A Few Thoughts On 2008, 2009, And The Future Of Beer In Boston..

I know that things here have been quiet over the last few months, with an average of 2 or 3 posts per month and usually just reprints at that. I’d like to say, with the burgeoning new year in mind, that the volume will likely increase here. I can’t. While I have certainly enjoyed covering topics that would otherwise elude popular press publication, for instance several rants on price increases (will be covered again in an upcoming issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine) and profiling great local beer makers, I have to admit that I still find “blogging” a little self-indulgent. Someone recently suggested to me that I consider opening a Twitter account so that readers could follow my beer travels. Beyond my firm belief that people could care less where someone else such as myself is at any given moment, I can’t quite get beyond the self-indulgence of it all. So until I figure out how to better monetize this whole operation, I have to remain firmly in the camps that the “only reason for being a professional writer is that you can’t help it” and that tapping away here doesn’t pay the bills.

With that said, I expect 2009 will be a good year for beer writing and I have one large and a few small projects in the works for the new year that I look forward to completing.

I was reading my father’s copy of the Wall Street Journal this past week and it had a selection of famous and not-so-famous individuals giving their respective takes on their plans for the upcoming new year. In one of the blurbs, high wire artist Philippe Petit said something to the effect that his hopes, dreams, and wishes weren’t based on numbers on a calendar but about the fancy filling his heart on a particular day or even moment. While admirable, the end of the year offers people a rhythmic opportunity to routinely reflect on and reconsider their stations in life.

For the purposes of this site, I’ll keep my focus local on Boston and New England. I hope for the following things in the new year:

    -The opening of a new Boston area brewery focusing on smaller batch specialty beers of any variety. Having considered the efforts and successes of operations such as Surly Brewing in Minneapolis, I’m certain that this area is just begging for an upstart little brewery to come in and shake up the local scene. Just as there is plenty of room in Minnesota for both Summit and Surly to do business, and that any inclination on Summit’s part to rest on its laurels was chopped away by Surly’s emergence, the Harpoon Brewery could use some local competition to spice up and round out the local scene.

    -A Belgian beer bar and gastropub to open in the Boston area. Having traveled to a dozen or more countries in the last five years, I’ve been amazed at just how far the Belgian beer phenomenon has grown. I’ve seen Belgian restaurants, complete with solid beer selections everywhere from Australia to Japan and placed in-between. And while Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and other major American cities have at least one solid offering, Boston does not (beyond the Publick House, which is not a Belgian gastropub in its essence). As food and imported beer friendly a city as Boston is, this is a glaring absence.

    -For Paul Davis (formerly of Troutbrook/Thomas Hooker and Castle Springs) to finally get his damned lager brewery open in New Hampshire near his old stomping grounds at Castle Springs. I mean c’mon man, I’ve had to import cases of quality pils and dunkel from Pennsylvania to bide my time. I’m just hoping he hasn’t changed his concept to British session ales…

    -For Redbones to rebalance the price of its portfolio of beers. While the staff exodus and purported growing pains that sent trembles of fear into longtime regulars has generally subsided and the selection has vastly improved over early this year, prices remain substantially out of whack. While consumers understand that some contributing factors certainly have led to increased prices, Bones’ prices have grown out of whack with other similar beer bars. We regulars would like to stop by twice a week not every other month and we definitely don’t want to have to check the menu before ordering, only to find out we selected a $6 or $7 pint.

    -For local beer bars and brewpubs to offer more specialty events for smaller audiences. I’m also impressed with single varietal events elsewhere in America, from fresh hop fests to IPA and stout events to the barrel aged fest in Chicago. While I enjoy moderating panels at the BeerAdvocate events, the conviviality experienced at the smaller events, such as NERAX, is something I’d like to see more of.

    -Speaking of NERAX…I’d like to see NERAX get a new home and a greater sense of organization and direction. While I respect the atmosphere the organizers have long tried to maintain, it’s been clear since about 2002 that NERAX has vastly outgrown the Dilboy. Add to that incredibly long lines and wildly late opening times and it’s a surprise consumers still come back (I tried on the first night and skipped the rest of the fest). The NERAX North event, from word of mouth, shows that the Dilboy is not some magical place where real ale comes to live out its glory days. I’m not saying you need to rent out the convention center but how about a place that can actually accommodate the 50-100 extra people who would like to visit each night?

