NY Beer Week kickoff

While the NY breweries and their aficionados (typically me among the latter, admittedly) partied behind these locked and guarded 42nd Street doors into Grand Central (which are typically very busy)…

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I headed west along 42nd to B.B. King’s club to see Ronnie Earl.

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I had just come in on the train from Boston. It was a great show, as always. I sat next to someone who knew Ronnie and he invited me to hang around after the show to meet him. Turns out Ronnie and I live in the same town…

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Afterwards I went to Rattle n Hum for a beer. They were featuring Greenport Harbor beers, and the Greenport guys were just back from the big event, along with one of the Rattle n Hum owners.

The Greenport taps included a new batch of their Russian Imperial Stout, Hammer & Sickle, which was very good. I met the brewer, who was wearing a Red Sox cap. Go Sox!

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Anyway, just as I was going over to compliment the Greenport guys on their beer, Joe Donagher, Rattle n Hum owner was handing out shots of Jameson’s. He invited me to join them all in a toast to the opening of Beer Week. How could I refuse?

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What’s going on with craft beer?

On the eve of New York Beer Week, it seems appropriate to ask “what’s going on with craft beer?”

The kick off event is tomorrow evening at Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central, a venue known for its upscale Christmas market and annual squash tournament.

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This does not seem like the kind of place that you would expect to host a Beer Week event.

What is going on? Are we seeing the commercialization of craft beer? Is craft beer a local phenomenon, or a national and even international phenomenon?

During the past few years as craft beer continued to grow in popularity we have seen breweries such as The Alchemist, Cigar City, Hill Farmstead, Dogfish Head, and others pull back from wider distribution to better meet local demand. As a result, beer fans sometimes drove from hundreds of miles away to stand in line for hours just to buy beer from the brewery. This kind of brewery focused sale is starting to happen at White Birch as well.

On the other hand, traditional microbreweries such as Bell’s, Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and others have been expanding capacity and developing multiple new specialty beers to compete against the craft breweries (microbreweries are not craft breweries, and for the 100th time, the ABA definition of craft brewing based on volume is bogus).

And now we see a fully formed “craft brewery” called Two Roads started by two fizzy yellow beer veterans signing a distribution deal for NY, perhaps intended to fill the vacuum created by local demand? Or at least that must be their idea…?

I’ve heard from a local beer store in NH that Founders’s newest Backstage beer, Smoked Porter, will be available in bottles only in Michigan. Further, the Founders’s website advertises the upcoming release party week for Kentucky Breakfast Stout with a promo for visiting Grand Rapids, their hometown.

Are they too looking to stoke the local market and increase sales at the brewery?

Meanwhile the number of craft breweries in NYC is now 16, with some 30 breweries around the state classified as such. With more opening all the time.

What is going on?

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Will We Drink Industrialized Craft Beer?

Starting today, year-old Two Roads Brewing of Stratford, CT is distributing its beer in NY. (This is exactly a week after Bell’s started distributing its beer in NY.)

The founders say the name is taken from the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken and since two of the founders worked together previously at Rolling Rock and Pabst the “road less traveled” has to be the opposite of the “fizzy yellow beer,” as Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch famously puts it.

But can Two Roads truly be considered craft beer?

According to an article in the latest Yankee Brew News Two Roads already has a staff of 32 in a 60,000 square foot former factory building, producing 80,000 barrels of beer. They built out extra capacity that 11 contract breweries are using (including Evil Twin, Stillwater, and Omnipollo – actually these are more like gypsy brewers, but that’s ok) so they will have capacity to grow.

This is all part of the business plan to become a craft brewer created by the four founders and a “handful of investors.” (Apologies, but Pabst, Rolling Rock, and Labatts beers are not craft beers, no matter what Brad and Clement’s bios say.) The head brewer, Phil Markowski, has some cred at least, having brewed previously at the New England Brewing micro and Southampton Publick House, both of which produced pretty good beer.

But “Not for them a brewpub or smallish craft brewery,” says Jack Kenny in the YBN article. They built a fully-formed “craft brewery” from the start.

What does this mean for craft beer? Two deals struck (or at least launched) in two weeks by beer distributors to bring new “craft beers” to the NY market? Two Roads by Manhattan Beer Distributors and Bell’s with Union Beer.

Is this the beginning of the end for craft beer, that many people have been predicting for years? Meaning if someone can literally create and successfully execute a “craft beer” business plan, does that change everything? Up to now craft breweries started small and depended on the success of the first few beers they made to build up.

Perhaps this was just a matter of time, and inevitable. Craft beer is the only segment of the beer market to grow market share over the past few years. It seems logical industry veterans such as Brad and Clement (and maybe some of their investors) would want to move into it. Two Roads Brewing even offers some variations of typical craft brew flagships and plans to brew using indigenous yeast harvested from the Two Roads property (6.5 acres of land around the old factory building). Which all sounds pretty cool.

