Looking Back, Looking Forward To A New Year Of Beer…

End of the year predictions have become de rigueur in the beer world. I’m not much for prognostication, especially in an industry as diverse as the increasingly international world of craft beer. It’s better to reflect on where we’ve been over the past year to get a sense of what is to come. Reviewing the past year, I’m struck by how much American craft brewers remind me of students just completing their sophomore years of college. Having secured their footing, they understand how things work but remain unsure of what their futures hold; excited to experience the wider world but still nervous about making their mark.

2011 brought an awkward mix of maturity and growth for the American craft beer industry. It began with a seemingly revolving door of explosive sales numbers and ended with many breweries trying to figure out where to go next. This latter question continues to daunt breweries, both big and small. While most breweries continue to experience extensive growth opportunities, managing their budding popularity is proving difficult. While the prospects for expanding by double or even triple digit numbers exists, the costs of meeting such explosive demand are substantial and expensive. The prospect of incurring massive debt loads to feed stainless steel cravings is a stark concern even for many younger brewery owners. Such trepidations leave many breweries rethinking strategies and returning focus to their home markets.

After years of deploying their forces to battle fronts far from home, however, some craft brewers are returning to their native bases only to find a crop of newcomers setting up new encampments. The nano brewery trend continues to germinate, with many developing steadily from one and two barrel systems to seven, ten, and 15 barrel operations. If these players stabilize their products and can survive to grow to a profitable level, this new generation of craft brewers will inject both excitement and a touch of fear into more established operations.

Craft brewers weren’t the only winners in 2011. Both Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors scored substantial successes and in ways that leave craft brewers with much to ponder in 2012. A-B’s Shock Top and Coors’ Blue Moon continue their tear, wedging their way into many new craft beer channels. Whether the big brewer craft-style beers are true competition or mere door openers for craft brewers is a big, unanswered question open to great debate. What is undeniable, however, is that their success suggests a continuing shift in the American beer drinking palate. Whether the big brewers can branch out beyond their infighting over dominance of a single style (witbier) also remains unclear.

Besides uncertainty over their futures, craft industry players are showing greater poise and better judgment in their decisions, both signs of a widening maturity. After years of substantial price creep, we’re starting to see signs that craft brewers and bar owners recognize there is a ceiling to what consumers either will or should be expected to pay. While some crafts and nanos continue to charge ridiculous prices for specialty bottles, and a niche of beer super nerds continue to line up at midnight or 3 a.m. for new releases, many markets, including New York City, have begun to level off and even become affordable. As crafts gain increased scale and local focus, prices will hopefully continue to stabilize and perhaps even improve for consumers.

Finally, with a few years of education behind them, craft brewers have developed greater appreciation for the larger world, maybe having spent some time abroad, and appear less bent on throwing wild, extreme beer ragers. As hundreds of new breweries open across the United States, a larger percentage seem satisfied to explore the nuances and challenges of brewing lager beer and lower alcohol session offerings, both very welcome departures from the excess of recent years. With their emergent wisdom and experience, I look forward to seeing what comes in the next school year.

-Article appeared in Issue 60 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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The Cult of Beer…

Ever wonder what it takes to piss off a monk? Try talking to him about eBay.

For nearly 175 years, the pious monks of Westvleteren in the western Belgian Poperinge hop region have quietly gone about brewing what have become some of the world’s most heralded and sought after beers. Without trying, the monks scored the twin crowns of world’s best beer on both BeerAdvocate and RateBeer. The monks now found themselves in an enviable situation, with adoring fans across the globe pining for their beers. Problem is the monks don’t make beer to maximize profits, instead producing only enough to support their religious order and charitable goals. As the public clamor for Westvleteren’s beers grew, the monks had to fight off an unauthorized global trade of their beers, including the highly desired Westvleteren 12, with bottles selling for hundreds of dollars on-line.

After years of fighting, the monks have finally given in and agreed to release a small amount of beer for foreign export. Pricing of the specialty two packs is not yet known but expect it won’t be cheap.

