My Kind Of Town

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The Goosey Geese Tap Handles of Goose Island.

One city is the United States in microcosm. New York is amazing: soaring, spiky, spectacular. It’s almost a caricature of itself though; too showy; too extreme. San Francisco on the other hand is happening, boho, liberal, supremely geeky – so much so that it could never be described as typical, wonderful though it is.  No, that microcosm is Chicago; a city that for me encapsulates a little of everything you imagine heralds from the States, a little of everything the States is great at. There’s the architecture (Skyscrapers, Frank Lloyd Wright), the music (the blues, the jazz, gospel), the sport (the Cubs, the Giants, the Bears), the weather (+35°C Summer, -27°C Winter anyone?), the industry (head offices of Kraft, McDonald’s, Boeing)… all this and more. Yet there’s something else, something more elusive.  First, there’s the setting.  Most US cities have height in their downtown, but Chicago flies. It’s a city that simply rockets upwards, out of the Plains like the vision of ‘Metropolis’ imagined in early science fiction.  Although not the tallest skyscraper, the Hancock tower provides the best view as undisturbed, you can look out east over Lake Michigan, eyes straining to see the curvature of the Earth, or north as the city drops away, tracing the lake coast as it falls block by block, gradually descending like a city built from Lego, until it is just the shoreline heading into the horizon.  Then, there’s the food and drink culture.  Oh, this may be the Mid West; this may be Six Pack Joe central, but make no mistake, this is a great food city and what’s more, an amazing beer city too.

Twin Anchors rack of ribs: “Like an orchestral Xylophone being brought in sidew

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Take two pizzas. Stack one on top of other. Invert. Add more cheese and tomato. Bake.

I first went to Chicago in the late 1990’s. To be honest, I hadn’t really genned up on the place as the days beforehand had been stupidly hectic, but it didn’t take long to be astounded by the native Chicagoan foods – and the vast quantities served.  It was also the first time I had witnessed Starbuckisation in action.  We stayed in a pretty basic hotel, a Days Inn located perfectly just north of downtown for the bars, business and eateries and bang next door to the Lake Michigan shoreline over Lincoln Park. In no more than 100 yards of us in each direction were 6 coffee shops, 4 of which were Starbucks – easily within sight of one another. Anyway, that first week was business, and as a group we investigated Chicago’s dining and drinking scene. There was deep dish aplenty, a Gino’s East pizza restaurant not far from the Museum of Contemporary Art was my first experience of the famous upside down, inch thick pizza; there were others but Lord knows how we made room for them. Sandwiches too, bagels for breakfast of course, and downtown somewhere just below the Loop tube train, we had a two-inch thick Italian beef sandwiches soaked in gravy and served with whole heads of roasted garlic. Then there were the ribs: the most memorable assaulted us in the Twin Anchors chophouse where I went with my brother the night before Halloween. We were overawed, and not just by the skull decorations – there’s no other word to describe the speechlessness you get when a rack of ribs the size of an orchestral xylophone drenched in pungent BBQ sauce has to be squeezed out sideways through the kitchen door to the diner’s table. We shared a half rack (kids portion?) and were still fit to burst.

IMG_0766 IMG_0765The leitmotif of the trip though was the beer. The bar in our hotel was a bit like a ground floor ‘Cheers’.  It was not just frequented by guests but locals too, office workers mainly, popping in for a swift beer and bite before they headed off home.  Horseshoe shaped, with the barman seemingly at the centre of every conversation, many sat there at the bar for a few hours, making conversation with anyone who would listen.  As a group of Limeys we were, I’d like to think, entertaining as much as entertainment. Beers? Well, there was the normal selection – Miller, predominant, this being Chicago –  Michelob, Bud and Coors too, even Schlitz which you’ll hardly see now.  But none of these stood out nearly as much as the tap handles of Goose Island – my first encounter with the brewery and its beers. US bars can look like an array of wobbly wickets at the best of times so the Geese of the Goose Island hissed and honked like no others.  And the beers stood out too. At the time I hadn’t realised that we were only two blocks away from the island in the Chicago river that gives the brewery its name. With the passage of time, I can’t remember exactly which beers were on sale apart from two – both still parts of the Goose Island range today. The first, Honkers.  I mean, with the name alone you have to try it. And what a delight – a beautiful lustrous copper colour and fruity aroma with malty bitterness assisting drinkability.  And India Pale Ale, the beer that nowadays you can easily buy over here.  It’s simply an incredible beer: incredible when you consider it’s a fairly basic infusion mash off a single malt base and extensively hopped both with American and English hops. Yet for such a punchy, full on beer it remains well balanced – so its both one to savour and one to drink. My kind of beer; my kind of town.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The Unpronouncables

