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Things I Can't Get Worked Up About

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The beer nerd world gets worked up about things on a regular basis. Today, it's the whole Lagunitas sell-out thing, which, yes, has an ironic component given the deranged ramblings of their owner in the past. But I'm sorry, I just can't get worked up about it. I've got too much beer to drink, not to mention all the other stuff going on in my life. Here's a few other things I could care less about:

  • Pumpkin Beer in July! Every year with these people. Yeah, it's faintly ridiculous that a big, heavy, spicy fall beer shows up on shelves in July, and no, I don't want to drink one whilst embroiled in a humid heat wave. That's why I don't buy pumpkin beers in July! No one is forcing you to buy them and there's plenty of other stuff on the shelves. We're drowning in a glorious deluge of great, varied beer these days. I can't get worked up about pumpkin beer showing up a little early.
  • The definition of Craft! Dear lord, why? It's fermented sugar water, and it's delicious. That's pretty much all I need. Look, I enjoy pedantic labeling exercises as much as the next guy, and if you want to see me rant about what the hell constitutes a saison, I'll go on about it for hours. That is something I can get worked up about, for some reason. But "craft" is basically meaningless to me, no matter how you define it. I'm sure I've used the term on here before, but the thing is, you probably understood what I was talking about without needing to delve into how many barrels a given brewer puts out in a year. Language is sometimes ephemeral, and I have a hard time getting worked up about the definition of craft. In certain contexts (i.e. if I worked for a trade organization dedicated to a certain group of brewers), I'm sure it's super important, but I don't exist in such a context.
  • Malty and Hoppy are lazy descriptions! And yet, non-beer-nerds seem to get it right away when I use those words. When I say biscuity or bready, they turn their head at me the way a cat looks at their owner when the food bowl is empty. I'm not trying to dumb it down or condescend, but I also don't want to lecture someone on the minutiae of malt and hops unless they're genuinely interested. My brother could care less about this stuff, but if I tell him something is hoppy or an IPA or something, he gets the picture and runs in the other direction. That's all he wants, and I'm not going to force feed him information on hop terroir and the flavor wheel and my personal system for ranking how dank a beer's hops are. I generally don't use these broad words here when writing tasting notes, but occasionally one slips out, and I simply can't get worked up about it.

None of these things are ridiculous, of course, and obviously these are popular topics to write about, I just can't get worked up about them. This perhaps explains my modest traffic here, as I rarely come down hard on a given controversy. In fact, for a guy who sez he can't get worked up over this stuff, I just wrote a bunch about it, so um. Hey, look below, beer!

What do I get worked up about? Beer! Here's a few things I've had recently that I didn't take notes about because I was hanging out with friends, new and old, and didn't want to bury my nose in my phone because I'm not a total jerk.

BeerNERDS Bottle Share
(Click to Embiggen)

I went to a local beer collective's bottle share recently and met a whole slew of new beer friends. A good time was had by all, and the bottles were pretty impressive. I didn't take notes, but a few did stand out:

Alesmith Barrel Aged Vietnamese Speedway Stout

de Garde Yer Bu

That's Alesmith Bourbon Barrel Aged Speedway Stout, which was spectacular (despite my legendary indifference to coffee) and de Garde Yer Bu, a delicious little Berliner Weiss that clocks in at a measly 2.5% ABV. Also of note was Tuckahoe Marigolden, an obscure NJ brewery making a pretty darn solid American Wild Ale. Literally everything else that was at there share was great too, but those were the standouts.

101 North High Gravity IPA

Speaking of sharing, a friend was over recently and I decided to share some of the haul from my trade with Jay of the most excellent Beer Samizdat blog. This was a quite dank, powerful little DIPA, it felt like a light barleywine with a little age on it, quite nice.

Tilquin Squared

At a local beeratorium, I spied this Tilquin Gueuze Squared. Apparently created by accident when they inadvertently over-carbonated a bunch of bottles. They gave it some more time in barrels before rebottling, but that meant that the ABV had risen a bit higher than normal. Perhaps not better than your typical Tilquin Gueuze, but a happy accident nonetheless, and quite delicious!

Union Duckpin Pale Ale

I've sung this underrated beer's praises before, and while it's not going to blow your head off, it's a great little pale ale, citrusy and quaffable. Worth checking out, and if you see Double Duckpin, definitely go for it!

session_logo.jpgOn the first Friday of every month, there's a beer blog roundup called The Session. Someone picks a topic, and everyone blogs about it. This time around, Allen Huerta wants to speculate on the landscape of beer:

Our topic this month is, "The Landscape of Beer". How do you see that landscape now? What about in 5, 10, or even 20 years? A current goal in the American Craft Beer Industry is 20% market share by the year 2020. How can we get there? Can we get there?

Whether your view is realistic or whimsical, what do you see in our future? Is it something you want or something that is happening? Let us know and maybe we can help paint the future together.

That's a pretty open ended topic, so I'm just going to wank about booms and busts for a while.

I've been thinking about this lately because it seems to be an inevitable fact of society, impacting everything from financial markets to petty cultural artifacts to, yes, beer. Hardly a unique insight that I'm sure we've all noticed, from time to time. This time, it was kicked off by Stephen Thompson (of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour) talking about how he fell in love with country music because he was forced to listen to it whilst working at a grocery story in the late 80s. Like most of us, his initial attitude was that country music was garbage, but in being subjected to it over time, he found himself discovering a whole cadre of artists that he fell in love with (Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, K.D. Lang, Lyle Lovett, &c.) I guess life is good when you're discovering new music and singing along whilst toiling away in the milk cooler (apparently good acoustics in there). Later in life, he met Lyle Lovett, who speculated as to why that particular era of country was so fruitful:

I actually got a chance to talk to [Lyle Lovett] about the state of country radio in the late 80s, during this time when I was listening to it, and he was explaining that the reason so much of this stuff got on the air was because country radio was, country music was, commercially, in this huge slump and so the labels were throwing all sorts of weird things at the wall to see what would stick. And near the end of my time at the grocery store... Garth Brooks broke big and made country music incredibly, culturally powerful again. And then all these very mainstream country singers came up behind him and pushed all the Lyle Lovetts and K.D. Langs and Steve Earles and Dwight Yoakams off of the radio.
I know approximately nothing about country music, so I have no idea how valid this is, but we've all seen this pattern so many times that I have no trouble believing it. These days, much of the music he's talking about probably wouldn't even be classified as country.

