Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Farm to Kettle: Shiner FM 966 | Spoezl Brewing | Shiner, TX & Farmhand | Brewery Vivant | Grand Rapids, MI

Farmhouse ales are my fucking jam.  For every winter stout and barleywine I bark about on [AA], there is an equally reactive primal response on this site regarding a great summer saison or biere de garde.

Like the first time I tried an IPA in the long-since-genetically-altered campus Trudy's in the mid-1990s, farmhouse ales give the same suggestion of a big ridiculous mess -- a joyful abandon and rambling digression from the tradition of American brewing.  Whereas over the last decade, so many US micros were integrating massive hop varietals into their pale ales to coax a heavily-bittered nuance, creating their own individualized version of an old British colonial recipe, a few brewing extremists tasked themselves with modernizing the traditional Belgian/French estate-style beer, and making it friendly for the American palate.

In this category, brewers manipulate delicate yeast strains -- and not necessarily hops -- to showcase the style's unmistakable barnyard characteristic.  Because yeast strains are as influential as hops agents, small yeast variants can impose a dialectical change in its entire beer vernacular: earthy, bready, sour, spicy, dry.  Farmhouse beers are tricky, but making one correctly is true love.

Two of these dedicated farmhouse breweries are Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY and Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Traverse City, MI.  Two programs whose wares are as pastoral as they are bucolic, essentially pioneering the American version of the farmhouse ale and heavily inspiring well-known offshoots like Hill Farmstead, Funkwerks, and Austin's own Jester KingBrewery Vivant of Grand Rapids, MI-- one of the subjects of this very piece -- is sworn to the Belgian style ale, farmhouses amongst them.  What they have accomplished in just two dozen months in Western Michigan has yielded impressive accolades from peers and fans nationwide -- not only through some of the finest beer in the country, but with accomplishments like becoming the first LEED-certified brewery in the United States.  Sustainable brewing is the cornerstone of craft culture, and philosophically accordant with the Belgian brewers of the rustic past.

But because of its demonstrative upward-trending popularity in The US, other traditionally American-derived breweries will take a fade away shot at a farmhouse ale just to see if they could opportunely drain one from midcourt.  Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City comes to the forefront of my mind, making Tank 7 Saison seem like a finger roll layup instead of a trick shot.  It is absolutely stellar.

Spoetzl Brewing of Texas -- more famously know as Shiner (and initial provider to Austin's early craft palate) -- is one of these brewhouses taking a shot at a farmhouse ale, because, well, I don't really know why at all.

It is unusual behavior for Shiner in two ways in that -- 1) it is only the second time they've brewed an ale, and 2) the brewery traditionally crafts German and Czech style lagers -- their nod to the Bavarian roots of Central Texas -- and have never really dabbled outside of the styles familiar to this distinct beer making region.

For a brand that appears to be stumbling closer to their craft demise, Shiner appears to be really making an effort to maintain their legendary status as Texas' primary choice for imbibing; not only for the college bros, but for the older, bearded, discerning bro as well.

Because they are the responsible party for Austin's ancient assimilation into craft culture, in my opinion at least, Shiner gets a lifetime pass.  Without realizing it three decades ago, Austinites -- and Texans as a whole -- were becoming a natural fit with Shiner and the culture behind something as atypical as a malty, dark beer in the face of wildly popular low-cal adjunct lagers lighting up other mid-size college towns.  It seemed so unusual to people outside of Austin that everyone here drank Shiner Bock, that the city and the beer practically became synonymous.  To visit Austin was to drink Shiner.  Shoot, between Shiner Bock and Celis Pale Bock, you couldn't throw a Tamgotchi at La Zona Rosa in the 1990s and fail to hit someone double fisting.  And we owe them a lot for that.

Austinites today, continue to embrace the Shiner brand without the same derision allotted to similarly waning companies like Sam Adams or Rock Bottom.

And still, every time I see a new Shiner label at the beer store, its like finding a new e-cards squatting in my newsfeed -- I just know I should ignore it because its total artlessness will just piss me the fuck off, but I can't help but to accommodate the sorry bastard who thought it was a good idea.

I try not to disparage Shiner too much in a fit of hopeless annoyance, because i don't want to meekly come back to it with hat in hand, like the friend who writes off Facebook, only to re-invest in its stupidity a week later.  All Shiner is drinkable.  Good, even.  Shiner serves a purpose, and like listening to music in the car when you're unable to choose it, sometimes it hits you right in the heart.

But what about this Farmhouse?  Will it cause damage to my soul in a fit of flim-flamming what the fuck?

The beer industry is all about underdogs.  Its the very spirit of the industry, actually -- success in the face of poor odds.  In the beer industry, the house often wins -- but sometimes, the small blind pulls rockets against the button.  So, I felt it my due-diligence to take the $2 plunge.

