A Silver Lining In The Obama, Gates, Crowley Beer Debacle…

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With all of the punditry out there, I didn’t think it at all necessary to weigh in on the controversy brewing over the President’s decision to have beers with the participants in Gatesgate, as it’s being called here in the People’s Republic. Craft brewers from Harpoon to Sierra Nevada have been angling since the beery announcement was made to have their beers served at the unusual meeting. And while I think the obvious choices, after maligning (rightly or wrongly so) Our Fair City, would have been to give something from Cambridge a shot, say a John Harvard’s beer or better yet Benevolence from Cambridge Brewing, I’ll leave other eager pundits-in-training to debate that topic.

Despite Bud Lights, Red Stripes, and Blue Moons all around, I think there may be at least one unintended silver lining in all of this import/foreign owned beer drinking: transparency. Craft brewers often complain about how the corporate origins of faux-craft beers such as Blue Moon float beneath the brand radars of beer consumers. With the rash of public complaints and news articles appearing in the last few days, anyone not previously paying attention will now know that Blue Moon is not a little imported brand but is instead produced by mega-conglomerate MillerCoors and that Bud is owned by a foreign company. American crafts may not have made it into the White House this time, but in the battle over “who makes your beer,” this may very well be some priceless PR time…

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Manufactured Controversy and the Radical Traditionalism of BrewDog…

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A month or two back I wrote an article for Beverage Magazine on the BrewDog brewery of Scotland. I had met the brewer, James Watt, a few months ago at local bar Deep Ellum and found him to be a thoughtful, entertaining bloke. His beers had stirred up quite a hornet’s nest in the US, for a variety of reasons including their price and the brewery’s marketing approach. Amongst all of the beer geek fawning, the thing that struck me most about the offerings was how the brewery positioned the beers to mimic the marketing approach of Stone Brewing but actually resulted in very traditional, middle-of-the-road beers (in a good way). That article just went to press so, with the recent (and seemingly annual) controversy over the brewery’s release of its high alcohol Tokyo imperial stout, I figured I’d cross-post the article below…

The culture and influence of American craft brewing is quietly moving across the world. From upstart Danish micro brewers to quirky Japanese extreme ale producers, subtle changes are taking place in the way we all think about beer. These operations are often run by beverage alcohol industry veterans who are now looking to take a different track in their business lives. But sometimes even a few novices are trying to change the way their respective countrymen think about beer.

A mere twenty four years old and with a little savings in their bank accounts, friends Martin Dickie and James Watt of Scotland decided the time was right to put their joint passions to work brewing and selling boldly flavored beers in a place where tradition long ruled. After nearly a year of planning, the pair opened the BrewDog Brewery in Fraserburgh on Scotland’s north east coast line. Dickie brought the knowledge of beer to the venture, having studied brewing and distilling at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh and spent two years as head brewer for the upstart Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire. A long-time home brewer, Dickie now heads the company’s brewing operation.

On the opposite end of the ledger, Watt brings the passion for marketing, sales, and promotion to BrewDog’s operation. Watt has a curious background for someone in his position as managing director, having studied law and economics at Edinburgh University, followed by a lengthy stint working on a herring and mackerel trawler run by his father.

Mainly self-financed, but with some backing from the local Aberdeenshire Council, BrewDog is a curious operation on many levels. The brewery seemingly appeared from the Scottish mist and with the help of the Internet, its reputation grew exponentially even before its beers hit American shores. BrewDog’s beers first started rolling of the lines in early 2007 but within a few months the brewery was already selling bottles in Japan, Denmark, and North America. At a glance, this might appear to be a curious marketing and sales strategy. Welcome to the new age of beer, one where a combination of electronic discussion boards, passionate beer enthusiasts, and extra discretionary cash fuels a global clamor for niche better beers. Like many American brewers, BrewDog is finding that the world is no longer a series of isolated beverage markets but that beer geeks across the planet constitute a profitable, viable market.

