Tag Archives: beer

Searching for Better Beer or How To Define Craft Beer

This is a bunch of craft beer

How do I define craft beer?

This question vexes me. I continually try to move past the, “I know it when I see it,” definition most of us use. (ABInbev High End is not craft beer but Oskar Blues CANarchy is).  I create a definition in my mind and then I correct it with 10 different exceptions.

Let’s begin at the beginning and start with, “What do I think of when I think of craft beer?”

The first thing I think, when I think of craft beer, is the mindset.  The very simple yet important thing that separates craft brewing companies from big beer companies is the idea that beer is more than just a commodity to be sold.

During the period in the American beer industry between 1933 (the end of Prohibition) and 1979 (when homebrewing became legal), brewing beer was treated the same as manufacturing tires.  Beer was simply a product to made as cheaply as possible and sold with as big a margin as possible.  Quality, taste, and creativity were barely tertiary thoughts.

Craft beer begins with the idea that the beer is the important thing.  This whole enterprise started because a bunch of guys who spent time abroad for school and in military service came back to the US and wanted to drink better beer.  English pubs and cask ales and German bier halls and fresh lagers created a thirst in these people.  Charlie Papazian’s seminal, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, coined the phrase, “better beer” and the resulting mindset of making beer for beer’s sake instead of treating it as a simple commodity is the is the cornerstone of what craft beer is.  At least it should be.

The second thing I think craft beer has to have is creativity.  Alongside that should be a sense of fun and adventure sparked by the creativity of its brewers.  Sometimes that creativity can vex me when I’m just looking for a nice pale ale and I have options that range from hibiscus goses to BBA chocolate stouts.  However, it is that creativity and need to push boundaries to come up with something new and awesome that makes craft breweries different from big beer companies.

The Brewers Association has a definition of what a craft brewery is as part of its membership requirements.  I don’t necessarily follow that definition because it is a definition that fluctuates as needed.  That isn’t a shot at the BA, but it is a simple acknowledgment of how running an organization like the Brewers Association can be a fluid adventure.  The BAs charge is to speak for the small independent brewers in this country.  Sometimes that means you make exceptions to keep some brewers (Boston Beer and Yuengling) and sometimes that means you create rules that exclude others (ABInbev High End brands).

My definition doesn’t rely on numbers or ownership.  The first two parts of my definition focus on the liquid in the glass and how that is the focus and how I get a sense of creativity and adventure with every sip.  The final part of my definition touches on the business side.  A craft brewery is a brewery whose business practices are not malicious and predatory.  Craft breweries do not see the beer business as a zero-sum game.  For a craft brewery, this isn’t a simple dialectic of win or death as it is for big beer companies.

While all breweries, at least the ones with an actual business plan, want to be successful and want to make money, they also have a sense of collaboration with other craft brewers where they try to promote not only their beer but all beer.  They try to work together and promote craft beer and make sure consumers get better beer.

We know the big beer companies don’t look at it the same way.  We have the Department of Justice and various state attorneys general investigations and fines to prove it.

In sum, my definition of craft beer is, a beer crafted with the idea that the beer, the liquid in the glass, is the most important thing.  It is a beer that embodies a sense of creativity and adventure.  Finally, it is a beer from a brewery that cares more about the beer community as a whole and making sure drinkers get better beer then they do about crushing the competition and making a quick dollar.

Tasting Notes: Oskar Blues Ten Fidy Imperial Stout

What is a classic?  Pyscho is a classic.  The Old Man and The Sea is a classic.  However, they are static.  They are forever unchanging.  Our interpretations of them may shift as our cultural and social lenses shift, but they are essentially what they are.

Hamlet is also a classic, but it is different.  Hamlet as it is performed on stage changes from night to night. It is also different when it is interpreted by different directors and actors.  That is more what classic beers are like.  They morph and shift from year to year and from brewer to brewer. That is what makes yearly seasonal offerings so interesting.  They are the same, yet they are always different.

Oskar Blues Ten Fidy Imperial Stout is one of those classic winter seasonals.  It pours dark brown almost black forming a nice light brown head. It has a nice clarity and carbonation, but it is opaque with the occasional ruby highlights.

On the initial nose, you get a lot of coffee and bitter chocolate.  As it warms you also get plums and other dark fruit.  There isn’t much if any hop aroma. You also get an alcohol aroma, if you can call it that.

The flavor is a good reflection of the aroma.  This isn’t a beer trying to trick you or play games with your expectations.  You get the dark chocolate and coffee flavors. The plums and other dark fruit come through on the back end as well as a nice flavor of alcohol.  It isn’t overwhelming but it is there to remind you this is a 10.5% beer. The bitterness you taste is a combination of the hops and bitterness from the dark malts that contribute the coffee flavors.

