Monday, September 30, 2013

My Perfect Baltimore Beer Week

Coming up in the not too distant future is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Baltimore Beer Week. For 9 days there are smorgasbord of great opportunities for beer lovers to get their craft beer fix no matter their budget. Some of the events cost nothing and some will set you back a few bucks, but they are all sure to provide a good time. Below, I've narrowed down the list to what I consider My Perfect Baltimore Beer Week...the events I'd like to hit up if money and time were no object.

October 18

  •          Chilibrew VII
    •  I  I love chili and I love homebrew. Having the opportunity to show off my skills and taste that of others sounds like my kind of fun.
  •          King of the Pins
    •     DuClaw, Heavy Seas, and a host of other breweries are battling out to see who can drain their pin the fastest.
  •         BBW Kickoff Party with DuClaw at The Judges Bench
    •     DuClaw takes over the taps and offers a special firkin of HellRazor
  •          Public Works Ales Debut at John Steven
    •     The debut of Public Works Ales. On tap will be Red Cent Amber, Fair-Shake APA, and Knucklebuster IPA
October 19

October 20

October 21

  •     Beer Hunter: The Movie
    •     Watch a movie and drink some homebrew. This is probably the event I'm most interested in as we all should know and thank Michael Jackson.
  •     Q&A with Union Craft Brewing
    •     Learn what it takes to take your beer to the big leagues
  •      Pumpkinfest
    •     30 different Pumpkin Beers at Victoria Gastro Pub

October 22

October 23

October 24

October 25

October 26

October 27

      Now obviously I don't have the time or money to attend all of these events, but in ideal world I'd be there for all of them. Take a look through some of the links and have a good time if you end up there. Maybe we'll bump into each other. And if none of these events sound fun (impossible, i know) or fit into your schedule, fret not for there are a ton of other events not mentioned here that might be perfect for you. Happy Baltimore Beer Week!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Craft Beer Community: Barriers to Entry

It's been said many times in one way or another that the Craft Beer Community is one of the best communities to be a part of. We'll tell you that we're a bunch of happy go lucky guys and gals and that we just want to spread the word of good beer and share a good laugh while we're at it. But is that true? How open are we really to those who aren't already card carrying members of the Craft Beer Community?

I've pondered this question briefly before, but I never really sat down with it until this past weekend after attending a beer event at one of the bigger craft beer spots in Baltimore. I'm not going to throw their name into the mix, because for the most part the people that work there are class acts. I've had many a good time there in the past and I no doubt will continue to do so in the future. But something rubbed me the wrong way about the interaction between bartender and customer that went on this weekend. At the time I brushed it off because I didn't think it was worth dwelling on, but after learning that the same bartender offended Deana's sister later that night (long after I went home) it really got me thinking about how one bad experience could potentially prevent a significant amount of people from joining our club.

I like to think I know a thing or two about beer. Afterall, I have 100 badges on untappd god dammit! But one thing I fully admit to is my lack of ability to pronounce the names of foreign breweries. I don't speak German and Norwegian or anything other than English so naturally I'm going to mispronounce a lot of foreign words. I don't think I'm unique in that sense. Vereinigte Historische Bierfanatiker Grodziskie. Can you say that? Beyond that, can you even remember the order of the words when you're in a loud bar that's 100% fuller than the pint of Hofstettner Granitbock Ice you're looking to replace? I don't know whether you can or not, but I do know that you shouldn't be looked at sideways when you can't or given the evil eye when you give up and just point to the words on the menu.

I asked a bartender (the same one that expects all customers be multilingual) later that night if they had any more of XYZ beer . After we establish the fact that I'm a simpleton for the third time that night , he says "I don't know" and walks away chuckling to himself. My response should have been "Well, what makes you think I do?"  Eventually, he makes his way back and says "Of course, we have more. It's 90L. Where did you think it'd all go?" Again, how the hell was I supposed to know what they still had behind the bar and how much they had of it. Is there an app I was supposed to download that shows me how much beer is left in each of their 100 kegs? Was it crazy for me to assume that on day two of a big festival they could be running low on certain offerings?

As I mentioned earlier, for the most part I didn't dwell on my experience but Deana's sister's run in (she had the audacity to be unsure about what to order) with this guy got me thinking about it all over again. She isn't a beer connoisseur in any way, but she is willing to try something new. And as many of you can remember, it can be intimidating ordering from a craft beer menu when you really don't know what you're looking at. It can be even more intimidating when you're looking at beers named Vereinigte Historische Bierfanatiker Grodziskie. I get that the bartenders are busy, but they aren't there just to serve the knowledgeable. They are there to serve the customer no matter how much they know about craft beer.

