Local Brews

Since high school, I’ve wondered if the USA is just too big to ever make sense. How is it possible to govern a nation that ranges from Bangor to Baton Rouge and from Richmond to Redmond. Finding a political center to such a diverse group of people seems a daunting task.

As our nation grew, so did business, and now we have businesses “too big to fail” because their failure would wreck us. Our capitalistic approach to business seems based on unchecked obsessive growth. Bigger is always better!

The rise (or perhaps return) of local beer brewing offers an interesting lesson in how it’s possible some things should stay small and local.

First, a few words about beer, which is has a number of interesting properties:

¶ Beer is one of human kind’s oldest recipes and oldest forms of alcoholic beverages. Its invention or (more likely) discovery is lost in the time mist.

¶ Beer is relatively easy to make. As such, home brewing and small local breweries go back many centuries of recorded history. (One can be a beer historian.) Prohibition killed the small brewing industry; it has only recovered during the last few decades.

¶ It’s a fermented (but not distilled) grain beverage. The grain is usually barley, because two-row barley is especially high in the starch sugars yeasts love to eat. The grain is germinated (to starches to sugars), dried, ground up, and converted to malt.

[One form of dry malt tastes almost exactly like Grape-Nuts, which contain neither grapes nor nuts, but whole-grain wheat and malted barley. That Grape-Nuts flavor is the flavor of malt.]

¶ The malt is boiled in water, allowed to cool, and then yeast are added. Over a period of days, the yeast feast on the malt (and other) sugars. Their waste product is alcohol. (Alcohol is literally yeast piss.)

¶ Fermented malt is sweet, so brewers for centuries have added bittering agents to balance their beers. A common one, used almost exclusively in modern times, is hops — the dried flower cone of the hops plant.

¶ Brewers also add almost anything they can think of, chocolate, fruit, brown sugar, maple sugar, coffee, or various herbs, to create unique and interesting beers. This is a big part of what craft brewing is all about.

¶ That said, an old German law, Reinheitsgebot, from 1516, says “beer” is made from water, malted barley, and hops. Nothing more; nothing less. You can make any brew you like, but you can only call it “beer” if it’s made from water, barley, and hops. (They didn’t know about yeast in 1516. They thought it was a kind of God’s magic.)

¶ Beer is best fresh. It has three enemies: light, heat, time. In all three cases, the problem is the hops oils break down in very unpleasant ways. First, beer gets stale, then it gets skunky as the breakdown produces thiols.

§

The point of all that is to help make sense of the following:

Beer is an ancient and hallowed tradition. It’s a complex organic that can be expressed in a vast variety of ways. A big part of enjoying beer involves exploring what beer can be.

If all you care about is catching an alcohol buzz, there are many options, but beer appeals to taste, sight, and scent. One might cite what’s called its “mouth feel” (sense of body) as appealing to touch. (The only sense beer doesn’t really engage is hearing.)

The point is, firstly, given all the ways to make beer, all the things that can be added, all the different proportions one can use, “beer space” is huge.

Secondly, the sub-space of Reinheitsgebot beers, while not as diverse, is still extremely large. I have found that I strongly prefer these beers. I’m just not a fan of beers with fruit or some of the other odd ingredients. (Pumpkin beers are popular in the fall. All I can say is, “Yuck!”)

Chocolate and/or coffee is kind of interesting, and I do enjoy those sometimes. Kind of cracks me up that what was once a gag on The Drew Carey Show — remember Buzz Beer? — is now a legit and not uncommon kind of craft beer.

§

Getting, at last, back to the point of the post, you can perhaps see why craft beer, which is to say really good beer, benefits from being made by a traditional brewery.

A small-scale operation allows brewers to experiment, and it allows beer drinkers to have fresh interesting beers. Typically a brewery produces a few standard beers, perhaps some established seasonal beers, and then whatever their brewmasters come up with along the way.

Which means fans of craft beers sometimes experience once-in-a-lifetime beers. A recipe created once and never repeated. (Although in some cases fan demand creates a revival, assuming all the ingredients are still available.)

Local breweries can also interact more with their customers, so is more likely to produce beers they will understand and appreciate.

