The Last Eight Months

“Dude, you’ve lost a whole person.”

One of my bartenders told me that after seeing a photo of me on his phone from April.

I haven’t been writing for a while.  You may have noticed.  There are two reasons for that.

The first is in February I had an incident that made me go to the doctor.  Long story short, I had elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  We got to it early enough that the doctor said it would be taken care of with exercise and a much better diet.  So, since March that is what I’ve been doing.  I eat much better now.  That was the key to losing all the weight.  When you tell people you are a vegetarian, they automatically think you are eating healthy.  Believe me, you can eat like crap as a vegetarian.  I was living proof.

I also now walk six miles every morning.  That takes up the chunk of time that used to be dedicated to writing.  However, I’ve lost almost sixty pounds and feel infinitely better.

The other thing that happened was Wicked Weed was purchased by AB-InBev.  That in and of itself was not the trigger.  It was the carping and vitriol unleashed by the sale that pushed me off Twitter and away from writing.  Throw in trying to study for the Cicerone exam (twice) and writing about beer didn’t seem too important.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been drinking and thinking about beer and keeping notes.  I’ve been doing a lot of that and if you go to my Instagram feed or my Untappd account you will see all that I’ve been drinking.

I’ve been keeping lots of notes and soon (this coming Sunday in fact) I’m going to start posting reviews again.  My intent is also to start posting daily again.  First, I must figure out how to do it in a way that will make it interesting to me and therefore readers.

This has a been a long and interesting eight months.  I’m not a different person, but I am a better version of myself.  I hope that is reflected in the writing to come.

Denver, Charlotte, and Craft Beer Culture

I got off the airplane and weaved my way through DIA to the train platform, bought my ticket and took the 25-minute ride all the way to Union Station in downtown Denver.  Once I got off the train I found a local coffee shop and grabbed an Americano and a Danish.  Since my check-in was still a couple of hours away and I didn’t want to wander too far, I went to the Terminal Bar and had lunch and a couple of Colorado beers.  That was all within the first 3 hours of me being in Denver.  I don’t think you can do that in Charlotte. First, the light rail gets nowhere close to the airport and our transportation hub isn’t quite as well stocked.

Whenever I go to Denver, I’m struck by how Denver is 10-15 years ahead of Charlotte in so many ways.  I think I do that because the cities are so similar in population and ambition.  You see it from the way the light rail works to what I care most about, how the beer culture in Denver is ahead of Charlotte’s. I sit on the airplane on my way back home and I can’t help but ruminate on the greater idea of where Charlotte is compared to Denver, but especially where it is in comparing beer cultures.

There are two primary ways I think about this.  First, how the beer culture is an excepted part of the overall city culture.  Second, how there is no such thing as peak brewery.

The first thing you truly get when you stay in Denver for a few days is the beer culture is part of the overall area’s culture.  Denver is the mecca for beer.  It may not have been the first city with craft breweries, but it is the city the first embraced the idea of craft beer culture.  Let’s put it this way, there are not many other cities in the US that would work with the NFL to make sure its team didn’t have a home game during a beer festival.  Denver does that with the GABF.  Every time I go to Denver, my love and my faith in this little part of American culture I’ve fallen in love with and want to see succeed is renewed and strengthened.

In Denver, for instance, the mid-level restaurants curate their beer selection.  I went to multiple restaurants that had all craft beer on tap and most of that craft beer was from Colorado and it wasn’t just New Belgium or Great Divide.  In Charlotte, that niche of dining is filled by chains that let the distribution reps and corporate mandate decide what gets put on tap. Craft beer is a thing they must do to appease a certain segment of potential customers. In Denver, you have restaurants where the beer buyer thinks about and curate their craft beer selection.  That is why in Charlotte, I can almost guess the “craft” and local beer a restaurant has before I walk in to eat.  That is slowly changing.

I only get that renewal in little pockets in Charlotte.  That is because while there is a growing craft beer culture, a lot of people in Charlotte view craft beer as this little fad over in the South End and NoDa that all the millennials are playing in until they get real jobs.  That is why buying craft beer for most bars is an afterthought.  In Denver, breweries are competing to get on tap.  That is slowly coming to Charlotte.

