The SAVOR Wrap-up And Concerns About The Growing Snobbery Of Beer…

I traveled to the nation’s capital last week to attend the Brewers Association’s much anticipated food and beer event. SAVOR: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience, was held May 16 and 17 in Washington D.C at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Considered one of the best classical buildings in the U.S., the venue was a fitting one considering the event’s focus on elevating the public image of beer.

As a keystone for the association’s American Craft Beer Week, SAVOR served many purposes.
The event first gave craft brewers an opportunity to showcase their efforts to a Congressional audience on Capitol Hill. Many small brewers spent the better part of a week in D.C. lobbying Congress and making their presence known as part of the National Beer Wholesalers Legislative Conference. In turn, many congressional staffers and lobbyists attended Friday’s opening session of the event.

Beyond politics and legislative advocacy, SAVOR gave the association an opportunity to raise public and media awareness of craft beer by associating it with upscale food. The association wanted to spread the craft beer gospel to media on the East Coast and hoped the event would accomplish that goal. While it’s a little early to tell, media database searches show a bit of a paucity of coverage of the small event.

Initially planned to host nearly a thousand attendees per session, the Brewers Association’s staff wisely decided to cut back to 700 persons per session. Sold out by the day of the event, SAVOR offered its 2100 attendees the chance to taste 96 craft beers from 48 breweries from around the country. Each beer was specifically paired with a sweet or savory appetizer selected by the brewery and made by Federal City Caterers.

The event’s $85 price tag was a point of debate among beer geeks and the public, both before and after the event. Some felt that the price far exceeded what they were willing to pay, while others thought it might not be enough. From a financial point of view, the price tag clearly wasn’t enough as SAVOR lost a fair chunk of the Brewers Association’s change. It appears the price tag may not have even covered the per person food costs, not even considering the other sizable expenses involved in hosting the event, including venue costs and the time and expenses incurred by the association’s staff.

As for the event itself, the venue was quite attractive and the staff did a nice job of decorating the interior portions. Beer enthusiasts and well-heeled novices slowly roamed the auditorium, stopping at a center table which hosted the event’s main supporters (who paid $5,000 each for the privilege, on top of donating a significant portion of free beer and their time). Smaller breweries from around the country dotted crescent shaped tables lining the outside walls. While SAVOR offered many ubiquitous names, including Avery, Dogfish, and the Lost Abbey, the association also sought to offer geographic diversity from some smaller names, including Blackfoot River Brewing Company of Helena, Montana, Free State Brewing of Lawrence, Kansas, and Heiner Brau Microbrewery of Covington, Louisiana.

Attendees had an excellent opportunity to meet and talk with brewery staff and the attendance by owners and brewers was impressive. Beers were plentiful and well selected. The food pairings, which were offered either at an individual brewer’s table or from passing servers, included a number of interesting options. The Sprecher Brewing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offered its Pub Brown Ale to match pan-seared pilsener sirloin tips with shiitake blue-cheese sauce. Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, California, suggested its Summerfest Lager and lager steamed Thai turkey and shiitake dumplings. The Stone Brewing Company of Escondido, California, presented its Ruination IPA with either Peking duck purses or Christopher Elbow citrus spiced artisan chocolates. The event staff, especially the waitstaff, did an excellent job of keeping the venue clean and in taking used food items from attendees.

The much touted food pairings proved a bit of a challenge for the new event. The venue’s tight confines caused bottlenecks at the crescent shaped tables, trapping people near the tables as others tried to approach the table. Food offerings became increasingly scarce as the event progressed, with a number of items running out an hour and a half into the event on Friday night (many blamed the ravenous appetites of the aforementioned Hill staffers). Attendees also saw a lot of the sirloin tips and chocolates as the event went on.

The booths also suffered from a decided lack of signage. While signage can certainly appear tacky if done wrong, I found myself coming upon breweries I didn’t even realize were in attendance, even late into the event.

