adventures in craft beer and real food

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Not Funny

I think everyone that knows me well knows one thing about me: I love comics. When I was little, I read Garfield and Peanuts voraciously. Then I got into The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbs, and Doonesbury. And I've always had a thing for political cartoons. When done well, they're clever depictions of complicated issues. As something simple, they can be incredibly powerful statements of opinion. Just look at Thomas Nast.

So I can take a joke.

But I think Joe Heller's recent political cartoon about free beer samples in grocery stores wasn't funny.

At stake is Wisconsin Assembly Bill 122, which would allow free samples of beer to be given out at grocery stores in Wisconsin. Specifically, it allows a maximum of two 3-ounce portions to be given to a person of legal drinking age between 11 AM and 7 PM unless specifically prohibited by municipal government.

The bill, sponsored by State Senator Pat Kretilow, passed the Senate Affairs Committee unanimously and is to be scheduled for a vote on the senate floor.

The way the law is now written, two 3-ounce portions of wine may be given free of charge to an individual of legal drinking between 10 AM and 6 PM (AB122 changes the times to 11-7):
(a) The provision of wine taste samples of not more than 3 fluid ounces each, free of charge, by a "Class A" licensee to customers and visitors for consumption on the premises. No "Class A" licensee may provide more than 2 taste samples per day to any one person. This subsection applies only between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Notwithstanding s. 125.07 (1) (a) 1., no "Class A" licensee may provide taste samples under this subsection to any underage person. No "Class A" licensee may provide as taste samples under this subsection wine that the "Class A" licensee did not purchase from a wholesaler.

(b) Notwithstanding par. (a) and s. 125.10 (1), a municipality may prohibit the provision of wine under this subsection.
A play-by-play analysis of the exact changes proposed in the current version of AB122 is provided here (PDF, 20kb). In its current form, it proposes that section 125.1 be revised from
(1) Every municipal governing body may issue Class "A" licenses for the sale of fermented malt beverages from premises within the municipality. Subject to s. 125.34 (5) and (6), a Class "A" license authorizes retail sales of fermented malt beverages for consumption off the premises where sold and in original packages, containers and bottles. A license may be issued after July 1. That license shall expire on the following June 30.
to (changes noted in bold)
125.25 (1) Every municipal governing body may issue Class “A” licenses for the
sale of fermented malt beverages from premises within the municipality. Subject to s. 125.34 (5) and (6), a Class “A” license authorizes retail sales of fermented malt beverages for consumption off the premises where sold and in original packages, containers, and bottles. A Class “A” license also authorizes the licensee to provide, free of charge, to customers and visitors who have attained the legal drinking age fermented malt beverages taste samples that are not in original packages, containers, or bottles and that do not exceed 3 fluid ounces each, for consumption on the Class “A” premises. No Class “A” licensee may provide more than 2 taste samples per day to any one person. Taste samples may be provided under this subsection only between the hours of 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Any other provision of this chapter applicable to retail sales of fermented malt beverages by a Class “A” licensee also applies to the provision of taste samples, free of charge, of fermented malt beverages by a Class “A” licensee. A license may be issued after July 1. That license shall expire on the following June 30.
So basically all Assembly Bill 122 does is make legal for beer what is already legal for wine.

Yet, here's Joe Heller portraying a bunch of men standing around a grocery store chugging beer at a grocery stand resembling a bar. The figure behind the "bar" resembles a young store clerk. By portraying someone who might potentially be underage serving beer implies that there's no check to make sure that all samples are given to people of legal drinking age. And it could be construed to imply that the underage clerk himself might have access to beer, and help himself.

There are four empty cups littering the floor around the men. This depiction implicitly suggests that individuals who would sample beer at a store are irresponsible.

Moreover, there are two women in the cartoon. With a dour look on her face (the other woman merely looks condescending towards the men), one of them says, "He never wanted to come to the grocery store with me... now I can't get him to leave!!" This further implies that all beer drinkers are men, and that men love beer more than their spouses. It also implies that there's no limit to the number of free samples, or that the serving sizes are large. And indeed, the cups don't appear to be tasting portion sized. As a result, it seriously misrepresents the AB122.

Finally, the caption reads "Wis. legislature considers allowing grocery stores to hand out beer samples." Again, there's no indication that responsible alcohol service is legally mandated by the bill.

