Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Judging Style


Each year at about this time an old friend of mine who works for the major liquor distributor in Alaska comes down for the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). If I am lucky enough our schedules coincide and I get to tag along. I am always intrigued to step out of the coffee biz and take a look at how another similar industry operates. And there are plenty of parallels to the specialty coffee and craft beer trades. Both operate at about the same percentage to their conventional counterparts, both have issues with perishability, and both are still enjoying growth even in economic downturns.

This year I was able to tour a couple of breweries before going to the festival itself, the first being the Great Divide Brewery in downtown Denver and the other being the New Belgium Brewery in Ft. Collins. Both breweries are well respected but are quite different, principally in size and automation. Whereas Great Divide is a much smaller brewery that is very hands on, New Belgium is something of the Starbucks of the craft beer world.

The Festival itself is an impressive event. About 10,000 people will pass through the convention center sampling 1 oz portions from a huge variety of breweries from all over the country. The floor is arranged by region, making it somewhat easier to find favorites. There were a couple of things that really struck me while participating that I think the specialty coffee trade could learn from.

The first is the sheer amount of camaraderie that brewers share with one another. This is now more apparent with the advent of "Collaboration" brews where two breweries will join together to create a beer and sell it in their own respective markets. Perhaps part of this camaraderie is due to the fact that distribution is largely a factor of production output, and most breweries have limited production abilities. Quite different to the specialty coffee trade where most imagine themselves as the next Starbucks if they could simply land the distribution arrangements. I would argue that the specialty coffee trade has over capacity in contrast to the craft beer industry. This creates an environment of competitiveness that hinders cooperative arrangements, but there may be some of us who are happy with selling in their own region and don't have an eye on being a national brand where collaboration may occur - an idea.

Another thing that struck me was the respect, and indeed, the understanding of styles. The GABF is ultimately a judged event, the principal reason the brewers participate in the first place. Brewers are invited to submit any number of entries into a set of defined styles, pilsners, ales, lagers and so on. Even large brewers like Budweiser and Miller compete along side small craft brewers based on style. This is sorely lacking in the coffee industry. While there was historically recognized a set of roast styles this has fallen away in the last decade or so. And even when it was generally acknowledged, it was very loosely interpreted. If you pick up a book on coffee from say, the 70's or 80's you may read about the different roast styles of Continental, City, Full City, Viennese, French and sometimes, Italian. Trouble was, while there was some continuity in the books about these styles, in practice there was little agreement. Continental and City Roasts were typically the traditional light roasts favored by large, commercial roasters that prepackaged coffee in cans for supermarket and institutional uses. Full City and darker were the preferred styles of the specialty trade.

The first champion of darker roasts was Peet's Coffee out of California. Alfred Peet was disappointed with the coffee offerings he found here in the states and wanted to introduce coffee drinkers to the darker roast styles that were typical in Europe. When Starbucks came along, they too, championed darker roasts, referring to them as Full City Roasts. However, what they were calling Full City was much more in line with what would be understood as French Roast. And as things got caught up in the marketing world, if dark roast is good, then darker roasts must be better. There seemed to be a constant push to go darker and darker. I recall when I first began roasting over twenty years ago the principal complaint I would here is that we didn't roast dark enough.

The reason I think I got to thinking about all this really stems from another experience that struck me while touring the breweries. Towards the end of our tour at New Belgium we ended up in an area that contained a number of large wooden casks. This is where they were brewing a style of beer that has become something of a phenomena of late. They are called Barrel-Aged Sours. As the guide was describing the flavors (very excitedly I might add) I found myself imagining how good this was going to be. Flavors of ripe banana, apricot and so on. However, once I tasted it, I could not get over the excessive souriness. I was told that was the style and it was best paired with food, such as Alfredo Pasta, as a way of cleansing the palate. I'm sorry, if I'm going to drink beer, I want to enjoy the taste for its own sake. Now, I'm told that this is a beer for connoisseurs. That may be. But, it is a style and should be judged according to the framework of that style, which, for myself, clearly I am no judge.

There is a similar phenomena going on in the coffee trade with very light roasted coffees. We are now told that over-roasting ruins the acidity and masks the complexity of flavors in coffee. A new breed of roasters are promoting these light roasts with much fanfare. Now, this is a style of roasting. It is a style of roasting that I am not particularly fond of and so make a poor judge. The problem is that there are those who want to make the case that this style is better than another style. That style is tied to quality. And I think it is here where the specialty coffee trade could benefit from a recognition of roast styles again. Just as at the GABF no one would enter a lager in a Stout competition arguing that lagers best represent what beer is suppose to taste like, so too should roast styles be judged within their own parameters. As I mentioned earlier, when I first began I received critiques that I didn't roast dark enough, now the critiques is that I over-roast. There is a style of roast I prefer, and I have stuck to that style over the years. I am not suggesting it to be the only style, but it is what I like.

On occasion I have had a customer ask why I don't do a light roast. I usually tell them its because I prefer darker roasts (it is the Viennese style that I prefer) and sometimes they may press the issue: that they prefer a light roast and would buy it if it were offered. But the fact is, I don't prefer that style and just as I am not qualified to judge a Barrel-Aged Sour beer, nor do I think I am going to do something well if I don't like the taste. Better to support a roaster who knows that style and does it well than me trying to do something that doesn't suit my tastes in the hopes that someone else may like it.