To go hand in hand with that, recently, there has been a lot of talk of reaching peak brewery in Charlotte.  What the discussion centers around is when will there be more craft breweries in Charlotte then Charlotte can support.  Denver proves that concept is a fallacy.  The Denver MSA has only a slightly bigger MSA then Charlotte’s as far as population (MSA estimates for 2016 put Denver at about 400k more people) but has many more breweries. Denver has somewhere like 5.2 breweries per 100,000 people. Charlotte is around a little less than half that number. 

One of my favorite places to go in Denver is Ratio Beerworks.  It is a great brewery and a great place to hang out and have a beer.  There are at least another 4 breweries within a 10-minute walk of Ratio including Epic’s Denver brewery and taproom.  Do you know what that kind of proximity does?  It creates a mostly friendly competition in which each brewery pushes the other.  You can’t be mediocre and you can’t rest on your laurels from 2 years ago much less 8 years ago.  Everyone has won medals.  Yours aren’t special and you have to keep getting better or you will fail. If your brewery sucks you can’t continue to coast on being the local brewery.  If I don’t like your beer, I can walk out your front door, turn left, and get better beer with a five-minute walk.

That is why we need more breweries in Charlotte.  Especially breweries started by experienced brewers who will come out strong and push the already established breweries to be better and stop coasting.  That doesn’t mean breweries won’t fail.  It means the ones with bad beer or a bad business plan or no real plan at all will fail.  The breweries with the best combination of beer, plan, and culture will succeed.  That isn’t a bad thing. It is how every other business works.

Th thing about this idea of beer culture is that it takes time and Charlotte is an impatient city when it comes to things like culture.  This is a city that grew and became an economic power overnight. That kind of growth is the kind that is bought and built quickly and overnight.  Just look at all the condos and apartments going up around town like so many Lego houses.  Charlotte is the embodiment of a boomtown in our microwave culture.

You must explain why Asheville, Denver, Portland, Portland, and Seattle (and maybe even Raleigh to an extent) have better craft beer cultures to many in Charlotte.  They are simply older and more mature.  Yes, we have breweries, but the vast majority are less than 5 years old.  Wynkoop Brewery opened in downtown Denver in 1988.  While many breweries opened and closed in Charlotte beginning around the same time, the oldest still in existence is Olde Mecklenburg which opened in 2009. That is a huge difference.  There were people who were born and came of legal drinking age in Denver between the time Wynkoop served its first pint and Olde Meck celebrated its 1st anniversary.

So, while I think Charlotte beer culture has a long way to go, I also know, it is only through time and making sure we keep our focus on good beer that we will get there.  We can’t buy it, we can’t build it overnight, but we can keep moving forward and build it with one brick every day.

Things I Did In Denver

I find airports interesting.  The people you see there, especially early in the morning.  Are a combination of exhausted, grouchy, dehydrated, and annoyed at the world, specifically the TSA.  In short, it is a good place to see humans at their most open and vulnerable.  Airports often have an aroma that is a combination of cleaning chemicals, human waste, fried food, and coffee.

I landed and after about 3 hours in Denver I was relaxed.  That is an almost foreign feeling.  My primary goal besides seeing one of my best friends get married is to only drink beer I’ve never had before or are not available in Charlotte.

So, this happened.  A weird lady with a Star of David tattooed on her forehead joined me at my table by the fountain outside Union Station.  Not dangerous weird, just weird.  She talked a lot about what I’m not really sure.  Something about waiting for her husband and his crazy family.

Then, at the Terminal Bar, I had an angry little man sitting a couple of seats down from me.  The angry elf was pissed at the whole world especially the incompetent people who were thinking about hiring him.  He muttered and talked to himself the whole time he was there calling the people he was trying to work for “dykes and faggots” in a wonderful stream of crazy.  He was mad at the bartender for carding him (its Union Station policy to card anyone ordering alcohol), didn’t like any of the 30 taps, couldn’t get cell reception, had a hard time figuring out Google Maps or something.  I stopped listening and just enjoyed my Telluride Brewing Face Down Brown on nitro.  When he left, the bartender and I looked at each and just laughed.

