Monthly Archives: January 2017

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/31/17

This does sound like a fun job.  You get to travel around the country and talk about and study the history of beer.  That history is important for two reasons.  One, it is interesting to see what brewers did in the past to make and market their beers.  Two, only through knowing and understanding the past can you confront the future.

I have read books on the history of brewing in Asheville, in Charlotte, and in North Carolina.  I took a lot of history classes in college.  I love studying history and all the minutia it contains.  The little random factoids that lead up to the major moments everyone knows about.  These are what I call horseshoe nails.  Richard III lost the kingdom and changed British and world history because his horse threw a shoe.  It is more complicated than that, but not really.  Seeing the decisions brewers made and how they had long term effects on the history of beer in this country is fascinating.

History is also our best guide as to what will happen in the future.  Humans have not changed that much throughout the course of history.  We still have the same basic wants and needs we had when we were hunter/gatherers and living in caves.  As things happen around you, understand they have happened before and they will probably happen again.  The difference between now and then is we have history to teach us how to react to these events.  If we study it.

What does history teach us? One, that American business has always been a dance between business people, consumers, and the government to find the way to produce, sell, and consume products that makes money for the business, satisfies the government’s need for taxes, and gets the consumer the product they want at a reasonable price.

It will also show how beer is an agricultural product that is still best enjoyed as a local product and that it has always been so.  Even with the technological advances in brewing and packaging, it is still better to get your beer as fresh as possible from the source.

Hopefully, we will also learn that brewers have not always been (and still aren’t) all white dudes with beards.  Throughout its early history, brewing was considered housework for women and slaves.  It was only at the point that brewing became a viable business did white men take over.  Pointing out history honestly isn’t attacking anyone.  It is the root of historical scholarship.

Studying history is often like following the ripples of a stone thrown in a pond.  Sometimes those ripples run into a larger rock or a wave and are extinguished quickly.  Sometimes those ripples move along the surface of the water and run into something that sends them back towards their source bigger and stronger.  Sometimes those ripples travel the length of the water affecting the surface longer than anyone could expect.

By studying the history of beer in this country we can watch the ripples from things that have nothing to do with beer and get a better understanding of how these things affect all parts of our lives.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/30/17

This is an interesting article about the future of Belgian beer. One line from Jean Hummler, co-owner and manager of Moeder Lambic in Brussels, stands out to me for slightly different reasons than Belgium’s export problem. “[Belgium] didn’t export a lot of quality,” Hummler says. “We exported names.” (Italics mine) We have the same problem in this country in just distributing from one state to another.

Many craft beer drinkers chase beers.  They look for names and can’t wait until release day of the next whale.  This week happens to be Foothills Sexual Chocolate week. That means people who normally drink Blue Moon and have never set foot in Craft will start calling us to see if we have gotten our allotment for this year. They will come in and buy as much as they can, leave, and never darken our door again.  I hate those people.  Sexual Chocolate is easily one of the top 2 or 3 beers produced on a yearly basis by North Carolina breweries.  However, it is the name people who chase whales are chasing, not the beer.

This is what happened with Hopslam last week.  All week people called and came by looking for it.  I got bitched at by a guy on the telephone because I wouldn’t stop pouring a beer to go check if we had any more Hopslam on the shelf.  There are times when I want to say, “Do you know we have a beer in stock just as good as that one and it’s a $1 cheaper per can?”

If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of the whale culture that has grown up around craft beer.  I don’t blame the breweries.  Many beers are hard and expensive to produce.  You can only produce so much and you can only do it once a year to make it cost effective for the brewery.  However, these special/limited release beers have the unfortunate side effect of feeding into the need for external validation many people have in today’s world.

If you have ever been to the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) you have seen the line.  That is the line at the booth of a brewery everyone in the beer world is talking about, but that has a limited distribution footprint.  The beer has so much buzz and excitement that people clamor for just a 2 oz. taste.  They also check in on Untappd and post on Instagram that they have drunk this beer.  Everyone must know how cool they are.  The GABF is an airplane hangar full of beer you don’t need to wait an hour for anything.