Many years ago a major British brewer bought a little Czech brewer shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The brewer was the eminently pronounceable ‘Bass’, the acquisition was the eminently unpronounceable ‘Staropramen’.  The plan as I recall it, being on the periphery of events at the time, was to leave the beer well alone but doing something about the name. Something shorter. A trim bar call. Something… well, something pronounceable.   Fortunately, that plan was kyboshed by the Chairman of the company who issued an edict: “And don’t go calling it ‘Star’ or something’.  The rest is history (so far).

From a branding point of view, having a snappy, often short, typically horizontally aligned brand name is the desired state. ‘Avis’ is an often cited example of good practice. Strong colours; able to fit easily within your eye line and most importantly, memorable and pronounceable.  Brewers though like to stick a hop stained finger up at such ‘rules’.  My personal favourite was a German beer that my old company imported from Germany. Its name was ‘Treffliches Altenessen Gold’.  The ad line was a witty, “Treffliches Altenessen Gold. Ask for it by name”.  Alas, the powers that be did shorten that one to ‘T.A.G.’.   Czech beers too, do a good line in naming tongue twisters: to an English speaking tongue, they are difficult to say; to an English seeing eye, they are difficult to read. All of which adds up to their beguiling authenticity.

Less typical is finding a British or American beer that plays by the anti-brand rules. They do exist though; indeed I was lucky enough to drink one of them this week.  The beer in question is an American classic, now imported to the UK by a British classic, Adnams. The brewery in question is Lagunitas Brewing Company; the place of origin Petaluma, California.

Let’s deal with Petaluma first: to get there we need to travel twenty odd years into the past and many miles distant to the wave lapped Lincolnshire coast.   Not that Petaluma is near Grimsby, but it’s through a Grimbarian connection that I first came across it. Petaluma is an area of South Australia known for its fine wines. My brother, being manager of a wine and spirits warehouse in Grimsby, conspired to buy some Petaluma Chardonnay with damaged labels which were declared unfit for sale. From there it found its way to me and my association with Petaluma was made, and the connection was very Antipodean.    So it was ruddy great surprise to pitch up in Petaluma in 1999 on a holiday in California. Quite threw me it did, what with it turning out that there’s a Petaluma in northern California too; and that this same American Petaluma is in the wine producing area, where they too, make fine wine.  All we need now is Grimsby to be twinned with Petaluma and my hippocampus shall explode in shards of shrivelled grey matter.

Lagunitas IPA_fotorBut it’s the beer I’m interested in and that beer is Lagunitas IPA.  Or rather, as it whispers on the label, ‘say….  “lah-goo-KNEE-tuss”’.  Ok, maybe I’ve been pronouncing it wrong, but I know that my taste buds aren’t deceiving me: Lagunitas IPA is an absolutely classic American IPA. I’ll go further, it’s a bell-weather for its style.  Cascade hops feature heavily in the mash but lightly in the  finished beer. The aroma is grapefruit; pure, clear, uplifting. The beer pours with a rolling cloudy density that clears to leave a dense foam; a foam that mollycoddles the aroma, protects it, focuses it.  The tell-tale tree rings of a fine beer are left as you drink it. For a beer of 6.2% alcohol, its punch is delivered through a velvet glove and dances around the ring of your taste buds gently, not feeling too inebriated, leaving you wanting another.

