A Toast To … A spunky brewster

Here’s something new I learned this week.

In an article titled “How Did Hops Get In Our Beer?” in the January-February issue of Brew Your Own magazine, author Horst Dornbusch briefly covers the history of hops from ancient Rome to today. About midway through the article he references the medieval natural history text Physica by the noted Benedictine abbess, mystic, musician, scientist and Catholic saint Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). According to Dornbusch:

Perhaps the most consequential historical reference to hops in beer is a small passage in a book by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess, physician, composer, brewster, and adviser to the German Emperor Frederic Barbarossa … Hildegard describes the medicinal value and beverage application of the “hoppo” plant as “a hot and dry herb, with a bit of moisture,” which “is not of much use for a human being, since it causes his melancholy to increase, gives him a sad mind, and makes his intestines heavy.” Importantly, she observes that hoppo “putredines prohibet in amaritudine sua.” One Latin expert, Pricilla Throop, translates this as “its bitterness inhibits some spoilage in beverages to which it is added making them last longer.”

Hildegard’s name should be familiar to any devotee of medieval history, women’s history, or cultural history. As hinted by Dornbusch, she was an expert in disciplines as diverse as science, theology, philosophy, medicine, poetry, music, and linguistics, and left behind a vast body of writings related to the many subjects she studied. My introduction to her work was many years ago in college, when my girlfriend (now my wife) did extensive research on Hildegard for a senior thesis on medieval women mystics. Upon reading this article, I immediately asked my wife if she knew that Hildegard was a brewster*. She did not, although she was familiar with Hildegard’s scientific work on plants and animals.

I shouldn’t be surprised. The brewer-cum-mystic has been a part of beer culture since the beginning, from the hypothetical prehistoric brewer-shamans described by Dr. Patrick McGovern in his excellent book Uncorking the Past to the ancient Sumerian priestesses of Ninkasi, to the Trappist monastic brewing tradition that lives on today in Belgium and elsewhere. But I was unaware that Hildegard, who’s felt almost like a member of my extended family since my wife’s thesis on her years ago, had been part of that tradition.

Certain that Hildegard’s brewing accomplishments must have been as extensive as her accomplishments in every other field she delved into, I eagerly took to the Internet to find out more. But sadly, there wasn’t much to find. The reference to hops in the Physica is well-documented, and has earned Hildegard a place in inspiring brewers all over the world. But I’ve found nothing conclusive about any further contributions to brewing history: no recipes, descriptions, or anything like that. One questionable printed source credited Hildegard with being the first brewer to put hops in beer, but the BYO article would refute this; Dornbusch found references to hopped beer as early as 827 in the work of Saint Ansegisus of Fontanelle, an adviser to Charlemagne some three centuries before Hildegard was born.

Regardless of how deep her interest in brewing may or may not have gone, Hildegard was a true polymath, making significant contributions to every field she approached – at a time when few women had the opportunity to dabble in even one of these fields. As the new father of a little girl, she’s someone I want my daughter to know about. Honestly, she’s someone that everyone – brewer or beer drinker, woman or man – should know about.

And her testimony to the bitterness and antibacterial properties of hops in beverages should qualify her as an unofficial patron saint of that most revered of styles in the modern beer canon, a beer style as versatile as the great woman herself: the IPA. So next time I pour a glass of IPA, I’m raising a toast to St. Hildegard von Bingen: a Renaissance woman before there was a Renaissance.

*Though it’s generally only heard as a surname today in non-beer history circles, within beer history circles the term brewster is widely known as a traditional English term for a female brewer, though Martyn Cornell pointed out on his blog Zythophile back in 2007 that it’s not quite that simple.

2015 is the new 2014

New year, new beginning. 2014 was a good year, but an intense one; with my son Lucian celebrating his first birthday in spring, major changes at my day job in summer, my wife’s pregnancy, and then our baby daughter Vesper being born the first week of December.

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Behold the cooing, grunting adorable radiance of the newest sun at the center of my universe.

Mother and baby are doing great, and my son adores his little sister. I have no complaints. But now that all four of us have had some time to settle into our new family routine, I’m looking ahead to what’s next. And there’s nothing like a new year to start a new chapter in one’s life.

I love the idea of new year’s resolutions, but it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to instantly change a bad habit or adopt a good one – and keep it consistently – just because there’s a new calendar on the wall. So I approach my resolutions as habits to develop in the coming year, not all-or-nothing life changes to succeed at instantly. I like to spend the first week of the year reflecting on my resolutions before committing to them. So believe me when I say that by my schedule, this list of new year’s resolutions is timely.

