State of the Union
Although only a few hundred administration staffers and members of focus groups know exactly what the President is going to say tonight, it’s fair to predict that his theme will be that everything is going just swimmingly right now, and that he deserves the bulk of the credit for that. There will probably be something about tax cuts in there too. My theme will be, of course, beer. [Pause here for standing ovation.]
And so, tonight, I say to you: Ask not what beer can do for you. Ask what you can do for beer. [Pause again here to acknowledge polite applause.] And what have those of us who care about beer – who make it, sell it, drink it, write about it, and even regulate it – done for our favorite beverage in this past year? Let’s have a quick look, a sort of year in review. It’s a chance to revisit some of the year’s best stories, and for me to put in the last word.
It was a good year for really good beer. It’s going swimmingly, in fact. The market share of the big American industrial-lager breweries has begun to shrink, and even the glossy industry rags, heavily supported by the big drinks companies, are saying that the new growth sector in the business is high-end craft beer. I’d like to say that we had it all figured out right from the beginning, ten years ago, but the fact is that we just ended up importing beers from tiny craft breweries because they were the best beers in the world – the ones we wanted to drink – despite warnings from veterans in the business that we’d never survive doing it. Finally, in this last year, it seems that other people actually started to agree with us about what a good beer should taste like, and I have stopped waking up in the middle of the night with frightful visions of a destitute life living under a bridge.
The high point for us was a splashy article in Men’s Journal in July that tackled the impossible job of choosing the 50 Best Beers in the World. It’s hard work. Of the 33 beers from Europe on that list, 17 were imported by Shelton Brothers. (To be fair, one of those beers was soon afterwards muscled away from us by a much bigger importer, but the photo of the bottle in the article is a Shelton Brothers bottle, and, yes, we’re claiming it as our own.) The little Mahr’s brewery in fantastic Bamberg, Germany, was picked as the Best Brewery in the World, if there really is such a thing, and Stephan, the brewer at Mahr’s, and Peter Scholey of Ridgeway Brewing in England, both of whom had two beers very prominently on the list, came over to attend the Men’s Journal issue release party in New York. Perhaps the best part of the evening was the sight of Stephan, in traditional lederhosen and very white new sneakers, forcing a six-pack of his beers upon two of New York’s finest in a patrol car, outside of d.b.a., one of our favorite beer bars. They were so taken aback that they forgot to arrest him.
Even the New York Times took some notice of these unassuming little breweries. An article on ‘farmhouse beers’ – beers in the style of Belgian Saisons and French Bières de Garde – included six imported beers, five of which were from the talented brewers of La Choulette, Theillier, Fantôme, and Blaugies. A later article on Pilsners included two Shelton Brothers imports; an article on Trappist and ‘Abbey-style’ beers included two more. Only a week ago, in a Times article on barley wines, a category of strong beers that we’re not particularly interested in, per se, the miniscule Hemel brewery in the far east of Holland garnered nice reviews for its beautiful Nieuw Ligt Grand Cru.
The best news really is that these terrific small breweries are, mostly, still making absurdly tasty, characterful beers. There really aren’t that many great breweries in the world, but new ones keep sprouting here and there – in the U.S. and out – offering the occasional beer that makes us stop and reflect on the fact that it’s all really worth the trouble. Especially gratifying for us in the last year or so was the arrival of Panil Barriquée, the most authentic and uncompromising beer available these days in the traditional Flemish ‘sour red’ style – from, of all places, a tiny brewery in Parma, Italy. Unpasteurized, perfectly dry, and appropriately tart and oaky, the Barriquée was on many peoples’ personal list of the best ‘new’ beers of 2005.
Another very satisfying event was the arrival of Thiriez Extra and Thiriez Blonde, two amazingly fresh and hoppy little numbers from a tiny brick country brewery, tastefully tucked into one of those small farming towns that provide visual relief amid the hayfields of northern France. Daniel Thiriez, one of the rare French brewers who likes his beers live – unpasteurized and unfiltered, refermented with live yeast in the bottle – and has no fear whatsoever of feisty, aromatic hops, made a lot of critics admit that French beer could be as good as Belgian beer, in the right hands. It’s hard work.