After dealing with a screw up by the hotel, I got a nap before meeting Dave and Ginny for dinner and a few beers.  We went to Bierstadt Lagerhaus.  Great German style beer and great food.  I had the Vegetarian Mac & Cheese and we shared a vegetarian poutine along with two excellent dunkels.  I finished the food later that night in my hotel room.  It was great to see the two of them together before the wedding both being kind of twitchy with the last of the preparations.  After Bierstadt, we walked over to Epic where I had the Smoked Porter just before they closed.

I had a nice view from the 22nd floor of the Hyatt Place in Downtown Denver

The next day I woke up and got some coffee and walked around the neighborhood a bit.  Then I walked down to Freshcraft for lunch and a couple of beers.  This is now on my list of places I must go whenever I’m in Denver. Good food, good beer selection, and better atmosphere.

The elusive Velvet Yeti

From there, my path took me to the Great Divide Barrel Bar. When I heard they were building a new tap room I was afraid it would be an overly elaborate monstrosity.  Part of the charm of the old taproom is that it is so damn small and cramped.  While the new tap room is bigger, it isn’t much bigger. There is room for a few tables and a more expansive bar, but it is still a small and decently intimate place to have a beer.

After that, I met up with Dave and Brian at Ratio.  I love this place.  First, it is great beer. Second, it has a great atmosphere and vibe that makes me feel comfortable.  That is a theme to all the places I like in Denver.  I always find places that I feel comfortable just sitting and drinking.  After that, we adjourned to Los Chingones for a little quick Mexican food.

After picking up Dan at Union Station we made our way to Hops and Pie.  I’ve been here a couple of times now and the beer is great and the pizza is great.  Another place I will tell anyone to make their way to.  Once we finished eating, we were all tired and found our way to our beds for a night’s sleep.

The next day was great.  I did nothing until the picnic at Sloan’s Lake.  There I just ate more Mexican food and hung out.  Wait, I forgot.  I timed it so I could go by Hogshead Brewery first for a pint.  Another place that I love.  Good cask ales served at the correct temperature.  Session beers all around.  After the picnic, most of the wedding guest went there for a few more pints.  Then some of us ended up at US Thai. Then we went back to the Dan, Dave, and Brian’s Airbnb where they partook in some of Denver’s finest that past guests left for others since they couldn’t get it on the airplane.

Sunday, Wedding day, I met up with the three of them again for a hike at Red Rocks.  That is an awesome and beautiful place and I want to get there for a concert at least once in my life.  We left there and had lunch and Block and Larder before getting ready for the wedding.

The wedding took place at the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield Farms.  It was a beautiful facility and beautiful setting for a beautiful wedding.  Dave and Ginny are two of my favorite people separately and they are perfect together.  The ceremony was short, simple and beautiful.  Then before the reception got started the surprised and honored me by asking me to be one of the witnesses for their wedding license.  The more I think about it, the more honored I am and the more emotional I get about it.  Then the reception and its two types of mashed potatoes started.  There was bourbon, vodka, and beer.  I was in heaven.

The next morning, I was back in an airport in the early morning.  Being there on 9/11 was an interesting feeling.  I was struck by the transience of life and how the memories of that day are clear as a movie with the same emotional impact.  I don’t feel the same about that day as I did.  It is still a demarcation point in memory of how the world works, but for me the emotions are muted.  It is almost a wistfulness of how things were and not the sadness of a tragedy that changed how we all live.

I flew home and landed in a rain storm still relaxed from the vacation and happy to have been honored to be invited to this wedding.