But I digress, this ain't no music blog. In listening to that story, I was immediately struck by the parallels to booze. I don't know how proud of that I should be, but booze most certainly goes through regular booms and busts. Some of these are easier to parse than others. Bourbon seems to have a pretty clear cycle. There's a very inelastic supply chain in the whiskey business because it takes so long to produce and because there's such wild variability from barrel to barrel. Not long ago, there was a bit of a bust in the industry, which meant that stocks of aged whiskey were high and demand was low. This drove down price and drove up quality, and lead to insane things like Pappy Van Winkle going on a bourbon message board and begging people to buy his whiskey. For $20 a bottle. Is your head exploding yet? A decade after that post, and Pappy is impossible to find and going for $100+ a bottle (retail - on the secondary market, multiply by 10). This is a drastic simplification of the situation, of course, but it's pretty clear that bourbon was a bust not that long ago, and is booming right now, in part because the conditions of the bust formed a virtuous loop and created better product which lead to a resurgence amongst drinkers. Now? Age statements are disappearing, quality hooch is impossible to purchase, and industry giants are glomming onto cheap tactics like flavored whiskey, etc... Is another bust approaching? I don't really know. As cyclical as these things are, they can also happen over the course of decades, which makes prediction a little more difficult.

So we come to beer (finally!) We're pretty clearly in boom times for beer. The brewery count is fast approaching 4000. This is up from, um, 89 breweries in 1978, the year of my birth. What happened? In my lifetime, we've gone from a massively consolidated industry to an explosion of tiny, niche brewers. Prohibition certainly had an impact, but post-prohibition our world became enamored with what Thomas Pynchon calls the "American vice of modular repetition". Revolutions in manufacturing and transportation lead to dramatic consolidation across all industries. This sort of thing is great for winning wars (digression incoming: The German Tiger tank was dramatically superior to the US Sherman, but the Germans only made approximately 1,300 of their tank. The US made over 30,000 Shermans.) but bad for consumer choice. The mid-century ideal of beer seemed to be mass-produced light lager (the fizzy yellow stuff we're all familiar with). Who needs variety when you can produce something bland that sells in massive quantities?

The problem is that, to paraphrase Howard Moskowitz, there is no such thing as the perfect beer, only perfect beers (plural). I've written about Moskowitz before:

Howard Moskowitz... was a market research consultant with various food industry companies that were attempting to optimize their products. After conducting lots of market research and puzzling over the results, Moskowitz eventually came to a startling conclusion: there is no perfect product, only perfect products. Moskowitz made his name working with spaghetti sauce. Prego had hired him in order to find the perfect spaghetti sauce (so that they could compete with rival company, Ragu). Moskowitz developed dozens of prototype sauces and went on the road, testing each variety with all sorts of people. What he found was that there was no single perfect spaghetti sauce, but there were basically three types of sauce that people responded to in roughly equal proportion: standard, spicy, and chunky. At the time, there were no chunky spaghetti sauces on the market, so when Prego released their chunky spaghetti sauce, their sales skyrocketed. A full third of the market was underserved, and Prego filled that need.

Decades later, this is hardly news to us and the trend has spread from the supermarket into all sorts of other arenas. In entertainment, for example, we're seeing a move towards niches. The era of huge blockbuster bands like The Beatles is coming to an end. Of course, there will always be blockbusters, but the really interesting stuff is happening in the niches. This is, in part, due to technology. Once you can fit 30,000 songs onto an iPod and you can download "free" music all over the internet, it becomes much easier to find music that fits your tastes better. Indeed, this becomes a part of peoples' identity. Instead of listening to the mass produced stuff, they listen to something a little odd and it becomes an expression of their personality. You can see evidence of this everywhere, and the internet is a huge enabler in this respect. The internet is the land of niches. Click around for a few minutes and you can easily find absurdly specific, single topic, niche websites like this one where every post features animals wielding lightsabers or this other one that's all about Flaming Garbage Cans In Hip Hop Videos (there are thousands, if not millions of these types of sites). The internet is the ultimate paradox of choice, and you're free to explore almost anything you desire, no matter how odd or obscure it may be (see also, Rule 34).

The parallels are obvious. Moskowitz was doing this research in the 80s, which was when beer was starting its slow rebound, as was nearly every other business that had gone down that mass-produced, industrial scale path. Now we're dealing with the reverse problem of the Paradox of Choice.

There were lots of forces at work. I don't think it's an accident that the brewery count started to rebound not long after homebrewing was legalized (not coincidentally, also in 1978). Correlation does not imply causation, but a bajillion brewers claiming they got their start at home does. Consumer willingness to try new things, to actually appreciate what they were eating and drinking, also helped. It took a few decades for beer to rebound. There were hiccups, like the late 90s bubble of rampant speculation, but they were mere speedbumps, and now we're in an almost comically absurd period of growth.

The driving force behind the early 20th century was industrialization and consolidation. The driving force behind craft beer (and all the other industries I talked about above) is actually marketing and diversification. Which is funny, because marketing is an anathema to most beer nerds.

