keeping an eye on the tree and the forest

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American Beer Trend


In the Beer World, Chocolate and Spice Rule

Jun 14 2010, 1:12 PM ET


There are lots of great beer styles available right now, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all about imperial stouts. They count for 16 of the top 25 beers on and 17 of the top 25 at

The style originated in 18th-Century England, reputedly as a gift to the court of Catherine the Great—hence its original name, Russian Imperial. In recent decades American brewers have been crafting their own version, often called “double imperial.” Confusingly, the newer, American style is often called simply “imperial stout.” Take that, Anglo-Russian Entente.

Both styles pour like motor oil; they’re high in alcohol, between 7 percent and 12 percent, with strong chocolate and malt notes. But Rocky Balboa would be proud: American doubles are even bigger than Russians—they’re sweeter, more alcoholic, and much hoppier. And many American doubles bring a little something extra to the table: they’re often aged, sometimes with vanilla beans, sometimes in whiskey barrels. Other times, they’re brewed with coffee.

Imperial stouts are about as far from pale lagers as you can get. Which, in fact, may explain their popularity. They’re the crowd-pleasing Cabernets of the beer world—heavy, boozy quaffs with popular flavors like chocolate, caramel, and spice. Think German chocolate cake in a bottle, doused in alcohol. High-alcohol beers of all kinds are hot right now, and the popularity of imperial stouts may come partly from the fact that, at 10 percent alcohol by volume or higher, all those flavors are needed for balance.

Imperial stouts resemble wine in another way. Any beer with ABV above 9 percent or so can be stored, and some—particularly imperial stouts—actually need a few years to mellow in the bottle. As a result, people collect, store, and sell them, just like they would fine wines. In some ways, they’re even better than wine: for the price of a cellar-quality wine, a collector could buy a six-pack of an imperial stout, then drink one a year to see how it changes over time.

But there’s something else going on with imperial stouts. They’re not just highly regarded; they inspire cult-like behavior among their fans. That’s in part because, like a Trans Am, imperial stouts are easy to customize. Brew them with cherries, age them in Scotch barrels, throw in some coffee beans from a prize-winning roaster, whatever you want. Release them in a limited edition, and suddenly people who might buy just a bottle or two will want one of each. Goose Island, in Chicago, has got this figured out: not only does it make Bourbon County Stout, aged in Heaven Hill whiskey barrels, but it makes hard-to-find varieties like Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout, brewed with Intelligentsia espresso beans, and Bourbon County Stout Rare, aged for two years in barrels that formerly held 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, among the most expensive bourbons on the market.

Then there’s the beer’s extreme characteristics. Sure, you can do a keg stand, but are you man enough to down an entire bottle of Dogfish Head’s World Wide Stout, at 18 percent ABV?

Then again, you’d be stupid to chug an imperial stout. Not only are they among the most expensive domestic beers, but they’re also among the hardest to find. It takes a lot of skill, time, and resources to make a barrel-aged beer, something only the better craft brewers can handle. And despite imperial stouts’ popularity, they’re hardly session beers, and they’re no fun on a hot summer day; as a result, most brewers limit their production to seasonal runs, producing limited amounts for a limited amount of time.

For reasons I’ve never fully fathomed, some of the best imperial stouts are released just one day a year. Like hajjis to Mecca, fans will travel to places like Portsmouth, New Hampshire, home of Portsmouth Brewing’s Kate the Great, or Munster, Indiana, home of Three Floyds’s Dark Lord, to get their hands on a few bottles.

At first glance, this makes no sense. Why would a brewery so severely limit the output of its best-known product? Most folks, even most beer lovers, will never taste a drop of Kate the Great. Then again, that’s a great way to make sure everyone wants to try your beer.

Mysteries of Guiness Revealed


Here is a recent article I saw at that I thought was interesting.Article by email The Alström BrosChampion of Beer in The Halls of Beerdom w/ 6045.8 Beer Karma points / 04-11-2006

When most people think of Guinness, they think of that dark stuff with the creamy smooth head that takes ages to pour. But Guinness is serious big business. Operating breweries around the world, it sells 10 million pints in more than 150 countries daily. Due to its size and its affiliation with parent company Diageo – a massive international conglomerate – it has been the subject of much debate among beer geeks over the years.

