Category Archives: American Beer

Numero Uno Agave Cerveza – Challenge Accepted

I am not a beer geek. I spend most of my day and what little free time I can writing about it, but as I work in the industry then I’m being paid for it – so how does my enjoyment of drinking beer manifest itself into what other people would call ‘geekery’? Sure, I go to beer festivals but even the most stereotypical CAMRA event or laser-sharp craft beer gathering is far removed from sci-fi conventions on the geekometer – and I say that as someone who used to force my long-suffering father to drive from Preston to Derby each year to attend Games Workshop Games Days and spend hours looking at painted lead figures of orcs and soforth.*

*To be fair, I stopped when I turned 40.

Even with that admission, you won’t find me camping out in a brewery courtyard for a dawn release of the latest New England IPA or punching the air because I scored tickets for SourzFest17 in the twenty seconds it took for them to sell out online. Neither do I have each Champion Beer of Britain Winner etched into my frontal cortex or a desire to sit in silent contemplation in every micropub in the country. And yet, there is one particular habit that I just can’t shake that probably – to ‘normals’ – qualifies me as a beer geek. And it is this – the continual nagging that I can’t let statements like the one in the tweet above lie unanswered. Whether it makes me a connoisseur, aficionado, critic, bon vivant or desperate loser I just can’t stop punishing my tastebuds through my curiosity.

And that’s the rub. Only somebody who has an obsessive level of fascination with a particular pastime or subject would put themselves through discomfort for their hobby (see: those men shivering at the end of Crewe station platforms). Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it fulfills the beer geek. For every thrill-seeker who scores that web-encrusted bottle of Oude Canarde ’81 there is another who empties the shelves of the worst lagers known to humanity just to try them. This kind of Malloryism of the beer world is where the line is drawn, and all too frequently I find myself on the wrong side of it. Sure, I justify it by saying that I don’t spend a small fortune flying to the regional airports of Europe for my dedicated pastime – merely Musselburgh Tescos – but it’s the same wedge even if I’m at the thin end.

For the record the beer in question – Flying Dog’s Numero Uno Agave Cerveza (‘the artisanal answer to the easy-drinking, light-bodied beers typically produced south of the border.’) is not really that nice at all. The thin, insipid body gives way to an odd grainy medicinal sweetness – which must be the agave, I guess – before a small amount of lime flavour arrives. There’s more than a touch of the Corona’s about it, but I guess that was the intention, so for that reason alone Flying Dog have hit the nail on the head and achieved exactly what they wanted. The fact that I (and Neil above, and others who replied to that tweet) didn’t like it is down to us I guess. But what we also need to take responsibility for is when people like me see that comment and think…”You know, I need a piece of that action.”

So if you have to scratch that itch to justify your pastime? I guess you are, after all, a geek. However much you try to convince yourself otherwise…

Mills River: Sierra Nevada’s Wonka-esque playground

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I’ve been pretty lucky over the years, when I think about it – having been able to visit breweries of all shapes and sizes, and speak to the people who work there, making beer of every description. From one end of the scale, beermakers producing their wares in campervans or from one-barrel kits in distillery outbuildings, to the other of enormous production facilities with gleaming machinery and push-button automation. And then, above that, there is Sierra Nevada. The Californian brewery, having outgrown its Chico home, opened a second on the east coast of the US in February, 2014. Located in the small town of Mills River, North Carolina (a few miles south of the beer-centric city of Asheville), their facility is quite simply on a scale I have never seen before.

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It’s not just the size of the place – the brewhouse there is 200BBL, twice that of their original Chico brewery – it’s more the way everything is utterly seamless. Breweries, by and large, are fairly similar – at least, the mechanisms and flow of the places are – but it’s what’s over and above those fundamentals that make them memorable. Cantillon, for instance, is about the history and the living museum that it has become. Mills River is another world to that – with Sierra Nevada staff waiting at every door, with a smoothness and slickness to the operation. It’s as if nothing has been overlooked, at any stage. You can even arrive in a limo, if you wish (they do pickups from the nearby Asheville airport). True, the stops had been pulled out for our tour party (our guide was Brian Grossman, son of founder Ken Grossman) – but I didn’t get the sense that our experience was that unusual.

