What's in a pint?

Posted in Beer on March 19th, 2015 by Nathan – Be the first to comment
Clearly marked pint lines on one of my favorite glasses: Great British Beer Festival 2013

Clearly marked pint, half-pint, and third-pint lines on one of my favorite glasses: Great British Beer Festival 2013

In the United Kingdom, it is illegal to sell a pint of beer with less than 568mL of liquid. This corresponds to 20 imperial ounces, which is about 19.2 US ounces. Similarly, "half pints" must contain no less than 284mL, and "third pints" no less than 189.3mL. To enforce this law, pubs in the UK serve beers in marked glasses, with clear lines that show at what point a pint has been reached. There are inspections. There are regulators. There are customers who politely ask for a "top up" when this line isn't met. And as a result, this line is met. Customers who expect a pint receive an imperial pint at a minimum.

The United States Treasury, through powers granted by Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, defined, in 1832, a gallon as 231 cubic inches. As part of the US Code obligations, every state has, on behalf of the Secretary of Commerce, a complete set of "weights and measures," that include a gallon and divisions thereof: half gallons, quarts, pints, half pints, and gills. Thus, a pint, according to US law, is 28.875 cubic inches, or precisely 16 US ounces (473mL).

And yet, when you buy a pint of beer in this country, there is no guarantee that you will get those 16 ounces. In fact the opposite is true: thanks to under-pouring and misleading glassware, you are likely to get much less.

The "standard American shaker pint" glass, the kind you probably think of as a pint glass, holds exactly 16 ounces. Exactly. No room for spillage, and in fact, pour a tall boy of beer into one and you'll note a "reverse miniscus" of liquid, as surface tension keeps the liquid from pouring over the side. But when was the last time you were served, at a bar, a nearly-overflowing glass of beer? When standard shaker pints are used, you're much more likely to receive around fourteen ounces of beer, accounting for head and empty space to prevent (or caused by) spillage.

And yet the problem compounds further: bantam-weight shaker pints, which have thicker walls, a much thicker floor, and are commonly used with a stainless steel Boston shaker to shake cocktails, hold a maximum of 14 ounces of liquid. Again, this is exact. Any more than 14 ounces, and that surface tension will break, sending liquid spilling over the side. And today, many bars have switched from the already questionable American shaker pint to that bantam-weight shaker pint, meaning that once you account for head and spillage, you're likely receiving only around 12 ounces when you ask for a pint. A 25% discount in liquid that surely is not represented in the price.

As it happens, the State of Texas actually does have a law that deals with this, but the Department of Agriculture, responsible for its enforcement, apparently focuses entirely on its application to fuel pumps. The relevant section that should be applied to bars and restaurants that under-serve is Section 13.035(b)(2): "A person violates this chapter if the person represents the price or the quantity of a commodity, item, or service sold or offered or exposed for sale in a manner intended or tending to mislead or deceive an actual or prospective customer."

I think it's time for this state, and any other state that has similar laws, to begin enforcement of this. The law provides for a fine for every infraction, and I think it's time that those fines be levied. States that don't have similar laws ought to legislate thusly. The customer is being cheated, lied to, and this is a disgrace. I'd like to see marked pint glasses that clearly and correctly show where liquid reaches 16 ounces. I'd like to see the demise of both the American shaker pint and its even more devious bantam-weight cousin as serving vessels. And I'd like to see establishments stop cheating customers, be it through good conscience or through proper application of consumer protection laws.

But it also requires action from the customers. Demand a full pint. Demand top-ups to get to 16 ounces when American shaker pints are used, and stop patronizing establishments that cheat you out of volume. Order cans or 12-ounce bottles and ask for a pint glass, to demonstrate the embarrassing pour that occurs when bantam-weight shaker pints are used. This cheating needs to end, but it'll take a lot of work for us to get our full pour.

Craft beer is underpriced

Posted in Beer on April 9th, 2014 by Nathan – 17 Comments

If quantity cannot increase fast enough, price must.I've written a lot about this topic in various other locations, but I figured it's time to talk about it here: much of craft beer is absurdly underpriced. I've touched on supply/demand before in this blog, but a quick refresher can't hurt. Basically, to the left is a supply and demand curve. It's basic. Where that dot labeled "equilibrium" is is the magical world where supply matches demand. In that world there's an equilibrium price and an equilibrium quantity. It's magical, of course, because it rarely exists with specific goods.

