Sunday, December 17, 2006

A head of steam over beer taxes

Scuttlebutt has it that the new legislature is preparing a proposal to drastically increase beer taxes in Oregon. Among the legislators pushing the new tax is my own state representative and neighbor, Jackie Dingfelder. Exactly what will be proposed is still uncertain, and there are apparently several alternatives and provisions being considered. What is certain, however, is that Oregon beer producers and consumers are extremely unhappy about it.

What’s driving the desire to tap beer as a new revenue source is twofold. First, legislators feel pushed around a bit by the beer and wine distributors lobby. After the mini-scandal involving all-expense-paid junkets last session, more than a few legislators want to “get back” at the lobbyists who walked away unscathed while elected officials took a beating in the press, and for some, in the polls.

Second, throw in a new activist majority, hungry after 16 years out of power and needing money to finance it, and you have yourself what legislators might call a “taxable opportunity.”

The proposals, it seems, have a few things in common. One, it would raise the beer excise tax from $2.60/BBL to around $34/BBL, a 13-fold increase. Two, it would exempt smaller brewers; specifics vary, but the number 200,000 BBL/year is being bandied about. Three, the proposals target only beer – not wine or spirits. The money, it is claimed, would be used to pay for drug rehabilitation and treatment programs.

The size of the increase is remarkable, to put it mildly. Oregon, now fourth-lowest in beer taxes in the US, would zoom to the very highest, beating Alaska by 4 cents per gallon. A state that has gained a strong reputation for great beer by nurturing the industry with relatively low tax rates would, in one fell swoop, turn into one that punishes one of its famed boutique industries.

Compare beer to the other alcohols and the change is even more amazing. Borrowing calculations posted by Mark Wilson on the Oregon Brew Crew listserve, on a per-glass basis, wine is taxed at 3 times the rate of beer (2.6 cents vs. 0.8). Under the new rate, beer would be taxed 10.4 cents per glass, over four times the rate of wine. Spirits, at 8.75 cents per glass, would ironically become a relatively “cheap” drink, tax-wise.

Which brings up where the money would go. While it can conceptually be targeted to pay for a given program, the legislature is not legally bound by that promise. The revenues actually accrue to the state’s general fund, of which about $10 million – out of a total of over $12 billion per biennium - goes to drug treatment and rehab right now. Schools absorb 54%, health and human services programs 23% (including drug programs) and state police another 16%. So where the dollars actually will go is not all that terribly clear.

The impact on the price of beer is also unclear, except, in general, it will go up. The hyperbole from fear-mongers has it pushing craft six-packs over $10. I paid $8 for a winter seasonal recently, so we’re probably not far from that anyway. But my calculations show a $1.03 per gallon increase only netting about 65 cents on a 72-oz. six-pack. Of course, it’s an excise tax, which means it’s on production rather than sales, but unless someone’s doing some serious gouging (more on that later), the increase ought to stay at a still-unwelcome buck-a-six.

The impact on the industry, however, is more clear. Only two breweries in the state – Widmer and Portland/Pyramid – exceed the 200K threshold. Deschutes is close and Full Sail is on its way – unless this tax takes effect. If these brewers have to pay $31 more for each barrel, the 200,001st one is going to cost them an extra $6.2 million. Guess who’ll stop growing real soon?

Pyramid already owns production facilities in Washington and could easily move. Widmer would have a bigger problem but would have to consider it, for that kind of money.

So the current proposal, such as it is, is seriously flawed. The question is – accepting for the moment that some sort of tax is on the table – what is reasonable?

At first blush, one might propose a simple solution:  bring the beer tax up to the same level as wine. The problem is, that doesn’t raise a heck of a lot of money. According to the Oregon Brewers Guild, Oregon produces about 683,000 barrels per year. Even if you tax every barrel, five bucks more a barrel yields only about $3.5 million, vs. the $21 million that a $31 increase would bring. Legislators only have so many bullets in their tax guns; they need to raise serious bucks with each one. No matter how small an increase, every tax bite ticks somebody off. Raising rates to collect pennies isn’t worth the paperwork.

Eliminating the 200,000 BBL threshold would boost revenue, but hurt the smallest, most entrepreneurial breweries the most. Already on the margin and much more fleet of foot, we wouldn’t see them hang around much longer, either. And forget about starting up new ones here. Vancouver is just too close by to pass up.

A third option might be to bring beer and wine into line with the taxes on spirits, now about 10 times that of beer. But for the brewers, that increase is still too large.

The irony of all this is that a big beer tax increase would benefit most the group that the legislators purportedly want to punish most. Distributors’ profits would increase, as they mark up their product based on the price they receive from the brewery. Interestingly, they’re staying quite mum on this debate.

The real answer is much harder. Oregon needs to revisit its tax structure, top to bottom. Its high and peculiar income tax, the lack of sales tax and its convolutedly high but constitutionally limited property tax rates distort the economy in odd ways and leave legislators few and awkward tools to use then seeking new revenues for needed services.

A quick fix isn’t going to happen. And even if it were, the beer tax ain’t it.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Brewing: A photo essay

Friends often ask me if they can "come over and watch me brew" some time. I try to explain, that's like asking if you can come over and watch me mop the floors or something; it's really not very interesting to watch, although it can be a lot of fun to do it with someone.

Recently as I brewed I thought I'd document the process for those who are curious how this alchemic little process works - the conversion of water, barley malt, hops and yeast into, aaahhh, beer.

Recipe of the day: "Hallucinator" Old Ale. A Collaborator winner in 1999, served in Portland pubs in 2000 and the Brewer's Festival in 2001, and People's Choice at the 2001 Winter Beer Festival. 7.2 percent alcohol but tastes so smooth you can't tell you're getting snockered.

First, you have to crack the grains in a mill:

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Mine is motorized; most homebrewers' mills, if they own one (and most don't) are hand-operated, but I'm both industrious in my love of automation and lazy when it comes to physical labor. (Note: this brew occurred before my recent upgrade to mount the mill on a permanent table, which makes it MUCH easier yet.)

After the grain is cracked it goes into the mash tun. Mine is a picnic cooler fitted with a slotted copper pipe manifold. Another aspect of the hobby that took me hours to make!

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Meanwhile, heat up the water. This is my "hot liquor tank," which is heated by a blowtorch-style propane burner. Notice the thermometer hanging out front. That came from a discarded dishwasher:

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When the water's hot enough (about 165-170F) it goes into the mash tun with the grain, and now we have a mash:

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After that, we wait a while... about an hour to 90 minutes. Then I pump the sweet liquid from the mash (called wort) through a heat exchanger sitting in boiling water. Most homebrewers who brew "from scratch" like me don't bother with this; they just add boiling water to raise the temperature. Pshaw! Why do that when you can use gadgets? So... here's mine. At the heart of my system - the pump:

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Then we rinse the grain with more hot water... which involves even more copper pipes, this time drilled with little holes to let the water gently sprinkle over it:

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Meanwhile the wort is drained out the bottom into the kettle.