So, when Hummler says that Belgium has only been exporting names, he and the breweries know full well they can coast on that for a while.  It is the same in your local market.  Breweries with a history and following feast on their name recognition.  Eventually, however, what’s in the glass catches up to you, and if it isn’t good you will suffer.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/25/17

The article I wrote about in this post is Bryan D. Roth’s piece on authenticity and politics in craft beer.  I really want this blog to be a respite, a haven from the real world.  Maybe with a little philosophizing that touches on the world outside of craft beer, but a place to get away from the insanity.  However, the Orwellian Monty Python skit that is our current state cannot be ignored.  I spent an hour this morning trying to find another article to write about that is more recent.  It’s as if the blogging world is stunned and has no idea what to do next.  

I believe that brewing beer is an art, and the traditional art it most resembles is music.  If brewing is an art and it is most like music, craft beer is punk music.  Like punk, music craft brewing is a response to over corporatization.  Part of the point of punk music its authenticity or realness in response to the navel gazing prog rock and assembly line corporate music of the 1970s.

Craft brewing plays the same role.  Now, craft beer is moving into the same phase of life that punk rock did in the 1990s when grunge, the grandchild of punk, made its unlikely ascent to the top of music.  There was a period where Nirvana and Pearl Jam sat atop the music world.  Then the big music corporations starting signing all the bands that sounded grungy and made them famous.  At the beginning, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins and the others of the first wave of grunge bands were revered because they seemed to care more and were more authentic than most of the music that surrounded them.  Most of the next wave was a bunch of dudes wearing flannel who wanted to be famous.

Craft beer began as the authentic version of beer. You can bring your dog into local brewery’s taproom and have a beer with the owner and/or brewer.  You can walk in and see the brewing facility from the taproom most time and watch as the brewers scurry around making their tasty beverages.  The beers have their own personality and taste unlike the macro beers you may have grown up with because someone real who cares more is making it themselves.

That authenticity ties the drinker to certain beers and certain breweries.  What happens when that brewery’s authenticity stretches into areas you don’t want to talk about?  What happens when the brewer says something about religion or politics you don’t agree with?  He or she is being the same authentic person who said macro beer sucks two months ago.  You can’t choose how authentic an experience is.  It either is or it isn’t.

Most fans of art don’t want real authenticity in their art.  They want the story of authenticity. They want the image of being real.  The original fans of punk in the 1970s didn’t want the real grimy CBGB, Sex Pistol authenticity or the real left wing socialism of The Clash.  They wanted the FM radio version of those things.  Most fans didn’t really want to know what darkness was Kurt Cobain’s poet’s heart.  They just wanted sludgy guitars and growly vocals.  They wanted Collective Soul.

From the other side of the bar, I’ve learned most new craft beer drinkers don’t necessarily want craft beer.  Maybe it is because of where the bar I work in is located in the city I work in, but the majority of people who come in don’t really want a well-made craft beer.  They want something they’ve heard of that gives them the patina of craft beer in the eyes of whomever they are trying to impress.  They want Sweetwater 420.

One Beer Article You Need Too Read And Why, 1/16/17

There are two side effects of craft beer becoming a big business.  One, you get people starting breweries because they think it will be a lucrative opportunity.  They don’t care about the quality of or making interesting beer.  They are looking to get in build a reputation and sell to the highest bidder.  That is an idiotic strategy because the startup costs of a brewery are steep and creating a reputation for good beer is harder than you think, and the big beer companies aren’t going to buy you just because people like your beer.

The other side effect is the same idea on the other end of the craft beer industry.  These same people who think starting a brewery will be lucrative sometimes do enough research to see the folly of that idea and instead decide to start a craft beer bar, a slightly less risky venture.

Again, you run into the same problem as before, they don’t care about beer in general and craft beer in particular.  They don’t buy good beer and more importantly, they don’t train their staff about craft beer styles or how to properly serve beer.

In England, where cask ale is still hanging on, matters can be worse.  Cask ales are living breathing beers that need to be cared for and served properly to get the experience for the customer correct.  What is a person who has championed cask ales for years to do when it appears the many of the pubs serving cask ale don’t do it properly?  Walk away.

At Craft, we are asked the question of why we don’t put on casks every few months.  As the article points out, it is difficult to do correctly, we don’t really have space, and even if we did get those parts right we would probably still end up pouring out at least a quarter of each cask because it didn’t sell quick enough.