One clear failure for the event were the SAVOR Salons, forums for brewers, journalists, and other beer luminaries to speak to attendees in smaller, tutored tasting sessions. The association designed the salons to “deepen ones [sic] appreciation and understanding of beer and food pairings.? The events included Garrett Oliver pairing American artisan cheeses and craft beers, Jim Koch discussing how to get started with beer and food, and Hugh Sisson talking about the nuances of pairing beer with Chesapeake Bay seafood. Limited to 70 people by the venue’s space restrictions, the salons were poorly marked and proved too popular. Originally advertised as first come, first serve, the association quietly switched to a ticket system after the first session. As people approached the forum well before its start time, security had to bar their entrance to the room and explain that the salon was unavailable for attendance. The venue’s limitations, combined with the popularity of the offerings and the lack of communication, left many people disappointed by their inability to attend the advertised events.

The event, which took two years to plan and execute, left some Brewers Association staffers a bit exhausted. In speaking with the staff, it’s not at all clear that this event will be repeated next year. Considering the expense and questions about the ultimate utility of SAVOR, it would not be surprising if the event went on hiatus for at least a year. The association’s staff has also discussed the possibility of moving the event from the capital to New York City in the future.

After attending the event, I was also left slightly questioning the purpose of the event. While I understand the potential media and legislative benefits to raising the public image of beer, I’m not convinced that an expensive beer and food event (where attendees are encouraged to “dress to impress”) is really the way to go. A certain air of elitism pervaded the event, which attracted a bit of an odd assortment of attendees (from tuxedoed wine folks to guys in t-shirts and shorts).

In traveling around D.C., I also found beer exposed to and ensconced in a similar and unexpected sense of exclusiveness. The city’s beer venues, from Georgetown to downtown, offer a surprisingly limited range of beers at some pretty exorbitant prices, even compared to other pricey cities. The cheapest draft beer offering we found was $5 at RFD and that was by $1.50 the cheapest pint we found in D.C. We saw several drafts above $10, including one at $14 (Brasserie Beck). The pours were also surprisingly small; in one case, Brasserie Beck offered a number of pedestrian beers of average quality for expensive prices and with ridiculously short pours. Maybe I’ve become disconnected with the real world, but I think $7.50 for a 8-ounce pour of Bavik pils is outrageous.

I’ve written a number of times in the past about my concern that beer will become untethered from its egalitarian roots and will spiral off into the price and snob stratosphere and my D.C. trip only served to aggravate my worry.

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Does Beer Really Want To Become Like Wine?

In light of its booming sales and fawning media coverage, it’s hard for beer not to feel like the class clown who has suddenly become the most popular kid in school. With all of the attention, however, those who brew beer and some who drink it have been debating the future prospects of their preferred beverage. How big will beer get, whether the big guys should be worried, and how far new innovations will stretch the definition of beer are all questions being batted around over a few pints.

With beer ascending to new heights, some beer lovers have predictably raised the question of whether beer will ever equal its ultimate adversary, wine, in terms of public opinion. Beer philosophers have long decried beer’s respect gap when compared to its other fermented family member. Wine commands detailed menus in restaurants, special temperature controlled resting places in stores, and fancy, silver plated sipping spoons dangling around the necks of well-dressed sommeliers. While some are asking whether beer can become like wine, we might better ask, should it?

To achieve its goals, the wine industry was willing to walk away from the things that gave the grape drink a bad reputation and move towards the higher ground. American wine makers have come a long way from the days when Thunderbird, Mad Dog, and Cold Duck defined their public face. Following the visionary leadership of a small band of pioneers, including Robert Mondavi and Warren Winarski, the American wine industry methodically retooled its image from producers of sweet, fortified plonk to paragons of sophistication and refinement. Over time, even the largest winemakers, including Gallo, transitioned their focuses from jug wines to high-class varietals. All the while, winemakers walked in lock step to improve the public image of their products. Today, quality is the calling card for American viticulture and wine’s level of respect is unmatched.

