The Brewers Association’s Quiet War On Blue Moon, Leinenkugels, Goose Island, and Maybe Even Elysian, New Belgium, and Your Brewery…

Six months ago I spent a few weeks traveling around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. I’ve written a few pieces on the trip, including one long-form interview with Dick Cantwell, co-founder of the Elysian Brewing Company of Seattle, Washington. Cantwell is an interesting guy and also serves as one of the board members for the Brewers Association. So during the interview I asked him a little about the association and its politics. In one specific part of the interview, I asked him about how he thought the Brewers Association would react when the Boston Beer Company’s production exceeded its defined ceiling of two million barrels. In response, Cantwell said:

It’s inevitable that they will go above two million barrels and this was my point in saying we should dismantle it. The definition of our success ensures our failure. All of a sudden our market share would drop. And yes, Blue Moon, or what we are now calling it, Blue Moon by Coors, their success and the decency of their beers—I mean twenty years ago wouldn’t all of us have considered that a good thing, that one of the big brewers is actually making a beer we can drink, it is a victory in terms of sensibility but it’s scary in terms of the inroads it makes on our more purely defined arena but I still think it’s a victory.

The idea that the association was suggesting that its members use a certain terminology when referring to a competitor, namely ‘Blue Moon by Coors’, intrigued me so I inquired further. And that’s when Cantwell let slip some of the association’s plans for the future.

We’re going to do a whole campaign of ‘who makes your beer?’ So that it is right out there. It will be right out there that this percentage of our beer is made at New Belgium and I’m ok with that. But it’s also going to be, ‘how much of your company is owned by Anheuser-Busch’ and ‘who makes this’ and what the Plank Road Brewery really means. We want consumers to go to the website or generally have it forged into their consciences so that they pay attention and give a damn where it comes from and who does it.

I found the concept sufficiently interesting that I inquired of Julia Herz, the Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association. Herz denied that the Brewers Association had such a plan. After a little more digging, I determined that the association had indeed registered a website, whobrewsyourbeer.com. A follow-up with Herz confirmed that the Brewers Association didn’t have a campaign planned on the issue, at least for 2008 or 2009, but that the association had indeed registered the website. “I personally feel it is increasingly more important for beer drinkers to ask what brewing company makes the beer they might enjoy, because that information is not always readily available on the label,” Herz said.

So I let the issue lie until today, when a new press release rolled in from the Brewers Association, a Declaration of Beer Independence. The proposal reads:

I declare that these are historic times for beer with today’s beer lover having inalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of hops and malt fermented from the finest of U.S. small and independent craft brewers with more than 1,400 of them brewing today, and

I declare the beer I choose to enjoy is not a commodity, but more importantly an artistic creation of living liquid history made from passionate innovators. The beer I drink furthers our culture and teaches us geography and helps to nurture a sense of community, and helps to make the world a better place, and

I declare to practice the concept of ‘Informed Consumption’ which has me deserving to know if my beer comes from a small and independent brewer or if it is owned by a mass production brewing company. I want to know why so many of my local beer brands are not available in many of my favorite restaurants, bars and beer stores, and I encourage beer sellers to offer a wide selection of beer styles and beer brands that includes beer from my local and regional breweries, and

I declare American craft brewers provide flavorful and diverse American-made beers in more than 100 distinct styles that have made the United States the envy of every beer drinking nation for the quality and variety of beers brewed in America to such an extent that beer made by American craft brewers helps to reduce dependence on imported products and therefore contributes to balanced trade, and

I declare to champion the message of responsible enjoyment of craft beer, the beverage of moderation, as the makers of these beers produce libations of substance and soul that are sincere and authentic, and the enjoyment of them is about savoring the gastronomic qualities including flavor, aroma, body and mouthfeel while practicing responsible appreciation.

I therefore declare to support America’s small and independent craft brewers during American Craft Beer Week May 11-17, 2009 and beyond…

While most of this language is PR for craft brewers, it was this line that again caught my eye: “I declare to practice the concept of ‘Informed Consumption’ which has me deserving to know if my beer comes from a small and independent brewer or if it is owned by a mass production brewing company.”