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I like to "first wort hop," meaning I put hops in the kettle before the first wort goes in. That gives a hoppier flavor without adding bitterness, which is important for this type of beer.

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Once all the wort is in the kettle, it's boiled for 90 minutes, with more hops added along the way. This style doesn't get too heavily hopped. Once the boil is done, the wort needs to be chilled. Naturally, time for more gadgets... the wort chiller - again homemade:

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There's a 1/2" OD copper tube inside that hose that the beer runs through, and water flows outside of it in the opposite direction. Cold water and hot beer in; cool beer and warm water out, into the carboy for fermentation:

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Then, to feed the yeast, I add oxygen.

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Then and only then do we add the real workhorse of the entire process: billions and billions of tiny yeast cells. The amount I pitched is hundreds of times what many homebrewers use, because I harvested yeast from a batch I bottled yesterday, which I'd harvested from a previous batch, and yeasties reproduce like single-celled rabbits in wort. Everything below the black line (yesterday's porter) is yeast.

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Then the beer goes into the cellar for a week or two to ferment, after which I will keg and bottle it. If there's interest, I'll post a follow-up about that.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Brew Gear: Mounting the Mill

Today I tackled a project I’ve been meaning to get to for a very long time: mounting my Valley Mill in its own permanent home in my brewery.

The Valley Mill is a two-roller mill with a 6-pound grain hopper that’s been on the market a good ten or so years. I got mine in 1997 and added a motor to it about a year later. The problem is, setting up the mill was a minor chore every brew day, and I didn’t have a great place for it. I’ve long wanted to mount it to a table with a chute straight into my mash tun, saving setup, put-away, and transfer steps.

My chance came, oddly enough, when my old yard-sale-purchased tablesaw gave out. Actually this happened a few years ago. It took me this long to get around to taking advantage of the situation. But once I got started, it didn’t really take that long.

Here’s the table, with the saw removed. Notice the table already had a rectangular hole in it, where the saw had been mounted; the band had run through the gap to the high-speed motor mounted on the lower shelf.

The two-by-four pieces are there to elevate the mill to the proper height to take advantage of my motor. Rather than a belt-drive method, I opted for direct drive. More on that later.

I built a little box of two-bys and a bit of plywood and mounted the mill directly on top, using the thumbscrews that came with the mill.

This fitting came with the mill, too. It’s intended for use with a hand-held drill, but with the help of a good friend of mine, we fitted a motor to it.

Here’s how the mill attaches to the motor. You can see how creative we got with the parts. Where all these bits and pieces originally came from, I couldn’t tell you.

Next I mounted the 100 RPM motor to the table with 1” bolts. It’s situated so that it’s permanently attached to the fitting on the mill now. That’s a bonus, too, as in my old setup, the motor often jiggled loose, causing further delay.

Then I attached the motor’s power cord to a switch mounted on the side of the table (re-used from the tablesaw and moved to a more convenient location). Another improvement from the in-line switch formerly used, which always gave me fears of electrocution.

The final task was figuring out where to put the darned thing. It couldn’t stay in my woodshop. I found a space in my brewing cellar, near where I keep my grains and my finished, cellaring beer, and voila! I am ready for brew day!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Carlton Wine Tour

Yesterday’s wine-tasting adventures returned me once again to the Willamette Valley, and in particular, Yamhill County, home of some of Oregon’s premier pinot noirs.

We started at Ken Wright Cellars, an exclusive, high-end winemaker in Carlton, OR. Ken Wright’s pinots are in such high demand that they sell them as futures only ($220/six), and only at the winery. You can find them in restaurants, but not in wine stores. They offered barrel tastings of  2006 pinots from three vineyards:  their own Savoya, another from McCrone Vineyards, and another from Paul Carter. They also offered a crisp, delicate 2005 Pinot Blanc – very enjoyable - and a less satisfying California-style Celilo Chardonnay, too buttery and oaky for my palate.

Of the three pinot noirs, Savoya was the most robust and fruity. It was very low in tannins and acidity and while it will be a good drinking wine in 2007-2008, I don’t think it would last much longer than that in the bottle. The McCrone had a little more tannin but still remained on the sweeter side. The Carter, at 24.7 Brix and 3.35 pH, achieved the best balance of the three. Complicating the tasting was that the McCrone and Carter had just begun malolactic fermentation, which masked some of the fruit flavor and aroma and gave it a spritziness on the tongue. I would not expect either of those issues to persist in the final product. All in all the Carter may be among the best pinots from the area in 2006.

Across the street, Ken Wright’s other winery, Tyrus Evans, poured a 2005 Claret and two 2005 Syrahs. The Claret, a blend of 55% Cabernet and 45% Merlot, fruity and had a hint of spiciness, but at $33 per bottle was unconvincing. The Umpqua Valley Syrah had a seriously funky off-aroma that reminded me of rotting fruit, to be charitable. However the Walla Walla Syrah at $30 was quite nice, well-structured with flavors of dark fruits and rather tannic, albeit a little over-extracted.

Just a long block away is Scott Paul, whose wines were anything but over-extracted. If anything they were a bit thin, particularly their 2005 Cuvee Martha Pirrie Pinot Noir. A delicate blackberry nose promises more than is delivered on the palate as this wine evaporates on the finish. The 2005 La Paulee Pinot Noir, being sold as futures, was fuller and rounder but still lacked structure and at $30 ($40 on its April 2007 release) is not price-competitive to comparable wines. The delicate, well-balanced 2005 Audrey Pinot Noir was the best of the three but at $40 ($55 in April) it was hard to justify. My guess is this resulted from the winery’s attempt to deal with the low sugar, high-acid yield of the 2005 crop, and they overcompensated. Scott Paul also tasted a 2004 Pommard from Domaine Leroyer-Girardin, earthier and more aromatic, but again the wine’s flavored disappeared from the taste buds without warning.

Our final stop of the day was at Solena Cellars. Solena featured ten wines, including four pinot noirs. Their 2004 Grand Cuvee, a blend of pinots from four vineyards, was surprisingly fruity and lush for such a value-priced wine ($25). The $35 2004 Shea was thin and acidic by comparison. The $45 Domaine Danielle Laurent was elegant and soft with complex fruit and solid oakiness but should have been priced at least $8-10 lower to compete with equivalent wines in the region. The 2004 Kudos Pinot Noir was unremarkable. My personal perennial Solena favorites, their Del Rio Syrah and Woolridge Creek Zinfandel, seemed thinner and less complex than usual, lacking some of the rich fruit and spiciness I recall from years past. It could also have been palate fatigue, as these were the last two wines I tried on the day. If not for the long drive and $10 tasting fee I might have to make a return trip to find out.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Touring The John Smith Brewery in Tadcaster, Yorkshire, England

by The Trubadours, Gary Corbin and Laura Guimond

Another article in a series about the breweries, pubs and beers that we encountered in our May, 1996 trip to Britain and Ireland.

