worked out a plan in advance, no matter how much it differed from the subsequent reality.  My mother-in-law likes the saying, "Man plans, God laughs."  Fine.  But as Ken Follett writes in The Pillars of the Earth, "pray for miracles - but plant cabbages."  You can be willing to be lucky or blessed, but it's not something to rely on.

It's almost certainly never going to be me on the receiving end of this advice, since I don't want to open a brewery.  But if you do, I feel confident saying that this advice won't hurt you.  And let's not forget that I might be completely wrong and a victim of confirmation bias, a lack of perspective, and/or a deficit of information.  If I ever did open a brewery, though, this is the kind of stuff I would do.  Not that I ever will.   

To those who are going to go ahead and take the plunge: good luck, and I hope to taste some of your beer soon.  

Or not.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Craft Beer and its Discontents: Freud Meets Papazian

Freud had it at least partly right: there's something in humans that rebels against conformity, and civilization often requires the restriction of individual desires for the common good.  In that sense, attempts to quantify, define, and order the craft beer world often seems like an attack on those who believe that world is characterized by its individuality, uniqueness, and creativity.  The committed craft beer...enthusiast, shall we say, rails against attempts to "civilize" beer, while others see it as a sign of sophistication and maturity.  On the other hand, those who are attempting the "civilizing" often overplay their hand and come off not as benevolent devotees but as killjoys and martinets.

So which is it?  Freud and the need for order, even at the expense of individuality?  Or Papazian and "Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew"?  

Both sides have a point.  But at the end of the day, I tend to think that we need order more than ever, lest we lose control of the beer train.

"The Death of Craft Beer"

There has been no shortage of commentary lately on the "death" of craft beer.  Whether it's because of the encroachment of "big beer" into craft beer circles via "crafty" labels or buyouts, the growth of craft beer pioneers into almost-big-beer-sized producers, or just a dying notion that "beer" connotes tasteless, fizzy, yellow lager and something else demands another name.  Whatever the cause, the notion that the term "craft" means anything is going away.

But if craft beer isn't going to be a distinct "thing" anymore, then we need a new paradigm.  While some in the laissez-faire camp would argue that all that matters is whether beer tastes good or not, that's not going to satisfy the very people that fostered, promoted, and grew the craft beer movement for the rest of us.  Why?  Because something about "craft" beer went beyond flavor: yes, it tasted better than "big" beer, but that was just a manifestation of the larger defining feature.

"Craft" means a lot of different things to people, but most would probably agree that it indicates a degree of care and commitment to the final product, not just to the bottom line that it serves.  Yes, even craft brewers want to make money, but they're not willing to sacrifice the quality of the product to do it.  And they're willing to bet that we'll all pay a little more to drink something worth drinking.

If the term "craft" goes away, then we need something to define our choices.  As much as it pains me to write it (for reasons I'll get into in a second), I think we need to start talking in terms of "independent" beer.  

For a long time, I've been a big proponent of what one might call the "drink what you like" mentality.  If Michelob Light floats your boat, then fine.  If you want nothing but Cantillon, then God bless you (and your bank account).  But I also recognize that there is a substantial amount of validity to the idea that "craft beer" was much more about the value of community, principled business, and devotion to ideals than it was about just making something that tasted better than mass-production light lagers.  For that reason, as high (or at least higher) quality beer is now coming out of those same profit-motivated big brewing corporate behemoths, we can't just rely on notions of quality or craft anymore: we need to stake out definitions.

Many beer people want to base their purchasing decisions on who/what that purchase is supporting.  Even if a bought-out brewery is still producing high-quality beer, a share of that purchase price is going to support an organization that the purchaser might find distasteful.  So for that reason, a change of banners is in order.  I want people talking about "independent" brewing - even if "craft" has outlived its usefulness as a defining characteristic, we shouldn't abandon the idea that not all breweries have the same motives, even if they're producing similar products.  "Independent" captures the idea that some breweries support a community of beer people (or just people, when those breweries are active community supporters!), not just a bottom line or stock price.  

It's a distinction with a difference - and it doesn't require you to disparage the taste or quality of other beers as a price of admission.  Let quality speak for itself, but let's acknowledge that quality alone isn't why we bought craft beer in the first place.

