Tag Archives: beer

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/19/17

This week I’ve been concentrating on the future of craft beer after the shakeout it is undergoing is over (here and here).  The more I look at craft beer and its future, the more I think comparing the industry to a young college-aged man is apt.

In college, I remember bitching about my favorite bands selling out when they had the temerity to sign a real contract for real money with a real record label.  I remember wondering why women would get offended at sophomoric jokes about women and would use silly gay slurs when talking to my friends.  I remember being young and trying to figure out how to live a life that combines what I believe with finding a job that will pay me actual money.

Look at craft beer at the moment.  We have craft beer drinkers and fans who swear off any beer that takes a dime of “corporate” money while attacking anyone who doesn’t share their vitriol.  We have brewers who can’t understand why women and a growing number of men are offended by some of the, at best, insensitive names of beers and their accompanying labels.  We are watching craft beer grow up in front of us like a parent watches their college-aged son grow up and it is painful at times.

Today, I have two articles that I think speak to the growth and maturity of craft beer in different ways.  The first is about Brewdog.  This article that confirms what I have believed about Brewdog from the beginning which is while I believe that have a core set of values that centers on independence, much of what they say and do is simply self-promotional b.s.  They seem to care as much if not more about people talking about them then they do the independence they espouse.  They are the punk band you grew up liking because they seemed so real.  Then, you found out that was all part of the plan to get signed to major label.

The second article is from a panel Jason Notte participated in recently centered on what is currently happening in craft beer and how that will affect the industry’s future.  I take away two things from the article.  One, near term, we will see a shakeout of the smaller breweries who fail to consistently make quality beer.  This is similar to what happened in the late 90s/early 2000s shakeout.  The breweries that couldn’t produce enough consistent and consistently good beer closed leaving a core of brewers and breweries who led the charge to today’s explosive growth.

Two, many of those breweries that survived that period have become midsize/regional brewers and they are the most vulnerable in this new world order.  With the huge number of breweries, it benefits breweries to either be extremely small and local, part of a loose confederation of mid-sized breweries, or be owned by a huge conglomerate.  Trying to go on your own as a midsize/regional brewer like Stone has its pitfalls, at least in the near term.  I will be very interested to see how all the Colorado and west coast breweries building breweries on the east coast fare long-term.  Remember, Flying Dog tried this before eventually shutting down their brewery operations in Colorado.

This is a wonderful time to write and think about craft beer.  It is at a flection point where things can go many ways.  This is what I believe will happen.  The midsize/regional brewers like Stone, New Belgium, Deschutes will either join together or they will be purchased outright by the huge conglomerates.  At the same time, all the small local breweries that serve their city and maybe a few surrounding counties will continue to thrive because they serve the local need for fresh beer and an authentic experience.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/18/17

“Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. Every time I call it a business, you call it game.”

Today’s article is a clip from one of my favorite movies, North Dallas 40.

This is inspired by two things.  First, me wanting to explore what may happen to craft beer as it matures as an industry.  Here is yesterday’s post to start that off.  Second, it is inspired by a Twitter argument I watched happen last night between craft beer fans and writers.  It is the same argument that has raged in art circles for centuries.  At its heart is the, “You’re not (fill in your art form) enough.”

In craft beer, this usually manifests itself when someone, usually a writer who focuses on the business aspects of beer, talks about beer in a sometimes clinical manner that doesn’t scream “death to macrobeer.” This leads to them being called a sellout or worse yet a trader to craft beer.

Here is my take on this argument.

I started out my working life as a grant writer whose favorite job was working for McColl Center for Art + Innovation.  It is an artists-in-residence program here in Charlotte.  Working there gave me the opportunity to watch artists up close and see how the process works in real life and not in the romanticized version of art we all grew up with.

Real artists don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.  They work all day everyday at their craft.  The most successful of those artists know that at least 25% of that work is selling their art as well as the idealized version of themselves that patrons want.  The best artists not only understand their art, but they understand their place in the greater art world as well as the worth of their work.

I think brewers are as much craftspeople and artists as the painters and sculptors I met at McColl Center.  That doesn’t mean I think every brewer is a true artist just as I know not everyone who sells a painting they created is a true artist.  Some are individuals who found they have an affinity for something and have decided to monetize it as best they can.  Does that make them bad people? No.  It does mean that while their beer or their art is financially successful, it doesn’t inspire the way it should. The thing is, that is probably the majority of what is being sold and it is necessary for the industry to function.

