The question(s) in today’s session:
What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers? What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again? What’s your beer media diet? i.e. what publications/blogs/sites do you read to learn about industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and/or a moribund endeavor? And if so, what can be done about it?

My answer:
I am not a journalist, so I suppose I’m a fanboy or at most a storyteller. In my defense, I live in Bolivia, which probably hosts less than 20 “craft/micro/interesting” breweries, and there’s almost no one writing about them other than the occasional news story in a local newspaper (nothing wrong with that!).

But, much more than that, I write about beer because it’s a topic about which I feel I have some minute level of agency and can contribute something actual to building culture. Beer and its meaning is not static, but cultural, able to be shaped by the discourse surrounding it.

So, even if it’s only 40-something people scattered across the globe who give half a hoot about what I write here, I’ve nonetheless contributed something to the greater discourse about it. And THAT is satisfying: to know that I’ve contributed to something greater than myself in a tangible way.

Which perhaps explains the tendency towards adulation against true criticism. But then, the pond I swim in is mighty small, and truth be told, it’d be pretty disingenuous of me here to go around crapping on what little diversification there is. The day that “craft/micro/interesting” makes up around 7% market share in Bolivia, this conversation certainly ought to shift to something more critical and analytical.

For now, it might as well be northern California in the late 80s or so! (At least insofar as the nostalgic feel of the prevailing narrative makes it sound like.)

We just watched Shaun White miss out on the apparently not-so-inevitable golden threepeat of men’s snowboarding halfpipe, and to preview the event BBC2 did a full interview with White. I’d read the NY Times Magazine’s profile of him a few months ago, which explains the backstory behind why he’s mostly loathed among snowboarding circles even as he’s an American pop culture darling.

But, what struck me was when the interviewer mentioned how Whtie gets no love from snowboarders, and he answered (to paraphrase) that if you ask other snowboarders how things were at the end of the day, they’d just say something like, “oh man, it’s just great to be out here, and I had a great time, etc.” White then made it clear that he’s there to win and it’s a competition, a zero-sum game, so he’s only having a good time if he wins.

Anyway, it struck me as an allegory for craft brewing in North America (and elsewhere): everyone started out homebrewing, sharing ideas and techniques, with a great sense of comraderie, but as things get more and more institutionalized, you need to be a “winner” in order to succeed, and it follows that there are losers. I doubt the beer industry is quite as much of a zero-sum game as an Olympic event with three medals, but it’s still a competition and everyone’s not going to be super buddy-buddy when your paycheck comes down to customers choosing your product at the expense of others’.

All the more reason to stay a homebrewer, I think.

One of the topics I’ve enjoyed exploring on this blog is the notion of what it would mean to develop a fundamentally “Bolivian” beer, such that I wrote a 12-part series on it last year. I have a few more ideas to add to that list. It’s difficult to come up with ideas that represent much more than a novelty, and really only the first one represents a strong idea. Anyway:

  1. Brew a tart wheat beer using a kind of sour mash. The key here is start by brewing a traditional, wild fermented chicha. Chew up the corn (or just mash previously malted corn), leave it out to ferment 3-7 days, then strain off the partially-fermented chicha, which is then used to mash a wheat beer base. Or, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, just blend the chicha with the wheat beer after boiling.
  2. This is another idea for souring the mash or wort. “Cheese” by default in Bolivia usually is a kind of a salty farmer cheese that is best consumed within a week of production. The queserias here use a metal tub that looks a lot like a coolship. You could easily mash in one of these tubs and take advantage of the lacto bugs that are going to be all over it, and leave it for 10 hours-3 days to sour before boiling or pasteurizing or wherever you’d like to take the process. Personally, I think this cheese is wretched after three days and one of my Berliner Weisses smelled a lot like it before carbonation, which was a huge turn-off. But, if you just used it to sour the mash or wort and killed off the residual lacto before it got out of control, it could be great.
  3. Brew a potato broyhan using a historical recipe, but use native Bolivian potatos like oca. I actually intend to do this once they’re back in season, which should be around June.
  4. Brew a gose, and salt it with salt from the Salar de Uyuni. This is pure novelty in the tradition of brewing a coca beer and calling it Bolivian because it has coca leaves in it. But, you could always combine it with one of the first two methods above and it would certainly some improved legitimacy to the argument.

For that matter, now that I think of it, you could brew a beer utilizing all four of those at once. It wouldn’t be called a gose, but it might be something in the vein of it.