This boom can't last forever. It's one thing to replace mass-produced lager with some full flavored options like IPAs and Stouts. The market was underserved by fizzy yellow stuff, and small, independent breweries filled that need. Other niches have been filled out, Belgian styles became a big thing, wheat beers, and so on. Nowadays, we've hit a bit of a threshold when it comes to variety. IPAs filled a growing need, but smoked goat brain beers? People drank it, for sure, but that might even be too small of a market segment to be called a niche.

That being said, I don't see a slowdown coming anytime soon. The next 5-10 years will probably follow the previous 5-10 years in terms of overall growth, but some strain will start to show. Brewers will start to retire, leaving their brewery's future uncertain. We'll see some consolidation. The emergence of macro-craft, as regional powerhouses continue to grow, which might lead to further consolidation. There's certainly backlash when AB-Inbev purchases a brewery, but will there be a backlash when Stone or Victory or Sierra Nevada buys a brewery? Given the way Duvel's acquisitions have gone, I'm betting not.

But uber-local breweries continue to thrive, often simply because they exist within the local community. A very large proportion of those 4000 breweries are tiny little brewpubs that service a relatively small area. I don't see that changing in the near term.

It's hard to predict the future, but there are warning signs. We really haven't reached important thresholds in a lot of these, but they are happening. Prices are creeping upwards, snobbery is on the rise, beer as a thing to invest in or trade is becoming more common. But none have really reached epidemic or truly harmful levels. People often talk about bubbles, but the insidious thing about bubbles is that they're only easy to identify in retrospect. A steep increase in price might be a sign, but look at high-end Bordeaux wines? They used to be had for $20 a bottle, and now they're over $100 and some approach $1000. And we complain about $10 pints of Hopslam. Wine snobbery seems more prevalent than beer snobbery. Beer cellaring is a thing, but it doesn't even come close to wine cellaring.

It's hard to look at a bottle of wine going from $50 to $700 over a short period of time and not think a bubble is forming, and yet, here we are, several years later, and that $700 bottle has no problem selling (by the case). Booms eventually bust and bubbles eventually burst. Other factors will certainly come into play. The economy as a whole goes through its own booms and busts, much more regularly than booze. Beer will decline at some point, but it's also a matter of degree. It won't decline into irrelevance, and I can't see it reaching the dark days of 1978, but even if it does, it will rebound. It always does. Boom and bust is a cycle, and the bust is usually followed by some sort of boom. How tasty will that boom be? Savor it now, because we're already there.

Update: Allen has posted the round up of all Session posts. Of particular note is Dan from Community Beer Works, who wrote a post as if from the future of 2035, where IPA is a throwback style and brewers are named Phineas. I liked Sean from Beer Search Party's post as well, though I thought it was funny that he sez "Whales and snobs are on the downswing as well" (something I had identified on the upswing above). Obviously, the other posts are worth your time too. Thanks again to Allen for hosting.

Here at Kaedrin, we're big fans of FiftyFifty's Eclipse series of imperial stouts aged in various whiskey barrels. The idea is that you start with the same base beer but age it in different expressions of bourbon and rye. Since the aging period is the same (about 6 months), the only real variable here is the different expressions of whiskey (and the myriad variables that apply to each barrel). In my experience, this has produced some modest but definitely noticeable differences in the resulting beers. For instance, my two favorite expressions of 2012 were the Rittenhouse Rye (very rich and caramelly, oak forward) and Elijah Craig 12 (more roast from the base was retained here, but it's also got a nice richness to it). Then there were a couple that sorta fell between those two in terms of the amount of roast retained after the barrel character. From the most recent batch, I had the super bourbon forward (but not as oaky) Evan Williams 23 Year and the more chocolaty Woodford Reserve. And so on.

The problem with all this? I was drinking all these beers on separate occasions. Could I simply be making up all these differences? The only way to really tell would be to try them all together... but who can put down several bombers of 11.9% ABV stout in one sitting? Look, I've drank some heavy hitters in a single session more times than I should admit, but taking on several Eclipse bottles solo just ain't realistic. So earlier this year, I resolved to gather as many variants as I could, then hold a comparative tasting and spread the wealth with a bunch of friends. As such, this happened:

FiftyFifty Eclipse Horizontal Tasting - Bottles

That's six variants, split across five tasters. Each taster ranked the beers from 6 down to 1 (with 6 being the best and 1 being the worst) based on approximately 4 ounces per variant. 24 ounces per person is much more approachable than 132 ounces. The general methodology was semi-blind. The bottles don't actually say which bourbon barrels were used, but you can determine the provenance by looking up the wax color. I'm the only person in the group of five who knew anything about that, so I figured that was blind enough.

FiftyFifty Eclipse Horizontal Tasting - Pours

It was way more difficult to differentiate than I thought it would be. This could be for any number of reasons. We're about 8 months after release, so their distinctive natures may have mellowed out some. Lord knows my basement ain't exactly the most controlled cellaring environment, which might also have had an impact. Also, much of my memory of these beers comes from the 2012 variants, which were 9% ABV. This year's batch clocks in at 11.9% ABV, which is significantly different. Add in the inherent unpredictability of barrel aging, and you've got some more factors there. Plus, we sampled a few other things before the tasting proper started. I know, I'm the worst. I should totally have locked each attendee in a hermetically sealed room and forced them to sample the beers in absolute silence, but I didn't have the heart (or firepower) to do so.

