Monday, August 23, 2010

Soap in the tap lines!?

There is a national chain beer bar near my house that I enjoy going to. I have met the main bartender many times and he's a great guy who strikes a nice balance between his beer and his markets beer. The manager too. In a town known for its devotion to Red Bull and Michelob Golden Draft Light, the Bell's, Sierra Nevada, Lift Bridge and Summit on tap here are an oasis.

Sadly, the water's not always just right at this oasis. Over the last 6 months to a year, I have noticed that the beer often tastes soapy/chemically. I have ALWAYS brought it up to the bartender and have always gotten my beer replaced. I'm not the only person who notices this by far. From people drinking Two Hearted to Leinie's to Coors Light, I have seen many comment on the taste. But still, it's such a good bar to go to. Affordable, decent selection, friendly staff. What's a beer geek to do?

I've chosen to keep going. Occasionally. And I say something every time, both bad when the beer tastes too strongly of sanitizer, and good when it doesn't. I think it's important to reward a place for having good beer since I want to drink good beer. I also think it's important to "punish" a place by not spending as much money as I could there when they have beer problems. But I make sure it's known what I am doing. As an Economist, it's obvious that the market will work this problem out. If the bad beer ruins the experience for a set of people, they won't go there, the bar with either fix the problem, switch their selection target, or close. But what the market doesn't automatically supply is perfect information. Are people not buying these beers because they aren't "cool" any more? Did our staff upset some people? Or is it the soapy taps? I try and provide my part of that information, please do the same.

Or better yet, how do you deal with a bar/business that isn't doing things just right in your mind? Tell me on Twitter @StCloudBeerGeek

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Single Barrels, I want to see more.

Recently, the liquor store I work for, Westside Liquor in Central Minnesota, purchased a single barrel of Buffalo Trace Bourbon. For those who aren't familiar with the idea of a single barrel, what it means is that instead of getting bottles of booze that have been blended with booze from the dozens or hundreds of barrels from that distilling, it's just one (theoretically better than average) barrel. I think this is great.

Buffalo Trace is Sazerac's "small scale" distillery where they use smaller batches and stills to produce some of the more artisan names they've acquired over the years such as Elmer T. Lee, Eagle Rare and George T. Stagg. Really phenomenal bourbon. And the flagship brand, Buffalo Trace is a really phenomenal bourbon for the price, generally between $20 and $25 for 750 ml (the single barrel is the same cost as the regular). If you drink bourbon/whiskey/whisky/scotch you should really check it out. The Single Barrel that was selected from a pool of 5 by Westside is a bit more robust and rounded than the average, and I believe a bit more potent. But the regular is plenty good.

This single barrel purchase (it was around 20 cases of 750 mL we had to purchase) and another, of 9 yo Knob Creek has been very successful, and the store is looking at purchasing a barrel of Basil Haden, another store favorite.

I would like to see more single barrels though, not just in our store, but everywhere, and of everything. I'd like to see a Single Barrel Congnac from Bache Gabrielson. I'd like to see a Single Barrel Rum of Rum from Kilo Kai. I'd like to see a Single Barrel of Bourbon County Brand Stout from Goose Island. What? Yes. If breweries, especially those with impressive barrel houses like Goose Island, would release (on contract or at will) some single barrel bottlings of beers it would put an interesting spin on the whale hunting that goes on. Those looking for those "oh so rare" beers would try and track down just those single barrels, leaving more of the still amazing things for the rest of us. Or, those single barrels might be mixed in with normal distribution, allowing more people to try an amazing product.

I realize, of course, that you can't go too crazy with single barrels. You need those really good ones to balance out those really bad ones that you will inevitably get. But if more brands in general did this it would still benefit the general bourbon/brandy/beer drinking public's taste buds without impacting the general quality of any given brand, and it might make people strike out more into other brands to boot.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Bayfield County, WI: A rural/local foodie paradise

Last month, my wife's family took a vacation to Bayfield County, WI. I expected scenic views of Lake Superior, small town quaintness, sea caves and maybe some fresh cherries and fish. And I was right. And oh so wrong.

Bayfield County, by a series of cultural and geographical quirks, is paradise for those of us who consider ourselves foodies, particularly when interested in local food culture. The county (and I'll also include nearby Ashland, WI) sits on a peninsula that juts northward into Lake Superior, and includes the towns of Washington, Bayfield, Red Cliff and Cornucopia. In the center of this peninsula is an area about 4 miles north to south and 1 mile east to west where farmers can grow apples, raspberries, blue berries, sweet corn and most amazingly, sweet cherries (my in-laws house 400 miles south is too cold to grow sweet cherries, this really is an anomaly). And you can add to that fresh trout and whitefish caught right out of Lake Superior, beef, lamb, duck and chicken raised on area farms, and even a dairy, Tetzner's Dairy, that produces milk, cheese and ice cream.

Let me stop there so I can talk about Tetzner's. We first spotted them at the food co-op in Ashland, which was small but well stocked, where we got ice cream. We ate it on the way to a concert and quickly decided we needed more. A little researched showed us that this place was close and also had cheese. Our last day in town we went and it was worth it. The place is just a small outbuilding on a dairy farm, totally self service and homey. Clearly, this place was designed for locals, not tourists.

Another place I absolutely loved was the Bayfield Apple Company, just northwest of Bayfield. Here we sampled a few different products made from the apples grown on the farm, but it was the cider-both sweet and hard-that got my attention. As a local foodie, homebrewer, and economist, I have always wondered why cidering isn't as popular as winemaking in Minnesota. The owner showed us his rather impressive cidering operations (which he did in addition to selling apples for in-hand eating). The process supplies him with cider and the raw ingredients for apple butter and a few other jams. He's so good at using the whole product that 8 bushels of apples gives him only one gallon of waste (1 bushel of apples is at least 10 gallons), which he doesn't throw away but instead uses to deter animals from entering his orchards.