Maybe my favorite part of that clip is when Matuszak says, “Job. Job. I don’t want no fucking job. I want to play football, you asshole.”

Anyone who makes their money in craft beer holds that sentiment dear to their heart. Whether they are an artist or not.  I do.  I have had real jobs.  They suck.  Whenever I’m annoyed by my job, I think back to almost all the other jobs I’ve had and I thank the stars that I run a craft beer bar instead.

I also think that anyone who pays their rent and buys food thanks to their job in craft beer lost their rose-colored glasses about craft beer long ago.  Just remember, you don’t have to lose the fun of craft beer or think of beer simply as a widget to be made and sold to think of ways that you don’t go broke doing this.

There should not be a dialectic between the art & craft of craft beer and the business of craft beer.  For any brewery to be successful and for the industry to be successful as it matures there must be a marriage between the two.  The artists I worked with those years ago taught me that.

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

This feels good.  I’ve spent the last two weeks moving across town.  It is never the physical aspect of moving that upsets my balance.  I am a creature of habit and when you move all your habits get disrupted.  From the direction you drive to and from work, to where you shop and eat, to the sounds you hear as you try to sleep, moving is a disruption.  However, disruption is good.  It changes what you do, how you do it, and it shifts your perspective on many aspects of your life.

American craft beer has spent the last 20 years disrupting the whole beer industry.  As craft beer has expanded almost exponentially the last 5 years, many of us who have been around since the last “great expansion” have been fretting over another bubble bursting.  However, we may have had it wrong.  This article from The Motley Fool has a better term for what is coming: shakeout.

The difference between now and the bursting bubble of the late 90s is that the beer industry has matured and changed.  As the article points out, the coming shakeout will be a continuation of the consolidation we’ve seen begin with the mega-brewers buying up regional breweries and those same regional breweries consolidating themselves to protect against outside purchase.

With such explosive growth over the last few years, we have seen a lot of breweries enter the market who have no business being there.  Those breweries will be the leading edge of the coming contraction.  Of the ones I’ve seen shudder in the last 18 months or so, the most common reason is poor planning.

We all know the apocryphal story of many breweries that started as a home brewing enthusiasm that leads to good beer and friends deciding to pool their money and resources to start a brewery.  That is a dream that dances around the back of almost every home brewer’s mind.  That is a great story, that can go one of two ways that are mostly dependent upon having a good plan.

From my vantage point on the bar/retail side of craft beer, I encounter a lot of small breweries who either self-distribute or are starting to work with a distributor.  Some of the things I’ve noticed about the breweries have come and gone in just the 2.5 years we’ve been open

  1. Inconsistent beer. It is either, they have one good beer and the rest are mediocre at best or they have a few good beers, but they taste different with each batch.
  2. No plan for their beer. What is your brewery’s aesthetic as far as beer and personality? What is your plan for your core/year around beers?  What is your plan for your seasonal beers? What is your process for creating new beers?  Then, how will you market them?  That is why you need to know how your beer and your brewery’s personality are tied together as your business front face.
  3. No distribution/unrealistic distribution plan in your business plan. I’ve seen many breweries come into the Charlotte market with unrealistic expectations.  This market is immature in two ways. One, the craft beer drinking community is very young and new to craft beer.  Two, most the breweries in the market are less than 10 years old.  The market is also very locally focused (meaning Mecklenburg County) and very IPA and lighter craft beer focused.

I want to spend the rest of the week exploring these three points and how they may affect the next couple of years of craft beer.  Also, now with the move over, I have a new part of The Beer Counselor colony that will start in May.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 3/8/17

I thought this would be shorter since I got home late from closing the bar.  I was wrong.

This article is interesting not because the information is surprising. It isn’t and it has been out in the public for a week now.  What interests me is how the Craft Freedom group has changed its approach over the last two years.

When the group first started, it was a lot like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  There seemed to be a naïve belief that if they brought their case to the state legislator they would win hearts and minds with the power of their argument.  What they found was, yes, many legislators agree with them.  However, many of those same legislators get donations from the distributor/wholesale lobby and individual distributors.  Those legislators could not make the leap to pissing off major contributors.

What Craft Freedom has done this time is continue to lobby to the legislators, but they have also taken a more proactive media approach. They are attempting to go around the money to the people and appealing to them with a fairness argument.  They are arguing that breweries should have this freedom and to deny them that goes against our basic principles.  Of course, people vote against the principles and best interests every day. I think they can win enough votes to raise the cap to 100,000 barrels.