Now, it wasn't impossible to detect differences, and indeed, I had a very clear favorite (Elijah Craig 12) and a very clear least-favorite (High West Bourbon). I kept going back and forth between Rittenhouse Rye and Buffalo Trace as my second favorite, and honestly, I could probably have thrown Four Roses in with those two as well. The High West Rye expression wasn't really there for me either (but hey, I'll drink a dram of Rendezvous Rye anytime guys). Of course, there were four other tasters, so here's the scientific ranking of these six Eclipse variants:

  1. Buffalo Trace (4.8 avg score)
  2. Four Roses (4.4 avg score)
  3. Elijah Craig 12 (4.4 avg score)
  4. Rittenhouse Rye (2.8 avg score)
  5. High West Bourbon (2.6 avg score)
  6. High West Rye (2.0 avg score)

Some things to consider here:

  • Four Roses and Elijah Craig 12 tied for second place, but it's worth noting that EC12 had the highest Standard Deviation in the tasting (at 2.07) and Four Roses was somewhere on the lower end of the pack (1.34). So I slotted Four Roses in at #2.
  • Speaking of Standard Deviation, the best of these were, perhaps not surprisingly, the worst and best beers. High West Rye has the lowest Standard Deviation with 0.71, while Buffalo Trace sported a respectable 1.1. So basically, no one particularly liked High West Rye, and pretty much everyone thought Buffalo Trace was good.
  • One ballot could be said to be a slight outlier, in that they did seem to drive the two highest Standard Deviations. In one case, they rated Elijah Craig a 1 (other ratings were 6, 6, 5, and 4) and in the other, they rated High West Bourbon a 5 (other ratings were 1, 1, 3, 3). I also ended up ranking Rittenhouse Rye much higher than anyone else, but the effect wasn't as dramatic there. Otherwise we were generally in line with each other, which seems pretty good!
  • No single variant got more than 2 of the highest rating (both Buffalo Trace and Elijah Craig accomplished that feat). Four Roses also garnered 1 of the highest rating. Rittenhouse Rye and the High West variants did not manage clear that bar.
  • In terms of the lowest rating, only High West Bourbon managed to get 2 of those (which is why the outlier threw things off on this one).
  • On the scoring sheet I made, I also listed out the bourbons in a random order to see if anyone could match the color to the bourbon. Two people got one of these correct, one person didn't even try, and the other person literally wrote "NFC" meaning "No Fucking Clue" (I already knew the answers, so didn't participate in that part).
  • None of us are particularly accomplished whiskey drinkers, but one person said their absolute favorite bourbon was Four Roses, and they actually did end up pegging the Four Roses variant as their favorite. Way to go!
  • None of the beers were considered actually bad, and everyone seemed to like all the variants. So the High West Stuff might not quite stack up to the rest, but they're still pretty good in the grand scheme of things...

Full data set is on Google Sheets and publicly viewable, in case you want to do your own number crunching.

It was a very fun evening, and a very interesting exercise too. If I were to do something like this again, I'd try to go for fresher bottles, and less variants, but even so, I was still pretty happy with the tasting.

Operation Chowder

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"That's 'chowdah'! Chowdah! I'll kill you! I'll kill all of you, especially those of you in the jury!"

The encore to Operation Cheddar III: Cheddar Harder was a trip to Boston for more beery fun, with the centerpiece being the American Craft Beer Festival, though due to my late addition to this trip, I only went to the Friday evening session (the Saturday sessions were sold out). This was no big loss to me, for reasons I'll get into later, but I'm getting ahead of myself. After Thursday morning's sorties on the Warren Store, Burlington, and Worthy Burger, we high tailed it to Boston (or, to be more accurate, Cambridge). First stop while we were there, was the most excellent bar, Lord Hobo:

Lord Hobo
(Click to embiggen)

What a fantastic place. It was a little more crowded than we were used to (it turns out that the weekday crowd in Waterbury doesn't quite compare to happy hour during the weekend in Cambridge, go figure), but what do we have here:

Fiddlehead Second Fiddle.jpg

Yes, after flinging ourselves all over Vermont for a few days, we had to go to Boston to get us some Second Fiddle cans. And it was fantastic! No formal tasting notes, but it's got a great juicy citrus thing going on, a little more dank and resinous than your Heady Topper or Hill Farmstead stuff, certainly holds its own with the greats and represents a cool alternative if you can find it (perhaps not as under-the-radar as you might think, if the folks in the bar are any indication). The other highlight of Lord Hobo was the relatively local Wormtown Be Hoppy, though I can't really remember anything about it other than it being a really fabulous IPA. We also had a duck-based charcuterie plate (I'm not normally a pate guy, but I'll be damned if the duck pate wasn't delicious) and the cheese plate, one of the better dining decisions we made (remember, we loaded up on Worthy Burgers not that long before this time, so these plates were perfect). Super duper.

Friday morning, we hop on the T and head into Boston proper for a trip to Trillium Brewing, a tiny little operation that only does growler fills and bottle releases at this point. There was a short line, so we popped in and bought us some bottles:

Trillium Haul
(Click to embiggen)

So the haul includes: Trillium, Congress Street IPA, Sunshower Super Saison, and Vicinity Double IPA. Pretty darn good.

From there, we hopped over to a restaurant called Row 34, which from all appearances is an amazing seafood place with a pretty solid beer selection. It was right during the lunch rush though, so we didn't get any food here, instead standing at some of the pillars (which had little ledges for your beer, etc...) and drinking a pre-fest beer just to get the system primed (we're still 4-5ish hours away from the start of the fest though).

Pivovar Kout 12

The standout on the menu, surprising to me, but I'm super glad I made the stretch, was Pivovar Kout Koutská 12° Dvanáctka, a glorious Czech pilsener that I grabbed because I recognized the name from Evan Rail's short little book The Brewery in the Bohemian Forest (apparently a refurbished brewery in the middle of nowhere, the recipes come from a book discovered in the old brewery, or something like that). Pilseners aren't really my jam, but this hit the spot, grainy, earthy, almost spicy hops, but still light, crisp, and refreshing on a warm day after a long walk, and I'm really glad I gave it a shot. Would be really interested in checking out some more of Kout's brews if they ever become available over here!

