Ales Abroad: Beer in Cornwall and London

It was neat to see how much locally brewed beer there was in Cornwall, even if it wasn’t amazing.

Having just returned from England, I couldn’t help but notice that the beer is slightly different there than it is here in America. For starters, it’s cheaper, warmer, and less flavorful. The stereotype about warm beer in England is half-true: much of the beer served in English pubs is cask ale, which is pulled out of room temperature kegs using a hand pump. (Side note: I believe a compromise would be perfect, because as I’ve mentioned before, much of the draft beer in America is served far too cold.) I admit that I don’t know why beer is cheaper there, though Southern California probably isn’t the best rubric by which to measure America’s beer prices. As far as flavor is concerned, I suppose it depends on what you consider the standard here in the U.S.—if the three most popular beers by volume (Bud Light,  Coors Light, and Budweiser) are the norm, English beer has considerably more flavor. But if you’re reading this, you probably have somewhat of a taste for craft beer and would find the average cask ale in England to be somewhat lackluster.

While I would like to say something about the appreciation for subtlety and the importance of keeping true to style constraints, I actually found most of the beers I tried to be rather unexciting. And I believe there are a few reasons for that. First, English hops are quite different from the American hops of the Yakima Valley that we’ve grown accustomed to. English hop varietals don’t usually have the characteristic pine, resin, or citrus notes that we find in our Pale Ales and IPAs; instead, they are known for their floral and grassy flavors. English brewers also tend to use fewer hops and the resulting beer has a less bitter and somewhat muted (to my palate) flavor. Additionally, the malt used in many of the cask ales I tried was on the sweeter, but lighter, side with flavors of honey and crackers instead of the rich caramel notes we often find in American ales of a similar color. So overall, the majority of cask ale I tried was light in body, amber in color, and slightly sweet in taste with no real bitterness (this last bit being somewhat of a curveball as the style was often just “bitter” or “extra special bitter”). This adds up to a beer that can be consumed surprisingly quickly and voluminously, which I believe is the point. They even serve them in imperial pints, which hold 25% more beer than our puny American sixteen ouncers.

It is easy to miss, right?

It is easy to miss, right?

So, did I have any good beer in England? Absolutely. One night in London, after much research on both BeerAdvocate and CAMRA (the CAMpaign for Real Ale, an organization that nearly single-handedly saved cask real ale from going extinct), I went to Euston Tap, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bar near the Euston train station. Behind the bar were about fourteen taps and eight cask pumps, each pouring a noteworthy beer. I started with was the most exciting brew to me, Founders Breakfast Stout, a world-renowned beer that I’d only had a sip of once before. It had all of the rich coffee and chocolatey goodness I was hoping to experience and was also able to grab their last to-go bottle of it as well. With that out of the way, and some water to clear my palate, I tried the bartender’s choice of cask ales, both of which were done in a hop-forward West Coast style. Clouded Minds Luppol Golden Ale came first and was filled with a classic Cascade hop aroma and flavor in a hazy golden package. Next up was Summer Wine Brewery’s Oregon Pale Ale, which was a successful American Pale Ale in my eyes, as it balanced citrus and pine flavors with a clean malt backbone and an ABV around 6%. I was starting to think that the two best British beers I would havewould be near-replicas of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the quintessential American craft beer; however, a few nights later on New Year’s Eve, I opened a can of Magic Rock Brewing’s Salty Kiss Gooseberry Gose, which lived up to its name with plenty of salt and berries on the palate and satisfactorily ended 2015 for me.

I was happy to see a few breweries branching out stylistically in these ways, and I think that bodes well for the future of English craft beer. And even though I wasn’t particularly impressed by most of the cask ales I tried, I do believe it’s a good thing that they continue to satisfy the average beer drinker’s thirst and carry on a centuries-old tradition in pub culture. As long as they’re not drinking Coors Light, Heineken, or Stella Artois, I’m content.


What do you think? Was I too harsh on cask ale or was I missing something? Or do you agree that the beer in England has as much flavor as the food?

 

 

Billion Dollar Beer

Get ready for a lot more of this.

