One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 12/8/16

This will be short and sweet today. I’m trying to get over a cold and I need to rest before I head to work.

A couple of days ago, I wrote that the legacy craft brewers needed to be more nimble in today’s marketplace.  The newer smaller breweries can change direction and recipes at the drop of a hat and consumers are responding by expecting something new and different every week.  So, yesterday, New Belgium announced its new beer lineup for 2017.

What the hell?  I don’t mind that they got rid of Slow Ride, Shift, and Blue Paddle (which will be renamed).  They were serviceable, but won’t be missed by anyone.  They are coming out with a golden ale, sure.  The brewery is also creating a series called Voodoo for all its really hoppy beers.  Whatever.

It is the other two beers that give me pause:  Citradelic Exotic Lime Ale and Tartastic Lemon Ginger Sour.  Just soak that in.  The Citradelic is a beer already in production so I guess this one adds lime to it.  Because yeah.  I don’t know what is worse, having a bunch of dudes sit around and come up with a name for a beer like Date Grape or having a committee of people sitting around coming up with a name for a beer as asinine as Tartastic.

I understand that fruit flavored beers are a growing segment of the beer industry.  However, I can’t get over the feeling that they are gimmicks aimed at attracting people who don’t like beer.  Gimmicks almost always collapse under their own weight.  The people attracted to such beers aren’t long term consumers and they will eventually move on to another gimmick for another type of alcohol and all you’re left with is a bunch Tartastic Lemon Ginger Sour sitting on pallets in warehouses.

Legacy brewers: be nimble and more responsive to your consumers wants, but don’t forget who you are what you do.  You make beer, not umbrella drinks.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 12/7/16

First off, AB-InBev is henceforth known as Blandy.  Agreed?  Good.

This letter was written by a British craft brewer who is noticing the Borg-like infiltration of the nascent British craft scene by Blandy.  What I like about HonestBrew’s letter is that it isn’t flame throwing as much as it is determined.

This has been happening in the US for a few years longer than in Britain so you would assume that US craft brewers would be more mature about their approach to this infiltration.  However, I get the opposite feeling.

Blandy and its cohorts are not going to stop buying up brewers, retailers, and distributors and subsuming them to their wills.  That is their long-term business strategy.  Craft brewing’s response (our response) must be more than tantrums and flame throwing speeches/letters.  It must be a coherent and determined response equal to Blandy’s coherent and determined efforts to undermine everything craft beer has done.

I love this paragraph:

By hiding behind these brands, Blandy are tricking conscientious beer lovers into believing their hard-earned money is supporting the independent brewers who created this market. The reality? They are doing the one thing they know how to do well: dominate the market, reduce consumer choice and maximize their own profits. Make no mistake, in the long term this spells an almost certain end for the vast majority of independents.

This is one of the best and most succinct descriptions of what big beer is attempting to do.  This is a case where an entities actions while they have evil consequences they do not have evil intent.  What I mean is a virus is an organism whose only goal is survival and propagation.  To do both, is must infect hosts making them sick and sometimes killing them.  Large corporations and bureaucracies are simply organisms whose goals are the same as any organism including viruses:  survival and propagation.

So, in other words, think of Blandy and other big beer companies as mindless organisms who have no concern for the effects of their actions only their own survival.  How do you defeat a mindless virus?  You don’t run around screaming how evil it is and damning to hell anyone it infects.  You dig in and figure out how to keep yourself and others like you from getting infected while at the same time coming up with an antibiotic that can help those already infected.

One of the first steps for craft beer has to be to make sure everyone knows who is infected.  Especially consumers.  Honestly, some of these craft brewers who are purchased make good beer usually during the first year after purchase.  In other words, before the infection sets in and sucks the life from them. If you are a retailer or bar who supports craft beer, make sure you find a way for you customers to know what they are buying.

If you are a blogger or a writer who concentrates on craft beer, maybe keep a running list of craft brewers now owned by big beer companies like Blandy.

Change doesn’t happen because of slogans and fiery speeches.  Change happens because those activated by slogans and fiery speeches dig in, get their hands dirty, and work and fight for what they believe.  This is what we in craft beer must do now.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 12/6/16

We aren’t looking for an Earth-changing answer.

For the second day in a row, the article I want to write about was obvious.  Bryan D. Roth interviewed Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association about diversity in craft beer.  This is after Roth’s series of blog posts on diversity of the lack thereof in craft beer and Herz’s more recent column on the BA website, “Embracing Diversity in the Beer Biz.”

