Quality Control, Part 2.

•December 2, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Standing in a brewery tasting room, a mine friend held his beer at arm’s length, looking about as interested in it as if someone had just cornered him with a thirty minute story of the best turkey sandwich they’d ever had.  After another long, mostly disinterested look at the beer, my friend summarized, wearily:  “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it”, looking in the general direction of his glass.  “It’s a clean fermentation….it just….”, his thought tailed off, ending not with words but with a shrug, a slow tilt of the head, and a look of wholehearted indifference on his face.  The beer, as many can be these days, was instantly forgettable.

My friend’s point was simple.  There was nothing wrong with the beer, really, in that it didn’t suffer from any off flavors from a brewing that didn’t go as planned.  It hadn’t soured, it wasn’t oxidized, and it wasn’t ailing from any other weakness as a result of how it was made.  From an overall standpoint, the beer was simply unremarkable.  Any effort to break it down to specifics, if the beer had inspired such a crusade, would’ve probably boiled down to simply calling it a mess, taste wise.  It is an experience that many would say happens far, far too often these days.  Individual favorites, situational beers, and even the mildest cases of homer-ism aside, the glut of beers out there being created by the multitude of breweries that have jumped on the craft beer bus has resulted in an ocean full of one dimensional beers which have hardly anything to truly hang their hat on.  

There are many who would try to toss this argument out on the technicality of personal preference.  One person’s favorite IPA is another’s too bitter drain pour, live and let live, on and on.  I’d counter by asking for a dose of honesty and a look in the mirror.  Yes, there are beers we all drink but also will readily admit aren’t top shelf because they are easy to acquire, or they remind us of a certain time or place, whatever.  But chances are, these preferential beers are are still solid offerings, in that maybe they do just the one thing, but they do that one thing very well.  So I’m not talking – necessarily – about personal favorites.  I’m talking about beers that offer hardly any redeeming quality, and are less than simple.  Forget nuance, they seem to lack the care or concern to truly champion even one characteristic, and none of it really stands out or much less works all that well together.  All it likely does is make you think about – and want – a better beer.  

Unfortunately, you might not recognize the bar such beers set if you haven’t actually had them.  Experience in tasting some of the better beers out there plays so much of a part in all this, and while at worst that can seem a bit snobbish, and the least simply unfortunate, I can’t think of a better way to put it.  Hopefully, you’ll take the time to seek out beers that set a high standard.  Something better is always out there, truly, either from nationally distributed breweries, or if you’re fortunate, from the breweries located in your own backyard. 

Oh, and about that.  Hopefully, your local breweries really know what they’re doing.  But at least from a standpoint of their overall selection, they may not, so while we’re talking honestly about wholly unremarkable beers, let’s also mention the crime in blindly carrying the flag for the local breweries that may be making them, simply because they’re located down the street.  When I first got into “craft” beer, the “Support Your Local Brewery” idea seemed so incredibly virtuous.  To a degree, it still is.  But if the beers aren’t good, they aren’t good.  No one should be let off the hook for making some aimless mess of an IPA just because they share the same zip code with you.  So ditch the empty homer love for the brewery around the corner if the beer isn’t up to par.

Is every brewery out there is going to nail every beer in terms of making them memorable?  Of course not.  But out of a handful of beers – whether it’s the brewery’s initial line up, current line up, or what have you, you’d hope for one that you wouldn’t mind having again.  I also get that not every good beer is a monster of flavor, so let’s not go there.  Well made beer ranges from low key sorts of characters that succeed by walking along razor thin edges where one slip would’ve meant being too this or too that, to those complex, palate numbing beasts that many of us know and love.

Either way, we should all expect nothing less than good, memorable beer.



