A few months back I was a guest on the NPR show On Point Radio, produced here in Boston. It was a fun hour of talking about craft beer, both from a flavor and business perspective. The show is about an hour in length and you can listen here.
Fresh back from the annual Craft Brewers Conference in Washington DC, I am struck by the looming tension and sense of anxiety presently bubbling to the surface in this industry. The conference played host to a number of interesting seminars and a few fairly repetitive ones. Mixed among the nearly 100 offerings were multiple courses on how to deal with trademark and intellectual property related issues, including litigation, and a panel on why attendee should not open a brewery (in reality, it seemed pretty pro-brewery opening if you ask me). One refrain that continued throughout the event was the anxiety over the continued and seemingly unmitigated growth of craft brewers, specifically in the number of breweries at offer. Forecasts of shelf space fights and tap tussles seem apt and the established brewers are starting to let their protectionist and curmudgeonly ways show. I heard a lot of “Get off my lawn” comments from craft brewers, both on panels and in bars, a lot of analogies to poorly rooted trees and less charitably to Third World buses. The common takeaway was the growing sense of unease at the caliber and intent of these aspiring and new brewers and what impact their entrance might have on craft beer generally.
Closer to home, the issue came to the forefront today in the post of Cambridge Brewing Company’s brewmaster, Will Meyers, who added an entry to the brewpub’s blog celebrating his 20 year anniversary at my hometown brewpub. Before I get into the story, I wanted to first say two things. I want to wish Will (and his wily boss Phil Bannatyne) a hearty congratulations at this impressive achievement. Cambridge has built an impressive name for itself and largely due to Will’s hard work and dedication, along again with the continued guidance and presence of Phil and the rest of the team. For my second point, I want to note that I consider myself friends with every person appearing in this story. While loyal readers may not believe this, I actually don’t really have a position on the issues involved here, which I suppose I may later discuss.
In any event, Will’s post on topics including contract brewing lays out his history and the pub’s achievements before, as is relevant here, laying out a position on some of the issues described above from the conference. The important thing to note here for purposes of context is that the Boston area has not seen the explosion of growth that you are likely witnessing in your hometowns. Rents are incredibly expensive and available industrial spaces nearly non-existent. Instead, Boston and its environs has seen a pretty substantial number of individuals and companies bringing beers to market that are made in breweries that they do not own. Historically, this practice was called contract brewing. In the early days of craft brewing, that became a bit of a pejorative, often cast in the direction of the Boston Beer Company. Today, the practice can be called resident brewing, alternating proprietorship, or somewhat offensively, ‘gypsy’ brewing. Whatever phrasing you choose, the practice is again becoming increasingly controversial, sometimes for reasons I can’t quite grasp. And it’s hard to say exactly who qualifies under which of these offered monikers.
In the modern craft era (say the last seven years), this practice appeared to start with the appearance of the eclectic Danish brewer Mikkeller, that, depending on the account you hear, would travel to breweries around Europe and beyond to produce beers on other people’s systems. Using excess capacity built into the global brewing system has a certain understated and elegant efficiency about it. If there is space available, why not use it to go in a very different direction than that of the host brewery? The practice gained some traction, resulting in similar approaches by Stillwater, Evil Twin (from Jeppe, brother of the individual behind Mikkeller), and others.
In New England, we have seen everyone from stalwart industry vets to individuals with absolutely no experience try their hand at the brewing game. Whether this involved participation in recipe formulation, brand and media direction, involvement in the brewing process, or actually directing the brewing and cellaring, each individual and company appears to fall into this hard to define categories of contract / gypsy / resident / altprop.
Getting to back to Will Meyers, his post touched on his personal feelings about this trend in New England, which is likely to grow with the addition of a massive new brewery operation in Connecticut and another planned operation by a local beer bar owner. I found his piece to be interesting for a number of reasons, none the least of which is his not-so-veiled shots at some people in the local industry. I am including Will’s piece here in full.
Following his piece, Jeff Leiter (note, as I said above, that he is also a friend of mine), of the local Somerville Brewing Company, Inc. aka “Slumbrew,” provided me with his response. As I noted, I haven’t really developed much of a position here, though I have historically focused more on the quality of beer than where its made and by whom (if my thoughts on Blue Moon weren’t proof enough). These pieces provide for interesting reads and it’s the kind of discussion that I would like to see more of in this sometimes too-chummy industry.
