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View Full Version : A question for craft distillers? Where's the craft?



cowdery
09-05-2008, 20:58
I'm on my soapbox again about the lack of craft in most products from so-called craft distillers. It's pretty long so I won't repost it here, but just point you to it.

It's here (http://chuckcowdery.blogspot.com/2008/09/question-for-craft-distillers-wheres.html).

If you care to comment, feel free to do that here or there.

ratcheer
09-06-2008, 05:34
Excellent article, Chuck. I posted a more substantive comment/question, there. I also subscribed to your blog through my reader - I did not know about your blog until this morning.

Tim

Gillman
09-06-2008, 06:30
I understand the points Chuck is making, but disagree as we sometimes do on the significance of some of them. (In terms however of actual new bourbons released to date - two I believe, one from Tuthilltown which is a 3 months old, hisorical-style effort, and a straight bourbon of between 4 and 8 years old just issued from a craft distiller in Cincinnati, both were crafted from mashes made onsite and the latter was all-distilled in a genuine pot still I understand).

With regard to mashing and fermentation plant: I wonder whether an unfiltered mash cannot be distilled in a pot still with a protruding rectification column. Perhaps this is how Tuthilltown did it, I don't know. I think the problem is one that would attend any pot still: making sure the grains didn't stick to the sides of the vessel, a problem which much occupied M'Harry's attention in 1809 and worried B-F too almost 200 years later until they figured out how to deal with it.

If column stills can be used to make bourbon, I believe that a pot still-and-column still whether as one piece of equipment or two (side-by-side) is as authentic or more. Bourbon began with pot stills, not column stills. In that 1860's-era article on Kentucky bourbon production I mentioned earlier on the board, a variety of equipment was used to make bourbon, I think 5 types were listed ranging from all pot stills to all-column stills and a variety of variations. As long as the apparatus vaporises alcohol from a grain mash and the distillate retains grain flavors (in practice, coming off the still under 160 proof), we get whiskey which in time can become bourbon.

As for mashing and fermenting one's own mash or not: I really don't see that an issue. In effect by buying a mash one is contracting out the job. The mash will only be used if it meets the criteria set by the distiller to make whiskey. Also, except for malt whiskies (where an all-barley wash comes ready-made), the brewer will have to make a custom mash for the distiller since corn beers don't have much currency in American brewing and even less so in craft breweries which turn their nose at beers that use corn adjunct. If a microbrewer is engaged to make a corn mash, he's making it in close cooperation with the distiller and again this function is simply being contracted out. The fine Sam Adams beer I had the other week may have been made in a rented brewery, or maybe in Boston Brewing's own plant - they do it both ways I understand depending on market location and other factors - but it was excellent beer all the same.

Also, getting a foothold in the business might permit a distiller ultimately to set up his own plant.

Some craft rum by the way is made from molasses - Thomas Tew is an example.

I agree with Chuck that using too many short-cuts reduces authenticity and in some cases the consumer may notice it. This happened with early craft beer efforts that employed malt extract to make the beers. This practice is almost abandoned today because unless the beers are made from malt extract of very high quality, the difference in taste between an extract beer and an all-grain beer is quite evident, at least to a trained palate. The craft beer market might be described as a large group of trained palates, though...

Even a business which buys white dog distilled from at least 51% corn (the rest of the mash being any grains) and ages it in new charred wood could produce a credible and probably very interesting bourbon. If I choose the barrels (made from 200 year old oak if possible!), if I choose the warehouse and the location therein to age my whiskey, if I select it at peak of bouquet and other maturity - to me this is as authentic as any other way to make bourbon.

That the existing producers follow in many cases traditional methods is undoubted. But there is room for innovation or improvement even here: selection if possible of barrels made from older oak than the cooperage industry norm; using a mash made from heirloom grains; using certain historical yeast types from jugs only (estery top-ferments, I suggest); and so on. These practices can be adopted even where the mash is contract-made, should that be felt necessary or appropriate.


Gary

craigthom
09-06-2008, 07:57
What I got from Chuck's article is that some distilleries are buying beer that is already being made at breweries and then distilling it. That's quite a bit different from contracting the facility to make their own recipe.

