The Return of Old Style?

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Every beer lover over a certain age has one iconic brand etched into their youthful memories. For some in New England, it’s Narragansett, Rainier in the Pacific Northwest, or Grain Belt in the upper Midwest. For me, the brand was Old Style. Look at old family photos from the 1970s and deep in the background (if not in someone’s hand), you’ll see cans of Heileman’s Old Style beer. With its distinctive red, white, and blue label, its gothic lettered shield and red badge, the Old Style brand was omnipresent at family gatherings, available en masse in the fridge, and in our hands at Wrigley for Cubs games. The exteriors of Chicago bars were littered with Old Style signs, often with nothing more written on them than ‘cold beer’ in a half-dozen languages, usually Polish (‘zimne piwo’). Although I don’t recall it, I’d venture to say that my first sip of beer was probably Old Style. That last part probably explains why I didn’t start drinking beer until college.

Old StyleFor all the nostalgia I feel for the brand–and it is a considerable amount–it’s really not pleasant to drink. Not even at Wrigley on a hot summer day when the Cubs are kicking the Cardinals’ or Brewers’ asses. Well, maybe then, but never elsewhere. So it is with some interest and trepidation that I received the news that Old Style’s owner, Pabst Brewing, has decided to renew its focus on the brand. First brewed in La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1902 by Gottlieb Heileman, Old Style fell victim to the crushing beer wars and was eventually sold to the Stroh’s Brewery before its purchase by Pabst in 1999. Pabst recently announced that it would return to krausening Old Style for the traditional thirty day period at the City Brewing Company in La Crosse (home of the original Heileman’s brewery and previous home to Old Style). The Old Style’s brewers hope that krausening will “provide more body, flavor and a cleaner finish to Old Style – things we believe our loyal drinkers and our new beer drinkers will both appreciate and enjoy.” Beyond this new brewing step, Pabst plans to fashion a new advertising campaign to herald this relic/throwback brand and market it to the usual 25-29 year-old “tweener” market.

Pabst has done a good job with its tepid, controlled marketing of its signature brand and it’s a macro-product that I actually enjoy from time to time. So I’ll happily try the newly fashioned Old Style when I return to Chicago next to find out if the lack of krausening was really the culprit for my early aversion to macro beer…

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The Dick Cantwell Interview…

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Born in Germany and raised in the Upper Midwest, Dick Cantwell developed his passion for beer as a homebrewer living and writing in the Boston area in the late 1980’s. By 1990, he decided to move once again, this time to Seattle, where he became the head brewer for the Duwamps Café and Seattle Brewing Company. He eventually left to work as a brewer the nearby Pike Place Brewing Company before spending time at the Big Time Brewery and Alehouse. By 1996, Cantwell was ready to break out on his own and with the help of partners Joe Bisacca and Dave Buhler, formerly of the Rogue Ales Brewery of Oregon, he founded the Elysian Brewing.

Taken from a Greek word of varied meanings, references to Elysian can be found in a wide variety of literary works, which makes sense considering Cantwell’s background as a writer. The partners’ original location in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle boasts a 20-barrel brewing system that has provided the backbone for an operation that now extends to two other locations in the city, Tangletown and Elysian Fields (a reference to the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous). These smaller operations, three and four barrel systems respectively, allow Elysian’s brewers to experiment, resulting in more than 60 different beers. In order to manage it’s growth, Elysian recently announced a unique brewing arrangement, in the form of a cooperative, with the New Belgium Brewing Company of Fort Collins, Colorado. I recently spoke with Dick Cantwell at his Elysian Fields restaurant and pub.

Andy Crouch: Tell me about your recent announcement of collaboration with the New Belgium Brewing Company of Fort Collins, Colorado.

Dick Cantwell: One of the things that I’ve been working on over the last six months is this New Belgium thing. That’s taking a fair amount of communication time and I’m down there four or five times and I’ll be heading down there soon to make post-fermentation decisions about the beers I brewed recently. Can I say that I brewed them? I was there, I contributed information but I didn’t actually, well that’s not true, I did dump pumpkin into the mash tun. Dropped the bucket into the mash tun actually (laughs).

AC: What was the genesis of that arrangement?