More “traditional” microbreweries have also been trying to align themselves with the craft brewing trend, some of them more or less successfully. Bell’s Brewery certainly fits into this category. But is Bell’s really craft beer, either? Sam Adams isn’t.

Even this is not the same as someone starting a big craft brewery from scratch, instead of starting small and growing it based on the success of its quality beer, which the microbreweries did by copying European styles. Nor is such a big investment with a business plan such as the one behind Two Roads the same way most craft breweries have been started…at least up to now.

[But how is the beer Two Roads produces? I don’t know yet, I’m in MA this week on vacation. I will let you know.]

The American craft beer trend to world domination started in 1979 when Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing. But it gained world domination through industrious home brewing craftsmen, like Shaun Hill, Sam Calagione, and Greg Koch, not through improved industrial production methods, which is what Two Roads seems to be all about.

Can these two things really be combined, either retrospectively like Bell’s and Boston Beer Co? Or planned for in advance like Two Roads?

What will be the impact on existing NY craft brewers such as Captain Lawrence, Barrier, Grimm’s, Singlecut, Peekskill, Newburgh, Kuka, Keegan, Defiant, etc.?

Will us craft beer drinkers embrace these new business oriented in origin more mass produced brews? Or is “industrial craft beer” simply an oxymoron and Two Roads lead to nowhere?

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Best Saison list from Men’s Journal Misses the Mark

I follow Hill Farmstead on Facebook and they posted a link to the review of Arthur in Men’s Journal’s top saison list.

This is a pretty good list but misses the point that modern saisons are designed to feature the yeast flavor, and compounds the omission by including two beers designed to feature hop flavors, Nelson Sauvin and Soriachi Ace, without explaining the anomaly. DuPont itself has release a single hop version of its classic, so this variation on the style is certainly well accepted in the brewing community. But this point should have been covered since “funk” is mentioned several times without attributing it to the influence of the yeast.

They could have been a bit more clear about these variations in the style and the relationship of yeast and hops to flavor, especially since saisons and farmhouse ales are basically all about the yeast.

I give them credit for saying Arthur is the best saison they have ever tasted, and for listing two more of HF’s great saison lineup, Vera Mae and Florence.

But I am not sure why Hennepin is on the list, instead of Mystic’s Chardonnay Barrel Aged saison (or actually any saison from Mystic). Or any of the amazing farmhouse ales from Enlightenment.

And while I agree Boulevard is among the top saisons, they missed their best, Saison Brett.

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Bell’s Brewery Night in New York

Bell’s Brewery of Kalamazoo, MI has entered the New York market through a recent agreement with Union Beer Distributors.

I personally counted at least 4 “Bell’s Brewery Night” events at local bars, and BeerMenu finds (today at least) 81 places where you can buy Bell’s Amber, at least 20 of which appear to be in NYC, and mostly on tap.

So, how is the beer, you ask? Good, but not spectacular. Perhaps the hype has been a bit overdone, and the anticipation keeping us waiting for something you can’t buy in NY got us all revved up. Bell’s is among the larger craft breweries, ranked number 7 in sales in 2013 (Sam Adams is the top, although as I’ve said, Sam Adams is not craft beer).

I went to the Bell’s night at Rattle n Hum with Mary Jo, and we tried a bunch of the brews, including the famous Hopslam, Two Hearted Ale, Expedition Stout, Third Coast Old Ale, Smitten, Cherry Stout, and Kalamazoo Stout. I think that’s about it…

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The beers are definitely good, very drinkable – I would definitely choose any Bell’s on a beer menu and be confident I’d get a good brew. One of my prejudices is if I get a beer from a brewer that I don’t like, I will tend to stay away from that brewer. Not at all the case here.

But if you compare Bell’s with Hill Farmstead, or Founder’s, or Barrier, or Peekskill, the Alchemist, Lawson’s, Mystic, Crooked Stave, and other newer and local NY breweries, it’s hard to say Bell’s truly stands out in that crowd.

The question is pertinent because the distributor is apparently making a big bet on Bell’s. A brewery started in 1985 during the initial “microbrew” stage (distinct in my mind at least from the craft brew stage, which started in the late 1990s with Stone and Dogfish), and one that makes mostly traditional styles, as the original microbreweries did… Yes, they have original recipes, and Hopslam is truly excellent, as is Expedition Stout, but others of their brews are sort of plain in the sense of being a known style rather than something new or different.

Strange too to see multiple brewery nights on the same night for the same brewer. Is this also a new trend?

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Yeast is the new hops

Craft brewing has been pretty much all about the hops. The most highly rated brews (such as Heady Topper and Pliny the Elder) have tended to be brewing imperial or double IPAs with very hoppy aromas and taste.

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Drink from the Can for full Hop Aroma and Taste!

Now it is starting to look like a new trend is developing around  yeasty flavors.

