Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Don't worry about massive increases in hop prices...they could be a good thing

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released their year end National Hop Report. It's a rather technical document, full of facts and figures but one statistic jumps out. The average cost of US grown hops in 2016  jumped from last year's $4.38 per pound to $5.72, a whopping 30.6% increase. And the $4.38 per pound figure in 2015 was a 19.3% price increase over 2014.  Given these rather startling price increases in a critical beer making ingredient, does this mean we're going to start seeing dramatically higher pricing on beer shelves? Will brewers fall under increasing price pressures due to massive increases in hop pricing?

Probably not. For starters, most breweries invest in hop contracts so already have their pricing for next years brews locked in. It's one of the main reasons hop contracts are essential for breweries. They ensure a reliable delivery of hops without any price surprises. Then there is the matter that the cost of hops usually accounts for less than 5% of the overall cost to produce beer. So even a 30% increase in hop prices will have little effect on the final price of beer.

We can further investigate this with simple back of the envelope calculation. The most heavily hopped IPA's use four pounds of hops per barrel of beer.  One barrel of beer equates to 330 12-ounce servings.  If we take the $1.34 difference per pound between hop prices in 2015 and 2016, multiply that by four, and divide that over 330 servings, we get:  (4 x $1.34) / 330 = 0.016 or 1.6 cents per serving. Suffice to say, consumers will barely notice any overall price increase.

Of course, brewers use different varieties of hops in their beers, each with their own different pricing, so this analysis is a little simplistic. The USDA report made no distinction between the cost of different hop varieties so I went with the overall average. Some rare, hard to get hops are subject to wildly varying prices, and can cost as high as 20 dollars per pound. But since people are often willing to pay extra for these exotic beers, it's likely not going to affect the overall beer market.

What is the most encouraging news from the USDA's report is most certainly that hop farming is becoming more profitable.  The report made no mention of the cost side of hop farming, but it's hard to believe hop farmers are spending 20-30% more to produce the same amount of hops. That's good news from the consumer side, because when hop farmers make good money, they can justify investing in equipment to improve the quality of their product, or can take more risks such as planting more unique hop varieties brewers can use to create new and interesting flavors. So don't worry about the rising hop prices, at least not yet. You'll barely notice it in your wallet, and it allows hop growers to create better brewing ingredients.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Rambling Reviews 12.21.2016: Review of Brews from Camino Beer Company, Lagunitas and Hangar 24

As we wrap up 2016, I've got one last rambling on three beers to close out this extraordinary year.

Let's start with a newcomer to San Jose's beer scene, Camino Beer Company and their Imperial Rye IPA they call "The James Starr".  It's the most malt forward Imperial IPA I can remember, and that's not a bad thing. The malt flavors really sing here, dominated by toffee and accented with a peppery spiciness from the rye. The hops are there, just barely. There's a little tea-like character on the finish, and if you concentrate hard, you'll detect a little pine and citrus. Few California breweries would brew an Imperial IPA this way, which is one of the reasons I can rally around The James Starr. But the strong malt flavors that really popped won the day, and while the style purists would likely declare this a Barleywine, I'd prefer not to enter into these debates. It's a damn good, eye-opening sipping beer, that's what it is.

Speaking of beers and breweries that defy neat and tidy definitions, our next brew is Aunt Sally from Lagunitas. According to the Lagunitas website, it was released in March of this year, but I haven't seen it around until recently. If you feared Lagunitas would start becoming more commercial and mainstream after Heineken took a 50% stake in the brewery last year, Aunt Sally should help put your mind to rest. Lagunitas describes Aunt Sally as a "dry-hopped sweet tart sour mash ale", and it's a weird and wonderful combination of sour, bitter, a little sweetness and some musty funkiness. Surprisingly drinkable and further proof that while Lagunitas remains a relentless capitalist machine, they continue to take daring risks. Like many of these moves, it pays off.