From there, we had a sorta lazy afternoon, grabbed a Lobster sandwich from Alive and Kicking Lobsters (it's not a Lobster roll, it's a sandwich!) hit Whole Foods for some Massachusetts beer (the source of those Night Shift Morph cans in my previous post) and generally relaxed until we hopped on the train for the ACBF.

Longtime readers (all 3 of you) might recognize that I'm not much of a beer fest kinda guy given that I've covered approximately zero of them in the five-ish years of this blog. Large crowds, drunk people, tiny samples, and did I mention the large crowds? I'm not anti-social or anything, but I hate crowds and as a massive introvert, I just get exhausted by these types of events. Also, whatever you may think about the amount of beer I drink, I don't generally enjoy getting smashed. I've been to festivals in the past, and after the first several tastes, I start to get a little woozy, but my novelty instinct is still engaged full force, so I feel like I need to keep sampling at top speed or else I'll miss out. By the end, I have no idea what I'm tasting, not just because I'm drunk, but because I've been obliterating my palate. The other thing about beer festivals, at least the local ones around here, is that they tend to be comprised mostly of local breweries... most of which I've already had a lot of before (or could easily get anytime). It's not that there's nothing special being poured, but they're few and far between, and again, after your first rush of tastes, your palate gets wonky and perceptions get weird.

That being said, the ACBF was actually great! There were lots of crowds, but the space was huge, so that wasn't too annoying. The crowds also meant lines, especially at the more prominent breweries, but that had the benefit of keeping me going at a sustainable pace rather than rushing through everything. I ended the fest with a nice buzz on, but not shitfaced at all. And because the fest was in Boston, there were a ton of Northeast Breweries that don't often make their way down here, and even the ones that do, don't often send the special stuff. I didn't really take many pictures during this leg of the trip because I'm the worst, but here are some highlights from the fest:

And there were a ton of other great beers, but those were definitely the standouts and I don't want to sit here and list out the other 20 beers I liked (or the handful that I didn't). Lawson's definitely had the longest line (it moved well enough, and we were able to get through 3 times pretty easily - I heard things were considerably more difficult on Saturday), though Fiddlehead was also doing pretty well for itself (indeed, there was even a staffer who had to provide traffic control because of the location of their booth). Definitely a worthwhile pursuit that I'd do again, but I was also perfectly fine with the one session. I got pretty much everything I could have wanted and a bunch of stuff I didn't even know I wanted (about half the highlights above were completely unexpected). I was told that the Saturday afternoon session was way more crowded and the lines were a lot longer, which I probably wouldn't have liked. We hit up brunch at a place called Cafe Luna, and got this beautiful Lobster Eggs Benedict plate:

Lobster Eggs Benedict

Delicious! And my friend got the Steak and Lobster BLT Benedict, which was the same thing, with added slice of steak, some bacon, and a big slice of tomato. He had trouble finishing. I was more than pleased with my "regular" dish. While my friends went to the early ACBF session, I met up with a local friend and we tooled around Boston for a while. We hit up the MIT museum (totally worth checking out for the Arthur Ganson Gestural Engineering exhibit alone), had a couple drinks at Meadhall, which has a huge taplist, but also seemingly less in the way of local stuff, and ate dinner at Regina Pizzaria in the North End ("The Original"). It's a tiny little place, and you actually need to wait in line to get in, but we got there early enough that the line was short, so we got in pretty quickly, and hot damn, that is some fantastic pizza. Best I've had in a while, crispy crust, chewy interior, well proportioned sauce, cheese, and toppings, and totally worth looking up if you find yourself in Boston. (As we exited, we seemed to run into a bizarre ritual of two dudebros having a pushup contest on the street... quite amusing!)

Phew! That about covers the festivities, and what a lovely week it was! That being said, I think perhaps Operation Cheddar and Operation Chowder would do better with some time between them for recovery and emptying of trunk space, rather than crammed together like this. I was pretty worn out in the end, though I regret nothing! Time will tell if we go through this again next year. Right now, it's a distinct possibility! And believe it or not, I may end up in Vermont again sooner rather than later, stay tuned! In the meantime, there will be a crapton of reviews headed your way...

We Interrupt This Program (Again)

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Around this time last year, I took a wee break from beer:

In the 1930s, folks became very worried when their favorite radio programs were interrupted by special news bulletins. News back then tended to include things like Depressions and Nazis, so that was a pretty reasonable reaction. These days, the phrase "We interrupt this program..." is a pretty harmless declaration used half ironically to state things like how I'm not going to drink that much beer for the next six weeks or so.

See how I slipped that in there?

Well it's that time of year again, and I'm taking another break from beer, for largely the same reasons elaborated in that post. Believe it or not, last year's experience was a lot of fun. I had fun with some other beverages and my waistband was pretty happy with the experience too.

One thing I wasn't expecting last year was that I almost ended up blogging more than normal. I've been writing about beer for over 4 years, so all the writerly low-hanging fruit is pretty well exhausted. But I've barely scratched the surface of wine, whiskey, or tea. Not to mention whatever else I'll get up to this year. Plus, I find that writing about other booze from the perspective of a beer nerd can be interesting. So while the blog may slow down slightly, there should still be plenty to keep you busy (even if you're not a whiskey/wine/whatever type of person).

Plus, as with last year, there are a few instances when I still plan to drink beer. And I have a couple of reviews saved in the hopper that will keep us busy on the blog too. So stay in touch, it's going to be a bumpy fun ride.

