Brewing beer from (not so) thin air

Miguel Ángel Carcuro  dreamed of opening a brewery, but his Chilean community had no water to spare. Driven by his memory of a teenage trip with his father to view the fog catchers above the bay of Chungungo, Carcuro set out to brew with water from the air.

Fog catching has been used in Chile’s Atacama Desert to supply water to surrounding communities for more than 50 years. The catchers have three main parts: a structure with a fine mesh net, a gutter, and a tank for storing the water. The nets capture droplets of water from the air, which eventually combine and drip down into the gutters, which guide the water to the tanks.  Recent innovations involve novel fabric that may increase water capture from the traditional polypropylene or polyethylene materials, along with probes to identify the best locations for the fog catchers.

Carcuro’s fog catcher stands with others in the Cerro Grande ecological reserve, where he drives from his breweries in La Serena and Peña Blanca to harvest the water for his beer. Other community members use water from the catchers for livestock or crops. Carcuro states that water from the fog catchers is especially good for brewing because it has less sediment and less nitrate and nitrite than other Chilean sources.

Carcuro’s artisanal beer brewed from the air is called, appropriately, Atrapaniebla — Spanish for fog catcher. Atrapaniebla is a Scottish ale that pours a golden amber in color. I have not had the opportunity to try it (nor do I speak Spanish), but Carcuro’s website states (in Spanish) that its aroma and taste are characterized by a malty sweetness, with touches of caramel and salt.

While Chileans and others who dwell in arid climates use fog catchers out of necessity, others apply them to create novel gadgets for entertainment purposes. The stars of Esquire’s “Brew Dogs” recently used San Francisco’s fog to create a breathable beer, dubbing it the “beer that started as fog and will finish as fog.” They harvested the fog from nets in the Marin Headlands for use as brewing water, but then engaged Harvard Professor David Edwards’ Le Whaf to turn the brew (back) into flavor-filled clouds. Le Whaf’s devices use piezoelectric crystals that vibrate rapidly to create ultrasound waves, creating alternating high and low pressures through the liquid, and transforming the liquid into tiny droplets that appear as a cloud. Thereby, the devices provide a way to inhale your favorite beverage in a way that enhances flavor, eliminates calories, and nulls the effects of alcohol.

Curiosities aside, Atrapaniebla is a testament to the application of innovative technology to harvest resources in the context of the immediate environment.  As fog catching technology improves, so too will Carcuro’s beer, and the communities that depend on both.

No longer limited to the Night Shift

After months of plotting, I finally managed to attach myself to a group of friends visiting the new Night Shift Brewery and taproom in Everett, MA. Pulling into the parking lot, I noted significant improvement from the old location, a somewhat run-down, industrial space that did not quite suggest designated parking spaces, much less encourage one to leave one’s car. Indeed, here the lot was already at capacity, a sign indicated that I was in the right place, and a food truck beckoned near the entrance.

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Night Shift was founded by a trio of nocturnal home-brewing enthusiasts, Michael Oxton, Robert Burns, and Michael O’Mara, in 2011. The three friends got their start on a 5 gallon fermenter system, and instituted weekly tastings of every beer style imaginable to develop their palates. They found that their favorite beers were the most memorable ones, because those beers both included unusual ingredients – whether fruits, spices, or yeasts – and had quality taste. Their focus continues to be on “wholly unique brews with complex, interesting flavors.”

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A $700,000 loan from MassDevelopment supported the new site opening on May 22, 2014, with 2500 sq. ft. of taproom space, featuring “80+ seats, plenty of parking (on-street and our own lot), actual bathrooms, and a new production facility.” The production facility promises to increase production from the 750 barrels Night Shift produced in the old space, to about 3000 barrels by 2016. Equipment ranges from 40 and 20 barrel tanks to 7 barrel tanks to accommodate experimentation in different sized batches.

