Remembering the Ethnographer Michael Jackson

Memorial Day is supposed to be reserved for the war dead, but since I’m a pacifist and a provocateur, I’d like to discuss a different deceased person. To my knowledge, Michael Jackson never served in the military. There are a few curiosities about his life, but mainly Jackson was a writer. That’s what he was known for in life, and that’s what he is remembered for. In fact, now nine years after his death he is still the most famous writer on the subject of beer, and still the most authoritative. This causes no small level of indigestion among current writers, but we just have to suck it up. Jackson was the first to break through as a beer writer, and the one who created the conceptual framework we now use to think about beer. Fortunately for us, he was a great thinker, a better writer, and the concepts he set down 40 years ago should be serving us very well for another forty (and possibly 140).
The man rocked a groovy head of hair. (Note the Weinhard’s)
I couldn’t find the source of this picture, incidentally.
On this Memorial Day, I’d like to praise Jackson for an element of his influence that doesn’t get much attention at all, but which is easily the most important. 

Jackson was fundamentally an ethnographer. He wasn’t a brewer and he wasn’t an historian. He called himself a journalist, but his biggest contribution was understanding beer in the context of the culture in which it was brewed. He might have approached beer from the sensory perspective, as much wine writing does, or he could have gone out to breweries and described the beer they made, like a simple journalist. Instead, he did this:

The tradition has died out on the eastern side of Brussels, though the beers in blended form are still served in the cafes of Jezus-Eik to strollers in the forest of Soignes on a Sunday afternoon. Today’s production area is on the western side of the city from Anderlecht to Schepdaal, Beersel, Lembeek, and beyond.

Bruegel lived on this side of Brussels, in its Flemish Old Town, and wandered in the the villages of Payottenland. The church in The Parable of the Blind is clearly Sint-Anna-Pede, between Itterbeek and Schepdaal. Nor, 400 years later, would anyone fail to recognize the Flemings of The Peasant Dance or The Wedding Feast enjoying a beer in one of the many cafes of the valley, probably within sight of Brussels’ skyline.  In The Wedding Feast, beer of a strawy-russet colour is shown being decanted from the type of stoneware crock still often used for Lambic today. The same crocks feature in The Peasant Dance. There are similar images in the paintings of the aptly-named artist Brouwer, who came along in the next century, and no style of beer features more pervasively in Flemish popular art, literature, and folklore than the Lambic family. (Nor, arguably, is any theme more central in Flemish culture than the brewing and consuming of beer of any kind.)

Jackson situated beer in a place. He demonstrated how it was an expression of the culture of the people who made it. That passage I quoted from comes from probably his most impressive work, Great Beers of Belgium (my copy is the third edition), and it really highlights how he brought meaning to the glass of beer we drink. The thing that fueled the American brewing revival was how people fell in love with beer, and Jackson’s culture-rich writing was one of the main vectors of that romance.

His work does not exist without controversy; mention him among a group of writers or historians, and you’ll quickly hear “he got a lot wrong.”  He probably did. (Though such is Jackson’s stature that I’ve never seen anyone with the temerity to write a 14-Biggest-Things-Jackson-Got-Wrong article.) When I was in grad school, my favorite professor, a linguist, offered me the most important piece of real-world information I ever received. Paraphrasing him: “As scholars, we create the theories our students will disprove.” That’s the way of scholarship. You take the incomplete information you have and you build theories. More information inevitably comes, and the theory has to be revised or discarded. Of course Jackson got some things wrong in 1977. This indicates not shoddy work, but old work. What’s remarkable is, after forty years, how much still stands up.

I return to Jackson regularly, in part because he is now a fantastic historical source. He carefully documents a lot about ingredients and methods he encountered over the past four decades. Breweries love to talk about “tradition” and “continuity,” but things change. I have on more than a few occasions quoted Jackson to breweries and asked them if they still make beer that way, or of those ingredients. He may have gotten some history wrong, but beer he documented–now part of our history–is invaluable. Even more–culture has changed. The context of the beers he described in 1977 or ’87 or ’97 has changed. In some cases hugely, in others very little. That distance tells us a lot.

In any case, it’s Memorial Day. So here’s my cheers to Jackson. Hope he’s well, wherever he is–

from Beervana

The Strength of Regional Breweries

If you wanted to characterize brewery trends the in mid-teens, you could say “the rush to nationalization.” Big, regional breweries are pushing out to establish a national footprint, many have begun to open far-flung facilities to make this possible, some are joining forces with other mid-sized breweries, and still others are selling part or all of their stake to multinational breweries. Everyone is thinking that the window to establish national craft brands is closing, and only those who get in now will be competitive. Being national seems like an obvious move. I wonder, though, if being a regional power isn’t a smarter play?

Ninkasi’s big tanks.

Curiously, this isn’t the first rush to nationalize. At the outset, some breweries raced to become national brands, no doubt working on the model created by Budweiser and Miller et. al. Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Pete’s Wicked, Rogue–these brands quickly shot out over the landscape. What they soon learned was that it was very hard to maintain a national network. Larger breweries, which have established distribution networks, relationships with large retailers, sales teams, and so on, do this very well. Little guys don’t have the money, volume, or connections to build 50-state networks while brewing 50,000 barrels. In the 1990s, beer went through a re-set and breweries retrenched and focused on local markets.

