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Lawmakers brewing up reform to help craft beer industry

Raise your mugs, craft beer drinkers and give a hearty “here-here” to the members of the congressional small brewers caucuses, which are not groups of lawmakers who gather for Capitol Hill happy hours.

Rather, members of the House Small Brewers Caucus and the Senate Bipartisan Small Brewers Caucus are leading an effort to reform federal regulations to help the craft beverage industry grow and modernize. Members include Wisconsin Democrats Tammy Baldwin and Ron Kind. 

“Wisconsin’s brewers have been at the center of our culture and anchors of local communities since our state’s beginning,” said Baldwin, a U.S. senator from Dane County. “Wisconsin beer makers not only brew famous lagers, they create jobs and spur investment in communities throughout the state. They employ Wisconsinites in every corner of the state and reinvest their profits back into their local economies and we need to be investing in them.”

In addition to Baldwin, Kind — a representative from the La Crosse area — and others in the state’s congressional delegation back several measures introduced this session to provide tax relief to brewers, cider makers, vintners and distillers, and to reduce their regulatory burdens.

The state famous for producing beer boasts about 114 craft breweries that have an annual economic impact of $856 million, according to 2013 data. The brewers produce about 859,874 barrels of craft beer each year — the ninth largest number in the country.

TAXED, THEN TAXED AGAIN

One federal measure, the Fair BEER Act, would lower or even eliminate the excise tax imposed on brewers. 

“Excise taxes are taxes that we pay on our production that are in addition to every other tax that small businesses pay,” said Gary Fish, owner of Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, the state with the highest number of craft brewers.

The Fair BEER Act — that’s the Fair Brewers Excise and Economic Relief Act — is sponsored by Kind in the House and Baldwin in the Senate. It would eliminate the federal excise tax for brewers producing up to 7,143 barrels per year, a tax that currently stands at $7 per barrel. Brewers producing 7,144–60,000 barrels would pay $3.50 per barrel — a 50 percent decrease. Above that, producers would pay $16 per barrel up to 2 million. After that, the tax would stand at $18 per barrel, its current rate.

Another measure, the Small BREW Act, specifically deals with craft brewers. As the bill is formally known, the Small Brewer Reinvestment and Expanding Workforce Act would stimulate regional economies with a reduction in the excise tax on each barrel of beer brewed by small brewers. Specifically, the measure would reduce to $3.50 the per-barrel rate on the first 60,000 barrels. For production of 60,001 to 2 million barrels, the rate would be $16 per barrel. Above that, the current rate of $18 would be imposed.

Lowering the excise tax is important to small brewers, who say their margins are tight. Because of different economies of scale, small brewers have higher costs for raw materials, production, packaging, marketing and distribution than multinational brewers.

Adjusting the excise tax would allow small brewers nationwide to annually reinvest about $70 million in growing their businesses, according to Baldwin’s office. In addition, the Small BREW Act would enable Wisconsin craft brewers to reinvest more than $1.5 million into their businesses each year, Baldwin’s office says.

BREWING CONSENSUS

Still, among lawmakers and within the beer industry, there’s a lack of unity behind either the Small BREW or the Fair BEER acts. So federal lawmakers are serving up another bill. Like a lager, it has wide appeal. “The beer-specific provisions of this bill will help brewers and beer importers of all sizes,” said Jim McGreevy, president and CEO of the Beer Institute.

Introduced earlier this summer, the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act aims to help smaller makers of craft beverages and builds upon key provisions in the excise tax bills introduced earlier. 

In the Senate, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced the new bill, with Baldwin and Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri as lead co-sponsors.

Kind, the Democratic lead sponsor of the Fair BEER Act, and U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., the lead on the Small BREW Act, introduced the House version, which has more than 70 co-sponsors. Its bipartisan backing includes right-wing Republican Glenn Grothman.

The CBMTR Act also has the backing of the Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade group of small and independent U.S. brewers and beer enthusiasts, and the Beer Institute, a national trade association that represents brewers, importers and suppliers. In addition, the measure has support from the U.S. Association of Cider Makers and the American Craft Spirits Association.

“This would be very good for us,” said Brad Stillmank of Stillmank Brewing Co. in Green Bay. “We are very solid behind this. … This is all dollars that can be reinvested.”

Specifically, the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act would:

• Reduce the excise tax by half on the first 60,000 barrels from domestic brewers producing fewer than 2 million barrels per year.

