I love how science and art come together in the brewing of beer. You need to have your technique down and your calculations correct in order to make great beer. You, also, need creativity to pair together the right flavors and aromas to make a beer transcendent. But just like “right-brained” and “left-brained” people, we all favor one or the other. There must be a dominant side, right?
Which way do you lean? Are you an engineer or an artist?
I wandered across this idea when I recently took a tour of the Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon. The tour was fantastic, and I have nothing but good things to say about them, their process, and their beers. Breweries the size of a Deschutes put a lot of money and time into insuring that their beers taste exactly the same from one batch to another, and that all of their customers are getting the same, quality beer. It is a difficult task and certainly an important one. Like many big, craft breweries, they test through sensory training and their own lab. A wildly inconsistent product can be the undoing of any company, in any industry.
Commercial breweries obviously need engineers in order to maintain that sort of consistency. This isn’t to say that an artist can’t thrive in a production brewery, but I’m guessing those brewers need to recharge their artistic batteries with one-off beers and collaborations from time to time.
So, let me oversimplify the engineer and the artist:
The Engineer is the brewer that always hits their numbers. They are always looking for better ways to improve their process. Faster, more efficient, leaner. They want to know how everything works. If you turn away, for even a moment, they are taking things apart and putting them back together again. They are forever doodling schematics and looking for the closest whiteboard. They make all of their equipment, and their rig is cooler than anything you could buy. They can take your recipe and make a better beer than you by pure brewing skill. If you ask them a simple question, they will give you a three hour response, and they will become more excited with each passing moment of the description. They take amazing notes, and they can always pinpoint where things went right or awry.
But… they don’t always have the most inspired recipes, if they can write them at all. They often depend on other people to taste and evaluate their concoctions. They can brew astonishing beers, but they can’t describe them in a way that makes you actually want to drink them. Wild yeast and sour beers freak them out. (There are too many variables. Too much that is out of their control.) They are not patient. They make all of their equipment, and it can look like some Frankenstein’s monster shit. They don’t understand that beers can be technically perfect and still suck. They make the same beers over, and over, and over. And give them version numbers.
The Artist is always coming up with great ideas. Although they occasionally strike out, they generally blow you away with their beers and their illogical flavor and aroma combinations. They make brewing look easy. Like a zen art. They don’t become obsessed with perfection. They are infinitely patient and can age beers to perfection. They love the mystery and they have the parenting skills to brew wonderful wild and sour beers. They get the big picture of beer. Its place in history, and the greatness it can inspire.
But…despite making wonderful brews, they always hate their own creations. They can never make the beer that they dreamed up in their head. Their brewing process is a zen art, and learning how to brew from them, or replicating their methods, is impossible. They get bored easily and can burn out. Good luck trying to get them to make the same beer twice. They can be horrible collaborators, always want their way, and refuse to compromise. They put more time and effort into naming the beer and creating the label they made for the bottles, than the recipe and the actual brewday. They take terrible notes, if they even take notes at all. You will never get a recipe from them that makes any sense whatsoever. All of their beer has a certain house flavor that you are going to either love or hate.
Well, you probably don’t match either of those descriptions exactly. We are all far more complex than an overly simple Myers-Briggs, but one of them sounds a little more like you than the other.
Do you try to consciously change your methods and tendencies in order to become more centered? Do you try to surround yourself with people who are your antipodes and, therefore, would be complimentary? Do you just stick with your strengths (and weaknesses) and carry on with a slightly better understanding of yourself?
At the end of each year (2009 and 2010), I go through the stats of my homebrewing adventures and try to identify some trends and larger takeaways. I brew a modest amount of beer each year, and usually set a goal of making 60 gallons, which only equates to brewing a 5 gallon batch each month. That goal, many years ago, was bold and reaching. Nowadays, it is a pretty low bar, but it keeps me on track.
Looking back at 2011, four trends define that brewing year: hiatuses, organic beers, the lack of sours, and some competition success.
