07/12/14

The Trend Making American Beer Great Again (and why it went so wrong)

I recently came across the headline “Number of U.S. Brewers Exceeds 3,000“, a level suspected last seen in the 1870′s. This statistic is another piece of anecdotal evidence that beer’s heyday–in the U.S.–occurred well before prohibition, followed by its dark ages in the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s.  With the American beer industry now entering its age of enlightenment, I wanted to find a simple way to tell the whole story that wasn’t a one-off statistic.  Enter the Beer Institute.

The Beer Institute publishes an annual brewers almanac chock full of raw data dating all the way back to the late 1800′s.  Using this resource I was able to produce a chart that I think clearly shows the trends in the U.S. beer industry since 1887.   In 1887 the U.S. had 2,269 brewers producing on average 10,190 barrels of beer per year.  I suspect there were a large number of small local brewers producing  a lot of great beer. Even before Prohibition the number of brewers in the U.S. began to slide. I imagine there were many reasons for this including improved shipment methods, allowing some of these smaller brewers to extend their reach, acquiring or putting less successful brewers out of business.  What this means is while Prohibition was a catalyst to to moving beer toward its Dark Ages it was not the cause.  This trend rapidly worsened and by 1979 we had just 44 brewers in the U.S. producing on average over 4 million barrels of beer per year.  Beer production shifted from quality to quantity, good for the brewers but terrible for the consumers. Lucky for us today, beer was about to enter its Renaissance.

Beer Advocate has a fantastic timeline illustrating how this Renaissance was born, but some key events include the legalization of home brewing in 1978, the first ever Great American Beer Festival in 1981 and the birth of the brewpub in 1982.  Today, while craft beer still makes up a relatively small amount of market share there has been an obvious shift back to quality.  As of 2012–the most recent almanac data–there are 2,751 breweries operating in the U.S., producing on average 71,152 barrels of beer; 98% below the 1979 level.  While we will never know what we missed in the late 1800′s, if you are a fan of beer, now isn’t a bad time to be alive.

Here is the chart:

06/22/12

Rogue Moves From Beard to Beer…

Photo by kynan tait

Mild nausea isn’t a feeling I expect while discussing the habits of some of the world’s top brewers, but it does occur on some rare occasion. The last instance I can recollect was upon learning that Brooklyn Brewery was adopting a process known as “fat-washing” to create a bacon flavored beer. The fat-washing process includes soaking heated bacon fat in beer before it congeals at which point it’s removed while the flavor and only the bacon flavor supposedly remains.  We wrote about it on Trappist Punks a while back. LINK

Well last night it happened again, and this time caused by one of my favorite brewers, Rouge… Rogue is in the process of trying to find new wild yeast strains from their hop yards to create new truly local beers, a very honorable effort.  While they’ve succeeded in uncovering a new strain it wasn’t from their hop yards. Here’s two quotes that sum up the discovery process quite nicely, “In cooperation with White Labs, samples were collected from Rogue’s hopyard and sent to White Labs for culture and testing.” OK quite normal, but then, “As a joke, nine beard follicles were carefully cut from the beard of Rogue Brewmaster John Maier. The follicles were placed in a petri dish and sent in for testing.”

By now you’ve probably figured it out, the samples from the hop yard, all negative, the sample from John’s beard, which he has been growing since 1978, positive.  The result, “The beard yeast is currently being used in test brews to determine the perfect style & yeast combination. The beard beer, New Crustacean, will be released in early 2013.”  Possibly more disturbing than my original bilious reaction is that I still wanted to try Brooklyn’s bacon beer, and now I look forward to tasting a brew from the yeast discovered sitting in John’s 34 year old beard…  Luckily Rogue is available here in Hong Kong thanks to HopLeaf.  The article: Beard Beer

06/2/12

This Week Needs Only One Headline & It Involves Gatecrashing Cows…

A recent AP article picked up by a few local media outlets turns our attention to one of the new most serious dangers of hosting an outdoor summer barbecue with free flowing cold beer: roving herds of cattle.  That’s right — roving cattle herds are now a clear and present danger to all those partying outdoors.  Let me explain.