My New Year’s Resolutions, 2015 Edition:

Write More. The need should be obvious to regular followers of this blog (if I still have any after publishing only one new post in the last eight months). I did spend time – not enough – on other writing projects not related to beer, but this blog hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I’ve been so busy just being a dad that I haven’t been doing much brewing or beer-geeking, so there wasn’t much for me to write about here … unless I want to start writing general parenting stuff. But I refuse to do that, primarily as a public service to advice-seekers on the Internet, because when it comes to parenting I have absolutely no idea what the hell I’m doing.

Read More. I have a tall stack of beer-related books I want to read. I have an even taller stack of non-beer-related books I want to read. I also have a thick folder of books on my Kindle I want to read. I won’t get through all of them in the next 360-odd days, but if I can hold myself to reading new things instead of revisiting old favorites, I’ll be off to a good start. So maybe now’s not the time to be rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion for the seventh time, which is exactly what I’m doing. But remember, these are habits to develop over the coming year.

Brew More. This was the first resolution I came up with, and the question I immediately asked myself was “More than what?” The answer: more than I think I can brew with two little ones in my life. Scraping together eight hours on the patio for a five-gallon all-grain brew session is not going to be easy. Anything I can do on the kitchen stove in 2-4 hours while keeping one eye open for little hands and feet going where they shouldn’t will be more feasible. So small batches may be the key to keeping my brewing skills up in 2015 while also providing ample fodder for these pages. Maybe I’ll work my way through the new 2014 BJCP Style Guidelines in small-batch brew-in-a-bag sessions. Maybe I’ll experiment with small-batch meads. And when the kegerator needs a restocking, if I can’t find the time for an all-grain brew session, I won’t be afraid to brew a partial mash batch with extract.

Drink More. Perhaps the first time these two words have ever shown up on someone’s new year’s resolution list; but I mean variety, not quantity. Like reading, I want to spend more time tasting new beers and less time drinking my old standbys. Even with kids in tow, there are many family-friendly brewpubs, restaurants, and tasting rooms open to me. And with my wife no longer expecting, it’ll be that much easier to pop open and share a 10% ABV bomber on a Tuesday night. So I’ll be catching up with some of the latest hot craft brews in 2015 (If you’d like to follow my progress, friend me on Untappd … my username is shawnbou).

Worry Less. Not all of my plans will come to fruition. Having two small children around means lot of variables out of my control. I won’t always get to brew when I want to. I won’t meet every self-imposed writing deadline. When I do brew or write, there will be lots on my mind and things won’t necessarily come out the way I want them to. But that’s okay. Plans are just plans. Target gravities are just targets. And deadlines are – for me, at this point in my writing career – more like guidelines. It’s time to learn to roll with the punches, do whatever I can whenever I can, and not worry about whatever falls outside the lines.

Enjoy the Little Things. I’ve emerged from two years of continual upheaval in my life with two beautiful, healthy children and a wife who is gorgeous, happy and spirited as the day I met her. My kids are getting bigger every day. It’s time to enjoy what’s in front of me. I’ll crack open a special beer when the occasion calls for it, and I won’t when it doesn’t. I’ll put down my electronic devices and interact more with the faces in the room around me. I’ll talk boldly and laugh loudly and not be afraid to be vibrantly, joyously alive right here, today, with the people I call my family and friends. After all, 2015 will only come once.

In praise of the debilitating stomach virus that made me sick yesterday afternoon

I was just getting going again. After taking a break from brewing for four months to enjoy the summer being a toddler daddy – not to mention to avoid the hottest brew days of the year – I started brewing again Labor Day weekend with a nice simple pale ale to restock the kegerator. I followed that a week later with a lavender mead I brewed to honor the birth of my daughter who’s due at the beginning of December. Two brews in one month. I had momentum, and I was all set to take the hat trick by brewing again today.

Today’s brew was going to be an ESB to serve later this fall at a party to celebrate our new baby. Whatever we don’t drink at the party, we’d save to be our “coming home” beer, and my wife’s first drink after her pregnancy.

The timing was great. The pale ale was ready to keg yesterday, so all I had to do was get it in the keg and I could soak the fermenter overnight, have it clean and ready to receive a malty delicious new ESB wort today. It was all so perfectly planned …

Then, inexplicably, yesterday morning I came down with a stomach bug that left me pretty much unable to even sit up straight, let alone be on my feet. I was back in bed before noon, and woke up three hours later parched and needing a drink. The water kind, not the alcohol kind.

