Monthly Archives: February 2017

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/27/17

There really isn’t anything that interesting this morning in the world of beer.  Georgia is about to update its beer laws to let breweries sell beer to actual people.  Other than that, the most interesting thing to happen last night happened 5 or 10 minutes after I went to bed.

I spent all day watching the Daytona 500 which was extra-long because rule changes had the field bunched together for the duration of the race which resulted in fun driving and lots of wrecks.  Then the end of the Oscars happened. This tick-tock of what happened in the Washington Post is as good a way to figure out how everything went wrong.

I have a problem applying objective standards to a completely subjective competition.  Who is to say whether Casey Affleck’s performance is better than Denzel Washington’s or that Moonlight is better the La La Land?  Anyone can tell you which they like better, but who can honestly say one is objectively better than the other?

The question is often asked, “Do styles matter?” I would answer yes, but maybe not for the reasons you would think.  The style guidelines are the starting point. They are the outline of the screenplay.  It is what you do with that outline that makes brewing a creative endeavor.  You need style guidelines to point you in the right direction and to know what you are rebelling against.

That is why reviewing and critiquing beer is a different endeavor than critiquing a movie.  You can look at a beer and know what color range it should be in for its style. You can smell it and know what aromas to expect from a style.  Just as you can with taste.  That also provides the difference between judging for competition and saying whether you like a beer.

I like this new kind of beer called a blonde stout.  They are usually a blonde or pale ale infused with coffee.  They cannot be called a stout because they have none of the color characteristics of a stout because they don’t use the correct malt.  Are they a blonde?  Maybe, but the aroma and flavor profiles don’t fit either.  The ones I’ve had so far, Wooden Robot’s Good Morning Vietnam and Newgrass’s Lily Bean, are good beers. I love drinking them.  However, I don’t know how I would judge them in a competition because they don’t meet the guidelines for either blondes or stouts.

This is the beauty of beer.  Styles and guidelines do matter.  To win awards, as a brewer, you need to show the mastery of your craft.  The ability to make a saison that hits all the benchmarks while having that intangible thing that makes you smile as you drink it is a hard, hard thing to do.  It is also just as important to create experimental beers that make people go, “I like that.” That is just as hard and just as impressive.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/26/17

I don’t want to write about distribution caps, failed business plans, or legacy brewers raging against the dying of the light today.  Let’s talk about cheese.  More importantly cheese and beer.  It is a glorious combination that everyone should enjoy.

Here is a quick article to get you started on your beer and cheese journey if you haven’t already done so.

My plan for the day is to pair a few Belgian style beers I have with an assortment of cheeses.  Why am I doing this you may ask. Because I can.  So, I can write about it here later today or more likely tomorrow. To work on my beer and food pairing for the Cicerone exam.  Most importantly, I like beer and I like cheese.

The beers for this experiment are (assuming I can get through all of them without passing out) Blackberry Farms Quad, Blackberry Farms Brett Saison, Holy Mountain Witchfinder, Grimm Candlepower, and Four Saints Murder On The River.

For my cheeses, today, I will go with a gruyere, camembert, a washed rind cheese maybe, and a big old sharp cheddar.  That should be a good range of cheeses as far as flavor and texture to get me started on the day.

Wish me luck.  This could end badly in so many ways.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/25/17

Watching what is happening to Boston Beer Company is interesting.  Only partially in craft beer sense.  Even as a craft beer legacy brewer who created a beer that taught many of us that there was more out there than Bud or Miller, they don’t seem to be a part of the craft beer world anymore.  The leadership there certainly doesn’t understand that world.

It is interesting to me because not only is a story of how a company, not just a beer company, loses its way.

In this latest article, part of the solution to its floundering earnings and stock prices is increasing its advertising budget.  A couple of months ago, the big news was they were changing the font on the packaging to make it more modern.  Here’s an idea, try making better beer.  Oh, they tried that.  Well, not really.  They just started making a bunch of hoppy and fruited beers no one wanted.  Somewhere along the line, they forgot what their core was.  If they ever knew.