• Reduce to $16 the excise tax on the first 6 million barrels for all other brewers and beer importers.

• Simplify beer formulation and label approvals, in part by exempting common beer ingredients from a lengthy government approval process.

• Remove restrictions on tax-free transfers of beer and repeal “unnecessary” inventory restrictions.

• Relax restrictions on alcohol content and carbonation content as well as expand the list of allowable ingredients for cider makers.

• Expand wine producer tax credits.

• Establish reduced excise taxes for small craft distilleries.

• Repeal prohibition of home hobby distilling.

• Exempt 90 percent of craft beverage producers from biweekly tax filings and bonding requirements.

“Our laws should be helping breweries and other craft beverage makers grow, not cut them off with red tape and taxes,” Wyden said.

CRAFT BEER FUELING ECONOMIC GROWTH

Wyden and Baldwin recently got together with craft brewer Fish and Jeff Hamilton, president of Sprecher Brewing Co. in Glendale, Wisconsin, for a Google Hangout session.

About 400 people watched the politicians and the brew-makers talk about beer and business, jobs and economics, red tape and regulations.

Fish pointed out that the reform bill would remove a requirement that small brewers file their taxes every two weeks instead of quarterly.

The federal legislation, Fish said, “could drive the industry to greater heights. Really, this is something that the cost is minimal, the benefit is substantial and, again, I think it is something that has long been needed.”

Baldwin and Hamilton focused on the entrepreneurial spirit of craft brewers and their impact on other sectors of the economy.

“We have a lot of … industries and manufacturing that serve the beer business,” Hamilton said, saying the boom in craft brewing is spurring growth in agriculture, manufacturing, retail, restaurants and more.

Over the summer, Baldwin visited breweries in Green Bay, La Crosse and Milwaukee. She said, “All of these small-business owners and brewmasters have stressed that growth for Wisconsin craft brewing means an increase in employment opportunities and economic growth that benefits the broader Wisconsin economy.”

Hamilton, with a glass of beer beside his left hand, and Baldwin, speaking from her Senate office, also observed the impact craft brewers have on communities, helping to revitalize buildings and neighborhoods.

“They are bringing new life and new commitment to communities across Wisconsin,” Baldwin said. “And this is really a measure that is bringing so many together.”

By the numbers …

19.3 percent
Market share of craft-brewed beer by dollars.

11 percent
Market share of craft-brewed beer by volume in 2014.

22 million
Barrels of beer produced by craft brewers in 2014.

$19.6 billion
Retail value of craft beer sold in 2014.

10 miles
A majority of Americans live at least that close to at least one craft brewer.

6.3 gallons
The amount of beer Wisconsin craft brewers produce for each Wisconsinite of legal drinking age.

Source: Brewers Association

Meaning what …

Small brewer: Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less.

Independent brewer: Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not a craft brewer.

Source: Brewers Association

Breweries big and small go gluten-free

In Madison, as elsewhere, the craft beer movement is booming, and Trevor Easton is one more veteran homebrewer who’s decided to go commercial.

But Easton’s tiny Greenview Brewing, one of several located in the House of Brews facility on Madison’s east side, has one distinct difference from its competition. Bottling under the “Alt Brew” label, Greenview is the only area brewery — and one of only a few in the country — to exclusively brew gluten-free beer.

By definition, gluten-free beer is made from ingredients that do not contain glycoproteins — aka the offending gluten. Glycoproteins are found in barley, wheat and other cereals used to make bakery goods and beer. Gluten-free beer exchanges a malted barley base for other foundational ingredients like millet, rice or sorghum.

It’s largely health issues that have motivated the creation of gluten-free beer. The cereals used in traditional brewing can trigger symptoms for those who are merely gluten sensitive, as well as those who suffer from celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine. Left untreated, celiac disease also can lead to other autoimmune disorders, neurological conditions, short stature or intestinal cancers, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, and complete abstinence from gluten is the only known way to combat it.

That’s the reason veteran brewer Easton set up Greenview Brewing. His wife, Maureen, was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2007, forcing him to cease his home operation. But in May, he started brewing gluten-free beer using his own one-barrel nano-brewery system, which he says is isolated from other House of Brews operations in order to avoid cross-contamination with gluten.

Easton currently distributes beers on a limited basis in 22-oz. “bombers” in Madison, Stoughton and Whitewater. Two brews currently on the market are his Hollywood Nights Blonde IPA and a more traditional-tasting Farmhouse Ale.