I’ll breeze through this next part for your sake. All I’ll say is that as soon as the water found its way to my stomach, it decided it wanted to be out again. And it wanted to take everything else in there with it. There’s nothing like a four-round toilet-hugging session in the afternoon to leave you feeling bruised and abused … I pretty much gave up on trying to get anything done that day. I had a vague sense of that screwing up my plans somehow, but I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time.

It was only later that I realized that I hadn’t gotten the pale ale kegged, and I wasn’t going to with my energy sapped. Not to mention a number of other chores and errands I hadn’t gotten done that needed to be done before Monday. There was no way I was going to brew this weekend!

This morning, getting dressed to do the stuff I was supposed to do yesterday, I felt sad and disappointed at missing a brew day I was really looking forward to. But I quickly realized something that I should have realized a lot sooner.

The beer I planned to brew is to celebrate the birth of my baby girl! My first daughter, second child, and if everything goes according to plan, probably my last. Doesn’t she deserve something a little more special than an Extra Special Bitter? I know it’s got “extra special” in the name, but surely we can do better. And then an idea hit me. November party, late November/early December birth … we need to get some sweet potato in there!

So after some research and careful consideration, I’ve adjusted my ESB recipe into a Sweet Potato ESB recipe that I will brew next Sunday. It’ll be made from a mix of Maris Otter and Golden Promise malts, Kent Goldings hops, organic sweet potatoes from our CSA, whole cinnamon and nutmeg. It’ll still be low-to-medium alcohol – a necessity if I want to turn it around in five weeks, but always a good idea for a party beer or for momma’s first beer after coming home from the hospital.

So thank you, stomach virus, for making me unable to get anything done yesterday, and forcing me to take the extra time to realize how to turn my recipe into a perfect tribute to autumn and a much more fitting welcome to my new baby. I appreciate your contribution to my craft, stomach virus. And I think it’s safe to say that I will always remember you.

A monster saison

A new Godzilla movie comes out today! I’m a fan of the kaiju classics, so I’ve got my ticket for tonight. Babysitting realities prevented me from going to any of the advance screenings this week, but no matter – I’ve been prepping for tonight by watching Showa-era Toho kaiju movies for weeks with my thirteen-month-old. He’s enjoying them so much that he now smiles every time he sees the Toho Company logo, laughs when he hears an Akira Ifukube score, and kicks happily when he sees Godzilla’s head (sure signs that I’m doing something right as a dad).

Last night while watching Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, I also tapped the first glass of my new dry-hopped saison Le Petit Kaiju. This was an update of last year’s Le Petit Plésiosaurea Summit-hopped pseudo-clone of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace I brewed and bottled to give as favors at my wife’s baby shower. Why kaiju this time? Not just because of Godzilla’s return to the big screen. See, we’ve been calling our little one “kaiju” for as long as I can remember. And replacing the peaceful, cuddly Loch Ness Monster I featured on the Plésiosaure label with the shrieking, atomic-breathed, stomping lord of destruction Godzilla seemed very fitting now that he’s a toddler.

The grain bill for the saison was the same as last time. I mashed in with 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) of Belgian pilsner malt for a single rest at 148°F (64°C) for 90 minutes, which is recommended at lower temperatures to ensure full conversion of the starches. I added a pound of dextrose at the beginning of the boil to bring the OG up to 1.067. And lest you turn your nose up at the dextrose, let me say that I believe kettle sugar does wonderful things to the right beer recipe (i.e., dry), and I follow the teachings of Randy Mosher, who said in his book Radical Brewing that Belgian candi sugar – which many would use in a similar recipe – is “a complete rip-off”. Dextrose or evaporated cane sugar for light beers, or a little piloncillo or demerara for darker beers, have never done me wrong if I keep those simple sugars to less than 25% of the fermentables.

I duplicated the Summit bittering hops of Plésiosaure with .4 oz (11.3 g) of 16% AA pellets at 60 minutes, but changed up the later hop additions to pay homage to Gojira’s Japanese island roots. While Sorachi Ace – a Japanese cultivar – would have been perfect, I’m still having trouble sourcing them. I did, however, manage to get my hands on some 15% AA Pacific Jade from New Zealand. It’s still Eastern hemisphere and Pacific rim, and has a profile reminiscent of Sorachi Ace, if not quite as sublime. I added 0.4 oz (7 g) at 30 minutes and 3 oz (85 g) at flameout.

