A big part of my time teaching is spent trying to help students deal with the connection between numbers and equations (which are pretty clear-cut in their meaning) and words and concepts (which are generally more ambiguous). No matter how carefully you try to define something in words, you find that nature is more creative than you are and comes up with exceptions. In chemistry, for instance, there are substances in which the proportions of elements are not fixed but can show some variation–chemists call such substances “non-stoichiometric compounds” or “berthollides” after the chemist Claude Louis Berthollet, who championed the idea of variable composition. Berthollet published in opposition to John Dalton, who took the constant composition of many substances as evidence for the existence of atoms and is considered the primary proponent of the modern theory of atoms. Despite Dalton’s sucess, however, the berthollides exist, they can certainly be considered “pure substances,” but they don’t fit the usual high school chemistry definition.
So in this post I’m revisiting the definition of what makes somebody a craft brewery by looking at two breweries whose history has taken them from one side of the boundary to the other. Both Goose Island Beer Co. and Red Hook Ale Brewery started out as small, independent breweries in the 1980s, Goose Island in Chicago and Red Hook in Seattle. Maybe because of their location in major metropolitan areas, both have grown into operations that distribute all over the country (and Goose Island apparently even ships to the UK). Both have good reputations and produce a range of beers that includes year-round offerings, seasonal beers, and styles that show both evidence of a willingness to experiment and pride in the final product. So what’s the issue? Why would anyone say these aren’t craft breweries?
Here’s where definitions matter–in particular the key word here seems to be “independent.” It turns out that, as of around 2011, Goose Island is in fact totally owned by Anheuser-Busch/InBev (InBev is the international beer conglomerate that bought/merged with Anheuser-Busch in 2008 and controls something like 25% of the world beer market) which means that, in the eyes of the Brewers Association (who wrote the definition) they are simply lumped in with Budweiser and Stella Artois (to name two of the flagship brands). Red Hook is a little trickier, since they are part of what is called the Craft Brew Alliance, along with a couple of other recognizable names (Widmer from Oregon and Kona from Hawaii)–sounds like they would have to be a craft brewery, right? But it turns out that Anheuser-Busch also owns a roughly 33% stake in the Craft Brew Alliance (and has a couple of seats on the board of directors) which puts them below the 75% threshold that is the definition of “independent.”
So what we have are two breweries that sit in a sort of no-man’s-land, trying to produce interesting beer, but under the watchful eyes of the largest beer empire in the world. Of course, as a scientist, I am an empiricist at heart, so the proof of the pudding should be in the eating (or drinking in this case)–how do these beers stack up against the competition?
Each of these mix packs had three different beers: an IPA, an English brown ale (bitter), and one other, so they make a nice set to compare with each other as well as with the broader market. Neither of the IPAs was exceptional, though I did notice that the Red Hook “Long Hammer IPA” went better with a savory dinner than by itself–there was a sour note when I first sipped the beer that disappeared and merged well when paired with last night’s pasta dish and fresh green beans. The Goose Island IPA was less memorable and probably my least favorite of the three Goose Island beers.
The “Honker’s Ale” is the bitter from Goose Island and probably would be considered their flagship beer–I first remember seeing this during a summer spent in Indiana back in 2005 (teaching summer school chemistry at my graduate alma mater) when I was still fairly fresh off a year with lots of this style in London. (Fuller’s London Pride was brewed only a few miles from where I was living in southwest London so that was often the beer of choice when I went to the pub.) I’ve also encountered lots of bitter ales during my time in Australia, but it’s not a style that you find a lot of in the U.S.–much less fizzy than we are used to, actually tastes good if it’s a little warmer than fridge temperature, and with a nice amount of body. The entry from Red Hook is designated an ESB (for “extra special bitter”). I could tell here that I might not be the target demographic for Red Hook since there is a little humorous note (“Is, in fact, extra special, but don’t let it go to his head”) explaining the description in very tiny type on the bottle–even with my reading glasses I had trouble seeing and needed help from a younger pair of eyes in the household. I would say this was maybe not quite as enjoyable as the Goose Island, but still a good and interesting beer, and a good representation of this style.
The unique beer from Goose Island was the Ten Hills Pale Ale, named to indicate the Idaho source of the hops for this American (I guess) pale ale. The web site lists this beer as available seasonally from December through March, so either that has changed or this beer sat around for awhile, but if so there wasn’t any evidence in the taste which was just fine and probably my favorite of the three Goose Island offerings. I’m continuing to like the American pale ales that I’m finding–they seem to be more balanced than some of the IPAs. The atypical beer in the Red Hook pack was called Audible Ale. The name comes from a vaguely described relationship with the sportscaster Dan Patrick (so “audible” in the football sense of a quarterback changing the play at the line of scrimmage), and this appears to be intended as a session beer with a little less alcohol–the text on the bottle describes this beer as smooth and “crushable” and encourages you to enjoy more than one while you are tailgating or watching the game at home, which I guess I can see as a virtue for some people. All in all, none of these six beers was a knockout, but each provided some interest and held up well enough that I’m not sure it’s totally fair to disqualify them from the craft brew world on the basis of their corporate financing–if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then I’m not going to say it’s not a duck based on who signs its paycheck. (Not that I want to start a quarrel with the Brewers Association–it’s their industry and they can define things how they want.)
In the interest of tidiness, I’ve got two other beers to add to the tally. One was another entry from Heavy Seas called Cutlass, an amber ale that went down nicely during a post-4th of July Sunday cookout/hangout with friends at their house on the water. The other was a spectacular big bottle that I bought after a tasting at one of the local liquor stores–Dogfish Head was in town pouring four of their beers and this was the one I decided to take home. The story behind the name of the beer, Hellhound on my Ale, is an homage to legendary blues musician Robert Johnson who is linked to a Faustian story about meeting the Devil at a crossroads and trading his soul for incredible musical gifts. The beer has a high alcohol content and a lot of hops, but it actually drinks more like a dessert wine with a lot of fruitiness (lemon is used in the brewing process) that is more than a match for the bitterness of the hops. (The price was also more like a pretty nice bottle of wine, so this is definitely an occasional treat rather than an everyday beverage.)
In terms of the tally, then, 86 + 6 + 2 = 94 beers now as we head toward the final month of summer. The next post or two will most likely be a tale of persistence and/or a story of living in the moment, though depending on timing some travel may get thrown in as well. Cheers!