Archive for August 2013

Speed-Dating Beers, Part 2

August 27, 2013

If you’ve just joined us, we are on a mad merry-go-round of tasting one beer every five minutes for ten rounds. Five beers in and we’re only half-way there.

Beer #6: Shipyard Monkey Fist IPA

Shipyard Monkey Fist IPA

Shipyard Monkey Fist IPA

Shipyard Brewing of Portland, Maine is a giant compared to some of the nano-breweries we’ve been tasting. Last year, they brewed almost 160,000 barrels (190,000 hL), making them the 15th largest American craft brewery.

The beer we’re tasting is a strong (7.6% abv) limited edition IPA aged in bourbon barrels. It pours a hazy deep amber, with a head that quickly dissipates — not unusual for a strong beer. The taste is a continual play between the sweetness of the bourbon and vanilla notes from the barrel aging, and the bitterness of the hops. This continues into a finish that is in turns both bitter and sweet. Very nice.

I would pair this with strong artisanal cheeses. Other intriguing possibilities might be be pork roast with brown gravy, or sticky toffee pudding.

Shipyard distributes to over 35 states, so many will be able to find this winner in their own neighbourhood.

 Beer #7: Rising Tide Daymark American Pale Ale

Rising Tide Daymark

Rising Tide Daymark

Rising Tide started life as a tiny 1-barrel brewery, producing 15 barrels (17 hL) per month, but then got a big upgrade to a 15-barrel system, enabling them to brew in one batch what formerly took them a month.

What sets their Daymark Ale apart from other dry-hopped American-style pale ales is the addition of malted rye. Daymark pours a murky gold with an intense white head. The rye adds a light spiciness to the big floral nose. The taste is fruity, and not as bitter as many other American pale ales I have tasted, and the rye aids a quick and dry finish.

With its nice fruitiness and lower bitterness, this would pair well with fish, although I would also drink this on its own anytime.

Oh, and a daymark is a navigational marker that can be seen by boats in the daytime.

Beer #8: Notch The Mule American Corn Lager

Chris Lohring, the found of Notch Brewing of Ipswitch, Massachusetts, was our host for five minutes, and spent some of that time justifying the use of corn as a useful adjunct for lager rather than the dark and evil ingredient that some craft brewers make it out to be. As he pointed out, corn has a long and storied history in American brewing. It is only in recent years that corn has been vilified, mainly because corn is used so freely by the megabrewers to lighten the taste of light lagers.

The Mule, a session lager (4.5%), is made with a cereal mash of western Massachusetts corn, 6-row pils malt (most craft brewers use 2-row malt, which has higher levels of extract and lower protein), and flaked barley. It is hopped with Sterling, Crystal and Santiam, and lagered for 4½ weeks.

It pours a pale lemon with a light haze and a white persistent head. The nose is citrussy, unusual for a lager — floral or grassy notes are more common. The taste is light and crisp, with the slight taste of corn just evident.

If you have friends who prefer big-name American lagers, have some of The Mule in your fridge when they come over for Monday night football. The slight taste won’t stand up to strong foods — if you want to experiment with something less traditional than pizza, try whitefish, oysters, or clams.

Beer #9: Night Shift Ever Weisse

Night Shift Ever Weisse

Night Shift Ever Weisse

Robert Burns, co-founder of Night Shift Brewing, poured out this intriguing beer for us. Night Shift is a 3.5-barrel (4 hL) nanobrewery in the Greater Boston area started by three friends when they realized their homebrewing hobby had gone past “obsession”. They try to make beers that don’t taste like anyone else’s, and if Ever Weisse is any indication, they have reached that goal.

A Berliner Weisse is already a strange beast, a beer to which lactobacillus is deliberately added. (Lactobacillus– or “lacto”, as it is known by brewers — is usually considered a beer spoiler because it produces sour lactic acid. Most brewers try to avoid a lacto infection, Berliner weisse brewers deliberately infect their beers with it.) The lacto-rich wort is then fermented hot, increasing bacterial growth as well as producing wild flavours from the over-stimulated yeast. The result is an intensely tart, sour beer — so sour in fact, that in Berlin, aficionados of the style usually have it “mit Schuss” — that is, with a shot of either raspberry syrup or woodruff (a sweet syrup made from the woodruff flower).

Night Shift decided to forgo the need for a shot of syrup by aging this beer on strawberries, kiwis, and dried hibiscus flowers. The result pours a playful fuschia pink with a white head that has the slightest shade of pink to it. The nose is fruity — strawberries and cherries — and yeasty notes speak of the hot fermentation. The foretaste is sharp and edgy, strawberries vyiing with yeasty flavours. The mouthfeel is juicy and tart, the finish quick and sharp. This is an extraordinary beer, a true work of art.

The nimble interplay of tart and sweet make this a natural to pair with Belgian waffles and raspberries, or pavlova.

This beer is only available for sale at Night Shift Brewery.

Beer #10: Newburyport Plum Island Belgian White

Newburyport Plum Island Belgian White

Newburyport Plum Island Belgian White

For our final beer, Mike Robinson introduced us to Newburyport Brew Company — NBPT Brew Co. for short– the only Massachusetts brewery that cans rather than bottles, using the same reasoning as Maine’s Baxter Brewing: cans are more environmental, more protective, and easier to transport than glass.

NBPT tries to create beers that are authentic to the original style. Certainly Plum Island looks the part of a Belgian wit, pouring with a hazy “white” pale lemon appearance. The nose is also typical of the species, redolent of bananas and cloves. The mouthfeel is soft, the taste sweet, with yeast-driven notes of bananas and spices. The medium finish is drying.

