Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who Has The Best Beer Selection in Buenos Aires?

Who has the best beer selection in Buenos Aires? I claim that the best beer fridge in the city does not belong to a bar, a pub or even a specialty shop. It belongs to Martín Boan and Carolina Pérez, heads of the Centro de Cata de Cerveza in San Telmo (located at Piedras 1318/1320).

When entering the Centro de Cata (Tasting Centre) you will see an impressive collection of beer books, bottles, and other memorabilia on the shelves that border the room. Inevitably, your eye will be drawn to the contents protected by two glass doors on the far wall. The two fridges are a densely packed library of styles from across the continent and around the world.

Amassing and replenishing their constantly revolving collection is all in a day’s work. Carolina and Martín are leading figures in developing the South American craft beer industry and their fridge is a testament to wide travels, influence and admiration. They are Argentina’s foremost beer educators, drawing students from across South America and colleagues from around the world to their classroom. They also have a hand in the malting industry and in founding the South Beer Cup, a beer competition and festival inaugurated last May in Buenos Aires.

I was recently lucky enough to attend a low-key meeting between Martín, some of his students, and Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) president Gordon Strong. Mr. Strong happens to be the BJCP’s most experienced judge and had passed through Brazil before lecturing and judging at a brewing competition in Santa Fe.

The stylistic variety and origins of the beers we shared and discussed was surprising. From out of the fridge came a Baltic Porter brewed in Scotland, a Brazilian Black India Pale Ale, an Argentine Pale Ale in the American style, and Argentine versions of Bock and Imperial Stout to name only a few.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the beers was a Brazilian ale inspired by the Belgian brewing tradition. Fermented using Brettanomyces (a unique strain of yeast that creates a distinct sour taste), it offered tart and refreshing sips. It would be at home in a Belgian café and is an ideal restorative on a hot day.

Mr. Strong had this to say when asked to characterize Martín and Carolina’s influence on educating hopeful beer judges: “The BJCP would not have a presence in South America if it were not for Martín and Carolina. They helped organize and proctor the first exams, and also helped start up the program in Brazil. They are exactly the right type of people to lead the judging community”. More judges means more beer competitions and more chances for brewers to be shaped by competent criticism and praise from their peers. Better beer is the inevitable outcome.
The beers in the Centro de Cata de Cerveza are for educational purposes. The Centro offers regular topical workshops for those looking to indulge their curiosity about beer appreciation, as well as technical talks for homebrewers. For the more serious student, several long-term courses are offered through the Centro (including distance education) and each involves many hours of sensory evaluation. Beer’s raw materials, brewing science and other key technical subjects are also on the syllabus.

In any case, signing up for a class means drinking beer will quite literally be your homework.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Buenos Aires Beer Tastings

Argentinians tend to be an entrepreneurial bunch and the expats in Buenos Aires are no exception. Everyone is freelancing, wheeling and dealing and running some kind of business. I haven't met them yet but there are even two guys selling hot sauce.

I didn't start doing these beer tastings to pay the bills but I did hope to make a couple bucks, show people some of the awesome beers I have found here so far and meet people. So far it has worked out pretty well. Here are some photos and descriptions of the two events so far.

Beer Tasting I

El Bolson - Rubia (blonde)
Served with Pizza with Ham & Pineapple

I have had mixed experiences with El Bolson. I had to pour away their Negra and Negra Ahumada (smoked stout) for being un-drinkable metallic and oxidized. I had a great bottle of their Rubia (blonde) before and decided to use it for this pairing. It had a very cool sort of wood flavour to it that I thought would go well with the pizza (especially the ham and pineapple).

I knew in the back of my mind I was taking a bit of a risk using this brewery but I thought I would be safe with the blonde. Turns out the same tangy metal flavour was in this batch of bottles as well. The crowd liked the beer though, so not all was lost. If you are liking the beer I am not about to tell you to stop liking it.

Respect to El Bolson for being one of the oldest craft brewers in Argentina, but they really need to do something about their quality. I really liked their blonde when it was spot-on, but I have now had bad experiences with three different beers of theirs and would advise you to steer clear unless you are visiting the brewery. This is probably the first negative thing ever published about a specific brewer on this blog.

The pineapple ended up taking the edge off quite a bit and we merrily marched on to the next beer.

El Buho - IPA
Served with Indian French Fries

I have loved El Buho since I first had their IPA at Prologo Bar. I was really excited to serve this beer, especially with this food pairing. For me, this was the match of the night and I am excited to do this again. Big round of applause to GiGi, the chef at Magdalena's Party, because these fries were seriously good: curry and other Indian spices with a bit of brown sugar. El Buho's IPA is more on the malty side and has a straight up bitterness without going crazy on the fmavour and aroma hops like the IPAs you'd typically see in North America. The brown sugar went really well with that and the spices had a great aroma to match the hops that you do find in El Buho.

I love El Buho. I just wanted to say that again.

Berlina - Foreign Stout
Served with Chocolate

Berlina is also a very nice brewery. I have already talked about them before in an article I wrote about Stout Day. One thing I love about them is the German heritage meets the willingness to brew other styles of beer. Something about a Stout brewed under the Bavarian purity law makes me smile.

Guinness is forever the yardstick for those exploring stouts. I find it incredibly useful to have a reference beer that everyone is familiar with for the style even if the point you have to make is about contrasts. Discussing the differences is fun and it is always encouraging when people are surprised at how much they like a beer with more body and flavour. This beer was a big hit and the chocolate was enjoyed by all.

One of the tasters bought a bottle of Guinness for comparison and shared with the table. It was good to have them side by side to make the differences clear. Working from memory can be tricky when dealing with tastes and textures. I think I will do this again in future tastings to make things more tangible.