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Having arrived a few minutes late after getting caught in Assembly Row traffic, I accidentally joined a Boston Brew Tour instead of the official Night Shift Tour. The guide provided lots of good information about the brewing process, but politely kicked me out of the free tasting at the end of his lecture. Fortunately, I secured a flight of beers from the bar in the taproom, and joined my friends around a barrel table to compare our choices.

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My two favorites were Whirlpool and Smolder. Whirlpool is a very juicy American Pale Ale, which pours a hazy light golden hue into the glass. Its prominent tastes are of citrus and peach, with a slight dank bitterness at the end. Whirlpool is light and crisp and very drinkable. Smolder, however, is more of a sipping beer, sitting black in the glass. This Imperial Stout boldly features the style’s signature roasted coffee, chocolate, and dark fruit notes. As you get to the bottom of the glass, the coffee taste becomes more prominent, and the mouthfeel smoother.

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As we finished off the last glass of our flights, and the sandwiches from the food truck, I surveyed the taproom. On a Saturday afternoon, I was happy to see families, couples, and large groups, all gathered around barrels or picnic tables throughout the room. The brewery has succeeded in creating an industrial but inviting and laid-back atmosphere. The location is certainly not central for Bostonians, but Night Shift promotes events that make the brewery an attractive destination, including weekly 5k runs around Everett, a Halloween party, brewer showdowns, and new beer releases. Further, fans of the beer have the opportunity to join the Night Shift Barrel Society, which functions much like a farm CSA: members pay for exclusive offerings up front, helping to fund the brewery’s production, and then receive oak barrel-aged brews throughout the year.

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Finally, it was time for our group to leave the taproom, but we were not yet finished drinking Night Shift beer. Membership privileges provided us with three exclusive beers to enjoy later, perhaps with those s’mores supplies that awaited us by the fire at home.

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Beer: the preferred respite from in-flight purgatory

Ah, the holidays: that season where you suddenly realize that half the people you love are a flight away and before you get to see them, you are obligated to spend quality time with strangers in the comfort of the dreaded middle seat.

There is one thing that could make such purgatory – including those smug people in the window and aisle seats – tolerable: craft beer. Luckily, the airlines have apprehended the cultural trend and now take full commercial advantage of it by offering lost souls something more comforting than a mere Budweiser.

On Delta you can ease your temporary suffering with brews from Boston Beer Company on all flights. But that’s not all! If you’re on the LA to SF shuttle, try some Lagunitas or Stone. Doing the NY-BOS-DC-ORD thing? Blue Point and Newburyport are your new best friends. A southerner at heart? Delta’s catering to you with a little SweetWater. Purgatory may not be so horrible after all.

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If your ride is on Southwest, their bid to become Denver’s favorite carrier will provide much-needed respite from Mr. Window. When a New Belgium Fat Tire Amber stands between you and loved ones, maybe another hour isn’t so bad.

But watch out Southwest! Frontier, also vying for Colorado’s affection, left its catering choices to Facebook fans. Thankfully, Frontier patrons have good taste and voted in Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale.

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Headed to your sweetheart on United Airlines? Some (Anheuser-Busch-owned) Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Ale will make the time fly (yes, fly), even as Ms. Aisle continues her boring lecture on herself.

If you find yourself on JetBlue, it puts you above all with Boston Beer Company’s Sam Adams Lager and Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyn Lager.  Even as you battle for that right armrest, your soul will feel the humanity returning to air travel.

Virgin America Airlines once had the good fortune to have as a passenger 21st Amendment’s co-founder Shaun O’Sullivan. Apparently his soul was so desperately craving craft that he tweeted an in-flight offer to carry his beer. You can join his soul on Virgin flights by indulging in some Brew Free! Or Die IPA.

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For those masochists who contemplate much longer flights, score a Hawaiian Airlines flight if headed west for a Maui Brewing Bikini Blonde, or if headed east, hook up with the Scandinavians for Mikkeller’s SAS Wheat. Purgatory who?

