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).

07/29/09

Tough Decisions: Can v. Bottle

In 2005, Jim Koch over at the Boston Beer Company (the craft beer magnate that brews Samuel Adams) released a controversial advertising campaign known as the “Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights.” What was the hub-bub all about? He dared take a shot at the nascent movement of putting craft beer in cans.

Craft beer in cans may sound like a contradiction for some people who are used to finding cans only at the gas station or grocery store, but this movement has only grown more visible in the past four years. Just off the top of my head, I know I can walk into Punk Fave the Sunset Grill and Tap in Allston and find beers from Oskar Blues and 21st Amendment that are quite respectable. Mike has also had Pork Slap Ale from Butternuts and found it to be under-appreciated, and quite good for a relatively cheap craft ale. I’ve also heard that New Belgium in Colorado is in on the act. Even small, brand new breweries are eschewing convention-on a recent trip to Seattle Mike investigated the Fremont Brewery-small upstarts that were quite shocked to find him wandering into the warehouse that housed their brewery-and found to his surprise that they too were going with cans.

So if even the little guys are now brave enough to can their beer, how did cans get such a bad name? Basically, it comes down to startup costs. Bottles come empty and blank (with the exception of a few painted bottles mostly produced by mass-producers like Budweiser and Modelo), labels are printed cheaply and applied at the brewery. The fact that the bottles are manufactured blank makes it much cheaper to buy them in small volumes. Aluminum cans on the other hand don’t generally get a label at the brewery, so they are purchased preprinted and in bulk. Lots of bulk. Even a small, brand new operation-like Fremont-had to buy 500,000 cans just to get started. That’s in addition to more complicated and expensive equipment (take for instance the fact that homebrewers always bottle, never can…in the early days of a brewery, when capital budgets are tight, bottling can be done with cheap manual equipment, but canning cannot).

This meant that back in the formative years of the brewing industry in this country (post-prohibition) the mega-brewers that were producing large amounts of fizzy yellow stuff for nationwide distribution were the only ones who could afford cans. Over the years they gradually outmaneuvered or absorbed most of the competition and consolidated the market so that, for all intents and purposes, this was all there was. Indeed even today, for all the hullabaloo over craft brewing, all the craft beer makers in the US only have a 6.3% market share combined according to the Brewer’s Association, with the nations largest brewer by volume, Anheuser Busch, enjoying nearly a 50% market share on its own. So over time, everyone has begun to associate canned beer with the main producers of it: the massive goliaths that dominate the market.

The question is, are you tasting the can or the beer? Honestly, this is a tough question to answer scientifically. I’ve seen a few people try this experiment and it always seems to end in inconclusive results. They tried it once on the podcast Beer School, for instance, and were foiled by the fact that the cans and bottles had vastly different born-on dates and therefore one was skunked and the other was not (time is not a friend to the lager). Even had they been more diligent and gotten identical born on dates, one would have to wonder about the conditions encountered by the beer between the brewery and the store. So we won’t try to recreate this experiment. We can, however, examine the arguments made by each side.

On flavor, can proponents will tell you that the metallic taste once reported by canned beer drinkers is long gone, eliminated by the invention of improved can liners. Before the 1930s, cans couldn’t even hold beer without exploding, until a solvent-based liner was invented to sure up the inside of the cans against the pressure of carbonation. But in the 1980s this technology was improved upon, and now, supposedly, the trouble is gone.

When grilled about this in response to the Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights, Jim Koch said that the problem was the areas of the can that are not lined: the tab and the lip that surrounds it. This is where you drink from, so it should have an impact on the flavor, right? Whoa there Jim, didn’t you read my post earlier this week? Item number one in the Beer Drinker’s Bill of Rights should be a glass with an opening big enough to invite their nose to the party. Even at the ballpark they could give you a dixie cup for crying out loud.

So on sheer taste I’m going to go out on a limb here and say its a tie. The fact that several sources attempting an objective test on this were unable to achieve a conclusive result leads me to think it’s too close for the average consumer to judge, and I’d say that the impact on flavor from instantaneous contact with uncoated aluminum will have less impact that cutting your nose off to spite your taste, so to speak. Just pour your beer into a cup and don’t really care where it came from before that. What about other factors?

One important thing to consider is the thermal characteristics. Glass is a much better thermal insulator than aluminum. One could view this as a double edged sword, however. On the one hand cans will get colder faster than glass bottles (one reason some of the mega brewers are now producing aluminum bottles as a hybrid solution). On the other hand, holding your beer warms it, so an aluminum can’s higher conductivity would mean that it gets warm quicker.