Most of us, because of high school, have read some if not all of the major Shakespearean tragedies:  Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar.  The thing that leads to the lead character’s destruction is with those characters from the moment they step on stage.  Their fatal flaw is something they were born with or developed long before the action of the play takes place.

Watching what is happening to Boston Beer Company, I can’t help but feel this current situation is the result of decisions that have been made since the company’s beginning.  All breweries that are successful over the long term are well run businesses.  They make good and sometimes hard business decision all the time.  However, when it comes to the beer decisions, they set aside business concerns and concentrate on the core of what it is they do: beer.

It seems to me that the decisions made at Boston Beer have almost always sided with the business side and not the beer side.  The decision to launch its first cider in 1999 is a clear indication of that type of thinking.  So is the Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard launches.  That is how you become a beverage company to make investors happy instead of being a brewery.

These decisions show a fundamental lack of understanding of the craft beer world they helped create.  That is often the case with companies that help create a market and survive long after the market has matured.  They don’t understand how much they changed things nor that they are no longer the revolutionary lobbing Molotov Cocktails at the hierarchy. They are the hierarchy.  Boston Beer wants to be considered a craft brewery while acting like a big beer company.

The key to understanding a tragedy as it unfolds is identifying the fatal flaw. Much as Othello couldn’t see how his jealousy and pride were destroying him, Boston Beer can’t see how much its ambition to be more than a beer company has possibly destroyed it.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/24/17

Amid a myriad of fascinating craft beer storylines, one that I keep coming back to is the how do legacy brewers navigate this world that they have created.  It is one increasingly unforgiving to brewers who get a little too old and too successful.  Boston Beer Company released their 2016 4th quarter earnings yesterday and they were not good.  Neither are their projections for 2017.

I was struck in reading the article that Boston Beer Company thinks of itself as just that, a beer company.  I see a distinction between a beer company and a brewery.  I always refer to ABI and MillerCoors/SABMiller/whatever as big beer companies.  They own breweries, but as a company they are concerned more with selling beer than making beer.  I think Boston Beer and the people that work there think of themselves as a brewery, but the rest of the world sees them as a beer company.  That is in contrast to a brewery like Sierra Nevada.

I think craft beer drinkers still have respect for Sierra Nevada as a brewery and see Boston Beer Company as simply a beer company who owns a lot of different brands. One of the first things the article points out is that the company was hurt by flagging sales of Angry Orchard Cider.

Boston Beer jumped into cider the same way ABI jumped into craft beer.  They bought a producer, then dumbed down the recipes while pumping up the production.  While I think in his heart Jim Koch is a beer guy, his company has seemingly lost sight of its beer core.

It is something you see a lot.  Your business starts to slow down and in an attempt to keep growth at a certain level, you begin to chase the new hot trends in your sector.  Instead of innovating you begin imitating and in the process, you lose what you are best at and you fail anyways.

The brewers that best survive whatever is coming next in craft beer are the ones who stay true to the core of who they are.  They will be the ones who may brew a hot new style, but won’t change their core products just to stay relevant. If a core beer is flagging and dragging the whole company down, they will shelve it, but they will come up with a replacement that still plays to their strengths.

Don’t chase trends and just brew the next hot beer style.  Understand why beer drinkers are drawn to that style and why it became a thing and incorporate that into what you do.  Understand that the haze in a NE-style IPA is simply a by-product of how the beer is made and concentrate on making a bright fresh hop forward beer.

David Bowie made vital and good music literally up to his dying days.  He stayed relevant and successful so long because as trends changed he didn’t chase them, but he absorbed the cultures that spawned them into his music.

As craft beer matures, the brewers who operate like Bowie will be the ones left standing.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/23/17

Luckily for me, the beer world is bereft of interesting news.  Or, Google Alerts hasn’t found any for me to read today.  I say, lucky for me because I am short on time this morning.  However, I did find this article in the Chicago Tribune that is worth reading.  Article? I should say listicle because it is a take on the Food & Wine 25 Most Important craft Beer list that appeared last month.  That isn’t a pejorative.  Listicles serve a purpose and they are very hard to do well.  This is one is done very well and is worth checking out.

