I’m sure it’s happened to you once or twice before: you’re sitting at a lovely worn-in bar with your go-to beer and some bar snacks. You take a sip and wince–why does your familiar beer taste…funny? Or maybe you’re at home, cracking cans for friends–and off-flavors creep in. Why, and how? And how do you, loyal consumer, prevent this unwanted occurrence? While there are a multitude of potential reasons any beer produced has the taste it has for better and for worse, a few major culprits dominate certain off-flavors of packaged beer. You may not be able to determine what constitutes these issues in beer you’ve never had before–but you may easily know something is awry with brands you drink regularly and have a taste memory for. So let’s think briefly about where issues can arise, starting in the brewery itself. We’ll save off-flavors from the brewing process for another day and instead talk about one area alone: packaging.
We’re approaching the specialty bottle release season for breweries across the country–from glossy wax-dipped barrel-aged stouts to spiced seasonal strong ales and big barleywines in boxes, it seems everyone is putting out something interesting and shiny. At this point in the industry, aged beer in one or more of its various styles has become practically expected for new breweries. Home cellar collectors have become a larger and larger part of a higher-spending customer base, launching social networks to enable trading, standing for long drizzly hours in lines for limited releases and attending festival after festival. Aged strong ales are not exactly a new concept, but many of today’s breweries are approaching barreling and blending is with huge levels of excitement and innovation. With American craft’s glorious mishmash of inspiration and global focus, who wouldn’t be excited?
So, we’ve been over this before: you like beer. Or are well on your way to doing so. While you may be a rare individual who drinks and enjoys anything set in front of you because it’s well, beer, the rest of us typically have preferences and particular tastes. Or, aren’t in college anymore. Truthfully though, everybody does have preferences. Until the current craft beer explosion, people were a bit limited in phrasing, though: there used to be self-proclaimed “dark beer” drinkers, loyalty-brand enthusiasts, maybe foreign style specialists. Now we have so many options it’s often dizzying trying to assess what they all are not to mention considering carefully if you will enjoy drinking them. As a bartender I’m very used to seeing that flattened look of dismay and desire on a customer’s face who is wading through the choices. Variety is what we want, but sometimes it’s overwhelming. A little guidance without judgment is really helpful. Let’s break down some categories and statements I hear from bar-goers and help you (or help you help a friend) find something to love and imbibe.
Sour beers have been gaining immense popularity and intrigue here in the US over the last few years, with interpretations of classic Belgian and French styles popping up at breweries everywhere. New style fusions and challenging concepts are emerging plentifully as well. Sours and brett beers are certainly on the “hot list,” sought out by seasoned consumers as well as buzzword-toting trend followers. So really, what is all the fuss about?
Autumn has rolled in, make no mistake. It’s the end of September and across the country consumers are already welcoming new groups of seasonal beers: herb and spice beers, brown ales, dunkels, bocks and Märzens. Most of these styles have one key ingredient in common: Munich malt. You likely know the malt well already–in fact, its characteristic flavor comes from a compound called maltol which is what most people associate with the concept of “maltiness” as a whole, although it’s a pretty broad spectrum. Munich malt is rich-flavored, slightly sweet, bready and sometimes nutty. Every type of malt is responsible for an often wide variety of flavors that ultimately end up as the backbone of a finished beer, but Munich malt is especially notable for a few reasons. First, though, a little background.
It’s here again–the harvest season. Specifically, it’s hop harvest time, which runs from August through October depending on varietal, growing location and weather. Living here in the lovely state of Washington, we have a fantastic amount of hop products easily available–we are, after all, the producers of 77% of the country’s hops. But what especially excites brewers and drinkers about this proximity this time of year is the availability of fresh or wet hops. As you know, brewers use a number of hop products–dried whole-leaf hops, dried pelletized hops, hop oils and hop extracts. Hops do not store well fresh, so all these products are preserved versions that will be available for months after harvest provided proper handling and storage. The window for utilizing fresh hops just picked is extremely short–and in fact, breweries farther from the hop fields frequently will overnight a shipment directly to the brewery. Seattle is only a few hours’ drive from the Yakima Valley growing area, so brewers will merely drive and pick up a load, usually brewing with the hops as soon as they arrive on site, whatever time of day or night.
So what’s the fuss about wet hops, if most of the beer we consume doesn’t ever involve them?
It’s nearly that time again, for local Oktoberfest celebrations and packed store shelves showcasing Oktoberfestbiers and Märzens! Most Americans are familiar with the festival as a fantastic excuse to drink German-style beer, but the origins and beer style itself are slightly separate from the huge occasion around the globe today.
There are many ways to broadly categorize hops: genetics, typical uses, prominent flavors, regional availability and history to name just a few. It’s an exciting time to be a beer enthusiast as contemporary hop breeding and development programs are thriving. While we here in the US happily welcome newer trademarked hops like Amarillo® and Simcoe® into the canon I think it’s a great time to throw a look back to the original gangster hop group, noble hops: Hallertauer, Tettnanger, Saaz and Spalt.
If you’ve been perusing the grocery beer shelves much this season, you’ve probably noticed a lot of fruit flavored beer. Fruit beer isn’t a new concept– macro producers, a few US craft breweries and of course Belgian ales have made some flavor combinations common, but there’s been an exponential increase in selection recently. Why all the fruit these days, and what does the trend mean for the market?
Like any craft beer drinker, you’re probably accustomed to seeing International Bitterness Units (IBU) posted on chalkboard menus and printed on cans and labels. American brewers love their hops, and American consumers love their amped-up IBUs, especially here on the West Coast. In fact, the craft beer market share of IPAs increased nearly tenfold since 2008, diversifying into subcategories like Session IPAs, Belgian IPAs, Imperial IPAs, and Black IPAs. Novice or cocksure drinkers often make the mistake of assuming that the higher the IBU, the better the beer or the more “intense” or bragworthy their choice will be considered. But there’s a lot more that goes into how bitterness and hoppy flavors are perceived, achieved, and explained.
Beer writer, maker and server, bartender and spirits enthusiast. All things beer and booze photodocumented here.