Sometimes when I take a sip of a great craft beer, I wonder to myself if I could make a beer that good at home. Usually my answer is no (based on some of my homebrew results, the answer might be hell no). But every once in a while, I convince myself that I can make a decent beer at home. Each new one-gallon batch I brew, I learn a little something that I try to incorporate in the next brew session. Whether that has to do with mash temperature or something as simple as having enough clean buckets and bowls ready to use, the best way to learn is to do it.
Don’t get me wrong, I have made some pretty undrinkable beers, from IPAs to oatmeal stouts. But each time, and usually after asking a lot of questions of a brewer friend, I make little improvements here and there. My last stout was not terrible, but it had a little unwanted coconut flavor, and it was way over-primed in the bottles. When I’m feeling positive, I tell myself that “this batch is an improvement from last time”. When I’m not feeling so good about it, I might dump the whole batch on the spot. But each session is a little bit more experience under my belt, and a whole lot of mistakes I can learn from.
My homebrew setup is pretty janky. My mash tun and brew kettle is a large stockpot, so I need another vessel to mash out and then return the wort to the boil kettle. If I’m sparging (running water over the grain bed to extract more sugar) I have to break out the biggest strainer and pot I can find, and after the boil getting my wort down to pitching temperature (a temperature suitable for the yeast to begin fermentation) means that I use every ice cube, ice pack, and tons of tap water to cool my kettle down. I could solve some of these problems by just investing in some more useful and quality equipment that are actually designed for brewing. But I don’t have room for that in the kitchen, and sometimes other expenses are more vital than homebrewing equipment. So, I make do with what I have. In a way, I’m glad for every mistake I make on brew day. It (hopefully) helps me out down the road, either by realizing what not to do, or figuring out a better way to do something as opposed to the way I do it (in that case, most things).
It’s not like I have designs on opening my own brewery one day, but I do want to make decent beer that I consider worthy of drinking. My brewing training consists of solo homebrewing on an electric stovetop (anybody with an electric stove knows how annoying it is to hit different temperatures), asking a lot of questions of my brewer friend, and doing a ton of reading on beer, brewing, techniques, and ingredients (hello, beerandbrewing.com). As much as you might read about other people’s trials, tribulations, and successes, nothing compares to the experience you get from actually doing it yourself. I don’t really care how many brewing school certificates you have if your beer consistently sucks. On the other hand, I don’t care how many certificates you don’t have if your beer is consistently awesome. You don’t have to go the same route as everybody else to make great beer, and I’m determined to prove that to my taste buds, one mistake at a time.
Perhaps the most divisive topic in the craft beer universe these days is independence. We have seen the sell-offs of such popular breweries as Goose Island, Ballast Point, Lagunitas, Wicked Weed, and more. When these sales happen, people tend to be outraged that their favorite brewery sold its soul to the “enemy”, usually ABI or MillerCoors, or Constellation in the case of Ballast Point. What a lot of people seem to think is that because Brewery X is now owned by Anheuser-Busch, the beer is going to turn to flavorless crap and quality will take a nosedive. In actuality, Big Beer has amazing quality and consistency, because it has to be exactly right every time, brewed on a scale so massive it’s mind-boggling. How do we know when non-independent beer is actually going downhill or we just don’t like it because we know they sold out?
One way to figure out if you actually like a beer is to do a blind taste test. This is a lot easier to do with a buddy to make sure you don’t cheat, but you can do it simply by covering labels or putting the beers in paper bags, so nobody can see which beer is which. Shuffle all the beers around, write a number on the bag, and don’t peek inside until everybody has tasted all the beers. Then you can do the big reveal and see how unbiased you are (or not).
What is the point of all this? Well, breweries that sold to Big Beer are still capable of producing tasty beer. Recently I went to Lagunitas in Petaluma, California. I, like many craft beer drinkers, drank a lot of Lagunitas back in the day. Then they sold 50% to Heineken and I didn’t know what to think. Then they sold the other 50% to Heineken, and I assumed it was over and Lagunitas was no longer an option for me. The truth is, Lagunitas still makes good beer, and they certainly haven’t lost their funky, out-there, alt vibe. On my trip to Lagunitas (which took some convincing to get me to agree to, since HenHouse Brewing Company is awesome and right across the street), I discovered the then-new Super Cluster double IPA. It was a hot day, but the 8% wasn’t too much to deal with. I love the hoppy stuff, and it fit the bill perfectly. Sitting there on the patio, sweating and sipping a good beer, I realized that my preconception of Lagunitas “selling out” wasn’t worth much. The beer was great, the atmosphere had not one ounce of “corporate” to it, and everybody there seemed to be having a good time. Nobody seemed to worry about where their dollar was going, but instead just whether or not the beer was good.
