Back From Denver, No Idea Where To Start…

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Just recently back from Denver and things remain a touch too chaotic. At some point I’ll post some thoughts about the festival and the attendant happenings, but mainly the trip served as a much welcomed respite that was surprisingly not beer-related. My calendar tells me that the Belgian Beer Festival kicks off in a few short weeks so things will quickly get beer-related again.

Congrats again to the few New England brewers who decided to send their beers to Denver for the Great American Beer Festival and to those who won their fair share. And for the rest of you, you were robbed…

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The End is Nigh or Time to Enjoy a Bells Batch 6000…

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As I type the final words in the draft that will hopefully become my second book, tentatively titled Great American Craft Beer, I’ve decided to quietly celebrate with some sharp Vermont cheddar and a Bells Batch 6000 from the cellar. In doing a quick Google search to determine when the beer was released, one of the early entrants was, to my surprise, my own words from some time in 2003.

After brewing its 5000th batch, Bells decided to celebrate by producing a special smoked beer. With its 6000th batch, the brewery decided to celebrate again by producing an utterly sublime and wonderful beer. Put plainly, Batch 6000 is the best beer I sampled during 2003. It is a phenomenal barleywine-style ale, with deep, rich malt notes and an incredible balance of hops and alcohol. The flavor continues strong throughout the brew, finishing with some sizable malt notes and some tinges of hoppiness. After sampling the first bottle of this expensive six-pack, I had grand plans to cellar the rest of these brews to enjoy their developing complexity with age. Unfortunately, Batch 6000s smooth flavor and wonderful blend of alcohol and hops proved too great an enticement and sadly I’ll never know what the future holds for an aged version of this product.

I have no idea what happened after I typed those words but I came across four bottles of this delicious nectar while perusing my cellar for a celebratory beer this evening. And I have to say, reading some early reviews on the ratings websites, everyone talked about just how potent and strongly flavored the beer was and how it would mellow over time, including this particularly colorful reference:

If this beer had balls, you’d need a fucking wheel barrel to haul them around.

Well, six years later, I can report that things haven’t mellowed very much and this beer is still a bruiser. It has something to do with the proportion of dark malt, which imparts such a marked bitterness. The aroma is slightly oxidized, a bit sherry, but it generally tastes and smells just as I remember it, only darker and more roasted.

And as much as I love the beer, it pains me to see people selling bottles of it on eBay, with a reserve starting at $20/bottle…That is about twice as much as I paid for the six-pack but really, what kind of an a-hole do you have to be to sell such a great beer on-line?

Anyways, raising a glass to Bells and to the achievement of personal goals.

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Opportunity Lost: Buzzards Bay Brewing Is Finished…

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I’d love to spend a great deal of time commenting on the news now breaking that the Buzzards Bay Brewing Company, maker of fine lagers, is ceasing part of its brewing operations. Unfortunately, I’m on several deadlines so that discussion is going to have to wait, probably for a while. The more I read the short Herald piece, the more ridiculous the whole situation seems. After a half-dozen false starts, many detailed in a previous article on the subject, things started looking up for the brewery about a year ago. Its products started showing up in Boston again for the first time in years and the brewery suddenly appeared to have a focused approach: brew solid lager beer. But the steering has been unsteady at Buzzards Bay for as long as I’ve been familiar with the company. And now the affable manager, Bill Russell, is quoted in the Herald giving some pretty poor excuses for the brewery’s failure.

But the greatest challenges facing the firm were ongoing difficulties with distribution and a business climate in Massachusetts that is not friendly to small entrepreneurs, according to Russell.

“Our best years were when we distributed it ourself,� he said. “It’s hard to compete with national brands, representing huge corporate interests, that muscle their way into the marketplace.�

Additionally, a piece of legislation sponsored by the Massachusetts Farm-Winery and Growers Association, which would have allowed the tasting and sale of wine and beer at local farmers markets, emerged from committee this week “eviscerated,� Russell said.

