Monday, March 28, 2011

Anheuser-Busch's purchase of Goose Island

Yeah, yeah, it's all over the waves now. The news dropped about an hour ago and, after careful consideration, I've decided to do a post on it. First off, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune, is the nitty-gritty of the deal:

Big shake up on the local beer scene: Goose Island Beer Co., responsible for the delicious (Bourbon Country Brand Stout) and the hugely popular (312 wheat ale) is being bought out by Anheuser-Busch.

The makers of Budweiser will pay a total of $38.8 million for the brewery on Fulton Street that sends its beers across the globe. Though jarring in an industry that prides itself on independence and creativity, the move isn't completely unexpected. Anheuser-Busch has had a hand in the company since 2006, when the Portland, Ore.-based Craft Brewers Alliance -- of which AB has a minority interest -- took a minority ownership of Goose. AB has played a role in Goose's distribution ever since. Brewmaster Greg Hall, whose father John Hall started the brewery in 1988, will be stepping down and replaced by (the appropriately named) head brewer Brett Porter. Porter was previous head brewer of well-respected Oregon brewery Deschutes Brewery before coming to Goose last year. Goose's two brew pubs in the city, on Clark Street and Clybourn Avenue, are not involved in the deal and will continue to be owned by John Hall and a group of partners.

The camps, at this point, are divided. There are a large amount of people that think that Anheuser-Busch will have an active hand in reducing the quality of the Goose Island brand and that this is a damn travesty. There's the other group of people that say that just because they've bought it doesn't mean you should get your knickers in a twist. Me? I'm in the middle here. There are some concerns that have wafted through my head as I've watched this unfold. To me, I think the pick-up by AB is a double-edged sword. It's nice to see them get extended distribution...but that may ruin them. Here's why.

As a brewer post-grad, there are a few concerns that come to mind in terms of manufacturing the beer. First off is the replacement of Greg Hall as head brewer with Brett Porter (which sounds like a wild fermented porter, really). This is really a short-term problem here as the transition of a head brewers will always bring about inconsistency. A lot of beer making is an organic, hands-on, process. That's why I love it. But when someone that's been brewing these beers for a long time (he is the son of the founder, after all) steps down and is replaced by someone that's been brewing them for a year, there's bound to be incongruities. Even a year-long apprenticeship learning about how to brew the Goose Island offerings won't allow Porter to exactly reproduce their beers. But, given a year or two, this should iron out as he gets comfortable with the brewery.
My major concern really lies with the supply chain issues of Goose Island. One lies with the beers themselves and the other lies with distribution of the beer. For the beers themselves, I can guarantee you that they use adjuncts in their beer. I can almost bloody well guarantee you that they do. An all-malt beer is not exactly easy to drink one after the other (EDIT: A friend of mine mentioned German lagers which raises a fair point. Exceptions to every generalization, I suppose. For our sake, let's look at American beers that generally have higher ABV, upwards of 6% for a "session beer", and body sans adjuncts). If you can drink their beers back to back, there's a likelihood that they're cutting the mash bill with some sort of adjunct. However, it's clear that the adjuncts they're using are of high quality. How do you know? Well, they don't taste like crap, that's why. Good quality raw materials yield good quality end products. Simple as that. However, AB does not use the highest quality adjuncts for it's beers (Bud is a large percentage rice, I believe). You can tell they don't because the quality of the beers they make isn't that great. I'm not saying I don't like Bud (it has it's place) but they definitely have an "adjuncty" taste that's associated with poorer quality raw materials. In this, I hope that Goose Island doesn't have to share the AB supply chain. If Goose Island were to have to draw it's supplies from AB instead of whatever private contractor they're currently using, this may cause a problem with the beer quality since they may very well be using the same adjuncts that are used in the kettle for Bud.

