Harpoon Scores A Rare Twofer…

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Congratulations are certainly due to the Harpoon Brewery for its impressive performance at two recent international beer competitions. Harpoon scored three gold medals at the Stockholm Beer and Whisky Festival and the European Beer Star Competition.  Harpoon’s flagship IPA won a gold at the Stockholm event in the Ale 4.8% to 5.9% category and a gold in the English-style India Pale Ale at the Beer Star competition, held as part of the BRAU Beviale event in Nuremberg, Germany. Harpoon also collected a gold medal in the Maerzen category at the Beer Star event for its Octoberfest. No comment from the competing German brewers on being bested by an ale interpretation on the classic lager style.

As with any competition, it is difficult to deduce the meaning of a win unless it is put into context. I’d like to know more about the number of competitors that participated in each category (how meaningful is a gold medal when you only beat five other beers?).

I have to admit, I find it a little odd that Harpoon chose to send beer to these international events when it does not participate in the Great American Beer Festival. I expect to see Harpoon at next year’s GABF as founder and CEO Rich Doyle will take over as the chairperson of the Brewers Association’s Board of Directors.

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Concord Morphs Into Rapscallion; Dann Paquette Rolls Eyes In Yorkshire…

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A quick update on one of the most complicated brewing stories in New England. As I wrote in The Good Beer Guide To New England:

In its short existence, the Concord Brewery has had four different names, three different owners, and three different homes. The name, which was originally the Concord Junction Brewing Company, refers to the brewery’s first home in Massachusetts, where brewers developed the idea for the unusual Concord Grape Ale. After brewer Mike Labbe purchased the brewery from its owners, he changed the the name to Concord Brewers. After leaving its Concord home for Shirley, the brewery then became known as the Concorde Brewery. Soon after taking over the reins, Labbe found that he preferred being a brewer and there the brewery nearly closed. In the most recent twist, the brewery’s accountant, David Asadoorian, purchased the brewery, renamed it the Concord Brewery, and relocated it to the old Brewery Exchange complex in Lowell. To add a little more to the convoluted history, the brewery produces beers under three different brand names.

Well that confusing history just became a little murkier.  Phil Jewett, owner and founder of Pennichuck Brewing in Milford, New Hampshire, has announced the newest chapter in the complicated story that is the Concord Brewery. New owners Peter and Cedric Daniel have changed both the brewery’s name (to Rapscallion Brewing) and its location (to Milford, NH).

As of this past weekend, the remaining equipment from Lowell has been moved to our 10,094 square foot Pennichuck Brewing in Milford, NH. Their first beer, Rapscallion Honey Ale (formerly known as Concord Extra Pale Honey Ale) was brewed about a month ago and went on the market today in Mass. in draft form only. As soon as their federal and state paperwork has been completed, several establishments in New Hampshire have given commitments to put RHA on tap.

Pennichuck Head Brewer Damase Olsson and I have established a very well balanced working relationship with everyone involved at Rapscallion and we look forward to working closely with them over the coming years creating this new chapter in New England microbrewing history. We are very excited to be a part of bringing consistency and quality to a line of artisanal brands that at one time was an industry leader in this region. Stay tuned for more information on product releases in the coming months.

Developed as a personal artisanal project by former brewer Dann Paquette, the Rapscallion line has perhaps been the brewery’s most visible project and was an early pioneer in pushing the definitional boundaries of ‘beer.’ Born in the spirit of beers that are intentionally different from batch to batch, the Rapscallion line of beers defied the notion that consistency in flavor profile is the brewer’s only goal. The three early Rapscallion brands, named Blessing, Creation, and Premier, varied in consistency and flavor from batch-to-batch, but were widely lauded by beer enthusiasts.

Under Asadoorian’s control, the Concord and Rapscallion brands never grew beyond their local environs in Lowell. The quality of the beer also suffered. I visited the Lowell pub a handful of times since the publication of my book and each time I was further put off by both the Concord and Rapscallion offerings. When the beer is undrinkable at the source, you know there’s a problem. It’s difficult to say whether the interest of yet another set of new owners will change the brewery’s prospects.

On the rebranded brewery’s website, the new owners joke about the company’s troubled history. “Maybe you never understood why a beer brewed in Lowell, MA went by the name of Concord. Well, we didn’t either.”

The brewery’s first release will be the Rapscallion Honey. The owners claim that other brands from both the Rapscallion and Concord lines will be reintroduced in the future. With all the uncertainty surrounding this brand, I won’t be holding my breath.

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A Quick Look Back at 2007…

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The beer world recently gathered again in the welcoming environs of Denver, Colorado, to celebrate the success of the craft brewing industry and to witness its continued growth. Hosting the 26th annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF), the Colorado Convention Center packed in beer lovers and industry workers from all fifty states and dozens of countries.