Not so fast-don’t just stand there holding your beer, pour it in a glass, remember? Preferably a glass with the same insulating qualities as a glass bottle, rather than a plastic cup. So it seems that on thermal qualities, cans win out as long as we continue to respect the beer rather than the packaging. Another wildcard here is thermal wraps that can be applied to the inside of cans by the manufacturers. I’m not sure how this would alter the equation, ask a packaging engineer.

Cans certainly seem like a more efficient mechanism for transporting and storing beer as well. They are much more uniformly shaped, allowing them to stack much better than bottles. The long neck on bottles is primarily headspace, containing no beer. The headspace on a can is much smaller even though they both hold the same twelve ounces. Cans are lighter, too. Much lighter. According to the same Beer School episode, transporting 1000 oz of beer in aluminum cans involves only 3 lbs of packaging, whereas the same amount in glass would require 27 lbs!

This would seem to imply much lower shipping costs and make cans the environmentally friendly choice. But when I started really looking into that, the answer gets alot more complicated. Producing aluminum cans uses nearly twice as much energy as producing a similar amount of aluminum. Considering recycling makes it even more complicated. I found two separate sources examining the debate from this angle which led to completely opposite conclusions: in one case bottles had a higher return rate than cans. In the other aluminum cans have as much as twice the post-consumer recycled materials in it (40% v 20-30%). But the other source seemed to feel glass was more recyclable than aluminum.

Then there’s the real wildcard: reuse.  As a homebrewer I can tell you that I have mountains of empty glass bottles around my house. I’m not saving them to recycle, I’m saving them to refill and cap. You see, the same bottle that you return for your 5 or 10 cent deposit can cost upwards of fifty cents to a dollar to buy brand new. This is why many breweries in Europe collect used bottles, sanitize, and refill them. This is probably one reason Grolsch-style bottles with their swing tops are so popular in Germany; even the tops are reusable. The Beer School podcast even related a story about “beer men” in some areas – just like the milk man of old, he would go door to door and swap out empty bottles for full ones (not sure if this story was true or not, but it was poignant and very amusing).

So what’s the environmentally conscious craft beer consumer to do? For one thing, recycle. Every can, every bottle, every time. If you are a homebrewer, do one better and reuse your bottles. If you’re not…become one! Honestly though, these questions of carbon footprints and environmental impacts are always too nettlesome for me, and always turn out to be more complicated than they seem on the surface. After all, how environmentally friendly is the poisonous mercury in that CFL bulb? Is it better to keep driving your inefficient clunker, or chuck it in a landfill and buy a hybrid, fresh off the dirty assembly line? The bottom line is that the only sure thing is to use less and find other uses for what you do consume so that it doesn’t end up in a landfill. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

One final point that the can-pushers like to bring up is that cans are better at keeping oxygen and light at bay. This is certainly true of light, just looking at a can next to a bottle is all you need to prove that. I was unable to find actual data on the oxygen permeativity of cans vs bottles, so that could just be marketing hype. So I suppose cans nudge out bottles by a slim margin here, unless you consider green bottles. Brown glass bottles are perfectly fine for conveying beer so long as they are treated reasonably (don’t leave the pallet sitting in the hot sun outside the warehouse, etc). With more brewers paying closer attention to quality control, I’m inclined to believe that beer is treated better now than in the past, and I’ll never pass up a dark glass bottle. But green or-horrors-clear glass bottles…as pretty or retro as they may appear…are not a respectable home for beer. This is a constant source of conflict for me since I love Pilsner Urquell, but the brewers insist on choosing tradition over clearly superior transport mechanisms.

So what’s the final tally?

  • Taste is likely a wash if you pour it in a glass.
  • Thermal characteristics are marginally in favor of cans, again if you pour it in a glass.
  • Efficient storage and transportation goes in favor cans, big time.
  • Environmental impact is too complicated for this Punk.
  • Beer protection again falls marginally in favor of cans.

It would appear that cans are the superior option. But again, lets not forget the reuse potential of bottles, which is largely ignored by this country, unlike our neighbors across the pond. But the bottom line is this: you are drinking beer, not the container it came in. Good beer will taste good even if you sip it from dirty boots (I imagine…never tried this one). Just don’t let your prejudice against certain canned beers stop you from enjoying good ones, and for heaven’s sake, invest in a glass so you can put this debate to rest already!