What Is Craft Beer, Part 1

One of my favorite classes, when I was at UNC, was on the history of the Constitution since the Civil War.  We studied all the major Supreme Court decisions that led to the Civil War and all the major decisions after the war as well as all the Constitutional Amendments from the end of the war through the 20th century.  It was interesting mostly because it was a good way to survey how the modern US government was formed and took shape for the last 150 years of the country’s history.

The concept that has stayed with me the most from that class is “annotative law vs. connotative law.”  In other words, what the law says in the statutes vs. how the law is enforced and interpreted.  Those are often two very different things.

The Brewers Association has defined craft breweries as:

Small

Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less (approximately 3 percent of U.S. annual sales). Beer production is attributed to the rules of alternating proprietorships.

Independent

Less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer.

Traditional

A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. Flavored malt beverages (FMBs) are not considered beers.

That means, generally speaking, any beer made by those brewers is a craft beer.

That is the annotated definition of what craft beer is.  The connotative definition, the one people define themselves in a way that they understand is where things get murky and where arguments and hyperbole ensue.

This all started while I was on my sabbatical from writing about beer after the Cicerone test punched me in the face.  I read two or three tiresome Twitter threads that were arguments between craft beer people. What I noticed in all these arguments were the two sides the arguments were having two different arguments. Mostly, arguing past each other.  I wondered why was this and the only conclusion I came up with is that while they agreed on the general definition of what craft was, there were differences in details and their approach to craft.

Let’s step back and think about the definition of craft again.  We have the Brewer’s Association’s definition.  The question then becomes how is the concept of craft beer interpreted and expressed by different people involved in the industry.

One of the things I find interesting about ideas and concepts like craft, alternative, independence, and freedom is how in a modern capitalistic society they can be co-opted by businesses and advertising agencies to sell stuff.  When you buy a pair of jeans you are not only buying those jeans, you are buying whatever concept and narrative the manufacturer and their advertising company have built up around those jeans.

For many people, buying and drinking craft beer has become the same as listening to a certain band, watching a certain television show, or buying certain clothes. They represent a narrative you want to express about yourself without talking.

This week, I want to use this space to theorize how each constituency, brewers, distributors/wholesalers, retailers, bloggers, and drinkers, defines craft beer.  Why do I include bloggers as a separate constituency from drinkers?  Usually, bloggers aren’t a part of the constituencies that directly financially benefit from craft beer, but they are a great deal more informed than the average drinker.  They also help drive the conversation surrounding craft beer in a way sometimes disproportionate to their actual reach.

Then to wrap up, I will delve into the idea that even within each of those groups is another dialectic between what I term the Realists on one side and the Romantics on the other.  That is where the real fireworks take place.

I hope to have fun doing this and you I hope you come back to read at least part of it even if you don’t agree with it.

Cicerone Exam Advice From The Beer Counselor

On May 22, I took the Cicerone Certification exam.  I did not pass.  I did well enough on the written portion, but not well enough on the tasting portion.

That is OK, I kind of expected it from the beginning and when we went over the tasting portion that day, I knew I would need to take it again.  I will take the whole test again in November.  I want to not only pass but leave no doubt that I passed.

Even though I failed the first time, I did learn some things that will help me study for my next attempt in November.  These are things that I believe will help me and may help you if you are thinking about taking the exam.

Know The Styles

As you would expect, beer styles are the core of 95 percent of the exam.  Besides questions that specifically ask about a style, the pairing and tasting portions of the test lean heavily on you knowing and understanding the styles and their attributes.

The best way to learn the styles for me was to make flash cards and just review them 2 or 3 times a day.  My goal was to know them and not just memorize them. Make sure your cards have the pertinent information like country of origin, ale/lager, appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, ABV, SRM, and IBU.  Also, list 2 commercial examples of the style and memorize those.  Trust me you will need those.  There are multiple questions that ask you for a specific commercial example of a style.

Make these flash cards as soon as you decide to take the test and just run through them every day.  You can buy flash cards with this information, but the act of writing them out yourself will help you remember the facts better.

Read The Suggested Books

The Cicerone website lists almost all the books and other materials that will help you prepare for the test.  Like the flash cards, as soon as you decide to take the test, buy them and start reading and studying them.  Again, it isn’t just about rote memorization.  It is about ingesting the information so that it becomes second nature.