Until these things happen (and I start posting with more regularity), I’d like to highlight two quality sites I spent some time with this year. Beernews.org is an attractive site that is replete with information every ticking beer geek, myself included sometimes, could ever pine for. In the opposite direction, Stan Hieronymus and his family, theslowtravelers.org, left the comforts of home behind to travel across the country and then the Atlantic to trek the world in their RV. Although I don’t believe that I’ve ever actually met Stan, I’ve enjoyed tagging along on his family’s follies from Anchorage to Croatia and back again.

A Happy New Year to you and cheers to good beer in 2009…

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Reflections on Beer in Chicago…

After ten days in Chicago, I have to admit that the first thought on my mind is that I hope I don’t come across another stout or porter before Spring. I don’t usually gravitate towards any one particular style of beer but my sub-conscious buying choices led me to have a fridge full of roasty, dark beers. Now this was no explosion of beer geekery. With the exception of the Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout from America’s Brewing Company in Aurora, all of my stouts were standard session fare, be they oatmeal, dry Irish, or coffee-infused. I believe I had at least three different stouts from Dark Horse in Michigan. And commensurate with its name, this brewery really came out of nowhere to be a real hit this trip. The tasty Scotty Karate scotch ale was available at several local bars and each of the offerings, including the Perkulator coffee doppelbock (which I expected to hate) was top-notch. I’m beginning to think that Michigan may be the world’s capital of quality stouts and I look forward to visiting the state this summer or fall.

The holiday beer drinking experience was an especially difficult transition for me as I’ve recently experienced an unparalleled period of beer brand monogamy. During my recent trip to Philadelphia, I became enchanted with a particularly sharp and attractive little number. With golden waves and floral hints, this one knocked me over right away. From the first sip, I was enamored with the Pikeland Pils from Sly Fox. Better yet, the beer comes in a handy suitcase of cans that is easily transported and stacked in the fridge. I almost shed a tear when I finished my last can before leaving for Chicago. Happily, on my return, I was reunited with my new found friend and she brought along a companion, a case of Dunkel Lager cans from Sly Fox. I look forward to sampling this potent one-two hop malt punch for the next month or two before I have to start bugging friends to smuggle cases back for me.

While back in Chicago, I was once again reacquainted with how great a drinking city it is. We spent part of Christmas Eve at the recently reopened Berghoff Restaurant and Goose Island’s recently saved Clybourn pub, as well as pints at Delilah’s, the Hop Leaf, Map Room, Piece, Sheffield’s, and a half-dozen other great places. With the addition of a new package brewery, a soon-to-be opened new brewpub, and the emergence of strong nearby contenders and several new beer bars, such as the Local Option, I may have to revise my most recent BeerAdvocate column (recently posted here) as Chicago is making a run for the title of America’s best beer drinking city. And while I was very pleased to find Bell’s back in the area, I still longed for some Two Hearted, which was nowhere to be found. I was also disappointed that Summit was completely absent from everywhere I went (from bar to pub and grocery store to package store) and surprised that Summit’s twin city sibling, Surly Brewing, was nearly everywhere. I was also disappointed that the city’s global warming nose thumbing weather caused me to cancel a meeting I had at Miller’s pilot brewery in Milwaukee. I hope to reschedule a visit during a return trip to Wisconsin this June.

While shopping in local package stores and perusing tap handles throughout the city, I was amazed at how national the beer industry has become. The selection at Binny’s, Sam’s, or the Hop Leaf in Chicago looks like the selection at Downtown Wine and Spirits in Somerville, MA or the Foodery in Philadelphia and area bars. While we have several more years before nationalization really becomes an issue, I’m curious to see how breweries achieve growth and sales increases when they run out of new markets to conquer. My financial advice for the several business industry analysts who have been trying to contact me lately: Bet the farm on breweries in the 10,000 to 50,000 barrel range that are in fewer than five to seven states.

I’m looking forward to heading back to Chicago this June for a further review of local places, including Lunar Brewing on the city’s west side and the new Metropolitan Brewing Company.

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The Great Beer City Debate…

In the United States, we’re obsessed with debating the respective merits of just about everything and then assigning it a blue ribbon or gold medal. We have pig beauty pageants, pumpkin chucking contests, and the Summer Redneck Games. In the brewing world, the drive to judge things extends far beyond the usual beer competitions and festivals.

In the last two years, cities around the country have promoted their local beer offerings by touting their ranks as America’s best beer town. In Philadelphia, local supporters of Philly Beer Week extol their virtues in “America’s Best Beer-Drinking City.” Denver offers the “the Napa Valley of Beer,” San Francisco represents “America’s Original Craft Beer-Drinking City,” and Portland, Oregon proclaims itself “Beervana.”