While the wine industry once produced an abundance of cheap, boozy products, the public perception of wine never sank to the lows experienced by the American beer trade. To be sure, wine lacked a lot of the baggage that plagues beer’s standing in American society and culture. It did not have to contend with destructive, low-class advertising tactics from its biggest producers, the omnipresent myth of the ‘beer gut,’ or the onset of beer pong (or Beirut, depending upon which side you take in this modern day Lincoln-Douglas debate). Without having to fight the equivalent fronts of wine pong, the American wine community has instead sold itself on offering a premium imbibing experience.

While supporters continue to fight against beer’s more negative associations, we should be careful not to adopt the pretensions and problems which also plague the wine world. When contemplating the question of whether beer should emulate wine, first consider the words you would use to describe wine. The commonly invoked descriptions run the gamut from sophisticated, classy, and refined to snobby, elitist, and unapproachable. While certain segments of the American wine community cultivate the exclusive nature of their product, many winemakers fear alienating consumers. American brewers are only now beginning to understand what their wine brethren have been worried about.

While many crave for beer a certain measure of the respect enjoyed by wine, beer lovers certainly do not want our favored beverage to lose its inherent sense of fun and frivolity. So the question then becomes, how does beer assume wine’s better qualities without radically changing its own personality? We don’t want to see the beer drinking experience transformed into an exercise in pinky extensions, spoon sipping sommeliers, and spitting into buckets. Despite these points of agreement, we are starting to see beer become more like wine in some troubling ways. A small but growing and vocal segment of beer geeks openly judge others for their pedestrian choices and climb over one another in search of the next big thing. Higher prices for beer in stores and bars often do not reflect quality but instead are the result of gouging or scarcity driving hoarding.

Five years ago, a craft beer pioneer told me that “it’s hard to get elitist about beer. People don’t sniff beer.? The times have quickly changed, with the development of several dozen specialty beer bars where it sometimes can sound like flu season from all the quick inhaling. Even Anheuser-Busch has developed an advertising campaign and a multimedia, interactive website dedicated to understanding and appreciating the complex aromas and flavors found in its beers.

In helping to shape the American beer scene, our goals for the future need to be carefully calibrated so as not to lose our sense of identity in the process. While growing up may mean that we stop throwing dirty ping pong balls into pyramid-shaped rows of plastic cups, it doesn’t mean that beer has to lose its light-hearted sense of fun. The progression of the American beer industry from its Animal House days shouldn’t have to result in Frasier-like airs.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue III of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Craft Brewing Goes Global – Japan

When American brewers sneezed, craft fever slowly spread around the globe. While influential brewers in Germany, Belgium, Britain, and the Czech Republic created the grand brewing traditions that underlie so much of modern brewing, these brewers have been slow to break outside of the safety of their traditions. A quarter of a century after a group of American pioneers chucked their careers for the love of beer, a new band of dedicated world brewers is beginning to deliver the craft bug to their local communities.

Boxed in by their own ideological restraints, foreign brewers have largely missed the excitement and experimental advancements of the craft beer movement. Despite this reluctance to change, hard-core beer enthusiasts have heard occasional whispers about small Italian sour ale brewers and tiny Danish experimenters, with little proof of their existence. Now, in the flash of a moment, it suddenly appears that 2008 will be the year of the world craft brewer.

While the rush of Swedish imperial stouts and Norwegian barleywines is a positive sign, the recent buzz over beer hoarding and off-the-chart reviews obscures the tales of dedicated souls who tirelessly fight against the mass-market pilsner pressures in their home markets. Their attempts to break free from traditions and create a new kind of beer culture have led to real successes in some unlikely corners of the globe. Of these, there is perhaps no more intriguing story than the development of craft beer in Japan, where more than 200 breweries produce ji-biru, the Japanese phrase for ‘local’ or ‘craft beer.’ It is here that two pioneering individuals of very different backgrounds are working to build a beer culture nearly from scratch.