Other Wisconsin brewers also have experimented with gluten-free beer. Sprecher Brewing Co., based in Glendale, brews Mbege and Shakparo ales based on traditional West African beer recipes. 

Both brands, originally created for Milwaukee’s African World Festival, were created from a base of sorghum and millet, traditional beer ingredients in regions like West Africa where barley and wheat aren’t as abundant. The beers weren’t purposefully made to be gluten-free, but it’s a happy byproduct.

New Grist Pilsner Style Beer, brewed by Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, follows the rice-and-sorghum formula to remain gluten-free. Described as “a crisp, refreshing session ale” on Lakefront’s website, New Grist has won a half-dozen awards since its introduction in 2006. (See sidebar, page 26.)

One more Wisconsin entry into the category is Stevens Point Brewery’s JP A’Capella Gluten Free Pale Ale. But be advised, this sorghum-based ale has gotten seriously mixed reviews, so it might not be best as your first taste of gluten-free beer.

Here are other gluten-free beers of interest:

Estrella Daura, bottled in Barcelona, may be the best-known, most widely available gluten-free beer on the global market. It may also be the most critically decorated, winning top awards from the International Taste & Quality Institute in Brussels, the World Beer Championship, and the World’s Best Gluten-free Lager Award at The Beverage Tasting Institute’s World Beer Awards.

New Planet Gluten-free Beer, a brewery in Boulder, Colorado, offers a line of gluten-free craft brands, including pale, amber, blonde and brown ales, as well as a raspberry and Belgian ale. Fans laud the variety and heartiness of the lineup.

When U.K. entrepreneur Derek Green was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1988, he vowed he wouldn’t give up his beloved ale. But it took 16 years and a chance meeting with an eminent Belgian professor of brewing before he could come up with a gluten-free beer he liked. Not surprisingly, he named it Discovery, and it helped launch Green’s Gluten Free Beers. Today there are nine different varieties, but Discovery, an amber ale with subtle caramel and nut nuances, still plays a central role.

Epic Brewing Co. claims it has brewed “a gluten-free beer for everybody,” and that may be the best way to describe Glutenator. The Salt Lake City brewer has eschewed sorghum, the most common ingredient in gluten-free beer, for a blend of light-bodied millet, brown rice, sweet potatoes and molasses, along with plenty of American hops. Like most craft beers, it must be tasted to be understood and appreciated.

Sam Calagione, owner and beer wizard at Dogfish Head in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, decided gluten-free beer needn’t be just an experiment in grain. Utilizing a sorghum base like most brewers, he also added honey and strawberries, giving his Tweason’ale a unique profile. Think of it as almost a cider, but not quite.

Lakefront’s gluten-free redefines brewing parameters

Russ Klisch, co-owner of Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, believes in everyone’s right to enjoy a beer. And he knows a market niche when he sees one. 

So in 2006, when Klisch learned that a brewery worker’s family member had been diagnosed with celiac disease, it prompted him to explore possibilities for gluten-free beer. 

At the time, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau required beverages to contain at least 25 percent malted barley in order to be legally sold as “beer,” which prohibited anyone with celiac disease from imbibing in his brews. Lakefront could have produced a line of gluten-free alcoholic beverages (as did Bard’s Tale, a brewery in Minnesota), but Klisch decided instead to try and change the TTB policy.

He came up with a plan for a gluten-free beer and submitted it to the bureau, ultimately convincing TTB officials to create a new category, accommodating beer brewed without malted barley. Their entry in that category, New Grist, now accounts for about 25 percent of the brewery’s total production of nearly two dozen brands, according to Matt Krajnak, Lakefront’s communications director.

“New Grist is brewed with the intent of tasting like a pilsner,” Krajnak says. “It’s made with sorghum and rice, so the flavor profile is quite different from, say, our Klisch Pilsner. The high amount of fermentable sugars in the sorghum and rice extracts make it drier than Klisch Pilsner.

“New Grist also has a slight tanginess, or tartness, reminiscent of a cider, which, I think, is characteristic of malted sorghum. I’ve had other sorghum beers, like Green’s Quest Tripel, which is delicious, that have the same tanginess.”

New Grist earned a Gold Award for Experimental Beer at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival. Five years later, the beer earned a silver medal in the Gluten Free Beer category at the same event, a step that acknowledged a change in the law and indicated the increased appearance and appeal of gluten-free beers across the country.