Our tour guide at Beamish and Crawford brewery in Cork, Ireland had given us the name of a friend at John Smith’s Brewery to look up in case we should happen to stop by. Needing no further excuse, we called Mr. Mark O’Shea from southern Scotland and he gamely offered to show us around a bit. Mark proved to be as friendly and hospitable as our Irish and Scottish brewery hosts were; a family man with young children at home, nevertheless Mark came in on his day off to provide a tour of one of England’s largest breweries.

From the tiny to the Titan

The Brewery

John Smith’s was founded in 1758 at what is now the site of neighboring Sam Smith’s brewery. The new site was built in 1884 when two feuding cousins split the company in two. After a complex series of mergers and buyouts, the first being when Courage bought it in 1972, John Smith’s became part of what is now the Courage/Scottish and Newcastle chain, Britain’s largest brewing giant. The 1884 brewhouse remained in use until 1984, when it was restored from original line drawings as a museum/touring brewery.

John Smith’s, a 7 day x 24 hour operation, brews 1.4 million imperial barrels per year. Its principal product is John Smith’s Bitter, but it produces all products in the Courage line. It packages its beer in kegs, casks, and cans; no bottling is performed at John Smith’s in Tadcaster. They do, however, keg beer for other Courage breweries, including Beamish & Crawford.

Smith’s recently sold its in-house malting operation, which still supplies most of its malt. The malt is made primarily from barley from surrounding Yorkshire, an area well known for its quality barley crop. Several different carefully segregated yeasts are used, and are recultured in-house every ten generations.

The Equipment

Mashing and lautering were done in the same vessel until 1948, when the brewery modernized. Currently there are four tanks, one each for the mash, sparge, boil, and whirlpool. Until tax laws changed four years ago, there was a fifth, “ganging” vessel, used to measure the wort and its gravity for taxation purposes. These tanks are used now for pre-fermentation storage as required.

The brewery is a mix of the old and traditional on the one hand and the new and modern on the other. Racking between the 42 conical fermentation and storage tanks is done by a pump, but the brewer must manually connect flexible hoses between tanks. Temperature of the vessels is controlled from a central computer, which monitors thermostats inside glycol cooling jackets on each vessel.

The Process

The two-step mash (68ºC, then 71ºC) takes only an hour, after which it is pumped to the lauter tun for a three hour, 15 minute sparge at 77ºC. This produces a concentrated wort of about 1.058 SG, which is then pumped to the kettle. After boiling, the brew is pumped to one of two 8’-long counterflow chillers, which can cool 200 barrels per hour to 18ºC.


Usually, two 750-1000 hectoliter batches of each brew are combined before fermentation. From 1913 to 1975, they used open Yorkshire slate fermenters; currently the beer is closed-fermented in one of 42 conical tanks. Fermentation is quick – about 86 hours – after which it is chilled to 5ºC for about 24 hours, then to -1ºC to clarify it. Isinglass finings are added at this time unless the ale will be cask-conditioned. The yeast is filtered out after fermentation and used to produce new slants for propagation or is sold to make marmite (used as a toast spread).

In sum, the beer spends 6-8 hours in the brewhouse, a week in fermentation tanks, and 3 or 7 days in maturation tanks (for draft and canned beer, respectively), then goes on to the packaging line. Smith’s stopped cask ale production in the 1970’s but rebuilt is cask packaging line in the 1980’s with the resurgence of popularity of real ale.


The brew from any given batch may be blended with other batches, depending upon the results of post-fermentation analysis, either at racking or packaging time. The heavy beer is diluted at packaging time from 5½% alcohol to 3½% (draft) or 4% (cans). Non-cask ale is flash pasteurized immediately before the keg or can is filled. Some, such as Beamish and John Smith Bitter, have NO2 injected. Unlike in the south of England, all ales in the north and in Scotland have a thick, creamy head – even the cask ales, due to a difference in the dispensing mechanism.

The kegging operation is impressive. There are fourteen kegging lanes, and typically they are all in operation. Each lane has four heads: the first empties any sediment from the keg; the second and third clean and disinfect it, and fill it with steam; and the fourth fills it with beer. Random samples of kegs are weighed and recorded, and the records are inspected by the government. That ensures the pub owner – and therefore the customer – will have a full keg when the time comes to consume it.


Courage/S&N beers are common throughout Britain and Ireland, and for that matter in Portland. You won’t see anything called John Smith’s Bitter here – it seems to be an England-only phenomenon – but there are several examples around. An easy one to find is the export namesake John Courage at Produce Row. Newcastle Brown Ale is an exemplar of the style and is available in bottles in many stores. CS&N labels you’ll often find on the shelves at Burlingame Market include: Younger (Best Bitter, IPA), McEwan’s (Scottish Ale), and Theakston (Old Peculier).

The ones I tried on our trip – and took notes on! – were:

Theakston Best Bitter – The Traveller’s Rest, Witton-Gilbert, England – Cask ale with long-lasting medium head. Gold color, hoppy aroma, not very estery or citrusy. Thin bodied, medium bitterness, low sweetness, low to medium maltiness, low but noticeable hop flavor, slightly hoppy finish.

Younger’s IPA (nitro) – Cutter’s Wharf, Belfast, Northern Ireland – Creamy nitro head, deep gold to pale red in color, good clarity after settling the required three minutes. Citrusy/hoppy aroma, thin to medium body, moderate maltiness and bitterness, traces of caramel in the flavor. Sweet finish with a citrusy hop presence.

Younger’s Tartan Special – Tigh-an-Truish, Seil Island, Scotland – Cask ale with deep copper color, low but long-lasting head. Very little detectable aroma. Bitter and hoppy up front, moderately low body, malty/bready flavor but low in sweetness, some caramel. Dry, hoppy finish.

McEwan’s Export Ale – Himalaya’s, Edinburgh, Scotland – Large foamy head, fell out almost completely by mid-glass. Malty sweet aroma, some hop/citrus in aroma. Medium bodied, malty, sweet, moderately low bitterness, sweet finish.


Our personal guided tour of the John Smith brewery was a memorable experience, not only for Mark O’Shea’s generosity with his time, attention, and information, but also because it was a glimpse inside one of the “big boys” in the U.K.

The differences in scale clearly lead brewers to different decisions about process, capital investment, and packaging. Smith’s ability to invest in alternative packaging methods rests in their greater capital reserves and market penetration than, say, Caledonian. Caledonian’s size leads to a boutique image and premium product pricing regardless. Thus, consistency measures such as blending and cost-cutting measures such as heavy wort boils don’t play a role, while they can make a significant difference in a large brewery like John Smith’s. Moreover, the engineering and research that produce the brewery, the product, and the packaging plant at Smith’s are truly impressive and are envied by smaller breweries.

One can only hope that the market dominance of Courage/S&N in Britain does not obliterate the long, fine tradition of local brewing styles and the diversity of products in the breweries they overtake. While both are enjoyable, the malty richness and thick creamy heads of beers in Scotland and Northern England are a world apart from the thinner, less carbonated, more bitter styles found near London. If justice prevails in brewing, the next Brew Crew member to visit the John Smith’s Brewery will find them brewing John Smith’s Bitter the way they do today.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Treating Portland Water With Style

Most homebrewers understand and pay proper attention to the contributions that malt, hops, and yeast each make to the flavor and character of their beer. Many, however, overlook the role of their brew's most plentiful ingredient: water. But the pH, mineral content, and hardness of brewing water can significantly affect the all-grain brewer's ability to extract fermentable sugars from the grain, and hence, the brewer's ability to obtain the desired flavor profile for a particular style of beer.