If you're the type of person who is easily intimated, a bad first experience like this could ruin you from craft beer forever. That's not cool and it's not something that should be taken lightly. And I don't want the focus of this post to be solely on the bartender. Sure, he was an asshole, but there are going to be assholes no matter what. But it got me thinking, how many times have one of us made a joke about people that drink Bud Lite or Blue Moon? How many times has someone read our comments or overheard a joke we made to our friends in the bar and shied away. I know I'm guilty of it, but after this past weekend I'm going to make a concerted effort to be a lot more patient and open to those of us who aren't already in the know but want to be. We all take beer seriously. If we didn't, why would we write about it or read things like this. It's big part of our lives. It lightens the load of a long day and connects us with history. Everyone deserves to get to know craft beer, so let's not be so precious and uptight about things we prevent people from entering our kick ass club. There's room for everybody.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Session #79 - USA versus Old World Beer Culture

This month's Session is hosted by DingsBeerBlog and he has a simple question. What the hell has the USA done to beer?

What the hell has the USA done to beer? Everything and nothing, I guess. It depends on which perspective you take when answering the question. From an American point of view, US beer culture has changed tenfold over the years. We have options galore and we have beer with flavor.  

Thirty years ago the question was generally which Macro beer suits you. Nowadays, you can walk into a quality liquor store and find aisles upon aisles with hundreds of options to choose from….most of which you've probably never heard of or tried before. The US beer industry, and craft beer in particular, has given us options. And we thank you.

Not only do we have options, but we have flavorful options. After a multi-year sabbatical, I had a Bud Lite on vacation a few weeks ago. I was shocked how little flavor the beer contained. My palate registered nearly zero hop presence and I think I described the beer in my untappd check-in as mildly sweet nothing. Brewers who weren't afraid to bring the bitter and who are constantly experimenting with new hop varieties have changed drinkers’ palates in an extreme way. Imagine going back in time to have a discussion with someone about why you like the taste of beer. People who had ever only known Macro beer would probably look at you crazy if you started describing flavors such as pine, grapefruit, pineapple, mango, or tobacco. And as I’m a testament to, once you develop a taste for these new flavors for a significant amount of time, there is no going back. Sure, I can drink a Bud Lite without being offended by it, but that’s only because there is nothing to be offended by. And if you need more proof that drinkers palates are changing, look no further than Heineken and the fact that they are starting to add Cascade hops to their beer. 

I took a trip to Germany last year and as far as my experiences were concerned US and craft beer has had next to no influence over there. I tasted Dunkels, Helles, Pils, Hefe’s, and Octoberfests. These are beers that the people know to be of a certain standard and beers that breweries have been perfecting for hundreds of years. They have tradition and they stick to what they know and do it as close to perfectly as they can.  The big flavors of Craft beer don't seem to have crept into the Old World, but I believe that's because the Old World has something that the US does not. The Old World has an appreciation for subtle nuance. The beers I had in Germany were flavorful, but they were delicate flavors and features you could quietly stop and appreciate. These are beers you can sit back with at the biergarten and not be distracted by while you're taking in the scenery. You can't do that with a lot of craft beer. Often times, the beer at hand smacks you in the face so when someone tries a Helles they dismiss it as not having enough flavor because it doesn't hit their mouth with a WWE style ring entrance. 

Different parts of Germany are known for different types of beer. If you go to Koln, you’re drinking Kolsch. And while it’s a great beer that people love, other parts of the country don’t go nuts trying to keep up and start producing their own version of Kolsch. In America, there is a growing trend of eating and drinking local, but this variation of drinking local is a special feature the German beer community (and I’m pretty sure Belgium has the same) has that I envy the most. Accessibility is great, but I love the idea of traveling a little ways to get a taste of something you can’t quite get anywhere else for a product that is produced with the utmost care and pride.

Craft beer touts itself on being different and pushing unique products, but in my opinion it still falls victim to massive group think. I wish we took a page from the Old World and took a little more pride in producing only the best and not always run to keep up with the Jones'. Over here, everybody and their brother has an IPA. Why, because they want to keep up. It doesn't matter that their IPA doesn't bring anything new to the table. It doesn't matter that there are 50 other IPA’s from other local breweries that are better than theirs. They need to keep market share and if producing a mediocre IPA helps them achieve that then so be it. Sure, they have a brown ale that is out of this world, but instead of focusing on pushing that product and doing all they can to perfect the recipe they waste time brewing something that is just average. If the Macro brewers are the bad guys for pushing mediocrity on the masses simply to make a buck, why do we give craft brewers a break for doing the same thing (albeit on a much smaller scale). The same goes for Pumpkin Beers. Do we need 89,000 different options? Hell no. Let those who do it best keep us happy and focus on the product you do best. Heady Topper and the one beer they brew is great example of this. We don’t need brewers who produce one good beer and 9 that are forgettable. We need brewers who push products that move craft beer forward in a qualitative way and not quantitative.