Both the Roth series and the newest BA column by Herz are introspective first steps to addressing diversity in craft beer in that they acknowledge there is a problem and that problem will have complicated solutions.

We have seen in this last election year that there are a lot of people tired of talking about diversity of race, gender, and sexual orientation.  Most of those people are white, male, and straight.  That puts the Brewers Association in an interesting position of trying to promote diversity in a group that is very white, very male, and very straight.  Coming up with a way to move the industry forward without angering many of your members is a tough needle to thread.  But it is necessary.

Again, we are not looking for the answer that will make racism disappear forever and create a Star Trek-like diverse universe.  What the people who want to see more diversity in craft beer want is first, an acknowledgment that there is a problem and second, concrete steps and actions the industry can take to begin to find solutions to those problems.

That is what annoyed so many people after reading the first of Roth’s posts earlier this year.  He asked a simple question to start, basically, what is the Brewers Association doing to address diversity.  The whole panel seemed ill-prepared for any questions about diversity. The answers were honestly god awful and were basically: we’ve translated our manuals into different languages, we need more data, and beer knows no race, class, or gender.

Now, with Herz’s column and then the interview it is clear that they have thought about diversity and I suspect they have concrete plans and ideas, that they haven’t made public yet, of what they want to do going forward.  The one “concrete” thing mentioned was gathering more data.

Two things, first, brewers are very analytical.  You must in order to make good beer.  Anyone who has homebrewed has learned this lesson.  So, approaching them with numbers and data on any subject is a good idea.  However, second, if you have ever been to the Brewers Association website you know you can drown in the amount of data they publish.  If at this point you don’t have good data on race, gender, and sexual orientation in craft beer it suggests you have simply never thought to ask the questions about diversity you need to help you make craft beer more diverse.

Here is my one suggestion for the Brewers Association: Create a committee/commission/working group on diversity and give it real power to suggest ways the BA and its members can improve diversity within the industry.  Also, encourage the state guilds to create similar committees.  Even better, have the state guilds create diversity committees and then have a representative from each state committee make up the national BA committee.

It has taken the whole of human existence for us to get to this point in how we treat race, gender, and sexual orientation.  The Brewers Association is not going to discover the key to diversity, but it can move the beer industry a little forward in how it deals with the issue.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 12/5/16

Sorry, this is so late this morning.  We had the bar Christmas party last night.  For me, the blame goes to the Fullsteam Fearrington Coffee Pecan Porter and the Ass Clown Cul du Buffon Saison. I’m a little worse for wear this morning.

Anyway, I got lucky this morning in that I found an article right away that caught my eye.  This analysis of Boston Beer is spot on in its diagnosis of the major problem legacy craft brewers like Boston Beer have.

The article is right, changing your marketing, packaging, and logo are not long-term solutions to the problem of slipping sales for the large older craft brewers.  Their sales growth is slipping because they have problem hit their ceiling as far as market penetration.  Boston Beer, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Stone all have the same problem to a certain degree.  Everyone who drinks craft beer knows about you and have already made up their minds about you.  New logos and marketing aren’t going to change many minds.  What they have to hope for is brand loyalty from first or second generation craft beer drinkers. That is much easier said than done mostly because of the second problem.

Their second problem is a bigger issue: The continued growth in new breweries along with the nimbleness of small/local breweries.  New breweries are still opening every week.  Laws are starting to change in places large and small around the country from the city level to the state level that makes it easier for brewers to open.  So, not only do the large legacy brewers have to fight off AB-Inbev and MillerCoors, they have to fight off all the 5-10 barrel breweries opening down the street from their target consumers.

Not only that but the smaller breweries that are already open are much more nimble and able to provide craft beer drinkers with the new beers and new flavors they crave on a weekly basis.  Boston Beer can’t do that.  Sierra Nevada can’t do that.  When one of the legacy brewers releases a new beer, they are usually killing off an old beer to make room in the production schedule.  To get to that point, these larger brewers, as large companies, make decisions like large companies do: months of meetings and testing.  That is a no-go in today’s ever changing market.

Take the newest IPA style the New England style IPA.  These beers are hoppy and hazy to the point of looking like orange juice.  I think some of the legacy brewers are coming out with their versions, but it is going to be months after the style hit.  Smaller brewers already have their versions on the shelves and in their customer’s hands.