Quality Control, Part 1

•November 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I will likely never forget the day I ordered a beer and was served a dry hopped glass of something akin to pool water.  Then again, calling it that might be too much credit for the beer – it didn’t seem to be dry hopped much at all.   And ok, of course the beer hadn’t been sourced from a pool.  But the brewery had indeed served me a beer which featured the interesting yet bracing note of something not unlike chlorine, which was odd since I had asked for the kolsch.  My wife verified the same, purely by the look on her face.  The next day, I asked a couple of friends who home brew what they thought, and the answers generally centered around poorly cleaned brewing equipment, which made sense, I suppose.  Whatever it was, I couldn’t fathom how the brewery had served that beer to begin with.  

While a ho hum, average tasting beer is often instantly forgettable, you may forever remember the beers with which something was defective, as with my “kolsch”.  We’re not talking about beer that simply wasn’t very “good”, as in muddled, too bitter IPAs or tasteless, thin as water “stouts”.  We’re talking about the double IPA that tasted like it had been fermented on a bushel of green apples, or the lager that tasted like it had been randalled through a bag of movie popcorn with extra butter.  What we’re talking about is truly flawed beer, or beer that exhibits one of the many “off flavors” – like ripe, green apple or straight butter – that can occur when brewing, often stemming from a fermentation that didn’t go well.  Luckily, such flavors in beer don’t occur too often in commercially produced beer.  These days, a run in with what’s generally called an “infected” beer seems to be much more likely.

First, a shot at clarification.  It seems the term “infected” gets thrown around a little carelessly these days to describe a beer with less than desirable aromas and/or flavors.  Just because someone opens up a year old pale lager that tastes like it was filtered through a cardboard box doesn’t make it infected.  There are some shared attributes and causes between “off flavors” and what is generally referred to as an “infected” beer.  But I think it’s fair to say that when folks refer to an “infected” beer these days we’re probably talking about some bacteria which has caused it to go south in some unintended fashion, typically resulting in a souring effect on the beer.  The key word here is unintended.  And no one seems to be completely immune of the wide range of possible pitfalls when brewing beer.

For those not residing on an island or under a rock, you are likely well aware of Goose Island’s troubles with batches of their vaunted Bourbon County line last year.  Soon after its release, customers began finding unexpected, sour flavors in the Bourbon County Barleywine and the Bourbon County Coffee Stout, and some have reported similar off flavors in the standard Bourbon County Stout as well.  Despite the complaints, the beer was apparently testing fine at first, at the brewery’s own microbiology lab.  When complaints began rolling in, Goose Island reached out to an independent lab which eventually did identify a bacteria that was indeed affecting some bottles of the Barleywine and the Coffee variant.  In addition, in a podcast interview with Goose Island’s Brewmaster Jared Jankoski, there was more than a slight mention of off flavors in the Stout as well, possibly due to altogether different circumstances.  Beyond the identification of the issues, as well as the admittance of the same which so many had been waiting for, the interview serves to prove how some of the most sought after beers in the country can go sideways despite the brewery’s best intentions.  The moral of the story is that if it can happen to Goose Island, and especially to the beers they are most known for, it can certainly happen to most anyone.  

First off, an approving nod to breweries who own up to a beer which didn’t go as planned.  It shouldn’t be surprising that some beer just doesn’t come out the way the batch was drawn up to, but it should be surprising that you ended up with it in your hand.  But consequences go well beyond the beer tasting awful.  For those who can recognize such faults, any sadness likely comes from the pouring out of the beer, and about the wasted money.  But there’s always the chance that something worse might happen, that a newcomer to beer might be led to think that the odd flavors and aromas are expected.  I’ve seen Untappd comments on imperial stout check-ins that note that “the tartness to the beer is unexpected, but so very interesting”.  Seriously, how many sour stouts can you name?  Such thinking might lead to a continued acceptance of poorly rendered beer, which I’d say is the worst possible consequence of all.

So do some reading on off flavors, there are plenty of articles.  Then, go ahead do what you’ve been doing already, and taste plenty of beer.  When things don’t seem quite right, be ready to recognize it.  And by the way, if you feel as if something needs to be called out, do it kindly.  I’d like to think that no one wins with poor quality product.  With so much beer out there, it is bound to happen, but remember – there is so much beer out there.  No matter if we’re talking about nationally distributed brands or your local brewery, we should all expect nothing less than good, well made beer.

