The Craft Beer Middle Class…

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.

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Craft Beer Evolution: It’s Time To Put ‘No Crap On Tap’ To Bed…

Craft beer promoters love their slogans. Slapped onto bumper stickers, t-shirts, and bottle coozies, they help define the narrative for the craft beer movement. Whether they be a fabricated quote never uttered by a founding father or a call to support your local brewery, such sloganeering is often harmless if not particularly clever. There is one craft beer catch phrase that I wish disappeared entirely: no crap on tap.

This particular aphorism may be older than the original New Albion Ale, having appeared in countless advertisements, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and other schwag. I first recall seeing it on a bumper sticker at the Falling Rock Tap House in Denver during one of my first Great American Beer Festival visits. I recall chucking at it, all the while feeling a touch superior compared to the unenlightened folks drinking lesser lagers that night in the Mile High City. As I started to travel more, I started to notice the slogan popping up in bars, tap rooms, and breweries around the country, from San Diego to Tampa.

As with a catchy summer pop song that grabs your attention from the first beats but whose omnipresence then drives you crazy, this slogan provokes a particularly negative response in me. At its core, the No Crap on Tap motto suggests that any non-craft beer is undrinkable garbage. Let’s not kid ourselves, the big brewers make beers of a consistent and technical quality that few if any craft brewers will ever attain.

I remember gasps of horror at one BeerAdvocate festival when a very well-respected brewer told panel attendees that the beer he most often drank after a long shift was Budweiser. He then politely attempted to disabuse audience members of their misconceptions of macro products as being of inferior quality. It remains one of my favorite moments from these events.

In the past year, I have heard people toss craft beer pioneers, such as Boston Beer and Sierra Nevada, into the category of “crap” beers. Such incoherent mumblings, which I heard a few times during the recent Craft Brewers Conference, are the surest sign you’re dealing with either a crazy person or an insufferable beer nerd.

I loathe the clannish air of superiority that underlies such boasts. Craft brewers and the legions of bar owners, distributors, retailers, and fans supporting them have achieved amazing things in the last thirty years. They have created a previously unknown beer and flavor culture in the United States that is now spreading throughout the world. They have built strong businesses, employed thousands of enthusiastic workers, and rejuvenated a flagging beer industry set on rendering itself irrelevant.

With all of its successes, this nation of craft beer should not define itself through its larger corporate rivals. Craft beer is about more than simply presenting an alternative to the big brewers. In focusing on a negative proposition, craft brewers waste energy casting macro beers as some sort of enemy. Craft beer is about more than the big guys. As its success grows, craft beer nation needs to stop pretending they aren’t major players themselves now.

My aversion to this slogan does not overlook the tough and sometimes questionable tactics employed by the big guys in competing against smaller craft players. Brewers should call out any business, whether macro or micro, for engaging in corrupt practices. But casting macro beers as crap, shit, or otherwise undrinkable is simply juvenile mudslinging.

It’s time for a new generation of craft beer slogans, focused on promoting the positive characteristics the industry symbolizes. Or at least something more clever than rhyming crap and tap.

–Article appeared in Issue 68 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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On Bars And Beer Gardens…

A folding chair and a patch of dirt is all I need to be happy. Oh, and a can of beer of course. While shiny new gastropubs and deluxe beer bars open from coast to coast, a few choice spots are celebrating a return to simpler times, when drinking needn’t be surrounded by trappings more befitting the QE2.

And so it was that I found myself sitting under a shady oak tree, in a dirt and gravel mixed yard, seeking refuge from the merciless Texas heat. Of all the great drinking moments I had in 2011, chilling at the aptly named Friendly Spot outside of downtown San Antonio was unparalleled. The open-air style bar uses a converted ice house as its core, a throwback to an earlier era when such rudimentary refrigeration operations kept beer cold for customers to take-away. Sitting in what one Beer Advocate called “a park with a bar” while enjoying a Ranger Creek Smoked Mesquite Porter is about as good as it gets. In this glorified backyard, with its laid-back, no frills charm, all of the pretense so perverting modern beer drinking falls away, revealing only the comfortable, essential core experience.