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The packaging hall – which on another day could double as a fill-in for an airport baggage hall – can package 900 bottles a minute, which is some statistic until Brian casually states that last year Sierra Nevada shipped the equivalent of 330,000,000 bottles (although that figure is really only for show, as it includes the draught beer as an equivalent, bundled into the calculation). Anyway, it’s still a big number, even without the kegs. This photo above is the canning line – and helter-skelter room – where they churn out two six-packs of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale every second. Not on the day we were there, though – the regular tours wind up and around behind glass to let people have a look at what’s going on without being deafened by the noise from the two packaging halls.

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Fans of Sierra Nevada in the UK – and there are many, including myself – might have noticed a difference in recent weeks (or, as the brewery would like it, hopefully you didn’t). Their flagship Pale Ale for export over here was switched from Chico to being produced at Mills River – the freshness of not having to transport it across the country before the Atlantic should mean we get a better beer on our shelves and fridges here in the UK. SNPA was my gateway beer – so it’s great to think that a fresher and more vibrant version is now here in this country. This is the hop store at Mills River, a super-chilled coldstore with the hops just sitting in open bins, as if a stable of isohumulone-loving horses were just out in the paddock, ready to trot in for their evening feed.

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But the real eye-opener for me is what was outside the brewery. They have spent a lot to give their Mills River facility the full ‘experience’ treatment – with a huge restaurant, gift shop and massive outdoor terrace. There are fire-pits, outdoor games and even a 300-person capacity stage for live music. And then there’s the forest. Out the back, past the bandstand is a path which you can wander along – it takes a good ten minutes to navigate to the end (en route we passed Sierra Nevada uniform-clad security guards), where you reach this, not the Mills River, but the French Broad. Having their own river gives an expansive riverbank to host events, barbecues and the like – it also apparently allows staff to commute to work from Asheville via kayak. I didn’t get that confirmed by anyone there, but having spent hours wandering around this Willy Wonka Beer Factory, it wouldn’t surprise me.

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It’s easy to be cynical over this – how when you turn off the freeway to visit, you roll up the tree-lined ‘Sierra Nevada Way’ to reach the brewery. The company is valued at over $1bn, with revenue last year reaching $250m. Of course they can afford a few trees and their own roadsign. But it’s more the attitude here, that goes with the finance. Turning the science and art of brewing into a destination; a place you could go with your friends or bring the family, and either way stay all day. It’s elevating beer away from industrial estates and into the realms of the resort. I can see how it would make some people uncomfortable, but to me it was near-breathtaking. This is the industry I’ve followed for eight years (and now work in), and it has come to this (although even I think branded soap dispensers is going a little far). Where is it going to go next?

“People say we add rice because it’s cheap. This isn’t true”

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The words of Mark Yocum, Director of Quality for North America at Anheuser-Busch InBev, at the recent Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference in Asheville, North Carolina. The full quote: “The quality of the rice we use is high, therefore rice is not inexpensive at all. You know that with a light lager, there is not a place to hide – and rice is susceptible to off-flavours. The oil in rice can go rancid. People say we add rice because it’s cheap. This isn’t true.” The tone of these comments were light-hearted rather than hackles-up defensive, but you got the sense that Mark was keen to make a point about one of the much-stated perceived negatives of Budweiser. Of course – he’s not going to stand up there and state that they use the cheapest discount rice, purely as a filler ingredient, but there you go. I’m guessing if your rice has the chance to go rancid, that would pretty much be the same thing – but clearly AB-InBev keep a close eye on things when it comes to one of the more contentious adjuncts around. If you’re going to use rice, at least make sure it’s in decent nick.

Mark’s talk, though, was fascinating – in a room full of beer writers he discussed the step-by-step QA process that goes into ensuring each Bud comes out the same as every other, irrespective of where in the world it is produced. Pretty openly, he batted out statements like the much-advertised (see label photo below) ‘beechwood ageing process’ has not one single iota of influence on the flavour of the final beer, the wood having been boiled “nine or ten times” beforehand (presumably) to sterilise it prior to introduction into the fermenters. “It gives surface area to the yeast,” said Mark. “It’s a process aid really, not an ingredient.” He also confirmed that they do a lot of secondary fermentation; Bud is fully krausened as wort from an ‘Alpha beer’ is added to the lauter tun. “It’s not just cold-stored and then centrifuged.” He also answered a predictable question by saying each batch of Budweiser is lagered for three weeks.

