Three main topics dominate the beer press this week: the drought, of course, especially for western breweries, large and small; beer cans; and the astonishing success of cider.
Of course cider is only related to beer in the sense that it is sold very much as beer is, in 12-ounce bottles and cans; it has a similar, quite low, alcohol content somewhere in the region of 5 to 6 percent ABV, and it’s highly carbonated. Increasingly it is being made by brewing companies in this country: Miller/Coors recently bought Crispin Cider (a California maker) and is coming out in April with Smith & Forge Hard Cider; Anheuser-Busch Inbev has Cidre (tres French) under the Stella Artois label as well as a Michelob cider; the biggest of the American-owned breweries, Boston Brewing Company has a very sharp and tasty Angry Orchard range of ciders that are hugely successful; in fact, it is the number one selling cider in the USA. There is a Davis connection here: Dave Sipes, a UC Davis brewing grad (1993) and the head brewer at Sudwerk for some years, is now the Angry Orchard cider-master.
Despite its important beer-like qualities, cider, being made from fruit juice (apples mainly) not cereals, is a wine; it offers a refreshing change from beers. For example, ciders tend to be sweet and sharp in contrast to the bitter and dry character of beers, especially craft beers, and have ample aroma and flavor to satisfy the most demanding palate. I happen to be rather fond of cider and drink it often at home because I like it and it’s guaranteed gluten-free; I’m delighted to find it becoming increasingly available in restaurants and bars. In DeVere’s pub I find it hard to choose between a Magners cider and a Guinness stout (both products made in Ireland); I generally resolve that excruciating dilemma by having one of each.
Boston Brewing Company is also in the news for a new beer can they have designed and are making available throughout the craft industry. This new can probably helps to justify putting their Sam Adams products into cans. Some of their most loyal consumers might find this objectionable because there has been a long-standing resistance to cans in the craft beer segment that arises from the possibility that cans could affect beer flavor. That is true if the can liner is compromised and the beer contacts the metal directly. However, that problem was licked many years ago and cans have been reliable containers for beverages for decades.
Many craft brewers these days are turning to cans; this includes, for example, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (among the more fastidious brewers on the planet), that now makes its iconic pale ale available in cans. In fact cans have many advantages: they are light in weight and so cheaper and easier to transport; a can weighs just half an ounce compared to a bottle that weighs nearly half a pound (7.5 ounces). Cans protect beverage products perfectly from light and cans may be taken to places where bottles are unwelcome or even banned.
So Boston Brewing needs to keep up with the trend; with its usual marketing flair (to say nothing of financial oomph) it has developed a better beer can. The design draws inspiration from the approved Sam Adams drinking glass with a more shapely top rim and a repositioned opening. The idea is to deliver the product more exactly to the consumer’s nose and palate with an enhanced supply of air for superior flavor enjoyment. You might think this is baloney but I could not possibly comment.
A recent article in The Sacramento Bee made the point that, although brewers have achieved very high water-efficiencies in their brewery operations, it requires an enormous amount of water to grow the necessary beer-making raw materials such as barley and hops. Thus it may take three barrels of water to make beer in the brewery but 300 barrels of water to grow enough materials (roughly 35 pounds) for that single barrel of beer. Yikes! But that does support the general idea that agriculture is the really heavy user of water (say 75 percent) and so our food supply is likely to suffer most when we are in drought.
Some breweries in the Western states, Miller-Coors in Colorado, for example, and their breweries in Texas and Southern California are at risk although, apparently, the Fairfield brewery of AB-I is OK with its supply of Berryessa water. Lagunitas and a few other craft breweries however, are making contingency plans should the water they draw from the Russian River dry up and an alternative mineral-loaded ground water have to be used. Lagunitas may be able to switch its production to its new Chicago plant, temporarily, or install a reverse osmosis unit to remove unwanted minerals from ground water.
Although, no doubt, the supply of water to breweries may pose a huge problem in a few cases, the raw materials to make beer are not all grown in drought-challenged western locations. Hops, for example, are a product of the Pacific Northwest that has rain up the ying-yang, and malting barley comes from Canada and our northern tier of states that enjoyed the polar vortex and have not suffered the dry weather that has plagued us. It’s true that the traditional barley-growing region for Miller-Coors in Colorado is in drought; they may have to learn to work with barley from other regions.
This is literally the bottom line: Save water; drink cider from cans.
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com