James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
The photo above does not include any products of America's largest and best known craft brewery, the Boston Beer Company that produces Sam Adams. But it's a useful reference for several craft-beer-related points.
Today John Tierney has a new item on the Beer Economy of Pennsylvania and the role it plays in the identity and economy of the region. I know this seems like a running gag, but quite seriously we've come to think that the locally based, strongly locally branded food-and-beverage outfits we've seen from Maine to Mississippi to South Dakota, are significant business operations and signs of civic health. John Tierney explains more about their role in the historic brewing stronghold of the Lehigh Valley.
The world is full of sorrows, but it is also full of ever-better beer. To wit:
1) My friend Adam Minter with a report from Beijing, "If you can't breathe, drink." It is about one of the new craft breweries in town, Capital Brew or 京-A (Jing-A, or "Capital A.") I haven't yet been there, although I've loved the pioneering Great Leap brewery, and its Shanghai counterpart Boxing Cat. China has been the land of very terrible beer for a very long time. The future looks bright. Update: I should also have mentioned Slow Boat Brewery, which I have heard about but not yet visited.
2) Mississippi.The picture at the top shows, working outward from the center:
- In the middle, both in cans, we have two beers from SoPro, or Southern Prohibition Brewery, which was founded last year in Hattiesburg, in the southern part of the state. On the right in blue, Suzy B Dirty Blonde Ale. On the left, Mississippi Fire Ant Imperial Red Ale.
- Flanking them, two from Yalobusha Brewing in Water Valley, near Oxford in the northern part of the state. Yalobusha, in case like me you didn't know, is the name of a county. On the left, River Ale, an American Pale Ale. On the right, Copperhead, an American Amber.
- Next, working outward, two from Lazy Magnolia brewery in Kiln, near Biloxi. On the left, Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale. On the right, Southern Hops'pitality IPA.
- The outermost pair are not technically from Mississippi--but they're from the vicinity, and I found them in the phenomenal The Smoke Stack smokes-and-beer store in West Point, Miss. (That's also where I got the commemorative glass shown below, with the insignia of the Golden Triangle Brewers of Mississippi.) On the left, the beautifully labelled Cocodrie from Bayou Teche Brewery in Arnaudville, Louisiana. On the right, from Yazoo Brewery of Nashville, a porter with the simple name SUE.
The craft-brew movement is new to Mississippi, but (unlike the Chinese) people there have a good excuse for taking so long. Until July 2012, it was against the law even to possess a brew with alcohol content higher than 5%. Bud Light, Coors, and Corona all qualified under that standard, but just about no beer you would consider "good" did. (Interesting alcohol-by-volume chart here.) Now, under its new law, Mississippi is making up for lost time. And lest we forget, none other than Jimmy Carter was the man who brought a similar change to the nation as a whole. In all the local Kwik-E-Marts in Mississippi the main national-brand craft brew I saw was Samuel Adams "Rebel IPA." It's excellent beer, but this is an interesting brand for the Boston Beer Company, brewer of Sam Adams, to feature in this part of the country.
3) America as a whole: English writer Geoff Dyer with a very nice WSJweekend essay (paywalled) on how America as a whole has gone from being a beer wasteland to becoming the beer garden spot of the world. Eg:
These days the U.S. is not only a world leader in beer, it's a beer destination. Where once the tired and huddled masses arrived in the hope of breathing free (but with no hope of a decent IPA), now it's the thirsty, and they're here for the beer.
4) America's capital, Washington DC. One week ago, the beautiful Building Museum in Washington was the venue for the spiritually beautiful SAVOR Craft Beer festival that gathered brewers from all across our great land. It had brewers as well-known as Lagunitas ...
... and as on-the-rise from a national perspective as Nebraska Brewing, of La Vista, Nebraska, which (like nearly all the companies there) had some excellent new beers.
Again, there are troubles in the world, but not in the world of beer.
Tomorrow, my wife Deb Fallows has a great new story in the NYT also about Mississippi. Stay tuned.
