Football & beer is a balancing act

The new football leagues across are kicking off during the month of August (Sheffield Wednesday thankfully started with a win) and the new English Premier League season starts this weekend. This is not going to be a post about beers and their local teams but rather an emerging trend afflicting both beer and football, the lack of balance.

I had the opportunity to attend a tasting given by Doug Odell recently (more on that later this month) and his family-owned business produce wonderfully balanced beers out of Fort Collins, Colorado. This got me thinking about a number of beers, seasonal or otherwise, that are simply lacking in something. A fair few were using hop assertiveness as a sort of masking-agent in a similar manner to over seasoning a pasta sauce to cover up or more likely to compensate deficiencies. Now, this is where the comparison with football comes in.

Over recent seasons there’s been a rise in the number of goals scored in football matches (see below). In the Premier League for instance, the average has risen from approximately 2.5 goals per game to 2.8 since 2006. In the past three World Cups, it has been a rise from an average of 2.3 to just under 2.7 goals per game. More goals are being scored and worryingly less of premium is now placed on defence. The imbalance within teams can be seen. Take for instance Robin Van Persie and his £24 million transfer to Manchester United back in 2012. The club appears to have calculated in some sort of Moneyball-esque fashion that his 26 goals that title-winning season would more than offset the deficiencies in their back four.

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Fifa

Beers can go one way or the other. They can be too sweet or eye-wateringly bitter but what makes a good beer is balance, a true skill and craft brewers often refine this through trial and error. We can see some of our favourite beers evolving over time but sadly the obverse is also true, how often can we read how some perennial favourites of old are no longer the same (Duvel anyone?). Balance in beer can be subjective of course. Hopheads for instance go looking for the bitterness, although they don’t want to search to hard; they’d rather be hit up front and have it continue right through to the end.

Balance in both beer and football depends on its constituent components. One doesn’t have to sacrifice itself for the sake of another however. A team that can score a shed load of goals and defend well can be a force to be reckoned with. The art of defending is not the same of playing defensively.  It can be the same with beer. Hops, malt, yeast and water can work together in harmony. Take a superb IPA like Magic Rock’s Cannonball, which has got the much desired hop aromas, flavour and bitterness in abundance but is importantly balanced by a sweet malt base. It brings out the sweet citrus flavours. Some of the newer European IPAs are swapping caramel and/or biscuit bases of their American cousins in favour of clean bodies that emphasise the freshness of the hops used. The same rings through with the use of other additions to beer (e.g. herbs, spices and fruit) and their respective impact on other ingredients. Too much coriander in a Belgian Wit for instance and that’s what dominates.

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So last week I finally cracked open a bottle of Vote Sepp from BrewDog, a single hopped wheat beer with hibiscus flower. It’s the latest in their line of beer satirism and Ryanair-like tendency for self-promotion. Their target this time is “tireless football führer, Mr Blatter”, particularly due to the farcical awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar (not just because they’re in the brewing game).

The beer is apparently “best served from brown paper envelopes to aid drinking with greased palms” but I only had a trusty tasting glass at hand. It poured like sparkling rosé, which raised some eyebrows from fellow customers. The head can be best described as a dollop or two of cream. The aroma consisted of floral notes. Thanks to the use of the Motueka hop, it drank dry and flowery. There were lemon and lime flavours too. However, it lacked the anticipated tartness and was more watery than flavoursome as one would hope from the addition of wheat. It was a beer that was lacking and thankfully trying this in Probus Wines, Paul suggested trying it with a squeeze of lemon juice to see how it would be with a higher level of tartness and it undoubtedly improved.

The beer is far from the promised “perfect balance of tartness, bitterness and body”. Was this the final satirical poke from the BrewDog boys?  Fifa, the Blatter-headed organisation, which manages the beautiful game is intensely disliked due to accusations of bribery, fraud and the like? Is it similar to watching the Premiership on Sky Sports that tells us the very game was a cracker even though we watched it with our very eyes and came to a different conclusion? If it is, then fair play to Fraserburgh’s finest for pulling it off, otherwise this beer is simply living off their hype. Some of these releases, while small batched, put me off their better balanced beers in terms of Punk IPA, the often under-appreciated 5am Saint and of course Hardcore IPA.

But with the new season upon us, one can only hope the quality of the football and the beer will improve through achieving better balance…

Things even peachier for US craft beer

Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.