“It was a really solid piece of legislation that would have allowed us to get our name out there,� he said. “Farmers markets are exploding in popularity. It seems to me the best way to stimulate the economy is to foster entrepreneurship, but in this state we are hog-tied by the laws.�

I’m not even sure where to start. Craft brewers around the country are working in the same environment and succeeding to the tune of nearly 6-percent growth so far this year, in a terrible economy. In 2004, craft beer grew at 7-percent, 9-percent in 2005, nearly 12-percent in 2006, 12 percent in 2007, and 6-percent in 2008. Buzzards Bay’s staff told me when I was writing The Good Beer Guide To New England in 2005 that the brewery produced 5400 barrels of its own beer, a statistic I doubted at the time. Just two years later, according to statistics from the Brewers Association, Buzzards Bay made 1450 barrels in 2007. In 2008, that number had been cut nearly in half, to 750 barrels. By way of comparison, the Cambridge Brewing Company, a brewpub with a 10-barrel system, brewed 1900 barrels in 2008, up from 1500 in 2005. The excuses are merely that, excuses, as the environment has never been better for craft brewers.

Add to this rapid industry growth rate that Buzzards Bay is located in an area that is nearly opposition free in terms of other craft brewers. The few that are located near there, Cisco Brewers, Offshore Ales, Cape Cod Beer, and Mayflower Brewing all appear to be enjoying remarkable success. To think that a brewery with a 50-barrel brewhouse, the albatross long hanging around its neck, would rest its hopes for expansion, growth, and the future on sales at farmer’s markets is simply beyond ludicrous. In the end, Buzzards Bay made good beer but had no idea how or where to sell it and despite the hopes of many fans, myself certainly included, the blood has long been in the water surrounding the brewery.

The Herald also dropped this jaw-dropping tidbit:

The surprise announcement yesterday was influenced by a number of factors, Russell said, primarily a drop in demand. Sales fell from a high of 5,000 barrels of Buzzards Bay brews in 2002 to a projected sale of around 100 barrels in the next seven months.

100 barrels? I’d love to know how much the brewery produced in the last six to twelve months but I think I’d cry over the minuscule amount. With a 50-barrel brewhouse, that is two brews in seven months. Wow.

The news is also a touch surprising because one very well-regarded brewer on the scene, Dann Paquette of the upstart Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, has recently moved his brewing operations to Buzzards Bay, long a contract brewing location. I imagine Paquette, who brews his own beers on the systems belonging to other people (previously at Paper City Brewery in Holyoke), probably won’t be pleased at indirectly being called a contract brewer (which he is not) by Russell and it will be interesting to see whether his arrangement changes at all (here is hoping not…)

And I have to admit that the new torques me off because I also selected two of Buzzards Bay’s beers for inclusion in my Great American Craft Beers book. And while travel and tasting books are usually out of date even before they hit store shelves, mine didn’t even get to the point of submitting the damned manuscript before the info went stale. Better now than next week I guess, at least I can give two other beers their due.

All told, this is disappointing but not surprising news. Beyond the mere disheartening feeling, there is also one of anger at opportunities lost. Remembering back nearly a decade to conversations I had with the brewery’s founding brewer, the passionate Chris Atkinson, it’s sad to see how quiet and inconsiderable the brewery’s end came to be.

UPDATE: Someone sent me a link to the new brand operations that Russell discussed in the Herald piece. I have no idea whether the brand idea and the website are some sort of joke but the brand name and better yet the prices must be. The Just Beer Brewing Company is offering its flagship John Beere (wow…) for $70 per half-barrel. By way of reference, a keg of Budweiser, a beer that can manage a lower price point due to its extreme volume, costs $88 per half-barrel. So if Buzzards Bay manages to sell as much of its new beer as it did the old brands this year, it will fall well below the poverty line. No word on whether food stamps can be applied to malted barley purchases.

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A 2009 Great American Beer Festival Preview…

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The 28th annual Great American Beer Festival is right around the corner and it has sold out earlier than ever, quite an achievement for the Brewers Association and the craft brewers whose unpaid participation is so crucial to the event’s success. I look forward to experiencing the 30-percent increase in floor space that the BA is heavily promoting and hope that the additional 3,000 tickets sold (out of 49,000 attendees) will not result in some geometric anomaly where we’re all still crowded together at the tables. By the numbers, 3,362 beers will be entered in the GABF Competition, 2,100 beers from 495 breweries will be served in the hall, with 51 new breweries attending the fest for the first time. Looking at the handy map of the festival layout, I am a little disturbed to see that New England’s dwindling presence appears to have hit a new low, sending not even half the number of brewers as the Southeast will represent.

As I did last year, and the year before, I want to provide attendees and other interested parties with a preview of things to come at this year’s event. Instead of misty remembrances, I’ll just quote from last year’s offering.