The South China Morning Post headline goes like this: “Gatecrashing Cows Sour the Mood at Backyard Party”.  But once you read the succinct 127-word story, you realize this title is quite tame compared to the actual events.  Apparently, a herd of cattle in Massachusetts crashed a backyard BBQ. Then, like an American version of Pamplona’s running of the bulls, they chased the attendees away from the party and began drinking their beer:  “the cows had knocked the beer cans over on a table and were lapping up what spilled… they even started rooting around the recycled cans for some extra drops.”  Here is a version of the article published by The Herald.

What worries me the most is that out of all the states in the U.S., Massachusetts has the fifth fewest number of cows. If cows can organize there in such small numbers, what can they do in states where their numbers are higher? Massachusetts is home to a meager 41,000 cows; there are 30 states in the U.S. with over a million.  Looking at the data and assuming this trend persists, outdoor BBQs may be most at risk in California, Kansas, Nebraska and Texas — all states with over 5 million cattle each.  Alaskans and Rhode Islanders may be the safest from cow-crashers as neither of those states has over 15,000 cows.  If you happen to live in a high risk state, then BBQ with caution and keep those beers locked up. You can see the number of cattle by state here to see how at risk you may be…

 

05/19/12

This Week’s Global Beer Headlines (with Commentary)

*A beer crime may have been committed at this year’s Preakness–I don’t mean the reported thirty minute waits to top up the $20 refillable beer mugs–apparently the mugs were being filled with Budweiser: Baltimore Sun

*Speaking of crime and beer, Darrin Annussek, a protester who apparently walked to Chicago from Philadelphia to take part in a NATO summit protest, was arrested this week.  During the raid the home brewing equipment of the out-of-towner’s host was confiscated by police, seemingly being confused for a Molotov cocktail workshop.  According to Kris Hermes, of the National Lawyers Guild, “There is absolutely no evidence of molotov cocktails or any other criminal activity going on at this building.” (Home brewers beware.) CBS Chicago (NBC Chicago also had coverage with a great headline “Beer Not Bombs”)

*Twelve upping Darrin’s walk to Chicago, 12 beer fanatics in the U.K. have undertaken a 16,337 pubs 28-year pub crawl, and I can’t imagine they’re done.  The best quote for the article comes from one of the fanatic’s girlfriends, “When I started my relationship with Kelvin, it was clear from the start that beer was part of the package.”  Mirror

* In a story from Africa, a beer shortage received first billing in a set of calamities striking Harare, Zimbabwe beating out electrical blackouts and water stoppages. Well ahead of any quotes or mentions of the importance of electricity or water conservation was this, “What we are getting erratically are quarts and cans. Pints, which many drinkers prefer, are not available.”  The word disastrous was also applied, to the beer situation.   The Herald

* Finally an item from Taiwan has me ready to book a ticket across the Strait.  Apparently until around 2002 the Taiwanese government had a monopoly on alcohol production, which they had to give up in order to join the WTO; creating the genesis of the country’s micro-brewery movement. Today, while the the old state owned company combined with imports make-up 99% of the beer market, craft brewers like Quentin Yeh should soon change that statistic.  A quote from Quentin, “Our craft beer, unlike its filtered and pasteurized cousin that comes in cans, preserves the distinctive taste of yeast with a fresh finish,”     Taiwan Today

I hope you enjoyed the headlines.

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04/22/10

When Two Rights Make a Wrong: Flavored Saisons

Long time no see loyal reader. I’d like to try and get some momentum going again on the blog and shake out some of my blogging cobwebs before starting on another project, blogging on Boston area restaurants with some friends of mine. So here’s what’s been on my mind lately in the world of beer.

People who know me know that Saison is one of my favorite styles; an odd outlier in my repertoir of heavy, dark, roasty, thick-enough-to-chew favorites. Something about it just works. It’s crisp and light – or more accurately it’s percieved as light because it’s dry and usually a bit heavily carbonated. Like most Belgian styles, Saisons generally feature a complex yeast profile from the use of special yeast and generally warmer fermentation temperatures, which kicks up the fruity ester character, and sometimes adds a spicy phenol touch.