The hue and cry about AB122 is beyond absurd. I will first address Heller's apparent criticisms, then I will respond to the arguments of other opponents of the bill. Finally, I will argue in favor of AB122 and strongly urge its approval without delay.

First, grocery stores providing beer samples will have to do so in a responsible manner. Regulations surrounding who can and cannot serve alcoholic beverages will apply to the distribution of free samples. And more than likely, the grocery store won't set up a bar. It might have a small table, which draws far less attention.

While people do litter, I question the apparent causal relationship between a free beer sample and litter in grocery stores. You can't tell me that everyone who takes a toothpick of Mystery Sausage at the grocery store puts the toothpick into an approved trash receptacle. You also can't tell me that men are more likely to litter than women. Or that beer drinkers are more likely to litter than wine drinkers or Mystery Juice drinkers.

With serving sizes limited to two 3-ounce pours, individuals trying a free beer sample would have to leave at some point because there's no reason to stay. It wouldn't lead to massive crowding at grocery stores. It wouldn't lead to public drunkenness. It wouldn't lead to neglected spouses. And let's face it: the times I've had a sample of wine at retail locations, the pour was more like one ounce. The volumes given are maximums, not The Exact Amount Which Must Be Poured and Then Consumed.

Having read numerous press accounts of the AB122 controversy, I found some more criticism of the bill. Nearly all of them go like this, "AB122 promotes drunkenness, alcoholism, and increases the chances of underage drinking and alcohol-related traffic fatalities. In addition, AB122 could be harmful to children and recovering alcoholics."

To be fair and balanced, I'll allow the critics to speak in their own words.

As quoted by Patrick Thornton of the Green Bay Press Gazette, Portage County District Attorney Tom Eagon says, "There are a lot of places in our community for people to get a drink." Yes, but if I wanted to go out and get a drink I want to go out and get a drink. What I wouldn't do is cruise around to grocery stores walking up and down each isle to see if free tasting samples were being distributed. And even if I found a grocery store that was providing tasting samples, I'd get at the very most six ounces (half a bottle) worth of beer. Given the amount of time and effort that an individual would have to spend obtaining a ridiculously small amount of beer, Mr. Eagon's argument is absurd. It is also an irrelevant point because people could already go out to grocery stores and get free tasting samples of wine.

Lauri Rockman, coordinator of Portage County's Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, is quoted as saying, "The environment we create for our young people is critical to their long-term health. We need positive adult modeling. Making alcohol part of a trip to the grocery store is just another way to make it so pervasive and casual in our culture." Of all the arguments against Assembly Bill 122, I think this is the most outrageous. Like a lot of things (sugar, salt, fat, etc.), alcohol is not inherently bad. Perhaps that's why her organization has the word "Abuse" in its title, not "Consumption." Anyway, I agree. It's extremely important that adults provide positive role models for their children. I just disagree with Ms. Rockman that the consumption of alcohol in moderation sets a bad example. Beer is a beverage with ancient roots, and strong traditions in many european countries (and a strong tradition here in the US). It can be incredibly complex and highly refined. To be honest, if I have kids someday I hope they have an appreciation for real beer as adults. If she doesn't want beer, she doesn't have to buy it or support retail locations that sell it. But please, Ms. Rockman, don't tell me that I can't or shouldn't enjoy it.

Mr. Eagon continues, "People with alcohol issues can't stop at one or two. One of the ways they deal with their problem is to avoid situations where they will be tempted. A grocery store should be a safe place." Ok, I get that argument. But where do you draw the line? If I recently had a heart attack, should I be tempted by fattening meats, whole milk, and candy bars in the checkout? If I suffer from celiac disease, should I be tempted with gluten-containing products? And furthermore, it stands to reason that economics would balance this out. If a store provides free samples of beer and you couldn't resist, then don't go there. If the grocery store loses enough business, it will be forced to stop providing free samples of beer.

But again, Mr. Eagon's argument misrepresents the issue. If grocery stores had a keg in the middle of the produce section and were handing out beers by the pint, I'd understand his comment about not being able to stop at "one or two." But let's face it. Six ounces of beer maximum is not a lot. And if you're talking about ethanol content it's far less than six ounces of wine. Let's say most beers come in around 4% alcohol by volume while most wines come in around 14% alcohol. That means in 6 ounces of wine, there's about 7 grams of ethanol for beer as opposed to 25 grams for wine. So you're going to end up consuming more than three times as much alcohol drinking the already-legal tasting sample of wine. And it's not like grocery stores don't already sell beer, wine, and hard liquor which could potentially compromise the safety of a store for a recovering alcoholic.

