I put letters into words into sentences into paragraphs that explode into coherent narratives.
The folks at Heavy Seas allowed me some intimate camera time with their brew kettles, bottling lines, and the impressive “hop canon.” This is the result:
The folks at Heavy Seas allowed me some intimate camera time with their brew kettles, bottling lines, and the impressive “hop canon.” This is the result:
Anyone who has followed me for a while knows that I’m not particularly good at self-promotion. Despite a healthy ego, I’m often paralyzed by the idea that someone might think I’m bragging about something, so I often keep any news to my immediate family and celebrate in private.
But I just won something I’m very proud of. The North American Guild of Beer Writers – those authorial champions of both words and brews – chose my blog as the #1 Beer Blog in their first annual contest. The contest covered the best in beer writing for 2012-2013 across pretty much every text medium – books, feature magazine articles, blogs, and more. I’m in very good company, too: Alan McCormick of Growler Fills placed second in the blog category, and Terry Lozoff of Drink Insider placed third. Check out their blogs if you’re into that well-written beverage commentary stuff.
This award means so much because I’m just one guy with a laptop and a camera, kept going by avocados, a very supportive wife, and probably too much English bitter. To be recognized by a group of established, talented writers is all I could really ask for. I’d like to thank everyone at the NAGBW for running this contest, choosing me, and doing so much to promote and encourage the art of beer writing.
I’d also like to thank everyone who reads this blog. All of you. I’d buy you a beer if I could. You’re the ones who keep me coming back to this old keyboard, a thing so worn that the “S” and “L” keys are just smooth black squares. A writer without readers is like a car without wheels; the engine may start, but it’s not going anywhere. I owe my success to everyone who takes the time to read, like, and comment on my work. It’s a debt I can only repay in words.
Here’s to grammar and grain, linguistics and lupulin, manuscripts and malt, and even more beer writing in 2014!
All this week my posts will be related to Heavy Seas Beer of Baltimore, Maryland. Why? Because they make great beer, are a local favorite, and were nice enough to let me wander around their brewery for a few hours with a camera.
Lager yeast and I have never seen eye-to-eukaryote. Every time I brew with it, I’m overly concerned by the lack of quick airlock-action, the diminutive krausen, and the whole needing to keep it cold even though that doesn’t make any logical sense to me. “Bottom fermentation” hides in that foggy part of my brain where I kind of understand what’s going on in terms of beer-science, but also still think it’s some kind of mystic raffinose related ritual.
For a long time, I thought all pale lagers tasted the same. I created a mental association between “lager” and “light,” as if all light beers were lagers, and vice versa. Unless it was something obviously different (like a märzen or a bock), that fizzy yellow-gold stuff all fell safely in the “mowing the lawn on a mid-July Saturday” category. Plenty of refreshment, but not much in terms of complexity. I blame four collegiate years of destroying my taste buds on Milwaukee’s Best Ice.
My fridge – colloquially named “The Beerhome” – is full of ales. That’s sort of its lot in life: a house with the thermostat stuck at 40º, bunk beds ready for several perfectly lined-up rows of stouts, IPAs, porters, and pales. I try to venture into new territory, but the tongue wants what it wants. Lagers don’t usually rent a room in the Beerhome unless 1) I’m having a party, or 2) I just had a party.
I bought Heavy Seas Davy Jones Lager because I’m a pirate. No hyperbole or jokes, I am legitimately a pirate. I have proof:
I’m obligated to try a beer that is pirate themed, even if it’s outside of my normal taste spectrum.
And I’m glad I did.
Unlike other traditional pale lagers, Davy Jones Lager ferments at ale temperatures (~68-70º F), and is then dropped to lager temperatures for the storing process. This is the same process used to create California Steam/Common beer, for those inquiring minds. Warm temperature tolerant yeasts became popular in the 1800s when refrigeration was a luxury not every brewery could afford, especially not during the primary fermentation phase.
The result of this temperature dance is a beer that honors the clear and crisp legacy of other lagers, but also retains fruity esters and complex malt notes. It tends to be creamier than lagers fermented cold, which pleases us picky, ale-centric drinkers. It’s got more up-front hop flavor (a nice citrus bump that I think comes from the Centennials), which is an appreciated departure from the bitter dryness of Czech style pilsners, or any of the American adjunct lagers.
At 6% it’s a bit stronger than you might expect from an “easy drinking” beer, but there are no phenols or fusels present anywhere. Davy Jones has quickly become one of my favorite beers to relax with after work. It’s also a great beer to gently introduce your Bud and Coors friends to the world of craft. Sadly, Heavy Seas only plans to brew it from May-July, so I’ll just have to fill the holds of my ship (basement) with enough to tide me over these harsh Maryland winters.
Heavy Davy Jones Lager Vitals:
I already gave a pretty thorough Oliver-centric roundup of Maryland beers in Bryan D. Roth’s Six-Pack Project. Those six were what I think the general beer drinking public should try for the sake of variation and exploration when they find themselves stranded, voluntarily or otherwise, near the Chesapeake.