First, here is the relevant excerpt from Will Meyers, brewmaster of the Cambridge Brewing Company.
By making Craft Beer welcoming to all by design, we’ve made it a desirable industry in which people want to play a part. This includes the inevitable number of beer marketing companies, aka contract brewers (a few of whom call themselves “gypsy brewers”), who either feel that there’s money to be made in this fad or who genuinely love craft beer but don’t want to invest the capital in their own brick and mortar breweries. This lack of skin in the game shows me that they value short term gains over long term personal investment and hard work. And I truly believe that there is no such thing as a gypsy brewer. In fact I know of only one couple, our friends at Pretty Things, who “reside” at another brewery but who actively create every drop of their own beer, each and every brewday. There’s a big difference between having that level of commitment and integrity, and claiming to be a “gypsy” because you occasionally show up at a brewery on days your beer is being made for you. If you’re not there, every time, doing it entirely yourself and if there are other people physically making your beer for you (sometimes in your absence), you’re simply not a brewer in my book. It’s more than just cutting open some bags of grain or making a ceremonious addition of hops or cacao nibs or some other exotic ingredient and Tweeting about it. I’m sorry if that offends some folks, but this is something that our industry – producers, retailers, consumers, everybody – will need to struggle with as time goes on. The Brewers Association made a valiant effort over the past year with their Craft Vs. Crafty campaign, exposing to the general public the lengths to which the international macro-industrial brewers are going to obfuscate the origins behind “fake craft” beers like Shock Top, Blue Moon, etc. Unfortunately we are always reticent to take a look at the fingers pointing back upon ourselves, so we fail to give the consumer the opportunity to understand the differences among us – those who make beer, and those who just place orders for “their” beer, and the inevitable grey-ish line of separation.
Here is Jeff Leiter, Somerville Brewing Company, Inc. aka “Slumbrew, “Somerville, Massachusetts, and his “Response to contract brewing critics.”
Something about springtime makes brewers maybe a little more introspective than they should be. I remember 20 years ago I was thinking about leaving my Somerville apartment for a new adventure. Before I could leave, I got into graduate school at MIT which secured another two years and, well; it got hard to leave a place I called home. My wife Caitlin and I both have entrepreneurial upbringings, so it was a natural fit back then for us to set out on our own to build our first company that is, in its broadest sense described as “marketing”, nearly 14 years ago now. We learned a great deal about business, running a company, managing a staff of over 15 people at times and developing brands for other businesses. But perhaps the most rewarding part of those years was the ability to travel and observe something we were passionate about: the creation of small batch beer as an artisanal product in this country.
I just got back from attending the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, DC last week. Things look dramatically different today than they did when visiting breweries a decade or so ago. There has been a near exponential rise in the number of breweries opened in 2012 and now an unprecedented number of breweries-in-planning for 2013. The leadership of the national organization of craft brewers, the Brewers Association, is cautiously exuberant over the growth: Finally, their constituents are earning a recognizable share of overall beer sales in a market long dominated by macro brands! The tradeshow floor had more vendors selling raw ingredients, stainless steel, kegs and beer packaging than I can remember at any previous conference. All is good, except, for some, it’s set against a background voice saying this is all too good to be true, and the industry, as a whole, can’t sustain this kind of growth. Maybe, Maybe not – but this is certainly uncharted territory for the craft beer biz.
The business of making American craft beer, especially in the last 5 years or so, has often been veiled in a mystique of the brewer’s art. This is partly for the benefit of consumers as they take satisfaction in knowing the liquid they are drinking is a product of complex processes guided by a skillful hand(s). But in a few unfortunate cases, the veil is more refined by some individuals and developed mostly to protect the fragile ego of someone who has come to rely on the title of “brewer”. My role at Somerville Brewing Company is quite a bit more sober. It would be an envious job if my responsibilities provided for dedication to just the brewing aspects of the business. Indeed, as a small company, I have an enormous range of obligations from finance, managing wholesaler logistics, inventory, and ingredient procurement all the way down to arranging who might attend what bottle shop tasting. Thankfully, we have a great team and wonderful group of supporters we call Slumbassadors to rely on for much needed help. However, the best part of my job is still doing what I initially got into this for – to produce beers that I develop from concept, ingredient selection, test batches in my small pilot brewery to their final production at Mercury Brewing Company.
