Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bubble Bursting Numbers from the Brewer's Association

Everyone seems to have an opinion as to whether the craft brewing industry will experience a bubble. Most of this speculation is fueled by the shear growth of so many new breweries.  I've weighed in on the subject myself and I'll spare you the details of pouring through my number heavy analysis if you don't want read through it and just give you the conclusion.   I estimated that given so much new brewing capacity coming on line that the craft brewing industry would have to continue to grow sales volume at an annual rate of 15% for all that beer to be sold.  If the craft brewing industry slowed to a 5% or even 10% percent growth rate over the next couple years, there would be so much excessive capacity coming online the many breweries would have a hard time selling enough beer to meet their financial obligations.   Most have taken on debt to fund their expansions, so if they can't sell enough beer to pay off the debt and operating expenses, they're in a lot of trouble.  Over time, a lot of breweries could end up going out of business and I made a semi-wild guess that two or three hundred breweries could exit the industry in the next couple years, higher than the current 1-2% failure rate of craft breweries.

The good news is that the astonishing recent growth of craft beer sales hasn't slowed, but has inexplicably increased.  A recent press release by the Brewer's Association reports an 18% volume growth and a 20% revenue growth in 2013.  These are just amazing numbers.  Rarely does growth in any industry, let alone a fairly mature one like beer, reach these anything close to these growth levels.  Most businesses are elated whenever they achieve 10% sales increase and seldom does this happen year after year after year.

Bottom line:  As overheated as the craft brewing industry seems right now with so many new breweries and brewery expansions, this industry-wide capacity growth seems sustainable in the near term given the 20% increase in revenue growth in 2013.  With craft beer still occupying only 7.8% of the beer market, it's hardly to the point of saturation.  So a 20% growth rate is still plausible for at least the next two or three years. Maybe the growth will slow, but there's really no compelling reason why.  If the industry ever experiences a shake out with many breweries going out of business, that day of reckoning, if it ever comes, seems further off in the future.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Beer of the Month: New Almaden Imperial Red Ale from Santa Clara Valley Brewing

Our Beer of the Month for March comes from a brewery that seems like it's been around for a couple years, but only started brewing late last spring. It's from Santa Clara Valley Brewing, formed by multi-GABF award winning brewer Steve Donohue and Apple Executive Tom Clark.  Their Electric Tower IPA drew plenty of raves, including one from yours truly, and Electric Tower tap handles have been popping up all over the South Bay.

Their recently released New Almaden Imperial Red proves Santa Clara Valley Brewing is no one hit wonder.    There's plenty of malt, giving it a creamy mouth feel and lots of roasty and earthy flavors but hefty additions hops create citrus flavors pushing through all that malt goodness, resulting in a beer with plenty of bold flavors.  For all its strength and assertiveness, it's also surprisingly smooth.  I hesitate to describe a beer at 10.0% abv as drinkable, but it's certainly an easy sipper.

The name comes from one of my favorite places to the run in the Bay Area.   Reddish, cinnabar mercury ore was mined at New Almaden just south of South Jose starting in the late 1800's  primarily for gold extraction to support the gold discoveries east of Sacramento.  You can find ruins of these mines at Almaden Quicksilver Park, which has numerous trails, rugged hills and spectacular view for excellent trail running.  Every Saturday and Sunday morning, plenty of running groups will gather at the MacAbee Road entrance to "do Quicksilver".  I've also taken the family for hikes there many times as it's a great place to learn our region's history, enjoy nature, take in excellent views of nearby Mount Unumhum and challenge yourself on the trails if you're so inclined.

Turns out, I'm not the only South Bay blogger that enjoys New Almaden Imperial Red and Almaden Quicksilver park.  Check out fellow South Bay Beer Blogger Brian Wimsett's post on True Brew Too-Beer and Friends.

Mount Unumhum as seen from Almaden Quicksilver Park.
(Photo credit)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Tropical Closet Hop Head - A Fine Home Brew if I Say So Myself

Tropical Closet Hop Head in all its glory!
A few weeks ago, I brewed for the first time in about ten months.  It was a Belgian IPA, based on a recipe I made last year that a called Closet Hop Head.  At the last minute, I impulsively made a couple last minute substitutions to replace coriander with cinnamon and Cascade Hops with Galaxy Hops to create a more tropical character to the brew and decided to call it "Tropical Closet Hop Head".

