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Jim Drake’s Entertainment Blog

Beer Bible puts Hood River on the map - Interview with Jeff Alworth

By Jim Drake Hood River News

Hood River beer aficionados have a chance to meet up with Jeff Alworth, author of “The Beer Bible,” on Sunday, Aug. 23. He’ll be at Double Mountain Brewery as part of the Great Bottle Roundup, which starts at noon. If you’re ready for a 644-page reference guide that represents over two years of world-wide travel to major beer-producing regions, Sunday would be a good time to head down and check it out.

As you probably guessed, I got to talk to Jeff last week and we talked about beer. Lo and behold, I learned many things. My funny story is that I finally got straightened out on what the mysterious IBU number is. I thought it was the number of ibuprofen one needed to take the next day after drinking certain kinds of beer.

But it turns out that the International Bittering Unit is a number representing the amount of hop acid extracted from hops. Some companies, like Widmer, actually use a mass spectrometer to determine this, and some use computer algorithms to estimate it. Depending on the recipe, the hops can be added early or later in the process, which effects hop acid content. Jeff said that it’s possible to have a beer with a relatively high IBU without a whole lot of bitterness taste.

You know those touristy-kinds of maps that you find in, oh, tour guides, or maybe the kind you find at a theme park, that shows you where all the rides are? Well, the Beer Bible has one of those, and guess what? Hood River is one of the “main attractions!”

Jeff’s “American Breweries to See” map (page 588-89) highlights Hood River for good reason, he said. “If you vote for me, I guarantee a beer in every fridge.” Oh, wait, I’m confusing my interview with the current political campaign extravaganza. He actually said that pound for pound, Hood River has the highest density of breweries per person. Or something very close to that.

Let me take some IBUs and sleep on that. I’m sure it will come to me in the morning.

Read Jim’s interview with Jeff Alworth online at www.hoodrivernews. com.

Interview with Jeff Alworth

Why did you write “The Beer Bible?

I have to confess, it was not originally my idea. The publisher, Workman Publishing, has a famous wine book, called “The Wine Bible,” and they had this idea to extend the franchise a bit with the Beer Bible.

I had been pitching a different book at the time, which they weren’t interested in at the time, and they wondered if I’d be interested in putting together a proposal for the beer bible, so I was. It was a great book and I was delighted to get the opportunity. They actually didn’t have much more than a name, so I did have to look at the Wine Bible and see how to put the Beer Bible in the family tradition, and I worked out the structure to see what it would look like,

How was this project different from the other books that you’ve written?

(Laughs), well, the scope really. This thing, it nearly killed me, it was an enormous project. It was a 2-year contract and I was bound and determined to finish it in those two years, and it was really an immense project. Had I known what I was getting into when I had signed the contract, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but I did, (laughs), and I went ahead and finished it. I was writing over 100,000 words per year to try and get it done, and traveling all over the world, and doing all this research — it was just immense.

I bet. You put a map in the back of your book, of the United States, and it looks like the Northwest, and Hood River, especially, made it onto the map!

(Laughs), well, yeah, it makes sense that the Northwest would, because we are the most important region in the country as far as beer goes, and you know Hood River is probably, pound for pound, the best beer city in the country. Hood River does get extended out to include Parkdale in there, and Logsdon, we’ll throw them in there, the Hood River Valley is just full of insanely good breweries. And now pFriem has opened, which has added to all that,

Right, since your book got published, we’ve probably added breweries,

Yeah, that right, there’s certain things that you write about beer that you can never keep completely current, and brewery openings is definitely one of those.

Through all the information you have, and all the travels you’ve been on, what do you think is the hardest beer to make?

There are two, I would say. It’s a little bit hard to parse between the two, but they’re both incredibly hard, they’re both Belgian beers and they’re both barrel-aged beers. In Brussels, there’s a kind of ancient and sort of famous style called Lambic, and out of Lambic you make Krieks and and other kinds of beer.

It’s spontaneously fermented beer so they make the wort, the base beer, and instead of putting yeast in it they just let it sit our overnight so that wild yeast and bacteria come in and then they age that beer, or inoculated wort, in wooden barrels — depending on what preparation they’re doing, for one to three years.

And then they blend them together, because they end up with each barrel that produces their own distinctive beer, because of the microorganisms that are in it. So they blend them together to get palatable beer, the blending is really the big challenge, and the beers they come out with after this long process are just the most complex and balanced beers ever — and they’re just extraordinary beers.

There’s another one, in Flanders, to the country’s west part, called Flanders Red, or Flemish Browns. In the book I call them parched Flanders ales, and these are another kind of barrel aged beer, and they’re made slightly differently.