But to honor of my fellow Marylanders out in the weird, highly-elevated wilderness of Denver, Colorado at the GABF, I put together a list of what I think are objectively the best beers from each of the breweries repping the Old Line State. Not just those few that I subjectively like, but those I think have been brewed with care and quality, that practically leap off the shelf and into your mouth, that stand a real chance of snatching a shiny medal.
Note: I am totally jealous and wish I could be there and this post is my poor attempt to participate from very far away.
1. Full Tilt Baltimore Pale Ale
This is the newest of the bunch for me, probably because it’s from one of the newest breweries in Maryland. Owned by cousins Nick Fertig and Dan Baumiller, Full Tilt brews its beer as part of a brewing co-op at Peabody Heights Brewing, which is only few flaps of a raven’s wings away from Johns Hopkins University.
Baltimore Pale Ale is impressive given that these guys (who graduated high school one year before me in 2002) only took up homebrewing in 2008, and released the beer to the public in December, 2012. For a mere five years of practice, it’s impressively balanced, harnessing Nugget, Columbus, Summit, and Crystal hops to create a piney aroma that entices, but doesn’t dominate the nose. At 6.3% ABV it’s a bit stronger than you’d expect from the incredibly clear amber ale, but any minor alcohol taste is covered by some well placed bittering hops and a puckeringly dry finish.
This american pale falls closer to an IPA in taste and hoppage than a traditional pale, but it’s still a damn fine beer. If Nick and Dan can keep up the quality, I expect great things from these guys in the future.
2. Flying Dog Raging Bitch Belgia-Style IPA
Flying Dog must have to overcome some nostalgia every time they head to GABF, as their original 50-gallon setup was located in Denver before they moved to the foothills of the Appalachians in Frederick, Maryland, in 2008. Even though the headquarters is still based in Colorado, all of the brewing is done in Maryland, and they’ve built quite a following with their local events and brewpubs. They have a long GABF history, first winning “The Best Pale Ale in America” for their Doggie Style Pale Ale in 1991.
Raging Bitch, including the PG-13 name, is a different breed of IPA. In a sea of hyper-bitter, hyper-hopped IPAs that lean heavily on the alpha acids and lupulin for taste, this “Belgian-style” IPA brings in a stronger bread and yeasty profile while still paying homage to the aggressive hopping of a true IPA.
It has that distinctive Belgian funk to it, partly medicinal, partly herbaceous. At 8.3% ABV I think “Belgian-influnced” may be slightly more appropriate than “Belgian-Style” as it’s missing the spicy sour of something I’d truly equate with a Brusselian masterpiece. Either way, it’s different and proud, which is sort of the modus operandi of Flying Dog at large.
3. Heavy Seas Loose Cannon IPA
I’m sort of a Heavy Seas fanboy. This pirate-themed brand is brewed by Clipper City Brewing, adding another name to the fine line-up of Charm City born beer. I live only a few miles from the brewery, have met the owner, Hugh Sisson (and a lot of his wonderful brewing staff), and by ratio, drink more beer from Heavy Seas than any other brewery (thanks to on-tap availability and the joys of Davy Jones Lager). I’ll try to remain as partial as possible.
Loose Cannon is the first Heavy Seas that ever bounced around that space between tongue and palate, back when I first found its regal purple label peeking out from the shelves of my local bottle shop. The official name is “Heavy Seas Loose Cannon – American Hop3 Ale” because they use a three pound mixture of Simcoe, Palisade, and Centennial hops per batch. The result is bitter, hoppy monster, that is delightfully complex and refreshing.
At 7.25% ABV it’s right where you’d expect a full-flavored IPA to fall, and any phenols from the extra alcohol are masked by the resinous pine of the hop triad. It’s a very dry, very drinkable beer that I often recommend to people who are looking for something approachable and still decidedly different from the boring, ABInBev gruel.
4. Evolution Brewing Lot No.3 IPA
I love Loose Cannon, but think No.3 has dug it claws into my little heart, firmly latching on like a hop-coated symbiote. The brewery – a transplant from Delmar, Delaware to the hometown of my undergrad alma mater, Salisbury, Maryland – is attached to a full service restaurant and cask-lined tasting room. In an interesting twist, Evolution produces no commercial lagers, instead focusing on various ales like their Rise Up Stout and this beautiful, buttery IPA.
Lot No. 3 throws a two pound mix of Columbus, Centennial, Cascade, Chinook, Amarillo at your face, resulting in an incredible citrus burst that somehow, despite the overwhelming eau de hop, does not destroy your tongue. The Centennials and Cascades steal the show when it comes to smell, but the Chinooks bring in the rear with a piney, spicy taste as soon as the mouth takes over for the nose.