At the beginning of July I posted a piece on the US craft beer industry and the healthy state it was in. I based this on data available from the Brewers Association (BA). Since then, however, new data was released by Internal Revenue Service covering breweries operating at the end of June 2014 in the US and was published by the BA. There are now 3,040 breweries across the US. This is represents a 7.7% increase in breweries since 2013 and the number of breweries operating is at the highest level since the 1870s.The BA estimates that 99% of breweries are craft and that the majority of Americans are no more than 10 miles away from a brewery. The figures aren’t fully analysed and I’m looking forward to reading them when they’re released.

In the same piece, I mentioned that the Kentucky Peach Barrel Wheat from Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. was going to be available in limited quantities in Ireland. I had the opportunity to taste it this past weekend. You’re immediately hit by an aroma of sweet peach and vanilla oak. There’s also a nose tingling effect resulting from the bourbon warmth. With the head clinging to the side of the glass, it pours extremely pale, a light gold and is filtered clear.

You get the peach up front but the bourbon takes over, matches with the sweetness though. However, you’re hit by the aroma on each sip; similar to a tropical shampoo taking over your senses when washing your hair. It’s drinkable, dangerously so when compared with the snifter sipper that is the bourbon barrel ale. This beer has also spent six weeks in used casks.

I’m not one for cocktails (I prefer the Bellini with just the champagne) but I can see that at 8% ABV this beer is aimed at those who do. On the other hand, when you take into account the popularity of fruit wheat beers out there and in particular Sweetwater Blue (with blueberries and at 4.9%) out of Atlanta, this beer could perhaps be lower in alcohol and still achieve the same impact. Doing something like that could prove to be a big seller (even on a seasonal basis) if they wanted to re-release it on a more regular basis.

Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.
Had to get the right glass to try this beer from, a mason jar of course.

It would be good to see some more lower alcohol bourbon-inspired ales on the market. Take for instance BrewDog’s Bourbon Baby at 5.8% ABV. It’s a scotch ale aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels. There’s rich, sweet fruits on huge nose. The beer pours dark and topped by a frothy head. There’s the expected vanilla woody notes on huge taste and sweetness continues into the finish complete with a warming sensation. According to Fraserburgh’s finest: “This is light. This is dark. This is Bourbon Baby”.

There's certainly room in the market for lower (albeit not too much) bourbon barrel aged beers
There’s certainly room in the market for lower (albeit not too much) bourbon barrel aged beers

Enjoy the Founders 5 in Ireland

Michigan is one of those States that does not necessarily have strong connections with Ireland. It’s heavily influenced by Germanic immigration. Known because of the American auto-industry, Motown and Detroit is the home town of 8-miler Eminem and its most famous son, Beverly Hills Cop Axel Foley.  However, beers from Founders Brewing Co. from Grand Rapids have made it over this side of the Atlantic and they can create a new affinity with the Great Lakes State. In the brewery’s own words it has “been lucky to evolve into one of the highest recognized breweries in the United States” and has been “ranked in the top four breweries in the world by Ratebeer.com for the past four years in a row (4th in 2010, 2nd in 2011 and 2012, 3rd in 2013)”.

I have had the opportunity to spend some time visiting my wife’s family in Michigan and it quickly became apparent that this is a State that is serious about its beer. I suppose it would have to be the case because it’s bloody freezing there (I would like to point out that I didn’t visit in the summer and it was snowing when I was there at the beginning of October). Big, bold and hoppy flavours abound (Shorts Brewing Co. up in Bellaire, Michigan is a great example – it also has ballroom dancing if you’re that way inclined). Michiganders are a hardy bunch all the more so because of the hardships the State has endured over the slow decline of heavy industry and naturally, they needed the beers to match.

American craft breweries are famous for having a “philosophy”. They’re held in the same reverential awe like Jerry Maguire’s “The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business” mission statement. In the case of Founders, the company’s “simple” philosophy is:  “We don’t brew beer for the masses. Instead, our beers are crafted for a chosen few, a small cadre of renegades and rebels who enjoy a beer that pushes the limits of what is commonly accepted as taste. In short, we make beer for people like us.”

