Blog of an aspiring foodie

Goose Island – 18+ months later

Posted by ytee on 26-December-2013

In April 2012 the Brazilian-based AB-Inbev global brewing conglomerate bought Goose Island Brewery for ~$40M. The craft beer community immediately freaked out about it. The majority opinion was that the Goose Island we knew and loved was no more – that AB-InBev was planning a SABMiller Celis-style acquisition and digestion, or that the beloved Chicago-based regional craft brewer would just become another brand in the ‘crafty’ big brewer’s portfolio, taking a place alongside Shock Top, American Ale and other craft beer similes.

I’ll admit, I was part of the doom and gloom naysayers in those early days. AB-Inbev (even before InBev’s acquisition of Anheuser-Busch) had not shown a penchant for even understanding ‘craft’ beer, much less taking over the operation of one of the hallmark breweries of the American craft beer renaissance. Back in the late 2000′s AB  had been associated with Goose Island through the Craft Brewers Alliance, a cooperative organization of GI with AB and other American craft brewers to share production and distribution of their beers and expand their reach. The scuttlebutt on the CBA was that it provided the participating breweries with much needed capital for expansion as well as a regional network of breweries to ‘contract’ production. Most importantly, AB was the exclusive partner for coordinating distribution – providing the CBA member brewers with access to the national network of AB-exclusive distributors.

Goose Island’s participation in this venture was not the same as its fellow craft brewers. Unlike Kona, Red Hook and Widmer Brothers, Goose Island beer didn’t start appearing on supermarket shelves or on tap walls previously dominated by Bud and Bud Light, certainly not here in Texas. As I understand it Goose Island did contract for some of it’s beers and made some of the beers for the other participants, but (with some exception) maintained a regional Chicago and Midwest area focus with its business.

Regardless of the details of the venture with the CBA, the main differentiator between Goose Island and the other partners was their reputation with craft beer consumers (including me) for quality. The original brewpub on Clybourn in Lincoln Park was well known nationally for inventive and tasty products. The specialty Belgian-style beers and Bourbon County Stout especially were well respected and just darn good. The normal lineup of English-style ales (pale ale, IPA and brown) were quite tasty and a rarity in the US craft beer market so focused on bold American styles. 312 – their so-called ‘urban wheat ale’ was nothing special taste-wise but a nice play to dislodge Bells Oberon from the hands of Chicagoans just getting into ‘craft’ beer.

The rumors behind the sale were varied. Most centered around issues of capacity and expansion – that the pressures from the explosion in the US craft beer market coupled with the growth of the CBA nationally were simply too much for Goose Island to grow into without help from a deep-pocketed partner. The bottom line seemed to be that Goose Island had simply grown as big as it could have as a regional brewer, and to make that next step to a national brand needed to go ‘all-in’ with a contract partner like CBA or find a buyer outright. There were inevitable rumors of a pure sellout – that the owners (John Hall et.al.) were just looking for a payday, but the press releases and spin from all sides focused on the clear talking points – more capacity, AB is leaving GI alone. However, coupled with rumors that ABInbev was buying trademarks across the country for ‘Urban Wheat Ales’ named after local area codes and the craft beer community was twisted into knots. Much tearing at hair and gouging at eyes commenced, with many pronouncing the death of a beloved pioneer of American craft brewing.

So, 18 months later what actually came to pass? From a Texan perspective, my opinion is that the merger has been a ‘good’ thing for craft beer consumers and that most of the public committments that were made have been kept. Goose Island beers are more widely available across the country than they ever have been. The Belgian series – Sofie, Matilda, Juliet, Pepe Nero, Pere Jacques – started appearing nearly everywhere in the Houston area, on tap and in stores. Honkers Ale, 312 and IPA started showing up as well. Texas and Houston got the first distribution of Bourbon County Stout and the first allocations of other rarities.

On the negative side, I find Honkers, IPA and 312 to be shadows of the versions I’ve had over the years on visits to Chicago. This could be changes in my own palate, some amount of displacement of negative feelings for ABInBev sneaking in or a mixture of all of that, but I don’t like them and I don’t buy them. To ABInBev’s credit they changed the labels for the standards to indicate the brewery where they are made and packaged – the 312 we get in Houston is coming from the AB brewery in Fort Collins and Honkers from upstate New York (Baldwinsville). We also haven’t seen an explosion of light wheat ales named after area codes, but who knows what may be next.