Which of these is going on is an important point.

ratcheer
09-06-2008, 08:04
Also, the point is well-taken that beer wash is not whiskey mash, it is something completely different. From the bourbon perspective, there is no corn in it, so it can't even remotely be called bourbon.

Tim

craigthom
09-06-2008, 08:06
Also, the point is well-taken that beer wash is not whiskey mash, it is something completely different. From the bourbon perspective, there is no corn in it, so it can't even remotely be called bourbon.

Tim

While there may not be enough corn in it to make bourbon, there's still a lot of corn in most beers you find in the grocery store. Budweiser uses rice, but most other "American light pilsner" brewers use corn to lighten things up.

OscarV
09-06-2008, 08:11
there's still a lot of corn in most beers you find in the grocery store.

Actually corn syrup.
Miller was the first I belive to do this after PhillipMorris bought them in the 1970's, (now owned by South African Breweries).
To cut costs and speed up the process.

Gillman
09-06-2008, 11:01
Distillers can't be buying beer in its normal sense unless they are distilling hopped beer. I know some distillers do that (some are affiliates of the brewery), but distilled hopped beer will never have a big sale. It is a tiny specialty and will always be unimportant commercially IMO. If they are buying unhopped wort, if it is all-malt wort, that suits any malt whisky operation since malt whisky is made (the Scots style) from such a product. I can't see much difference between this and contracting a brewery to make unhopped wort for you (or such wort fermented), but anyway in the bourbon context, it will have to be contracted: no brewer makes a corn beer of which 51% at least is derived from corn.

Gary

Gillman
09-06-2008, 11:35
Corn syrups are common no question but Craig is right that real corn (corn grits) are sometimes still used. E.g., good old Straub's from St. Mary's, PA uses corn grits as far as I recall in its spec, and I would think Yuengling still does, too. No doubt a brewery used to handling such materials can make a good mash with at least 51% corn in it, and in fact such beers were known in early American history (sometimes flavored, sometimes with molasses added, etc.).

Gary

cowdery
09-06-2008, 13:10
I don't know every detail of Tuthilltown's processes, but I do know they use no malt, i.e., no endogenous enzyme systems.

They convert the corn by adding enzymes. It's not malt extract. It's just enzymes, originally developed for the paper pulp industry.

Mostly, I think these issues are interesting and deserve to be discussed. I reiterate my closing paragraph.

Their best case is that craft distilling is about chosing, or making, what goes into your still, and then operating the still. I worry that it compresses the definition of "distiller" too narrowly. It certainly doesn't describe what distillers have done throughout history. A more craft distiller would do everything the industrial distillers do and make yeast from scratch, as none do, or make their own malt, as only one does.

I don't deny that there are some interesting folks out there doing some interesting things, but these are legitimate questions.

By the way, if you're interesting in engaging some micro distillers about these issues, they can be found at ADI Forums (http://adiforums.com/).

gr8erdane
09-06-2008, 21:06
I tend to side with Chuck. If I hear the description artisan I think of "home-made from scratch" not assembled out of semi finished parts. Locally Stranahan's in Denver started off buying their malt from Flying Dog but now that FD has gone back east they are buying from Oskar Blue here in the Longmont area.

NorCalBoozer
09-11-2008, 14:10
To me the distinction between micro and craft/artisan is muddled.

Micro is a term used in regards to operational size.

Craft or artisan is a trade that can be applied to any level or business operation, big or small. There is an association that “craft” or “artisan” also necessarily means small and of highest quality. I think this is a fallacy. Why is it assumed that if someone is distilling spirits on a small scale that it all has to be better than what is done on the large scale?

Distilling is a craft that you or I could start to employ after reading a book and purchasing a cheap still (although it's currently illegal). The level of our craft would, however, certainly be suspect. The method of distilling alcohol is not very difficult. The craft is what determines the quality.

Microdistiller's products are on the same playing field as the big distillers. If they are not good it doesn't really matter if they call themselves "craft" or "artisan", does it?

