Monthly Archives: January 2018

Beer Pairing “Secrets”

I used to watch a lot of Food Network; Good Eats and Iron Chef America, on both sides of the entertainment spectrum, were my favorite. Alton Brown’s Mr. Wizard-like citizen science epitomized my ideal life in the kitchen; practical tools and a commercial-level know-how in a home setting appeal to my sense of efficiency and creativity. With Brown as host of the sequel to the original great cooking game show, with its dramatic lighting, swinging cameras, and do-or-die time constraints (I have since moved on to the placid, polite Great British Baking Show; I’m old), the competing chefs were mostly battling their own time management skills, while maintaining enough composure to manipulate and perfectly plate the secret ingredient. The words the judges used to describe and criticize the food informed my lexicon; I brought that to restaurants and, eventually, beer.

There are lots of ways to think about cooking and brewing, and a lot of those overlap; I enjoy dissecting a meal into its constituent flavors and tastes, and equating them to a beer. The reverse, starting with the beer (and a good conversational partner), is how I develop beer pairing menus. Rather than considering the ingredients themselves, recognizing texture, acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and the other basic sensations in the mouth help to find inspiration for what will be, at best, a dance between food and drink. Once those basics have been established, the flavor discussion follows.

Meat & cheese boards are great for exploring what works or doesn’t work in pairing. Try new things! Photo by Aaron Brussat

The chemical reactions that occur when pairing food and beer are too complicated to explain easily; I’m no scientist, but have practiced and read enough to understand that an acidic or highly carbonated beer will break apart the fatty proteins in a bite of a creamy dish (with a béchamel sauce, for example) and effectively clear the palate. Because creating a beer pairing is a very intentional act, all of these sorts of factors must be taken into account. The poetic limitations of pairing–choosing the right type of acid, adjusting the crunchiness or level of char–make it at once daunting and alluring. It’s like the prospect of having a threesome; adding a third person to an already complex act (emotionally, if not physically) increases the likelihood of mishap by 150%. Thankfully, our tastebuds are pretty forgiving.

A recent, quite random experience sums up how a high intensity beer pairing can go right. I was at a local brewery, chatting with the brewer about a batch of beer; it was the first generation yeast pitch for a hazy IPA (nerd alert!). My impression was of papaya, mango, orange, and some soft red apple yeast esters that added complexity. It finished on the bitter side, but had body. My friend had ordered a green curry with chicken from the food cart outside, and offered me a bite. The sauce had a building heat with its own fruitiness, but was tempered by the coconut milk, just enough so my tongue didn’t burn. Fortuitously, the IPA was a perfect pairing. Without the body provided by the yeast in suspension and a small dose of oats, the bitterness of the beer would have turned the heat up to 11 (I typically avoid bitter beer with spicy food; I find it unpleasant and over-filling). The fresh tropical character of the hops played into the complexity of the spices, and the soft carbonation washed just enough of the flavor off the palate that I wanted another bite. He let me finish the plate.

Had I been drinking a sour beer, the pairing would have been a disaster. A hefeweizen, still cloudy and full but much less intense, would have played well but not on all levels. Couldn’t have planned that one better.

From the Breakside beer dinner at The Bier Stein. The wild greens and jerk sauce played on different aspects of the Simba Saison’s hop & yeast character. The texture of the raw tuna helped smooth the dryness of the beer. Photo by Aaron Brussat


Distributor Merger Poses Threat

At the end of a long day, I was greeted by this post on The New School announcing the sale of General Distributors, Inc. (GDI) to Columbia Distributing. Columbia is one of the largest distributors in the country, and serves major areas in Washington and Oregon, as well as northern California. GDI serves the greater Portland area, as far south as Corvallis (I believe). As my recent past life involved a lot of interaction with distributors, and my way past life involved a wariness of businesses that grow too big and swallow or destroy others, this sale piqued my interest.

Of the three main Eugene-area distributors, Columbia has the largest catalog. But let’s back up a second:

Distributors are the “middle” tier of the three-tier system of beer distribution. The system was formed after Prohibition to prevent tied houses, which is when a brewery has an exclusive agreement with an independently owned retail establishment. Inserting a middle man and requiring all beer (some exceptions, state-by-state) to go through that process removes the possibility of a tied house and encourages fair business practices. In real life, pay-to-play is still alive but doesn’t have the same anti-competitive impact.

The three-tier system has gone through the evolution of beer in the U.S., from the consolidation of breweries that led to the “big three,” Bud-Miller-Coors, to the first and second waves of the craft beer movement that essentially ruined the Mad Men fantasy world of beer distributors. Now, distributors are partly responsible for representing all of the brands in their catalogs. The relationship between a brewery and its distributor is crucial to maintaining that representation; if a brewery doesn’t have a plan and communicate it effectively, it will likely flounder. It’s like any other business. Back to the main plot–

columbia warehouse
Columbia Distributing’s Portland warehouse is enormous.