And right behind them is Qarnay Asada, an Afghan who just this past month created that country’s first tax shelter. He’s the one up in the back row who’s picking his nose. [Pause while Asada leans way forward and gives a big hug to the little girl, and then Claudette, who will recoil in horror.]
And finally, also with us tonight are some people with fingers stained purple who somehow slipped through security. [Pause to let the purple-fingered people give the purple ‘thumbs up.’ If they don’t do it, and get all surly, we won’t invite them back next year. This is already the second year we’ve invited them, anyway, and it’s getting pretty old. ]
The year 2005 saw the appearance and reappearance of Péché Mortel (Mortal Sin, en français). We had a lot of fun with the debut in March of the very first batch, a decidedly small, low-budget production that mainly left everybody wanting more. The real blockbuster was Batch II, arriving toward the end of the year, in which a really good beer got even better. The Péché, a wickedly indulgent imperial coffee stout, comes from the best brewpub in Montréal, a place so small, and locally popular, that they could only give us 30 cases of the stuff the first time. While we waited for about seven months for the second edition, demand only grew more insistent. When it finally did turn up the beer was perfectly conditioned and much richer in body and flavor than the first time – a masterpiece. A couple of weeks after arrival, it was all gone. And so here we are again, waiting.
Just at the very end of the year, a few small parcels of very rare gems arrived, almost unnoticed in the mad Christmas rush.
There were about 30 half-cases of unfiltered lager from Mönchsambacher, a true farmhouse lager from the rural area around Bamberg. That area, Franconia, has nearly 300 breweries in a space no larger than Rhode Island that collectively make the best beer, and widest variety of styles, in Germany. (In the world, if you ask me, but I’m just partial to German things. You can ask my meine frau.) Pasteurization kills yeast, and stops fermentation. (Yeast is the only real ‘living’ component of beer. Big breweries that talk about a beer’s ‘born-on date’ but kill their beer with pasteurization before sending it out are screwing with you.) More to the point, pasteurization dulls the flavors in beer. Mönchsambacher, like a lot of Franconian breweries, doesn’t pasteurize, and as a result you’ll get the real taste of beer, not just the classic fortifying bready flavors of good malt and the brisk bitterness and floral aromas of good hops, but an earthy complexity that comes from that live yeast in the bottle. This is the way a hand-made lager used to taste – and still does, in the little breweries of Franconia. We hope that this is just the first of a bunch of small-production Franconian beers that will be turning up here in the next few months. This is the most important undiscovered stuff in the world of beer.
We also received something like 60 cases of Zinnebir, from Sint Pieters, Belgium’s newest and smallest brewery. The brewer there, Bernard, has moved very adroitly from home-brewing to commerce, and he won’t be small for long. He has actually built a brewery and is brewing himself – an increasingly rare thing in an age of marketing companies posing as breweries, and pushing label concepts, with the beer itself at best an afterthought, designed and brewed by a larger contract brewery to suit the label. Bernard’s beers are of course brewed with great care and re-fermented with live yeast in the bottle, distinguished by the quality of the ingredients used, and their depth and boldness of flavor. He won’t brew with cheap sugars to get a sweet light confection designed to be ‘drinkable’ in the mind of a less discerning and less knowledgeable customer. He doesn’t uses spices, as so many Belgian brewers do these days, to make up for a lack of character and complexity that ought to be there if, for example, they just brewed really good beer in the first place. (Over-spiced beers are for people who don’t like the real flavors of beer.) And the focus is definitely not on the labels. In fact, these labels could probably use some work. There are no trolls or elves on there – no gimmicks at all. Zinnebir is just good, solid ale, in the oldest Belgian farmhouse tradition, and it is going to get better and better with the years.