Both lists are good.  I don’t agree or disagree with either.  They are opinions that get the major beers from the craft beer explosion that started with Anchor Brewing and Albion Brewing in the 1970s.  If you are a new craft beer drinker both lists are good places to start to learn the history of American craft beer. If you are someone who has been drinking craft beer for a while, it is a good reminder of how good legacy beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Anchor Steam actually are.  It is also a reminder of how revolutionary New Belgium Fat Tire and Sam Adams Boston Lager were at the time they were first released.

So sit back and enjoy the trip through craft beer history.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why (Kind Of), 2/22/17

Here is a cool article about a very small brewery in Toledo, OH named Black Frog Brewery and the brewer who started it.  Go read it.  When you are done come on back, I’ve got some other stuff to say.

I received a Twitter reply from a person who reads my blog from Sweden the other day.  She says I’ve begun to repeat myself and should write new things differently than I have in the past.  If I didn’t already have that sense, I would have ignored the tweet.  What I must do is move past the philosophizing about the issues I see in craft beer and try to find solutions.

Major League Soccer spent the first six years of existence marketing itself to everyone but American soccer fans.  They did everything possible to attract families with kids and tweaked rules to make it more appealing to the average American sports fan.  All of that led to the league almost running itself into the ground and forced a contraction of 2 teams.

In my head, I often link MLS and craft beer together.  Their resurgences almost coincide.  Whereas MLS faced its existential crises early, craft beer is just now facing up to its own.  Three things have happened.  One, the natural enemy to craft beer, big beer, has evolved its strategy from disdain to treating craft beer as a respected enemy.  That means instead of just ignoring it waiting for it to go away, big beer is using its normal “aggressive” distribution tactics to stifle craft beer’s growth and then buying up competition to prop them up as their own versions of “craft” or “high end” beers.

Another thing that has happened is the number of breweries and the craft beer audience has expanded faster than anyone was ready for over the last 5 years.  That means the number of breweries has increased while the number of quality brewers hasn’t at the same time the number of novice craft beer drinkers has skyrocketed.  So, a lot of new drinkers are drinking mediocre at best beer and propping up new breweries.  The new drinkers aren’t learning what a good beer is and the breweries aren’t forced to do better.

Finally, this dramatic increase of breweries is happening at the same time the number of bars and available tap handles have started to shrink.  That means this fraternity of brewers that prided itself on its friendly competition is getting less friendly.  Though it is happening out of the sight of the public. For the most part.

In short, craft beer is having growing pains.  More accurately, it is a recent graduate out in the real world where his idealism and optimism is meeting the cynicism of capitalism.  How do you hold on to who you are and what you believe when everything coming at you attacks those things?  How does craft beer navigate in this new and changing world without compromising the thing that makes it special and different?

Demand more from ourselves as ambassadors and teachers

If we are going to take on the role of watchdogs for the industry, we should have the tools to do so.  Become a Cicerone or Beer Judge.  Make your staff do the same (if you have staff).  Then impart the knowledge you’ve gained to customers when it makes sense and without being a condescending jerk.  All these novice drinkers need to learn about beer somewhere.  It’s better that they learn it from us then out on these streets. Also, if you are going to sit down and taste beer with a new brewer trying to sell you beer, it helps to be able to talk to them in brewing terms when you give your feedback.  If you show, you know something about beer, they may take any criticism you give better.

Demand better from new brewers

Everyone in the industry needs to be honest with new brewers.  The collegiality and fraternity are great.  However, if one brewery is making bad beer it effects all the brewers in the area.   Everyone with the experience and gravitas should taste new brewers’ beers and be honest.  Have a dialogue with them to find out what their intent was with the recipe and whether they think they’ve successfully hit it.  Be respectful but be honest and make the new brewer be honest with himself.  Craft beer buyers for bars and restaurants should be equally honest.  When a brewery rep or owner comes in to bring you beers to taste, tell them the truth and don’t buy beers that aren’t good.  However, you too should give them constructive feedback on the beer.  Explain why you aren’t buying it; what flaws you taste.  The people within the industry must be the ones to take care of the industry.