There is something about this particular combination of hops and 2-row malts, sitting at a very drinkable 5.9% ABV, that sets my senses ablaze. Maybe it’s that local East Coast water. Maybe it’s Geoff DeBisschop’s master touch. Either way, this beer deserves recognition outside of the Delmarva scene.
5. Union Brewing Duckpin Pale Ale
The only canned exclusive on my list does not disappoint, squat aluminum be damned. This came at the recommendation of Doug at Baltimore Bistros and Beer during the Six Pack Project, and I’m so pleased he turned me onto this traditional pale ale from the third (and final) Baltimore-based brewery at the GABF. I’d been drinking their Balt Altbier, but have now seen the light, and know the real prize of Jones Falls hides inside the red and silver can.
Duckpin Pale Ale (brewed by Union Craft Brewing) is named after the oddly popular duckpin bowling – a variation on traditional bowling with smaller pins and a ball with no finger holes – which is popular up and down the East coast. There are very few (if any) duckpin bowling centers located West of the Mississippi. Weird.
This orange and amber colored ale, while not a “session beer” by purist standards, is incredibly drinkable. A righteous smoothness rides on the back of citrusy hops and a steady malt, while clocking in at a “let’s throw balls at pins all day” 5.5% ABV. I keep this in my fridge for when I have “non-beer” friends over (the list of who is dwindling, dramatically). I’ve converted more than one Miller Lite fan armed only with some bratwurst and a few cans of Duckpin.
So good luck to all my Maryland brewers out there! Bring home some gold!
My mom has supported pretty much everything I’ve ever done. Some good things, some bad things, all decidedly not “mom” things. I have distinct memories of her driving me to Sally Beauty supply to buy red, green, and blue hair dye during my high school punk rock phase. She encouraged my third grade choice to pick up the violin despite absolutely no prior interest in music beforehand. Her soccer sideline war cry – a British homage to Xena: Warrior Princess – rose high above the other moms cheering on the team. Whatever random hobby or sport or occult dabbling I pursued and perused, my mom was right there to say, “sure, sounds fun, what do you need?”
But as I’ve done that maturity thing, moved onto and into my own life of paychecks and mortgage and marriage, it’s been harder for my mom to stay in touch with my hobbies. She used to see me everyday, was party to my ups and downs, joys and woes, tastes and distastes as if she was a living part of my psyche. But now she only sees me through our occasional visits, my smattering of social media updates, and these blog posts. Her connection to my interests isn’t as strong as it was when I was still dependent on her for cash and car, but her passion in supporting me has not waned at all.
Last week she showed up at my house with a random six-pack, hoping, with that adorable anticipating look only a mom can give, that I’d never tried the bottles she’d journeyed to find especially for me. As I can barely keep track of my own progress in the impossibly massive offering of beer in this country, I couldn’t well expect her to know exactly what I’ve tried over the years. But she managed, probably using that inborn maternal instinct, to find 4 out of 6 that I’d never gotten my grubby little beer-mitts on.
She went out of her way, in the only way she really could, to acknowledge that she still supports what I do, even though it has long evolved past skateboarding and Operation Ivy. She wants me to know, on even the most basic level, that she’s there to help me in anyway she can. It all may sound like something expected of a mother, but my mom has this ability to make the smallest gesture – like 72 ounces of beer in a cardboard conveyor – echo and resound into the deepest corners of my soul.
A lot of us chase hobbies that aren’t exactly mainstream. Writers are often chided for “wasting time” on something that doesn’t matter, or they’ll never do anything with. Beer enthusiasts are often just equated with educated drunks. A person who writes about beer…I don’t even want to know what they say about me.
But there’s my mom, not judging, not caring, finding me new beers to try in an attempt to make me happy. Despite not knowing anything about beer, she knows everything about me.
So raise your glasses to all the beer moms, beer wives, beer brothers and sisters, beer friends. All those people who support you in whatever it is that makes you happy, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks. It’s these people, those constant champions, the unwavering stars in the northern skies of our minds, that light the way when we get lost in the sprawling dark of self-doubt.
And when you’re fearing that snarling beast and your dreams feel wet and heavy, remember that someone, somewhere, is gently cradling a bottle, wondering if you’ve tried it.
Here is my entry for the eightieth iteration of The Session; this one titled “Is Craft Beer a Bubble?” hosted by It’s Not Just the Alcohol Talking.
As of late, people in our community have been seen talking in hushed whispers, huddled on bar stools murmuring of pseudo-economics and critical mass, of too many beers in too little space, of inevitable collapse. Their concerns are not unfounded given the current slugfest for shelf space taking place in bottle shops around the country. 2,483 conveyors of craft beer now dot our 50 states; 1,165 brewpubs, 1,221 microbreweries, and 97 regional breweries, all of who only make up ~7% of total American beer consumption. Another ~1500 are slated to open in 2014. That’s nearly 4000 brewers fighting for the precious taste buds of a passionate but overwhelming minority.