Earlier this week, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits was sold to Constellation Brands for $1 billion. With a B. I read the news on my phone just after I woke up Monday morning and audibly said “Holy shit.” The announcement sent shockwaves throughout the craft beer community, with the main reaction consisting of phrases like “selling out,” “never drinking their beer again,” “another one bites the dust,” and other vitriolic knee-jerk epigrams. I understand why, too. I, for whatever reason, felt a bit personally hurt by the news. Intellectually, it’s not hard to understand: you don’t turn down a billion dollars. Emotionally, however, I have felt strong ties to Ballast Point since my earliest days of drinking craft beer, when a Big Eye IPA made me realize what people meant by “West Coast IPA.” Ballast Point was my introduction to the San Diego craft beer world I have come to love and admire so much. My first (of many) craft brewery t-shirts was a black Victory at Sea shirt that my girlfriend gave me for Christmas. I remember visiting their Scripps Ranch brewery when they were still renting the space, and watching the expansion of the facility on each subsequent visit. I visited their second location in Little Italy the first week they opened, and then hung out there whenever I visited San Diego, excited to try all the R&D beers brewed at their pilot brewery. Of the 1,250 different beers I’ve tried, 50 have come from Ballast Point alone—more than any other brewery. Ballast Point was the first brewery I was actually passionate about, and the news of them selling the company took the wind out of my sails.

“Calm Before the Storm” was a pretty appropriate name for this beer seven months ago.

Of course, this was only my initial reaction. With time to think about it, let alone analyze the details of the buyout and read what the brewery’s official response has been, it becomes abundantly clear why this was the correct business decision for them. It provides Ballast Point with tons of capital to expand their brewing capacity and distribution networks, with my assumption that they will quickly enter the top ten or fifteen breweries in terms of barrel production nationwide. All news coming out of the brewery insists this is a hands-off sale and that the brewing staff and management will not change, but simply have more resources at their disposal. I hope this is true and that they continue to create quality beer for a growing market. The main fear, of course, is that with rapid expansion and production volume increases, quality will suffer. I’m not the first to point out that Ballast Point’s flagship beer, Sculpin IPA, tastes like it has dipped a few notches since they promoted it to their flagship beer about three years ago. It’s also likely that the beer has stayed the same, but over that same period of time, my palate has changed and grown more immune to hop bitterness, and the beer consequently seems to have more of a malt character than it did before. The other question, and one that people plugged into the craft beer community seem to care about, is whether or not the sale qualifies as “selling out?” While some have automatically labeled this as a move that directly puts money spent on Ballast Point products into the pockets of AB-InBev, the multinational colossus of a beer company, the details are a little more complicated. Basically, Constellation Brands owns the U.S. rights to the Grupo Modelo (who makes Corona, Modelo, et al.) because of antitrust issues that came into effect when AB-InBev acquired the Grupo Modelo a few years ago. So Constellation Brands went from merely importing these Mexican beers to opening large-scale breweries here in the States. It’s incredibly complicated, but should you be worried about supporting the king of Macrobrews by buying Ballast Point beer? The answer is: not really.

543488_10100286341950233_1801416791_n

The oldest photo I could find from Ballast Point. Back when Instagram filters were all the rage.

What this sale does make abundantly clear is the impact that craft beer has over the beer market as a whole. A growing market share each year would not keep going unnoticed by bigger companies with more money and resources. But one thing that I am certain of is that the folks at Ballast Point honestly love beer. Their original brewing facility, even before their half-warehouse in Scripps Ranch, is Home Brew Mart, which serves as a lasting testament to brewing. Yes, they serve increasingly mass-produced Sculpin on tap, but the employees are just as happy to show customers exciting new hop varieties and offer brewing advice to people who want to brew themselves. My hope for the company is they are able to keep their zeal for beer alive because of record profits, not in spite of them. I will continue to drink Victory at Sea regularly, as well as many of the other Ballast Point beers I have come to love, but not out of blind faith. If I feel a drop in quality arises because of expanded production, I have no problem relegating their beers to my fond memories instead of my refrigerator. What ultimately drives (or should, at least) the beer market is drinking what you like. If you like it, drink it; if you don’t, don’t. There are thousands more breweries where that one came from.