The US beer scene has done a lot to push the envelope forward. We have options and we have flavor like we never have before. As far as that objective is concerned I think we can confidently say Mission Accomplished. Sure, variety is supposedly the spice of life, but it’s important that we not soften up on the idea of standards and perfecting something. We're great at taking risks and always trying to move things along. The Old World is great at respecting tradition and perfecting things over time. We don't necessarily need one or the other, but hopefully the future sees the two view points come together to create the best beers the world has ever known.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Pumpkin Havoc: Chaos in Homebrewing

Wow! What a weekend of homebrew activity.

I had no intentions of brewing a beer this month, but Deana wanted me to put together a Pumpkin Ale and who am I to argue that. Of all the things she could ever ask me to do, brewing beer is one I'll never turn down. All guys should be able to make their lady happy by brewing beer. So, I put on my thinking hat, came up with a recipe, and went out to buy all the ingredients.

The first fiasco, although minor compared to everything else, happened the day before brew day when I was putting together my yeast starter. After I had my wort cooled down I opened the bottle of White Labs WLP011 and it came splooging out of the container like a high school boy on the biggest day of his life. I'd estimate that at least half of the bottle ended up on my hands, but at that point what are you going to do? Besides, the whole point of a yeast starter is to build a bigger colony of happy yeasties so if I lost some I'd get them back over time anyways.

When brew day came around, I churned through the process like the champion underwater basket weaver I am. I'm always an overanxious brewer and inevitably I always forget to do something. I add something early, I add something late. It's never anything catastrophic but it's not perfect and it drives me nuts. Not this time. This brew day, I took the time write out my steps one by one to ensure no screw ups. And guess what? I didn't screw up.

When the end of the boil came it was time to get serious. I picked up the 3 ton pot of hot wort and started the trek from backyard to basement. Eventually, after penguin walking everything to the basin I placed the wort chiller in the pot and started the cool down. While all of this is happening, I'm flying high and congratulating myself on a job well done. I brewed a beer without making a mistake and I cooled the wort down in record time. All I had to do was get the wort into the carboy, add the yeast, and let the little guys enjoy the sugar buffet. I called upstairs to Deana to hold my funnel not knowing that the real fun was soon to begin.

Deana came downstairs, held the funnel and I picked up the pot to pour. For some reason this particular batch of beer felt extremely heavy and I was having trouble getting it high enough to pour properly. My first attempt was not so successful and I ended up spilling some wort on the floor and on my feet. It wasn't the end of the world, but I hate to lose any of my hard earned nectar and I really didn't want to have to clean the floor or have sticky feet. As I attempted to start pouring the wort again I noticed a rush of warm water coming across my feet. I hadn't yet picked up the pot high enough to start pouring so all this new found liquid I'm standing in prompted me to ask the question "What the hell is all this water on my feet?" And that's when I turn around to see a baby tsunami coming at me from the toilet. You see, when you have the washing machine on and draining, your wort chiller dumping off who knows how much water during the cooling process, and tree roots in your plumbing system you didn't know about blocking all of the water, you end up with a lake in your basement.

I didn't know what to do. My first reaction was "crap, I need to get this beer in the carboy or it's going to get  infected." But then I realized there was a basement full of other things I didn't want ruined by water so I waddled the still full pot of wort as far away from the new lake as possible and began the process of moving other essential items like clothes out of the way. Once everything that needed saving was saved Deana busted out the shop vac and started sucking up the water while I got back into beer mode. By now, I'm in a hurry and just want to be done with everything so I pour the wort into the carboy waaaaaaay too fast. My super spill into the carboy created a ton of bubbles that came rushing back out landing in the new water front property we just created. I looked at Deana and we started laughing acknowledging our amazing luck. Finally, I got the yeast added in and I crossed my fingers that everything would turn out okay.

After 3 hours, I returned to my basement to find the beer fermenting away at a rapid pace. I've never had anything start fermentation that quickly or vigorously. The carboy I was using  was brand new and so of course I didn't have a blowoff tube that fit properly. I braced myself for what was to come. When I woke up the next morning, I found my airlock laying on the ground and the carboy oozing like a 6th grade science project. Putting the airlock back would have been pointless, so I sanitized some foil and put it on top to try and prevent anything from landing in the carboy while it went berserk. As I type this, I still haven't been able to put the airlock back on.

The only good that has come out of all of this is that it helped me create (what I consider) to be a cool name for the beer. Pumpkin Havoc is a beer I'll never forget brewing. From step one all the way through the final step it has been a trying situation. Let's hope that despite all of the chaos I still end up with a tasty beer. I deserve it after all of that. I guess I'll be adding "ensure plumbing is in working order" to my brew day checklist from here on out.