2014 Year End Musings

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According to the Gregorian calendar, the earth has completed yet another orbit around the sun, and thus Earthlings like myself are prone to reflect on the previous orbital period or somesuch. I had a weird year in beer, in some ways it's a natural progression, in other ways, I've regressed. Depending on your point of view, I guess. Regardless, the usual categories of musings I cover every year in a post like this (See 2013, 2012, and 2011 musings) have been mildly stagnant this year. On the other hand, that's probably a good thing. So here's some musings for 2014 and because I like arbitrary exercises and I seem to do it every year, a top 40 list.

  • Taking a Break - I took a break from drinking beer (er, mostly) in March and April of 2014, which was actually a very enjoyable experience. I spent some time with other libations and even some non-alcoholic beverages (the horror!) I plan on doing the same thing (at around the same time) this year, so saddle up.
  • Drinking Down the Cellar - After my beer break, I spent a few months drinking beers from my cellar. I've noted on many occasions that my eyes are bigger than my liver, so my cellar was growing. Not one of those obscene things that you see on youtube or somesuch, but sizeable enough that I wanted to do some pruning. A fair amount of this was stuff I'd had before, so much of it didn't actually show up on the blog... which lead to:
  • Decrease in Blogging - I still blog a lot, but there was a time when I'd crank out 4-5 entries a week. Now it's mostly 3 (with the occasional 4th, though also sometimes less), which has become a comfortable groove for me. I expected to continue in this manner in 2015, perhaps settling down into 2-3 entries a week (or less).
  • An American Wild Year - Looking at my top 40, I'm struck by how many American Wild Ales show up (with the occasional Lambic or sour/funky Saison that might as well be an American Wild) and, conversely, how few Barrel Aged Imperial Stouts there were (Not that they're absent, but seeing as though they're my favorite style...) I think this probably has something to do with a strong local scene in Wild Ales, and just a few opportunities that came up. I find that my ability to acquire great beer tends to go in style waves, with 2014 being a whole lot of saisons and American Wilds. Right now, I'm predictiong 2015 will have a few more Stouts!
  • Trading - In all honesty, I don't think I completed a single trade this year, though a few of the beers on the list below are from late 2013 trades. I still managed to get my hands on plenty of non-locally distributed beer and I anticipate this dry spell ending in the next couple months, but yeah, not a year for trading over here.
  • Wales, bro - Not a ton of these this year either (and certainly not the true beer nerd walez), but a couple of personal white whales were slain this year, but those are stuff everyone's had before and for some reason had eluded me until 2014, like The Abyss or Saison Brett. And then there's emerging breweries like Sante Adairius or local wonders like Tired Hands, which I'm doing my best to keep up with. I see more of that happening this year as well, not so much with the insane wales, bro.
  • Ratings Inflation - I mentioned this last year as well, but ratings inflation has continued unabated. Stuff I rated an A a few years ago often does not compare to the stuff I'm rating an A these days. The only exception is the A+ category, where I never rate anything (only 4 entries in the 4 years of the blog, and none in 2014). I think the point there is that I generally want to try a beer on multiple occasions and see if it stands up to the test of time, which is sometimes impossible (limited, one time only brews?) and also not conducive to stuff I've already reviewed. That being said, perhaps we'll have some upgrades in the year 2015. Stay tuned!
  • Homebrewing - I've been terribly lazy this year. I started off pretty strong, with a batch of Fat Weekend IPA and an oak-aged barleywine, but since then, things have been pretty quiet on this front. In part, this has to do with my whole drinking down the cellar thing (a not insignificant amount of the beer down there is homebrew), but it's also definitely a laziness thing. I plan on revving back up soon enough.
  • Aging/Cellaring Beer - Drinking down my cellar wasn't really part of my experiment with aging beer, more just a result of buying too much beer and unintentionally aging it. As with last year, I'm finding that aging is interesting, but rarely produces spectacular results. This bottle of 1.5 year old Tired Hands Only Void was spectacular, and I had a few other successes in 2014, but for the most part, I'm still finding that drinking beer fresh is your best bet. However, I do have some true experiments that I'm hoping to did into in 2015. I anticipate at least a few will be great.
So it's been an odd year, certainly not bad, just different. In the grand scheme of things, that's probably a good thing though, so here's my list of top 40 beers I've tried this year. The list is limited to beers I had and reviewed this year, so if you don't see your favorites on the list, don't get too worked up about it. Or get worked up about it, if that's your thing, just don't expect me to care too much. Everything on the list has been rated at least an A- on my grading scale and the ordering is generally from best to worst. This is, of course, an entirely arbitrary exercise, but I always have fun with lists, so take that with a giant grain of salt. I tried to limit breweries to a handful of entries, though I think I still ended up with, like, 4 Tired Hands beers on here. Make of that what you will, here's the list:

  1. Tired Hands Parageusia1 (American Wild Ale)
  2. Stone Fyodor's Classic (Imperial Stout)
  3. Hill Farmstead Society & Solitude 5 (Double IPA)
  4. Tired Hands The Emptiness is Eternal (Saison)
  5. The Bruery Mash (Barleywine)
  6. Sante Adairius Cask 200 (American Wild Ale)
  7. Cascade Sang Royal (American Wild Ale)
  8. Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee (Quadrupel)
  9. Cantillon Iris (Lambic)
  10. Tired Hands Psychic Facelift (IPA)
  11. Cisco Pechish Woods (American Wild Ale)
  12. Carton 077XX (Double IPA)
  13. Union Double Duckpin (Double IPA)
  14. Logsdon Oak Aged Bretta (Saison)
  15. Tired Hands Back Into The Emptiness (Saison)
  16. Firestone Walker XVII - Anniversary Ale (American Strong Ale)
  17. Hill Farmstead Harlan IPA (IPA)
  18. Thirsty Dog Wulver (Scotch Ale/Wee Heavy)
  19. Neshaminy Creek The Shape Of Hops To Come (Double IPA)
  20. Avery 5 Monks (Quadrupel)
  21. Voodoo Buffalo Trace Black Magick (Imperial Stout)
  22. FiftyFifty Old Conundrum On Wood (Barleywine)
  23. Three Floyds Chevalier Bertrand Du Guesclin (American Wild Ale)
  24. Lost Abbey Framboise De Amarosa (American Wild Ale)
  25. Almanac Farmer's Reserve Pluot (American Wild Ale)
  26. Voodoo Pappy Van Winkle Big Black Voodoo Daddy (Imperial Stout)
  27. Hill Farmstead Florence (Saison)
  28. Cisco Monomoy Kriek (American Wild Ale)
  29. Lost Abbey Track #8 (Quadrupel)
  30. Deschutes The Abyss 2013 Reserve (Imperial Stout)
  31. Crooked Stave L'Brett d'Or (American Wild Ale)
  32. HaandBryggeriet Odin's Tipple (Imperial Stout)
  33. DC Brau On The Wings Of Armageddon (Double IPA)
  34. Surly Furious (IPA)
  35. Boulevard Saison-Brett (Saison)
  36. Forest & Main Lunaire (Saison)
  37. Victory Wild Devil (American Wild Ale)
  38. Allagash PNC Broken Elevator (American Wild Ale)
  39. Prairie Puncheon (Saison)
  40. The Bruery Sucré (Old Ale)
Well, after looking through that list, it seems I did have a rather fantastic year. Here's to 2015, already shaping up to be a good one.

Operation Cheddar II: Sharp Cheddar


Last week was my now annual trip to Adirondacks to join family and friends for lakeside merriment and generalized fun (incidentally, this is why there were no posts last week). As with last year's Operation Cheddar, I took a little day trip over to Vermont to secure hallowed libations from the holy trinity of The Alchemist, Lawson's Finest Liquids, and Hill Farmstead.

The plan was pretty much the same as last year, except that The Alchemist was no longer distributing direct from their cannery, instead distributing to a variety of local Vermont establishments. Alas, this little switchup would prove to be my doom. Or, well, just make it so that I didn't manage to procure any precious Heady Topper. I suppose I could have, but I opted not to wait the extra two hours. I've had plenty of Heady in my day, including a recent fresh 4 pack, so I didn't judge this to be a huge loss. I could probably have found the odd 4 pack around somewhere, but this whole distribution situation makes this sort of day trip a little inconvenient. I'll need to do a more dedicated Vermont trip to make this work. No big whoop, onwards and upwards.

In any case, Operation Cheddar II: Sharp Cheddar commenced on Thursday morning. First stop was The Warren Store for some Lawson's Finest Liquids (see last year's operation for more on this great little store). Unlike last year where I basically walked in and picked a few bottles off the shelf, this year was a bit more of a production. There was a line of about 20 people ahead of me, and they sold out 34 cases in about an hour and half. Fortunately, I got there in time to secure my three bottles of Double Sunshine. On the one hand, it would have been nice to have gotten a hold of something I hadn't had before. On the other hand, Double Fucking Sunshine. These three bottles will not last long. Whilst there, I snagged a few other locals:

Warren Store Haul

So aside from Double Sunshine, I grabbed a Foley Brothers Native IPA (I enjoyed their brown ale from last year's sortie), a Bent Hill India Pale Ale (dude at the shop said they're brand new and at the time, no reviews on the internets), a Crop Bistro & Brewery Idletyme IPA as well as their Crop Weizen (another brand new brewery).

Also procured at The Warren Store was some Vermont Maple Syrup and a wonderful breakfast sandwich, which I ate in peace out on their deck that faces the little waterfall and creek on the side of the building. Good times.

Next stop, Hill Farmstead!

Hill Farmstead Sign

Hill Farmstead Construction

Construction and expansion efforts are moving along, and the line was actually indoors this year. They seemed to have streamlined some of their process, but there was a pretty steady line of folks looking to score their Hill Farmstead bottles and growlers. I have to admit, I spent wayyy too much money here, but it's totally worth it:

Hill Farmstead Haul

Hill Farmstead other beer haul

Once again, I ended up buying some of the same beer as last year. But when that beer is Vera Mae, I'm not going to complain. Plus, I got my hands on an ample bounty of Florence (more than pictured), and growlers of Harlan, Friendship & Devotion, and Society & Solitude #5, so there is that. Also snagged some Siren / Mikkeller / Hill Farmstead Limoncello IPA and Crooked Stave Surette and Vieille. Oh, and they had glassware this year too!

The last stop was Winooski Beverage, where I had hoped to score some Heady Topper. Alas, I got there at 4, there was already a few people waiting in line, and they weren't going to start selling until 6. I still had a three hour drive to get back home, so I opted to grab a few shelf turds (that happened to all be Massachusetts beers) and leave it at that.

Miscellaneous Haul

Let's see what we got here: Mystic Saison Renaud, Jack's Abby Hopstitution IPL and Session Rye IPL, and something that looks like homebrew (seriously dude, it's got those Brewer's Best caps) called Billy's Pale Ale.

And just for fun, some other stuff I procured on this trip, including some great tasting Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar, along with that Maple Syrup that I mentioned earlier.

Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar and Maple Syrup

So yes, despite the lack of Heady, I declare that this mission has been accomplished. Until next year (though fingers crossed for a more wintry excursion in a few months).

The Session #86: Beer Journalism

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session_logo.jpgOn the first Friday of every month, there's a beer blog roundup called The Session. Someone picks a topic, and everyone blogs about it. This time around, Heather Vandenengel wants to talk Beer Journalism:

What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers? What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again? What's your beer media diet? i.e. what publications/blogs/sites do you read to learn about industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and/or a moribund endeavor? And if so, what can be done about it?