Finally, we come to Hangar 24's Chocolate Bomber, a Porter brewed with cocoa nibs and vanilla. Hardly anyone just brews a porter these days. They're usually adding something like coffee or chocolate or hazelnuts or bourbon into it. That's probably because these additions to a base Porter really amped up the flavors.  Like they do in this brew.  What can say, Chocolate Bomber is rich, slightly sweet and complex with lots of bitter chocolate flavors. 

That wraps up the rambling for the year.  All the best for the holidays!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Grilled Vegetables Are Easy

A recent plate of grilled veggies looming in the darkness
It's pretty damn difficult to screw up grilled vegetables. That's the only conclusion I can possibly reach after spending a few evenings mucking around on the grill and still serving up good plates of grilled vegetables. In fact, as we head into winter it's been getting so dark during the evening that I can barely see the vegetables I'm grilling and they still come out pretty good.

Grilling vegetables is pretty easy. Take some olive oil, add salt and pepper, throw in some other spices like oregano and hot pepper flakes, brush that on the sliced vegetables and throw them on the grill. Once you have nice grill marks on both sides they're done.

You can buy books on the subject, and they certainly help, but you don't need to. I consult my well worn copy of Steve Raichlen's "How to Grill", on of my earliest grilling inspirations from time to time. And you can get fancy with all sorts of more complicated marinades or rubs and extra ingredients, although it's not really necessary.  Just about whatever you do with grilled vegetables will taste good.

Grilled vegetables are as underrated as they are easy.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A quick take on Freewheel Brewing....and English Session Ales

Recently during during my day job, I finished up with a customer visit at nearly 6:00 pm in Redwood City. With no desire to brave the sluggish highway 101 rush hour traffic on the down the San Francisco Peninsula into the Silicon Valley, I ventured for the first time into Freewheel Brewing. Freewheel takes a decidedly different take on beer than most Bay Area breweries in that they specialize in English-style cask conditioned ales.  With their light, pillowy carbonation, subtle tastes, and generally low alcohol levels, Freewheel beers are diametrically opposed to most of the uber-hoppy, everything but the kitchen sink alcohol bombs served up all over the Bay Area.

I have to admit English-style session ales take a little getting used to in the Bay Area's craft beer environment. My previous experience with Freewheel's brews were at a couple beer festivals, probably the worst way to sample them. Beer festivals are basically beer beauty contests. Everyone wants to stare at the voluptuous supermodels, that plain looking girl sitting in the corner gets ignored. But as we all quietly realize, she's often a lot more fun to spend the evening with than some self-absorbed diva. English-style ales aren't all that sexy but, as I discovered at Freewheel, they make a great evening companion.

I have no idea whether Freewheel's beers are particularly authentic, having never been to England. But then, they don't have to be. As I worked through my tasting flight, it became apparent these beers had a different approach.  I've had plenty of English-style ales like Bitters, Milds, Stouts, and of course IPA's, mostly brewed by American breweries who felt the need to impose their own unique stamp on them. The Freewheel beers seems a bit more dialed down, and in some way, to the right volume. The brews seemed right at home with my plate of fish and chips, not competing for my attention. My surroundings were full of casual chatter in the tightly packed brewpub, the large groups suggesting this was a pretty popular neighborhood hangout.

I have to admit I still don't quite get why the English can be so fanatical about their cask conditioned ales. Freewheel gave me some insight as to why.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Rambling Reviews 12:06:2016 : A Turn to the Dark Side

It's that time of the year where the weather turns colder and the beers turn darker. So for this edition of rambling reviews, I'll take a turn to the dark side to ramble about three pitch- black winter brews.

Let's start with Drake's Brewing 2016 Release of Jolly Rodger, which the fine folks a Drake's Brewing sent over to sample. In a press release, Drake's Brewmaster John Gillooly describes the 2016 version of Jolly Rodger as a Transatlantic Winter Warmer, and he used "..a hearty concoction of specialty malts, candy sugar and an especially aromatic yeast strain to brew this big, tasty ale." How would I describe it? Very wintery. It's a little sweet, with plenty of clove-like aromatics, a hint of spruce, and lots of toffee.  At 10% abv, it'll warm you up, but the alcohol is well buried underneath all the savory flavors. A nifty winter sipping beer.

