You Can Become Anything

Posted in beer, sports, sports and society with tags , , , , , on November 21, 2014 by cueball

I have 3 things in my life I really like to read about, talk about, and write about:  craft beer, college sports, and US soccer.  As it happens, we are in very interesting times for all three of those things.  They are all in places that could be called adolescence (for craft beer and US soccer) or midlife crisis (college sports).

40 Years In The Wilderness

I remember the 40 years in the wilderness.  The 40 years for US soccer between World Cup appearances.  In international soccer, not playing in the World Cup is the wilderness.  It means you are irrelevant.  Those days saw the NASL burn out like a wayward flare and youth soccer and college soccer become the apex of soccer achievement for players and coaches.  Then, in 1989 Paul Caliguiri scores the goal against Trinidad and Tobago (I watched in a friend’s basement as ESPN showed some borrowed feed with Bob Ley and Seamus Malin calling the action from Bristol) 25 years ago.  That goal put the US in the 1990 World Cup, the last they could qualify for before hosting in 1994.  Without that goal, there is no Major League Soccer, no quarterfinals run in 2002, or the heightened expectations of a country used to winning and dominating at everything it does.

That is why I call this period an adolescence for US Soccer.  Modern US Soccer did not begin until the late 1980s.  In terms of soccer history that less than 30 year period is a blip.  Soccer in this country has taken its first steps, World Cup qualifying and quality professional first division, now it is trying to move from the callow youth with all this untapped potential to a successful adult taking the world by storm.  That has led to a lot of the problems that come with adolescence.  In that period from youth to adulthood, your adolescence is spent trying to figure who you are, what you believe, and what is your voice.

That is what US Soccer is doing right now. Its constituent members, its fans, and the media who cover US Soccer are all asking questions right now.  Should a young player go abroad to play, or stay and work through the US/MLS development system?  Should the national team play a more possession based system that values keeping the ball or should it play or a more counterattacking system that absorbs pressure from the other team? How do we get more athletes access to quality coaching and playing in a country this vast geographically?  Throw on top of that the inevitable jockeying for primacy and power within the structure of US Soccer and a lot of silly things are being said from anonymous sources to the media.

Just as it takes time and missteps to work through those fundamental questions as an adolescent it will take time and a lot of pain and hurt feelings for US Soccer to answer those growing pain questions.

The beer industry in the US spent its own time in the wilderness with the passing of Prohibition on through the 1970s.  That puts modern existence of craft beer in the US in much the same position as US Soccer.  What it means to be a craft beer brewer is one of those internal debates that most consumers don’t notice or care about, but is actually important to the future of the brewing industry in this country.

On one level (the level most consumers see it) it doesn’t matter where your beer comes from or who makes it as long as it is good.  On the second level it matters immensely.  The vibrancy and growth of craft beer in the US is primarily attributed to the idea of the independent brewer making good beer apart from and in many cases in spite of the big brewer’s influence/interference.  That is what takes it from merely an industry into a craft.

The oft cited numbers from the Brewer’s Association are this:  in 1932 there were 0 brewers in the US, in 1980 there were 92 brewers in, by the end of 2013 there were almost 3000.  The fear among many within the craft beer world is that the growing trend of the big brewers buying regional and local breweries will lead to stifling the creativity and therefore the growth of the industry and fundamentally change it at the same time.

This fear is well founded if you look at an industry like movies.  The reason most of the movies you see and read about are comic book movies, adaptations from television or books, remakes of previous movies, or sequels/prequels is that there is almost no American independent movie movement anymore.  Today the movies that get made are either micro-budgeted shorts that the director puts up on YouTube in hopes of attracting a studio’s attention or a superhero yarn that costs triple the GDP of a third world country to make.

