Monthly Archives: September 2016

500 Words On One Article You Need To Read And Why, 9/30/16

Being a state legislator has to be hard.  The world you have been elected to create and vote on laws for, changes at a lightning speed.  You are expected to not only enact legislation that solves current problems but also anticipate problems down the road.  That is never more apparent than with any legislation involving new and emerging industries like craft beer.  Today’s article is actually three short articles from Alabama, Mississippi, and Northern Ireland that all deal with the same thing: laws that adversely affect craft beer because no one in the legislatures knew what craft beer was nor how big a business it would become.

All three of the articles deal with how beer is distributed.  It seems in all three cases the idea of a large number of small breweries wanting to control the distribution of their own product never occurred to anyone who makes laws.  Why would it?  If Ireland is anything like the US, for a long stretch of history beer was made by large companies pumping out as much of the least offensive beer possible.  Then the beer world changed without most people noticing it and a new business category was established, but the laws are just starting to acknowledge craft beer’s existence.

On one hand, you have legislators who are trying to navigate these issues by learning about the new industry and are generally trying to do a good job to keep the playing field fair for the new and growing industry.  On the other hand, you have legislators who, because how the system works, simply carry out the wishes of the lobbies who want to restrict the changes to the beer industry that are inevitably happening.

Large and wealthy beer companies and distributors fight every day to keep the power they have within the industry from being dispersed among craft brewers.  However, I think they know this is simply a delaying tactic used until they can figure out how to keep making the money they always have in this landscape they know is changing.

The emergence of craft brewing has disrupted a whole industry.  This wasn’t entirely intentional.  All the first craft brewers wanted to do was make good beer.  They knew that some people out there wanted more than just watered down mass produced pilsners.  The problem these brewers have run into is that the people that produce and distribute those watery pilsners gathered their money and power by making sure their product was in every watering hole, grocery store and gas station they could find and they are not giving up that money and power easily.

I don’t want to make this seem like some grand eloquent fight for freedom.  Craft brewers just want to make and sell their beer to as many people as possible and want the playing field to be level so they can fail or succeed on their own merits.  That is true whether it is North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, or Northern Ireland.

500 Words On One Article You Need To Read And Why, 9/28/16

If this weren’t so pathetic it would be laughable.

I’m not one of the craft beer people who has a problem with the three-tier system.  When it is enforced fairly and evenly over all three-tiers everyone makes money.

I don’t have a problem with distributors in general.  Most work hard for the brewers they represent and push their product at a sometime annoying level.

My problem is that many distributors have refused to adapt to the changing landscape of the American beer industry and feel entitled to run the beer industry anyway they see fit.  In almost each and every state, the large distributors have enough money to give them a political influence they use to keep a strangle hold on the industry because, since the end of Prohibition that is the way things have been.  So, anytime I hear an argument from a distributor about why they are necessary that isn’t a business based argument, I know they are slinging b.s.

The thing is, there are good business arguments as to why distribution companies are necessary for the beer industry.  Right now, here in NC, one of the many things our state legislature has managed to screw up is the raising of the self-distribution cap on breweries.  The current limit is 25,000 barrels. Brewers want it raised to 100,000. Distributors are worried that if the cap is raised they will lose many of the small brewers who they are contracted with currently.

This ignores the fact that none of the breweries in NC save maybe 3 or 4 produce anywhere near 25,000 barrels much less 100,000 and many still use distributors.  Why? They want to be brewers and not distributors.

I’ve talked to a few of the brewers who self-distribute when they deliver beer to us. It is hard to distribute your own beer.  You have to pay for salesmen, drivers, and trucks/vans that you have to maintain.  These are good business people who know that there is going to be a point where it will no longer be cost effective to self-distribute.  They also know that point might come well before they hit any self-distribution cap.

Here is my advice when asked by brewers:  Self-distribute as long as you can and when the time comes find a distributor with a small enough portfolio to keep you from getting lost.  That mistake causes many brewers to sour on the distribution model.  They look for a distributor and get wooed by one of the big houses with talk of grocery stores and convenience stores and multi-county reach.  Then they get lost in huge portfolios and stop getting into accounts that carried them from the beginning.  I have seen this happen multiple times in the past two years.

To sum up: The three-tier system isn’t inherently bad, but bad distributors are horrible.  Distributors who care more about money and political influence instead of their portfolio short circuit a system that should work and make money for everyone in the industry.

500 Words On One Article You Need To Read, 9/27/16

In the past year, I’ve tasted a lot of beer that tastes great, but doesn’t fall into a neat category.  Many of them are of the Northeast IPA variety that is described in this article about Tired Hands HopHands IPA.  Many of these beers look exactly like a glass of orange juice and have a wonderful malt and hop balance.  However, they do not follow the style guidelines for an IPA.

What beer drinkers are starting to discover is that the concept of style isn’t fixed.  Ask anyone tasked with creating a style guide.  Any description of a style that you read from the Great American Beer Festival or the Beer Judge Certification Program is a snapshot in time of that style.  What is described as an IPA today is different from what it was 10 years ago and is different from what it will be 10 years from now.

When organizing a festival or a judging competition there has to be some rules to govern how you are going to judge or present the beer.  Basically, you have to call the beer something and if you are judging you have to organize how you are going to taste the beers to make it a fair competition.  However, as we are seeing the guidelines can’t keep up with the speed of that brewers change styles.  As a judge, you have to base your decisions on the guidelines.  You may taste a beer that is awesome, but when you break it down and compare it to the guidelines you may find it outside category.  If you’re an attendee, you are just looking to drink good beer and may wonder how the judges are so stupid that they missed that one really great beer.  The answer is they probably didn’t miss it, they just couldn’t award it a medal because it doesn’t fit the guidelines.