Craft beer is one of those goods where the equilibrium seems to be a fantasy, impossible to reach. Instead, we're at a point on the supply curve down and to the left of the equilibrium: quantity is low, price is low.

The symptoms of this are obvious in many craft beer scenes around the country: super quick sellouts, the recent Hunahpu's Day disaster, beer scalpers, etc. When demand outpaces supply, these types of things happen. These are simple market inefficiencies. And there's only two ways to fix these inefficiencies: increase supply or decrease demand.

Increasing supply is a somewhat nice idea, and in the market overall, this is already underway. More and more craft breweries are opening, expanding, increasing production. However, because beers are not perfect substitute goods, an increase in supply in the overall market does not translate to an increase in supply for particular beers. As a result, rare or limited releases continue to see the problems described above. In fact, this is precisely where the problem is most evident and these beers are the exact ones I would argue are underpriced.

Thus, demand must be decreased. And as the supply/demand curve image shows, if the quantity can't increase, the price must. And as it does, the consumer appetite will decrease, demand will drop as prices approach equilibrium. Note that there's nothing "fair" about this – it's a purely capitalist system, but it's also a system that, with the scarcity that exists, works.

Jester King's Aurelian Lure and Nocturn Chrysalis were priced at sixteen dollars per 500ml bottle. There were about 500 bottles of each. Every bottle sold out within three minutes. That's absurd. Jester King could have easily charged twice that and the sellout would still have occurred, albeit at a slightly slower rate. In fact, I would argue that Jester King could have charged ten times as much – an unheard of (some might say obscene) $160 per bottle, and still sold out in a reasonable amount of time. (Of course, they would have had to remove the "limit one per person" stipulation. And I wouldn't have gotten any.)

A six-pack of Saint Arnold Divine Reserve may run you as much as twenty dollars. Look on Craigslist a day or two after it's been sold out in Houston, and you'll see postings asking for fifty or one hundred dollars. No matter how often people flag the posts (myself included) as prohibited, those sellers will sell the beer they bought. If they wouldn't, then we wouldn't see the same thing after every somewhat limited release. The prices they request are closer to the market equilibrium, and the gray market rewards them for taking advantage of a massive market inefficiency.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that there seems to be some kind of "noble pricing" that breweries implement. Reputational risk is probably a concern, but honestly, a lot of breweries are owned by or started by people who find it abhorrent to charge more than what they think is fair. Freetail is a great example of this, and they have stated before that they purposely keep prices low, intentionally do not capitalize on the extreme demand for Ananke and other special releases, and do not plan to change this in the future. Honestly, I think that's noble, wonderful for my wallet and those wallets of my friends, and unsustainable.

The prices probably won't rise in the near future, unfortunately, because of this reason and other reasons. But I repeat that I believe this is unsustainable. The growth in craft beer demand looks to continue at ridiculous rates, while supply simply cannot keep up. The result will be increased gray market activity, more catastrophes at beer releases, more rapid sellouts and angry consumers, and ultimately chaos. It's not impossible to envision a future in which a brewer throws his hands up and sells out or quits, in retaliation to this chaos. And that benefits nobody.

The responsible but unpopular thing to do is to raise prices. Craft beer is massively underpriced and unless this changes, there may be a crisis ahead.

A brief, open letter to Saint Arnold (Ode to Icon Red Bohemian Pils)

Posted in Beer on March 24th, 2014 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

Dear Saint Arnold Brewing Company,

Please make Icon Red Bohemian Pils a year-round offering.




Last year, when the first in Saint Arnold's Icon series came out (Red: Belgian Pale Ale), I was immediately excited. Before Icon, Saint Arnold's offerings had changed very infrequently, or been limited release only. Icon represented a new world for the brewery: new, changing styles released with a volume high enough for everyone to have a ton of the stuff. And each quarter, that has remained true, each time with a delicious beer. The BPA was crisp and delicious, and then came the Cascadian Dark Ale (Blue), one of the few "black IPAs" (a term I dislike generally only slightly more than the style) I actually enjoyed. It was flavorful, malty, and unlike the typical CDA. Following that was the Amarillo Hefe (Green), which was unique and refreshing. And to cap off the first year of the Icon series was the Bière de Saison (Gold), a mixture of two styles, and in my opinion the best of the four.