The terms “Craft” and “artisan” are generally associated with a certain level of proficiency and should be applied across the board in discussions of the quality of the whiskey or the processes used. In the end, good whiskey is good whiskey.


Greg

Gillman
09-11-2008, 15:00
Some people wish to sample or be associated in some way with the products of a micro-level enterprise and regard quality as a relative thing. (Apparently the term microbrewery inspired the term "micro" in other beverage operations but the term itself derives from microprocessor, since small-scale brewing and early developments in the semi-conductor and computer hardware industries were more or less parallel on the West Coast 20-30 years ago).

For example, some people find it interesting to sample the products of a Colorado small distillery which makes malt whisky aged in new charred barrels. Is it a quality product? Certainly it is different from anything out there today, some like it, some probably do not. It is different and distinctive because it is the vision of one person or small team. Just like Dane once told me and very properly, the whole idea of a single barrel is its specificity, its uniqueness. All the liquor we are talking about has quality in the sense of being palatable and safe to consume; after that it is a question of individual preference.

The whole idea of slow food and craft wineries similarly is based on small scale production to achieve hopefully a unique profile. Sometimes this is questionable as the mondo vino controversy shows, but still, it is without doubt I think that the more producers there are and the more smaller ones, the more individuality of palate you will get.

No doubt I won't like some of the emerging products of the small distillers just like I don't like some of the products of the big ones, but I find them a welcome development just as small-scale brewing was, ultimately. In other words, a wide range of flavors ultimately emerged as opposed to the mass production lager taste that resulted from industrial developments and industry consolidation.

I can't count the bad beers I had in its early days (and I still run into some!) but the rewards outweighed the risks.

The parallel to the bourbon indutsry is not 100% but undeniably there has been to some degree a uniformisation of bourbon palate since the restoration of the industry in 1933. The development of small-scale distilling will ultimately restore a broader range of flavors and bourbon styles.

Gary

cowdery
09-11-2008, 15:42
To me, the crux of the issue is that people want to know what they're buying and they want what they are told about the product and how it is made to be true. Even trying to hold some of these new distillers to that minimum standard of simple honest dealing gets pushback.

ILLfarmboy
09-11-2008, 15:56
I'm a little confused, Chuck. Up-thread you said that one distillery makes it's own malt. Which one. As Dane said Stranahan's use to buy their malt from FD. but now buy from Oskar Blue. The program I saw on the Discovery Channel showed how FD fermented the mash bill as per Stranahan's specs, or supposed specs, and piped it overhead between the two buildings. Is Stranahan's now buying just the malted barley and fermenting their own mash or are they buying wash from Oskar Blue and having it trucked in?

NorCalBoozer
09-11-2008, 16:02
To me, the crux of the issue is that people want to know what they're buying and they want what they are told about the product and how it is made to be true. Even trying to hold some of these new distillers to that minimum standard of simple honest dealing gets pushback.

Isn't the minimum standard the government regulations?

cowdery
09-11-2008, 16:50
Isn't the minimum standard the government regulations?

I guess you're right. My standard is higher than the government's.

Rick Wasmund, at Copper Fox (http://www.copperfox.biz/), in Virginia, makes his own malt.

Stranahan's is getting its wash from Oskar Blue, which is not right next door, so presumably they're shipping it in some kind of containers. Maybe tankers, but I doubt they use that much. Probably some kind of plastic or stainless tank, maybe 50 gallons, maybe more. I don't know. I don't think it's a big deal. They don't need to be next door.

It just occurred to me that with these stills, because they are batch, you don't need a beer heater. It probably doesn't matter what temp your beer is when it goes into the still, as it does in a continuous still.

Gillman
09-11-2008, 17:18
To me this issue too is (within reason) all relative.

No brewer today (or virtually none) malts its own barley, much less raises its own barley. Almost no brewer grows his own hops. Some brewers lease their property, some own it. Some own their own equipment, some lease it on finance.

All buy malt and hops from around the world. If one buys wort from a fellow brewer because it is more cost efficient for him to do so, or brews at a borrowed brewery, to me this is as much craft as any other way of being a brewer. Sam Adams lager is a fine craft beer - some is contract brewed.