Here we see the on-draft menu from the Beer Garden in Starkville, Mississippi -- the kind of place where recently you might have expected to find Bud, Bud Light, and Corona.
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You probably can't read the beer list, so I'll clarify that on draft it offers beers from: Crooked Letter brewery in Ocean Springs, Mississippi; Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg; Bayou Teche/ LA 31 brewery in Louisiana; and Yazoo Brewery in Nashville, Tennessee. Plus Sierra Nevada and Green Flash from California. This is the new America.
Also, as a big IPA fan, I note (following this item) that few of the craft beers on the extensive listing are the too-alcoholic, super-hopped Double- or Triple-IPAs. From a reader in California on this trend:
My observation lately has been that the trend of the last decade or so toward heavily hopped beers has plateaued. Retail options cover a wide spectrum, with sours and farmhouse saisons noticeably occupying more shelf space.
Perhaps this is a function of my geographical location, Berkeley, California. Still, I saw the same array early this year in NYC at Grand Central Station in a tiny boutique featuring a remarkably large and varied supply of beers, some from the Northeast, and some from my neck of the woods. Trader Joe's in Southern California, by the way, sells Hangar 24's marvelous double IPA for $1.50 less per 22 oz. bottle than I see it where I live.
Another trend, sadly, is the rise in price. This is due perhaps to a hops shortage or to increasing demand for funky new craft beers. Painfully, I have had to reduce my intake to maintain a budget. I might have to solve the problem altogether by joining still another trend, the home brewing hobbyist.
That is all. Except the other half of the research team, at work.
Short version: the biggest sellers are still the blandest water-beers (Bud Light as #1, Coors Light as #2); but those big sales are dropping fast. Meanwhile craft beers, of which Samuel Adams is by far the largest and Sierra Nevada #2, claim only a tiny sliver of the market but are the main category that's growing. You could view that tiny sliver—10 million cases a year for Sam Adams, versus 300 million (!) for Bud Light—as discouraging. Or you could use the increase for craft beers—Sam Adams up 11 percent last year, while Bud Light was down 1 percent—to give yourself heart. Myself, I always prefer to see the growler as half full rather than half empty.
I mention this to highlight John's post for anyone who might have missed it, and also as an excuse for some growler-half-full news I've meant to mention for months. Australia, which in most other ways has made itself into an astonishingly pleasurable food-and-drink paradise, has badly lagged in the beer department. Many Aussies are annoyed by the yokel image of their country conveyed by the Foster's "that's Australian for beer" commercials, although instead of yokel they would say "ocker." But weak and watery Foster's has been a fair representation of what the country's pubs generally* have had on offer.
[* Yes, yes, there have been exceptions. The Lord Nelson "Brewery Hotel" in Sydney, at right, is a place where I have spent an embarrassingly large percentage of my total time on Australian soil. Its Three Sheets Australian Pale Ale is my standard there. Plus, the MooBrew brewery in Tasmania, and some others—including the James Squire brewpub in the Salamanca area of Hobart, Tasmania, shown below. It's just that, compared with omnipresent good wines and great food, Aussie brews have fallen short.]
Until just now. The picture at the very top of this item shows an 11-beer range of craft beers. They run from Hop Hog IPA, made by the newish Feral Brewing Company in Western Australia (at far left), to Stowaway IPA from the better-known James Squire Brewery in New South Wales (at right). I bought all those bottles and lugged them home on a visit a few months ago to the wonderful Oak Barrel bottle shop in Sydney, below.
The "Aromatic Spelt Ale" in the middle of that 11-beer range turns out to be an acquired taste that I don't really want to acquire. Ugh! The other 10 were very impressive and have removed the only quality-of-life reason not to live in Australia. A recent local ranking put Feral's Hop Hog at the top.
The local press is carrying beer specials (right), and in general it is a great time to be an Aussie or visitor in search of non-watery beer.