07/20/09

A Seattle Beer-venture

On a recent visit to Seattle I took it upon myself to visit as many local breweries as possible within a single day. I was not happy about the time constraint, but due to scheduling issues it was all I could muster up. I eventually dubbed this mission my ‘Seattle Beer-venture’ (I think this was after beer 10 or 15). Thanks to readers’ recommendations and my own internet search skills, I started the day with a list of seven brewers. My cousin, who lives in Redmond, was not only an eager volunteer, but agreed to drive; a massive problem solved! It was around 11:30AM when we decided to shove off, with the first stop being Elysian Brewing Company for some beer and lunch.

Elysian Brewing Company: Located toward the far end of Pike Street away from the famous Pike Market, Elysian occupies a large concrete corner building clearly displaying the company’s insignias. The inside is separated into a restaurant/bar on one half with the brewery taking up the rest of the room, visible through clear glass windows. The food menu was pretty robust with several decent selections. But that wasn’t why I was there. As you would expect of most brew pubs the beer menu rotates, and the day I was there they had at least seven selections (I say seven because that’s how many I actually tried and I am sure there were more). They also have two sampler options the first of which is called the Elysian Sampler that includes their ESB, IPA, Porter, Pilsner, and Jasmine IPA. The other choice is the Bartender’s Sampler, and is akin an omakase of tastings, meaning the bartender selects what he believes to be the best choices during that season or day. I of course went with the Bartender’s Sampler. For me the sampler included the Loser Pale Ale, Saison Poivre, Son of Bete Blanche, Bifrost Winter Ale, and Hydra Hefeweizen. In addition I ordered taster size portions of the Perseus Porter and Dragonstooth Stout. Barring only a few exceptions, I really enjoyed my choices at Elysian. I rather enjoyed the Loser Pale Ale and the Dragonstooth Stout, while I found the Saison Poivre and the Hydra Hefwezein somewhat disappointing.

I found the Loser Pale Ale to have a bit of a hoppy/sweet nose with a light body, balanced flavor, and a clean finish. Pale Ales are not amongst my favorite category of beer, but if they were this one would definitely be a winner. I also believe this beer is a one-off production from the company, so get it while you can.

If you like-I mean really like-peppercorn then the Saison Poivre is for you. However, when I think peppercorn I can’t help but think of my perennial favorite Route Des Épices by Dieu Du Ciel in Montreal; Elysian’s Saison Poivre just can’t compare. The delicacy of the saison style just couldn’t hold up to the peppercorn; it works much better against the rye background chosen by Dieu Du Ciel. A more subtle application of the peppercorn would have been better received.

Like the search for the great American novel, the Punks have been on the lookout for the great American hefeweizen, but the white whale still eludes us. As a hefe fan I had high hopes for the Hydra Hefeweizen, but found the taste of banana to be somewhat overpowering leading to a slightly unbalanced beer. Schneider and Ayinger still make my favorite hefes.

The Dragontooth’s Stout had a great roasty and chocolaty nose, a smooth body, flavor punctuated with hints of chocolate and hops, and a slightly bitter and malty finish. My cousin commented that it would be a great burger beer, and I don’t disagree.

 

Fremont Brewing Company: After finishing up lunch we decided to head over to the Fremont Brewing Company. Now here’s the thing about this place, when I was doing my research I couldn’t figure out if they were actually selling beer yet. According to the internet, they were incredibly new and still in the midst of starting up, but we decided to take our chances. This risk paid off. We pull around an unassuming corner in a commercial/industrial neighborhood, and I get a quick glimpse through and open garage door of what appears to be a mountain of kegs and brewing equipment. We quickly parked and headed in. Once inside I was greeted by a somewhat bewildered and very busy staff. I introduced myself, and to my surprise they not only seemed happy for the intrusion, but eager to tell their story. I began speaking to Matt and Kemp, who to my surprise turned out to be the owners of the Fremont Brewing Company. I must admit anyone displaying this much enthusiasm toward the art is sure to succeed. I really appreciate the time these guys gave me as they were just about ready to finish up a big batch of their Universe Pale Ale.

Despite the fact they clearly weren’t quite ready to receive guests, I was still able to obtain a growler of their Universe Pale Ale, and even taste a sample of green beer right from the fermenter. It was a very pleasant beer, and I envy those people in Fremont who will be able to walk over to refill their growlers at anytime.

In addition to the Universe Pale Ale, Fremont will be offering an Interurban India Pale Ale, named after a nearby statue. Another aspect of this brewer I shouldn’t fail to mention is the fact that they try to utilize as many locally grown and organic ingredients as they can in a sustainable way. They will also soon open a tasting room on the second floor of their brewery with great views of Seattle and Mount Rainier; I recommend visiting if you are in the area. Fremont’s beer will be sold in kegs, cans, and growlers.