I’ll pick a nit with the local AB distributor as well – Silver Eagle Brands – for although they seem to have learned a great deal about craft beer in the last 5 years and specifically are doing a much better job with allocations of rarities and special beers like Bourbon County Stout, my local HEB and Kroger seem to always have cases of Sofie and Matilda stacked on a (non-refrigerated) end cap. I’ve seen basically zero marketing for the any of the beers, and I worry that treating these pretty great Belgian-style beers like cases of Bud Light is eroding what little brand value they might have with the ‘normal’ consumer – but again I’m picking a nit here. There have also been a few ‘tap takeovers’ that failed because of a lack of understanding of the products, a basic fail in coordination or in the cases I’m aware of, both. The guys at Silver Eagle seem to finally understand what they have with their craft portfolio, but making the transition from slinging cases off trucks to placing special products and working the unique marketing of those products remains a challenge. Goose Island still isn’t positioned to sell in Houston, and that bothers me.

All in all, picking nits with the handling of marketing is not the conclusion to this post – the conclusion is that the ABInBev purchase has been a radically good thing, so far, especially for the consumer. I can now buy Goose Island beers I enjoy basically at my leisure wherever I want. Rarities like Bourbon County are harder to get but don’t involve a plane ticket or a UPS box filled with beers for trade. These are good things, and I’ll even say that this purchase could be seen as a model for how the big boys can get into the US (and global) craft market effectively.

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How to improve ‘The Chase’ for Divine Reserve

Posted by ytee on 15-August-2012

Another Saint Arnold Divine Reserve release has come and gone, and now that the dust has settled a bit I thought it might be worthwhile to offer some suggestions on how this process might be improved ever so slightly in the future. Before I get to that, some background points.

First, I’m not in the industry and I can only imagine the enormous challenge the three-tiered system offers to manufacturer, distributor and retailer when a limited release high demand product is put to market. Even when managed well these challenges are often shifted on to the consumer in the form of shortages and a complete lack of transparency on availability. Each release seems to offer a slightly different look at the inefficiencies in the system that gets beer to the consumer in Texas. DR12 was no different.

Second, I realize that changes in how this beer gets to market won’t fix the basic issue – an imbalance in supply and demand. There are more people out there wanting it then there is beer – that’s why it sells out so quickly. However, I think there are three things that could be done to make ‘the chase’ for this beer more fun, increase the profile of the beer itself and perhaps improve the chances that everyone who wants to try it gets the chance.

Finally, these suggestions would have to be implemented across the tiers – manufacturer (Saint Arnold), distributor (Silver Eagle, et.al.) and the various retailers would all have to be willing to make the changes I am proposing. I think it would be worth it for all of us – the fourth tier.

Suggestion one – release the beer on draft for a period of time before it is at retailers

This would give people a chance to actually try the beer before they go drop $16 on a six pack only to discover they don’t like it. I recognize this could be a bit counterproductive, as many of the DRs are intended for aging and so don’t often taste especially great on release day. However, I’ve gotten DR from many friends who bought it blind only to realize they hated it. Those friends typically never buy another DR release again. I would suggest this be at least one week ahead of retail release.

Suggestion Two – Hold bottle/growler release ‘parties’ ahead of retail release at on-premise accounts that can sell to-go

Bottle release parties on brewery grounds are how limited release beers are done at other breweries, and they are awesome. Unfortunately, this amounts to dock sales and so is clearly illegal in Texas (although we’re working on that). Today DR release day is a giant chase around town, passing time in line at grocery stores and hoping a lead pops up on Twitter. Imagine for a moment it instead is a beer festival at places like Hay Merchant and Petrol Station. Special beers are tapped all day, DR is on cask and draft, and a limited amount of bottles and growlers are sold for takeaway. Kegs could be allocated specifically for growler fill at these locations. It would be, in a word, badass. There would need to be careful coordination between retailer and distributor here to avoid running afoul of three-tier restrictions, but this is done regularly with special casks and during pub crawls. Why not have a ‘bottle release’ – just not at the brewery?

It seems like there’s a chance this would alienate important accounts that have full liquor licenses and so cannot sell to-go (places like Flying Saucer, Common Table and Avenue Pub … ) but that’s what suggestion one is about. I would take a vacation day to enjoy an event like this even if it were on a weekday. That leads me to …

Suggestion Three – release bottles at retail accounts on a Saturday

Again, I’m not in the industry so I don’t know how much more expensive/hard it would be to roll trucks on a Saturday to release the beer to the various accounts – but as a consumer I’m absolutely begging to get the release day off of weekdays. I can afford to spend a Saturday morning driving around a little looking for Divine Reserve. I work during the week. I will not take vacation to do it on a Tuesday or Wednesday. It’s not fun (see above), and usually I am buying it without having tried it. No thanks.

