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Thursday, October 20, 2016

How We Toast

A few months ago I was sitting in an Irish pub with The Beer Nut and I did what any American would do: I held my pint glass aloft and said "Sláinte" with gusto. Hey, that's what the Irish do when they offer a toast, right? Fortunately, just as the word was dying in my mouth, shamrocks, leprechauns, and Blarney stones trooped through my mind and I had the good sense to ask John (the Nut's actual name) whether this is something Irish drinkers say. Not often, he confirmed. 

In drinking culture, the toast happens reflexively. We offer the toast and may even bring our awareness to the moment, but then it's gone. Once the act is done enough it passes into ritual, which is to say it is so familiar the particulars of the act are hard to identify. I was reminded of this when John and his wife visited Portland a few weeks past and I joined them for pints on my home turf. I met them at Fat Head's, where they were already well into their pints, and then, in the Irish fashion, marched off to a different pub for our next pint. It was there I went through the reflexive toast, and I could tell by their slight expressions of surprise that I was doing something culturally specific.

The ritual of toasting one another with alcohol is ancient. It fits within a category of social rituals that happen all the time: vocal greetings at particular moments during the day, the way we touch each other when we meet for the first time (handshake, cheek kiss, bow), even the way we say something after someone sneezes. Alcohol fits into a slightly more special category because it is usually used in ceremonies (weddings, funerals, boat christening) that mark our connections. That's what's happening in the pub, too, though on a more quotidian level. The words themselves often translate to some kind of well-wishing: "to your health" is a common translation of many national exclamations, or to happiness or one's benefit. 

The subtle particulars of how we conduct this ritual vary a lot. Czechs have told me that the failure to look someone in the eye during toasting brings seven years bad sex--an amusing joke that nevertheless reveals a real element of the act. In some countries you only have to raise your glass or clink the glass of your neighbor, while in others, clinking must happen all around. Most places frown upon toasting with an empty glass.

I'm not sure what I told John at that second pub about the habits of American toasters. I hadn't considered it well enough to know. The truth is, I'm not even sure if there's an American practice--these things may well be regional or even confined to smaller social groups. I have considered the matter, though, and should you ever find yourself in my company here in Portland, expect these things to transpire.

A toast is made after the first round arrives. We generally say "cheers," though variations may be appropriate for special occasions or comedic purposes ("cheers to this sorry basket of deplorables"). Everyone must touch everyone else's glass. Eye contact is not a must, though appreciated. 

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me the moment is not a blind ritual. Stopping after receiving that first glass of beer to offer a toast centers the moment in its social setting. Offering a toast is a way of re-establishing connections. We say "cheers," but we mean, "let's not miss the opportunity to affirm how happy we are to have a chance to be together here, now." In nearly every case, I sense the actual connection being made. 

(Perhaps a great deal could be made about the psychology of men's emotional relationships to other men, and how they are nurtured through these subtle and non-demonstrative displays of friendship. Since toasting is now done among all genders and since I have not surveyed the literature, I'll skip that digression for now.)

Other rules. If people arrive at different times, the toasting will take place when a new round arrives. If the group doesn't settle into ordering in rounds, the opportunity may be lost, though any member may, after everyone has a beer, offer the toast then. It's considered poor form to toast with an empty glass, and I have seen the ritual delayed while the group waits for the empty-glassed member to get a fresh beer. This again confirms that the moment is more than an empty gesture. 

Finally, and this wasn't something I'd noticed until recently, relocation to a new pub starts the whole process over again. One is tempted to draw connections to the religious sphere in this ritual act, and the idea that we toast at every new pub would tend to bolster that case. There's an element of blessing or sanctification that this suggests; a new space, a new need to prepare it and make it sacred. In this way, the act of drinking becomes something like a rite that must be preceded with the proper invocations.  

