Monthly Archives: May 2014

Craft Beer, Crafty Yeast

See the little nuclei
Bursting full of information
There’s a need to regulate
Bring it down to cells and plasma

Tell you what they’re gonna do
Started doing it already
Got to find something new
Looking for it in genetix

Found a new game to play
Think it’s impossible to lose
Messing round at playing God
Easy way to play genetix

Stranglers, Genetix, from the album Raven

There’s nothing like a good Stranglers tune to warm the heart of an old punk/beergeek. Which brings me to an interesting article from the New York Times,  Strange Brews: the Genes of Craft Beer.

White Labs, an important supplier of yeast to both the craft and the homebrew market, is engaging in an amazing effort to sequence the DNA of brewing yeast. Currently they’re at 240 strains, but there are thousands out there to go. They’re partnered with a biotech lab that’s a joint venture between the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology and the University of Leuven, Belgium.

So why sequence the yeast? After all, it’s one of the best-understood and most-studied organisms on the planet. From the Times article:

By getting a line-by-line reading of the 12 million molecules that make up the DNA of each yeast, Dr. Verstrepen said, the researchers will be able not only to tell how closely related two yeasts are (is Sam Adams’s closer to Stone’s, or Sierra Nevada’s?) but to answer other important questions: which breweries started with the same strains of yeasts, how these organisms evolved over time and, of course, how all of it translates to taste.

“Yeasts can make over 500 flavor and aroma compounds,” said Chris White, the founder of White Labs, affecting a beer’s alcohol level, clarity and texture. But while brewing yeast is one of the best-studied organisms in molecular and cell biology, exactly how its genes translate to brewing properties is still poorly understood.

By comparing the DNA of hundreds of yeasts, along with information on how they act and brew differently, “we’ll have a unique window into the genetic code,” said Mr. Prahl, who is leading the experiment at White Labs. He is comparing each yeast’s sequencing information with brewing data on more than 2,000 batches of beer — including the four he was tasting.

This is super-cool. When I started making my own beer three and half decades ago, there were maybe five strains of yeast available. Not much changed for decades, but as homebrewers evolved into craft brewers, the demand for new strains, and pure strains increased, until today we have hundreds of distinct and different yeast to choose from.

Yeast is responsible for more that 70% of the flavour in beer–you can produce a batch of wort (the word for unfermented beer), split it into ten lots, ferment each lot with a different strain of yeast, and at tasting time you’d swear each one was completely different beer, from different brews. By learning the specific genes that control flavour and aroma production, and crossing yeast to maximise desirable characteristics, they’re going to be able to manufacture yeast that not only make fabulous tasting beer, but also yeast that are less environmentally demanding, more stable and easier to use/more flocculant/better fermenting, etc.

applelime

I wonder what the pie would taste like?

Of course, the idea that these yeast are being genetically manipulated rears it’s (block)head. For anyone who’s worried about that, it’s a non-issue. Using multiple yeast strains and sticking with the best ones has been going on for centuries, long before Pasteur came up with the germ theory of fermentation (only 150 years ago they didn’t know what yeast was: they referred to the action of fermentation as an act of god, and the middle-English used to call yeast froth ‘godisgoode’). And since they’re only working with yeast and yeast, it’s not a transgenic organism, merely an improved version–kind of like me after my morning coffee.

I for one am stoked about the whole process. We’re learning new things about the yeast we currently use, we’re going to be able to get more utility out of new strains, and the beer will be better than ever. I can’t wait to talk to Chris and his team to find out what’s coming down the pike for us homebrewers.

I bet it’s going to be great.

 

 

Neuroanthropology, Beer, and Business

 

beer-brain

‘The only thing I want floating in beer is my liver.’ Okay, brain too.

