The aroma of wood smoke is something that is particularly tied to the fall season for me. Sure, cool air, changing leaves, and pumpkins get me in the fall spirit too but it isn’t until that first whiff of campfire that I’m really there. Here where I live, in the mid-Atlantic, as September heads into October the weather takes a perfect turn for the backyard campfire. In the town where I grew up, you could almost always pick up the scent of burning hardwoods in the air during autumn months, especially if it was coming from the elaborate fire pit my parents constructed in our backyard.
Now, fall already has its fair share of seasonal flavors that like to imbue themselves upon every imaginable edible product. You’ll find caramel apple flavor in all your hot beverages, butternut squash in everything on every restaurant menu, and, of course, pumpkin spice flavors in all food and drink products sold between the months of September and December. But my treasured smoke, on the other hand, gets less attention. Honestly, that’s probably for the best; I don’t think smoked Oreos would go over that well. There is one place, however, where smoky flavors work quite well: within the flavor profile of beer. MORE
A few years back, while I was driving through the States, I passed a hitchhiker holding a sign that read “Hiking for Beer.” This abstruse notice made me wonder. Was he offering drivers beer for their service or if this were the goal of his trip — to hitchhike in search of the best beer across America — did he hope motorists would empathize with his mission? But I also got this idea in my head: I could hike, too, but proper hiking…for beer.
I had trekked a number of impressive trails. They provided a communion with nature; a temporary retreat from modern distractions; an enhancement of necessities, making the simple feel luxurious. A bag of gorp was forest caviar. Tap water from a rusty faucet tasted as if it had flowed from the purest mountain spring.
But after a long walk among green trees or russet mountains, nothing compared to drinking a golden brew; this was a luxury heightened to the libations of royalty. Of course, a beverage of this nature was never actually enjoyed in nature. Typically, after a hike I would have to scrape off the mud from my shoes, scan my body for ticks, and then jump into the car and drive out of the forest if I wanted to end with an ale. MORE
Visiting the Coors Brewery has about the same feel as getting on an amusement park ride. A line forms just outside the main gates of the largest single-site brewery in the world guided by the familiar zig-zag of a metal railing. When you’ve reached the front of the line, a small tour bus driven by an enthusiastic retiree picks you up and gives you a grand tour of the two-stoplight town of Golden, Colorado, from its gold rush heritage to Adolph Coors’ decision to open up a brewery there. The bus then drops you at the visitor’s entrance where you’re greeted by local kids working part-time jobs. They ask you to put on a cowboy hat made of beer cans and pose for a photo in front of a Coors-themed backdrop. From here, you are free to wander through the tour area listening to a self-guided tour recording (not in Sam Elliot’s voice, unfortunately) and getting a peek at some of the inner workings of the brewery.
The company’s chairman, Pete Coors, is having a hard time understanding the recent craft beer boom. In an interview earlier this year with the Denver Post, he states that he’s “baffled” by it. Whereas craft beer brands grew 7% last year, light beers like Coors Light showed no growth and bargain brands like his Keystone showed negative numbers. Coors is then quoted: “In this economy that is difficult to understand.”
In fact, his company has gone to great lengths to show that it’s better to have their beer on tap. “People stay in their seats an average of 18 minutes longer when they have a light premium beer on tap. That means they are spending more money, leaving bigger tips. We have a little algorithm and an app that we give to our distributors to evaluate and analyze these businesses and bars,” he’s quoted as saying. I had these sentiments still fresh in my mind during the tour of Coors’ headquarters I took while on a recent Rocky Mountain beer trip.
There’s no contending the trend: salt is hip. To be more exact, the addition of saltiness to typically unsalty food items is hip. Falling victim to it is almost unavoidable. Within a recent one-week span, I sampled chocolate sea salt donuts, ordered a cone of salted Oreo ice cream, noticed a salted caramel latte on a café menu, and was tempted to buy salted caramel chocolate squares from a convenience store. To be fair, salting the unsalty isn’t a groundbreaking new idea. There have always been things like melons wrapped in cured pork, or a dash of salt on a breakfast grapefruit, or, perhaps the oldest salted unsalty treat of them all, a beer called gose.
Mentioned in the history books over a millennia ago, this funky beer is brewed with wheat and spiced with coriander and salt. Just like salted caramel ice cream is gracing the menu of every corner ice cream shop, variations on the until now unheard-of gose style are popping up on brewpub tap lists across America. Refreshingly tart, low-in-alcohol, and salty enough to keep you drinking more, gose has become a go-to summer style for craft beer drinkers. But the style didn’t exactly take on easy path to widespread popularity.