The association’s continuing definitional war has a lot of people in the industry scratching their heads. We’ve discussed here and elsewhere quite a few times the history of the association’s process of defining ‘craft beer’ or ‘craft brewer.’ The ‘who brews you beer’ idea is just the latest salvo. And it’s one that even Dick Cantwell worried about, considering he had just announced plans to contract brew several of his brands at the New Belgium Brewing Company’s facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. When I asked him about the whole definition controversy, which saw voting members actually abstain due to the friction involved, Cantwell noted:

I wasn’t on the committee that came up with it but that is such a tough thing. At times, I’ve argued about every possible point of view and have been on both sides of this issue. The most recent thing I think I’ve said is that we should just give up and not have a definition and trust the consumer to make the right choice. But that was admittedly a rarified position being as small as we are. I got reaction from other people on the board saying, “You know, you’re wrong.? I guess at this point that we’re just trying not to make too much of it. I do, however, see some positive effects even though there is disagreement and there is disagreement, even among members of the board. There are absolutists who think that if you even have any ownership by someone else that you couldn’t be considered independent. And I don’t even know if we would qualify because we have like six percent foreign ownership, depending upon where you draw the line. I mean it’s like, “How much of a vegetarian are you??

It’ll be interesting to see when the Brewers Association decides to unleash this new campaign or at least press the issue further, as it raises issues that may leave many craft brewers on the outside looking in.

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Rethinking The Blog Love Fest Over Beer Wars The Movie…

Unless you’ve had your head in your glass for the last few weeks, it’s pretty hard to have missed the onslaught of blog posts and Twitter tweets/tweeks/whatever about the upcoming release of Beer Wars. The first documentary film by producer/writer/director Anat Baron seeks to go “behind the scenes of the daily battles and all out wars that dominate one of America’s favorite industries.?

bw2.jpgLike many others, I first heard of the Beer Wars project at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, in 2005. The producers shot some scenes at the festival and there was a little buzz about it. The project then fell off the radar and I occasionally ran a search to find out what had happened, with no results. Fast forward to last month and Beer Wars was suddenly back with some strength. In a post on her blog, Baron explained the delay as her having missed “the window when documentary films were big news and were getting rich distribution deals…But now that I’ve given up on that fantasy, the reality is actually more exciting. I get to make the decisions and sheppard (sp) my film without having ‘suits’ make decisions for me.?

While I’m interested in seeing and reviewing the film, the recent blog coverage has piqued my interest the most. In recent weeks, we’ve seen some very fawning endorsements of the film, not only from people who appear in the film, but from beer industry insiders and novice and professional beer writers as well. One particularly breathless account by my usually level-headed colleague Jay Brooks sums up the sycophantic blog mood of recent weeks.

Beer Wars is nothing new. The war itself has been quietly raging for years and years. But only insiders have been aware of it and even fewer still have been willing to admit it and talk about it publicly. This film should blow the lid off of that and make honest debate at least possible. That would be a great first step in bringing more people over to the craft beer side. Just like Star Wars, the craft beer movement is the rebellion and we’re fighting the empire for galactic beer domination. Once enough people realize we’ve got Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and the Ewoks on our side, how could anyone possibly continue to support the dark side? Still not convinced. Watch the trailer. Let the fermentation be with you.

The frenzied fan fare has me wondering about the ways craft beer enthusiasts interact with and respond to mainstream and alternative media coverage of their favorite hobby. Similar to the recent New Yorker piece on Dogfish Head and extreme brewing, craft beer lovers crave attention for the subject of their passion. And that is certainly understandable, especially after many years of not being taken seriously by the media (although it’s debatable whether that attitude has really changed). But there is something about the Beer Wars project itself, and the groundswell of excitement surrounding it, that I can’t quite put my finger on.

In truth, we know little about the project. On her website, Baron provides some details that help to smooth the outer edges.

Everywhere we went, we heard grumbling about the decline in mainstream beer sales. It seemed that innovation was now coming from the small players instead of the giants. The highlight was an interview with Rhonda Kallman who had left Sam Adams to launch her own company. Her tenacity and energy were inspiring.

So the story began to take shape. The independent brewers vs. the big corporate players. The timing was right. An increasing number of Americans were interested in making their own choices and not kowtowing to the corporate marketing machine. Whether in coffee, cheese, chocolate, locally grown produce, people were willing to experiment and explore, even if it meant paying a little more. Craft beer was a natural extension of this trend.

At the outset, one critical note that keeps ringing in my head is that the independent brewer versus big corporate player dynamic would have been spot on five to seven years ago. The Slow Food-style comparisons are even more dated. But today, both paradigms ring pretty false. There remain, of course, challenges between these two tiers of beer industry competitors. But, compared to even just five years ago, the main sources of friction between them have greatly receded and craft brewers have new sources of concern (managing growth, providing consistent and fresh products, balancing innovation versus customer expectations, balancing debt service against expansion needs). It’s an anachronistic exercise to continue to view the beer industry through the prism of us versus them, small versus big. Case in point: ask any craft brewer you know about their access to market concerns five years ago compared to today. It’s the difference between having trouble getting a space on a big brewer’s truck versus finding enough time to return all of the new distributor inquiries from around the country. Access to market is no longer the looming problem. Deciding which markets to turn down and how to keep fresh product on the shelves are the problems today. This is undoubtedly a much simplified view of one aspect of the industry but it serves as an example to illustrate the greater point. The opening scene in the trailer has an individual offering that “They’re all fighting for a piece of a pie that is not growing.? If this is the documentary’s premise, it’s a hollow and inaccurate one in today’s beer marketplace.