To put it a different way: if a brewer makes his own malt extract and brews beer from it, I'd say he is a less authentic brewer than one who brings in wort from soneone with overcapacity.

Gary

cowdery
09-11-2008, 20:08
My reason for bringing up something like malting is that if you say you're "craft," shouldn't you do more of that sort of thing than the industrial producers do, rather than less? Otherwise, what's the point?

Gillman
09-11-2008, 22:11
Ideally you should, yes. But a fine and distinctive product can result short of this. In the bourbon context, since aging is such a big part of the process, even someone who buys commercial white dog and ages the product in its own warehouse may well end up with a distinctive product, as will an actual distiller who might, say, specify use of a specific yeast for a mash made off-site or even just specify the mashbill. If one adds the possibility of mingling products of different distilleries, once again the chances of a distinctive and even unique product resulting are greatly increasing.

I regard Templeton's current product for example as a craft product, it doesn't taste like anything else in the market. However made and aged exactly, it is a craft product to a certain degree.

KBD is not a distiller certainly but issues some fine and distinctive products. That is an example at the periphery of what I am speaking of but serves to make the point I think. But make no mistake: I am all for as many functions being performed as possible by the distiller; still, that is a sufficient but not necessary condition to making a craft product one might say.

Gary

cowdery
09-11-2008, 23:55
Templeton may be a craft product, but Templeton didn't craft it, unless you think pouring something into a bottle is a craft. I agree that the anonymous source did a great job. Templeton did nothing.

I'm not saying someone has to do x, y, or z to be craft, but as a starting point I'd say they aught to do more than write a check. I've got no problem with someone who comes up with something that tastes terrific, no matter how they make it, so long as they're honest about how they make it and don't pretend to be something they're not.

The "maker" has to control the process and you just don't control the process if you're buying wash. You're bypassing two-thirds of the process and bypassing the stage where all of the flavor is created.

A person who runs beer through a still isn't a distiller, that person is called a still operator. Every distillery has a still operator, but it's not the distiller.

Gillman
09-12-2008, 04:37
I don't know if some of the Templeton existing bottling (the one that resulted from whiskey apparently distilled at Lawrenceburg, Indiana) was given futher aging in Iowa before bottling. If this did occur this represented additional craft applied in Iowa. Even if that wasn't done, a craftsman selected the whiskey, just as some well-known merchants do in the Kentucky industry whom we respect and all know. And but for that selection the whiskey might never, in the form we know it, have seen the light of day. I fully agree this function is not distilling as such, I view it more as craft production.

Running purchased beer through a still may not be distilling in one sense, but to me it is, in another. At one time, no brewer who did not malt its own grains was worth its salt arguably; today that has changed because the business has changed, what was once a raw material made onsite is now an input, specialisation changed the emphasis. Beer (beverage beer) brewed under contract can be superb and to my mind is the craft production of the person who designed the recipe and had the beer made and then sold it...

As for people saying what they do or don't, I'm all for people telling us. But if they don't, I am sure it is for commercial reasons they perceive. They may be concerned about letting too many secrets out of the bag. People look at this issue differently. For years in my studies of the brewing industry and beer styles, I have encountered brewers who will tell you exactly how their beer is made, where they get their materials, etc. And some make hardly a peep. Some in either category make great beers, some don't.

I don't think we disagree that much since I promote maximum performance of the distilling functions by microdistillers themselves and I think they should be frank about what they do and how but in practice there will be variations on this model and I am good with that.

Gary

NorCalBoozer
09-12-2008, 10:07
I guess you're right. My standard is higher than the government's.


Mine is too. But the distillers is the regulations. Micros can easily create some crappy products and put them in a pretty bottle and sell them as though they are craft. I'm not too worried about this as I feel the market forces will penalize them.

I think that additional standards of identity need to be implemented for the whole industry. So that if the industry decides that "pot still" whiskey has to go through a real true non column pot still then that should be an identity for everyone to follow. Same for "small batch" etc etc.

With all the micros coming on, I don't know how successful the ADI is going to be making up rules and identity when someone who isn't a member is only forced to follow the federal regs. They certainly are going to have members who say F* that to certain regulation(s) they decide upon. I don't know how far they will go with their regulations for members.