Szot Microbrewery comes up quickly when you start looking into Chilean microbreweries, and with good reason. They brew a nice variety of ales and lean on their Rubia al Vapor (steam beer) as a flagship beer, but what pushes Szot to the next level are their special beers, including their Wild beer. I had the chance to exchange some messages with Kevin Szot, and he said that the Wild is based on their steam beer, but fermented with a secondary bacteria from their “local flora and fauna.” The bottle I had was their 2013 edition (brewed in 2011), and Kevin clarified that it is not a lacto bacteria, and needs two years to let the nail polish remover smell fade and come into its own. I was able to culture the yeast from the bottle–it was a vigorous fermentation within hours, surprisingly–and added it to my yeast bank. As far as I know (to be fair, I know very little), this might be the only wild beer in Chile. 

Szot Wild, Wild Steam Beer (although Szot compares it to a Gueze), 5.8% ABV

Appearance: copper/light brown, tiny chill haze, very low carbonation, sliver of off-white head.
Aroma: apple or grape juice, some cinnamon.
Taste: all malt at first, biscuit and toasty. Some sweet caramel malt there. Some oak, it’s tannic and fruity.
Mouthfeel: low carbonation, almost flat.

Overall, this tasted a lot like a sweet, malty brown ale. I was caught off-guard only because I tend to associate “wild” with “sour,” which of course is not necessarily the case. I’d love to have had the Rubia al Vapor next to it to compare, but overall, this was tasty and fascinating.

Kross can be found pretty much across Chile, and while it might just have been timing, their annual special anniversary release was as easily encountered as their Pilsner and Golden Ale. Apparently it is brewed with seven hops and aged on oak. Unfortunately, this review was a bit rushed, because this is a beer for long evening.

Kross 5, Strong Ale, 7.2% ABV

Appearance: clear brown, off white head, low carbonation.
Aroma: caramel, hint of peaches.
Taste: whiskey and malt at first, but over time, the sweet toasted coconut/macaroon character really pops out.
Mouthfeel: heavy-bodied, best for sipping.
Overall, the oak is easy to pick out and definitely pushes this beer from interesting to fascinating. I would love to eat this with a steak.

It’s almost February, and since coming back from Chile (a few more reviews are yet to come!), I’ve already brewed three times. When I first started homebrewing, I referenced a bunch of beer blogs as sources for recipes, and while I’m grateful for the start those gave me, I’ve kind of decided that no one but myself really cares about the details of the recipes I’m brewing, so I’m not going to bother with the effort that is required in being terribly systematic about posting the recipe, review, and collating it all on a separate recipes page. Apologies if anyone actually was looking for that; but to be fair all my specialty malts are homemade and as such most of the recipes are un-replicable anyway. Mostly, I just prefer to read style profiles and reference books for inspiration.

But, it’s still nice to write about what I’ve been brewing in narrative form at least. A couple weeks ago I brewed a double mash (as always) that I split into a wild saison called Three Years’ End and my personal Sisyphean beer, Honey Sage Tripel. Three Years’ End is inspired because we’re here in Bolivia on a three year contract, which will end just under a year from now, so I wanted to brew something particularly special to celebrate when we leave, taking into account a triple theme. Gimmicky, yes, but I think it should turn out well. It has three malts (pilsner, vienna, crystal 15L), three sugar adjuncts (honey, homemade candy syrup, and turbinado/raw sugar), three starches added into the boil for the brett to eat up later (wheat starch, corn grits, and yucca starch), three hops (Cluster, Palisade, and Saaz), and three yeasts (T-58 for 3 days, Wyeast 3724 Saison for 3 weeks, and Brettanomyces Clausenii for 3 months). The Honey Sage Tripel is based on the Honey Sage Seasonal kit from Brooklyn Brewshop that was, I think, the second beer I brewed, and possibly my favorite. I’ve tried replicating with no success at least three times, but this one seems promising.

Last week was the Plurinational State holiday here in Bolivia, and I took the opportunity to try my first turbid mash and brew 8 L of lambic wort. I’ll do this again in May or so and then in August, and throughout the year I’ll blend it in a few ways to end up with an unblended Lambic, Gueuze, Faro, and fruited Lambic (obviously all young, but I’m working on a time limit). Today I racked the wort from the primary fermentation on S-33 to two 5L fermenters that have yeast cakes for Roesalare blend and Brett C. The Roesalare fermenter was recently vacated by a Dubbel that had been sitting on it for a couple months, and the Brett C fermenter housed a SMaSH beer made with pilsner and Columbus hops–it smells like pineapples and pine and I can’t wait to open a bottle of it.  As always, thanks to Jeff at Bikes Beer and Adventures for sending those to me!

Two lambics getting ready for the longer haul.

Two lambics getting ready for the longer haul.