Columbia has the largest catalog in town. Bigfoot Beverages in Eugene is much smaller, and has a concentrated, high quality catalog of craft beer and other beverages. Bigfoot also works with GDI to distribute certain brands in its territory, which covers the central coast to Bend, and south to Roseburg. In Oregon, distributors cannot overlap distribution of a brand. This is what’s troubling. The merger has the potential to take away business, by default, from another distributor. It also poses a threat to breweries in GDI’s catalog that have built relationships with retailers through the distributor.

The merger may or may not have anything to do with a strike in late 2015. The two week lapse upset the production and distribution schedules of numerous breweries, and resulted in many thousands of dollars lost for some, as they lost valuable shelf space during one of the busiest times of the year. Though the union was decertified and pushed out of GDI, damage had been done. It took months for breweries to recover from the upset.

Consolidation brings more concern, as a strike at Columbia could deal a blow to even more breweries. In addition, Oregon laws favor distributors; it is nearly impossible for a brewery to switch distributors without paying large sums of money, even if the brewery is dissatisfied with the service.

With so many breweries in Columbia’s catalog, it will be even harder for smaller brands to be recognized and properly represented; the distributor will act in its own interest by focusing on brands that perform well, and breweries with deeper pockets will have a louder voice in the crowd as they can offer incentives to sell. And while the goal will not be to squash anybody, it will happen. At that point, the onus is not just on the brewery to push hard to represent itself; retailers who care about variety will have to work harder to find unique offerings and support the underdog.

Has Columbia grown too big? What are the options for the affected breweries, which have no say in the matter? This is a complicated issue, to say the least.

Are You a Brew Slut?

Probably. It’s the 21st century. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The secret word for tonight is “promiscuity.” Whether or not that is a pejorative word depends. Are you the kind of drinker (or brewer) who likes things to stay the same, or are you more excited to take that next wave and see if it smashes you on the surf or wraps you in its barrel and spits you back out in a froth of glory?

Drinker promiscuity is a rather unwieldy phrase for a phenomenon that’s well into its toddler years. It has already shaped the way many breweries release beers; some operate more like pop-up restaurants or amusement park lines than brick & mortar tasting rooms. It began with the model of scarcity (another post entirely) even before FOMO was a hashtag, when the hashtag was still the pound sign. Drinkers looked up from their pints of crystalline-malted IPA, their necks snapped westward to Santa Rosa. “Pliny’s on tap!” they cried, spilling the sticky shaker glasses on their way to that other beer bar.

But what was the second beer, the copycat that really set the wheels in motion? Chances are it was much more local (to you, wherever you are). You never got to try it. Did it even exist, or is it just a bunch of empty 5-star reviews on Untappd? Dude. The sort of fervor built up around small-batch, one-off, hyper-hyphenated beer releases is a boon for those who brew them, and a catalyst for cynicism to those who sell them (cue John Cusack High Fidelity eye roll).

“I swear, if the next thing flying off the shelf is a hazy Mexican chocolate double barrel-aged sour POG imperial IPA, I’m gonna flip my lid.”

At what point are brewers trying too hard? Consumers are an easy target at which to shoot our cathartic ray-guns of industry angst and can’t-I-just-have-a-pilsner deflation, but they’re (you’re) hardly to blame for the perpetuation of hype. It makes perfect sense that a brewery in the right social standing would perform raunchy acts in the kettle in order to sell out of a beer as soon as it’s released. With social media driving foot traffic, a well-placed Boomerang post of, say, a mannequin leg splashing into boiling wort could generate enough sales, eventually, to fund an expansion. Of course I’m being hyperbolic here, and doing a grave disservice to the consumer’s sense of propriety (or am I?). Nobody would drink a beer with mannequin in the boil; it must be dry-legged.

Faithlessly cavorting from a hand-drawn lick’n’stick labeled can of hazy IPA to a wax-dipped bottle of pastry stout to a mixed-culture sour with fruit over the course of one sitting is what makes a brew slut. I’ve done it many times; it just happens and it’s fun, and then I’m Eric Carle’s Mixed Up Chameleon in the morning. Without a definitive plan, listening to one’s tastebuds, or considering any food at hand, the brew slut ranges from beer to beer in a haze of joyous attention deficit. Flavors fall into the “intense” category, as it’s hard to pick out subtlety after drinking a glass of hop polyphenols.

The brew slut definitely has favorites, but will not be able to return to check in on them as they are either completely sold out one week later, or “past its prime.” One week later. To this armchair ethnographer, brew sluts are themselves a trend; they will mature, decide on a few choice examples of their favorite styles, and wear out a bar stool the same as everybody else, bearing fond memories of the hundreds of beers that formed the foundation for their appreciation of this particular one… right… here.

Wait, what’s that you just opened?!


h/t Eric Carle, thanks for the inspiration. Sorry.