Tag Archives: craft beer

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, 3/3/17

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demand more from ourselves as ambassadors and teachers

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

Demand better from new brewers

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

Remember who the enemy is

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