Here is a suggestion from someone with no business skills:  These large brewers must restructure to make themselves more nimble.  Most of these breweries use their brewing capacity and let their brewers experiment.  However, the problem comes in getting those beers out to the public in a timely manner.  These breweries don’t need more craft beer drinkers to know who they are, they need craft beer drinkers to think of them as craft beer.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 12/2/16

There are a growing number of ways to get news about craft beer.  There are lots of blogs out there started by craft beer fans all of varying degrees of quality.  This one, in particular, veers from pretty good to straight trash at times.

However, I think that is a condition of modern reporting in general.  The internet has created the ability for normal people to become their own news agencies.  When it is said too many of these people don’t have journalistic training, what is meant is, too many of these people have no bullshit detectors.

One of the biggest issues I have with the coverage of most things in the news is that too many journalists crave access or have no context for what they are being told.  This leads to the same problem: acting as stenographers instead of actual reporters.

I’m just going to keep this in the realm of beer, but a lot of the beer news websites and blogs I read can charitably be called aggregators.  They just gather in news from other sources and pass it along.  Sometimes they add their own comments and takes on articles, like this blog.  Too often, however, the articles they are passing along are at best press releases.

That is why it is refreshing to find good writers who write about beer without blinders.  You can read how much they love beer, but also that they aren’t blinded by that love.  They see the absurdity in the fun and the business sides of beer.  Here is one article in marijuana and beer and another on big beer in Texas by Jason Notte.  Other writers of note for me are Tara Nurin at Forbes and Bryan D. Roth of This Is Why I Drink.

Right now, in North Carolina, the big political argument surrounding its growing craft beer scene is brewery self-distribution.  There is a cap of 25000 barrels on how much breweries can distribute before they must sign with a distributor.  There are at least 3 brewers in NC who are right at the limit who want to continue to self-distribute.

I have been annoyed at the coverage of this in the news.  On one hand, you have writers (many of them very good writers) who write about craft beer because they love craft beer and have good relationships with the breweries and their staffs.  They publish almost without question the brewer’s talking points for lifting the cap.  On the other hand, you have political and business reporters who have good relationships with the distributors and their political allies (some of the most powerful politicians in the state) who repeat that sides talking points for keeping the cap.  At this point, I don’t remember anyone who has questioned the bullshit rhetoric coming from both sides.

Some half-assed writer somewhere in North Carolina needs to go through all the published talking points on both sides and parse them to separate the true ones from the bullshit ones.  I wonder who could do that?

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 12/1/16

This is as good an article as any to highlight today.  I don’t mean to sound so flip about the article.  It is well written and has good information.  It’s just an article about non-hoppy beer styles.

What do I like about this article?  First, it has a simple premise: If someone says they don’t like beer maybe it is that they don’t like hoppy beers, so here are some other choices.  The writer then goes through the list of all the malt heavy usual suspects breaking down their general flavor profiles to help a reader find something they like.

One of the things I ask when someone comes into the bar and says they don’t like beer is, “What about the beer you’ve drank do you not like?” Many craft beer drinkers do their non-craft friends a disservice when the first craft beer they have them try is a big IPA.  Imagine that the most exotic beer you’ve ever tried is a Heineken and someone hands you a juicy east coast IPA that looks like a glass of orange juice and tastes like pine needles and freshly cut grass.  That person may not react well.

Creating a simple premise is a key to writing a good piece like this. One of the things that annoys me about much of today’s entertainment (books, movies, television in this case) is that they are too high concept.  They seek to ask too many complicated questions sometimes without answering them.  That can be fun in a Lost kind of puzzle way.  However, a good narrative is relatively simple:  A character or group of characters is motivated to do something and the story is how do they do it.

By keeping the premise simple, you give yourself a much bigger field to play with as a storyteller.  Battlestar Galactica had a simple premise:  How does humanity move on after civilization is destroyed?  Keeping the premise simple gave the creators a huge canvas to ask big philosophical questions and explore characters in depth.

Sometimes as writers because what we do seems inconsequential, so we try to increase our importance by overcomplicating what we do.  I like this article because it doesn’t try to do that.  Simplifying things and breaking things down to their essential parts is an important skill in writing as well as life.