This mild-tasting beer is a natural for a light lunch, and will also pair well with fish.

————-

And that was the end of the speed-dating with beer. “Job well done,” I thought. “Ten beers tasted. Time for a nap.”

But the gods of beer were not done with us yet — not by a long shot. It was time for dinner, so back on the Bus of Beer for a ride to Harpoon Brewery.

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Speed-Dating Beers, Part 1

August 26, 2013

You may have questions about the title of this post. “Speed-Dating Beers? Perhaps he means ‘Speed Dating while Drinking Beer’?”

Although I have never speed-dated, I have to think that drinking beer while speed-dating would probably make the whole process a lot more fun.

But no, what I mean is that we actually speed-dated a lot of beers. The event was called “Live Beer Blogging”, and it worked like this: The organizers sat us down at tables with our laptops, iPads and other tools of dissemination. Someone at a microphone said “Ready… Set… Go!”

<Swoof!> A brewer appeared at each table, poured a beer, described the beer and answered questions, all while everyone tasted the beer, then frantically blogged and tweeted about it. Five minutes later, the microphone dude said, “Change!”

<Swoof!> The brewers rotated to new tables, poured a beer, described the beer and answered questions, all while everyone tasted the beer, then frantically blogged and tweeted about it. Five minutes later, the microphone dude said, “Change!”

You get the idea.

This happened ten times. Yes, ten different beers in just under an hour.

There were a few small problems. First of all, apparently Massachussetts liquor laws had an issue with letting this event occur at the hotel, so we were bussed to Burke Distributing out in the suburbs of Boston. Now, this was a beer warehouse, so it lacked two things that every beer bloggers’ event should have: lots of internet connectivity, and lots of washrooms. The organizers tried to solve the connectivity problem by setting up two local “hot spots” — but these were pretty narrow pipelines to the wider world, and with 150 bloggers all trying to blog live, our connection ranged from tenuous to non-existent. (Elaine & I simply typed notes to be blogged later. Think of it as a live recording.)

The other vexation — the single washroom — drew longer and longer lineups as the event progressed.

One might say that a limit on output was the underlying issue with both problems.

Beer #1: Fatty Bampkins Cider

Our first beer was actually a cider. That may seem weird, but craft cider goes hand in hand with the craft beer market, and like craft beer, has seen huge growth in the alcoholic beverage market. (One of the conference’s sponsors was Woodchuck Cider.) In Ontario, cider’s market share has actually grown faster than craft beer, which is saying something.

Fatty Bampkins Maine Hard Cider — named after the owner’s dog, an overweight chocolate Lab — is an Irish-style cider made by Maine’s Blacksmiths Winery only twice a year, using eight different varieties of apples that are pressed separately and then blended in a certain proportion. The cider is fermented using four varieties of yeast and then, most unusually, is aged four months in bourbon and rye barrels before filtering. (It is not pasteurized.) Since only yeast is added to apple juice, the product is certified gluten free.

The cider we were tasting was their “standard” 4.5% abv cider. (It actually emerges from fermentation at 7.5%, but since Maine limits hard cider to 7%, they blend the cider with fresh juice to bring the alcohol down to 4.5%. They also have a dry cider that receives less juice and therefore clocks in at 6.8%.)

The cider has, as you would expect, a fresh sweet apple taste, with a light, clean mouthfeel, but there is also a woody thing happening at mid-taste that contributes to a quick, dry finish.

The sweetness makes this a patio cider rather than something I would pair with most food. Nevertheless, it would probably go very well with light patio fare such as chips & dip.

In Ontario in 2012, an unusually warm March that had apple trees blooming prematurely was followed by a killing frost, effectively destroying 90% of the 2012 apple crop. When I asked the brewer (ciderer?) how Fatty Bampkins had been affected, I was told that Maine apples had not been touched by the disaster; however, the price of all apples in Eastern North America rose 20%, and Blacksmiths had made the hard decision to eat the higher cost of apples in 2012 rather than raising their cider prices.

Blacksmiths plans to make perhaps as many as 18 different varieties of cider. For the moment, Fatty Bampkins Cider is distributed throughout New England; Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New York can expect to see it soon.

Beer #2: Baxter Summer Swelter

Baxter Summer Swelter

Baxter Summer Swelter

Baxter Brewing is the only brewery in Maine that cans rather than bottles their entire line-up. Baxter’s believes this is better for the environment, better for the beer (no light-struck tastes), and better for you, since cans can go places that bottles cannot.

Summer Swelter (4.7% abv) is a very creative unfiltered wheat ale, brewed with citrussy American hops, lemon & lime peel, lemongrass, and Kaffir lime leaves. It pours with a pale lemon colour and the wheat gives it a fluffy bright white head. The light aroma is citrus, tending towards lime. The wheat gives a characteristic taste of lemongrass, but lime notes are also present. Given the lightness of the taste, the sudden appearance of bitterness at mid-swallow leading to a long bitter finish is a suprise.

A glass of Summer Swelter would be great during a real summer swelter, especially paired with fish and seafood. Depending on the dressing, it could also go well with some salads.

Baxter distributes in Maine and Massachusetts.

Beer #3: Backlash Catalyst

Backlash is a tiny nano-brewery, the husband-and-wife team of Helder Pimentel and Maggie Foley. They have contract brewed 20-barrel (23.5 hL) batches out of Paper City Brewery in Holyoke, Massachusetts since 2011.

Backlash Catalyst

Backlash Catalyst

Their calling card has been Belgian styles with large doses of hops — it is no coincidence that the “B” of the “Backlash” logo is a set of brass knuckles. Their latest release is a series of three double IPAs that use the same grist bill but feature a different variety of hop. In the case of Catalyst (8.5% abv), the featured hop is Amarillo.