In the past year I’ve had the good fortune to travel around to most of America’s top-tier beer cities and after quite a few pints, tasters, and tours, I’ve come to one conclusion: there actually is no such thing as America’s best beer city. While this may be the inevitable end result of a hopelessly theoretical comparison of some highly competitive locales, the intellectual exercise of debating America’s best beer cities demonstrates the remarkable strength and diversity of our burgeoning regional beer cultures.

To the extent possible in our mental gymnastics, we should try and define the criteria underlying a great beer city. The core of a great beer city revolves around a handful of passionate breweries and brewpubs. Add to that a few superior beer bars focusing on diverse craft taps, fair prices, and offering events promoting better beers. Finally, throw in a few less tangible criterions, including how well craft beer and better beers integrates into the local scene and the number and quality of local beer festivals.

When beer drinkers toss around potential candidates, a few names always make the top-tier, including those mentioned above along with Seattle and San Diego. While these big cities pack some serious punch, size is hardly the denominating factor. America’s three largest cities, for instance, almost never get a mention. Between them, New York, L.A, and Chicago, all good drinking cities, offer fewer than ten breweries and brewpubs. By way of comparison, Portland (OR) has less than 4-percent of their population while offering three times as many brewpubs and breweries.

Size does matter and it’s another factor to consider when assessing smaller cities. Sure it’s easy to support a few good beer establishments when you have a couple million customers nearby. But it’s when you start taking a look at some of America’s smaller towns that you get a full appreciation of what constitutes a great beer city. While medium sized towns including Milwaukee, Austin, and Pittsburgh all have impressive offerings, let’s get even smaller. How about we nominate Portland, Maine, or Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan, or Fort Collins, Colorado, or Madison, Wisconsin? And where else but Burlington, Vermont (population 40,000), can you hit three brewpubs in a three block radius and still have two breweries to visit?

The creation and celebration of citywide beer appreciation festivals is a significant development in the history of American craft beer and they should be supported. But it doesn’t take the aid of local chambers of commerce or tourist bureaus for people to help develop, nurture, and promote their local beer scenes. Although a handful of quality craft beers may not be available at average, budget Chinese food restaurants in our area, as is the case in cities throughout Oregon, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue to support prefabricated pubs with run-of-the-mill beer offerings. Instead, it’s time to think before we drink and pledge our support for local places that appreciate the diversity of craft beer while respecting their customers with fair prices. Because looking inward and celebrating our local beer scenes is the only way to make every American city a great beer city.

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

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Co-opting Craft, Miller Style…

As we head into December, people in the beer industry start to wonder how their respective channels performed during the year. Overall, it appears that craft beer has weathered the economic downturn pretty well, albeit with an expected decrease in sales compared to recent year juggernauts. While increased sales and volume are two important ways of measuring the craft beer industry’s performance, they are not the only measuring sticks. How the craft beer industry’s competitors have responded to its performance is another way to judge how well it is doing.

Take for instance the recently unveiled website for MillerCoors, the joint venture between the American brewing divisions of SABMiller and Molson Coors. After getting through its buggy age verification system (took me four tries over a three week period to finally gain entrance), I perused the Our Beers section, which breaks down the company’s brands into four curious categories. The first category, Domestic, is pretty self-explanatory. The second, Import, is a little more unusual and a sign of how global the brewing industry has become and how involved these two powerhouse corporations have become. The final two categories caught my attention. Under the heading of Craft, the website promotes the Blue Moon, Henry Weinhard’s, and Leinenkugel’s line of beers. The final catchall category, titled Specialty, includes other brands such as Killian’s Irish Red, Fosters, and the recently departed Zima.

The website doesn’t detail the distinctions to be drawn between the final three categories and they remain a bit of a curiosity. I’m not at all clear of how the company defines ‘craft’ or ‘specialty’, why Killian’s qualifies as a specialty brand while Blue Moon is a craft, and why Fosters isn’t an import. I could make some educated guesses on these points (Killian’s was once an Irish brand purchased and long-produced by Coors in the United States, while Blue Moon was created by Coors and Foster’s is brewed in Canada and brought into the United States as opposed to being brewed outside of North America).

I’m also not sure how I feel about the brazen use of the word ‘craft’ to promote its products. While this attempt at co-opting the cool of craft is no new trick, the Big Two have given up on any pretense of trying to muscle in on the success of craft beer. This is a bit ironic considering the underwhelming public response to Budweiser American Ale and to the suspended Miller Lite Brewers Collection a line of “craft-style” beers.

With that said, these beers continue to do well at the Great American Beer Festival and excluding their numbers from consideration considerably undersells the growing popularity of craft beer, better beer, or however you want to define the consumptive phenomenon.

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