Those are my suggestions. What do you think?

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Russian king crab – bad or good?

Posted by ytee on 27-July-2012

Well, the clear answer to this question is an easy one: of course Russian king crab is good. It’s king crab for goodness sake.

However, this specific seafood raises some questions. I had seen king crab specials on at various restaurants around town, usually in the late winter. I assumed this was because that was when the king crab harvest was coming in from the Bering Sea. I mean, I watch Deadliest Catch. I know all about this stuff, right? ;-)

What really got me wondering whether perhaps my television-based knowledge was lacking was a short trip to Seattle this past May. A restaurant there was advertising a live king crab special. I was intrigued, as I didn’t remember seeing live king crab on a menu before (I figured out later this wasn’t really true) – most of what I had ever had before was frozen (still delicious). The timing had me asking questions though. May? Wasn’t the Bering Sea season over by Christmastime? A quick check to Wikipedia added to my suspicion: the season generally lasts between October and January.

So where the heck were these crabs coming from? I took to Twitter … and got an answer: Russia.

Makes sense. Russia borders the Bering Sea, and certainly has crab fleets. However, my aforementioned Wiki entry also had a reference to the Monterey Bay Aquarium ‘Seafood Watch’ list, which notes Russian king crab as a species to avoid based on the fact that the Russian fishing fleet does not follow sustainable fishing practices. As I generally try to follow the guidelines of the list, I didn’t take advantage of the special while I was in Seattle. But on my return home I started thinking …

I realized I was mistaken, and had seen plenty of king crab at times outside of the magic window of the Alaskan Bering Sea crab season. King crab legs appeared at the seafood counter at my local Kroger nearly every major holiday (especially Fathers Day – in June!), and I was reminded one dark night on the Southwest Freeway that we have a local restaurant advertising live king crab nearly all the time – Fung’s Kitchen.

Were all of these places serving crab that wasn’t sustainable? Was this some secret rent-taking on crab that I had been missing all this time? I took back to the ‘Net.

It turns out that the Soviet Union introduced the red king crab into the Barents Sea back in the 1960′s as a way to increase the economic impact of crab fishing for the country. The Barents Sea is a LONG way from the Bering Sea – but still in Russian territory. Seems at the time the experiment was considered a failure – but 50 years later the fishery has exploded – and crabs are showing up as far west as the North Sea – and this report was from 8 years ago.

Add on top of this crab explosion the rumor I had always heard that the Bering Sea crab harvest was being sent nearly exclusively to Japan – kani is popular, after all – and I started to suspect that all this ‘out of season’ crab I was seeing at Kroger in a Houston suburb was coming from the Barents Sea, from a fishery that was based on an invasive species that some think, well, needs eating. This opinion formed in contrast to what the pre-printed boxes of Kroger-branded frozen king crab say – ‘from the Alaskan Arctic Waters of the Bering Sea’

This nearly year-old post on the general hounding board at Chowhound.com asked the same question that was beginning to crop up in my own mind. Was the Monterey Bay ‘avoid’ rating really based more on the premise that sustaining the Alaskan Bering Sea crab fishery required prices to stay high – and that introducing copious amounts of Barents Sea crab to the market could collapse the US industry altogether?

Was the ‘avoid’ rating based more on the economics of the Alaskan crab fishing market and not necessarily just fishing practices?

That’s a binary conclusion to a situation full of shades of gray – it’s entirely possible/probable that the Russian fleet uses unsustainable practices in their Bering Sea fishing. Making sure that a truly sustainable crab fishery stays alive is an objective to try and achieve. But who really cares if they use unsustainable practices on an invasive in the Barents Sea? Especially if it means more crab for me – AND since most Bering Sea crab seems to be going to Japan, isn’t that what I’m getting at least most of the time? Of course that assumes the Russians are selling their Bering Sea catch in Japan as well – probably not much of a stretch. Bottom line – I’m not sure I’m going to stop eating Russian king crab – and I for darn sure am going to eat it live if I can find it again.

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Food Town – a love story

Posted by ytee on 24-July-2012

I love budget grocery stores.

There. I said it.