Certainly one side effect of the recent surge in new breweries is there is more product available. This is a boon for consumers who can now sample a different style or approach every day of every week and never have the same beer twice. With the exception of flavored water and candy, I can’t think of any other consumer products that offer that opportunity. The down side is that many brewers feel a pinch in market share they once dominated, or thought they could dominate. Whereas a few years ago, one brewer may have been the only game in town, they now find themselves among other bottles on a retail shelf. To those of us with a more mature perspective on business, we call this friendly competition. Some of the best advice I’ve received has been from people you might call “competitors”. When the entire segment of craft beer is only approaching 7% of the US beer market, it’s almost absurd to describe other folks in the industry as a threat. Sadly, other brewers internalize the presence of other brands in their local area or the arrival of new brands by people that did not chose the same career lifestyle 20 years ago as an attack on their “brewer” sovereignty. And so, instead of stepping up to lead in a time of exciting expansion, they resort to embarrassing public infighting and attacking members of their own industry.
Some of this is being played out with the recent, yet perennial debate over contract brewing. The latest thinking goes that contract brewers are less genuine versions of a true brewer and are merely engaged in covering up mediocre beer with marketing shtick. A simple beer marketing company has a lack of “skin in the game” over brick and mortar breweries, and don’t want to invest their own capital. As one of the leading grandstanders of this position recently said, “This lack of skin in the game shows me that they value short term gains over long term personal investment and hard work.” Although I will never question the integrity of those who choose to earn a paycheck over setting out on their own, the irony of this coming from someone who achieved their entire status in the brewing world as an employee is overwhelming. It’s also astounding to call other brewing businesses as disingenuous for their lack of capital resources from the safety of a weekly paycheck and staff payroll/equipment financed by someone else. Although, we at Somerville Brewing currently rely on what is technically defined as a contract brewing relationship, it’s downright laughable to think we have neglected to smack down any skin for the “game”. From the personal guarantees and cash outlays to achieve our float of over 1,000 kegs in the market, to the near 90 hour work weeks we spend building our business without a paycheck every Friday – it’s a story that resonates all too well for anyone starting a business in craft beer. The ultimate irony comes from the fact that one of the pioneers of the craft beer movement, Jim Koch, started his business in nearly the exact same fashion; as did our friends at Brooklyn Brewery and many other breweries both now and in the early years of craft beer.
Others have tried to stratify real brewers from less-real brewers as well; though consistently these attempts seem to originate from those who have been in the industry a while or actually own a brewery that might need to work harder to maintain market share. And, a recent (outrageous & pathetic) attempt to tie contract brewing with the crafty side of the Craft vs. Crafty commotion put out by the Brewers Association ended with the accusation that contract brewers just ‘place orders for beer’. No doubt, with an industry seeing the current levels of growth, some individuals see opportunity and, albeit misguided, paths to a quick buck in a hot business. Those that helped shape the industry over the past ten or even twenty years see the newcomers as just opportunistic. In some cases, this is a rightfully deserved perspective. At other times this is simply a deviant and undignified brand strategy to promote their own products over others; a strategy beneath even the marketing companies.
In the end, do the actual people that like our beer and buy our bottles or draught make their decision to support us by whether I checked the gravity on the 2nd day of fermentation at 10:30am? If I am personally not present to transfer our Flagraiser IPA from primary fermentation to a brite tank, will it taste less genuine? I am overseeing the production of our beer on nearly every brew day and key points in the production process to meet my quality standards, but like my other colleagues, I value the care and contribution of the talented staff at Mercury Brewing that work with their equipment to achieve my results. How is that different than virtually every other brewery, including the little local pub that employs a division of labor for the day-to-day production of beer? One old-timer recently put it as follows, “If you’re not there, every time, doing it entirely yourself and if there are other people physically making your beer for you (sometimes in your absence), you’re simplyff not a brewer in my book.” Not only is this statement outrageously myopic, but contradicts his own process. Whether I brewed our beer entirely with my own hands, worked as a tenant brewer to use someone else’s capital investments or worked with the brewers and cellarmen at Mercury to produce Slumbrew, my goal is to produce the same quality product. I depend on that so my customers continue to buy our product and support our brand.