What a beer tastes like basically results from the combination of malt, yeast, and hops – and sometimes water (a famous example historically is the profile of Burton on Trent’s hard water,  which many home brew recipes for English Ale try to duplicate).

The basic ingredients of beer are available in literally thousands of varieties and variations, however. Maybe more. Which lead to the virtually limitless varieties and styles of beer available.

Beer drinkers are by now familiar with the fact that there are many varieties of hop flowers with varying degrees of bitter oil in them, and various different flavors and aromas. This is fairly easy to understand when considering varieties of other plants, such as apples, grapes, peppers, or even wheat or barley.

But what does yeast taste like? Especially since it is not truly an ingredient of beer quite the same way that malt, hops, and water is? Meaning yeast is what turns the sugar in malt into alcohol, and carbonates the beer in the bottle.

In the brewing process, dead or expended yeast falls to the bottom of the fermenter, and the beer is racked or siphoned off of it before bottling. Yeast may be called an active ingredient, I suppose, and unless the beer is filtered, some amount of active yeast remains suspended in the bottled (or tapped) liquid.

But what does this taste like, and what is the effect on overall taste of the beer? When a single ingredient does not stand out above the rest, the result is a very balanced beer, which is what I’ve mentioned Hill Farmstead is known for. Hill Farmstead, Crooked Stave, and many other craft breweries are producing increasing amounts of saisons and farmhouse ales.

But what does this mean for the trend toward highlighting the influence of yeast on beer flavor? Saison style beers (also known as farmhouse ales) by definition are structured to highlight the flavor of the yeast strain used. Varying the strain of yeast used therefore varies the taste of a saison.

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For example, Mystic Brewing released a saison called Renaud in 2013, explicitly featuring the yeast as the leading influence on the flavor.

Another example is Transmitter, a new brewery in Queens, which has said they are going to focus on farmhouse ales (which are the same as saisons), and feature the flavor of yeast.

In contrast, craft brewers that feature hops often use the same strain of yeast for all or most of their beers. At Founders night at The Jeffrey in New York not long ago the head of sales for Founders told us Founders uses the same yeast for every batch. There had been one exception, and they do not make that beer any more. We asked him whether Founders would ever consider brewing a saison, and he said no way (I wonder though whether the brewer would have given the same answer).

Similarly if you look up the recipes Stone Brewing has published in The Craft of Stone Brewing, you  can see they use the same yeast – English Ale yeast from White Labs, either dried or liquid, for their regular beers. (They did vary the yeast for the Vertical Epic series however, most likely because the beers were designed to be kept for several years.)

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Why is Hill Farmstead so great?

Basically for the same reason Calvin and Hobbes was so great. Bill Watterson personally wrote and drew every strip. Many successful strips (Garfield for example) hire teams of assistants to help write and draw.

Shaun Hill does not delegate brewing oversight to anyone. He is personally involved in every step of the process, according to recent articles about him and his brewery.

A week ago the New York Times Business section told us why Hill Farmstead beers are not available in New York (excepting the occasional keg), and why they are not likely to be available here any time soon. Shaun plans to cap brewery capacity at what he feels he can brew with quality and personal satisfaction. This is where the “craft” in craft beer comes from.

Until about a year ago you could find Hill Farmstead fairly regularly in New York at Rattle n Hum, Proletariat, Alewife, etc. If I ever I see it on the beer menu, I order it.

I first tasted their beer at Hill Farmstead night at Rattle n Hum about three years ago, and it was amazing. You could really taste all the ingredients somehow – the grain tasted fresh, the mixture of hops and other spices and yeast was really superb. I was an instant fan.

After a while, they stopped shipping kegs to New York because (like the Alchemist) they could basically sell whatever they made at the brewery. People came to them. This was disappointing.

Last May I visited relatives in Montpelier, and brought back some Heady Topper and Lawson’s Liquids, among other Vermont beers. One afternoon I considered going up to Hill Farmstead (about an hour from Montpelier) but I didn’t really have time to get there and back.  HF was available on tap at some of the Montpelier bars though, so I had it there.

Just before Thanksgiving my cousin Kay offered to go to the brewery for me (she lives near Montpelier) and sent three bottles and a full growler to me via my mother, who had been at Kay’s house for Turkey Day and visited us in Groton, MA on her way back home the day. This was great, of course.

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A couple of weeks ago my daughter stopped by HF on the way back from a business trip to Montreal. I asked her to buy the limit basically and she returned with 14 bottles of four different beers. And a half growler of Double Galaxy. This was really great! I should be ok for a while…

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The Hill Farmstead Web site calls a recent article on the Good Beer Blog the most faithful representation of the brewery and what they are trying to achieve.

And here’s the article about Rate Beer’s rating of Hill Farmstead as the best brewery in the world. Hard to argue.

Cheers to that, and to all the great HF beer – drink it if you can find it!

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