I own a home in the Clear Lake City area. I’m proud of my house and my neighborhood (as proud as one can be in the ‘burbs, I guess), but this area was missing something, food-wise. We had a Kroger Signature, and another giant Kroger, and an HEB with ‘Market’ in the name, and a fancy Randall’s that was one of the first that Safeway remodeled into the new ‘lifestyle’ layout.

That’s all fine and good – but I really didn’t feel like I had ‘my’ store until our new Food Town opened.

Food Town is a downmarket grocery. I think it’s part of the Gerland’s chain. It’s the kind of place that has a cell phone accessories vendor next to a ‘We Buy Gold’ counter in the front of the store. It isn’t fancy. It’s not a ‘lifestyle’ store … at least for the majority of suburban Clear Lake City.

Food Town in Clear Lake is in the space the original Randall’s out here vacated when they made the big transformation at the other store. It’s in the midst of probably the largest concentration of multifamily housing in the area. It’s, in a few words, kind of ghetto.

And I love it.

Why? Because they have some of the freshest food around, and no one knows (well, no one in the suburban housing just miles away – at least it seems like it)

The produce at Food Town is among the freshest in CLC. Prices are low, and selection is great. There is a dedicated south and east Asian section. Bitter melon is always on hand, and I’ve seen jackfruit as well (when in season). There’s an entire cold case of Latin-American style cheese, many made here in Houston, and 5 types of crema (at least); my favorite is Honduran, ’cause it’s so darned salty!. There is a  nice selection of meats from the big packers in the golden triangle area of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, TX. Want to make your own boudin? No issues – the meat department sells all those cheap cuts you’ll pay extra for at the big stores or find only in the frozen case. Dairy has products from Houston’s own Oak Farms, and there’s a wall of Mexican sodas.

Unlike the ‘tortilleria’ at Kroger and the HEB down the road they don’t make their own … but unlike those stores you’ll easily find great corn tortillas. Food Town is the only outlet in Clear Lake I’ve found that carries multiple brands made in Houston

The beer selection isn’t the best – but they have the cheapest Saint Arnold Endeavour in the Bay Area – $4.99 for a bomber. I expect to see Karbach any day now.

You cannot always find everything – sometimes I have to make a stop over at Kroger for decent coffee or for a personal care product – but I shop at Food Town consistently … when I’m not shopping at the Fiesta on Edgebrook and I-45 (THEY HAVE A LIVE BLUE CRAB TANK Y’ALL!)

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Why can’t the big brewers make good beer?

Posted by ytee on 12-February-2012

It’s been a while since I posted a single word to this space. Most of my thoughts and research projects that used to turn into blog posts get vented out on Twitter instead. However, the answer to the question in the title deserves more than a series of 140 character ramblings that disappear into the ether of the Interwebs.

The basic premise of my question is this:

Big brewers – and by big I really mean AB-Inbev, SABMiller and Molson Coors – seem unable to make good beer. From time to time one of them may surprise with a brand success, but it quickly gets marginalized into the overall ‘portfolio’ or morphed into a meaningless brand that consumers seek out for the name instead of the contents of the package. There seems to be no reason for this. Good beer, in my experience, is made by skilled brewers and taken to market by distributors with a wide reach and a solid understanding of a given territory. The big brewers have no end to these resources. They also have large staffs of saavy marketing professionals who can do an excellent job of developing brand strategies and getting a product’s story to consumers.

These seem like huge advantages. So why can’t they do it?

It seems to me it comes down to one major factor: Large firms struggle to encourage innovation within their corporate culture.

These firms are massive industrial operations.  Encouraging innovation can be counter-intuitive to the things that have made the company historically successful, and so it is really a challenging thing to do. This concept – striking the balance between encouraging innovation and maintaining exceptional operations – stretches well beyond the brewing industry. It makes me think about a GE commercial from a few years ago featuring an elephant dancing in the jungle. The implied message of that image is that an industrial behemoth like GE was still agile enough to innovate. It also showed a recognition that innovation was the real engine of long term growth.

All this B-school talk aside I think this has major repercussions in an industry long defined by brutal fights over percentage point moves in the sales of well-marketed but tasteless products. Developing and successfully selling a product that is expensive to make and will never – ever- be as big as the big brands is simply antithetical to the culture of these organization. As we like to say at the big company I work at, ‘You can ask the elephant to dance but just don’t try to polka.’

