Domestic vs Craft Beer

“With but few exceptions, it is always the underdog who wins through sheer willpower.”
-Johnny Weissmuller

With all this talk about craft beer, it is important to realize what allows it to be considered “craft.” It certainly isn’t sitting around whittling birdhouses, so what makes it so special?

To best grasp what craft beer is, it may be easier to first understand what it is not. Non-craft beers that are brewed in a particular country and circulate throughout are considered “domestics” while those brewed outside and have to be brought in are called “imports.” The imports category can have many different types under its umbrella so, for now, we will focus on domestics.

Domestic breweries tend to be extremely large scale and considerably older than most craft breweries. This is because most of the domestic beer companies that are still around are those few that survived Prohibition.  They are also, generally speaking, cheaper than the majority of craft beers. Examples of this are Miller, Coors, and Budweiser.

This all sounds great, so why even bother with craft brews?

Like most things, just because it sounds good on paper, doesn’t always make it true in execution. The first and biggest strike against them is that most only produce American Lagers, which is not an issue if that is the style you like all the time. But, for most people, the same thing gets boring after awhile. After Prohibition was repealed, a few brewers felt the same way and decided to try something different. From there, craft beer was born and, today, hundreds of varieties are available.

While craft breweries tend to stay small, there is a certain appeal to that. The breweries are able to stay more customer-centric and keep a decisive level of quality. It also allows for more creative brewing, creating styles and variations of styles that would be much more difficult on such a large scale as most domestic producers. The number of styles adds to the inclusiveness of the craft beer world, leading to the phrase of “there’s a craft beer for everyone.”

At the end of the day, it boils down to preference. And no judgements here if domestics are your jam. Be proud of the beer you like. However, personally, I see it as the difference between Wal-Mart and the local mom and pop shops. I know that one is cheaper and more convenient, but the other is going to be run with passion and personal motivation.

And I personally choose passion.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

Brewery Spotlight: Minglewood

“A couple more shots of whiskey, I’m going down to Minglewood.”
-Grateful Dead

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The sun was shining as I strolled down the sidewalk and up to the doors of Minglewood Brewery. The outside architecture hinted at the past stories of this river town building constructed in 1891. Suffice it to say, this building has seen some sights.  This historically registered establishment was originally home to a Masonic temple, then a well known local music store and, most recently, is the residence of Minglewood Brewery.

As I enter, I catch my favorite Blues Traveler song floating on artisan pizza-scented air that fills my nose and causes my stomach to rumble. Humming along, I take a seat at the bar, a gorgeous wood installment that is reminiscent of dark driftwood. In fact, the entire brewery is a stunning blend of dark wood, brick, and Edison lights.

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A friendly bartender takes my order and, after,  I take a moment to glance around, participating in my favorite sport of people watching. The strangest sight catches my attention. I notice that, unlike anywhere else, hardly anyone is on their phones. Instead of growing another digital appendage, everyone is interacting with each other, content just conversing and laughing in the comfortable atmosphere that is the brewery. There’s a couple clearly on their first date who are breaking the ice over a gigantic Bavarian pretzel and house-made beer cheese. At the next table, a girl snarls her nose up at her friend offering her a beer, emphatically stating she does not like beer. Her friend, rolling her eyes, pushes it her way with a “Just try it.” The girl reciprocates the eye roll and takes the tiniest of sips. And then a big gulp. “You know, that’s really good. Is that what beer is supposed to taste like?” she asks.  A bit further down, there’s a group of businessmen who are making it very clear they’re excited that their boss chose to have their meeting at a place with beer on tap and rugby on television.

A smiling server brings me out of my own thoughts by placing a pizza in front of me. I notice three things immediately. One, that pizza is the best looking pizza I think I’ve ever seen. Two, not only is she smiling, but all the servers and bartenders are too, even while they’re briskly walking around. Which makes me and everyone they interact with smile. Three, did I mention that pizza, though??? It’s a taco on a pizza! Not to mention, made with grain from the beers: Bonus!