You start out with a beer, just the wort, and you don’t do spontaneous fermentation, you actually make the beer, and then you put that beer in a huge barrel, they’re as big as a Volkswagon Van, and you let it sit in them for 2 years, and the yeast that is resident in those barrels will slowly acidify the beer, and at the end of that process they blend them together.

At Rodenbach, there’s something like 200 of these barrels in the brewery, so they’ll blend a bunch of different barrels to get the characteristic flavor of Rodenbach.

So those two are just incredibly hard to make, if you tried to make a beer like Roddenbach, here in America, it’s almost impossible, because they have over 200 of these gigantic wooden barrels and there’s the inconceivable cost of trying to start that up that kind of operation — that would be prohibitive.

You’ve been all across the country, you’ve been to England, several European countries, can you give a general overview of one or two major differences per region, when it comes to beer? Is there such a thing?

There is such a thing. One of the discoveries I made, I knew the beer was different in different parts of the world, but I wasn’t really aware that how the approach to brewing and how the philosophy of brewing differs. When I got to Europe, I realized that Britain, Belgium, Germany, and the Czech Republic all have these really distinctive features, that make their brewing tradition unique to those regions.

If you try to replicate these beers and you don’t use the process that they use, you can come kind of close to it, but you’re really not making the same kind of beer they’re making, and that was huge kind of discovery that I made.

A lot of people have heard of the warm, flat beers of England, and they’re not actually warm or flat, but it indicates the particular process of making cask ales. They brew a beer and then let it ferment, but before its done fermenting they put it in the keg (cask) and it finishes naturally carbonating, in the cask. And then they pour that beer, from that cask, at the pubs, and then there’s a whole process of letting the cask settle in the pub. You have to drink it fast, because it will spoil in that little cask pretty fast, and that’s totally weird because nobody really does that except the English,.

Then you go to Belgium, and they have a few features on the way they do it, but the most distinctive thing they do is they have this thing called warm rooms, which are parts of the breweries set aside where it is warm, it’s usually around 60-75 degrees in there. And at the end of the brewing process they bottle the beer, but they bottle condition them, and that’s kind of the same process they have in England but it’s in the bottle where you let it ferment out and naturally carbonate.

But the main thing that happens there is the yeast goes through a secondary fermentation (they don’t call it bottle conditioning) because what happens is the yeast continue to produce chemical compounds that create more flavor and more aroma, so the beer changes, again, once it gets into the bottle. They’re the only ones who do that.

The Czech Republic is kind of the land that time forgot, I think them having the rough 20th century that they had meant that their brewing traditions really hadn’t modernized like it did elsewhere, so they still have this thing called concoction mashing, which is this really slow, ancient technique. It’s kind of a weird thing, normally what you do is put water in the grain and let it steep at different temperatures, and some enzymatic activity happens and you pull out the sweet sugars that will ferment.

But before there were thermometers, people couldn’t really figure out what temperatures to do this at, so they would figure out this really crude system where they would start out with cold water, and then take part of the mash out and boil it, and then return that, and that would raise the entire temperature of the mash up, and then they would take another portion of the mash out, and boil it, and then add it back in, and that would raise the temperature up again a little bit.

And they would keep doing this until they completed the process, and the Czech’s still do that process — almost everybody else has abandoned it, even the Germans, who invented it. What the process does is creates this really interesting beer. We think we know Pilsners, but the truth is you really have such a great experience of Pilsners when you go to Czech Republic, you taste these crazy beers that are Pilsner-like, but they’re much thicker, aromatic and more sharply hoppy — they’re very different than what we think as Pilsners.

The Germans have all kinds of brewing limitations and difficulties. They can’t, for instance, when a brewer wants to acidify his mash a little bit, if you want to change the pH of your mash depending on the beer you’re making, you usually just throw in a little lactic or phosphoric acid, or something like that. But because of the German tradition, they can’t do that — that would be one of the “not kosher” things to do there, so they actually have to do this crazy acidification where they take their own mash, and create kind of a sour mash, (they create grain that has been soured), and then they can throw that in the mash, and then get the same pH change, it’s like they’re creating their own latic acid.

So what I’m hearing is it’s definitely the physical processes and techniques and the temperatures and where the beer is conditioned — in all these different parts of the world — that is affecting quality and flavors and regional styles.

It’s really affecting flavors, and it’s hard to understand when you’re talking about other countries. But then, having done that, and coming back to America, I was like whoa, wait a minute, we have our own thing.

