The Life of a Professional Beer Taster

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Ken Weaver gets a visit from Andy three or four times a week. It’s been this way for more than a year.

Occasionally they’ll see each other at Weaver’s favorite local bar, but almost exclusively, Andy stops by Weaver’s house in Petaluma, California. He never comes empty-handed, either. IPAs, wheat ales, sours, stouts. Restocking a fridge has never been so easy or convenient when you know someone like Andy.

“I see a UPS or FedEx person here every single day,” said Weaver.

Andy, who works for UPS, is a regular at Weaver’s home, where he drops off boxes of beer. Sometimes he’s not the only one making that stop, either. Weekly – if not daily – cardboard boxes full of freshly packaged brews appear on Weaver’s doorstep. They’re unwrapped or pulled out of packing peanuts, the boxes are broken down and placed in the garage and later that day, Weaver pulls a bottle or can from his fridge and gets to work.

He’s no ordinary lover of beer, after all. He’s a professional taster.

Yes. He gets paid to sample beer.

“The best parts of this job are exactly what you’d hope for them to be,” Weaver said. “It’s neat to have beer arriving on your doorstep. I have access to just about anything you’d want. That’s fun and exciting and what’s most interesting on social media, and that’s the part of my job that brings people behind the scenes of what’s going on in the beer industry.”

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Reporter’s Notebook: Exploring Beer’s Creative Job Titles

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“What do your parents think of that title?”

It’s the first question I wanted to ask Rashmi Patel when we spoke back in January. Hell, it’s the first thing I thought when I first learned about the official name of her job in December 2015.

Rashmi Patel, vice president for Share of Throat.

During our interview, Rashmi admitted the idea was to be a little silly (if not a little juvenile) with the title because it needed to be “disruptive and attention grabbing.” Mission accomplished. After all, her job, which oversees marketing for Anheuser-Busch’s Ritas family of beverages, Occulto beer and hard sodas, is literally “about what’s going down your throat, for lack of a better word,” she said.

Job titles are often literal – I am a “writer” who writes, after all – but I hadn’t come across a title like this before. But this is the beer industry and plenty of professionals in it don’t exactly adhere to the status quo.

“The most common reaction I get is ‘wow, that’s awesome, but what does it mean?” Rashmi said. Of course, she’s not alone in this predicament.

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Reporter’s Notebook: The Best Beer You Almost Never Had

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Trying to quantify something as “best” in beer is often a laborious task, if not a disastrous one.

Beer is subjective, offering an array of tastes and experiences, and even when writing my own analysis of best beer lists compiled by websites like RateBeer or Beer Advocate, I try to write “best” in quotation marks because I realize the results of each poll or survey aren’t necessarily indicative of what that word means to everyone. What is a top beer for me isn’t the same for you.

Except, perhaps, when it comes to one particular beer.

Never have I seen and heard such consensus to elect a single beer as best as I have with Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Dupont Vieille Provision. Or, as you probably know it, simply Saison Dupont.

This Belgian saison, which almost disappeared several decades ago, is truly the benchmark for the style. That certainly made it deserving to be the focus of a recent feature for All About Beer, highlighting Saison Dupont in the magazine’s regular Classic Beer column.

“It’s always a good idea, when you’re learning about beer, to have benchmarks,” said Wendy Littlefield, who, along with husband Don Feinberg, were responsible for first bringing Saison Dupont to the U.S. through their Vanberg & DeWulf import company.

In my conversation with Wendy, time and time again she noted the wide recognition of Saison Dupont as a pivotal beer. Not just for the style, but for the industry as a whole. It’s a beer that has launched hundreds, if not thousands, of imitators. And, as I note in the story, there was a time when it was set to be erased from history.

“There was every intention to discontinue it,” noted Mike Battaglia, brand manager with Total Beverage Solution, which now imports the beer. “Saison Dupont represents heritage, quality and history and it nearly went extinct.”