I go in waves with homebrewing. If it was my job, I’d be happy to brew, cellar, or package every day. But as a hobby that needs to be squeezed into the cracks and spaces between family, work and daily life, there have to be breaks. I took three hiatuses this year and did not brew at all during the months of March, August, October and November.
I do not know if that model is more beneficial to my overall zeal for the hobby, or if I’m better off keeping to a steady schedule. I know that feel a bit more excited about a brewday after some time off, but I also feel sloppy and out of practice when I do brew, as well.
Organic beers just kinda happened this year. After planning to experiment with Rakau hops, which were organic, I decided to go ahead and make that entire beer organic. Then, I was in the Bison/New Brew Thursday competition, which required that I brew an organic beer, too. And then, in retrospect, my cider, perry, and mead were organic creations, as well.
I’m repeating myself here, but I couldn’t detect the difference between a normal and an organic beer. The bottom line with organic, from a creative perspective, is that you reduce the number of ingredients you can work with to make a beer. I like the idea of organic brews but, for the foreseeable future, that will always be secondary to my desire to use the exact hops, malts and other ingredients I want to use to make the beer that I want to drink.
But my awareness has changed and I no longer think, if I ever did, that organic beers are inferior. And that is something in and of itself.
This one actually surprised me and freaked me out a little. Although I bottled, added dregs to, and won medals for sours, I only brewed 5 gallons of sour beer last year. Since it can literally take years for a sour ale to fully develop and become drinkable, this was huge hit to my pipeline.
Although I still have plenty of bottles of my fruit lambics and a few of my Flanders Reds, I quickly realized that the weekly work of maintaining brett and sour beers was important, and they can make you forget that you having nothing in the pipeline.
After that epiphany, I immediately brewed a Berliner weisse that I hope might be turning the corner by the time the weather gets warm. But I’m screwed for sours for most of 2012. Perhaps that is a mark against the hiatus model, which would have had me, at least, making filler beers in the in-between months.
This was a good year for me for BJCP and other competitions.
My goal for 2010 was to try to get a beer into the final round of the National Homebrew, and I squeaked in a beer and a cider. For 2011, I was hoping that I could get a beer or two into the final round again, and perhaps get one of those to medal.
Fortunately, I had three beers make it to the final round of the NHC: my “Tobias Fünke” Flanders red, my “Fargin Eishole” eisbock, and “Slow Motion Walter, Fire Engine Guy”, which was an oak-agerd, smoked Baltic porter.
I thought my flanders red, which had gotten a 1st place ribbon in the first round of the NHC, had a good chance, but it was my eisbock that won a bronze medal in the final round of the National Homebrew Competition. That was amazingly cool, and it proves that anything can happen in the final round.
In other BJCP competitions, I won a Gold, a Silver and a Bronze in the Dominion Cup, and two Gold and two Bronze medals in the CASK competition. Both were poor outings for me, but I’ve got no one to blame for them except the brewer of those beers. Yes, me.
Outside of BCJP competitions, my brett saison won first place in The Bruery’s Batch 300 Contest for French/Belgian ales, but it did not win a the overall competition. And I made it to the final round of the Bison/New Brew Thursday Organic Homebrew Competition, but I did not win that final round.
I also won a qualifying and the final round of the Iron Brewer competition. That was a bunch of fun, and it is always nice to have an excuse to talk shit with HopfenTreader and Simply Beer, as well as drink great and experimental beers.
What will be my big trend for 2012? I’m getting a late start on planning that one out. Obviously brewing a bunch of sours, and I’d like to make a few full-flavored session ales, as well. Short term, I need to look into brewing beers for this year’s National Competition, but I might be dead in the water there, too.
If you are into stats:
Weights and Measures Gallons of Beer: 82 Gallons of Non-Beer: 14 Pounds of Grain: 172 Pounds of Hops: 3.06
Averages Average Batch Size: 5.1 Average ABV: 6.5% Average OG: 1.061 Average FG: 1.012 Average Pounds of Grain per Batch: 12.3 Average Ounces of Hops per Batch: 3.3
It is time for the 2011 Best Albums of the Year and, of course, their beer pairings list. I know you look forward to this every year, lose sleep over my possible choices, and feel lost when your refrigerator is full of beer and your iPod won’t shuffle.
