Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

Category: Hop Press Articles (Page 1 of 7)

New England Craft Brewers Scoop Up GABF Medals

Kegs have been tapped, beers have been poured, cups have been dropped, and medals have been won at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival (GABF). While the event participants and organizers were nursing their hangovers, I was doing some thinking on my front steps while watching the first autumn leaves fall. While I have heard some local news about winners at this year’s GABF, I began to wonder about how New England breweries stacked up against the rest of the country.

Some basic stats about New England and the 2011 GABF:

  • Total breweries in attendance: 466
  • Breweries from New England attending: 14

So, New England apparently made up a very small chunk (3%) of the nearly 500 breweries pouring brews. (At some point, I want to map out all the breweries in New England and figure out what percentage of all the craft breweries in the U.S. they represent, but I digress…) But they were there, alright. And, it turns out, they were winning some serious medals.

This year, there were 7 medals awarded to New England Breweries (out of the 249 medals awarded) which included 3 gold medals, 1 silver and 3 bronze. [See a list of all the 2011 winners]

New England breweries winning medals in 2011:

Intrigued by this, I did a little bit more digging to see if this was a “typical” year or if there were any trends in the number of medals awarded to craft brewers in New England. Here’s what I found:

I was honestly surprised to see a downturn this year after a three-year trend but then I thought further. I’ve read a few bloggers say that there was a disappointingly few number of actual brewers pouring, so this may be evidence that there were external factors that might have made make it less likely for a brewery (especially a small one) to attend. Additionally, the number of craft breweries in attendance (14 this year) from New England is down from 16 the previous year. Without data on the number of beers entered each year, I’m not sure what to make of the trend.

What does make me happy though is that there are breweries that are pretty small still making an appearance and picking up some honors. This year, I think thatCambridge Brewing Company embodies the throngs of small brewers in New England who make some excellent beer. The remaining 2011 New England winners are significantly larger in size and distribution, adding some validity to the theory that this year may have been more difficult for the “little guys” to enter. Last year, medals were awarded to many more small-scale New England Breweries (including Portsmouth Brewery, Prodigal Brewing (NH), The Alchemist (VT), Haverhill (MA) and Trinity (RI)).

Some food for thought. For me, I’m proud of all of the wonderful beer made in New England, whether it gets shipped out to Colorado to be judged or not. Cheers!

Greatness brewing in Gardner, MA

As I wound around corners on Rt. 2 in Massachusetts heading towards Gardner, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I have made friends with several homebrewers who are brewing excellent beer, but I’ve never actually attended a homebrew festival or competition before, let alone been asked to be a “guest judge” for one. I decided, as I drove up the little gravel driveway at the Garnder Deer Club that I’d just be open-minded and hope that the rain held out.

Organized by Dave Higgins and his comrades from Wachusett brewing, this was the festival’s second year. Busy staff members in bright orange shirts worked to set everything up. A ring of tables held brews of all shapes and sizes, some in bottles, some in kegs, and some in innovative delivery systems (including one that was made by a former cabinet maker and housed in a rubbermaid garbage can)…

There were two prizes to be had – a people’s choice award (people could vote using blue marbles that they received at the festival’s entrance – and a “best in show” chosen by the guest judges.

A great group of Homebrewers in Gardner!

A great group of Homebrewers in Gardner!

For us, the judging was arranged in flights – so there were 4-6 beers in a heat, and one was selected to move onto the final round. There were probably about 25-ish beers to try, so we had a good job ahead of us to pick our favorites.

We had some really innovative and interesting beers, and all of it was high quality! I’d like to call out a few that were memorable: A Tripel made with black cherries, a coconut IPA, an impressive, I-can’t-believe-its-a-homebrew Belgian Ale, a raspberry cider, a smoked red ale, a Chocolate Raspberry Porter and the best Watermelon ale I’ve ever had.

The judge’s “best in show” ended up being the Belgian Ale with the Watermelon and Chocolate Raspberry as close runners-up. The crowd favorites were the black cherry belgian (1st) and the raspberry cider (2nd).

I got a chance to talk to some of the brewers, and got encouraged and inspired by their creativity. What a great way to remind myself that there are tons of great things going on in the backyards, kitchens and cellars of ordinary folks (if you can call these brewers ordinary, that is!). A cheers to all the brewers who participated. I might have to drop by a few more of these fests in the future. You’ve inspired me!

Craft beer and intoxication: What doesn’t add up

Here’s a question that I posed to myself after talking to a few friends this weekend.

Craft beer, on a whole, is a bit more expensive than macro beer, but also tends to have, on average, a higher Alcohol by Volume (ABV) per bottle or can as well. So, if you do the math, is it economically better to buy macro beer at volume to achieve the same amount of intoxication, or to drink fewer, higher ABV beers?