Yes, part of the test is just regurgitating what you remember, but once you get to the essays, you will need to be able to construct a convincing narrative with the facts you know.  That is why it is imperative you understand the food pairing ideas in Tasting Beer more than just memorizing what Randy Mosher wrote.

Take Practice Exams

Find practice exams and take them under conditions as close to exam day conditions as possible.  The practice exams do 2 things.  First, it will reinforce the things you are learning.  Second, taking them under exam conditions helps ease exam anxiety the day of the exam. Third, it will help you see how the questions are framed and shows you the depth of information you need to know.

Work On The Practical Video

From everyone who I’ve spoken to who has taken the test, the practical video portion is always the same: Explain how to take apart and clean a tap faucet.  With that in mind, you should write down and then study each step of cleaning a faucet.  Yes, more flash cards. Then you should use your cell phone to record yourself explaining each step and each part as you will have to do on the day of the exam.  Go back and watch it and make sure you didn’t miss any steps.  Do this a few times.  If you played sports you understand.  Practice is about rehearsing the actions you will perform in a game until you do them without thinking.  Acting purely on muscle memory.  Work on the video with the same idea in mind.

If you don’t work at a bar, find a draft tech and take him out for a beer.  Get him to let you borrow a tap faucet and walk you through taking it apart and putting it back together.  Also, please download and read the draft manual put out by the Brewers Association.

Tasting Exam Run Throughs

Find other poor souls studying for the exam and everyone pitch in to buy an off-flavor kit.  Then, buy Amstel Light and maybe Sam Adams Light.  Then run through a tasting exam under conditions like you will have during the day of the test.  This is the one part of the test I did not like because the tasting portion is not like you will experience tasting for off-flavors in the real world.

Here is how the tasting exam works.  On the day of the exam you will arrive at the site, check in, get handed your test and you will begin the 3-hour written portion.  That also includes the practical video, but for the most part, it is 3 hours of writing.  Usually, an hour in the proctor will begin the process of spiking the beer for the tasting exam.  The spiked beer then sits for at least an hour and a half out on a table or counter.

Then, once the tasting exam starts, the beers are sampled out into cups. One group of 4 is for the off-flavor identification portion.  One group of 4 is for the style identification portion.  The final group of 4 beers is for the serve/no serve portion.  The serve/no serve portion questions count for half the tasting portion. This was the hill I died on that day.  My suggestion is to do the serve/no serve and the style identification portions first.

Why?  Your palate is fresh.  Hit the style section and get it out of the way.  Then, do the serve/no serve because you must ID the style and the off-flavor, and then tell whether the beer is servable to a customer.  You have all 13 cups (one control for the off-flavor) in front of you and you can do it in any order you want.  At least, that is what I’m going to do this next time.

Pick 2 Styles and Know Food Pairings For Them

You will have a food pairing question where they will give you a dish and then ask you to pick a style and explain why you picked it and why you believe it will work.  Knowing that pick 2 styles and think of as many food pairing ideas as you can with them.  As practice, write out why you think they will work.  My 2 styles are saison and amber ale.  You want to know your styles’ characteristics so you can pair them with whatever dish they throw at you.  There is no “right or wrong” answer.  However, you must be able to make a logical and coherent case for the style you picked.  This is also where knowing a few commercial examples and their attributes will come in handy.  Picking a particular beer and explaining why its characteristics make it the best choice for that style will get you points.

Do Blind Tastings As Often As Possible

Find a bar that does flights with a wide selection of beer and become friends with a couple of the bartenders.  Go in once a week and have the bartender give you a blind flight and then go through a real tasting and figure out what you are drinking.

Also, at least once a week buy beer you’ve never had before and taste them.  Really taste them.  Download the tasting sheet from craftbeer.com and go through that with each new beer.  Start with appearance, then aroma, then taste, then mouthfeel, then the finish.  Here is a handy and more in-depth guide on how to taste a beer.

