Category Archives: beer bar

Beer Hype: A Double-Edged Sword

You’ve heard the names ad nauseum in the craft beer world. Darkness, Dark Lord, Black Tuesday, etc, etc, etc. These are beers crafted in (necessarily) small batches from very well-respected breweries. They have dates on the calendar dedicated to their releases. They are the subjects of post after post (after post, after post) on beer-related internet fora. They can command sums 10 times their purchase price on eBay. And that’s all awesome. It’s great to see that type of interest in craft beer.

But these beers are also sources of alienation, consternation and anger. People who wait in line for hours for them are nonetheless precluded from purchasing them. People who wake up early and hit “refresh” constantly on a website to obtain release day tickets are shut out by those with faster internet connections. Those less fortunate inevitably take to the internet to call out the brewery or bar that wasn’t able to get them the beer they so desperately desired. It’s a bad situation for all involved.

There is no beer that exemplifies this dichotomy of experience better than Pliny the Younger. The Triple IPA produced by Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, CA seems to have a life of its own. Those who are able to obtain it feel as though the clouds have parted, bathing them in the light of the divine. Those who are unable, well, let’s just say they don’t feel that way.

Getting the beer usually involves a long wait in a line outside of a bar that has previously announced the date and time at which the beer will be tapped. This is where the problem starts. In this case, the demand far outstrips the supply. If the bar is lucky, the 5-gallon keg it gets will serve around 55-60 people (and that’s a BIG maybe). When faced with a line of 100+, there is no avoiding the fact that some people are going to walk away disappointed.

But how disappointed ought they be? That depends on a number of factors. The first that ought to be noted is the transparency of the establishment serving the beer. The bar runs the risk of losing some business by telling people that everyone past “Person X” in line won’t get the beer. However, one could argue that a lot more business is lost in pissed off customers if someone waits in line without knowing how much beer there is to go around.

Assuming the bar has told those waiting that there are “x” number of pours available, then the patrons are able to make an informed decision. If people still get angry, it’s because the specter of entitlement has reared its ugly head. Somewhere along the line, a number of beer geeks (a term I generally employ affectionately) decided that they should have access to every beer they desire. When they are shut out, they use any number of disparaging terms for the brewery, bar or proprietor in question. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not. Either way, objectivity is usually tossed out the window.

And this is the real issue with beer hype. On the one hand, it’s great to see a bunch of interest in craft beer. The mere fact that people would wait for hours to obtain a single beer is testament to the ever-growing popularity of the product. On the other hand, such hype leads to a host of unintended consequences.

For neophytes who are just getting into craft beer, the difficulty of dealing with such releases paints a skewed picture of the industry. Craft beer isn’t about hunting down the rarest of the rare (for most). Rather, it’s about being able to drink flavorful beer produced by someone who really cares about it. It’s about supporting an industry that gives a damn about its customers. But if your experience of the industry begins and ends with waiting in line for Pliny the Younger, you probably won’t be around for long if you aren’t able to obtain any.

For those who are already full-fledged enthusiasts, the view also becomes skewed. Sure, Pliny the Younger is a wonderful beer. It is clearly world class, and probably the best in its “style.” However, there are a ton of other beers that are probably as good, or at least close, that can be readily obtained. No lines. No disappointment. No reason to be pissed off. Also, there’s something to be said for discovering the next awesome beer rather than braving the masses to drink one that everyone already knows is good. This part of the chase gets lost in the hype.

There is no elegant solution for this issue. The brewers literally can’t make enough of their most hyped beers. If they are higher in alcohol or sour (and they usually are), they just take too long to make. In order to produce more, the brewery would have to sacrifice its financial wellbeing and also its core brands in the process. Understandably, they’d rather a lot of people enjoy beer they can readily produce than appease a few more myopic rare beer chasers.