The continued relevance of the idea behind Beer Wars has come up in some conversations I’ve had with industry insiders recently. From what I can tell, in tackling the subject of the beer industry at large, Baron wisely relies upon the tested documentary technique of following a limited pool of individuals and using their personal narratives to tell a wider tale. Baron notes on her website:

Beer Wars begins as the corporate behemoths are being challenged by small, independent brewers who are shunning the status quo and creating innovative new beers. The story is told through 2 of these entrepreneurs – Sam and Rhonda – battling the might and tactics of Corporate America. We witness their struggle to achieve their American Dream in an industry dominated by powerful corporations unwilling to cede an inch.

Of course we all knew that the affable Calagione would be a focus of the film, it’s almost a precondition of media coverage these days. But Rhonda Kallman is a very interesting choice for a second act. Kallman is well-known among beer industry insiders but is decidedly less so for beer enthusiasts, especially young ones. I profiled Kallman in one of my first pieces for Beverage Business Magazine in 2001. While we all recognize Jim Koch and his accomplishments, Kallman co-founded Boston Beer Company with Koch in 1984. He has described her as “smart, resourceful and motivated? and noted that while Boston Beer Co. had no corporate ladder to climb, Kallman built her own ladder. Koch credited Kallman with helping to bring about a fundamental change in the American beer industry and she shared the 1997 Institute for Brewing Studies Recognition Award for outstanding contribution to the microbrewing movement with him. Kallman left Boston Beer at the end of 1999 and went on to form her own contract brewing operation, the New Century Brewing Company.

At the time, Kallman was seeking to release her own national light beer, set to be a step above macro-brewed light offerings. A daring if questionable idea from the start, Kallman’s new beer, playfully named Edison Light, had some buzz of its own. In my interview of the time, Kallman suggested an approach that laid the basis for Beer Wars.

It’s an above premium light beer, a segment that is clearly dominated by giants. There has been no news in the light beer category in years, no real new news at all. And 75 percent of the light beer segment is made up of the big three – A-B, Miller, and Coors. Other brewers, particularly importers, all have light beers as well. But they all really can’t get out of the way of their flagship. Light beer is clearly the direction the consumers are going, at least the targeted demographic that we are all after, which is males aged 21 to 27, and increasingly they are drinking more and more light beer. And that demographic is expected to grow, so people are clearly after that. But we’ll appeal to these people and that young demographic looking for change, a new choice and variety.

Fast-forward seven years and the Edison Light beer project, and its sister product, the short-lived caffeinated beer called Moonshot, have stalled. The national rollout never happened and now Kallman acknowledges that the brand’s reach is limited. After an initial push in the Massachusetts market, Edison quickly retreated to a few hideouts around the state. It’s now available by request in certain parts of Massachusetts, New York City, Southern California, and Trader Joe’s markets east of St. Louis. It probably didn’t help that the beer was released to the public the day before the September 11th attacks.

So with all of this in mind, I’m curious to see Beer Wars and how it handles Kallman’s situation, among other issues. Will the film be honest and note that her operation and its big plans have met with little success or will it simply frame the debate in outmoded terms better suited to a decade ago? And will it draw the necessary distinction between Kallman’s business model, marketing a national premium light beer against entrenched and well-funded competitors in a similar category, and the operations of nearly every other “craft brewer.? I look forward to finding out.

Beyond these substantive points, the trailer itself is full of things that will appeal to the red meat beer geeks, including the otherwise sensible Greg Koch talking some ridiculousness about making angry beer and how it turns people happy. Frankly, I think the late Michael Jackson may have been the only to make any real sense in the trailer and he sadly passed away more than 18 months before the film’s release. I’m also curious to learn whether Ben Stein has some perhaps yet unreleased connection to the beer industry or if his moderating services were simply available for rent at the right price.

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The Post Where I Say Nice Things About Harpoon…A Quad Review.