Politics aside, we’ve always been Guinness fans. So when we heard that Fergal Murray, one of the company’s head brewmasters, was in town for a promotional pub crawl, we just had to tag along. Our goal: to debunk some of the rumors and unravel some of the mysteries of the Guinness brand, while enjoying a pint or two along the way.

Brewing Process
Guinness Draft. Mysterious, ain't it?Murray explained that the recipe for Guinness has undergone only minor adjustments over the years. Every keg of Guinness Draught imported to the US comes from St. James’s Gate in Dublin (though Guinness Extra Stout is made in Canada). It contains water, malt, roasted barley, hops and yeast – and that’s it. Like many major labels, Guinness relies on “high-gravity brewing,” which involves large batches of wort (unfermented beer) high in fermentable sugars (note to beer geeks: the goal is a final gravity of 1072). Eventually these are watered down to attain a 4.2 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). The brewers also blend batches to aid in consistency, and the beer is pasteurized.

What Guinness wouldn’t confirm or deny is the rumor that a portion of each batch is aged in very old oak tuns populated with Brettanomyces and lactic acid bacteria to lend Guinness its characteristic touch of sourness. Supposedly, it’s then pasteurized and blended into the remainder of the batch.

As for the hops, the vast majority hail from the US, with some European hops to round things out. The brewers look for high levels of alpha acids (these are the source of hops’ bitterness) in order to get more “bang for their buck,” as Murray put it.

And then there’s Guinness Essence, a key ingredient in the beer brewed outside of James’s Gate. Basically Guinness without the alcohol, Guinness Essence is shipped from Dublin to Guinness breweries and contractors around the world, where it’s added to a base beer brewed locally. The entire process is conducted according to strict guidelines; according to Murray, it lends a “touch of Dublin” to every batch, regardless of place of origin.

Guinness Brewmaster, Fergal Murry, enjoy a pint of the black suff.A lot of Guinness lovers swear the beer’s color has recently changed from black to ruby red. Murray insisted otherwise; rather, only certain types of glassware (like the company’s own narrow-bottomed vessels), he said, truly showcase the beer’s ruby hue.

It’s commonly believed that dark beer is heavy beer. Guinness’s super-creamy head only adds to its rep for richness. (The head is the result of a special gas blend of around 60 percent nitrogen to 40 percent carbon dioxide; cans and bottles of Guinness include a specially designed widget that disperses a nitrogen blend.) But Guinness has only 125 calories and 10 carbs per 12-ounce serving – fewer than pale-yellow Budweiser.

According to Murray, Guinness should be served at 42 degrees Fahrenheit in the glass. If it’s any warmer, unwanted flavors might emerge; any colder, and desirable flavors might be lost on a numb palate. What about Guinness Extra Cold, you ask? It’s actually only 1 degree colder; the label is mostly a marketing ploy aimed at consumers who balk at the thought of “warm beer.”

Foreign Extra Stout (FES)
Beer lovers are constantly asking: “Why can’t I get Foreign Extra Stout in the US?” FES being the much loved 7.5 percent version of Guinness found in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Murray noted that it doesn’t make any business sense, and that Guinness runs through some big distributors nationwide. Most are old-school and not in the biz of dealing with specialty brands. They’d most likely not put any effort into selling it, not know what to do with it, and not want to focus on anything that might cut into their Guinness Draught cash cow. As much as we’d love to see it in the US, we’d have to agree. It’d be a damn shame to introduce this beer to the US and have it rot on the shelves.

So there you have it. Next time you enjoy a pint of Guinness, you’ll do so with a bit more knowledge.