Overall - this was a lot of fun but rain dampened the turnout. I was happy to be invited back. I think the crowd liked the Berlina best but the best pairing was for sure the IPA and sweet curry fries.

Beer Tasting II

Finn - Wheat Ale
Served with Pizza

This is a super interesting brewery run by a very nice guy named Andi who just won homebrewer of the year award. I am not sure exactly what sort of setup he is using or how big, but apparently he brews about 600L a month which is incredibly tiny. Whatever system/size he is using he knows what he is doing. He makes a damn good beer. I am a big fan of the American Pale Ale he makes, but the Wheat Ale was available in larger quantities so I chose that for this tasting.

This isn't remotely like a Wit or a Weiss. You won't find any haze, spices or fruit peels. This beer drinks more like a blonde ale with a bit more body, darker colour and a great wheat cracker aroma. It is perfectly clear. I really like the aroma of this beer and so did the table.

Grosa - Barrel-aged Tripel
Served with Gruyere, Honey and Almond snack plate

This beer had mixed results. Everyone said they liked it but not every glass was finished. I didn't expect everyone would enjoy this beer without reservation but I think the pairing helped people through. Everyone loved the cheese and the honey and almonds were a nice counterpoint for the dryness of the beer.

I am curious to try this beer's older brother (Re-grosa) that has been aged in barrels longer. This beer is pretty good and the only Tripel in regular production that I am currently aware of in Argentina. I think it could use some more time to smooth out, but doesn't necessarily need more time in the wood.

I would love to try an aged bottle of Grosa alongside Regrosa to test this theory out.

Beagle - Stout
Served with Ice Cream & Chocolate

Beagle is named after Darwin's boat and is also the name of the channel that Ushauaia (home city of the brewery) sits on. The boat features nicely on the label.

This is a very potent beer that had mixed reactions. Half the table thought it was the best beer of the night and the other half the worst. There were several bottles that got opened but went untouched after trying a sip of their neighbour's glass. This was not such a bad thing in the end as it was a great excuse to drink six stouts. This beer is at its absolute best at cellar temperature, even room temperature. There is a great dry cherry/chocolate note that pops out and all the dark malt bite settles right down.

I make a point of showing the effects of beer temperature in the presentation, but even I was surprised at how much I loved the last beers of the night that had been sitting out for almost an hour. Temperature effects are something I will make a better point of demonstrating in future talks, making it as tangible as possible.

Funny story - after the tasting, a girl who had not sat through it tried some of the leftover Beagle from the bottle. I told her it was better from the glass and she tried a sip. She thought they were two different beers. Funny how glassware works, eh?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Equity for Punks Part II – Interview with James Watt

I had been aware of Equity for Punks since its announcement but hadn't read all the details closely until recently. I knew, more or less, that they were selling shares but a closer read piqued my interest about them all over again. (Read about what first piqued my interest in BrewDog here: an interview with BrewDog intern Brett Taylor and also a beer dinner with James Watt at Gambrinus Bistro, London, Ontario).

The best breweries tend to have great beer but are also well run businesses and this is a great example of that. No sense bothering to brew good beer if you can't sell it or get people interested in drinking it. We published a breakdown of BrewDog's Equity for Punks share offering about 5 minutes ago. Here is part II where I ask James Watt some questions about Equity for Punks and the future for BrewDog.

BrewDog Equity for Punks Part I -- Want to Own a Brewery?

BrewDog is at it again. Or, more accurately, BrewDog is at it all the time and this is the latest thing they are up to: raising capital for a new expansion and an eco-friendly brewery.

Perhaps readers will roll their eyes at this move. You might argue that the punks are now wearing suits and quite literally selling out. Isn’t all this against their stick-it-to-the-man punk ethos? Not so fast. Knowing BrewDog you can bet that they will do things their way and this is confirmed just by reading the title of their pitch: “Equity for Punks”. Few could use such a phrase while sounding credible but they pull it off.

Despite BrewDog’s spunky, fly by the seat of your pants attitude, the reality is that they are a shrewd and well planned operation. They have cultivated ire and media coverage as well as they have cultivated fandom for their beers. They are astute business people and their beers  have made incredible inroads since their humble beginnings back in 2006 in Fraserburgh, Scotland. The punk attitude is genuine, but so is their boardroom chops. James shared some great war stories from their early during a beer dinner I attended and happened to record most of.

The share offering comes with a serious bit of legalease to read but nobody is stopping you from skimming it all and sending your pounds off to James and Martin. Depending on your view of the investment the fine print might be worth a closer look, though I doubt that many day trader types are keeping watch on this. I suspect most people are like Sjoerd De Haan, a Dutch whiskey blogger and beer fan I spoke with. He bought in because he was moved by the project. Here is what he said when I asked him why he participated in Equity for Punks:

“I love their beers, and although not all of their brews appeal to me, I like the way they give the big breweries a good ass kicking every now and then. Their marketing appeals to me and since it goes accompanied by some terrific brews, I love the company.

The Equity for Punks shares come with quite some benefits, which I doubt I will use often. I got 4 shares mostly because I like to be part of something cool. I feel almost like it is charity to help them get enough cash to get their new eco brewery running.”

Thinking with his heart. I like this guy! Go read his blog.

Let’s talk about those benefits Sjored mentioned. They are most easily summarized in list form and a list was conveniently sent to me in an email from James Watt. I will copy and paste it here for you now:

·   Benefit financially from our future growth through dividends and also an increase in the value of your shareholding.
·   Lifetime discount in all of our BrewDog Bars
·   Lifetime discount on our online shop
·   Exclusive first options on all our special and limited edition beers
·   Invites to our (soon to be legendary) AGMs
·   Being able to participate in our annual by shareholders, for shareholders beer.
·   Having your say in how the company is run
·   Owning your very own part of BrewDog
·   Sell and trade your shares on www.equitypunks.com or at a potential later listing
·   A welcome pack with some killer, shareholder only BrewDog merchandise including your awesome shareholder ID card.
·   Literally become richer with every BrewDog beer you drink

That is pretty sweet. Assume the worst: even if BrewDog went bankrupt you’d get some exclusive merchandise out of it! The discount on beer orders and in their pubs will tide you over until the dividend kicks in.