Some doomsayers talk of brewers who can’t keep up with demand, who will inevitably brew not-so-good beer. They talk of so many beers that consumers will be paralyzed by the paradox of choice. They talk of craft beer as a bubble; a market that cannot possibly accommodate so many breweries springing to life in this newly fermented renaissance of craft beer.
But a bubble suggests a diaphanous sphere created quickly and filled with air, something of no substance and little direction, likely to burst as soon as it comes into contact with a rough surface or a stiff breeze.
I’m not sure craft beer is a bubble. I think it’s a wave.
When a bubble pops, there’s pretty much nothing left. Poof. Using the traditional model applied to houses, banks, and .COM start-ups, if the perceived economic bubble around craft beer suddenly popped, the market would crash and all the brewers except a big few would go out of business. Only those with the deepest roots (and the most money) would be able to weather the storm. We’d be left in the negative, and would feel the implications of the crash across all sorts of other markets.
But despite what some of us want to believe, beer isn’t a necessity. Since the advent of clean, public, potable water, beer has been a luxury good, reserved for those wealthy or thirsty enough to want to buy it. This separates it economically, as its supply and demand aren’t inextricably tied to the rest of our economy. People aren’t going to be underwater on a case of Stone IPA, and even if they were, somehow, because of a quick and dramatic price shift, it’s not exactly going to ruin their credit.
Craft beer lives in its own economic world, only tangentially affecting similar goods like spirits and wine. And that world won’t just pop and go away. But it might crash.
I see the current trend as the peak of a tsunami. It’s headed to shore and picking up momentum as smaller waves join with the larger mass. There are hundreds of surfers riding the top, some little dudes on boogie boards cruising the bottom, some people in boats bracing for impact as the wave slides closer and closer to the sandy beaches.
The wave can’t stay at its peak forever. Eventually, because of gravity and the change in depth, the wave will topple and crash, taking all those surfers and boogie boarders and hapless swimmers with it. Some brewing great beer now may wash up uninjured. Others may be knocking the water out of their ears for weeks as they realize that their microbrewery was just a really expensive hobby. They’ll all be tumbled around in the violent surf. It’ll be impossible to know who survived until the tide pulls the water back out.
As a side effect, the people who were just chilling on the beach will get wet. This flood may bring in a whole new demographic of craft beer drinkers; those who hadn’t even seen the wave coming from the safety of their folding chairs and umbrellas, but now realize that getting wet isn’t such a bad thing. Some of them may even like it.
But when the wave does subside, the water will remain. The little waves who made up the big wave may be gone, or may have joined with other waves as the currents pull them back out to sea to repeat the cycle. Some of the infrastructure on the land might be damaged or destroyed, but overall, everything will be OK. The breweries with the foresight to plan ahead, buy boats, and invest in flood insurance shouldn’t even feel the effects of the crash.
The community may lose some of the variation, but we’ll probably see a tightening and refining of current styles. We may not have 100+ beers from every state, but we might have breweries starting to hyper focus, building their dynasties on the back of a particular style that is of world-class quality.
The net result: less beer but better beer.
The wave may crash, and it may crash soon. It won’t be a sudden thing where you wake up one morning to find out that Congress couldn’t get its shit together and now you have no work to do, it’ll be subtle and drawn out, in a series of openings and closing you may not even hear about. Don’t fear it though, as it probably won’t mean the end of your favorite beer if they’re already brewing right now.
But you may get wet. Don’t forget your towel.
The beginning of October confounds me. The leaves are starting to brown and dry and fall, that smell of yawning ancient oak fills the air, the grass gives one last glimpse of green before slipping into hibernation for the winter…but sometimes it’s still 85 degrees outside. The signs of Fall abound, but Summer isn’t quite sure she’s done yet, holding onto the remainder of her days like a tick on a bloodhound.
But the worst part isn’t having to put my shorts away for the winter. Or having to dig them back out again because it’s suddenly too hot.
The worst part is never knowing what to drink.
Sometimes it’s too hot for the heavy spices of the come-too-soon pumpkin beers or the malt punches of the Octoberfests, sometimes it’s too decidedly autumnal to go back to all those crisp pilsners and saisons I cooled off with in July. Thankfully, the beer world has me covered.
The four primary beer seasons are obvious to most drinkers – the crisp hops, lager yeasts, and pale malts of Spring; the sun-inspired golden ales, saisons, and wheat beers of Summer; the gourd-centric, hearty malt, heavy brown and spiced ales of Fall; the sweet and strong Stouts and imperials to keep us warm through bitter Winter.
But in between come the segways. They roll in all gyroscopically, balancing expectations between temperatures and styles, filling in flavor gaps that accompany subtle shifts in weather, guiding us through the transitional periods to new tastes for new seasons. They are crucial to gustatory preparations for the coming season. Unless you live in a place without seasons. Which I never have, so the whole concept is weird and confusing like an Indian Pale Lager.