But more to the point, they are a relatively delicate beer, which further accentuates the yeast characters. Based on White Labs’ yeast profiles and the BJCP style guidelines, the attenuation of, say, a British style Pale Ale is something on the order of 70-75%, whereas a Saison tends more toward the neighborhood of 85-90%. This means more sugar is removed during fermentation and the result has a very light malt character that isn’t overwhelming. Then the hop character has to be restrained accordingly to keep the beer in balance (especially since the Belgians don’t really seem to care for hops anyway, they are known for aging their hops to remove the bittering and flavor characteristics before use-which I think I wrote about but was apparently never posted. We’ve got some catching up to do…) BJCP guidelines put the Saison at 20-35 IBUs (a measure of hop bitterness) whereas a Pale would be more like 30-50 IBUs. We’ve also talked about the BU:GU ratio before, which is a way to measure the balance of a beer based on the IBUs and the original gravity. Higher numbers are more bitter, lower numbers less. On this measure, Saison comes in around 0.4-0.5, and a Pale is more like 0.6-0.8.

So, science aside, what we’re talking about here is a relatively light, malty beer with a delicate flavor that allows the complexity of the malt and yeast character to really shine. And Saisons happen to be one of this beer snob’s favorite summertime options, not to mention a perfect stand-in for white wine or champagne with food, any time of year. For my favorite examples, see Brooklyn One (didn’t care for Brooklyn Two as much) or the classic Saison DuPont from Brasserie DuPont in Belgium. Other good examples include Southampton Saison, Victory Saison and Ommegang Hennepin.

CBC has a new(ish) beer on tap called Sgt Pepper, which is a peppercorn flavored Saison. I say newish because it’s been brewed in past seasons, and also because, well, I haven’t posted in a while. Since I love Saison, and I love peppercorns (mmm…Steak au Poivre…) you’d think I’d be all over this one. And every year I think the same thing, and every year…I’m wrong.

See, you try to take in the bouquet on this one and you sneeze. It’s just way too much peppercorn for a saison in my opinion. The Punks have a long standing bias against flavored Saisons for this reason, no matter what you put in them the flavor seems to overpower that delicate malt and yeast character which is the hallmark of the style. I thought we were alone on this one, and I don’t mean to second guess some of my favorite brewers here, but anecdotal evidence from my friends bears out that this one isn’t for everyone. Taste it before you get a full one.

There is one more thing to keep in mind here. Several of my beer and brewing gurus (see Charlie Papazian, or Stan Hieronymus) are quick to decry the practice of beer snobs like me judging a beer against style guidelines. That’s important for competition, but flavored beers are, by necessity, kind of unique beasts. This is why they created specialty categories at beer competitions to begin with; to encourage creative brewing rather than stifle it. So please, do try it, you might like it. Just do so with caution. And maybe don’t breathe too deep on that first sip.

08/31/09

Punks Welcome Olde Magoun’s in Somerville to the Beer Locator

In case anyone has missed it, our new site now features a tool called the “TP Beer Locator” in the upper navigation bar, which points our users to all of the best beer bars we’ve discovered on our various travels throughout the world. There’s hidden gems here from all over the northeast where we’ve spent most of our time, but also from the southwest and west coast, and even Europe and Southeast Asia, South America, and Australia.

Now that I’m settling into my new digs in Somerville (which also explains the relative dearth of posts lately), Mike and I went out to explore the neighborhood a bit. We’ve been hearing good things about Redbones in nearby Davis Square, but frankly in the recent heat wave, we were looking to stay a bit more local than that (especially after moving my preposterously oversized wooden desk all the way from Brighton). We settled on Olde Magoun’s Saloonright around the corner from my new house, and we were not disappointed, so we’ve decided to add this small, unassuming pub to the TP Beer Locator, and sing it’s praises here for a bit.