Click ahead and we'll break down the offer some more. There's even a sweet video!

Beer in Argentina - Beagle Fuegian Stout and La Loggia Imperial Stout

Beagle Stout 7.8%
A beer to make Darwin proud!

I had a blasty blast on Stout Day. What a perfect excuse to go to the store, make friends with the owner, talk about beer and buy beers I have never tried before. Sorry for buying all this beer, honey. It was Stout Day. What could I do?

I had no such statutory excuse this time around. I just wanted to try these beers. I know I very much enjoy the Berlina Foreign Stout, but what will I think of these other black beauties? Only one way to find out. By the way, all these beers came from Bodega Cervecero, (Thames 1716, Palermo Soho)

Beagle seems to be one of the owner's favourite breweries and La Loggia is the winner of the South Beer Cup gold medal. Ever hear that expression “someone ought to give that guy a medal”? Sometimes it really happens!

BEAGLE, Ushuaia, Patagonia
Fuegian Stout

First off, tip of the hat to a great brewery name. I have nothing against naming the beer after your town, province, or mother but that hardly requires imagination.

The Beagle is the name of Sir Charles Darwin’s boat. It may not be the most famous boat name ever, but Darwin ranks as having one of the most famous boat trips of all time. As it happens, Darwin spent some time in Patagonia on his way to the Galapagos. The boat features prominently on the beer label and a t shirt my mother-in-law gave me. This beer is just one more thing we can thank Charles Darwin for.*

I also like how they named their beer a Fuegian Stout. This is a nod to their location in Tierra Del Fuego which is pretty much the end of the earth.

This beer is bottle conditioned. It has a very nice, glass-clinging head. The aroma is a cross between caramel and sugary burnt toast. The body is very smooth, has a nice density to it that quickly parts and hits you with a roasty/burnt flavour. As I go I get a very interesting roast chili pepper flavour. No, not a gross cooked vegetable character. This is a roasted, spicy, vaguely woody flavour like an extremely mild version of flavour I've come across in better examples of chili beers and roasted peppers on the parilla.

I rate this beer as Very Nice, verging on Awesome. I actually liked it better then the next beer, though both were excellent.

South Beer Cup Medal Winner
LA LOGGIATortuguitas, Zona Norte de Buenos Aires*
Imperial Stout 11%

Much blacker than Beagle and a much darker head -- sort of a very deep copper/brown colour that wasn't picked up will in the photo. Has a mocha, chocolate, burnt coffee aroma. Body is surprisingly not so heavy. It has a nice amount of vicousness but nothing too heavy or intense. Perhaps the high alcohol content is lightening things up a bit. You get cutting bit of alcohol, burnt malt and a slow, drawn out ashy finish. Finish is a bit astringent and dries the mouth.

A bit of the yeast sediment breaks off into the bottle despite pouring carefully. There is a fair bit of yeast, but it mostly stays stuck.

This beer is extremely well balanced for an 11% brew. You would suspect…put you’d never quite know!

I also rate this beer as Very Nice, verging on Awesome. It really was great, but I just couldn't pull the trigger on Awesome this time. This beer is more complex and potent, and certainly more interesting than the Beagle.  It really is a touch call to say what one is better. I based my choice on the fact that I wanted a second Beagle when I was done. Drinking the Loggia the next day I was quite fine with having one. Chalk that up to the fact it is more potent, but if I am forced to choose I side on "more-ishness" and choose Beagle.

How can you look at this and not smile?
Tasting notes on the Back Label
* Unfortunately, this beer is not enough to entirely counterblance the unfortunate side-effect of Darwin's legacy that is Social Darwinism also known as heartlessness.
**La Loggia used to be called Montecristo. The name change must have been fairly recent because I still see Montecristo bottles floating around at some bars. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bottles vs. Draught - What's the Difference? (Antares Kolsch & Chat with Roger Mittag )

I was recently drinking an Antares Kolsch on draught at the Breoghan Brew Pub (San Telmo, Buenos Aires).
These Clowns have Good Taste

Besides being struck by the fact that it was a rather nice beer overall (and a rather nice Kolsch at that), I noticed that I enjoyed it significantly more on draught than I had in a recent bottle. It reminded me of why Kolsch is a great beer style and brought back memories of my time in Cologne (Köln). What better compliment can I pay to a beer than that?

You Thirsty? Me Too.

It also ignited in me some insights into why I was enjoying the beer more on draught. I don’t propose to settle the question here once and for all. Indeed, each method of storage and dispense has its pros and cons. These vary again style by style. Why rigidly stick to drinking out of one container over another? Far better to have a grasp on why you might prefer one over the other for a given style or situation. We will discuss this issue today, as well as Kolsch, that beautiful flower of Cologne.

The number one thing you need to know about Kolsch is how it is served in Cologne. This ritual alone is part of the beer’s mystique but is not all for show.

Check out that Tray
The beer comes in small, straight sided glasses that hold 200 ml of beer. The bartenders are always bustling with trays of glasses. The glasses fill every square inch of the trays. Your coaster (beer mat for our UK readers) serves as your bill and as an indicator of your thirst. No need to get the barman’s attention and ask him for a drink.