This may seem like a ridiculous question to ask – most craft beer drinkers that I know don’t drink only to get intoxicated, and most are not drinking craft beer for any kind of drunken economic advantage. But i realized that I’ve never actually checked it out for myself… so I decided to follow through a little experiment to see what I’d actually come up with – just in case I ever had to make the argument someday.

So let’s take an “average” of 5 macro light lagers:

  • Keystone Light – 4.2 % ABV
  • Coors Light – 5% ABV
  • Bud Light – 4.2 % ABV
  • MGD 64 – 3% ABV
  • Natural Ice – 5.9% ABV

These average out to be 4.5% ABV

I’m also going to take five similar craft beers – let’s say a few popular IPAs.

  • Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA – 6% ABV
  • Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA – 7.2% ABV
  • Green Flash West Coast IPA – 7.3% ABV
  • Stone IPA – 6.9% ABV
  • 21st Amendment Brew Free or Die IPA – 7%

These average out to be 6.9% ABV

And as a third group – a set of five “imperial” or high ABV beers:

  • Russian River – Pliny the Younger – 11% ABV
  • Stone – Russian Imperial Stout – 10.5% ABV
  • Dogfish Head – 120 Minute IPA – 18% ABV
  • Brew Dog – Tokyo – 12% ABV
  • Sierra Nevada – Bigfoot – 9.6% ABV

These average out to 12.2% ABV

So in review, we have:

  • Macro average: 4.46%
  • Craft IPA average: 6.9%
  • “Imperial” craft beer average: 12.2%

Now, I know that “imperial” beers can vary wildly between 8-10% and anywhere to 55% ABV, but I tried to pick a few well-known representative samples, and I feel I can say with some certainty that once something is in the 12% range it would be considered by me to be a higher-alcohol beer.

For the sake of argument, I am also going to even out a few things. First, I know that not all of these beers are available by six packs, for example, but I am going to make a few assumptions. *Price information is provided by BevMo.

For the “macro” beers, I am going to use a 12 pack of 12 oz cans as a starting point. which costs $10.99 and contains a total of 144 oz of beer.

So 144oz times 4.5% = 6.48 oz of “alcohol” in the 12-pack
$10.99 = 6.48 oz so that’s about $1.70 per ounce of alcohol.

For the “craft IPA” beers I am going to use a 6 pack of 12 oz bottles as a starting point, which costs $11.49 (average of the five costs above)

So 72 oz times 6.9% = 4.97 oz of “alcohol” in the 6-pack
$11.45 = 4.97 oz so that’s about $1.77 per ounce of alcohol Corrected: $2.30
(Thanks for noticing this!)

For the “imperial” beers I am going to start with a 22oz bottle, which costs about $10.00 (conservative estimate – imperials vary WILDLY on price)
So that’s 22 oz times 12.22% = 2.68 oz of “alcohol” in the bottle
$10.00 = 2.68 oz that’s about $3.70 per ounce of alcohol

So firstly, the idea that drinking extremely high ABV beers are somehow a cheaper way toget drunk is false. It doesn’t matter what size bottles you buy, the cost per oz of alcohol is clearly in the favor of the cheaper macro brews – who have gotten that price point based on volume. In the first example above, there isn’t a huge price differential in craft and micro (7 cents?) so I also decided to look further.Though there’s a difference (especially with my math corrected) I did decide to turn around and still think about the realities of volume as well.

So let’s take the same three scenarios and play with the numbers some more and let’s talk about volumes.

How much of each beer type would it take to get to the same amt of alcohol?

If I had to pick a target “drunk level” for this problem it would probably be about 5 oz of alcohol (this is totally arbitrary, but stick with me here…)

In the “macro” category, I’d have to drink 9 and a quater “macro” beers to get the 5 oz of alcohol. That’s a total of 111 oz of fluid. And, if you divide it out, 9.25 beers is a little bit less than the total purchase price of $10.99 – it turns out I have to drink $8.47 worth of my investment to get to this level.

In the “craft” category, I’d have to drink about a 6 pack to get 5 oz of alcohol.That’s a little better for my bladder at only 72 oz of fluid, though, after drinking the 6 pack I’ve now used up my $11.45 purchase.

In the “imperial” category, I’d have to drink a little shy of 2 full bomber bottles – a total of 44 oz of fluid. I would have to spend $20.00 to do this. Less trips to the bathroom, but more expensive by far.

Now, looking back for a moment, clearly a pattern emerges. The most “eifficient” way to get intoxicated seems to be by sticking to cheap macro beers with low ABVs. Why is this ironic, you ask?