According to the Wikipedia, neuroanthropology is the study of culture and the brain. What is beer, if not culture, I always say, and yet it was a pleasant surprise to see the fellows over at the Public Library of Science Blogs saying the same thing in an entry, Carefully Crafting Consumption: Understanding the Craft Beer Revolution, where they examine (and get some experimental data on) ‘What are the driving forces behind the increased popularity of craft beer?’

It’s a good and timely question: over 400 new craft breweries opened in the last year in the USA. In my home of British Columbia we’re getting something like thirty new craft breweries a year right now–and it’s picking up every day.

Why are people so hot on craft beer–particularly at a time when macro beers (the pale, fizzy stuff that requires advertising on television) are declining precipitously? It’s so bad for the major breweries right now that they’re on incredibly aggressive acquisition schedules, buying foreign premium breweries (such as Becks) and then tossing the recipes and filling the pretty ‘imported’ bottles with BudMillerCoors Standard Western Industrial Light Lager (S.W.I.L.L.) It’s not doing them any good, mind: as soon as they acquire and ruin a new brand, sales fall off a cliff. 4th quarter sales for MillerCoors are down 2% on domestic sales. Pete Coors, chair of the Molson Coors Brewing Company and Chairman of MillerCoors summed up their problem quite succinctly in an interview with The Denver Post:

“Basically the biggest trouble we have is on-premise sales,” he said. “We have a lot of bar owners who are enamored with craft beers. They are beginning to take off the premium light handles and putting bottles behind the bar instead and replacing the handles with craft beer handles. We lose 50 percent of our volume when that happens.”

The company is trying to compel bar owners to keep their beers on tap by impressing them with facts.

“We have done research that shows it’s not in the economic benefit for a bar to do that,” he said. “Having a premium light brand, whether it’s Coors, Miller or Bud on tap actually improves the economics of their business. People stay in their seats an average of 18 minutes longer when they have a light premium beer on tap. That means they are spending more money, leaving bigger tips. We have a little algorithm and an app that we give to our distributors to evaluate and analyze these businesses and bars.”

It’s hard to be cynical enough with that series of statements. Coors is, of course, a deluded plutocrat, scion and heir to a fortune (which tends to make people quite able to deny observable reality and substitute their own) and really wants to preserve that fortune.

I WILL DRINK YOU ALL

Girls, girls, you’re all pretty.

Simply put, the reason why bar owners are replacing S.W.I.L.L. with craft taps is that’s what beer consumers want. The extra 18 minutes he mentions probably comes from the fact that people can’t drink his beer fast enough because it’s ludicrously over-carbonated and they needed 15 of those 18 minutes to belch.

Back to neuroanthropology: why do craft beer lovers reject S.W.I.L.L. ? The article at PLOS is excellent and covers a lot of ground, hinging on the paradigms put forth by anthropologist Daniel Lende, who ‘proposes the following items as useful to understanding what drives consumption: sensorial, corporal, experiential, decision engaging, social, and meaningful.’ 

All good stuff and there’s a great bit on blind trials using different beer glasses to gauge drinkers responses to actual rather than presumed flavours and aromas, but the two most significant points pretty much cover what drives craft beer drinkers away from S.W.I.L.L. and into better beer, flavour and engagement.

Typical S.W.I.L.L. beer uses very few ingredients (one malt, one or two hops, and some sugary adjuncts), that have low flavour (rice and corn taste like almost nothing after fermentation). The sad truth about these beers is that blindfolded, the most fervent of their partisans cannot tell them apart–they are specifically designed to be as flavourless as possible–offend fewer people, grab greater sales.

beer-misalign

One of these things is not like the other . . .

Craft beers on the other hand have the option of using many different kinds of malt–there are hundreds available–and in addition to the explosive growth of new hop varieties, they also add anything that strikes them as a positive–licorice? Sure! Coconut? You bet! And so on. They also use different yeast, and since yeast contributes heavily to the profile of a beer they can really stick the flavour knife in and twist it, adding aromas and flavours of bubblegum, melted butter or tropical fruits, if they desire. S.W.I.L.L. is universally made with alcohol-tolerant, neutral profile yeast.