Wouldn't you know, I think I pulled this off.  The cinnamon works with the tropical Galaxy hops to create a nice tropical vibe with a slight floral notes from honey, Chinook and Amarillo hops.  The honey thins out the brew to make it a little more drinkable, and I detected no off flavors.  It doesn't have a strong hop punch but the hop bitterness is certainly there, and it's got nice aromatics.  Call it more of a hoppy Pale Ale than an IPA, but it works pretty well.

Such is the fun of home brewing.  I've heard people claiming every home
brewer harbors this deep desire to brew professionally.    They're wrong!  Home brewing is fun, professional brewing is work.   Ken Grossman can't wake up someday and say "You know, today I'll ditch the Cascade hops and go with Galaxy Hops in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and see what happens."   And if Ken Grossman did cook up something tasting like Tropical Closet Hop Head, I think he'd be pretty damn proud of it in my totally unbiased opinion.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Is this shocking?

What would you think if you heard about a brewery releasing a new wheat beer brewed with honey, spices and aged with bourbon barrel staves?  Yet another craft brewer pushing the envelope, you might think.  Now what if I told you this was a new beer released by Shock Top, a product of mega-brewer A-B InBev.  You might dismiss it as a craft beer poser or a gimmick from a desperate corporation eager to win back lost market share.  Or you might instead conclude the A-B InBev has seen the errors of the bland, macro-lager ways and is trying to something novel and distinctive.

Before you dismiss Shock Top too quickly, don't forget nearly a year ago,  Shock Top wowed a bunch of BJCP judges with their experimental Campfire Wheat. The stunned judges found it tasted just like s'mores in beer form.  So I was intrigued after recently an e-mail from Shock Top asking me if I was interested in giving Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat a try, which I accepted.

So how does it taste?  Well, it was interesting, and I genuinely mean that in a good way.  I found it a little heavy, sweet and little floral from the honey with light woody bourbon flavors.  I didn't dislike it, but can't say I really liked it either. It takes a very deft hand to balance strong flavors like bourbon in a wheat beer and the beer seems to sag a bit under the weight of its honey and bourbon additions.   I must admit Shock Top carries a lot of baggage as an A-B InBev product which makes it hard for me to really judge objectively, but I give them a lot of credit for trying something new. All things considered, I'd have another one.

Shock Top seems to be making an attempt to emphasize the brewing process and ingredients and create something new and unique, which is a lot about what craft beer is all about.  At least that what it seems like when you watch their video on the beer, but if you listen to brewmaster Jill Vaughn closely, it does sound like this beer was at least partly motivated by the latest fads.   Maybe no matter how hard they try to be just about the beer, the big corporate instincts kick in and they can't resist them.  Anyway, just click on the video above  to see it for yourself.

My fellow beer geeks can sneer all they want at Shock Top, but Shock Top is a brand of ideas that results in mildly satisfying and at times shockingly good results.  You could argue that Shock Top's ideas amount to chasing fads, but if you don't think a lot of craft brewers are trying to copy each other's success, you just haven't been paying attention.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Chatting with Hal Higdon on his new book "4:09:43 Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners"

Few people in the United States were paying any attention to the Boston Marathon until a couple bombs detonated near the finish line last April, 4:09:43 after the race started. Then, the news channels were dominated by endless replays of both bombings going off, reports of the dead and injured, and speculation as to who would commit such an act.  As the police filtered through the scattered images from security cameras and cell phones, a picture emerged of two suspicious men walking into the crowd with large backpacks only to calmly emerge from the chaos a few minutes later without them. From carefully sifting through the noise of billions of bits of data, the picture of the terrorists slowly emerged.

In a similar fashion, long time running writer Hal Higdon pieces together the story of the Boston Marathon Bombings through scattered stories from runners in his new book, "4:09:43   Boston 2013 Through the Eyes of the Runners".  Higdon picked through the enormous chatter of social media generated by the runners themselves to chronicle the 2013 Boston Marathon through the eyes of 75 different runners. Higdon captures the story of the race from the initial excitement and apprehension at the start, the screaming girls at Wellesley College, running up Heartbreak Hill and the final struggle to the finish line before the bombs went off sending the runners into a confused, terrifying flight from the finishing area.

The result is a readable, engaging tale of the 2013 Boston Marathon from a perspective that couldn't possibly exist only a few years ago.  Higdon's social media connections with so many runners works to his advantage, allowing him to piece together a mosaic of the race story from the words of several runners who directly experienced the entire 2013 Boston Marathon.   I had the chance to speak with Hal Higdon about his remarkable new book.