Catalyst pours a hazy light gold with a off-white head. Surprisingly for a Belgian-style ale, the nose is hops rather than yeasty esters. Likewise the taste is all hops from front to back — big, bitter hops that pretty well overhelm everything in their path, leading to a very bitter, lingering finish. Whew. Did I mention the hops? Did I mention the brass knuckles?

Pairing this monster with food would be a matter of finding something that could stand up to Catalyst — I would suggest a strong curry, smelly cheeses or savoury game.

Not a balanced approach at all, but I would be interested in trying the other two IPAs in this series to see how the taste varies due to the different hop varieties.

Helder & Maggie might produce 1,000 hL this year, and only distribute to the Boston area.

Beer #4: Thomas Hooker Saison

Thomas Hooker Saison

Thomas Hooker Saison

Steve Andrews, the head brewer of Thomas Hooker was our host (well, for five minutes at any rate.) Thomas Hooker Brewing actually started life as the brewery attached to the Trout Brook Brew Pub in Bloomfield, Connecticut. However, when the brewpub folded in 2006, new owners renamed the brewery after Thomas Hooker, Puritan founder of nearby Hartford, and re-purposed the small brewery’s annual production of 12,000–15,000 barrels (14,000–18,000 hL) for general distribution.

Steve described how his 6.9% abv saison starts with a sour mash and Saaz hops, then is dry-hopped with local Connecticut hops and spiced with black peppercorns before being aged in Chardonnay barrels.

The saison pours a hazy antique gold, with a fine-beaded persistent ivory head. The nose is fruity, with light pear notes, a touch of cloves, and a perfuminess that might come from the Chardonnay barrels. The mouthfeel is light and effervescent, with pears and apples at the front, and a spiciness – possibly from the yeast, perhaps from the peppercorns, probably from a combination of the two — at mid-taste. The finish is quick and dry. Overall, my impression was of a very dry pear cider.

In terms of food, you could go two ways with this: either match spice for spice with some peppery Cajun, or go for the dry cider approach and match to aged cheese.

Beer #5: Slumbrew Happy Sol Blood Orange Hefeweizen

Slumbrew Happy Sol

Slumbrew Happy Sol

OK, bear with me while I drill down through this: Slumbrew Beer (no, I didn’t get a chance to ask about the name) is the brand produced by Somerville Brewing Company of Somerville, Massachusetts, founded by Jeff Leiter and Caitlin Jewell. Slumbrew beers are contract brewed out of Mercury Brewing of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Got that?

This hefeweizen is brewed with Massachusetts honey, orange peel and coriander, and fermented with blood orange juice.

As the German name suggests, a hefeweizen is made with a large proportion of wheat. The wheat provides more protein than barley, which often causes a hazy appearance, and always produces a billowy white head. Happy Sol is no exception, pouring a rich hazy gold, with a thick, fluffy persistent ivory head. The nose is all yeast-driven esters, although the usual banana notes are replaced by citrus. The taste is light, effervescent and crisp, with orange peel around the edges and some spiciness from the coriander. The finish is likewise light and crisp.

This is a summer beer that calls out for light summer patio grill fare — chicken or jumbo shrimp, accompanied by a fruit salad or watermelon.

Slumbrew is currently distributed in a fairly diverse group of states: Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Illinois, Virginia, New Jersey and Louisiana.

Next post: Speed Dating with Beer continued…

Beer Bloggers’ Conference: Best social media practices

August 25, 2013

If you are joining us for the first time, our heroes Alan & Elaine, on an epic beer geek road trip that has taken them through Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and now Boston, have just finished feasting on a four-course beer & food paired lunch.

We somehow grudgingly found the wherewithal to slowly stagger back to the conference room for the afternoon’s single seminar: “Best Social Media Practices”, presented by Jeff Wharton of Drink Craft Beer & Tamre Mullins of the marketing firm Round Peg. I was very glad we made it back from lunch — this turned out to be an excellent overview of valuable cross-platform strategies for the beer blogger hoping to raise his or her game closer to a professional level.

Herein a summary of their presentation:

Right off the bat, we got the #1 Secret to Social Media Success: It’s All About the Content. People are looking for interesting things to read, so give them a reason to tune in. Don’t copy & paste, or repeat other people’s views — give your reader original content.

(This was also echoed Cindy Mochalny’s earlier presentation: Google ranks original content higher in searches than copied material.)

  • Ask yourself, why should the reader care about your blog? What are you offering that nobody else does — insight into a niche market, a unique viewpoint, access to places that are closed to your reader? Add your own flavour, location and perspective.
  • Everyone has a favourite author who writes with a certain style. As writers, we are tempted to emulate that style — but don’t. Your reader doesn’t want you to sound like someone else. (For instance, sweetie, you looked like Trouble when you walked through the door, so pull up a chair and pour yourself a shot while I describe how I sometimes write amusing little scenes in a faux Raymond Chandler style. But I would never think of making that “my voice”, since I would just sound like a bad imitation of Raymond Chandler. Long story short: Be you. Develop your own voice.
  • “Cross-platform” is the current buzzword — that is, reaching your audience across all of the social media — but be aware that each platform has its own voice, tone and preferred content. You can’t just hop from platform to platform, cutting and pasting the same content as you go. (More about the various social media below.)
  • Grow your community: share other people’s content. One of the outstanding charactersitsics of the craft beer movement is its collegiality. Brewer A is not afraid to tell the world that Brewer B makes an outstanding beer, because the more beer both of them sell, the greater the market penetration for craft beer overall. Likewise, making your reader aware of other good beer blogging content will not reduce your audience, but conversely, will make them aware that there is a larger world of craft beer commentary, and attract more viewers.

What then followed was a breakdown of the various platforms, and their distinctive needs:

Facebook:

1. Not everybody sees every post you make. As a matter of act, depending on your post content, very few people might see it. You see, Facebook decided a while ago that Facebook knows more about what the reader is interested in reading than the reader does. So despite the fact that you’re my Friend, Facebook decides which of my posts you will see. Facebook does this using a simple algorithm called “EdgeRank”: Affinity of Reader to Poster + Weight of Post + Time Decay.

  • Affinity is measured by how much the reader has interacted with the poster by Liking or commenting on previous posts, and how long the reader and poster have been Friends. If you’ve only been my Friend for 30 minutes and have not Liked or commented on any of my posts, you have a much lower chance of seeing my next post than someone who has been a Friend for three years and who has commented on every one of my posts during that time.
  • Weight of Post means that a simple Like has lower weight than a post or action with more content, such as a Comment, a survey, a post with a photo, a link to a news story, etc.
  • Time Decay: the older the content, the lower the ranking. So linking to a blog that was published 5 minutes ago has a greater impact than linking to a 3-year-old Youtube video.

This means if you simply Like a comment made by a brewery three days ago, very few of your readers will get that Like added to their News Feed.

Basically what it come down to is the more that you engage your Friends with timely, content-rich posts, the better chance you have that they will see it. More Engagement = More Views

2. Hand in hand with the above, figure out how your posts can engage your audience.

  • Talking WITH your audience has far more engagement value than talking AT your audience. Avoid text-only posts, which talk AT your audience and have a low engagement factor. Surveys and caption contests, on the other hand, demand reader interaction.
  • Photos have an engagement factor 1.8 x greater than text. Jeff gave us the example of one recent post on their Facebook page that was accompanied by a photo. Of 66 comments, slightly more than half were about the photo rather than the content of the post.
  • Questions are the exception to the text-only rule — they have twice the engagement of photos! Tamre gave the example of a recent Facebook post asking about summer beers that had generated 37 responses.
  • Don’t just post a link and expect your reader to click on it. Engage your reader by explaning what the link is about.

3. Who is your audience? What do they love (and what do they dislike)? Once you have this figured out, tailor your posts to them.

4. Don’t inundate your reader with posts. We all have Friends that we’ve quietly dropped because they post 673 items of low-interest quality every day. Be selective. Choose your best and most engaging content, the stuff that promotes your “brand” and style.

5. More about photos:

  • Photo albums are great,
  • Don’t forget to take advantage of technology: tag your photos!
  • Make sure your photos are of neat stuff. Don’t just take photos of people drinking beer or standing on front of a piece of equipment. Show people doing things. Show interesting items.
  • Share your photos across other platforms.

Twitter:

1. Twitter is what is happening right now, so give your Followers some insight into your life as a beer blogger as it is happening:

  • What are you drinking right now?
  • What food are you pairing your beer with, and how is that working for you?
  • Give them the good stuff — even mundane can work. Just ask why your Followers will care.

2. Hashtags

  • Great for organizing discussions. An example is the weekly #beerchat discussion on Thursday nights.
  • Also great for enabling your tweets to be found.
  • However, don’t overuse them. Anymore than 2-3 per post becomes confusing.

3. Pictures are great on Twitter. However, use Twitter’s photo editor rather than Instagram:  Instagram photos currently are not embedded into your tweet, meaning your Followers have to click away from Twitter in order to see the photo. They are much more likely to look at a photo embedded in a tweet rather than leave the Twitter feed and return.

4. Tweets have the lifespan of a fruit fly. People tend to only read the latest stuff. If they have been off-line for 6 hours, they will probably NOT scroll down to catch up on what they missed. So don’t tweet just once about your latest blog post.

5. Share the love: Retweeting other people’s tweets increases the likelihood that yours in turn will be retweeted.

Instagram:

  • Forty million photos are posted to Instagram every day. That’s an incredible number and well past the point that anyone has any chance of randomly coming across your photo. Engagament on Instragram is driven by followers and relevant hashtags. (The #craftbeer feed now has 750,000 photos. Wow.)
  • Unlike Twitter, Instagram plays nicely with Facebook. Instagram has also introduced a video feature for Vines (6 second video loops.)
  • Like developing a voice for your blog, find out what makes you unique on Instagram and deliver that to your audience.

Pinterest:

If you are looking to add a new platform to your group of media, check out Pinterest, which may have several points of interest for beer bloggers:

  • This relatively new medium, which is great for photos, has 50 million users.
  • In the U.S. its demographics skew to female.
  • The most popular topic is food.
  • Greatest hours of use are 7-9 p.m. on weekdays, and during weekends
  • It plays well with other social media and

Best of all, it has a high level of interactive engagement. Check this out:

  • On Facebook, 40% make a purchase after liking a photo of the product
  • On Pinterest, 69% make a purchase after pinning a photo

Here’s some suggestions for increasing your reach:

  • Curate a board (i.e. top 10 summer beers)
  • Find images from your blog and mix with images from elsewhere.
  • Link all pins to original content.
  • Share boards on FB & Twitter

Tumblr:

This is a community-driven platform. Proceed with caution. Think of it like high school: It can be hard, as a newcomer, to break into established groups. Try using hashtags, and (like high school again) follow influential groups to build some cred. Realize from the start that it will be harder to drive traffic to offers or websites than with other social media.

Google+:

Jeff and Tamre characterized Google + as still in its infancy, and more of a search tool at the moment than a viable social media site. However, like eating your vegetables, having a presence here is necessary, if not fun. Copy your Facebook strategies on Google+.