In general, the age and tradition of brewing, the idea that beer is a personal creation, lends itself well to the idea local breweries.

These days, most big cities have dozens of local breweries.

§

One the flip side, beer as a mass produced commodity with no more personality or flavor than a frozen pizza.

Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing. I buy bottled spring water, and I suppose a case of Bud isn’t much different from that.

We ought to be able to live in a world with both, something for everyone. The problem is when Big Beer buys up smaller breweries hoping to make a killing selling superior beer.

Or when local breweries get dollar signs in the eyes and decide to go national hoping to make a killing.

Why do we call making a large amount of money “making a killing”?

Is it that we acknowledge a collateral cost?

The problem with humans is that we’re often victims of our own success. We allow that success to drive us beyond our ability to actually enjoy the fruits of that success.

§

A couple recent news articles sparked these thoughts, although the general idea has always been there.

I, and many others, see craft brewing as an art form, and Big Beer offends our sense of that. Many of us try to avoid beers made by breweries that have “sold out” to large conglomerates.

So I’m made glad by stories such as this Vinepair article about craft beer in Sacramento:

The California Brewers Bypassing Buyouts in Favor of ‘Beer With Soul’

This quote puts it perfectly:

“As corporate America has grown, you have these strip malls. You can pop into a city and not really know where you’re at, because these developments look so similar. They’re all selling the same things,” Rob Archie, co-founder of Urban Roots Brewery in Sacramento, Calif., says.

“But with beer, it’s different. You can go into a brewery and taste the region,” he adds, and points to Sacramento’s steadfastly local brewery scene as a prime example.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of visiting a new city is checking out the local beers.

It’s been true for a long time that American cities all look the same. Same fast food, same chain stores, pretty much everything looks the same now.

Beer allows a region to distinguish itself.

§

I was especially delighted by lots of articles about Constellation Brands, a major conglomerate, selling Ballast Point, a well-loved craft brewery they bought, back to local brewing.

Constellation Brands Selling Ballast Point Proves What Beer

Right on!

I’m hoping a kind of lesson is setting in on the Big Beer guys: Go sell your no-taste beer to those with no taste in beer.

Leave the good stuff to those of us who appreciate it.

Good craft beer is art. Support your local artists!

Stay local, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

14 responses to “Local Brews

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    It’s not often I see Baton Rouge mentioned by people outside of Louisiana! (I live in Baton Rouge.)

    I did find myself at a local brewery recently and tried the beer. I’m not much of a beer drinker, but I did notice it was a lot better than the mass produced stuff.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I didn’t realize you lived in Baton Rouge (I did know you lived in Louisiana). I suppose you’re a bit safer from floods upriver.

      True story: I went to a neighborhood association meeting once; it was held in someone’s home. The host asked me if I wanted a beer, I said yes, he gave me an MGD. I was standing around talking to people, mind on the conversation, sipping from the can,… and at some point the model in my brain decided I was drinking a Mendota Springs (a local fizzy water that comes in a can). At some point I got a shock from looking down at the can — I was drinking beer, not water!

      Well, beer-flavored water, anyway. And MGD is one of the better mass-produced beers.

      I’ve just gotten too used to beers with body and flavor. I even find lagers a little insipid, unless they’re pretty flavorful. It grows on one. I crave beers now that I once found too hopped. First time I drank a Surly Furious, I thought I was drinking a pine tree. Now it seems like a perfectly ordinary IPA.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Technically I live in a small town outside of Baton Rouge, albeit in East Baton Rouge parish, but I work in Baton Rouge proper.

        Nowhere in south Louisiana is really safe from flooding. We actually had extensive flooding in 2016. My own house came within a millimeter of getting water into the house.

        Hops seems like an acquired taste (similar to dry wine). I know I prefer sweeter beers, but I rarely drink beer. Just about everyone I know who drinks a lot cherishes the bitter flavor.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Looks like East Baton Rouge is a bit more than 22 feet ASL, so you’re at least safe from being underwater if all the Greenland ice melts. New Orleans, not so much.