Remember who the enemy is

It isn’t the brewery that just opened down the road from you.  It is the one whose headquarters are in Belgium or South Africa.  The collegiality and fraternity I sometimes mock in craft beer is part of the reason I love craft beer so much.  You are competing with other craft brewers, but they aren’t the ones trying to destroy you.  Understand that you may not always have a tap handle up in a good craft bar.  Just remember, it is better that you will be up later and that the tap handle replacing yours for the moment is another brewer you like and respect.  That is much better for all involved than if it was a faux craft brand out of a big beer company’s high-end portfolio.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/21/17

In my job as a bar manager, I get to interact with distributors and brewers equally.  So, I’ve gotten to watch the fight to raise the distribution cap in North Carolina from an interesting position.  I’ll start off saying I support the fight.  The limit is unfair and arbitrary at 25,000 barrels.  Breweries should be able to decide on their own without state coercion whether to use a third party to distribute their beer.

However, until recently the rhetoric used by those pushing for the change has been…strident.  Most distributors do good work for their breweries and the way in which the arguments were made was off-putting.  The last few weeks has seen a media push by the Craft Freedom group and its supporters and this guest column is part of that.  It is forceful in its ideas however, it is slightly tempered from similar columns written a year ago.

If we are honest, the distributors who create the most anger and consternation within the brewing community are the ones who distribute ABI (AB-Inbev) and MillerCoors products.  Those distributors do things at the behest of the two big houses that are…shady.  The most obvious example is ABI’s incentive program.  They give cash incentives to distributors whose sales are 90% ABI products at the end of the year.  Sometimes in the last quarter of the month, your rep from that distributor will almost forget what is in their portfolio and tell you all about the wonderful ABI craft products that have gone on a little bit of discount.

Actions like that and the stultifying political climate in NC are why Craft Freedom and the breweries that spearhead raising the cap were so strident in the beginning.  What I believe happened is they heard from the other distributors in the state the political allies craft brewing has were told to tone it down a little and play up unfairness of having to sign with a distributor at the state’s behest while not slagging every distributor in the state.  Many of those distributors do good work on behalf of local breweries whose products may not deserve it.

If you talk to a distributor representative in NC who doesn’t have ABI or MillerCoors individually, they support raising the cap.  However, they don’t like the tone used towards all distributors.  They don’t feel it is fair to the work they do.  That and their, somewhat justifiable, worry that breweries will leave their portfolio without the specter of the cap make them hesitant towards supporting Craft Freedom openly.

When this cap is passed (it will be eventually), I don’t believe much will change as far as the number of breweries going with a distributor.  The change will be strongest in the negotiations over the distribution contracts.  This balances the power in those negotiations by making sure both sides are coming to the table of their own free will and not with one side having a legal sword of Damocles hanging over their head.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/20/1

I honestly hadn’t planned on writing anything today.  I’ve been going hard at work and here for the last week and wanted to sleep in a little later (all the way to 7 am) and read for my Cicerone study class tonight.  However, in the last month or so it became OK for everyone in craft beer openly wonder if we might have too many breweries.  Also, if we have too many breweries that affect the quality of the beer people drink and it means at some point breweries are going to start closing.

So, I wake up and peruse my Google Alert feeds for beer news and I come across this article out of the Asheville Citizen-Times.  It is a good read about more breweries in Asheville opening and how Asheville may be approaching its own saturation point.  Then I get to the section where Green Man Brewing owner Dennis Thies is quoted.  First, he hits on how brewery taprooms are taking away from bars, which national numbers prove to be very true.  Then, he says something I totally agree with,

“I used to get excited to see new breweries coming in, but I see a lot of amateur stuff now…Guys that open on a shoestring, don’t own their building and they’re making crappy home brew. And the novice consumer doesn’t know the difference between mediocre beer and really great beer.”