Of God and Beer: John Piper and Jim Koch, Strange Bedfellows


Awhile back, I had the opportunity to go to the Publick House in Brookline with Dr. James; I think it was January 24th. The reason we went is because Beer Advocate was sponsoring a night with Jim Koch (=”cook”), the founder of Samuel Adams (Boston Beer Company) to present Four Beers, Four Courses. It was really a time for Jim to talk about how good beer should be paired with good food. So as we were served each beer with each course of the meal, he would exegete the beer and talk about its placement with the food. What struck me while watching him and listening to him was his spirit sounded eerily familiar too me; not just because I’ve seen him on TV. Then it struck me: Jim Koch is the John Piper of beer. Hear are two guys advocating the same thing (namely, depth/passion) for two different things (namely, Beer and God). How seldom it is to see two of the same type of person going parallel to each to different ends? You tell me what you think.Here’s a blurb from Tim Ellsworth’s article back in 1999 about Piper in “The Tie,” a magazine of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, entitled, “John Piper: God’s Glory His Passion“:While writing a book on Romans 9 during a sabbatical while professor at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minn., Piper heard a clear word from the Lord.”The God of Romans 9 seemed to be saying to me, ‘I will be heralded and not just analyzed. I will be proclaimed and not just explained,'” Piper said.The rest, as they say, is history. Piper left the academic field and became pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn., where he’s been for almost 20 years. It’s in that position Piper has become one of the most popular and respected preachers and authors around. Books to his credit include such titles as Desiring God, God’s Passion for His Glory, The Supremacy of God in Preaching and many others. World magazine recently listed his The Pleasures of God as one of the century’s top 100 books.Just from reading the titles of his books, it’s easy to see how God-centered Piper’s ministry is. But where does that emphasis come from?”Theologically it comes from the insight that God is God-centered,” Piper said in an interview with The Tie during his recent visit to Southern Seminary. “God exists in order to display God, in order to make God known for the enjoyment of His people. So, the ultimate purpose of my existence and your existence and this seminary’s existence is to know God and delight in God and thus display God.

Here is a blurb of an article done back in 2001 by Jamie Allen of CNN, “Samuel Adams Brewer Jim Koch: Beer Career” under the heading, “A passion for beer”:

Koch took the roundabout way to entrepreneurial success. After graduating cum laude in 1971from Harvard College with a degree in government, he worked for Outward Bound for three years. He later went back to Harvard, earning a JD from the law school and an MBA from the business school.

After spending six years consulting business leaders on how to profit, Koch decided to start his own company.

He’s known for running Sam Adams with a laid-back, hands-on style, visiting face-to-face with employees out in the field. Though he holds a number of titles with his company, his business card reads the same as it did when he first started more than 16 years ago: Jim Koch, Brewer.

To be a successful brewer, Koch says, you need talents that aren’t taught at Harvard. You must have beer-making in your blood.

“You’ve got to have passion for beer, a good palette, you’ve got to be able to blend the science of beer with the art of what makes a great beer,” he says.

In those working hours, Koch’s love of beer is tested, or rather he tests it. He receives a bottle from every batch of Sam Adams, which he tastes.

All told, Koch says he sips from four to six beers a day, and he’ll drink “two or three more for pleasure.”

Just look at the parallels, I mean two guys have fathers in the “business” that they eventually take on, they set off to have “successful” careers and they both leave them behind to pursue their greater passion. Both of them are spoken of warmly by their peers, and although they are both very popular in their circles, both have very little of their respective “market shares” in a national perspective (Jim said that Sam Adams has about a .5 percent of the market in the US, while Piper didn’t even make Time’s top 25 most influential evangelicals). You can go into any restaurant chain in the country and get Sam Adams on tap, just like you can go into any Barnes & Noble in the country and find a few Piper books on the shelf. It is interesting that these two quality “works” are overlooked time and again for things “less heavy”! Oh that we would pursue depth in our beer and our God!

Above you see both of these guys doing what they do best: preaching their respective Gospels.

Beer Tasting and the Glory of God


I have been fascinated lately with and posting reviews of different beers I’ve been able to enjoy. You can check out my profile on their website here. One event they are sponsoring is a night with Jim Koch, the founder of Sam Adams, at The Publick House in Brookline. I still need to find out how much this costs. But all local friends are invited to come with me! Yesterday Kalila and I went over to enjoy an evening with our friends Matt and Kayle. Before we headed over, I stopped over to Beverly Beer & Wine and picked up some of Dogfish Head‘s special brews, including the Olde School Barleywine, the World Wide Stout, the 120 Minute IPA, and the Raison D’extra. The Olde School Barleywine was $12 for a 4-pack. Each of the others were $9 a piece for a single 12 oz. bottle. I’m going to leave the link for my profile at Beeradvocate under the Brew links on the right panel. Cheers!