August 30, 2011

Are Beer Blogs important? Part 1

The byline to Jeff Alworth's Beervana blog reads, "Blogs will save us". Coincidentally, Jeff writes one of the highest ranked beer blogs in one the country if you follow such things as Wikio rankings. What sort of statement is Mr Alworth trying to make about his blog, Portland and beer blogging in general?

It turns out that the byline is the result of a jab from one of his friends-- one that Jeff has turned into a code of grounding self-deprecation. He related a corrolary of the code to a hotel conference room full of writers at the Beer Bloggers Conferernce in Portland a week ago, "A Beer Blog eh," imitating his friend's skepticism with writing about beer online, "They don't give those out to just anyone." I'm a little bit late to the game to talk about beer blogger naval gazing as some of the top beer writers have already done. None of those writers is taking the position that the Wikio rankings or even that the avocation/vocation of writing about beer is truly "important". I won't either. I will instead argue that the number of regularly well written blogs (and the haphazard inconsistent ones) coming from a local area mirror the larger beer story.

Blogs will reveal us.

If you're not familiar with Portland's beer culture, here's an unbiased overview from the Chicago Tribune. Depending on how you do the math and define the metro area, you're looking at 28 or 50 breweries. Let's not look solely at the magnitude of breweries, there are certainly interesting legal, economic and infrastructural reasons for this, but that's another post. Instead, we'll look at the way that Portland works as a community that supports beer. Portland is successful because each of the breweries, bars, writers, bloggers, restaurants, musicians and other community stakeholders work together. They plan, improvise, communicate and acknowledge each other. They share a degree of dependence and mutual fortune based upon these relationships. How else could they pull off a BenFest, an all fruit beer fest or a session beer fest? How else could they support so many breweries a mere 160 miles from the 5th largest craft brewery in the country? These are endeavors that demand advanced planning, trusted relationships, interaction and communication.

Let's take a look now at the Portland beer blogging landscape. The top 3 Wikio beer rated blogs are Portland based. Two more Portland based blogs round off the top 10. Impressive, but again, let's look at the relationships behind the numbers and how the Wikio rankings work. According to Wikio, rankings are base upon:
...the number and weight of the incoming links from other blogs. Our algorithm accords a greater value to links from blogs placed higher up in the ranking. 
... The weight of any link decreases over time. Also, if a blog always links to the same blog, the weight of these links is decreased.
In other words, the links are a proxy for influence and show the degree of communication between those bloggers with other bloggers through internal links. It's difficult for us to know if PDX bloggers link primarily among themselves, but that seems to be a logical connection to make. If you've read The New School, Beervana Brewpublic and others, you'd come to the conclusion as I have, that reading those Portland blogs is not unlike doing a PDX pub crawl or walking upon a food and beer paring street festival in the Pearl district.There is a level of integration of ideas that goes beyond the event.  Each blog is interesting on it's own, but each also carries a spirit or vibe that tells you that these writers talk over beers and discuss ideas. The blogs mirror the quality of the beer culture.

We'll take a look at things here in Phoenix in Part 2 but let's get something clear beforehand. I'm not asserting any causation here between blogging and beer culture. Bloggers and Wikio rankings did not create the Portland beer culture. The amazing number of breweries, beers and events certainly give bloggers there more to talk about, but we can't say, either, that it caused a high functioning blogosphere. It hints at some larger co-varying aspect of community that fosters relationships in both worlds.

Tomorrow: A look at Phoenix Beer Blogs.

August 24, 2011

Best Beers in America Available in AZ

Zymurgy released its 2011 Best Beers in America list back in June. It is a nationwide survey of homebrewers choosing their top 20 beers. 1,306 different beers from 433 breweries were represented in the poll. So why do I bring this up now?