Little wonder that this is one of America’s larger craft brewers.  Little wonder that this is a celebrated beer. Little wonder that only one word can sum it up:    Mag-nif-i-cent.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The Session #79: U.S. vs Old World Beer Culture

The Session, a.k.a. ‘Beer Blogging Friday’, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. This month’s topic is hosted by Dingsbeerblog (http://www.dingsbeerblog.com)

The Session ImageIn the late 1980’s, three strands interwove at a crucial time for me which triggered my interest and enthusiasm for beer. The first was family – my older brother, in his first radical phase was an unwitting early proponent of slow food, and as he was building his knowledge of food, wine and to a lesser extent beer whilst at University his influence rubbed off on his younger brother when he came home.  The second was friends: Dave Wilkes and his home brew to be exact. I’m not sure where Dave’s passion for home brew emerged, but what I do know is that it was a consistently deep brown, nutty concoction, served straight from the cask (something I hadn’t seen at that point in my hitherto sheltered life) and weighing in at what I’m guessing to be about 15% ABV¹.  The third strand was the emergence in America of a beer tea party: new, interesting brews, attempting to throw overboard the homogeneity of typical US offerings.  To a late teen in provincial UK, this was not learnt first hand.  Rather, the source was Michael Jackson of course, both through a much thumbed copy of ‘The New World Guide to Beer’ and also through the particular episode of ‘The Beer Hunter’² where Michael travels to west coast USA and vividly brings to life this new narrative of US craft beer. As he takes the trip to the tip of northern California to celebrate the barley harvest with all the Anchor Steam workers, my beer idyll is born.

IMG_0444Over 20 years on, as I read Tim Acitelli’s excellent ‘The Audacity of Hops’ – an almost 50 year history of American craft beer, I realise how much each ‘culture’ is indebted to the other.  If you can call it that of course:  I’m not sure anyone in the ‘Old World’ would see much a shared tradition between say English beer culture and Bavarian beer culture – an important point when you see how the different European nations individually influenced the US scene.  The first wave was largely inspired by English pale ale:  could the early craft brewers like Jack McAuliffe create domestically brewed pale ale as flavoursome, as full on those he had drunk on his British travels? The name above the door giving away his influences: New Albion. Could Pete Slosberg devise a recipe as enticing as the brown ales he had drunk on his travels in Europe (I didn’t realise that the resultant, massively successful beer, ‘Pete’s Wicked Ale’ is no longer available)? Then later, wider European influence took hold, kick-started by Jim Koch reliably recreating his grandfather’s recipe for a Bavarian lagered beer in the form of Sam Adams Boston Lager but quickly and rapidly spreading into replicating, and attempting to better, beers from Belgium, Germany, France and beyond.

IMG_0442I’m conscious of my own biases around beer and particularly my orientation toward well brewed and properly lagered Czech and Bavarian lagers and feisty and flavoursome US pale ales and IPAs in particular; but actually portraying a picture of the ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ as a battle: us versus them isn’t overly helpful.  The reality, as is so often the case, is defined more by the similarities than the differences.  Riddled through both cultures are defining traits: a trigger event – a burning platform that great, idiosyncratic, varied beer was close to dying out. In the US’s case, Fritz Maytag heard about the brewery days before it was due to close down. In the UK, the dawning realisation that cask beer (and the infrastructure that supports it) was facing the same fate. Struggle – it’s easy to forget the perseverance, grit, setbacks and failures along the way. Many of the original wave of US craft brewers simply didn’t make it through the first wave of growth, starved of cash, resources, time or capital, they had to either close or stay niche. Most went under. It’s why I fear the same for many of the UK’s current crop of micro brewers. Time – it’s almost 50 years now since Fritz Maytag bought Anchor. It’s over ten years now since Gordon Brown introduced the progressive beer duty, the so called ‘Small Brewers Duty Relief’ and yet, you could argue that for most drinkers here, cask beer still hasn’t entered the mainstream.  But more than anything else, what’s clear is how the Old and New World cultures are self perpetuating, each fuelling the other – the growth of craft brewing in Italy, inspired by the US, being a great example. I saw this for myself on a recent business trip to Milan, managing to fit in a short beer break after work one evening, and finding a craft beer bar that you wouldn’t expect to see this side of the pond – the most ‘mainstream’ beer available was Menabrea which enjoys, what? 2% of the Italian beer market?  Or the spread of US hop varieties to the point where a number of UK beer aficionados are actively complaining about their over-use versus traditional British hop varieties.  And finally, there’s the experimentation. The emerging narrative is that it’s a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, and the European brewers are only experimenting because of the boundary pushing of the US brewers.  True to a degree of course – but not solely so.  There’s been an experimental tradition in surprising and not-so-surprising European countries for many years – Belgium of course, but also in countries like Scotland, where brewing with traditional ingredients, or barrel aging is not a new phenomenon.

No, this is all a case of ‘and’. The real vibrancy between the craft brewers is the mutual support, the ready sharing of ideas and experience, the healthy competition that exists.  It’s a culture that’s worth celebrating and enjoying across the whole world.