Another problem here is the distribution of Goose Island and what that may do to the beer itself. With a wider distribution range afforded by a linking of AB, this means there will be increased demand. I've never seen the GI brewery myself but I can't imagine that it would be able to handle everything that the consumer base of the AB brand can throw at it. This means that, if they aren't already, they may have to switch to high gravity brewing. High gravity brewing is, in essence, making a beer concentrate and then watering it down. You load your mash bill with almost double the amount of grain and you double the amount of hops in the kettle. You ferment it with plenty of yeast at a high gravity so that it comes out with a high ABV, super potent beer at the end. Then, using deoxygenated water, you filter the beer and cut it down to "sales gravity" or a normal ABV. This allows you to make a potent concentrate in your fermenters that you later cut, giving you a larger production volume for the same size fermenters. While this may sound like a godsend, there are some drawbacks. You do end up with a different chemical profile to the beer (less higher alcohols, more estery goodness). You also get a decreased head retention. Your yeast needs to work harder to cope with the additional sugars (as well as the higher final ABV) so you need to pitch more yeast. And this yeast, because of this stress, can't be used as many times as sales gravity brewing can be. And, most telling of all, the product you make, while consistent, often differs from the sales gravity product. In our program, we brewed both a sales gravity and high gravity beer and put them up in a blind taste test of 25 people. Of those 25 people, 10 could tell the difference between the beers. 40% could tell that there was a taste difference. (EDIT: Another friend brought up the fact that there is no statistical trend based on a test where a guess has a 33% chance of getting it right. While I'm generally inclined to agree, based on the ranges of pass/fail from other groups and their beer styles, I found it telling. Lighter beers tended to be less distinguishable while the darker beers tended to be more distinguishable. Take it as you will). This is not exactly something you want happening in a commercial setting, so they may need to adjust their beers with hop extract or caramel. Either they go high gravity, AB decides its worthwhile to buy them larger volume fermenters, or they have to contract out their beer to other AB facilities. And this is assuming that their beer recipes "work" for high gravity brewing. A lot of their higher ABV beers (even the ones approaching 6%) may not work in high gravity brewing. Since they wouldn't cut the beer as much (most high gravs are looking at ~5%) the flavor profile may not fit the traditionally brewed beer.

Is this to say that I won't drink Goose Island stuff anymore? Hell no. If anything, I'd drink it BECAUSE of these changes. Change is not a bad thing, folks. Change is only a bad thing if it's a change for the worse.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Where Do You Draw the "LOTL" Line?

If you caught my recent cigar post, you'll hear my paltry explanation for why I haven't been doing reviews lately. I'll sum them up for you here, just in case you don't feel like exploring:

1. No time
2. Standing up hurts when your body is a shoddily constructed as mine

Really though, my body is like poorly made building. The construction workers take frequent tea/coffee/whiskey breaks, leaving the proverbial cement of my body to set at lopsided angles. The bricklayers are often drunk or have been spun around in the cement mixer, leaving the brickwork bowed and uneven. There are no architects; there's just a monkey with a crayon. What I'm trying to say is that I've switched to shorter smokes. Much shorter smokes. Alright, I indulge in the occasional cigarette. Fine, have at me.

I can take it. I'm a manly man. Made of cast iron and courage.

Don't hurt me! Oh gods above, I'm so frail.

But unlike many cigarette smokers out there, I'm not hellbent on flooding my bloodstream with nicotine regardless of transferal medium. I like to have cigarettes that taste good. As a matter of fact, one could say that I'm picky about my cigarettes. I've never found a pre-rolled cigarette that tastes good (even the Lucky Strikes lack that burley toastiness). So I hand roll my own cigarettes. And even then, I'm not content to rest on my laurels with one type of tobacco. I mix and match like some sort of deranged tobacco mad scientist or misguided chef. A pinch of this, a touch of that, a sifting of that and then how does it taste. I like to experiment. Taste is always important to me.