A Question of Style

Likewise, we have some who consider the idea of defining beer styles to be revolting.  I won't rehash it too much (since I just wrote about this), but it deserves a mention here.  There's a lot of beer out there today.  I recognize that, being in Philadelphia, I live in a blessed beer market with an astonishing array of local, regional, and international options.  But even in places that are less fortunate and don't regularly end up with exotic and esoteric beers, the options are still plentiful and growing.

For that reason, we need beer styles.  Otherwise, we'd go insane.

As I wrote about two weeks ago, no one is saying that beer style definitions need to constrain and constrict brewers (and if those definitions are trying to, then they're doing a piss-poor job of it - it's plenty unconstrained out there!).  But brewers: give us a starting point.  A reference.  A discriminating factor.  Otherwise, it's going to be a mass of confusion, and that's not going to help you (or us) at all.

Look: I'm a trained taster.  A BJCP Grand Master, Certified Cicerone, culinary fanatic.  I once wrote on a judging score sheet that a beer's aroma reminded me of Captain Crunch on a beach at sunset sitting next to a topless Polynesian lass (or words to that effect - pretentious as hell, I know, but I always advise judges to write the first thing that comes to mind, and I was wrapping up a 12-mead flight and was probably a little tipsy).  And I'm telling you something: WE ALL NEED A POINT OF REFERENCE when we're tasting.  

If you gathered together a group of trained palates and asked them to identify beer styles from random samples with no knowledge, they'd still struggle to get them right, and I'd go so far as to say they'd get more incorrect than correct.  Giving us a style reference means that we're primed to look for and detect certain flavors, and thus can do so more effectively.  Does that create a risk of bias?  Of course it does.  If you tell me a beer used Grape Nuts in the mash, I might be tricking myself into detecting a "cereal" quality.  But it's a small price to pay to avoid the thought-bubble filled with question marks that you'd get if you don't give people that jumping off point.

And if we're going to have style names, then we need definitions.  They don't need to be all that specific: but we still need them.

To the uber-free spirits out there, all I can say is this: deal with it.  Maybe you're not in need of them, but a whole lot of other people are.  Take one for the team.  The friction between the freedom of beer as a creative culinary endeavor and the necessity for order is one that has to be tolerated if we're going to let everyone get the most out of what they're drinking.

A Place for Beauty

Despite all of this, there's one area where I'm going to err on the side of the fancy-free: the almost unbearable creativity of brewers.  

Beers - even within style definitions - are increasingly a kaleidoscope of unusual ingredients, processes, fermenting agents, and presentations.  They run the range from super-light (try Great Divide Samurai Rice Ale) to the astonishingly intense and specialized (consider Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company's Leon - a Russian Imperial Stout with graham crackers, marshmallow, and baker's chocolate).  And that's fine.

Will it confuse the hell out of some people?  Yes.  Will some hanker for the days when the tap lists had a great collection of flavorful and simple beers?  Yes (including this blogger).  Will some say that beer has gotten too esoteric, weird, and affected?  Yes.  

But that's fine.  Music, cinema, literature, and every other art form has its avant-garde elements, too, and are all the richer for it.  Why not us?

Ironically, we can turn back to Freud for a defense of this view.  As he notes in Civilization and Its Discontents:

"Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.” 

So let the lunatic, lover, and poet run riot in your brewery.  There's always time to brew that simple beer, and I, for one, believe that we'll always trend back towards the profoundly simple, but in the meantime don't worry about breweries that are pushing their boundaries, and don't fear pushing yours.  You'll likely come away with beautiful memories, and maybe beautiful beers.

Moving On

There's a great scene in Defending Your Life when Rip Torn is explaining to Albert Brooks' character that, if he's judged worthy, he'll "move on," to whatever's next for him in the universe.  That's telling, because in that movie you're deemed worthy of it if you've lived a life free from fear.  But to show you have, you need to demonstrate that lack of fear as part of a trial, with judges and advocates, with order and rules - in other words, with civilization.  Freedom demonstrated through process; not a bad construct.

The ordering of the beer world is a necessary evil.  It invites conflict and struggle, disagreement and discord, but it is also a vital component of the logical progression of beer from the post-Prohibition dark ages into the post-Craft Beer Renaissance.

