A buddy of mine pointed me to this interesting article today, regarding the possibility of the British government mandating plastic pint glasses in pubs in order to decrease the possibility that a pint glass might be used as a weapon. According to the statistics that they cite, there were 5500 incidents last year in which somebody was attacked with a pint glass.
Mmmm... foam.
The article that I link to up there humorously points out that there are more accidents in Britain involving assemble-able furniture or even high heels, and wonders what they should do to make even their Cardigan sweaters more safe (1,000 injuries sustained from them), but the topic itself is interesting outside of its implicit humor.

Certainly, plastic or not, if somebody wants to use a pint glass as a weapon, they will. But will they want to drink out of it?

I can only imagine that CAMRA’s gonna have a field day with all of this.

There’s a short writeup over at the BBC asking exactly this question.

Neil Williams from the [British Beer and Pub Association] said he was concerned that drinkers would notice a drop in quality.

“For the drinker, the pint glass feels better, it has a nice weight and the drink coats the glass nicely. That’s why people go out for a drink, to have a nice experience.”

Of course, this quote really mischaracterizes the problem. I’m not convinced that this would mean drinking out of shitty red plastic party cups or anything. I am quite sure that plastic nonic pints can be manufactured that have the same general feel as a glass, that even have good heft to them (especially when they’re full of beer). I doubt that it would do anything to effect the flavor of the beer – after all, judging often happens in plastic just because it’s easier to manage. To be quite honest, I’m not sure that customer experience would be my first concern.

Another quote in the article points out, quite accurately, that we haven’t always drunk our beer out of glass.

“We could do something more radical, by looking at the whole shape and substance of the pint – we could come up with something that is completely different to glass.

“Remember that years ago people used to drink out of pewter tankards. It could be quite a significant paradigm shift.”

Indeed! If you think about it, this would be a great time to be able to change how people interact with their beer altogether. It has the possibility of being a really positive change for beer, in general. Eliminate the shaker pint! Introduce new drinking vessels: unshatterable glass, built to truly expose the wonderful qualities of a good beer. There’s only this one (enormous) catch: cost.

Can you imagine the cost involved for each pub to completely replace its entire stock of glassware? It’s an especially large consideration in England where pubs are generally having a difficult time keeping up with tax increases and a drinking population that appears to be underwhelmed with beer, anyway. It could stand to easily put a struggling pub out of business directly.

One could argue that closing altogether would effect customer experience more than having to drink out of plastic.

We don’t have to really worry about that particular problem in the States, right now, but what do you think?

How would you feel about drinking your Pliny the Elder out of a plastic pint glass? What if it gave us the opportunity to reshape drinking vessels altogether, dispense with the shaker pint and present beer more effectively? Would it make a difference if it were plastic?

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 30 Sep 2009 @ 06 39 PM

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What a great weekend to be a beer drinker in North Carolina. We get a double-whammy of the World Beer Festival and, in the interval between sessions, Fullsteam’s Backyard Beer Festival just a block away.

In one small (and very chic) city, we have the opportunity to get some of the best craft beer and some of the best homebrew around.

Holy awesome.

My plan in all of this goes like this: Myself (and a group of wonderful friends) will be attending the afternoon (12-4) session of the World Beer Festival, then we will be trucking over to Fullsteam where I’ll be pouring some of my homebrew at the Backyard Beer Festival.

If you’re around at either event, stop me and say hi. I’ll be wearing my bestest Top Fermented T-Shirt.

If you’re not around either event, I’m trying something a little new. Using the magical power of Posterous and my Android I will be recording short audio and video notes as I go and posting them (along with photos) live from both events. All of that stuff will dump onto Twitter automatically, as the day goes and I’ll wrap it all up with highlights here on the blog.

So join me online and off for a great weekend of beer, and witness, firsthand, my descent into rambling drunkenness. It should, at the very least, be entertaining and who knows? There might even be a nugget or two of good beer information in there.

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Categories: appreciation, beer festival, media, RDU
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 29 Sep 2009 @ 01 03 PM

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 25 Sep 2009 @ 9:41 AM 

I’ve often had my share of kinda irksome moments about Sam Adams. I go through wide sweeping moments where I feel like Sam Adams is primed so that someday in the future we’ll be talking about them when we say, “The Big 3.” “You know, InBev, MillerCoors, and Sam Adams.” Sometimes I feel like they choke local craft markets with their ever-increasingly-wide distribution channels. Sometimes I feel like they’re a little too eager to trumpet their role in the “craft beer revolution.”

And then sometimes they prove to me exactly how much they’re worth to craft beer.

This week at the National Beer Wholesaler’s Conference, Jim Koch, Founder and CEO of Boston Beer Company, spoke about the future of distribution. (WSJ article here)

I don’t have many direct quotes from the speech, but the gist of it is this: A lot of people are worried that distributors are going to be falling on some hard times, and so they have to look at changing their models to cut costs and increase efficiency to keep up with the changing economy, even to the point of collaborating with your competitors to share delivery vehicles, personnel, and warehouse space.

Even while distributors are a federally mandated part of the three-tier system, and a good chunk of them maintain regional dominance through less than scrupulous business practices, there’s danger in the future for them. Some retailers, especially big-box retailers like CostCo, are pushing to bypass the middleman and buy directly from the brewery.

But! (I hear you say…) how could that be bad? Well, for big box retailers it’s not bad at all, they essentially have their own built-in distribution networks. For the small retailer and the small brewery, this represents a lot more work in terms of negotiating contracts, deliveries, displays, etc., especially as distributors lose business out of their large accounts and no longer have the capital to be able to support small specialty products that won’t be immediate profit vehicles for them like, for instance, craft beer.

Let’s go back through the short history of distribution companies in the 20th Century to see how much things have changed.

When the three-tier system was implemented after Prohibition, there were something along the lines of 40 – 70 breweries nationwide with a couple of giants in the mix. Regional distributors distributed regional beers and everything worked like it was envisioned and that was fine. The whole point of the three-tier system was to protect the consumer by keeping competition in the retail market. Prior to Prohibition, breweries often outright owned saloons and, thus, could control distribution through retail outlets, price fixing against competitors, or not carrying their products altogether.

As the number of breweries dwindled and the number of distributors increased things started to get a little bit wonky. You start to see megabrewery sponsored distribution who, again, are attempting to control distribution channels in order to attempt to smother their competition – this time in the form of other distributors. It probably wasn’t that bad in the 70’s and 80’s when there were only a handful of breweries in operation, so long as everybody was playing the same game.

The past 30 years, however, have seen the rise of roughly 1500 minuscule (by comparison) new breweries and all of a sudden we’re in an entirely different market again. Now, with scads of these small breweries, distributors are more necessary than ever to get beer to market. Plain and simple, a small startup business (with comparatively expensive startup costs), does not have the resources to compete in a distribution market. Certainly, they can self-distribute in a small geographic area, but at a certain point it is not cost effective and they must rely on a distributor to sell and distribute their beer.

So, if you’ve got mega-retailers that are attempting to bypass distribution networks, all of a sudden things get really difficult for the craft brewer, again. Why? Because distributors will suffer. If distributors suffer, small craft breweries suffer. It’s an easy equation.

Enter, Jim Koch.

Koch recognizes that that future of craft beer (even – and maybe especially – his) lies in efficient distribution and that craft breweries do not have the power to create said distribution on their own. We see more and more pressure from mega-retailers to cut the middleman out, coupled with the ever-increasing cost of fuel, refrigeration, and even warehouse space. Eventually, distribution is going to take a major hit and craft breweries are going to feel it more than most.

It’s going to take a lot of work to get to a more efficient model. We’re stuck in a 20th Century model of sales and delivery distribution networks and change is difficult on a corporate level. Koch suggested it was a 10-year-plan, and he noted that it would require some contract changes with the Big 2 – which may not necessarily be in their immediate interests in terms of distribution.

If distributors can get behind the idea (and they should, even though it seems a little radical up front), it could be a great day for craft beer.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 25 Sep 2009 @ 09 41 AM

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Dear GABF Participant,

Tomorrow, you will be winging your way into a crowded beer festival drinking wonderful – nay! – fantastic and brilliant beer. You poor, poor people. Besotted with quality, good friends, and good times; you have NO idea what you’re missing. Out here in the rest of the world we will be laughing our smug little laughs knowing full damn well that we are better off.

Absence, you see, makes the heart grow fonder. A rolling stone gathers no moss! A… a… bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!! The wombat thwomps thrice at midnight! What? That doesn’t even make sense.

I need SOME sort of cliched little phrase to help me out with this! Didn’t Ben Franklin say something about this? Or was that Winston Churchill? Genghis Kahn? Where are our witty t-shirts now!?

Back to task – you sorry GABF-attending bastards had better watch your internets. Keep a close eye on Twitter, Facebook, and all of your social media outlets, because us non-attendees will be doing something very important: drinking vicariously. Yeah, we’re gonna watch your millions of tweets and posts and little internet postings dying little deaths inside about how much we wish we could be at your side, joining you in sessions, meetups, and tweetups, and we’re going to do the only thing we can do: drink to keep up.

Oh certainly, we don’t drink the drunk of three-thousand samples, but you can damn well bet that we’re going to break out some special stuff this week.

We’ve got to. It’s self-defense.

It’s either that – take the time to sit back and enjoy the ever-livin’ crap out of a great beer – or writhe in jealousy as report after report of deliciousness pours in through our intertubes. The very least we can do is fight awesomeness with awesomeness.

So, all you GABF’ers, you can take your good sweet time to be jealous, too! We’ll be drinking without you! Really! You just watch.

Just… y’know.. raise a glass for me and I’ll raise a glass for you.

And save me a seat next year?

Please?

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 23 Sep 2009 @ 05 16 PM

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Hey! Happy Oktoberfest! Prost! It started on Saturday. I’m sure you know that.

I’m not here to talk about Oktoberfest, but every year Oktoberfest brings the same thing to mind for me: Reinheitsgebot

If you know me in person, and have talked to me about beer, you have probably heard me rail on about Reinheitsgebot at least once. A little story a friend of mine likes to tell involves me ranting on in the kitchen to him over a beer. My wife enters the room a few minutes into the conversation – barely hears any of it – and says:

“Are you ranting about the Reinheitsgebot, again?”

“Yes, dear.”

Fact is this: I respect what people are trying to get at with the Reinheitsgebot. I do. But sometimes I feel like we have some sort of weird misguided loyalty to it. It’s a trade restriction, for crissakes, not a holy writ.

Here’s a translation of it, taken from brewery.org:

“We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer:

“From Michaelmas to Georgi, the price for one Mass [Bavarian Liter 1,069] or one Kopf [bowl-shaped container for fluids, not quite one Mass], is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value, and

“From Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller [Heller usually one-half Pfennig].

“If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered.

“Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer, it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass.

“Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.

“Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or markets buy two or three pails of beer (containing 60 Mass) and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass of the Kopf, than mentioned above. Furthermore, should there arise a scarcity and subsequent price increase of the barley (also considering that the times of harvest differ, due to location), WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.”

So, mostly it’s price fixing. It’s “don’t charge more than X amount per Mass.” It’s also a grain restriction. It’s not a law decreeing the all-holy purity of beer, it’s a law saying “don’t use wheat or rye.” You’ll also note that it only applies to “all cities, markets and in the country” the Duchy could make beer out of whatever the hell they wanted. They’re restricting commercial breweries.

Why? Well, probably to stop the price of wheat and rye from going up to keep the cost of making bread reasonable. Fair, right? Okay. Fine. In 1871, when Bavaria joined Germany, they insisted on the Reinheitsgebot as a precondition in order to prevent competition from beers made with a wider range of ingredients. In fact, it was even written into Germany’s beer taxation laws in the 1950s, at first only to lagers, but eventually to all ales as well.

Fortunately, the EU had the wisdom to suspend the Reinheitsgebot, saying that it was unfair for trade (because it is) and that anything allowed in other foods may be allowed in beer. However, beer brewed under Reinheitsgebot is still protected as a “traditional food” which seems a little ridiculous. I’ll get back to that.

As it happens, the British had an Ale Purity law, as well. They outlawed the “doctoring of ale, with hops” because of its “psycho-active properties” in 1484, just a few short years before the Reinheitsgebot was proposed in 1487 (it was put into law in 1516). You don’t see people clamoring to stick by that one, do you? Maybe that’s because hops are such a perfect addition to beer… but you know? A lot of other things are good additions to beer, as well. Imagine a summer without wheat beers. Sad.

Myself? I believe, firmly, that the Reinheitsgebot heralded the rise of the bland commercial crap that currently dominates our marketplace. You see, when Reinheitsgebot was enforced in Germany it put an end to a good chunk of old brewing traditions. I’ve read references of spiced ales and cherry ales, and of course even wheat beers don’t jive under Reinheitsgebot, either. In my imagination, Ye Olde Westerne Germanye has a brewing tradition a lot like that of Belgium (which it borders) until somebody slapped this trade restriction in place.

In fact, the rise of Pilsener is directly related to folks in other places mimicking the brewing traditions of Bavaria – it’s even noted in the company timeline of Plzensky Prazdroj, maker of the most famous Pilsener Urquell.

5 October 1842 First brew of Bavarian type beer, bottom-fermented beer, so-called pale lager.

What they don’t mention there is that this happened after the recruitment of Bavarian brewer Josef Groll, the father of Pilsener, who would have been brewing under the restrictions of the Reinheitsgebot his entire life. Why change a good thing, eh?

Pilsener, we all know, is the cultural precursor to Milwaukee’s Best Light Ice. It’s enough to make a man weep.

So, aside from the Reinheitsgebot being the origin of everything that’s wrong with the world of macrobrewing, what else do I have against it?

It’s old and it’s over. It’s marketing talk, at this point. It reduces beer to three components, one of which is technically incorrect. A lot of people like to say that the Reinheitsgebot restricts beer to being made with water, malt, hops, and yeast. Take a gander up there. No malt, no yeast. Sure, yeah. Technicalities. They say “barley” which is then made into malt, yes. And yeast wouldn’t be isolated as an organism for another 2-300 years. Who cares?

I care.

Fact: water, malt, hops, and yeast are the essential ingredients for making beer. They are simply the most efficient ingredients (unless you apply Science to help convert starches into sugars in another, more artificial, “I’m adding a bucket of unrelated enzymes to my mash” way). MOST beers are made out of water, malt, hops, and yeast. Throwing up some fancy-pants label about how “This FINE beverage is made under the restrictions of the Bavarian Beer Purity Law” seems almost somewhat akin to saying that your beer is “Triple-Hops Brewed” or “Cold Filtered.” What you’re saying applies to many, many, many, MANY beers. Why don’t you tell me what makes your beer different, instead?

Giving weight to the Reinheitsgebot also seems to imply that beers made with adjuncts – like many Belgian beers and Abbey ales, for example – are somehow inferior. In fact, many of those adjunct-laced beers are recognized as some of the finest beers in the world. You’re saying they’re not “pure?” Whoop-dee-doo. They’re awesome. That’s what counts.

Finally, I sometimes feel that the weight of the Reinheitsgebot gives us pause when experimenting with German beer styles. Certainly, Americans have (wonderfully) bastardized wheat beers in almost every way imaginable, but for some reason when we talk about a lot of the traditional German beer styles there seems to be somewhat of an effort to get them as close to their Reinheitsgeboty heritage as possible.

By this point, I think that American Craft Brewers have shown that there’s still a lot of new ground to be covered in beer. Let’s not get tied down to this archaic trade restriction as some sort of arbitrary measure of quality. Let’s let the taste buds do the talking, break out of this 400-year-old box, leave the marketing lingo behind, and put the Reinheitsgebot to bed as a historical curiosity.

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Categories: history, marketing, op-ed, taxation
Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 21 Sep 2009 @ 09 50 PM

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