Or perhaps I'm overthinking things here. Maybe it's just something we do, and it's nice and we like it, and it's cool because we all do it slightly differently. Even at that, it's worth a blog post every now and again.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

An Evening With Alworth (Friday, Nov 4)

In a bit more than two weeks, Portland's premier literary event, Wordstock, hits town. As one component of that, on Friday, November 4, there will be a simultaneous happening across downtown and in the Pearl--mostly in places that serve drinks. In three phases, book events, readings, and various literary fun stuff will happen, including a talk I'll be giving at the Big Legrowlski:

Jeff Alworth on Litcrawl
Big Legrowlski

Friday, Nov 4, 7pm
812 NW Couch St, Portland

The event is free, and it will be a freewheeling discussion about beer style and the weirdness of national brewing traditions. I will tell funny tales about strange practices and relate them to the beer we're drinking (I hope to have one designated beer, in case people want to taste along). It's a free event, though it will of course be far more entertaining if you have a beer in your hand. I always encourage audience participation, and these events are usually a blast.

Please join me! (Did I mention it was free?)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Beer Sherp Recommends: Ft. George Overdub Session IPA

The idea of a session IPA is irresistible: all the intense flavor and aroma from a traditional IPA without all the booze (and calories, if you care about that). The problem is that they're hard to make. With a standard IPA, brewers have a very solid foundation to work with--lots of malt body and often a touch of caramel flavor--onto which they can build stories and stories (or layers) of hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma. The sweetness and body provided by the malt make it possible to nuke the beer with hops and have the whole thing work.

Session IPAs, on the other hand, are often too thin, or the hops are too bitter, or they lack the intensity you get from a proper IPA. I love the idea, and I order them anytime I see them on a taplist (in the past six months my session IPA consumption outpaces regular IPAs by perhaps four to one). Very rarely am I satisfied by the result. I thought Harpoon's Take Five, mashed in at 161 degrees for maximum body, was spectacular (it was also one of the first I had, setting unreasonable expectations). There have been others that were good, but only one that hits all the marks.

I first had Fort George's Overdub in a can at the Hollywood Theater. I forget the movie, but the beer--whoo boy, that was memorable. Last week I stopped in at the brewery when I was in Astoria, and found the draft version even more delightful. The perfume of tropical fruit, as sticky and fresh as if I were standing in a jungle, billowed from the glass. The flavors followed the aroma, and were supported by just enough bitterness to give them structure and bite--but there was a fine body to support everything (fine to the extent a 4.5% beer can manage). It was that unicorn of balance and intensity in a tiny package. I was tempted to drink 14.

This beer is apparently a seasonal (Big Guns, Fort George's regular-lineup session IPA, is nowhere near as vivid), so seek it out and purchase with alacrity. 

"Beer Sherpa Recommends" is an irregular feature. In this fallen world, when the number of beers outnumber your woeful stomach capacity by several orders of magnitude, you risk exposing yourself to substandard beer. Worse, you risk selecting substandard beer when there are tasty alternatives at hand. In this terrible jungle of overabundance, wouldn't it be nice to have a neon sign pointing to the few beers among the crowd that really stand out? A beer sherpa, if you will, to guide you to the beery mountaintop. I don't profess to drink all the beers out there, but from time to time I stumble across a winner and when I do, I'll pass it along to you.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Jäger and Not Your Fathers? An inevitable Reductio ad Absurdum

Is there anything that could make me dislike Not Your Father's Root Beer more? Of course there is:
 Small Town Brewery, the creator of Not Your Father’s Root Beer, and esteemed spirits brand Jägermeister have teamed up for the first time to create innovative fall cocktails with a touch of herbs and spices;  the key elements both brands are known for. Jägermeister’s botanical flavors harmonize deliciously with Not Your Father’s Root Beer to create a brand new drink everyone will enjoy!

And because one "innovative" isn't enough, the ad copy continues:
“Jägermeister and Not Your Father’s Root Beer are both iconic brands that share the same roots and dedication to quality, pairing perfectly together,” said Marcus Thieme, chief marketing officer at Sidney Frank Importing Company, Inc. “We found that Jägermeister’s botanical flavors harmonize deliciously with Not Your Father’s Root Beer and this new partnership helps further our goal of reaching more consumers with an innovative take on fall cocktail offerings.” 

I think what's so innovative about this is that no one has ever conceived of anything remotely like it before. It really is a radical new idea. Add a lemon wheel!

For about six weeks there, Not Your Father's was getting amazing press and huge geek love. That was all a bizarre mirage. From their dream, drinkers awoke to discover that it was just another gross, overly-sweet flavored malt beverage masquerading as something appealing.