DC: I think that it came from a number of things. For one thing, we’ve always been friendly. Peter and I have been kicking around the idea of brewing together for four or five years and actually had it scheduled at one time and we had to cancel. It really started picking up some steam when I got on the Brewers Association board and I became friends with Kim Jordan. During the course of board discussions, we found ourselves agreeing about not necessarily what the solutions were but over our concerns for the future of the craft brewing movement. One thing that we talked about independently and with our own little spin on it was the notion of cooperatives in the future. There is a real source of concern that a lot of breweries—there are a lot of people my age and older who have been in this business for fifteen or twenty years and their getting to the point where they are thinking about what they’re going to do. Are they going to sell their places or get their kids to try and become brewers and take over the business? It’s not a matter of urgency for me because I’m not that old but it’s something to think about. That is a real area of concern. I think we’re going to see a lot happen in the next ten to fifteen years and we’re seeing the big breweries take interest in what we’re doing, especially with Anheuser-Busch. I think those of us who don’t want to take those avenues have to come up with some creative ways to not just survive but to go into the future. I see a lot of different combinations for how people can come together. One thing that has really kind of intrigued me over the last year has been the deal between Pabst and Southampton. There was no portion of ownership changing hands and it was just a creative arrangement to try and make more beer from a reputable source. That’s not exactly what we’re doing but we’re trying to figure out a way that we can make more beer and grow our demand and market to the point where in two or three years when we think about taking the plunge with a new bigger brewery. In the meantime, we don’t have to make that enormous capital investment. And we haven’t worked out the fine points yet but I’m really looking forward to having some of their people here to brew some specialty beers and to give some of our local customers a chance to try some of New Belgium’s really great beers. A lot of people around here just think of them as the Fat Tire brewery and we all know that they make some really terrific stuff in these smaller batches.

AC: What are you guys expecting for the next three to five years?

DC: I think we’ll definitely increase our brewing capacity. We opened in California in September and that is enormous for us. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We’ll do that for a while and examine what makes sense. We need a bigger brewery to serve this region so we’re trying to set that up. We’re trying to decide whether we want to do a standalone thing on our own or as I’ve talked about, some kind of cooperative. We’re exploring all of these options.

AC: Are you thinking of including other breweries in a cooperative?

DC: I don’t know if we will but I think that is the sort of cooperative that we will be seeing. There is precedent for this. In Denver about twelve years ago, Broadway Brewing, Flying Dog, Wynkoop and Crested Butte were together. I don’t see why it won’t happen.

AC: What are your thoughts on the business partnerships between craft breweries and large entities, such as Anheuser-Busch?

DC: I’m sort of glad that we weren’t at that point when Anheuser-Busch was really looking around for the next place to acquire. I’m glad that the whole movement has matured and that we’ve grown to the point that the deal that we’ve made makes sense for us and we’ve totally escaped the notice of…Well, not totally. One time we had a Brewers Association pow-wow with August Busch the Fourth a little more than a year ago in D.C. We all sat down in a room with him and his posse and his sort-of right hand man shook my hand and said that he had enjoyed our beer for years. It was like the touch of death (laughs) that someone at Anheuser-Busch had taken notice. It turns out that August the Fourth has a house out on Lake Washington and so they had stayed in the area.

AC: How did you get involved with the Brewers Association and the Board?

DC: Well, I’ve judged at the Great American Beer Festival every year since 1995 so I’ve been doing that for quite a while. I’m written for several magazines and wrote a book on barleywine for the association. After we won the small brewpub of the year award, that sort of brought us more into the fold right there. A couple of people suggested that I should try and get on the board. It’s been a good experience and I’ve learned a lot about administration and knowledge that works well in the business. And of course it’s helped cultivate this new association.

AC: How has your experience been on the board with some of the industry politics?

DC: The people on the Brewers Association board will do things without being self-interested. Jim Koch is able to separate himself. He’ll say, “What I’m saying now is completely at odds with the policy of Boston Beer but here is what I think this organization should do.? I think we see that from everyone who is on it and that they operate with the view that we all have to hang together or we’ll all hang separately. Over the last four years, the melding of the Brewers Association of America and the Association of Brewers was absolutely essential for the success of our industry. Here we were, an industry segment commanding 2-percent of the national market at that point yet we had two trade organizations? I’m pretty impressed at how people are able to set aside their individual corporate sensibilities and priorities in favor of the greater good.

AC: Did you have any involvement in the definition of craft brewer and the controversy that went on with that?

DC: (Laughs) Oh yeah, I was part of that. I wasn’t on the committee that came up with it but that is such a tough thing. At times, I’ve argued about every possible point of view and have been on both sides of this issue. The most recent thing I think I’ve said is that we should just give up and not have a definition and trust the consumer to make the right choice. But that was admittedly a rarified position being as small as we are. I got reaction from other people on the board saying, “You know, you’re wrong.? I guess at this point that we’re just trying not to make too much of it. I do, however, see some positive effects even though there is disagreement and there is disagreement, even among members of the board. There are absolutists who think that if you even have any ownership by someone else that you couldn’t be considered independent. And I don’t even know if we would qualify because we have like six percent foreign ownership, depending upon where you draw the line. I mean it’s like, “How much of a vegetarian are you?? I do see some positive effects. Take Starr Hill for example. I remember at the Craft Brewer’s Conference in Austin there was this enormously contentious members’ meeting where everyone was arguing over whether we should kick the Widmer’s [of Widmer Brothers Brewing] out and wasn’t it a shame about the Hall’s [of Goose Island Brewing] and that we shouldn’t cut out any of our pioneers. And that is tough. At the same time, they do gain advantages by their associations so I don’t know. After that meeting, I went out and spoke with the guy who owns Starr Hill and his wife and they we’re grilling me about it. And they had no indication or announcement of anything they were going to do and we talked for quite a while. And then when the announcement came that they had reached a deal with Anheuser-Busch and that it was only twenty-five percent, I kind of felt like that was a victory. That people were actually taking into account where they would fall in the camps of designation and that they had taken that to heart in determining how to forge their deal. What does that mean? I’m not sure.