Don’t worry. Daddy’s home.
What are the ground rules? As usual, whatever fits my narrowing attention span. Like the music and beer pairings from 2009 and 2010, the music is whatever got the most spins in my player of choice. They don’t have to be the most groundbreaking and challenging albums of the year, but being so doesn’t automatically exclude them from the list. I really liked PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake but, to begin what is sure to be a slew of mixed metaphors in this post, it didn’t have the drinkability to make the top 10. Bon Iver and the Fleet Foxes didn’t make it either, so get the hate mail machine cranked up now. Honestly, those last two albums just made me sleepy.
In terms of the beer, I try to make the beers something new to me. Either they are brand new to the market, or distribution of them just came to my area, or I had them while traveling. Perhaps I hadn’t had that beer in a long, long time, so I had somehow regained my beer virginity for that brew.
These aren’t in order of greatness or ABV. You’ll notice that my musical tastes skew towards the alternative, and my beer taste is all “craft”. I do listen to other types of music and enjoy them. I do not drink macro brews unless I’m trapped at some formal occasion I can’t chew through my leg to get free.
Without further ado.
1) Elbow –Build a Rocket Boys! and Boulevard’s Tank 7
Elbow is the kind of band may never receive the critical acclaim in the US that they do in Europe, and that is a shame. Build a Rocket Boys! was certainly one of the best produced albums from this year. Sparse in all the right ways, and subtle to the point of suspicion in many of the slower tracks. Garvey’s voice sounds harrowingly close to Peter Gabriel’s in both tone and fragility, and that just endears him to me further.
Jesus is a Rochdale Girl is a soft, watercolor of a song where Garvey sings “Nothing to be proud of and nothing to regret, all of that to make as yet.” Elbow effortlessly captures moments that are deep in emotion, yet simplified in details lost through the passing years.
During a trip up to Chicago and Munster for Dark Lord, I picked up a few bottles of Boulevard’s Tank 7 saison. In retrospect, if I had brought back 20 cases of that beer, it still wouldn’t have been enough. Perfectly balanced and infinitely drinkable. The saison style is hard to nail, and Boulevard has set the bar even higher for American breweries.
The pairing of a perfectly crafted saison and immaculate music seems almost too obvious. Fortunately, it is very easy to get Elbow’s latest, and unfortunately it is very difficult for me to get Boulevard beers. Good luck with that.
Below is the video for Neat Little Rows. For a more patient version of Elbow, (spoiler) go to the bottom of this post to see which one of their songs made it into my singles of the year.
2) Wild Flag – Wild Flag and Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale
I’ve missed Sleater-Kinney as much as I expect to. Which is to say, a lot.
After much anticipation, Wild Flag appeared with a huge serving of Sleater-Kinney and equal parts Helium and The Minders in side plates. The result is infinitely catchy and filling. Between Wild Flag and The Dum Dum Girls (which strangely sounded like Chryssy Hynde fronting the Go-Gos), I got a huge dose of grrrrl power and rock this year. And I need more. Wild Flag is brash and empowering, but still comfortable and familiar.
While not revolutionary, and very much in the vein of many of their other beers, this one showed the amazing consistency with which Lagunitas can produce new beers and the sense of playfulness that endears them to beer drinkers around the country.
The ease with which the ladies of Wild Flag can, even after a hiatus, snap off a great album is only rivaled by Lagunitas’ ability to slip another winner into their rotation without missing a beat.
Below is a video for Romance. “We love the sound / the sound is what found us / the sound is the blood between me and you.” Believe it.
3) The Roots – undun and Cigar City’s Big Sound Scotch Ale
No, they nailed undun, too. While not as instantly likeable and hooky as How I Got Over, this one seeps into you like the porous thing you are.
In Kool On, Greg Porn raps, “Fuck a genie and three wishes / I just want a bottle, a place to write my novel,” and paints a more complex picture of the anti-hero Redford Stephens and his life as neither hero, nor villain, nor victim. A man too complex and (d)evolving for just one song.