To be fair, some people boycott sell-out breweries because of the business practices of the parent company, not necessarily because the craft brewer got paid. Anheuser-Busch has long been accused of predatory practices and bullying the smaller competitors out of the market. Using your bigger size and marketing department to kill off smaller competitors who can’t afford to slash prices isn’t cool, it’s borderline anti-competitive. I do not support that way of doing business. I will happily pay a couple bucks more for a local craft six-pack than for a case of Bud. (On that note, many of these no-longer-craft breweries price points are not dropping under the ownership of international conglomerates. Elysian beers are as pricey as ever, and six-packs of Ballast Point Sculpin are around $14 where I live. It’s a decent IPA, but seriously?).
Everybody’s favorite corporate sell-out talking point has to be Chicago’s Goose Island, under the ownership of Anheuser-Busch. For as much as people like to point this out, try finding a bottle of any variant of Bourbon County Brand Stout the day after it was released. Not going to happen. If people were really that upset about it, it wouldn’t sell as well as it does (also, it’s a really tasty beer). If it turned to crap after Goose Island was purchased in 2011, the beer wouldn’t still be selling. Every brewery is going to have beers that go out of style or lose popularity, like Honker’s Ale seems to be doing for Goose Island, but if people were so upset about Goose Island as a whole, they wouldn’t be marking days on the calendar to go line up to get their limit of each variant of BCBS. Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. If you were the person who put their blood, sweat, and tears into creating a brewery that eventually becomes so successful ABI wants to pay you top dollar for it, what would you say? If Constellation offers you a billion dollars for your creation tomorrow, how do you answer? What about 50 million? Just because we consumers have the power to say “no, I won’t spend my money on Ballast Point” doesn’t mean we should judge a decision that we really don’t know much about. Honestly, it would be pretty hard for me to turn down an offer like that, especially if it provides me the opportunity to grow my business in an unimaginable way while still producing the product I created, and being able to share it with more people than ever before. Would I do it? I really, really don’t know.
At the end of the day, if you refuse to buy from Goose Island, Lagunitas, Ballast Point, and other “sellouts”, then good for you. Stick to your ideals, but just know that you are going to miss out on some really good beers along the way. Nobody is going to hold it against you, so if I decide to grab a pint of Lagunitas once in a while, don’t judge me in return. It doesn’t always have to be local, independent craft beer to taste good. Do a blind taste test, and maybe you will discover that your former favorite brewery does still make decent beer.
If you have been in a bottleshop lately, you have almost certainly seen an abundance of 19.2 oz cans of craft beer. It’s like the craft beer equivalent of the 40 oz bottle. Sounds like more bang for your buck.
Why 19.2 oz? Because 19.2 US fluid oz cans are equal to .999 imperial pint. America can’t seem to get any sort of measurement right, but at least breweries seem to be trying to provide the consumer with more options. Many of these cans, such as Stone IPA, Founders All Day, Green Flash Remix, Deschutes Fresh Squeezed/Fresh Haze, Lagunitas 12th of Never/Sumpin’ Easy/IPA, Dogfish Head Seaquench, and more typically retail for no more than $2.99. If they are even cheaper and are $1.99 for 19.2 oz, you are getting more beer for your dollar. The $2.99 19.2 oz cans are a little more expensive volume-wise when compared to the same beer in a 6 pack of 12 oz cans, but you also get the benefit of not committing to a 6 pack.
If you are reading this and you like to go fishing like I do, there’s a good chance you want to take some craft beer with you for the trip. Enter the beer can. Cans can go many places that bottles can’t (or shouldn’t). I like to bring a cooler with me for my beer, and when I finish a beer I crush the can and throw it back in the cooler. Can’t do that with a bottle. Instead the bottle takes up just as much space as before, and weighs significantly more than a can as well. These same ideas apply to hiking, camping, going to the beach, etc. When it comes to these newfangled 19.2 oz cans, if you take two of them it’s about the same as packing three 12 oz cans (19.2*2=38.4 oz, 12*3=36 oz). In my opinion that’s advantage to the consumer. On that note, who wants to drink a single 12 oz can? The serving size of the larger can seems more appealing, and the cost difference is pretty small. Anything priced higher than $1.99 means the brewery is probably going to pull a larger profit on 19.2 oz cans than the 12 oz can, when compared oz to oz. Also, the brewery can package 19.2 oz cans and use a little more material per can, but only one top per can. For the earlier example of two 19.2 oz cans and three 12 oz cans providing a similar amount of volume, the brewery only needs to buy two lids as opposed to three. Less material purchased means less resources used, less money spent, etc… I think that’s called a win-win situation.