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Of course, this glorious meal would not be complete without a beer. While the tap offerings are all in close but delicious competition with each other for my ‘favorite,’ the Satellite IPA wins out today. While IPAs are typically not my go-to, this version of a New England style IPA is perfection, easily my favorite example of the style. Stuart Matthews, owner of Minglewood, agrees. “[New England IPA] is a style that’s growing in popularity despite its non traditional hazy appearance.  But the tropical fruit aroma and low bitterness has made it my go-to beer as of late.  And my number one selling beer as well.” And he isn’t exaggerating. Stuart tells me that the first couple batches of the Satellite sold out in just a few hours and demand has only increased.

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While being one of the first to successfully bring this style to the area, it is far from the only aspect that makes Minglewood stand out. “The most recent thing that makes Minglewood unique is that we’re the first brewpub in the state to deliver beer with our pizza.  We have a phone app and customers can order from our website.  It’s city wide in Cape Girardeau.  Only on weekends as of now.” And if that isn’t enticing enough, they also can beer directly off the tap at request that can be taken home in an insulated brown bag designed specifically to fit.

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And if you don’t think that’s the best name ever, you’re just wrong.

Minglewood certainly has a wide array of offerings. The variety and flavor of their artisan pizza menu is enough of a head turner on its own, but when paired with beer that is made with precision and passion, they just can’t go wrong. Nor do they intend to. Unlike some businesses that get comfortable and lax after their first few years, Minglewood has made it clear they’re just getting started. With new styles of beer being expertly brewed all the time and their evolving relationship with the local community, they strive to prove that everyone has a place in the craft beer world, even if you’ve never experienced craft beer before.

“If you’re not familiar with craft beer and you’re willing to expand your pallet, then there’s a Minglewood beer for you.”

And you better believe I will be back for Minglewing Monday.

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And yes, I did, in fact, finish that entire pizza by myself.

Cheers.

 

 

* Credit where credit is due to Stuart Matthews for providing some of the lovely photos for today’s blog*

Diving Into The Deep End (Water)

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”
– Loren Eiseley

Water is one of the most important and yet most understated resources. It is essential for almost everything on the planet (including the planet itself), and yet, it’s something many people shrug off. If you think about it, one of the major measurements of a civilization’s success is how well it can tame the very thing that makes life possible. Irrigation, for instance, marked the beginning of a new age in society and allowed for the advancement of tribes. No longer was being nomadic the only way of life; populations could stay in one place and not just survive, but thrive. Those that did stay nomadic chartered the world as we know it, connecting people and ideas alike.

One such idea was beer.

Most of beer is water and, without it, our entire history would have been completely rewritten. Although beer tamed us in many ways, we have also learned to tame it. I do believe we are in a new dawning of beer brewing, as we have finally begun to not only understand, but manipulate the water used in the process. So, for now, let’s shift from the globalism of beer to something much more microscopic in nature, if not in significance.

Many people, including some new to brewing, underestimate the impact the water used has on beer created. While you can use any kind of water, that does not mean you should. For example, most would prefer not to drink rainwater once it has touched the ground, and beer agrees. The potential for pollutants is a risk brewers tend not to take, as to keep up the quality and reputation of their beer.

But past the general rule of ‘don’t use dirty water’, what else matters?

Turns out, everything.

While water is considered to be relatively tasteless, quite a few people have opinions on what kind of water has the best flavor- including geographical origins. And this isn’t just in people’s heads. While water naturally has trace amounts of minerals and metals, most places treat their water with additives to either remove harmful or add desired components. Brewers have to do the same thing.

