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Posts Tagged ‘craft beer’

This afternoon I was sifting through one of my favorite blogs: ilovecharts (because I really do) and came upon this crafty radar plot for a beer review:

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Now, the use of a radar plot isn’t exactly new in wine or beer evaluation.  It was originally used for alcohol reviews in scientific research and plenty of examples can be found in the Wine Science text book that sits on my bookshelf in my dining room (because I need easy access when I’m drinking).  This one though was created by the guy at beeritual.com and you should certainly head over there if you’re into craft beer reviews or at least for the fact that he does a great job with his photography (much prettier and a whole lot more consistent than mine) and he created his own rating system, which you see an example of above.  However, for those of you that followed my sensory series on how we experience wine (start here), you may also have questions like I did.  And so, I’ve put them together below:

QuestionsFromAWineGuyDespite these questions, I think the approach is a good one, meaning it is helpful/entertaining for craft beer consumers.  The thing about radar plots is that they look kinda cool regardless of what data points are on them or if those data points actually go together.  They are very good for comparing the plot points of one sample to another though which is kind of the whole point.  It’d be nice if some wine reviewers got a little more visual with their reviews.  As much as I enjoy prose, hyperbolic poetry does get a little old, which is probably why I write things like this.  Cheers!  Here’s to drinking nerdy.

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Is Templeton Rye, really a lie?

Is Templeton Rye, really a lie?

Do you read the whiskey news? Of course you do, you whiskey slugger, you.  Given that, you’ve probably heard recently of the troubles some “Small batch” whiskey producers are going through due to some…let’s call them inaccuracies of their marketing efforts.  Your know the story: “We’re making the same whiskey that pappy used to make during the Prohibition Era.” And people have apparently enjoyed the story, because they are buying lots of these products.  Are consumers victims if they buy a product based on the marketing and not because of the product itself?  I will leave that up for debate amongst you all, but let me dive into some of the more technical aspects of these conversations that bother me a bit.

A quick summary of the situation:  Numerous distilleries of whiskey (Interestingly enough, primarily rye whiskies) have previously marketed their products as “Small batch” and are being sold with the suggestion that they are local products coming out of places such as Iowa, Utah, and Vermont.  Through some surprisingly dedicated journalism, a good handful of stories are coming out about how most of these whiskies are actually produced out of huge distilleries like MGP-I in Indiana. Amongst the general outrage, a law firm is gearing up to attack the companies that buy what we term as “bulk” whiskey from a mega-distillery, perhaps do some blending of their own and then bottle it up and sell it as their own product.  This is a practice called Private Labeling and is used in just about every product category you can imagine from food to clothing.  And I can bet at some point you’ve probably stood in a store debating between two products that were created by the same company and now have two different labels on them.  The solution being proposed is to force these private labelers to disclose on their labels where there product was distilled.

Now let’s get into some of the details.  First up, what exactly is considered to be “Small batch” anyway.  In America, we have no legal definition so someone making 254 bottles (About 1 barrel’s worth) and someone making a million bottle’s worth of whiskey could both put “Small batch” on their labels if they wanted to.  For reference, here are what some well-known producers consider to be small batch courtesy of the compiled numbers at Wikipedia:

Batch sizes

  • The company that produces Maker’s Mark says that the traditional definition is a whiskey produced using “approximately 1,000 gallons or less (20 barrels) from a mash bill of around 200 bushels of grain“.
  • Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, a producer of bourbon and rye whiskey, uses at most 12 barrels per batch for its small batch brands.
  • George Dickel uses “approximately 10 barrels” of whiskey to make each batch of its Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey brand.
  • Jefferson’s Bourbon – Jefferson’s Reserve (“Very Small Batch”) gives the bottle number as being “x” of 2400 x 750ml bottles in the batch. This would equate to about 9 standard bourbon barrels (200.6L per barrel)

Second, let’s address the whole “local” issue.  Because we live in America, and our alcohol laws are more concerned about controlling who drinks it rather than the quality of it, if you’re drinking American whiskey (or beer for that matter), it is most likely not made from local ingredients regardless of where it is actually distilled.  Malt, that pivotal ingredient utilized for its sugars to feed to the yeast that turns it into alcohol will most likely come from the Upper Midwest.  The barley that companies like Rahr Malting and Cargill utilize can come from all over North America.  Therefore, part of the American beer or whiskey you a drinking could have actually come from Canada.