I pitched a starter of White Labs WLP565 and fermented for 3 weeks before dry hopping with my last ounce (28 g) of the Pacific Jade hops, which sat in the fermenter for 2 more weeks. The FG was 1.005, leaving this kaiju saison a monster at 8.2% ABV, even stronger than last year’s batch.

Surprisingly, Le Petit Kaiju is very easy drinking, as I found out last night. It poured a lovely golden straw color. A little cloudier and thicker than I expected, but this was the first glass off the keg so there was a lot of sediment in suspension.

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Skreeeoonnnkk! (the correct way to spell Godzilla’s roar)

The head dissipated very quickly, so more time on the CO2 will do it good. But the aroma is sweet and citrusy, almost like lemonade, with a lot of yeasty character. As for the flavor, it’s spicy and lemony, bold and memorable. But it’s not quite dry enough. At first I was shocked by the heavy mouthfeel given the low FG, but then I remembered all the yeast in suspension. I’m hoping once the dregs are drawn off and I get some clear beer out of this keg, it will have the dry character I’m looking for. I’ve got a lot more Toho movies to show my little kaiju this summer, and I’m going to need lots of refreshment.

On-Tap Recap: Beers for the aging former headbanger

I was a metal kid in the late 80’s. Although I liked the music, it was the album art that drew me in. Iron Maiden, Dio, Ozzy, any album with demons or creepy magical glyphs on the cover was fair game for my tape collection when I was about twelve. See, back in the late 80’s before Viggo Mortensen and Peter Dinklage, it was hard out there for fantasy geeks. We didn’t strut proudly down the street shaking our D&D dice in their little bag, shouting about how geeky we were to passersby. Just being seen with a paperback of The Lord of the Rings was enough to get your ass kicked. But wearing a T-shirt or pin with album art from a metal band was, if not exactly “cool”, at least likely to scare people away so they’d leave you alone. It was a subtle way to get your geek on while people around you just assumed you were into something more socially acceptable than fantasy, like consuming heavy drugs or worshipping Satan.

The parental shock value of the album art was a factor as well. As an honor-roll student in the suburbs of a southern American city, there were few ways I could terrify my parents more than by hanging a life-size poster of Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie the Head next to my bed, where it hung for almost ten years. My wife – who has been with me since we were teenagers – still has fond memories of that poster, recalling our first evenings as a couple (studying, always studying) under the leering visage of Eddie in his Somewhere in Time cyborg form. And they say teenage boys know nothing of romance.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of my first date with that wonderful woman I married, so I’m celebrating the past by recapping two beers that I think the twelve-year-old me who bought that poster would be proud of.

Eddie himself stars in my first tasting, snarling at me in 19th-century dragoon uniform from the label of a pint-sized bottle of Trooper by Robinsons Brewery, named for – and featuring the art from the 1983 single release of – the Iron Maiden song “The Trooper”.

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Billed by Robinsons as a hand-crafted real ale “developed” by Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson with “true depth of character”, it sounded about right for my taste. It poured a deep orange-gold with a thicker head than I expected, with the brassy, crackery aroma I love in an English ale. The taste was fine, a little astringent and earthy with a hint of slick, oily mouthfeel like one gets with oats in the grain bill, though I don’t know if there were any in this one. I don’t know about “true depth of character” but it was a pleasant enough pint at a sessiony 4.7% ABV. A friend of mine who is both a homebrewer and an Iron Maiden obsessive described the beer as “not as good as you want it to be”, and that was true. It’s a gimmick, plain and simple, and I bought into it; the beer was pleasant but not as remarkable as the song it’s named for. I could drink it again, but would rather drink my own English-style homebrew … though I will save the bottle.

Drawn in a style reminiscent of a seventeenth-century woodcut, a three-headed demon towers over a burning sea of tortured mortals beneath a ring of runes and glyphs on the label of Blakkr Imperial Black Alea collaborative brew between the self-proclaimed “unholy trinity” of Three Floyds Brewing in Indiana, Surly Brewing in Minnesota, and Real Ale Brewing in Central Texas, brought together by their “love of brewing and love of metal”. The black double IPA is available in 4-packs of – what else? – metal cans. Twelve-year-old me would totally have worn a pin of this label on his jean jacket.