As long as your coaster is under your glass the waiters will constantly bring more beer and make a tick mark on the coaster to keep track of your consumption. Place your coaster on top of the glass and  the beers will stop coming. Your bill will promptly arrive. How’s that for ‘German efficiency’? My tick-covered coasters are a cherished memory of my attempt to drink every Kolsch in Cologne.

Not only does this lead to a great atmosphere in the bars of Cologne, it also ensures that your beer will be appropriately cold and freshly poured every single time you sip it. The giant Oktoberfest stein looks cool but leads to warmer beer once you get beyond the halfway point of your liter. The glass of kolsch will always be cold to the touch and recently arrived from the tray of your blue-aproned waiter.
Ewe, Brewmaster at Paffgen
Pouring glasses at Fruh

Kolsch is all about freshness. With that in mind we return to the draught vs. bottle question.

I had some barstool insights, but I also ran into the limits of my knowledge. This is also known as speculating. I was aware of some of the reasons why the beer might have tasted different, but was unsure about some of the more theoretical and anecdotal reasons. The beer world has as many folk tales as a sex ed class (who ever met a guy telling people you can get AIDS from toilet seats, anyways?) and these are best avoided and not repeated.
Hard at Work at Fruh, right in the shadow of the Dom
In order to separate the hypothetical from the merely thetical*, I reached out to Roger Mittag. Roger is a beer industry veteran and runs the Prud’homme beer sommelier program. This is a three-level course that will bring you from Homer Simpson to beer sommelier. This is especially worth a look if you are based in Canada.  

I encourage you to read over the Prud’homme website if you are interested in some high-level beer education. He also has a tumblr blog** and a twitter account. What a savvy dude.  

To summarize what Roger had to say in our email exchanges: all other things being equal the taste differences between bottle and draught beer are negligible. Where taste differences do exist, they can be chalked up to pretty much anything except the container. The major exception here is beer in green bottles that has been damaged by light (as has been previously discussed here). Blame that one on the bottle.

Freshness is one of the major factors at play.

When was the beer kegged and bottled? How long was that bottle I drank on the grocery store shelf for? Kegs are not known for gathering dust in the bartender’s fridge. Having worked at The Beer Store I can attest that bottles sometimes do. I have also seen dusty beer in Argentine shops. I recently saw the shelves being stocked and employee was armed with a feather duster reminiscent of a French maid. No kidding.

Roger pointed out that “beer typically has a 90 day shelf life”. This means that the beer won’t undergo negative flavour changes before this time. It will still be drinkable after 90 days. It will just be less enjoyable as oxygen slowly starts to get the better of the beer. You won’t be drinking the beer as the company intended.

Met some nice people at Muhlen Kolsch
While the beer might be fine to drink in a 90 day window would you rather drink a one day old beer or an 89 day old beer? A vivid memory I have illustrates this well. I recall getting a bottle of Steamwhistle fresh off the line while taking their beer tour. It was plucked from the bottling line by an employee for me. It didn’t even have a date stamp on it. It was the best Steamwhistle I’ve ever had. What it tastes like from the store is fine, but is nothing like the bitter, yeasty, fresh-bread brew I had that day.

One minute old beer is definitely better than 90 day old beer even if both are still drinkable and un-oxidized. This is the same principle embodies by your bustling waiter in Cologne.

Another point Roger brought up was storage and handling. You don’t necessarily know where that beer has been and how it was stored during those 90 days. Oxidation is the enemy, “creat[ing] a papery, wet cardboard kind of aroma in beer”. Roger also pointed out that temperature fluctuations accelerate this. Going from a cold truck to a warm stockroom, plucked from a fridge, warming in your car, cooling in your fringe again…you get the picture.

Now for some mythbusting. In case you thought the containers themselves could be responsible for flavour effects, do not worry. “Kegs are stainless steel and impart no flavours and the same with glass”, says Mittag. Surely, someone out there is thinking “what about cans?”. I did not ask Roger abut this specifically, though he did say that cans are worst for preventing oxidation when compared to kegs and bottles. This is probably because cans do not have the ability to absorb extra oxygen that can get caught inside. Beer caps are almost invariably treated so they can absorb oxygen.

This was my Favourite Kolsch brewery in Cologne
If you are convinced that your beer tastes “like a can” it is probably because you are drinking it from the can directly and getting a metallic aroma of some kind. Pour it into the glass and see what happens. We won’t  debate the differences between drinking Coors Light from the can or a glass, but as more and more craft beers show up in cans people will need to break the habit of drinking form the can. Pour your cans of Red Racer IPA (for example) into a glass just like you would with a bottle. It is essential for letting the flavours and aromas be fully expressed. Don’t neglect the choice of glass either.

Perhaps many armchair bottle vs. draught debaters are unwittingly stifling the taste of their beer and tilting the playing field. You aren’t making a fair comparison if you are drinking straight from the container and comparing that to a properly served draught beer in a glass. The bottle will be more subdued in flavour. Pour it out so you can get the full experience.

Classy Wooden Barrels at Paffgen
The issue of freshness is more relevant to beers like the Kolsch and lager beers. These have cleaner, clearer flavour profiles and thus defects show up more readily. It is very hard to make a good Kolsch or lager for this reason. Lagers and Kolsches tend to be yes or no propositions. Once things start to go out of balance the beer doesn’t lose a couple points. It gets relegated to the B league. Generally, even a relatively bland ale will usually have a bold enough basic flavour that defects will be less noticeable.

I have never seen a lager beer meant for keeping or aging. The Steamwhistle example shows this well. You may be inside that 90 day window but lager’s clock is always ticking. All beer will eventually oxidize, but not all ales are at their peak the minute they are bottled. Pick up a bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale***, for example, and forget about it in your cellar for a couple years.

Caveats & Context:

The beer world is complex and varied. Blanket statements will not serve us well.