This past Friday I brewed 5 gallons of wheat wine wort with a recent brewing friend, Pablo at his (stellar) setup. We used Brain Sparging on Brewing’s wheat wine recipe as our starting point, but with some chocolate malt thrown in for another dimension. We also bottled and mini-kegged 5 gallons of Gose (I suspect he has a legitimate claim to brewing the first Gose ever in Bolivia). Back in December, we’d tried to brew 10 gallons of a Duvel clone, but something went horribly awry with our conversion and extraction, and we ended up with a wort that was around 1.060 instead of 1.080. We cut some corners and didn’t bother to cool it quickly, came back the next day and it was obviously infected–but, we pitched the Wyeast 1344 yeast to see what happened anyway. Yesterday we bottled a couple gallons of it and put the rest in secondary, and it’s utterly delicious. I finally tried Duvel while I was in Chile, and while it was a great beer, I can’t say I understand the universal acclaim; tripels and golden strongs are some of my favorite styles, but I failed to see why Duvel gets that extra bit of love. Granted, Chile’s pretty far from Belgium, so I’ll say that freshness and storage are factors to consider. Nonetheless, when we sampled our “failed” brew yesterday, it smelled of an aromatic perry and was a real revelation in flavor. Intriguing.

Finally, I’ve gone through most of the wheat beers I brewed early on in summer, and the results of the sour mash have received nearly universal acclaim. The Motoyoe Berliner Weisse has gotten lots of rave reviews: fresh it was a bit smoother and the fruit really came out, with a month in the bottle there was some tartness to round out the flavor. It’s counterpart, the Honeyed Chamomile Wit tastes like pure vanilla cookies. The Sour Saison Blanche tasted a lot like the clean Saison Blanche, but again, one month and it suddenly brightens up with some tartness to round out the flavor. So, a 10 hour sour mash gives you just enough acidity to brighten the flavor. Good to keep in mind.

I almost forgot to mention this, but in December I brewed a batch of Belgian pale ale wort boiled with lavender and thyme that was first fermented on T-58, and then half was bottled along with an infusion made from dried coffee berry skins (you can buy it in all the markets here and people make a tea out of it–when infused at less than 80 C, it tastes like slightly overaged Chardonnay), and the other half had saison yeast added to it to yield a Saison de Provence. I’ve found that when I run my saison yeast nice and hot (i.e. up to 34+ C), it tends towards lemon pepper, so those ought to pair with thyme and lavender. We’ll see.

Looking ahead, in the next few weeks I hope to brew a few things. First, I’m craving something chocolatey, so I think I’ll try something porter-like (although it’s still smack in the middle of summer), and then I need to clear out some hops, so I think I’ll try a pale ale that loads on the late boil additions, with most bittering hops around 30 minutes. And then, some friends’ grape vines have finally yielded, so I have an idea in mind for that I’ll get to soon as well.

The "drink soonest" box in my aging room. Mgo = mango cider, D6 = dubbel 6, BPA = Belgian pale ale, MBW = motoyoe Berliner weisse, BPAC = Belgian pale ale with lavender, thyme, and coffee berry skins, Na = gose, Wild = brett + lacto pale ale, T5 = tripel 5, DR = dubbel with roeselare blend, BW = Berliner weisse with banana passionfruit.

The “drink soonest” box in my aging room. Mgo = mango cider, D6 = dubbel 6, BPA = Belgian pale ale, MBW = motoyoe Berliner weisse, BPAC = Belgian pale ale with lavender, thyme, and coffee berry skins, Na = gose, Wild = brett + lacto pale ale, T5 = tripel 5, DR = dubbel with roeselare blend, BW = Berliner weisse with banana passionfruit.

When I asked Ben Wood to recommend any beer at Beervana to me, he chose this stout, commenting that it’s superb rendition of the oatmeal stout style. Certainly, I’m all for trying something that brands itself “cerveza de garage;” add in some really excellent design, and I’ll have a go at this beer. Unfortunately, this tasting got cut short, so it’s a bit sparse on details.

Cerveza de Garage +56 Oatmeal Stout, 7.0% ABV

Appearance: black opaque with a two finger light tan head that keeps its shape like a thick mousse or merengue.
Aroma: sweet oatmeal. I’m drinking this outside in a shaker pint and can’t really tell.
Taste: sweet roasty foretaste leaving you with a bitter dry roasted taste that contrasts nicely and balances. Some dark chocolate.
Mouthfeel: full-bodied.

Overall, I’m reminded that while I increasingly am losing my taste for roasty dark beers, there are things to be appreciated, and this is one of them. Also, an robust oatmeal stout doesn’t really pair well with a hot summer afternoon, so there’s that to be said, too.

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