Cask ales were the foundation of why craft beer took off initially in England and the UK.  However, progress is often unfair because it happens too quick at times.  It is often true that science and technology advance quicker than our morality to deal with its consequences does.  Craft beer is advancing as a business much quicker than our ability educate everyone involved with it.  That is why easily accessible programs like Cicerone are so important.

Craft beer was created in response to beer companies that treated beer like widgets, an industrial product to be made as quickly and as cheaply as possible.  We in the industry must guard against this same business at all costs mindset from eating this thing we’ve created from within.  It is a business, let there be no doubt, but it is a business that should be an example of how business should care about their customers and the quality of their product more than just how much return investors get every quarter. Maybe it is naive to think craft beer can do that, but we should at least try.

One Beer Article You Should Read And Why, 1/15/16

Here is another great post by Bryan D. Roth who continues to do good and interesting work around what craft beer really is and not what we want to think of it. Each year he researches the ratings of beers by regular drinkers and experts to see what trends have developed and to give a good accounting of what is considered the “best.” Today’s post takes that research a step further and shows how abv and rarity/uniqueness affects the perceived quality (and price) of beer.

Craft had been open for a few months and I was behind the bar on a Friday or a Saturday night. A customer could not decide what to drink, so he asked me what my favorite beer on the wall was.  On tap at that moment was the Mystery Ballantrae, a wonderfully malty 3.8% Scottish ale that I love. So, that is what I told him.  He looked at me with either confusion or disgust and said, “It’s not even 4%.”  That is one of the interactions that told me two things early on that I always remember.  First, people just want you to confirm their opinion.  They know what they want to drink and they just want you to tell them it is OK.  Second, people honestly believe higher abv is a sign of quality.

Now after a few more experiences like that, when asked what my favorite beer on the wall is, I pick the lightest abv and weirdest possible beer as my favorite.  I have recommended many grisettes, Scottish ales, schwarzbiers, dry Irish stouts, and ESBs to unsuspecting customers who want me to tell them how great the 10% abv barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout is.  If I tell you I like it, I really do like it, but I’m trying in a small and somewhat petty way to get people to see that great beer comes in all shapes and colors not just IPA and imperial stouts.

I’m beginning to think that there are two separate craft beer worlds.  There is the one where people look for good beer and eschew macro beer.  They just want to drink something that is good and interesting.  The other world is the world of the Whale.  In this world buying and drinking beer is a performative act. You are not just buying the beer to drink it, you are buying it to show others how cool and connected you are.  “Wow, you got this bottle of Cantillon Grand Cru? You must be cool and really know your beer.”

Roth’s post shows the effect of this way of thinking and acting.  If you can get enough of the right tastemakers to say they like one of your beers, your whole brewery can become a star.  I’m often asked if I think the awards at GABF are done fairly.  This article explains why the rare whales everyone votes to the top of RateBeer, Beer Advocate, and Untappd don’t win. Your perception of them is colored by things that have little to do with the actual liquid in the glass and that is what it should always come down to.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/13/17

Here is a transcript of a story that ran on NPR Berlin about Berlin Beer Week.  Hugh and Hana Eckermann have done a series of reports from beer week including this one where they talk to brewers, including Sam Caglione and Greg Koch, about the German Beer Purity laws and how younger German brewers are beginning to chafe under it.  This is even leading to a reconsideration of the law this year that would allow other natural ingredients to be included.

This comes at a time when a major piece of legislation in the US Congress that would reform the tax code for craft beverage producers (wineries, cideries, and breweries) sits waiting for debate and when the never-ending argument over raising the NC beer self-distribution cap enters its 3rd year.

These cases all interest me in how different brewers of different sizes and of different ages view legislation that affects them.  Take the case I know best of these, the NC distribution law.  The NC Brewers Guild and 3 of the largest craft brewers in NC have made this a major issue.  They talk about it at every turn and have even created a group to promote it called NC Craft Freedom.

Here is the thing, everyone involved in NC craft beer agrees that the cap should be raised and that the current cap is an arbitrary number that was created when no one understood how big craft beer would become to the NC economy.  Even the smaller distributors who work with most of the state’s craft brewers agree that it should be raised and that brewers should have the freedom to sell their beer how they see fit.