But, hey, there’s nothing wrong with elves, if the beer is really good. Which brings me, naturally, to Peter Scholey of Ridgeway Brewing, whose annual feast of English Christmas beers made especially for the U.S. keeps expanding and getting more impressive. This year Seriously Bad Elf joined the original Bad Elf and the follow-up, Very Bad Elf, on the shelves. Following what has become an annual tradition, the beer just gets stronger as the elves get worse. Seriously Bad reached 9% by volume, and is arguably classifiable as a sort of red barley wine graced by with little touches of rather Belgian fruity, spicy esters that are the work of special yeasts. This is, again, a bottle-re-fermented beer, with live yeast left in. Interestingly, this Elf proved just a little too bad for the State of Connecticut, as you may have heard. They refused to let us sell it there because the image of a nasty old elf aiming a slingshot at Santa’s airborne sleigh would appeal to children and encourage under-aged drinking. After a brief legal skirmish, the State relented. It certainly was an interesting holiday . . . Sorry, I meant Christmas. Heavens to Bill O’Reilly, we’re not going politically correct here at Shelton Brothers! No way!)
[Pause for a moment here and think about why there hasn’t been any applause for quite a while now.]
There is so much more that’s new to talk about – a new Flemish Primitive Wild Ale (No. 4, the most bitter one yet), sterling new Tripels from Kerkom and Slaapmutske, the fairly unbelievable Schaerbeekse Kriek from 3 Fonteinen, the return of the unredoubtable Kapuziner Schwarze-weizen (Black Wheat) beer, as well as a new Kellerbier from Kulmbacher, just to name a few – but surely this is enough to prove the point. The brewers are definitely doing their job, as hard as it is. Just when we think there can’t be any more good beer out there, and no good breweries that we haven’t heard of to make it, another pleasant surprise pops up. (For example, keep an eye out for some splendid beers from Nøgne Ø in Norway – a wide range of English-style beers with English subtlety ruled by an almost American-style passion for alcoholic strength and hoppiness. They ought to start turning up about March.)
But are the rest of us doing our part to get out the truth, to spread good beer throughout the land? Do people out there in the market, barraged with new beers, some good, some bad, some indifferent, have any clue about which ones they need to buy and drink? Alas, I think not. As the President might put it:
On September the 11th, 2001, we learned that things were definitely better on September 10th. In this time of great ferment [pause here for polite laughter and muted applause] we are making great strides in the beer brewing sector. But this progress is not being matched in the remainder of the beer economy. We have seen lackluster performance particularly in the beer-drinking, beer-writing, and beer-regulating sectors. But I have a plan to stimulate these underperforming sectors. My opponents, they’ll tell you what’s wrong with this great economy, and they’ll try to tear down my plan. But do they have a plan? If they have a plan, I didn’t get the memo. Heh. [Smile, or grimace, here.] And they don’t mind smearing the reputation of a lot of good men, a lot of good brewers (and some of them are women, Laura told me to make sure I said that), and you’ll see that, when the going gets tough – and it’s hard work, very hard work – that, well, the ones who aren’t that tough are undercalculating our firm resolve to, eh, resolve this firmly, and with firm resolve. Everything changed on September the 11th, 2001. The American people elected me to protect them from bad beer, and that’s my job. The American people must understand that I will do my job, whatever it takes. They have a right to understand that. [Pause for emphasis, and fix a stern look in the direction of the camera. If no one applauds, just keep going like you didn’t expect them to applaud anyway.] And I will continue with my job-doing until it’s accomplished. And that’s the lesson of September 11th, 2001.
Oh, goshdarnit, I was just about to get to the controversial, inflammatory stuff, and now they’re telling me it’s time to go on back to the ranch. We’ll have to take up some of these hot issues next time. Please stay tuned for my State of the Union Address, Part Deux, coming soon. [Pause briefly for barely stifled yawning and a smattering of low boos and hisses.]
I would like to conclude by saying that, as always, the answer to our pressing problems, the key to our continued growth, is: Tax cuts. [Lengthy pause for rousing standing O.] Or, if not that: Good, clean, nucular energy.
We will not surrender to evil. I don’t want to say that it will be hard work, but I will say that it will be difficult – definitely not easy work. Freedom is on the march, but there will be some painful calluses and hideous, oozing blisters along the way.
Thank you, and good night. God bless all of you. And God bless beer.
[Exit promptly, smiling continually, and move toward the back door – it will be unlocked. Don’t answer any questions from anybody.]
- January 31st, 2006
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