In Minneapolis, the Surly Brewing Company is dealing with its own scarcity value issues. Following the release of its popular Darkness Russian Imperial Stout, the brewery’s supply sold through in a near instant. When it hit the market, a local liquor store seized an opportunity to more than double the price of the 750-milliliter bottle to $37. One local Minnesota website likened this to scalping a concert ticket at an exorbitant price. The brewery expressed disappointment at the pricing, while the store’s owner cited capitalism and market demand as a justification for the price.

This pricing situation is hardly unique to Surly and Westvleteren and occurs with frequency across the country. So what is behind this insanity? Are retailers price gouging or just reacting to the fact that market demand far exceeds supply and are pricing accordingly? It seems everyone has a different view.

Now to be sure, the breweries themselves often court this sort of fanatical behavior. Surly hosts the popular Darkness Day at the brewery, a celebration and public release party where hard core beer geeks share hundreds of hard-to-find beers from around the world. The breweries enjoy the free PR they receive from such events, not to mention they often charge a hefty sum for their specialty beers ($18 for a bottle of Darkness at the brewery).

While new to the beer world, issues of scarcity value and pricing are nothing new to the wine industry, where Garagista winemakers produce tiny amounts of wine and charge massive premiums. The irony is that those who study wine economics know something beer drinkers have yet to appreciate: the hype and inflated prices don’t reflect the inherently superior quality of these scarce offerings. Wine scholars have demonstrated in blind tastings that people cannot tell the difference between expensive wines and less costly products and on the whole they actually prefer the characters of the cheaper wines but their views change when consumers know the bottle’s price.

The same principle inevitably applies to the beer world. While Surly Darkness and Westvleteren 12 are solid beers, when sampled in a blind test they are certainly not worth double or quadruple the price of Alesmith Speedway Stout or St. Bernardus Abt 12.

Cultism is giving beer a bad name and is driving a wedge between brewers, beer lovers, and a certain class of scarcity-seeking tickers. One bottle of 2007 Surly Darkness recently sold on eBay for $475. That must make the brewers simultaneously cringe and seethe with jealousy.

The unusual thing is that in contrast to antiques or rare stamps, the scarcity value of beer is artificial in nature as breweries can simply brew more of a particular beer or distribute it more widely. The fanaticism is not driven by marketing or empirical flavor but by the cult itself. But even monks benefit from the hype.

–Article appeared in Issue 59 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Saving Oktoberfest…

Oktoberfest is an unavoidable tourist trap of a beer drinking holiday in much of the world, with perhaps no greater faux revelry than in the United States. With no ties to any continental or European history or tradition, bars simply stock up on some half-liters (often plastic, ugh), some white and blue checked flags, and maybe even an oompah band, and they’ve got instant fest-in-a-box. Zum what?

And despite being one of the most popular seasonal beer drinking occasions, American brewers sure do make some shitty Oktoberfests. While giving a required nod towards the tradition of Germany, many so-called American versions of this historic style, their resulting beers fall so wide of the mark as to be unrecognizable. Often cast as ales, the trademark smoothness imparted by extended cold conditioning is replaced for a ubiquitous and yawn inducing fruit character. For many U.S. crafts, Oktoberfest beers also just mean a lightly red-hued beer, with no toasted or bready malt character, and little to no soft and subtle beauty. Often brewed without the addition of German or Euro malts or noble hops, the beers offer little if anything beyond the chance to slap an Oktoberfest label on the bottle and score some easy seasonal sales.

In the last decade, Americans have grown quite adept at celebrating if not quite replicating Belgian beer culture, with pubs and restaurants dedicated to all things Flemish and Wallonian. With classy and well-appointed gastropubs popping up in cities throughout America, the future of the Belgian beer bar seems undeniable. These upscale, Belgian themed establishments offer dozens of characterful and diverse styles, distinctive and well-presented glassware, and rough approximations of traditional pub fare. Belgian brewers often marvel at how well-established their nation’s beer culture is here. Between these dedicated pubs and the wide varieties of Lambics, Tripels, and Witbiers available at even your corner packie, Belgian beer culture is arguably more popular now in the United States than in its home country.