The beer selection doesn’t come close to what we’re used to at the Sunset Grill and Tap in Allston, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either. They’ve got twenty one taps, and everything is well thought out. Generic fizzy yellow lagers don’t seem to be available on tap, only in bottles; after all, why waste tap space? The most generic items on tap included Guinness, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, and Smithwick’s Irish Red.

The taps are a good mix of excellent imports (Radeburger pilsner and Weihenstephaner hefeweizen, for example) and a great list of American micros. What’s more, they don’t fall into the all too common trap of having two dozen IPAs with no dark beers or quality lagers; the selection is quite varied with a little something for nearly every palate.

But the real draw with this place is the food. I dare say their food selections are actually superior to the Sunset, and at marginally lower prices (though the portions are marginally smaller than the Sunset’s offerings, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you aren’t feeding a crowd). The nachos-the yardstick by which Mike and I tend to judge these places-were quite respectable, falling just short of the Sunset in my opinion. But considering the rest of the menu changes everything; we also had a crispy, delicious pizza that was fantastic and a truly sublime seared Ahi tuna sandwich. And none of these dishes came to more than ten dollars.

The clientelle also appears quite friendly, and the place lacks the intimidating vibe some people might get from a bar like the Sunset with a beer list that reads like the phone book. And talk about amenities…free wifi, free appetizers on arrangement if you have your fantasy football draft at the bar, the full sports package on TV featuring every football game. They even have a Tuesday night trivia competition sponsored by Harpoon, where the winning team gets four cases and a free brewery tour.

While Olde Magoun’s isn’t likely to captivate us the way the Sunset has for the past year, and we’ll surely strike out for more extensive beer lists from time to time, it makes a more than suitable local replacement, and they’ll be seeing much more of us over the coming months. If you are in the area, they should be seeing more of you as well.

Stay tuned, later this week we’ll have another Geek Speak article on gravity and attenuation, and then next week we should be back on track with new articles in our Belgian brewing series, including one on aged hops, and a few other surprises. Thanks for your patience!

08/25/09

The Beer Excise Tax – a Brief History and Perspective

beer taxEarlier this year H.R.836 was introduced to the House of Representatives, if approved this bill would it would reduce the federal excise tax on beer from US$18/barrel to its pre-1991 levels of US$9/barrel.  In order to better understand the history of beer excise taxes the Punks contacted our Capitol Hill liaison Jeffrey Last, and this is what he had to say on the matter:

Excise taxes on alcoholic beverages are amongst the oldest in the history of the United States.  The first federal tax was established in 1791 as a short lived budget measure to pay off our debts from the Revolutionary war.  This tax has been reinstated several times in our history, not surprisingly either after wars, i.e. the War of 1812, to pay off debts or in the run-up to arms, i.e. the Civil War, as a means to finance them.

It was when the tax was reinstated during the antebellum period, the years just prior to the Civil War, that it was extended from just spirits to all fermented beverages including those we know and love as beer and ale.  Additionally, this tax has prevailed to the present day (minus prohibition); where today it exists at a rate of $18 per 31 gallon barrel for large producers and at $7 per barrel for smaller producers, ones that produce less than 60,000 barrels a year.  This tax is universal, so foreign and domestic brewers are equally impacted by it.

While I am in no position to determine what impact this tax has on the domestic brewing industry, I can give you the numbers on the revenue it creates and leave the judging to you.  In fiscal year 2007 the federal beer excise tax generated $3.8 billion with $3.3 billion coming from domestic brewers, and $500 million from imports.  Keep in mind these are just revenues from the federal tax of $18 per barrel.  Each state has its own excise tax that ranges from the lowest in Wyoming of $0.62 to the highest in Alaska of $33.17(ouch).

While the federal tax isn’t earmarked for anything specific other than a revenue stream, the state taxes are usually levied as a means for paying for certain state programs and initiatives.  For example, Arkansas uses their excise tax to fund education and child care development funds.