The Great Margarita Disaster of 2014 is upon us. People are panicking, dipping into their savings accounts, even, to shell out the 50 cents to a dollar it now costs to purchase a single lime. Some, in desperation, have even resorted to using lemons. But just as one devastating crop shortage is reaching its peak, an even more threatening shortage looms on the horizon. Thanks to the explosive growth of the American craft beer industry, it has been forewarned that a shortage of hops is imminent. Yes, that means your favorite pint of hop-heavy IPA could lighten your wallet even more in the near future.
The craft beer industry may only make up 7% of the total U.S. beer market, but it packs over half of the total U.S. hop harvest into its fan-favorite pale ales, IPAs, double IPAs, and countless other styles. The hop farmers of the Pacific Northwest can’t keep up. To make matters worse, the purchasing of hops is mostly done via futures-based contracts. Bigger companies are already staking their hop claims as far into the future as they can afford, leaving the up-and-comers with a questionably hoppy future. Most brewers seem to agree that if the time comes, they’ll adjust financially to compensate for the increased cost or rework recipes to get more out of less hops. But these aren’t the only options.
“The beer here is flat and warm!” I overheard this statement being exclaimed by a confused and disappointed patron at my neighborhood craft beer bar recently when greeted by a friend. He was referring to a pour of the recently resurgent “cask ale” — not necessarily a style of beer, but rather, an alternative way to serve it. The once-forgotten serving method results in beer that is indeed warmer and flatter than your typical keg pour, but for good reason. Along with the so-called “nitro” pour, casks have gained traction as a respectable way to serve beer at bars around the globe. These serving styles bring unique characteristics to the texture and flavor profile of beer that can’t be found in standard kegs or bottles.
That isn’t to say that cask or nitro pours are any better or worse than beers from a traditional tap, bottle, or can. Each method, paired with an appropriate style of beer, can enhance the drinking experience. But the first step, so that you don’t end up confused and disappointed like the poor guy above, is to understand what these methods are, why they exist, and, most importantly, why you would want to drink flat, warm beer in the first place.
The disciplined lifestyle of a Cistercian monk is structured by a steadfast routine. The first prayer starts well before sunrise. A simple breakfast follows, maybe toast and jam, before the next prayer begins. Afterwards, solitary scripture reading occupies the time leading up to the main prayer of the day. By 10 AM or so, it’s time to do some chores. Maybe you’d have a shift doing laundry for the other brothers or performing some repairs around the monastery. Or perhaps, if you resided at one of a select few abbeys of the Trappist sub-group, you’d fill the time between Mass and dinner dumping malted barley into a mash tun full of what will soon become some of the world’s most highly regarded beer. For hundreds of years monks have sustained their way of life financially through the sale of handmade goods, beer included. Unchanged for many years, the Trappist brewing community was content with brewing a select few beers and brewing them well. Through a recent flurry of activity, however, they have made their high-quality ales more relevant than ever before.
“Gimme a lager.” Where I’m from, speaking this phrase at your average neighborhood drinking establishment results in a very specific response: a glass of Yuengling Traditional Lager placed in front of you. No options listed, no questions asked, just lager. To us native Philadelphians, the word lager is just shorthand to refer to the most popular beer from America’s oldest brewery. The real definition and expansive reach of the style are unknown by many.
This isn’t just a Philadelphia problem. Across the country, the word “lager,” and most especially the sub-style pilsner, conjures up images of cheap beer in cans from big name corporate brands. But lager brewing at its full potential is much more. In fact, the lager brewing process has been responsible for some of the most richly flavored, deeply layered, and perfectly balanced beers ever made. But what is a lager, anyway?
Yeast is everywhere. Taking refuge in wall and rafters, on the skins of hanging fruit, and even floating along the breeze, it’s an omnipresent and essential element of any location’s native ecosystem. For centuries, beer relied on this. Left out in the open or stored in a vessel that held the previous batch, fermentation was a process uniquely tied to the environment of the brewer. As science moved forward, however, the invisible yeast cell was discovered and reliable, controllable lab-cultured organisms took over the brewing world.
But, in one small corner of Belgium, this spontaneous fermentation technique persisted. With its intense sourness and layered complexity, the style known as lambic is one of the most prized and desired exports of its native land. And until recently, that native land was the only place where it was made. The risky, time-consuming nature of the brewing process has kept it at home in Belgium’s Pajottenland for much of history. Now, with a perfect storm of adventurous brewers, a changing public palate, and an intense focus on locality hovering over the beer world, the processes used in lambic brewing have found their way across the Atlantic and into the repertoire of today’s most cutting-edge beer producers.