Nowhere did we delve into the issue of cask ales vs. kegs, nor did we discuss at much length the aging of bottle conditioned beers. Sorry folks, not really going there today. For the record, I like cask ales but drink from any container with good beer in it.


Don’t get your knickers in a twist about bottles vs draught. Just enjoy your beer, properly poured, in clean and well-selected glassware. Don’t get caught up in the container. At their most basic, bottles and kegs are just ways of getting beer out of the brewery and into your hand in the best state possible.

When you get a bad bottle or a bad pint it is because someone, somewhere messed it up. Don’t blame the messenger. Don’t blame the keg or the bottle (unless the bottle is green). Blame poorly cleaned lines, adverse storage conditions, shopkeepers not rotating stock, etc.

For fun, here is a light-hearted and handy table for reference.

Chills beer fastest.

Light and portable.

No clinking noise.

Support your local independent recycler/hobo.

Fun to stomp on them and crush them.

Useful for MacGyver situations
Also warms up the fastest.

Shape is not aesthetically 

Worst oxidization protection.

Most craft beer not in cans.
Aesthetically pleasing, cool labels.

Good for ageing beer.

Collecting caps.

Heat from your hand passes more slowly.

“99 Bottles of beer on the wall”

Blow over the lip to make music.

Precursor to beach glass.

Message in a bottle, yeah.
Bottles break.

Glass is heavy.

Green bottles suck.

Clinking noise.

Potential weapon.  
Holds more beer than cans and bottles.

You pull a handle and beer comes out: amazing!

You can turn them into makeshift brewing equipment.

You can stand on top of them like a logrolling lumberjack.
Line Maintenance.

Heavy lifting.

Dropping a keg on your foot.

Expensive deposit.

Need roomy fridge.

Need gas.

“Party Pumps” and their ilk destroy the beer rapidly.

Every asshole at the kegger has an opinion on why the beer is foamy.

Tapping a keg is a figurative action.
Cool new words in your vocabulary like “Hard Spile”, “Bung” and “Beer Engine”.

No hoses, gas, valves, etc. Can be installed on bartop.

Tapping them both is fun and literal. You get to carry a mallet.

Fantastic smoothness. No excess of CO2.

Learn what beer tastes like when not ice cold.

Dry hopping.

Serving beer is also good exercise.
Not as easy to maintain as a keg.

Shorter shelf life than kegs.

Potential for spoilage.

Beer engines can be tough to come by.

*I know that isn’t a word. I’m just having fun.
***Embarrassing anecdote: before I knew any better I once kept a bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale in the fridge and drank it ice cold the week after I bought it. Of course, I hated it. I couldn’t have committed a greater sin against Barley Wine if I had tried. I learned something though.

Bad Beer: Shopping Tips from the Quality Control Department

What is wrong with this picture?
We here are not into the philosophy of “naming and shaming”. I get no pleasure in publicly ripping on people or companies unless they have done something truly terrible. Even then, what would we be but common muckrakers? We will leave that to those who like their rakes muddy. The perpetrators of the crimes I will speak of will not be named but they will be used as examples. For the record, I quite like the beer pictured above. It was just too bad of a mistake not to share with you. I can't believe I didn't notice a sealed bottle was half full.
Here are some tips on quality beer and some warning signs to look out for. These are some things that set my radar off and make me apprehensive when buying beer. 

They aren’t necessarily surefire signs something is wrong. They aren’t even surefire signs something is right, either. One thing you need to understand is the precise definition of “quality” in the context of manufacturing and Quality Control (QC). Quality means hitting your specifications and nothing more. Because this is what defines quality you really can't argue that a company makes a poor quality product when what you really want to say is that the product isn't suiting your needs. 

Those imitation Q-Tips can't clean my ears very well but they are all the same length, fluffiness and weight defined by the ear cleaning scientists who designed them. They make a quality product.

Keep that in mind when you hear about a company boasting about their quality. All this means is the factory isn’t shipping lemons very often. You are the one who has to figure out if what is on the shelf actually suits your needs. Quality and Value to the end user aren't the same thing.

Big beer companies think they make ‘better’ beer because they spend so much on quality control and in-line sensors. The big guys do a great job at making the beer taste the same every time and giving it a long shelf life. They are really, really good at hitting their spec. 

Here's the problem: they choose to make beers with rather bland specs. If you are looking for bitter, flavourful beer then you need to find a company that is manufacturing to a different specification. Here are some things to watch out for in your search:

1)      Too many Beers

If you have a beer in every major style, experimental styles, and seasonals too then you might not be hitting it out of the park with all of them. It is probably fair to say that you are gambling a bit when you have to pick 1-2 beers out of a large lineup. Some of the might be great but you might pick the two stinkers. Did they put more effort into their core products or into their one-offs? Can you even identify the core lineup?

Here we can see the appeal of the Steamwhistle philosophy of focusing on one product. I don’t believe that you are fundamentally distracted by having two beers available, but the lesson can be summed up as simply not spreading yourself too thin.

2)      Zany Recipes

Green beer will be good when snakes return to Ireland
I am all for experimentation. I am drawn to new flavours, ideas and interpretations. But just because it “hasn’t been done before” doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Sometimes the you can be blinded by the strange heliotropism of a bright idea as it flashes before you. I well know that ideas, inspirations and the fever of the creative mind are compelling forces.

Unfortunately, your guiding light might just be a flash in the pan. The goal of experimentation is not unqualified novelty or experimentation for its own sake. Nor should it be intrigue. You must deliver on a grand scale if you are going to make your customer curious. Expectations and imagination are also powerful. Don’t let them down.