There have been many justifications for having an excise tax, both federal and local, on beer.  Some argue that these so-called “sin taxes” are a great tool for curbing habits that are deemed less than healthy, while others see them simply as a tax on a luxury item.  However, there are those who feel the rate adversely punishes lower-income individuals and feel it should be lowered or repealed.  In fact, there have been efforts by Congress recently to halve the federal excise tax on beer.

Regardless of your personal views on the matter, keep this in mind. When you go out to the bar and order a pint of your favorite brew, between 40 and 44 percent of what you pay is the various excise taxes being passed on to the consumer.

Thanks Jeff!

08/18/09

Beer Run with Billy Joel: Sunset Grill and Tap, Allston, MA

BeerIt was a weekday afternoon, and things at the Sunset were slow. The staff was killing time, no doubt talking about beer and pouring a lot of samples for the customers, as they sometimes do when there’s nothing left to do. Then it happened. In from the street walked a living legend…Billy Joel had entered the Sunset.

He took a seat at the bar, surrounded by an entourage, and asked for a beer list. He was ill prepared for what came next, as he was handed not a sheet of paper, but a book, with pages upon pages of beers from the world over, ever major style from every country imaginable. Flipping, flustered, through the many pages, he asked

“You..uh..got a lot of beer here, huh?”

“Yes, that’s kind of our thing…” the bartender replied.

“You got PBR?”

…As luck would have it, they did indeed have PBR; inexplicably since few people likely order it in this environment. So the story goes…

This is my own beloved local, the Sunset Grill and Tap, and I can tell you that the Pianoman’s story is far from unique. After all, who would expect such a wide selection of beer for all price ranges so close to the campus of Boston University, in the decidedly un-glamorous Boston neighborhood of Allston; this isn’t Back Bay or Beacon Hill after all. And yet there it is, like a diamond in the ruff (not to discount another gem, Deep Ellum, just down the street).

No, this is a very common tale; many’s the time that I sat at this bar taking notes on many a fine beer, and witnessed the confusion of a newcomer to this unassuming place when handed the beer list. I must look like I belong, almost like a permanent part of the decor, because questions often follow. Rest assured, I and many others here are more than happy to play tour guide, so if you find yourself here, don’t be afraid to ask questions, not only of the staff, but also the patrons. Who knows, if I had been there, poor Billy might not have gotten stuck with a PBR after all.

Just as you shouldn’t be intimidated by the clientele, don’t be intimidated by the list either. So many choices may be daunting at first, but in time you’ll come to understand that it just makes the place more versatile. If one can’t find a beer they like in the Sunset’s ever-evolving catalog of 112 taps and hundreds more bottles, you aren’t likely to find one anywhere. The beer menu is well organized (this is not a trivial point, because I’ve been to some places out west that could use some work in this area). The options are great in every category, with indications next to most of the beers showing what scores they’ve received in online polling, and stars next to the top choice in a given category. My only knock against the menu itself is that they need a “what’s new” section for regulars such as myself so I needn’t spend a half hour sifting through the menu every time I go there.

The bartenders always seem willing to provide free tastes of anything on tap (this would be all the beers on the back cover of the menu). I’d say as long as you order some beers to go with your samples, I’ve never seen anyone get turned down on a sample. They also offer a range of serving sizes, though I usually go with the default. Do be careful to watch the prices on anything you order though; I’ve been known to accidentally order a $20 bottle of Brooklyn Local One Saison one night when I’d had one too many and wasn’t paying attention. But as a budget conscious Mike was quick to point out in leaner days, they always have a great selection of fantastic taps at $5 or so. If you’re willing to step up just a bit, they’ve got many more for 6 or 7.