Five beers from Founders’ core range have made it to Ireland and they give a great insight to Michigan beer. Unfortunately, due to a beer tasting that I was hosting I was unable to attend the event in Dublin on 10 October where Drogheda-native Niall Little who from the Founders’ sales team (coincidentally he worked with one of my wife’s cousins in a previous distribution company) introduced the beers to a Dublin audience. Apparently they’re obsessed with drinking beers as fresh as possible over in Founders and you can read an excellent piece by @Beermack_ on the event. So having all five beers at home, I naturally decided to have a little tasting by myself. I also got into the spirit by watching some of the chat between my Michigander relatives about the college football games (they seem to be equally split between Michigan State and the Wolverines). Interestingly, Michigan got beaten in overtime by Penn State, who will be playing in Croke Park next August.

All-day IPA (4.7%)

Plenty of pine and orangey citrus aroma with a tangerine-sweet flavour. Certainly not full bodied and as it says on the tin (or label in this case), it can be enjoyed all day long. Labelling hints at outdoors and the pine aroma recreates this in a glass. Perfectly sessionable with a bitter kick to boot. What’s great is that this beer adds the the growing number of fantastic sub-5% abv hoppy beers on sale in Ireland (e.g. Brewdog’s Dead Pony Club and Continuum by Hardknott).

Dry hopped Pale Ale (5.4%)

The ale with plenty of Cascade hops. Expecting the usual citrusy grapefruit traits but certainly not the sweet like aroma this beer displayed. Do you remember Trebor Fruit Salad? If you do, that’s the type of pinapple perfume you get on this beer. The beer’s freshness gave the aroma a strong reminiscence of recently harvested red fruits particularly strawberry and cranberry. Extremely dry tasting, the fruit flavours try to break through at first but they quickly surrender.

Centennial IPA (7.2%)

Can be summed up as sweet peach and pineapple in a glass. Founders may upset hopheads because they like to focus on balance and they back up their beers with a sweet malt body. The initially a sweet taste makes a swift but smooth transition to a dry, bitter body. Pleasantly bitter for a straight-up IPA.

Founders Porter (6.5%)

American brewers brew some remarkable porters and serious breweries all have at least one excellent porter in their repertoire. Founders is no different and theirs is extremely rich with a sweet velvet full-body. It has the hallmarks of a good Belgian Dubbel but not as sweet as a barley wine. Vinous notes on the nose. Everything signals chocolate from its tan head to its black oil appearance to its flavour of course. There’s s smoky aftertaste and sharp dark chocolate bitterness – a combination from the black malts and the copious amount of hops added.

Dirty bastard (8.5%)

I’m not a whiskey drinker but this beer has those familiar vanilla notes that you would find in Jameson. I do however like Scotch Ales but recognise that they are an acquired taste. This is very much in the category of sipping beers, much like McChouffe. Sweet notes coming through upon tasting but the vanilla flavours remain throughout. The ale is chewy in keeping with its toffee-like flavours but thankfully it is not overly sweet. There’s a tiny lacing for a head and a ruby reddish/ruddy brown appearance. Apparently this is their flagship beer.

Seriously? Really?

Brewers are constantly pushing the boundaries in coming up with new ideas for their beers. We’ve seen every type of wooden barrel chocolate, tobacco, coffee (civet coffee for example) used. Given that it’s October pumpkin beer is commonly expected. A decade or so ago I tried a beer containing actual shamrock from Strangord Lough Brewing Company. This took inspiration from old-school brewing that can be best tasted in the form of Fraoch heather ale from Williams Brothers.  But what I’m talking about here is the addition of unique ingredients that seriously try to push credibility factor.

The production of sours is “wild”-spread (pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist). They may not be called Lambics for legal reasons but they are produced nonetheless by similar methods. But what about one produced by yeast cultivated for a brewer’s very own beard. That’s what Rogue Ales did. Taking natural yeast from John Maier’s beard (it had been present for over 15,000 brews), they produced Beard Beer.

source: www.johnsbeard.com

Is pushing the boundary with such brews a sign of just how competitive it is out there amongst craft breweries? Or is it means of generating free media attention? I’m not necessarily accusing people of being gimmicky. Brewdog’s Never Mind the Anabolics anyone? Produced to coincide with London 2012, the beer that could genuinely get an athlete kicked out of the Olympics.