However, just as I think some kind of market correction is coming to the movie industry where enough people will get tired of seeing cities and planets destroyed by aliens and go back to movies about people talking, I don’t think independent craft brewers will ever disappear.  We are just in a period where the big multinational brewers (or beverage companies/conglomerates) will figure out how to tap into that market and the independent craft brewers will figure out how to leverage those multinational’s interest into making better beer.

Again, it is that adolescent process of figuring out who you are in a big complicated and convoluted world.  There are no easy answers and no quick solutions.

The Midlife Crisis

The NCAA and college sports have been around since the turn of the 20th century.  Almost since the beginning it has had to endure a push-pull between providing athletes the opportunity to gain education and making money off the on the field efforts of those athletes.  However, I think now the NCAA and its member institutions have entered a time that the money is so great (for two sports: football and men’s basketball) that coaches, administrators, and institutions are compromising their primary responsibility, to educate, in order to keep making money.

Much like adolescence a midlife crisis is a moment when you step back and assess who you are and what you believe in. Usually, people who go through midlife crises have been successful, but they see the end is closer than the beginning.  Whereas the adolescent is asking, “What can I do with this unlimited future,” the middle aged ask, “What legacy am I going to leave behind?”

The midlife crisis questions are harder because they often require a change in mindset and a change in path.  The adolescent is discovering their path while the middle aged are often creating a new one from an already heavily traveled road.

The road the NCAA has traveled down took a wrong turn somewhere.  Maybe not a turn, but it veered to the left fork instead of the right one.  At some point the NCAA took its eye off the primary mission of its members, to educate, and became more about sports-entertainment.  (This blog post at The Classical does a better job explaining this then I can.) I don’t think it was intentional or done out of greed or malice. Nor do I think it was any one decision that set this path.

Regardless of whether you think amateurism and the concept of the “student-athlete” are arbitrary creations to hold on to money, power, or status or you think they are the bedrocks onto which a whole belief system and way of life that should be protected is based, you must agree that the NCAA cannot go on as it currently is.  The NCAA has incentivized a system of graft and cheating by hording all the money it makes into the hands of a very few and none of those being the actual athletes.  This money comes from both the NCAA Tournament television contracts, the television contracts the individual conferences have all signed, and the College Football Playoff contracts.  Those last two categories are actually outside the purview of the NCAA proper, but everyone who participates in those contracts are members of the NCAA.

Intercollegiate sports will not exist as we know it in 20 years.  I believe athletes will have contracts. They will sign for a certain amount to go their education and perhaps bonus money that will probably (at the very least) include money from any ancillary sales produced by their name or likeness (i.e. jersey sales).  Athletes will be allowed to do endorsements outside of the school and sign merchandise and memorabilia for money.  Now, the schools will include a non-compete clause with penalties in the contract so that the athlete can’t just jump from school to school and they would have minimum academic requirements (probably the same as the rest of the student body) in order to remain eligible to play.  I stole most of this from Jay Bilas.

∞∞∞

The most complicated and sometimes painful part of life are those moments when you have to stop and truly look inside yourself and ask, “Who am I and what am I doing here?” US Soccer, craft beer, and the NCAA are all in that place. This time is full of opportunity and hope. It is also filled with fear and trepidation.  Yet, these are the most interesting and fun times because they are full of possibility. You can become or do anything.

My Road To Cicerone No. 3

Posted in beer, cicerone with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2014 by cueball

Since I am studying the Road To Cicerone: German Beer Styles Course I have had German beer styles and lagers on the brain.  I am just finishing up the fermentation section (I just have to finish the tasting activities) and that has me deep into lager and ale yeasts (and weissbiers).

This corresponds to a conversation I had with a patron at Craft last night.  He ordered a couple of flights and with it being Sunday I had a lot of time to talk to him.  We were talking about the beers he had and his favorites from the flights.  We also explained a couple of beer styles to his girlfriend.  At some point we got into a local highly respected and loved brewer who specializes in following the Reinheitsgebot.

