Monthly Archives: November 2016

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.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 11/27/16

Think about your job. Think about the intricacies of your job that fascinate you.  Now, think whether a normal person would want to know those details.

Think about getting a pizza.  When you are in the pizza shop, do you want to ask the manager or the head cook about what ingredients are in the sauce or where the mozzarella was sourced from?

In a business where the producers are so passionate about what they do, the producers sometimes don’t understand why everyone else isn’t has enthused about the details as they are.  That is why some of the questions brewers wish they were asked on beer tours are questions that would only come from geeky beer writers or other brewers and not some guy who is taking a beer tour just to get free samples.

One of the things that I’ve become interested in over the last year is how craft beer is a creative enterprise.  Good brewers are as passionate and as skilled (sometimes as unstable) as good artists, writers, or musicians.  What helps make creators like that as good as they are is they don’t see the world like normal people.

They are in weeds of the thing they do because it matters so much to them.  The thing they are creating is a representative of who they are and it has to be perfect.  Most people don’t spend 30 minutes making sure the commas are in the correct place in their emails to their friends.  Writers do because everything they write reflects who they are.  Most people who paint for a hobby buy their paint at a hobby store.  Painters mix their own paints to get the correct shade of blue for their vision.

20161005_154118Ninety-five percent of the world, just wants the beer to taste good and get them buzzed.  They aren’t too interested in where the ingredients were sourced.  I would ask that and be interested to know some of these things, but I’m an outlier.  I manage a craft beer bar, I have a beer blog, and I’m studying to become a Cicerone.  Brewers aren’t going to get someone like me on every tour.

There is a level of commitment and care necessary to be in an industry like craft beer that isn’t necessary to simply partake in the fruits of labor of that industry.

There is a gulf between creators and their audience.  They are each getting separate yet related things out of this thing they are sharing.  Creators are getting the opportunity to express part of themselves to the world.  The audience gets to find enjoyment out of something created from nothing.  If the creator is successful in his creation she and the audience can find a shared moment the crosses that gulf.

However, that gulf is why people taking a beer tour don’t ask where your ingredients come from or how much do you pay in excise taxes.  In some ways that gulf allows them to enjoy the beer more because the details might just get in their way.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 11/26/16

I hate whales.  Not the cool mammals that swim in the ocean.  I’m talking about the beers that people chase.

I take that back, I don’t really hate whales.  I like to drink them, but I’m not standing in line to wait for the chance to maybe buy one.  I’m not buying four or five so that I can drink one, cellar one, and sell the rest on the gray market that has grown up around craft beer.  If I can, I buy two.  One to drink and one to cellar.  Sometimes, I’ll only buy one.  I just want to drink it.

Are you getting the pattern here?  I believe beer is meant to be drank and enjoyed.  Usually with the company of good friends.  It is the subculture of a subculture that has built up around whales that annoys me.  I looked for an article like this today just so I could write everything that follows.

There is a photo floating around Facebook or Instagram of a guy here in Charlotte at a Harris Teeter or Total Wine with like 5 or 6 cases of Cold Mountain in his cart.  That is the person I hate.  The guys who call the bar whenever one of these whale releases drops looking for it when they have never been to our bar even though they live 3 blocks away.  That is the person I hate.

These people don’t love craft beer.  They just know there is this thing people are talking about and they must be a part of it.  They must show how cool they are and they need to show they are the big swinging cock in the room not only by getting that hard to get beer, but getting multiple bottles of it.


My very own BCBS bottle

My very own BCBS bottle

We received a case of Bourbon County this year thanks to a kind distributor.  However, we only sold 5 bottles to the general public.  I made sure the customers who come in regularly and buy from us regularly and like craft beer got first dibs on two bottles each.  Then I made sure any of the bartenders who wanted a bottle got a bottle.  Then we put it on the shelf.


Too often in life, we don’t love things for what they are but covet them for what we believe they represent.  That is really what I hate about whales.  For too many people whales aren’t about the beer.  They are about getting this cool thing just to say you have this cool thing.  They are about showing you have the ability to acquire this hard to acquire thing.