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How’s the beer? Well, it’s black. With a thick beige head and a citrus aroma that leans towards bitter orange and lime. But it’s surprisingly drinkable for an imperial brew with an ABV of 9%. I don’t find it syrupy at all. There’s a crisp bitterness on the front end from traditional American pale ale hops, though as I empty the glass and my palate becomes fatigued, I notice the hops less and the roastiness of black malts comes to the foreground, like a dessert of dark chocolate cake after a pungent salad. But for all that, the beer isn’t that memorable. It’s tasty, and I would drink it again (good thing since I have three more) but I’m not sure that it lives up to the awesomeness of the label art.

Which means we have a trend here. Wicked art that satisfies your inner twelve-year-old and tie-ins with your favorite metal band are neat, but only get you so far in craft beer. Both beers could have been worse, but could have been better. I’ve learned I’ll buy a beer once on a gimmick, but I won’t rush out and buy it again. And it seems that you can’t judge a beer by its label.

On-Tap Recap: Ommegang Game of Thrones vs. homebrew

HBO’s Game of Thrones came back with season four last night. Hordes gathered in the homes of HBO subscribers for viewing parties, cosplayers donned their finest, and social media lit up as the geekosphere celebrated the return of a beloved show to weekly television.

Beer geeks had reason to celebrate too, as the show’s return meant the release of the third installment in Brewery Ommegang’s series of Game of Thrones-themed seasonal beers. Dubbed Fire & Blood, the latest release pays homage to House Targaryen – that’s the one with the dragons – with ancho chilis (presumably the fire) in a Belgian-style red ale (the blood).

Ommegang Fire & Blood Red Ale

The color of this beer is absolutely striking. When I hear “red ale” I’m usually imagining some middle-of-the-road amber kind of beer. This one was deep, dark red. Beautiful ruby highlights – impossible to see in the picture above, unfortunately – beckoned me to smell and taste it. This was an exercise in delayed gratification, because the rocky head was so thick and persistent I had to wait several minutes before it subsided enough to drink. So I contented myself with smelling it, taking in the tart lemon freshness and barely detectable hint of chili pepper.

I hate to say it, but I found Fire & Blood drinkable and yet unremarkable. The flavors promised on the label and website – spicy chili, “assertive” hops, dark fruit – just didn’t manifest for me. The chili pepper was detectable only when I looked hard for it. The hop presence was faint and the dark fruit notes were muted by the extreme dryness of the beer.

Not that disappointment came as a surprise. I love everything I’ve ever had with the Ommegang label on it except for the three GoT beers they’ve released. The first – Iron Throne Blonde Ale, released in March 2013 – was decent enough but sort of ruined for me by excessive hype. Take the Black Stout, released last fall, was interesting with its star anise and licorice, but fell short of my expectations. I’m glad Ommegang is making these beers, because anything that promotes awareness of craft beer is good. But I keep hoping that one day they’ll brew one that delivers as intense and memorable an experience as the show itself.

So what’s a Zyme Lord to drink when watching the rest of the new season? Not to worry! I’ve got my own GoT-themed beer on tap: Wit Walker Wight Ale (recipe here).

Wit Walker Wight Ale

This beer that I made primarily to have something sessionable on hand for parties has turned out to be one of my own main pours these days. It’s an enticing cloudy straw color (again the photo above does it little justice) with a thick fizzy white head that dissipates quickly. There’s a faintly footy Belgiany aroma coupled with a hint of clove and spice. When it hits the palate, the blood orange comes out in full force – not overpowering the beer, but providing a backdrop of bitter citrus and zest that bounces effervescently on the tongue. I’ll be glad to finish a keg (or two?) of this beer as the season progresses.

It isn’t often that I face off one of my homebrews with a commercial beer. But when I do, it’s encouraging that my own beer can come out the winner. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ommegang and will continue to support their efforts to bringing beer awareness to GoT fans and vice versa. When the fourth GoT beer comes out this fall, I’ll buy a bomber or two. I’m just that big of a geek – for beer and for the show. But as a backup, it’ll be nice to have my own GoT-themed beer on tap so I can drink the beer I want, when I want. After all, that’s what homebrewing is about.

On-Tap Recap: 24 hours on the West Coast

I took a trip for my day job last week to San Diego, an area known to many as the home of Stone Brewing Company. Stone is of course a force to be reckoned with in craft brewing, and some have called them synonymous with the American IPA style. But before I got deep in pints of the old powerhouse, I celebrated the relative local freshness of some beers from my other favorite West Coast breweries.