But let's bring it back to John's post, and to what Deb Fallows and I have been discovering as we have prowled through smaller-town America. What is finally happening in Australia, and what everyone knows to have been happening for years in Oregon and Michigan and Vermont, is happening all over the place in the U.S. We've seen our share of truck stops and roadside convenience stores in recent months, and the selection there explains how those million-cases-per-day of Bud Light are being moved. But we've yet to be some place without its own startup brewery in the vicinity, or three or ten. Latest example: Georgia, source of the Terrapin brewery whose offering is shown below:
Each place we've visited, I've asked the young or more grizzled brewpub entrepreneurs how long this can go on. Indeed, it's conceivable that a world hops shortage could limit their growth—or, on the more positive side, blunt some of the trend toward super-hopped, too-alcoholic brews. But many of the brewers have pointed out that their share of the total market is so small that they could plausibly keep growing, even if the beer market as a whole, swill and all, is declining. Useful comparison: the "enormous" 11-percent growth in Sam Adams sales for one year was a total increase of about 1 million cases. The "tiny" 1-percent fall in Bud Light sales was three times as large.
So if tastes shift—and if hops remain—there is room for the craft brewers. Thus I cheer them on.
If you have followed the world of beer, you know two things about a brew with the odd name of Heady Topper, from a company called The Alchemist in Vermont. One is that it has an unbelievably positive reputation. Both Beer Advocate and Rate Beer have recently crowned it as the best of all possible beers. Among BA's readers, it is the #1 overall beer; at RB, it has a perfect 100 score. Here is BA, with RB's down below:
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The other thing beer people know about Heady Topper is that it is almost impossible to buy outside the state of Vermont. Most of its sales are from its own cannery, in Waterbury half an hour from Burlington. The Alchemist company posts a carefully specified list of where Heady Topper is authorized for sale, mostly in the northern half of the state. Even for those who buy direct at the cannery, there is a one-case-per-customer limit. You can see where this is going -- and begin to imagine why the view below, of case upon case of Heady Topper, is for many beer enthusiasts the equivalent of seeing Walter White with his big barrels full of money in the recent episodes of Breaking Bad.
Today, as part of our relentless search for excellence in America, I selflessly drove out to the cannery to see for myself. My wife was at a school or something. I will wait till later to tell the story of the company -- why "Alchemist"? Why "Heady Topper"? Why Waterbury, Vermont? Why play so hard-to-get? And, on the meaning-of-America front, how does Vermont's vaunted craft-brew culture stack up against those of Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, and (these days!) a lot of other places you could name? Jen Kimmich, who with her husband founded and now runs the company, answered those questions while guiding me around -- and this, with the bravery and selflessness so typical of the brewing community, one day after breaking her collarbone in a mountain-biking fall.
For now, just a few glimpses of what awaits you when you get there yourself. Here is the establishment in toto -- garnished with an airline contrail in the upper left-hand corner on a blue-sky day.
Inside, where the beer becomes itself.
Part of a $100,000+ automated canning line -- which, as we'll see later on, has benefits both for the company and for the beer-drinker. The cans come down the line from the left, get rinsed and flipped over, then get purged with CO2. Then, inside the glass case with the tubing, they are filled with their precious cargo.
A little further down the line, where the can-tops are put on:
Reflecting on a satisfying work day:
And my one-case limit, safely cushioned on a big stuffed chair back in the hotel. I will swathe it carefully before putting it in the cargo hold for our trip home -- maybe with a cooling pack.
The reporter's work is never done. Coming up soon: compare-and-contrasts among the civic culture, and environment for manufacturing and innovation, among Sioux Falls, Holland, and greater Burlington. For now, good wishes from the green mountain state. (Below, from Rate Beer.)
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OK, that headline is my attempt at a transition from the past few days of Syria-related items to our ongoing American Futures exploration. I've just put up a new item on our map-based "Geoblog" site, which I hope you'll find interesting. It shows off our fancy Esri mapping software to good advantage (it looks better if you click "wide view"), and it illustrates one of the themes we've already been impressed by in a month of travel. That is the way the structural legacy-oddities of American self-government, which we're so familiar with on the national level (filibuster, gerrymanders), have a local effect too -- and how people have coped with them.