The Festival Succeeds

By all objective business measures, the event was a tremendous success. This year’s GABF celebrated the feat of selling out the entire event before the first beer was poured in the opening session on an unseasonably warm Thursday evening near the Rockies. The event all broke nearly every other record it had previously set. While final numbers are not yet available, more than 46,000 people attended the four sessions of the festival, where they enjoyed 1884 beers from 408 breweries. This event is a long way from its incarnation as an annual event in 1982. Held at the Harvest House Hotel in Boulder, Colorado, the first GABF welcomed 800 attendees who enjoyed 40 beers from 22 breweries.

Managing the event’s popularity continues to pose challenges for the festival’s organizers at the Brewers Association. While the event remains a must attend, today’s GABF is no longer the simple, cozy event of years past. The GABF is a slickly produced show, tightly coordinated, and business first. Limited by the space available at the convention center, the event appears to have reached its maximum attendance. Every inch of the convention floor was occupied this year, with educational seminars, cooking demonstrations, and a silent disco floor where dancers with headphones silently grooved. Brewers and owners from breweries large and small participated in forum discussions about beer styles, the experience of women in beer, and the future of extreme beer.

The event also served as an opportunity for the beer industry to mourn the recent passing of pioneering beer writer Michael Jackson. The author of whol sold more than two million copies of his numerous books on beer, whiskey, and English pubs, Jackson, 65, died of a heart attack at his home in London, England, on August 30, 2007. A long-time fixture at the festival, with his tape recorder and ruffled appearance, Jackson consulted with founder Charlie Papazian about the first GABF while the latter was in attendance at the Great British Beer Festival. When Papazian pondered aloud that Americans should stage a festival like the British event, Jackson is reported to have quipped, “Yes, but where will you get the beer??

Fast forward more than a quarter of a century and Papazian stood on the GABF’s awards stage to eulogize Jackson, known as the Beer Hunter, in front of an audience of thousands of American brewers and beer lovers. The usually reserved Papazian delivered a rousing oratory for his friend, telling stories of Jackson’s early travels around the world in search of new beers. The tribute culminated in a tasteful video homage to the writer, including clips of his appearances on American late night television.

The Awards

After paying the proper respects, the Brewers Association began the much anticipated awards presentation. Over the course of three days, more than 100 judges sipped, smelled, and evaluated 2793 beers from 473 breweries in an unbelievable 75 beer style categories (up from 67 in just 2004). In the end, the judges awarded 222 medals to 142 breweries. Thirty-percent of all breweries participating left with a medal, with 62 breweries, or 13-percent of the total participants, winning a gold medal. Only 19 New England breweries participated in this year’s festival and the region continued to experience some difficulty in the competition, bringing home only five medals. Cambridge Brewing Company’s Cambridge Amber won a silver medal in the Cellar or Unfiltered Beer category, Allagash Brewing Company’s Victor won a bronze medal in the Experimental Beer category and a its Four won a bronze medal in the Belgian Abbey Ale category, Portsmouth Brewery won a silver medal in the Wheat Wine category, and Boston Beer Company won another gold medal for its Samuel Adams Double Bock in the German-style Strong Bock category.

The fiercest competition continued to be in the American style categories, with the American-style India Pale Ale drawing 120 entries and the Fruit and Vegetable Beer category growing from 46 entries in 2006 to 94 entries this year. The Large Brewing Company of the Year Award went to Pabst Brewing Company; Mid-Size Brewing Company of the Year Award to Firestone Walker Brewing of Paso Robles, California; Small Brewing Company of the Year Award to Port Brewing & The Lost Abbey of San Marcos, California; Large Brewpub of the Year Award to Redrock Brewing Company of Salt Lake City, Utah; and Small Brewpub of the Year Award to Montana Brewing Company of Billings, Montana.

The Big Guys Take Notice

Beyond the numbers, the real story of the festival was the continued success of the American craft brewing industry and its effects on the country’s largest brewing companies. In August, the Brewers Association released mid-year numbers that demonstrated that craft brewing is far from a tech stock bubble campaign. The volume of craft beer sold in the first half of 2007 rose 11-percent compared to the already explosive growth of 2006 and dollar growth increased 14-percent, leading craft beer to exceed 5-percent of total beer sales for the first time.

The response of the larger brewers to the success of the craft brewers has been mixed to date but their interest has clearly been piqued. SABMiller’s American brewing unit continues to push its Leinenkugel’s brands, including the Sunset Wheat, and the Coors Brewing Company aggressively leverages its popular Blue Moon brand. While the festival stood as a testament to the continued strength of the craft brewing segment, two events that quietly occurred before the event served to put craft brewers on notice that the big brewers do not plan to cede ground.