When I travel, I'm often asked how the brewing scene is here, such was the case at the 2011 Beer Bloggers Conference in Portland last week. Arizonans consume a number of well brewed beers from places spanning the country as this list demonstrates (beers not available are in red-- my emphasis). By my count 11 or 12 (corrections welcome) American beers aren't available here depending on whether you count the recently departed from our state, Avery Brewing. All of the top imports are available here. There are a number of problems with list like these, which I don't intend to discuss. What I will tell you is that these beers represent a common set of reference points for craft beer drinkers all over the nation. With that premise, I'd argue that Phoenix is fluent in the language of beer.

Before you scan the list for Arizona beer (zero), bear in mind that most of these beers enjoy multi-state distribution and some are very near national distribution. But for perhaps Nimbus A-1 reaching San Diego and possibly the breweries in Havasu crossing state lines, Arizona beer is distributed exclusively in the state. This is famously so in the case of Four Peaks. So it would be rather remarkable for beers with such a limited scope of distribution to have an impact on a list like this. There are exceptions to this such as the Wisconsin-only New Glarus hitting number 16.

We know good beer in Arizona and I think my fellow bloggers were surprised at what we can get and drink here. They were shocked to hear that the best selling local craft was a Scottish style ale, that we recently had summer tappings of DFH 120 and that Papago brews specialty Porters year round. They thought the weather would make us succumb to light lagers at worst or cream ales at best. (I did not relate our deficiency in Witbier, Saison and refreshing wild ales, but we can keep that our secret.)

We speak beer geek here, but they are not familiar with our dialect.

See the list after the jump!

August 23, 2011

Cartel Coffee Lab Obtains Tempe Permitting for Microbrewery

Cartel Coffee Lab
cc whereduck Flickr
Tempe's Cartel Coffee Lab cleared an initial hurdle last week when it obtained the necessary permitting to continue on it's journey to becoming Cartel Coffee Lab and Microbrewery. According to a story in the ASU State Press, the coffeehouse located on University and Ash will expand into an adjacent space and start out as a small brewery. Owner Jason Sliberschlag offered that he would start out with 3 classic styles and then venture into more experimental things.  Sliberschlag has plans to distribute to its other locations in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson.

We heard news of these plans in July but decided to reveal it in a blind item. Often brewery start-ups will want to play their cards close to the vest. The regulatory nature of the industry causes them to have to reveal some of their plans at public hearings. We didn't have an opportunity to talk to Sliberschlag, but we're glad that the news is out.

The opening of a smaller brewing operation that is tightly integrated in to coffee culture may signal a new step forward for the brewing community. The strongest expressions of culture work among the the cities successful movements and enterprises. Cartel has been at the forefront of the Metro Phoenix coffee circle.

There are several more important milestones to complete before any brewing can begin including filing for a Federal and State brewing permit. The brewery must also pass a number of local municipal code inspections which may include waste water treatment plans and other neighborhood impact concerns. As of the filing of this story, a check of the State DLLC database did not reveal a state application from Cartel.

August 22, 2011

Ladies First: Four Peaks Barrel Aged Black Returns

Four Peaks taps their Barrel Aged Belgian Black Ale today. I don't have any special information other than the  beer notes from February's Four Peaks Brewsletter.

Expect a Belgian Strong Dark style with plums and bananas and restrained Belgian yeast phenolics due to Four Peaks practice of staying to the cooler side of the yeast's ideal fermentation range. I have a call placed into Ted Golden to get some word on the barrels and other details, but don't let that stop you from coming by.

This beer actually was first re-introduced on Thursday at an AZ Girls Pint Out dinner at Arrogant Butcher and is now available for menfolk. Of coincidence, on Saturday, I attended the premier of "For the Love of Beer" a documentary on the women in the Portland Brewing scene. There was a section in the film on women beer judges and sensory panels.  Melissa Osbourne of Four Peaks got a cameo as she was judging at last year's Great American Beer Fest (GABF). Melissa runs the Four Peaks Barrel Aging program among her duties as a brewer. One wonders if these signs auger well for a more public role for her at Four Peaks.