There are some cool toys, Google Authorship being one of the coolest. You can link everything you publish everywhere; everything you publish on your own or another blog is credited to you. Author Rank then takes into account quality content combined with Authorship. (This means your content will rank higher in Google searches — yay!)

LinkIn:

LinkedIn is about business, so only post beer content here if if pertains to business, or if you can find a business slant. Definitely separate your personal and professional lives and concentrate on the latter here. Obviously the business side of brewing is perfect for Linked In.

There are some great craft beer groups, usually focussed on sales and professionals.

Bringing it all together: An Integrated Strategy

Look at your social media. Then look at your audience. Don’t think of your social media portals as completely separate parts i.e. I have a blog and a Facebook page and a Twitter account and a Pinterest presence. How can you use all of them together to full effect? How can they work together to tell your story better? For instance, cross-promotion increases engagement on every platform.

The other important thing is to get your brand on all social media. If you have a blog and a Twitter feed called Greatest Beer Dude Ever, then nail down identically-named accounts on Google+, Pinterest, Facebook and Tumblr. This isn’t just so you can increase the presence and recognition of your brand as you start using these other platforms — and it will — but it also ensures that someone else doesn’t make a Facebook account for Greatest Beer Dude Ever, then start posting pictures of him and his high school buddies drinking to excess — not only will this clash with your brand values, but it will cause some people to equate the two brands — you have just become a wasted high school loser.

——-

All very interesting stuff, and doubtless much more could have been said. However, we had been without beer for at least and hour and a half, so it was time to get back on the Bus of Beer and head off to “Live Beer Blogging”.

Beer Bloggers’ Conference: Beer Lunch!

August 23, 2013

The hot, thirsty work of the morning seminars finished, surely it was  time for lunch (and beer). Yes, in fact the dinner bell did ring –symbolically if not in fact — and we moved to the dining room for a sumptuous four-course lunch, each dish paired to a beer provided by the National Beer Wholesalers Alliance. The lunch was hosted by a Certified Ciccerone (and unfortunately my notes do not include his name.)

gazpacho

First course: Gazpacho with croutons.

Up first was the soup course, a cool gazpacho paired with Rogue Brutal IPA (Oregon). This was the second consecutive beer & food pairing meal that had begun with an American style IPA. The grapefruit of the northwest hops didn’t play well with the  tomato and fresh cucumber of the gazpacho, and the IPA’s bitterness completely hammered the gazpacho’s light spiciness into submission. I thought something considerably lighter, spicier and drier would have married to the gazpacho much better — perhaps a biere de garde or saison.

Meal planners, I plead with you, leave the big IPAs until later in the meal, matched to smelly blue cheeses during an end-of-the-meal cheese plate (or for real fireworks, paired with a spicy hot curry).

second course

Second course: crab cake & fennel salad

The fish course was a crab cake and fennel salad matched to Stillwater Stateside Saison (Maryland). This was a better match than the previous dish, but as I suggested above, I would have paired this beer to the first course. I would have then paired the crab cake with a Belgian wit, looking for the light lemony spiciness the unmalted wheat brings. However, this pairing worked very adequately.

steak

Third course: Rare steak and sweet potato

The meat course was an even better match: barbecue skirt steak with roasted sweet potato paired with Lagunitas Wilco Tango Foxtrot (California). The caramelized sauce of the rare and oh-so-tender steak and the caramel notes of the malty beer were a perfect match, and a good example of how reinforcing a common note made the pairing greater than the sum of its parts.

pie

Dessert: Boston cream pie. OM NOM NOM!

Dessert was — of course — Boston cream pie, which had been paired to Allagash Black, a Belgian style stout. I liked both on their own, but I didn’t think this was a match made in heaven. Although the chocolate notes of the dark malts in the beer complimented the chocolate of the pie, the light dryness of the beer’s finish produced by the Belgian yeast was completely at odds with the heavy sweetness of the custard. Sometimes contrast works, but in this case, I would have either tried matching sweet with sweet, such as a big bourbon-barrel-aged stout, or tried contrasting with a very tart fruit beer.

In the end, even if I felt two of the pairings were less than perfect, the food was excellent, and the beers equally so.

Now my only problem was that I was having trouble finding the necessary gumption to get out of my chair and return to the conference room for the afternoon sessions.

Beer Bloggers’ Conference gets down to business!

August 20, 2013

Alright, enough of this beer drinking and partying and hanging out with Jim Koch and drinking all his Utopias. It was Saturday morning, and although many of the attendees seemed a bit more subdued then they had been at last night’s Heavy Seas’ Pyrate Party, it was clearly time to get down to business!

Seminar 1: The State of Beer Blogging

This was presented by Cindy Molchany, one of the conference organizers. A month before the conference, the thousand beer bloggers registered on the Beer Bloggers Conference website (even those that were not attending the conference) had been asked to fill out a survey. Cindy reviewed the data collected:

  1. The gender of conference attendees was 65% male, 35% female. (Although that may make the conference seem like a “guy thing”, female representation at the conference was actually substantially higher than would normally be seen in the general beer-drinking population.)
  2. The vast majority of beer bloggers (85%) are married and work fulltime (75%), but most don’t have kids (59%).
  3. Beer bloggers tend to be professionals (as opposed to service industry, blue collar workers, etc.)
  4. Half of beer bloggers don’t have any background with beer (other than as drinkers).
  5. Almost one-third (29%) have some writing background. (I am interested that, on the flip-side of the coin, over two-thirds of bloggers chose to start writing about beer despite having no writing experience — that’s brave.)
  6. Julia Herz of the Brewers’ Association had suggested the night before that we blog because of a passion for beer; her assertion was backed up by numbers: 89% of us had responded that this was our primary reason for blogging.
  7. Sadly, only 8% of bloggers make money from blogging. (I am part of the 92% who do not.)
  8. Most beer bloggers also use other forms of social media: 89% use Twitter and 67% use Facebook. (However, only 2% use Google+ and 1% use Pinterest.)
  9. Twitter was judged to to be the most effective at promoting a blog, followed by Facebook.
  10. The length of blog posts has increased, social media use has increased, photo use has increased, the number of people you follow has increased, but number of posts has decreased. Huh.