The unspoken part of this is what interests me most.  If and when this bill passes, how does that change the contract negotiations between breweries and distributors?  For breweries with large ambitions, this artificial cap at 25,000 makes it imperative that they sign with a distributor.  Unless you come into the negotiations with the buzz of a Wicked Weed, you are at a disadvantage.  You must sign with a distributor.  By raising the cap, you give breweries a little more leverage to make the distribution deals a little fairer.

NC beer distributors are not equal.  I suspect the opposition by the wholesaler’s lobby group is driven by a small number of large distributors and not the majority of their sales force or the smaller distributors that dot the state.  That is why I think their real opposition to the law isn’t the possibility of losing potential breweries, but to losing that contract leverage and opening the door for their big national beer companies to strike out on their own and open their own distributorships.

In the end, I don’t think the big distributors give much of a damn about whether Olde Mecklenburg, Red Oak, or any of the big self-distributing breweries who have shown no inclination to ever sign with them do once they hit 25,000 barrels. It is about keeping hold of that unfettered 20%-40% they can milk from every brewery that signs with them and keeping the “incentives” from the big beer companies flowing.

Now, I’m going to go read some of this.  I’m in heaven already.

 

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 3/7/17

This is just like the bar I would open if I could.  A library with good books for people to read while they drink, good music playing over the speakers just loud enough to be enjoyed but not too obnoxious, and 12 taps of good beer.

Sometimes I think we have lost that kind of pub culture in the US.  I know we haven’t, there are places in every town where you can go and have a pint or three and not be annoyed by a bunch to 26-year-olds trying to hang on to their college years by doing body shots at 4 in the afternoon.  However, I think it is dying.

With the rise of craft brewery taprooms, bars are slowly disappearing.  That is a shame. Taprooms are a wonderful place to try a brewery’s beers.  The beer is going to be at its freshest since it only has to go from the brewery a whole 100 yards to the taproom and not sit in a warehouse waiting for delivery.  Most are comfortable places that extend the breweries ethos and brand.  A bar is a different place.

A good craft beer bar should be a gathering place for the neighborhood and for the local craft beer community. It should be neutral ground for all the distribution reps and brewery sales reps to gather, drink, and shoot the shit.

A good bar shouldn’t have loud obnoxious music playing at 2 in the afternoon.  It should feel like your living room or den.  A place where you are comfortable enough to talk to the person sitting at the bar next to you or sit quietly in a corner reading a thick great novel.

I’ve been lucky enough to find a place like that everywhere I’ve lived.  I’m even luckier to work in a place like that right now.

There was a Miller or Bud commercial a few years ago, for one of their ill-fated forays into specialty beers.  I don’t remember which one and neither do the people who bought and drank it.  Anyway, the commercial was a bunch 25-year-olds dressed in their best night club gear in a dark club with EDM playing trying to look cool drinking this crappy beer.  A description of the commercial I read said something like this a “bunch of people I don’t want to hang out with drinking a beer I don’t want in a place I would never go.”

A good bar is a great place for a writer.  They can be left alone to read or write if they want to. They can watch the world and the customers as they come in and interact.  Where do you think characters come from? And they can engage with a cross section of humanity if they so choose.  Without bars, we would be missing a lot of great novels and short stories.

Anyway, read this if you haven’t read it before.  It is about a café in Spain and not a bar, but it is the same general idea.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 3/5/17

I wanted to do something a little different today.  This past week I found myself writing about success and failure.   Most specifically this story about Boston Beer Company and later as a contrast this story about Highland Brewing.

I don’t think I stated it outright, but I implied that, at least in the short term, Highland can be more successful than Boston Beer because it has made the right choices over the last 2 years.  As a reader rightfully pointed out, Boston Beer still sells a crap-ton of beer and Jim Koch is still a billionaire.  Maybe they are still doing something right even if investors are antsy that they aren’t making as much money as they were.

So, as is my want, that led me to think about why I find the Boston Beer story so interesting and why I find the Highland story just as interesting.  The reason came to me on my morning walk.

I was just thinking about what makes a fictional narrative and characters interesting.  The fall.  All the great stories (at least the ones that I like) are about failure followed by what happens next.  Basically, fiction is about characters who want something.  If that thing they want is driven by failure it makes the story more interesting.

Boston Beer is interesting because they are floundering a little.  What they do next is what I care about.  How do they satisfy stockholders and the craft beer community at the same time?  Is that even possible?

Highland has satisfied the craft beer community, but does that translate into better sales? From talking to our distribution rep, preliminarily yes.  They are selling more Highland than they did before the change in their lineup.