All it takes is for a lover of beer is to try a few craft beers and as soon as they become normalised to the very different flavours and aromas, all S.W.I.L.L. tastes weak, watery and fizzy. It doesn’t matter if it’s the same alcohol content or the same body, the relatively weak palate of flavours and neutral character makes it wimpy.

Engagement is the second part and it’s the secret key. It’s impossible to engage with a corporation that concentrates of return for its investors above all else–no matter how many small brewers they buy, no matter how hard they try to use those breweries and their beers as a mask to try to cajole people to like their overall portfolio, it won’t work.

I engage with breweries that can tell me an authentic story about their beer–who made it, where the recipe came from, how they feel about it, and what cool stuff they’ve done and plan to do next. A corporation, designed only to make money for investors, doesn’t have a story like that, and as soon as they purchase a craft brewery they destroy its story as well.

And a corporation will never, ever understand why. Because they could be making bricks or shoes, and don’t care what the vehicle for their revenue stream is. Real craft breweries engage their drinkers with not only flavour, aroma and choice, but also with a real dedication to the idea that beer is more than just a drink–it’s a gateway to an experience.

Yet Again, Powdered Alcohol.

This is really the non-story that would not die.

You may recall from such blog posts as Powdered Alcohol: Some Dry Observations and Further Observations on Powdered Booze, the faux product Palcohol made some headlines. People who did not understand organic chemistry were delighted by the idea that there was a magic powder that you could sprinkle into anything and make it an instant alcoholic beverage, and the ‘will nobody think of the children’ crowd went absolutely insane at the idea that kids would be snorting it at parties, and next thing you know they’d be addicted to the marijuana . . .

People. I’ll never understand them. Even being one does not seem to help.

However, the chaps over at Vice Magazine (warning: the magazine and the website are relentlessly naughty) have an occasional practical bent. One of their intrepid reporters obtained the necessary ingredients and with a few modifications (he used 192 Proof grain alcohol) he made a batch.

How was it? Two quotes sum it all up:

The powder drunk creeps up on you, and sometime on the walk it kicked in. I went from mostly sober to buzzed to the kind of drunk where you already have a headache and can feel the hangover coming like a distant high-pitched whine. 

The headache was still present—a throbbing pressure at my temples—but the powder drunk was giving me a weird, out-of-body feeling. If you like headaches and gummed-up sinuses and numb, dissociative (sic) drunks, you’re going to go apeshit for powdered booze.

boozefire

Photo courtesy Vice Magazine

There you have it. The author notes that the stuff burned like Napalm, which may in fact be the killer application for the product–burning up in a fire.

 

Heading for a State of Grace

“Hawaii is not a state of mind, but a state of grace.” – Paul Theroux

Maui--wow-ee!

Who can take a place this beautiful seriously?

And thats where I’m headed. I’m working on my sixth decade, and despite relative proximity (can’t get much closer to Hawaii and still live in Canada) I’ve never visited the islands. It’s been a cold winter and a terrifically interesting year so far, and I need a break from shivering and hustling.

Sadly I had rotator cuff surgery last week and that means no snorkeling. Quelle dommage! But I’ll muddle through with the help of beaches, waterfalls, musubi, poke, pork and probably a wee tot of rum. Or two.

I’ll be hitting the ground running when I get back. First I’ll be teaching a homebrewing class at Beyond the Grape in Port Moody (want to learn how to do your first brew with grains, hops and extract? Call Michael or click here and get hooked up!)

Tiny little glass, hmmph!

Smile and the whole world smiles with you. Drink, and you won’t care.

Right after that it’s the Winemaker Magazine 2014 conference June 5-7th in Virginia. I’ll be teaching a boot camp seminar that will include the use of advanced equipment (vacuum bottle fillers! Home laboratories! Super-secret ingredients!) and top-level techniques for making your best wine ever! I’ve never taught anyone this stuff before, so the folks who attend are going to have secret knowledge!