That is one the things writing has taught me.  When in doubt, simplify.  Cut things back. Cut things out. Get back to the core of the idea that you are trying to express.  That is why I think Hemingway became such an important writer to me.  I like a lot of people avoided Hemingway because of his misogyny and false bravura in his guise as “Hemingway, the writer.”  However, when you go back to the work, it is brilliant in its simplicity and ability to cut to the heart of a thing in as few words possible.  It is the same with Raymond Carver.

A rule I try to follow is: say as much as you can with as few words possible.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 11/30/16

I love it when the article I want to write about is sitting in my inbox right at the top.  No wading through different Google Alerts or sifting through Twitter to find an article to highlight.  I open the Google Alert email and there it is.

One of the first articles in my Google Alert this morning is this one from the Boston Globe.  Shelton Brothers, beer and wine importer, is suing Craft Brewers Guild, major craft beer distributor, for what Shelton claims are unfair practices.  Primarily, overpricing their beer and intentionally not selling it to bars and retailers in favor of products from other suppliers through highly aggressive tactics including “pay for play.”

Now, Craft Brewers Guild was found guilty of pay for play last year by the state of Massachusetts.  In fact, Craft Brewers Guild isn’t contesting the findings of the state regulators they are contesting the fine. They just don’t want to pay the $2.2 million to the state.  Yet, those same regulators must now decide if Craft Brewers Guild is violating their contract with Shelton Brothers by failing to “exercise best efforts in promoting its brands.”

All this highlights the hoops importers and brewers must go through to get out of distribution contracts under franchise laws across the country.  A simple solution for a case like this would be to add an amendment to the franchise law that states if a distributor is found to have used illegal practices by state regulators, such as pay for play, all their distribution contracts can be terminated by the other parties.  So, in this case not only would Craft Brewers Guild have to pay a fine, but more importantly they would be faced with the loss of its whole portfolio.

I know it has seemed over the last few weeks, I don’ like distributors.  Is not that.  Trust me.  Over the last few days, I can tell you distributors and breweries that self-distribute both have advantages and disadvantages for a retailer.

I’ve seen self-distribution that works great and I’ve seen brewer/distributor relationships that are like hand in glove.  I’ve also seen self-distribution be a pain in the ass and distributors who have reps that don’t know their craft portfolio and simply act as order takers.  Selling craft beer requires a little more of a proactive approach then selling Bud/Miller/Coors to a grocery store does.

The deeper in this I go, the less clear it is what the Brewers Association and the state guilds should concentrate on legislatively.  I guess excise tax reform is the first thing.  That effects all brewers and distributors regardless of size.  A close second should be franchise and distribution law reform.  Bottom line:  Cut taxes and allow brewers the freedom to decide if they want to use a distributor and make it easier for them to escape a bad distributor fit.

An issue I see arising is a growing difference between larger more regional breweries (15000 bbls/year and up) and smaller breweries.  In North Carolina, the needs and wants of the larger breweries are slowing shifting away from the needs and the wants of the majority of the breweries who fall in that smaller brewery category.  I believe that will be a bigger issue going forward in the state and nationally.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 11/29/16

There are so many stories surrounding brewery mergers and beer distribution that it can be hard to keep up with what is the most important things to remember.  This article does a great job of showing how the two issues are connected and how each exacerbates the problems caused by the other.  The one thing that I think is most clear from this article is that beer franchise laws are one sided screw jobs for most breweries in this country because most breweries are too small to buy their way out of these contracts.

When the brewers who self-distribute bring buy kegs we bought sometimes we’ll talk.  Often, we get around to discussing distribution and distributors.  One thing I’ve found is that many of the small distributors don’t want to self-distribute for too long.  It is hard, even if you hire a driver or two.  Also, at that point, you are running your own distribution wing instead of concentrating on the beer.  Some like doing that and some don’t.  Regardless, it should be up to each brewer to decide.  In other words, there should be no self-distribution cap.

For those that want a distributor, they ask me which distributors do I like dealing with the most.  The answers are easy, but I won’t go into them here.  Suffice it to say, the two or three I always mention are the smaller houses that a small brewery won’t get lost in.  The problem for breweries is this: If you sign a distribution contract and after a period of time it becomes clear the relationship isn’t right for you, you are screwed.  The franchise law was set up at a time when there were more distributors than brewers, so the laws were set up to protect the distributors.  Now, that equation has flipped, but the laws are still built to only protect the distributor.