This screenshot at right, of Holland, Michigan and its surrounding areas, gives you an idea of the patterns I am talking about: the mismatch between city or township borders (in blue and brown), and school district areas (in purple), and the surprising effects this can have. I won't say more about it here, but the post does, and some of the ramifications. For the record, the Holland picture at the top has nothing to do with schools; it's just a reminder of the lakeside life that, along with manufacturing, is an important part of the city's life and identity.
Also on the Labor Day theme, my wife has shamed me into one more Holland picture. This is as I was stepping out of the small Our Brewery, a few doors down from the more famous New Holland Brewery, where I was carrying a high-test IPA for myself in my right hand and a few milder samples for her in my left. Her point was that this is the happiest she has ever seen me look. Almost as happy as Ta-Nehisi Coates has looked in France.
Before (or after) you go try a beer, I hope you'll check out this new post. Tee-totalers too. Happy Labor Day weekend.
It's probably just a coincidence that this shares a date with our American Futures kick-off day. Probably. But I would be remiss in letting much more of August 1 go by without noting that this is the Third Annual IPA Day. Yes, I know, you could argue that every day is IPA Day. But we're talking official status at the moment.
If you click on the CraftBeer.com calendar page before the day ends, you will see listings of (approximate count) one zillion events at brewpubs and brew houses around the country in honor of this occasion. Other research resources for you:
- A very nice appreciation by Jim Galligan on the Today.com site. That is also the source of the illustration above, originally from featurepics.com. Galligan's column has this wonderful and obviously true lead:
I hate the way people will pick a random date on the calendar and proclaim it a special day, unless it's celebrating something I enjoy. Then it's a great idea.
- While I'm at it, it's worth checking out this story on the indispensable role craft brewing is playing in American economic recovery. I'm not sure I'm convinced, but for today I'll assume it is true. Here's a similar economic-vitality item recently from HuffPo.
The heartening spread of craft breweries across the nation is naturally one of the trends we plan to explore in our upcoming project. For now, celebrate August first in the appropriate way.
1) Beer labels in motion. Thanks to all who sent links to this delightful Tumblr site, which includes animations of a number of favorite beer labels, like the one above for the also-delightful Little Sumpin' from Lagunitas. Inexplicably, I once saw a lone bottle of Little Sumpin' on sale in Beijing. I could not imagine that it had had a wholesome journey there, so I passed it by.
2) India 'Session' Ales. This is a brewing style I hadn't known about, and that sounds promising. Today's hop-conscious craft brewing world is overall a big step forward in realizing the full potential of human excellence. But often extra hops, which up to a point I am looking for, come in combination with extra-high alcohol levels, which I can do without. CraftBeer.com reports on ISAs that supposedly convey the taste of our beloved hop-blessed IPA family without all the extra ABV percentage. I look forward to checking them out.
3) Think before you drink. A sad story from Spain, where a speed-drinking contest among beer enthusiasts crowns a winner only to see him keel over and die. Who could have imagined that drinking the equivalent of 18 bottles of beer within 20 minutes might be risky in any way? Still, condolences.
4) Baltika Brew. Now I know that Baltika is a big European brewing combine, founded in St. Petersburg and since 2008 mainly owned by Carlsberg of Denmark.
But I didn't know that yesterday, when I was trudging along Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg and, just in time, caught a glimpse down a side street of this welcome sign. For the next hour, my wife and I imagined that we had stumbled across the local equivalent of Great Leap brewery in Beijing, or the Boxing Cat brewpub in Shanghai, or Hangar 24 in Redlands: that is, a great new independent craft brewery that burnishes an already appealing town. The dusky ambience, the prominently displayed brewing kegs, and above all the (good) beers tapped straight from the kegs nursed us along in this quaint brew-pub fantasy.