Since BrewDog started distributing to the United States, Watt has already visited markets from Boston to San Diego twice. In a recent trip, I met Watt at Deep Ellum in Allston where he presided over a tasting of the brewery’s line for a group of enthusiastic beer geeks. From a light strawberry ale to potent barrel aged offerings, BrewDog’s lineup impressed many attendees. Watt and his partners are grappling with growing pains and remain responsive to the marketplace and their consumers, with whom they communicate through e-mail and beer web sites. After consumers complained that BrewDog’s beers, served in 11.2 and 22.4 ounce bottles, were priced too high, often in the ten to fourteen dollar range at retail, the brewery responded by lowering the price of its next shipment.

During his first trip to the states, Watt hit the nation’s major beer markets before heading to the Stone Brewing Company in San Diego, California, where he collaborated with a group of breweries on a new beer. According to its website, when it came time to plan Stone’s next collaboration, founder Greg Koch and production manager and head brewer Mitch Steele turned to BrewDog, whose beers had impressed them during a trip to Europe. “Greg and I were introduced to James’ and Martin’s beers about a year ago, when we traveled through Scotland,? said Steele. “We were blown away by their ability to brew hoppy, assertive beers and get away with it in the UK.? Steele then turned to a friend, Will Meyers of the Cambridge Brewing Company, from his days brewing in New England to join in the collaborative effort. “I was familiar with BrewDog as I’d stumbled across their beer in England last June, and was psyched to be offered the opportunity to work with two other forward-thinking, ballsy brewers,? said Meyers in the release. Due to the distance between them, the brewers initially collaborated via e-mail to design the recipe for the pilot batches.

The resulting beer, a black pilsner called Juxtaposition, achieved two records for the Stone Brewing Company: its hoppiest beer ever brewed and the first lager produced by the brewery. The brewers used 10,000 pounds of malt and ten separate kettle hop additions of Japanese Sorachi Ace and Motueka hops from New Zealand, with 326 pounds total used, for a rate of three pounds per barrel. The brewers also employed mash-hopping and mash-wort hopping, both firsts for the brewery. In June, Watt traveled back to Stone to test samples from the batch the team brewed. The brewers decided to tweak the beer with some additional dry hopping. The final beer will achieve 10 percent alcohol and no release date has yet been set.

The Stone collaboration was a bit fait-accompli for BrewDog as it has clearly modeled its operation on the in your face promotional philosophy employed by Stone Brewing. Stone has long attempted to court controversy or achieve public attention by setting its efforts apart from other breweries through bold and boisterous bravado. Its provocatively worded labels, written by Koch, stand as a testament to the brewery’s public relations effort. In comparison, BrewDog’s radical and boastful labels appear to largely mimic the Stone operation. On the label of its Punk IPA, deemed a post modern classic pale ale, Watt writes: “This is not a lowest common denominator beer. We don’t care if you like it…This beer is in no way mainstream or commercial, it is proud to be the alternative…You probably don’t even care that this rebellious little beer contains no preservatives or additives and uses only the finest fresh natural ingredients. Just go back to drinking your mass marketed, bland, cheaply made watered down lager, and close the door behind you.? Compare this to the wording on Stone’s popular Arrogant Bastard Ale bottle, which reads: This is an aggressive beer. You probably won’t like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory — maybe something with a multi-million dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it’s made in a little brewery, or one that implies that their tasteless fizzy yellow beer will give you more sex appeal.?

BrewDog has whole-heartedly adopted the Stone Brewing method of promotions and has even extended the extreme nature of it a few extra paces, to some controversial ends. The brewery’s beer, Tokyo, a 12 percent imperial stout brewed with jasmine and cranberries and aged for four weeks on toasted vanilla French oak chips, launched a firestorm of criticism in the British press upon its release. Newspapers such as the Financial Times, the Daily Mail, and others quoted individuals such as Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, a group promoting responsible drinking, who complained about the beer’s alcohol level. “What justification can there possibly be to bring an extra strong beer on to the market,? he said. “Super-strength drinks are often favoured by young people and problem drinkers – is this really who the brewery wants to target?? The criticism was mirrored by several other individuals, including Dr. Bruce Ritson, the chairman of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems. “It is the last thing we need. It is absolutely the wrong direction to be going as far as Scotland’s health problems are concerned. If it became popular it would have devastating consequences for health as well as social order and violence on the streets.? The Times ran similar quotes criticizing the brewery when it released a honey beer brewed with poppy seeds called Speedball, a reference to a drug cocktail of heroin and cocaine. The beer, which has been renamed Dogma, caused a stir in the brewery’s hometown of Fraserburgh, which the Times called the “smack? capital of Britain. In response, Watt told the Times, “Sure, calling a beer Speedball is provocative but the public health campaigners, as they did with Tokyo, will generate hysteria to conceal their own shortfalls in falling to educate drinkers properly. I agree with what these campaigners are doing, but what we’re about is getting drinkers to enjoy a quality drink. The industry continually has a go at us, but they’re too short-sighted to see that we are the one company with precisely the same objectives.?