A few weeks before the GABF, America’s third largest brewery announced plans to form a specialty beer unit to develop high-end beers. As part of an internal news release, the Molson Coors Brewing Company informed workers and distributors of the creation of a new “brand incubation company,? called the AC Golden Brewing Company, LLC. The company refused to comment on when or where any new brands might be released. The announcement is another example of how Coors is directing greater focus and resources to the changing American beer marketplace. The brewery has a long history of developing and nurturing better beer brands, including the Blue Moon brand that it created in 1995 at its own brewpub, the SandLot Brewery at Coors Field. The Blue Moon Belgian White and its off-shoot brands have enjoyed great success and now account for more than 650,000 barrels of production.

In rejecting a national rollout, Coors plans to follow the Blue Moon playbook by slowly developing new brands under the AC Golden Brewing Company label. While the company refuses to discuss brands under development, several recent trademark and label application filings have raised speculation about the unit’s possible new offerings. Coors’ latest filings include applications for Pale Moon and Pale Moon Light, which are possible offshoots of the Blue Moon brand. The brewery has also filed a trademark application for Herman Joseph’s. Named after Coors co-founder Adolph Herman Joseph Coors, the brand was first released as an above-premium ale in 1980 before being discontinued in 1989. Buoyed by its success in the craft beer category, the brewery may be ready to take another run with this namesake brand.

The Rise of MillerCoors

Two days before the festival opened, a quiet bombshell was dropped on the beer industry. On October 9, America’s second and third largest breweries agreed to combine their U.S. operations to create the second largest brewer behind Anheuser-Busch. The joint venture between SABMiller and Molson Coors is projected to generate around $500 million in annuals cost savings by the third year after completion of the deal, which still must pass muster under anti-competition laws. The new company, which will be called MillerCoors, will have annual combined beer sales of 69 million U.S. barrels and net revenues of approximately $6.6 billion. SABMiller and Molson Coors will both have a 50-percent voting interest in the joint venture and have five representatives each on its Board of Directors. While touted as a “merger of equals,? SABMiller will have a 58-percent economic interest in the joint venture while and Molson Coors retains a 42% economic interest, reflecting their respective financial contributions to the new venture. Pete Coors, Vice Chairman of Molson Coors, will serve as Chairman of MillerCoors, while SABMiller’s CEO Graham Mackay will serve as Vice Chairman of MillerCoors. Leo Kiely, current CEO of Molson Coors, will be the CEO of the joint venture, and Tom Long, current CEO of Miller, will be appointed President and Chief Commercial Officer.

While rumors of the deal have floated around the beer industry for some time, the news of its consummation leaves many open questions for craft brewers and Anheuser-Busch alike. In seeking to secure cost reductions through ‘synergies,’ the new venture will likely seek to reduce redundant sales and distribution operations in markets where both maintain strong presences. This reality, together with the combined portfolios of both breweries, may tighten the distribution channels for some craft brewers who will be required to fight for places on fewer delivery trucks.

For its part, Anheuser-Busch quickly responded to the news. In an October 9, 2007, memorandum, A-B’s President and CEO August Busch IV called on all A-B wholesalers and employees to redouble their focus on the new competition. “We are studying the implications of this competitive move further—but we must not lose sight of the fact that this joint venture represents an attempt by these companies to better compete against us,? he wrote. “We believe this new structure presents a timely opportunity for all of us—as most game-changing incidents do,? he wrote. “This new entity does not match our size or portfolio of beers, yet there are undoubtedly synergies that this new company will eventually realize. At the same time, there will be significant transition confusion from this change, and it’s up to us to capitalize on this disruption now.?

The New Beer Sommelier

With the festival’s emphasis on education, one long-time GABF supporter recently announced plans to start his own beer testing program. Created by author and Brewers Association employee Ray Daniels, the Cicerone Certification Program will soon be available to test the knowledge of individuals who sell and serve beer. The Cicerone program will certify beer industry employees on a variety of subjects, including beer styles, culture, tasting, ingredients, and pairing beer with food. To encourage students of varying interest levels to participate, the program will offer three separate levels of certification, including Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, and Master Cicerone, with costs ranging from $49 to $495. “Only those who have passed the requisite test of knowledge and tasting skill can call themselves a Cicerone,? Daniels says.

As a past director of craft beer marketing for the Brewers Association, Daniels is no stranger to the brewing industry. A graduate and faculty member of the Siebel brewing school, Daniels has written, edited, and published more than a dozen books related to beer and organized the now defunct Chicago Real Ale Festival.