When the second year of Icon began, it was clear that the series was going to continue brilliance, but it started with a letdown for me: Icon Red Bohemian Pils. I say "letdown" because when the style was announced I was immediately saddened; I simply don't consider myself a pilsner guy.

Or, more appropriately, I didn't consider myself a pilsner guy. The vast majority of pilsners I had had before the Bohemian Pils were disappointing, unbalanced, and not friendly to my palate. In fact, some of the worst beers I've had have been pilsners. So when Saint Arnold announced their second Icon Red, I assumed I'd give it a try, not like it very much, and wait a long three months for whatever came next.

I could not have been more wrong, as the "letter" above makes obvious. I drank a ton of Icon Red over those three months and now find myself wanting as it has dried up nearly everywhere, replaced by the newest (and also delicious) Icon Blue: Brown Porter. Don't get me wrong, I can't wait for more Icon beers, as each one has been delicious. But I want the Bohemian Pils to return as a year-round offering.

As Saint Arnold this past week added to their year-round offerings for the first time in two years (with the incredible Boiler Room Berliner Weisse), I don't think the timing could be more appropriate for yet another addition. So, I write the brief, open letter above to ask Saint Arnold to do exactly that. Make this one-time pilsner a year-round pilsner.

I wrote something: Top Ten Breweries in Texas

Posted in Beer on March 21st, 2014 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

After a shameful post on Thrillist about the top ten breweries in Texas, my friend Jason put together a panel to come up with a better list. Since I was one of the panelists, I figured I'd separate out my votes (very different from the final result) and post them again here. Best part is I get to revive this blog without actually writing something new for it…

Brewery Comments Top Beers
1. Real Ale Real Ale has been consistent and impressive for 18 years, in that time failing to produce a bad beer. They consistently nail "basic" styles (a big plus for me) while producing the state's best sours in their Mysterium Verum series and creating interesting experiments in the Brewer's Cut series. Scots Gone Wild, 4-Squared
2. Saint Arnold It was really hard to choose the #1 spot between RA & SA, and I'd entertain the opposite ranking. Everything I said about Real Ale, I can say about Saint Arnold, except change "18 years" to "20 years." They are the paragon of consistency, do not make bad beers, and their experimentation in the realm of Divine Reserve, Icon, and Bishop's Barrel has been marvelous. BB2, Icon Red Bohemian Pils
3. (512) Another brewery that does not make a bad beer. (512) makes probably the best porter in the state, and their anniversary beers are among my favorites in their styles. Like Real Ale, they aren't super flashy, and so I think they get overlooked often. Hype doesn't follow taste though, and (512) consistently puts out fantastic beers. Pecan Porter, THREE
4. Live Oak Again, hard to choose between this and (512) for the #3 spot, so again, I'd be okay with them switching around. Live Oak is singularly the best German brewery in America. There is no question about that. Even if you're not into traditional German styles, you have to admit that these are incredibly impressive. Best in class Hefeweizen, Pilsner, Weizenbock, and even a great Barleywine. Hard not to love these guys. Hefeweizen, Old Tree Hugger Barelywine
5. Jester King Jester King's new foray into fruited sours makes them my number five with a bullet. If they continue on the trajectory they've placed themselves after leaving behind the past mistakes, they'll be higher on my list the next time I have to make it. Farmhouse & Sour means a lot more in Texas today than it did when they first replaced their (fantastic) Black Metal with a (less so) Farmhouse Black Metal. The national recognition JK has achieved is very deserved. Atrial Rubicite, Le Petit Prince
6. Hops & Grain It's very important to me not only that a brewery can make one amazing beer, but that they can make a ton of amazing beers. If those are simple styles, that's even more impressive, as it's harder to hide mistakes in "basic" beers. H&G is very good at this. Very few misses, and the vast majority of their beers are fantastic easy-drinkers. I'm excited to see where the Greenhouse IPA series goes in the near future. Zoe, Greenhouse IPA (Jan '14)
7. Freetail Freetail has a lot of hype, and for some people, that's a bad thing. But I say most of it is deserved. Their beers, especially in the recent two years, have been incredibly complex and very impressive. Easily the state's best (traditional) brewpub, and also rising fast on this list. Peche'cus, La Muerta
8. Austin Beerworks ABW has managed in a short time to create some fantastic beers, a great IPA series, and only a few misses. Unfortunately, I think their misses were in the most important styles, those basic ones that can't hide mistakes. Nonetheless, an amazing brewery and the first one to bring us a truly great Berliner Weisse. Einhorn, Heavy Machinery Half IPA
9. Lone Pint It might be a bit early to put them on this list, as they're very young, but I believe they are currently producing the best single beer in Texas (Yellow Rose), and it would be blasphemy to leave them off the list. I can't conscionably put them higher though, as unfortunately the rest of their beers fall far short of where YR is. That's not to say they're bad – I would say I've only had two misses from them – but they're not on the level of excellence that YR is. I can't wait to see what the future brings though, as every new offering is fantastic. Yellow Rose, Zythophile El Dorado
10. Lakewood Very similar to Lone Pint in that they produce one fantastic beer (Temptress) and a ton of variations thereof. There's somewhat of a dearth of great milk stouts in this state, and Lakewood solves this problem with a fantastic one. Temptress, BB Temptress