Am I suppose to look for an ADI logo on each bottle so I know they follow some level of quality? Then the ADI becomes a brand unto itself and I think if I was a micro distiller I would be a bit wary of this and concerned about where the ADI was headed. How is the ADI going to enforce it's reg? Is it going to inspect members to make sure they are following their rules? Hmmm that sounds expensive.

I think the ADI would be better off trying to add to or clarify the federal standards of identity if they are serious about high quality craft distilling.

This brings up the quality of the whole playing field, big and small and gives consumers a standard of quality they can trust when they see a word on a label. Then "pot still" whiskey actually means something whether is comes from Heaven Hill or Jerry's Micro distillery.


Greg

cowdery
09-12-2008, 13:46
Gary, this is just you being the eternal optimist, and I love you for that, and me being ... me. I wouldn't smash your rose-colored glasses for anything.

Greg, where I cut these new distillers some slack is the fact that they're new, they're trying to do something new, and I love them for that just like I love Gary. I'm just trying to give them a few things to think about as they find their way.

Gillman
09-12-2008, 14:22
And fair enough, Chuck. :) Soon we can hoist a few in their honour.

Gary

craigthom
09-13-2008, 05:05
I think I can see both sides of the argument. I'm more familiar with beer, so I'll use that as an example.

Over the past twenty years or so there's been a huge explosion in craft beers. Part of that was the brewpub, the restaurant that brews its own beer.

When brewpubs started becoming popular a lot of really crappy ones sprang up. I get the impression that somewhere someone was selling "instant brewpub" kits, and people were opening them not because they had a love for beer but because they thought they could make money doing it. If the trend had been Tiki restaurants, then that's what they would have been doing.

Beer from these places was 100% extract and had no character at all. It's was all straight from a recipe book. Bland, boring stuff.

This doesn't mean, though, that someone couldn't use one of these brewpub kits to produce decent beer, even starting with the same extracts. They'd have to prove it to me, though, and it would be an uphill battle.

Gillman
09-13-2008, 06:42
Well, that's it. Once I had a conversation with the late beer expert Michael Jackson about malt extract (a kind of syrup or condensate of malted barley - another short-cut). He said if the extract was well made and fresh, the beers could be very good, but in his experience, it was the rare beer that met this test. We both agreed the beers of the Orange Brewery, a brewpub on Pimlico Road in London, met this test. I believe this operation still exists. Its beers were made (the last I knew) from a custom made extract made in large quantities.

I think in the end it's a judgment thing about any production process for a food or drink - how far does it stray from the original concept before it loses authenticity (cutting a little slack too though on what is authentic in the Arcadian mists). You have to look at each individual case. As Chuck has kindly noted, I tend to be an optimist in these matters. His perspective is valuable too, though, and I liken it to that of the late Mr. Jackson who used to raise an eyebrow every time a brewer would, say, use hop pellets instead of the whole flowers, or use an adjunct of some kind (at least where this was not part of the style of the beer). I think he once wrote that every time a step like that is taken, one moves incrementally away from authenticity and after a while you end up with something lesser.

Gary

ratcheer
09-13-2008, 08:00
I know that I am probably way behind the curve on this, but I just found out yesterday that Guinness is made around the world from extract made in and shipped from Ireland. They call it "essence". That is not what I expect to get when I am buying something that costs that much.

I remember being fond of Guinness back in the early to mid 70's. Any I have tried in the past 15 years or so has not been very satisfying, even though it seems to generally still be held in pretty high esteem. I had chalked it up to a change in my personal tastes, but now I wonder.

Tim

Gillman
09-13-2008, 09:39
Well, Tim, the Guinness story is complicated. The beer you are referring to is Extra Stout, which is brewed for local consumption outside Ireland and even then only is found in certain markets. In Canada, that version is brewed by Inbev/Labatt and sold in glass bottles. It is also - the Canadian-brewed one -sold in parts of the U.S., often in grocery and supermarkets, in pint bottles. On the side of the label it states it is brewed in Canada (New Brunswick I think).