Good gourd almighty! Pumpkin beers proliferate

Autumn arrives with abundance — the fall harvest, colorful foliage and pumpkin beer, for instance. And with each passing season, the pumpkin beer patch continues to grow.

With all the major brands, craft brewers and brewpubs to consider, there’s no shortage of varieties. Beeradvocate.com recently published its list of the top 50 pumpkin beers, a clear indicator that the seasonal pints are multiplying at an impressive pace.

Skeptics who believe pumpkin beer is simply a seasonal novelty could use a history lesson. Brewers have been making pumpkin beer since Colonial times, when the native North American gourd was thought to have medicinal qualities and was often more plentiful than the grain required to brew more traditional varieties of beer. Some early beer recipes replaced the grain entirely with the meat of the pumpkin.

An early American folk song, written in 1643, contains the following lyrics:

If barley be wanting to make into malt,

For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,

Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-          tree chips.

For those who enjoy variety, character and a little exotic seasoning in their brews, pumpkin beer is the perfect libation for a cool fall night. But if you want some, you’d better hurry! The first brands began hitting the shelves in late August and some popular varieties already are out of stock. 

Here are some brews that might be new to Wisconsin drinkers.

Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery consistently receives high marks for its Pumpkin Lager, which is based on one of Thomas Jefferson’s original recipes. Joining this year’s lineup is Lakefront Pumpkin Imperial, a high-octane beer brewed with spices and vanilla and aged in oak brandy barrels. At 9.5 percent alcohol by volume, Imperial is potent. The high alcohol level dominates the flavor profile, obscuring some of the beer’s subtler elements. With that much alcohol, subtle is not what this beer is about.

Milwaukee Brewing Co. has joined the party this year with Sasquash Pumpkin Porter, a darkly spiced beer that combines specialty malts with 400 pounds of pumpkin and 300 pounds of sweet potatoes per batch. Pouring an almost black-brown with a caramel head at 5 percent ABV, the beer offers essences of cocoa and dark chocolate with light carbonation and an earthy quality from the root vegetables.

Speaking of porters, Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau, Alaska, offers its first Alaskan Pumpkin Porter this year. At 7 percent ABV, the beer is brewed with pumpkin, brown sugar and spices. It pours a dark brown with a strong pumpkin-and-spice nose. Expect nutmeg, cloves and pumpkin on the palate, with a slightly dry character and pleasant mouthfeel.

Red Hook Brewery in Woodinville, Washington, this year introduced Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter, a 5.8 percent ABV brew made with pumpkin, spice and maple syrup. None of those elements lead; rather, they combine in a brewhouse gestalt of balance and finesse in which the whole is truly better than the sum of its parts.

It stands to reason that the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. would produce very powerful beers, and Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale is no exception. At 10 percent ABV, this little darling pours with an orange-ish hue and flavor profile that’s long on cinnamon, along with hints of cloves and nutmeg. The pumpkin flavor comes through, but so does the alcohol in this not-for-the-faint-of-palate libation.

One of our favorites this season has been Wasatch Black o’ Lantern, a pumpkin stout produced by the Utah Brewers Cooperative in Salt Lake City. A blend of Wasatch Pumpkin Ale and Polygamy Porter (we are talking Utah, after all), the 6.5 percent ABV beer pours dark and spicy with an emphasis on nutmeg. Expect a medium-bodied beer with flavors of roasted malt and chocolate blended with pumpkin pie.

A lighter stout and an imperial that’s a little lower in alcohol, the Millstream Brewing Co,’s Great Pumpkin Imperial Stout, brewed in Amana, Iowa, is available only at Brennan’s Market (19000 W. Bluemound Road, Brookfield). At 7.6 percent ABV, it’s not quite imperial strength, and its dry stout character seems to be overbalanced by spices that give it an almost artificial sweetness. But the beer has earthy and roasty malt qualities that come to its rescue, turning it into a nice starter beer for those new to pumpkin brews.

Epic Brewing Co., another Salt Lake City brewer, has combined forces with DC Brau in Washington, D.C., to produce Fermentation Without Representation Imperial Pumpkin Porter. Brewed with 200 pounds of pumpkin, five spices and whole Madagascar vanilla beans, the rich, chocolaty porter weighs in at 8.6 percent ABV. Think chocolate pumpkin pie with whipped topping and an alcoholic bite.