Greatness is the goal and glory must guide you. Don’t bottle your experiment because it is an experiment. Chalk it up to experience and pour it down the drain if your science project just doesn’t pan out. Steve Jobs was right when he expressed pride in the things he hadn’t chosen to foist on consumers.*

3)      Fill Height

You might be thinking I am being picky here but this is a small detail that speaks volumes about how a brewery is run and how effective management has been in getting employees to care as much as they do.  Whenever you delegate work to someone and your name is on the label your need to watch your ass. You can be damn sure I won't be delegating my good name to a zit-faced stoner because he is a source of cheap labour.

The height of the beer in bottles is a clue to a number of things.

  • The more headspace is in there the more chance the beer has to oxidize and the faster oxidization can happen. There is a reason big brewers measure dissolved oxygen in parts per billion. Oxygen pickup is bad. Underfills mean more surface area and more oxygen.
  • Overfilling is also a clue about where your beer comes from. You might be happy about that extra sip of beer, but you should be concerned about a place that doesn’t care or notice about the quality of its presentation and packaging. It might be an honest mistake or you might be buying beer from lazy people. When I see bottles on the shelf that are both over and underfilled I feel the same was as if the labels weren't straight.
  • You also might want to fill the bottles properly to comply with packaging regulations and consumer reports on the local news.

 I want to reiterate that this isn't about being picky. I understand that a milliliter here and there can be written off as irrelevant. Odds are most consumers won’t notice. But that doesn't mean that from a quality standpoint you can write fill height off entirely. Proper fill height is an important trade issue. Shrugging and saying “who’s gonna notice?” is a slippery slope.** Go back and look at the picture at the top of the article. 

I can tell you from personal experience working on a bottling line that fill height can be a big deal. This is especially true if you have a machine that fills inconsistently and if you aren’t using state of the art equipment with laser beams and whatnot to check fill heights for you. You will have to look at every bottle like a hawk and eight hours of this will push your ability to give a damn to new dimensions. I was very proud to work there and I took giving a damn about fill height quite seriously. 

Apparently, I still do.

4)      Bad Batches

The cost of pouring away a batch that is messed up, whatever the reason, will be much smaller than the money you will lose later when people lose trust in your brand. This is obvious and is often said in many contexts. I have had beers that I did not like or that went bad for reasons beyond the brewers control. I did not truly know the meaning of this nugget of wisdom and take it to heart until I had a beer that was flat out terrible because it was poorly brewed. I am bad at picking favourites, but this was undoubtedly the worst.

I cannot walk past this brand without remembering that disappointment. I really liked one of their other products but I am extremely apprehensive about trying it again. They messed up the stout and the smoked stout. What if they mess up that nice blonde they make too? Frankly, finding out is a risk.

This isn’t about inconsistency. Its about integrity and trust. I could honestly care less if a beer isn’t precisely identical every time and proven to be so in a peer reviewed journal. I will settle for damn close, still tasty and not drifting over the years. But don’t ship me a beer that is not drinkable.

Conclusions: watch out for little details. They mean something. Don't forget the big details either. Most importantly, does the product hit your spec?

*Steve Jobs would have made a fantastically egomaniacal beer baron.
** Most people don’t know how the sausage is made, so to speak, and companies can get away with shenanigans like this.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Stout Day in Argentina - What Makes a Good Stout?

For me, any day might as well be Stout Day. I don’t need a “holiday” of uncertain origin to motivate me towards the black end of the beer spectrum (I humbly refer you to a previous post from St. Patrick's Day). That said, I do support the basic idea behind Stout Day: beer style appreciation, events, discussion and camaraderie.

I decided to track down some stouts of Argentine origin to explore more of what the Argentine beer industry has to offer in the style. As it happens, the beers I picked and the order I drank them in were very instructive about what stout is all about and what makes a good stout. Let’s take a look:

Cerveza Bohl – La Negra, 6%

This is a very simple and straightforward beer. The bitterness is there but is nowhere near overpowering and there is no hop flavour, only bitterness. It has an enticing smell but not a complex one either. This beer is really all about the malt, as the body is not heavy, chewy or a star all its own. In fact, it is a little thin and the beer is quite carbonated which amplifies this effect. The roast malt flavours are not intense, but very variable. Each sip is a little different: sweet-ish, chocolate, roast, tangy, etc.

There are no heavy or complex flavours here. The beer is rather plain, but not overly simple. It was a nice sipper but didn’t make me sit up and take notice. This beer is Decent.

Franz Scheitler – Negra, 5%
More body here and a more pungent aroma as well. There is less carbonation than the previous offering from Bohl. There are less distinct layers to the malt flavours. Instead, there is a stronger push from a tighter range of aspects dark malts can offer. The body helps make this beer more interesting and is a nice medium for the yeast flavours. Yeast played a soft but noticeable and very nice role in this beer.

This was a better beer than the last one but not by leaps and bounds. The body was an improvement and it was more fun to drink for that reason. The yeast offered a little creaminess and it was a reminder (though this beer is not remotely comparable) of a world classic beer in which the yeast is a key part of the enjoyment: Sam Smith's Oatmeal Stout*

This beer was nowhere near as good as that, but the fact it jogged my memory and reminded me of Sam Smith’s can’t be a bad sign. Franz: you are on the right track. This beer in Nice.

Berlina – Foreign Stout, 6%

This was the blackest and most pungent of the three. Very chocolat-ey smell. The body is smooth and thicker than the Scheitler but was my no means heavy. Again, and it is no surprise, this beer is different than the last. Here, however, the differences are less stark: the difference in body is not as great as between the first and second. The flavour and body is rich but exceedingly drinkable, light and smooth. Nothing powerful or overbearing here—just a solid stout with clear flavour notes and a great body.

This beer is Very Nice, perhaps even verging on Awesome.