The mouthfeel is the one place this beer surprises. The smoothness provided by the oatmeal included in the malt bill makes it easy to drink and gives It an almost medium mouth weight.  The alcohol warms you as it goes down making this a great cold weather beer.  It finishes with that warmth and the dark chocolate/coffee taste lingering long enough to make you feel good and want another sip.

This is one of those dangerous dark winter beers. The high ABV is hidden by the expert deployment of dark malts and brewing skill.

Grimm Artisnal Ales Double Negative Imperial Stout

It could be easy to make fun of Grimm as the epitome of hipsterism.  It is a brewery headquartered in Brooklyn started by artists and musicians who strive to use locally sourced ingredients and the official name of the brewery is Grimm Artisan Ales (italics mine).

However, then you taste the beer and you understand they are serious beer makers.  While the brewery is best known for its double IPAs and sours, the Double Negative Imperial Stout is my favorite of their beers and highlights how serious Grimm is about making good beer.

Weighing in at 10 percent, Double Negative isn’t as inky black as you would expect.  It is a deep brown almost black color like that of a good French roast coffee with no cream.  I had a slight haze and good carbonation.  You get a nice tan almost light brown head on the pour that dissipated quickly in my glass (I’m assuming it was beer clean since I cleaned it.)

On the nose, my bottle had a slightly leathery aroma up front that turned into dark fruit and bitter chocolate as it warmed in the glass with little hop aroma.

I immediately got the taste of coffee up front followed by bitter chocolate as the beer worked through my palate.  I got very little hop bitterness.  All the bitterness comes from the dark malt giving the coffee taste but there is just enough dark chocolate sweetness to offset it.

My bottle had a surprisingly medium mouthfeel.  It didn’t cling to my tongue and palate and finished nice and clean.  The chocolate and alcohol linger a bit and there is a nice alcohol warmth in the beer.  The carbonation helps keep it crisp and provides for that clean finish.

This is an overall excellent beer and serves as a good base for its barrel-aged variants.

Denver, Charlotte, and Craft Beer Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things I Did In Denver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elusive Velvet Yeti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is Craft Beer, Part 1

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

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

The Brewers Association has defined craft breweries as:

Small

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

Independent

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

Traditional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

― Brian Eno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do We Do Now?

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

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

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

What do I think of the sale?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are we right now?

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

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

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

What do we do?

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

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

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

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

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/26/17

For the second consecutive day, I am highlighting an article that has nothing to do with beer.  Why do I do this?  Because people within a bubble often don’t notice anything outside the bubble and begin to believe their problems are unique.

ESPN is going to lay off about 100 people today.  Some of them you’ve never heard of and some them on air talent.  They are also slashing the contracts of some of the people staying.

ESPN’s revenues are usually around the $10 billion range. ESPNs problem is that a significant portion of those revenues come from carriage fees.  What are carriage fees you ask?  Look at your cable or satellite bill to find out.  Basically, ESPN gets a huge cut of all the carriage fees paid to cable/satellite companies.  However, if you haven’t heard, many people are abandoning cable/satellite for internet over the top services.  That means people are using Apple TV or Roku or other similar services to get their television fix. That leaves companies like ESPN, who because the way live sports rights fees work, screwed.  ESPN bought all the television rights for live sports, but didn’t or couldn’t buy the internet rights.  Now, a successful company that has almost always made the right decision is facing a troubled future.

Again, why I’m writing about this in a beer blog? Because, with all the talk about a craft beer bubble bursting or a shakeout of the craft beer business, we are watching as ESPN, one of the most successful and ubiquitous brands in the world, must lay off people.  ESPN has a good business plan and good leadership, yet they are still subject to the quickly changing landscape of their chosen business.

I learned to accept that people are here one day and then they are not at an early age.  When brands or businesses die, I don’t get angry at capitalism or the people who didn’t buy the thing.  I feel sorry for the people who lose their livelihood because of it and wish them luck and a speedy recovery to the land of the working.  Just because something exists doesn’t mean it must always exist.  Continued existence is not guaranteed for anything or anyone.

The thing I learned most from playing sports and then again when I started studying Zen and then again when I started his blog, is you cannot affect outcomes.  All you can do is what you are supposed to do to the best of your abilities.

If successful and powerful ESPN can make missteps and must lay off people, your brewery no matter how successful may have to do the same thing.  It may even have to close.  However, do not let that be the end.  Whatever happens in the next 5 years in craft brewing, don’t operate in fear.  Just control the things you can control.  It took a long time for me to understand that. It isn’t that there haven’t been failures or missteps, but I learned from those more than any of the successes.  How do you learn to walk? By falling down, getting back up, and doing something different then what made you fall down.