Don't fight it - but don't forget to maintain the spirit of creativity and joy that made it necessary, either.  On that, I'm sure Freud and Papazian could readily agree.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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Certifiable: Beer Classification, Evaluation, and Certification

You may not know this, but you're wearing a beer and brewing straitjacket.  It has one purpose: to make your beer, whether brewed or purchased, boring and common.  It goes by many names.  It's called beer classification, or a style guide, or a defined historical beer style - but you know what I call it?  Being in league with the anti-creative beer devil.  ABV 6.66%.  Beerelzebub.  A dark force that makes you brew over and over again with the world's least creative yeast (Saccharomyces Luciferensis).  Its minions command a legion of beer snobs and uptight beer demons branded with the mark of their master: a beer glass and four cryptic letters (B...J...C...P...chills), or a disembodied hand bearing a soulless flute of dead ale and the name of what is probably a necropolis buried deep beneath the Vatican (it's something like....Cicerone?).

And these people are out to ruin your beer fun and slap those brewing cuffs on you.  Want to add some fennel to that Saison?  Hell no, chief - let's just put down the fragrant flowering plant bulb and back away.  Considering fermenting that Pilsner with a traditional ale strain? Pitch it and die.  Go ahead - make my day...  Pondering an imperial Berliner Weisse?  That's it, crazy eyes - into the back of the Style Guide patrol car.  As they lead you away, no doubt quoting the Reinheitsgebot and/or humming "Deutschland uber Alles," you'll realize that you never should have even considered such a travesty.

Right.  Or not.

If you believe half of what you read on the internet about the organizations that try to define and classify beer, you'd believe what I just wrote.  But the reality is that this fear of beer classification (and those who seek to - dare we say it - judge beer) is both deeply irrational and in no way a threat to beer's diversity or creativity.  And if you stare into the depths of the BA style guidelines, your face isn't going to melt off like that Nazi at the end of Raiders - you'll just shrug, walk away, and continue to brew what you want, taking what you just read into account, or not.

Classification is helpful and useful as an informational shortcut for brewers and drinkers.  Evaluation of beer is simple if you want it to be, and can be done by anyone.  Certification isn't some path to an exalted plane of beer nirvana, it's just a way to demonstrate a minimum level of competence in a certain brewing-related activity.  And all of this does nothing to limit brewing creativity.  So let's talk about it.

A Rose by Any Other Name...

I spent about an hour the other day trying to nail down someone's objection to beer guidelines.  The thrust of the argument was that because guidelines provide definitions for beer and beer styles, it hampers creativity.  How?  Well...I don't know, but one day, because we have these guidelines, breweries might want actual LAWS passed that protect certain style names and require they be brewed in a specific way, or in a specific place, or with a specific ingredient, and pretty soon all you have is a few styles of beer that never change and are held in place by hidebound LAWS that never let us be creative - or so it was argued.

That, my friends, is the very definition of a "slippery slope" fallacy.  The individual in question was irate because this was his/her interpretation of what happened in France with wine, and that it was inevitable that the same would happen in the US  and elsewhere with beer.  See, I like to think that we're smarter than that.  I don't envision the day ever coming when a brewery can't make an English Pale Ale with German hops, because a law was passed that says English-style beers must be brewed with English hops. But let's say we're dumb.  And that law has been passed.  So what?  The brewer calls it something else and continues to brew it.  Done.

In the meantime, we get to take advantage of the good that guidelines do.  They make it more likely you're satisfied by your beer choices.  They make it possible to at least attempt to objectively compare and evaluate beers.  And they educate you on the history of beer styles, which ingredients often lead to the flavors, and probably even inspire you to brew or drink something new (to you).

Classification isn't there to inhibit you - it's there to help you.  And it's unavoidable, by the way.

We name things.  We group things.  Once we do, we create expectations about what that group label means.  And we do that because we're trying, maybe without appreciating why, to create efficiency in our lives.  If you don't believe me, ask yourself how long it would take you to order a beer if the tap list didn't say things like "IPA" or "Stout" next to the beer name, and instead every one had a paragraph-long description.  And imagine how you'd respond if you ordered "John Smith's White IPA" and got something that looked and tasted like Sinebrychoff Porter - would you say, "my goodness, this is exactly what I expected and wanted when I ordered my White IPA!"  No, you'd have a few obvious questions for the bartender - specifically, whether someone had mislabeled a tap or if they had recently been blinded by someone throwing quicklime in their eyes because this clearly isn't a WHITE IPA.  

The same logic would apply to shopping at your favorite bottle shop or beer store.  You scan the shelves and look at the offerings, and you're reading traditional style identifiers - Pils, Stout, IPA, Kolsch, Sour - sometimes with modifiers (imperial, cherry, dark, etc.).  Those exist to help you get what you want, not to put handcuffs on brewers.  

