Tag Archives: craft beer

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.

Cicerone Exam Advice From The Beer Counselor

On May 22, I took the Cicerone Certification exam.  I did not pass.  I did well enough on the written portion, but not well enough on the tasting portion.

That is OK, I kind of expected it from the beginning and when we went over the tasting portion that day, I knew I would need to take it again.  I will take the whole test again in November.  I want to not only pass but leave no doubt that I passed.

Even though I failed the first time, I did learn some things that will help me study for my next attempt in November.  These are things that I believe will help me and may help you if you are thinking about taking the exam.

Know The Styles

As you would expect, beer styles are the core of 95 percent of the exam.  Besides questions that specifically ask about a style, the pairing and tasting portions of the test lean heavily on you knowing and understanding the styles and their attributes.

The best way to learn the styles for me was to make flash cards and just review them 2 or 3 times a day.  My goal was to know them and not just memorize them. Make sure your cards have the pertinent information like country of origin, ale/lager, appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel, ABV, SRM, and IBU.  Also, list 2 commercial examples of the style and memorize those.  Trust me you will need those.  There are multiple questions that ask you for a specific commercial example of a style.

Make these flash cards as soon as you decide to take the test and just run through them every day.  You can buy flash cards with this information, but the act of writing them out yourself will help you remember the facts better.

Read The Suggested Books

The Cicerone website lists almost all the books and other materials that will help you prepare for the test.  Like the flash cards, as soon as you decide to take the test, buy them and start reading and studying them.  Again, it isn’t just about rote memorization.  It is about ingesting the information so that it becomes second nature.

Yes, part of the test is just regurgitating what you remember, but once you get to the essays, you will need to be able to construct a convincing narrative with the facts you know.  That is why it is imperative you understand the food pairing ideas in Tasting Beer more than just memorizing what Randy Mosher wrote.

Take Practice Exams

Find practice exams and take them under conditions as close to exam day conditions as possible.  The practice exams do 2 things.  First, it will reinforce the things you are learning.  Second, taking them under exam conditions helps ease exam anxiety the day of the exam. Third, it will help you see how the questions are framed and shows you the depth of information you need to know.

Work On The Practical Video

From everyone who I’ve spoken to who has taken the test, the practical video portion is always the same: Explain how to take apart and clean a tap faucet.  With that in mind, you should write down and then study each step of cleaning a faucet.  Yes, more flash cards. Then you should use your cell phone to record yourself explaining each step and each part as you will have to do on the day of the exam.  Go back and watch it and make sure you didn’t miss any steps.  Do this a few times.  If you played sports you understand.  Practice is about rehearsing the actions you will perform in a game until you do them without thinking.  Acting purely on muscle memory.  Work on the video with the same idea in mind.

If you don’t work at a bar, find a draft tech and take him out for a beer.  Get him to let you borrow a tap faucet and walk you through taking it apart and putting it back together.  Also, please download and read the draft manual put out by the Brewers Association.

Tasting Exam Run Throughs

Find other poor souls studying for the exam and everyone pitch in to buy an off-flavor kit.  Then, buy Amstel Light and maybe Sam Adams Light.  Then run through a tasting exam under conditions like you will have during the day of the test.  This is the one part of the test I did not like because the tasting portion is not like you will experience tasting for off-flavors in the real world.

Here is how the tasting exam works.  On the day of the exam you will arrive at the site, check in, get handed your test and you will begin the 3-hour written portion.  That also includes the practical video, but for the most part, it is 3 hours of writing.  Usually, an hour in the proctor will begin the process of spiking the beer for the tasting exam.  The spiked beer then sits for at least an hour and a half out on a table or counter.

Then, once the tasting exam starts, the beers are sampled out into cups. One group of 4 is for the off-flavor identification portion.  One group of 4 is for the style identification portion.  The final group of 4 beers is for the serve/no serve portion.  The serve/no serve portion questions count for half the tasting portion. This was the hill I died on that day.  My suggestion is to do the serve/no serve and the style identification portions first.

Why?  Your palate is fresh.  Hit the style section and get it out of the way.  Then, do the serve/no serve because you must ID the style and the off-flavor, and then tell whether the beer is servable to a customer.  You have all 13 cups (one control for the off-flavor) in front of you and you can do it in any order you want.  At least, that is what I’m going to do this next time.

Pick 2 Styles and Know Food Pairings For Them

You will have a food pairing question where they will give you a dish and then ask you to pick a style and explain why you picked it and why you believe it will work.  Knowing that pick 2 styles and think of as many food pairing ideas as you can with them.  As practice, write out why you think they will work.  My 2 styles are saison and amber ale.  You want to know your styles’ characteristics so you can pair them with whatever dish they throw at you.  There is no “right or wrong” answer.  However, you must be able to make a logical and coherent case for the style you picked.  This is also where knowing a few commercial examples and their attributes will come in handy.  Picking a particular beer and explaining why its characteristics make it the best choice for that style will get you points.