The first beer I had after landing was a Firestone Walker 805. These guys aren’t actually located in San Diego; their brewery is in Paso Robles in the Central Coast area of California (which, having lived in Southern California, I can tell you is considered practically a different state). But Firestone Walker is a perennial favorite of mine. I routinely stock several bombers from them in my cellar (their Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA pairs astoundingly well with a coffee-chipotle rubbed steak we cook at chez Zyme Lord twice a month). So I appreciated the chance to drink a Firestone somewhat closer to its home than usual. 805 is a blonde ale – not my favorite style but appropriate before dinner – and it exemplified the style: light, with a hint of noble hop character. The color was darker than I expect from a blonde, but that could have been the fault of dim lighting in the hotel bar where I drank it. The beer was also flat, which I’m sure was the fault of the hotel bar. Unfortunately, the lack of carbonation made the light apple-fruity notes common in blonde ales (and part of why I don’t care for them) ever more apparent. Too bad … but I’ll try it again if I find it on tap at a more trustworthy establishment.

My second beer, also at the hotel bar, was a Fathom India Pale Lager from Ballast Point. This is a San Diego brewery, and if I’d had more time in the city I would have loved to pay them a visit. They produce fine beers from their easy-drinking Sculpin IPA to the South Asian punch-in-the-face Indra Kunindra, and Fathom did not disappoint. I’ve been generally skeptical of this newcomer style called IPL, but Fathom showed me exactly why lager yeast is an exciting addition to a hop-forward beer. The ferment was clean and crisp, allowing the hops to take the stage with no estery fruitiness or sweetness like you may find in even the best made IPAs. I also found the malt profile perfectly calibrated to let the hops and lager crispness shine: there was very little crystal malt if any. Maybe some dextrin or Cara-pils in very slight amounts, but none of the caramel that plagues so many American IPAs (not the best made ones). As for the hops so deftly spotlighted, they exploded with delightful grapefruit and lemon verbena aroma and flavor, a similar profile to my memories of Sculpin. I wondered how similar the worts are for those two beers before yeast is pitched. I won’t say Fathom has made me give up my IPAs for their bottom-fermented cousins, but I am no longer skeptical.

My last beer before leaving San Diego – indeed, from the Stone Brewing Co. brewpub in the airport – was Stone Go-To IPA. A new offering this year in another trendy hop-forward style, the session IPA. I enjoyed it, finding it exactly what it purports to be: a beer with a ton of hop flavor and aroma that you can’t quite pin descriptors on but that you can drink all day. Pleasant, but it didn’t really surprise me. And I’m not sure I’d “go to” this session IPA sooner than another such as Founders All Day IPA. But I’m a fan of the session IPA trend; I prefer session beers and am glad they’re making a comeback. It’s a welcome change from the imperial everythings we’ve been getting so much of on shelves and in gatherings of homebrewers for so long. And at 4.5% ABV, it was perfect to get me in the mood for several hours of red-eye flights back home.

A craft beer for every palate … and a palate for every craft beer?

Great news for craft beer lovers earlier this week: NPR reported that craft beer sales jumped 20 percent in 2013, and now make up almost 8 percent of beer sales in America, according to numbers released by the Brewers Association.

The characterization of craft brewers as “bearded hipsters who brew their IPAs with chamomile and white sage or age their lagers in 30-year-old whiskey barrels” is hilariously close to home. But it was this sentence later in the article that really got me thinking:

These days, there’s a craft beer for practically every palate — and price range.

It got me wondering. What does “a craft beer for practically every palate” mean? Is craft beer growing because consumers are finding their favorite among a wide range of options and then drinking only that beer from then on out? Or because consumers are more adventurous and willing to try new things? Or some combination of the two?

In my day job, I work with marketing and product development people enough to know that modern businesses position themselves for success by offering a diverse portfolio of products. Today’s consumers demand customization. An electronics company won’t just make smartphones; they’ll make tablets, TVs, or laptops, or all of the above. A company that makes messenger bags offers a variety of similar bags with different colors, patterns, and compartments. Companies that make chewing gum make four thousand varieties of chewing gum. The idea is simple: no matter who you are, we have a product for you.

But most people only need one smartphone, or tablet, or messenger bag – at least one at a time. As consumable commodities, beers are something you always go back to buy more of. Still, craft breweries follow a similar model by offering a variety of beers: a stout, a wheat, a pale ale or two, etc. On the surface, the idea seems to be the same: no matter what kind of beer you like, we brew one for you. And I’m sure that accounts for the growing popularity of craft beer among most beer consumers. There are “Sierra Nevada Pale Ale men” out there the way there used to be “Bud men”, and that’s a great thing.