More on the movie and Portland coming up in another post.

Update: This is the same beer as in February with many more months of age. The beer has been on wood for 3 years now. The barrels were a combination of new medium char American Oak, Paige Springs Meritage and Chardonnay which was then blended. Medjool dates from Yuma were also used to add increase the alcohol heft, lighten the body and add Arizona character.

Tasting Update: Any banana esters are gone and a more vinous tannic acidity has arrived making it a refreshing chocolate vanilla mule with velvet socks.

August 19, 2011

BBC11: The Road to the Beer Anti-snob

"What beer ya drinkin'?" announces a dark haired man in a distinct east coast accent as he shoehorns next to me at the very crowded Concourse A bar. I couldn't help but notice empty booths  so it seemed a bit off-putting, but me and the rest of the bar oblige. Jimmy, (that's what we'll call him) is clearly more comfortable in this confined bar seating arrangement than I am and before I can even answer he has already asked me if I thought it might go well with a Jameson.  

It's a Kilt Lifter, local, I say, nice caramel notes, clean with low bitterness. It would go great with a Jameson. I'm not even sure of how much of this information left my mouth or what Jimmy picked up as he was already asking about my Mac and Cheese and documenting that he loved Stella with Jameson. A glass of lager from Leuven appears. Jimmy is asking more menu questions and talking about his time in Tempe.

I coupled his pulled pork inquiry with the server with his revelation that he lived in Brooklyn for a final open ended line of questioning. Had he ever heard of the Brooklyn Brewing Bacon Beer? "I've never had that, but I did have their Summer Ale. It's like this," he says pointing to his Stella, "only lighter." I'm not sure what Jimmy meant by lighter. I can only guess that maybe he meant refreshing or spicy. Perhaps he was looking for a adjective for different or maybe just any adjective that would be polite in case I might have liked it. 

An earlier more militant version of myself probably would have waxed on about Four Peaks and the local beers here. After all, Jimmy was asking for my advice. I would have pushed him toward the Polestar Pilsner should I have detected a shred of resistance toward Kilt Lifter. Twenty minutes to boarding be damned, I had a Santan Hefe and a bready Fat Tire to work with too! This earlier incarnation of myself would have fired off several strongly worded sentences about travel and local beer, beer pairing, prohibition, mergers, corporate industrialized factory beer. Jimmy would return to Brooklyn and regale stories to Garrett Oliver about the friendly pork pie hatted stranger from Arizona.

This current version of myself formulated another theory about Jimmy. Jimmy is traveling and does so a great deal more than me, specifically business travel. He's asking about travel related interests but he's looking for the familiar. Our conversation wasn't an interactive exploration of experiences, but rather more like a TV show, Jimmy in his comfortable confined bar stool with his Stella and Jameson. I was on the TV taming lions or eating bugs with my dark colored local beer, I don't know. I do understand his travel ritual of consistency, of knowable, of safety. He was pairing his beer with the familiar and in the end he also ordered the Mac and Cheese, too. It had ham in it after all. As I left, Jimmy looked me square in the eye and wished me a safe flight. I told him it was my pleasure and that I hoped he enjoyed his time in Arizona.

I've often said that the best beer is the right beer at the right time. If you believe that too, you have to respect the Jimmy at the airports of the world. You also have to challenge yourself as much as you would ask others. 

I'm abandoning my normal in-the-plane cocktail today, I opted for the more personally challenging and far rarer experience of Budweiser. 

Cheers Jimmy.

August 17, 2011

Portland Beer Bloggers Conference

I'll be logging the beer miles this week as I travel to Portland. This is not my first trip there, but it is my first time with a focus on examining and writing about beer culture. Don't expect any whiny, "Why can't we be more like Portland?" pieces. There will be no hagiographies and no name dropping beerlebrity onanistic fanboi posts, I promise. I travel quite a bit, but I generally don't write about it here unless I can bring it back to a Phoenix context.