And finally, the honorable mentions that Jason didn't put up on his post:

Missing from this list: There’s a couple breweries notably missing from this list and I’d like to very briefly explain them as “honorable mentions.” Peticolas: both beers I’ve had from them have been very good, but the keyword is “both.” I simply do not have enough experience with them to form a more realistic opinion. Community: very similar. I’ve only had four beers from them, three of which were absolutely fantastic. But still, not enough experience to include them. Karbach: hype doesn’t make beer taste better, sadly.

A taste of upcoming breweries

Posted in Beer on October 20th, 2012 by Nathan – 1 Comment

Last week, on Tuesday, I stopped over to the Brewery Incubator, née the Kitchen Incubator, to try some brews from some upcoming breweries and brewpubs that may soon grace the city of Houston. Some of the beers were quite good, while others had a long way to go, but were on the right track. Whether these all become legitimate breweries in the near future remains to be seen, but the excitement is still fantastic. My notes:

TBD Brewing TX

I had two beers from these guys. A “Mein Jefe” Hefeweizen and an Oktoberfest supposedly brewed back in March. The Hefeweizen was extremely banana-y, which is common for a hefe, and while that flavor doesn’t appeal to me, there was no denying they’ve put together a fine hefeweizen. It was complex, refreshing, well-balanced, and quite smooth.

Even better was the Oktoberfest, which, though much cloudier than a normal Märzen, was awesome. It had a great finish, and it held up to the test of aging in taste and aroma, if not necessarily in color. Nonetheless, it was quite good and a good sign of things to come should TBD become the real deal.

Down Easy Brewing

We were informed that the idea of “Down Easy” was to do exactly that: go down easy. And if that’s the case, I suppose Down Easy is on the right track, but not necessarily in the best way. I only had one brew from them so I can’t truly judge, but the 90-minute Sweet Pale Ale had a more exciting name than taste. It was pretty standard pale ale, and reminded me of the standard “first homebrew.” I will say that I think Down Easy has a high ceiling, but, like Karbach brewing, they seem to be more concerned with running before walking.

28th Day Brewery

28th Day, like TBD, seems very close to a real brewery. I tried two beers, the Zombie Wrangler Brown Rye and the North England Brown Ale. I wish I had gotten to try the IIPA, which I unfortunately missed, because both browns were great and I don’t usually enjoy brown ales. The Rye was fantastic, probably the best of all the beers I drank that night, and would be a damn good start to a new brewery. I look forward to hearing more from 28th Day in the future, especially if that Rye, with its smooth taste, malty body, and wonderful aroma, is a part of said future.

Warlocks Brewpub

The concept behind Warlocks could be a fun one: a brewpub that serves as a place for tabletop and video gaming. If done right, it will be pretty neat. I sampled two beers from Warlocks: the Nutty Tax Collector Brown, which brown lovers would definitely enjoy but, as a non-Brown fan I did not love, and the Valhalla Braggot. Braggots are difficult things to do right, but Warlocks is doing this one right. It was smooth, the honey was not overpowering but informed both the taste and the aroma. In short, the Braggot is a great start to what might be an awesome business.