On the other hand, I might well whip up a batch of these on Wednesday to get me through that third presidential debate. One train wreck deserves another.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Defining the Indefinable

There is a cafe in Brussels. It is close and cozy, feminine in a way that is unlike pubs anywhere else I've visited. The walls are so coated in objects and pictures that you are able to confirm their existence largely by inference. The tables are small and dainty, as are the chairs. The beer list is extensive, but I didn't bother to consult anything but the lambic selection. This is the only place on earth they're made, and they've been made here for centuries. When you order one, the waiter arrives with a little basket; once he decants a portion into a pleated tumbler, he lays the bottle so that it reclines with its head resting on the edge--a vision of happy repose.

The beer list is extensive, despite my single-focus, and inside one finds a dozens of offerings spanning the range of local styles. In Belgium, the word "style" is especially fraught, since the local breweries work to make each of their beers different from everything else on the market. But whether we call them a dozen styles or three dozen, they are all there, well-represented. You could visit this pub every night for a month and not drink all the beer on offer.

The lineage of those lounging bottles dates at least to 1400, and they have been so ingrained in this city's heritage that they appear in paintings by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. Other Belgian beers have been brewed by Catholic monks for over a century (with a tradition dating back 1500 years). There is a selection of ambrée and brune beer, which cast back to Belgian brewers' old habit of boiling their worts for many hours to caramelize the wort. There are foeder-aged red ales, which took a lesson from 19th-century London porter, and there are beers called "stout" which have inevitably gone through that unmistakable Belgian cultural distortion filter. There are even the "new" blondes, which started to become popular a few decades into the last century.

What one doesn't find is the latest release from Stone or Mikkeller--or even classics from Weihenstephan or Pilsner Urquell. There are a few places to find these beers, as the international craft brewing movement noses into even places with beer culture as well-established as Brussels--but they are by no means prevalent. And Brussels doesn't need them; the native drinking culture, the living history found in each bottle, the famous brewing school at Leuven, twenty miles from Brussels' Grand Place, the strange way brewers make their beer, the local ingredients they make it from, and even--especially--the respect and knowledge local drinkers have for this fixture of national identity. For a beer fan, casual or fanatic, there are few better places to drink beer.

Surprisingly, this isn't an opinion shared by everyone. There is an argument about what constitutes a good city for beer drinking, and it was on bright display yesterday when Jason Notte made a case that "New York cares more about craft beer than Portland." I spent an hour debating with Jason on Twitter--the second time in the last couple weeks we had this dispute. I'd considered doing a debate-style rebuttal about why I find this such a perverse position to take, but I'll limit it just to the acknowledgement that we understand "good" in very different terms. For Jason,
"...that ignores one of the key purposes of small brewing and craft beer: To try new ideas, to take chances and to explore. Sure, in lager-soaked Manhattan — where beers I had with friends at non-craft bars included Heineken, Labatt’s Blue and Rolling Rock — you have to go a bit out of your way to find a broad selection of craft beer. But those who do are rewarded with some of the best beers that all corners of the country have to offer.
I mentioned on Twitter that by this definition, Copenhagen would be a better beer city than Brussels. He made an adjustment to my comment, but agreed: "No, my argument would still apply: It's not a 'better' beer city, it's a more diverse, cosmopolitan beer city. But the Portland-Brussels parallel is a great one. Both have great beer, both are fairly insular and heavily emphasize local."

It is not possible to square this circle--we think of "best" in very different terms. For Jason, a "truly great beer town won’t be afraid to explore what’s brewing beyond the horizon line." For me, judging a city by how much of the local beer is brewed elsewhere seems a bizarre metric for assessing "truly great." New York and Copenhagen do have lots of foreign beers available in their bars, but it's precisely because locals haven't developed a taste for local beer in the way they have in Prague, Munich, and Brussels--and brewers in Copenhagen, for their part, are actively trying to invent a local tradition like Brussels has.

I'll never convince New Yorkers that their hometown is by most of my metrics one of the poorer beer cities in the country, and I don't know that there's any point in trying. (It's a promising sign that they are defending New York with such gusto!) But would I rather drink a Drie Fonteinen in a Brussels cafe, from a bottle my waiter has decanted and laid in a little basket, or go to a New York City bar that offers a menu of the world's beers, removed from their context and shipped across an ocean?