Third, as a subpoint to the above, where the whiskey is distilled (most likely utilizing its non-local ingredients) will have no bearing on the quality, flavor, or uniqueness of the end product.  Locality in American whiskey (or beer) doesn’t matter since we do not have unique regional styles (Reminder: Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S. as long as it’s primarily from corn).  Compare this to Scotland, whose whiskies have distinct regional styles and you can easily distinguish between a whisky (spelling due to Scottish prefernces) made in the Islays compared to one made in the Highlands.  If you truly want a local whiskey made from local ingredients, using old traditions and that maintains a distinct regional style, try Springbank.  It’s one of the few distilleries that malts its own barley.  Of course, a bottle of their 25-year old may set you back $600+.

Additionally, the act of distilling (separating the alcohol from the other content of the mash to some degree) can be done in any environmental conditions with the same result because the things that truly affect the product like the type of still you use, the materials that still is made of, the temperature control of the still, and how you blend the cuts, are not constrained by the geographic location.  The quality of the end product is a result of the quality of the ingredients and the skill that went into distilling it.  This is theoretically easier to accomplish in smaller batches, but there are some large producers (MGP-I) that do a fantastic job in large batches.

To summarize then, in America we don’t have any legal definitions as to what the term “Small batch” means, nor do we have anyway to verify how local a whiskey product is (not that it would necessarily give us an indication as to how it would taste).  Oh, I almost forgot, we don’t have any definition as to what the words “Artisinal”, “Craft”, “Handmade”, or “Traditional”.  Hopefully though, you as a consumer have seen these words on bags of potato chips and wised up that they usually mean absolutely nothing.  Ironically, in the past marketers would shy away from these terms because they usually meant the product was inferior.  Legally, we do have a definition for the phrase “Distilled by” however, which has actually never been used by any of the cited whiskey producers in the lawsuit who have instead used “Bottled by” or “Produced by” instead.

Personally, I’m all for transparent labeling of any product and forcing whiskey producers to admit that they are really just private labelers is a good step.  My own ventures recently into the Private Labeling world have given me a new perspective, but a lot of the craft distillers have pushed the envelope of having a good backstory a bit too far.  However, we should also probably create a legal phrase that a producer can use to denote that they sourced their ingredients from local or regional growers.  Until then, the true story behind a whiskey (or beer for that matter) will look more like a supply chain readout of your car manufacturer.  Of course, the wine world already has this figured out this whole labeling thing so maybe we could just look over there instead?  Or just drink more wine…but I may be biased in that.

 

 

 

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photo (1)My home of Minneapolis is full of people who are rather enamored with beer.  I’m not talking about bros grabbing a cold one as they scan for ladies between rounds of Buck Hunter* (as apparently all of us do according to a now infamous NY Times article).  What I’m referring to is the insurgence of Craft Beer that has gained a strong foothold bolstered by people passionate about not just drinking beer, but how it’s made, how it works, and most importantly, how to infuse unique and artistic flair into something that has long been a mass-produced product.  Admittedly, I can in no way be classified as a “Beer Drinker”, but I still watch the movement as well as sample their progress along the way because it’s cool.

As the movement has been progressing it has been looking to the world of wine for a little guidance.  Some of it has been general instruction on how be called “Fancy” at dinner parties, but there has also been a push to pair beer with food á la food and wine pairing (the greatest experience known to humans).   Honestly, most of it I have seen thus far has been, to put it very nicely, a bit of a stretch.  Food science is generally ignored with this effort and it seems mostly to be an exercise in filling content for media to gain the Craft Beer lovers as a readership demographic.  So it was with that mentality that I quickly read a few lines of an article entitled: “Beer Vs. Wine” in our local beer rag, The Growler.  I skimmed over the first few lines of a portion someone had pointed me to about pairing beer with food and promptly walked away with disgust.  The author had sought guidance from a sommelier who gave him a list of Dos and Don’ts and I thought to myself “There is no hope for these people!”