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We then did a tasting of fresh Budweiser wort – which had been freighted in from St Louis that morning – as well as the high-gravity ‘chip beer’ (Bud is initially brewed to ‘around’ 6% abv before being liquored back), and then a final bottle of the finished article. The wort had all the classic sweet cereal flavours of every other pale malt wort I’ve sipped over the years; maybe a touch of peanutty richness in there as well. The ‘chip’ beer – so called because it is taken from day 19 of 20 on the beechwood chips in the lagering tank – had an initial solventy edge to it, but with a sweet, slightly bananalike finish, with not much alcohol for 6%. Despite writing that last sentence, it was actually pretty good – the unusual elements weren’t overpowering, as Mark said, interestingly, “We consider Budweiser to be a fairly estery beer.” Then we tasted the final beer, which was pretty much tasteless.

And that’s the rub. Sure, I don’t like Budweiser – but plenty of people do. And for those people, the Quality team at AB-InBev go to fairly enormous lengths.

They do this by measures such as tasting panels for every beer, every tank and every water source that comes into the brewery – the municipal supply (which is carbon-filtered before starting the brew), mash water, lauter water, CIP water, sterile water and even the water they use to rinse the outside of the bottles with prior to packaging. It is all tasted by their trained sensory teams. They also compare the filtered beer and the final packaged beer from the same tank, to ensure evenness. It’s all done electronically, via touch-screen input, to give instant feedback to whichever of the 52 global AB-InBev breweries have submitted samples; across the entire estate of 63 brands that come from their plant at Baldwinsville, New York. They even taste competitors’ beers in the same way to ensure theirs are on a level (or better).

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Mark backed this up by saying no global brewery in their operation can release a new beer until it passes three days of taste panels, as aside from the differences in kit and people (which they presumably iron out through standardisation and training), the major difference is the water source and condition. Some use reverse osmosis whereas others have their own wells, for instance. He also mentioned – when pressed, it was the only thing you got the impression he didn’t really want to divulge – that the ratio of barley to rice in a Budweiser brew is 75/25, and that the final ‘chip’ Bud comes out at 6.8% before having filtered water added during filtration to reach the final desired abv. In addition, they use a blend of nine different hops (they have their own hop farm) – two of which are bittering and the rest aroma and Noble hops; and if you’ve ever wanted to know the target IBU of Budweiser – it’s 10-11 IBU.

Anyway, it was fascinating – but after leaving, I realised there was one thing I should have asked.

You know how you sometimes think of a witty retort too late? You’re set up for the perfect riposte, but instead of delivering it with a coolness that would leave James Bond spluttering into his Martini, it pops into your head when in the shower the next morning? Well, I sat through this hugely interesting and entertaining talk, delivered by a clear expert in his field, and didn’t equate it with something blindingly obvious. And it was this. It was evident that the Quality team take a huge amount of pride in ensuring that each Bud is as good as it can be, and as good as the next off the line. But how does that fit with the infamous SuperBowl ad that stated Budweiser was ‘not brewed to be fussed over’?

If you’re actively telling your customers that they shouldn’t care how your product tastes, why should you go to any of this effort? Why should you care at all? Well, that’s what I wondered, at least, when in the shower the next morning…

Caldera IPA. Or, should you ever go back?

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Beery loves – as with their equally whimsical human counterparts – come and go. Yet, like those times when you kind of think you saw someone at a station that might have been that person you maybe once went out with, a tweet I saw the other day brought one flinging back straight into the cortex. Only with canned American IPA. Yes, a small – but vibrantly eye-catching – tin of Oregonian India Pale Ale suddenly reminded me of one of the most formative of beers in my progression from Carling drinker to wherever the heck I am now.

But dare I try it again?

Caldera IPA has a long and welcome history with me; having supplanted Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (which was my original gateway beer’) it became something I really got into in a big way – which, on reflection, might not have been the best choice as it was more or less impossible to get hold of. Back in the heady days of November 2009 I was banging on about it, as if it was the greatest thing ever.

Which, back then, it was. However there have been so many beers since, countless IPA’s amongst them (227 according to my entries on RateBeer). So if I had it again, how would it hold up? Should you give it another go, in case you don’t like it as much? It’s like watching an episode of SuperTed and realising it doesn’t quite hold up anymore.