We’ve developed our own culture here, and I think that most Americans will recognize this, is that we love IPA’s, we love the hoppy ales, and the techniques that the United States uses to create those hoppy ales are really unorthodox, compared to anything that’s happened in history. They don’t just add a bunch of hops, although a lot of people have done that, they add hops really, really late in the process, and that is unusual.

That creates much more vivid aromas and flavors, not just bitterness, but all these fruity, rich, lovely flavors that we love in our IPAs, and just like in Europe — whenever a Belgian tries to make a style of beer from someplace else, or if a German tries to make a different kind of beer, they always put it through the filter of their own way of thinking.

Here, it’s the same thing. When you try to make a Kolsch, and you’ve got Double Mountain there, and they make a Kolsch, and it’s got 45 IBUs, and it’s absolutely not like a Kolsch you would find in Cologne, because that’s how we do things.

That’s the American way, we always say, this is a great style of beer, but if it had a little more rich hop characteristics in it, a little more flavor, it would be really great. (laughs,) so we can’t stop doing that.

What is your definition of a really good IPA?

Well, IPAs have been changing, and it’s a little hard to say, because things are evolving and I’m evolving with the world here.

10 or 15 years ago I liked Bear Republic Racer 5, that was a great IPA, and then 5 years ago, IPAs were starting to change a little bit, adding this late hop addition.

In Oregon, one of the big ones to help change that was Ninkasi’s Total Domination, and now we’re having these IPAs that essentially don’t have much bitterness at all, but they’re incredibly sweet, like Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA, is almost a sweet IPA, there’s low bitterness and so much of these intensely fruity late addition hops that the presentation is very different, than it was even 5 years ago. As IPAs evolve, we start to find these new wonderful flavors and IPAs that didn’t exist before, and now new kinds of hops are coming up.

My preferences have really shifted, I had a Bouy’s IPA, (Astoria Brewing) and that one really turned my head. And I know a lot of people who like pFriem’s, too.

Of course, Double Mountain has a ton of IPAs, those got established earlier, so when you’re talking about IRA or Hop Lava, those things are a little more of the bitter-old-school style stuff, now when they’re making a style called Homestead, which is a pale, I think, but it has much more of the modern character. I’d prefer the Homestead over the Hop Lava, but 5 years ago I was drinking tons of Hop Lava.

Terrific! Your book seems to go into a lot of historical information on these different beers, can you talk a little bit on the darker beers, which seem to have originated from Great Britain, and what was it like researching the history of those techniques.

Well, history, turned out to be one of the real pleasures of doing this. As I learned about the history of those beers, I started to feel like you really couldn’t separate the history.

Before, I was like, well history would be nice to know, but who really cares, and then I started to realize that all these beers and styles that we still have are inseparable from their history.

When you think about how dark beers got started, this was before they were able to develop growing pale malt, most beers were dark.

Some wheat beers used sun dried malt, they called them wind dried malts, and they were the light beers which were also kind of ancient, but for the most part, everything else, that wasn’t a wheat beer was a dark beer, because they didn’t know how to make pale malt.

They couldn’t do that, they had one setting, and it was smokey black. And when you look back at the history, you know, of all styles of beer, all the traditions, you go back to the old beers of Germany and their Dunkle lagers, they’re dark lagers, you go back to England, and they’re browns and porters, stouts came later.

In Belgium, they were just kind of dark, thick, brown beers, and we still see the vestiges of these. But ever since Pilsners, we’ve gotten in love with paler beers, so you see all these pale ales now.

Does anything exist now that would be the closest thing to being brewed in a tradition that hasn’t changed since it started? Is there anything like that?

There are some, but we have to put a caveat on this, because we know more now, ever since the 20th century, there was this huge wave of innovations, like we invented thermometers. It changed things and you have much more control over what you do, you know what the temperature of your mash.

I would look to the beers in Belgium, there are a few beers there that if you brought somebody back from the year 1500 into modern Belgium and you gave him a Lambic, or one of the beers like Rodenbach, they would probably be pretty familiar. There’s a couple of beers in Germany that are that way, too, the Berliner wiesse, and the Gose, those are probably not super far off from what they were like, a few hundred years ago.

You did a lot of brewery tours, and interviews, can you talk about an extraordinary one for a couple of minutes that has stuck in your mind?

That’s a tough one, but one of the coolest things about this trip was I got to tour the breweries with the master brewers in each one of these countries and sometimes we’d spend three or four hours together just chatting and talking about beer.

There were times when I wish I could have brought 500 of my closest beer geek friends so they could have the experience with me because it was really special. Since we’ve been talking about Rodenbach, that one is always in my head.