What do you think? Did Ballast Point sell out? Is this sale different from AB-InBev buying up other breweries like Elysian and Golden Road?  Let me know in the comments!

 

How to Drink Properly

Being alive right now is great: there’s a real-life hoverboard, Game of Thrones just had its best season in years, and really outstanding beer is more accessible than ever. While you probably won’t be McFlying through Hill Valley just yet and have to wait until next spring for more adventures in the Seven Kingdoms, chances are you could have a world-class beer within the next hour if you live in the developed world (Note: states with vestigial alcohol laws from Prohibition and dry counties are not the developed world). Consider the following situation: you’ve been given a $25 gift certificate to a wine store with a decent beer selection and it’s about to expire tomorrow. So you grab a friend, go to the store, and plan to pick out an IPA and Imperial Stout respectively. After some browsing, you decide on Firestone Walker’s excellent Double Jack (which is luckily on sale) and your friend selects this year’s vintage of The Abyss from Deschutes, which both of you have heard great things about, but never tried. You go home, grab some frosty pint glasses out of the freezer that you stole from a pizza place back in college on Pint Night, and pour in your beers to try. The moment finally arrives and, after clinking glasses, you each take a big sip… and the beers are severely disappointing.

So what happened? Did Firestone Walker AND Deschutes, larger breweries with trained quality control departments, both happen to release bad batches of their beers? It’s possible. It’s also unlikely. A closer look at the events leading up to your taste shows that is much more likely to be a series of errors, mostly your own, that caused the beer to be found wanting. Sorry. Let’s go through step by step to see what went wrong and how to fix it.

It’s great that the Double Jack was on sale, but the reason behind the discount does not bode well for its flavor. You double check your Double Jack double IPA and it is within a week of its “Enjoy By” date. The wine shop isn’t supposed to sell it past that, so they lowered the price to move it quickly. Unfortunately, your beer is now three months old and the burst of fresh, citrusy hops that you crave has now turned into a generic, murky bitter flavor. And your friend, whose face recoils after his sip as if he just took a shot of bourbon, is experiencing the opposite problem. His beer tastes “hot” and boozy because it is: a brand new batch of a high-alcohol beer, especially one aged in spirit barrels, has a lot of alcohol that’s going to burn a bit going down. A previous year’s vintage of that same beer will likely seem much smoother. This brings us to our first rule.

This Triple IPA was bottled the morning that I bought and drank it, because El Segundo knows how important freshness is!

Rule No. 1: Drink your beer at the right time! A quick and dirty guideline for some common styles is as follows: Pale Ales/IPAs/Double IPAs/Any “Hoppy” Variant of Other Styles should be drank within a month of being bottled, the sooner the better. Imperial Stouts/Baltic Porters/Barleywines/Quadrupels/Anything Big and Dark are meant to withstand some aging and almost always get better with six months spent in a cool, dark place. After six months, it’s really up to you. The intricacies of cellaring beer will be reserved for a future post, but if the ABV is above 10%, I think 18 months of aging usually turns out pretty nicely. Sour beers are great fresh, but also develop all sorts of interesting flavors over time—I’ve had 16-year-old gueuze from Drie Fonteinen that was amazing. If your beer has something added (e.g. fruit, cacao nibs, coffee, vanilla, peppers), you don’t want to wait too long or those flavors will dissipate. Try to keep it under a year (an exception seems to be cherries/grapes in sour beer, which often intensify over time). Nearly all other beers that do not benefit from aging are best enjoyed within 0-6 months of bottling.

Continuing on, you made a double whammy of a faux pas when you pulled out the frosty pint glasses. You made beer that was too cold even more gelid and you used improper glassware (more on that later). Let’s say the refrigerator was set at 36 degrees Fahrenheit and your glass from the freezer was a rather frigid 10 degrees. Your Double IPA, which can be enjoyed at lower temperatures than the Imperial Stout, was shocked by the sudden drop in temperature. This leads to a visually unappealing “chill haze” turning the otherwise clear beer opaque, but more worrisome is the fact that you just shut off most of the aromas coming out of the glass. At such low temperatures, the aromatic compounds in your beer are unable to volatize and make their way to your nose, where they activate neurons heading to the pleasure centers in your brain. If you want your Nucleus accumbens pleasure center to be properly activated, you must follow rule number two.