If I came off as unfair or unduly critical of Boston Beer, that was not my intention.  There are others in the craft beer community who don’t share my reticence.  That is another thing that I find interesting.  I think Boston Beer and Jim Koch see themselves as the little craft brewery that could.  I think many in the craft beer community see them as a mini version of AB-InBev.  That dissonance is great.

Boston Beer and the whole of craft beer is more interesting to me now than before.  It’s fun when everything is going great and everyone is making money and finding success, but it gets fun to watch when that stops.  When the traditional bon homme of brewers starts to give way to the realities of working in a finite business space, it reveals more about everyone involved.

 

I often see things as a failed fiction writer and a lover of reading.  Often, I see things as a novel unfolding in front of me complete with characters and story arcs.  Craft beer is no different.  Because craft beer is at this middle stage, there are so many interesting characters and stories to tell.

Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorite writers.  Not just for his work, but his thoughtful analysis of the craft of writing.  One of the things that I’ve taken away from him the most is his insistence that the writer be empathetic towards his characters.  That is a goal of mine going forward in my life.  To be empathetic towards everyone and everything I encounter especially those I write about.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 3/4/17

The One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, is a cheat.  It is a quick way for me to come up with a topic to write about daily without having to do too much brainstorming.  So, when I can’t find an article I want to write about, it makes it kind of hard.

Anyway, here is an article about…wait for it…the NC distribution cap fight.  At least this one finally puts a number on all the money the N.C. Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association and individual distributors have given to NC legislators.  The total is almost $1.5 million.  That should explain all you need to know as to why progress has been slow.

I’ve been following this story since it started gaining steam 3 years ago, and I’m tired of talking about it.  However, I think the distributors are more afraid of the big beer companies pulling out of their contracts and distributing themselves.  That is a more realistic fear than the one of all these small brewers distributing their own wares.  It isn’t that much more realistic, but more realistic.

I just get tired of political fights whose conclusion is inevitable.  If the Supreme Court hadn’t stepped in, we would still be in a 40-year battle to finally get to marriage equality.  This is a much smaller and less important issue, but the conclusion is inevitable.  The politicians want to vote to raise the cap, but they get a lot of money from its opponents.  Eventually, the politician’s beliefs will win out and they will vote to raise the cap.  Wholesalers should spend less time worrying about how to stop the cap and more time trying to build good relationships with brewers.

Last thing, the distributors who treat brewers as if they are doing them a favor by distributing their beer are the ones who should worry.  I think the biggest change raising the cap will initiate is making distribution contracts fairer and forcing some distributors to treat brewers more as partners.

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

Here is an article about NC Breweries and fantasy band mashups.  It was one of few articles I read that I could finish today.  It is a good fun piece.  It is the best kind of writing when you have no real news to report.  That isn’t a knock.  I enjoyed it and it is a skill I don’t have as a writer.  Not everything has to a philosophical journey to the heart of craft beer.  It should be fun.  It’s beer.

Good writing is hard to find and good journalism is particularly hard to find on the internet because there is just so much of it.  So, I try to appreciate and show it to others.

In this space, I try to highlight an article I find interesting and worth reading and explain why you should read it too.  Then there are days, filled with click bait lists and faux debates and headlines screaming craft beer’s totemic rise or ultimate demise with an article attached that is lacking in any context or skill at writing.  In other words, SEO at its finest.

The time you have during the day is finite.  I don’t want to waste yours or mine by publishing something just to get hits.  However, that is the economy of internet publishing and news.  For newspapers and real news sites and blogs, advertisers look at the number of hits to determine if they will advertise with you and how much they will pay.  It’s understandable.  They are looking for the greatest amount of exposure possible.

It is also understandable how some sites just churn out content that hammers home SEO. There are keywords to include in your headlines and in your meta tags.  You should make your content in easily digestible bite-sized factoids.  Don’t worry if the headlines are misleading or the factoids tell less than a quarter of what is an interesting story. You just need to get that content out and in the atmosphere, for people to click on it.  Screw whether it’s is any good or not.

I would love for my beer writing to be a significant if not complete contributor to my income.  However, how do you measure success?  Is it only through the amount of money you make, the number of clicks you get, the number of people who recognize you?