One of the first steps a brewer should take before starting the brewing process is to test the water. This provides data that the brewer uses to determine what needs to be changed about the chemical composition of the water before it turns into beer. The main components that brewers look at are: Bicarbonates, Calcium, Chloride, Magnesium, Sodium, and Sulfates. These minerals at different levels determine factors such as hardness and alkalinity which, in turn, have a substantial impact on the flavor of the beer, which a brewer may have to balance.

Modern day brewers have at their disposal a variety of water treatment options which allows them to change the water composition to fit the style of beer they wish to produce. Brewers of the past had neither the knowledge nor the technology to do this and, therefore, had to use what was available to them and adjust as they could.  The implications of this meant that certain areas of the world produced specific styles of beer, based on how ingredients interacted with the minerals in the water to produce flavors. While it did limit the brew possibilities for awhile, it did allow for distinct styles to come into their own, creating the classics we know today.

One such style is the Pilsner. It orginated in Pilsen, Bohemia where the water is considered very “soft.”  It has very low levels of all aforementioned minerals.

The Drink-Along: Technical Ecstasy by 2nd Shift Brewing

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This beer is a wonderful example of a Pilsner. Just like the name states, it hits all the marks for this style. At first glance, this beer is clear with a very frothy head (“Head”- the foam that forms on the top of a beer when poured into a glass. Try to contain the giggles.) There is a hops taste that comes from the use of Saaz hops, which are traditional to the geographical area and the beer style. With each mineral being fairly absent, this allows a smooth transition between the malt and hops, highlighting each one without over accentuating them. Overall, it is a nice beer for a summer afternoon- refreshing with a very crisp finish.

On the other end of the water spectrum are Irish Stouts. An Irish Stout could not traditionally be brewed in Pilsen without a considerable amount of doctoring due to the needs of the water profile.

The Drink-Along: Guinness

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Originating in Dublin, Ireland, this beer style uses much harder, more alkaline water. Alkaline water is created by having higher levels of primarily bicarbonates. As a way to even this out, brewers used roasted barley. The resulting beer is much darker, drier, and more bitter than a Pilsner, but balanced even so. Instead of a light flavor, however, this brew offers a deep, roasted complexity that is more suited to a cozy winter evening in.

While beer chemistry and its effects may seem overwhelming, the take away is pretty straight-forward. Even when early brewers were unaware, water was shaping the way we live, down to the little details of our down-time drinks. And while we certainly do not have to be able to examine each microscopic detail of the brew water to enjoy the end product, it is a nod to just how far we’ve come, both as a society and as industry.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief History

“History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.”
-Lord Acton

Humans and beer have always had a mutually dependent relationship. In fact, beer has existed in some form or another since shortly after the dawn of humanity. Although it is hard to pinpoint exactly when beer came into existence, ancient texts and paintings showing the brewing process and humanity’s necessity for beer have been found dating back to the times of early Mesopotamia.

This archeological finding is actually much more vital to understanding our history than one would think. Beyond just the interesting facts of how beer came to be, it’s also a look into how humans went from surviving to living.

Although it differs depending on who you ask, beer actually may have come about by accident. Since there is no definitive answer provided by those responsible, there is a theory that barley left out in the rain and subjected to the forces of nature fermented and this mixture was consumed- why, we can’t be quite sure. Either way, accidental or experimental, this was the very first form of beer. Hardly as refined as what we have today but, when you’re busy constructing the backbone of all human civilization, you do earn yourself a bit of grace.

This early beer was found to be both filling and rich in needed nutrients; although, of course, people just realized they were staying healthier-nutrition science was a thing of the future. They also were finding themselves more relaxed and jovial after consumption. For these reasons, beer did become an early form of currency. The building of the pyramids was paid for in beer, for example. But beers’ impact did not stop there. Along with bread, the brewing process gave both need and provision for an end to the nomadic lifestyle.  Math, science, even the written language all have beer to thank, at least in part, for their existence.