After having a brief conversation immediately following that about why I thought pairing food with beer was worthless (Yes, it was mostly me talking), I began to question whether that was an accurate statement.  This was after of course actually pairing a seasonal lager with a dish of andouille sausage and walnut/spinach pesto over a bed of spaghetti squash as seen above and struggling mercilessly to define whether it actually paired well or not.  The next day I actually read the full article and you should too.  It’s a pretty good article.  The author’s conclusion is actually that beer and food pairing is just beginning so people are still feeling their way around the whole concept which I would say is a good summary.

Yet over the past 24 hours my mind has begun to ponder possible interactions between beer and food and I’ve decided that what the beer community really needs is a good framework in order to begin to hash out their own guidelines (not rules) about beer and food pairing.  With that, I humbly offer some points from the evidence-based wine world to get them started.  I honestly look forward to future progress and I think there will be some surprisingly wonderful results.

Work with good chefs.

The craft of wine making developed alongside the craft of cuisine.  Why it was wine instead of beer or another beverage, I have no idea, but regardless, this means that wine and food already have a partnership.  Wine makers have generally assumed that their product was to be consumed alongside food and chefs traditionally assume a fine meal will be accompanied by some wine.  In other words, sometimes they are literally made for each other.  However, if a chef designs a meal with a specific beer in mind, the results will be much better than just trying to pair a beer to a dish already thought up.  Keep in mind though, that I don’t think any beers are made with the specific thought that they should be consumed alongside a meal.  So once the chefs are willing to give a little taste of what they can do, it would be best to return the favor.

Map out the relationships between the components of food to the components of beer.

This is something the wine world is just starting to do, but the fact that knowledge exists on this topic, it should be incorporated.  Maybe I’m missing it, but I can’t find where things like acidity or alcohol are being evaluated on standard beer evaluation methodologies.  Maybe they don’t matter when judging the quality of a beer, but they sure do matter when pairing with food.  What happens when you mix the varying acidity levels of beers with spicy foods? Why do parts of beer (i.e. carbonation) go well with salty foods? Ask questions and try stuff out.  This is an area I can certainly help with.  From this experimentation, guidelines can be developed and referenced.

Avoid Dos and Don’ts.  Especially Don’ts. Focus on explaining the experience.

We have plenty of fallacies in the wine world that have manifested themselves into rules about what we should or shouldn’t do instead of just stating why something we are experiencing is happening.  There are plenty of sommeliers that will tell you never to pair a big tannic red with a light fish.  However, if you cook up that fish in a creamy or butter sauce, make sure there is enough salt or citrus acid to reduce the astringency from the tannins, and then force the pairing down someone’s throat, they’d probably think it was pretty good.  Therefore, once you have guidelines based on what is actually being experienced in a pairing, let the chef planning the menu or the person consuming the meal decide whether or not they want to experience a certain aspect of the pairing or not.

Encourage the consumption of beer with a meal. Not necessarily by itself.

This is something America as a whole needs to do a better job of.  There are a whole host of reasons as to why drinking with a meal and not consuming alcohol by itself leads to a healthier lifestyle.  Having the Craft Beer movement be part of this push though would also help establish itself as a beverage that can add to the dinning experience.

Consider alcohol levels.

The alcohol content of wine has slowly been inching upwards so now wines are more commonly reaching the 15-16% ABV levels.  It is generally agreed that these higher levels may perhaps be too alcoholic to blend with a dish because they start to overpower them.  We are also seeing fewer wines being sold in the 11-13% range which is unfortunate, because this is a generally appreciated area for alcohol to be when being paired with food.  So while beer generally sits below the 5% range, some of the more crafty ones are being delivered at higher levels with good results.  Now, I think this will vary with the type of beer being made, but my personal opinion is that the most sublime opportunities for beer and wine pairing will be with beer around 9% ABV.  The point is that the wine world is leaving the bottom level open for you if you’d like to come in out of the rain.

*As an aside, I played Buck Hunter for the first time down in Iowa a couple of weekends ago…I still don’t get it.  

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