My thoughts overall:

It was a happy coincidence that the beers were drank in order of enjoyment. It reminded me of the pieces of the puzzle that make black beers such a favourite of mine.

Body -- what invariably disappoints me in a stout is the body.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Drugged in Argentina: Our Correspondent Learns a Valuable Lesson

It happened just like the stories say it will. One minute I was surrounded by a table of laughing, friendly faces. The next, I was stricken with a heavy sleep. My eyelids were unable to struggle against the powerful substances now swirling in my stomach. I struggled from the table. I nearly stumbled, lazily brushing the chair aside. Hand on the wall for support, legs heavy, I collapsed into bed unable to muster the strength to put a sheet over my bare arms.

I awoke about one hour later. My pockets were empty. I was still intoxicated and hazy as a hand roused me and a voice called my name. I was numb, stung – my stomach the site of a strange warmth that continued to pulse through my body. I tired to collect my senses and to focus on the voice. The voice grew more urgent, telling me it was time to leave. My eyes snapped to focus and I was staring into the face of one of the people from the table.

Friday, October 28, 2011

New York Pub Crawls -- Part III -- The Ginger Man

Next it was time to visit The Ginger Man. The Ginger Man is very close by to my previous stop and had a similarly electric buzz going on. The noise level was similar but was driven more by animated conversations than any football fandom or strumming strings. No live music but many lively people.

The décor here was much different. Contrast Rattle N’ Hum’s DIY collage/homage to everything beer to The Ginger Man’s dark woods, framed beer posters and the ginger-orange glow of its bartop lamps. That’s right—bartop lamps. Very cool.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Vinos Y Sabores -- Wines and Tastes of Argentina

Josh normally handles the wine writing around here but I will have to take a crack at it as well. It seems a waste to stick only to beer when you are in one of the world's great wine countries: Argentina.

Some background for you: I am living in Buenos Aires for the moment. I mentioned that I was coming here in a previous post about my New York Pub crawling activities. I flew out of NYC in order to save money on the flight and to spend the funds saved on beer. I then wrote about it and hopefully made the world a better place for it, though that is debatable.

I will be here until my significant other gets her papers to come back with me to Canada. In the meantime my goal is to explore the budding craft beer scene down here and to dip my feet into the wine side of things. I like wine. I just don't know nearly as much as Josh does, so please don't cringe if I pass up a good year of Luigi Bosca in favour of an inferiour Bodega. We all make mistakes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

New York Pub Crawls -- Part II -- Rattle n' Hum

I had been to Rattle N’ Hum once before in 2009 and was eager to return as the previous visit was quite literally life-changing—but that is another story for another time. The place was packed with all sorts of folks and all sorts of drinks. A couple suits, some army guys, small groups of friends and many college football fans. The fans were split evenly between the two teams so there was always some sort of rise coming from half the room as the game played out. The live music was a nice addition to the mix of noises as well.

One thing I especially liked about the places I visited was the detailed menus and this establishment was no exception. At Rattle N’ Hum I decided to follow ‘Patrick’s picks’ -- printed daily with pointed prose on presentation and perfection and selection of beer.

Patrick (the picker) was not present. Patrick can pick from a proper patch of prize beers but I should point out that Patrick’s picks were precisely three pints. How professional! The marks of a true critic are passion and discretion not peccadilloes and precarious indecision. A critic should also not pick piddling or middling trifle.

I will proceed to prattle on the evening’s tipple:

Sweet – very vinous, pungent, reminiscent of Welch’s grape juice from childhood when I first smelled this one. The word ‘grape-y’ appears in my notes. A sour note leaves me curious about exactly how this beer was produced. I make a note to do more research.

Further research reveals that the brewery is called Strubbe and the beer shares a name with the brewery’s hometown of Ichtegems —the brewery is not named for the town as I initially assumed from the menu (it appeared at Ichtegems ‘Grand Cru’). The website lists an Ichtegem Oud Bruin as well as an Ichtegems Grand Cru. I can only assume that the Grand Cru is a more potent version of the Oud Bruin. The menu lists the beer I had at 6.5% while the website lists the Oud Bruin at 5% even. Likely, this means the Grand Cru is simply a different blend of the young and old beers that compose the Oud Bruin. Unfortunately, while the website lists a Grand Cru, it does not go into further detail. You’ll just have to trust my detective work on this one.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

New York Pub Crawls -- Part I -- Cafe D'Alsace

New York City. What a helluva town.

Sorry Canada, but I would move there in a heartbeat if there wasn’t all sorts of hassles with visas and green cards. Those border guys ask a lot of questions. I wouldn’t try going on vacation and never leaving. It might not work out so well for you. They’ll catch on pretty quick unless you can marry yourself off before they find you.

That’s not a knock on Canada, only a comment on how great New York is. Go before you die. Don't argue. Just go.

This is a city that has something for you to do no matter where you are from, what you are into or what language you speak. Needless to say, there are some seriously fun beer joints and a cast of characters to be found in New York City bars as well.

A friend recently asked me “how can you stand drinking in bars on you own”? If the answer isn't a smart-alec one like "I don't stand. I sit down" then the real answer is: "characters". In the time it takes to find the bottom of a glass (two, perhaps) you will likely find yourself already in conversation with a character. Think about it another way: if I was hostage to companionship to fulfill my craft-beer sipping needs I would be a rather insistent and bothersome person who would hound people to go drinking with me in order to fulfill my own selfish needs. I prefer to go solo when necessary and run into the characters bestowed on you by the beer gods. The New York City beer gods have been generous to me.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Attractive Bastard or π not

            As summer is drawing to a close now is the time to reflect on that which makes the season so great: trees with leaves, swimming in lakes, beers with friends, and attractive women wearing seasonally appropriate attire. This summer I had an epiphany, whilst basking on the beach my eyes happened upon a particularly stunning women, after a minute of reflection I realized that while the women was clearly objectively attractive and would suite many men’s (and women’s) tastes her particular aesthetic just didn’t do it for me. To me Pinot Gris is the woman on the beach, I can recognize why people find it so delicious but she’s not the girl I’m hoping to take home at the end of the night.

            Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio, Rulander, Grauer Burgunder, the random off-spring of one of my favorite reds (Pinot Noir), is often considered a noble variety but given it’s bastard origins I am hard pressed to consider it noble in any respect. As the name Grauer Burgunder suggests it’s true home is Burgundy and while there are some remaining plantings the Burgundians have largely given up on their embarrassing love child. Pinot Gris is a mutation of Pinot Noir. One day several hundred years ago a Frenchman tending his newly planted vines cried “Sacrebleu!” As the Frenchman inspected his new Pinot Noir clones he realized that he had been duped and did not have Pinot Noir at all but rather some random bastard of a vine. He stormed back to the other Frenchman who had sold him the “fake” Pinot Noir and cut off his left leg; such was the custom of the time. But in fact it was not the now monopedal Frenchman that had duped him but Mother Nature herself!

What a Bastard!

            Grape vines, the ones that are used to make wine at least, are propagated through cloning. Cloning is when a piece of vine, say Syrah, is cut off and put into the soil so that an identical vine, more Syrah, may then grow. This form of vine reproduction has been practiced for millennia. Were vines solely propagated through sexual reproduction we would have no way of bringing Syrah to Australia, or Sauvignon Blanc to New Zealand. When vines have sex the seed that is produced will have bits of each of its’ parents DNA so Australia might end up with Syrah Blanc, and New Zealand a Sauvignon Syrah. Cloning is a means to just straight up steal the DNA of a given vine, but biology is sloppy and sometimes messes up, such is the case with Pinot Gris. While Pinot Gris is genetically identical to Pinot Noir it is in fact visibly and tastily different.

Monday, August 15, 2011

For the Good of Mankind: Experiments in Alcohol

If you have ever taken part in a research study you will no doubt share the feeling that you are kind of like a monkey being shot into space. You are an intrepid being with a safety helmet snatching the "real" glory from the Yuri Gagarin's and Neil Armstrong's of the world to benefit humanity by boldly going first.

You probably aren't being shot into space, but hopefully you are at least not getting a shot in the arm. I wouldn't be part of a study involving needles (unless maybe they were knitting needles--and even then I would have serious reservations).

I would be a part of a study that involved, say, being paid for free drinks. Much better than the other way 'round, eh? Let me tell you a 100% true story. Step into my shoes for a moment....

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Corks and Mould: When to Worry and when to Drink

I’ve eaten mouldy bread before. Generally when I do so it’s because my eyes have failed me, luckily my tongue is there to pick up the slack. I once went through a period in my life when I drank coffee that tasted of mould on a regular basis. It’s not that I like the taste of mould; I find the flavour rather reprehensible. Three straight hours of dry philosophy lectures will convince you to drink pretty much anything so long as it offers the guarantee of staving off an embarrassing wake-up call and a drool soaked notebook. Some advice to recent university entrants: clean out your coffee thermos on a regular basis, although it may be made of steel the taste and scent of mould can linger for months no matter how thoroughly you clean. While I do hate mould and its’ wretched flavour I am willing to look past it for a worthy cause.

Cork taint. Much like when the human body rejects an organ after a transplant only to poison the entire body, wine may reject it’s cork poisoning the wine. Not that the wine will hurt or kill you but it will taste bad. Mould is generally the main culprit in producing a “corked” or cork tainted wine. As I have said I am not a fan of mould but I am willing to look past it, however I have yet to become such a chronic alcoholic that I am willing to guzzle down some foul wine just to catch a buzz. Corked wine is not corked because you can see the mould rather it is corked because you can taste and smell it. A wine that is corked will taste like you are licking a wet sheep (in a bad way) this is of course opposed to the desirable characteristic of lanoline (wet wool) one might find in beautiful Semillon blend.
This is what cork taint looks like... be aware

Should you ever encounter the smell and/or taste of wet cardboard or wet dog in a wine don’t worry… unless the liquor store is closed and you have no other bottles to open. Any liquor store worth it salt will gladly refund or exchange your wine (assuming you haven’t drank it all). Theoretically the winery that unfortunately supplied the liquor store and then you, the customer, with an off wine will get the news that there is something wrong with one of, perhaps many of, their bottles: this is a good thing.

If the problem isn’t cork taint, to which there is no solution other than using a seal than a cork, the winery needs to know that there is something wrong. It may be more than just one bottle that is off: it could be an entire batch. Assuming the winery wishes to succeed in the future it better figure out why and fix the problem ASAP. While many people are too shy to return a wine that is off and may just pour it down the sink while making a vow never to buy brand X again, this is not the heroic solution. If you should be the first to report a pervasive problem, rather than pour it down the sink, you may end up actually saving a winery from financial collapse. You’ll be a hero! If you were just unlucky and got a corked wine then you won’t be a hero but at least you’ll get a new bottle of wine, or at least you should if the liquor store is even somewhat reputable.

Any wine or liquor store should gladly refund your money or offer a new bottle of the wine you returned if you bought one that was faulted. Of course if you drink most of the contents of a bottle of wine and then try and return it for a refund or an exchange the shopkeeper will be justifiably reticent. If you do happen to buy a bottle of wine that is faulted put the cork back in the wine (it is easiest to do this if you actually shove the top end of the cork back in as if it were the bottom end) and return the wine, hopefully with no more than a glass missing, within the next day or two.