We both agreed that the beers are all very good and very well made.  I happen to absolutely love their dunkel.  We also happened to agree that their new space is gorgeous and a great place to sit back and enjoy a beer or five.  However, we both agreed that lagers are not our favorite beers.  No matter how well made and high quality a beer maybe neither one of us gravitate towards lagers.

The discussion question for the fermentation unit in German beer styles course asks you to pick your favorite beer and choose an alternative fermentation organism and explain why you choose it.  My main trouble with this question is trying to pick a favorite beer style.  I guess, if forced, I would pick brown ales, but I go through periods where I just want to drink porters, ipas, stouts, saisons, tripels, dubbels, etc.  For the sake of this question I will say brown ales.

Using a lager yeast instead of ale yeast for a brown beer basically gives you a schwarzbier.  So, I would actually be interested in what would happen with a classic brown ale malt bill is fermented with Brettanomyces.  Brett isn’t naturally sour (that comes from the addition of lactic acid in conjunction with brett), so I would hope for a fruity clove-like taste to go with the caramel or toffee flavor from the malt.  This would be more of a dessert beer mimicking fruit dipped in caramel or toffee.

That’s my answer for that question.  Now, back to the question of ales vs. lagers.  I prefer ales because ale yeasts provide a greater complexity of tastes and aromas then do lager yeasts.  There is no other real explanation.  I drink both, but my preference leans towards the esthers of ale.

Drinking most lagers is satisfying in the way a diner is satisfying.  There are no bells and whistles, just good food infused with a straight forward soul.  You can also get meat and vegetables at a tapas restaurant, but that is where the difference ends. A tapas restaurant gives you complexity through different flavors and textures and allows you to mix and match for a different experience every time.

Both places serve food that makes you happy, but they have different ways to do it and play different rolls in your food experiences. It is the same with beer.  Depending on when and where you are sometimes you want a solid lager and sometimes you want a complex ale.  In beer terms I prefer ales, but in food terms I prefer diners.  A diner that serves good craft beer would be ideal.

Things I’ve Read

Posted in reading list with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2014 by cueball

A weekly listing of things I’ve read or seen on internet.

  • These Employees Won’t Have To Go To Work On Thanksgiving – As a former retail worker this hits close to home.  Companies are going to find out that opening on Thanksgiving is a bad idea.  One, it doesn’t increase sales for that week because it just lets the people who are going to shop first thing on the morning on Black Friday sleep in and do the rest of their shopping later.  Second, its just going to piss other potential shoppers off because you are invading your workers and your shoppers holiday.
  • The inside story of how new MLS team LAFC went from dream to reality – As a soccer purist, I would love promotion and relegation to be a part of the MLS.  As someone who just missed out on the NASL glory days, lived through the years in the wilderness with no top flight soccer league, watched as a MLS contracted wonderful to watch teams that were horribly business manged, what Henry Nguyen says here (“They were like, ‘Wait a second: First of all, there’s no relegation? All right, you got me!'” Nguyen, 41, said with a laugh.) should not be forgotten.  The people putting up the money to buy a team and build stadiums want as much of ROI guarantee as they can get and the possibility of going from hosting the LA Galaxy to the Carolina Rail Hawks is not something they want in the equation.
  • The 100 Best Beers in the World – Judging beer is a completely subjective concept and I usually look at lists like this with a cringe, but the sheer size of this list and the number and breadth of the contributors from the craft beer world makes it a good one.
  • FIFA: Qatar 2022 winter World Cup likely, Jan-Feb or Nov-Dec ‘options’ – I can’t decide if I think the World Cup will be in Qatar in 2022 or not. On one hand you have the heat, the slave labor, and the sense that the whole way it was chosen was one of the dirtiest processes in the history of international sport.  On the other hand, FIFA and its leaders are full of DGAF.
  • Finding Marlowe – How many interesting stories like this are out there?  So much of history is obscured or lost simply because of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.  I don’t want political correctness in history, I just want truth.  I want to know the full history no matter how ugly it may be.  Also, the history of Los Angeles seems to be filled with fixer guys like this through out its history and more then any other city in the United States.
  • Are You Genetically Programmed to Hate Hoppy Beer? – Its amazing how much of our genetic code was written when humans were hunter-gatherers trying to survive to the age or 35.  This is the most plausible explanation as to why we like the taste of things we do and how much of that comes not from our genetic affinity for something, but because of how we learn from others around us.
  • What Is An Ending? ‘Serial’ And The Ongoing Story Of Wanting Too Much – One of the more interesting things I read this week, but the link on NPR is broken.  In this blog post on Monkey See, Linda Holmes writes about our expectations of fiction is that it will always find “closure.”  She is writing about a new true crime podcast from This American LIfe called “Serial” and how some people have voiced the idea that they will be disappointed if there is not some type of satisfying ending. That is what people mean when they say closure and they want closure out of their fiction and their stories because it is a concept that doesn’t exist in real life.  In real life relationships and situations stop with no warning and often with little to any satisfaction.  If the link worked you would love reading it.
  • How Your Brain Decides Without You – This is a really interesting read on how two people can watch the same event, read the same book, see the same facts, and come away with diametrically opposed views on what they just experienced.
  • ‘Sports Night': An oral history, starring Aaron Sorkin and his cast – an oral history of one of my favorite shows of all time  I love Aaron Sorkin and I even have a soft spot for Newsroom, which is not anywhere close to peak Sorkin.
  • Sea of Crises – Speaking of closure, I think I like this because it doesn’t resolve anything at the end.  It just kind of ends with the anticipation of something ending or beginning, you don’t know which.  This is the most interesting article on Sumo wrestling you will read all year.  It also touches on Japanese literature and a little post World War II history.