So it comes down to this. If you go chasing a beer like Pliny the Younger, know what you’re getting yourself into. You’ll wait in a long line. You may not get the beer. But look on the bright side. You’ll be at a beer bar. There will be other awesome stuff to drink. And you’ll be around a lot of like-minded individuals. If you don’t chase after it, you can take solace in the huge world of incredible beer that is otherwise currently available. The explosion of craft beer in America has made it possible for most to obtain a world-class beer merely by stepping down to the local bottle shop. So go take that trip and revel in how lucky you are to live in a world where it’s ridiculously easy to find great beer.

Yours Truly on New Brew Thursday at Library Alehouse! (Video)

Check out the video, where we drink Kern River Brewing Citra DIPA and pair it with some wonderful Alehouse food. I think it’s pretty rad. Be sure to click the links on the right to New Brew Thursday and Library Alehouse.

What do you mean you want a “light” beer?

You’ve heard it dozens of times (if not more). You’re sitting at the bar at your local purveyor of fermented beverage and someone walks up to order a beer. Bewildered by a selection of beers whose names and tap handles are unfamiliar, that someone says to the bartender, “Just give me something light.”

Here’s where the trouble starts. What the hell does “light” mean? For most, “light” is a color descriptor. A lot of folks have the common misperception that color provides an accurate indication of the strength, mouthfeel and degree of flavor in a given beer. This probably has mostly to do with the fact that Guinness is served nitrogenated. While Guinness is a comparatively small beer by ABV (4.2%), nitrogenation gives it a heavier mouthfeel, thus giving people the perception that it is a heavy beer (when it in fact has less calories than Budweiser).

The “light” phenomenon described above probably also has to do with the pale straw color of most mass-produced American lagers. These beers have very little body, very little alcohol and very little flavor. Further, they are the American beers with which most people are familiar. However, there are beers of similar color, such as Berliner Weisse, which have a comparatively huge amount of flavor. There are also beers of similar color (close enough anyway) that have a ton more body and more than double the alcohol, such as Belgian Tripels. Given the existence of such beers, perhaps “light” isn’t the best choice of words when describing what one wants at a bar.

Given the misconceptions of the general public, one must divine what “light” means. Firstly, people tend to be afraid of “dark” beers for one reason or another (again, Guinness probably has a lot to do with it). It stands to reason that people want a beer that’s light in color. But we can’t stop there. It is not however, a problem to work within the “light” color parameter (that issue can be worked out later).

What does “light” say about other preferences? As far as flavor goes it does not necessarily mean that someone wants less flavor. It may just mean that the beer drinker wants lighter, more delicate flavors. In other words, a Tripel and an IPA may be close to each other in color, but the person who asked for a “light” beer will probably be more pleased with the Tripel. The huge bitterness of an American IPA is often one of the final flavor frontiers conquered by the nascent craft beer enthusiast. However, the delicate, fruity esters and generally dry character of a Tripel may be right up someone’s alley.

Mouthfeel is an issue too. The person ordering a “light” beer probably wants one that doesn’t have too much weight. That’s fine. There are plenty of flavorful, pale-colored beers that don’t coat the mouth and punch the palate. An exemplar is Allagash White. Outside of Pierre Celis, there is no finer Belgian-Style Witbier in production. It has huge, spicy, fruity flavor but it also dances on the tongue and has a crisp, dry finish. It is the ultimate gateway beer and one that anyone ordering a “light” beer ought to be thrilled with.

So next time that hapless soul wends his or her way to the bar and asks for a “light” beer, be a mensch and ask them what they mean by “light.” Are they talking about color? Weight? Alcohol? Flavor? There are enough places out there where a craft beer enthusiast knows more than (or isn’t as busy as) the staff and can provide a great recommendation to a future craft beer convert if only the neophyte is asked to elaborate.

Cheers!