It’s shaping up to be a busy year. I’m looking forward to it!

The Gospel of Retail

I’ve been in retail for a long time, first as the manager of a big home beer and wine supply store twenty years ago, and later as both a retail coach and trainer to others (while still running a smaller retail store on the side as part of my day job).

Take a left at Promotion and go straight on to Earnings.

The busiest corner in the city.

I love the business, which is really a thing you need to understand: either you love retail and the whole ‘I have stuff and want to get people to give me money for it because that’s how commerce and most everything works’, or you don’t love it at all, and feel positively sticky about asking strangers to pull out their wallets in exchange for your sordid junk.

It’s okay to be the latter. After all, there are certain aspects of business that I’m ill-suited to myself (accounting, bookkeeping, staying awake in meetings that last longer than 19 minutes, etc) and I avoid them. If you hate retail, you’re probably smart enough to avoid being in a situation where you’re obligated to perform as a retailer.

Unfortunately, some people don’t do that. And it drives me bananas.

I understand if it’s a job and you really need one. Been there, done that, actually shovelled manure for 10 hours a day for minimum wage. But I didn’t do it out of hate, and I understood how the job worked: that end of the shovel went into the muck, and the other end connected to me, and I kept my mouth shut and shoveled and somebody gave me a paycheque. Hating your job (believe you me, I hated that poopy job) doesn’t mean that you let it influence how you perform it. If it does, you’re letting yourself down. After all, if you’re bad at shoveling dung, what else can’t you do in life?

While it’s a sad case when retail employees dislike their job and let it show through inattention, ineffectiveness or pure loathing, it’s much worse when it’s the retail shop owners who are the problem. That’s when things get grotesque. I’m sure that there is nobody reading this who hasn’t had the experience of entering a shop with the clear goal of making a purchase, but has been frustrated out of it by an absolutely dreadful retailer, someone who was either having a bad day and let it loose on you, or someone who simply did not acknowledge that the act of transferring money from you to them, and goods from them to you was the only thing on the agenda.

I could raise a dozen examples I’ve experienced in the last month without even trying, and probably several hundred if you gave me a day (and I didn’t get depressed and quit trying because it’s all so repetitive and awful) but my very worst peeves are when I’m goal-oriented on a purchase to the point of target fixation, where my burning desire is to give money, get the thing and go, but the retailer wants to talk me out of it–‘Oh, those are quite expensive’, ‘That’s the display model’, ‘The new ones are coming out in a few months’, ‘I’ve given up stocking those–we can’t keep them on the shelves’. AAAAGH!

Smile, and the whole world smiles with you. Glare like this and they run as fast as they can.

I don’t dress that way anymore, but that’s my target fixation look

It was on this topic that I ran across a quote in an odd spot today, and as soon as I read it, I knew I had to share it.

The spot was Terry Pratchett‘s Unseen Academicals. For those who don’t know Pratchett, go forth and know his work immediately. He’s a British fantasy author who writes subtly, subversively and hilariously about the human condition, under the guise of a moderately ridiculous fantasy world that rides about on the back of a giant turtle.

Apparently, however, it's not turtles all the way down.

The Discworld. Turtle knows what it’s doing.

It might seem like kid’s stuff at first, but Pratchett is a class warrior, and egalitarian and one of the humanest humanists I’ve ever read. Nine stars and eleven thumbs up for him–if you know and love a reader, give them the gift of Pratchett, posthaste. Ahem.

The quote:

” . . . shops were doing well these days, largely because they understood the first rule of merchandising, which is this: I have got goods for sale and the customer has got money. I should have the money and, regrettably, that involves the customer having my goods. To this end, therefore, I will not say ‘The one in the window is the last one we have, and we can’t sell it to you, because it we did no one would know we have them for sale’, or ‘We just can’t keep them on the shelves, or ‘I’m fed up with telling people there’s no demand for them’. I will make a sale by any means short of physical violence because without one I am a waste of space.