While some airlines have been offering captive souls craft beer for a few years, this is the first holiday season that so many of the airline giants are capitalizing on passengers’ respite of choice. Taking advantage of these new offerings just might make your loved ones seem closer, or perhaps even make Aisle closer to a loved one.

Bantam: Tasting Cider From The Small and Mighty

What fun, local activity does a Boston craft beer lover suggest to a visiting New Yorker with a gluten allergy?  In my case, I insisted that my friend Nadia accompany me on a pilgrimage to the new(ish) Bantam Cider tasting room in Somerville.  A fan since early 2012 when they launched Wunderkind, I was excited to sample the co-owners’ (Dana Masterpolo and Michelle da Silva) latest experimental creations.

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The historic Somerville building located just outside Union Square contains both The Tap Room and Bantam’s production facility, and features an open layout so that each is visible to the other.  Operating on the site of the former White Rose Baking Company, Bantam remains true to the building’s industrial roots: just about everything is made of concrete, steel, or wood.  Underneath a suspended ceiling of spaced wooden beams stands a large, unpretentious kegerator  with 8 taps and rows of glasses lining its shiny surface.  People gather at long, communal tables placed around the room, holding glasses of cider and reaching for mason jars full of pretzel sticks.

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Joined by Nadia’s friend Gretchen, we each ordered $10 tasting flights of five cider varieties, and watched the work in the fermentation room from our spot at a communal table.  Proudly on display are two 100 barrel fermenters that doubled Bantam’s production capacity earlier this year, alongside two smaller ones.  In an adjoining room, we could see racks of barrels used for aging cider, and stacks of kegs and other production equipment.  Lights hanging from exposed piping in the ceiling created a welcoming glow that softened the otherwise industrial space.

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In addition to Bantam’s flagship Wunderkind, and its tart cherry sister Rojo, the flights offered more experimental ciders, each made with unique ingredients and yeasts.  For example, the “Dry-Hopped” variety tasted the most like a beer, incorporating ale yeast and Cascade hops.  “The American,” a “big”-tasting cider, reminded me of the holidays, with flavoring from green cardamom, clove, cinnamon, and coriander spices.  Our crowd favorite was the “Wild One,” brewed with vinegar, mustard, and wild yeast.  We agreed that Wild One is the cider version of the current beer trend toward those funky, sour, Belgian tastes.  Once we completed our flights, we each ordered a $6 full pour from the menu board.

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Bantam seems to be keeping its options open for its ~5000 sq. foot space.  There’s been talk of additional tables and seating, a full bar, and even a restaurant, but for now the space continues to evolve based on the current experience and feedback.  It seems to me that this is the best way to develop the space – alongside the cider it produces.

Beer and Elections

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On 4 November 2014, a.k.a. Midterm Election Day, I (Robin) made the grave error of driving to and from work. Stuck in a hellacious traffic jam on the way home, a snippet from the NPR evening economics program Marketplace by Kai Ryssdal caught my attention: We spend more on beer than elections. This story was inspired by post on the Wall Street Journal Washington Wire blog entitled Americans Spend 16 Times as Much on Beer as on 2014 Midterms.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates the Americans shelled out $59.9B on beer in 2013. The Brewers Association has a more optimistic view of the total addressable beer market in the United States, declaring it to be $100B in 2013. [Correction: this figure includes exports.]  Craft beer accounted for 14.3% of sales and 7.8% market share (15M bbls of a total 196M bbls). A beer barrel (bbl) equals 31 gallons.

Clearly intended to put the influence of money in politics in perspective, the beer vs. election spending trope compares apples to oranges, so to speak. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2014 midterm election cycle, $1.64B was spent on behalf of Democratic candidates and $1.75B was spent on behalf of Republicans ($300M of which can be attributed to the Koch Brothers, who, by means of their oil refinery fortune, founded Americans for Prosperity, Official Bank of the Tea Party).