Finally

The most important thing is to give yourself enough time to really know and understand the information.  There is too much to learn to cram into a few weeks.  There are little details you will miss that seem like nothing but become extremely important particularly in the long answer and essay portions.

Anyway, I’m going to flip through my flash cards and start the next portion of this journey.

Update in the time of waiting for test scores

I’ve been in kind of holding pattern since taking the Cicerone exam waiting on my scores to come back.  I have a feeling I will have to take the tasting portion again, but regardless I’m actually surprised how anxious I am to get the word yay or nay.

So in the meantime, I’ve been occupying myself with other pursuits outside of beer just to get my mind off it.  That includes reading Moby Dick.  Yes, I read the whole thing and it was quite enjoyable.  I know have a great understanding of how 19th-century whaling ships killed and vivisected whales.

I have also been planning out more blog posts and ideas for what happens after I get the scores back.

Hopefully, I’ll the scores back before I have to resort to reading Ulysses next.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 6/3/17

I approach writing about beer differently from many of the bloggers and writers who cover beer.  I start with the writing first and I view craft brewing through the lens of a person who has been around writers and artists for much of his adult life.

One of my favorite websites is brainpickings.org.  It is a site of insatiable curiosity over a host of subjects curated by Maria Popova.  Today, I read a part of a lecture from writer Ursula K. Le Guin.  It concerned how creativity and storytelling help us shape ourselves and define our existence in this world.

The section that has the most resonance for craft brewing discusses how creativity is being commodified.  It isn’t just that businesses use the language and some of the practices of meditation and creativity in a pragmatic sense to increase workers’ productivity.  It is in how large companies have turned creativity and its resultant products into an industry.

A lot of popular movies, television, music, and books seem to come off assembly lines because they do.  Most of the entertainment companies you interact with daily are part of large conglomerates whose primary concerns are profits and stock prices.  Those companies prioritize guaranteed return on investment over creative inspiration.

Currently, in what seems to be turning into a forever war between craft beer and big beers is that big beer’s response to craft beer after years of ignoring it is to buy its creativity and the buzz that excites drinkers.  Big Beer is trying to take what makes craft beer special and monetized it by grafting it onto something they own.  This may work in the short-term (hell, maybe in the long term) but I don’t think so.  The thing that separates craft beer from big beer isn’t something you can see or touch and commodify.  It is that ineffable spark that only comes from original and creative work.  A large conglomerate like ABInbev will absorb Wicked Weed and any other brewers they purchase and slowly morph them into one of the many different shades of gray that are their “high end” brands because creativity isn’t measurable.

“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”

― Brian Eno

Big Beer is under the misapprehension that they are losing to Wicked Weed.  They are not.  They are losing to everyone who has drunk a Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Arrogant Bastard, Cantillon Iris, Rodenbach Grand Cru, and decided they wanted to make that. The creativity those beers have (or had) sparked something in enough potential brewers that the sheer number of craft breweries is changing beer in the United States and biting into Big Beer’s market share.

There is a twofold danger.  One, all these new craft breweries are starting to eat into each other’s market share as those who drink big beer solidifies into the final hard-core fans.  Two, if Big Beer muddies the waters enough, casual craft beer drinkers won’t know the difference.  The last is what I think Big Beer’s goal is.

Big Beer knows what winning is.  Keeping and increasing market share. The question craft beer must ask is, what does winning look like.  Is it just staying on the roof like Maggie the Cat or is it something else.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 6/2/17

Today, as I catch up to the world of beer news from my month away, I read this article about the continuing fight between North Carolina craft brewers, the large distributors, and the state legislature.

Apparently, and to no one’s shock, AB used to put language in their franchise agreements stating that the distributor agrees to push AB products above all else.  Now, the article rightly points out that this type of agreement is illegal under new laws and a consent agreement between ABInbev and the department of justice.

However, as we all know there is the law as it is written, there is the law as it is enforced, and there is the law as it is practiced.  Everyone in the beer world knows that while not requiring distributors to sell their products above all else, AB incentivises them with money if they hit certain levels of distribution.