And let's talk about those handcuffs for a second.  Yes, you can reasonably make the case that assigning parameters to beer might inherently limit brewers.  Maybe they brew within the guidelines to make their beer easier to sell.  Maybe they brew to your expectations instead of their imaginations.  Maybe they follow the herd.  But that's THEIR decision.  It isn't imposed on them by the guidelines.  And I think we can all agree that there's enough of a non-traditionalist vibe among craft beer people that we'll still get plenty of brewers who aren't so prosaic and plenty of drinkers to reward them for it.

Finally, let's talk about whether those handcuffs are handcuffs at all.  Most of the people I know who rail against the BA or BJCP guidelines have never really read them, or are reading WAY too much into them.  Take a look - they're broad as hell, both in terms of the diversity of styles and the way the parameters within this styles are drawn.  And if you've somehow managed to create something that matches no beer that ANYONE has ever made - that's what the open/specialty/experimental categories are for (and some of those have literally NO style parameters).  So if they're handcuffs, they're handcuffs that are so loose that they can be slipped at will.

I'm not willing to eliminate the profoundly useful informational shortcut/heuristic that beer style names/descriptions provide just to avoid a potential slippery-slope towards legal restriction some years down the road.  Let's have that discussion when the issue actually arises, OK?

Simple Beer Evaluation - Know What You Want, and Get It

We've covered this to some extent here before, but as a quick contextual recap, there's a difference between "evaluation" and "judging."  "Judging" is about sensory analysis to a known (and hopefully objective) standard - in other words, comparing what a beer says it is to what we generally expect or know similarly-identified beers to be.  In a perfect world it's a systematic process that allows us to quantify a beer's "fit" with developed norms and (to a lesser extent) its overall quality by identifying any "faults."  And in that context, published guidelines aren't just handy, they're essential, to be sure that we're doing everything we can to judge beer fairly.

But you don't need to judge beer to evaluate it.  You just need to decide what goal you're serving in your evaluation.  Do you want to know whether this is an historically-accurate Gose?  Do you want to decide whether a beer is "too bitter" for your palate?  Are you trying to evaluate a brewery's brewing skill?  Do you just want to know whether you'll order another one?  Because those are all evaluative goals.

You're probably also doing it whether you know it or not.  At a basic level, unless you're drinking just to get drunk, you're evaluating whether the beer is "good" or not.

So if we're talking about consciously evaluating beer, there's a few simple steps you can follow to do it more effectively - whether you use published guidelines to do so or not.

1. Decide what you're trying to ascertain.  It's totally your call.  What do you want to know?  

2. Gather any information you'll need.  At a minimum, I recommend doing a quick read of the brewery's description of the beer, so you have some idea what to expect.  It's exceptionally challenging to pick out flavor elements "blind" - prime your sensory system with a little information and you'll have an easier time working out how well the beer works for you.

3. Drink consciously.  In other words, don't just chug (unless the evaluation is whether you can chug a beer quickly or not).  I always tell people to spend more time sniffing than sipping, since it's easier (to me) to "reset" your nose/olfactory system to keep getting more perceptions - one quick sniff of your own sleeve, and you can jump back in.  You should also, when you get around to sipping, do it with a purpose: one sip for initial/dominant flavor, a second for bittering levels, a third for esters/phenols, a fourth for finish, a fifth for lingering aftertastes, etc.  Trying to sense it all in one gulp is really challenging - by looking for particular elements with each taste, you can pull more out of your sensory experience and increase the odds of meeting your evaluation goals.

4. ALWAYS ask whether you like the beer.  Forget the style, the description, your expectations - did you like drinking it?  Because at the end of the day that shouldn't be overridden by whether it "fit" the style.  Maybe it is too light for a Russian Imperial Stout - but was it "good" in terms of your enjoyment?  If so, that's always worth noting!

None of this requires style guidelines.  None of this is inhibited by it.  You're free to come up with your own rules - you're evaluating, not judging.

But let's talk about those who do...

Certifiable

Becoming a certified beer judge, Cicerone, sommelier or any other such person doesn't make you an expert.  It makes you a certified "whatever."  

It also doesn't necessarily mean you have a superior palate (our friends over at Brulosophy recently weighed in with some data on that), though you might.  It doesn't mean you have the answers on what's "right" or "wrong" about a beer or beer in general, though you might.  It doesn't mean those without the credential are morons, though it might.  What it does mean, usually, is that you passed some series of academic and/or practical assessments and you are now minimally qualified to do whatever that organization says its members can do.  