I’ve probably written 2000 words in the last week saying this and he nails it in 50.

I think we all agree that many of the newer breweries coming online are pumping out mediocre home brew.  That in and of itself is bad, but in a normal business sector, that problem would be taken care of by people not drinking the beer.  What worries me and I think worries other people is that as these new breweries are coming on line so are new craft beer drinkers.  These new drinkers don’t know any better so they keep buying this bad beer.  As long as the taproom is full, the brewer has no incentive to make better beer.

In the long run, I think these mediocre breweries will fail.  Quality always rises to the top in the end.  However, what I hope doesn’t happen is that in the meantime good breweries fall by the wayside as everyone flocks to the new brewery like moths to a flame even though the beer isn’t good.

I think part of this new willingness to talk about declining quality in craft beer comes from the sense from people in the industry that the bubble burst is coming.  Most of the people saying this out loud are ones who remember the cratering of craft beer starting in 1999.  They know that downturn was triggered in part by too many bad breweries bad and inconsistent beer.

The part of this that really interests me is how this has led an industry that has since its inception preached the all for one, one for all ethos where everyone supports everyone else (at least in words), that industry veterans are starting to call out breweries publicly for lack of quality.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/19/17

If you follow me on Twitter you will know that Bryan Roth and I have been participating in a Twitter/blogging conversation with others about whether a brewery must be good to be successful.  When Bryan first broached the question on Twitter, I immediately said yes.  Of course, quality matters, I said in my most naïve beer geek voice.

I still believe that.  In fact, the quote Bryan pulled from a previous blog post in his latest piece is something I still believe. I think good beer is still necessary for long-term success.

However, we have two issues on the table.  The first, “the good enough” problem.  The second, uneducated consumers.  These two problems feed each other. Then we must ask, how do we resolve those two issues.

The Good Enough Problem

If you know anything about craft beer’s history, you know its origin story.  Long story short, craft beer was born out of a need to make better beer than the big beer companies who were making beer good enough to drink.  Those big beer companies still look at beer as a widget.  Their goal is to make as many widgets as quickly as possible to sell as much as possible.  The key to selling as much as possible is to make it appeal to the widest possible audience.  That means the beer is least common denominator flavorless ice cold yellow water.  It is good enough to drink.

Unfortunately, today’s craft beer brewers are falling into the same trap.  Not for the same reasons, however.  First, too many brewers are new to professional brewing and haven’t quite figured out how to scale up their award-winning homebrew.  Second, they are often leveraged up to their eyeballs to get the brewery started and need to pump out beer to start making money.  Third, they are trying to satisfy a voracious yet uneducated consumer base by getting beer out as quickly as possible.  So, beer that is just good enough is what we get.

Sometimes when a new brewery comes in and has us taste their beer the last one we taste is the one they say kills in their taproom.  They can’t make enough of it.  I usually think, It is the only one that is drinkable.  Of course, it kills in your taproom, no one can drink anything else you make.  Professional advice to new breweries, if the bestselling beer in your taproom is whatever is on the guest tap, you have a problem.

The Uneducated Consumer or Craft Beer As Performative Signifier

I read this good article about Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts.  The author does a great job of breaking down why each is successful and why Dunkin Donuts is more successful as a business model.  What really interested me in the article is in the first three paragraphs and is encapsulated in this line, “…food tends to function as a repository for the stories we tell others about ourselves.”

I spend a lot of times in brewery taprooms and craft beer bars.  Everyone in these places is using craft beer to tell others about themselves, including me.  From the beer geek to the whale hunter to the sorority girls taking selfies with their flights we are all using craft beer to signify to others who we are.

I like going to bars and taprooms with my Kindle and reading while I drink a beer or two.  It is a signifier that I like to read and I like beer.  However, I do it because I actually like to read and I like beer.  I don’t do it just to be seen reading and liking beer.  Many of the newer craft beer drinkers only want to be seen drinking craft beer and have no clue what good beer is. They just want the story.