 

¹The fashion in beer books is to tell how home brew ‘transformed my expectations of how amazing beer could be’.  With respect to Dave, this wasn’t the case, I think his home brew was a malt extract kit brew and it was pretty hard going. I seem to remember swirling my mouth out with a Heineken.

² Two links: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtmxXgKU1o0, the beer idyll is at the start of part 2, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36BUK7lv-iU

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The rollercoaster

My first memory is very clear.  I was on holiday in south Devon, Kingsbridge in fact, where there used to be a miniature railway on the quay.  It was a Heath-Robinson affair, probably 8” gauge, with track laid by enthusiastic amateurs so had that pleasing rocking and yawing sensation as you rode on it.  The owner built it all himself and for a period was so successful that he had two trains running. One, the workhorse, he called ‘Heidi’ but there was no alpine, goat-milk drinking charm about her, just a serious, functional, work-all-day temperament. The other was a Gordon the Big Engine affair, 8 wheels, a turbo-Electric in GWR glossy green where driver and passengers could sit atop, and built more for inter-city work (to scale obviously. I mean, Derby to Nottingham would be like the Trans-Siberian here).  Like Gordon, if he could talk, if he could express his emotion (and unlike Heidi, this was definitely a ‘he’) he would be haughty, arrogant, aloof, superior.  He would sniff at his lot and look with disdain on the rails he was forced to run upon. As it turned out, he was crap at his job.  The tight turn as the railway swung around the top of the quay to avoid the landing stage, was for him too tight and the bogies would constantly derail.  Out of this trauma was born my first memory.  Holding my Dad’s hand as I was forced to clamber off the train and watch as the driver and some passengers strained to lever the engine back on to the rails.  Tears featured and a career at Network Fail stymied forever.

But the memory lives deep.  If Kingsbridge is mentioned, the memory comes back, and with it a slew of associations – colours, feelings, temperatures, a clear image of the scene and others that followed.  It’s a neural pathway that is deep set, powerful and emotive.  Yet, it’s not just our first memories that are powerful, in fact, our first experiences of everything that is new, surprising, challenging, frightening, pleasurable leaves us with a network of anchors that are the reference points for the rest of our days.  My first car: a red polo (dodgy driver side windscreen wiper, gearbox like stirring stew, exhaust that broke on the top of Exmoor (best Spitfire I ever flew after that); my first meal I cooked myself: chile con carne (hold the kidneys a touch next time); my first kiss…. you get the drift.

And the first beer I drank the first time I went to the US was Sam Adams Boston Lager.

Sam Adams.  Even drinking it as a Brit felt a little treacherous. At the time, mid 1990s, US beer was still reviled; those who drank it generally bought into the attendant brand values rather than the beer (and pre frogs, and ‘Wassssup?’ Bud had some great, iconic ‘Genuine Article’ advertising).   For the few however, word was out.  Something was going on Stateside, on the West Coast in San Francisco, in the East Coast from Boston to Delaware.  In this case, I drank my beer in Quincy Market, like Covent Garden and Canary Wharf placed adjacently, with a hellishly tasty sub, and where I was asked for proof of age for the first time in my life.  And the beer was great. Not just good, but really great.  One of those occasions where you have to stop yourself, put the glass down and look at it, head slightly askance to make sure you’re not dreaming.  Beautifully structured maltiness, a slight tobacco-stained white head colour and a floral yet spicy hoppiness both in aroma and taste.  Today perhaps, not great shakes, but back then, and particularly given that this was an American lager, it was two hoofing great milkshakes, potentially verging on a Knickerbocker Glory.  So there it was: my future wife, a terrific only-in-America sub, a beer to die for in an entrancing setting.  Quite literally, the stuff memories are made of.

So what do you do then when memories are shattered?  How do you reconcile yourself to the rollercoaster of emotions, the feeling that you have been living a lie, tricked, kidded on?  To this day, in my other passion, cycling, I have to face this with disturbing regularity.  One by one, your heroes are dethroned – Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton… it’s painful and needs a period of adjustment.  And this is where I am today as I write, over such a silly little thing really.  But Sam Adams Boston Lager in the UK is now brewed under license by Shepard Neame.  Previously they were the agents, importing and distributing it.  Now the line has been crossed – the line of irrationality.  Because everyone knows, when they stop and think about it, that shipping large quantities of liquid around the globe makes neither economic nor environmental sense.  Rational minded individuals know that brewers today are so skilled, that within the bounds of what humans can detect, it is possible to ‘match’ beers.  And whether we deny it or not, we accept that it goes on. If you have ever drunk a pint of say what? 7 or 8 pints out of 10 in the UK, then you know that this practise goes on.  And high gravity brewing; and adjuncts, and tricks with bottle size.