Because it is my hometown brewery, I spend a lot of time talking about the Harpoon Brewery with friends and visitors. And while people often perceive my thoughts as being critical of the brewery, I consider them given more in a constructive vein. See, I want Harpoon to succeed, but I also want the brewery to offer a little more in the flavor department with its beers (although this criticism mainly related to the brewery’s year-round offerings). So it was with some excitement that I reported last summer about the brewery’s foray into stronger beers, with its Leviathan series. At that time, I wrote:

The Harpoon Brewery of Boston is preparing for the release of a new line of ‘big beers’ to accompany its existing line of mainstream ales. The new series, named ‘Leviathan,’ will start out with draft only offerings and eventually transition into 4-packs and limited availability on draft. The line is designed to appeal to the niche of beer geeks who felt that the brewery’s ‘100 Barrel Series’ lacked sufficient punch as a specialty release. The 100 Barrel Series was initially designed to help Harpoon push beyond its stock lineup of traditional, mild flavored beers. While it offered several ‘extreme’ or higher gravity offerings, the 100 Barrel Series eventually focused on more traditional styles, such as oatmeal stout and wit, that were not designed to push the brewing envelope, the Leviathan series is expected to forage into new brewing areas for Harpoon.

quad.jpgSo far in the series we’ve seen a revamping of the Triticus, originally brewed with the BeerAdvocate guys, a nice Imperial IPA, and a very solid Baltic Porter. So this month has seen availability of the most recent release, the Harpoon Quad. Listed at 11.75-percent alcohol on the label (although brewer Scott Shirley told the good folks at hereforthebeer.com that it was actually 12.6-percent alcohol), the Quad is a bruiser. But we’ll get to the flavor in a moment

The Quad style bears a moment of mention, not so much for what it is but perhaps for what it is not. If not a creation of American craft brewers than at least a rebranding, the quadruple/quadrupel style has a pretty sketchy history, even compared to other styles about which it turns out we know very little. Up until a few years ago, beer lovers used to call quadrupel-style beers either trappist ales, trappist-style ales, or abt-style. There was inevitably a bit of friction with the seven, then six, now seven again European trappist breweries. So a name change was required to describe this strong, malty, phenolic beer.

The style doesn’t appear in the Brewers Association’s recent 2009 style guidelines release (though curiously a quadruple Pilsener is referenced, whatever abomination of man that might portend). The BJCP folks also do not list quadrupel as an independent category, but instead place it in the Belgian Specialty Ale grouping. BeerAdvocate lists beers of the style as Quadrupels and it lists nearly 90 examples, including some of the site’s most highly regarded beers, such as Westvleteren 12 and Rochefort 10. BA describes the style this way:

Inspired by the Trappist brewers of Belgium, a Quadrupel is a Belgian style ale of great strength with bolder flavor compared to its Dubbel and Tripel sister styles. Typically a dark creation that ranges within the deep red, brown and garnet hues. Full bodied with a rich malty palate. Phenols are usually at a moderate level. Sweet with a low bitterness yet a well perceived alcohol. Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 9.0-13.0%

It’s not really clear how quads are distinguished from Belgian Strong Dark Ales, which the site describes as:

On the same path as the Belgian Dark Ale but obviously higher in alcohol with more of an all around character. The alcohol character can be deceivingly hidden or can be very bold and in your face. Look for lots of complexity within a delicate palate. Hop and malt character can vary, most are fruity and may have mild dark malt flavors. Phenols will range from minimal to high and most will be light on the hops. All in all most are spicy and alcoholic. Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 7.0-15.0%

So maybe this is one of those times where we put style guidelines aside and just decide whether we enjoy the beer on a personal level (a bit of a rarity in this rate-happy world). Harpoon describes its Leviathan Quad this way:

[F]ermented with a blend of two traditional Trappist yeasts. A mixture of two-row pale malts, caramel malts, and special aromatic malts gives the Quad its richness and texture. The subtle hop flavor imparted from Brewer’s Gold hops lingers in the background and provides just enough bitterness to balance the malt sweetness. The addition of imported Belgian Dark Candi Syrup rounds out the beer, giving the Quad its full body and deep auburn color. Expect notes of honeyed dry fruit with peppery phenols in the aroma, a velvet-like mouthfeel, and a superbly drinkable beer…Original gravity 26.2, ABV 11.75%, 44 IBU’s.

