Beer heist!

Shawn Pogatchnik reports for the Associated Press:

Irish police were hunting for a beer bandit who stole 450 full kegs from the Guinness brewery – the largest heist ever at Ireland’s largest brewer.

National police said a lone man drove into the brewery – a Dublin landmark and top tourist attraction – on Wednesday and hitched his truck to a fully loaded trailer awaiting delivery to city pubs ….

…. Police said the raider took 180 kegs of Guinness stout, 180 kegs of U.S. lager Budweiser and 90 kegs of Danish beer Carlsberg. Guinness brews both of those foreign brands under license for sale in Ireland ….

…. Each keg holds about 88 British-sized pints, the most common serving size in Ireland, equivalent to 20 ounces each. The total theft involves 39,600 pints with a retail value exceeding $235,000.

What really disturbs me the most is the idea that “Guinness” and “Budweiser” appear in the same sentence, much less are brewed by the same company in Ireland.

While police have not released any details about the suspect—there may not be any details to give—they have suggested that it will be difficult for the thief to sell the stolen beer.

So what we have, apparently, is a stolen trailer full of beer that cannot be sold. Seems to me the suspect should be easy to find on an island approximately the size of South Carolina. (Insert your preferred bad joke here.)

Beer: Does this count as a crisis?

This is simply not the kind of headline I like to see in the morning: “Shortage of beer ingredients may mean higher prices“. Ye gads, that sets a bad tone for the day.

Shannon Dininny explains:

Small brewers from Australia to Oregon face the daunting prospect of tweaking their recipes or experimenting less with new brews thanks to a worldwide shortage of one key beer ingredient and rising prices for others.

Oh, and one other thing: Beer prices are likely to climb. How high is anybody’s guess. Craft brewers don’t have the means to hedge against rising prices, like their industrial rivals.

“I’m guessing, at a minimum, at least a 10 percent jump in beer prices for the average consumer before the end of the year,” said Terry Butler, brewmaster at central Washington’s Snipes Mountain.

While recent years have seen major brewers struggle with flat sales, craft breweries have enjoyed the fruits of dignified labor and proper beer. 2006 saw an estimated 12% increase among craft brewers to 6.7 million barrels. Microbreweries saw 16% growth overall last year.

Now the bright spot in the brewing industry is facing mounting costs on nearly every front. Fuel, aluminum and glass prices have been going up quickly over a period of several years. Barley and wheat prices have skyrocketed as more farmers plant corn to meet increasing demand for ethanol, while others plant feed crops to replace acres lost to corn.

A decade-long oversupply of hops that had forced farmers to abandon the crop is finally gone and harvests were down this year. In the United States, where one-fourth of the world’s hops are grown, acreage fell 30 percent between 1995 and 2006.

Australia endured its worst drought on record. Hail storms across Europe damaged crops. Extreme heat in the western United States hurt both yields and quality.

Dininny notes that industrial brewers such as Miller and Anheuser-Busch can plan against rising prices, and this makes sense. The volume of their supply contracts, combined with the fact that their beers do not depend so integrally on quality ingredients, makes it easier for them to weather the storm. As long as what they’re buying is remotely viable, they can make their swill which, in some countries, is illegal to sell as “beer”. With trouble in hops and rising malt prices, some quality brewers will simply scale back their product diversity. This sounds worrisome in a certain way.

I remember, for instance, the first time I had New Belgium’s famous Fat Tire Ale. The stuff was accessible the way few of the craft brews at the time were. Over time, that accessibility came to count against it in my book; its flavor came to seem generic. Fat Tire has taken a dubious station among beer snobs; it is our bottom-tier brew. On the one hand, that puts it in decent company; local favorite Redhook has somehow transformed its ESB (extra special bitter) into one of the blandest beers around, which, in the end, makes it more accessible to consumers attempting to graduate from the MGD and Busch market.

And this is where the looming crisis becomes worrisome. I do not doubt that quality beer will survive this period. We need not throw our hands in the air and run screaming to the hills with our hair on fire. But as our fine brewers decide on how to respond to market troubles, one could hardly blame them if they choose to run with their most accessible labels, and leave some of their more complex or specialized flavors to neglect and the shadows of memory. Heaven help us all if the blue lines suffer.

Snipes Mountain brewmaster Terry Butler is among those who will tinker with their recipies. “Palate-wise,” he notes, “it may change the flavor a little bit, but only a little bit.” Eric Rode, lead brewer at Tommyknocker Brewery traded out his hops last year, which altered the flavor of is the brewery’s three lagers. Though the Hallertau crop was there for him this year, the tweaking of recipes is a trend likely to continue. Thanks to Tommyknocker’s foresight in supply contracts, their brews saw only a fifty-cent increase per case on wholesale. Harry Schuhmacher, editor of Beer Business Daily, said price increases have so far been modest. “Brewers are trying to take pricing up, but it’s hard when beer is pretty sensitive to pricing per volume.”