All in all, I had a great time and am excited to see what else will come out of the Brewery Incubator. Hopefully there’s more awesomeness in the future. For now, Houston is fortunate to be witnessing a great thing for the future of microbreweries.

Fireplace Contraband #4

Posted in Beer on October 10th, 2012 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

Also new this time: glass 12-oz bottles with real bottle caps. No more of that plastic garbage from before.I think it’s safe to say I’m no longer operating on a three-a-week schedule. Let’s call this a “when I can” schedule instead.

My fourth successful homebrew is now bottled and being consumed (primarily by me) and I’m happy to call it a success. This is a saison-style beer and it’s not even close to the best saison I’ve ever had, but it’s pretty damn good considering I made it myself. Here’s the details:

The Name

Fireplace Contraband #4 is the fourth FC beer and only the second with a name: Old Southern Gent Sasson.

The story of the name is this: while in New Orleans, I stopped at the Avenue Pub to get some beer, and was thrilled to find it was as awesome as expected. Except, as I noted previously, for the patron who incorrectly corrected my pronunciation of ‘saison’. When I tweeted this, Avenue Pub responded saying that their favorite customer was an old southern gentleman who used to say “sasson” (sass-uhn) and “no one would dare correct him.” Sadly, this southern gentleman is no longer alive, and this beer is named in his honor, the Old Southern Gent “Sasson” whom I never met.

The Beer

I used an amber ale malt and a hopped Irish light amber malt, Saaz hops, jalapeno, cinnamon, cocoa, coriander, honey, and a few other things that were in the cupboard in lesser quantities. And a Belgian saison ale yeast for the fermentation. This was my first time using wet yeast and I’m happy I did, it informs the flavor much more than the standard dry stuff.

Thankfully, unlike #2, the cinnamon was not overpowering. It shows up in the aroma but is almost impossible to find in the taste. Sadly, the jalapeno is also not findable, and I wish I had used a lot more. Dried jalapeno is easy to work with, but apparently not as potent as I had hoped.

The hops are subdued, as is expected for Saaz hops, and I’m happy with their profile, as it makes the beer a little more accessible. Still, I think for #5, I may try to step up the hoppiness a bit. The body of the beer is strongly coriander and malt. It’s ambery in taste but darker in color, and it’s pretty easily enjoyable for a long period of time.

I’m pretty happy with #4. The alcohol content is a little higher than I had expected (about 6.5%) and so it’s not quite sessionable, but it’s damn close and it’s quite enjoyable. If you want some, I’ve got a ton of it (this was my first time brewing five gallons instead of two) so let me know and it’s yours to try. Evviva!

Some beer trades and bottle shares

Posted in Beer on September 8th, 2012 by Nathan – Be the first to comment

My love of beer, in college, was mainly restricted not by availability, but by restrictions on college life. It was impossible, due to my schedule, to participate in bottle shares or tastings, and it was even more impossible to engage in beer trades.

But once I moved back to Houston, all that changed and I quickly dove into the beer scene here. In addition to beer festivals and the ubiquitous beer tasting, I’ve recently begun enjoying beer trades and bottle shares, something that had never before been reasonable for me.

Some recent trades

I’ve completed two trades, thanks to r/beertrade, with beer lovers in Montana and California, and I’m organizing another with a guy in Maryland as I write this. The format of beer trades is awesome: there’s so many beers we can't get in Texas and so many Texas beers that are unavailable outside of this state. The beer trade rectifies this issue and spreads good beers to those beer lovers who will truly enjoy them. So far I'm very happy with the trades I've received.

Bottle shares

I've now participated in only one bottle share but more are on the horizon. Basically, a bunch of beer nerds get together and share bottles that are hard to find, either due to general rarity or geographic (as above) restrictions. This format enables beer people like me to taste/sample a lot of different beers while only being responsible for providing (and thus paying for/locating) a much smaller number. It's also a good chance to share homebrews, although my latest concoction is not quite ready for primetime and therefore has not seen the light of day yet. Nonetheless, the exposure to beers I otherwise would not have been able to try has been fantastic. I highly recommend both experiences to those early in their love of beer.