For BJCP-certified beer judges, that means you're qualified to evaluate beer in a competition setting, communicate your perceptions in writing to the entrant, and assign a score consistent with what other certified judges are likely to produce.  For Cicerones, it means you have knowledge of beer service and quality issues and should be able to address them appropriately.  Other organizations have other goals.  But none of them are seeking to establish global domination and mandate that you brew or drink only what they say.  When they have specific guidelines, they exist to systematize the evaluations they're expecting their members to be able to make, not to limit your brewing or drinking options.  In fact, those guidelines aren't even for you.  They're there to let the organization evaluate, train, and educate their own members.

But since we're on the subject, let's talk about the elephant in the room: yes, some certified beer judges/professionals are certified aleholes.  Sometimes aggressively so.  I still remember my very first turn as a Steward at a brewing competition - it was awful.  I was looking after a table with two of the biggest aleholes you'd ever met.  I was convinced that I wouldn't EVER want to be a beer judge if it meant hanging around people like that - one literally barked "STOP!" at a steward because she removed a bottle cap from the table.   

And these certified aleholes can certainly be unbearable in other situations.  They might tell you that you shouldn't like a beer because "it's clearly riddled with diacetyl - you can feel it, like a slickness on your tongue, and it tastes like movie popcorn butter." Yeah - thanks, d**k.  You know what a lot of people love eating?  MOVIE POPCORN BUTTER.  Let me enjoy my beer.  "You know, you shouldn't pair that beer with sushi because the hop bitterness might overcome the subtle flavor of the amberjack."  Great - I'm just eating here, guy.  I'm not a judge on Top Chef.  

As time went on, though, I found that such people were exceptions, not the rule.  Most, in fact, were very much the opposite - they appreciated beer more because of the work they put into becoming certified.  They were understanding of the challenges of making great beer and worked hard to help people fix it.  They make the beer world a better place because they help brewers identify shortcomings in their process and suggest ways to fix them.  Even when they're overbearing it's because they love beer, and they're trying to help others love beer.

We shouldn't (fittingly or ironically, depending on your experience) judge them too harshly.

The Comforting Embrace of the Straitjacket

Speaking for myself, I like that there are guidelines for beer.  I have my complaints about them - as I'm sure we all do - but those are practical or organizational concerns, not a wholesale anxiety about this notion of classifying beer in the first place.

Published guidelines for beer codify our norms and provide support and guidance.  They aren't constraining - you can always just ignore them.  And for those who worry that it prevents brewers from freely experimenting and stifles them, I'd counter that I brewed a lot of my beers because I read about them in a set of style guidelines first, so that saw can really cut both ways.  

And adding an element of organization and objectivity to beer evaluation is much the same.  You don't need to adhere to it - evaluate your own way, for your own reasons - but isn't it nice to know that we're at least trying to find ways to take the subjectivity out of beer when that's the goal?   

But if you're one of us - and you're certified to judge beer, or identify what are considered faults or mismatches, or recommend corrections or food pairings - then recognize your own limitations, both practically and socially.  Not every scenario calls for your skills.  Your experience in tasting/judging in a systematic way may not mean that you've developed any greater palate sensitivity or sensory skill.  Know your limitations.  Be humble.  

Now, if you're one of those that think we're headed to a new era of beer intolerance and homogeneity, maybe just take a step back and ignore those guidelines entirely.  Don't disparage them (or those who use them) because you're afraid of where they might lead.  In other words, be as tolerant of them as you want them to be of you.  Can't we all just get along?

And when the time comes to fight the New Beer Purity laws, you better believe I'll be right there with you.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Homebrewer Christmas: For the Love of God, Not Another Pint Glass...

Beer Christmas.jpg

It's Cyber Monday, and you've undoubtedly already blown a substantial amount of your net worth on gifts for your friends and family, because you love them so much and...well, enough about that - let's get selfish here.  What are they getting for you?

Fellow brewers, this post isn't so much for you to read as much as it is something for you to share far and wide.  Because this December 25th (or whatever particular winter holiday date you celebrate), I want to help save us all from our perpetual and terrible fate: unwrapping that Guinness holiday gift set with logo pint glasses and bar towel and having to smile (as we die a little inside) and thank the person who gave it to us.