Beer Origin Story

Posted in beer with tags , , , , , on November 7, 2014 by cueball

Since I subscribe to all the magazines, blogs, and Twitter feeds of the craft beer world, I read a lot of the craft beer origin stories.  The ones where the writer describes getting their first taste of “real” beer and how the world opened up right in front of their eyes. Usually reading one of these I can literally see the sunshine and rainbows appearing and a choir of angels coming down from heaven.

Yeah, that didn’t happen for me.  I don’t think any of these writers are lying, I just think memory is a fickle and sometimes malleable thing.  Memory and emotion can sometimes conspire to create the best possible scenario for your history.  We all would like to think of ourselves as the hero of our own story and sometimes we reconfigure memories unconsciously to accomplish this.

However, everytime I read one of those stories I try to piece together my origin story in the craft beer world and always come to the conclusion that there isn’t one moment.

Because I was a good young man who never let the demon alcohol pass his lips before he turned 21, lets go to 1995.  I may or may not have had enough of Bud Light and Milwaukee’s Best (aka “The Beast”) to know I wasn’t going to waste my money on those things so I always scraped up enough money to buy Sam Adams, Bass, Newcastle, or Guinness.

Well, at some point I got tired of those offerings and noticed this other beer beside Sam Adams in the beer case, Pete’s Wicked Ale.  This was different.  It was an American beer that tasted more like Bass or Newcastle.  No heavenly choir and no sunshine and rainbows popped out at me, but the world did shift a little.

20141107_093756Around the same time I was walking through the UNC Student Stores and looking at books when I came across America’s Best Beers by Christopher Finch and W. Scott Griffiths.  It was a listing of 350 “microbreweries” and brewpubs in the United States.  Now, if there were any epiphany moments this might have been the closest thing because this showed me how much more beer there was out in the world. (In a true origin story, this would be the moment where the young man who has hidden powers discovers a magic book that brings these powers to the fore and he begins his journey to be the most powerful wizard ever.  The number of people who have amassed fortunes peddling in this kind of goofiness is astounding and inspiring.)