In the state of Mississippi, there is a law in place that states that no beer above 5% ABV can be sold. Proponents of this ban argue that bringing in higher ABV beers could lead to binge-drinking or more problems with intoxication. I’d say that anyone looking for that “quick drunk” fix is probably more likely to pick more-water-than-beer and cheap-as-possible swill (which is the only beer available to them currently) than a high-test beer due to its added expense and more complex flavors. Even in a “free” market scenario (allowing all types of beer to be sold) if someone’s intentions are to get smashed on beer, then the choice (economically speaking) is obvious. Truly, this law’s only effect is to prevent craft beer enthusiasts from doing what we’re all proud to do with beer – to enjoy it responsibly.

Want to learn more about this law and what’s being done about it? Check out “Raise Your Pints,” a grassroots organization attempting to fight the archaic craft beer law that’s stifling the tastes of those who appreciate what craft beer is meant for – and know that high-gravity beers are meant to be savored, not slammed. Their mission is “to promote and enhance craft beer culture in Mississippi by working to lift the ban on high-gravity beer; clarify the status of homebrewing as a legal, fun, and wholesome hobby; promote Mississippi’s beer, brewpub, and brewing industries and small businesses; and work to broaden the appreciation of craft beer for all Mississippians.”

Portsmouth Craft Beer Weekend

A few weeks before the highly anticipated “Kate Day” I got an email from fellow beer bloggers 2beerguys. They told me they were working to create an entire weekend around the day where beer enthusiasts make their annual pilgramage to Portsmouth for a chance at snagginging the prized Portsmouth Brewery’s Kate the Great. They reasoned, why should Kate get all the glory? And I’d have to agree. Working with local restuarants and other local breweries, they were able to put together some interesting events, and I was able to get in on one in particular – the Long Trail Craft Beer Dinner & Beer Wars.

The Portsmouth Gaslight is a popular restaurant who’s menu features specialty pizzas, and they’re well known for their outside tables and decks in the summer when the sound of live bands can be heard echoing throughout the streets of Portsmouth. Honestly, I haven’t been to this venue a whole lot, mostly because I always end up at the Coat of Arms. But I digress. What makes the Gaslight interesting is that its a three part place – there’s the ground floor, the second floor, and then some kind of a nightclub on the top of it. I’ve walked by many a night to see the glimmering lights of a disco ball flickering out the windows.

The beer dinner was structured around four courses and a dessert – each of the coureses (and dessert, actually) were pizza based, and they were paired with Long Trail brews at each course all for the unbelivably inexpensive price of $25.

The atmosphere of the third floor was very Portsmouth – lots of brick and windows so that you could look at the town. There was a giant disco ball on the ceiling, but thankfully, it was still and un-lit.

The 2BeerGuys gave us an intro and told us that each beer could be retrieved at the bar, and the pizzas would come out for each course. Interestingly, I watched my friends recieve the first course’s beer poured into the top of a pint glass! I worried that if I drank five pints of beer throughout the course of the dinner I’d be toast, so I asked for a half glass.

First Course – 4-tree island with Long Trail Ale, Fresh tomato slices, sauteed spinach, caramelized onions, and garlic topped with feta and mozzarellla cheese.

This pairing worked the best for me – the carmelized onions went with the malts in the ale, and neither overwhelmed each other. This is a pairing I would do myself over and over again if I could order it at the Gaslight on a regular basis. Delicious.

Second Course – Frank Jones with IPA, Hot Italian sausage, hot cherry peppers, pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese.

The Long Trail IPA, though tasty, is not nearly strong enough to hold up to italian sausage, hot cherry peppers and a whole lotta heat from this pizza. I felt like the pizza stole the show, and sucked all of the taste right out of the beer.

Third Course – Prescott Park with Belgian White, veggie pizza with onions, broccoli, mushrooms, and green peppers.

This one was interesting – I think the onions, again, helped a lot with this pairing. The Belgian Wheat was an interesting beer to pair with pizza – but the citrus notes were enough to keep it interesting.

Fourth Course – Pirates Cove with Double Bag, Grilled chicken and onions on a base of mixed tomato and bbq sauces, and topped with mozzarella cheese.

Double Bag is one of my favorites from Long Trail, and the barbeque sauce went very well here. I didn’t like it as much as the first pairing, but I would definitely try sweet pizza with another Altbeir, or even a brown ale.

Dessert – A dessert pizza with Brewmaster’s Coffee Stout.

Truthfully, I was too engrossed in my second watching of Beer Wars to try this pairing before it went away. I hear, from my friends, though, that it was a smashing success.