However, if you talk to anyone from a smaller brewer who is nowhere near the 25000-barrel limit for long enough, usually over a few beers, they will quickly volunteer that the state’s excise taxes are a greater hindrance to their growth then a self-distribution limit that is still 10000 barrels away for them.  It is amazing that North Carolina’s craft beer industry has flourished as it has when as of last year, only Tennessee, Alaska, Hawaii, and South Carolina had higher state excise taxes.  Add to that, if you self-distribute you also must pay sales taxes on the beer you sell.

In all aspects of life, your opinion on a thing is dependent on where you sit in relationship to that thing.  In Germany, the newer brewers see the Reinheitsgebot as stifling their growth and creativity.  While the older brewers see it as a cherished part of their heritage.  In NC, the large craft brewers see one law as hurting their growth, but the smaller brewers see a whole other law as hurting their prospects.

Heraclitus famously wrote a man never steps in the same river twice to indicate the constant march of history.  I think it can equally be said, no two people even see the same river they are both stepping in because they have different perspectives.

One Beer Article You Should Read And Why, 1/11/17

There are a few beer writers working today who love beer and love the fun of beer but still manage to write about it in a serious way.  One of my favorites is Jason Notte.  He writes mostly on the business side of beer.  He also writes about the business side of sports, particularly the weird phenomena of public funding of stadiums for billionaires.

Here is a nice interview Jason did with the owner of Pabst Brewing.  Pabst has its fingers in more pies than you think it does and has positioned itself in the in-between spaces of the beer business.  It isn’t quite big beer, but it isn’t quite craft beer.  As the beer business changes that could be a very advantageous spot in which to sit.

Jason is one of a growing number of quality writers who produce work for outlets that publish well-written content about beer.  There is a dearth of good writing on the internet in general and sometimes even more so for beer writing.  Too often websites are simply content aggregators linking to or simply publishing other people’s work. One morning I read the same AP article three different times on three different websites. Instead of incubating and creating new content they simply hoist up other’s work as their own. Maybe just as bad they publish reviews and other pieces that are poorly written and lightly edited.

I understand. If you are operating an advertising based model, to get advertisers you must get page hits and the best way to get page hits is to keep churning out content regardless of its quality and promoting the hell out of it by flooding Twitter and Facebook with new articles with catchy titles.

I think one thing we have learned over the last year is that the people that produce content have a greater responsibility than many have ever imagined.  Writing about beer and reading about beer should be fun.  However, you can write about beer in a fun way, but also in a way that takes it seriously.  I think too often people within craft beer hold on too dearly to the idea of a bunch of guys sitting around on a Saturday morning homebrewing and just trying each other’s beer.

We should never forget the fun of sitting around on a Saturday in a friend’s garage brewing and drinking.  We should never forget the joy of sharing a pint or three of quality beer and swapping lies with friends.  At the same time, it is also a major multinational business that according to the Brewers Association contributed $55.7 billion to the US economy in 2014.  That is a lot of money and a lot of jobs for actual people.

It is incumbent on people who write and talk about beer to take that responsibility seriously.  Look we aren’t talking about a foreign government affecting a presidential election, we are talking about beer.  However, the act of writing about something is a responsibility to treat that asks you to treat that subject with respect by at least attempting to do it well and do it interestingly.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/10/17

Paste Magazine has a repository of well-written beer reviews by writers who really know their beer.  Here is an example of one.  This review of the Deschutes Red Chair NWPA is clear and solidly written.  There are other examples on Paste’s website and you can find still others at All About Beer magazine.    They are all examples of what modern reviews look like across a spectrum of disciplines.  From movies to books to television to beer, good reviews in the internet age are tightly written explanations of what the reviewer liked or disliked about the object.  If it is on the higher end of the quality scale, they go on to describe why they did or didn’t like it in a quick entertaining way.

There are times I don’t think I’m meant for this age. I have little to no interest in the things most people do in today’s world.  I listened to one of my favorite podcasts yesterday as they talked about the Golden Globes ceremony from the night before.  There was a little talk about the awards themselves, but mostly it was about the gossip and the celebrity of it.  Somewhere around the talk about Tom Hiddleston and whether he really dated Taylor Swift, I realized I could not give less than two damns about that stuff.  This obsession with celebrity and fame is how we ended up with the president-elect we have.  The elevation of celebrity is a symptom of people having a superficial understanding of competence and skill.