The problem for craft brewers is, most of these people will move on to the next thing they should be seen consuming in 12 to 18 months and a brewer who was happy to make beer that was good enough for all these people to drink will be stuck with actual craft beer drinkers sneering at their offerings.

What Do We Do To Kill Good Enough?

Mainly, we in craft beer need to hold ourselves accountable.  I would suggest new breweries find people in the craft beer world who they haven’t known their whole lives, are related to or are invested with to taste their beer and give honest and good feedback.  They need to hear from someone they trust with no personal stake in the outcome, what is right and what is wrong with their beer.

I started thinking about this after another new brewery came into the bar for a tasting with the owner and I a few weeks ago.  When the brewer and sales person and their distribution rep(?) left, we looked at each other and agreed none of that beer was good. What I’m going to start doing is taking notes when this happens and try to give the brewer’s feedback on what I think of the beer.

This seems presumptuous to me.  I don’t know if I’m comfortable with doing it, but from now on when a brewery brings me samples of something new, I’m going to sit down and taste it like I would for one of my reviews, and then write the brewery an email with my notes.  Maybe they’ll read it.  Maybe they won’t.  Maybe they’ll think I’m an asshole.

If we in the industry think good beer and quality matters, we must take the responsibility to make sure it stays that way.

We must demand that you have something more than just a good story.  Craft beer is in its ascendant cultural moment right now.  What we should remember is it is just that, a moment.  It will end, and if all you have is your cool craft beer story and not good craft beer, you will end with it.

I guess, what it comes down to for me is, if good beer doesn’t matter, what are we doing here?  If you are willing to make beer that is just good enough for people to drink, what is the difference between you and the big beer companies you supposedly hate?  Yeah, you have a great story, but the Coors, Busch, and Miller families all have pretty cool origin stories.  That doesn’t make their beer any better.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/18/17

Most articles you read about the future of craft beer are filled with quotes from Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company, or Sam Caglione of Dogfish Head.  Rightfully so.  Those are three titans of craft beer after the great contraction of the 1990s.  However, craft beer has and is undergoing a dramatic transformation.  Today, there are over 5000 breweries in the US.  Most of them extremely small.  The insights of those three, while important and newsworthy are going to be different from the insights of the newer breweries.  That is why this is such a refreshing article to read.

Grossman, Koch, and Caglione are great at giving opinions on the 10,000-foot view of craft beer world, Andrew Leichthammer of Good Measure and Mark Babson of River Roost have more practical concerns. They worry about things like getting enough ingredients to brew and finding time to do everything that surrounds owning a business so that they can brew.

I’ve noticed the same differences in perspective between North Carolina breweries.  When talking to reps from the bigger breweries in the state, their concerns are not always the same as the ones I get from talking to brewers and owners of the smaller breweries in the state.  The distribution cap is the prime example.  While all brewers in the state (and almost all the craft beer people in the state) want the cap raised, it isn’t a front of mind subject for smaller brewers.  They are more concerned with excise taxes and just getting tap handle placements.

Just as a 42-year-old executive with a wife and kid doesn’t have the same concerns for a 22-year-old fresh out of college starting his first job at the same company do not have the same concerns, Dogfish Head does not have the same concerns as Good Measure.

As craft beer matures, it must come to terms with the fact that not every brewery wants the same thing nor are they always pulling in the same direction anymore.  Craft brewing is moving from a club of former homebrewers to an actual business sector with different size and economic strata.  That is not saying that these strata are in opposition to each other, but it is saying that each stratum has different wants and needs.

Craft beer’s story has always had two parts to it.  The first part is the idea of making better beer than the big beer companies.  The second part has been the bon homme of craft brewers towards each other.  Both are being tested as craft beer matures, but it is the second part that will suffer the most as more breweries come on line. There are over 5000 breweries and the number of available tap handles and placements is at best static.  That puts a lot of pressure on breweries and distributors to keep what they already have. That is when the all for one, one for all starts to fly out the window.