In order to encourage innovation and independent thinking, firms of all types will sometimes setup largely autonomous subsidiaries with a distinct mission that may vary from the larger corporate parent. Some of the big brewing firms have tried to build independent units like this. MolsonCoors has arguably been the most successful with it, harvesting the Blue Moon brand from The Sandlot microbrewery at Coors Field, and brewing some tasty products (and selling them that way) out of their independent AC Golden brewery. AB-Inbev and SABMiller have been largely unsuccessful with this concept, with the 2008 spinoff of Michelob into a separate company stumbling in the shadow of sister-macro product Ultra, and Miller not really trying – although the push of Leinenkugel nationally may have been an attempt in this direction.

The trouble has been that the products seem to suffer from integration into the larger promotional machinery of the firm. What gets marketed as ‘craft’ by the larger entities usually has been made with shortcuts which impacts quality and get’s marketed like the other brands, i.e. focusing more on the label instead of the contents of the container.

How much great beer is coming out of the pilot breweries at these behemoth organizations? We may never know – but I feel confident that the people working at these firms are creating it and it’s just never getting sold.

I think there are other dynamics that impact whether a large brewer could successfully market a product based on quality. Distributor partnerships are critical. These influential regional partners seem likely to be optimized for the logistics of managing the massive volume big brands, and so it seems natural they would push hard against fragmenting that into a set of smaller niche ‘good’ beer that doesn’t fit that mold. I also think consumers would have a hard time accepting a ‘good’ product from the large firms – a lot of bad beer has been pushed on them for a long time, and a not small percentage are resentful of big company products in the base case. Those barriers are real.

In the end I think it’s all about building a culture of innovation and integrating what comes of it into the top level strategies of the organization. If these firms keep trying to sell good beer using the tools that sell bad beer, I do not think they will be successful.

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See, it all started over a Kristall Weizen …

Posted by ytee on 16-April-2011

The news is that Texas Wheat is being discontinued.

*yawn*

At one time I was a huge fan of Kristall Weizen. I used to buy it by the case. I homebrewed a clone of it a number of times. Heck, I just made the clone again last year (there’s a recipe in the venerable DeFalcos book). I’ll never forget the flavor of that beer, and how unique it was. A slight sweetness to the wheat, but balanced with a nice hop flavor up front. Just a hint of hop bitterness,  floral and spicy. No notes at all of banana or clove, some of the Saint Arnold house yeast character and a whole lot of bready aftertaste. I loved this brew. However, back in the day when I was buying it by the case, I just knew I liked it. I hadn’t really thought about why.

When I was first getting into craft brewing, I went through the normal discovery period of wheat beers: hefeweizen (for me, Paulaner), witbiers (Hoegaarden) and the fun flavors those beers throw at your palate. However, during my ‘wheat discovery’ phase, most American craft brewers still were making an ‘American’ style wheat beer. These were most often brewed with a large percentage of malted wheat in the grain bill, just like their Belgian and German counterparts,  but were hopped a little more heavily, fermented with clean finishing yeast and usually (but not always) filtered clear. Here in Houston we didn’t get too many of these, and so having Kristall Weizen around was a real plus.

I absolutely fell in love with this style. I felt like it featured wheat flavor more prominently, and man oh man did I love that bread-like, wheat nuttiness on the finish. I must have gone through a sixer a week of Sierra Nevada Wheat (R.I.P.) alongside my Saint Arnold Kristall Weizen.

However, there was something slightly different about Kristall Weizen that I liked very much, and it wasn’t just the little hint of the Saint Arnold yeast character. As a beginning homebrewer, it was the first beer that I really wanted to understand – to know what the ‘trick’ was to it. I got my answers one Saturday afternoon about 11 years ago at the brewery. I tracked down Brock and asked him specifically about what made Kristall Weizen so darn tasty and sessionable.

He immediately started by explaining the critical importance of Liberty hops in the finish of the beer, pointing out the specific floral aroma and slightly spicy flavor it added. He went on to tell me how it wasn’t all that popular of a hop but was one he loved a lot for it’s balance between the traditional flavors of English and the Noble hop varieties. I was hooked. Before we had talked, I couldn’t have explained why I liked Kristall Weizen, just that I did. Brock had just nailed down a very specific flavor component that I definitely enjoyed very much. To this day I consider Liberty hops among my favorite varietals. Every time I buy them I think of this story. I rarely brew a batch of homebrew that doesn’t use them in some way. I also consider that conversation at the Saint Arnold tour as one of the big turning points for me to really start thinking about what I was tasting and why I liked it – the start of a true obsession with tasting and enjoying craft beer.

This was also a big reason why I began to try and learn about the different types of flavors that various hop varieties can contribute to beer, a pursuit I continue today. All because of a silly wheat beer Brock apparently didn’t even want to make.

