Is the Beer Nut Nuts?

I’ve generally avoided the whole dust-up involving beer writer George Lenker of the Springfield Republican (who, like a half-dozen or more folks goes by the moniker, The Beer Nut) and his recent Part I of II rants on beer writers. I read the first one and didn’t think much of it either way (great, he doesn’t like beer bloggers. Who does?). Now I’ve read the second one, at the behest of a reader’s suggestion, and I actually have no idea what he’s talking about. It reads a bit, not to be too grim, like a journalistic suicide note or a flame-out rant someone makes on an Internet bulletin board before signing off forever. With such a nice platform as a weekly beer column, especially in such a vibrant place as Western and Central Massachusetts, it remains more than a curiosity why he (and his editors, which George notes that he has) would let either part of this rant run. Maybe this only runs online, in which case that would make a tad more sense, but not much. In any event, chalk this up to a vanity exercise and a wasted opportunity (or two) to connect with people about beer.

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Discussing the Discussion Over the Brewers Association’s Recent Craft Beer Sales Numbers…

As I trudge my way through the book (and a pile of legal work frankly), I occasionally lift my head to read what others are writing about beer-related topics. As a testament to my limited world view, the few topics I inevitably pop into tend on occasion to reference things I have written. So was the case with the recent press release from the Brewers Association touting the craft beer industry’s recent sales numbers, which was then discussed by Beernews and Tom over at Yours for Good Fermentables. Both discuss my recent BeerAdvocate column in which I question whether it’s such a good thing to have every craft beer available on your local store shelves and use it to parallel the Brewers Association’s announcement of the following numbers:

Dollar growth from craft brewers during the first half of 2009 increased 9%, down from 11% growth during the same period in 2008. Volume of craft brewed beer sold grew 5% for the first six months in 2009, compared to 6.5% growth in the first half of 2008. Barrels sold by craft brewers for the first half of the year is an estimated 4.2 million, compared to 4 million barrels sold in the first half of 2008.

The folks at Beernews see this announcement as sort of a bad omen for craft brewers. While acknowledging that craft beer continues to grow, especially compared to the losses suffered by many larger brewers. In truth, I haven’t really digested or even thought about the numbers with my present schedule and that probably won’t happen until closer to the Great American Beer Festival next month but at first glance I can’t say I think the numbers are anything to really worry about. 9-percent dollar growth is pretty impressive in a down economy, especially considering that consumers, by most retail accounts, took the first two or three months of the year off from buying everything, including beer. Boston Beer, which comprises as much as a quarter of the craft beer industry’s sales numbers, took an especially hard hit in the first quarter of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these numbers edge up a point or two by the end of the year. On the other hand, Coors Light has apparently raised its sales 6-percent so far this year by volume, so who knows.

I do agree with Beernews that the Brewers Association’s simultaneous announcement regarding the number of craft brewers was a little bit odd or even sleight of hand.

The U.S. now boasts 1,525 breweries, the highest number in 100 years when consolidation and the run up to Prohibition reduced the number of breweries to 1,498 in 1910. “The U.S. has more breweries than any other nation and produces a greater diversity of beer styles than anywhere else, thanks to craft brewer innovation,” Gatza added.

I suppose it’s just reassuring the media about the success of craft beer, which is certainly understandable in a world where decreased sales can be seen as a sign of weakness, even in a crap economy.

I won’t spend any time rehashing what I’ve said in previous columns about the serious issues facing the craft beer industry, including its selected method of achieving these levels of growth and whether they are sustainable except to say the following. While in Bar Harbor, Maine, this past weekend, I had a great dinner at a restaurant in Southwest Harbor, the Fiddler’s Green, which had a fantastic and detail beer menu. While that was a pleasant an unexpected surprise, it paled in comparison to my shock at being able to buy, on-premise, several of Stone Brewing Company’s 22 ounce bottles, including its Old Guardian Barleywine and Smoked Porter, for ridiculously cheap prices ($7 and $6 respectively). By way of reference, these prices are equal to or cheaper than what these beers cost at a liquor store in Boston. Now I think that this particular restaurant may very well have been the furthest possible place you could enjoy Stone’s beers away from the brewery while still in the continental United States (approximately 3320 miles). And while it was nice to have the option, I can’t help but wondering about the wisdom of sending beers so far from home and whether anyone is making any money on these sales. (For the record, we opted instead for the 750 of Val Dieu Grand Cru for $12, which went great with the Pot du Creme)…