To my surprise, Drake's also slipped in a bottle of this year's Barrel Aged Jolly Rodger into the sample box. Drake's Barrel Aged Program Manager Travis Camacho took the 2015 version of Jolly Rodger, an Imperial Porter, and aged it in High West Rye Whiskey barrels. One taste of this, and all I could say was just "Wow!". It's just one big, thick, honkin' slab of flavor. The roasty coffee and bitter chocolate flavors really pop, with plenty of sturdy support from the wood-aging. Despite everything going on, it remains smooth with only the barest amount of sweetness. There's nothing really new about a barrel-aged Imperial Porters but this one is a real find.

We end with Dust Bowl Brewing's Black Blizzard Russian Imperial Stout. Dust Bowl Brewing arrived in the San Francisco Bay area just this year.  Located just down the road from Modesto, CA in Turlock, I've enjoyed a few stops at their brewpub a few years back when I had family living in Modesto. So I was glad to see a 22 ounce bottle of this at my local bottle shop in Campbell.  It hit's all the right notes: Bitter chocolate dominates with some lingering coffee, and while it's fairly smooth, there's some noticeable graininess but a pleasing alcohol burn enhances the whole decadent experience.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Session #118: Who's Coming to My Ultimate Fantasy Beer Dinner?

This month's Session topic from Stan Hieronymus is a fiendishly clever idea to get us to think about how beer relates to our personal lives through the simple question:

If you could invite four people dead or live to a beer dinner who would they be? What four beers would you serve?

Which four people would I invite to spend the evening over a beer dinner? Well, I could invite four very talented, accomplished brewers, but a couple hours into a wonkish evening devoted to the fine details brewing techniques, I'd start looking at my watch. Talking endlessly into the night with a bunch of beer writers and historians would be an evening well spent, but I could think of better ways. The four people who I'd  want to spend the evening mean a lot to me in some way, and all undeniably understood the power of beer. So without further ado, let me roll out the guest and beer list for my ultimate fantasy beer dinner.
Mike Royko
(AP Photo/Charles Knoblock)

1) Mike Royko, Writer (1932-1997)
Every morning growing up in suburban Chicago, I'd start my day reading Mike Royko's column on page 2 of the newspaper. Sadly, writers like Royko no longer exist. His crusty, hard-boiled prose covered politics, sports, food, culture, music, and whatever else might be on his mind, an unthinkable breadth in today's modern hyper-segmented media. Some of his best columns captured the hopeful futility of Cubs fans, and with all the retrospective Cubs lore surrounding their run to capture their first World Series in 108 years, surprisingly Royko has been left out of that conversation.

What few realize what that Royko was one of the earliest American crusaders for better beer. Writing for the Chicago Daily News in 1973, Royko declared "America's beer tastes as if it were brewed through a horse". Backing up his assertion, he organized what was quite possibly the first blind beer tasting competition in the United States between twenty-two National brands, imports, and a smattering of small Midwestern regional breweries that existed at the time. Despite taking a lot of heat for slamming America's national breweries, the results supported Royko, as no national brewery finished in the top five. The winner was an imported West German Pilsner followed by England's Bass Ale. The leading American beer was Point Special from Point Brewery, a small brewery in nearby Steven's Point Wisconsin which you can still purchase today.

Royko never lived to see his beloved Cubs win the World Series and American brewing hadn't yet shifted into overdrive when he passed away in 1997. I can only imagine what he'd think about Cubs finally winning the World Series or how America's brewers have transformed beer. I suspect he might not a fan of uber-hoppy IPA's and he'd have plenty of snarky and deadly accurate things to say about craft beer's hipsters and pretentiousness. It's too bad we'll never get to read them.

The Beer: 2016 Goose Island Bourbon County Stout.  The antithesis of beers Royko railed against, yet old school enough to warrant his approval.