Rule No. 2: Drink your beer at the right temperature! Most people drink their beers too cold. It’s not entirely your fault, however; not only have tasteless light beers predicated their entire marketing campaigns on the teeth-chattering chill of their beers, most bars serve an extremely cold pint because an employee of Budweiser/Miller/Coors sets up their draft lines to what is optimal for their product. Unfortunately, their product is not tasty and keeping it extremely cold helps to hide this fact. That said, beer warms up to its optimal temperature fairly quickly, so a little patience goes a long way. Always reject frozen glasses and mugs and use your hands to add some heat to a beer that’s too cold. I personally try to drink most beer at around 45 degrees and enjoy non-hoppy, bigger beers closer to 55 degrees or higher. It may seem strange at first to drink “warm” beer, but when that bounty of smells opens up for the first time, you’ll soon find that it’s much better. Since one of the keys to tasting a beer properly is smelling it, most glassware is designed (at least partially) to transmit aroma, so pay attention to the third rule.

 

These should cover your bases.

Rule No. 3: Use the proper glassware! A quick way to tell whether you’re in a craft beer bar or a bar that happens to have craft beer is by looking at the glasses they serve the beer in. If you don’t see a tulip glass anywhere, it’s probably not a craft beer bar. In our example, you poured a double IPA into a pint glass, which isn’t the worst receptacle for the style, but it’s far from the best. Firstly, drinking sixteen ounces of a higher alcohol beer isn’t really recommended, so you’d be better off with a glass that holds ten to twelve ounces instead. Secondly, pint glasses have a conical shape that opens up towards your nose; that seems ideal at first glance, but we really want the aromatic compounds to stay in the glass, where they’ll hang out until it’s time to sniff them. Any vessel that tapers inward as it goes up will aid that process, which is the reason wine glasses are narrower at the lip than in the middle. Wine glasses are great catch-alls for most beer styles, actually, and I use them all the time. In fact, Tørst, New York’s best beer bar, exclusively serves beer in wine glasses. Tulip glasses are great for most beers too, and I generally use my trusty oversized Modern Times glass (seen above) for my personal beer consumption. If proper temperature and glassware are so critical to the aromatic experience of drinking a beer, following those rules would be useless if you don’t follow the fourth.

Rule No. 4: Take the time to smell and taste your beer! Not every beer needs to be smelled before every sip, but if you have purchased good beer, chances are you want to enjoy it for all it’s worth. In our example where you do everything wrong, you and your friend forgot to smell the beers before taking a big sip. So take a few quick sniffs rather than one long slow draw, as this will help you pick up the aroma more easily. Make a habit of noting the knee-jerk impressions of what you smell—don’t worry about being wrong, as it’s subjective anyway. If you think the aromas are reminiscent of pears, for example, say it. For years, I was always hesitant to voice my opinion when analyzing the nose of a beer (or wine, for that matter). I eventually realized that the first thing I thought I smelt usually lined up with the consensus of the group I tasted with. After taking in the aroma of a beer, take a sip that allows you to let the beer coat your whole mouth, not just the top of your tongue. This will provide a wider view of the beer’s flavor and makes the mouthfeel much more apparent. With the beer covering more surface area, things like the carbonation, viscosity, and astringency are more detectable, and incorporating them into your tasting can enhance the overall experience of the beer.

While considering all these rules, the most important thing to remember is that drinking beer is fun, so don’t beat yourself up trying to rigidly adhere to them. After implementing them, however, these guidelines do not require constant attention—you just start reaching for fresh beer, proper glassware, etc. and your overall experience is enhanced. So, for a recap, our rules for experiencing beer the right way are as follows:

Rule No. 1: Drink your beer at the right time

Rule No. 2: Drink your beer at the right temperature

Rule No. 3: Use the proper glassware

Rule No. 4: Take the time to smell and taste your beer

On a final note, I’ll say that having a system that standardizes (to a certain extent) your beer drinking experience makes it quite simple to judge beers against each other, both in the moment and in memory. This will tacitly increase your appreciation and recognition of quality beers, so I will add a final rule to the bunch:

Rule No. 5: Drink good beer!