I have often had the moment, in the recent past where I’ve tasted a great beer and then looked at the description and said to myself, “Nope, it really isn’t one of those, but I really like it.”  Often at beer festivals they will have a judging competition where they award winners via categories.  These festivals will also occasionally also have a best of show type award for attendees to award.  Usually, the attendees popular pick is something that finishes first, second, or third in its category in the eyes of the judges. However, we are in a time when that is not necessarily going to always be the case.

As someone who believes in the need for critics and who is working towards getting Cicerone certification I believe in the need for some type of structure in beer styles.  However, I know some the of the greatest artistic achievements came from people who looked at the rules of their particular discipline and decided to break every one of them.  That is where growth and innovation come from and we should all embrace it.

500 Words On One Article You Need To Read, 9/26/16

I took a couple of months off from writing The Five Articles every morning because I was burned out on reading and writing about the same stories every day.  It is interesting to read what is going on in the beer world, but sometimes it is like Ground Hog Day.  The same stories over and over.  I thought that was simply a symptom of following it every day.  So, I took a break.  A break that was longer then I originally anticipated, but a break.  Imagine my dismay when I opened up my Google Alerts this morning and saw articles that told me Oklahoma still hasn’t passed an update to its beer laws, Georgia still has the worst beer laws in the country, and North Carolina still hasn’t passed a distribution cap raise.

Anyway, this is the article that I found the most interesting today.  If you are a craft beer drinker of a certain age, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was important to your development.  It set the template for the hoppy American style pale ale that would lead us all down the path to the IPA explosion that currently fuels the growth of all craft beer.  However, you will be hard-pressed to find Pale Ale in almost any craft beer bar.  In a weird way, it was too successful.

The end of Conan The Barbarian closes with this image of Conan sitting on his throne looking out over all the world that he has conquered bored as hell.  What is a revolutionary to do when they not only win, but more miraculously survive the revolution?  Don’t get it twisted, the problem that Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer, Brooklyn Brewing, and Stone, and a handful of others, have is a problem thousands of brewers around the country would love to have:  What to do when you are so successful that your core beers show negative growth?

There are two factors at work here.  The first is the weird one of too much success.  As I said, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is one of the progenitors of American craft beer style.  The second factor is the need of craft beer drinkers (and humans in today’s world) to always seek out the new and different.

In a business driven by innovation in the form of finding the next new “it” style and flavor combination, how does a brewery keep its core relevant after 30 years?

An idea has been floating around in my head that compares the craft beer business to the music business.  The more I think about it the more the similarities coalesce in my head (a longer post on this is coming).  Craft beer could be even more cutthroat then music however.  There are no nostalgia tours for beer.  Once the craft beer public thinks your brand is stale and irrelevant, you don’t get to keep touring and getting the people who grew up on you work to overpay for tickets to hear songs they heard 20 years ago.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest 2016 Review

Each year as Summer turns to Fall during the last two weeks of September through the first weekend of October on the Theresienwiese in Munich since 1810, Oktoberfest has taken place.  It wasn’t until 1872 that Spaten brewery named a beer Oktoberfeistbier for the even.  This first Oktoberfeistbier was probably a high abv bock brewed in 1872 by Spaten brewery and stayed popular at the event until World War I.  Since then the strength of the beer has lessened and the color has lightened to its current version.  This version has been codified in German law since 1990.  There are also only six Munich breweries legally allowed to brew a beer called Oktoberfeistbier:  Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrauhaus, Lowenbrau, Paulener, and Spaten. (Thanks to The Oxford Companion To Beer for all that.)

German Oktoberfeistbiers are lighter in color and mouthfeel then their American cousins.  That is what makes this year’s Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest brewed in collaboration with Mahrs Brau in Bamberg.

When you pour it into the glass it is immediately apparent that this is not the same as other American versions of oktoberfeistbier.  It is a much lighter deep golden color instead of the usual amber color that American versions tend toward.  The lagering also makes this beer crystal clear with a nice carbonation that creates a thin but persistent head.  The aroma is nice and biscuity sweet balanced with a good amount of German hops.

The mouthfeel is light, again in comparison to an American version, and it has a slight slickness on the tongue.  Like all beers in the marzen, Vienna lager, oktoberfeistbier family this is a wonderfully malty and sweet beer on the front of end of its taste with a good spicy hop bitterness on the back end to keep it balanced. However, it still manages to have a light mouthfeel and taste.  Combined with its relatively low abv, the 2016 Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest makes a good easy drinker.

That is what makes this beer interesting. It combines two things that are often on opposite sides of beer taste and flavor: maltiness and lightness.  Most malty beers are at least a medium mouthfeel.  Most beer with a lighter mouthfeel tend more towards crispness.  It is a hard balance to pull off successfully.

German oktoberfeistbiers are also interesting as a look at style development.  As most styles evolve over time they evolve up (mass produced American pilsners being a notable exception) meaning they get darker, get higher in ABV, get hoppier.  In this case, the Oktoberfeistbier style has evolved down over time.  The first version was a higher abv, darker bock.  The version that was codified into German law in 1990 is lighter and lower in abv then it has been at any point in its history and is certainly lighter than its American cousins.

Compare that with the IPA in England where English brewers have slowly adopted a more American style approach to IPAs, i.e. hoppiness.  While there as still many brewers making traditional English style IPAs both in England and the US, the trend for the style is usually darker and almost always danker.  Leave it to the Germans to not only hue towards tradition, but to then codify that tradition in its laws.