This is where the breweries fighting the most for a lift of the self-distribution cap and I disagree.  I think it is more beneficial for more of the breweries in North Carolina to have legislation to make distribution contracts fairer for both sides (and cut the excise taxes in NC).

Here is the other advice I give brewers when we talk and they ask: Self-distribute as long as it is fiscally and physically possible.  If you are a brewery with a small distribution footprint, you will probably lose money going with a distributor.  You will pay less than the 30% or whatever the going rate is right now for a distributor’s cut in paying a driver or two and having a couple of trucks.

Another thing I like about his article is that it tried to look at the effects of the mergers and buyouts from the perspective of the smaller breweries.  Many times, the issues in craft beer are seen through the lens of the larger craft brewers that many people know.  However, the vast majority of craft brewers in this country are small.  They majority of breweries in this country are microbreweries meaning they produce 15000 barrels a year or less as defined by the Brewers Association.  These mergers and how they affect distribution won’t disrupt your Boulevard, Stone, or Ballast Point availability, but if a smaller brewery gets lost in the distribution shuffle it can affect whether you get their beer or if they even survive.

One Beer Article You Should Read And Why, 11/28/16

One of the things that bothers me about how we consume culture today is the constant chase for what’s next.  Sometimes, we get so carried away with finding the next cool thing that we forget to enjoy what we have now.  We forget to live in the moment.

Craft beer in this country is an example of an industry always looking for the next cool style.  I can’t figure out if it is the newer craft beer drinkers or just craft beer drinkers in general who push for new flavors and new styles seemingly every six months.  Whoever it is, these consumers are aided by the fact that there are new breweries with new ideas popping up all the time.  There is always something new to try.

Most of these younger breweries have also adopted to this consumer mindset by constantly rolling out new beers.

However, what if you are a legacy craft brewer who built your very successful business around one flagship beer and three or four other core beers.  That is what is happening to Geary in Maine.  It is what happened to Highland in North Carolina.  It is what has happened to Sierra Nevada and Avery.  How do these breweries that have been around for so long adapt to the world that they built changing right under their feet?

In the case of Highland, they brought in a new younger brewer to update their lineup.  It has worked. They added four new beers last year including the very successful Mandarina IPA and are planning to add another four in the first half of 2017.  There is a different feeling around Highland now then there was just 12 months ago.  The Mandarina IPA and the Pilsner, also added this year, have revitalized sales and jumpstarted something of a renaissance of the brewery among younger craft beer drinkers.

Avery is cutting six core beers from its lineup.  These beers all still sell well for Avery, but they have been around for a while and it seems the brewery is trying to stay ahead of the curve and dumping them before they become stale and a drag on the brewery.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is one of the beers the whole craft beer enterprise is built upon.  However, the brewery has seen the sales numbers slip for the stalwart in recent years.  Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be any plans to retire it, but Sierra Nevada has added hoppier and beers that hue towards the newer taste profiles preferred by today’s craft beer drinkers.

The legacy brewers must adapt to the times and to today’s beer drinkers.  That doesn’t mean jettisoning your flagship beers.  The beer world would be a worse place without Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Highland Gaelic Ale.  However, these brewers also should build around those beers with fresher and newer tastes and flavors.  I don’t think they should chase after potential drinkers with hard root beer or anything that egregious, but they should look at some of the things Highland has done in introducing new flavors and styles within the parameters of its established brand.

Quick Review: 2016 Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout

My thoughts on chasing whales are documented.  I’m not a fan of the concept, but after drinking my first Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout, I understand the impulse.

My very own BCBS bottle

My very own BCBS bottle

First, it looks scary in the glass.  It is a dark brown almost black color and looks viscous.  It is like a glass of old used car oil.  As soon as you crack the bottle cap you get the nice aroma of the barrel aging.  I don’t like saying bourbon, there is that, but it is the accumulation of the aging that you smell.

Where this beer wins is the taste.  The first thing I got was chocolate with big alcohol heat.  As I drank more I got more of the vanilla and caramel tastes along with a plum/dark fruit taste.  Then at the back end, there was even more alcohol heat.  However, for as much alcohol as you taste and the ABV of 15% it is ridiculously smooth.  Almost easy to drink.  It actually reminds more of a chocolate based cocktail except a lot thicker.

I’m still not going to camp out or wait in line for this to come out next year, but I will do what I can within reason to snag another bottle to drink.

I did this review as quick as I could so I was still sober enough to get the words out and in some kind of readable order.