But it’s OK.  The rules are in place.  The context is transparent – the big brewers make war on their own terms, and make decisions to keep them competitive and alive. It’s mass-manufacture behaviour.  I understand it commercially and choose to accept it because I can vote with my wallet and drink elsewhere if I have a problem.  But somehow Sam Adams (Boston Beer Co) have crossed that line now. Somehow their principles as a craft brewer have been shown to be suspect and they need to ‘fess up and play by the new rules.   For me, and I suspect for many though, it’s too late – my memory has been sullied and the damage done.

Boston Lager logo

Faversham Lager, brewed near the original site of the Faversham Tea Party. (The new logo shape is the giveaway)

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The thorny issue of ‘craft’

Over a quiet beer or two, I have been wrestling with a dilemma.  Actually, no, that’s not right, as a dilemma is something you can’t satisfactorily resolve.  Rather, a thorny issue:  when is craft craft or not craft?  To stretch it further, are big brewers who sell ‘craft’ beer simply responding well to the drinker trends in the market, or are they being just plain crafty?

The Motley Fool (www.fool.co.uk) – a network of bloggers offering advice and gossip on companies and share performance – recently penned an article on US craft beer sales. It made for interesting reading:  although craft beer is only 6% of the market place, they are growing strongly, up 14% in the last year according the American Brewers’ Association – in an overall market where per capita consumption is declining.  Interestingly, the big brewers’ performance within this was marked. Miller Coors’ Blue Moon brand grew by 50% between 2009 and 2011, and Leinenkugel’s grew by 20%.  Anheuser Busch is also a player. They have bought Goose Island and also launched their own craft brand, Shock Top, the latter growing 70% year to date*. In comparison, more established players – the genuine craft brewers it is argued – are growing much more slowly.

Raspberry WheatWe drank Shock Top Raspberry Wheat in the Salty Dog in Sarasota – with no idea it was an ABI beer. Inspired marketing or a confidence trick?

There are two really interesting dynamics going on here.

First, that there is a debate going on about ‘craft’ at all.  Big companies get big for a whole host of reasons – luck, daring acquisitions, market expansion, exploitation… and brand building skill.  If they spot an opportunity to sell brands to drinkers, they’ll do it, and endeavour to do it with scale.  As far as I’m concerned, if a drinker is happy that a beer is a craft beer, then whether we agree on principle or not becomes purely academic: it is. Get over it, and start competing.

Second is the debate about what constitutes craft?  The answers are invariably couched in a hotchpotch of measures: volume brewed; use of adjuncts purely for taste, independence.     This is missing the point – a point bigger than beer. What manifests itself in beer as ‘craft’, is a slew of market trends impacting right across food and drink products: national, regional, local, provenance, authenticity, passionate producers, natural ingredients, interesting tastes & textures, original recipes – I could go on.  It’s popping up in tea, coffee, wines & spirits, across all foods from fresh meat and veg to ready meals and snack foods.

So what’s the connection?  These trends are tapping into our desire to emotionally connect in some way to our roots – however we define them as individuals.  This could show itself as national pride or local knowledge; it can show itself as truly authentic or re-interpreting the past, but importantly it doesn’t define itself by scale.  Look at Rachel’s Organic or Yeo Valley – organic, touchy-feely, yes. Niche – no. Or Tyrell’s Crisps, Red Sky or Kettle Chips.  Made from potatoes (not substitutes), interesting natural flavours, lovingly fried in kettles, yes. Niche – no. Or Sam Adams, Blue Moon, London Pride, Doom Bar – interesting, unusual, brewed with care? Of course.  Niche – no.

It’s good news all round for brewers, but as it’s about more than just the beer – it’s great news for brewers great and small.

*Clearly, that’s in the year to the date of their earnings release, not the year to date this year.  Mind you, January sales up 70% would be no mean feat.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, February 2013