New England: The Region for Lagers?

Ales have flourished in the United States ever since homebrewing became legal in the late 1970s. India Pale Ales are exploding, while darker porters and stouts also enjoy wider prominence than they did in the past couple decades.

But what about lagers? Seemingly, the major conglomerates of AB Inbev and MillerCoors still own the word “lager.” For many, it still means a light, yellow, American beer that can be consumed in a fraternity basement or at a baseball game.

Two months ago, I considered which regions could excel in certain beer styles, especially with rye beers from the South. Could New England become the American capital of true lagers?

Lagers can take any form that brewers desire. They are only constrained by yeasts and fermentation temperature. Lagers can be any color, flavor, or alcohol level.

I imagine that lagers will experience a renaissance in the next craft beer generation. Today, however, Jack’s Abby Brewing is innovating with lagers.

Located in Framingham, MA, Jacks Abby brews India Pale Lagers, black lagers, wheat lagers, white lagers, and a variety of other fascinating beers. The brewery, founded in 2011 on a Massachusetts farm, asks all their customers to “Drink Lager.”

Hoponius Union, an IPL, is a fresh and crisp alternative to the IPA style, which can sometimes overwhelmingly dominate with loud hop profiles.

Resource costs, as well as the need for lower temperatures, discourage microbrewers from creating lagers. Fermentation must occur at a lower temperature than that of ale, requiring refrigeration facilities.

However, as New England has brutal winters, I wonder if the seasonal frigidity of northeastern blizzards could enable more efficient production of the lager style.

Jack’s Abby has started something great. Brewpubs can imitate the business practices of this first mover in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

In fact, this movement may also disrupt the Boston Beer Company’s dominance of the craft beer market. With their production of over two million barrels a year, the holding company of Sam Adams doesn’t fret about competition in their own backyard. Boston Lager is on tap at almost every pub in Massachusetts.

However, what if, as the BBC is distracted by IPAs and their 29 other different kinds of beer, an upstart created a darker, richer lager that competes with the Boston Lager?

That’s what I hope to see in the next five years. I welcome the new tastes, and I celebrate American ingenuity in this sphere.


Think Globally, Drink Locally, Buy Small Internationally

American “craft” beer is a locally brewed adult beverage. It is not to be confused with mass-produced, conceptually derivative swill from multinational manufacturing corporations like AB InBev or MillerCoors… —The New Albanian, 2010

Craft beer started as a local, hand-crafted movement to create great beer distinctive from that of the diluted lagers of Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors. In the 1980s, when the “movement” started gaining momentum, brewers started homebrewing beer styles that they actually enjoyed drinking.

Today, American craft breweries are officially  “small, independent, and traditional,” according to the Brewers Association.

As “craft beer” started making its way into liquor stores and the homes of more Americans, Anheuser Busch InBev and MillerCoors awakened to the profit potential of these new styles. Thus, they started buying distribution networks.

AB InBev distributes Goose Island around the country. MillerCoors started brewing Blue Moon in 1995. Many other examples abound.

The New Albanian, who blogs at The Potable Curmudgeon, wants to see another concept added to the definition of craft beer: locality. As the first homebrewers become larger, craft beer is losing its communal status. To combat this, beer drinkers need to drink more beers from their home regions.

According to the blogger, there are 10 commandments for why “buying local first” is beneficial to local economies, communities, and microbrewers. Buying local means “a return to local and the emergence of sustainable economies.” The New Albanian’s mantra is to “think globally, drink locally.”

I agree with the mantra, but I think we must add “buy small internationally. ”

First, a definition of terms. Essentially, localism means that when we consume, we should avoid chains as much as possible. Local bars, local hardware stores, local pharmacies, local farms, and local breweries should be our first choice most of the time.

I happen to agree with the concept, and I don’t think that low prices should be our sole focus when shopping. While WalMart can provide the cheapest options, we lose a part of our communality when we spend time in such mega-marts.

I’ve realized this firsthand. As a city boy, I have to make an effort to participate in a community. While everything is within a mile of my front door, I also do not have a personal relationship with my neighbors. The concept of “buying local first” is foreign to me.

In contrast, for some small towns, the community exists already, and the citizens rely on each other for provisions and livelihoods.

New Albany, Indiana is one of those places. It’s unsaturated as it the town is a growing region, and new entrepreneurs do not have to worry about cutthroat competition unless it comes from bigger chains.

But what about larger metropolitan areas that are already saturated? What about Portland, Oregon and Leuven, Belgium for brewers? What if a sustainable farmer wants to produce a new type of lambic, but can’t market it in a local township that already has hundreds of brands?