The seasonals echo a natural tradition that predates man; a cycle of verdant birth and decay, of planting and harvest, of Hades and Persephone and pomegranates. It may seem like a marketing ploy to keep drinkers interested in and trying new things, or a way for brewers to experiment with lots of different recipes, but it is really more of an homage to the rhythmic splendor of the Earth.
Just as the moon waxes full then wanes, just as an old man dies and moments later a child is born, just as the wheels on a CEO’s overly-expensive transport near silently whirl, the beers too shall turn.
So don’t complain about seasonal creep. Appreciate those few beers that appear and disappear in an ephemeral flash. They may seem like they’re showing up at your birthday party two hours early and then leaving before the candles on your ice-cream cake have even been lit, never mind blown, but they came, and they brought a present. That’s all that really matters.
That present is a herald of what’s to come. A horn blast, signaling plenty, singing in the next wave of beery goodness.
A malt and hop hint of what’s to come.
During a recent visit to the Heavy Seas Brewery, Tristan Gilbert, their master-at-arms multimedia specialist, introduced me to the idea of “billboarding” when describing their new line of canned beers. He explained that while canning provides some practical advantages over bottling (portability, cost), it also gives the beer another spot on the shelves (usually in a different part of the store), and in effect, doubles the chance of being seen by a prospective buyer.
It’s an obvious principle, but one that probably hides in the dark corners of the subconscious, not totally recognized until someone explicitly points it out. It explains why you can get Miller Lite as 6, 12, or 24 bottles, or 12, 18, or 30 cans. It’s why you have massive obelisks of macro taking up enough floor space to make the ancient Egyptians envy the design. All those options mean more packages to display, meaning a larger presence in the store, and in theory, more sales.
Armed with that knowledge and encouraged by Stan Heironymous’s post about craft beer at Walmart, I went on an after-work sociology adventure to see how different stores display their beer, if the layout and presentation seems to make much difference to the buyers, or if it’s just a bunch of marketing nonsense.
I live in Maryland; home of confusingly draconian alcohol laws. My Walmart doesn’t sell beer, and only certain grocery stores that have been grandfathered into old laws can sell beer and wine. Liquor is relegated to smaller independent stores, for reasons I have divine from reading the hop leaves. I chose three stores to form a basis of comparison (a grocery store, a beer-specific store, and a local liquor shop), asked the owner/manager how and why the beer was organized, and then asked some random people buying beer if the layout had any impact on their final decision.
Store #1: Shopper’s Food Warehouse (the grocery store)
I used to frequent this Shopper’s Food (owned by parent company SuperValu) in my undergrad days because it was cheap. Short of the Beer Barn on University Boulevard (literally a giant red barn full of beer) it was the best place to score affordable 30-packs of crappy beer of questionable freshness.
They’ve since upgraded, now housing a rather impressive selection of craft in the flat light of the massive linoleum covered sprawl. The beer and wine section is tucked in the very back of the store – the farthest possible distance from the front door – which either means something or doesn’t mean anything, depending on how philosophical you want to get about a place that voluntarily calls itself a “food warehouse.”
I analyzed this wall-o-suds for a while, but couldn’t find any rhyme or reason to how the beers were displayed. It seemed like someone just randomly threw them up there, hoping the beer would gain sentience and sort itself out in the middle of the night.
The manager I spoke to said that the distributors often arrange their products themselves, but noted that some of their staff will often rearrange the displays to fill gaps. She admitted that while she didn’t make the ultimate decisions, she was pretty sure there was “no real plan” and that they just put the beer where the price label said it should be.
The craft and psuedo-craft were all sort of dumped in the same place with no clear distinction. A nearby beer-buyer said that he “wished it was at least alphabetical” and it took him a while to find the six pack he wanted on one of the top shelves. Clearly, whoever organized this didn’t think much about the status of the beers in terms of craft, sort-of-craft, totally-not-craft, and not-even-beer.
I think this picture sums up how this big-box store feels about organizing its beer:
Store #2: Old Line Fine Wine and Spirits (the fancy beer store)
I love this place not only because it’s the only craft-focused bottle-shop on my way home from work, but also because it lives in the skeleton of an old Circuit City. The rum is where the DVDs and CDs used to line the walls. The checkout lanes are in the same spot I used to play with car stereos. Old Line is a drunken phoenix rising from the ashes of some overpriced electronics and it’s totally awesome.
Unlike Shopper’s, this store has a focus on craft beer. The main aisle down the center of the store includes seasonal fare (currently the menagerie of pumpkin monstrosities), 4 shelves of 22oz bombers, and then craft beer by state (with MD beer having the primest of locations). The very little macro stuff to be found is on a few sad wire shelves near the back of the store.
The beer guys here clearly draw lines between craft and craftsqueraders like Blue Moon and Shock Top. The entire main row of beers (and the supplemental row containing the spill over beer) is all from well established craft breweries with nary a MillerCoors product in sight.