AC: And what of Boston Beer and its production nearly reaching the threshold amount of two million barrels.

DC: Exactly. It’s inevitable that they will go above two million barrels and this was my point in saying we should dismantle it. The definition of our success ensures our failure. All of a sudden our market share would drop. And yes, Blue Moon, or what we are now calling it, Blue Moon by Coors, their success and the decency of their beers—I mean twenty years ago wouldn’t all of us have considered that a good thing, that one of the big brewers is actually making a beer we can drink, it is a victory in terms of sensibility but it’s scary in terms of the inroads it makes on our more purely defined arena but I still think it’s a victory.

AC: Blue Moon by Coors?

DC: We’re going to do a whole campaign of ‘who makes your beer?’ So that it is right out there. It will be right out there that this percentage of our beer is made at New Belgium and I’m ok with that. But it’s also going to be, ‘how much of your company is owned by Anheuser-Busch’ and ‘who makes this’ and what the Plank Road Brewery really means. We want consumers to go to the website or generally have it forged into their consciences so that they pay attention and give a damn where it comes from and who does it.

AC: What brought on the move to New York?

DC: We knew we wanted to open some new markets and when we started thinking of New York, the New Belgium deal wasn’t even on the horizon. The way it has worked out, we know we want to increase our profile in markets where we haven’t been before and New York is the media market. The week after we went to New York, we received a query from Men’s Journal wanting to do something on our ESB and other beers. That’s a victory right there. Eric Asimov of the New York Times won’t write about beers that aren’t available in New York. There have been tastings there that I just wish our beers could have been a part of. I wish our ESB could have been in the Bitter category as we’ve won three gold medals with that beer. It’s for exposure as we grow. I think we’ve always had a larger profile than we are. We’ve just grown to being a five thousand barrel brewpub with distribution in a cluster of states. I think there are a lot of people who would be surprised to realize that we are that small. We’ve had a good profile at national events and because of the board. We’re trying to create a profile that we hope to grow into. It’s an area we have strong ties to and as I have strong ties to Boston, I hope to get there soon as well.

–Article appeared in February issue of Beverage Magazine.

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Harpoon Brews Up A Blue Moon Killer…

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I recently received word through sort of an unusual but reliable back channel that the Harpoon Brewery was planning to brew a new beer. The project is apparently of a very hush-hush nature at the Boston brewery. A new 100 Barrel series or Leviathan release you might ask? Nope. After years of being battered in the local market by the wildfire growth of the Blue Moon Belgian White (or “Blue Moon by Coors/MolsonCoors/MillerCoors” if you’re down with the Brewers Association’s quiet PR campaign), the folks at Harpoon have decided to expand their UFO line to include another beer: UFO White. Details surrounding the beer remain very sketchy as news of the beer was not meant for public release quite yet. I imagine you’ll be seeing this beer pushed very hard on draft in the local Boston market in an attempt to retake some of the omni-present Blue Moon handles secured by Coors.

Now, I’m pretty much on record in support of the development and promotion of Blue Moon by the Coors people. While not the most flavorful beer I’ve ever had, I think Blue Moon is a reliable choice when in a pinch at a chain restaurant and it has contributed to expanding the reach of better beer into demographics where it hasn’t previously succeeded. I’ve also been supportive of how Coors has chosen to treat and promote the brand, say in contrast to the efforts of Anheuser-Busch related to its “faux-craft” products.

With this said, Harpoon’s decision to brew this beer in an attempt to compete head-to-head with the Blue Moon juggernaut couldn’t have been an easy one. I imagine the sales meetings at Harpoon in Boston must have devolved into grumbles about how Blue Moon has been kicking the UFO brand’s butt in local bars and restaurants.

First developed and released in 1998, Harpoon’s UFO Hefeweizen was apparently inspired “by the cloudy beers drank in many German beer gardens.” While German hefeweizens (in their most popular style) are distinguished by their fruity/clovey/banana-y flavors and aromas, UFO ‘Hefeweizen’ is not really a hefe at all. Instead, the UFO lead product is actually an American-style wheat beer, one of the few global beer styles (perhaps the only one) that I personally find little to no redeeming value in. So take my criticism of the brand with that grain of salt in mind. To Harpoon’s credit, the brewery has never claimed (beyond the product’s name) to have brewed a traditional hefeweizen. And despite my lack of fondness for the brand, UFO has proven popular with drinkers and spawned a local “1-2 punch,” along with the Harpoon IPA. Harpoon’s sales staff could sell both products, side-by-side, each complementing the other and without any real competition between the brands.

