Hey, Wanna Hear Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione Talk Microbes And Drink Beer?

Living in Cambridge has its perks, including access to nearby Harvard University and its core of interesting programming. In between looking up the next Harvard hockey game and perusing the David Brooks lecture, I came across this unexpected and unusual gem that I have not seen elsewhere on the web.

“Man and microbe: Exotic ales since the birth of civilization.”

Hosted by the Microbial Sciences Initiative (somebody knows how to party), the event is free and open to the public but requires tickets, which go on sale today (1/19) at noon. The event will be held at 5pm on February 2 (the day before the Extreme Beer Festival here in Boston). Sadly, I cannot attend but I imagine it will be a good time. A beer tasting follows the seminar.

Sam’s event looks to be a touch more interesting than the next seminar, “Recent developments in extracellular electron transport and electromicrobiology”, but perhaps less interesting than “Dinosaurs, martians and mammals: Nihilistic thoughts on the origin of virulence.” Now that’s a title.

Available by phone (617-496-2222) and internet (http://www.boxoffice.harvard.edu) for a fee. Tickets can also be picked up in person at the Harvard Box Office (Holyoke Ctr.).

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Why Big Brewers Are Bad For Craft Beer: The Brew Masters Controversy…

Of course, a day or so after I stick my neck out for the big brewers saying they may have turned a corner, writer and television host Anthony Bourdain sent out a couple of bombshell tweets in which he seems to suggest that the Discovery Channel is either holding back or canceling production of the popular beer show Brew Masters due to pressure from its advertisers, namely the big brewers. Now I disdain reporting based solely on quixotic 140 character stabs but these were pretty disturbing allegations. Now MillerCoors has of course heavily invested in advertising on the program for its Blue Moon product, so it would be a curious thing for that company to be involved. But, as I noted, we have next to no information either way. So, of course, the blog and twitterspheres are up in arms, accepting the tweets as gospel, assuming Anheuser Busch InBev is behind the conspiracy, and telling me how wrong I’ve been. As with the Goose Island story, I’ll wait until we have some more information (which I am trying to get now) until we cast all our anti-big beer stones. I will say, however, that if the allegations prove true, it’s a pretty major form of dirty play by the big guys and I expect an absolutely massive backlash to follow, perhaps even from regular, everyday Bud guys and gals.

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When Size Matters: A Few Thoughts On Nano-brewing…

Homebrewers call it “living the dream.” Newspapers herald “the next wave of craft brewing” in their food and beverage sections. From tiny garages to converted basement rec rooms and closet sized industrial spaces, a new trend is emerging in the world of American craft beer. And it worries me.

For the times that micro just isn’t small enough, I present for you, the nano-brewery. No solid definition exists as to exactly how small a brewery has to be to qualify as nano, but the practice has grown sufficiently popular as to attract the attention of federal regulators. The Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) recently issued a friendly reminder to homebrewers looking to go pro that their efforts lose tax exempt status after 100 gallons if production per year. Unofficial designations suggest systems of one-half to two barrels in size qualify as nano. Simply put, we’re talking about an infinitesimal amount of beer, basically a supped up home brewing operation.

But what the nanos lack in size, they’re more than making up for in numbers, with more than fifty opening in the last two years, and another several dozen in development around the country. Despite their professional appearances, these nano-brewers can’t afford to quit their day jobs but they are making some brewers concerned for theirs.

While the nanos produce beer only thirty or so gallons at a time, their beers command substantial premiums in the marketplace. One New England nano has released as few as three dozen bottles per batch, leading stores and consumers to clamor for the seemingly limited edition beers, with prices exceeding twenty bucks a bottle. With these beers increasingly populating store shelves, some brewers have concerns about the artificial inflation of prices that may follow in their wake.

Beyond pricing issues, I have to admit some personal wariness over the quality of the many nano beers that I have sampled over the last year. While our industry lives the maxim that small is beautiful, there may be such a thing as being too small. With size comes a need for consistency and solid processes, challenges that many nanos have never really addressed. To distinguish themselves from other craft brewers and in celebration of the freedom accompanying their diminutive stature, many nanos instead choose to brew beers whose assertiveness borders on the caustic. Often big, boozy or hop bomb in character, these Pollock-esque offerings provide not ready for prime-time players plenty of cover to hide brewing flaws that would otherwise smack consumers in the face.

But as craft beer drinkers become more savvy, poorly produced beers from any brewery can give craft beer everywhere a bad name. It’s like the mid-nineties all over again, just in reverse, where the threat comes from well-meaning homebrewers instead of cash hungry businessmen.

The nano brewing phenomenon has also fueled a certain level of craft beer fan boyism, preaching a love of the limited, a worship of rarity for its own sake, that I believe damages craft beer. With blinders on, these yes men encourage under-performing nanos to continue making poor beer. But with such small batch sizes and a built-in fan base, these bad breweries have no incentive to dump an off-beer.

With all of this said, many great breweries, including Dogfish Head, started on an extremely small scale and there are many nanos that make quality beers. But as with many homebrews, there is no replacing professionally brewed beers. The introduction of fresh, energized talent into the craft brewing scene is certainly exciting. I’m just not sold on the concept or products the nanos represent just yet. Getting into the craft brewing business should be hard and not every homebrewer has what it takes to go pro. It’s a good thing that dreams don’t always come true.

–Article appeared in Issue 46 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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The Case Against Carrying Every Craft Beer In Your Local Store…

Craft beer enthusiasts around the United States know something exciting is happening. They trade emails and blaze Internet forum pages with news of their favorite, distant breweries coming to their home states. Local beer stores, from Tempe to Tampa, teem with attractive new brands. But behind the scenes, the craft brewing industry is at a difficult crossroads, anxiously trying to balance robust growth with pleasing consumers and distributors. And it’s only going to get harder.