While ice house bars are a particularly Texas invention, other cities around the country have their own dialed back character. In my hometown of Chicago, neighborhood bars have long influenced the city’s unique personality. A place still replete with bars (as opposed to restaurant-pubs where food must be served), where you can stop by for a drink by yourself and not catch side-glances of disapproving judgment, is increasingly difficult to find. But even this history is now under attack, with local politicians and interloping yuppies less inclined to have a hundred-year-old public house mucking up the property values of their just built condos. The loss of the engaging spirit of the neighborhood pub will leave Chicago a new achromatic, dispirited shade of itself.

Community drinking experiences needn’t always start with long-standing, brick-and-mortar operations. As with many ideas that shift from West to East in the United States, San Francisco is engaging in a remarkably simple yet creative civic experiment to bring use to vacant spaces or lots awaiting funds or permits for further development. Considered a placeholder until the construction of a permanent structure, the city’s Proxy project allows creative grassroots entrepreneurs to create temporary and pop-up communal gathering places, ranging from coffee stands to full-scale beer gardens.

Similar in concept to the wildly popular food truck movement, these low-cost operations allow proprietors to quickly open their spots without many of the start-up hassles that plague more established outfits. The concept is brilliant for its revitalization of unused parcels, such as vacant tracts and under-used parking lots, and for its ability to build a communal vitality otherwise absent from urban voids. In a time where temporary is the new permanent, as the Atlantic recently put it, such creative bureaucratic thinking also encourages hard-working entrepreneurs to engage the public in a host of new creative ways.

Moving beyond entrenched pubs and novel new spaces, governments can help create more interesting communal spaces through a relaxation of alcohol licensing. Born of puritanical restraint following Prohibition, America’s liquor laws have long appeared peculiarly prudish to international audiences. Belying the continuing governmental hesitance to allow a relaxation of tight-fisted blue laws, some municipalities, from Asheville to Austin to Denver, have demonstrated that softening restrictions on beer and wine licenses has led to the responsible enjoyment of alcohol in respectful new spaces.

Divorced from community and public culture, drinking becomes less than it should be. When alcohol becomes socially acceptable to consume only when chaperoned by food, going out becomes a near-entirely utilitarian experience, one that is goal driven, namely to eat, drink, and then leave. There’s nothing wrong with sitting on a plastic chair in a shady yard, enjoying a beer, surrounded by other cheerful citizens.

-Article appeared in Issue 62 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Redefining Local In A New Era Of Craft Beer…

Support Your Local Brewery. Drink Local, Think Global. For more than a decade, brewers have doled out countless bumper stickers, coasters, and stickers with these and similar slogans promoting their community-based beer offerings. And the campaign served them well, helping to build a connection to area consumers. After years of communal camaraderie, things are about to change.

If 2011 was a year for celebrating a return to local beer, 2012 will be a year when consumers and brewers seek to redefine what local really means. This past year saw dozens of breweries, including many well-known names, retreat to their home markets due to supply issues, in what I’ve previously called the Great Beer Retreat. From Allagash to Great Divide to Flying Dog, capacity restrictions and demand in closer-to-home markets has drawn mid-range and some smaller regional players to rethink their growth and distributions strategies.

While these larger breweries were busy trying to send beer to dozens of far-flung markets, a host of smaller, nimbler craft outlets, including hundreds of nano-breweries, have crept into their once safe home markets. Many larger players publicly heralded this new wave of craft brewing entrepreneurs, while some privately questioned their abilities to sell enough beer of sufficient quality to survive. As many have grown and continued to prosper in their hometown markets, the inevitable competition for local tap lines and shelf space has taken hold.

As these smaller players continue their dueling dance for hometown beer dominance, another force looms large in several markets across the country. In many industries, cash is king, but not so in the beer business. For brewers, stainless steel reigns supreme. That and the warehouse space in which to install shiny new fermenters or dinged up, used conditioning tanks. In this age, if a brewery can leverage the debt load and possesses the physical space to support growth, it has a good chance of dominating the game. And there are a few breweries that have amassed sufficient size as to wreak some havoc with the whole concept of what is ‘local.’