There aren't a whole lot of details to discuss here.  And because I'm always deflecting [AA] as a review site (because we're not, dammit), I want to talk more about the ambiance of FM 966.

Yes, like every other Shiner product I've had, its completely drinkable (hey, I even like Smokehaus!).  Is it going to grace the dinner party table?  Probably not.  But it would likely hold up at a pot luck.

What Shiner FM 966 is, is a lo-fi version of a farmhouse ale.  A rough draft.  Freshman English to Jolly Pumpkin's Master's Thesis.  And that's okay.  Sessionable porch drinking is what Shiner's empire was built around, and this is exactly what you will be doing with this.  In a mix pack.  Because honestly, I probably couldn't finish 6 of these with a serious face.

Nor does it pair well with Elastica. 

ABV 5.7%
Acquired Boring ol' HEB
Can I Find This in Austin? Pretty much everywhere you can flick a pog at.
Album Barenaked Ladies | Disc 1: All Their Greatest Hits 1991-2001 (2001) 

Its almost unfair to legitimately parse Farmhand into this beer article like Jim Duggan AND the Hart Foundation vs. Dino Bravo in Royal Rumble 2.  This is the goddam Pro-Bowl of farmhouse ales -- and none of that selection-refusing, arm-tackling, motion-going exhibition in Hawaii.  This is, like, whatever the first Pro Bowl was like, with hard hits, and game planned complexity, and pride, and whatever mindblowing awe one could muster from the feeling of witnessing a coalition of the planet's biggest, baddest humans paid to kill.

Kill to death.

It is Beethoven reworking Dark Side of the Moon while the USC song girls shoot out a confetti of blotter acid from a t-shirt cannon.  Melt your face, muthers.  Drink this so hard like a boss on a farm.  To death.

ABV  5.o%
Acquired The Big 10 (East Lansing, MI)
Can I Find This in Austin? No, but you can get a bit of an idea by trying their Lips of Faith collaboration w/ New Belgium called Biere de Garde. On Tap at Black Star, or at the better beer outlets.
Album Bon Iver | For Emma Forever Ago (2008), or Beethoven's Dark Side of the Moon

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sculpin India Pale Ale | Ballast Point Brewing | San Diego, CA

One of the hotly debated issues in Texas craft at the moment is the entry of competitive beer labels from popular brewing regions of the US.  Last year, there was an infusion of notably missing American breweries, who prior to the threat of further litigation by consumer champions, Jester King Brewery, were as likely to test the capricious demands of the Texas Alcohol & Beverage Commission's with entry into the state as Lennay Kekua was likely to apply for an advanced degree at the University of Notre Dame.

But recently, breweries like Alaskan, Sixpoint, and Maui have accessed the draw bridge passed the swath of Red River that has kept renowned breweries out, and began peddling their liquid accolades to Texans like Big Red.  And according to the internet, several more breweries with impressive cachets -- like Southern Tier, Founder's and Firestone Walker -- are imminently invading the local stacks at the booze depot as well.

Most recently, one of the big boys in small beer has come to toast our state, and they go by the name Ballast Point out of San Diego, Califas.  Already, they are one of the most locally coveted craft beer brands because what they have brought with them is an innovation for regional Southern California brewing, something only Stone, Green Flash, and Bear Republic have had the opportunity to showcase for Texans.  Its like introducing the fish taco to a brisket-and-egg culture.

Yet with another monumental entry in the local market, brings forth interesting dilemmas from the perspective of the smaller, more localized brewhouses in regards to the competitive sliver of a niche beer community.  While the influx of new and interesting labels is downright orgasmic for the more-intense craft beer consumer, the nature of planting the roses of free enterprise in the form of loosened liquor laws creates the potential for being stabbed by the thorny branches of equal opportunity.  For the casual beer consumer, new national microbrews means less shelf space for local microbrews, creating a theoretical re-appraisal of loyalty.  Does one choose the dependable local or the celebrated national commodity?

And while some local breweries might see Ballast Point's or Firestone Walker's (or whomever) infiltration of the market as a grim visage to capitalism, it does serve as an important reminder for everyone to get their shit together.  Amateur hour is over in Texas because breweries like Ballast Point are about to set some of the records straight about great beer.  Not good beer.  Great beer.  And their friends are following closely behind.

However ...

The reality is, there is vast, VAST room for craft expansion in a beer domain dominated by a 94% market share made up of only three breweries; yeah, THOSE three breweries.