But the Guinness in the tall black cans and shaped plastic bottles is brewed in Ireland and does not use the essence, ditto the Guinness draft widely available.

Guinness arguably, anywhere, is not as good as it was. The best versions though, Guiness Foreign Extra Stout and Special Export, are excellent, full-flavored beers and probably represent the kind of taste that was the Guinness signature in the 1800's. Unfortunately you can't get these in North America. FES is widely available in the Caribbean though.

That said, I still like a fresh Guinness draft, it is still a good beer.

Gary

ratcheer
09-13-2008, 11:15
Thanks, Gary. You always have the pertinent facts. I had no idea the question was so complex.

That said, I rarely drink Guinness anymore, so there is little reason for me to have kept up with it. The last thing like that I had was Samuel Smith's "Tadcaster" taddy porter. Michael Jackson said it was the best commercial beer in the world. I didn't care for it, either.

Tim

Gillman
09-13-2008, 11:58
In your market, I'd advise if available Fuller London Porter, which has a deeper, slightly sweeter taste than Taddy Porter (which has an acidic edge - a trademark of some porter styles). Whether in can or bottle, it is very reliable.

There may be, too, craft U.S. stouts or porters which may please.

I just bought a smoked oatmeal stout in our market here, some of this may come with me to Gazebo.

Gary

ratcheer
09-13-2008, 17:09
I don't recall seeing anything like Fuller London Porter. Last winter, I bought a case of the Sam Adams Winter Sampler, which included some porter that was pretty good.

A lot of people seem to be unaware that stout is porter. It simply means, you guessed it, strong porter. Somewhere along the years, people stopped calling it stout porter, shortening it to just "stout". And now, most people have no idea that they are the same thing. In fact, many porters are stouter than some stouts. :lol:

Tim

Gillman
09-13-2008, 18:20
That's right. Porter and stout are closely related styles. Porter came first, and migrated to Ireland, whence the stout variation emerged (characterised too, later, by use of some darkened unmalted barley). I might bring some Fuller's London Porter to Gazebo, Tim if you are coming this year, I'll make certain of it.

Gary

Gillman
09-13-2008, 20:38
I checked online about Orange Brewery in Pimlico, London. It still exists but does not brew any longer, all the beers are brought in, so it would function then as any other London pub. The beers described sound first rate, though, e.g., Fuller's.

Gary

jeff
09-15-2008, 03:41
True enough, today's stout had its beginnings as a "stout porter", but the difference, at least today, is in the use of roasted barley in the stout. It lends that coffee-like roastiness to the profile of a stout, whereas today's porters typically use a good percentage of chocolate malt to achieve the dark color and chocolate-like flavors.

Gillman
09-15-2008, 04:43
Yes, this is really the keynote to Irish (bitter) stout I think. It gives a dryness and perhaps an oily note - like unmalted cereals do in a distilled ferment - which sets off against the sweetness of barley malt. The Irish hopping is interesting too, which is not an aromatic hoppiness like in English bitter or American pale ale but is simply a bitter hop resin on the palate.

However, other forms of stout survived in England. The term stout itself was used in England before porter was invented in London, fans of Jackson will recall his citation of the pre-porter impecunious poet who dreamed, "a pint of stout to surprise the muse" (i.e., jump-start the poetic imagination). At the time, stout meant any strong beer.

Surviving English stout styles include Imperial Russian Stout and the mild sweet milk stout. Also, in the north of England, oatmeal stout. None of these uses I believe roasted (unmalted) barley, which is an Irish trait and is said to derive from a time when a tax on malt made brewers look for different ways to save money.

Guinness Stout on draught is still a good drink and it can be in the can or bottle too. It needs to be very fresh and drunk only half-chilled to see it at its best. I even like the locally made "essence" Guinness although perhaps it is less earthy and rich than 30 years ago.

For the Gazebo, I'm now thinking I will bring the spirits mentioned earlier but not the beer (and I have very limited space). I might in lieu of the beer get some Champagne and some Guinness and offer people Black Velvets, 50/50 or either in its own. A festive touch for what will prove to be a great SB event I think.

Gary