Yesterday I visited Ninkasi for the first time in years, and while I gaped at all the recent growth, I chatted with founders Nikos Ridge and Jamie Floyd about business strategies. Ninkasi has always been focused on establishing a firm foothold in the Pacific Northwest, and while I don’t think they would foreclose going national, that seems to be their near- and middle-term focus. While we were talking, I began to muse about the role of the dominant regional brewery in the future beer ecosystem.

Regional breweries have always existed. Even in the worst days of consolidation, the Yuenglings and Schells survived by cultivating a loyal following near their home base. There are also examples across Europe of the strong regional player. In Oregon, the Blitz/Weinhard brewery survived well into the craft era (1999), selling a million barrels of beer in the Northwest. Indeed, where you have strong local breweries, they often far out-sell national competitors. Because, even when national brands do have good national networks, they can’t outcompete brands with a home-court advantage.

Ninkasi is a good example of a strong regional brand. Most of the production is sold in Oregon, and nearly all of it is sold in the Northwest. They do very well in Portland and Eugene. It’s easy to imagine Ninkasi growing to a quarter million barrels of beer based on sales on the west coast alone. New Glarus has managed to grow to be the 27th largest brewery in the US by and they only sell beer in Wisconsin. (Rogue, which sells nationally, is the 41st largest. Ninkasi is 43rd.)

The market is poised to nurture these kinds of breweries, too. Because the national market is getting so tight, building a base near home will be easier, cheaper, and more stable. It allows breweries to cater to local preferences and respond to local trends. Customer engagement is easier when your footprint is five, rather than fifty, states. And given that the craft segment is likely to continue to grow for the next decade or two, breweries can continue to grow themselves without becoming predatory.

It also occurs to me that these forces will make maintaining national brands a constantly-challenging prospect. If the entire country is chunked up by strong regional players–imagine fiefdooms dominated by Brooklyn, Bell’s New Glarus, SweetWater, Abita, Harpoon, Victory, Great Lakes, etc.–the national brands will be fighting against locals everywhere they go. That was the reason consolidation happened in the first place–it was easier to buy regional brands than out-sell them in local markets.

The idea of being a 5m-barrel national brewery must be enticing to ambitious breweries, but shooting for 500,000 barrels and regional dominance might make more sense in the long run, especially if you want to remain an independent.

from Beervana

The Color of Flowers

Williamsburg™ Purple, Chrysanthemum indicum potted flowers on patio plant stand; Licensed Photograph © Syngenta

Have you ever chosen a flowering plant by the color in a catalog or plant tag ?  Since the color we see in flowers is subjective to the color of light surrounding it, how did the photographer know the true color to begin with ?

This Chrysanthemum indicum is called Williamsburg™ Purple.

Williamsburg™ Purple, Chrysanthemum indicum potted flowers on patio plant stand; Licensed Photograph © Syngenta

“Purple” can mean different hues to different people.  Is this the color the breeder wants you to see ?

When I am working on a catalog I use a gray card, a simply industry wide standard tool to calibrate the color, no matter what color the light, and I also use studio strobe lights with a very exact color balance.

Gray card - Williamsburg™ Purple, Chrysanthemum indicum potted flowers on patio plant stand.

On a recent photo shoot for the big agriculture giant, Syngenta, at the California Spring Trials, using a gray card not only allowed me to get the color right, it saved me from an embarrassing mistake.  Instead of setting my camera’s white balance to match the daylight color of the studio strobe lights I was using, I accidentally set the dial to florescent light.  Not a good color choice.

The client would not be very happy to see  Williamsburg™ Purple too blue, without the rich magenta undertones.

Gray card - Williamsburg™ Purple, Chrysanthemum indicum potted flowers on patio plant stand.

It was very obvious when I opened my raw files that every photo was way off.  With the gray card though, it was a quick fix to globally change every photo to the color balance of the strobe lights. In this business, I must get the color right – why else hire a professional ?

I used Adobe Camera Raw, my post production software tool, to change all the photos to the correct white balance.  A simple click of the tool’s dropper function onto the gray card and instantly the computer knows the gray is the exact industry standard neutral gray.


Here is sneak peak of new flower introductions, colors corrected, coming to retail nurseries in the next couple years.

There will be an entire series of Chysanthemums named for cities, like the Williamsburg Purple above.  Chysanthemum indium cultivars have an amazing variety of flower shapes, including spoon shaped petals of Fairbanks™ Purple Spoon:

Fairbanks™ Purple Spoon, Chrysanthemum indicum potted flowers; Licensed Photograph © Syngenta

Milton™ series of Pot mums:

Pot Mum Combo - Spring Milton™, Milton™ Pink. Milton™ Dark Pink, Milton™ Pink Bicolor, potted flowers on patio table - Licensed Photograph © Syngenta

Pelargoniums in the Caliope® Series.  I love the rich color of this one, known for the moment as Medium Dark Red.