A shopper near me commented on the selection and the organization, saying, “it’s really nice to be able to come in, grab some bombers and maybe a six-pack without having to dig around for it.” When I asked him if the variety encouraged him to try new beers he said, “yea, definitely, but I really feel overwhelmed having so many options sometimes.”
They are still a business though, and offer the middle of the road stuff, it’s just not given prominent shelf space. Most can be found in the coolers that line the back wall (where the big-screen TVs used to be).
This store obviously caters to the craft fans more than the macro beer fans, but they don’t seem to be hurting financially. The displays and proper categorization make it easier for buyers to find the beer they’re specifically looking for, but also find new beers of similar style and quality.
Store #3: Laurel Lakes Liquors (the everyday liquor store)
This store, run by a lovely couple who know me as that “weird homebrewer guy” is within walking distance of my house. The sub-1000 square foot shop has everything from giant sticks of incense to vodka, from Keno to craft beer, making it a perfect microcosmic slice of the local, independent American booze shop. The owner proudly announces that he makes all of his own purchasing and layout decisions with minimal input from the distributors.
The prices here tend to be a bit higher, but not so high that I’d go out of my way to shop somewhere else. He will also almost always stock a beer I ask for, if it’s on his master beer list.
The store is tiny compared to the other two I visited, and the beer has to fight for shelf supremacy against liquor, wine, and non-alcoholic drinks. This relegates it to a few coolers in the back of the store with a small display of seasonals in front:
The owner explains that he’s not much of a beer guy, but understands the difference between the ABInBev/MillerCoors stuff, and the stuff he gets from the local distributors like Flying Dog and Evolution Brewing. He initially arranges them how the distributors suggest, but will often move things around if one beer is selling better than another. He didn’t seem to care that Blue Moon was owned by Coors, he only cared that it sold pretty well.
He also had the issue of only having so much space. He claimed that “he’d love to keep the craft beer together” but given that he only have 8 coolers to work with, he had to put some next to “less appealing” beer.
Interestingly enough, I was the only one looking at craft beer during my time in the store. Three men and one woman came and bought Corona, Bud Light, more Corona, and some Yuengling (respectively) but not one of them even looked at the craft beer cooler.
Pretty pictures, but what does it all mean?
Based on the reactions of various people actually buying the beer, most seemed to appreciate some semblance of organization to help them find what they wanted quickly. Keeping all of the craft together also seems to encourage people to try new things, but only in people who came to browse, not those who had a specific beer in mind.
Interestingly enough, most people didn’t browse. They didn’t seem to care or notice that things weren’t in order or grouped because, by my counts (I didn’t dwell too long because I didn’t want to get kicked out) a majority (~ 80% of my woefully too small sample size) either walked straight past the craft aisle to the large cases of macro, or bee-lined directly for the six pack they wanted without looking at much else.
This suggests, to me, that people go into a store with the beer they want already in mind, and won’t really stray from that unless something really catches their eye. Most of the purchasing decisions are happening well before anyone is even looking at the beer on the shelf. It seemed that the level of order and grouping in Old Line encouraged people to look at, pick up, and even read about different beers, but the nature of that particular store suggests that those people were already interested in craft.
As a willing thrall of the blog-lords, I often stretch myself beyond my default medium of words. A blog offers a unique chance to flex groups of creative deltoids that traditional print media might not; as a blog author you get to write, photograph, video, and record your content with only yourself to answer to in terms of artistic design. The blog as a platform not only accepts the idea of multimedia, but actually encourages it.
I have included at least one photograph with every blog post I’ve written since mid-2010. The ancient adage of a photo being worth a thousand words still rings clear and crisp across the valleys of the internet, but they serve as an additional anchor to a post, a visual representation of your words that engage another of your reader’s senses.
I’ve always considered writing an auditory art: even though you have to read the words with your eyes, you’re sounding them aloud in your head, and, in a unnatural twist over the bar at the top of a mental pole-vault, listening to them to fully process their meaning. It’s weird to think about, but gives a nice tidy explanation as to why photos and other graphics are such an important companion to a wall of text.
And of course, this is a beer blog (mostly) and so I include pictures of beer/beer-paraphernalia. But they aren’t just pictures, they are meticulously plotted, planned, and purposed shots, John Kleinchester’s shutter babies, or more simply, just “beertographs.”
You could just whip out your Nikon Coolpix or your iPhone 5 and snap a blurry, poorly lit shot of whatever is about to go down your gullet, but to capture an image that really invokes the spirit of the beer, a flash and echo of the brewmasters art, you really need to commit the time and energy to setting up the shot.
Note: This is not a purist photography tutorial, and I won’t be getting too in-depth about white balancing, F-stops, or aperture. If you want to see how real photographers (not just guys like me armed with too much time and a DSLR) take photos of beer, check out this amazing post from Silvatone about his award winning shot for the Anchor Brewing Fourth of July Beertography contest.