Enter Andre Janssens of Hof ten Dormaal in the Dijle valley of Belgium.

Stan Hieronymus posted about the local brewer on Appellation Beer this week. The New Albanian’s entreaty for localism and the story of Hof ten Dormaal both relate to “drinking locally.” However, what happens if a sustainable farmer can’t enter his own local market, but can import to a relatively unsaturated foreign country?

American beer drinkers can help these small brewers by buying from importers. “Buy small internationally.”

Mr. Janssens grows barley and bittering hops on his family-owned farm in Leuven. He stores the beers he makes in barrels on the property. The entrepreneur even created an innovative form of lambic, a sour Belgian beer style that naturally ages in open tanks.

The microbrewer discovered that one could brew the style outside of the Zenne valley, which is home to many native wild yeasts and bacterias.

Mr. Janssens, unfortunately, does not excel at marketing and selling his products. He failed to sell to local bars, as the market itself is already full of traditional lambics.

Fortunately, a US importer somehow discovered his brewery, which now composes 90% of Hof ten Dormaal’s market.

I understand the importance of buying local. But doesn’t “thinking globally” include helping such small brewers as Janssens’? We should “buy small” internationally as well.

Globalism benefits such brewers as Andre Janssens, who fits the definition of “small, traditional, and independent” almost perfectly. He is, however, not local to the United States.

If he can’t make it in his local market yet, we as “global thinkers” can help him do that. Marketing is easier in an interconnected world.

While globalism has killed some small businesses in the U.S., beer drinkers should feel comfortable with striking a balance between buying local and buying small internationally. We can buy from smaller microbrewers from around the world, as long as we still “shop local first.”

Indeed, I want to add an addendum to “think global, drink local.” Let us also “buy small internationally.” This may mean refraining from buying beer from the top 10 biggest craft breweries in the United States; primarily, it means that we should consume products from small artisans everywhere.

Websites such as Etsy enable these exchanges. The U.S. importer buying from Hof ten Dormaal is also doing its own part.

The 21st century economy does not have to oppose localism; it can enhance it if we think globally, drink locally, and buy small everywhere.

What I’m Reading This Week

Jeff Alworth pens a great primer on cider at his blog, Beervana.

  • Don’t miss Roger A. Baylor’s weekly drinking adventures at The Potable Curmudgeon. They’re hysterical, enlightening, and wonderfully articulate.
  • As last Friday was D-Day, I’m currently reading Martyn Cornell’s post on how British pilots flew beer to their fellow troops in Normandy. Something to do with filling “jettison tanks” and “beer bombs.” Check it out here.

Oliver Gray of Literature & Libation produces lyrical prose, and he applies this month’s   theme by mixing Dogfish Head 60 Minute and 90 Minute to produce the “75 Minute IPA.”

After reading it, I want to find two beers to mix myself!


Ale of the Week: Porkslap Farmhouse Ale

Every summer, I fly to Canada with my family to vacation in Muskoka, about two hours north of Toronto. I’ve been doing that since I was one year old.

We’d drive to our cabin on the lake from Toronto, stopping at the famed Webers burger joint on the drive. Often, thunderstorms would roll in to release the humid air.

Liberty was the rule there; you could kayak, swim, read, or nap on the hammock. You can drink, soda, beer, or gin and tonics, depending on your age.

As a kid, I used to drink a lot of ginger ale; Muskoka Dry to be specific. Canada Dry was the obligatory default, but the spicy balance of the former appealed to me more in the humid thunderstorms of Ontario.

Since that time, I’ve tasted a variety of “artisanal” ginger beers from independent soda companies. I always search for a ginger-forward beverage, as Schweppes and Canada Dry usually overload their bubblies with high fructose corn syrup. They might as well be flavored soda water.

I even brew my own ginger ales. The experiments create an ideal ginger snap taste, much like this week’s Ale of the Week.

The Butternuts Porkslap Farmhouse Ale, made in Garrattsville, NY, is a spring seasonal; in fact, I avoided it as I didn’t want to write about farmhouse ales a second time.

It tastes similar to Shiner’s FM966; ginger may have been the mysterious defining flavor in that beer.

The Porkslap is a great “ginger beer,” in that it’s an ale brewed with the spice. I would bring this beer to Canada if I could. It’s the adult version of Muskoka Dry, but the malt replaces the sugar.

If you enjoy ginger beer, buy a six-pack if you still can. At only 4.3%, it’s a great session ale or even a digestive beer for after dinner.