This article takes a practical look at the mineral treatment of Portland (Bull Run Reservoir) water for brewing purposes, and in particular, for brewing different styles of beer.

Many beer styles are associated with particular cities -- for instance, Pale Ales with Burton-upon-Trent, England; Stouts with Dublin, Ireland; and so on. Part of the reason that these beers were successful in their respective cities, and became so closely associated with these cities, is that the character of the cities' water is particularly well-suited to the characteristics of the beer style. For example, the hard water of Burton-upon-Trent is high in sulfates, which accentuates hop bitterness and flavor. It stands to reason, then, that if we can treat Portland's water to match Burton-upon-Trent's water, then we should be able to produce a more authentic IPA.

Fortunately, the water we get in Portland is soft and low in most minerals. Thus, all we need to do is add the appropriate salts in the right proportion to emulate the target city's water.

The mineral content of Portland's water is summarized in Table I (Source: Bureau of Water Works). Similar analyses are readily available from the water utility in most cities. Table II summarizes the impact of adding 1 gram of a given salt to 1 gallon of water.

Table I: Portland Water
Calcium Magnesium Sodium Chloride Sulfates Carbonates Hardness
1.8 0.75 1.6 10 0.5 7.5 8.6

Table II: Effect (+ppm) of adding 1 gram of salt per gallon of water
Salt Calcium Magnesium Sodium Chloride Sulfates
Baking soda










Table salt

104 160


Given the water characteristics of a given city, we can now apply these salts to Portland's water to approximate the water characteristics of that city. Table III summarizes the water characteristics of several cities important in the brewing world, and notes the style of beer associated with each city. For each city in the table, the first line summarizes the characteristics of the water actually in that city; the second line is Portland water, adjusted with brewing salts. The amount of salts added per gallon is given in Table IV.

Table III: Beer Styles and Water Characteristics of Various Brewing Cities
City Calcium Magnesium Sodium
Chloride Sulfates Carbonates Hardness
Burton-on-Trent 295 45 55
25 725 300 850
Pale Ales 294 45 54
10 620 300 345
Dortmund 250 25 70
100 280 550 750
Malty, bitter ambers 250 24 77
99 212 420 445
Dublin 115 4 12
19 55 200 300
Dry stouts 116 1 17
10 45 189 190
Edinburgh 120 25 55
20 140 225 350
Malty ales, low bitterness 120 24 50
50 123 224 248
London 50 20 100
60 80 160 400
Porter 50 14 62
74 82 160 174
Munich 75 20 10
2 10 200 250
Dark malty lagers 76 1 2
10 1 119 120
Pilzen 7 2 2
5 5 15 30
Light lagers 2 1 2
10 1 8 9
Vienna 200 60 8
12 125 120 750

192 1 2
10 126 214 215
Water treatment is another tool for the all-grain brewer to use to control the yield of the mash and flavor of the finished beer. The different flavor profiles associated with each style depend in part on the pH, mineral content, and hardness of the brewing water. However, your mash will tolerate significant deviations in mineral content from those found in the city of a particular style's origin, and in fact avoiding the extremes of some cities' water is probably a good idea. The minimalist approach is best; start on the low side, experiment, take good notes, record your results, and adjust accordingly the next time.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Tour of the Caledonian Brewery, Edinburgh, Scotland

by Gary Corbin and Laura Guimond

This is the third in a series about brewery tours that we took in our May 1996 trip to Britain and Ireland.

We were two weeks (and dozens of beers and pubs) into our month-long tour of Britain and Ireland when we landed at the doorstep of the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh, Scotland. Amidst the vast selection of quality beer, however, this tour and this brewery stand out as a special memory of the trip and of Scotland in particular.

We were met at the appointed time by George Thomson, a “retired” master brewer and maltster at Caledonian, for our personal tour. Mr. Thomson, who started brewing at University in 1939 and at Caledonian in 1948, came in on his day off and spent two hours with us. He was very knowledgeable and forthcoming, and gave us a no-holds barred tour – we saw it all up close.

The Beers

Caledonian ales (they produce no lagers) are known to Oregon beer drinkers through its Golden Promise line of organic beers and its MacAndrews Scottish Ale. Caledonian also sells Caledonian Amber Ale in the U.S., primarily on the east coast, and a range of products locally (including Deucher’s IPA, which will be reviewed in a later article).

A local custom is to name beers (particularly bitters) rather simply, based on historical taxation standards. The ales were taxed according to their expected alcoholic strength (original gravity). For example, the Caledonian 80/-, or “80 shilling” ale, is the beer brewed at the strength traditionally taxed at 80 shillings per barrel. Typical drafts range from 60/- to 80/-, giving the pub drinker a fair metric by which to compare beers from a particular brewery or across breweries.

The Brewery

Caledonian has been malting and brewing in Edinburgh since 1869. At one time it was one of 16-20 breweries in Edinburgh; today, only three (including Caledonian) remain independent of the Scottish and Newcastle brewing conglomerate. Two brothers own and run the brewery: Russel Sharp is the head brewer, and is also a distiller; brother Dougal is the head “working” brewer.

Caledonian is proud to follow traditional brewing methods, producing primarily cask-conditioned ales. Some products are bottled under contract by Sam Smith’s at Tadcaster. Caledonian does not add sugar or coloring agents; they claim to be the only brewery in Britain to use 100% malt to produce their wort. They also boast the oldest copper kettle in use in Britain – in use since they opened in 1869. This kettle, its component parts riveted together rather than welded, was originally fired with coal, but has been retrofitted and is now gas-fired.

Malting at Caledonian

Caledonian’s malting house, which supplied the brewery with its malt since 1869, tragically burned down in 1995. The malting house per se will not be rebuilt; the building is under reconstruction now to create a museum, offices, and storage cellar.

For most of its history, Caledonian used traditional malting techniques: barley was steeped three days until germination, after which it was shoveled onto floors in an 8” bed and hand-turned with shovels to aerate it. (Recently, the turning of the grain was automated, and the grain was sprayed rather than immersed to initiate germination. ) The malt was then kilned to the extent needed to produce the three types of malt used at Caledonian: pale, amber, and black.


With destruction of malting house, they now buy low-nitrogen malt from maltsters in Lothian, Scotland.
Originally, Caledonian used water from their own well until an oil slick penetrated their water supply, causing them to switch to city water. Yeast is cultivated and reused from batch to batch for up to one year, or until inspection under microscope shows that the level of dead cells is too high.

Caledonian uses only English hops in its brews, typically Fuggles and Goldings, except in its organic beers; in that beer they use Styrian Goldings imported from Slovenia. Hops are kept in a 15’ x 30’ cold storage room. On one side of the room they keep what Mr. Thomson described as “the old hops, used for boiling,” and on the other side were the fresh aroma hops. We were able to stroll around the room, grab and sniff handfuls of hops, and generally just enjoy the lovely aroma.