2) My wife
No one has shaped my appreciation for beer greater than my wife. People talk about their personal craft beer epiphany. My wife had a big hand in mine. We had only been dating a few months when we took a trek to California's Mendocino County. I was already familiar with a few small breweries, but it wasn't until we stopped at Anderson Valley Brewing and North Coast Brewing that I began to really appreciate the real possibilities and dimensions of beer. She also introduced me to some fine wines in Anderson Valley, but I don't hold that against her.

Together we've shared and discussed the contents of so many 22 ounce bottles. She's not only been a great reality check on my taste buds ("Are you tasting apricot?"), but picks up certain characters from a brews that I didn't quite get the first time around. While we've had our share of passionate arguments over stuff other than beer, sharing a good beer is often the best way to diffuse our stresses at the end of a difficult day.

Of course, there's a whole lot more to her than being my best drinking buddy. She helped me turn around my life ten years ago when it nearly went off the rails, restored a sense of family with my kids I lost with my first wife, still laughs at jokes I've told over a thousand times, and does an unbelievable job of putting up with my crap. I love her.

The Beer: Her favorite beers are Belgian Ales and IPA's, so a good Belgian IPA like Stone's Cali-Belgique is the choice.

Ken Grossman (photo credit)
3) Ken Grossman, Founder and CEO of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
When new brewers these days call themselves pioneers, I just have to laugh. While there's nothing simple about building a brewery, today's brewers can order ready made equipment from any number of suppliers. Grossman had no such luxury back in the day. He literally built his first brewery from discarded junk. New brewers talk about educating themselves to understand the nuances of how beer pairs with food, or how to use new hop varietals. Grossman took welding classes just so he could build a functioning brewery.

Fast forward from those meager scratch beginnings to today and there's simply no one more experienced or knowledgeable about all thing brewing in America, period.  Whether building a brewery, understanding the business of beer, using barley and hops, or finding more environmentally sustainable ways to brew, Grossman's the expert. He also knows a lot about pairing beer with stuff like fois gras and using fancy schmancy hops varietals. Oh yeah, he's also a self-made billionaire.

What I find most impressive about Grossman is that he's handled his transformation from a humble brewer to a brewing mogul with far great humility and grace than many of his contemporaries. Jim Koch's still irrationally clings to struggling Sam Adam's Boston Lager as the savior to his Boston Beer Company, while the company he built pointlessly churns out a steady stream of alcopops. Greg Koch's edgy aggression deteriorated into clumsy corporate punk posing once Stone Brewing became an international brand. Lagunitas's Tony Magee has become just like the corporate bullies he's long railed against. Yet Grossman has remained Grossman: smart, industrious, generous, and knowledgeable. Just like his flagship Pale Ale, even though he hails from craft beers dark ages, Grossman's arguably more relevant than ever. He's still ahead of everyone else on the marketing curve with things like Sierra Nevada's Beer Camp. There's always a seat at my house for Grossman anytime he wants to talk about all things beer.

The Beer: What else? Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

4) Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States
If you've studied how our nation's Presidents related to beer over the past 100 years, and I have, it's clear no President has come anywhere close to Barack Obama at elevating the status of beer in our country. Beer was brewed for the first time in the White House under his Presidency. But home brewing in the White House is pretty minor compared to Obama's Beer Summit, where beer was used for its power as a social lubricant to ease racial tensions. Obama's done a great job serving two terms as our President and it would be my privilege to buy him a beer as a thank you for everything he's done for our country.

Yes, I'm one of those damn liberals and I do my best to avoid politics on my blog, but in these turbulent times as we contemplate a Trump Presidency, I'm finding that difficult. Of the many wonderful things about beer, it's a welcome escape from the critical economic, social, and environmental challenges we face. I'd rather have a hobby writing about something as inconsequential as beer than the stuff that really matters. But given the deep divisions the recent election exposed in our country, often along racial lines, I'm finding it hard to concentrate on beer. They say "Politics divides, beer unites". For that reason alone, we need "beer" more than ever.

The Beer: I would be honored to brew an all grain version of Ale to the Chief  Honey Brown Ale or Porter to serve our outgoing President.

President Barack Obama using the power of beer to heal racial divisions in the Beer Summit