Consider a more relevant beer factoid, annual spending on beer marketing, which happened to total $1.3B in 2012. In fact, the beer industry spent only half as much plying its products upon beleaguered American voters as those PAC people. Most of that election money went towards…well…marketing one candidate or another, often by means of such below-the-belt tactics as robo-calling peoples’ cell phones at dinnertime and bombarding the airwaves with ads that give new meaning to lying with statistics and taking random quotations woefully out of context.

Correlation does not imply causation, of course. I must confess that this infographic about what kind of beer you drink allegedly says about your political inclinations gave me a chuckle. (It was clearly made before Yuengling returned to Massachusetts.) Let’s face it, comparisons between spending on beer and elections are kind of ridiculous. That being said, exercising one’s democratic right to vote in the United States of America frequently involves holding one’s nose while doing so, selecting the lesser of two evils, and then going home and drinking lots of beer, perhaps in the course of playing an Election Drinking Game.

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New Glarus, Wisconsin: export your cheese, but we’ll keep our beer

I’m fairly sure I swooned when I was welcomed to the home of dear friends, in the dark of night, smack dab in the middle of Wisconsin, by a fridge of personally curated, excellent local beers.  The unfamiliar label of New Glarus Brewing Company, in various styles, lined the long shelves of the fridge door.  Dave had outdone himself.

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Dave explained that New Glarus has big plans to avoid world domination, by focusing intently on its own backyard.  The commitment to the Wisconsin community stems from native Deborah Carey, President of New Glarus, and the first woman to found and operate a brewery in the United States.  Carey raised the start-up capital as a gift to her husband Dan, establishing the Brewery in 1993.  By then, Dan had already become valedictorian of the 1987 Siebel Institute Course in Brewing Technology and worked his way up the ladder to become a Master Brewer.

The local focus of the brewery allows it to keep close tabs on quality control of its creations, and to continue to invest in its specialty brews, including those “fresh” from its Wild Fruit Cave.  The 5000 square foot Cave features a 100-bbl koelschip, a piece of equipment that cools beer wort while exposing it to wild yeasts that float in the air, thus creating lambic-style beers.  Other residents of the cave include some of the first foeders (large oak casks for aging sour ales) in the United States, which produce New Glarus’ delicious sour red and brown ales, and the grasses on its roof that naturally keep the area cool.

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Dave introduced me to my inaugural New Glarus beer within minutes of arrival.  It was the Raspberry Tart, gold medal winner of the 2011 Great American Beer Fest.  Marketed as a “Wisconsin Framboise Ale,” it pours a dark ruby red color, with a tart raspberry aroma.  The taste is very sweet, with some earthy, funky undertones.  A touch of Wisconsin-farmed wheat and Hallertau hops round out the flavor.  This is not a beer to drink in large volumes, but I found it to be the perfect dessert sipper.

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The next day Dave opened the seasonal Pumpkin Pie Lust, a brown weiss beer made with German Munich malt, Wisconsin wheat, and Idaho Celeia hops.  This brownish-coppery beer smells just like pumpkin pie, with the requisite nutmeg, cinnamon, and vegetable notes.  The dunkelweizen taste comes through underneath the spices, but there is only a faint pumpkin background.  The brew provides a solid German twist on the American fall obsession with pumpkin beers.

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My final taste of New Glarus was a 2012 Great American Beer Fest gold medal winner, the Hometown Blonde.  The combination of Tettnanger, Saaz, Styrian Golding and Strisselpalt hops bestow that decidedly German character on this Old World style pilsner.  The brew shines a clear light yellow in the glass and smells of grains and grass.  The taste features a crisp malt backbone, surrounded by herbal, grassy flavors and a very slight lemon zest.  While on the light side of craft beers, this Blonde stands as a paradigm of its style, and certainly introduces more complexity than most domestic lagers.

