Friday, September 5, 2014

Hey beer aficionados!
My blog has moved.  I'm now writing articles for the Minnesota Beer Activists on their official website. Click on the link above to go to the home page or click here for a list of my articles.  Thanks!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Silly Little Words


: of, relating to, or made in your own country
: relating to or involving someone's home or family
: relating to the work (such as cooking and cleaning) that is done in a person's home

I once read an article about the word "Gourmet" referring to the overuse and culturally-developed trite-ness that ensued from a culture full of marketing that seeks the newest buzzwords in the culinary industry.  The article suggested that the word had been murdered by businesses and restaurants putting gourmet in front of any food item and creating an impression of a classically-trained chef in the back of their dilapidated dining rooms who were whipping up the latest innovations in the culinary industry. In truth, the use of the word "gourmet" to these places meant nothing more than "has some seasoning on it."  The word had been beaten into the ground until it had lost all its original meaning.

Last night, sitting at a bar downtown, I overheard a bar patron ask "what domestics do you have on tap?"  Before getting too judgmental about the use of the word "domestic," I am reminded of a theory in the study of linguistics which states that the use of language is based on a mutually-understood lexicon for concepts.  I also realize that most of linguistics is what is called "descriptivist."  This allows linguists to solely study the concept of describing a language, but not enforcing a particular rule on the languages' uses. I don't like that at all...without some regulation, why have a language in the first place?

So the topic here is the word "domestic." This particular customer asked for a "domestic" beer. The bar we were at had a great selection of craft beers from across the U.S. and one tap of Paulaner from Germany. They also featured lots of Minnesota beers. So with proper use of the word, the bartender could have suggested any beer except Paulaner to fulfill the request. His answer was that the only "domestic" on tap was Grain Belt Premium. So being the very literal person that I am, I decided to try and decipher what we call "domestic beer."

One would think that you could easily consider the word "lighter" in place of  this bastardized form of the word "domestic," but this bar had both Surly Hell (Helles Lager) and Lagunitas Pils (Czech Pilsener) on draft.  Both light lagers. So that's a no. My best guess is this: "I would like a beer produced by a major company that I can recognize from commercials on TV."

I guess the bigger issue that I take from this encounter last night is the bartender's acceptance of this lexicon in order to appease the customers. I asked him why he didn't suggest Surly or Lagunitas and he said "that's not what he wanted." Firstly, how can one know that -- the two light lagers certainly fit the bill in my book. And secondly, the general "dumbing down" of our knowledge as bartenders in order to propel the status quo of the public's view of beer styles is exactly the antithesis of being a craft beer bar. I feel that this idea fails to provide a customer with proper service -- a sort of McDonald's approach to the craft beer bar concept where they get exactly what they asked for and nothing more.

I challenge any bars who serve craft beer to elevate their place in this beer culture and educate both your staff and your customers in order to bring everyone to a greater understanding of the drinks that we consume on a regular basis. Many beer drinkers still have no idea what it is. In the culinary world, there is a big focus on Farm-To-Table concepts where customers want to know everything that goes into a dish. Meanwhile, they don't care what goes into their beverage, which is really sad to see. I challenge these bars to educate yourselves and share the knowledge with those around you. That's the only way to reclaim the image of beer back from the major advertising in this post-prohibition beer nation in which we live.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Positive Thinking in the Food & Drink Industry

I think everyone would agree that positive thinking is good, but who actually practices it?  I know I am one of the worst offenders, making mountains out of mole hills at times. Over the last 3 or 4 years, I feel as if there has been a very sharp and sudden downturn of positive thinking, especially when it comes to the food industry.  I'm including craft beer in this because I think that as well as local restaurants, which are under constant critiquing, the local craft breweries are under a very tough microscope.