Mindfulness and intentionality.  I can’t stand in line to buy a bottle of beer just to tell people I stood in line to buy a bottle of beer.  Life is too short for that.  If you are going to do something, do it to experience and enjoy it.

That guy with the 6 cases of Cold Mountain doesn’t care about enjoying Cold Mountain.  Cold Mountain is a fetish he is using to show how important he is.  He is going to sell some, give some away to friends, and drink some of it.  All the while making sure everyone knows how special he is for this bounty he is providing.  That is what I hate.


November 24, 2016

There is no One Article today.  I’ve decided to take the day off from it, but before I start enjoying lots of food I am starting research on my state alcohol law project. The one thing I can say after just two hours of research is that all state alcohol laws and regulations are overly complicated. There are usually multiple state agencies in charge of rules and regulations and multiple state agencies in charge of enforcement.  That doesn’t include the additional layers of rules, regulations, and enforcement at the county and city levels.  This is before I’ve even gotten into how the laws regulate the actual the 3-tiered system.  I’m only looking at the who creates and enforces each state’s rule and regulations. This is giving me a headache. I think I need first lunch and a beer.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 11/23/16

In the coming weeks, I have planned to write a piece or two comparing and contrasting the alcohol laws between North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.  I want to see if it is possible to discern how those laws have affected the craft beer industries in each of those states.  I am currently in research mode meaning I’m reading and taking notes on the laws of each state.  Let me tell you that is a ton of uninteresting reading.  Here is a piece from the John Locke Foundation that studies this very thing.

If you are in North Carolina and are into craft beer you may know that there is a battle going on over how much a brewer should be allowed to distribute before legally having to go with a distributor.  Currently, that number is at 25,000 barrels.  That is a lot of beer and until recently no brewers in NC came close to that amount.  However, there are around 3 brewers who could sell that amount this year if they wanted to or in their eyes allowed to.  They are all independent breweries who self-distribute.

This law is silly and is propped up by the wholesaler/distributor lobby in NC that seeks to protect itself at the expense of common sense.  This paper argues successfully that this is one of many in the laws that regulate the manufacture, sale, and use of alcohol in North Carolina that are silly and against all common sense.

When you look at these laws, the only people they protect are the people who distribute alcohol in this state and that includes the state-run monopoly on liquor, which makes it one of eight states with this peculiar law.

Back to the self-distribution fight in North Carolina.  It doesn’t matter what the wholesalers say (including making specious health and safety claims) they don’t want brewers to be able to distribute more of their beer because the wholesalers don’t want to lose the money they get from distribution.  I think they would lose contracts and money if brewers could distribute more of their own beer.  However, it wouldn’t be as much as they seem to fear.

Why, distributing beer is hard and expensive.  Small brewers and brewers who only want to distribute in a finite area put up with it because it is easier and cheaper to DIY it then to pay a distributor.  However, at a certain point, a brewer is running two companies: a brewery and a distributorship.  Most breweries won’t want that.

As a quick aside, another battle brewers should fight is to change the nature of the distribution contracts. The way the contracts work is all in favor of the distributor, particularly when the brewer is small.  One tactic brewers in North Carolina could take is to make a deal on the distribution cap while getting concessions to equalize the power in distribution contracts.

I will say breweries also make specious arguments in calling for more freedom to self-distribute.  One that makes me laugh is a certain brewery swears that going with a distributor would ruin their ability to create wonderful season beers.  That is a load of crap because there are other factors that currently keep this brewery from doing more seasonal beers and none of those have to do with who is distributing their beer.

Look for more from on this subject in the next month or so.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 11/22/16

There are a couple of weeks at the end of the year where there is no news.  Well, there is news, it’s just that most of the people involved in making and reporting then news are checking out to go be with their families.  This is one of those weeks.  The next one is in about a month around Christmas.

With everyone either going or about to go on a glutinous food vacation, I’ve been stuck with little that is fun to read.  My least favorite is all the, “I’m getting ready to bounce for the week, but I am contractually obligated to write one more column before I go” column. As many columnists are men of a certain age this is the time you get that combined with, “I just want a beer” column.