For all those who dislike hops, definitely try Porkslap. With ginger as a savory and spicy hop replacement, the ale is like no other.

Porkslap Pale Farmhouse Ale—Butternuts Beer and Ale, Garrattsville, NY

Color: Hazy gold; like Martinelli’s Sparking Cider, but less translucent

Aroma: Ginger snaps; possibly some nutmeg; similar to FM966

Taste: Bready malt; ginger takes over for hops nobly; great beer for late summer or early fall; Light body, relies on ginger to balance all malt recipe

I would certainly drink four of these on a late summer night. It’s delicious, crisp, and reminiscent of innocent summers on the lake.

I Saw America at the Beer Bacon Music Festival

I stood outside a chain link fence, peering over hundreds of heads for the mountains of bacon. I had already seen the kaleidoscopic tents of Troegs, Sierra Nevada, and Rogue from the parking lot; it was the bacon that was hidden.BeerBaconMusic Glass

The heat of the bodies around me, along with the eager excitement of the crowd, dropped me into another place: a baseball stadium. For a moment, I forgot where I was; I thought I was going to watch my team best the visitor. We were all here to cheer for home, and it smelled like it.

I can’t even describe the aroma. It’s like the smell of the air after a rainstorm: a nostalgic aroma, one that is completely unique to its surroundings.

For me, it’s the smell of America: the sharing of abundance with a local group. Circling around the grill during the summer; elbowing up to the bar in the evening; praying around the dinner table with family.

Guys, the ticket scanners aren't working.

Guys, the ticket scanners aren’t working.

This was the Beer Bacon Music Festival at the Frederick Fairgrounds in Frederick, Maryland, and nothing could upset me on that spring Saturday.

Not even the fact that my friend and I had to wait 45 minutes in line because the ticket sensors stopped functioning.

Nor the fact that the bacon never appeared; in fact, they ran out of bacon early in the day because of irresponsible planning.

I even considered leaving early, but I gave it another chance. Thank goodness I did.

The Beer Bacon Music Festival came to my attention through Twitter. The event’s official account followed me a few months ago. Since I’m a beer blogger, I decided to attend with a press pass. Overall, the staff was very friendly and accommodating, though the organizer never returned comment on my interview questions.

As soon as I entered, I knew that this festival was no ordinary party. This was a mecca of joviality. People in t-shirts and hats made of Coors Light cases wandered through a wonderland of alcoholic euphoria. I was in an amusement park with no rides, no annoying costumes, and great beer. LineofTents

Frederick is a rural town in Maryland filled with farms, warehouses, and a few freeways. Yet thousands of people flocked to drink craft beer here at the fairgrounds, and the organizers had no idea how popular it would be.

The social media messages and advertising banners screamed the presence of over 100 different kinds of beer and two tons of bacon. I was eagerly looking forward to the drinking, so the dearth of bacon didn’t concern me.

The air was alive with joy; I exchanged cigarettes with one of the Troegs tap operators, who gladly filled my glass three times in succession for the favor. That was the first time I tasted DreamWeaver, and it shall always remain memorable.

These acts of charity arise from simple interactions. Beer and meat, with some music on the side. Does it ever need to be more complicated?FrederickFair

The beer tents were arranged in a square. I estimated that 20 to 25 of the nation’s best breweries attended. Rogue’s Champagne Mead and Starr Hill’s Double Platinum Imperial IPA were my favorite beers. I may never see those again on tap, which is tragic, but at least I will always remember them.

A variety of food trucks created their own circle northeast of the tents. Immediately we went to the pulled pork truck, with their 10-foot long train smoker. I didn’t even realize it was a smoker until I walked behind it to eat.

It’s very difficult to beat great beers and a pulled pork sandwich on a hot day in the Old South.

After living in Washington, DC for a year and a half, I will remember this for years to come. Yes, living four blocks away from the National Mall will hang in that gallery of memories, along with working for a 47-year old national magazine. But the latter never comforted me.Lagunitas

The Beer Bacon Music Festival comforted my soul.

It all goes to show that man is a simple creature. We speak and squabble on Capitol Hill as if money or power can fulfill us, but when we sit down at a common table over alcohol and barbeque, all other matters disappear.

That simple nature explains why every person, whether they enjoy beer or not, should go to a beer festival at least once in their lives. It doesn’t have to be in the United States; I’d rather go to an Oktoberfest in Germany than a Beer Bacon Music Festival in the US.

No matter the location, these festivals reveal a small part of the soul of a nation. Beer is the drink of the common man, and brewing communities are debatably much stronger than those built around wine or liquor.