However, the latest has to be Dogfish Head’s Celest-jewel ale. The Oktoberfest-style beer was brewed lunar meteorites that have been crushed into dust (in addition to the German malts and hops of course). According to the brewery, the resulting product is  5% ABV with 25 IBUs has “notes of doughy malt, toasted bread, subtle caramel and a light herbal bitterness” and in particular the lunar particles contribute a” subtle but complex earthiness. (Or is it mooniness)”. Unfortunately, it’s a beer that will be confined to annals due to its rarity, some of the raw materials cannot be cheap.

Sam Calagione at the launch of Celest-jewel ale. Source: www.dogfish.com

Nevertheless, these beers show that creativity is alive and well and that brewers are constantly on the look out for breakthroughs in addition to making incremental innovations in existing styles. Some of them might not be favourites or even drinkable but one thing for sure is that they certainly raise the interest level in beer. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Revolution in Red, White & Brew

The week being in it, there’s nothing more appropriate than to start with the country where the revolutionary beer war began. Ever since that lunch in the original Spaghetti Factory back in 1965 where Fritz Maytag learnt of the impending closure of his favourite brewery and purchasing a 51% shareholding the very next day, the slow re-introduction of choice and taste into the American beer market began.

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Fritz Maytag has to be viewed as one of the original authors of the declaration of independent choice. It was his original vision of “small is beautiful” along with the 1975 tax breaks then effectively defined the term of “craft” beer. The Brewers Association defines such breweries as “small, independent and traditional” and that was Anchor Steam to the core.

Aspiring brewers such as Ken Grossman, who would go onto found Sierra Nevada, paid pilgrimage to the brewery to see how it could be done, as well as searching out sage advice from another early revolutionary, Jack McAuliffe. The New Albion Brewery was the first “new” brewery to be established from the ground-up, unfortunately it was to close in 1982 but its legacy lives on. Boston Beer Company recently produced a beer dedicated to this founding father.

Jim Koch started what was to become the largest US independent brewery (along with DG Yuengling and Sons) in 1984, with Boston Beer Company’s Sam Adams being brewed in Pittsburg. On the night of Paul Revere’s famous ride to warn people that the British were coming, it was to warn John Hancock and Sam Adams that there were to be arrested. They were in Lexington at the time and so began the American War of Independence. Revere’s actions to warn Sam Adams and co was to be commemorated by Maytag through the special release of Liberty Ale on the the bicentennial of the event in 1975. There was no more appropriate beer to pay homage to this historic event as the beer itself was to create history in the craft beer movement. It was the first beer to be brewed using the Cascade hop, which was only developed in 1970. While the beer itself disappeared soon after and not to be released again until 1983, it changed history. Sierra Nevada took note and the Cascade hop was to be the backbone of its Pale Ale, which was released in 1981.

Tasting Liberty Ale on 4 July, I was met by what is now the familiar floral, citrus and pine aromas imparted by Cascade. What is striking is that it does also give an extremely pleasant bitterness to the beer. This is overlooked these days due to high- and super-alpha hops. We forget that this hop helped define “hoppy” beers and it became the ubiquitous hop to be used in practically all subsequent American pale ales. I can only imagine what it must have been like to taste this beer in comparison to the other beers that were available almost 40 years ago.

liberty-bio

Of course there were other factors at play that helped sow the seeds of the revolution. At the beginning of the 1970s on the west coast beginning in California and expanding northwards, there existed some of the key elements that contributed to growth of the of the craft beer movement. These included a young population that had experience of beers from Europe and the motivation to do something different, a spirit of bending the rules by home-brewing when it was still illegal, a sense of place and pride in locally produced food etc. Let us not forget that the American wine industry was beginning to flourish at this time and in the similar locations. The University of California – Davis employing Michael Lewis in 1970 as America’s first full time professor of brewing science. Lewis would go on to train a vast army of brewers, as well as conducting key research and sharing his wisdom amongst aspiring beer entrepreneurs. The craft beer movement became identified with a strong spirit of fraternity because brewers new the odds were stacked against them.

By 1979, there were only 89 breweries remaining in the US. Prohibition and increasing consolidation along with rapid growth in the middle class hooked on drinking light and adjunct packed lager at home had all contributed to this decline. Thankfully today there are 2,403 working craft breweries across America with another 1,528 in planning stages (May 2012). When Maytag sold his brewery to the Griffin Group (one of the backers of BrewDog) in 2010, he was safe in the knowledge that choice in the beer market has been well and truly established.