But you have to do it, really. If nothing else, to make you re-assess how good your judgement was back then (so not at all like that fleeting glimpse on the station platform).

So along I went, and picked up two cans. How did it hold up? What had changed since 2009 (apart from my then-hideous wallpaper)? Well, it turns out very little. Still a huge amount of pine and a rich thickness on the finish that came out more this time as melon sweetness. Just as drinkable as before – it may not compare with the enormous bone-crunchers I have discovered since – but it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to.

It’s still a pleasure to drink and an IPA that I would still enjoy on a regular basis. If I could get hold of it more often. Plus it looks like a can of Rubicon so you can legitimately drink it walking down the street.

It’s great to go back, when it all works out. Caldera IPA is one of my fondest beery memories. Some (like original cask Boddingtons) can’t ever come back – but it’s great that I’ve found one that does.



In fact, it was every bit as good as it was when we featured Caldera IPA as part of BeerCast #49. Which if nothing else, is a chance to actually listen to one of our podcasts, for those who never had the pleasure first time around. To give you an idea of just how long ago that was, it opened with topical jokes about the 2010 General Election – and it was the forty-ninth BeerCast we released. Some things are best left where they lie…

Angered by the Budweiser Super Bowl ad? You’re missing the point…

Look, let’s not all get – as they would say – our panties in a wad. I’ve watched AB-InBev’s ‘anti-craft beer’ advert five times now, and it’s made me…laugh, five times. There’s simply no point in hammering out angry diatribes against it, about what it says when it implies craft beer drinkers are moustachioed dweebs sharing tasting flights of pumpkin peach ale.

This is not a statement that big beer is worried about craft beer any more than Kim Kardashian’s plea to use up the full extent of your data allowance was altruistic. Superbowl adverts have one over-riding aim – that they are funny. This then makes people talk the next day, gets them noticed, etc. Do you seriously think nobody at AB-InBev head office realised one of their recently-acquired breweries actually makes a pumpkin peach ale?

The Budweiser advert is in the same grand American style that parodies the intelligent at every opportunity, that leads to characters in TV series like Saved by the Bell, Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, New Girl and the like. Yes – I am actually about to write these words – the Budweiser Super Bowl Ad was satire.

This is the Superbowl – it is what it is. I’ve watched every one since 1986. It’s for fans (and players) like Gronk here, celebrating the Patriots win in style (and with a Busch Light, ironically, brewed by…)

According to NBC, the average cost of a thirty second advert during last weekend’s big game was $4.5m – but companies like Ab-InBev that took out multiple spots would have got some kind of deal, rather than forking out multiples of $9m, $13.5m, $18m or whatever. The exact amount each advertiser pays as part of these deals is not disclosed, but the network always release the ‘price per 30secs’ figure as it has a cachet – with three sharing the rights to the Super Bowl on an annual rotation basis, announcing the $4.5m figure is NBC sticking two fingers of importance up at CBS and Fox.

AB-InBev didn’t only use Budweiser to deliberately anger the hipsterati – that particular ad was down the running order, literally, when compared to their more prevalent Bud ad, featuring the latest adventure of the puppy and the Clydesdales (I need to take a minute, there’s, er, something in my eye). And even that wasn’t their biggest spend of the evening, as they took out ninety seconds to advertise Bud Light in a way that has 80’s gamers up in arms, just as much as the craft beer fans. Except it hasn’t.

If you total up the spots for Budweiser and Bud Light, then AB-InBev – who had also acquired sole beer sponsorship rights for the event – totalled 210 seconds of advertising. With NBC’s bulk-buy discount, they may not have paid the full whack of $31.5m, but in buying up that much TV space they clearly spent a staggering amount. And you know what? If you want something to focus your craft beer ire on – then focus it on that. Forget about the fact that an Ad agency picked on guys sharing thirds, and think about the bigger picture, which is this:

Ab-InBev committed this heinous grievance against the beer geek generation whilst dropping the amount of loose change that could pay for another craft brewery. Their 2015 Super Bowl spend would have been somewhere between the $24m they paid for Blue Point Brewing and the $38.8m they put up for Goose Island. Only, it was an equivalent sum for less than four minutes of advertising. If they really are flustered by the craft beer upstarts, and are feeling the heat of all those pumpkin peach ales, then once they really open the warchest, you might have genuine concerns to be angered over.