Brewers love to share innovations with each other, while beer drinkers detest elitism in all its forms. I myself find the world of beer easier to access, not only because of its association with college imbibing, but also because of its lack of pretension.

Do yourself a favor and put a beer fest on your bucket list. Go and enjoy it. Don’t Tweet about it; don’t take any pictures; wear a t-shirt; and take a cab.

Go out and discover America.


Which Craft Beer Trends Will Disappear?

Welcome back to work! I hope everybody enjoyed their Memorial Day weekends. We are definitely blessed to live in a prosperous nation protected by the bravest of men.

Amidst celebration with my fraternity in Philadelphia over the weekend, I read a fascinating story in the Wall Street Journal about food trends.

Over the past 60 years, US food culture has obviously grown.

The United States of America matured through frozen food, Julia Child, fast food, the Atkins diet, farm-to-table, and many other trends and subcultures. As a nation of immigrants, our culinary traditions vary, giving us hundreds of options, but no way of knowing how to eat nutritionally.

Michael Pollan explains it all in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I highly recommend.

Throughout the history of our modern cuisine, there have been certain trends. Cupcakes are trending now; frozen yogurt used to be huge.

Author David Sax describes six expired trends in his WSJ contribution, including fondue, baby spinach, and chocolate lava cake. Read it here when you have a chance. 

Is the craft beer community experiencing certain trends? The industry as a whole will continue to expand into the larger American beer market. As it does, some styles will probably disappear.

Popular styles such as IPAs will always exist; however, I’m skeptical about the long-term existence of heavy porters and stouts with a variety of adjuncts, such as Duclaw’s Dirty Little Freak.  

Fruit and wheat beers, such as Bell’s Oberon Ale, Blue Moon’s Belgian White,  and the Shandy style as a whole, will become increasingly popular as new beer drinkers discover the delicacy of craft.

Because the craft beer world is full of niches and nanobreweries, I can still imagine many of these “trends” existing on a smaller scale. Small scales do not a trend make.

If craft beer eventually grows to at least 10 percent of total beer volume in the US, these questions may all be answerable.

Have you gone through any beer trends? Will anything disappear in the next two years? Does this concept apply to craft beer?


Summer Ale of the Week: Victory Summer Love

“A beer and a dog.”

Field of Dreams immortalized that combination for me when I was 10 years old, sitting at the feet of my father.  The only time I ever saw my father cry was at the end of that classic American film.

“A beer and a dog is tradition,” my dad said down to me. “Forget all that sushi and other stuff they sell at the ballpark now.”

The ballpark in reference is AT&T Park, which had just recently opened in 2000. It opened with much fanfare, displaying San Francisco’s plethora of culinary options. After all, why focus on the traditions of America when one has so many options? Why go only to watch the game?

Granted, baseball used to bore me. Now I love watching my San Francisco Giants struggle to the pennant. Whenever I go the park, whether at AT&T or Nationals Stadium, I buy a Bud and a dog.

Even craft beer seems foreign to me at the baseball stadium, never mind the outrageous prices. A cold lager and a dog lets me focus on the players, the strikes, and the runs.

Victory Brewing Company is reaching out to men and women who love baseball this summer. That’s why it released its Summer Love Ale with a baseball portrayed solidly in the center of the label.

The ale is a history lesson in a bottle. Made with both German two-row malts and American hops, the beer reminds us that such folks as Adolphus Busch and Eberhard Anheuser brought lagers to the ballpark in the 19th century. If not for them, our tradition, immortalized in that classic movie, would have been completely different.

The Summer Love, brewed with German pale malts and Tettnang Tettnang, Simcoe, and Citra hops, combines those lighter, bready lager flavors with big American hops. Thus, it ends up tasting like a pseudo-Shandy, perfect for drinking on an 80-degree July evening.

Congratulations, Victory. You convinced me to expand my traditions to include a good American beer from Pennsylvania. Kudos.

Summer Love Ale—Victory Brewing Company, Downingtown, PA

Color: Pale yellow, like PBR or Budweiser

Aroma: Heavily hopped, probably dry hopped; Citra, Simcoe hops dominate with mango-citrus aromas. The Tettnanger Tettnangers provide some underlying floral notes.

Taste: It tastes like it could be a session IPA. The German malts exude a subtle breadiness, but the hops expand to impart a carbonated lemonade taste. The body lies resolutely on the tongue, thought it has a light flavor.

The Summer Love is a great baseball beer for a non-humid evening because it doesn’t leave a huge flavor impression, but it awakens the taste buds with its three hop varieties.

I would drink 4 pints of this at a  baseball game.