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 (Kรถln). 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.