Tucked away just atop the Izu Peninsula, a vacation destination known for its hot springs and clear views of graceful giant Mt. Fuji, the small coastal town of Numazu plays host to Japan’s most improbable beer story. Ohio-born Bryan Baird fell in love with Japan and its culture, brewing, and his wife Sayuri, after whom his saison is named. Moving to Japan after finishing his graduate studies, Baird landed at a time when the Japanese government was legalizing micro-brewing. Itching to leave his stuffy, corporate job, Baird headed back to the U.S., completed brewing school and an apprenticeship, and then returned to Japan to start his eponymously named brewery.

Baird Brewing Company and his adjacent Fishmarket Taproom serve a mind-boggling array of almost thirty different styles. His influences run the international gamut and include ales and lagers, barrel aged beers, strong beers, and meticulously groomed session ales made with unusual local ingredients, including the citrusy and spicy mikan. Opinionated and passionate, Baird loves the historic craftsman component of Japanese culture. In a land where industrial brewers dominate nearly 99-percent of the brewing market, it’s remarkable to see how welcome this gaijin and his peculiar beers have become in the local market and in Tokyo.

In the popular summer district of Karuizawa near Nagano, the YoHo Brewing Company is one of Japan’s largest craft breweries, producing nearly 13,000 barrels per year. While the sessionable Yona Yona Pale Ale (‘every night’ in Japanese) is excellent and widely available on cask in Tokyo, the real story here is the collegial and complicated brewmaster, Toshi Ishii. It’s the subtle things that let you know that Ishii-san is very different from your average Japanese. The earring is a start but the more obvious sign would be his Arrogant Bastard sweatshirt. Known as Toshi to his friends, the brewer was one of Stone Brewing Company’s first employees, where he learned the trade from 1997 until his return to Japan in 2001.

Reserved at first, Toshi loves talking about craft beer, especially the strongly hopped West Coast IPA’s he helped craft in San Diego. A Renaissance brewer, Toshi is also Japan’s biggest proponent of real ale, which he first sampled at a Pizza Port Real Ale Festival in 1998. Shocked by its “weird? flavors and aromas, Toshi would later introduce real ale to the Japanese market and help teach dozens of local brewers about cask-conditioned beers. He also helps run the popular Tokyo Real Ale Festival. An avid traveler, Toshi often visits breweries around the world to learn new things and sample different beer styles. His YoHo Brewing Company makes a solid line of ales, including his well-received and hoppy barleywine.

As his four daughters run around the Taproom, Baird and his good friend Toshi talk beer and the future of craft beer in Japan. Despite its tiny market share, Baird believes that Japan has the potential to become one of the world’s largest markets for craft beer. Having spent so long in the American market, Toshi and his wife clearly would love to bring a little bit of San Diego to Japan.

While Baird jokes that he is more Japanese than Toshi, who in turn laughs that he may be more American than Baird, it’s clear that craft beer crosses many boundaries in bringing people together. In breaking down barriers of culture and tradition, beer ambassadors around the world continue to undertake difficult work in the name of better ales and lagers.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue II of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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What The Hell Does Craft Beer Mean Anyways? A New Definition Arises…

As I get ready to head to Washington DC for the first SAVOR festival, sponsored by the Brewers Association, I’ve been reflecting on the state of the industry and the meaning of American Craft Beer Week, which starts today. In the last several years, brewers, industry insiders, beer lovers, and others have debated the true meaning of the term ‘craft beer.’ The debate has at times been very contentious, and it continues to split the beer community into increasingly small, if quiet factions. To hear the history of how this term came to be, from the earliest usage by writer Vince Cottone to the politicalization by the Brewers Association, is to behold quiet a tale. And it also should serve to confuse and upset you a little bit.

I’m itching at this scab because my friends Todd and Jason Alstrom over at BeerAdvocate.com have released their own definition of craft beer. Their definition, which for disclosure sake I had a hand in debating, goes a long way, in my opinion, to rectifying many of the divisive problems needlessly created by the overly political definition propagated by the Brewers Association.
For the purpose of context, let’s review the Brewers Association’s definition of craft brewer.

An American craft brewer is small, independent, and traditional.