The iconic vessel of the lambic process is the coolship. A large shallow pan usually made of copper, the coolship does exactly what you would expect: it cools things. After the unfermented beer, called wort, is mashed and boiled, it must be chilled down to a more hospitable temperature (generally 60°-75˚F, depending on the strain) so the yeast can begin its alcohol-producing duties. These days, this task is usually performed by a heat exchanger, but before the advent of refrigeration, every brewery had a coolship to get the job done. The hot wort would be pumped up to the coolship on the roof or in the rafters and left overnight, exposed to the wild microorganisms in the night air.
Sometime between 7,000 and 5,600 BC, along the banks of the Yellow River, an early inhabitant of modern-day China left behind a jug that was once filled with the earliest known example of a fermented grain beverage. With no written recipe or recorded history of the Neolithic concoction, the contents of the vessel were left to evaporate and decay during its long burial, fading into the past. Today, however, roughly 9,000 years later, you can go to your local beer store and walk out with an alcoholic concoction brewed to that seemingly lost ancient recipe. How is that possible? Through the unlikely union of traditional archaeology, modern chemical analysis technology, and the adventurous craft-brewing industry, tasting a 9,000-year-old beer has become as easy as picking it up off the shelf.
Ah, the holidays. They’re a special time for giving thanks, giving gifts, and enjoying the company of loved ones. Oh, and they’re also a time for spiked egg nog, champagne, mulled cider, punch bowls, Manischewitz, and birthday shots for Jesus. There’s nothing quite like alcohol to keep your bones warm, your disposition cheery, and your get-togethers enjoyable. And when it comes to holiday drinking options, nobody has you covered like the beer industry. At this time of year, beer stores are packed with rows and rows of bottles with seasonably corny labels representing a broad spectrum of different styles. You’ll see anything from pitch black imperial stouts to mahogany-hued abbey-style quadrupels to bright golden IPAs. At first glance, it’s hard to find any common ground among these beers, but in fact, they are all variations on a tradition that’s deeply rooted in the holiday spirit.
“I don’t order IPAs anymore because I never know what I’m going to get.” This sentiment from one newcomer to the craft beer scene is becoming an issue for others in a similar position. Fueled by the American public’s thirst for hoppiness, the classic English style known as India Pale Ale has spawned dozens of variations but very little consistency. Just within the American IPA subcategory, a vast multitude of flavor profiles can be found. To make things even more complicated, dozens of new subdivisions have sprouted up. English, American, Belgian, red, white, black; modern takes on this historical beer have thrown plenty of adjectives before its name. By pushing the boundaries, craft brewers have sent the true historical IPA into extinction. Here’s how it happened.
While largely unspoken, it’s a widespread truth that just because a beer is “craft,” doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will taste good.
As the American brewing industry continues to grow, the topic du jour for many media outlets is saturation. When will the craft beer bubble burst? How many IPAs can consumers stomach? Is there room for new players in the community when microbreweries are competing against their peers and not the multinational beer conglomerates? Who gets the tap handles?
I personally believe one can’t have too many local beer options at one’s fingertips, but the discourse has aroused a nagging question in my head. For me, it’s not “how many breweries can one city handle,” but at what point do the quality operations rise to the forefront of the movement and the ones producing lackluster beer start to falter because their products are inferior? When do people start acknowledging that just because it’s “craft,” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good?
I’m tired of all these pumpkin beers and their silly names. When did it become a requirement to brew liquid pumpkin pie two months before fall even starts? Sure, the first few you drink when they hit the stores way too early in September are great and heighten your anticipation of the upcoming autumn, but there’s only so much pumpkin and allspice a person can take. Although I could easily rant about pumpkin beer for hours, I won’t waste your time. Instead, I’d like to be constructive and suggest an alternative.
Beer and food have always been natural bedfellows.
While everyone can benefit from knowing which style of beer best complements a good blue cheese, or the best crafty recipes for integrating stouts into your holiday dinner, there’s an emerging school of beermakers who are looking beyond the obvious ways beer and food intersect to craft their house ales and lagers.
Brewers across the country are taking notes from the kitchen, approaching recipe development and production techniques as a chef might, by cultivating relationships with local farmers, sourcing seasonal produce, and finding ways to make sure ingredients are manifested in the beer in simple, honest ways.