It’s been no secret that we are actively working towards setting up our own small brewery in Somerville. With this endeavor, we will surely sign more promissory notes and personal guarantees that are so highly acclaimed as a badge of honor to some brewers. Our sights are set way above the pettiness of critics though, who in the absence of genuinely positive contribution to the growth of our industry, choose to base their product marketing strategy on consumer confusion, industry division and false definitions of “Craft Beer”. Instead, our goal is to continue our strategy of producing inventive and ingredient-driven beers our customers like to drink. And as for the brand strategy coming out of our little marketing company: we continue to be focused on making good liquids, spreading goodwill, embracing our charities and making people happy. Our new facility will only strengthen this mission by enabling us to produce even more inventive and esoteric beers while serving as a destination for our customers on a regular basis. This is what it’s all about for us.
The ominous day of 12/12/12 is upon us and it brings to the world of better beer a flurry of special events, including the final release in Stone Brewing Company’s Vertical Epic series. Stone’s ten year aging project will however likely find itself overshadowed by the highly anticipated release of Westvleteren XII, the widely touted and much sought after flagship of the Sint Sixtus Abbey. Located in the western Belgian hop region, near the town of Poperinge, Sint Sixtus was established in 1831 and thereafter began brewing beer to support the monastery. Today, Sint Sixtus produces three beers for public consumption, including Westvleteren 12, often referred to as the World’s Best Beer.
Except that it is not.
As any beer geek would, I sought out this holy grail beer to bask in its presence. I have had the beer in small beer cafes and from bottle shops in various Belgian towns, in the kitchens of friends here in the states, at beer festivals both here and abroad, and while seated at the monastery’s very pleasant outdoor cafe. After getting over the initial novelty, I was at first surprised and then disappointed with the beer. Saving for the wide differences in personal tastes, Westvleteren XII/12 is not a particularly drinkable or even enjoyable beer. I will long carry the memory of drinking the beer while surrounded by hop fields growing skywards in the abbey’s pastoral setting, but I remain surprised at the depth of my disappointment with the 12′s flavor. It’s not even near the top ten or fifteen quadrupels that I’ve had. Of that style, this is what I wrote in my book, Great American Craft Beer:
A curious style inspired and influenced by Belgium’s Trappist monk brewers, the Quadrupel is a potent, herbal, and bready style that boasts considerable alcoholic warmth and fruit complexity. American versions are often modeled on the classic Belgian versions, including the legendary Westvleteren 12. Dark amber to deep brown in hue, boozy alcohol notes swarm the nose, mixed with rich, phenolic yeast notes and dark fruit hints, including plums, cherries, and figs. Often aided by the addition of Belgian candi sugar, which ferments quickly, Quadrupels reach soaring alcohol heights of 8 to 12-percent. Despite these numbers, the style is surprisingly dry, as is common among other Belgian beer styles and a high carbonation level keeps everything in check. The texture is unusually light and medium-bodied, especially compared to the more cloying Winter Warmer and Barleywine styles, and the multiple fermentation cycles fight against flabbiness. Creamy and bready sweet at times, the nuanced phenolics and fruit flavors result in a particularly challenging slow sipper.
When even relatively young, Westvleteren XII is surprisingly sharp. It can be mildly phenolic and there is an underlying wash of malt sweetness that fights to come through. But it is all pummeled into submission by a lurking and quickly invidious yeast bite and bitterness that overwhelm the beer and destroy the finish. On my last visit to the monastery cafe, I ordered the Blond, the 8, and the 12. Of these beers, I personally believe the Blond is the unheralded star of the lineup, managing a beautiful balance of bitterness and malt character. The 8 is a pleasant sipper. And the 12′s for my companion and I sat half-consumed, abandoned castoffs.