As I stated in a previous article, the Sunset is a fantastic place to try a cask ale, they serve up a mean Dogfish Head 60 Minute from time to time, especially. Another very special section of the list is the meads. These are fermented honey, sometimes with malt or spices and herbs added, and taste like something between honey and wine, but somehow better than both. The Sunset has a wide selection of them, which is rare no matter where I’ve been. Mead isn’t really my thing, but certain Punk’s have been known to exclaim “where have you been all my life” with the first taste. Truly something worth trying, even if it doesn’t stick.  It led us to brew our own batch, results yet to be seen…

The place also has its fair share of intimacy, with many nooks and crannies to choose from. In fact, this could be seen as either an advantage or a disadvantage depending on perspective; I’ve often complained that the large wall splitting the place in two limits the sociability of the bar area by taking up standing area around it and limiting movement and the cross-pollination of conversations from one side to the other, but at the same time it creates a much more intimate feel that can be welcome at times, either for dates or for deep discussion among friends.

As for the food, you tend to be safe with anything latin-inspired (gigantic nachos, quesadillas, fajitas, etc) and anything involving the hummus. Overall the food generally doesn’t disappoint, but I would stay away from the barbecue sauce; I’m not a big fan. Also, plan around huge portions for everything. A good strategy is to bring people with you and share whatever you get. If you are still hungry afterward you can always get another plate of something.

I should also point out that there is a pool hall upstairs (Big City) and a Tequilla/Margarita Bar just down the street (Sunset Cantina) that are both owned by the same wonderful people. Mike and I have been to the Cantina, it struck us as a slightly more sociable atmosphere than the Sunset G&T, and with a respectable 38 beers on tap. It offers a nice compromise for the group with a mix of beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers, if the two should ever associate. One word of caution, however: do not order the $50 or $60 margarita…the cost of the drink is the cost of the tequila shot that goes into it; just drink the shot. The bartender there told us they always serve the shot on the side for those and recommend drinking them separately (often being ignored). There is a good reason they do that. We’ve never been to Big City so I can’t say anything about that, but I’d be willing to bet their beer selection is second to none among pool halls in this city.

08/13/09

Good News Seattle, Fremont Brewery to Celebrate Grand Opening

The Fremont Brewing Company will be celebrating its Grand Opening at the Latona Pub on August 17th.  For those long-time Punk readers you may remember us highlighting this brewery in my Seattle Beer-venture posting.  For those of you who are new or need a refresher, Fremont is a small scale family-owned start-up located in Seattle’s Fremont district. The FBC is dedicated to producing high-quality sustainable beer, and I can personally vouch for the fact that they do.  To help accomplish this onerous feat the brewer sources as many locally produced organic ingredients as possible.  This includes everything from using water from a nearby river in the Cascades to buying hops grown in the Yakima Valley.  The other half of the formula comes from the owners’ passion for making the best beer possible.  I had the pleasure of meeting with the owners during my visit, and I can assure you from what I saw these guys not only mean business, but should be around for a long, long while.  I should also point out that the FBC has a long-term goal of creating a neutral carbon foot-print, and brewing with sustainability in mind.

The opening event kicks off at the Latona Pub 7:00PM sharp when the first keg of Fremont’s Universale Pale Ale will be tapped at the bar.  Fremont’s founder, Matt Lincecum will be on hand to answer your questions regarding the beer and discuss the hardships of starting a small scale environmentally conscious brewery in the midst of a severe economic downturn.  Apparently, Matt is considered a long-time regular at the Latona Pub, which ironically will be celebrating its 22nd birthday at midnight on the same night.  My only regret is that I can’t fly out to Seattle to attend, so I hope all of you in the Seattle area attend, and have one (or many) on my behalf, and please be sure to say hello to Matt for us.  Also, in the future look for Fremont Brewery six packs at a grocery store near you (if of course you are reading this in Washington state).

08/4/09

Jurassic Pub: Truly Ancient Ale

Mad scientists extracting ancient DNA molecules from fossilized amber, resurrecting long dead beasts and unleashing them on an unsuspecting modern world as part of some half-baked, twisted commercial scheme. Hollywood horsepucky you say? Think again my friend. Truth, you see, can be even stranger than fiction. A certain hybrid, made possible by frightening science, has recently come to my attention: The Tyrannosaurus Rat. No, not the ones living in the sewers under Manhattan; I’m talking about a beer, one unlike any the world has ever seen.