Local Intrigue

Russian River Redemption w/ Father’s Office Forest Mushroom Salad


Okay, I’ll admit it. I drink a lot of craft beer. I drink craft beer pretty much every day. I love craft beer. Oh wait, this is starting to sound like the “I am a Craft Beer Drinker” video. My apologies (shameless plug: I’m the first person in the video). One of the few things I love more than craft beer is pairing craft beer with great food. I often find such pairings in my own kitchen, but there are plenty of times when those pairings occur in local restaurants and gastropubs. I’ve decided that I’m going to share these experiences with you in a series of “when I feel like it” posts under the title “Local Intrigue.” Hopefully you live close by and can try them for yourselves. Perhaps you don’t live close by. It is my hope that these pairings will inspire you to find your own just the same. That said, let’s get to the meat of this post.

I live very close to Father’s Office (“FO”) in Santa Monica. It’s a little over a mile away. I can either bike or walk there very comfortably. It is little wonder then that I often find myself sampling their wares. Most folks go there for the burger. I will concede that it is a tasty morsel. However, it has a lot of huge flavors and can overwhelm any beverage that hangs on the subtler end of the flavor spectrum. The burger demands a big beer, something for which I am not always in the mood.

Enter the rest of the menu. It is my opinion (and that of several of my cohorts) that the rest of the food at FO outshines the burger. I found myself there on a Saturday afternoon, before heading into Library Alehouse for my shift, grabbing a beer or two. I always look for the seasonal dishes at FO, having already worked my way through the regular menu. This time, I found the Forest Mushroom Salad. It has greens, sautéed/caramelized mushrooms and onions, Niman Ranch bacon, Spanish chevre and basil vinaigrette. Once I saw “bacon” and “chevre” I knew I had to have it.

But what to pair it with? I found my muse in Russian River Redemption, a Belgian Blonde par excellence. It is dry, crackery and spicy. I thought it a perfect counterpoint.

RedemptionCropped

Boy was I right! When faced with the fairly rich likes of bacon, chevre and sautéed mushrooms and onions, I favor contrasting pairings. I like to cleanse the palate and ease the “weight” of the dish. I also thought the basil vinaigrette would be nice with the herbal/spicy character of the beer. The dry, crackery character of the beer cut through the fat of the dressing and bacon perfectly, pairing nicely with the tang from the cheese and easing the sweetness of the onion. The finish was pure harmony, the herbal character of the dressing and the greens augmenting the spicy hop character of the beer. It was twenty minutes of dining bliss. I highly recommend you get down there while both the dish and the beer are still available. If the beer isn’t, they also have locally-produced (they brew in Irvine, CA) Brouwerij West Belgian-Style Blond – 5, which is the only other Blond I’ve had that belongs in Redemption’s league. We’ve already carried Brouwerij West’s Blond at Library Alehouse. I can’t wait until we have it again. It pairs beautifully with the Ahi Burger, but more on that next time. What are some of the pairings you’ve found at your local beer haunts?

Desire for Variety vs. Brand Loyalty

What’s a bar to do?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll concede that I decided not to write a second GABF post (hence the change in title of the first post). I had some interesting things to talk about, but I have limited time right now and this little op-ed post tickled my creative fancy.

Given my quasi-unique position as both a purveyor and drinker of craft beer, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon lately. There appears to be a tug-of-war between the “beer geek constantly on the prowl for a new taste experience” and the “person who just wants to drink good beer and sticks to what they already know they like” (wow, that was a mouthful).

As I see it, both groups of people are absolutely essential to the growth of craft beer. The beer geeks, though smaller in number, push brewers to try new things and extend the boundaries of what beer can be. The “people who want to drink good beer” ensure the sustained viability of the industry through their support of the core brands of successful breweries. The difficulty arises when the interests of one group necessarily infringe (for lack of a better term) on the interests of the other.