Assembly Bill 122 deserves to become law without further ado. The homebrewing and microbrewing revolution in the last twenty to thirty years in the United States has lead to the creation of some amazing breweries and world-class beers. Facing a dizzying variety of beer choices at a store (go to Woodman's Market or Steve's Liquor in Madison if you don't believe the selection could be intimidating), many customers won't know what to choose. If the retail location periodically provides free samples of beer, it helps beer drinkers try new styles without committing to a six pack. As a result, more people are more likely to try more beer.

This is a great for craft brewers who often survive on razor-thin margins. Paul Graham, president of the Central Waters Brewing Company, acknowledges this when he is quoted as saying, "Some people are hesitant to spend money on a beer they haven't tried before. This would give them a chance to sample our product before they purchase it." This legislation could potentially help smaller craft brewers compete with the macrobrewers.

This is great for the beer movement in the United States. For a long time, beer meant american light lager (e.g. Miller Lite). Then it meant american light lager and stout (e.g. Guinness). Then it meant american light lager, stout, and pale ale (e.g. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale). Now it pretty much means every kind of beer from every brewing tradition on the planet, plus experimenting with new ways of doing things. Helping people understand that beer can taste like fresh cherries (e.g. New Glarus Belgian Red) to espresso (e.g. Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Stout) and everything in between will help maintain diversity of brewing portfolios. And it may be exactly what is needed, given that the Capital Brewing Company discontinued Capital 1900 and Kloster Weizen, two worthy and unique offerings by a local craft brewer.

And finally, it helps raise the profile of beer drinking by making it placing it rightfully as wine's equal.

Assembly Bill 122 is a good measure that will help Wisconsin business, benefit Wisconsin residents, and maintain Wisconsin's reputation for beer. Although it has been assailed by critics, their arguments are very weak compared to the tangible benefits that AB122 provides. The state assembly should not delay its passage.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Book notes: Camembert

I just finished reading a particularly surprising and delightful book called Camembert: A National Myth by Pierre Boisard. It was originally published in 1992 as Le Camembert, Mythe National, but it wasn't published in English translation (thanks to Richard Miller) until 2003. In posting notes about this book I don't intend to dig up old news ("Kuwait has just been invaded, the implications could be...") but to help give this book some of the attention it deserves. As of the time of this posting, it has not received a user review on Amazon's or Barnes and Noble's online stores. Perhaps the book has an uncanny similarity to its subject: both the book and the cheese are difficult to approach, but that very aspect is the very basis for its merit. Peter Hepburn said that Camembert is "suitable only for academic food and French studies collections." Put one way, this book is erudite and engaging; put another, it is dry and pedantic. Which way you see it depends upon your perspective.

The book follows the full trajectory of camembert from its rural origins to its industrial transformation in the twentieth century. Camembert derives its name from a tiny Augeron village that today boasts of only 204 citizens. According to a widely-believed creation myth, camembert cheese was created by a peasant by the name of Marie Harel. As the story goes, a priest was given sanctuary from the revolution by Harel. In return the priest taught her the secret to making camembert. Harel and her descendents were the first notable producers of camembert, who gave rise to the reign of the "great families" as Marie Harel's descendents included increasingly many people. These producers rose to prominence and fell spectacularly over time. In the end, Michel Besnier ended up buying up the vast majority of camembert producers in the latter half of the twentieth century and industrializing its production.

Boisard casts the story of camembert's creation into serious doubt. Although there are extant birth and death certificates for a Marie Harel of Normandy, there is evidence that she lived in Roiville at the time – not Camembert. Boisard notes references to "Camembert cheeses" as early as 1702, so it seems as though the cheese existed before its supposed creator. What is more likely to have happened, Boisard reasons, is that Marie Harel was able to take credit for an older cheesemaking tradition. Although it seems unlikely that anyone would be able to claim credit for something that's been around for a long time, I remembered the on-going dispute over the terms Budweiser and Pilsener. Both words are used by American companies, but they refer to the Czech cities of Budweis and Pilsen respectively. The aforementioned American company has gone so far as to sue Czech breweries in an attempt to forbid them from (correctly) calling their beers Budweiser.