Of course this book came out right before the first craft beer bubble burst.  Flipping through the books pages, is a time capsule of breweries that no longer exist.  That includes my Pete’s Wicked.  Too many people making too much crap beer nearly sunk the industry around 1997.

So, after the collapse I spent a few years drinking a lake full of Sam Adams, Bass, Newcastle, or Guinness and even went through a period of deep diving into wine.  However, the craft brewing industry came back and I came back to the sweet nectar of malt, hops, yeast, and water.

Is there another “adjustment” coming for the industry.  Probably, most industries go through these changes at times of high growth.  With new breweries opening every day, some are bound to fail for any number of reasons:  bad beer, bad business practices, bad location, etc. To combat the growth of craft beer and their own declining sales the big global brewing conglomerates are throwing around money to pick off any of the craft brewer willing to sale.

Craft brewing in the United States has survived teetotalers, Prohibition, the mid-20th century consolidation, and the 1997 bubble bursting.  I don’t think this new round of global consolidation is going to kill the innovation that has fueled the industry.  In some way, shape, or form there will always be craft beer in the US and someone there to drink it.

My Road To Cicerone No. 1

Posted in beer with tags , , , , , on November 6, 2014 by cueball

I recently passed the Cicerone Certified Beer Server exam and have started on my “Road To Cicerone.”  As part of that I have started working through the German Beer Styles Course Cicerone released this year.  As part of the work book each unit has a set of activities at the end. The end of unit one asks the question, if you could write a law similar to the Bavarian Beer Purity Law for your country, what would you include in it?

Ask any beer geek about the Reinheitsgebot , and he/she will tell you about the three ingredients (yeast hadn’t been discovered at the time).  The idea of it is still used in marketing with the idea that it points to quality and simplicity above all else.

The problem is the law was not written necessarily for the sake of beer.  Yes, I’m sure Duke Wilhelm IV wanted to drink the best beer possible, but the idea of restricting beer ingredients was done to at least a great part in order to prevent price competition between brewers and bakers for grains.  That way the price of bread would not get outrageous for the people.  By restricting brewers to barley malt, bakers were given the only access to wheat and rye keeping the prices of those grains as low as possible.

So, if I were creating a beer purity law for the United States, I would say I cannot because the way the laws of the United States are set up hands control over alcohol to the states.  So, for my Beer Purity Law of North Carolina, I would not start with the beer itself. I would start with the distribution and tax system that governs beer and alcohol in this country.

  • Lift the self-distribution cap from 25,000 barrels to 60,000. If any brewer produces over 25,000 barrels, that producer is forced by law to use a third party distributor.  That not only increases the cost of the beer, which will be passed on to the consumer, it also takes away many of the producers brand rights meaning they lose control of much of their own name.
  • Reduce state excise taxes overall and specifically cut excise taxes for breweries producing less than 60,000 barrels by 50%, 60,001 to 2 million barrels by 25%, and 2 million barrels and above by 10 %. Currently, North Carolina taxes small brewers at a rate 8 times that of Colorado and California.

The goal would be to promote and protect local and (usually) smaller breweries by reducing their tax burden and making it easier to distribute their beers without having to rely on a distributer.

As an aside in 2013 there were 2,768 American craft brewers, as defined by the Brewer’s Association, and they produced 15,302,838 barrels of beer.  That is an average of 5,528 per brewer.  The vast majority of craft brewers in this country are small.  They are even smaller in North Carolina with the 91 breweries producing on average 2,895 barrels.

For all the talk of the craft brewing explosion in the United States, most are of the small business variety.  To promote the growth of those breweries they need special consideration.  The brewers who need the most protection are the ones producing from somewhere between 25,000 and 100,000 barrels.

Now for the purity law, the ingredients. The rules for the ingredients would be simple, you have to have a grain bill containing at least 51% barley malt.  I believe codifying any restrictions on ingredients that are not harmful if ingested stifles the creativity that is the craft beer movement’s great advantage over the big industrial brewers.