Last year we took a real liking to Pumking, the imperial pumpkin ale from Southern Tier Brewing Co. in Lakewood, New York. This year we found a real friend in Southern Tier Warlock Pumpkin Imperial Stout. At 8.1 percent ABV, Warlock comes on strong, with its “stoutness” playing a supporting role to its roasty malt, pumpkin-forward profile. The huge pumpkin spice aroma, with notes of vanilla and gingerbread, follows through on the palate. If you have ever wondered what roasted pumpkin pie tastes like, this would be about as close as it comes.

Good gourd almighty! Pumpkin beers proliferate

Ain’t no pour like the summertime brews

Dan Carey, co-owner and brewmaster of New Glarus Brewing Co., would like you to enjoy his beer Totally Naked.

Depending on circumstances — and the temperature — you can, of course, enjoy any beer totally naked. But only Carey produces a brand of beer called Totally Naked that can be enjoyed virtually anywhere, regardless of the weather. It’s also a perfect beer to add to your list of summertime brews.

A lager brewed with two-row barley malt and Noble Hop varieties from Germany and the Czech Republic, Totally Naked pours with a bright white head and a light golden color that literally sparkles in the summer sun. The beer’s flavor is light, but creates a significant, yet subtle impression on the palate. It finishes very cleanly, with barely a whisper of aftertaste.

The perfect summer beer is, of course, the beer you enjoy the most. But warmer temperatures generally call for lighter, more refreshing fare. Just like food, there are beers that suit the season, and here are a few for your summer six-pack.

Earlier this year Madison’s Ale Asylum let loose with six-packs of Unshadowed, brewmaster Dean Coffee’s version of the classic hefeweizen. Coffee’s version pours a hazy gold, with the classic wheat backbone balanced by lemon and citrus accents. There is a banana essence on the nose that more or less disappears on the palate. The beer is substantial, even for a hefeweizen, and a good choice for a warm afternoon.

Milwaukee Brewing Co. has taken a retro turn with Outboard, a cream ale that your father would consider “a real beer.” In other words, those who cut their beer-drinking teeth on Pabst, Schlitz and Miller High Life would feel right at home quaffing Outboard. The beer pours golden with a little carbonation and a thin white head. The flavor is crisp in the palate and clean in its finish. This is what they call a ”lawnmower beer” and you’ll want several after toiling on your back 40.

India pale ales are always summer favorites, and one of ours is Hop Whoopin’ from O’so Brewery in Plover, outside Stevens Point. A floral nose leads to a yellow/orange pour and off-white foam, with orange/grapefruit flavors bursting on the palate. Even at 95 international bittering units, the beer’s hop monster status is tamed beneath a creamy mouthfeel and complex characteristics. Yum!

Not far from O’so, Central Waters Brewing Co. in Amherst is turning out many fine beers, not the least of which is its Belgian Blonde Ale. Generally a light-bodied, palatable and lightly malted beer, this blonde ale takes a slightly different turn through its Belgian stylings, which add a little more hoppiness than blonde beer drinkers may expect. At around 8 percent alcohol by volume, it’s also a little stronger, with spiciness on the palate and distinctly Belgian taste characteristics. Refreshing, yet with a little kick all its own.

Summer shouldn’t mean a total absence of dark beer, and 3 Sheeps Baaad Boy Black Wheat Ale from Sheboygan may be the perfect crossover beer for the season. The beer pours dark, but is not quite opaque, with an off-white head and nose of molasses and burnt grain. With flavors of toasty malt and cocoa, the beer has a somewhat complex palate. It retains a crisp characteristic that refreshes, while still meeting the taste profile preferred by dark beer lovers.

One of our go-to summer beers has always been Lake Louie Warped Speed Scotch Ale, from Lake Louie Brewery in the little town of Arena. It’s robust, “wee heavy” dark in color, and rich in flavor characteristics. In July, brewmaster Tom Porter will release Impulse Drive Scotch Ale, a 4.4 percent ABV junior partner to Warped Speed’s 6.9 percent ABV and a “session beer” version of one of our favorites brews. What better way to celebrate the season?

Star Trek fans will immediately recognize the beers’ homage to Mr. Scott, the Enterprise engineer who used the warp drive to hop the ship from star system to star system, and the impulse drive to dodge those nasty Klingon rays. The source of the names doesn’t affect the flavor, of course, but it does add to the beer-drinking fun.