To the other, though, the small breweries that cannot protect themselves as well against price fluctuations are better positioned to raise their prices. “They’re able to increase pricing more without losing drinkers,” Schuhmacher said. And it’s true. I’d pay more for a Boundary Bay or Diamond Knot IPA. And it doesn’t matter to me what happens to the price of a Miller High Life or Coors Light. I’m unlikely to put money down for either.

The question, of course, is how much of a rise consumers will tolerate. Matt Long, brewmaster at Big Sky Brewing, suggests, “The trend is going to be toward ten-dollar six packs.” To the other, he tries to be optimistic about the future: “”Maybe the pendulum will swing back … It might not happen for the 2008 crop, but maybe at some point, it’ll come back halfway, which would be nice.”

The truly worrisome note, though, comes from Paul Gatza of the Brewers Association. He sees challenges to innovation and testing for seasonal brews. “I would think brewers will try to keep their existing beers in the marketplace if they can …. But this may put a damper on some of that innovation and experimentation for some of those hoppier beers, which is a shame.”

And that means the blue lines are in danger. Can we call it a crisis yet?

Beer: a fine obsession

Over at the New York Times website, Eric Asimov writes about his latest obsession, beer. Or, more specifically, cask-conditioned beer:

For American consumers who are reared on fizzy sodas and beers produced in the German lager tradition, in which the level of carbonation is naturally much higher, the diminished carbonation can be a little befuddling. Because the texture of the cask ale bubbles is significantly softer, people may jump to the conclusion that the beer is flat.

Untrue! What you have is a prickle of bubbles rather than an aggressive machine-gun stream, and it does take some getting used to. But the payoff is a texture that lifts and enhances subtleties. These beers are not about power but about nuance, with the zestiness coming from their clear, pure flavors.

To really taste all those subtleties, cask ales need to be served at cellar temperature, around 50 or 55 degrees, cool but not cold. This gives rise to the other stereotype of beers like this, that they are served warm. That, too, is wrong. It’s true only relative to the icy cold temperatures at which mass-market brews are served, which mask their flaws and insipid nature. Serving temperatures for beer are very much like those for white wines – the higher the quality of the beer or wine the less cold it ought to be.

I admit that, for all I love about beer, I’ve never made a point of learning about it, so instead of prodding Asimov by wondering why he’s only now getting around to the cask-conditioned brews, I get to take comfort that perhaps, someday, Americans really will start to understand the difference, and put aside their Budweiser, MGD, and the like, and start drinking real beer.

I suppose it’s something to look into, but the murmur coming my way is that if you go to Germany and order a Budweiser, you might be able to find the iconic American label, but the product will be different. German purity laws forbid calling something like what we in the states know as Budweiser “beer”. There’s a reason Budweiser has such nasty after-effects.

I just think it’s strange that Americans insist their beer be repugnant.

There was a time, several years back, when I popped into the neighborhood pub for a beer–literally two door down the street–and was taken aback by the hulking wooden contraption behind the bar. After eyeing the board, and then the unmarked tap handle on the dark-stained wooden box, I asked the bartender what was up with the thing.

“We’re not advertising that one on the board,” he advised me. “It’s Jubel Ale, cask conditioned.”

I said nothing. My jaw hurt from slapping against the bar so hard. With a gentle smile, the bartender ran his towel out to tend to my drooling mess. “A pint, then?” he asked. And I stood in utter disbelief until he put the beautiful pint in front of me. Deschutes Brewery’s winter line is perhaps my favorite beer on the planet, and here I held a casked Jubel Ale. I had only joked about getting the stuff like this. Really, I had not thought it possible.

Now, admittedly, this isn’t the best kind of beer for baseball season, and I can only imagine it would be hell trying to put down a few of these at a NASCAR event, but that is where I must be willing to compromise. There are many fine beers better suited to baseball season. And I just don’t care about high-speed left turns. I do not, in this sense, feel deprived.

Though Asimov is only now becoming obsessed with cask beers, he is still well-positioned to teach me something about the basics:

When the casks are filled, a light dose of sugar is added to restart the fermentation in the same way that Champagne or bottle-conditioned beers are refermented in bottles. This refermentation produces a byproduct of carbon dioxide, which carbonates the beer. Brewers generally add a fining material as well, like isinglas, which helps to settle the yeast cells to the bottom of the cask and clarify the ale. While haziness is typical of hefeweizen and certain bottle-conditioned beers, cask ales ought to be clear.

By the way, isinglas comes from the air bladders of fishes like sturgeon, cod and hake, and it’s interesting to speculate on how brewers and winemakers discovered its clarifying properties. Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster for the Brooklyn Brewery, suggests that air bladders were once used as containers for ale and wine, and when people noticed that the hazy liquids held within were coming out crystal clear they figured out something in the bladder was acting to clarify them. Makes sense to me.

Cheers. Drink well, drink safely. Make sure to make it home.