Even if one believes that the franchise law changes and the consent agreement make these type of actions illegal, they signal a clear mindset that pervades AB and it distributors.  That is the zero-sum win at all costs mindset.  It is becoming increasingly clear that AB is not interested in a robust beer industry.  It is interested in controlling the beer industry for its own profit.

ABInbev and other big beer companies are a Leviathan whose main concern is feeding itself and growing ever larger.  Not through malice, but through its hardwired survival instinct, this beast devours all in its path.

How do you deal with such a beast? The same way you eat an elephant. One bite at a time.  It starts with beer drinkers making decisions every day with every purchase.  However, it goes beyond that.  It means individuals have to press their elected representatives to not allow large companies to trample and devour smaller companies for the sake of convenience and profit.

If you are a craft beer fan who lives in North Carolina and your state representative or senator has aligned himself against craft brewers and with the large distributors and big beer, you must let your unhappiness be known.  It is only through direct local action, that the world can change and Leviathan be defeated.

What Do We Do Now?

There was a great disturbance in the craft beer universe a month ago.  In the latest of a series of purchases by big beer, Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, NC was purchased by AB-InBev.  This had reverberations far beyond North Carolina where Wicked Weed was seen as the leading light of the state’s craft beer by many.

Luckily for me, I had the Cicerone exam to study for and recover from which afforded me the opportunity to organize my thoughts and opinions on the sale.  I did read the writing and opinions of others and can say much of what I read was cogent and interesting even when I may have disagreed with the writer’s conclusions.  However, too much of the writing degenerated into the, “I’m more CRAFT then you” didactic that is part of too much online discourse.  Too many craft supporters take the position that if you don’t agree with every point they’re making you are at best a big beer apologist or at worst a sellout like Wicked Weed.

That line of writing, discourse, and thinking is boring to read.  More importantly, at a time when craft beer is at a very important flexion point in its existence, it bogs the conversation down into needless finger pointing, keeping the conversation from moving forward into, “What do we do next?”

What do I think of the sale?

I am of two minds when it comes to the Wicked Weed sale or the sale of any other craft brewery to big beer.  First, is my business mind.  It tells me that neither I nor anyone else should presume to tell another person how to run their business.

While there are nebulous obligations to the craft beer collective and concrete obligations to the affected employees, in the end, the owner/brewer of the brewery must do right by the rest of the ownership group/investors.  You invest in a fledgling company or start up because you believe you will see a return on that investment at some point.  From a business perspective, this current moment in craft beer is a good time to sell a brewery.  The number of new breweries popping up is beginning to create greater and greater competition, that hurts future growth and current margins of breweries.  Cashing in may be the best advice for many breweries and their investors.

Also, in all honesty, if you are not an investor or a member of the ownership group of a brewery, you have no real idea what the original business plan promised potential investors and you have no idea what the other internal machinations lead a brewery to sell to AB or other big beer company.  You cannot attack someone who starts a business, builds it into a successful national brand, and then sells that business for a profit.  In almost any other business sector that is applauded.

Second is my small business/buy local/craft beer mind.  There are national coffee chains close to my apartment with slightly cheaper coffee and tea, however, I walk to a locally owned place a little farther away that has more personality and keeps my dollars in the community and appreciates my business.

So, while my business (i.e. intellectual) mind understands these decisions and accepts them, this second mind, while not angered is disappointed and saddened.  I am disappointed that we are losing a successful locally owned business to a conglomerate that treats beer like any other factory-made commodity.  I am saddened by the fact that much of the Wicked Weed beer you buy in 3 years will be a hollow facsimile of the Wicked Weed beer you can buy today.

This second mind knows that craft brewing is a creative endeavor and respects and honors the work it takes to make it creatively and financially.  The second mind believes that craft beer is about more than money.  It is a business and everyone wants to succeed, but as Greg Koch, founder of Stone Brewing, put it in this article, craft beer is more of a foot race then a hockey match.  Each craft brewer is running their own race pushing themselves and by extension everyone else by doing their own thing their own way to the best of their abilities.  Big beer treats beer as a zero-sum game where you win or die.  That point of view is not only antithetical to my personal beliefs, it stands in stark opposition to the founding principles of craft beer.