Enter the Harpoon White. As I said, Harpoon’s decision to release this beer is a little risky if for no other reason than the very real fear of brand cannibalization. I think consumer’s are going to have a difficult time distinguishing between the brands (except perhaps by a lemon versus an orange garnishment, if Harpoon follows the presentation model perfected by Coors and Blue Moon). Even if the products taste very different (no easy feat when you’re trying to keep a broad appeal among your target audience here), the White inevitably will cannibalize some of the UFO Hefeweizen’s market presence and brand share. I haven’t seen any recent numbers on the brand, but Harpoon may have decided that the UFO Hefeweizen’s numbers, if dwindling or growing only slowly, may be worth sacrificing if a witbier product can cut into Blue Moon’s substantial success.

Another odd turn here is the irony of the situation. After several years where America’s largest breweries were trying to recreate the efforts (and thereby the success) of craft brewers, we now have a craft brewer trying to emulate the successful efforts of one of the world’s largest brewers. That’s quite a compliment for the folks at Coors…

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The B-Side Lives?

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Rumors have been swirling around the future of the B-Side Lounge since it closed on November 2, 2008. Some said it would be razed to build condos, others said it would remain vacant, and Daniel Lanigan, owner of The Moan and Dove of Amherst and formerly of The Dirty Truth of Northampton, said his months long battle to take over the place would come to fruition after his initial attempts to secure the property fell through. Despite the naysayers, and I have been a skeptic at times, Lanigan appears to have pulled it off.

With liabilities listed as being between $500,000 and $1 million, The B-Side’s property fell into foreclosure. Unable to meet the debt and tax demands, the leaseholder, Northbound Train, Inc., filed for bankruptcy in November and the property closed. After winding its way through the Chapter 7 process, Federal Bankruptcy Court Judge Joan N Feeney ordered that the property be put to auction. The auction lot included “the right, title and interest to a City of Cambridge 7-Day 2 AM all Alcoholic beverage license, the current lease interest, equipment and fixtures of a bar, kitchen and dining area including but not limited to upholstered booths and tables, stools, beer coolers, ref base units, ss sinks, tables, ss hood, double oven, fryer, char grille, ss salad units & numerous pots, pans and smallwares.?

At the auction, which was held yesterday, potential bidders were required to bring a deposit in the amount of $30,000 to bid on the license, $10,000 for the lease, and $2,500 for the equipment or a $40,000.00 deposit for the entire lot. The property was sold subject to the landlord’s reservation of rights on the lease. The property’s owner is Chris Schelsinger (through Southbound Realty Trust), founder of the East Coast Grill, Jake and Earl’s Dixie BBQ, and The Blue Room.

According to a post on BeerAdvocate, Lanigan was the purported winner of the auction and now can assume the B-Side’s lease, which requires about $3300 a month in rent. Lanigan is reportedly going to continue The B-Side’s much heralded dedication to cocktails and spirits as well as revamping the bar’s beer program. No word on what the new venture will be called.

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Twitter And Beer, Two Things That Do Not Go Together…

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So in the last month, I’ve had several people mention Twitter to me and suggest opening an account related to my beer writing. As I’ve written before, I don’t really get Twitter and think it’s a pretty self-indulgent, self-absorbed thing. Now I’ve determined what might be at the core of why I dislike Twitter: Enter TwitterTasteLive and here. If the solitary act of beerblogging wasn’t bad enough, you can add the anti-social element of drinking a beer with other people, while not actually with other people. That’s right. You buy the beers, drink them alone in your basement closet, and then post your experiences on Twitter. Mine would look like this: “Closet is cold and dark…Think I’m still drinking beer…I wonder if the pub is still open…Later nerds.” I’m all for people getting together to drink beer and even discuss it (although let’s try and keep the latter to a minimum). All told, for my money, Twittering beer seems a pretty ridiculous endeavor and kind of the polar opposite from what makes beer great, namely the whole conviviality and bringing people together thing. Who knows, maybe Twitter is the future of human communication and soon we will all correspond only with choppy sentences from our handhelds. That will hopefully leave me a little extra room at the bar. So at 8 p.m. on Saturday night I won’t be twittering, unless that’s what you now call drinking pints at McNeill’s with a bevy of new, non-virtual friends.

EDIT: I’ve already been informed by a slightly irate reader that the act of posting on Twitter is not called ‘twittering’ but instead ‘tweeting.’ I may never have been so happy not to know something in my life…I’ve also added the ‘self-absorbed’ line.

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