Hale’s Ales: Prior to leaving Fremont Brewing, Matt and Kemp, knowing my intentions for the day, suggested I try Hale’s Ales right down the block. How could I say no? Hale’s Ales is located between the Fremont and Ballard districts of Seattle in a large industrial/commercial area.
The building itself is spacious and contains both a brewpub and brewery serving a full menu of food. As you can tell by the name Hale’s Ales specializes in English style ales, and claim to have produced the first nitrogen conditioned ale in the US.

On that note the Hale’s Cream Ale was exceptional, and a must have if you visit. The bar staff seemed somewhat cold, but very knowledgeable. When I visited there were over 15 beers on tap organized by light, hoppy, malty, and dark. Unfortunately, being overwhelmed by the vast selection of beers, and realizing how many brewers I had left to visit, I was only able to sample four beers; the Troll Porter, Imperial Stout, Hale Cream Stout, and the El Jefe Hefeweizen. The Cream Stout was far and away the best beer of this selection, teetering on a 5 out of 5 on the Trappist Punk’s beer scale. My second favorite was the troll porter, while the El Jefe Hefeweizen was my least favorite.

Georgetown Brewing Company: Next we made our way over to the south side of Seattle and visited the Georgetown Brewery. Let me start off by saying this was without question was my favorite stop of the day. Nestled in an old refurbished industrial complex, the Georgetown Brewery served one of the best and most consistent lineups of beers I have ever tasted. The store itself is a small room in the brewery, which sells various logoed paraphernalia, and of course beer. They also offer free tastings.

The first beer I tasted was called Lisa’s Chocolate Stout, named after the brewer’s retail manager. It was fantastic. Quite possibly the best chocolate stout this mouth has ever tasted. Sadly, this beer was made for a special event, and despite being named after the retail manager, is not being sold. In fact, you can’t even purchase growlers from their store front; it is for tasting only, so get there quick! I was also told they use organic chocolate from Theo Chocolate in the brewing process. After tasting this masterpiece I had to try more.

Next on the agenda was the Nine Pound Porter, named after a neighborhood bar. Like the stout, this was another amazing beer. In a nutshell, it had a sweet nose, nice malty character, and an excellent finish. At this point I had to ask, “How can I get your beer in NY or Boston?” The answer, “You can’t…” At the moment Georgetown’s brews can only be found in Washington and Idaho, and maybe soon in Oregon. The owners are fearful of over expansion as they do not want to compromise the quality of their amazing beer; I can respect that, but wish I didn’t have to go all the way back to Seattle to refill that growler!

Finally, I tasted Manny’s Pale Ale and Chopper’s Ale and both were winners. The bottom line here is if you are in Seattle and looking for good beer you must go and seek out Georgetown Brewery…

The Pike Pub & Brewery: Next we made our way to The Pike Brewery located in downtown Seattle, very close to the famous Pike’s Market. I feared this brewpub would turn out to be nothing more than a glorified T.G.I. Friday’s, given its location near a tourist mecca. But, ever seeking diamonds in the rough, I had to give it a shot.

In the end though my hunch was correct. I had the beer sampler, consisting of a multitude of beers ranging from mediocre to bad, with the Kilt Lifter being the only exception. I sadly left the bulk of it behind; as I knew I had at least one more stop ahead and didn’t want to fill myself up with low quality beer. If you are in this neighborhood and are looking for a good beer, then I recommend going up the street a ways and finding the Elysian Brewing Company, you won’t be disappointed.

Black Raven (Redmond, WA): For the last stop of the day we found the relatively new Black Raven Brewery in Redmond Washington. The brewery was located on the outskirts of the city in an office/industrial complex. Redmonders and those who work for Microsoft can rejoice in the fact that within their midst has sprung up a superb brewery with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. According to my notes, and after several beers, I coined the Black Raven as “The Pride of Redmond”. It was clear from the moment I walked through the door that these guys knew beer; the beer list read was as large and varied as one would expect from any high-end European or American craft-brewer. Nor was the quantity out step with the quality.

I was even slightly astonished to discover that I thoroughly enjoyed their hefeweizen and Kristale Wheat (actually a kristallweizen; all of their core products are name after ravens from literature and folklore) , despite my bias against American hefes. Other notable beers included the Morrighan Stout and La Petite Morte. If you are in the Redmond area and in search of some excellent locally made craft beers, then look no further and head to The Black Raven immediately.