The first batch was brewed in 2006, when Peter Hackett of northern California brewpub Stumptown teamed up with famed mad scientist (and real-life inspiration for the Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park) Raul Cano of California Polytechnic to brew a hybridized version of his Rat Bastard pale ale that is nothing short of an abomination. What was so different about this simple pale ale? It was brewed with yeast that had lain dormant for 45 million years, buried deep in amber – fossilized tree sap – from an age before man, at the dawn of modern mammals.

Cano had generated a great deal of interest and controversy in the mid nineties by claiming to have cultured microorganisms (thousands in all) from the remnants of amber. Among the many species in his catalog were several strains of yeast closely related to Saccharomyces cerevisiae-he had found ancient ale yeast and brought it back to life! Cano never intended his research to create tasty beverages. In fact he had started his company, Ambergene, with the far loftier goal of synthesizing new antibiotics from the microorganisms, but the company later folded by 1997 when the investors (among them several major pharmaceutical companies) lost patience in the lack of progress. The only marketable idea that seems to have come from the venture was when a homebrewer on Cano’s staff decided to culture up some of the ancient yeast and brew a series of beers from it: T-Rex Lager, Stegosaurus Stout, Jurassic Amber Ale, and Ancient Ale. These beers were served at the wedding of Cano’s daughter, as well as the wrap party for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.

So how do you bring bugs back to life after 45 million years? Many microorganisms (including yeast strains) actually go into a state of deep hibernation when they run out of the things necessary to sustain life. If they are preserved from exposure to the elements, say by being trapped in virtually air- and water-proof fossilized amber, they can apparently stay alive and hibernate…for a very long time. This makes it relatively simple (I’m sure!) to reconstitute them; simply sanitize the bejeezus out of the outside surface of the amber (Cano used disinfectant, ultrasound, ethanol, and fire) to prevent modern contaminants from interfering with the sample, then dip it in liquid nitrogen to make it brittle, break it into many small pieces, and then stick it in a solution of microorganism chow and other nutrients and wait. The controversy I spoke of wasn’t so much over the risk of culturing some sort of andromeda strain from the amber or other ethical concerns, but more about the risk of modern contaminants. Most of the bacteria and other microorganisms Cano found were actually closely related to modern species, and considering 95% of modern bacteria has not been identified, let alone studied by scientists, it was hard to say whether Cano’s bugs were coming from inside the amber or outside. Even Cano initially thought the cultures growing in his petri dishes were contaminations that were keeping him from studying the dead bugs he was looking for, but with time this hypothesis changed, he isolated thousands of species, and his work was peer reviewed, replicated on several occasions by other teams, and eventually published in the journal Science.

And what about the beers? Cano’s Fossil Fuels Brewing Company is currently working with two northern California brewers: Hackett at Stumptown Brewery is producing a pale ale, and Joe Kelley at Kelley Brewing makes what can be referred to as a “Belgian” hefeweizen. Neither are available outside of northern California at the moment, but reports from the field indicate that the yeast features clove and other unique phenolics that gives the hefeweizen a bit of a “Belgian” feel. The strain has also been described by hacket as having a “gingery” tang, and several sources make mention of smooth fruity notes, citrusy but not overly sour. Either beer appears to be a must-have if you can get one.

So when will we get it on the east coast? Hard to say. They are expanding draft offerings (with presumably fake amber chunks in the tap handles) throughout California as we speak, and are in talks with contract brewers to ramp up production of bottles for wider distribution, but considering the fledgling brewing company has taken nearly three years to get this far, there’s no telling how long that will take.

So in the meantime, us Punks will have to wait (or pull together funds for that Pacific Coast Highway road trip we’ve always wanted to take) and see where this truly unique yeast will show up next. Reports indicate that Joe Kelley of Kelley Brewing would like to see it in a scottish wee heavy, so you’ll likely find it there before you find it at our local Sunset Grill and Tap, unfortunately.

If you want to listen to me geek out on this truly astonishing yeast strain from the perspective of a knowledgable homebrewer, don’t forget to check out my Technical Addendum.