So brewer-adjacent people, I'm talking to you this week.  Follow these guidelines, and your beer geek friend/spouse/sibling/parent/child will thank you.  Ignore them, and St. Arnold of Metz will personally stop by your house this holiday season and shake his head in disappointment at you.

What I Don't Want, Didn't Ask For, and Can't Use

I acknowledge a certain flexibility in tastes and preferences, but I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that virtually no brewer will genuinely enjoy the following gifts...

The Pint Glass

And by this I mean in virtually ANY form.  I suppose that in theory I might appreciate a branded glass from an obscure brewery that evokes a pleasant memory of a great night, but we'd have to be talking one hell of a great night.  As in "Emily-Blunt-feeding-me-bacon-wrapped-dates-while-petting-my-dog-and-watching-the-Eagles-win-the-Super-Bowl-on-Oscar-Night-after-a-day-at-the-spa" great.  Otherwise, I can safely say that your average beer enthusiast has as much use for another pint glass as he/she does for herpes. 

I could go all "Greek celebration" and smash every pint glass I drink out of from now until Rapture, and I'd still probably never run out.

Roughly the same logic applies to beer t-shirts (especially if they say anything about Corona and a "whole new lattitude").

The "Guide to Breweries in [Place]" Book

This is a little uncomfortable because I have friends who have written these, but the reality is that in the modern beer world, they're simply not practical or helpful.  For one thing, that book was out of date about five minutes after it was printed: there are so many new breweries out there, and they're opening all the time, and others are folding up shop.  For another, while I appreciate the input of a dedicated beer geek in terms of evaluating the places in the book, it's hardly the only opinion I want.  Maybe I like modern, and he/she likes rustic.  Maybe the beer has gotten better since the author reviewed it.  Maybe they changed chefs.  Maybe they realized that Black IPA isn't a thing (column coming up on that one...) and decided to focus on locally-sourced beer ingredients.  Anyways, long story short, I have the internet and all that entails.  Buying me a local beer guide is the beer equivalent of buying me a Playboy subscription.

Cutesy Beer Paraphernalia you found at a chain store

I get it - you're walking through Bed Bath & Beyond and see a bottle opener/"I'm here for beer t-shirt" combo pack, and think, "Oh, Tammy likes craft beer and brews - she'll love this!"  No, she won't.  Tammy will think you got taken, and that a fool and his/her money were parted.  If Tammy is so into her hobby (beer) that you're aware of it, then I'm about 99% sure that what she wants isn't to be found on an end cap at Target.  Resist the urge to buy her that Multicolor Beer Goggle Six Pack (awww, they're GOGGLES for BEER BOTTLES!) - she'll thank you (and she doesn't drink beer out of the bottle anyway).

Beer Ingredient Kits

If you're not standing in a homebrew shop surrounded by surly dudes with facial hair, don't buy beer ingredients for me.  I know that Williams-Sonoma has kits that look (and, possibly, are) pretty sophisticated, but there's just as good a chance that you're buying a box of mediocre and stale ingredients that wouldn't make good beer if you doughed in with Westvleteren 12.  You wouldn't buy cigars for someone in that setting, would you?  Or a fancy box of no-cook and ready-to-eat bacon?  The same kind of environmental care is required for beer ingredients, and the shipping department probably isn't all that fastidious when it comes to storing and handling them.

OK Alehole, then what do I buy?

I'm glad you asked.  There are a great many things you can get for the beer geek in your life that will bring a genuine smile to their tipsy face (and why do people look at me funny when I pop open an Oktoberfest at 10AM?  You're drinking mimosas, you judgmental snobs...).  

Atypical glassware

I don't need another pint or pub mug.  But you know what I can sometimes use?  A nice tulip or thistle glass.  Perhaps even (kitschy though it might be) a bierstiefel or "boot" (I already have one though, so not for me).  But you just said not to buy glassware!  No, I didn't.  I said not to buy something every beer person already has dozens of.  But a great gift idea is to find a well-reviewed beer from a particular regional style and then gift a sixer of that and a traditional glass that pairs with it!  That way I can now show off to my beer geek friends that I'm drinking Gaffel Kolsch out of a hand-blown German stangen.  Score.

Beer and Brewing Books

There's a lot of information out there, and beer geeks tend to like learning it!  But the beer internet is a bit soured as a source for sour beer (or any beer) knowledge, so it's nice to get a well-researched and reviewed tome from an expert in the field.  Consider picking up a new title from a place like Brewers Publications, which has a great selection of recipe, style, process, and ingredient books!  Or even a classic like De Clerck's two-volume "Textbook of Brewing". 