The issue is coming to a head in the little town of Asheville, North Carolina, where two western craft brewing giants will be opening new breweries. With its growing craft beer reputation and excellent garage breweries, Asheville is making a lot of noise for such a small brewing town. But when word started leaking out that the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and New Belgium Brewing were visiting sites around the town, the local brewers started to worry. Talk of tax credits and development deals started to swirl around as attempts to entice the two brewing giants, whose combined production is well north of 1 million barrels annually, to make North Carolina their second brewing homes.

Trying to hawk the localness of beer has always struck me as an odd selling point as next to none of the raw materials involved in production actually come from the region and nearly every production brewery sends beer far from home. The hyper-vigilance of some local brewers also seems misguided at times. In the case of Asheville, it’s understandable that local brewers grumble when a seemingly carpet-bagging West Coast brewery swoops into town and charms millions in tax incentives out of county representatives. But who’s to say that setting down roots doesn’t make Sierra or New Belgium ‘local’, especially when they’ll employ hundreds of North Carolinians?

As the credit and stainless steel crunches hit breweries bent on expansion, the stratification of craft brewers will grow deeper, likely straining the communal ethos that has been so central to the craft beer industry’s identity. Already big breweries will expand quickly, while smaller operations beat retreats back to their home markets and dream of stainless days to come. It may be time to redesign some bumper stickers.

-Article appeared in Issue 61 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Fighting Beer Fatigue

Fatigue is a dangerous thing for a beer lover. It plays with your mind, causing you to question what you know to be true and second guess your old friends. The symptoms of such worrisome weariness are familiar and difficult to avoid, even for the most optimistic craft beer enthusiast.

The longer I am part of the craft beer community, the more acute my awareness of the pressing concerns of beer fatigue. I’m not alone in this. A quick review of forum posts on BeerAdvocate.com shows that the first warning sign of fatigue manifests in an odd reaction to a once favored brand. The first stage is marked by denial: “Maybe I got a bad bottle,” the poor soul mutters. The ailment quickly progresses to anger: “When did the damned brewery stop putting hops in its IPA?” Things spiral downwards from here.

The now jaded beer aficionado next turns to the dark alleys of experimentation, hunting down anything to score the high he once enjoyed. He hooks up with a lot of different, seedy brands, never staying in one place too long, all the time wishing he could just simply return to the comforts of home and earlier days.

These lost beer souls will eventually have to face facts. After a few years of trying new beers, every beer lover hits a wall. Beer fatigue can strike anywhere. Against all odds, I recently found myself bored while attending the Great American Beer Festival, for many the holy grail of beerdom. Surrounded by thousands of beers from hundreds of breweries, I couldn’t find much that interested me or my palate. But this tell-tale symptom was familiar: I had again contracted beer fatigue.

For those beer fans left questioning themselves, I’m here to say, don’t worry. It gets better. In these circumstances, you have several options to combat this disheartening disorder. The first step is simply recognizing and acknowledging your predicament, a difficult move for many. After attaining a certain level of beer knowledge, you just expect your palate will serve as a loyal companion and guide, not turn on you. Instead of belligerently ranting in Internet forums, recognize that your palate may have adapted to its surroundings, taking on a greater resistance to hops, malt, and alcohol. It’s not that your favorite beers have secretly been altered, you’re experiencing palate shift.

In these circumstances, the most effective approach is perhaps the least intuitive: just take a break. A few days or weeks away from beer every once in a while helps clear your mind and refocus your passion. Those lingering frustrations over the hop levels in your once favored IPA will disappear after you’ve gone beerless for some time.

For those who want perhaps a less dire remedy, focus on training your senses to appreciate the subtle differences in beer as opposed to leaning on the palate punishing monsters you’re relying on for your flavor fix. Try blind and non-blind tastings of a single style and focus your mind and senses on appreciating the diverse characteristics comprised in the selected group.

When challenged by the danger of beer fatigue and palate shift, I focus and find a new path. For refuge, I’ve followed the great beer drinker Henry David Thoreau’s advice: “Simplify, simplify.” After unsatisfying affairs with hop bombs and boozy beers, I rediscovered my love of the subtle beauty of well-crafted lagers. After my wilderness years, I’m now never happier than with a half-liter of a zesty German pils in my hand.

Adaptation my friends has long been the key to our survival and it’s no different in the world of beer. Add a dose of self-awareness and you can avoid or at least manage the dangers of beer fatigue.

-Article appeared in Issue 58 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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