Sometimes homebrewers get up in the morning and decide to brew up a batch later that afternoon; not so Scottish microbrewers. All batches must be logged 48 hours in advance for possible excise tax inspection, which can happen anytime. Inspectors have keys to the breweries in Scotland. Batches planned or in process while we toured were the Caledonian 80/- and the IPA.

Caledonian uses an extended, 6½ hour mash/sparge process, with constant mixing and spraying throughout. Five taps below the mash tun drain the wort to the kettle, and can be used to draw samples to test the wort during the mash. The typical brew length is 50-60 barrels, two per fermentation tank. Thus two of their three kettles are used to fill a single fermenter. After the mash, a mechanical rake removes spent grains, which are then sold as cattle feed.

The wort is boiled at a super-hot 149C for about two hours. The first hops are added two hours before the end of the boil, and true to Scottish tastes, the flavor/aroma hops are added no later than 20-30 minutes before the end of the boil. In earlier days, Caledonian used to rub casks with fresh hops as its final “dry hop” addition. That practice is no longer followed, and in fact Caledonian no longer dry hops at all.

Hot wort is first pumped to a hop strainer for 30 minutes, then pumped to a heat exchanger, essentially a set of pipes in a jacket of cold water. The cooling system is very efficient – it takes about 50 minutes to cool a 50-barrel batch. The output hot water is reused for cleaning and heating.

After the yeast is pitched, it is roused for a while to oxygenate the wort. Caledonian uses single-stage, open fermentation – so open, in fact, that we were able to scoop some krausen off the top and sides of the fermenter and taste the green, bubbly beer-to-be.

The fermentation takes place on a rigid one week schedule. If the fermentation is too slow, the brewer may add hot water to raise the fermentation temperature, or cold water if it is too fast. Krausen is skimmed three times during this period. Once fermentation is complete, a World War II-era yeast press (they were expecting delivery of a new one just a week after our tour) is used to remove additional unwanted yeast from the beer. The yeast sticks to the sheets in the press; the sheets are removed and the yeast is scraped off and tested for viability and accordingly either re-used or tossed out.

While Caledonian does use a yeast press, they do not filter the beer. Draft beer is racked from the fermenter to a small staging tun, from which it is packaged into stainless steel casks, which are hand-bunged. Powdered isinglass is combined with water, sulfurous acid, and bicarbonate, then added directly to the cask, from which the beer is served in pubs a few days later.

Caledonian does sell bottled beer, but does not bottle itw own; beer to be bottled is racked from the fermenter to a large tank which is then shipped to Sam Smith’s in Tadcaster. Smith’s pasteurizes and filters the beer to be bottled and force-carbonates it before shipping it to market.

A satisfying conclusion

While the tasting room was not open due to the recent fire, we were able to taste Caledonian’s beers in local pubs and found them highly enjoyable – probably hoppier than most Scottish ales, more like Grant’s Scottish Ale than, say, Younger’s or McEwan’s.

The tour was brought to a satisfying close with a friendly question-and-answer session in their cozy business office. An Oregon Brewer’s Festival T-shirt is now in the proud possession of the office manager, and a we were treated to a few souvenirs of the brewery. I will be reminded of this excellent tour each time I draw a homebrew into my Caledonian pint glass. Mr. Thomson – cheers, and thank you.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Willamette Valley Wines: High Quality, Rising Prices

In a change of pace from the normal beer and pub reviews, today we'll focus a bit on wine.

This weekend, several wineries around the Willamette Valley opened their private doors for advance tastings of their fall releases. While over 100 wineries in the region expect hordes of visitors over the Thanksgiving weekend, these wineries devoted these early tastings to regular customers, and in some cases admitted guests by invitation only.

My group of nine wine aficionados started at a place affectionately called "The Nut House," an old filbert-shelling plant taken over by Sineann, Owen Roe,, and O'Reilly's. The three wineries offered twenty-four wines, including Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Cabernet and blended wines at prices ranging from $12 to $60. With so many wines, it was impossible to try them all, but we made a valiant effort. From Sineann, my favorite was the 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel, overpriced just a tad for my budget at $36/bottle ($30 by the case). Their three pinots were also good but somewhat extracted, very acidic, and priced well above their competitors at the same quality levels ($30-$48/$25-$42). Their Resonance was a fine, balanced Pinot but wines of equal quality can be found for much less elsewhere.

Owen Roe's wines were more varied both in terms of grape variety and quaffability. Their Dundee Hills Pinot was not up to its $42 price tag. Their Sharecropper's Cabernet Sauvingnon was a good value at $18 ($15 by the case) and much better than O'Reilly's Cab at $13. Of their two Syrahs, the Lady Rosa was much superior to the Ex Umbris, but at nearly twice the price ($45 vs $24) it priced itself out of consideration.

Our next stop was to a brand-new winery just opening its doors for the first time: Barking Frog. As with Sineann and Owen Roe, we found their Pinot quite acceptable but at $32, too expensive for what you get. However, their two hot-climate varietals, a Sangiovese ($25) and a Syrah ($30), were quite nice and great values for that quality of wine. The Sangiovese was fruit-forward and lightly tannic but surprisingly dry in the finish. The Syrah was bold and round but still soft on the palate with a moderately fruity finish.

Stop number three was Adelsheim Vineyard. I skipped the Chardonnay as I've had it often, but the Auxerrois was a nice, crisp white in limited production; it probably will run out this weekend. Their 2005 Willamette Valley Pinot was excellent and at$30 ($24 case price) was well worthwhile. The 2005 Elizabeth's Reserve at $44 ($36 case price) was an outstanding wine but not worth $12/bottle more IMHO. The 2005 Bryant Creek at $42 ($34) is more acidic and assertive and will age well, but it flavor was still a bit sharp and is not ready to be served on my dinner table.

Brick House had only three wines to taste, and if I were not on their mailing list, I might not have stayed for the $20 tasting fee (which included a souvenir glass). However, I'm glad I did get to taste. I'm not a fan of Chardonnay, typically, but theirs was light and crisp - more of the French Style than the sweet California-style wines we more typically get here in Oregon. Their Gamay Noir is an aggressive, fruit-forward wine that would complement any meal and at $22 will protect your more expensive wines and still give great satisfaction. Brickhouse did not produce their usual Cuvee in 2005 due to low yields, but instead produced a blended Pinot Noir that was smooth and balanced, with a definite fruit nose and palate and enough acidity and tannins in the backbone to give it good aging quality. At $30 this wine out-tasted all of the $40+ pinots we'd had all day; however, that price goes up $5 as of November 24.

Brickhouse also offered tastings from the barrel of a 2006 Pommard clone. The partially fermented juice was big and bold, particularly for a Pinot. Vineyard staff tasted and tested their crop twice daily to find the optimum point for harvest in terms of yield, sugar content and acidity. Whereas they, like probably all Pinot vineyards, suffered a low-acid but high-Brix crop in 2006, proper acidulation as practiced by Brickhouse winemaker Doug Tonnelier will make 2006 a banner year for Oregon wines, especially Pinot Noir.