Cindy also mentioned a few other points that beer bloggers should keep in mind:

  • Google uses a couple of algorithms called Panda and Penguin to rate your website in terms of whether it is a high quality website that deserves to be at the top of the search results, or a barrel scraper that can be listed waaaay back in the pack. In a nutshell, Panda and Penguin look for signs of “black hat Search Engine Optimisation” — that is, clever but evil ways to boost the search ranking for a page of spam. The way to boost your blog’s search rating the proper way is to rely on original content. Don’t copy and paste from another page or review — type your own thoughts!
  • Get your photo on your site. Turns out people like to see who’s doing the typing.
  • If you are interested in going down the self-publishing path with some idea of making money from this crazy game, there are a number of good self-help resources that will assist you through the publishing labyrinth. (And here’s a big hint: the world is drowning in books about wine, and wine & food pairings. But there are huge gaps in the beer side of things. If you are a good writer, there’s an opportunity for you.)

At the end of the session, Carla Companion made the following suggestion from the floor: If you want more traffic, review a popular macro beer, then recommend some better craft beer alternatives.

Seminar 2: Industry Blogger Panel

In the States, there are a fair number of craft breweries that are big enough to employ a person to write a blog. (In Canada, there are very few craft breweries that are large enough that they can afford to pay someone to write a company blog. Steam Whistle is one of the exceptions. But wouldn’t that be a sweet gig?) Four professional bloggers sat down to chat about their experiences: Anne-Fitten Glenn (Oskar Blues Brewery), Troika Brodsky (Schlafly Beer), Cambria Griffith (The Bruery), and Devin Mason (Woodchuck Hard Cider). Very interesting reminiscences. One potentially valuable takeaway from Devin: If you are looking to build a niche blog, cider sales grew by 85% last year — throw in a few cider reviews and it will expose you to a new audience.

Seminar 3: The Mechanics of Beer Pouring

Franck Evers, the Heineken Global Draught Master, was the amusing host of this presentation. From the glass to the pour to removing the very top of the foam with a knife, Franck explained every step and why it was necessary. (For instance, apparently the very top of the head is very bitter due to bitter alpha acids that are carried to the top of the head. Removing the top of the foam with a knife removes this bitterness. On the other hand, I know some hopheads who would fight Franck tooth and nail on this one.)

And then we suddenly realized we had gone the entire morning without a beer. It must be time for lunch…

Beer Bloggers’ Conference: More Jim Koch

August 18, 2013

In reading over my last post, I realize that I churlishly skipped over the content of Jim Koch’s keynote address. So I thought I would turn on the Wayback Machine, and fast rewind a few hours:

Just to reset the scene, we were sitting in the Samuel Adams brewhouse at Boston Beer Company in the Jamaica Plain neighbourhood of Boston. Jim Koch, the company founder, was the opening keynote speaker of the Beer Bloggers’ Conference.

Jim Koch

Jim Koch, beer in hand, gives the keynote address.

With glass of beer in hand, Jim took us on a journey back to the early 1980s, when there were exactly zero breweries in Boston. At one point in time, there had been as many as 31; that included the Haffenreffer Brewery, which had started up in 1870 right where we now sat. Haffenreffer brewed continuously for the next 95 years — except during Prohibition — until, as the last operating brewery in Boston, it finally shut off  its taps in 1965.

The situation in Boston wasn’t unique, of course — in the years following the Second World War, most independents and regional operations in both Canada and the U.S. were bought up by large national companies dedicated to churning out millions of barrels of “industrial yellow”.

So Boston was without a brewery from 1965 until Jim moved into the old Haffenreffer building in 1984 as part of the “first wave” of North American craft brewing. By February 1985, he had sold a total of 25 cases of beer. Then in June 1985, his Boston Lager was voted “The Best Beer in America” at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, and things took off.

The Jamaica Plain area was not a healthy neighbourhood in those days. Gangs had carved it into a patchwork quilt of territories, and woe betide the member of a rival gang who wandered onto another gang’s turf — as Jim told it, the usual punishment was to take the interlopers’ shoes, tie them together and toss them over a telephone line near the turf boundary, leaving the trespasser to walk back to his home turf barefooted. Jim had an unwritten deal with the local gang: they kept an eye on the brewery at night, he left some cases of beer in the back of an unlocked delivery truck.

In the beginning, craft brewing was really about restoring traditions, rediscovering the Old World styles that, in some cases, were not even made in their countries of origin anymore due to the preponderance of international lager. Jim was a part of that for a while, but at some point found that it got boring recreating what had already been created. (Jim believes that what sets craft brewers apart from the multinationals is a “fierce spirit of innovation.”)

Jim started to think about extreme beers and the technical issues of how to push yeast beyond 14% abv without resorting to distilling. As he put it, “making extreme beer is just the brewer’s way of having fun.” The result was Samuel Adams Triple Bock, which came in an unusual blue glass bottle and clocked in at 18% abv. However, its harsh hot taste was more akin to strong medicine than beer. Jim pondered this a while, then thought about what bourbon makers do to smooth out their product — they age their whiskey in barrels. He phoned Bluegrass Cooperage in Kentucky about purchasing some used barrels. When asked why he wanted to buy so many, Jim told the man on the other end that he wanted to fill the barrels with beer. There was a pause, and then the man drawled, “Don’t think that’s legal, son.” The legalities were eventually sorted out, and Jim barrel-aged for the first time in 1992.