How to take Beertographs
Things you’ll need:
-Beer (can or bottle, it matters little)
-A glass (usually representative of the style of beer you’re working with, but it can be anything that fits a theme)
-A bottle opener (to open the beer, otherwise it’s going to be hard to take pictures of it)
-A camera (more on this below)
-Assorted props (to accentuate the amber glow in the glass)
1. Gather your equipment
I shoot with a Canon DSLR. Originally, I used a standard EOS Rebel XS, but recently inherited an EOS Rebel Ti2, which has become my primary camera. For different applications I shoot with four lenses: the stock 18-55mm, a mid-range 28-70mm, a zoom 55-250mm, and a mega-zoom 70-300mm. Each has its place depending on the shot, and I’ll often change lenses in the middle of a shoot, just to see what effects I can achieve from different standing distances, zoom-lengths, and positions.
I know what you’re thinking. DSLRs are expensive, the lenses even more so. I have good news: you don’t need a DSLR to take great beertographs. You standard point-and-click camera or even your smartphone can take excellent shots, you just need patience and practice as to best set up the bottle and glass. Good photography, at its heart, is not about how expensive or fancy the camera, but about how well the photographer can see. You are basically just capturing a single moment from your field of vision, so if it looks good to you, and you can steal that moment from the gods of light and time, it will probably make a good photograph.
I prefer a DSLR because of its specific purpose. I like the heft of it in my hand, the feeling of the lens wheel under my fingers. Conversely, my phone is the same device I tweet and play Punch Quest on, and somehow, probably unfairly, I don’t respect it as a serious camera. I’m not trying to discourage those iPhonographers and Androtographers out there, as I’ve seen the quality that can come from phones, it’s just not for me.
Ultimately, when you’re out there, trying to get a shot, the best camera is the one you have with you when you need it. Shoot with what you’ve got.
2. Wander around looking at stuff
Because I shoot mostly outdoors, with “naturally found” locations, this is my single favorite aspect of beetography. The time I get to wander around my yard, my neighbor’s yard, their neighbor’s yard, sometimes all the way to the train tracks at the end of my street with a camera slung over my shoulder and a beer bottle in my pocket. I look at everything and anything, take in the light and how it’s sprawls lazily across the road and grass, checking out the hues of the trees and the flowers and the rainbow of paint colors that splatter my spectrum as cars and houses and trashcans.
You want to look for interesting angles and textures, especially for whatever platform the beer will be on (wood, stone, grass?), and on whatever will be in the background. Find patterns and natural lines that are just flat out nice to look at. Pay attention to how the light is cutting through the trees, and how shadows are forming based on the angle of the sun.
During this time you want to think about the style and name of the beer: if it’s a hoppy IPA, maybe you want an abundance of green in the picture to represent the hops? If the label is bright red, do you want to put it in a relatively bland and brown setting to make the vibrancy really pop? If it’s named “Swing”, maybe incorporate your neighbor’s porch swing somehow?
This is the time to get creative. Really play with the name and style and colors of the label. Try positioning the bottle and glass – unopened and unfilled – in several different places to see how they look well before you take any pictures. If you’re like me, you’ll have to actively fight the urge to drink the beer. A good picture will make the beer taste even better.
3. Take some test shots
Assume you only have one can or bottle of the beer you’re trying to shoot, even if there are 5 more snuggled in a 6-pack back home. Don’t go in for the kill with a quickly thrown shutter until you’re sure about the positioning and light. Patience is key here, and a joy of digital is immediate feedback without the worry of wasting film. Short of running out of daylight, you’ve got plenty of chances to capture that perfect exposure, so take your time, play around with getting a perfect balance of foreground focus and background bokeh.
To achieve this much coveted effect, you have to adjust your depth of field either manually on the camera, with the assistance of a lens, or by manually positioning the beer and glass in such a way that one will naturally blur if you focus on the closer of the pair. The result looks something like this:
4. Pour the beer and start clicking
It’s time to pour the beer. The reason for all the prep work is tied directly to the frothing fuzz of the head, which acts like a little timer, constantly counting down from the second you pour until it completely dissipates. To truly capture the essence of the beer, you’ll need to get your shot in that very brief window of “perfectly settled head” that last only a few minutes on some beers.
When in doubt, take more pictures than you think you need. A tiny difference in focus (with auto-focus on or off) may make or break the quality of an image. Take a bunch to make sure you captured that perfect one. You can delete the rest if you’re not happy.
Here’s another from the same shoot as the Avery IPA (above) that didn’t turn out as well because the auto-focus shifted on me at the last second:
5. Review, post-process, tweet to @beertography
The display screen should give you a good enough idea of how the shot turned out, but you can’t really trust the colors or the focus until you’ve uploaded it to the computer.