Our final stop was Brickhouse's neighbor, Grochau Cellars, housed with Aramenta. Due to growing palate fatigue we limited our tasting there. Grochau and Aramenta wines vary in quality with the character of the yield more so than many other wines I have encountered, but they are good value wines in strong vintage years. Unfortunately 2005 was not one of those in my opinion: they were unable to soften the harsh acidity that many winemakers encountered. Their Reserve Pinot Noir ($34) was significantly better - softer, more balanced, with well-defined fruit - than their "regular" 2005 Pinot Noir.

Overall, we found that many Oregon winemakers are pursuing top-dollar price points with their pinot noirs and no doubt are finding willing buyers. High demand for this increasingly popular wine will continue to push its price up, particularly for low-yield years like 2005. 2006's high-yield, high-Brix, low-acidity crop will enable skilled winemakers to fulfill this growing demand next year and increase profits without, hopefully, raising prices. Meanwhile, the Oregon market, and particularly the Willamette Valley, maintains its diversity with hot-climate wines such as Syrah and Sangiovese from the Columbia Valley and southern Oregon region, giving price-sensitive consumers alternatives in a Pinot-dominated region.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Micros no Trouble in Dublin

I spent two weeks in Ireland again in July, 2000, and more of my time (believe it or not) on beer than on the first trip. In this article, I recount the brews and pubs that brought me joy in the great city of Dublin.

Two weeks is not enough time to sample all of Dublin's (much less Ireland's) best beer, and one blog isn't enough space to tell you everything about it. But, lads and lasses, just keep that music playin' -- I'm gonna try.

Guinness - St James Gate, Dublin

Let's start with the big boys. I won't regale you with stories of the countless pints of the delicious black stuff I had all over the country. When I say it's better there because it's fresher, you have two choices: take my word for it, or better yet, go see (taste) for yourself. It's a sublime experience you'll want to repeat over and over.

Guinness just absolutely dominates the Irish beer market, just as Bud does here, and after 50 or 60 pints of the stuff, even an excellent stout can make you long for diversity. Not wanting to cede even one pint to the opposition, even the mighty Guinness has developed some new non-stout products for the Irish market.

Brio - Frankly I can't give this bland wheat beer a fair review. One sip was enough. You've had others like it. Let me save you 3 bucks… bypass this beer when you're there.

Guinness Cold - This is how Guinness was not meant to be sold. No need to go there for it - you've probably had it here! As you'd expect, it deadens all flavor perception. It's everything you've ever had in a Guinness… and less.

The Porter House Brewing Company - Temple Bar, Dublin

The Porter House moved from suburban Dun Laeghere to the posh Temple Bar district in Dublin just one scant month after my last visit to the streets of Molly Mallone. To make up for it, I visited this excellent pub no less than four times in the four days I spent there. The Porter House is a very relaxed albeit slightly upscale pub by day - and a rockin' hip locals joint by night.

I can't say much about the food (I had the only vegetarian entrée, a decent Ploughman's sandwich on crusty fresh bread) but the beers are on par with anything you'll find here in Portland. Not only are their own draft brews dynamic and fresh, but they had 4-5 European guest taps and at least 30 bottled imports - including over a dozen Belgians. Alas, none were from Beervana - but it seems that's more a problem of availability, not choice, as the friendly staff and management knew quite well of Portland's brewing reputation. (The Brew Crew Card - don't leave home without it!)

When (not if) you go to the Porter House, bring your favorite souvenir beers with you. You'll get a free pint for any filled bottle you bring that they don't have in their collection.

Chiller N.A. Lager - Very pale and clear; a hoppy nose with some DMS, aroma a bit sweet but subtle overall. Taste also very subtle, predominantly malty with low bitterness and some corn sweetness, and low but fruity hop flavor. Thin bodies with a crisp finish. 4.2%

Temple Brau - A very nice European pilsener-style beer. A bit deeper gold than Chiller. Malty nose, some wheat graininess. Malt-balanced but dry, with low hop bitterness (although more than the Chiller), slightly bitter on the finish. A rather nice pils. abv 4.3%

Hersbrucker - An excellent Bohemian pilsener. Deep gold, thick long-lasting white creamy head with a strong floral noble-hop nose, a hint of DMS. Medium bodied, big malty flavor, but balanced by strong, smooth bitterness. High Saaz hop flavor through to its malty finish with lingering bitterness. abv 5%

Porterhouse Red - Good but fairly typical example of an "Irish Red Ale" the way they really make them. Hoppy fruity nose with lots of malt and caramel sweetness. Smooth with substantial body. Malty sweet with some carmel flavor, medium-low bitterness but high hop flavor. Sweet, caramelly finish; some toasty notes throughout. abv 4.4%

Plain Porter - on nitro. Black as night, with a creamy thick tan head. Flavor and aroma are chocolatey, roasty, malty, low on the hop flavor/aroma scale. A roasty finish like a stout - but not as deep as their stouts… abv 4.3%

Oyster Stout - A nice smooth stout, and yes, it really has oysters in it! Black with a creamy head; malty sweet nose, fairly roasty. Sweet, malty, roasty but smooth flavor, all lingers long on the tongue. Moderate-high bitterness balanced by all that malt. abv 4.8%

Wrassler's XXXX Stout - This is why I kept going back. The roastiest stout on the planet that you can actually drink - and enjoy - a lot! Pitch black with a dark brown creamy head. Roasty, smoky aroma. Full-bodied, rich, thich, and roasty, malty but not at all sweet. High bitterness from both hops and roast malt - this beer has a bit of an edge. Bitter roast-malt finish. abv 5%

An Brainblasta - A strong ale, not quite barleywine. Malty, somewhat sweet aroma, fruity and estery but not citrusy. Deep gold/copper colored, clear, with a long-lasting thin fine head. Malty flavor, moderately sweet, and warming, this beer would benefit from aging. Medium bitterness, just enough for balance. Fruity - especially on the finish. abv 7%

Messrs Maguire - Burgh Quay (On the Liffey), Dublin

By contrast to the Porter House, Messrs Maguire has no illusions of beer grandeur. Its beers range from bland to rather decent, which is perfect for its target market - the fashionable under-25 Europop crowd, there to see and be seen. That doesn't describe me exactly, so we stayed only long enough to taste one round of beers. Unfortunately that didn't include their "Extra Stout", the one they are most proud of.

American Lager - An excellent representation of style, which is to say, it was basically water. Very subtle nose, light body, low malt flavor, very low bitterness and hop flavor, but smooth and dry.

Euro Lager - The best of the lot. Clear, golden, dense white head. Hoppy (Tettnanger?) nose, some malt there too. Malty flavor, medium bitterness, some DMS, slightly sweet, medium noble hop flavor with a malty finish.