Some random calculations below….
19.2 oz cans
-transported in 2-12 or 24 packs
-19.2x12=230.4 oz per 12pack (1/2 case)
-230.4x2=460.8 oz per 24pack (1 case)
12 oz cans
-12x24=288oz 24pack (1 case)
Why is it that sometimes your beer tastes better than usual, and sometimes it just doesn’t get the job done? I don’t mean potential variation from batch to batch, but rather I’m talking about the setting in which you are drinking that beer. I call it the ambiance of beer. I’m probably not going to reach for a big stout on a hot day, because for me it doesn’t really fit with the warmer weather. It goes beyond just the weather, though. You can pair a beer with a dish, but you can also pair it with a memory, a place, or a person. My favorite pairing would have to be sitting on or near the water, eating fish tacos, and drinking a kölsch with my favorite person in the world. A nice and easy IPA would work for me as well. However, as much as I love Firestone Walker Parabola, I would never in a million years order it to go with my fish tacos when I’m out by the water. It just wouldn’t work for me. Maybe that combination would work for someone else, but not for yours truly.
Now what if I’m in Boston or Chicago, and it’s 35 degrees outside? I’m not going with the kölsch, I’m more interested in something rich, dark, and boozy, and probably barrel-aged. Maybe I’d even go with a whiskey. Point is, sometimes your favorite beer in one setting is the last thing you would order in a different atmosphere.
Most of the time I will be drinking an IPA with a meal, but every now and then I feel like having a coffee brown ale, or a German hefeweizen. My preference could be due to nothing more than seeing a beer at the bottleshop that makes me think, “I want that today”. That pilsner or porter could just catch my eye at the right time. When I’m in San Diego, I have my preferences of breweries that I have to stop at (looking at you, Burgeon, Half-Door, and Resident), but I also feel like drinking just about anything from Karl Strauss. A Tower 10 IPA followed by a barrel-aged vintage version of Wreck Alley Imperial Stout? Done that. It just feels right when I’m in that area. If I’m in Florida, I have to get some Cigar City and Coppertail in my belly. In Portland, Maine, you better believe I’m going to Bissell Brothers, Allagash, Foundation, and Battery Steele. I could keep going, but then I will start craving beers I can’t have right now.
My favorite beer/atmosphere pairings probably aren’t going to be the same for you. That’s perfectly fine. I’d bet we don’t like a lot of the same beers or even general styles. But it is interesting how one day a certain beer style can be the only thing you want, and the next day it sounds wholly unappealing. They say variety is the spice of life, and I love it because it keeps things interesting. It leads me to drink different styles depending on my mood, the weather, who I’m with, what I’m eating, what time of day it is, where I am, and perhaps most relevantly, what’s available. Next time you switch up your usual order, ask yourself why? You don’t need to change anything, but it’s interesting how our preferences can subtly change because of so many different factors, without us even noticing.
What is the purpose of drinking local craft beer? Why do so many people head to their local brewery to grab a pint? Is it to be a part of something bigger than themselves, is it because they like beer, or is it some kind of combination of factors?
According to a recent Food & Wine article, 85% of drinking-age Americans live within ten miles of a brewery, which is incredible when you think about how big America is. The town I live in has four craft breweries, but a population of less than 70,000. Three of those breweries opened within the last three years, and two in the last year and a half. All four offer a taproom with a wide selection of beers on draft, from saisons to stouts to barrel-aged sours, IPAs, IPLs, and small but successful barrel programs. I can get to any of these breweries with twenty minutes on my bike if I hustle, and get a growler, crowler, four-pack or six-pack to take home. I ask again, why do so many people head to their local brewery?
I think it’s because so many local establishments offer quality local products, at reasonable prices. When you can stop by a local 15-barrel brewery that makes twenty different beers across a full spectrum of styles, what more can you ask for? Food? No problem, a food truck stops by every Saturday. Want to bring your dog? Easy. Kids? Done. Worried it’s too expensive? My favorite local brewery sells pints for five bucks and most sixty-four-ounce growler fills are about fifteen bucks. What more reason do you need to check out the closest craft brewery in your neighborhood?
As more and more breweries open across the country and around the world, they have to do everything they can to keep customers coming in. Whether that means hosting food trucks, concerts, or fundraisers, or being dog- and kid-friendly, it all comes out in our favor, as we the customers are obviously what drives business.
So, why do we support our local craft brewers? We do it because of the communities we are part of. We do it for the great beer, the great times, and the great friends we make and catch up with. We do it because we love it, because we enjoy it, and because sometimes you just need a beer.