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Even though my Wisconsin beer education remained in its infancy, it came time to leave my friends and their fridge.  I left with promises from Dave of a new collection of unattainable-in-Boston beers to be curated for my next visit.  Of course, I’ll need all that time between visits to identify a somewhat even trade.

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New Belgium Gets PAC’d: The Politics Of Good Beer

To produce quality beer, you need clean water.  To maintain clean water, you need laws that protect groundwater and waterways.  To draft, implement, and enforce laws that protect groundwater and waterways, you need politicians willing to support those efforts.  This need for political heft behind clean water legislation, thus providing the nation with quality beer, brings us to the new Political Action Committee (“PAC”) formed by New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado, perhaps best known for its Fat Tire Amber Ale.

New Belgium has always been clear about its political leanings; its commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainable practices is part and parcel of its brand identity and company culture.  Its website proclaims:

At New Belgium, we believe in using every tool at our disposal to create the vibrant future we envision for the earth and her inhabitants. In addition to minimizing our resource consumption, collaborating in our value chain, promoting business practices which empower people and create right livelihoods, and a generous philanthropy program, we advocate for environmentally and socially responsible policy.

The Brewery filed on July 30, 2014 to start the New Belgium Federal PAC, with the mission to donate to like-minded political candidates and to support causes important to craft brewers.  While specific candidates have not yet been named, the PAC aims to become involved in policy and legislation around water conservation, sustainable agriculture, and smart transportation.

For example, a recent blog on the New Belgium website advocates for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) proposed changes to the Waters of the U.S. (“WOTUS”) rule, which defines the surface water that is eligible for federal protection.  Andrew Lemley, the Brewery’s government affairs representative, explains that the changes would expand the water that is eligible for regulation by the EPA to include headwaters and tributaries, in addition to specified rivers and lakes.  He states: “This clarification makes common sense: water bodies that are connected to rivers should be safeguarded like those rivers themselves.”

Additionally, the New Belgium Federal PAC will support the Small Brewer Reinvestment and Expanding Workforce Act (“Small Brew Act”).  The Small Brew Act would expand the population of brewers eligible for reduced excise taxes under the Internal Revenue Code from those that produce only 2 million barrels per year to those that produce up to 6 million barrels per year.  In this effort, New Belgium’s PAC will stand opposed to the PACs of beer giants like Anheuser-Busch and Coors.

New Belgium may be the little guy amongst brewery federal PACs, but it is a giant in the world of craft brewing, as the third-largest craft brewer by volume in America.  While its PAC activity could alienate some beer lovers and other breweries, the New Belgium Federal PAC has potential to provide new opportunities for partnerships as well as for interaction with local communities.

Flies, humans, and yeast: bizarre love triangle

Scientists have officially demonstrated that humans are not the only species attracted to that bready, malty, sometimes-fruity-sometimes-flowery smell of beer, and more crucially, not the only species to incorporate beer as a finished product into its reproduction strategy.

The project was seeded about 15 years ago, when a messy graduate student returned to lab after neglecting his experiments for a weekend to find that escaped fruit flies from a neighboring lab had invaded a flask accidentally left on a counter that contained a wild yeast culture, but ignored a different flask that contained an altered yeast strain.  Years later, these same Belgian researchers have discovered the molecular mechanisms underlying the fruit flies’ flask preference.  These mechanisms create an aroma-based communication and mutualistic symbiosis between the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and the brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiaeThe work involved four main experiments, using a combination of molecular, behavioral, and neurobiological techniques.

The scientists’ first step was to manipulate the yeast genes to create different types of yeast for comparison in the planned experiments.  It is commonly known that yeast is responsible for many of the aromas and flavors of beer through its production of acetate esters such as ethyl acetate (pear), isoamyl acetate (banana), and phenylethyl acetate (flowery).  These acetate esters are formed in a reaction that is catalyzed chiefly by an enzyme called ATF1Using genetic engineering techniques, the Belgians were able to create yeast “mutants” that lacked the ATF1 gene, rendering them unable to produce those acetate esters with such “fragrant” fly-enticing aromas.