On March 12, people celebrated Saison Day, another one of those made up beer holidays meant to excite drinkers about a particular style or brand, but when it comes to this beer in particular, it seems an appropriate reason to celebrate. How often can you actually pick up a best beer at your leisure? You can walk into a higher-end grocery store like Whole Foods or your local bottle shop and find Saison Dupont, considered by many to be perfect.

“It’s hard to make a beer with that simple a recipe that also has as much flavor and character,” said Gordon Schuck, co-owner and brewmaster at Colorado’s Funkwerks. “It’s masterful.”

Learn more about Saison Dupont and how this best beer almost went away for good in my All About Beer story.

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Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

Reporter’s Notebook: Redefining the IPA

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What do you do in a crowded marketplace, where all your competitors look like you?

Where what was once extreme is now mundane? Where, if you don’t act, you’ll get left behind?

It’s one of those “put up, or shut up” situations that can help define a brand and even a company. For as fickle as consumers might be, it’s still a business’ responsibility to find ways to innovate and stay on top of their game.

All this helped drive my latest piece for All About Beer, which you can now read online: “Redefining the IPA.”

“If you think about any broad category, the biggest question a savvy brand marketer has to ask is whether a category is driven by an objective feature or the subjective attitudes of the consumer,” said Derek Rucker, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “When it’s subjective, you have to innovate to keep up with what’s driven by consumers.”

Which is what we’ve seen from breweries in recent months as they try to stay ahead of the crowded IPA market. Or, in the case of my story, catch back up.

Two big examples – New Holland Brewing Co. and Stone Brewing Co. – decided to alter flagship beers that hadn’t been touched in almost 20 years. “Hoppy” and “bitter” may have been weird signifiers for beer back in the 1990s, but it’s what drinkers want these days. Most important, the shelf space once dominated by these companies is now chock full of other IPA options that are finding new flavors or pushing new boundaries.

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“With a flagship brand like this that’s helped define our brewery, making a change isn’t without concern,” said Fred Bueltmann, vice president of sales and marketing at New Holland, talking about their Mad Hatter IPA. “But we saw in some instances where Mad Hatter might get overlooked for more dramatic examples of the style. The marketplace is indicating there would be benefit for a change and our group instinctively started looking at each other asking, ‘what do you think?’”

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Stone Ruination Double IPA 2.0 label, with a new credo. Click to enlarge, underlining mine.

As I mention in the All About Beer story, Stone Brewing’s interest in changing Stone Ruination IPA is clear to see – it’s right on the label: “…the desire to go beyond bracing bitterness.”

To be clear, they’re not alone. As June’s hop acreage report suggests, specialty hops to boost aroma and add new flavors are on the rise. These are aspects of a beer people want, let alone the most popular craft beer style on the market. You see that reflected in Ruination Double IPA 2.0, which added Nugget, Simcoe and Azacca hops on top of Centennial and Citra, which get plenty of attention as well.

“The overriding factor was the fact that we recognized that craft beer fans are changing,” said Mitch Steele, brewmaster at Stone Brewing. “What was extreme even 10 years ago is fairly common and routine now.”

Which echoed this comment by Rucker, who told me: “This is one of those classic dilemmas of over time, you have to innovate to stay modern.”

For the full story, with lots of details about the changing IPA market and different context from these people and others, check out my story on All About Beer.

Related reading: If You Drink It, They Will Grow: A Changing Landscape for Hops

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

A Month Worth Remembering: October 2014 Beertography

bud_cameraOctober has now gone by, which means it’s time for my regular roundup of beertography from the last few weeks.

It’s been an exciting month and many of my photos reflect more about my activities and travels than artistic side. I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing in this ongoing project, as I’m proud to say that I was recently nominated as an “Instagram account to follow” by my colleagues, many who are vastly more talented than I. I’m actually giving a presentation today about my beertography.

Below you’ll find some of my recent photos, which you may also come across on my Instagram page, Twitter account or even Untappd. If you like these, you can find all of my beertography on Instagram or in my running archive.