So let’s get to the beer. I bought a 4-pack of the brand for about $10 at a local package store, stored cool. Pours with a slightly murky/hazy purplish rouge color, mild but active carbonation. Aroma is very complex and playful, with immediate notes of the classic Trappist yeast strain, big deep sweet malts, and numerous fruits and phenols, from banana to bubble gum. A real pleasure just to smell. There is the slightest hint of a peppery spiciness deep in the beer but is pretty overwhelmed by a substantial but not overbearing alcohol note. The alcohol is not hot in the aroma but adds a pleasant warmth. Mouthfeel is medium to heavy and easily coats the entire mouth with malt sweetness, with some carbonation bites rounding out the edges. As it warms, I’m noticing some slightly sour notes in the aroma. Flavor waits for a second and then explodes in all directions, unleashing a torrent of banana and fruity tones, then a splash of European malt sweetness, followed by that previously hidden black pepper spiciness, and then ends with a surprisingly bitter finish mixed with big alcohol notes. With these descriptions, such a beer could easily devolve into a completely undrinkable mess. The Harpoon Quad doesn’t; instead it just shows you sharp glimpses of each before retracting into a balanced finish. While all of these notes mellow as the beer warms (and it sweetens considerably), I think the Harpoon Quad is still a pretty young beer. I’m going to lay down my remaining bottles for a few months and check on their quality. I would imagine that the beer could easily lay down for a few years. And considering that I had a nearly five-year-old bottle of Harpoon’s Barleywine (Release Four of the 100 Barrel Series) that aged beautifully, it’s a pretty safe bet.

The next beer in the Leviathan series, a huge Bohemian Pilsner, will be out in a couple of months. Using German pilsner malt and Saaz hops, the beer will clock in at 10-percent. I’m generally not a fan of imperializing classic German styles but look forward to trying the next release after the solid to excellent Leviathan releases I’ve had to date.

With its year-round line, the brewery has proven that it can make very approachable beers for a wide-audience, often as a bridge from macro brands to the craft world. With the Leviathan series, Harpoon has demonstrated its ability to break out of that mold and to craft solid versions of styles popular with beer geeks. For its next act, I’d like to see Harpoon show mastery of the ground in-between. While I look forward to trying the UFO White when it debuts at the end of this month, another addition to the brewery’s regular portfolio of IPA, Ale, Brown Ale, UFO hefeweizen, Munich Dark, and Raspberry Hefeweizen is sorely needed. With its sustained sales and trim portfolio, I appreciate that the brewery likely has no real interest in adding to its year-round offerings. But that can’t keep local beer drinkers from hoping…

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A Spot of Positive St. Patrick’s Day News: Creator of O’Hara’s Irish Stout Comes to Boston…

After a couple of grumbling articles on St. Patrick’s Day in Boston, I welcomed receipt of a press release from Sheryl Barto announcing that Seamus O’Hara, founder of Carlow Brewing Company and O’Hara’s Irish Stout, will be in Boston on March 16 and 17th. Poor guy but hopefully we’ll see his beer around town a bit more. No notice on where he’ll be but keep an eye out…

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The Audacity of Hops, Brewing the 2009 Craft Brewers Conference Symposium Ale…

We decided to take the day off of work today and head down to Plymouth to visit Mayflower Brewing, where our buddy Matt Steinberg is the brewmaster. I’ve been meaning to get down to Plymouth for more than a year now as Matty is making some classic, traditional beers, including perhaps the region’s best porter. I expected to find a few folks from the New England beer scene there but was pretty surprised at the size of the turnout and the number of familiar faces. Defying the old too many cooks maxim, brewers from across eastern New England stopped by to lend a hand with hop additions, running hoses, cleaning tanks, and hauling spent grain. The roster included Matt and Drew Brousseau of Mayflower, Will Meyers of Cambridge Brewing (who was leading the group as the Brewers Association’s selected brewer), Scott Brunelle of Rock Bottom Boston, Tod Mott of Portsmouth Brewing, Dann Paquette, Jeremy Goldberg of Cape Ann Brewing, along with several folks from Cambridge Brewing, Harpoon Brewery, and others.

The beer, the Audacity of Hops, will be a somewhat strong Belgian-style IPA, similar to the beer Will brews at Cambridge. It was an entertaining brewday as a half-dozen or more brewers appeared to be manning the operations at different points, in between pizza and beer stops. At a little over 20 barrels, the beer included more than 1700 pounds of malt (hauled away by the sheriff for an inmate run farm), a healthy addition of Belgian candi sugar, as well as every hop the guys could get their hands on (Tettnang, Magnum, Columbus, Cascade, Simcoe, Amarillo, Palisades, Hallertau Hersbrucker), with additions used in the mash, dry hopped, in a hop back, in fermentation, and before bottling. All told, it appears they will be using about 60-70 pounds of hops.

The beer will be available for attendees of the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference in Boston and for purchase in select local bars during the conference. In celebration of the occasion, we’re debuting a new video segment on BeerScribe and hope the bugs get worked out.

Here’s Matt Steinberg introducing the beer…

And here’s the gang packing the hopback in, um, a very scientific manner…

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