Collegiality is another hallmark of craft brewing. Jim noted that with over 2500 breweries in the States, finding an original name for a beer is getting more difficult. He has about 10-20 naming disputes a year with other breweries, and so far a conversation with the other brewery has usually been enough to resolve the issue.  Jim’s advice — and you’ll hear the same thing in any marketing class — is to thoroughly research product names before investing money in labels, caps and advertising.

Of course Boston Beer Co. now produces over 3 million barrels a year (2.4 million hectolitres), which is far beyond the capability of the small brewery in which we sat. Almost from the start, Jim contracted the large-scale brewing of his beer to other breweries in various locations. The original brewery in the old Haffenreffer building is now Jim’s “playground”. Every Samuel Adams beer has started in this brewery — except Jim’s original beer, Boston Lager, which was brewed up in his kitchen. In addition to the copper clad system in front of us, there is also a nano-brewery on site that can do nine different brews in a day.

Jim is always looking to innovate, saying you can’t put boundaries on innovation. Take the beer can design I mentioned in my previous post. Generic aluminum beer cans in North American are identical, whether they are used for carbonated soft drinks, fruit juice, or beer. The lids of these cans are actually much smaller than lids used even a few years ago. That’s because someone figured out that since the lid is the most expensive part of a can, making it smaller would make the can a tiny bit less expensive. But Jim was sure that the steep slope of the can from its widest point to the small lid made it more difficult to taste what you were drinking — your  lips are too tightly pursed while you are drinking. As I related in my previous post, two years of modifying and testing the parameters of a new can design resulted in the Samuel Adams can — its larger lid and different profile allows your mouth to open more widely, resulting in a greater inhalation of aroma and therefore more taste.

This cost consciousness that sacrifices taste for increased profit is at the heart of the large multinational breweries. Jim doesn’t think large multinationals are evil incarnate — in fact, he believes that Inbev may be the best run consumer products company in the world. But they don’t have the same heart and soul as a craft brewer. Multinationals exist solely to provide value for their shareholders via lower operating costs.

Jim reminded us that craft brewers can’t fight with each other — the Big Boys are will simply swoop in and pick off the survivors. Yes, some craft brewers have been bought up — Goose Island being perhaps the most recent example. However, Jim is proud of the fact that there are a lot of American craft brewers who could have sold out for a lot of money — but very few actually have.

Back to the Future: We skip forward to where we left off — Saturday morning’s seminars.

Beer geek road trip: Sam Adams, Jim Koch and me

August 15, 2013

sam2Now that the Beer Bloggers’ Conference had started, it was all business… if by business, you mean drinking more beer. The first stop the Bus of Beer took us to was the Boston Beer Company, better known as the home of Samuel Adams beer.

The Boston Beer Company has lauded Sam Adams as a Boston “Patriot & Brewer”, and he certainly was two of those things: a fiery revolutionary and a resident of Boston.

HSam Adamsowever, the historical record seems to suggest that he was actually a failed businessman who went to work in his family’s malting business because he was broke. So he was probably a maltster rather than a brewer.

Regardless of historical facts, let’s assume that he probably liked beer, so the illustration of him brandishing the overflowing tankard is likely an accurate reflection of his appetite for beer, if not his actual occupation.

From the Bus of Beer, we moved into the lobby, and gawked for a few  minutes at the many awards, the tasting lab and a complete collection of every product every produced by Boston Beer.

tunnel

Walking through an old fermentor to get to the brewhouse/meeting room.

We next walked through a shiny metal tunnel — it took me a moment to realize that it’s supposed to be a beer can — and into the brewhouse. (Edit: I received an email from Jamie Magee, editor of Yankee Brew News, in which he states:[the metal tube] is actually an old brewing vessel. Used to have explanative brewing process photoboards on the inside…” Ahh, he’s right, now that I take a second look, we are walking through an old fermentor. Of course.)

The brewhouse had been turned into a meeting room, and sitting on each chair was an ice-cold can of Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Although some people popped the top immediately, I set mine aside since I’m not a big fan of drinking straight from the can.

copperAs we sat waiting, we got a chance to look around the room at the shiny copper vessels. Of course this small system isn’t the place where Samuel Adams beer is brewed, this is just an R&D system for developing recipes. Like many modern “copper” systems, the copper is just for show. Copper and the caustic solution used to clean modern brewing systems don’t play well together, so usually there is a stainless steel vat hiding under the copper cladding. (After the meeting I asked a brewer if this was the case, and he assured me there was a stainless steel system under the copper coat. But the copper looks nice.)

The first speaker was Julia Herz of the Brewers Association, a group dedicated to the promotion of craft beer in America. It was Julia’s job to get us fired up, and she did so with gusto. It’s up to beer lovers, she said, to bring craft beer to the people. And nobody loves beer more than beer bloggers. We write because we love beer, not because we’re making money at this blogging thing — in fact, it had cost most of us several hundred dollars to be there.

Julia poohed-poohed the idea that the craft beer industry was a bubble that was going to burst. Yes, there are almost 2,500 breweries and brewpubs in American, but she pointed out that in 1887, there had been one brewery for every 29,400 people; today, the ratio is only one brewery for every 130,600 people. In order to lower that ratio back down to 1887′s number, America will need over 10,000 breweries. She also pointed out that nobody thinks there is a winery bubble, despite the fact that there are over 6,000 wineries today. And there is also the fact that the preponderance of craft beer drinkers are Millennials (in their 20s) and Gen X’ers (in their 30s) — in other words, they are going to be around and drinking beer for a lot more years.

