Point of brew: You want ice with that?

By From page A11 | August 29, 2013

Had a reader of this column not drawn it to my attention I would have missed the article in the Wall Street Journal of Thursday, Aug. 15.

I borrowed a copy of the paper and found the piece by Hiroyuki Kachi. The headline was intriguing: “Is that ice cream on your beer? Japan’s wacky summer brews.” Turns out that Japan’s largest breweries, Asahi and Kirin, have suffered significant loss of sales in recent years. They are by no means alone in this dilemma: large brewers around the world, including this country, face shrinking sales of their mainstream beers.

To appeal to a new spectrum of drinkers, especially women consumers, the two Japanese companies have turned to new products including some pretty outrageous cocktails such as beer containing pineapple juice (which doesn’t sound too bad) or fermented milk (which sounds horrid). The fermented milk is quite acidic; it’s called Calpis (Calpico in the USA for obvious reasons) and is made in a similar way to yogurt by fermentation with lactic acid bacteria. In Japan, some dark beers are served over ice with a squeeze of lemon and a sprig of mint.

But you know there is nothing new under the sun: everyone is familiar with the lime and salt served with cans of Tecate and there related products like Bud Light Lime; we know how to make a thirst-quenching shandy or Radlers by adding lemonade to beer or raspberry juice in wheat beers (or a lemon slice). Using lactic sour milk in beer reminds me of the sour beers made by lactic fermentation by some craft brewers. Except for the herbal additions, serving beer over ice recalls the immensely successful gimmick of serving Magner’s Irish cider over ice that I experienced a few year’s ago in the UK. We can even add tomato/clam/lime juice to make e.g. Budweiser Chelada. And so on.

But in fact there is something new under the sun and the WSJ article brought it to my attention: frozen beer foam atop a standard pint!

Now this would have been but a curiosity if it had remained in Japan; but Kirin Brewing Co. has brought it to the USA specifically to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles (logical because Kirin beer is brewed under license in L.A.). At $11 a pint it is not exactly cheap but neither is anything else at a ball-park and it has huge novelty appeal. There is also a practical advantage to those for whom beer is only good when cold: the frozen foam cap keeps the beer cold for an extra half hour (much longer than is needed for the average beer drinker at a baseball game I should think).

The foam looks like and is dispensed like a dollop of soft-serve ice cream that floats on the beer; it is created in a special freezer-dispenser behind the bar that reminds me of a Slushy machine. The foam is actually frozen carbonated beer so that when it melts it does not dilute the beer and apparently tastes perfectly fine.

Craft brewing is about the only segment of the brewing industry, most anywhere, that is enjoying significant growth. Large brewers see this and, because craft beers with their intense flavors and colors, are not particularly difficult to make the major breweries are making similar competing products. They are also buying popular and successful craft brewing companies to add those products and brands to their portfolio. Large brewers in the USA, as far as I know, have no interest in ice-cream-like-foam on beers but you never know; after all, Guinness is famous for its stable creamy foam and a high-tech investment makes it possible for the company to deliver that effect from cans and even bottles.

But large brewers making craft beers gives craft brewers heart-burn. They claim that such beers as the Shock Top range of products (by Anheuser-Busch-Inbev) and Blue Moon (by Miller-Coors) are not really craft beers, but merely ride on the reputation of “authentic” (whatever that means) craft brews; craft brewers call craft products of the large breweries “crafty” beers. Of course large brewers compete in events such as the GABF (Great American Beer Festival) and often come away with a fistful of medals. Welcome to the world of competition.

Turns out that the Brewers Association, to which most small brewers belong, defines craft brewers in three ways: they must (a) produce no more then 6,000,000 barrels of beer annually (by most standards this is a lot of beer and hardly micro-brew!) (b) be independent (that is less than 25 percent owned by a non-craft brewing entity) and finally (c) use traditional brewing methods and materials (all brewers do that).

There is an additional complication that small-scale brewers themselves have created: many do not actually own brewing facilities but have their beers made under license by another brewer. Curiously, the very successful Sam Adams range of beers started life being brewed under license by Millers. There are other schemes by which a brewer can rent a brewery and use it himself independent of the actual owner. This muddies the water of “authenticity” upon which many craft brewers rely for their point of difference from the large brewers and indeed from each other. So small brewers are turning to local sources of raw materials; that should work as a point of difference.

Though doubtless some beer drinkers have deep concerns about such things as authenticity, most consumers probably really don’t care much as long as the beer is to their liking, is reasonably priced, consistent in quality and readily available.

After all beer is beer and brewing is brewing and it is all made by brewers working in breweries (despite ice cream foam).

— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com

Michael Lewis

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