What was it like piecing all the postings from social media all together for this book?

It was really enlightening.  We were all in shock after the bombings and kept seeing the replays on the news at the finish line with the bombs going off, with the clock stopped at 4:09:43.  Back then, I  certainly didn’t think I’d be writing a book about the race.  Afterwards, runners started posting their stories to their blogs, most of them meant for only their friends and family to read.  Then these postings started making their way to my Facebook page.   I have a large footprint on the Internet from my Facebook page so had a lot of access to the runners who finished the Boston Marathon.   That’s when it came into my head that I could write a book about the Boston Marathon Bombings and share all their stories.

What did you learn putting the book together?

I really got a unique viewpoint of the whole event.  Most of the runners were on the course for 4-5 hours and most of that time, it was a joyous run on the course running through Boston and only at the end did the bombs go off and then all of a sudden it had a really bad ending.  And that’s what I reported on.

How do you think social media changes the way we look at terrorism?

We have more viewpoints these days.  First, there were only newspapers to get our information from.  Then television came along and we got news from two sources.  Then we have the Internet and social media where we learn things immediately.

A lot of people remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot, when the Challenger Disaster occurred, when the Twin Towers fell.  The 2013 Boston Marathon has become like those events, where you remember just where you were when it happened.

How has the Internet changed running?

Certainly one of the things that’s changing is that we can track runners who aren’t necessarily the race leaders or elite athletes.    We can now follow the people we know in the race remotely, and see when they pass through the 5k checkpoint, the 10k checkpoint, ect, over the course of a race.  I was watching my daughter run a marathon and I knew just when to expect her at the half way point based on her time at the last checkpoint.

It’s also greatly improved our ability to dispense information.  Runners from all over can ask me questions and the Internet allows me to talk directly with them.  It’s all happened only in the last dozen years.

Tell me about this fad you recall about beer drinking being good for running.

There was this fad in the 70’s with the initial running boom that carried into the 80’s about beer being good for running, initiated some of the things Dr. George Sheehan wrote, who was a popular running writer at the time, and a number of beer companies were also involved.   I’ve noticed many runners enjoy a glass of wine or a beer and most of them can control their alcohol without any problems.

I ran the Athens Marathon a couple times.  The first time I took it really seriously and finished under three hours, which put me in the top 10 or 15 runners.  The next year I didn’t take it so seriously, and carried a few Drachmas in my pocket with me so I could stop for a couple beers along the way at bars along the course.  At the second stop, I was ready to pay for my beer when the bartender stopped me, pointed to a gentleman on the other side of the bar, who waved back at me.  They didn't speak any English and I didn't know any Greek, but I figured out the guy waving at me paid for my beer so I thanked him and headed back out onto the course.  I didn't take the race very seriously but had a lot of fun.

Anything else you’d like to add about the Boston Marathon?

Everyone is really looking forward to the Boston Marathon this year and it will really be the race of the century.  They’ve opened up the race more to include 36,000 people.  It’s going to be what we all hope will be an enjoyable time, a time to put the tragedies of the last Boston Marathon behind.  We’ll always remember the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings and I think my book is the definitive record of them.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A review of "Craft Beer for the Homebrewer"

Ever drink a great craft beer and wonder, "How can I brew something like that"?  A new book, Craft Beer for the Homebrewer provides the answers you've been searching for.  It features thirty eight different homebrewing recipes of some of the finest craft beers such as Hop Stoopid from Lagunitas, Allagash Black, and Dead Guy Ale from Rogue Ales.

It's a lot more then just a compilation of "clone" brew recipes.  Author Michael Agnew, a certified Cicerone, with help from four others in the world of craft beer and homebrewing, includes several interesting vignettes on each brewery featured. Many readers will be familiar with the stories of breweries like Stone Brewing, Troegs Brewing, and Cigar City.  However, Agnew also includes stories on little known, interesting breweries like Dave's BrewFarm, quite literally a small farm in Wisconsin that runs on alternative energy.  I also enjoyed the plentiful photography within the book, which captured the feel of each brewery quite nicely.  A big attractions of "Craft Beer for the Homebrewer" is that it successfully takes an interesting and varied cross-section from the varied world of craft beer, no easy task from a rapidly growing industry of 3,000 breweries.