After sitting discussing the pairings with friends (both craft beer geeks and novices alike) I realized that regardless of how successful a pairing was, it still generated a lot of great conversation. A friend of mine even one a bottle of ’09 Kate the Great in a raffle, and I think the event was a success. I hope that towns like Portsmouth can follow this example and learn to embrace the growing beer culture in a similar manner.

Kudos for making this a successful Craft Beer Weekend event.

Seeking Extremes – It is in our nature

I often hear comments from those who have been in the beer industry a long time, or people who keep up with Beer Advocate and Rate Beer rankings about the dominance of so-called “extreme” beers. It goes a little something like this – “Gee, there are a lot of high ABV or high IBU or extreme beers out there lately. Why doesn’t anyone appreciate the great session beers anymore?”

Perhaps you’ve heard yourself thinking this very thought. Perhaps the thought continues. “If only beer writers/distributers/bar owners would focus on the session (6% ABV or under) or “regular” beers – there would be more great beers out there to drink instead of just an arms race of extremes.” Or perhaps it goes something like, “Brewers should only brew great session brews and stop trying to cater to the extreme tastes, etc. of the craft beer enthusiast/rater.”

This refrain has been echoed by brewers, too.

“Consumers’ and retailers’ lust for the latest and greatest undermines established brands and trivializes the category as a whole, sacrificing quality on the altar of novelty. One could argue that this is the direction the music industry, which is in deep trouble, has been going for years.” –Peter Egleston, from this article on The Full Pint

So, I pose several questions for you to examine:

What is the cause of this situation? Sure, there will likely be an ever-growing variety of beer to choose from, but there does seem to be a focus on one-offs, rarities, extreme beers with strong flavors, bizzare or high ABV. Some have even posed that it is that because of the writers that write about these beers.

“By doing little more than parroting the marketing-speak of advertising companies, Dan believes American beer writers are largely to blame for an industry and drinking public that’s more taken with gimmickry than artistry.” –Valley Advocate story interviewing Dan Shelton (Shelton Bros.)

All of this buzz got me thinking about my own habits, and the habits of consumers in general. When I go out to look for beer to review, like many the first thing I do is to scan the shelves for what I have not yet tried. And, in a limited market like Maine, I leap on what I can get. Sometimes, these are great regular releases, and sometimes I make a mixed six pack with the latest local seasonals. But, more often than not, a new shiny bottle of someone’s “imperial” this or “double” that catches my eye. It is human nature to seek out the rare, the new and the novel and I am certainly no exception. Marketers and product producers count on this type of behavior – and it’s no more common in beer than it is in clothing, video games or other optional (non-commodity) purchases. The argument, then, is whether or not these brews are less artfully crafted than their session counterparts and get by on their novelty alone.

So, then, are all of us craft beer consumers (regardless of whether they blog, rate or review or not) responsible for a drift towards the more extreme and rare? Of course they are! It is by nature that these are what is attractive – there is a certain thrill to finding a “treasure” at your local beer store. I really do think it’s inevitable that this will always be the case – you can’t make the same product these days and just keep going on and on forever without change. If anything, our attention spans are shorter and shorter every generation – the pace of information has kept up with our desires. And the craft beer industry produces enough variety that no one person could ever try it all – which is part of the allure, draw and challenge of being a craft beer reviewer. The difference, perhaps, between some of the people who see this perspective and myself is that I do have faith that the palates of the consumers writing about or reviewing beer can tell the difference between novelty for the sake of novelty and the artistry and creativity brought about by craft brewers.

But back to the original thought….Is the dominance of high ABV, rare, and “extreme” things a negative influence on the beer industry? or will it all shake out in the end?

“Someone commented to me that the beer culture there was going through a “teenage” phase, where the obsession was with big, badass, high-octane beers, and he was personally looking forward to a time when people began to rediscover all good beer, regardless of its ABV. Personally, I look forward to the day when the BA’s top twenty-five list contains more than two dozen Imperial this and thats and represents a broader spectrum of great beers. I think that day is coming.” –Peter Egleston interviewed on The Full Pint

I think honestly there’s a healthy dose of both going on here. If we consider the extreme brews to be gourmet food, and the session beers to be comfort food, we can see a space for both to exist. Comfort food is simple, delicious and when made well, can be the perfect meal that’s just exactly what you needed. It also takes some skill to get it just right. But will the existence of a new high-priced gourmet restaurant next to the diner that makes the best grilled cheese sandwich you’ve ever consumed really have that much of an overall effect? I, for one, would hope that consumers should be smart enough to know where to go to get their desires met – whether that is at the counter of the diner down the street or at a private booth in the place with at 2-week wait for reservations.

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