Yes, yes, YES! The retailer’s target demographic is people with money who are willing to give them some. Nothing else matters, give the people what they want, quickly and efficiently and you’ll be so far ahead of your non-retaily competitors it’ll make your head spin. Just having a store with goods in it and warm bodies doesn’t mean you are a retailer–retailers sell things, period.

And if you’re a retailer, I salute you. You have goods, I have money: let’s talk.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going shopping.

Things Happen

Face it, you read it in Farnsworth's voice, didn't you?

Yes, very good news

I have a zillion things going on right now, and it’s making me very happy indeed. I’m not a chap for sitting quietly and waiting for events to unfold. That way lies madness for me. Luckily, the unfolding, she comes. First, after a relatively short wait, I got a spot of shoulder surgery that I really needed. I first injured my right shoulder back in the mid 1990’s, competing as a powerlifter.

The older I get, the better I used to be.

600-3/4 lb squat. Yes, I did a full squat (hip below knee joint)

The sport was very good to me, teaching me discipline, persistence, and the rewards of focusing on really big goals. The trade-off was, that high goals come with costs and I had three knee surgeries (which turned out well) but finally hurt my shoulder badly enough that I had to stop competing back in 2005. At the time I looked into surgery, but since I was considered extremely high-functioning (“It hurts when I bench-press more than 315 lb.” “Well, don’t do that.”) my best choice was to put off surgery until the techniques got better. Fast-forward a decade and they have. Last fall I went in for an assessment and day before yesterday they knitted me new set of rotator cuffs.

It was all moosh in there.

Black and white is better. Colour is pretty gruesome.

I had full ruptures of all my rotator cuff muscles, a torn biceps tendon, bone spurs and the head of my humerus apparently looked like a used golf ball. But all better! Other than being in a sling for two months, I’m pretty dang happy, and the prognosis is that I’m going to actually be able to return to training. Competitive powerlifting? Well, wouldn’t that be a trip . . . but we’ll see. I’ll just be glad to be able to reach for things on low shelves without having my arm flop out of the socket.

2014_Wine_Conference_Virginia_Logo

See you there!

Next good thing is the upcoming Winemaker Magazine conference! I’m terrifically excited this year, since I’m doing a boot camp! It’s an intensive course for winemakers who want to learn the secret secrets that I’ve never shared with anyone before. As the industry’s technical guy for 22 years I was never able to really let loose with the good stuff for consumers. Now, sky’s the limit! I hope you’re going, and I hope I’ll see you there.

I’ve also got a couple of irons in the fire right now that are really exciting, product development-wise, plus something I’m terrifically pleased about. I hope to be able to let everyone know more very soon! Keep watching this blog, as I won’t be hiding any lights under bushels!

Shout-Out

There’s a new blog in town, and I like it.

austin_logo

Don’t mess with Texas homebrew

Austin Homebrew Supply is a fine shop in my very favorite city in Texas (sorry, Brownsville!)

If you’ve never been to Austin, make haste, for it is a very cool, often strange place, filled with delightfully odd people and a sense of community and solidarity rare in any country, and perhaps a wee bit at odds with the common perception of Texas-qua-Texas. Dang fine barbecue to boot.

I’ve been friends with the folks at AHB for many years, and have always enjoyed their service and style, and now they’ve gone and stretched out to their customers even further. My buddy Adam Lipscomb now does their AHS Brewing Blog. He’s a good writer, and I know he’ll be telling some great stories. I was actually updated in real time when he was making his infamous Frisky Whiskers Tuna Porter, a surefire hit with all kitties.

Check him out and add him to your bookmarks, and you can even drop him a line if you’ve got questions.

In the meantime, relax, don’t worry, and have a nice cool beverage.