Of course, the homebrewing recipes are the star of the book and I found them easy enough to follow, given I've brewed about 15 batches of beer in the last four years since I started homebrewing.  This book is not for beginners, as the authors assume the reader has a working knowledge of standard homebrewing practices and techniques.  A few of the craft beer recipes include comments from the brewmaster behind the beer and there are "Pro Brewer's Tips" sidebars next to a couple recipes.  I wish there were more of these great tips.

If I had a quibble with this book, it's that the voice of the brewer behind each beer is too often absent.  For example, I'd really like to know how the staggering number of nine total hop varieties all work together in Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale from Lagunitas, but unfortunately no explanation is to be found.  At beer festivals, I take every chance to pick the brains of professional brewers for knowledge to use when I brew, so I was a little disappointed to have so few opportunities to really learn from the masters in the pages of this book, especially when it seemed the authors had pretty good access to each brewery.

That aside, I expect to return this book many times both as a guide to help me brew better beers, as well as a nice resource on several interesting breweries all over this country.    Reading books like this that capture the wonderfully wide world of American craft brewing make me feel good about beer.

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Session #85: The Elephant in the Room

Leave it to Douglas Smiley at Baltimore Bistro's and Beer to ask this highly fundamental question for this month's Session: "So what is it that compels you to drink and what would your life be missing if beer was no longer an option for you?"

I drink beer because it can be approached and appreciated from so many directions.  Beer is steeped in history as possibly the earliest beverage developed by human kind. So many bio-chemical reactions are involved in brewing that it takes decades for a brewer to really master them.  The economic forces in play during the American craft brewing revolution has generated so many fascinating dynamics between upstart brewers and multinational corporations in a rapidly changing marketplace.  At a culinary level, I can savior the seemingly infinite variations created by just malt, hops, water and yeast as well as experience a multitude of unique and vibrant pairings of beer with food.  From a sociological perspective, who can't help admire beer's unique power to bring people of all walks of life together over a pint.  All of these things have drawn me to this majestic beverage.

But truth be told, I wouldn't care about this as much if it weren't for that nice buzz.

What would beer be without the alcohol?  It wouldn't be beer and quite frankly, I don't think beer would arouse anywhere near the usual passions.  We tend to sweep this under the rug because we all know alcohol can fuel destruction.

Scientists have looked into the subject of alcohol consumption and their findings are pretty much what everyone would expect.  A couple drinks a day has little effect your health, and arguably, you'll live longer than those who completely abstain.   At some point above two drinks a day, alcohol has a decidedly long term negative effect, although there is considerable debate about about at what level of drinking that occurs. Getting shit faced on a regular basis clearly creates serious long term mental and health problems, as if we needed a bunch of scientists to tell us that.  Of course, anyone under the influence of alcohol can do horrific things.  I knew someone, a talented physicist with an infectiously vibrant personality, who died one night when she encountered a drunk driver who went the wrong direction down a highway on-ramp and drove head first right into her.  She didn't have a chance.  

It's the alcohol and the responsibility linked to it that gave beer a certain mystique as I grew up.  I had my first beer when I was six or seven.  My dad would carefully give me small sip of his Rolling Rock he'd enjoy on Saturday afternoons back in the mid-70's. He later told me he did this prevent beer from becoming a forbidden fruit I might abuse later.  Going to church and family picnics, I observed the adults drinking beer while us kids were left to be content with sodas.  Of course, we didn't mind.  Sugary sweet soda tasted a lot better than beer and we had no idea why our parents would want to drink the stuff.

Then in my late teens, I started drinking beer with my friends when my dad wasn't around.  It was more of an act of rebellion, of fitting in with the crowd, and part of a rite of passage than any appreciation of the actual taste of the stuff.  Back in the 80's any beer we could get our hands on was pretty stale, skunky and foul tasting.  Kids these days are spoiled:  When they sneak away to drink beer, I suspect many actually enjoy drinking it.

Fast forward to today and beer is a lot about exploration.  I enjoy discovering new breweries, both local and from far away.  Brewers continue to push the flavor envelop and I never get tired of their new and wonderful creations. I feel a stronger connection to my home in the San Francisco Bay Area whenever I drink a beer from our many excellent breweries.  But sometimes, more often than I'd like to admit, I drink beer to get that buzz.

PS-  As to what I would do if beer were no longer an option for me, I would make do with wine.