Thursday, September 15, 2011

"...the very basic function of a Bitter"

Fantastic post by Chris Lohring of The Notch today, about brewing a batch of cask bitter. It's long, and detailed, but it's a great look into why "contract brewing" shouldn't be a bad word. This guy busted his hump to get a batch of beer brewed, fought problems both under and out of his control, and won through to a batch of German-malt, German-hopped bitter, under 4% and subtly dry...and there are some great bits of insight here.
  • "’s the hard reality of brewing in too many places with too many variables and not enough time, resources or money."
  • "Bitter is a subtle but beautiful beer style, and the subtlety is the key. The beer’s elements must line up in a way that is balanced, yet interesting enough to draw you in for another sip." 
  • "The subtle complexity of Burton Bitter is something which is certainly out of favor in modern US craft brewing. And this subtle complexity is regularly bashed by beer snobs who like the opposite. As if it’s a binary option, and one can not exist with the other"
  • "...with session beer, there is not a lot of time to set the bed, as the malt mill runs dry pretty quick."
  • "Plan B Bitter would have been a good name for the beer, but I don’t really give Notch beers fanciful names. It seems silly for session beers, which are modest by definition."
  • "The whereabouts of my Firkins are still unknown, and this is part of the cask game I loathe. Some brewers use other brewers casks without guilt. Maybe they think they are lost? Surrendered? Cast off? Who knows, but if a Notch cask is filled with another beer, that cask has been stolen. It’s that simple."
  • "Two ounces of hops per cask, just for a bit of subtlety. More would have been fun, but a little predictable and it would have masked some of the delicate malt characteristics."
  • " was at this point I knew Notch Bitter was the beer of the damned."
  • "Notch Bitter fits the very basic function of a Bitter, which is to not get in the way of the conversation, or be the conversation. It’s simply a delicious session beer that can be the backbone for a fun afternoon or evening at your local. If you can’t get your head around that, you’ll never get your head around session beer."
Go read it. Thanks for all the hard work, Chris.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Drinking it up: I drink an afternoon of session and publicly post my BAC

As posted below, I was involved in a session beer event at Farmer's Cabinet in Philly. Matt Scheller invited me to take part in what amounted to a session beer tap takeover: they have about 24 taps there, and Matt planned to have all but about four of them at 4.5% or lower (including some of Terry Hawbaker's new house-brewed beers), and those four would be 5.0% or less. And I was going to talk about session beers.

That was the plan...but it kinda fell apart, to some extent. Matt's suppliers let him down on some of the beers (including Coniston Bluebird Bitter, which was a -- urk! -- bitter disappointment for me), including some of the surprisingly low-ABV Mikellers. Bummer. Then, well, I'll be honest: not that many people showed up. At one point we had about ten, and that was the high for the day. So we just kind of sat around and chatted about session beers...and drank 'em.

I did do one other thing. I took along a piece of foamcore and a broad Sharpie, and put the whitesheet up on a shelf in the bar. I wrote "LEW'S BAC -- 1:15 -- 0.00" on it; my blood alcohol concentration at 1:15 was 0.00, according to my AlcoHawk Pro. I then publicly posted what I was drinking, with ABV. I thought I should put my money where my mouth was and, well, if my BAC was too high, I'd stay in the city till I was legal.

It wasn't even close. After five beers in about two and a half hours (I stopped drinking the proscribed 20 minutes before blowing), the AlcoHawk pegged me at 0.02 BAC, completely legal in Pennsylvania; I think I could probably have bought a bottle at a "wine kiosk."

And the beers? Pretty good! The House Bitter (Terry's) was tasty, but lacking in body. The Meantime Pale was chewy with British malt, a nice drop. Terry's House Grisette was delicious -- herbal, floral, dry on the end -- and had it not been for wanting to keep varietal, I'd have drunk much more of it. The Bells Oarsman was tasty without going overboard on the sour clench; quite refreshing. And the Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted was a nice solid glass to wind up the day with.

What did I learn? Well, maybe the format is not the best for promoting session beer. In fact, I'm starting to think that focusing on session beer doesn't work, because of session beer's character; it's a type of beer that's not about taste, taste, taste; it's more about drink/talk/drink/cards/drink/pool/drink/eat/drink/pool...Not what you do at a "Beer Festival." Need to think more about this.

But check this out. This was a two-day/all-day event, and the beers were simply on offer for regular customers, no entry fee needed. The bartender told us that Friday night the beers had been selling fine, and the place was packed, and they were all drinking, but...they never turned stupid or started acting like drunk jerks. Hmmm...another reason for bars to include more session-strength craft beer on their menu?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Session Beer Event at the Farmer's Cabinet

You know, it's crazy that I haven't been to the Farmer's Cabinet yet; the beers are jaw-dropping, my buddy Terry Hawbaker is brewing for them (in Virginia, but that's another story), and the cocktails are supposed to be phenomenal...but Matt Scheller finally figured out how to get me to visit: >>>>>>>>>>>>>

That's right, he's throwing a bunch of session beers on and giving me a chance to talk about this passion of mine for great-tasting 'little beers.' Now, I do have to say: there are a few beers in the bunch that are over 4.5%. It ain't a perfect world. But it's a PAYG event, with pints and half pints, so if you don't want the 4.5+ beers, don't buy them. Or do, suit yourself. They'll also have specialty hot dogs, made by chef Jason Goodman, and I'm looking forward to that, too.

So, the deets: The fest will be at Farmer's Cabinet (1113 Walnut St., Philly) all day, on both Sept 9 and 10, Friday and Saturday. I'll be speaking about session beers at 1:30 on Saturday (I have an all-day meeting Friday, or I'd hike my butt in for that one, too); it's going to be a bit of a pep rally for session beers, but I'll talk about the hows and whys, like how they're made to taste so good, and why I set my limit at 4.5%. But mostly? We'll be drinking 26 tap beers and 2 gravity pours (one German, one English). Four of those 26 will be Terry's beers, some of the first brewed at the former Shenandoah brewery in Arlington, VA; if you know Terry's beers from the Bullfrog, you'll know why I'm excited about those.

Now, as Matt said: "Prices will vary, but European craft beer is not cheap - even when the ABV is low. I will try to keep them as low as possible, but the price point will not be $3 or $4 a pint, but probably around 6 or 7. Unfortunately,  just because a beer is lighter in color and lower in alcohol, doesn't mean it costs any less to buy. I certainly wish that was the case!"

I liked something else he told me:
To be frank, Lew, I am rarely in the mood these days for a boozy or remotely heavy beer.  I'd rather be able to have a "session" without feeling loaded or tired. Furthermore, there is something very special and sophisticated about a well made session beer, which is not an easy task for a brewer! I'm on a mini-mission to expose to people the beauty of a low abv, drinkable ale or lager. Bigger is not always better. I hope the american craft beer scene understands this in years to come and the philosophy of 'whiskey barrel aged 10% triple hopped continuously for 6 weeks and then aged in another barrel and wet hopped' is better" soon comes to a close and there is more emphasis put on balance and refinement! Hence good session beers. 
Yup. Sounds right to me.