In a random occurrence, I came across a Cigar City Big Sound Scotch Ale and it scratched an itch that I don’t often get. Big, malty beers are usually some of the last that I crave, but they can be amazing in the right situation. The Big Sound was big and sweet in a non-fatiguing way, and impressive in toffee and dark fruit notes. I’d love to see how this ages.
The Roots’ undun is not a hard listen, but it requires some time and thought to fully appreciate. Cigar City’s Big Sound is like that, too. Sit down to both and see how you like them as all three of you warm up.
4) Yuck –Yuck and New Belgium’s Ranger IPA
I find that I’m less impressed by the next, big revolutionary sound as I am by the band that does normal things very well. Yuck came out of nowhere this year with an album that was completely dated and fresh at the same time. In the 90’s, Yuck might have gotten lost in the shuffle, but in 2011 they sound new again. Fuzzy, catchy, and immediate despite a seemingly lackadaisical delivery. They sound like putting down the top of your parent’s convertible and chasing the last bits of summer.
One of the big beer stories in Virginia this year was the arrival of New Belgium. For the lazy and puerile, that meant the coming of Fat Tire. For me, it meant easy access to their Lips of Faith beers. But the surprise was how much I’ve enjoyed New Belgium’s Ranger IPA. In a country rotten with IPAs and hop-bombs, Ranger was perfectly executed and it slipped into my list of no-brainer go-to beers. Assertively bitter and crisp with citrus rind and pine notes.
Sit on your porch and pair a Ranger and Yuck together, and remember how easy things used to be.
5) Fucked Up – David Comes to Life and Founders’ Canadian Breakfast Stout
These albums are in no particular order but, truth be told, Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life might be my favorite of album in the year. That was a hard thing for me to process at first, because Damian’s shouting vocals haven’t always been easy for me to get past. The music is the first hook and it snags you with layers of sound, and that gives his feral vocals time to latch on, as well.
Fucked Up delivered a 78-minute concept album that they were ridiculous to even try delivering. But it works. I’ve seen them live twice and I think it is vital to do so to get an idea of the chaos, but undeniably positive energy that radiates from this group. Who else could make the repetition of “dying on the inside” by a feminine voice on “The Other Shoe” become an anthem? Fucked Up gives you what you need and even if you find them a tough sell, you’ll grudgingly agree that, “We need a Peter, we get a Paul; at least Judas had some balls.”
The Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout was bottled for the first time this year, and it became the belle of the scarcity ball. This imperial stout, brewed with coffee and chocolate, was aged in spent bourbon barrels that recently had been used to age maple syrup. This beer had every right to be ludicrous, over-the-top, and sweetly undrinkable, but it wasn’t. All of the ingredients and aging elements came through with a bittersweet finish. Was it worth the hoops that some people went through get it? I don’t know. I bought it off the shelf and thought it was juuuust right.
When you drag your fingernails across the surface of Founders CBS and Fucked Up’s David, there appears to be a ramshackle nihilism in both, but relax your mind and give them the time to take shape.
6) Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for My Halo and Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust
I caught Kurt Vile while he was opening for Deerhunter this year, but the full effect of his album, Smoke Ring for my Halo, didn’t sink in until months later. There’s a stoner vibe going through his lyrics that beg to be mumbled and, later, retracted in light of a hungover sunrise. But I haven’t yet.
But there is a dreamy logic to it all, and the simple layering of guitars is instantly engaging. Vile’s music can be brittle and meandering, and that is its charm.
At Dark Lord Day, my group set up camp at a table perhaps a dozen steps from a mobile bar pouring Three Floyd’s Zombie Dust.I honestly cannot tell you how many Dusts I had, but each one tasted as refreshing and wonderful as the last. Big, grassy, citrus notes dominate the beer, and perhaps only 3F would call this one an American pale ale, but it was the perfect beer for that day.
Somethings in life come too easy and we are, frankly, suspicious of them for that reason. Sit down with some Zombie Dust and Kurt Vile, and try to enjoy the rare oasis in the world. No, not the band Oasis. Screw those chumps.
