Barley Mowat 

Brewers Quality Alliance

with 17 comments

Wanna start a beer nerd fight? Walk into a small pub, preferably somewhere largely populated by bearded men wearing toques, and start asking random people what they consider “craft beer” to be. Approach a few, the drunker the better, and get them to define “craft beer” in strict terms, not just vague generalizations like “it’s good” or the outrageously pompous yet perfectly useless “I know it when I drink it.”

After you have around five or six definitions, get those folks together in a group and loudly proclaim that Beer X is not technically Craft Beer according to Person Y’s rules, but Person Z declares that to be bunk. Also, Y’s mom is a whoor. Liberally spread some knives around, and make a quick exit. When the screaming subsides, come back in and take all their smartphones (craft beer geeks always have one–how else can you check into Untappd obsessively?).

What’s all this about? Well, I’m just illustrating a point: there is no actual definition of the term “Craft Beer” (in Canada; US folks, I’ll get to you in a second). The term is so vague, in fact, that if you ask five people you’ll get five different answers. For instance, the purists will talk about the Reinheitsgebot, but any non-barley adjuncts will violate that. More flexible folk will allow some fruit in their sours, but make something out of rice and you’re in trouble.

Others draw the line at a production limit, arguing that small equals craft. Still more will talk about who owns the brewery, meaning that the crappiest lager ever produced by Pacific Western has more claim to being craft than Vern Lambourne’s latest and greatest, simply because Molson pays his barley bills.

Now back to our US friends. Their Brewers Association has helpfully stepped in and created a definitive definition for our sacred drink, ending debate once and for all. Craft Beer is Small, Independent, and Traditional. Bam. We’re done here. They solved the problem. Short article, I guess.


Yeah… no. This party’s just getting started!

The main problem with their definition is that is keeps bloody changing. “Small” has crept up over the years as craft brewers have met with surprising success: the current limit is 6,000,000 barrels, or about SEVEN MILLION HECTOLITRES by Canuck-measurments. That’s a fucktonne of beer for those bad at math (metric fucktonne, if you’re curious). For comparison, in BC we consider a brewery to be truly colossal when they make more than 160 thousand hL, or 1/44th the size of that US definition of “Small.”

“Traditional” was the criteria tasked with keeping Macro swill corn lagers out of the party, by requiring that Craft Brewer’s flagship beer be all barley malt. A recent update to the BA’s definition, though, took all the teeth away from this restriction and now only requires the use of “traditional or innovative brewing ingredients.” We could save some pamphlet space and logically reduce that statement to just “ingredients.” So yeah, as long as your beer is made by rearranging matter, you’re good. Conjure it out of thin air like some sort of alcoholic Harry Potter, though, and you can’t have that craft beer label.

In fact, the only real purpose of the Traditional criteria now appears to be to exclude “Flavoured Malt Beverages”, which they do explicitly. FMBs in turn, lack a precise definition, but basically this rule has gone from “brewed from barley malt via time-honoured processes” to “not Palm Bay.” Way to hold the bar high and not degrade your brand slowly over time because of market pressure, guys.


Different problem, same result.

“Independent” has gone through a few iterations but has largely stayed the same with a definition of “no more than 25% owned by a macro, or a company that itself is more than 25% owned by a macro.” I’m unsure if it’s turtles all the way down, though.

Confused yet? I am. The trick here is that there’s no attention given to how good a beer is. Politics and advertising concerns have been involved for far too long for the quality of the actual beer produced to be a main concern. A brewery that meets these ever-changing definitions can just as easily produce a Bud Lite clone as can a non-compliant brewery produce the best barrel-aged RIS you’ve ever had. (see “Goose Island”)

However, all this is moot since the BA has no authority in Canada. Despite that magic border, though, the discussion is still relevant since one of the key recommendations from the recent BC Liquor Policy Review was to establish a “VQA for beer.”

VQA means “Vintners Quality Alliance” for you non-Canuck folk out there, and it’s a stamp of approval on Canadian wine that means… well, it just basically means that the wine in the bottle matches what the label says. If the label says “Okanagan Merlot” then there’s Merlot grapes grown in the Okanagan Valley in there. No word on if it’s any good, though. That’s not their mandate.

Now you see where I’m going with this. We’ve come full circle. What job does a “VQA for beer” (BQA?) need to do? Ensure that the beer is made with barley? What about rice beers? Or cheeky corn lagers? Do we factor in ownership? How do we make sure that Molson Canadian doesn’t count? Is that even the point? Do we just ensure the label reflects what’s in the bottle?


Proper labelling of containers is important
for reducing confusion and drama.

I wish I had an answer to these questions, but I don’t. I fear building a “Craft Beer Only” club might seem tempting at first, but eventually we’ll wind up walking the path of the BA above, relying upon increasingly convoluted definitions to keep certain beers in the box while excluding others, all according to criteria that even we can’t articulate.