The next step applied behavioral techniques to detect a preference in the fruit flies for either the un-modified yeast (“wild-type”) or the yeast lacking ATF1 (“mutant”).  The scientists set up a computer-controlled chamber wherein aromas from different yeast fermentations could be released from opposing corners.  The flies remained randomly dispersed in the chamber while odorless air was released, but once airflow contained aromas from fermentations, they significantly preferred the chamber quadrant with the “fragrant” wild-type aroma (with acetate esters) over the quadrant with “bland” mutant aroma (without acetate esters).

To probe the neuronal mechanisms underlying this behavioral preference, the researchers used calcium imaging in the antennal (olfactory) lobe of live flies.  When they compared neural activity in response to mutant yeast compared to wild-type, they found that the response of projection neurons – which receive input directly from olfactory (smell) sensory neurons – was clearly altered.  The fly brains thus represented the “bland” mutant aroma differently from the “fragrant” wild-type aroma.

While it was clear to the scientists that the yeast provided the flies’ meals, they pondered the advantage for the yeast in employing such scent-related strategies to attract the flies.  Using fluorescent labeling techniques, they demonstrated that “fragrant” wild-type yeast strains were 4 times more likely to be dispersed by a fruit fly than their “bland” mutant peers.  Dispersion provides clear evolutionary advantages because it can make yeast more viable and more likely to reproduce.  In this way, wild-type yeast benefits from being more attractive to flies.

Thus, these Belgian scientists showed that acetate esters produced by yeasts change neural activity in fruit flies, which increases the flies’ attraction to the yeast, and thus increases the potential for advantageous dispersion of the yeast.

Humans demonstrate similar attraction to the aroma of beer in addition to altered neural activity when consuming it, and indeed may use it (perhaps less directly) in the reproduction process.  What’s in it for the yeast?  The answer may be the same: increased reproduction, in the form of purposeful cultivation.  The yeast that is the most successful at creating aromas and flavors that are attractive to humans is the yeast that is isolated and cultivated for future use.

Source: Verstrepen KJ, Yaksi E, Hassan BA, Wenseleers T, Michiels J, Meester LD, Cools TL, Franco LM, and Chstiaens JF. The Fungal Aroma Gene ATF1 Promotes Dispersal of Yeast Cells through Insect Vectors. Cell Reports. 2014.

Equity for Beer Punks

About two weeks ago, I tasted my first BrewDog beer: the 5 AM Red AleRobin ordered it first, inspiring the entire table to join in, and no one regretted her decision.  The beer poured deep amber in color, and the flavor maintained a neat hop-malt balance all the way through.  Rather than elaborating further, I will provide BrewDog’s description, which is a bit more complicated: “Jump in and you’ll find berry bouncing off marmalade clashing with caramel cosying up to chocolate buzzing off spice sizzling with toast laced with lychee and colliding with biscuit.”  In fact, the 5 AM Red Ale was recently named the World’s Best Amber Ale at the 2014 World Beer Awards.

I already want to try another BrewDog offering, and it’s not just because the beer was so tasty.  Indeed, the Scottish brewery just announced the launch of its Development Fund.  After partially funding BrewDog by selling equity through its own Equity for Punks campaign, co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie have allocated £100,000 of their profits each year, as well as their time and expertise, to support other craft breweries as they start up.

In this case, “time and expertise” includes featuring Fund recipients in BrewDog bars as well as introducing them to sales networks.  Watt and Dickie also plan to assist with sourcing ingredients and buying brewing equipment, as well as provide access to BrewDog’s beer laboratory.  For the investment, BrewDog takes a small amount of equity in each start-up brewery, allowing the businesses to grow together.