Entire blogs could be written on just the history of beer. Historians are finding out new things all the time regarding our mutual dependency. There are many wonderfully fascinating books and documentaries that can provide a more in-depth look into this relationship. One such documentary I would recommend is How Beer Saved The World. It won’t take your whole evening, but it will expand your beer knowledge exponentially.

As one could guess, both the brewing process and its product have changed significantly over time. Most of the main ingredients we know today were either not present or very different in early beers. As previously mentioned, beer most likely just started out as grain, water, and wild airborne yeast (which no one was aware of at the time.) Ingredients to balance the flavors didn’t come into play until later. Even hops didn’t start out as the bittering agent- most were made with mosses or a type of herbal mix  known as gruit. And yeast wasn’t even discovered until hundreds of years later, especially the particular strains used in beer.

With this in mind, one might think it would be very hard for a modern day beer drinker to imagine what their ancient counterpart would have experienced. Or would it?

Cue DogFish Head Brewery.

This brewery took a very adventurous risk and decided they wanted to create a beer that mirrored ancient brews. Instead of relying on imagination and others’ research, they teamed up with scientists that were exploring a (at the time) recently discovered tomb, thought to be the resting place of the legendary King Midas. Using a sample from one of the burial chalices, scientists were able to surmise much of the composition of the drink it once held. From there, Midas Touch was born.

This is a beer I highly recommend, for both taste and experience. Being that close to a part of history is actually quite special, especially if its in drinkable form. This concoction tastes like a harmonious blend of beer and wine, perfectly complementing each other.  It has hints of sweetness but also has a bread like way about it that feels hearty and welcome. Sipping this, it really isn’t difficult to picture someone in ancient times enjoying this as they watched the sun sink over the fertile crescent.

Beer is an ever-changing craft and it may feel like it’s moving too fast to catch up. But it’s also important to remember that we are as much a part of history as history is a part of us. It’s never too late to learn where we come from.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

Down to the Essentials

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
-Albert Einstein

Beer is living, drinkable, attainable art. But, unlike some masterpieces, it isn’t meant to be appreciated for its unattainable mystique. In fact, the more you understand about this particular craft, the more enjoyable it becomes. While there is always something new to learn, it’s pretty easy to cover the basics. We’ll save the details for later. But, for now, I’ll give you my version of beer Cliffsnotes.

The four main ingredients in any beer:

  • Water
  • Grain
  • Bittering agent
  • Yeast

Just like in humans, the majority of beer composition and the beer making process is water. While this seems pretty basic, the kind of water used can dramatically change the outcome of the beer. Think, for example, how tap water can vary from city to city. The chemical and mineral make up, additions or subtractions to the water, even place of origin can make all the difference. In fact, if you brew the same exact recipe using two different water samples, the taste is still going to vary.

Not to be outdone by water, grain also makes itself essential to any recipe. Most of the time, before brewing, this grain must go through a process known as “malting,” which causes it to become fermentable whereas it was not before. For this reason, most brewers refer to the grain part of the recipe as the “malt.” There is a wide variety of different malts (which I will explore in depth at a later time) and, depending on what is used, this changes the flavor, as well as several other characteristics. Rarely is a single type of malt used (there are exceptions) and the collection of malts, referred to as the “grain bill,” gives a beer depth of flavor and complexity.

Using only malt, however, would make the beer unbearably sweet and that is where the bittering agent comes in. Usually this is in the form of hops, although some varieties and most early beers used different sources. Hops are the flowering part of the plant Humulus lupulus and, besides sounding like a spell straight out of Harry Potter, they are responsible for balancing out the sweetness of the malt. They also add their own notes of flavor and aroma, which changes depending on kind(s).

The unsung hero of the brew, however, is yeast. This wonderful concoction we know as beer would not be possible without it. Yeast does the hard work of changing the sugars found in the malt (Yay buzz word!) into that wonderful thing we know as drinkable alcohol. While there are countless forms of yeast, only a couple are suitable to apply to the brew process.