Beer

Get me beer.  It doesn't even really matter what kind.  If it happens to be something interesting or rare (this list is a good place to start, though of course it isn't comprehensive or exhaustive), then fine.  Something new and local is great, too, and gives me a chance to check out another local brewery.  But even something run-of-the-mill is still a nice gift - my father-in-law once bought me a six-pack of Boston Lager, and I was more than happy to receive it! 

Quality Brewing Equipment

No joke, you know what's basically the only thing on my Christmas list this year?  A Thermapen.  Because it's the perfect kind of gift: it's a very high-quality item (thermometer, for those who don't know) that costs more than I would part with easily, and I can't justify the expense when I already have a decent thermometer.  But it'd make a GREAT gift!  Talk to the crew at the local homebrew shop about fun and useful toys, and you may find a wonderful gift.

A Cool Brewing Ingredient

Don't know much about beer, but want to encourage your beer-obsessed gift recipient?  Pick her/him up a rare and valuable honey, obscure spice, or exotic fruit and challenge that brewer to make something that lives up to your ingredient.  They'll love the challenge, and you've got something to talk about when the beer is done - and if you're lucky it might even end up named after you.

Homebrew Supply Gift Cards

I hate to say it, because gift cards are kind of a dodge, but most brewers can really use them.  Either they're saving up for an expensive piece of equipment, or they could use a fresh sack of Maris Otter, or it's hop rhizome season - but in any case, an extra bump will almost certainly be appreciated.  $50 buys a full batch of ingredients in most cases, and makes a nice dent in even an expensive capital brewery purchase.  

A Word in Closing

In all sincerity, homebrewers are often very passionate about their hobby, which makes us a tremendous pain in the ass to shop for.  I get that.  And if you do happen to give me a Newcastle Brown Ale t-shirt for Christmas, I'm honestly going to smile and thank you and be touched that you remembered that I'm into beer.

But I'll also die a little inside before nipping off to the bathroom for a hit off of my Sierra Nevada Celebration.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).


Your Beer Sucks (and Other Things Your Friends Won't/Can't Tell You)

Your beer sucks

I’m sorry – but it does.  It’s horrible.  It’s so oxidized I feel like I’m swallowing liquid cardboard.  It’s hotter than Satan’s urine.  It bears NO resemblance to whatever you told me it was (Pilsner?  Really?  Why is it jet black then?).  There’s more bacteria than yeast in it, and it smells like wet goat ass.  When I sniffed it, I was reminded of huffing glue as a teenager (well, not really because I didn’t do that, but you get the idea).  I'm horrified thinking of what this is going to do to my urethra later.

This is the kind of feedback you won’t normally get, even if your beer deserves it.  Outside of a few borderline-cruel and overly-honest people, most of us have a native reluctance to completely blow up your beer in front of your very eyes.  But here’s the thing: a lot of brewers (and I’m not excluding myself) need that from time to time if we’re going to get better and not leave people with the impression that homebrew sucks.[1]

Let’s start with where you don’t get good feedback.

Your non-craft-beer-drinking friends

That friend of yours that just won’t let go of his/her Rolling Rock doesn’t have much to offer to you in terms of feedback.  One of two things usually happens.  One – you get a nondescript, “that’s really good, thanks!” response that carries no real weight because you might just be getting a polite, “leave me alone” answer.  Two – you get negative feedback, but you immediately dismiss it because he/she isn’t a craft beer person.  This is beer snobbery/alehole-ishness, but it’s also kind of a fair response.  In any case, you’re not getting what you need.

Your craft-beer-drinking friends

I know – this one makes a little less sense, but I’m standing by it anyway.  The craft beer enthusiasts in your circle of friends may have a little more breadth and depth in terms of their palates and their experience, but they still don’t necessarily want to tell you that your beer sucks.  You might hear this: “That’s not really my style of beer.”  Or, “that’s really good, but it’s a little too bitter for me.”  These are the beer evaluation equivalents of “It’s not you, it’s me,” and they’re equally as meaningless as that trite phrase is to someone who just got dumped.  And, as above, if they tell you your beer is good, they might just be trying to spare your feelings (and don’t ignore the possibility that they might not know what they’re talking about even if they are sincere).