But there are other craft beer consumers, and I’ve mentioned them once already: the chamomile-and-white-sage-IPA hipsters. Hardcore beer geeks. Bearded and/or bespectacled, wearing shirts emblazoned with zymurgic shibboleths like “OG/FG” in the AC/DC font or with the logos of obscure breweries. Using words no one else uses, like Brett, goaty and attenuated, and otherwise talking about discontinued seasonals like some people talk about vintage comic books (“No, Tyler, you’re thinking of the Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA, not the 18th.”)

These folks – maybe you know one, maybe you are one (guilty as charged here) – but the point is that we don’t just drink one kind of beer, no matter how good we think it is. We approach the beer aisle of our favorite store like entomologists on a hunt for some rare insect. We buy things we haven’t seen before. We may be disappointed or nonchalant. We may not buy it again. But we know it’s worth it to slog through nine six-packs of mediocre beer to find that tenth beer that absolutely wows us. And we buy a lot of beer.

For us, variety and innovation are the whole point. That’s probably why many of us homebrew. And we would be no happier in a world with only one beer even if that one beer was Pliny the Elder instead of Bud Light. (Okay, maybe we’d be a little happier.) But where do our palates fit in with the concept of “practically every palate”? Or is there a line on the spectrum for us whose palates are motivated by the love of all beer and are excited by beers that are both innovative and exceptionally brewed?

It’s not that I’m questioning the wording of the NPR article, far from it. It’s a great article shedding light on an issue that’s very important to me, and I appreciate NPR devoting space to it. I’m just wondering.

I’d love to see statistics on how much of craft beer’s growth is due to brand allegiance from consumers buying one kind of beer, and how much is due to consumers buying a lot of different beers. Someone must have a graph.

What do you think, Internet? Does anyone out there know?

Shamrock the house

Sláinte! It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that March 17 is one of the three days of the year I proudly proclaim myself Irish by bullshit, the other two being February 2 (James Joyce’s birthday) and June 16 (Bloomsday).

It may seem I’m trying too hard, but my wife claims a slice of Irish heritage and therefore of course so does my son. I’m outnumbered and I have to try this hard just to keep up. So we’ve got a lot planned in the Zyme Lord house. Here’s how we’re celebrating this year, aside from the obvious ways (i.e., wearing green and drinking something fermented):

My wife is preparing a beef-and-stout stew with turnips, rutabagas and carrots, served alongside cabbage sautéed with bacon and garlic. Props to the slow cooker – and the wife – for making it happen.

As an appetizer, we’ll make our way through at least one of the two loaves of stout soda bread I baked last night. I stayed up late to do it, but judging by the way the kitchen smells today it will be worth the loss of sleep. We’ve also got some aged Irish cheddar cheese with Oscar Wilde’s face on it (on the label, not on the cheese) to go with it.

We’re rapidly approaching the end of the current keg of Anna Livia Irish Stout. We’ll either empty it today or have fun trying.

Just before bed, I’ll toast to my faux Irish heritage with a dram of Jameson Distillery Reserve. It’s only available from the Jameson visitor’s center in Dublin, so I’ve been saving mine for special occasions. My eleven-month-old son’s first Saint Patrick’s Day certainly qualifies.

Speaking of the little leprechaun, he’s sporting his shamrock onesie and learning how to rock out to the Pogues.

And the Gaelic fun won’t end at midnight.  Yesterday I bottled entry samples of Anna Livia Irish Stout and another Celtic-inspired beer (Thane McCrundle’s Wee Heavy) for the Celtic Brew Off homebrew competition in Arlington, Texas in April. I’m filling out the entry paperwork today. Anyone got a four-leaf clover to send me for good luck?

Finally, because the Anna Livia stout is almost gone and the wife has expressed some trepidation about facing an entire month without it, I’m already making plans for the next batch. Fortunately I have all the ingredients on hand except the yeast, so I’ll work it into the pipeline as soon as I can.

After all this is over – though the soda bread may well last through the week – I’ll go back to being Italian until June 16.