And even now that I know that Baltika is part of a giant operation, I don't care. Check it out when you're in the vicinity.
5) Why we love financiers, chapter 4,275. An interesting though heart-rending report from MSN Money explains why big banks' stockpiling of aluminum supplies, in hopes of creating artificial shortages and ramping up the price, has caused major problems for brewers around the world. Read and weep -- including the detail that packaging accounts for nearly a quarter of the cost of a normal six-pack.
6) Why we love America, chapter four million. Certifying the current era's role as the Golden Age of Beer, a reader shows the beers he tried on a recent visit to Montana. Perhaps with dangers like those in item #3 in mind, he clarifies, "not all at the same time."
7) Sharknado-themed. Because I can't resist:
From afar, and in specific from inside the half-lit beerhall beneath that Baltika sign off Nevsky Prospekt, cheers! Amid our other woes give thanks for a still-improving, increasingly worldwide, golden age of beer.
But in what other country can you go around the corner to the Kwik-E-Mart and come back with the haul shown above, representing breweries on the east coast and the west coast and in the Rockies, on a warm-but-not-sultry early-June afternoon? After a healthful and bracing run, of course, in designed-in-the-USA Vibram Five Fingers shoes.
The out-of-focus bottle at the bottom center is worth noting, alongside the familiar stalwarts in their six-packs. It's the new "Double Agent IPL" from Boston Brewing / Sam Adams. Here is what the label would look like if it were in focus:
Instead of IPA for India Pale Ale, we have IPL for India Pale Lager. Again I say: match this, you ever-rising Chinese with your REEB and Snow, you stylish Koreans with your OB.
... be sure to come by the 5th anniversary Air Show / celebration for the Hangar 24 craft brewery. If I weren't necessarily at a policy big-think event in DC this weekend, I would be there myself.
I was living in Beijing when I saw news of Hangar 24's opening five years ago: that long-sought combination of small-airport aviation and micro-brewing in my original home town. I ended up spending more time there than I expected in 2008, as I went back and forth from China in my dad's final months. I've been there in happier circumstances as often as I can recently. Have a Columbus IPA or Orange Wheat for me if you go there -- or for my dad, whose 88th birthday it would be. And enjoy the air show!
Update: The LA Times happily chooses today to proclaim Hangar 24's Orange Wheat as "beer of the month," fyi.
This is what I saw one minute away from my house in DC yesterday morning.
Good news: Excellent craft beer in cans! Click on the photo for a beer-pornish enlarged and highly detailed view. And, that same excellent beer making its way from its Colorado homeland to my closest Kwik-E-Mart. You would not have seen this in any imagined golden-age American period of yesteryear.
Bad news: the bare-limbed look of that gingko tree tells you about the weather in DC as of early April. Also, sadly, the truck was not stopping right outside my house.
At the wonderful CaCao "Mexicatessen" in Eagle Rock, near Occidental College where my wife and I are based this week, I have my first experience tonight with the products of Cucapá Beer, from Baja. What gets my attention, apart from the idea of this kind of craft beer coming from Mexico, is the label on their impressive "Runaway IPA":
To spell out the joke, here is the famous "caution: illegal immigrants crossing" sign on I-5 just north of San Diego. I didn't take this picture, but I've seen the sign often enough to know that it is real.
[Update: a number of readers have pointed out that the sign isn't there any more. I haven't driven that road in a few years so haven't seen it myself recently, so I'm willing to believe that it's been taken down. It lives on in memory and iconography.]
I admire Cucapá's panache in presenting this beer. Also from their product line: a stout called La Migra.
Five years ago today, while I was living in Beijing, I came across news that gave me renewed pride in my "native village," as Chinese people might put it (jiāxiāng, 家乡). A young entrepreneurial couple in the little city of Redlands, California, had decided to open a craft brewery -- at the local airport! For me, the ideal combo. On-scene pic:
Off and on in the time since then I have chronicled the growth of this Hangar 24 craft brewery, for instance in 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012. I don't know what I was doing in 2010.