This brings me to the crux of the post: am I considered a Lover of the Leaf in this aspect? Does my incessant pursuit of an optimal taste deem me a LOTL? Where does LOTL stop and "junkie" start? I'm not talking in terms of tax reasons here (as we all don't want to pay the ludicrous taxes forced on us) but in terms of what makes a tobacco aficionado a tobacco aficionado. Does that necessarily exclude the "luxury" market of cigarettes? Or, hell, even normal cigarettes. I've seen some cigarette forums out there (yes, there are) that battle with as much tenacity over the flavors of Marlboro 27s as cigar smokers argue over the nuances of the latest Tatuaje release. So I invite you to discuss where the line is drawn in the sand. I'm curious to hear your thoughts. Does a Lover of the Leaf (in its most basic terms) exclude those that smoke cigarettes (luxury or otherwise)?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Supreme Small Panatela - Sunday, March 6th

Yes, yes. A cigar review.

I know I've been lax in the past few months since IPCPR but I have my reasons. They're not particularly good ones nor am I going to say they are an adequate excuse. To start, I have all the IPCPR samples with me but I haven't touched them. What was to be a glorious year spent burning down cigar after cigar in the comfort of my own room crumbled in the first ten minutes of residence in my dorm. Without notifying anyone, they changed the smoking policy from "you may smoke" to "no" over the summer. This left us out in the cold (literally) in terms of smoking. I don't know if you intimately know Scottish weather...but it doesn't make for pleasant smoking conditions. Standing outside in the cold is not a great way to smoke a cigar and I feel that I never get a good sense of a cigar if I'm not enjoying it. And it's hard to enjoy it standing out on a brick patio in the driving rain.

This brings me to another point: standing. You probably don't know this but I have a variety of things wrong with me (physical, this time, not mental) that makes standing for extended periods of time...uncomfy. Overtightened Achille's heels, flat feet, and the body weight of a small rhino make standing for more than thirty minutes...rather painful. Yet again, can't taste shit if I'm not comfortable/enjoying myself.

Those are my reasons but they're no excuse. I'm sorry for letting you down, readers.

That being said...I REALLY want to smoke. It's not like I've given up on smoking. I've just been trying to find shorter smokes. This, unfortunately, means I've been hand-rolling cigarettes instead of cigars (much to my health's chagrin) but slowly I'm branching out into the small cigar territory. This is one exercise in that field.

The Supreme Small Panatela is imported by Hunters and Frankau (more info here). It is made in Holland but with unspecified tobaccos (it seems like most Dutch cigars are made with Java tobacco so I'm going to assume at least some is in there). Here's a photo of 'em:

They look good, don't they. And they sure smell good. But how do they taste? Here's how they taste:

Pre-light draw: Sweet tobacco. Very clean and crisp, almost like a burley. A slight...earthy/moldy funk to it too. Kinda concerning. Oh well.

Since it's so short, I won't bother breaking it up into quarters like I usually do. When you take a puff, the flavor starts out favorable. It has some of that clean and sweet tobacco flavor to start. This evolves into a toast flavor with some roasted peanuts. So far, yum.

Then it hits.

It's an interesting flavor. I'd consider it akin to an herbal liqueur but without any of the favorable herbal depth or flavor. It's just kind of bitter and vegetal. And not vegetal in a good way like a candela wrapper can be. It's like chewing on bitter grass. It wallops the senses hard, mugging them of both cash and capacity to function. All it leaves behind is a slightly green (and very ashy/sooty) aftertaste.

I suppose I can't complain considering the price of these things. I think I paid about £2.66 for 5 of 'em. Will I buy 'em again? Nope. Not worth it at that price either. Their bitterness and grassy flavor far outweighs the positive flavors and price. If you've got any other recommendations for small cigars, leave a comment or send me an email (drinkreviews (AT) gmail [dot] com). I'd love to hear from you. For now, I think I'm going to take a look into more Dutch cigars. These weren't great but I've heard some pretty positive things from other people (and I do rather like Panters).

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In With Bacchus TV?