The release of the Westvleteren XII today, at a cost to consumers of at least $85 per six pack, will certainly spark mad fervor among beer geeks, and that is understandable. There will be lines out the door of local liquor stores until the clock strikes the opening hour. Hype and novelty drive excitement and prices and that is understandable. And while you can quibble with how the beer is being allocated or sold, or decry how it will be hoarded and then likely resold, it remains a beer geek merit badge of a beer. For that reason, the exercise of experiencing a holy grail beer, it may be worth going in on a six pack with friends. But if you’re looking for an excellent quadrupel, a beer to really enjoy, you already have dozens of better and considerably less expensive options close to home.
With all of this said, I’d recommend you try or revisit Rochefort 10 or St. Bernardus Abt 12, which are much better values and remain eminently drinkable examples of the style. In terms of local options, several American breweries make solid versions of the style, including the Abbot 12 from Southampton Publick House, the Grand Cru from Green Flash Brewing Company, Baby Tree from Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, Quadfather from Iron Hill Brewery, FOUR from Allagash Brewing Company, and The Sixth Glass from Boulevard Brewing Company.
My advice: save your money, head to Belgium one day, and try the beers for yourself at a fraction of the price.
We often hear about the three tier system in the beer business, often castigated as a post-Prohibition relic or as a needless by consumers and some small brewers. But there is a new caste system developing in an increasingly stratified craft beer world. On the low end is the rise of the small brewery, including hundreds and even thousands of new entrants. Often working with extraordinarily diminutive batch sizes and producing only an infinitesimal amount of beer, these small brewers inject some excitement, energy, and even confusion into an otherwise maturing, stable, and staid marketplace. Capturing much of the media and blog attention, these small brewers and nanos have upset the tenuous balance, causing bottle prices to skew beyond existing price models and larger craft concerns to scoff at their gumption, pluck, and naiveté. Their novelty aside, these minor players are largely inconsequential in the wider industry picture where the true class division drama is playing out.
At the other end of the pyramid is the all too familiar story of massive global conglomerates battling for control of markets in hundreds of countries around the world. Largely stuck in an increasingly outmoded business model, one focused on fighting volume with volume instead of flavor or style, these large breweries look with a measure of detached concern over the growing characterful beer sphere of influence. While some corporations, such as MillerCoors with its Tenth & Blake division, appear to have change in mind, these companies remain focused on their core product line, often blindly promoting the fading light beer model.
Playing in the shallow end of the big kids’ pool are the top tier craft brewers, including Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and a growing class of long-standing crafts, including breweries such as Dogfish, Brooklyn, Harpoon, and two dozen others. These large regional or even national crafts often seem to have more in common, especially going into the future, with their large macro counterparts than they do with the tiny nano-breweries fledgling for inclusion in the craft beer club.
What we do not hear much about is a middle class, those mainly local brewers slogging it out in the trenches day after day, often with little to no distributor support. These midsized brewers are the bishops and knights of the craft beer chess game, not gathering as much attention as other breweries yet crucial to the industry’s performance. They are steady growers, not in the sense of showy, explosive, or flashy growth, just solid and dependable. You won’t see press releases touting multi-million dollar expansion projects or tweets about extravagant barrel aged offerings. Instead they make reliable, dependable beers for every day drinking.
These middle class brewers haven’t experienced the growth of their regional counterparts, for a host of reasons, and have often become distracted by the every day business of running a brewery to the loss of creative spirit. It’s in this reliability that consumers mistake predictability for unoriginality. For craft beer to continue its strong evolution, this oft-neglected tier of breweries requires additional support from consumers and a rededication of effort on their own parts. In need of a slight touch up and make-over, a new image, a reboot, these workhorse breweries can move to the next level with some new thinking. Focused on day to day operations, passion often seems to have unexpectedly seeped out of these mid-sized breweries. For those interested in doing more than surviving, updating old recipes, retooling stagnant product lines, or reconnecting with consumers in new ways. As strong and stable operations, they needn’t abandon the characteristics that served them well to date. But taking a cue from the dynamism of the nano trend will help rejuvenate craft beer passion across the industry.
-Article appeared in Issue 69 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.