Rhetorical question.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Vignette #5, Jean Van Roy (Cantillon)

“I taste first my old lambic.  If I have a mellow lambic with some soft beer, I can work with two- and one-year-old with mild character. If I have an old beer with character, I have to find other types of beer.  Each blend is different. The beer is very good, but you have this small flavor in the beer, so it’s never the same. Never. You never know what you will discover.  That’s why lambic is so fun.” 

“No one, no brewers on the earth, can have the same rapport, the same feeling with his beer. In French we have a sentence. We say, 'tout est dans tout.'  If I translate it: 'Everything is in everything.'  In this brewery, everything is playing a role in the final product.  Everything.”  

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Nothing New Under the Sun

If you've read The Beer Bible and were in a generous mood, you might have thought, "Gee, it looks like Jeff did quite a lot of research." Indeed! But one thing you won't see are the hours of research I put into postulates I could never verify. Like this, from page 333:
Breweries learned millennia ago to brew in cool weather, and the most prized ales were made just after harvest. No reference has explicitly distinguished fresh and dried hops, but it seems safe to guess that the practice dates back to the beginning of the hop era. If brewers did make their October beers with fresh hops in the distant past, the practice ended by the industrial age and wasn’t rediscovered until around 1992.
I probably spent a week on those three sentences, trying to find a source that would confirm my assumptions, but I never did. And so the week can only be inferred as I move briskly to the modern era. And now finally, thanks to Ed, we have the goods!
In the book Hops AH Burges quotes from Reynold (Reginald) Scot's A Perfite Platforme of a Hoppe Garden, (complete with olde English spelling):

"Some gather them, and brue with them being green and undryed, supposing that in drying, the vertue and state of the Hoppe decayeth and fadeth awaye..."
The book dates from 1574, and is in fact the earliest book in English written about hops, written 50 years after hops started being cultivated here.

Reg wasn't keen on the idea himself continuing:
"...wherein they are deceyved, for the verdure is woorse, the strength less, and the quantitie must be more of the greene Hoppes that are to be brued in this sort"
One thing I learned writing The Beer Bible is that humans are humans, and if we thought of doing something in the 21st century, there's an almost dead certainty someone thought of doing it in the past hundred decades or so of the hop era. Now we know, and I can breathe a sigh of relief for writing that it was "safe to guess" the practice had antecedents dating back more than 24 years.

Read the book here.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Why Locals Say Breakside is Portland's Best

Over the past couple years, I've welcomed a number of national and foreign beer dignitaries who've made the trek to far Portland. Rarely do they visit long enough to sample from the full range of good breweries we have in Portland (nevermind Oregon). So of course they want to see our best. But best is a funny thing. Two stops on just about every visitor's agenda are Cascade and Hair of the Dog. No one is going to argue that these aren't excellent breweries, but they make very particular kinds of beers--boozy, super intense, and not particularly sessionable. Special occasion beers. (I even met Brewery History editor Tim Holt at Cascade, and The Kernel's Toby Munn at Hair of the Dog.)

Photo by Ezra Johnson-Greenough, who has a great
report on the GABF at the New School

When you live in a town and spend most of your time drinking in sessions, you appreciate different things. You appreciate those breweries that can deliver the goods no matter what the beer is-- do a top shelf kölsch, IPA, barrel-aged wild ale, kettle-soured German ale, saison, and a stout, and you have achieved something rare. A good metric for this is that moment when you're standing in front of a barroom taplist and see an unfamiliar beer from a familiar brewery. Do you order it immediately or wonder if it's actually in the brewery's wheelhouse?

If you asked a dozen beer geeks in Portland to name city's the best brewery, I'd be surprised if half didn't say Breakside, and if you gave them top five, probably 11 would include Dekum Street's finest. It rewards the repeated visits locals give it, when, over the course of a year as their mood passes through all these different styles, they sample broadly. That's when beers like kölsches pop--when you're really craving one. If you go to a city looking to be wowed by the best breweries and the most sublime beers, a kölsch is going to be a hard style to make the case.