Of course, she admitted there is a lot more work to be done. And that’s where beer bloggers come in — our enthusiasm and knowledcge will help to educate both the public, and the food writers (who generally don’t know much about beer.)

Jim Koch

Jim Koch holding a Sam Adams Boston Lager while he talks

Next up was the star attraction of the evening to deliver the kick-off keynote address: Jim Koch.

Jim founded Boston Beer Co. back in the early days of the craft beer movement. His company has been so successful that recently the Brewers’ Association changed their definition of a craft brewer from a brewery that makes less than 2 million barrels (2.4 million hL) per year to one that makes less than 6 million barrels (7 million hL) annually. The change was made because Boston Beer Co. passed the original limit.

Jim  is a pretty informal guy, and delivered his extemporaneopus comments while drinking one of his own beers. The first thing that he did was to invite us to open that can of Sam Adams Boston Lager that had been waiting for us. Firstly, Jim’s experience is that people who drink beer are more interesting. Secondly, he wanted to demonstrate the technical details of the can.

sam adams can

Sam Adams can: the curve below the lid is slightly longer than normal

It turns out that the Sam Adams can is different from other standard beer cans. The diameter of the lid is slightly larger. The dimple of the “lip” below the lid is slightly longer. The opening in the lid is placed slightly differently. All of this is to force our lips to connect to the can slightly differently. Jim told us this would enhance our taste experience. (By now my can was slightly warm, so I didn’t open it. However, I brought it home; in a couple of days I will try a side-by-side tasting with a standard can of beer and report the differences.)

Jim related some of his experiences in getting the company off the ground, and also took questions. He evidently enjoys this sort of talk; It took some time for his media relations person to catch his eye and signal him to wrap it up so we could move on to dinner.

cupcakes

Sam Adams cupcakes

Supper consisted of several buffet stations. Needless to say, several bars were also open, and were serving about a dozen different beers. I thought the cutest things were the cupcakes, each with an edible picture of Samuel Adams perched on top.

Now, all of this had been very interesting, and if we had gotten back on the Bus of Beer at this point, I would not have complained. But the best was yet to come.

barrels

Utopias is currently being aged in these bourbon barrels.

We had each been given a little sticker with a time on it. (Mine said 7:00.) At the given time, we were to gather at one of the exits for a special tour. So at 7:00 p.m., Elaine and I left off noshing and went on the special tour — which turned out to be a short walk into the barrel-aging room, the special room where batches of Samuel Adams Utopias are aged in various barrels for up to a year.

(I have mentioned Utopias before–an incredibly rare and expensive 27% abv beer. Only a few thousand numbered bottles are produced each year. The LCBO gets perhaps 200 of these, and sells them for the bargain basement price of only $115 each. I say “bargain basement price” because in the American free market, bottles are normally priced from $200 to $300. This year is even more special because it is the 10th anniversaryof Utopias, which called for a special black bottle signed in gold by Jim Koch.)

Utopias

Liquid gold: Utopias

Jim Koch was waiting for us in the room behind a table covered with dozens of glasses. Each glass contained one ounce of liquid gold: Utopias!

(I’m only partly jesting about “liquid gold”; at current US prices, each glass was worth about $12.50 — or more likely about $30 in a bar.)

Jim Koch

Jim Koch, Utopias, and our buddy from last night’s Sebago dinner, Dave Ackley from Asheville NC

This wasn’t just a shooter competition, though — Jim led us through a complete tasting, probably spending more time on the aromas then on the taste.

It really was a bit of heaven smelling that intense nose again — dark fruit, sweet brown sugar, well-cared for leather, cognac, brandy, vanilla, and so on and so on. The nose just would not give up.

And the taste… Beer for the rest of the evening would taste just a little bit less like beer. I suppose we were supposed to only drink one sample, but the taste was too intense for Elaine, so I graciously agreed to drink hers.

Utopias glasses

Utopias glasses designed and made by Riedel.

Jim also showed us his special Utopias glasses made by Riedel, which were designed specifically to enhance the aroma. (They almost didn’t get made, though. Jim contacted Riedel about getting glasses made, only to be told that Riedel didn’t make beer glasses. Jim cleverly thought to send them a bottle of Utopias; three days later Riedel was back on the phone, sounding much more enthusiastic about the project.)

Jim had filled one glass almost full, and the other glass with the standard one ounce. He passed around both glasses and asked us to compare the aromas. I was surprised by how much difference there was — the aroma of the full glass was pleasant, but the nose on the nearly empty glass was like a piece of heaven.

Jim explained that in the nearly full glass, some of the lighter volatiles spill over the lip and are lost. In contrast, there’s enough room in the nearly empty glass to hold all the aromas.

My one disappointment of the evening was that the Sam Adams retail store did not stock the Riedel Utopias glasses. D’ohh!

Heavy Seas Pyrate Party at Stoddart's

Heavy Seas Pyrate Party at Stoddart’s

If the Bus of Beer had returned us to the hotel at this point, I would have considered it a very decent day. But wait, there was more! Apparently it was time for more beer, so our next stop was Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale. Arrrr, maties! Heavy Seas Brewery was throwing a “Pyrate Party”, complete with complimentary eyepatches. Entertainment included a limerick contest (one limerick to be completed for each sample of their beer you drank).

Several limericks and several Heavy Seas beers later, although many of the beer bloggers looked capable of staying until last call, Elaine and I were ready to call it a night; we walked back to the Park Plaza and tumbled into bed.


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