Calliope® Medium Dark Red - Pelargonium interspecific potted flowers on patio plant stand; Licensed Photograph © Syngenta

Here Medium Dark Red is paired with Cascade White:

Cascade White - Pelargonium peltatum potted flowers on deck plant stand; Licensed Photograph © Syngenta

How about the color of this Chrysanthemum morifolium  ?  Chrysanthemums usually peak in the fall, so this ‘Stephany Bronze’ is sure to fit right into the season.

'Stephany Bronze', Chrysanthemum morifolium potted flowers on patio; Licensed Photograph © Syngenta

I also got a special peak at the greenhouses at Syngenta, where even newer cultivars are in development, but with names like P2588-14, I can’t leak any new names.

Syngenta Gilroy facilities during 2016 California Spring Trials; Licensed Photograph © Syngenta

You don’t really realize how powerfully fragrant pansies can be until you are in an entire greenhouse filled with them.

Greenhouse light is my favorite, as the whitewashing softens the direct sun but preserves the daylight color balance.  I still use a gray card – in these settings since there can be a color cast to the glass itself, but getting the color exactly right is not so critical.  These photos are not for a catalog.

The main reason for me to be at the Trials was to photograph the new introductions and to bring my lights to calibrate color in a controlled setting.  Take a look at another set up:

Gray card potted flowers on patio plant stand;

Gray card potted flowers on patio plant stand;

Would you know the color is horribly wrong if you did not have the gray card as a calibrating tool?

from Gardening Gone Wild

Why Are We Magnetized By Beers of the Past?

On Monday, archaeologists revealed evidence of a 5,000-year-old Chinese brewery. It got picked up quite broadly and for good reason–it’s pretty cool. (Follow the link if you missed it.) What was odd was that I had just returned from a junket to Copenhagen, where the Carlsberg brewery was unveiling their own project involving old beer–recreating an 1883 beer they found in their extensive cellars. Over the past couple decades, breweries and archaeologists have made a cottage industry of recreating lost beers, and we are always, without fail, magnetized by it. Serious question: why?

One of the actual

The Carlsberg experiment was a case-in-point. Conceptually, it was very cool. The brewery found these old bottles and realized they dated to a period of bottle-conditioning. (I got to take a trip down to one small part of the cellars and came across a different box of dust-encrusted old cage-and-cork bottles of very distant vintage. They’re apparently laying all over the place.) Even after 133 years, they managed to rouse the yeast enough to get it to propagate, and they decided to make a beer from it.

Old brewing logs are great about some things and bad about others. Recipes from the era made it easy to replicate the water, and they went to a seed bank for old varieties of barley, which they had floor-malted at a distillery. (Later, to give the malt the proper 1880s color, they kilned it a bit more.) Hops were more of a mystery. They had some evidence of the provenance–Hallertau–but nothing about the variety or alphas. They decided to use Hallertauer Hallertau and guessed at the bitterness. It took a couple years to get everything in place, and the brewery went into high drive to celebrate its release. You can see a video they put together here, along with a cameo by Martyn Cornell. And of course, they flew me and dozens of members of the media in from all over the world to try the beer.

They finished it off in a wooden barrel for a week–though strangely, an unpitched wooden barrel, which would not have been typical of the day. We were given a tour of some of the technical facilities in Copenhagen (the main brewery is no longer located there) and then joined the brewery for the big unveiling.

The night before, Pete Brown made an obvious point that I think eluded the brewery. They’d set up sort of a no-win situation. Either the beer was going to be sublime, which was the ostensible expectation, or it would be a dud. If it were a dud–well, that’s obviously not good. But if it were sublime, it would cast an odd shadow over the brewery’s 21st century beers. Carlsberg, which is run by a foundation that diverts some profits into technical research, has a heavy R&D bent. The project itself, whatever the beer tasted like, was going to be interesting as a science experiment. I’m sure they learned a great deal. (Not the least of which was that 133-year-old yeast is still viable.)

But on the big day, we tried the beer and …. Well, care to guess? Here’s a picture:

And here’s the ceremony:


Guesses? Guesses? It was … all right. And now we come back to the the question from the top of the post. The beer had an antiquated quality. It was brownish and heavy, quite sweet and undercarbonated. Pale lagers were in the midst of taking over the world, and they were replacing old brown beers. And they were replacing old brown beers, presumably, because they weren’t as tasty. We always romanticize the past, thinking that industrial precision and agricultural manipulation have surely brought us to a benighted state. And that’s not entirely without merit–heirloom apples taste a lot better than giant supermarket fruit.

But I think it’s wrong with beer. I’ve had the opportunity to sample a few recreations, and they always taste weird and un-modern. Attenuation was terrible, so they’re usually heavy and sweet. I don’t think recreations tend to capture the microbiological capriciousness of old beers, either. Technology has given us the tools to make the beer we want now, and much more ably and precisely than at any time in the past. The idea of time-traveling through our tastebuds is alluring, but it’s foolsgold. I’m convinced the past didn’t taste very good.

from Beervana