I usually try to be careful with the words 'Critique' and 'Criticize.' With food and beer being highly trendy today and much of the masses entranced with the highly-critical television personalities such as Gordon Ramsey, Robert Irvine, and John Taffer (yes I use the Oxford comma!) the public has apparently adopted this highly-critical attitude as well. It's a good thing and a bad thing, but certainly needs to be used selectively.
The idea that I'm getting at is that along with a more curious and open-minded "foodie" comes falsely-earned pretentiousness if you're not careful. Many people have become food critics without realizing that their opinions can really hurt a business if they're negative and they don't really help if they are positive. (Thanks, Yelp!) Pro critics critique, not just criticize and they are just as quick to offer praise as they are criticism. The average self-nominated social critic is not, which allows them to temporarily claim an otherwise-undeserved expertise in the eyes of their peers.

Getting back to the beer side of things, I hear a lot of people jumping to negative conclusions about breweries and beers without giving a chance for the positive ones to kick in. The most common one is "they just don't 'wow' me." I hear people dismiss a beer or even an entire brewery with an arrogant nonchalance without even giving time for their palate to taste the complex flavors that go into each beer. To these breweries, these beers are their livelihood and are not to be taken lightly.  Rest assured that if someone invested their life's savings in a multi-million dollar brewing operation, a lot of time and effort went into that glass of beer.

I'm not asking that you like every beer.  I just think that we need a "reset" button to get back towards positive thinking as well as constructive criticism. Taste your beer or your food and look for the good in it, not just the bad. That positive thinking will allow you and those around you to have a better experience and enjoy your evening a little more. You may just find that everything you eat and drink starts to taste better. It's much easier to tear something down than to build it up. Take the high road (<-- Badger Hill reference) and become a part of the positive change that this industry needs. We need to support these businesses if we want this craft beer boom to be a permanent one.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Summit EPA -- Minnesota in a Glass

If anyone has ever heard me say that I didn't want to put Extra Pale Ale on tap, I want you to know that it is not because I don't like the beer; rather that I was more inclined to offer a beer that wasn't available in every other bar and restaurant in the Twin Cities. I wanted to be different. For the record, I love this beer. In fact, I've probably drank more Summit EPA than all other beers combined. Summit's EPA has been the defining backbone of the craft beer movement in Minnesota. Among beer aficionados, the topic of EPA and it's place in today's beer scene comes up often. In my opinion, there is no beer that better represents Minnesota than this one.

An amber-gold hue reflects a richer, fuller body than the west coast equivalents.  In Minnesota we like our hops, but they absolutely need to be coupled with a fuller malt character because, honestly, the weather here tends to suck for half a year.  Pale gold, crisp beers just don't have the fortitude needed to survive here year-round. The hops give you the spice that you need after a long day of work and driving to the pub in 2 feet of snow, but do not overpower such that you cannot drink it on a summer day at a backyard BBQ. Incidentally, it also tastes good while you're blogging!

Some quasi-craft beer enthusiasts complain that Summit is not craft beer. I cannot stress how wrong they are. To qualify, these are usually the same type of people that only drink over-the-top big flavor beers and do not appreciate a balanced one. Balance is the most important element in your beers and please do not forget that. I met Summit owner Mark Stutrud as well as many of the employees at Summit and let me tell you that they have a great team. I've never seen a group of coworkers assemble with such support as they did for the release of the Unchained #15 Fest Bier.  This company is proud of their craft and have produced amazing beers with almost 30 years experience and have continued to up the ante with highly successful releases like the Unchained Series, Union Series and their new seasonal -- Rebellion Stout. They also have offered support and advice to lots of other Minnesota breweries and are friends, not competitors.

All in all, I want people to continue to push boundaries and experiment with the new ideas in the beer world, but don't forget that tried and true is tried and true for a reason.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What Makes A Good Tap List? (part 1 of ?)

One of the hardest questions to answer if you're a bar manager is what beers you should have on tap. Many simply go with the fan favorites (Coors, Stella, Blue Moon, Sam Adams, etc.) I'm in craft beer bars all the time and it's still a difficult thing for me to develop a sort of metric for constructing a balanced draft list. At Zeke's, I had a simple philosophy: one draft line per Minnesota brewery and try to make them all different beers.  Managing that was a full-time job in itself, so I'm not envious of other bar managers who are representing beers from around the country or around the world.  There are hundreds to choose from, but here's some guidelines that I think need to be there.