Strangers

You may, at some point, have the opportunity to pour your beer for the beer festival crowd.  Here, at least, are people that don’t know you and can give you a truly unvarnished opinion!  Well, maybe, but keep in mind these people have tasted 32 beers before yours, including a Triple IPA, a barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout with cinnamon basil, thirteen Goses and nine pumpkin spice beers.  Your Munich Dunkel might as well be dyed water.  Palate fatigue aside, they’re not likely to straighten you out, because it’s easier to move on to the next table after giving you a cursory, “that’s interesting…”  And, most patronizingly of all, they may think that you deserve some kind of handicap because you’re not a professional brewer (unfair though that idea might be).

So who’s left?  There actually are some places where you can count on solid feedback. 

Homebrew Clubs

If you brew beer and don’t belong to a homebrew club, find one near you NOW.  Do not pass go, do not collect $200: go to the AHA’s searchable listing of clubs and contact a club near you.  Homebrew clubs almost always allow for members to bring in beer for feedback, and the best of them provide open and detailed discussion of your beer, whether it’s enjoyable, whether it fits what you were aiming for, how to make it better, and how it compares to others they’ve had.  Some clubs, regrettably, are clique-ish and snobby, but they’re in the minority (though you frequently find this in large clubs, where smaller sub-groups tend to form).  Look for a club that has structured tasting, even if that means you might not get to bring a beer to every meeting.

Homebrew Competitions

Don’t enter competitions to win (though it’s fun, and the prizes are a good way to subsidize your brewing habit!) – enter because you’ll get trained, subjective feedback from two or three beer judges that had no idea who brewed what was on the table.  You’ll also get feedback on how to fix any perceived faults.  Get into the habit: I enter EVERY beer I brew into at least three (and usually four) competitions to get a good variety of opinions - you can find upcoming competitions here.  It has two added benefits.  First, it guards against the reality that some judges – just like some beers – suck and don't know what they're doing, but if you enter multiple times you’ll find a consensus emerging as to whether or not you brewed a good beer.  And second, it lets you see how your beers change over time; some will get better after a short rest, others will peak early and fade steadily, while still others may be rock steady until six months out and then drop off a cliff.  Knowledge is power, and once you get into the routine of entering, you’ll have a more-complete sense of your beers’ quality and limitations.

Competitions aren’t vanity exercises, and I wouldn’t recommend you “brew to win,” but there’s no denying that it also makes brewing a little more interesting, in addition to connecting you with other homebrewers!

Yourself

Learn what “good” beer is, and hold yourself to a high standard.  So what’s good beer?  Well, some say, “I like it, and that’s what makes it good.”  I hate that view.  You may prefer it, but that doesn’t make it good, which is a different thing altogether.  Good suggests that not only do I like it, other people will as well, and while someone might share your love of beers-that-taste-like-permanent-markers, it’s unlikely.  My sister-in-law likes her tuna cooked so thoroughly it resembles cat food – and no chef in the world would say that her preparation results in “good” tuna.

How do you become a better critic of your own beer?  Brewing clone beers is a place you might start – try making a perfect match for a beer that’s already well-reviewed.  If you hit it, you’ve got your recipe for the future and you know your process is solid!  If you don’t, you can start dialing things in.  Another great way is by studying for and taking the Beer Judge Certification Program exams and becoming a certified beer judge.  The preparation itself (especially when you take a formal course) is the best education a homebrewer can get, and judging beer in competitions exposes you to a wide range of beers, interpretations, and faults/virtues that make you sensitive to the quality of your own beer.

In Closing

The short version?  Get your beer out there, and get it to people who have an incentive to give you the truth, and a high-quality version of it.  You can sit in your bedroom, in the dark, under the covers, and drink your beer free from all judgment and input, but you’re probably going to be robbing yourself of the chance to make something better that you’ll enjoy even more. 

“But I like it…isn’t that enough?”

Frankly, no.  Not if you’re ever offering it to anyone else.  What you do as a brewer affects me as a brewer, and I want people to think of homebrewed beer as being better than the stuff they buy at their corner bar.  I want them excited about the hobby.  I want them to ask you how to make it themselves.  And they’ll never do that as long as you’re peddling Wet Goat Ass Belgian Dubbel.

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).

[1] Pro brewers take note – you need to hear this too.  Just because it’s on Untappd it doesn’t mean the review isn’t accurate – maybe they’re right and an asshole.