No craft brewer gets into brewing to make money.  The hours are long and there is no guarantee the yeast will create the beer you want or expect.  Brewers do this because they love that part of the challenge and they love how brewing allows them to express themselves.  This separates them from their investors who may not have the same almost romantic vision of brewing and expect to make money from this venture.

We must accept both realities as part of craft beers future to ensure its continued growth.

Back to Wicked Weed. I understand the sale, but I don’t like it.  Sometimes the money they offer is too great to turn down.  This sale like almost all the others before it is understandable and defensible on a business and intellectual level as individual business decisions.  They are, however, against everything the craft beer ethos espouses.

Where are we right now?

First, big beer companies are going to continue buying craft breweries.  That is part of a long-term strategy that will not change and is exacerbated by a business environment that makes some craft brewers ripe for buying.

Second, we know that capital investment in new and existing breweries is increasing as the segment matures as a business.  Many of these investors no longer just want to say they own part of a brewery to be cool but want to turn their investment into a profit.

Third, the almost exponential growth we saw in the last few years in the number of craft brewers is leading to equally exponential growth in competition for tap handles and shelf space among craft brewers.  The larger, regionally focused craft brewers are beginning to get squeezed out of the marketplace not necessarily by big beer and their many tentacles but by the mass of extremely localized small breweries that they inspired.  Many of those larger brewers have been faced with flat if not negative growth in the last year.  That is why this business environment breeds these sales.  For some breweries selling means recouping an investment now when that may not be possible in a few years’ time.

What do we do?

The first thing to do as a craft beer fan is to start simple and start local.  Let your love of craft beer inform your buying decisions of what and where you buy.  If you have local breweries near you, frequent them.  Buy their beer, their growlers, and their swag.  If you go to a local brewery and their beer isn’t as good as you had hoped, don’t frag them on social media. Send a personal email or letter to the owner/brewer expressing your concerns in a thoughtful and respectful manner.  We must be the ones who control craft beer.  Not the faceless conglomerates who could just as easily be selling ball bearings rather than beer.

Another thing you can do is join your state brewer’s guild or the Brewers Association as an affiliate member.  Most state guilds have this option to raise funds and create a group of supporters and volunteers.  For as many issues as you may have with some of the day to day decisions the Brewers Association and state guilds make, they are organizations whose expressed reason for existence is to support and promote independent craft brewers.  Give money, get a t-shirt, get newsletters, and get discounts at members taprooms for stuff you wanted to buy anyway.

Finally, bloggers, writers, and podcasters should try to be more Thomas Jefferson than Thomas Paine.  In every revolution, there is a time for rhetoricians to spit hot fire from the blog post or podcast microphone.  However, there is also a point when that loses its effectiveness.  You need equally iron-willed and no less committed people who will create and implement the ideas and theories that make the revolution’s goals self-sustaining.  Too often, online discussion about craft beer ends up with everyone talking in circles, saying nothing, and going nowhere.  However, for craft beer to continue to move forward through this time of growth and upheaval, we all need to step off the hamster wheel of online discourse and offer something thoughtful and new.

I don’t think big beer is evil, much in the same way I don’t think Hurricane Katrina was evil.  However, there are two things.  First, many of their business practices and the actions their distributors perpetrate in their name are detestable and contemptible and are rooted in the fundamental belief that this is a zero-sum proposition.  Every time we hear those stories we should challenge big beer in ways large and small. Second, AB will turn Wicked Weed into another one of its stable of beers with just a little twist to make it stand out in its sea of mediocrity and that is what is maybe the saddest part. What Wicked Weed could have become will never be.

Update

The new post will be up tomorrow morning.  It is a bit longer then I anticipated, and has gone through a few edits and revisions.  However, I think it is almost ready.

The Beer Counselor