Perhaps the best part though about Bayfield was that local food was not just a consumer-tourist industry. Many, if not all of the restaurants used local ingredients and had rotating menu's. Be that the semi-casual South Shore Brewpub, the "you better have reservation's" Wild Rice, or the "do you think we have too many pink flamingos?" Maggie's right in Bayfield.

I could go on and on about pie's, wool, book stores, candy, bout tours and more, but I think I'll stop. It's not that far from Minneapolis, go there yourself! Here's some links to get you started:

Bayfield Chamber of Commerce:
Tetzner's Dairy:
Bayfield Apple Company:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My thoughts on Top 100 lists

So, obviously to those who know me at all and follow the beer web, this is going to be a post about BeerAdvocate's recent redo of their BA Top 100 list. But it's also about top 10, top 100 and top 1 billion lists in general, the purpose and benefits of them, as well as disservices they do.

First, a little background. hosts a list of the Top 100 beers rated on their site with some parameters ( For a long time, it was a normalized score of any beer with greater than 10 reviews, weighted by the total number of reviews. Westy 12 and Pliney the Younger were perennial tops. I liked this list, apart from I felt 10 reviews wasn't enough. 10 reviews could honestly be written by a group of people sharing one 22 oz bottle. Not that I thought that happened, but it meant the list was really relevant to a list of elites who could afford to go out of their way to experience these beers for the most part, except a few really, really exceptional brews. Not to mention, rare brews carry a bit of selection bias into their scores. About a week ago, the list went through some experimental changes. One was the minimum number of reviews was lifted to 1000 reviews. This meant all the beers were accessible, but also meant only breweries with the capacity to produce and distribute to a large population were included. Finally (it seems), the list was adjusted so that the minimum number of reviews was the mean number of reviews for the population, currently 105. So a beer must be of at least average availability and interest to get on the list. I like this, but I'm not here to talk about how to build a list.

I want to talk about why I like that the BA Top 100 even exists. Apply it as you will to restaurants, movies, whatever. Top 100 lists with the type of user input we see on BA (97,156 reviews between the 100 of them) indicate what the people who like beer see as good beer. Consistently and across the board, people like these beers, and if you want to try a really good beer, you can reliably do it. Especially with this new list, anyone can go out and find a few beers on that list to see if the y agree, to see if their taste buds are in the majority or not, and if they aren't, who cares? But at least this list isn't just compiled by a small group of editors or even a single author as we often see (RIP Mr. Jackson).

To me, this list or any other list like it is not a definitive, end all be all list of the best beers in the world. It's just a very good starting point for you to start looking for you personal top 100.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Well, I suppose I do still have a blog here

It's been a while since I've been on the blogosphere. I got tired of locals criticizing me on my local newspapers site for talking too much about beer. Let's see how things go here.

I was hoping for a monumental return to blogging, but instead I'm going to be talking about about a local story, and how it reflects the broader beer industry. Hopefully though, my posts in the future won't be as beer-centric, but will broaden to being a foodie in rural America. Now, onto the beer.

Yesterday I got a phone call from a local newspaper reporter seeking comment from the local beer expert (me?) on Cold Spring Brewing stopping production of the Gluek brand. After I got over being a little surprised that they called me, I got on to thinking about the departure of this well known local brand. The rights and recipe for Gluek were purchased by Cold Spring Brewing in the mid 1990's, and shortly after the brewery changed it's name to Gluek Brewing (They changed back a few years ago, perhaps a foreshadowing, though many people never stopped calling them Cold Spring). Gluek was your average American regional adjunct lager, cutting quality to be able to cut costs low enough to compete with the big producers like Bud and Miller.

In college, we drank a fare amount of Gluek being as it was 10 minutes away and generally under $10 a case. But even then, as underagers just looking for anything, we quickly graduated to other beers, Gluek products just weren't that good. And now, as their main market ages and they are unable to compete with the advertising of AB-InBev and MillerCoors, they're cutting their losses. Smart move from an economics point of view. They can transition brewing capacity to more profitable brews like John Henry III Lick Spiker Ale and contract brewing for companies like 21st Amendment, All American and for the time being, Liftbridge. I've also heard that one of the brewers is working on a pre-prohibition pilsner.

And then there's the energy drinks and malternatives.In addition to brewing beer, Cold Spring also produces a huge amount of energy drinks and things like Cold Spring Cran Razz, Hard Lemonade Hard Sweet Tea and "Hard Sparkling Pomegranate Acai Berry". Whatever that is.

So in reality, Cold Spring is just taking the path that most of us craft beer geeks associate with the rising popularity of Craft beer. But they're taking it from a different angle. The way they see it, people don't want more craft beer, they just want less crap beer. And Cold Spring is realizing that may come in the form of Craft Beer (so they have one brand of their own and are contracting for others) or it may come in the form of malternativs/progressive adult beverages/energy drinks, whatever. You can see this happening in other brands as well. Look at Budweiser. Bud Light Lime is in now way an attempt to be a craft beer. It's halfway to a malternative instead. Bud Light Wheat, on the other hand is trying to dip into craft sales.

I'll be interested to see how other brewers in the area react to this. But for the grace of the god of beer this could have been August Schell's, a similarly aged and venerable brewery in the area. Sales of their Premium should get a little bump as those looking to buy local have one less choice.