They have all been in Texas since God was a boy and continue to pose the largest threat to craft consumerism.  New craft brands entering the state is not direct competition to the local guys, exactly -- instead, its a cavalry of brotherhood against the tap-aggression posed by Bud, Miller, and Coors, who not only demand their remaining 6% market share, but will deceive at the cost of the consumer.  This is why suddenly, Blue Moon and Shock Top have as many varieties as a 7-11 fountain machine, while continuing to caress the legislation with their left hands for continued control over the prevention of direct sales by the craft brewers.  In the end, a band of brothers is necessary to face oppressive ideology, because after all the shelves have been stacked, craft's primary concern is not other craft competitors, but sessionable, inexpensive, and otherwise insipid beer labels pushing shit like Bud Platinum, Shock Top Vanilla Grey Goose collabs, and Blue Moon's Belgian Monk Pish.  Their clumsy invasion into the craft market at the expense of the little guys is the real insult.

And still, overall, I pretty much never spend time thinking if I will be helping a company by drinking their product, only that by choosing craft itself, I am supporting the industry at large.  I suspect that you are similar in philosophy because this site is written for people like you, and here you are, reading it.   Craft culture is a lifestyle, like dieting or flashmobbing.  And given the choice between the three, which would you rather spread the gospel of?  Drink craft and you will help disable bad beer and gluttonous consumption practices; thereby diminishing the companies who want you to do deplorable shit, like freezing your beer and coordinating public hobo dances underneath interstate overpasses to the lyrical styling of Pit Bull.

This is the beer that I have been waiting a long, looong time to drink on my porch.  To say that I've bugged my pals in the bar industry for months to call their distribution contacts and ask, "Now just what in the fuck?" as Dallasites happily sipped away for nine months in advance of Austin, is to say that Austin is not a shepherd of expatriated beer.  And that is good.  We, as a city, believe that we need to be sold on non-native infiltration, and I applaud Ballast Point's approach to the delicate ethos of our snobby city. 

That said, there was absolutely nothing Sculpin could have done to avert the gigantic, tidal splash it made on Austin's release day -- where dedicated Ballast Point parties were held in various respected beer bars to commemorate its arrival.  Sculpin is nothing short of glorious, letting the minor leagues of Dallas vet our beer for us before pledging for Austin's acceptance.  Take that Dallas! 

Sculpin has one of the most incredible hop balances that I've experienced in a single-style IPA -- a WEST COAST single IPA, nonetheless, which are traditionally forceful with their hop cocks.  With beers like these you have to be careful not to demand the instant satisfaction of refreshment and flavor, but Sculpin is a gentle lover, peaches and mango engagingly interwoven with a pine bite that finishes without flaw.  None of its elements are ever overbearing, but slaps around the chops with dense flavor and a fine bitterness, but leaves the lingering sensation of  'Holy shit! My face! Amazing!'

ABV 7.o%
Acquired East 1st Grocery
Can I Find This in Austin? Citywide at the better beer bars and beer stores.
Album Surfer Blood | Astro Coast (2010)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Horchata Milk Stout | Hops & Grain Brewing | Austin, TX

I recently read that Texas drank 45 million gallons of beer in December of 2012.  We have always been considered a state of debauched madness -- and it was the season for self-medication into a civilized and generally obedient family member -- but that statistic is simply fantastic.  Even if craft beer accounted for a modest margin of that total, it still indicates that there is a progressively growing interest in casual beer, particularly when traditionally, December calls for big Malbecs, fortified wines, rum nogs, and other seasonal spirits.  Moreover, last month was a non-music-festival, non-college-football month, which makes the idea of each Texan consuming almost two gallons per, even more astounding.  The implication here is that adjunct beer from the Big 3 may have even been a sort-of afterthought in favor of large-format craft beer at the Christmas dinner table.  And that makes us go all Judd Nelson at the end of The Breakfast Club.

I think that this statistic resoundingly suggests that beer is now an appendage of the holiday season -- friends not only sharing, but spreading the social anthropology of beer during important events besides the parking asphalt and the 3rd Sleigh Bells show of SXSW; and that is something that we fully endorse and promote on [AA].  But what is most remarkable about this stat, is that it suggests the beer movement is not only an organic one, but one that is approachable.  This is a huge transition for a traditionally craft-deficient state.

And when The Austin Chronicle intimates that two of Austin's Top 10 food blogs of 2012 are sites that singularly concentrate on beer, and when internationally recognized food sites, like Scrumptious Chef, suggest that one of the Top 5 blogs of 2012 was not a food site at all, but a beer blog, and when host sites like The Daily Meal contact beer writers directly to request content, it can be deduced that craft beer is being taken much more seriously as an artisinal consumable than it was even just one year ago.

The success of this communal movement has its roots in modest, but resolute sites like the Austin Beer Guide, You Stay Hoppy Austin, and Bitch Beer Blog, while major beer sites like Beer Advocate, ironic as it is comical, serve to ridicule it with their insular mindset of England for the English!  It invalidates the ideas of inclusivity for the casual beer-curious person and promotes insular groupthink by shutting out pesky newbs -- a subsequent betrayal of the principles we all thought we had signed up for. 