7) The Dodos – No Color and Victory’s Donnybrook
The Dodos’ No Color album dropped in February and it was easy for me to quickly forget about them by the time December rolled around. I instantly loved this disc with it’s hooks, staccato rhythms and Neko Case’s backing vocals (!?!?) on a few of the tracks. It was immediate and insistent, but that can also be exhausting.
But returning to No Color at the end of the year reminded me how easy it is to fall into that melodic persistence again. I have a primal need for music that is manic, quirky, and sparse. Without a new Spoon album in 2011, this one did the trick.
I enjoy stouts and darker beers, but I still tend to avoid them when the temperature is above 60 degrees. It is hard to rationalize, but that is just who I am. So it takes a special stout to have me enjoying one during the heat of summer, and Victory Donnybrook Stout was that. Beer Run, hands-down my favorite local pub, serves it occasionally on nitro and it is glorious. Dark, roasted, with hints of cocoa and only 3.7% ABV. You know this list had to include at least one session beer and the Donnybrook defies any simple definitions.
Telekinesis delivered a strong album of hooks, assisted again by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla. This was everything that DCfC’s latest, Code and Keys, was not. Ballast Point’s Sculpin is another solid IPA that makes you wonder if that style isn’t overplayed like you first thought. Both reflective, earnest and, worth your money and taste buds.
St. Vincent – Strange Mercy and Avery’s Rumpkin
St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy is another fever dream of an album and it challenges you in ways that you wanted, and in ways that you didn’t think you needed. Every year I loathe the coming of pumpkin beers, but Avery’s Rumpkinmade me re-think that if only for a few minutes. The rum barrel aging of this big beer was genius, and I am curious to see how it ages. Both sensual, lush and quirky.
Mastodon – The Hunter and Fantome’s Saison
Mastodon went out into another universe with their previous album, so I was interested to see where the The Hunter would find them landing. This album is smaller and much more controlled, and that was a welcome adjustment. This isn’t a perfect disc, but no one is making the kind of music that they are right now and they consistently deliver the goods. Fantome disappeared from the shelves for a long time in central Virginia, and I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this Belgian gem. Dry, spicy and perfectly acidic.Enjoy the nostalgia.
Ryan Adam – Ashes & Fire and Bells’ Oarsman
Ryan Adams’ Ashes & Fire was a welcome return, at least for me, to solid musicianship and some consistency. These songs are plaintive and brooding, but you don’t have to be in that mood to enjoy this album. The Bells’ Oarsman is a wheat ale with a underlying note of sourness. A light, American riff on the Berliner weisse style, and perfectly refreshing. Ryan and Bells take you through the melancholy, but they don’t linger and unravel.
SINGLES OF THE YEAR
Lippy Kids – Elbow and Barlow Brewing’s Fargin Eishole
Lippys Kids is equal parts cathartic, somber, epic and wearying. I could gush about this song, but watch the video below and make up your own mind. And, in 2011, my Fargin Eishole eisbock won 3rd place in the National Homebrew Competition. It was a fantastic beer, but it took years to evolve into what it finally became: boozey, deep and, a little bit, epic, too.
Jesus Fever – Kurt Vile and Bells’ Quinannan Falls Special Lager
Jesus Fever is wistful and simple, and I think I’ve listened to this track a billion times. Bells’ Quinannan Falls rolled through town, but only on draft. Beautiful, crisp and floral. There are songs and beers more complex, but do they make you smile?
Lotus Flower – Radiohead and Russian River’s Temptation
I really enjoyed Radiohead’s King of Limbs, but it isn’t an easy album to digest quickly or in one sitting. But Lotus Flower was perfectly restrained and hypnotic. I broke open a bottle of Russian River’s Temptation wild ale for a tasting at the beginning of the year. It was that paradoxical moment that was equal parts the joy of sharing a wonderful beer with friends, and wanting to run from the room with the bottle screaming something about “my precious”. Tart, smooth and vinous. I need this beer and song on an endless repeat.