Don’t get me wrong, I have a good idea of how many hits I get over a week and which articles contributed the most to them.  I want as many people as possible to read my work.  I just don’t measure whether an article was successful solely by how many people click on the link.  I’m satisfied when I read the piece before I hit publish and it says what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it.  If I do that enough times, people will find the work and appreciate it. If not, I’ve still done what I set out to do.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 3/2/17

I find legacy brewers’ fight to stay relevant in an ever-changing craft beer world fascinating not because of them but because of us.  Our culture at large gravitates towards the new.  We conflate newness with good and innovative.  Where does that leave a brewery that has been around for 20 years in an industry that always leans towards the new hot thing?

You can go the Boston Beer route and pretend you’re not a huge beer company and flounder around like the old guy at the club (I stole that from Ryan Self).  Or, you can do what Highland Brewing has done over the last two years.  Highland has reinvented itself adding new more hop forward beers outside the English tradition while managing to keep the soul of the company intact.

One of the hardest things in life is to admit when something is not working.  That is true in every aspect of life.  From romantic relationships, jobs, you name it, it is hard to say, “I need to do something different.”  It is especially hard when you have built a successful business doing things a certain way.  However, if the landscape you built that business in changes you must change with it.  That is the first hurdle for legacy brewers.

A successful brewery that has been around for 20-plus years must absorb the idea that the world they helped create is leaving them behind.  If they can do that.  If they can admit what they have always done isn’t working as it used to, then they can move on the next step, which is how do they adapt.

That is an easier step to make but a harder one to execute.  Deciding you need to brew a couple of IPAs and start a barrel program is easy and obvious.  Making good beer is where it gets difficult.  It always comes back to the liquid in the glass. You can decide you need to do more IPAs, but if you do them badly or in a way that doesn’t stay within your brand identity, it will be worse than not brewing them at all.

Highland did not allow itself to become wedded to the way it has always done things at the expense of being successful for the next 20 years.  Yet, they have managed to keep their core identity.

We are a strange culture.  On one hand, we seek out the new, the innovative, the bright shiny thing that is slightly better than the thing we already have.  Yet, we also venerate tradition to the point of fetish.  While we love new stuff, we seek the comfort of knowing exactly what is going to happen next.  It is not that we love history.  In fact, many if not most of the people who venerate tradition barely understand history.  It’s that we seek comfort. More accurately, we seek to not be uncomfortable.

To stay relevant and to continue to grow, breweries must learn to embrace that feeling of being uncomfortable.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 3/1/17

You need to go read this interview Jason Notte did with Neil Witte quality ambassador for the Brewers Association and founder of Craft Quality Solutions.  Go read the interview.  I’m going to spend another 400 some odd words bloviating about it, but you can get to those after you read it.  I can honestly say this one of the more important articles you will read about craft beer this year.

“All this has happened before; all this will happen again.”  Ronald D. Moore co-showrunner and head writer of the Battlestar Galactica reboot used to always say that to questions about when and where the show was taking place.  What I gathered from his meaning is that the things happening in the world right now are things that have always happened and always will happen.  Humanity is defined by how it responds each time. I remember the 1990s craft beer boom, but I didn’t remember this: the number of breweries increased 550% from 1990-1999.  2005-2016 saw an increase of 346%.  I also remember the fall.  It was precipitated by people starting breweries because they saw dollar signs.  They made beer that was good enough as fast as they could and sold as much as they could.  We are seeing the same thing happen again.

Why is that?  Many people hold Wicked Weed up as the best brewery in North Carolina.  Wicked Weed makes good beer, the sour program is great, they’ve done a great job of marketing, and they’ve made a boatload of money in a short period.  They were one of the first to make good sours right when sours were taking off in the marketplace.  You can’t reproduce what they did, so don’t try.  Yet, many see all the money they make and figure it can’t be too hard. They’re wrong.

Wicked Weed has a fully developed field quality program.  I know for a fact, in their NC distribution contracts, the distributors must go through and check the bottles on the shelf, check the dates on the kegs, and make sure lines with Wicked Weed beers are being cleaned regularly.  The brewery also has its own field quality people doing checks around the state.  That is what Witte is trying to get all breweries to understand:  Ultimately, their beer is their responsibility.

In the past year, I’ve returned more kegs to distributors and breweries then I did in the previous two.  It is in part because my palate is better and I have more experience, but I have received more out of date kegs, in the last few months than I noticed before.  It’s not just distributors but also self-distributed breweries.

What the Brewers Association and Neil Witte are saying is, “We’ve seen this before.  Making bad beer and not taking care of your beer from purchase of the ingredients all the way through someone buying a pint is what will kill you.” It happened before and it will happen again.