Starting with a two-tap takeover: Lagunitas in Scotland

The motto of Lagunitas Brewing Company is ‘beer speaks, people mumble’. Yet, if you ever get the chance to engage someone from Lagunitas in conversation, it quickly becomes apparent that, to their employees, this is more of a guideline than a slogan. Beholden to the love of their industry, and the place of Lagunitas within, they just can’t help effusing about what beer means to them, what they hope beer means to you, and where beer can take everyone if we all pull in the same direction. It’s infectious, it really is. And right at this moment, the Lagunitas top brass (as if they would ever refer to themselves as such) are in the UK for one reason only: launching Lagunitas’ beer in Scotland.

Over the next few days, the resin-bus will move north from Edinburgh (where it parked up on Saturday) to St Andrews (tonight, the 1st), then Aberdeen, and finally Glasgow. At each stop, the mason jars will glow white hot as the IPA and Lagunitas Sucks flow out. The beers are great, no question, but more than that it’s a chance to actually speak to the people who have travelled over from the States and are wending their way anti-clockwise around the country – some, like Ron Lindenbusch, for the first time. ‘Affable’ doesn’t do him any justice; Ron, whose business card bears the designation ‘beer weasel’, is the Director of Marketing at Lagunitas, and he certainly doesn’t mumble; if he did, for one thing, he’d have to stop beaming for a microsecond.

Maybe his countenance is partly due to the fact he’s never been to Scotland before – and, being a golfer I know he’s going to enjoy the trip to St Andrews today. But it’s also because he seems to get a genuine kick about chatting to other beer fans; wherever they are from. Looking every inch the Californian beer guy, Ron has been at Lagunitas since the very beginning. As such, clearly he appreciates this is a boom-time for the brewery, founded by Tony Magee in 1993. After expanding their Petaluma plant to the point where any further growth would create a problem for its hometown, they switched tack and opened in another city – Chicago.

That 250bbl/year brewery plant then reached capacity before anyone at Lagunitas ever thought possible, so another 250bbl plant has been ordered; Tony hasn’t firmed up which city it will be in, but I was told it looks like being in a third US location. Chicago has clearly been good to Lagunitas (Tony being a native of the city); they have now become the city’s largest brewer (surpassing the Ab-InBev-controlled Goose Island), in the process tripling the craft beer output of Illinois. That growth, when you digest those numbers, is truly astonishing – in 2013 Lagunitas broached the top five US craft breweries, by volume; having ranked number 17 three years earlier.

So, why Scotland? Well, they clearly see it as an emerging market for the direction they see as being the right one. Ron Lindenbusch is enthused about this, talking – beer in one hand, whisky in the other – about the way people can be attracted by an industry which works together, with the network of brewers and retailers all pulling in the same direction. Sales Manager Fraser Murray (a native of Haddington) sums it up even more neatly – “it’s all about putting good beer in people’s hands.” With that in mind, I was told Lagunitas are to employ a dedicated Scottish sales rep, to ‘pound the streets and do the legwork’.

Lagunitas are now emerging as a major player in the London craft market through this approach. Getting out there, working new accounts through individual introductions. Tony sums up his ethos in an interesting fashion, in this interview with local news station Chicago Tonight; “we’re not in the beer business in some ways; we’re in the tribe-building business. Engaging people, building with them and learning about them, and together you build a tribe around the notion of this particular product.” Within a year of his first bucket homebrew, Tony had opened his Petaluma brewery. You can’t help imagining this week’s two-tap takeovers will yield a fully-fledged Lagunitas tribe in Scotland within a similar timeframe…



The Lagunitas tour reaches the St Andrews Taproom tonight (Monday 1st), c.a.s.c. Aberdeen Tuesday 2nd and concluding at Glasgow’s Inn Deep on Wednesday 3rd. Check the Hanging Bat website for more information. (Full disclosure – the night in Newcastle, before Edinburgh, also had Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin’ on draught, so it was a three-tap takeover).

For those attending, a little tip: if you can barely muster the strength to mumble the next morning, those mason jars also make great receptacles for Irn Bru…