        I always liked the drier wines and champagnes, but I started with sweeter beers, the brown ales, porters, stouts. But my tastes have evolved over time as I’ve explored. The last bunch of years, we’ve had the IPA revolution, everyone’s into hoppy beers now.

        Hops does offer more variety among the basic ingredients. Malt is basically malt (sugar for yeast). The degree to which it’s roasted affects mostly the color, but darker malts do provide some flavor. Black Patent malt is basically carbonized, which adds lots of color and dryness and crispness. More malt, sweeter beer (and more alcohol), but that’s about it for malt.

        Hops is a whole different ball game. Lots of plant varieties, and also variation in how its used. Added early, volatile oils boil off, leaving just the bittering agents. Added late, the bittering doesn’t get extracted, but the fragrant oils remain in the beer. So there’s a lot more room to play while still following Reinheitsgebot.

        And then once you go outside that, using other grains, other ingredients, things get really interesting. When I say beer is a complex organic, I ain’t kidding!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Makes sense given how long it’s been around. Someone a while back took one of the ancient recipes for beer (from Babylonia or thereabouts) and made a batch with it. They said it tasted more like hard cider than beer, which is interesting, particularly since I like hard cider.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Not surprising, since the Babylonians didn’t know about hops. The recipe comes from an ancient poem, the Hymn to Ninkasi, a Sumerian goddess. It wouldn’t be fruity, like cider, but I can imagine it could have a crisp taste.

        If you like sweeter beers, I might recommend Newcastle Brown Ale (if you haven’t already discovered it). It was one of my mainstays many years ago. Back then it was hard to find, but it’s become extremely popular in the last decade. It’s often available on tap.

        Sadly, it’s sold in clear glass bottles, because the Brits love the color of their beers, which is terrible for storing the stuff. Never buy beer in clear (or green bottles) unless they’re fully enclosed in a cardboard case. Beer should never smell skunky — if it does, it’s gone bad, usually due to exposure to light or time.

        So if you buy it in the store, be sure to buy the kegs or 12-pack cardboard cases. Used to be my favorite beer.

        Another favorite you might like is Fat Tire, by New Belgium Brewing (Colorado). It’s technically a saison-style beer, but to me it comes off as a nice brown ale. Drank a lot of this stuff, too. It was what I moved on from the Newcastle Brown Ale to. (Now I’ve moved on to IPA land. 😀 )

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Thanks for the recommendations. If I ever come across those brews, I’ll try them out.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Anything in the brown ale family would likely work out for you, from what you’ve said. Also porters and stouts (which are really the same thing).

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Fat Tire is my go-to. It’s one I never ‘tire’ of…hehe…

    Do you make your own beer? I’ve never tried doing it, although I have had a few batches of kombucha end up a bit boozier than I meant them to be.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      There was a period of years where Fat Tire was always in my fridge. (I even “liberated” from servitude a couple of nice Fat Tire goblets from a restaurant-bar near work. 😮 )

      I’ve never made beer, but I have friends who do. A guy I’ve hung out with for over 30 years even inspired his daughter to take it up. (Same buddy has hops growing in his backyard as a shade plant.)

      Craft beer is pretty big around here. There are over a dozen craft breweries in the Twin Cities and more out-state, although other states are getting into it, too, now.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Wow. Growing his own hops? That’s dedication. Cool.

        Yeah, I think you can get local craft beer just about anywhere now. We stopped in Truth or Consequences on a road trip and the whole town appeared to be dead except for the brewery. Bigger cities usually have quite a few. I don’t even know how many Tucson has. How lovely to be able to get good beer so easily!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        It was more for fun than beer making, but he has used his own hops. It’s a perennial vine, so every summer it fills a trellis with its large leaves. Once planted it’s more a matter of cutting it back when it takes over.

        What’s very cool is picking a hops cone off the vine and crushing it between your fingers for all that great hops aroma.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        That’s pretty cool. I’ve never even seen hops. That would be a satisfying accomplishment, to go from growing the hops to making the beer!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Mos def! I get a related thrill from catching and eating fish. (My dad always had a vegetable garden, so I grew up with home-grown food. Dad never grew hops or made beer, of course,… )

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: