Wednesday, August 31, 2011

About beer culture (and happy birthday, Dad!)

The last day of August was always special, growing up. It marked the last day of the summer vacation, as on September 1st school would start again. It also meant party time, as our family celebrated my dad's birthday. Today they are celebrating again, with an open house where the whole extended family and friends and neighbors are welcome to stop by, partake in great food and ample drinks. Central in this, of course, is honoring Luc Vanraes, patriarch of the clan. And a lot to celebrate there is!
Apart from a loving father, hard working, who loves his wife dearly, he was always close with his children. Strict, but fair (even when at times we would have disagreed with that, of course, hard headed teenagers that we were).  One of the greatest things he gave us, was his example of how to live life. His joie-de-vivre and hospitality are legendary, literally around the world (for some reason, we always had guests in our house, from all 5 continents). So often we would take these guests around and show off our beloved Flanders. A typical stop would include touring Brugge (Bruges), a medieval town that is often referred to as the 'Venice of the North', and a true gem. We loved going there, and after a few times we had our tour down, to show the most beautiful and interesting places. A standard stop was always the Brewery "De Halve Maan", famous for their Straffe Hendrik and Brugse Zot. It is an old brewery, right near the idyllic Beguinage. They have an operating brewery in a small part of the original building (the green beer is cellared elsewhere), and the actual installation of the old brewery is open for tours, put together in a very nice overview of the brewing process and history. The entry ticket you have to buy for the tour also gives you a free beer at the end of the tour. Very often we would start the afternoon in the bar area of this brewery, talking about our country and the countries of our guests, over a shared beer.
Bonifacius Bridge, Bruges
One of my dad's favorite places to go would be the fish market. There he would buy 'maatjes', some sort of sardine-like fish, eaten raw (slightly pickled with onions). He would relish in the horror of some of our poor guests, who did not dare refuse their gracious host in his insistent encouraging to taste. Some people had no qualms and were asking for more of this delicacy. Either way, they would be rewarded by a stop at a nearby chocolates shop.
Cathedral of our Lady, Antwerp
Another city we would often go to was Antwerp, a great port city with very old roots. There was this nice 'cafe' (pub) we would go to, in this old building with a very picturesque open inner court. We'd bring our guests there, and had them try some more of our delightful beers. Very often, people had their first encounter there with 'Kwak', from Brewery Pauwels. My dad would explain the name as derived from the sound made by the beer, once you reach that tipping point when the beer suddenly rushes out of the ball shaped lower end of the glass, held in their classic wooden holder. A good number of people had their first real encounter with beer at this place! Needless to say they were converts ever since.
Back at home, he would spare no expense preparing the best food he could find, together with of course the best of beers.
So apart from honoring the man who taught me how to savor beer, there is another point. These stories about my dad (believe me, I did not even scratch the surface) show something important: beer is meant to be enjoyed and shared. As we grew up, we often were allowed to sip from the beers of the grown-ups, without any taboo. We learned that drinking means savoring quality, not pounding down quantity. The rich encounter over beers with so many different people who each brought their own culture to the table, was fabulous.
That is what beer is about. That is what we want to bring here. An example of how to enjoy life, and how to savor beers, in moderation, but often and in good company. It is our wish that Saint William Brewery, together with the other craft breweries here in New Jersey, can help create such a culture, and become part of that meeting place where people can come together, to share and enjoy each other's company and culture, over a glass of cold brew.

So with that, cheers to you, papa, and thanks for the lessons learned. May this coming year be the best one yet for you, and the worst of those still to come!

Monday, August 22, 2011

'Big beer' and Craft beer, at odds?

As promised in my previous post, a new article to tackle a very interesting question. The large breweries (Budweiser, Coors, Miller, to name the infamous 'Big Three') are looking for inroads to profit from the booming craft beer market. I just read the half year numbers from the Brewers Association:

Boulder, CO • August 8, 2011 - The Brewers Association, the trade association representing the majority of U.S. brewing companies, has released strong mid-year numbers for America's small and independent craft brewers¹. Dollar sales were up 15 percent in the first half of 2011, excluding brewers who left the craft segment in 2010². Volume of craft brewed beer sold grew 14 percent for the first six months in 2011, compared to 9 percent growth in the first half of 2010.
Barrels sold by craft brewers for the first half of the year are an estimated 5.1 million barrels. Despite many challenges, the mid-year numbers show signs of continued growth for craft breweries. The industry currently provides an estimated 100,000 jobs, contributing significantly to the U.S. economy. (excerpt from a press release, found here)
 Seeing this continued growth, when the big breweries are seeing a continued decline, their move into the craft beer segment doesn't come as a surprise. By definition, their beers are not 'craft beer', as they are not brewed by independent breweries. Some people hate to see the large corporations trying to wiggle between the small craft breweries and take away from the profits they could (should) be making. Or that they might even drive the smaller craft breweries out of business because of their overwhelming economic power and organisation. Other people take a different view, and point out that the huge success and nationwide distribution and marketing of, say, Blue Moon, has helped a growing number of people who would otherwise never stray from their mass produced lager to try something new. In this case a Belgian style White. Which then opens up the door to all the other craft beers. Many bartenders will undoubtedly be able to tell you about people at their bar asking: 'Hey, I really like Blue Moon, what else like that do you have?'

Some people would even go as far as to point at Hoegaarden, and say that since they are owned by InBev, who also owns Anheuser-Busch, that Hoegaarden is not craft beer. Well, it isn't, it is Belgian beer. When InBev tried to relocate the brewery from the original brewery in idyllic Hoegaarden, in the Flemish part Belgium, an uproar of discontent and even a difference in taste brought it back really quickly. So corporately owned? Definitely, that is indisputable. But therefore any less tasty and important? I would disagree with that.

The size of a brewery is not important. What should matter is the quality of the beers they make, the efforts they support in maintaining and fostering a diverse and quality drinking culture. I can only applaud that the big breweries are recognizing that there is more to beer than watering down lagers to the cheapest and most singular form possible. In a way, they are admitting defeat. The single pebble from David lodged in Goliath's forehead. What they are saying is that there is so much more to beer than what they have to offer. And there is no way that any single brewery can satisfy the huge diverse range of different tastes that American beer drinkers have developed over the last few decades. Their attempts to get into the market will only serve to give craft beer a broader appeal, bring it to more drinkers who would never have tried new, more tasty beers. And that is where this creates a golden opportunity for craft breweries: make great beers, that can appeal to everyone. Not necessarily very courageous new, style definition redefining brews, but superb examples of established styles. Beers that everyone can enjoy, and that can become standards for their respective styles. Become 'comfort beers'.

Gravensteencantus, beer and culture in perfect marriage, celebrating
the KVHV student club's occupation of the castle in the heart of Ghent.
The wonderfully new and bold off-centered beers have conquered for themselves a place to stay. There will always be a place for the small local nano-breweries, brewpubs, and the larger craft breweries who devote themselves to pushing the envelope. This as well I applaud and am thrilled about! But we need to understand that the American craft beer movement was a reaction against bland mass produced lagers. As such, they will (and have) go all the way to the other extreme, before there will be a natural move to a more balanced approach, where the distinction between 'mass beer' and 'craft beer' will blur into the artificial distinction it really is. Beer is beer. People want not just good beer, but great beer. Beer is culture, and the brewery that manages to evoke that 'joy-de-vivre' in celebrating life with friends and good beer, will always thrive. Beer is social, so the small brewery in the neighborhood will locally always have the advantage over even the biggest brewery in the world. Lets not overly focus on the definition and the distinctions, but indeed promote quality in beer and the culture of enjoying that quality in good company. That is what beer is about. And it so happens that this is what Saint William is all about. Live life to the full, but balanced. So go out, and savor the legend!


Do you agree or not? We are very interested to hear your comments and opinion, so let us know!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Market research: sampling competitor brews. Hard work.