Rusty Red Ale - Very pretty bright red color, thick nitro head. Aroma of light hops, moderately malty, some caramel and fruity esters. Moderately malty flavor, low bitterness but medium hop flavor and a touch of fruit flavor. Balance is toward malt, esp. on the finish.

Plain Stout - Black with a creamy nitro head. Very low aroma of roast malt. Roasty flavor, moderately malty, fairly high bitterness, smooth with a roast malt finish.

Dublin Brewing Company/Cobblestones - Smythfield, Dublin

Dublin Brewing does not have a pub, but they have a good neighbor, a pub named Cobblestones about a block away that is very willing to feature their beers both on draft and in bottles. Cobblestones is situated about two blocks from the Ceol, the Irish musical history museum - an excellent place to tour while you're waiting for the pubs to open (or, in my case, after my 10 AM tour of the Old Jameson Distillery). But I digress. Cobblestones is a true locals pub in the very residential Smythfield section of Dublin, a great place for (low-volume) traditional Irish music and "craic" (conversation, storytelling, fun) in the evening. And a great place for Dublin Brewing Co.'s beer.

Maeve's Crystal Wheat - Named for a 17th century brewess and the namesake of an ancient warrior Queen of Irish legend, this beer is clearly marketed to women for forsake Ireland's darker national drink. Pale gold, clear, malty/grainy, low wheat flavor, with low bitterness and a nice noble hop flavor esp. on the finish. It could pass for a light lager.

Beckett's Pale Ale (bottled and very cold) - Deep gold with a low head, subtle hop nose but a bit fruity. Malty, but highly bitter and medium-high hop flavor, even a bit metallic. Aimed at a Sam Adams Boston Lager, and not too far off.

Revolution Red Ale - Hops! Finally! If only I had found this beer my first night in Dublin, rather than my last… but then, I might have appreciated it less. Strong aroma of English hops and some nutty caremel maltiness. Malty, hoppy flavor - hop-balanced - with medium bitterness. A touch fruity with a hoppy finish. And as you guessed, red in color. A knockout beer, especially after 2 weeks of malty stout and mild red ales.

D'Arcy's Stout - Sweet, malty, mildly roasty aroma. Slightly sweet flavor but very malty, medium-high bitterness, fairly noticeable hop flavor esp. in the finish. A touch fruity, and has a strong roasty finish. A nice sweet stout, and a welcome change of pace from the dry stouts everywhere else.


Beautiful scenery, friendly people, lively music, and fresh beer… what a great country! I recommend a visit, and plan on staying long… this place just charms you. Don't worry about the Troubles - neither side would bother an American anyway. Your greatest worry should be - will there be any beer left after my next trip?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Manor House Breweries in England and Scotland

by Gary Corbin and Laura Guimond

A Tale of Two Breweries:
The Traquair House at Innerleithen, Peeblesshire, Scotland
Stanway House Brewery, Stanton, Cheltenham, England

Another article in a series about the breweries, pubs and beers that we encountered in our recent trip to Britain and Ireland.

Traquair House

Near the end of May, 1996, on the way south from Scotland to England, we visited the Traquair House, an old manor house converted to a B&B. Traquair’s importance in the U.K. brewing world stems from its historical roots as a manor house brewery, its pre-CAMRA (1965) reintroduction of “real ale” to the commercial market, and last but certainly not least, as host of the annual Scottish Ale Festival. The Brewmaster had taken the day off, having worked into the wee hours the previous weekend on the Festival, so we conducted our own self-guided tour.

In the 1960’s, Traquair’s operators discovered the remains of the tiny 18th century brewhouse, located in the basement underneath the chapel. They restored it and eventually expanded it from its original single room (about 12’x20’) to two. The original copper and mash tun were still in use (or, at least, on display), and it was obviously a working brewery, although smaller and more rustic than most microbreweries in Oregon.

Bottles of the ales were on sale in the tea house at the entrance to the property, though we opted for a draft pint in the nearby Traquair Arms pub. The Traquair Bear Ale is deep copper in color, with an unusually rocky head for a cask-brewed beer. It has a sweet, citrusy, slightly winy aroma, and the flavor sweet and malty, with a bit of tartness from hops. Both sweetness and tartness lingered through the complex finish, with some woodiness and cidery or winy elements evident. You can try Traquair’s House Ale at Higgins restaurant in downtown Portland. We recommend it!

Stanway Brewery

Stanway, nestled in the tiny Cotswolds village of Stanton, is another restored-manor-house brewery, dating from the 17th century. Master Brewer Alexander Pennycook restored the tiny brewhouse, which boasts the only log fired coppers in England. One of these coppers is currently in use, but requires that one climb a 20’ ladder to peer over the top – which of course we did. (Even more than most UK breweries, this one would never pass OSHA standards.) The remainder of the brewery consists of modern equipment.

While driving through Broad Campden, Gloucestershire, we had chanced to meet Alexander in the Baker’s Arms pub one morning (we were definitely in relaxation mode by now), and tried his Stanney Bitter there. Before taking the first sip, we were warned by Alex himself that he was “a real hophead.” That was an understatement! This brew, at 80 IBU and 4.5% alcohol, challenges the hop tolerance of a Pacific Northwest IPA lover. Its thick, white, creamy head and clear, gold color make it a beautiful beer. Its medium body and maltiness are overcome by the extreme hop bitterness. Interestingly, hop aroma was slight, but the hop flavor was strong in the finish.

As we sipped his ale in the pub, Alexander invited us to his brewery’s open house later that afternoon. Who could turn down an invitation like that? There we tried his Lords-a-Leaping Ale (4.5%), brown and sweeter but still 60-70 IBU. To most mere mortals, it’s is an aggressively hopped IPA, but Alexander described it as “bland”!

Alexander claimed not to be much for the business side of things, and proved it by “forgetting” (with a big grin) to charge people for the pints he poured them. At one point, with the addition of a local buddy of his, we were his only visitors, so he excused himself to use the restroom. As he exited, a group of Belgian tourists entered. Torn for a moment, he recalled our OBC credentials, and asked us to take care of the visitors! So, what the heck, we poured them a pint and gave them a tour. Judging from the “bitter beer faces” we saw, these folks got more IBU’s in a single glass of Stanney Bitter than they get in a week from their own country’s excellent brews.

Stanway’s ales are new even to the English market, so it is doubtful you’ll find them in the U.S. But when you go to England, you’ll want to tour the Cotswolds; and while you’re there, give Alexander Pennycook’s beers a try.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Suds in Kiwi-land

I landed in Auckland, New Zealand, on February 25, 2004, for a three-week adventure that I will always remember. I had hoped to discover some good beers and wines there, although it wasn't the main reason for going. I did find some, too. But while I had many memorable adventures every day of my visit, I didn't really experience the country's good beer and wine offerings until over a week later, after taking a ferry to the south island.