The same cannot be said of poor old Deutschland. While the development of the United States market has saved many traditional Belgian beers from extinction, German imports into the country have stagnated. Sure, we’ve got a handful of Hofbrauhaus knock-offs popping up around the country, but few bars let alone American craft breweries look to Germany for inspiration and great beers.

That brings us back to the saddest German beer story of them all: Oktoberfest. Perhaps the world’s quintessential and most iconic beer event, the original beer festival now largely masquerades as a beer selling bonanza for massive, foreign owned corporate behemoths. While some glorious, rich, toasted and malty beers still exist in Germany, they are increasingly difficult to find, having been replaced at the fest either by lighter colored facsimiles or just plain Helles beer.

Oktoberfest is undoubtedly one of the most enticing and saleable beer drinking occasions on the global beer calendar and its charms are appreciated across the world. Despite its obvious appeal, brewers, bar owners, and consumers often just treat it as a German Cinco de Mayo, an excuse to eat vaguely foreign food and get trashed, with a little polka mixed in. German beer culture deserves better and it’s time to start treating traditional German brewing styles with respect and not just as novelty.

That leaves us here in the states with a task ahead of us. As a beer loving nation dedicated to preserving and promoting great and classic beer styles from around the globe, however obscure (Gose anyone?), we need to step up and help resurrect Oktoberfest beer. To date, we’ve sufficed with the production of bland, traditionless Autumn or Harvest Ales posing as Oktoberfests.

-Article appeared in Issue 57 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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A Beer Language Problem…

We have a language problem in the world of beer. I’m not talking about our over-use of four-letter words or an inability to speak after too many pints. Instead, we lack a cohesive and agreed upon central terms for discussing our shared are of passion.

Let’s start with the term whose popularity continues to grow every day, namely craft beer. Brewers, distributors, writers, and industry insiders have been engaged in a long-standing battle over what to call the flavorful, colorful, characterful beers we all enjoy. As with defining pornography, we know it when we see it, or in the case of beer, also taste it. But we still don’t quite know what to call it. Do we define what constitutes a craft beer or just a craft brewer? Can a big brewer (macro? Behemoth? International conglomerate?) make a craft beer? In terms of flavor, is Blue Moon by Coors so different from dozens of other average witbiers made by smaller brewers? Should we instead use the term better beer, and if so, better than what? Anything brewed by the big brewers? Nowadays, even the Boston Beer Company is derided by many beer geeks as being too big, so that hardly seems appropriate.

Having grown up with the term microbrew, many seem loathe to let go of this iconic word and the related imagery of beer made in tiny, handcrafted batches. While many small breweries still operate at least in part by hand, the days of handcrafted beer belong to a different, quickly disappearing era, having been supplanted by much welcomed automation and greater control. And with many once small breweries now producing tens or hundreds of thousands of barrels per year and distributing beer from Denmark to Japan, the micro designation is an anachronism if not a myth.

Beyond these big picture terms, the creativity of brewers also continues to create new issues and areas of confusion. In the last two years, beer geeks and brewers from coast to coast have waged a nerdy battle over what to call dark beers that display strong hop characters without the bite and flavor of roasted malts. Depending upon which viewpoint you subscribe to, you might tend to call such beers Black IPA, India Black Ale, or Cascadian Dark Ale. With a somewhat murky history, either having first been made by the late Greg Noonan at the Vermont Pub & Brewery or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or Britain, there is no agreement over what such beers should be called. It does, however, seem a bit ridiculous to call a dark beer with no connection to the sub-continent an India or pale ale.

Perhaps the most troubling and recent example of our parlance problems comes with the American use of the British-based session beer moniker. As discussed in a recent issue, beer cultures are largely not transferable between countries and that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t expect to find a vibrant Belgian beer culture in Cleveland just as San Diego’s thriving beer scene can’t be recreated in Tokyo. While pursuing the goal of lower alcohol yet flavorful beers is a very worthy goal, trying to cross-apply the session label just doesn’t work in the states.