Last night I tried a few new beers. There is this almost childlike excitement when you found some new beers you haven't tried before, bought them, and have them chilling in your fridge, waiting for that right moment to be opened and sampled.
Part of the fun is the 'Russian Roulette' feel it has: you never know what you're gonna get. Even a very sleek stylish bottle from a trusted brewery can contain a beer that really does not work for you, or that bottle you really did not want to buy but ended up with anyway proves to be the revelation of the year! I'm sure we've all had similar experiences, and that makes sampling and trying new beers ever so exciting and rewarding.
Well then, I first had in my glass a Ommegang Aphrodite.
On the Ommegang website they introduce this beer as follows:

In Greek mythology, Aphrodite rises from the foam of the  waves of the sea, enchanting all who see her, and inciting thoughts of love and lust where ever she goes.
We could hardly say it more eloquently. Our Limited Edition Aphrodite Ale is ethereal, intriguing and mysterious – as the Goddess Aphrodite must have been. Aphrodite has champagne-like carbonation, much as the foam of the waves of the sea. Plus enchanting flavors with whispers of raspberry and pear, and hints of funk and tartness created by the Brett yeast. The refreshing dryness comes from the unusual combination of Ommegang and Brett yeasts, and incites feelings of love and thirst, though we don’t know about lust. Grains of paradise are infused into the nectar, and when poured Aphrodite is crowned with a luxuriously  shimmering rose-pink head. 
It has a very outspoken raspberry flavor, is very easy to drink with only a hint of tartness, not overly sweet either, and a very nice balance of flavors, with not only raspberry but also pear and plum, and grains of paradise that add a nice spice layer that goes well with the funk of the wild yeast (Brett yeast, from Brettanomyces) which is not at all overpowering. It is almost 9% ABV, but this rather high alcohol content is well hidden. A dangerous fruity drink when you're thirsty! It made me think of the 'Framboise' lambics I drank in Belgium, but it is clearly different, with a quite light body and a different tartness/funk. My wife really liked it, so guys, if you need a fun dessert drink and want to treat the lady, get her some of this brew!

The other bottle I tried was a Blue Moon Vintage Blond Ale. I saw the bottle in the liquor store, which is quite appealing. A different format of label, the wine-like bottleneck 'hood', and the maple leaf booklet give a very stylish first impression. I do enjoy the regular Blue Moon as a simple go-to beer when it is hot, and I have nothing else to try, so though I would give it a shot. The bottle said it was a blending of a wheat beer with Chardonnay grape juice, a perfect follow up beer after the raspberry earlier. It pours very thin, almost champagne like, with a full foamy head of fine bubbles, that dissipates quickly. A very clear pale color makes it even look like champagne. Tasting it, I was confused, as I did not feel I was drinking a beer. To me, that evening, it was so much more some sparkling wine or cider. Somehow sweet, fruity, definitely the grapes, even hints of apples, with a slight dry tartness. Only in my last glass, with the last bit of beer that had time to warm up, did I notice the wheat maltiness I could not really detect before. So it left me confused. I love cider, I love a nice white sparkling wine, and I love a good refreshing wheat beer. But drinking this, I wasn't certain which of the three I had in my glass.

I am fairly certain I will have it again, but now knowing not to expect a clear beer taste, but rather a light fruity refreshing drink with a nice little sparkle. Definitely a surprise, one that left me wondering what exactly I was drinking. But hey, that is the fun of the exploration!
From what I read about it, Blue Moon is only offering this beer in 5 markets, Northern New Jersey being one of them, to test the response of consumers. That means I am one of the lucky ones to get my hands on it already! It also has won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival, under the name "C Blonde", in the category Fruit Beer. Owned by Coors, it is Coors' attempt to breach into the Craft market. This beer definitely has been crafted, and well crafted, I should say. But that brings me onto another topic that I will leave for our next article. Coming out this week, so stay tuned, and don't forget to stay thirsty, my friends!