Needless To Say, It’s A Big Week For Big Lick Brewing

•September 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment

big-lick-brewing-circle-logoIt takes a pretty notable announcement for a brewery to upstage its own 2nd anniversary.  Or more likely, for Roanoke’s Big Lick Brewing, timing is everything.  This Saturday (September 24), the brewery is indeed celebrating its 2nd anniversary, an event worthy of raising a pint on its own.  Raise another then, because earlier this week, the brewery announced plans for its new location that will be several times larger than the current one, include indoor and outdoor seating, a stage for entertainment, and last but not least, let the brewery increase its brewing capacity from the 2bbl system it currently uses to a 10bbl one, while still retaining a 2bbl system for pilot batches.

The brewery had long outgrown its current spot, making the expansion a welcome announcement.  Most of its regular customers will likely tell you how Big Lick occasionally has to take a head count within its tasting room as not to exceed capacity, especially on days when a new release had come on tap.  Such as it is with breweries when solid beers like their Gone KoCo coconut porter and their “This Time” IPA series have become as cared for among the area’s craft beer drinkers as they have.

I imagine those same beers, as well as many others, had placed an expectation for such growth some time ago, as it did with me.  Perhaps the most impressive thing shouldn’t be the expansion itself then, but how such an expectation developed over a relatively short period of time.  Congrats on your 2nd anniversary, Big Lick Brewing, and many more to come in your well deserved new home.

****Check out Big Lick’s 2nd Anniversary Event page on Facebook here (live entertainment, food, and an expanded selection of beer will be on hand) 

And check out info about their expansion here!

Draft Beer At A Coffee Shop? Of Course.

•September 2, 2016 • 2 Comments

Last weekend, while the beer curious in Roanoke once again took over a large section of downtown for the second time in a less than a month, this time to celebrate another Deschutes event by bellying up to the Oregonian brewery’s admittedly impressive, multi city block, nomadic “Street Pub”, another beer related event was occurring almost simultaneously, albeit one that was a bit more low key.  South Roanoke’s beloved purveyor of coffee, Sweet Donkey Coffee House, had just finished installing their taps – yes, beer taps – just in time for the weekend, and they celebrated this new side of their business by hosting their own Deschutes tap takeover that Friday night.

For those who might be unfamiliar with Sweet Donkey’s non caffeinated offerings, bottled beer has been on the menu for a while now.  So at first, offering beer on draft might seem to be simply a deeper level of commitment to that side of their business.  But for regulars to the coffee shop, you likely know better, and for those perhaps who are not too familiar with Sweet Donkey, and are still wrapping their minds around the thought of a coffee shop with beer at all, it is much, much more than a new business plan, and really couldn’t make better sense.  With its fenced in front yard, its wide front porch and side patio, and its wholly welcoming and comforting look given by the large brick house it calls home, Sweet Donkey might as well be the poster child of what a neighborhood coffee shop – and therefore, a central spot for friends to gather over any shared, social beverages of choice, be it a cup of coffee or a cold beer – should be.  Simply put, I’m not sure there is a more charming spot to enjoy a beer other than your own porch at home.  Offering draft beer then, is not just a commitment to a business model, but clearly is what the owners want the experience of their shop to be for their customers.

A common school of thought these days in the overall beer community is that should a “bubble” of some sort burst in the craft beer business, that breweries dedicated to primarily serving to the folks who can easily drive across town or even walk down their street to reach the brewery will be one trend that not only survives, but flourishes.  No, of course Sweet Donkey doesn’t brew their own beer.  Yet part of the charm with that particular trend is not solely based in the making of the beer, but in the creation of an ultra comfortable, neighborhood centric spot to enjoy that beer with friends.  So with their announcement to serve draft beer, I couldn’t help but think that should that particular trend become more common, we may look back from a day not too far off and think of how one model of such a place might look (and feel like) was – of course – envisioned by a coffee shop.

Visit Sweet Donkey’s Facebook page here.

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