The brewer in Belgium named Rudy, and I can’t pronounce his last name, it’s “Ghequire,” and it’s a really thick Flemish pronunciation. When he said it, it was like he was clearing his throat. So I just called him Rudy Unpronounceable.

But he took me on this really amazing tour, through the process of brewing Roddenbach, and we went into these cellars that have a number of these gigantic wooden oak barrels.

We would taste a beer that’s been aging in one, and then sample another, and he would talk about what we were tasting, and they all tasted different, because each one was it’s own micro-system. He had arranged to meet late in the day, so it was just us, there was no one else in the brewery, so we wandered through these amazing, gigantic empty cellars, it was like walking through the Halls of Moria, it was really quite an experience.

Does your current booktour have a planned agenda or format?

I don’t know, I’m really unsophisticated with all this stuff. I think there will be some different formats because some of my stops are in breweries and some are in bookstores, so there will be some different stuff going on.

For example when I go to Corvallis I’m going to chat with Nick Arsner (Block 15 brewery), the main brewer there and have a Q&A. I now him well, and he knows a lot about Belgian beer. He gave me some advice before I went to Belgium, so that will be a nice conversation. The immensity of this book is such that I can talk just about anything, and you’d think I’d be more prepared for this, but I don’t know! (laughs)

I’ve always wondered about the IBU scale you see on most microbrew labels. What is this number — what is the lowest and highest number on this scale?

The lowest number is 0, because some beers don’t have any hops in them and they don’t have IBUs (International Bittering Unit). It’s rare, like this Berliner wiesse, from Germany, is sometimes not made with hops. Some of the Lambics use really, really, old hops so they don’t really get any IBUs. On the upper end, if you just put as many hops as would fit in a kettle in there, you would get a really high number of IBUs, but the human capacity to taste bitterness stops. I don’t know if this number is scientifically established yet, but it’s somewhere in the 80-100 IBU range.

Sometimes you see these numbers of 120, or 150, and it’s possible that you are actually adding enough hop acid into the solution that those numbers are accurate, but the human can’t really taste at that level, so I would question the validity of anything above 100.

So is the IBU a chemical analysis number or a subjective taste test that goes into making that number?

Yeah, this number is something that we should probably get away from, because there’s a couple of ways in which it is not so good. There’s a few ways to calculate IBU, one is by using algorithms, so each hop has a certain amount of bitterness acid in it, it’s called alpha-acid. Depending on when you put that in a boiling pot of wort, it will extract a certain amount of hop acid, and you can plug these numbers into a computer and it will tell you how many IBUs you have.

So this depends on the volume of liquid you have?

Yes, the longer you have it in, the more it extracts. So an hour is a greater concentration than 10 minutes.

But these things tend not to be totally accurate, but nobody has figured out why they’re not totally accurate. The best way to calculate it, and this is what Widmer Bros. does, they have a lab and they can measure with a mass spectrometer, so they can look and get an evaluation.

The problem is, 10 years ago we were really focused on IBUs because it seemed to be a good measure of this quality that we call hoppiness, but actually you can have beers that are absolutely saturated with hops, juicy and so full of hop goodness with all this aroma and flavor, but they don’t actually have a lot of bitterness, because the hops have gone in late in the boil and what’s extracted is the essential oils, and these flavor compounds, that are very effervescent If you boil them for very long, they go away and leave only bitterness, but if they’re late in the boil, they stay around and taste hoppy.

So, you can have a low IBU figure, in a beer that tastes incredibly hoppy. So IBUS are misleading sometimes. I bet if we could go back in time and know where we were headed, we probably would not have used IBUs.

You’re coming to Hood River on Aug. 23, and I know that Double Mountain is having an outdoor street party, I hope you can hang around!

I love Hood River, and I’m out in Hood River often. I actually just finished a Cider book, in the interim time that I was waiting for the Beer Bible to be printed. So I spent a bunch of time in Hood River talking to cider people, and now I’m going to have beer and cider books that have Hood River sections. I feel well connected. The business looks great now and it’s going to be better in 10 years.

What is your go-to beer?

It’s really seasonal for me. Black Butte Porter is a great one, for the fall season. During the summer, it’s a lot of Pilsners and Saisons, and this summer has been so hot, I really haven’t had an IPA all summer.

But these session type IPA have come out, and I’ve started to look at those, there’s a little hop blast, but it’s not crazy strong.

It’s the hardest question for beer writers to answer because they love so much different beer that you ask that question and about 30 things pop into their mind (laughs).

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