Keeping the macros outside the club by definition allows them to craftily tempt consumers in any of a myriad of ways so long as they don’t say “BQA” anywhere on the can. Perhaps a better approach might be to define and enforce styles for all beers, requiring the dread macro lagers to proclaim itself as such in bold text (there is even an actual style for it: “Standard American Lager“).

All I know is that this discussion that needs to happen, and getting folks talking about it earlier as opposed to later can only be good. Of course, we could just declare me to be the sole gating criteria for this nascent BQA, because when it comes to good beer I know it when I drink it.

Written by chuck

March 27th, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Posted in Beer and You

The Science of Spoiling Beer

with 24 comments

In a previous article, I lamented the fact that craft beer contains alcohol. Lots of alcohol. So much alcohol, in fact, that it makes drinking a single bomber of most craft beer something you probably shouldn’t be doing on a weeknight.

This presents a problem for me, though, as I LIKE drinking beer on weeknights. I mean, I really, really like it. My day job is very stressful, you see, and I needs me medicine.


Fine, I’m a hammock field tester.
I’m just not very good with stress, okay!?

So what to do? Do I crack a bomber, drink half, and pour the rest out? Do I wake up very early the next day to finish it before it goes off? Maybe I put a cork in it and hope for the best?

That last one intrigued me. I had always just assumed opened beer would be bad by the next day, or at least degraded to the point you wouldn’t want to drink it. But really, is this the case? Time for good, old fashioned science to play its part and let us know. I crafted a quick experiment, and here are the results.

Hypothesis

Properly corking a beer will result in a still-enjoyable product 24 hours after originally opening it.

Method

Not wanting to run this experiment with bombers of vintage Singularity, I purchased two six packs of craft beer to use: one hop forward and one more malty. The hop-forward beer (Lighthouse Switchback) should demonstrate deterioration of hop aromatics, while the maltier pack (Parallel 49 Gypsy Tears) should age more gracefully.

From each six pack I cracked three bottles, poured out half, and capped one of each with a cork, a silicon “beer saver” cap, and nothing. After 24 hours I tasted each of the three old beers blind, alongside a freshly-opened bottle.


In this case, “Poured out half” means “Drank.” SCIENCE!

Data

This should be easy, right? The fresh beer should stand out, the uncapped old beer should be awful, and the cork should slightly edge the silicon cap (if only because these don’t have a great seal and are prone to popping off).

Well, dangit, it was much harder than really it should have been. I’m pretty sensitive to oxidation (the primary fault that would creep in here), and for the most part these beers did not have a significant O2 level in them. Here are the results (left column is what each bottle was, and the right two are what I thought they were, grouped by beer, with qualitative comments).


Normal people have fridges like this, right? This is a perfectly normal thing, yes? Why is no one saying anything?

Cap Method (Reality) Switchback (Chuck says) Gypsy Tears (Chuck says)
Fresh Cork (V Good) Fresh (V Good)
Cork Cap (Good) Nothing (Bad, see below)
Cap Fresh (V Good) Cork (Good)
Nothing Nothing (Ugh) Cap (Not great)

Conclusions

Some of these were closer together than others, but in general the best two beers were hard to tell apart. The hoppy beer, which should have suffered grievously at 24 hours of oxidation, was not bad at all, and actually was brilliant both in fresh and corked form.

The take-away? Cork your beers and drink them tomorrow. They’ll be fine–better than you’d think. If you don’t have a cork, those little silicon caps are okay, but they do tend to pop off so watch out for that (if they don’t pop off, they perform as well as, if not slightly better than, corks).

Leaving the bottle open, though, will ruin your beer. So, yeah, definitely don’t do that. Big shocker there.

Notes:

  • I suspect the cork on the Gypsy Tears might have failed, due to P49′s use of a tighter neck than normal bottles. I’d redo the experiment, but I’m lazy.
  • The capped Switchback was great. Indistinguishable from fresh. Cork wasn’t much worse.
  • The capped Gypsy was easily differentiated from Fresh, but not a massive degradation in quality overall. It wasn’t unpleasant, just different.
  • I theorize that when left standing still, a layer of heavier CO2 will form and displace the lighter O2 from contact with the fluid. In an uncapped bottle, though, the CO2 would eventually just escape, leaving behind a flat beer directly mixing with that loutish bastard oxygen.
  • I also theorize that the high hops of the Switchback actually masked the oxidation that was apparent in the Gypsy Tears, rather than suffering an even stepper decline like I had originally thought. You learn something new every day.