All my shots are taken with my iPhone 5 unless otherwise noted. Let’s see what October had to offer…

A Trip Out West

almanac-farmers reserve citrus-lemon-beer-beertographyI visited Seattle at the beginning of October, which led to a variety of photo opportunities and reflections about what it means to travel. I spent a lot of time hanging out with Kopi, my brother’s chocolate lab. Late in the morning, I’d plop down on the front porch alongside her and take in the sun.

Now I know what Ed is talking about.

Exploring at Home

world beer fest-durham-beerEvery October, All About Beer magazine hosts the World Beer Festival here in Durham, NC. It’s a wonderful chance to try new beers, especially from the fast-growing in-state brewery scene. I spent half the festival drinking North Carolina-based beers.

Oddly enough, my favorite sample from the event was probably a dry-hopped cider by Bull City Ciderworks. They use Cascade and Galaxy hops which gives the cider an unforgettable aroma of tangy tropical fruit and citrus.

(Coincidentally, my beertography is so popular, festival organizers stole a photo from me)

Mission Accomplished

two roads-two roads brewing-no limits-hefewiezen-beer-beertographyI ran my first half-marathon in October, taking part in the Bull City Race Fest with thousands of other runners. I’m happy to say I was actually a little faster than the time on my watch, but happier to have the right beer to celebrate with when I got home.

Upping My Game

oskar blues-ten fidy-imperial stout-beer-beertographyHere in Durham, we’ve got a reuse art center, the Scrap Exchange, that’s kind of like a Salvation Army for random and unwanted supplies like tiles, paper, electronics … anything.

I’ve been inspired by other photographers to try and incorporate more setups for my beertography. With this shot, I used a shiny filing cabinet drawer and foggy window pane from the Scrap Exchange to capture light from outside. I’m still horribly low-tech, so I used a couple umbrellas to apply shading and reflect light.

Brewing Pal

brewcatThis isn’t a special shot, but I love that I have some company for my brew days at home. Even if it is a little creepy.

I look forward to what November has to offer! As always, you can go back to see previous beertography posts:

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

A Few Words on … World Beer Festival

Yesterday was one of my favorite beer events here in Durham – All About Beer‘s annual World Beer Festival. The festival features about 100 breweries with a wide collection of beer, although fall styles play a big role, considering the time of year. This year’s even was perhaps my favorite yet and here are some of the highlights:

Top of the Hill saison – based in Chapel Hill, Top of the Hill is a brewpub and a newly minted distillery as well. Their beers have always been great and their saison that was served yesterday was an absolute perfect example of the style. The beer was light and crisp with wonderful citrus and banana notes on the nose and tongue. While the pour was only a couple ounces, I could tell the carbonation was spot-on and the light, golden beer had a great ivory head. A great palate cleanser and not knowing the specific ABV, it could be a perfect session beer during the waning summer days here in North Carolina.

Abita Andygator – while this brew only has an 80 on Beer Advocate, I’d consider it for a higher number. I’m not crazy about bocks, but this dopplebock was something I really enjoyed. It sits at 8 percent ABV, but you wouldn’t know it and the smell is something more akin to a sour beer in the vein of Brux – very light and crisp with a definite lead aroma of tart cherries. The taste was nothing like the smell, however, with a typical malty sweetness leading the charge. I loved the color – a near transparent gold that sparkled in the sun.

NoDa Coco Loco porter – The name says it all. This Charlotte-based brewery knocks it out of the park with this beer, which is brewed with coconut but I couldn’t tell at all. Everything is dominated by an incredible characteristic of roasted cocoa nibs. There’s just a hint of coffee on the nose, but chocolate and brown malt make this a beer Willy Wonka would be proud of. I was most surprised by the ABV – 6.2 percent – which is right near the top limit of the BJCP guidelines for a “robust” porter. I just haven’t typically seen a porter that strong.

Noda Hop, Drop ‘n Roll IPA – NoDa hit back-to-back homers when I tried their IPA, which showcased all the resin of the Citra and Amarillo hops and none of the bitterness. It was super-clean, crisp and just had amazing citrus flavor. I’d dare say it would be among my favorite straight IPAs I’ve had.

Two other big highlights after the jump.

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