I walked in past the Bubbler makerspace, hopped into the elevator right by the children’s section, and got off just outside the delicate and complicated third floor art installation. But standing in the Madison Public Library with a couple dozen other beer geeks, all of us listening to beer tasting guru Randy Mosher talk about his favorite breweries, all the unusual elements faded away. This book talk was as much a Madison Craft Beer Week event as any tap takeover or special beer release.
This is not to say that it wasn’t something of a special beer release, though. If having Randy Mosher talk about beer wasn’t enough of a draw, Wisconsin Brewing Company brought four beers to sample, gratis -- and one of them, Bourbon Barrel Espresso Joe, hasn’t been seen outside of this year’s Cask Ale Fest and the Dells Rare Barrel Affair. It’s got a lot of great coffee flavor, and the barrel imparts flavor of its own; unexpectedly, the beer is barely over 5% ABV.
When I looked over the Craft Beer Week schedule, this event stood out as a smart, well-placed crossover event. (The Wisconsin Book Festival was a cosponsor of Mosher’s appearance along with WBC.) Organizers of the event, including Wisconsin Book Festival director Conor Moran and Madison Public Library director Greg Mickells, were present and sounding pretty excited about the turnout. People arrived early for this one and mingled freely, sipping on WBC Golden Amber Lager and this year’s Common Thread beer.
WBC brewmaster Kirby Nelson was there, too, hovering around the edges of the crowd. Mosher, meanwhile, held court along with his plastic cup, chatting about his work as partner with 5 Rabbit Cerveceria and Forbidden Root Brewing Company, assisting with Cicerone certification founder Ray Daniels in judging a recent panel of Master Cicerone applicants, and the many foreign translations of his seminal work, Tasting Beer (up next: Japanese).
Mosher described his new book, Beer for All Seasons, as essentially five new mega-chapters of Tasting Beer -- spring, summer, fall, winter, and an around-the-world tasting itinerary. “The world is blowing up with really good beer,” he said as he discussed the progression of brewing from Old World heritage to American homebrewing to craft brewers, and now back to global brewing.
“Beer is a very seasonal product,” Mosher said, “because it’s an agricultural product.” Beyond that, he continued, it is a product of another era.
Consider the horse. Two to three hundred years ago, horses were everywhere in Europe, which meant one thing in terms of Mosher’s work: “Horse poop dust -- that’s really bad for beer.” What followed was a somewhat complicated discussion of ambient bacteria and yeasts, beer production, storage temperatures, alcohol content, and government regulations concerning the times of year certain beers could be brewed. It was a lot to take in, but there were plenty of nodding heads and understanding subvocalizations, so I think it went over well.
Mosher’s historical knowledge of beer and beer production is impressive, and could have been a heavy payload of scholarship. Thankfully, he imbued it with plenty of humor, such as a convincing French accent put on in gently mocking the Belgian story often told to explain the style name “saison.” Long story short, he argued that pre-refrigeration era saisons were probably nothing like the farmhouse beers we call saisons today. (He also briefly punctured the legitimacy of the idea that those beers have anything to do with actual farmhouses, but before getting on a roll, he wryly called that a topic for another lecture.)
It was a talk heavy with trivia for the beer geek and the beer novice alike, the two groups bridged no better than by the stat Mosher gave out near the end. Light beer drinkers consume roughly twice as much beer as conventional macro beer drinkers, and craft beer drinkers consumer roughly half as much as those conventional macro drinkers. That’s the kind of statistic that makes it easy to appreciate craft beer’s position in the beer landscape.
That landscape may not be sculpted quite as much by agricultural or food safety limitations, but as Mosher said, “We still long for that seasonality.” We’re still attuned to wanting certain beers at various points throughout the year.
“It’s really fun,” he said. “Everybody buys a six-pack of pumpkin beer, and then they’re done with pumpkin beer.” That said, there was one topic he didn’t mention -- season creep, the phenomenon of seasonal beers appearing on shelves well in advance of their natural seasons.
Maybe the best advice is to let your own environment do the guiding. From what’s available, drink what feels right. If you want a pumpkin beer in July, drink one. If, like Randy Mosher, you only want a hefeweizen if you can drink it outside in the sun, then perhaps early January isn’t the time. For every beer, and every beer drinker, there is a season.