Do Blind Tastings As Often As Possible

Find a bar that does flights with a wide selection of beer and become friends with a couple of the bartenders.  Go in once a week and have the bartender give you a blind flight and then go through a real tasting and figure out what you are drinking.

Also, at least once a week buy beer you’ve never had before and taste them.  Really taste them.  Download the tasting sheet from craftbeer.com and go through that with each new beer.  Start with appearance, then aroma, then taste, then mouthfeel, then the finish.  Here is a handy and more in-depth guide on how to taste a beer.

Finally

The most important thing is to give yourself enough time to really know and understand the information.  There is too much to learn to cram into a few weeks.  There are little details you will miss that seem like nothing but become extremely important particularly in the long answer and essay portions.

Anyway, I’m going to flip through my flash cards and start the next portion of this journey.

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.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/25/17

In my perusal of news stories this morning looking for my One Article, I ran across two things that changed my focus.

One was from Bomani Jones in a series of Tweets about how the news publishing world has changed from the base being the publication to the article to the kernels of information. Here is the end of the Tweet that caught my attention, “…and i think we could objectively say plenty of valuable stuff loses to bullsh_t.” As craft beer fans or just as beer fans in general, we know this is true and we will say that play out as the next couple of years.

The second thing, the one article for the day, is this from one of my favorite websites, brainpickings.com.

In this space, I have often made the point that brewing is a creative endeavor.  Besides the beer, one thing that I love about craft beer is how that creativity bumps up against the business of craft beer.  This summary of physicist David Bohm’s essay On Creativity, captured my attention today as I tried to stay away from legislatures and the alcohol wholesaler lobby.

My favorite part of his summary is Bohm’s description of how a child learns to walk.  I requote it here, “trying something out and seeing what happens, then modifying what he does (or thinks) in accordance with what has actually happened.”

In a perfect world, that is how brewers would approach each new beer they create.  I love the creativity of craft beer while grudgingly accepting the business of craft beer. Again, the fun thing is how the inclination to create runs into the need to move product.

As a brewer, you have to understand your customers also want familiarity because it grounds them and orients them.  If you create a beer and your customers love it to the point that you barely can keep up with demand, as a business you must keep making it. It almost doesn’t matter if you like the beer or even if you viewed as a step towards the creative “oneness” Bohm wrote about.  You keep making it to keep paying rent.

I’ve noticed when people come into the bar and taste beers before they pick one, it seems to me they are looking for the right answer when they aren’t even taking a test.  Bohm was right that as we grow older we become afraid to make mistakes and lose that sense and pure joy in discovery that toddlers have.

The bigger the brewery the greater the fear and consequences of making mistakes.  That is one area the smaller breweries have an advantage over the bigger brewers.  Smaller brewers can afford to be constantly creative and feed the craft beer’s public insatiable search for the next big new thing. If something doesn’t work, they change course quickly.  However, just as important is knowing what you are and making those creative choices within a consistent framework and plan.

That is why the brewers I like and respect most are ones who combine that creativity with a good business plan and have a strong sense of who they are, what they are, and where they want to go.

Beer Counselor Fun Fact, 4/24/17

The article in today’s One Article got me thinking about something.

Here is a fun little fact that many don’t know about how grocery stores work, at least here in NC.  Let me back up.  Retail store shelf space is laid out in these things called planograms.  They are just as they sound: the plan of how each store is laid out.  It is not just what departments are where in each store, but what products and specific brands are placed where on each shelf.  Most large retail companies either have internal groups that handle it or they farm it out to companies that specialize in planograms.

That brings us back to grocery stores and their beer/wine set ups.  These planograms, at least the beer planograms are done by one of the two big beer companies you are thinking about as soon as I said big beer companies.  There is input from the grocery store chain and some chains are starting to put all planograms in house, however still with input from the big beer companies.  By and large however the big beer companies decide how much shelf space everybody gets.  Now, the shelf space is mostly divided up by distributor with the distributors of ABI and MillerCoors brands getting the bulk.  Then it is further divided among their “craft” brands and then finally any craft brands and self-distributed beers.

Now, whereas your frozen pizza shelf placements are mandated by corporate headquarters and stocked by the store, beer and wine are stocked by the distributor.  So, while the main beer sets are set by the planogram and stocked by a distributor, the smaller craft brands are picked at the store level and stocked by whoever distributes that beer.  The grocery store staff doesn’t touch beer or wine.  That puts smaller brewers at a disadvantage.  All the store manager wants to see is full shelf space, they don’t care what is in that shelf location as long as it isn’t empty.  The big distributors that handle the big brewers have sales reps who all they do is work the off-premise accounts like grocery stores ordering and policing their shelf space.  A small brewery self-distributing doesn’t usually have enough people to do that even just for local grocery stores.

That is why all these new breweries are competing with each other for shelf space in places where most beer is sold more than they are competing with the big beer companies.

When institutional racism is mentioned, people believe it means institutions are actively discriminating against people of color, women, or gays/lesbians.  It usually means the institution was set up in a way to often unintentionally benefit the majority group.