A few things occur to me. One is that I rarely seem to read stuff that would formally be called "Beer Journalism". Sure, this is the internet, and so I've serendipitously stumbled upon many a beer article, I suppose, but I've never subscribed to a dead tree publication like BeerAdvocate (and for various reasons, I don't have any plans to reverse that). The grand majority of my beer reading tends to be blogs, and they can be a varied bunch. Common themes seem to be irreverent humor, homebrewing, reviews, even more irreverent humor, and then there's whatever the hell Subby Doo is doing at DDB.

The other thing that occurs to me is that it seems kinda foolish to put writing into a box. Perhaps there are too many "advocates" and cheerleaders in beer writing these days, but if Thomas Pynchon started up a beer advocacy blog, I'd bet all of us would be reading the hell out of that thing. Still, I do think there's a point here. Beer boosterism is fine, but it also leads to certain issues. Like, for instance, the constant hand wringing about the best beers in the world. It can be frustrating to newbs and hype causes some rather obnoxious behavior amongst some folks (this is a general topic that deserves a post of its own). It wouldn't be so bad if everyone didn't choose the same few beers, but if you really love beer, you should seek out the bad with the good. While I've had my share of infamously bad beers, I could probably do better on this front myself.

One of the other things Heather asked us to share in this Session is "a piece of beer writing or media you love". There are many options (and all the folks I linked above are indeed loved), but I'm going to go with the most obscure thing I can think of, which is this classic review of the legendarily bad Samuel Adams Triple Bock, buried in the depths of Beer Advocate (and somehow not deleted by the overzealous mods over there). Who says tasting notes are boring?

True story: While outside, my brother and I poured a little bit of Triple Bock into the bowls of the three dogs who live at my uncle's house. All three dogs, very hungry due to not having eaten since breakfast, ran toward the bowls, then simultaneously retreated by slowly walking backward. They appeared to be concerned that whatever was in there might reward sudden movement by attacking them. Such concerns were probably well-founded.

Truth be told, I strongly recommend Triple Bock to everyone who calls himself a beer connoisseur, just as I recommend "Troll 2" to strangers I pass on the street. There truly is nothing else like it in this world. It deserves every bit of its insidious reputation, and it will take years off your life.

Highly recommended.

I don't really know where to go after that, so I'm going to answer Heather's original questions with some questions of my own, which will hopefully help illuminate something I'd like to see from more beer writing. In this task, I will be drawing upon a raging debate in the world of music and film writing. The whole snafu was set off by this CriticWire Survey that posed a question:

Q: Jazz critic Ted Gioia recently lodged a complaint that "music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting" because most most critics lack a musical background and theoretical tools. Do movie critics need filmmaking experience or an understanding of film theory to do their jobs?

Gioia's original post makes some pretty strong points:

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients. Or an expert on cars who refuses to look under the hood of an automobile.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music. Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

There might be some hyperbole involved there, but I think you can see where I'm going with this, and the parallels to beer writing are obvious. Do beer writers need brewing experience or an understanding of brewing theory to do their jobs? I'm willing to bet that a lot of respondents to this Session will be talking a lot about how "beer is people" and other such platitudes, and there is certainly a lot of gold to be mined in that realm, but what of the technical aspects of brewing?

I actually think a lot of beer writers have at least tried their hand at brewing. Heck, I'm just some random blogger with a tiny stream of traffic, and even I homebrew and try to tackle some esoteric technical details of the brews I'm brewing and drinking. But I feel like, all too often, we beer bloggers just regurgitate the marketing blurb on the back of the bottle or in the press releases. I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to stuff like this, even if I do try to do some deeper diving on various subjects from time to time, information is limited. Beer Journalists probably have more access, but do they really get into the nitty gritty details of brewing during, say, an interview? Of course, it's going to be very difficult to make some technical details interesting to a general audience, but it's certainly possible.

Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz was one of the initial respondents to the CriticWire survey, but he later expanded upon his answer:

Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.

Otherwise it's all just book reports or political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV. It's literary criticism about visual media. It's only achieving half of its potential, if that. And it's doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it.

Form is not just an academic side dish to the main course of content. We critics of film and TV have a duty to help viewers understand how form and and content interact, and how content is expressed through form. The film or TV critic who refuses to write about form in any serious way abdicates that duty, and abets visual illiteracy.

It is not necessary for a critic of film or television to have created a work of film or television. But it's never a bad idea to know a little bitty eensy teensy bit about how film and television are made.

Much of this seems pretty obvious to me, but it caused quite a stir amongst the film nerd community. It turns out that if you tell a writer how they should write, they get a little uppity. And that's probably as it should be. Again, it's kinda foolish to put writing into a box.

But I think the general point of this whole debate is worth taking to heart. Beer isn't just about people, it's also about, well, the beer. It helps to know about ingredients and process, and Beer Writers should be internalizing this info and passing it on in easily digestible chunks to the unsuspecting masses. That doesn't mean you shouldn't write about people, but perhaps the balanced approach is best. To all things in moderation, and other cliches. This isn't easy, but that's why you're a beer journalist, right? You don't have to be negative or critical (though there's nothing wrong with that), and you can still be an advocate by stressing the technical. Think about what Neil deGrasse Tyson is attempting with his reboot of Cosmos (or what Carl Sagan already accomplished). I think beer needs people like that. People who understand things and aren't afraid to explain them in laymans terms. And I'm not entirely sure that shows like Brew Masters or BrewDogs really fit that bill (though the latter certainly does better than the former, even if they're still obsessed with gimmickry in the brewing of their beer). You could argue that we've already had our Sagan - Michael Jackson is indeed a giant - but he's sadly no longer with us, and so there's a gaping hold in beer writing. Are you going to fill it?


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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

You might also want to check out my generalist blog, where I blather on about lots of things, but mostly movies, books, and technology.

Email me at mciocco at gmail dot com.

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