If you recall from our opening post, our Beervana will not be cloudy organic IPAs, ironic tattoos, fixie bikes, kickball leagues and stripper steakhouses. Well maybe some of those or maybe not. Our path to beer city greatness will be unlike any other. Still, Portland offers arguably the world's best example of beer culture and I fully intend to discover the hallmarks that make it successful, document the commonalities with the Valley and reveal the untapped expressions that we have here.

I'll be attending the Beer Bloggers Conference to attend sessions that will help improve my writing. There will be networking and of course partaking in the thing that we all write about. If you're skeptical about whether a Beer Blogging Conference can avoid being a boondoggle, you are not alone. Should it turn out that the conference itself is an excuse to drink beer and hang out, I've got a few back-up plans.

Really, I do.

August 5, 2011

Session #54: Sour Beer

We live in a desert. It's been known to get hot here in the summer. While I'm the same as Rob and will drink any beer no matter the weather, I see the appeal of seasonality in beer styles. When it comes to summer, many people lean towards light and crisp beers - the proverbial lawnmower beer. Rob has been pushing witbier as a perfect Phoenix summer beer, but August's Beer Blogger Session topic is on sour beers giving us the opportunity to explore a rare beer style that I would love to see on more local beer lists.

Jon at The Brew Site is this month's host, and he describes the topic as follows:
I've been gradually exploring Sour Beer and finding myself seeking out and trying various beers which fit into the sour realm (yes, I'm purposefully avoiding the word style here as it is entirely too loaded): beers inoculated with wild yeasts, soured with fruit (often in conjunction with those wild yeasts and barrel-aging), lactic acid beers like Berliner Weisse-influenced beers and the rare Gose, and so on. It's a challenging area, both in acquiring a taste for soured beer and in brewing them. Fortunately many brewers are being adventurous and branching out these days, giving us many more options.
Sour beer has become the uber beer-geek rage the past few years. Any trip to a beer festival will find the longest lines at places like Lost Abbey and Russian River that are making Belgian-style lambics and fruit sours. Despite that, the majority of beer drinkers would be shocked to learn that sour beer exists. Even in the smaller community of craft drinkers, sour is still an aquired taste. Many people, myself included, are skeptical when trying their first sour beer but grow into loving the complexity of these beers after time. As a light, refreshing, acidic beer, I think Berliner Weisse is an excellent starter beer to begin exploring sours.

Berliner Weisse is a traditional style that traces it's roots back to the 16th century. It is a very pale, wheat-based beer that gets it's tart acidity from Lactobacillus. Traditionally this was done using a sour mash, although many brewers now use a commercial lactobacillus culture for consistency. All grain has natrual bacteria and beer spoiling organisms on them - this is one of the reasons beer goes through a boiling step. In a sour mash the mash is cooled to a temperature around 110 after starch conversion and additional grain is added to begin the sour culturing process. After 18-24 hours the beer would then be boiled and fermented with a normal beer yeast, though some breweries used a no-boil method by running off straight from the mash tun into the fermenter.

What makes this the perfect sour beer to enjoy in the Phoenix heat? First, it is low in alcohol (generally 3-3.5% ABV). You could drink it all day by the pool without over indulging. Second, the crisp, acidic tartness is very refreshing, similar to a cool glass of lemonade. The BJCP style guide for this beer includes the comment that Berliner Weisse "has been described by some as the most purely refreshing beer in the world." Finally, the beer is traditionally served in Berlin with a shot of flavored syrup which allows drinkers to back sweeten the beer to their preference. As a result, this is a very approchable beer for people who may be a little frightened or put off by the term "sour" when applied to beer.

Some commercial examples of the style available in Phoenix include Hottenroth from The Bruery and Festina Peche from Dogfish Head. I would love to see a local brewery step up and make one as well - not just as a brewpub seasonal, but in bottles as well. Until then, I think I'll brew one myself to get through the dog days of August.