The rebranding of the beer to ‘Texas Wheat’ was understandable. As general knowledge of craft beer grew, people expected a wheat beer with a German name to be a German hefeweizen. However, sales continued to underperform and that wasn’t helped by how hard it was to find a sixer or a tap, especially after the launch of Lawnmower. On top of that, tastes were changing, and the American Wheat Ale was getting squeezed in brewer’s portfolios by other more popular brews, including the now ubiquitous Blonde Ale and IPA.

At some point Saint Arnold changed the recipe for Texas Wheat and suddenly all that wonderful hop character was gone. I don’t know if this happened at the rebrand or sometime after, but ever since that time the brew might as well have been dead to me. It’s still a tasty wheat beer, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable and I stopped drinking it. Apparently so did everyone else, as now it has gone the way of most other American Wheat Ales.

Here’s hoping Brock dusts off that original Kristall Weizen recipe someday and gets inspired by his appreciation for Liberty hops to brew another batch. I’d be first in line to buy a case.

Note, I learned last week that there actually isn’t a recipe in the DeFalcos book. My recipe is one that Scott must have made up for me on the fly one visit.

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Some thoughts on Moveable Yeast series

Posted by ytee on 20-February-2011

A comment on Ronnie Crocker’s ‘Beer TX’ blog got me riled up. I originally was posting a comment to his blog and realized I was getting into the hundreds of words. Ronnie had posted an update on the new Moveable Yeast release from Saint Arnold, the Brown Ale fermented with a saison yeast. You can read the post yourself for the deets, but the first comment got my hackles up:

“It’s been interesting and educational to see just how dramatically yeast — beer’s unheralded ingredient — can affect the way a beer tastes.”

Not interesting in the least. Homebrew 101. It’s a gimmick, and it’s not clever–except from a marketing standpoint. I wish St. Arnold’s well but I keep my expectations low.

Everything’s a gimmick. Here’s a few to choose from:

  • The impossible to obtain, once a year release of a huge ‘Imperial Stout’ or ‘American Strong’  that only a small percentage of beer consumers will actually drink and enjoy. I happen to enjoy this gimmick myself.
  • The ‘collaboration brew’ between two (or more) big famous creative breweries, and the resulting scramble all over the country to get each breweries ‘version’ of the beer. I like this gimmick too.
  • The ‘commemoration brew’, either of the anniversary of the brewery’s start in business or some other beer-worthy event in history.
  • The periodic release of a beer that needs to immediately be stored in a cellar-type environment for at least 6 months, maybe a year. This one I’m not so fond of, but I participate in it because I have the space to store the beer and often can get some really tasty results with some waiting.

I’ve left some out, but in my opinion those are the ‘big’ gimmicks that have bec0me relatively common in American craft brewing, and to a certain extent have been exported to Europe. On top of this, most breweries seem to follow a maxim of ‘bigger, stronger, rarer’ when brewing these beers, which in my opinion is a response to the craft beer community. In fact, it seems that most beer geeks (the kind that trade beer in the mail, travel around the country to buy beer and read obscure beer forums) seem to be valuing  ‘rare’ more highly than flavor. That’s an entirely different blog post, but while I don’t think beer geeks have ruined themselves with this obsession with all things high alcohol, huge and rare, the trend does worry me.

Saint Arnold gets its fair share of criticism. Some of it’s deserved, but there’s a strong undercurrent that convicts them of not being ‘creative’ enough because they haven’t fallen lock-step in line with the ‘big, strong, rare’ approach of releasing special beers. That’s wrongheaded, and the above comment got me thinking about this

What I like about the Moveable Yeast series is that it breaks loose of these other more common gimmicks. Saint Arnold is one of just a few breweries that have done experiments with their ‘standard’ beer recipes and released the results commercially. They are the only ones I know of manipulating yeast and leaving the other elements the same. I count that as creative

That said, I haven’t been a huge fan of the results so far. I didn’t like Weedwacker, and I thought Altared Amber was OK. I prefer each of the original versions to the ‘changed’ ones. I am really looking forward to this Brown ale shift, and to the Elissa BPA. Both sound really tasty and have been talked up for their flavor by the folks at the brewery  - something that hadn’t really happened with the previous ones (most of the talk was about how ‘different’ they were)

I also think the ‘educational’ side of it has been overblown, because most accounts that I frequent are simply replacing a single St. A tap with the altered version – missing out on the chance to try it side-by-side with the base recipe. Given that there are barely any draft Brown Ale accounts as it is, and because I don’t think Silver Eagle is even halfway capable of managing that simple level of coordination I expect no different with this batch. That’s a missed opportunity – but the beer should be tasty, and ultimately that’s what matters.

So I’ll issue a call to the Houston beer community – it’s OK not to like the Moveable Yeast series, but stop hating on it because it doesn’t meet your expectation of what a beer marketing gimmick should be, and for goodness sakes – back off of Saint Arnold over their ‘lack of creativity’. That’s just nonsense. Let’s try the beer and THEN talk about it.

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Requirements for making hard apple cider

Posted by ytee on 7-November-2010

Apple cider – preservative (potassium sorbate) free, and 100% apple juice – check ingredients lists on the label. Also, an unfiltered cider is best.

Stock pot that has not been used to boil/make spicy foods
Optional – stainless steel or enameled core stock pot of sufficient size to hold entire volume of your cider.

Cooking thermometer that can register at least 150-200 degrees F
Optimal – floating dairy style thermometer

A container large enough to hold the pot and cooling water in an immersion bath (sink w/drain plug or bathtub)

Sufficient ice to fill container above ~halfway

No-rinse liquid disinfectant (Iodophor)
Optimal – no-rinse powdered cleanser (PBW or B-
Optimal – cleaning brush (bottle cleaning brush) for fermentation vessel

6 feet of food grade flexible plastic tubing, 3/8″ inside diameter.
Optimal – racking cane
Optimal – slip on tubing pinch valve
Optimal – filter doohickey for end of racking cane/tubing
Optimal – test flask
Optimal – floating hydrometer
Optimal – counter-pressure bottle filler

Vessel(s) of sufficient volume to contain all cider for fermentation (plastic bucket, glass carboy, container cider came packaged in)
Optimal – Additional spare vessel of similar size

Fermentation lock for each vessel used for fermentation

Drilled rubber stopper of appropriate size for each fermentation vessel

Cider yeast
Optimal – liquid cider yeast
Optimal – yeast nutrient

Sufficient quantity of brown returnable glass bottles to bottle all cider
Optimal – kegging system

Bottle caps w/oxygen absorbing lining

Bottlecapper

Corn sugar
Optimal – carb tab drops

If I’ve missed anything let me know.

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Discovering a Food Allergy

Posted by ytee on 25-October-2010

So, it’s not very much fun to discover that you have a food allergy. It’s even less fun to figure it out while on holiday in China.

I certainly do not feel special to now be a member of this club. I’ve always felt fortunate not to be one that has to avoid one or the other ingredient. Happily I’ve not had to worry about a bite of the wrong thing ruining my night before.

Given what I suspect the cause of my problem, I’ll unlikely need to have that worry going forward.

The cause of my troubles? Seahorse. I’ve googled away, and I cannot find a single decsription of a seahorse allergy anywhere on the web. What I have learned is that  seahorse is not something I should probably be eating anyway (if I have concern for the viability of seahorses in the wild), and that in traditional Chinese medicine, seahorse is viewed as ‘warm’, good for circulation, potency, and other things that I’m sure a vivid imagination can figure out.

Why was I eating seahorse? Well, that’s a much more interesting story that fits better into the travelog.

We arrived in Beijing on a cold wet morning, and set off to our hotel in the city center. The express train from the airport is a great way to get into town, and a simple 2 RMB subway transfer later we were at our digs for the next few days. We met up and headed out to Tiananmen square and the Forbidden City for a quick early evening walk-around. The majority of the square and Mao’s tomb was closed, but the part that was open was fascinating. A wild mix of tourists of all nationalities, soldiers and busloads of Chinese from the countryside were all milling around. everyone was fascinated by the gigantic hi-definition screens playing a looped video presentation about the country and snapping photographs. A number wanted pictures with the Americans – especially with the ladies – and we had a great time ourselves marveling at the sight.

As the last generation to really experience the cold war, seeing all of the austere communist architecture around the square is a little unnerving – giant statues honoring ‘the worker’ topped with big red flags stirs just a bit of the jingoistic capitalist in me – but a quick look around to the forbidden city solved any qualms I might have had. We walked into the outer entrance to to be confronted by hawkers of all types. T-shirts, People’s Army hats, panda hats, anything and everything with Mao’s photo on it – you name it, it’s for sale in the courtyard, and being shoved into the faces of the approaching westerners.