Because alcohol laws differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction even within a county, it was easier for grocery store chains to let the big beer companies and distributors create their beer sets.  When there were fewer than 200 breweries that made sense.  AB gets this Miller gets this and then whatever weird German stuff that makes it over can go here and will put malt liquor and 40s over here for black folks.

Many of the beer and alcohol laws that govern us to this day were written at the same time those decisions were made.  Now, the world done changed and those who benefit the most from the way the things were always done and the way laws are written will not give up those advantages without a fight.  Even if that fight is probably doomed.

 

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/27/17

I’m a romantic.  The only way to become truly cynical is to willingly throw your heart out there and to have it stomped on enough times that thick scar tissue forms around it and you so you don’t feel anymore.  Was that TMI?

Anyway, I’m a romantic, but I love stories that take a slightly bent view of romance.  My favorite romantic comedy of all time is Roman Holiday, the one where the guy doesn’t get the girl in the end.  If the news is slow one day I’ll give you my top 5 romantic comedies.

Yet, I continue to digress.  Stories that take a slightly bent view of romance are my favorite.  I like this story about mobile beer canaries precisely because in its unromanticized snapshot of brewery work, it sums up the romance of it exactly.  All the photos of inside the brewery are of guys in dirty rubber boots and overalls who look like they have been there for 12 hours because they have.  For the most part, they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

This story also sheds light on the economics of brewery work.  There are more breweries than ever which is great for the consumer, but hard for the brewer.  That is where mobile canning helps small brewers who can’t afford their own canning line.  Mobile canning operations allow them to get their beer canned and ready to sell without the overhead of keeping and running a small canning line somewhere in their facility allowing them to at least attempt to get shelf space in stores, and with so many new brewers out there that shelf space is getting harder and harder to get.

When I really began to understand that craft beer wasn’t just some little thing among a small diehard group of people, but a real industry is when I started noticing all the ancillary businesses popping up around craft beer.  Things like mobile canaries are what makes this more than just some mom and pop operation, but a real industry that politicians are going to have to take more seriously as an economic driver.  Many at the local level do, but that number is much smaller at the state and federal levels.

Craft beer isn’t just some little engine that could anymore.  It is developing into a true economically important business engine for parts of this country.  That isn’t a bad thing.  It also doesn’t mean craft beer is out of the woods as far as its survival.  However, as this story also points out the threat to that survival isn’t just big beer.  It is also its own growth.  Not every brewer that has started in the last 5 years will survive the next 5 years.  Some of those will be good breweries caught in a bad geographic area or who came too late or too early to the party.  However, the majority will be breweries that make mediocre beer, don’t have a brewing plan, or don’t have a business plan.  Or they do have those, but they are unrealistic and poorly executed.

What We Learned This Week 4/21/17

What did we learn this week?

This week we learned that the NC Legislature is a dysfunctional mess.  We already knew that after HB2 where they managed to solve a problem that didn’t exist thereby creating a bigger mess, but the debacle of HB500 is a red underline to go with the yellow highlighter that is HB2.  It isn’t that the legislature didn’t pass HB500 and increase the self-distribution limit for NC breweries and loosen up distribution rights contracts.  It is that the bill was not allowed to come up for a vote. It is that there was no attempt at negotiation on the part of those opposed to the bill.  That is not how you govern.  I used to love politics when you had two opposing parties who had the best of intentions for its constituents. Somewhere in the Clinton administration, both parties stopped caring about the people that voted for them and more about accumulating wins and power and imposing your beliefs on everyone whether they believe the same thing or not.  Anyway, this will end up in state court. Regardless of what the actual effects of the law changes would be, I support raising the cap and I support loosening the distribution contracts.

We also learned that Boston Beer is quickly moving on from being a craft brewer as well as being primarily a beer company.  This isn’t so bad except that Sam Koch and the rest of Boston Beer haven’t quite figured out that the general craft beer drinking public already think they aren’t craft brewers.  The leadership at Boston Beer is the guy who can’t let go of how great they were in high school or college and don’t understand how everyone else has moved on and doesn’t care about 20 years ago.  I think it is a sign of health and maturity of the craft beer industry that companies like Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, Bells, etc. are moving on to the next phase of their existence.  The companies that don’t fight that growth, but embrace it and figure out how to use that maturity as an asset are the ones who will continue to grow in the future.

We learned that the Brewers Association does listen to its constituents or at least they are trying to keep themselves from looking like misogynists or worse.  The BA will no longer allow GABF or World Beer Cup winners with “offensive” names to use the medals as advertising nor will they announce the names at the ceremonies.  This is about as much as a voluntary membership organization can do to its members without pissing them off enough to leave.  This is more of a symbolic gesture to announce to brewers that they need to think twice about naming a beer that might offend a segment of the population.  This is an important point to remember as craft beer continues to saturate the 25-35-year-old white male market.  The BA knows the way you continue the growth of craft beer in the future is to attract non-white males to craft beer.  That starts with not offending them before they even walk in the door with the names of your beers.

Hopefully, we will learn more next week.