Here’s a for-instance:

Beer Bar A has a pretty consistent tap list. They might throw in a seasonal here or there, and have a couple rotating handles, but they carry the same beers most of the time. The regular beers are all good to excellent, but they don’t often change. Regular at Beer Bar A has one or two beers that he always orders there. He tried them the first time he came in a few years ago and has stuck to them since. It took a small leap of faith to even try those two and he doesn’t feel like confronting anew the fear of the unknown. Regular is typical of about half of Beer Bar A’s clientele (most of the rest being casual craft beer drinkers who will drink whatever is on so long as it’s good).

Given the beer geek desire for ever-rotating tap handles, Beer Bar A is missing out on a small, but potentially loyal and lucrative part of its possible consumer base. In an effort to pull in some beer geek business, Beer Bar A pulls off some its old standbys and throws on some new and exciting beers. Regular comes in and doesn’t see his one or two beers on tap anymore. He is afraid. He doesn’t know what to order. He considers leaving. What to do? Beer Bar A doesn’t want to lose the reliable business of Regular, but also doesn’t want to fall woefully behind the craft beer times.

A decade or so ago, this was a legitimate problem. The first craft beer bubble had burst (or was in the process of doing so) and the quality of much of the beer on the market was suspect at best. People had gotten into the brewing business purely for money, and the lack of passion was reflected in the product. The average consumer couldn’t be sure of what they would encounter when a new tap handle was thrown on the wall at the local watering hole.

These days however, especially in larger markets, quality is not a problem. The only problem is that there’s a whole lot of great beer out there and I can’t possibly drink all of it! I understand brand loyalty when it comes to one’s philosophical agreement with a brewery’s approach to production or marketing. However, staying loyal to a particular beer merely for fear of possibly drinking inferior beer can hardly be justified anymore. In fact, it can easily be argued that a fiercely loyal consumer is doing him or herself a serious disservice. If one is doggedly attached to a particular beer or brewery, one may be, and likely is, missing out on something they’ll like even more than their “favorite” beer.

Not only is better beer largely the rule rather than the exception these days, so too are bars who clearly care about the beer they serve. Such places are an equally important cog in the craft beer machine. The brewer can make an exquisite beer, but if it isn’t delivered fresh, at the right temperature, through clean lines and in a clean glass, then the consumer isn’t getting what they ordered. Luckily, with the availability of information these days, it is relatively easy to find out which bars care about their beer, if only you care to look or ask.

In other words, fear not the unknown. For if you find yourself at a better beer-dispensing establishment, and you decide to wade into unfamiliar waters you will likely find the temperature is just fine. If you trust the beer bar you’re patronizing, then that means you trust them to serve excellent beer. It also means that you trust them to train their staff to make recommendations based on your stated desires. It also means that you trust the bar to serve your beer properly. So, find a bar that cares and order a beer you’ve never had before. And don’t worry if your “regular” beer isn’t on tap. The well-trained server will be able to find you something you’ll like and maybe you’ll have a new “regular” beer.

Now, I consider myself a beer geek and spend a lot of time with others whom I also consider beer geeks. I like to think most of us have managed to strike a balance between a constant pursuit of new experience and loyalty to specific beers. It seems to me that the purpose of trying new beers is to find new “favorites.” When I try a new beer, and it’s truly excellent, it gets put into my mental catalogue of favorites. These are beers that I will drink whenever I see them at better beer-serving establishments (unless there’s something new on that I’m dying to try). I find comfort knowing that I can select exactly what I’m in the mood for, all but ensuring full satisfaction. I know enough different beers that cover enough different styles and flavors that I can find something I truly want to drink the majority of the time. If I can’t (I can’t always be at a beer bar), then there’s always bourbon. In other words, even beer geeks have favorites, but we have enough favorites that we don’t panic if one of them isn’t on tap.

I’m not suggesting that every consumer need be hell-bent as I on extreme palate education in order to enjoy themselves. What I am suggesting, is that there are enough passionate people brewing and serving beer that no consumer need worry about their “regular” beer being pulled off the tap wall. Most of the time, it’ll be replaced with something at least as good, if not better. Drink up!