Written by chuck

March 18th, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Posted in Beer and You

A Window to Bad Beer (Vented Tabs)

with 8 comments

There’s been some murmurings on the craft beer vine recently about this whole “vented can” contraption that Molson’s come up with (or, more specifically, the multi-national brewing giant parent MolsonCoors). What’s the point of this bloody thing? Surely it’s to make shotgunning beer easier?

Hate to disappoint you, sports fans, but that’s not the case. You see, Molson is stuck with a horrible situation. They have a bland, boring product that is virtually indistinguishable from the competition, aside from packaging. In addition to this horrible fate, they’re losing market share at a steady–if not fatal–rate. Craft beer is slowly killing them.


You and me both, buddy

Since all they know is marketing, the solution is of course more marketing, and that’s what we’re seeing here. Occasionally they invent some sort of minor tweak to their product strictly as an excuse to launch a massive marketing blitz.

Remember Molson M? Same thing. That production technique (“micro-carbonation”) was so innovative that they didn’t bother patenting it, nor could they describe what it did aside from to say just how very innovative it was. Good luck finding a case of M today. Molson Wheat, while demonstrably a different product from Canadian, is destined for a similar wither-on-the-vine and go away fate (only 156 six-packs in the LDB system as of today).

It’s not the new product and its associated advertising blitz that’s the goal here. It’s to make the masses forget the advertising blitz of the normal product so that it seems brand new and appealing when regular programming resumes. Sure, it’s only brand new and appealing to people with the memory recall of a caffeinated hamster, but that’s pretty much their target audience.


Aside: Why is this the most clothed picture of frat boys that I could find?

Now, how do you get all the advantages of a Molson M campaign without that nasty drawback of actually producing something different, which takes time, money, and more importantly confuses your afore-mentioned hamster-brained consumer base? There ya go, now you get it. Packaging changes. Vented cans.

It might be tempting to get in a tizzy and claim they’re encouraging people to chug their beer but, let’s face it, anyone who thinks chugging Molson out of a can to be a fun pastime is already doing it. The size of the vent is too small to significantly improve their slamming speed, and the finickiness of actually using it will guarantee most vents go un-opened. If they wanted people to chug their beer we’d be looking at a different packaging change.


Sure it’s not Molson, but did you really think I had a can of Molson lying around?

The reality of the vented tab is that, honestly, it doesn’t do much of anything. Molson talks a good talk about an “enhanced pouring experience” but don’t mention what’s been enhanced about it, or elaborate upon what, exactly, a “pouring experience” is. Sound familiar?

Maybe they want to reduce the head of the beer in the glass? Well, that doesn’t work. The beer hitting the bottom of the glass causes most of the turbidity and CO2 release, not air gulping back into the can (also, if your beer is gulping out of the can, pour slower). Plus, the kind of person that can’t wait the three seconds it takes for excess head to dissipate from a poorly poured glass of crappy lager isn’t likely the same person that would bother pouring it into a glass in the first place.

After thinking on this long and hard (okay, thinking on this while browsing the internet and drinking coffee for ten minutes), I can think of one specific scenario where the vented can will make a difference, and I seriously hope it’s not what Molson intended.

Chuggers won’t be affected by the vent. Folks who drink until they fall over won’t be affected by the vent. People who drink a few beers at a party without keeping track of how many they’ve had, though, will.

You see, that vent doesn’t make enough difference in pour speed for the extreme beer consumers to even notice. The chugger will chug until the beer is gone (and then presumably crush the can against their skull). The drink-until-I-can’t-drink-anymore guy will do so regardless of the packaging. The guy in the middle, though, who sips at a can or four over the course of a house party while chatting with a girl… that guy is fucked.


He’s also the guy they show in their ads

A vent might make a causal sip of beer about 10% bigger. That casual guy will notice his beer’s empty sooner, and doing what any good party-goer does, he’ll go get another. Over the course of the evening, he might have one or two extra without even knowing it. He might even drink enough to enter that fuzzy “grey area” between slightly buzzed and full-on drunk, where suddenly getting completely pie-eyed seems like a grand idea.

Worst case scenario, he might be the kind of person that has three or four beers over the course of an evening and drives home (note: regardless of who you are, this is a terrible idea). Now he’s had five or six beers but doesn’t realize it, and he’s still driving home.

Of course, the people responsible for the vented tab are still people, and no one would actually deliberately intend any of this to happen. Molson strongly stresses the responsible consumption of their product (as would any liquor producer). I therefore choose to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the vented tab is a marketing ploy, pure and simple, and not an evil plot to kill innocent childern (although the notion of a Brewmeister Smith-esque super villain toiling away in an underground lab, emitting a lengthy “Mu-hahahahaha” is appealing in and of itself).

Just because you make horrible beer doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person.

Written by chuck

March 7th, 2014 at 10:01 am

Posted in Beer and You

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