The irony here is, for all of the bravado and boastfulness, BrewDog actually makes very simple, approachable and traditional beers that do not push the envelope of taste or flavor. The Punk IPA is indeed a classic pale ale with a dull hazy orange hue and appearance and a light, wispy head. The beer’s aroma offers a light herbal and minty note with a slight touch of wheat. The flavor itself, while traditional, has a little steeped tea-like influence, with a pleasant texture and consistency, and quick, light bursts of citrus and hop bitterness. The Dogma, formerly Speedball, pours with a nice amber color and offers a pleasant pale malt aroma mixed with light fruit notes. Despite its near 8 percent alcohol, the medium bodied beer remains quite drinkable, with a light cotton candy sweetness, a touch of molasses and biscuity malt notes, and a slight hop and yeast bite in the finish to balance everything. The listed ingredients, honey, kola nut, poppy seed, and guarana, make little to no impression on this very traditional English ale.

The brewery’s Paradox series involves aging its ales in a series of different barrels. The Paradox Isle of Arran is a stout aged in whisky barrels and is 10 percent alcohol. Pours with a deep, ark black color and a light, fizzy, and unsustained head. The aroma is a bit chalky like mocha at times with a light, passive smoky aroma, akin to a distant camp fire, throughout the beer. The medium bodied beer has a light, sustained richness mixed with touches of roasted malt and a bit of woody flavor from the barrels but is quite mild overall. In contrast, the Paradox aged is Islay Scotch whisky casks possesses an almost overpowering belt of peaty smokiness representative of the nation’s under-appreciated Scotch offering. There is a big alcohol heat here as well in both the aroma and flavor, which results in an unusual molasses and mint flavor, light tobacco notes, and an underlying sweetness that balances the whole package. This beer is an interesting suggestion for your Scotch whisky customers who prefer the aggressive, peaty, smoky versions common in Islay varieties.

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RateBeer Hates On Lagers…

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So in writing the book, I’ve used the major beer websites for cross-referencing information and other research purposes. So tonight in looking at RateBeer.com, a site I don’t often find myself on, I was perusing its Top Beers of 2009 and Best American Beers lists. I was struck not so much by the alcohol bombs that dominate their ranks, a topic I address in my next BeerAdvocate column, but by what is absent: lager beers. As in none. And no, I’m not counting the Livery’s Bourbon Cask Aged Wheat Trippelbock weighing in at 11-14% abv. And to be fair, the BeerAdvocate top beer list isn’t much better on this point but it does offer a half-dozen or so lagers and isn’t quite as booze/hop/barrel heavy. I know that by now I shouldn’t be surprised or bothered by these lists, but I have to say the beer geek addiction to alcohol, hop, and barrel bombs is not only disturbing but I just can’t bring myself to even feign interest in them at this point. So in an upcoming BA column I discuss why we should shy away from these mind-numbingly boring beers and seek out a new definition of extreme beer.

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

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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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Brewers Association Cancels Flawed Beer Journalism Awards Program…

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Just in from my beer writing buddy Don Russell (aka Joe Sixpack) that the Brewers Association has decided to end its five year run of the Beer Journalism Awards, recently renamed in honor of the late beer writer Michael Jackson.

And while I have never been a particular fan of the awards, which involve cash payments and travel accommodations paid for by the Brewers Association, an industry trade group, and several craft breweries, it is sad that beer writers are left without a means of promoting their efforts and judging and awarding the best among them. Over the years, the BJA honored many talented beer writers and it would be nice if that laudable practice could be continued in a less ethically challenged manner. I’d be interested in hearing what others think about continuing these efforts in the future.

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