Another symptom is how we review art and craft.  While I like reading reviews like the one for Red Chair, they seem superficial.  Now, I understand they must be for the needs of most magazines in the internet age.  A review is an attempt to express to a hurried reader whether they will like a movie or a book or a television show or a beer.  A good writer will explain quickly and clearly why or why not.  A critique is different.  It is an attempt to explain to the reader and the wider world whether this thing was successful at being what it attempts to be and why or why not.

A good beer critique will do exactly what this review of Red Chair does.  It will go over the appearance, the aroma, the flavor, and the mouthfeel/finish and tell you whether those things added up to a pleasurable experience.  Then it must go further with two questions.  First, is this beer a good example of a beer of this style according to the guidelines?  Second, does this beer achieve what the brewer set out to achieve when the recipe was created? Why or why not?

I haven’t written any reviews in a while because I got tired of writing the same thing as everyone else.  I have taken a step back the last couple of months and now I think I am ready to try to do something different with my reviews.  We’ll see if it works.

Becoming A Cicerone 132 Days Left

One of my favorite questions I get behind the bar is, “What’s a saison?”  I can answer that question a little better now, even though the answer to that question is rather vague.

My first week of Cicerone study concentrated on Belgian style beers.  Belgian style beers are probably my favorite family of beers to drink.  Belgian style beer guidelines are sometimes vague.  See saisons.  That helps make them some of the most interesting and flavorful beers.  I have found every Belgian style beer I’ve drunk to be interesting.  It was a good week and I know a lot more than when I started.

This week will be the British family of beers.  These were the first beer styles I really got into.  The first craft beer I ever drank was an English style brown (Pete’s Wicked Ale) and I drank and enjoyed English style IPAs before I ever drank a west coast hop bomb.

I’ll have at least one more update this week.  Until later.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 1/9/17

This is interesting. I remember the first product PicoBrew released, the Zymatic. It was big and expensive, but people did buy it.  Then this year the GABF I get to see the Pico in action and I thought, “OK, that is going to change home brewing.”  Not that I think it will change how most home brewers work, but that it will provide an easier in for people interested in home brewing. It is a simple and easy to use product that, while still kind of expensive, isn’t too much more expensive than a good home brewing set up.

Now, how will bigger industrial grade equipment change brewing?  I don’t think it will change brewers much.  However, here is a possibility.  You are a bar in an area with lots of craft breweries and you want to figure out a way to get a little piece of that action without all the work.  You can purchase one of these new industrial machines and cook a 5-barrel batch of beer and then sell it.

Now, if you do that, are you completely circumventing the 3-tier system?  Bars are licensed differently than brewery taprooms.  That is how they are allowed to sell their own beer.  Occasionally, a brewery and craft bar will team up to create a one-off beer specifically for that bar.  The bar will still have to buy that beer either from the brewery or through a distributor.

I guess I immediately jumped to bars buying one of these machines because I don’t see a large number of breweries buying them.  I could be wrong.  Maybe this will cheaper than brewery equipment for a startup brewery.  It could be a cheap way to go from a 5-barrel or 10-barrel system to a 10 or 20-barrel system.

Having said that, I think we are often too quick to try to streamline and industrialize the creation of products.  Part of the whole point of the slow food movement, which I think craft beer is a part of, is that your food is not an industrial product.  It is best when the food is grown and cared for by real farmers and not some agribusiness that uses the same concepts of an auto factory to grow chickens.

Part of the love of craft beer stems from the idea that you can meet the brewer.  You can go on a tour of the brewing facility and see the kettles and the fermenters and the oak barrels.  You can watch brewers moving around the catwalks in their big rubber boots.  It gives you sense that these people care about the beer they are making.  You get the sense that it is more than just a thing to produce to sell.

The idea of a machine where you dump all the water, malt, hops, and yeast in one end and wait a couple of weeks for fermented beer to come out the other end with no additional care is anathema to me.  At that point are you any better than the macros?