Now here is the 2013 report: Hangar 24 beer, flagship brew of Redlands, is now a featured item in the Trader Joe's in a chic shopping area of LA (the Farmer's Market on Fairfax and 3rd). That's its Columbus IPA and Double IPA as they appeared this afternoon, alongside the big-time brews:
Some people say that the pride of Redlands should be Landon Donovan, the talented-and-controversial U.S. soccer star. Some say ESRI, king of the geospatial-info business. Some say Brian Billick, Redlands High graduate and Super Bowl-winning coach. No offense to any of them, but today I'm nominating Ben and Jessica Cook and their teammates at Hangar 24.
Because it often seems that the American beer scene offers the only reliable supply of "hey, things really are getting better" news. [And please see update below.]
I was a big fan of Houston when I was based in Austin many years ago, and I like it even better now. Back during one of the oil crashes of the 1980s I wrote an Atlantic piece making the case for Houston as America-in-miniature: adaptable, optimistic and future-minded, unmannered in all senses of the term, full of and shaped by immigrants. (I'm not providing a link because it was in one of the 80s-era issues we don't yet have on line.) I make this point because I think prevailing East Coast and West Coast opinions have not fully caught up with the idea of Houston's hipness, ambition, and charm. Two signs of progress: Forbes made a case last year that Houston was "America's coolest city," in other than the literal thermal sense; and the WSJ paid its respects to Houston's verve and style earlier this month.
But even I was surprised to find that Houston -- which I had long associated with Lone Star, Pearl, Texas Pride , and similar fare -- is now another of our craftbrew capitals. The view out my hotel window not long ago:
These were all really good. Before you ask: yes, this was a morning shot; I waited a decent interval to try them in the evenings once I got back home.
Dateline Utah, plus Delaware, Germany, and Pennsylvania:
Or at least Utah's handiwork as seen from our house in DC. Here's the lineup on a winter afternoon, with IDs below:
What you're seeing, working from the center outward:
In the middle, two of the new "special IPA glasses" jointly designed by Dogfish Head of Delaware, Sierra Nevada of California, and Spiegelau of Germany. Their ambition is to be "the go-to glass to amplify and balance even the hoppiest of IPAs... [and] change the way you experience hop-forward beers." The glass on the left is empty, the better to show off its cute little shark/dogfish logo. The one on the right is ready for use, filled with the Hop Notch beer I'm about to mention. The glasses are $9 apiece plus shipping from the Dogfish Head online store, and I will say that this latest IPA tasted very good therein.
Next out from the center, two offerings from Uinta, in Salt Lake City. Hop Notch, on the right, is by my reckoning a really wonderful IPA. You don't have to believe me: the Alström brothers at Beer Advocate gave it a "world class" ranking. The Wyld Pale Ale is good too.
On the outside, two tried and true favorites: Hop Devil IPA, and Headwaters Pale Ale, both from the Victory brewing company of Downington, Pa.
Dan Fromson, an Atlantic alum, has the enviable assignment of being the WaPo's beer writer. (Plus some other duties.) Here is one of his recent reports on the craft brew renaissance right here in Dysfunction City.
Back to Utah again:
Just because it's cheering, here is a sample of the other beers from Utah featured on the Uinta site.
That is all.
UPDATE Actually it's not! I forgot to mention that Uinta Brewery says it is 100% wind-powered. From the company's page (emphasis in original):
Uinta Brewing Company (UBC) became 100% wind powered in 2001. The first company to be 100% wind powered in the State of Utah, Uinta has worked cooperatively as a Visionary with Pacificor's Blue Sky Program to promote the use of wind power to commercial and residential users throughout the state. Blue Sky Pilsner was named in honor of wind power. In 2011, Uinta installed solar-electric paneling on the brewery's roof, allowing up to 30KW of electrical power to be generated for Uinta's beer production--roughly 15% of the brewery's power usage. Uinta is currently 15% Solar and 85% Wind Powered.