This is a good start.  More to come.

My Road To Cicerone No. 2

Posted in beer with tags , , , , , on November 6, 2014 by cueball

“If you were going to make an American IPA using only German hops, which hop variety do you think you would choose for the flavor and aroma additions and why?” – Road To Cicerone German Beer Styles Course Discussion Question

The thing I love about The Road To Cicerone series are the discussion questions at the end of each unit.  On unit 3 about German hops the above is the question asked.  These questions are about getting you to really think about each subject in a way to help you truly understand how each part plays into the whole of beer and beer culture.

My answer is Hallertauer Mittelfruh hops for flavor and Tettanger for aroma.  The Tettanger hops will provide the familiar American IPA citrus and grass aromas. The Hallertauer will give the beer a nice spicey and herbal flavor with notes of cedar/leather/tobacco. That would provide an interesting taste alternative in a world of piney and citrusy American IPAs.

This and the other discussion questions not only highlight the different ways each of the four ingredients can be swapped in or out to affect the taste of the beer, it also highlights in a small way, what I think is the next wave of craft beer innovation in the US.

Brewers have spent the last ten years pushing the boundaries of beer making them hoppier, heavier, and boozier.  As the outer limits of those experiments are being reached the next step is the softening of the lines between styles and their traditional ingredients.

Home brewers (many of whom have and will become future brew masters) have long experimented with swapping ingredients from one brewing tradition into beer styles of another brewing tradition.  This breath of experimentation has created new styles or sub-styles like the Belgian IPA or black IPA.  Not only are traditional ingredients being shuffled around into different styles, ingredients that until now had not been used in beer or hadn’t been used in beer in a century are being brought back.  The next phase of growth in craft beer will see the blurring of styles and the creation of new ones.

One thing I am interested in, which is why the discussion question put my brain into over drive, is the reintroduction of the traditional European and noble hops into American style beers.  What does using Hallertauer or Fuggles do to an American IPA or a black IPA or an American style stout?  It goes back to how styles and traditions are blurring as long as brewers continue to try to innovate and find something new and don’t get bogged down into making and serving the same beers over and over simply because they sell.  As I’ve written recently, brewers should use their seasonal beers and special releases to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.  That is the only way to find the next pumpkin beer.

Tasting Notes: Heavy Seas Winter Storm Imperial ESB

Posted in beer tasting with tags , , , , , on November 4, 2014 by cueball

Heavy Seas Winter Storm Imperial ESB

7.5% ABV

How was it tasted:  Growler from Craft Tasting Room and Growler Shop

Extra Special Bittters are a somewhat misunderstood beer style.  I often get the question when we have one on tap, “What is an ESB?”  I usually describe it as a malty ale without a lot of hoppy flavors.

Winter Storm is dialed up as an imperial ESB and becomes a winter warmer beer.  This works great because the style is naturally un-hoppy (in the American hoppy sense) and lends itself carrying the spices and alcohol favored for winter warmer beers.

It pours a nice dark copper, tawny color and you get a lot of malt, alcohol, and the earthy herbal hops aroma.  It has a full bodied mouth feel and good carbonation.

To the important part, the taste.  At first taste the carbonation makes it light on the tongue at the front end with the hop bitterness.  On the back end you get the earthy herbal hop taste and the malty/bready taste and a nice alcohol warmth. This is a very good beer to curl up with on a cold winter night in front of the fire while reading Ernest Hemingway’s First Forty-Nine Stories.

I have decided if I’m going to be doing more beer reviews I need a way to rate the beers. I have chosen tap handles.  Zero to one tap handle means don’t drink.  Two to three tap handles means it is drinkable, but try to find something else.  Three and a half means it is a good beer.  Four to four and a half means it’s a damn good beer.  Five (which will happen very rarely) is beer nirvana.

Heavy Seas Winter Storm Imperial ESB come in at a nice four.

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