That happened. Also, follow the directions.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Glenkinchie and Belhaven (Part 2)

After the dram at Glenkinchie, it was time to hop on board the Boozer's Bus and truck on out to Belhaven Brewery, located in a very sunny and picturesque Dunbar. Located almost directly on the North Sea, it is a pleasant town. A pleasant town that we descended upon like hungry and thirsty Huns. Our Motorized Longboat came crashing down the narrow streets as we screamed war cries and threats to all that passed us by. We were there to slay a terrific demon, a horrible eldrich beastie. That dragon's name was Thirst. And slake our thirst we shall. We arrived at the brewery a bit late (we almost left a few people in the gift shop) but we were ready to plunder and pillage. After grabbing our round shields and short swords, we fled the bus like a tide of death, slaughtering all in our path and taking anything not securely bolted down (those that were loosely bolted down were given 2 minutes of work after which we deemed it "securely").

Ok...I lied a little bit. Just a teeny bit. There was no powerful dragon. We didn't have swords. But we were thirsty. And in the end, we did kinda pillage like Vikings. But they let us pillage so it's not really the same. We got off the bus and were awaited by this sight:

Old fashioned brick and stone? Check.

Kegs? Yeppers.

Massive smoke stack? You bet.

Why yes, I believe we're at a brewery. And Belhaven is a brewery that does things right. Really, really right. None of this "Hey, let's go on a tour and then you can have a half pint after before getting rushed onto the bus". Oh no. Belhaven knows that we are partial to a pint or two. So the first thing they do when we get in there? Do we start in the mill? HEAVENS NO!

We start in the bar for a pint.

The name of the bar is "The Monk's Retreat". Don't believe me? Fine:

While I am far from monastic in terms of morality, I do meet the quota on sobriety and the ever important "look like Friar Tuck" quotient. I felt oddly reverent in this bar. It was like stepping up to take Communion. At first, you're always at the back of the line in church and it's always awkward. Walking past people streaming away from the altar having had their delightful Sunday morning pre-brunch snack and drink:

I ALWAYS got stuck in the very back. And I never ate breakfast before church either.
 You start getting closer and that's when the agony sets in. People walk away looking beatified (well, satisfied with having a quick sup during church). Yet again, it happens here:

No Colin, share! For the love of the good god above, share! He would want it that way!
Then you finally get to the front and it's all business then. It's time to put your game face on for Jesus. Same thing at the Monk's retreat:

Sacramental wine AND cracker. In a glass!
Only, at church, you got stuck with that tasteless little Nilla Wafer and a quick snort of what tasted like grape juice with grain alcohol (not that I knew what grain alcohol was at that point). Here, you get a choice of sacrament:

If there was a keg at church, I'd go more. Just saying.
 Ahh, much better. A pint of Belhaven's Best went down a treat:

Blessed be!
After a pint and a chat with a few of the big chiefs of the company the tour began in earnest. The Belhaven brewery is massive and brews a lot of beer. Not only do they brew under their name (Belhaven) but they also brew the base beer for Innis and Gunn as well. They're currently owned by Greene King and are undergoing some restructuring. But not in the traditional managerial sense. No, they're building a new brewhouse that will double their capacity. Which means more Belhaven Scottish Ale (called Belhaven Export over here) to put into my tummy. Everybody wins! We start off with this, directly outside of the Monk's Retreat:

A funny little diagram that displays the flow of the brewery. Interesting and antique looking (it looked like it was from the 50s or 60s). The flashing lights mesmerized me for awhile. It was hard to look away. We then progressed along the tour, stopping first at the mill room:

All chutes and ladders in this room. They use, if I remember correctly, a 4 roller Porteus mill:

We then went to the mash tuns:

While it looks like they use an wooden mash tun (like a whisky washback), it's actually a stainless steel tank shrouded in wood to make it look pretty for tours. Frankly, all the gleaming copper and toasty aromas of good Scottish beer being brewed were prettier than some dumb wood. But that's just me. I'm like a thirsty magpie. Beer and shiny things! Next is the kettle:

Yet again if I remember correctly, I believe they use an external gas fired calandria to heat the wort. When they were talking about upgrading the plant they originally wanted to replace this as a gas calandria is extremely inefficient. But they ended up leaving it in place as they were afraid that it might change the flavor of the beer. Which would make me a very, very sad panda. Next were some of their mini fermenters that they use for their small volume beers or test batches:

One of the cooler things they implemented was an in-line aerator seen here:

Instead of aerating through turbulent flow and just kind of guessing how much dissolved oxygen was in the beer, this lovely set-up injected food grade oxygen into the wort at a precise rate. Yay, science! From here we traveled on to their yeast room:

As you can see, they use a cream yeast to ferment instead of brick yeast (cream yeast is aqueous yeast instead of the yeast that comes in large bales). The room and area around it smelled really good but that might be because the ENTIRE BUILDING smelled like boiling malt. But this area definitely had a wonderful bready smell to it. Finally, their main fermenters:

They're...kinda huge. Let's give this some perspective:

That's UNDERNEATH the main fermenters. I had to take the previous photo on the first landing of two flights of stairs. I was debating whether or not to attach one of those hoses to either a very large jug or my mouth. The tour guide had eyes like a hawk (one of the plant engineers) so I had to leave it be. Soon, my sweets. Soon. After this we got to check out their packaging area:

This is their kegging machine, which was being repaired by a bunch of guys standing around scratching their head. It made me smile as it reminded me of my ENTIRE FOUR YEARS AS A CHEMICAL ENGINEER. Ahhh, nothing like absolute bafflement at what you're doing wrong. Only these guys were getting paid to figure it out. I had to pay $50,000 a year to figure it out. Oh, and so the president of my school could have a jet.

I'm not bitter or anything. Really.

Their bottling plant had just recently been removed (it was more economical to tanker beer to be bottled by Greene King) so there was a giant warehouse with nothing in it. Which was kinda spooky. But, I have a question for you. A test, if you will. Ok, pop quiz, hotshot. You use hundreds of pounds / kilograms of malt every day to brew. What do you do with it? Do you scoop it out by hand. Flush it down the drain. If you're Belhaven...

You shoot it into a dumpster through a pipe with blasts of pressurized air. As we walked by the fragrant smell of spent grain lingered in the air an occasionally you would hear a "pssssssht" and then the dull whump of a huge load of spent grain slamming into either steel or more spent grain. It was rather entertaining to watch. After this we got onto the bus and went home to do work and go to sleep early so we could get up and study for finals in April. Hahaha, oh man, that's funny. No, we went back to the bar. Belhaven, in their infinite Scottish wisdom, realized how much students love free beer and free food. So they obliged us:

That's right. Remember what I said so long ago in my Belhaven Scottish Ale review? I'll refresh you:

"My favorite nitro can and one of my favorite beers. While not as good as real draft Scottish ale, this is like a warm blanket on a cold night for me. This is my comfort beer. This and a good piece of beef and ale pie...with a scotch and cigar to finish it off? There's not a happier man"

Oh yeah. Mhmm. That's what that beer is. A pint of Belhaven Export and a Scotch pie. Free. I was in HEAVEN. It was so good. Ahh, makes me wistful just thinking about the tender spicy meat coupled with the cool, malty brew. Mmmmmmmmm. Here's a picture of the merriment, brought to you by Belhaven:

All in all, this was a fantastic day. Not only was it informative and entertaining, it was filling as well. After having a few drams of Glenkinchie and topping that off with more than a few pints of Belhaven (I had the Twisted Thistle, Belhaven Best, Belhaven Export, Belhaven 80/-, some of the Robert Burns Ale, a sip of the St. Andrews Ale, and half a bottle of some beer they brewed for Canada Day or something) I realized that being a brewing and distilling science student is pretty awesome. So cheers to you, Glenkinchie, for the free tour. And a hearty huzzah to the home of my comfort beer, Belhaven, for free reign of the bar for a few hours and some pies. And, most importantly, cheers to you all for reading this. I'm hoping that this is further proof that I do something and that it will quash those rumors. I do things, it's true.

Occasionally I leave Edinburgh to drink.