BrewDog selected two breweries as its first Development Fund recipients: Brew by Numbers (“BBNo.”) from London, and Curious Audacious Products (“CAP”) out of Stockholm.  Brew by Numbers has asserted that its mission is to create “exciting and forward-thinking beers with a focus on quality and drinkability.”  The co-founders emphasize research, experimentation, testing and tasting in their work.  CAP focuses on “playfulness, experimentation and [the] sheer joy of brewing beer,” reflected in their irregular releases of “I’m Curious,” one-of-a-kind-and-never-to-be-seen-again creations.  CAP’s beers feature whimsical sketch drawings of a skull smelling a flower, a musical instrument with a face, a monkey holding umbrellas in the rain, and a whale decked out in a top hat, cane, and pipe.

Given the crowding of the craft beer market, at least in the U.S., it will be interesting to see whether – and where – this business model catches on.  For more established breweries, it is a unique way to “pay it forward,” while maintaining interest in a new business that might help their own business grow.  At the same time, if start-up breweries are willing to give up a small share of their businesses, it increases the likelihood that they will invest in quality resources from the start, to create more innovative and quality products for a growing international market.  As part of that international market, I will continue to support these collaborations, partnerships, and business models that foster such healthy competition with a methodical – but pioneering – spirit.

Oktoberfest: your last wedding celebration of the season

Oktoberfests seem to be a dime a dozen these days – I believe there are at least 20 during the next month in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts alone.  It was my luck – or misfortune – that my first Oktoberfest was the real one, in Munich, probably around the same time I had my first Berliner Weisse.  For all of you who truly would like to appreciate your next Oktoberfest, my undergraduate German minor self has volunteered to share the history of the original festival and the standards it sets for its beer.

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Oktoberfest postcard, 1998

The original Oktoberfest celebrated the October 12, 1810 nuptials of Crown Prince Ludwig, later known as King Ludwig I, to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen.  What was particularly special, and rare, about the occasion was that the royals condescended to invite the public to celebrate with them on the fields in front of the Munich city gates.  These fields were dubbed Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s fields”), but over time locals abbreviated the name to “Wies’n.”  That first Oktoberfest featured horse races at the close of the event.

The Oktoberfest continued in 1811, with the entertainment committee adding an Agricultural Show added to the horse races.  Over time the number of amusements grew, including carousels, swings, and beer stands.  By 1896, those beer stands were replaced by beer tents and halls that backed competing breweries.  There were so many amusements by 1960 that the horse races were eliminated from the festival.

This year marks the 181st Oktoberfest.  Today, the festival draws about 6 million visitors and lasts about 16 days (depending on which day October 3, German Unification Day, falls), from late September to the first weekend in October.  Since 1950, a twelve gun salute and the tapping of the first keg by the incumbent Mayor of Munich, who declares, “O’zapft is!” (that’s a Bavarian dialect), has signaled the opening of Oktoberfest.

Only beer conforming to the Reinheitsgebot and brewed within the city limits of Munich may be served at Oktoberfest.  These beers are designated as “Oktoberfest Beer,” a registered trademark of the Club of Munich Brewers, and include Augustiner-Bräu, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr-Bräu, Spatenbräu, Löwenbräu, and Staatliches Hofbräu-München.  These brews were traditionally brewed in March, when it was sufficiently cool to prevent bacterial contamination of the batch, with higher alcohol content to preserve it through the summer.  Modern technology now allows for this “Märzenbier” to be brewed at the end of summer.  In 2013, revelers consumed 6.7 million liters of this beer, down from 6.9 liters in 2012.  Correspondingly, the number of brawls involving beer glasses fell from 66 to 58, and the number of Bierleichen (“beer corpses,” people who drink themselves unconscious) treated dropped from 800 to 638.

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Inside the Hofbräu tent, circa 1998

My undergraduate German minor self can now rest assured that you are all prepared for the vast array of upcoming Oktoberfests.  You can make an educated decision on which beer to drink and even share some fascinating factoids with your friends.  All that’s left to do is raise your Stein and say “Prost!