There are two columns in my life I know will get published every 2 or 3 months.  The first is “I just want a beer” and the second is “Americans don’t care about soccer.”  They are usually written by the same people.  Those columns are easy to write and they have two built-in audiences.  The first cheers on the columnist and the second curses his name.

Those columns keep getting written because they are guaranteed page clicks.  There is a certain segment that those columns resonate with.  Soccer, craft beer, Netflix, and things like them are cultural signifiers.  How you view these things informs how you view the world.  There are people who agree with those columns because they see soccer as some foreign game ESPN keeps trying to make them like by you know showing it.  Craft beer is this pretentious bastardization of the simple joys of an ice-cold beer people from Brooklyn keep telling you is great.

Neither one of those things is really true, but when the world is changing as fast and as unrelenting as this one is and you feel left behind by those changes, you lash out.

Jason Notte has written a good piece for Market Watch about how beer can be used as a tool to salve the wounds that have come to light in the last few months.  The election results did not come out of nowhere.  They exposed deep fissures in this country that are finally being seen by everyone.

Notte’s message is simple:  Beer can’t heal these wounds, but it can be used to help us listen to one another.  The rituals around drinking; buying rounds, toasting, sipping and listening while someone else talks; all help us remember that we disagree with each other, but not necessarily hate each other.  Though there are those who do hate.

Friday the people who fear the progress that has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen will still be scared and angry at a system they feel has abandoned them.  There are others who have a fear of the system born from feeling the system has always wanted to destroy them.  Hopefully, we can take Notte’s advice and over a beer or two for one day listen to each other and not dismiss those feelings as silly or unwarranted.  Maybe just maybe Thanksgiving can actually be used as a day of healing as it was intended and not the day of rest before you buy a bunch of crap you don’t need just because it is on sale.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 11/21/16

There are five ingredients to craft beer.

There are four ingredients everyone talks about:  water, malted barley, hops, and yeast.  The Germans even codified those ingredients into an official law.  These four ingredients and their manipulation are also why I fell in love with beer and continue to fall in love with beer every day.  You take those four ingredients and you change or shift any one of them and you have something different.

If you move from hard to soft water, your beer will taste different.  If you use dark malt or light malt or a combination of dark and light malt, you will get a different beer.  If you change hops or change when you add hops, your beer will become something different.  If you change the yeast strain you use, your beer can take on a banana/clove taste or a barnyard taste.

Then there is the fifth ingredient.  If you take a beer recipe with just the four other ingredients and give it to three different brewers, you will get three different beers.  The fifth ingredient is the brewer and his/her creativity.

As much as I talk about the business of beer and laws surrounding beer and how we need to take beer more seriously as an industry, that isn’t why I’m drawn to beer.  Those are interesting things that are fun to research and think about, but that isn’t why I’m here.  I’m a romantic.  I love the people in the craft beer world and I love the creativity of brewers and others involved in it.  They are why I keep coming back.

Make no mistake, I think of craft beer as a creative enterprise.  The creativity of that fifth ingredient is the difference between craft beer and big beer.  There are talented and creative people that work for big beer.   I know this because whenever these people are unleashed by leaving big beer or getting to make something special and one off for big beer they almost always shine.  However, their day to day activities are hamstrung by the necessities of making lowest common denominator beer.

I love creative types and I love listening to them talk about the thing they love.  I have a friend who is a baker and whenever she talks about any part of baking from the process of coming up with a recipe, to the construction of a speed rack, to putting powdered sugar on the finished product, she radiates.  It is beautiful to see.  Brewers are the same way.  If you ever get to talk to one about any part of the brewing process, please do.  You will come away with an appreciation of beer and the people who make it.

There were no blog posts, articles, or news stories that piqued my interest today and talked to my friend the baker yesterday and it got thinking about how creative people are even if they aren’t officially called artists.  It helps to remember that every time you read a story about big beer buying up a smaller brewery or you hear about a legacy craft brewer getting close to extinction.