I try to choose the best one or two from the say, 20, I took, then throw those into Photoshop to correct any minor white balance or brightness issues that I didn’t manage to do with the camera. I use the Vibrance, Shadows and Highlights, and Color Balance options (under Image>Adjustments) to make sure the colors are as true to life as possible. I very rarely do any actual touch up unless there is a glaringly obvious thumbprint on the glass (always wash your glassware pre-beetography session!) or a big old cat hair ruining the shot.
And when you’re proud of your work, ready to show the world, send it out to John @beertography. He’s kind of a big deal when it comes to pictures of beer.
In a post a few months back, I made mention of a “brewbie” (brew + newbie); that person new to the craft beer scene, overflowing with enthusiasm like a roughly poured pint. They are usually young, energetic, and raw, leaping on new beers and beer news like a kitten on a stinkbug. They mean well, but have a ways to go from “that person who knows about beer” to “a full-keg of beer expertise.”
I have a confession to make: I am a brewbie.
Sure, I know some things about beer. I’ve put my big white ale pails and heavy-ass glass carboys to near-constant use, dog eared and highlighted many books from Brewers Publications, delved as deep into the mines of malts and hops and yeasts as I’ve been able to in the time between writing, video games, and that place I’m forced to go to 8 plus hours a day. But I can’t deny my relative lack of experience, can’t deny that there are people out in this community who have been tasting, brewing, and studying beer for longer than I’ve been alive.
This has become more and more apparent as I’ve waded knee-deep into the ocean of beer-related media, started to really interact with the swimmers near me. I’ve noticed others who are much farther out in the water. Some are surfing. Others are playing waterpolo way past the breakers like it’s no big deal. Some even have boats! It suddenly makes my progress, which I was so proud of, seem significantly less impressive. Looking down at the water swirling around my calves, holding up my shorts as to not get the fringes wet, I feel like a failure.
But then I turn back and see that there are still hundreds of thousands of people sitting on the beach. They haven’t even got the energy or desire to stick a toe in the water, never mind wade out to where the other brewbies and I are figuring out how to swim.
So I say to anyone else in my position: it’s OK to be a brewbie. At least you’re out there trying.
We live in a world where social posturing and image crafting are not only accepted, but often encouraged. Because there are few ways to validate the claims people make on social media, we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by self-proclaimed experts who have done purportedly amazing things, who in turn, by comparison, make us feel bad that we haven’t done amazing things. One only needs to look at the “job titles” of a whole slathering of 20-something administrative-types on LinkedIn to understand what I’m talking about. Assistant Contract Proposal Coordinators with one year of experience, I’m looking at you.
As a result of this creeping feeling of inadequacy, a direct side-effect of having infinite information freely available a few clicks away, we try to puff ourselves up in terms of knowledge and perceived worth. We don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of not knowing, even if it would be perfectly acceptable, given our age and experience and education, to legitimately not know. I’ve been guilty of this too many times; hastily, awkwardly Googling answers to not appear dense or way behind the ever upwardly bending curve of knowledge. It’s a crappy feeling to be on the outside of a group you really want to be apart of. But it’s also a reality of trying to learn something new.
Despite the traditional model, learning isn’t a linear journey from A to B where you digest a predetermined set of data points like some kind of academic PacMan. We can try to quantify beer expertise with BJCP and Cicerone certs, but even well developed standards can’t capture everything. When your brain is spilling with beer facts, historical anecdotes, quotes from master brewers, you’ll still have so much more to learn. The end point is constantly moving, hurtling away from you at a speed that you can’t possibly match like a comet through space too distant to ever colonize with your brain settlers.
Good news though! Chasing that comet is the what keeps you growing.
The masters of the craft – the Jim Kochs, the Sam Calagiones, the Ken Grossmans – even with their encyclopedic knowledge and decades of hands-on experience, still have a little brewbie dwelling inside them, an echo of their 20-something self still urging them to try new things, to sip new beers, to write down those OGs and FGs in a never-ending quest for brewing consistency. They are experts by all definable measure, but that je ne sais quoi inside them still drives them forward. They got to where they are as the paragons of brewing because they were at one point total brewbies: guys with an unquenchable thirst to make an impact on American beer.
So accept that you’ll always be learning, about beer and about life and about how beer goes with life. Accept that even if you do eventually stumble backwards into the comfortable armchair of expertise, you still won’t know absolutely everything, because some tricky maltster will come up with a brand new magical malt roasting technique the second you think you do. Accept that you’ll learn your own things, at your own pace, which may not match the pace of others.
And before you know it, you’ll be debating if that piney aroma is simcoe or chinook, or if you are getting hints of vanilla behind the delicious burn of bourbon barrels. You’ll be explaining the difference between lengths of sugar chains and mash temperatures, the curse of Dimethyl Sulfide in homebrew, which yeast strains are your favorite and why. You’ll find yourself giving advice, helping newcomers out, passing your knowledge to that person who is a mirror of who you were just a short time ago.
The more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know. In some way or another, you and I will always be brewbies. But that’s OK, because so will everyone else.