These four elements are all widely accepted as being essential to the beer making process. So much so that, in the 1500s when Germany began to limit what could be used in brewing, these were the only four included. (To be historically accurate, it was only three elements originally but when yeast and its function in beer became better understood, the law was revised to add the fourth.) This was known as the German Purity Law(s) and, while it was not primarily put into place for quality but more for economical purposes, it does illustrate the importance of each component.

Thankfully, now however, there are far fewer limitations on what brewers can add to the process which opens up a world of possibilities. While these four elements are still necessary, there are so many options within each category and brewers are coming up with more every day. Beyond that, even, there is almost no restriction to what can be added. I have tasted beers made with donuts, bacon, even tree bark.

So let your creativity and imagination run wild.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

Tapping the Keg

” I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
-John Green

I love craft beer and just about everything  the culture around it entails. But, honestly, it wasn’t always like that. I used to think it was just about the worst tasting thing I could imagine. I grew up in the land of American Lagers and I had never had any exposure to anything else so, naturally, that’s all I thought beer was. I was baffled by how many people considered beer a staple in their lives- and their refrigerators. I would watch people at barbecues and events, sipping their beers and acting as if they actually enjoyed it. I couldn’t figure out the secret- so I didn’t try. I resigned it to the “don’t know, don’t care” category and was fine with it staying that way. When I would explain this to friends that drank beer, they’d all react the same way- with a shrug and a, “It’s just an acquired taste.”

An acquired taste.

I despised that phrase. What did that even mean? That I had to just keep forcing myself to drink something that disgusted me until I convinced my brain and taste buds to become a victim of Stockholm Syndrome? That seemed far from logical. So I’d respond with the same disdainful frown and that’s how the dance went for quite some time.

I know many people who are still doing this same dance. And, I’ll give you: craft beer is not for everyone. But it is for most people. As I found out, it’s not about tricking yourself into something, it’s about figuring out what you authentically like. Thankfully, the world of craft beer is vast enough to provide countless opportunities to explore personal preferences.

For me, my introduction into craft beer was accidental. I stumbled upon hard ciders and found myself savoring the crispness and balanced fruit flavors. I began to even welcome that light carbonated alcohol flavor that had once caused me to snarl my nose up. From there, I’ll admit, it wasn’t too difficult to see the transition into appreciating beer but I was still pretty far from the willingness to try it. I do attribute the rest to surrounding myself with people who understood and had a passion for the craft.

The easiest aspect of the craft beer world to fall in love with is the people. The entire atmosphere is of joyful acceptance. I have met very few people in the craft beer world that have an elitist attitude. As with anything, I promise they exist but you have to look pretty hard in most cases to find them. I could walk into a brewery as someone who didn’t understand/care for beer or as someone who now is passionate about it, and be greeted with the same amount of respect. Most are just so enamored by the craft that all they want to do is share. It’s not about competition or exclusiveness. Quite the opposite, actually.

Hearing craft brew enthusiasts converse about beer really brings to light why it’s considered a “craft.” It’s similar to hearing an artist talk about their masterpiece. There is so much care put into every aspect and so much enthusiasm, it really is infectious. But this is one thing I’m so glad I caught.

I want to share my love for beer with everyone, especially those that find themselves in the shoes I used to be in. The world of  beer can sometimes be so overwhelming that it feels like an ocean that’s about to engulf you. Occasionally, it still feels like that- but, now, it’s in a good way. They say there is “a craft beer for everyone” and I want to help make those love connections. I want to explore and expand every step of the journey to craft beer. I hope to present beers for non-beer drinkers, provide practical knowledge about the craft for those that wish to better understand what they  drink, and review and suggest brews for those that already found -or are in the process of finding- their place in the beer world.

The phrase “acquired taste” doesn’t bother me anymore. I’ve come to understand that it refers more to gaining a knowledge and appreciation, rather than a form of passive peer pressure. I hope I can help change the meaning for you, as well.

Cheers.