The availability of a diverse range of great beers has long been standard fare in big market cities, such as Seattle, Chicago, and New York. But travel to some cities less well-recognized for better beer offerings and you’ll see something unexpected: the same brands you can find in Philadelphia, Boston, and Denver. And while it’s exciting for a beer lover to try beers from thousands of miles away, some craft brewers and distributors have concerns about the future.

In the beer business, growth is achieved in one of two ways, organically, where breweries expand sales within their current markets, or through geographic expansion into new markets. Organic growth is difficult. It involves battling in your core markets to gain new draft handles and shelf space. Breweries work with their distributors to fight on the front lines, selling their stories and educating retailers about the values of their products. While demanding, the resulting sales, if supported, provide a strong base for the brewer’s operations to grow. In comparison, geographic expansion is much easier. Five years ago, craft breweries had to fight for the attention of distributors. Today, brewers frequently receive unsolicited inquiries from wholesalers anxious to sign up new brands. So if a brewery wants to expand, it need only look to sending a few pallets of beer to a new state.

When distributors were giving craft brewers the cold shoulder, they dedicated themselves to the organic growth model. With the change in fortunes, breweries of all sizes are increasingly rejecting it. In early 2003, Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Company sold beer in twelve states, focused on the western U.S. By the end of 2009, that number will hit twenty-five, including South Carolina. For a brewery of New Belgium’s size, selling around a half-million barrels per year, that model may make sense. But what about the neighboring Avery Brewing Company, which sells only 16,000 barrels in thirty-three states and parts of Europe? Or crazier yet, tiny producer The Bruery sending its less than 1000 barrels to eight states. Contrast these models to those of local breweries, such as Berkshire Brewing and Wachusett Brewing, which sell 20,000 barrels in three or four states, or better yet, New Glarus Brewing, which sells 80,000 barrels in just one state.

While craft beer fans love having new beers to try, the geographic expansion model has some built-in problems. For one, as with land in real estate, we’re not making more states. So expansion can only go so far before you start eyeing Canada or Belize. Second, after the initial surge of enthusiasm, consumers often find dusty bottles sitting neglected on store shelves far from the watchful eye of the distant, absent brewer. And consumers and distributors are off to snag the next great thing to come along. Finally, while sending pallets of beer to new markets is an easy way to grow, keeping that pipeline filled when you’re over-extended is proving difficult. Even larger craft brewers, such as Bell’s Brewery and Dogfish Head have had troubles keeping popular beers, such as Two Hearted IPA and 90 Minute IPA, available in many markets. Other smaller breweries, such as Sixpoint Craft Ales, have entered markets with an initial bang only to withdraw a few months later due to lack of product availability.

While there is perhaps no greater concern for a craft brewer than access to market, especially after years of tough battles with large, entrenched macro breweries and a distribution system built upon volume sales and slanted against smaller operations, the sudden wholesaler interest in their products and promises of quick sales should give weary brewers pause. And craft beer drinkers should give some long term thought to whether it’s a good thing have every craft beer available at our local stores.

–Article appeared in Issue 29 of BeerAdvocate magazine.

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The Boston Globe Reviews “Beer Wars,” Sort Of…

A curious article appears in the Boston Globe today. Written by Globe columnist Alex Beam, the piece discusses the upcoming documentary by Anat Baron, “Beer Wars,” that we’ve covered here before. The odd thing is that Beam isn’t really reviewing the movie, mainly because Baron is not pre-releasing copies for critical review. He does capture the unusual nature of the single day release and he was also allowed to watch ten minutes of the film. His grade based upon this “sip”: C+. While the “review” is interesting in itself, under the circumstances, it is the content of the limited portion of the film that seems to confirm many of my concerns in my last post. The concerns, namely, that Beer Wars would simply be a little-versus-big hatchet job and one based upon an anachronistic view of the beer industry. Definitely take a look at the column for yourself, but here is the heart of Beam’s piece:

What about the movie? Baron is review-proofing it, not scheduling screenings for critics, and not sending out DVDs to interested parties like me. Her people let me see about 10 minutes of “BW,” and it wasn’t very impressive.

What I saw was Michael Moore 101: Little craft breweries like Dogfish Head and MoonShot = Good. Anheuser-Busch, a.k.a. “the soulless machine,” the “monopoly,” the “corporate behemoth with their insatiable appetite for growth” = Bad. Baron takes a page right from the “Roger and Me” playbook, making much of Anheuser CEO August Busch’s refusal to grant her an interview. They did allow her on the premises, however, to hang out with the Clydesdales. “They were my best interview,” she joked.

I asked Baron why she insists on calling Anheuser a “monopoly,” when there are plenty of other beer companies out there. “I went to business school, I know what ‘monopoly’ means,” Baron shot back. Well, I went to eighth grade, where I learned that monopoly means “one seller.” I’m sure Anheuser would like to be a monopoly, but alas, Coors, Miller, Sam Adams, and Dogfish all stand in the way.

In the movie, Dogfish founder Sam Calagione decries publicly owned companies whose goal is “maximizing shareholder value.” Maybe he should hang out with Jim Koch, who runs a publicly owned company, and ask him why he’s in business. For the betterment of mankind, perhaps? “Sam” wages its own amusing deception campaign, calling itself a “small, independent craft brewer” when, with $400 million in revenues and three breweries under its belt, it is the largest American beer company in the United States. (Busch, Miller, and Coors are all foreign-owned.)

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