Mass Market or Craft Brew Revisited–Another Puzzle

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. IMG_0300Neither 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. IMG_0298 (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. IMG_0297

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!


Victory (Brewing)

Victory Brewing is a largish (ranked 28th in sales volume in 2013, according to Beer Advocate) Pennsylvania-based craft brewery with a wide variety of styles (as the variety of glassware in the picture on the mix pack clearly indicates).  IMG_0278[1] After the overdose on IPA’s, this was a nice way to try some different varieties, including at least one that’s a more suitable summer beer.

The Golden Monkey Belgian-style tripel was probably my personal least favorite, but it had a lot of body and a nice fruity aroma.  (Maybe it’s the Belgian yeast that puts me off a bit?)

I don’t remember what we had for dinner with the Prima Pils,IMG_0292[1] but it gave me an opportunity to get out a pilsner glass, and I do remember that this was a pleasant, refreshing beer for a summer evening.

The Hop Devil IPA didn’t distinguish itself from the crowd of other IPA’s I’ve been trying, which means that it was good but not spectacular.  IMG_0293[1]We did have a nice outdoor dinner of chicken dal (“dal” is basically a lentil mush with curry spices) with this particular beer, which is a nice, relatively easy dinner that starts with a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket.

The Headwaters American Pale Ale was probably my overall favorite from this batch, maybe because it was different enough from the IPA’s that I felt like it was a little more novel.  IMG_0294[1]And even though it’s obviously the same salad (and the same salad dressing in the background), this night’s dinner was a nice summer treat with fresh green beans plus shrimp and tomatoes all tossed with pesto made from basil grown in containers on our front porch to make it a somewhat local dinner, as we like to try and do during the summertime.

This mix pack brings the blog total up to 86, and a few more already “on tap” (bad pun–sorry!) actually have the tally at close to 100 as we approach the middle of July.  As promised, the next post will revisit the question the question of what exactly defines a craft brewery in the context of a couple of fairly recognizable names with somewhat complicated histories, but those can wait for a week or so.  For me, the week ahead is a chance to get some serious work done with one of the offspring out of town and the other at Chinese Camp all day, so it’s time to get my nose to the grindstone so that the family can enjoy some play time when August rolls around.  Cheers!


Random early summer beers

No theme here, just beers that I had a chance to try on one occasion or another, in chronological order (some with pictures and some without).



#1: Revival Double Black IPA (at the Garden Grille, a vegetarian restaurant on the Providence/Pawtucket city line that we frequently visit with our vegan friends, one of whom was celebrating a birthday on this occasion).  Revival has been voted “best local brewery” by the readers of our local weekly alternative newspaper, and you can find their beers in some local retail outlets and on tap at several good restaurants.  This was a nice, full-flavored beer that wasn’t overpowered by either the seitan appetizer or the pictured habañero tempeh and associated garnishes.

#2: Harpoon Summer Beer.  This one was at the house of some friends after I had hired out my sons to do some yard work for them while I went on a long bike ride that started and ended at their house out in the wilds of Massachusetts.  The beer was light and refreshing, which was nice after a  long, hot bike ride and a nice accompaniment to pizza (which was part of the payment for the yard work–semi-unskilled labor pays much better now than when I was a young teenager!)

#3: Firestone Walker Pivo  (described as a “hoppy pils”).  Firestone Walker is based in Paso Robles, CA, which I think of as wine country.  (In fact, their web site says that they started brewing in space rented from the Firestone Vineyard.)  Had this one at another teen-aged boy movie night (Hellboy was this night’s campy selection) with beer buddy Philip.  This was also light and refreshing, but it went well with a sort of chicken curry that was based on a spicy peanut butter called The Heat is On from Peanut Butter & Co

#4: This is an interesting one from Stone Brewing (also from California).  My story is that a new liquor store opened along one of my usual offspring chauffeuring routes that advertised a focus on craft brews, and when I was in the store (on their second day of operation–they were still busily stocking the shelves while I was shopping) my eye was caught by the Spröcket Bier, IMG_0295[1]which seemed fitting since I had gone on another long bike ride yesterday afternoon.  The beer’s story is that it was the first winner of an internal competition to come up with a uniquely interesting beer style.  This beer is described as a black rye kölsch, which seems like a bit of an oxymoron, since I think of a kölsch as a very light beer.  The picture shows that they used a dark malt, and wanted the spiciness from the rye, but the lightness comes from the relatively understated hoppiness of this beer, so that the slightly smoky note from the malt comes through strongly and makes this beer very drinkable.  As the picture shows, this was a big bottle, so I had the serving poured here with dinner (a burger, roasted potatoes, and edamame “succotash”) and finished the bottle with a slightly smaller serving as my “dessert” later in the evening.  Stone promises more of these as part of a “spotlight series”–something to watch for in the months ahead.

With these four, the blog count is up to 82, and I’ve got a couple of new breweries to keep my eye on.  One or more upcoming posts will discuss some other breweries of note, and will return to the discussion of what qualifies as a “craft brewery.”  Cheers!