Firstly, the bar manager picks the beers, not the public. This may come off as counter-productive to the service aspect of things, but we need to keep that idea in mind. All too often, I hear "that's what the customers drink." It's a case of the tail wagging the dog.  If all I put on tap is Summit EPA and Summit Saga and I have lots of customers drinking them, then the data would imply that the customers like hoppy pale ales from Summit. That data is not wrong, but it is incomplete. Instead, realize that those customers may not have come to your establishment because of that beer. It may be that they came for the conversation and happened to order a Saga while they were there.  I, being a craft beer enthusiast, would come into a bar and find that I would pleasantly enjoy either one of those fine brews.  You would get my money, but I would be less likely to come back as if you had Summit EPA and Surly Mild for example.

My metaphor is this: If I were to walk around the streets (in a non-creepy way) offering people to choose between a red M&M and a brown M&M, I would find that almost everyone would be happy receiving one. That is absolutely not to imply the idea that customers only like the red & brown M&M's and I should not change out my offer at some point for a blue M&M. Proper protocol would suggest throwing the blue ones into the mix and seeing the customer response before making any claims about what your customers like and don't like.

This idea seems like a no-brainer, but once you scale that up to 30 tap lines, it gets muddled. One bar near my house has a good selection and I can always find something I like, but it's always playing it safe. The bar manager has told me that he has on 10 IPA's because that's what's trendy. He's right. However, if as an industry we are all reactive to the trend instead of proactively providing a balanced variety, then we have failed our consumers on the service end without either of us realizing it. A good bar will have that variety and offer beer styles that are not so trendy (yet!) which will allow consumers to find one that they may like even more.  Many early-stage craft beer drinkers are stuck in IPA-ville because they don't know what else there is and there is nobody who will guide them onward. It's our job as an industry to stay ahead of the curve and provide those options as well.  That being said, you should all go drink an IPA now, because they are indeed delicious too.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Meta-Post

I'm calling this a Meta-Post because it's a post about posting my first post...really the entire blog so far will be a blog about having started blogging.  Don't worry -- the rest of the content will be much more interesting.

I've created a blog. Tada! The overall concept is still up in the air, but I can assure you it will most certainly center around beer. I really would just like to be able to share my journey with all of you. Here's how it began. Years ago, I remember the first beer that I drank (not my first taste) was a Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss.  I didn't like it.  I thought it tasted like Captain Crunch cereal.  I still do, but now I like it.

Over the years, I've grown to love beer and now it is a major part of who I am.  A couple weeks ago, I took a major milestone on the subject and completed the Certified Cicerone(r) exam (I'll find out early August.)  I call myself a beer expert, but I'm much more than that. I'm a craft beer advocate and educator, especially when it comes to local brews. Craft beer is under-appreciated even among the craft beer scene. Often a well balanced, perfectly crafted beer will go overlooked because of the newest prospect brought to the forefront of the marketplace due to advertising some superlative fact about it despite an innate lack of finesse.  I appreciate a well crafted beer. From light to dark, hoppy to malty, lagers to ales, sweet to sour, I appreciate all varieties of craft beer.

Here's my stance: I believe that you should know and love what you are drinking. I believe it is the responsibility of us in the industry side of craft beer, most importantly your retailers and bartenders to provide you the information you need to make informed decisions on beers. I also love to support our local businesses. I know it's trendy and probably a bit trite, but I'm not doing it on shallow principal.  I do it because I truly believe in the breweries that we have in Minnesota.  I have many close friends at most of the breweries in this state who I know work extremely hard to be able to compete in a really tough market. I also believe in keeping our money in our state to help support our infrastructure, not California's. Minnesota produces very high quality beer and we should be proud of that, not fall back on national or multi-national brands because of marketing. Be an educated consumer. Ask questions and order a beer that you can be proud of.

Subscribe to this blog and get my insights on craft beer and the local scene in the Twin Cities