I have written extensively about gluten-free beers from their first appearance. I always make a point of trying every gluten-free beer I can find, especially during the GABF. I have several friends who suffer from/have to deal with Celiac’s or are gluten intolerant in some form and they all say the same thing: “We miss beer.” And beer misses them. As a beer lover, I can imagine no culinary fate worse than having to give up the occasional IPA or pilsener. So I do what I can to promote these beers. I have had several dozen gluten-free beers and some of them are pleasant to taste, while some are hard to consume. But, let’s face it, a drinker would never confuse a gluten-free beer, such as those made with sorghum or buckwheat, with a beer made with barley. That is until the Omission line of beers from Widmer Brothers Brewing in Oregon.
The Omission Pale Ale is a bright, beautiful, and lively pale ale. It doesn’t taste like some odd, oft-neglected grain or smell of some baked good you might find in an abandoned head shop. Instead, it tastes like beer. Honest to goodness beer. And good beer at that. The Omission Lager is similarly a very nice, clean beer, one you would never know was gluten-free. I highly recommend both beers, which now have near nationwide distribution, to all of my friends who suffer from Celiac’s or gluten intolerance. All batches of the beers are tested by an independent lab to ensure that their gluten levels fall below the general industry standards of 20 ppm (parts per million), with the lab results posted online. While Omission acknowledges that the evidence is not conclusive regarding whether these or frankly any of the gluten-free beers will work for most or all sufferers, I have seen and heard from many consumers that they’ve not had adverse reactions to the beers.
So while attending the GABF awards and watching the Gluten-Free Beer category come up on the screen, I expected a near clean sweep by Omission. To my shock and utter confusion, Omission didn’t receive a single medal. I later learned from a return tweet that the company was not allowed to enter the competition in this category.
For its part, the folks at Omission acknowledge:
“According to federal guidelines, we aren’t legally allowed to claim that Omission beer is gluten-free outside of Oregon because the beer is brewed with malted barley. While the FDA proposed to define the term “gluten-free,” that definition has not been formally adopted by the organization. Part of the definition proposed in 2007, and again in 2011, states that a product may not be labeled as gluten-free if it contains “an ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain that has been processed to remove gluten, if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million (ppm) or more gluten in the food.
The Brewers Association defines the Gluten-Free Beer category in this way:
17. Gluten-Free Beer
A beer (lager, ale or other) that is made from fermentable sugars, grains and converted carbohydrates. Ingredients do not contain gluten, in other words zero gluten (No barley, wheat, spelt, oats, rye, etc.). May or may not contain malted grains that do not contain gluten. Brewers typically design and identify these beers along other style guidelines with regard to flavor, aroma and appearance profile. NOTE: These guidelines do not supersede any government regulations. Wine, mead, flavored malt beverages or beverages other than beer as defined by the TTB (U.S. Trade and Tax Bureau) are not considered “gluten-free beer” under these guidelines. To allow for accurate judging the brewer must identify the ingredients and fermentation type used to make the beer, and/or the classic beer style being elaborated upon (if there is one) with regard to flavor, aroma and appearance.
The craft beer industry is no stranger to infighting over definitions and labeling and this particular style seems marked to continue that trend. The world of defining and categorizing gluten-free products remains similarly murky and surprisingly political. With this said, the Omission beers routinely result in about 6 ppm of gluten, well below the industry standards, and excluding them from the world’s most celebrated beer competition that could promote drinkable beers for legions of Celiac and gluten intolerance sufferers seems short-sighted. The Brewers Association, its staff, and supporters are free to re-write these guidelines in any way they see fit and are not bound by yet-to-be-issued regulations from the TTB, FDA, or any other government agency.
The Gluten-Free Beer category needs to be reworked to ensure the inclusion of beers made with deglutenized barley whose gluten properties fall below industry established standards (say 20 ppm (parts per million)). While I acknowledge that admitting Omission to the category (which can be renamed to reflect the change) is a little like allowing Prince Fielder to sub in your five-year-old’s T-ball game, the issue is clearly important to millions of those who can’t process beers containing gluten. If the association can find room for Indigenous Beers, Specialty Beers, and Field Beers, it surely can find a place for the likes of Omission.
I acknowledge that this is a rapidly growing area and one that is open to some debate (one that exceeds the scope of this post). With that said, I hope the Brewers Association will address this situation next year.