While the concept of a beer sommelier is not new, beer enthusiasts have never been able to find a word that captures the essence of a certified beer expert. Daniels chose the word cicerone, which means a guide who explains matters of archaeological, antiquarian, historic or artistic interest, after rejecting several other possibilities. “My hunt covered a good bit of ground from things like ‘Savant de Beer’ to made-up words like ‘Cereviseur,’ but none rang true,? Daniels says. “As many in the beer industry who I talked to objected to association of the word ‘sommelier’ with beer, some new word was needed.?
With the development of his eccentrically named certification program, Daniels hopes to foster a greater sense of respect for beer while avoiding some of the snootiness and pretension associated with wine stewardship.

Article appeared in December 2007 issue of Beverage Magazine.

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Death to Beer Styles…

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A revolution is quietly growing in the beer world. Led by a group of nihilistic radicals, this movement seeks to overthrow the way brewers categorize their beers. Eschewing the restrictions of traditionalism, these free-form brewers want to change the way people think about tasting beer.

The radicals focus their scorn on the beer styles most brewers use as guideposts. Beer styles have developed from time immemorial, many born out of necessity and even accident. As brewers gained greater understanding over the brewing process, including the importance of temperature controls and sanitation, their natural senses of curiosity resulted in the appearance of new flavors. With the help of historians and authors, these flavors eventually hardened into distinguishable types.

The most widely accepted source defining beer styles is the Brewers Association’s Style Guidelines. Since 1979, the trade association’s historic and descriptive style list has attempted to bring order to an otherwise chaotic scheme of eclectic brewing methods and styles. The current list details around 70 distinct styles of beer, with each suggesting the proper color, body type, malt flavors, and hop aromas or bitterness levels.

While some may view the guide’s technical mumbo jumbo as a science nerd’s attempt to suck the fun out of beer, this mild criticism pales in comparison to the radicals’ disdain. In challenging conventional brewing wisdom, a small group of brewers across the country refuse to brew their beers in adherence to any traditional set of parameters. These brewers insist that style guidelines place oppressive, arbitrary, and even damaging restraints on the boundless creativity of craft brewers.

At Sixpoint Craft Ales in Brooklyn, New York, brewer Shane Welch is a pioneer in free-form brewing. Where many brewers first contemplate the style of beer they want to brew and then begin forming a recipe, an approach he calls ‘working backwards,? Welch visualizes each step to a final product. The Sixpoint brewer rejects working within the confines of classic style guidelines, instead choosing to focus on how he wants the beer to taste, look, and smell, down to the smallest detail, and only then does he generate a recipe. While the resulting beers cover a wide-range of flavors, the approach may painfully confound those who prefer order of categorization in their pints.

Throughout our existence, Americans have enjoyed blazing their own trail, sometimes trampling tradition in the process. Craft brewers are no different, tortuously bending and twisting time-honored and venerable beer styles into hardly recognizable new shapes. American craft brewers have taken the classic imperial stout, barleywines, and IPA styles and given them mohawks, baggy pants, and a soul patch. While for many this willingness to untether themselves from the shackles of history is part of the craft beer movement’s charm, there has always remained an underlying, if underplayed, respect for tradition. Some American brewers, however, appear ready to forego the tradition inherent in beer styles altogether.

For many beer lovers, it’s hard to wrap their minds around the concept of free-form brewing. Where they could once judge a beer against some basic objective criteria, however broad, the free-form approach appears to lose all sense of order and flirts with chaos. Without the benefit of styles in the tasting of free-form beers, consumers are left to simply ponder whether they personally like the beer. For free-form brewers, this existential point is the essence of tasting, unencumbered by paper rules influenced by European standards of beauty and achievement.

While the nihilists quietly conspire around the fringes of the brewing industry, many traditional brewers steadfastly promote the importance of brewing within the existing style framework. When drinkers understand even the basic nuances of beer styles, they are better equipped to choose the right beer when they order. But without styles or beer ESP, how does someone decide between Sixpoint’s SMP, Apollo, Express, or Encore? Without a descriptive beer menu or detailed six-pack container, consumers are essentially required to spin the wheel when selecting free-form brands.

Beer styles also provide a necessary check on the beer industry, allowing the consumer to judge the quality of a particular beer against others they’ve had in the style. The lack of any objective criteria provides poor quality beer with the ultimate means of deflecting criticism. An unknowing consumer who finds a sour or unusual off-flavor in their free-form can never be sure the brewer didn’t intend the beer to taste that way.

Standing in a barroom, looking up at the draft list, I remain torn over the value of free-form brewing. While pushing the envelope of beer is a defining characteristic of American craft brewing, so is respect for tradition. This constant push and pull has resulted in amazing displays of brewing artistry. While styles will likely continue to evolve and adapt to an ever-changing American palate, the free-form brewing revolutionaries may one day lead the way.

Article appeared in October 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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