I bring all of this up because over the weekend Breakside picked up three more medals at the GABF, and the distribution of their nine medals is pretty representative of why we admire them (asterisks equal 2016) :
  • Rye beer*
  • English pale* (two different years)
  • "Australian-Style or International-Style Pale Ale" (Their session IPA)*
  • German-style sour ale
  • Dry stout
  • American-style IPA
  • English-style mild ale
  • American-style strong pale ale
Breakside is that extremely rare brewery that continues to be on the leading edge of palate evolution but one that can brew absolutely any style very well (in Oregon, the only other brewery that achieves it is Block 15). If you are an out-of-towner planning a trip to Portland and you've seen all the hype this brewery gets, you may well leave with a more vivid memory of the visit to Cascade and wonder what all the Breakside fuss was about. It's not the kind of brewery that specializes in the show-stopping special-occasion beers tourists love; it makes beer locals learn to appreciate over the months and years they spend drinking Breakside's uniformly accomplished beers. Now you know.


Oregon took home 21 medals this year, and congrats to everyone who scored some bling. Special kudos to Matt Van Wyk, who picked up a gold in brett beer category with his brand-new project, Alesong.

Friday, October 07, 2016

A Moment of Horn-Tooting

This morning, the North American Guild of Beer Writers announced their annual writing awards, and they sent some sugar my way. Over the past half-decade or so that they've been doing this ("we" actually--I'm a member and judged the first two years), the competition seems to have heated up. I completely crapped out this year in the blog category--after clawing my way to a bronze last year. (Bryan Roth has a hammer lock on the blog category.) I'd have to go back and look at the other categories I got skunked in--there were more--but there was something to celebrate, as well:
  • Best book category, 1st for the Beer Bible.
  • Best historical/technical writing, 1st for my Reinheitsgebot article at All About Beer.
  • Best national/international reporting, 3rd for "Hop Shift" in All About Beer.
  • And finally, for best podcast, Patrick and I picked up an honorable mention. (There's something delightfully perverse about our lo-fi production getting "honorable" anything.)
It's always meaningful to get recognition, but even more so from the peers who actually know the subject. Seeing the names of the people going by reminded me how strong the field of beer writing has become. I'm honored to be in their company.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Time For a Backlash Against the Backlash Against Pumpkin Beers


It's hard out there for a pumpkin ale.
The pumpkin beer category went through stable sales and volume growth beginning in 2005, spiking in 2013, but since 2014 has dipped to an all-time low in 2015, dropping 10% in sales and 13% in total volume.
As a consequence:
What has been dramatically dubbed “The Great Pumpkin Debacle” and the “Great Pumpkin Backlash” of 2015 has led wholesalers and distributors to stock fewer pumpkin-flavored brews this year... Brewers are also making adjustments. Ithaca Beer Co. has discontinued Country Pumpkin, which launched in 2011, and Samuel Adams, which usually cranks out two pumpkins, slashed production to just one. Southern Tier, Shipyard Brewing and Harpoon Brewing are significantly scaling back as well
Look. I have never been a fan of the pumpkin beer on the totally reasonable grounds that a great many were invented to appeal to people who don't like beer. They are sweet, simplistic, and most-dubiously, spiced. This is an historical accident dating back to a moment in 1985 when Bill Owens, founder of Buffalo Bill's, added pumpkin to a beer in an effort at colonial recreation. He learned then what brewers ever since have discovered: pumpkin doesn't have much of a taste. What, he wondered, would make it taste more pumpkin-y? Spices, of course (which actually makes it taste like pie, not squash, but let's not get too far afield). And thus was born an American tradition.

But that tradition was born. The thing is, humans often make or consume things seasonally that would otherwise not necessarily thrill them: cranberry sauce, Peeps, fruitcake. We do this because marking the seasons is an ancient act and it makes us happy. We do this in beer, too, but there aren't many beer types that scream, with such precision and specificity, a certain moment so clearly. Pumpkin ales are a form of harvest beer linked to our native flame-hued squashes and, sort of, Halloween. And some of them aren't too bad.

Breweries probably over-marketed these things, seeing them as a vein of autumnal lucre to mine, and if I have to see any more of the ubiquitous Elysian pumpkin ads that have been infesting social media, my head will explode. (Nothing spoils a quaint, community-based celebration more than multinational beer bucks.) But it would be a worse world that trudged on without the annual appearance of a now-classic pumpkin beer. I am never going to love them, but I would hate to see them disappear.

Pumpkin beers aren't dead (yet); long live pumpkin beers!