This behavior, naturally, is spearheaded by founder and woeful lunkhead, Todd Alstrom, whom also happens to  be one of the most repellant people on the face of the earth.  His actions and flippant attitude towards other beer enthusiasts is one that can be interpreted as beneath him, which is an attitude that trickles all the way down to his community forums and user-scribed aggregate reviews, thus making it the YELP! of beer -- but with a community of less stable-minded users.  Imagine the horrid place where Yelpers are considered reasonable.

This is why few of industry significance associates with the site or its owners more than they have to, treating it like a rest stop bathroom where one is bound by the emergency of business, but not eager to hang around or really touch anything while inside.  And this is supposed to be the internet home of craft culture.

After some casual sleuthing on the Googletrons about Todd, it turns out that he makes the entire beer landscape fucking sick all over.  I thought that I disliked him with a deranged passion, but I couldn't possibly do so more than Clown Shoes microbrewery or the family he ridiculed as Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast.  Reading around the web, it is a possibility that you haven't really delved into craft beer until you have a negative association with Todd.

Some of the opinions I've read express that Todd can "do whatever he wants ... because it's his site", which is a dangerous and lazy consideration of the subject.  Unfortunately, Beer Advocate is the digital face of the craft movement, and therefore, his responsibility to present its tenuous progress as approachable, welcoming, and warm are ideas that have befuddled him.

Thankfully, there is an equally large and influential counterbalance to Todd's menacing act, and those are the breweries themselves -- headed by figureheads of ambitious entrepreneurs and clever brewmasters.

One example, is Austin Beer Guide's Editor's Choice for Best Beer Advocate, Jake Maddox from Thirsty Planet Brewery who is, without hesitation, one of the most sincere people I've had the pleasure to drink with.  What is spectacular is that Jake has a Jeopardy-like understanding of topics far beyond brewing, which makes him easy to relate to on topics beyond my limited beer expertise.  The entire A-team at Austin Beerworks have the same approachable attitudes, except with a sardonic wit that is as charming as spending an entire afternoon browsing Know Your Meme

Then, there is Josh Hare, owner/brewer of Hops & Grain Brewery, and Austin Beer Guide Reader's Choice for Best Beer Advocate; the consummate earnest-guy-looking-earnest.  You know the one, the dude that makes success look so fucking easy, like 2005 Vince Young or George Strait. 

And despite the accolades, Josh remains humble, approachable, charismatic -- and isn't that truly the mark of beer advocacy?

That is Horchata Milk Stout.  It was brewed in collaboration between Hops & Grain and the winner of this open Greenhouse Series contest where a fan could submit a recipe for a potential future seasonal beer to be made by the brewery if the most people voted for it.  One recipe went 90's NFC East on its competition.  It was like watching an imminent Super Bowl champion move through the playoffs with total dominance.

That winner was my wife.  Homebrewer, ace badass, and, yes, a true beer advocate.  After review of over 70 recipes, fans of Hops & Grain, as well as the brew staff themselves, thought Horchata Milk Stout was worth making and releasing as part of their outstanding small-batch Greenhouse series.

I just about lost my shit, I was so proud.  Over the course of several weeks, Hops & Grain invited her to the brewery to tweak the recipe, replicate her amazing horchata that would eventually infuse the base-stout in the fermenter, stir-in and clean-out, and eventually sample some of the first sips from a mercantile tap.  If that is not the very foundation of brewer-consumer propagation, then such a concept doesn't even exist.

In great company at Drink.Well.
I will be up front and tell you that there is no chance for me to be unbiased in my opinion of this beer.  It is the charming byproduct of sharp intuitiveness and master technique.  It is the adept cooperation between design and execution.  It is the study in the fine art between expert and apprentice.  There is just no way for me to believe that this beer isn't perfect, because beyond the elements of flavor and mouthfeel and other nerded-out beer critique, it was conceptualized with cultural intent as pure as the driven snow.  True beer advocacy.

But beyond all that colloquial bullshit, the beer itself does happen to be fucking amazing.  I was most surprised by its coffee notes and spicy dry cinnamon bark.  There is a subtle sweetness from the rice milk, and a nice, dry finish that implies hard caramel, 70% dark chocolate, hazelnut and dulce de leche.  It reminded me more of an Horchata Latte than an agua fresca, which worked very, very well for a winter seasonal.  And at a clever 7% ABV, it really straddles the elements between the composure of Christmas morning and the depravity of New Years Eve. 

ABV 7.o%
Acquired Drink.Well. American Pub
Can I Find This in Austin? Currently only at DrinkWell and the H&G Taproom (F/2-6, S/12-4)
Album Billie Holiday | Stay with Me (1955)