Well, okay, I might let myself be Scottish by bullshit for a weekend in early May for the Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games, but other than that …

On-Tap Recap: Mardi Gras (“Show us your cans”)

Last week’s On-Tap Recap was postponed due to a family vacation. We took our eleven-month-old to our native New Orleans for his first Mardi Gras. You read that right: a baby at Mardi Gras. If that surprises you, if all you know of Fat Tuesday in New Orleans is what you’ve seen on late-night television, be aware that the booze-soaked, boob-baring buffoonery is generally limited to a downtown district called the French Quarter and primarily attracts tourists. For the locals, Mardi Gras is all about the parades uptown: hours-long processions of colorful floats filled with masked revelers peppered with the best marching bands and the weirdest dance troupes from Louisiana and beyond. Families come in droves with kids, coolers and box after box of Popeyes fried chicken. Beads are thrown, but no one has to debase themselves for them. And while there is lots of drinking, it is as one local friend put it, “A family friendly drunkenness”. It’s no more improper than your average sporting event tailgate party.

Beer is the beverage of choice for most uptown parade-goers (unless you catch the “merry band of hipsters” called Box of Wine, who march carrying the eponymous boxes giving free pours to anyone with a cup) and New Orleans open container laws prohibit glass, so cans are the norm. This gave me an opportunity to catch up on the state of brewing in Louisiana (and beyond) by trying a few canned craft beers that I can’t easily get in Texas. In the interest of curbside refreshment between bouts of scrounging for plastic trinkets thrown from motor vehicles, I gravitated towards pale ales.

Louisiana doesn’t have as extensive a craft beer culture as Texas does, but it’s growing. I’m excited to watch it from afar, since the seeds of my love for craft beer were sown during my formative years in the Crescent City. Fittingly, the control for my taste test was an IPA I know well: Jockamo IPA from Abita Brewing in Abita Springs, Louisiana. This is the brewery that started it all for me; Abita Turbodog and Amber were the first craft brews I ever tasted in the mid-nineties. Today, Abita is the elder statesman of New Orleans craft brewing: ubiquitous and familiar. Extensive and experienced, they brew beer of consistently better quality than any other Louisiana brewery I’ve tried, but their beer isn’t very exciting. They play it safe in recipe creation, offering beers that can be summed up with simple descriptors like “dark” or “bitter” and skewing heavily towards fruit beers – all for the purpose (I believe) of not alienating a market that’s still bi-curious about craft beer. Someone has to do it, and I’m glad they’re taking one for the team by serving as the gateway to craft beer for an entire state. But I haven’t been wowed by them in some time. Jockamo IPA I find very sweet, a bit too raisiny from the interplay of IPA-level hops with too much dark crystal malt (a common flaw in American IPAs, so maybe it’s just me). It’s bitter but has little aroma. It’s not bad, and I can drink a couple at 6.5% ABV, so I’m always happy to find a six-pack of it at Rouses. But it’s not spectacular either.

My second tasting was another 6.5% ABV IPA from relative upstart NOLA Brewing. NOLA seems to be catching on better than any other brewery in the city limits, and that’s great news for anyone who loves New Orleans. The brewers at NOLA seem to have a passion for their craft, offering a varied assortment from a simple blonde ale that I haven’t tried but I’m told is the best in town, to more trendy advanced offerings like a saison and smoked ale. However, I happen to find their output rather inconsistent, and I think their hop-forward offerings skew too much toward inappropriately extreme IBUs in lieu of flavor and aroma. Hopitoulas IPA (named for the notoriously tongue-twisting Tchoupitoulas (“chop-it-TOOL-us”) Street in New Orleans where the brewery is situated) was no different. It was bitter, resiny, and unbalanced. It’s not hard to drink, exactly, but it has little to recommend it over even something as prosaic as Jockamo, unless you want to support smaller breweries. Okay, yeah, I do too. And I will. But I’d feel better if I could find a NOLA Brewing beer I actually love. I’ll keep looking.

The brightest light in my Mardi Gras pale ale flight came unexpectedly from outside the state, from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Mississippi has until recently been a desert for craft beer, with no packaging brewery operating in the state from Prohibition to 2003 (Lazy Magnolia). But a handful of new breweries across the state and the legalization of homebrewing last year suggest hope is springing for Mississippians. Devil’s Harvest Pale Ale caught me by surprise, coming from a brewery I – shamefully – had never heard of before last week and being so astonishingly freaking good. Bright and light, crisp and clean, with a citrus-pine aroma and a ton of lemony flavor. It was fantastically easy to drink (good thing it’s only 5.8% ABV). Southern Prohibition boasts Munich in its recipe rather than crystal malt, and they have definitely struck gold. I would gladly order Devil’s Harvest in a bar, even over an old favorite like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Again, we gotta support the little guys. But in the case of Southern Prohibition, I have no reservations about doing so. They clearly know what they’re doing, and I can’t wait until I’m back in a place where they’re sold, so I can try their beer again.

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