Marlborough Country

In fact, my first stop on the south island was Blenheim, heart of En Zed wine country, for a taste of Marlborough's best. That's right, it's Marlborough country. The winery I selected, partly by reputation and partly by convenience, was Montana winery, primarily a Sauvignon Blanc house but recently a major player in the Down Under pinot world as well. The tasting at the end (yes, let's cut right to the good part, shall we?) included the very nice sauv blanc, an insipid and too-sweet chardonnay, a cab-merlot, and a dessert wine. One of the other tourists also asked for a pinot reserve sample, which we were blessed with shortly thereafter. I bought a bottle of the cab-sauv reserve (the label for this particular wine was called Corban, so I had to!) and their top-label pinot; I enjoyed the cab-sauv over the next 3 nights, but didn't waited several days on the pinot, for the right moment. That turned out to be in Kaikoura, after a day of whale-watching and swimming with dolphins. If you haven't done either of these things yet in your life, you really must.

As if making up for lost time on the north island, my very next stop was a Cork and Keg brewpub in Renwick, some 30 kilometers away. After sampling tasters of the pilsener, an “ale” (essentially an English Ordinary Bitter), and a “dark” (brown ale), I surprised myself by opting for a 12-oz of the pils. It was, unlike the others, malty and flavorful, with a bit of a hop kick, particularly in the nose and finish – nicely done. The other two were fairly bland replicas of each other, the darker one just a titch sharper due to the apparent small amount of extra roasted malts in the grist. I also learned here that “chilis” does not mean jalapeno or other hot peppers, but chili with meat. I'm vegetarian, so as a result, half of my nachos, purchased to soak up alcohol, were left behind.

Not to worry. Nelson, my destination, was not far, and on the way I gained some more company – Daniel from Saskatoon and Fedena from Cork, Ireland, hitchhikers who had been on the road nearly 4 months together and had another couple of months to go. Like many young folks who come here, they were working their way across this beautiful country, typically on farms or the like, earning enough money to move on to the next beautiful spot they'd heard good things about. They were on a mission to take all of the Great Walks in New Zealand, and like me had just come to the South Island. There are 4 or 5 Great Walks, including a longer version of my Tongariro trek, and the one they were heading to now – the Abel Tasman tramp, a four-day walk along a very gorgeous albeit bug-infested coastline. We traded stories of New Zealand and elsewhere, and the time passed very quickly before I dropped them off in Nelson central and checked into my hostel.

The South Island's Pacific Northwest

A few days later I was in Monteith's brewery on the northern part of the west coast for a fun tour and a taster. Monteith's is a fairly significant microbrewery, perhaps the largest micro in NZ, and they produce some very fine beers, including their “Black,” or stout, that I most frequently choose. The brewery's uniqueness is that all of their hot water is heated in a single coal-fired burner. The resulting hot water and steam is used for all boiling, cleaning, etc. in the entire operation. The beer samples themselves included a fairly nice pale ale ("Original"), although not hoppy by Portland standards; a decent "pilsener" (made with the same ale yeast and "aged" 3 weeks, just like their ales), a bland golden billed as a North German lager (?), a very interesting "Frank Zappa Summer Ale" made with a lot of ginger, closely resembling a ginger beer; a malty, nutty Celtic ale; and the Black. I could only take small sips as I needed to drive on. But Erin, a young Canadian sitting at the tasting table with me, reminded me that Punikaiki, or "Pancake Rocks", was just 40K away. A must-see.

So back north I went, this time up the spectacular rocky coast, with steep cliffs (45-60 degrees at times) and offshore rock formations diverting my attention from an already challenging task - driving, nearly sober, on the left side of the road. I made it in one piece, some 45 minutes and several frames of photos later, for the short stroll around the viewing walkway. The rocks themselves are thin jags of eroded limestone hundreds of feet high and perhaps a dozen or two feet wide at the base, sharp like razors at the top, and etched by wind and water with various crevices and patterns all the way up and down. Reds, yellows, tans, and black again graced nature's palette, framed in the greenery of seaside rainforest plants, the blue-green and white spray foam of the sea, and the pale blues, greys, and whites of a cloudy summer sky.

I was grateful to my pub-mate for this tip, to be sure.

Green Beer? Um, no.

One of my final nights in New Zealand was on St. Patrick's Day. I'd seen some incredible sights by now and experienced some amazing thrills. As evidence that I've been spoiled, I drove from Kaikoura to Christchurch through countryside that three weeks ago would have planted my awe-gaping chin on my chest, but on this day left me bored and focused on driving.

I was ready for a change of pace - more beer, to be precise - and I found it quickly enough. Barely an hour after arriving, I was touring the Canterbury Brewery and Heritage Centre with a Scottish couple on their last holiday before retiring to Spain, and twelve business school students with their proctor on a field trip: seven Chinese, four locals, and a Fijian. The tour was a St James Gate-style wax museum tour, and appropriately, this Guinness subsidiary was brewing the legendary stout on St Pat's day. The tour ended with the obligatory tasting of a light lager, a lighter lager, and a coppery pale ale, poured by the aspiring future executives of the hospitality industry.

Wandering Christchurch, I landed at Cathedral Square, munching hot chips while watching chess challenges on the giant game board built into the pavement, with 3-foot chess pieces lugged around by the competitors for easy viewing by spectators. Then it was time to begin the serious St Pat's beer drinking, at Bailie's, right next to the cathedral. Never mind that it's an Anglican church; everybody's Irish Catholic on the 17th. It was the most international St Pat's I've ever seen. I met people from NZ, US, Germany, Luxembourg, and Finland, among others.

There I met Miriam from Finland, who decided to join me on a pub crawl, so we went next door to the hostel where my old British pal of two weeks, Becky, had instructed me to meet her. But Becky decided to bag the crawl and just set out drinking on her own. In the spirit of spontaneity, Miriam and I talked each other into a spur of the moment 25-minute walk to Jade Stadium, the rugby field. Not for rugby, mind you; for the last-ever live performance of Meatloaf, in concert that night in all his 70's glory, accompanied no less by the Auckland Philharmonic.

How long had it been since Meatloaf performed? Miriam was born that year - 1978. But nobody can put on a rock anthem like Meatloaf, and he performed all the classics: "All Rev'd up and No Place to Go;" "You Took the Words Right Out of my Mouth;" "Couldn't Have Said it Better;" "Two out of Three Ain't Bad;" a great cover of Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns, and Money;" and the finale, "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," acted out on stage by Meatloaf and his duet partner, dressed in the obligatory 70's short skirt and bleach-blonde wig. For the encore, they played "Anything for Love" (if that's the right name) and their anthem, a 15-minute version of "Bat Out of Hell." They played their hearts out and it was exhilarating.

On exit, we met up with some folks we'd had beers with at Bailie's, so back we went for more stout. The group grew and shrank and grew again as the night went on, and eventually I was drinking with Nelly from Germany and Carl from Luxembourg, who had no connection whatsoever to the original group. Many pints of Guinness later, we walked Nelly to her hostel, and Carl and I headed back to the YHA where we both were staying.

Don't go just for beer

New Zealand is not a hop-head's haven. In fact it's not really known for its beer at all, and that is not an oversight. There is much to do and much good beer to be had, but the suds you find are merely an accompaniment to the many fabulous adventures this country has to offer. Go, by all means go - but for the scenery and adrenaline sports, not for the beer.