Small: Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels. Beer production is attributed to a brewer according to the rules of alternating proprietorships. Flavored malt beverages are not considered beer for purposes of this definition.

Independent: Less than 25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.

Traditional: A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of it’s volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

This is the definition that many of the Brewers Association insiders have touted for several years now. The first time I heard it was from Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company. When he told it to me in an interview in 2005, this is how Koch defined craft beer.

ANDY CROUCH What does the term ‘craft beer’ mean?

JIM KOCH There is actually a definition. It is small, independent and traditional. Small meaning it is under two million barrels, independent meaning not owned by a big brewery, and traditional meaning you only use traditional brewing processes. No non-traditional adjuncts, no high gravity brewing and so forth.

And here illustrates a problem with the definition of craft brewer as set by the Brewers Association: it’s inherently malleable. It’s subject to revision and indeed has been quietly changed since its introduction.

Fast forward to 2008 and here is how the growing Boston Beer Company now defines craft brewer.

Samuel Adams® is proud to be an American Craft Brewer. An American Craft Brewer is defined as being Small, Independent and Traditional. We follow the Brewers Associations definition of a Craft Brewer but include a Craft Brewer who grows beyond two million barrels and continues to brew Craft Beer. We hope to be the first Craft Brewer to reach this threshold. Here is what we mean by “Craft Brewer”:

Small – Annual production of beer less than 2 million barrels or annual production of beer exceeds 2 million barrels and the brewery was founded as a Craft Brewer and continues to satisfy the other Craft Brewer defining criteria.

Independent – Less than 25% of the Craft Brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a Craft Brewer.

Traditional – A brewer who has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewery’s brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.

I’ve written at length about the problems I have with the Brewers Association’s definition of and attempted co-option of the term ‘craft brewer’ and the criticisms remain to the present day. At the heart of my critique is that the term suggests that if you qualify under the definition, that you per se make good beer. That is simply not true. And the two million barrel mark, even with its genesis in federal tax law, is also troubling as several smaller brewers are quietly attempting to use it to push Boston Beer out of the craft clubhouse. At least for me, I think it’s an uphill argument to convince beer enthusiasts that Boston Beer should not qualify as a craft brewer. That attitude simply smacks of competitive jealousy or a decidedly myopic view of the history of the development of better beer in the last twenty-five years and Boston Beer’s clear role in that achievement.

It is in this context, and in those described by myself and many others in dozens of articles on the subject, that I welcome BeerAdvocate’s new definition, not only of craft brewer, but more importantly of craft beer. Under their definition, smaller breweries can maintain their determined efforts to define themselves as being something other than that which is represented by the big three (and their subsidiary breweries) while also not decrying the considerable brewing efforts and talents of the bigger breweries. Let’s take a look at the simple definitions offered by BeerAdvocate.

Craft Beer

Beer brewed in limited quantities, often using traditional methods.

Craft Brewer

One whose primary focus is brewing craft beer, as defined.

In contrast to the unduly restrictive (and largely political) definitions offered by the Brewers Association, the BeerAdvocate definitions are left intentionally vague in several respects. The Brewers Association originally created its definitions to help refine the numbers in its annual production reports. Later, the definition came to shape that particular organization’s vision and advocacy efforts on behalf of its selected members. This simple definition alleviates a lot of the political purposes served by the prior definitions and allows ‘craft beer’ to grow unencumbered by unnecessary and needless constraints. While the Brewers Association may believe it makes sense to exclude the gains of brands such as MolsonCoors’ Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat from its numbers, the exclusion undersells the full extent of the rise of more flavorful beer in America. And it also undersells and debases the efforts of some pioneering breweries, including Redhook, Widmer, Goose Island, and Old Dominion. I still maintain that in a blind tasting that hardcore beer enthusiasts would be hard pressed to pick out the big brewer’s brands from those produced by members of the craft brewer’s club.

I welcome and accept BeerAdvocate’s new definitions and I look forward to discussing them with my fellow beer lovers this week in DC as we celebrate the success of true ‘craft beer’ in America.

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