Sunday 29 November 2015

Are you drinking beer aged in Mescal barrels yet?

Now that whoever is responsible for identifying trends at Albert Heijn and Jumbo has finally cottoned on to the fact the US makes lots of that thing called craft beer, both supermarkets are, finally, selling some US beer. And I'm grateful, I am, though this is hardly a forecast of what's to come. After all, it's taken them two years too long. More interesting maybe is the speed at which big beer companies are sucking up small breweries (Heineken has just bought a more than a 50% share in Brouwerij 't IJ), similar to the way in which Google buys anything that moves. But for how long will we see any old craft beer as the answer to bad beer?

Because let’s face it, who, when faced with hundreds of beer-runes scratched out on a blackboard, isn’t at least a little surprised that the beer they've finally chosen is actually something they feel like drinking? After all, you didn’t have much to go by when you picked The Great, Big Kentucky Sausage Fest (from Amager Bryghus and Against the rain Brewery) from a host of equally obscurely named others, did you?

But I get it. In a market of hundreds of thousands of beers in the US alone, (the American Brewers Association estimate that there were 4.000 plus craft brewers* in the US in 2015), I get why someone might have thought it necessary to call their beer Flying Dog’s Pearl Necklace Chesapeake Stout with artwork to match (of an oyster dressed up pwetty in poyils of course). They need to stand out. And anyway, I think it's fun. Plus I’ve already forgiven bands from my past life for having names ripped from freeform poetry.

Strange names aren’t the only way all these beers try to differentiate themselves though. Some breweries, like Fonta Flora, have taken a leaf from the book of any half-convincing Nordic so and so and forage for their ingredients. Another brewer in Oregon has started a farm to grow its own hops and grains so it to call itself one of only very few truly ‘local’ beers (normally a half-truth as hops and grains are typically trucked in from far).

Then there’s all the hocus-pocus: the nitrogen-infused beers, the ‘wild beers’ made from spontaneous fermentation and sour beers made with different yeasts. There are the milk stouts (made with lactose for a milky creaminess) and the dry-hopped sours, a mix between citrusy IPAs and sour beers. There are even breweries concocting foodstuffs with their unfermented beer, like cheese spreads and ice creams.

And why not the resurgence of a little history? In the good old days, back yonder when oysters were cheap, they used to be served as bar snacks. In Ireland you washed these molluscs off the half-shell with a gulp of brown stout; and by the late 1920s, English brewers had started incorporating oysters into the drink: naturally a concept irresistible for the modern day brewer avec beard to dabble in now. And dabble he does: by dropping oysters into conditioning tanks (Ireland’s Porterhouse), using oyster liquor, aging stouts in oyster shells (Portland’s Upright Brewing) or stewing them and adding the stock to beer. (Other breweries have done much of the same for clams; some have thrown a lobster into the pot and Japan released a special-issue beer called Hoya Ale made from an edible, soft-bodied hermaphrodite that clings to rocks called the sea squirt probably just because they could.)

Lastly there’s the where all this stuff is being brewed and how to make where you brew different to where everyone else brews. On a recent trip to drink a lot of natural wine in France, we spoke to growers about how difficult it is to find the right wine barrels. When I asked Rick Nelson from Amsterdam’s Oedipus Brewing whether this was also an issue for brewers, he told me beer isn’t as fussy. Most brewers use stainless steel tanks. For a special little aged sumthin’, some use oak barrels and others bourbon. The 2016 trail blazers though? Look out for the breweries using concrete tanks (concrete provides a stable temperature, doesn’t rust, ‘breathes’ like wood but doesn’t impart flavour) and those ageing their beer in barrels that once contained tequila or the mescal you were drinking in New York like so last year.

But in a market of so many, with an audience that knows so little, isn't all this no more than a bucket full o’ tricks and gimmicks? I’m sure all the imperial this-es, pale thats, a bit of concrete here and a dash of brine there is, just like hanging plants are for todays coffee bar, also helpful for hiding beers that just don’t taste good; made by the brewers that turn out sour beer because they haven’t managed to make one that isn’t sour. Trends come and go and sweep us all along for a ride. I remember when kale became a thing because my dad kept buying it, oblivious to the fact it's been growing in the garden for years. Once can only hope though, that the next evolutionary step for consumers, once no longer star struck by the ‘craft’ coming before ‘beer’, will be the ability to call the brewer’s bluff. That’s what Rick thinks anyway, and he’s a brewer n’ all.

Picture of my feet shot by Yuki Kho and styled by us both for Oedipus Brewing. See the rest of our work for Oedipus.

I spoke to Rick Nelson about beer. Read the interview here.

*‘Craft brewer’ is defined by the American Brewers Association by size (with an annual production of 6 million barrels or less), independence (requiring any alcoholic beverage industry member investor to have a less than 25% stake) and method of brewing (the beers must derive their flavour from ‘traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation’ i.e.: not by flavouring).

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