When I picked up the book I thought I knew what Boisard was going to say. "Camembert used to be so good. But then industry came along and wiped it all out leaving us with nothing but ersatz camembert." Although Boisard tries to provide a balanced narrative, you do come away with that impression. What I didn't expect was that the tragedy of camembert goes even further, and yet that hope for the cheese remains.

It's not just that the camembert of Marie Harel is no longer made; it's that it's not even possible to make it anymore even if someone really wanted to. When camembert was known only inside of Normandy -- that is, before it went national -- it was a truly rural product. It was fermented with Penicillium camemberti, which caused it to have a blue, green, or black mold. Urban consumers exhibited a strong preference for white camembert, which was made possible with the help of the Institut Pasteur by using P. candidum instead. This change almost certainly affected the taste of the cheese, by all reports, by removing the cheese's "peasant bite" (i.e. it became less sharp). But because P. camemberti had been use for so long, cheese factories were infested with it. Factory by factory, the bacteria was eradicated since it was viewed as a precursor to a product defect. The last known colony disappeared in 1961. No known culture of P. camemberti exists anywhere in the world today.

Moreover, the world in which camembert was born into is daily becoming relegated to history. Traditionally camembert was made from unpasteurized milk. In order to not wreck havoc upon a cheese factory, the milk has to be be sanitary. Sanitary unpasteurized milk must be collected with extreme diligence. The udders must be thoroughly cleaned. It must be stored as cool, but not too cool, temperatures, and cannot be allowed to stand for much time before it is used. Unpasteurized camembert, like all unpasteurized cheese, derives its unique flavor from its terroir. Modern cows are not only an inferior and untraditional breed -- Holsteins -- but are likely to not eat from the pasture as they once did. Modern dairy operations operate on a scale where these traditions are difficult or impossible to maintain. If the cheese maker can't trust the farmer, he will have little choice but to pasteurize the milk he receives. If the cows' milk has a lower butterfat content, it can't be made into the same cheese as it used to be.

As the European Union solidifies into a cohesive unit, the few remaining producers of unpasteurized camembert are under new pressure. There have been proposals that all cheeses produced in the EU must be pasteurized, presumably to optimize safety. One hopes that integration into the EU will have the same effect that it did on absinthe, which became legal everywhere in europe. The pasteurization issue combined with the invention of a ladling machine that makes camembert the "traditional", if automated, way, the future of the cheese certainly appears to be imperiled. I say "traditional" not traditional because this machine cuts the curd, which is not allowed in the traditional means of fabrication.

Boisard deals harsh criticism to Americans. Before 1949, when unpasteurized cheeses that had been aged for less than 60 days were banned in the US (per 21 CFR 133), Americans loved camembert cheese and imported more of it than any other country. Sometime in the latter part of the twentieth century, Americans became obsessed with food safety. In their zeal to eliminate bacteria from food, they did away with anything good or distinctive in camembert. Indeed, nearly all of the camembert available today in the United States is aggressively bland and insipid. Pasteurization removes any local nuance from a cheese.

This outrage could be justified if people were keeling over from consumption of raw milk cheeses. Yet americans were eating unpasteurized cheeses for hundreds of years and europeans have been eating raw milk cheeses for thousands of years without widespread sickness or fatality. Pasteurized cheese, on the other hand, has been shown to cause extensive sickness from time to time. You might object that if the improperly pasteurized milk causes sickness, then surely the unpasteurized cheese would have also caused sickness. But one of the main reasons why milk is pasteurized in the first place is to make up for inferior quality. If the raw material were of higher quality, it wouldn't be necessary at all. Perhaps efforts should instead be focused on education and microbial testing of milk entering the cheese factory.

Anyway, Camembert is an excellent book. My only complaint is that it doesn't come with samples of cheese! It may make me sad for my country, but I have hope that someday real cheese will again be allowed into the country.

... I understand that unpasteurized camembert can be ordered online. The blogging community should really have a "Gandhi marches to the sea to make salt" moment and all eat camembert contraband on one day. If bloggers can break political scandals before the mainstream media, bloggers can help craft sane food regulations.