Most surprising was seeing so many army barracks inside the courtyard. The  troops were at the ready, riot gear sitting just next to their dorms. I suppose they need to be prepared in the event of impromptu public demonstrations in the public square – but it was a little strange.

Sadly the interior of the palace closed right as we approached, but we realized relatively quickly that just around the corner was a night market that was famous for food stalls. We figured out our location and headed that way. The Donghuamen night market was created in 1987 to honor the variety of foods available across China. Today it is a huge half-mile long line of stalls – most serving the same dumplings, mixed grills and bizarre fried foods, but some serving up unique barbecued selections.

The experience was worth the trip. The food was not especially great. I had a number of steamed dumplings – most were relatively flavorless and paled in comparison to things I tasted in other places in China and even from back home. It was also quite expensive, relatively speaking. I paid 30 RMB (~$5) for four crab buns. Not a crazy price, but certainly overpriced for Chinese street food.

What I missed out on was what I regret the most. Most non-white faces were picking up fabulous looking whole lamb shanks, roasted on the bone and seasoned to order. There was also a jolly old man making great noodle soup to order. His technique with the boiling pot was something to behold – his head bobbed as his arms swooped in and out, dropping small strainers of soup into the boiling broth.

Needless to say I missed these two highlights, because I decided to try something crazy.

Down the entire line of stalls about every other vendor had a long lineup of rather adventurous options. Snake was quite common, both skinned as well as whole with head (and scales) on. Other options included silkworm pupae, sheep kidney, scorpions, various beetles and even bats. A deep voiced vendor introduced his offering to us, with a throaty, heavily accented announcement, ‘Hello! Sheeeeep Testicle!’ All of these things were on long skewers and were intended to be fried in huge vats of hot oil just behind the counter.

I was considering trying something a little crazy long before one of the vendors asked me all too genuinely, ‘Do you have penis?’ after I turned down his offer for, well, bull penis. It took me a minute to figure out he was actually questioning my manhood and not making a sales pitch.

Although I resisted the fried phallus, I couldn’t resist two ‘delicacies’ at another stall – a skewer of 5 locusts and another of small dried seahorses. I’ve had locust/grasshopper before, and it’s quite tasty. My rule is – if the  insect eats plants, I eat the insect. If the insect eats garbage (see cockroach) or other insects (see wasps and scorpions), I generally avoid it. I figure if I can eat crabs and lobsters, why not insects and arachnids? What’s the difference really?

The seahorse was really a whim. It was the craziest thing in any of the stalls I was willing to eat – I just don’t think I can put pupae or scorpions in my mouth.

Needless to say, my companions were excited to get pictures of me with bugs in my mouth, and there is  a great shot somewhere of me with a seahorse tail sticking out from my lips. The grasshoppers were fine – fried to an absolute crisp, they tasted more like oil than anything else. The seahorses were faintly metallic and briny, and went down a little rough. I walked around for a few minutes with what I thought was seahorse stuck in my throat – then I realized my throat was swelling up and I was having trouble speaking. About 2 minutes later the hives started appearing on my face, and I could feel them on my torso as well. I drank some water, and fortunately was not having any trouble breathing – but we all knew I needed medical attention fast.

Fortunately, there was a medical clinic attached to our hotel, and after some intravenous steroids and some prescription antihistamine pills, I was on my way for a rest. Unfortunately my symptoms weren’t quite over yet. As if the hives and swollen throat weren’t enough, over the next few hours I experienced another few rounds of ‘attacks’ from the seahorses in my belly. One involved the rapid and rather disconcerting swelling of my face. My friend said it looked like I had put on a fat suit, and I couldn’t close my mouth because my lips and tongue were so swollen. After that, my feet and knees swelled up, turned beet red and started itching like crazy. After approximately 4 hours from first seahorse crunch, I finally got to sleep. I woke up the next morning none the worse, and was able to head out to the Great Wall – which was an amazing experience.

So after all these years of  feeling fortunate to have an iron gut, I finally found a weakness. Fortunately seahorse should be something relatively easy to avoid – but I have a newfound appreciation for those that have more common food allergies. The anaphylactic reaction was scary and not something I would ever want to repeat.

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Posted by ytee on 23-October-2010

OK, so I can’t edit the previous post. I meant to put it into draft and  ended up sending the danged thing out to the world.

WordPress is weird over here in China. It seems to be filtered but not blocked.

FWIW, we have done other things other than visit Wal Mart, and I am aware that it’s the Giants and the Phillies in the NLCS.

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