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Beer styles continue to befuddle…

In writing my next book, Great American Craft Beer, I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about beer styles, writing about them, and revising my thoughts and sentences. And after a few months of these efforts, I’m pretty sure I know less about them than I did when I started this project (and not just because Ron Pattinson and others continue to pull the rug out from under us all). Barleywines versus old ales, export or foreign stouts, and IPA’s versus APA’s. Is there such a thing as an American Stout? And what the heck is a golden ale? Do Americans really know the difference between Czech and German-style pils? Are there any differences? I have no idea anymore. But at the end of it all, deep in my confusion, I get glimpses of light. Such is the case with the delightful Sweetwater IPA. Although listed as an IPA, I think it may be the perfect example of an American Pale Ale, which just adds to the confusion (or fun). I’m looking forward to finishing this confounded project up in a few weeks…

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Breweries And Bars Should Kill The Shaker Pint…

From Munich to Milwaukee, when you see heads turn over a shapely, elegant glass of hefeweizen, you’ve just witnessed the true beer experience. While taste and smell capture a lot of attention, the sense of sight is too often cast aside as a mere afterthought when it comes to beer. From striking hues to gravity-defying heads, the visual elements of beer bring an immeasurable joy to the drinking experience, too often ignored in the United States.

We’re keen on efficiency here, ruthless in our pursuit of it, often to the detriment of remarking on the value of details encountered along the way. Perhaps nothing in the beer world symbolizes this ethos better than the so-called shaker pint. With its utilitarian design and absence of flair or character, the shaker pint glass screams efficiency. Once derided by Garrett Oliver as a mere “jam jar,” the shaker pint has flourished and become a mainstay in American pubs, not for its ability to improve the products contained within its lackluster glass walls, but because it stacks evenly on bar shelves. Pouring milk and sugary sodas into these beer glasses, as well as the inevitable stacking scuffs, results in instant death to your favorite beer’s head.

So tedious is the shaker pint’s design that breweries have taken to slapping all manners of logos across them. The shaker’s uninspired design, combined with the emblem army, discourage brewers from actively considering how their beers look to the customer. If the ubiquitous, poorly treated glass is designed to kill your beer’s head or obscure its appearance, then why bother spending time ensuring sufficient protein formation necessary to well-sustained foam? If the customer cannot see foam lacing and does not expect much in the looks department, why work for improvements? The shaker pint has bred a culture of a disappointing level of apathetic indifference in American brewers to the cause of good looking pints.

The situation is so advanced that most American drinkers consider a frothy head to be a complaint worthy problem. Bartenders across the country dare to get lambasted by serving their customers with any semblance of foam. And that is somewhat understand, if entirely lamentable. While technically capable of holding sixteen-ounces of liquid, shaker pints in reality are often “cheater pints,” distinguished by their heavy, thick glass bottoms and barely able to handle fourteen-ounces. When advertised as a pint, bars manage to cheat customers an ounce or two at a time, big money over the course of a couple hundred or thousand kegs a year.

In Belgium, beer presentation is nearly considered an art form. Function and form be damned if a Brussels server takes a few extra minutes to find your beer, choose the matching glassware, present the beer to you, and slowly and methodically pout the proper beer, stopping just short of the finish to allow you to decide if and when to pour the last precious few ounces into your glass. Belgian beer glasses either can handle only three-quarters of the bottle’s contents, requiring you to stop short and give it a second pour, or offer several extra inches of room, so that the head has sufficient room to expand. And the Belgians achieve all of this without cheating you out of the advertised amount you ordered. These same bars also manage to carry several dozen, if not hundreds, of individual brands, each with their own specially designed glassware. Storage problems? Never heard of them.

While it would be great if everyday American bars followed the path blazed by the Belgians, we needn’t run before learning to walk. Bars need only select a half-dozen different glass styles, each with the qualities necessary to present their beers in the best lights, and thus encourage sales with the corresponding head-turns, and match the expectations of their customers for honest pints, tulips, and snifters. And breweries should help by discontinuing the production of the shaker pint and redoubling efforts towards promoting pretty pints. Only when these groups get together will the full beer experience be enjoyed in America.

–Article appeared in Issue 30 of BeerAdvocate Magazine…

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