Even the otherwise appropriately named nano-breweries have come under some scrutiny. Just how small does a brewery have to be to qualify as a nano? I’ve recently started seeing the term pico-brewery pop up, denoting something even smaller than a nano, if that was possible. I’m not sure if this involves beer made by boiling the mash in a microwave but it boggles the mind.

As a beer writer, I’ve been struggling with these language issues for a long time, usually with little to no results to show for it. While we generally agree on what we’re discussing, defining these beer-related concepts remains a difficult task. Maybe you’ll figure out the whole craft beer language debate over your next pint.

Then we can get started on gastropubs.

-Article appeared in Issue 55 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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A Love Of Garage Drinking…

I like drinking beer in garages. I’m not talking about sitting next to lawnmowers, beat up Ford Escorts, and discarded tools in your buddy’s man cave. I prefer brewery-garage outfits where the drinking environment is about as deconstructed and scaled down as you can imagine. In most cities around the United States, breweries exist in functional if interchangeable industrial buildings, often characterless warehouse spaces with ample drainage and vertical height. But in a handful of edgier locales, brewers turn old mechanic shops and garage storefronts into funky drinking experiences.

Now brewing in garages is nothing new. Thousands of homebrewers do it every day and many commercial brewers turn to garages when other spaces prove too expensive. With the rigors and restrictions of modern zoning ordinances and the scornful, watching eyes of alcohol licensing bodies, few of these brewers can convert their ordinary repair shops into welcoming beer Mecca’s. The key, my friends, is the brewery taproom.

For those beer geeks living in repressed towns and states, prepare yourselves for a shock: there are places in this country where you can visit a brewery, sit down, and have a pint or two instead of just a two-ounce thimble sample. On a recent trip to Asheville, North Carolina, I visited brewery after brewery, each housed in converted garage spaces. I bought pints, sat in lawn chairs and picnic tables, and even heard live music, with guitarists and drummers banging away amid pallets of grain and kegs.

As someone who has never lived in such a free society, I’m supremely jealous of these fortunate beer lovers. For them, a visit to the local brewery isn’t limited to a rote tour of ubiquitous industrial vats, followed by the requisite short pour of a beer or two. Instead, the brewery becomes a community meeting spot, fully integrating into neighborhoods and inviting consumers to become regulars.

The importance of being able to invite consumers into these breweries cannot be overstated. Otherwise kept at arms length, brewery patrons become more than consumers as they sip pints a few feet from bubbling fermenters and brewers working the kettle. A connection is built and a sense of belonging and place develops, tying the brewery and consumer together.

To be sure, these garage breweries aren’t brewpubs in any traditional sense. You won’t find any food, beyond peanuts or popcorn, and the beer is usually sold off-site as well. And you’re always aware that the brewery hovers around you, not hidden away behind glass partitions. It’s like you’re part of a club whose membership privileges include sneaking into the brewhouse after hours.

Beyond the unique character garage breweries offer to visitors, brewery owners also derive several benefits from such operations. Beyond the obvious advantage of providing a much valued source of income for folks operating on tight margins, garage breweries offer brewers and owners a level of direct contact with consumers that elude more traditional industrial operations.

Sadly, most states preclude breweries from operating tap rooms, let alone ones so devolved to the point where the line between brewery and tap room virtually disappears. Visit at the right time and you may be asked to help move a tank hose or add some late boil hops to the kettle.

Returning to Asheville, it’s easy to see why the garage brewery model satisfies both beer lovers and brewers. Whether it be strolling through French Broad’s old school fermenters with an inexpensive pint of Rye Hopper in your hand or leaning against the brew kettle at Craggie, sipping an Antebellum Ale, and listening to a jazz combo band, the charm and vibe are infectious. You want more of it. You demand more of it. And then you remember that your town doesn’t have anything like it. And that’s why you travel.

-Article appeared in Issue 54 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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