As I’ve written elsewhere, my first visit to the GABF had a great influence on my development and interest in craft beer. And it all happened by dumb luck. I was in Denver to visit a friend and on a lark the friend decided to surprise me with tickets to the fest. At the time, I was just beginning to acknowledge and appreciate the difference between certain American beers. Entering the beautiful environs of Currigan Hall (long since replaced with the mildly soulless Colorado Convention Center), I had a transformative experience, the effects of which have lasted to the present day. As much as I enjoy the festival and Denver, I’m having a hard time believing that this will be my [fourteenth] visit.

205Ă—115.gifThe Brewers Association’s cornerstone event well-serves the general public and generates a huge amount of revenue for the association itself, all while small craft brewers don’t get paid for their time or beer (still an issue for another article entirely). And while I am not sad to see the fatally flawed Beer Journalism Awards go away, I would like to have some discussions about how we can promote beer writing in the future. I look forward to attending the festival’s successful and increasingly popular cooking demonstrations and panel discussions. After finishing a draft of my book, I’m also looking forward to trying some new beers from breweries that crossed my path during the writing process. I’m also looking to get to know some folks whose paths I have also crossed on-line in the last year and to seeing many old friends. Let me know which beers you have marked on your lists as must try offerings and have a great fest.

Here’s a look back at my coverage of the last half-decade or more of Great American Beer Festivals.

The 2008 Great American Beer Festival
The 2007 Great American Beer Festival”
GABF At 25 – The 2006 GABF
A look at the 2005 GABF
Revisit the 2004 GABF
The 2003 GABF
The GABF Turns 21 – The 2002 GABF

And will this finally be the year that craft brewers decide to dump their big brewery corporate sponsors they privately complain about? I guess we’ll see but I know what I’ll be happily drinking when I watch the Rockies kick the Cardinals’ butts on Friday evening…

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On Beer Budgets, the Economy, and the Most Expensive Beer Dinner I’ve Yet Seen…

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I’ve been off writing my book for the better part of the last two months so generally have not been engaged in the beer scene or frankly much of anything. So when I finished the first draft today, I turned on the local Boston evening news and caught a segment on the success of craft beers. As a sign of the fading glory of local news, the story profiled the success of the Goose Island brewery in Chicago (why bother sending out your own camera and reporting crew when you can simply buy packages from other markets, right?), in a story that I have to believe simply picked up on the reporting done by the Chicago Tribune in this recent lengthy article. Overall, both pieces were good exposure for Goose Island and craft breweries in general, minus the lame “beer budget” and “let’s find out what’s on tap” lead ins to the television piece.

On the other end of the spectrum, I received a press release via Facebook in regards to an upcoming beer dinner that Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery is hosting at celebrity chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant in Manhattan. While the event is part of New York City’s Beer Week, it was not so much the menu but the price tag of $350 that caught my eye. On the back of the recent Ebenezer’s dinner that ran $250 for some pretty sick offerings, I thought this was a whole new level of ridiculousness. Would be interesting to be a fly on the wall at the Per Se dinner just to see who pays that kind of money to attend such an event.

Brooklyn Brewery’s Manhattan Project

“RagoĂ»t” of Black Winter Truffle

Brooklyn Brewery “Local 2,� New York

Sautéed Squash, Heirloom Tomatoes, Fino Verde Basil and Castello di Ama Extra Virgin Olive Oil Emulsion

Brooklyn Brewery “Sorachi Ace,� New York

Confit of Fennel Bulb, Rainbow Swiss Chard, Niçoise Olive Tapenade and “Mousseline au Citron”

Brooklyn Brewery “Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse,� New York

“Choucroute Garnie”

Brooklyn Brewery “Local 1,� New York

Smoked Bone Marrow “Pain Perdu,” Creamed Arugula,
Trumpet Royale Mushroom and “Sauce Bordelaise”

Brooklyn Brewery “Reinschweinsgebot,� New York

Celeriac RĂ©moulade, Compressed Granny Smith Apple, Mustard Cress and Green Apple Mustard

Brooklyn Brewery “Wild 1,� New York

Dark Chocolate Mud Cake, Liquid Caramel, Chocolate “CrĂ©meux”
and Caramel Parfait with Sassafras Ice Cream

Brooklyn Brewery “Black Ops,� New York


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