Roger Protz Slams BrewDog or Just Steps In It, Depending Upon Your View…

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In a quick piece on his blog, British beer writer Roger Protz takes a quick smack at BrewDog’s recent release of its Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a beer it claims to be 32-percent alcohol. In it, Protz chides:

James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, said the beer was “completely pushing the boundaries”. Indeed, and it’s also pushing beyond breaking point what sensible beer writers and connoisseurs will take from this bunch of ego-maniacs. Those of us who attempt to paint an image of beer as a fine drink enjoyed in moderation by sensible people have the ground cut from beneath our feet by BrewDog, which just plays in to the hands of the yellow press, ever anxious to give beer a bad name.

I’ve also recently chimed in with thoughts on BrewDog’s release. Protz is taking a bit of a beating in his comments section, whether deserved or not (he appears to get a few of the facts wrong about the beer in his short post).

Putting this aside, Protz inadvertently stumbles into a pretty interesting existential question about beer. Can a beer that is brewed with something other than brewer’s yeast really be considered beer?

Naturally, the wild buckeroos in Fraserburgh claim this is the world’s strongest beer, even though technically it’s not beer at all, as brewer’s yeast cannot work beyond a strength of 12 or 13 degrees. Clearly the new product, called Tactical Nuclear Penguin (what were you smoking last night, chaps?), was finished with a wine or champagne yeast.

Off the cuff, I’d say he is off-base here but I can’t say I’ve given the subject that much thought. Part of me wishes that Protz’s view be considered the correct one on this point as it would substantially undermine a lot of the extreme beer ridiculousness that strikes me as decidedly unclever. I’d be interested in what others think on the subject.

Aside from the pure humour in seeing the generational divide here between the upstart young extreme brewers and the old-timey CAMRA set and the toughness of his words, I found this bit on Protz himself a bit entertaining this late work day.

Roger is the world’s foremost beer writer and taster.

Not “one of” or offered with any other modifier, just foremost. Even with his impressive CV, it’s a pretty bold claim. And foremost taster? I’m not sure I even know what that means. Some food for thought I suppose.

A student of personal histories, I’ve also always been partial to this bit of Protz’s early history, from storied source Wikipedia:

He joined the Labour Party Young Socialists and became editor of its newspaper, New Advance. While remaining in the Labour Party, he joined the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League (SLL). In 1961, he resigned from New Advance to become the editor of the SLL’s youth newspaper, Keep Left. He was sacked from that, he says, for being too left-wing.

Within a few years, he moved to the rival Revolutionary Socialist League, where in 1964 he became the founding editor of Militant. After leaving the RSL, he joined the International Socialists where in 1969 he became the editor of Socialist Worker. He was expelled from the editor’s role in 1974, and soon afterwards from the party, going on to found the Workers League.

UPDATE: Protz has responded to his critics with a post that, despite his claims of being an Internet newbie, is a classic flame war response: deflect criticism, return fire, then call for a truce. I think he raises some good points, as I’ve noted, about whether BrewDog’s beer was exclusively made with brewer’s yeast but his attacking manner isn’t going to win him many converts to his arguments.

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The Long Trail/Otter Creek Sale Press Release…

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Not a lot of new information here but the parties have decided to release a joint statement today making public what I and others have already reported. Understandably at this stage of the proceedings, the breweries have not released details of how their merged enterprises will operate in the future, including about any brand changes.


(Bridgewater Corners, VT) Excitement reigns at two local Vermont breweries in Middlebury and Bridgewater Corners, as word comes of a signed Letter of Intent by Long Trail Brewing Co. to acquire the Otter Creek Brewery, home to Otter Creek and Wolaver’s Certified Organic brands. Long Trail anticipates the completion of the diligence process in the coming weeks.

“We are excited about the potential of two great Vermont companies joining forces,” according to Long Trail Brewing’s CEO, Brian Walsh, “We hold the same, proud Vermont traditions as creators of award winning craft beer. Our roots are in Vermont, and we are looking forward to growing our business together.”

Long Trail and Otter Creek are Vermont’s oldest craft breweries, with a combined brewing history of nearly 40 years. The brands are poised to continue to grow and develop in Bridgewater Corners and Middlebury, Vermont. As Mike Gerhart, Otter Creek and Wolaver’s Brewmaster puts it, “We’re all extremely excited about the partnership with Long Trail. There’s a lot of creativity and talent in this building. Now, we’ll have the resources and tools to up the ante and make each other stronger, pushing the craft beer envelope. At the end of the day, it’s about making great beer.” Bill Hill, Chief Financial Officer at Otter Creek added, “This is a great opportunity for each of Otter Creek’s constituencies; our consumers, our distributors, our suppliers, and our associates.”

Long Trail received the 2009 Vermont Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, recognizing the brewery’s innovative approach to preserving and protecting the environment. “Wolaver’s is a natural extension to our ECO Brewing™ program,” said Walsh, “to have a brand with such strong commitment to sustainability, and being one of the first certified organic craft beers in North America.”

Two great, local, craft breweries are now looking toward the future as they continue to develop all three brands, right here in Vermont.

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Craft Beer By The Numbers…Very. Scary. Numbers.

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I don’t usually do much linking here, but my buddy Harry Schuhmacher over at the painfully expensive but excellent Beer Business Daily has put up a public post briefly pontificating on the amount of money it will take craft brewers to build the capacity necessary to achieve certain goals they have discussed in the past. As he says in the penultimate graf:

But even if craft brewers can drive demand to 20% of the market, how to pay for it? Dan Kopman at Schlafly points out that it takes about $100 a barrel to build additional capacity (on the low end). If craft brewers can drive consumer demand to sell 30 million extra barrels to gain 15 points in market share, that’s $3 billion in investment. That’s a lot of dough. It highlights the importance of the small brewer tax break. It also points out the advantage big brewers have, because they already have plenty of capacity, and even if they need to build more, they can squeeze quite a bit out of their current facilities.

About six years ago, Kim Jordan, co-founder of the New Belgium Brewing Company, talked about a goal of reaching ten-percent market share for the craft beer segment.

AC You are the keynote speaker at next year’s Craft Brewers’ Conference. What do you think is the state of the industry and how do you think craft brewers can grow?

KJ I was at the Brewers Association of America conference last month and I was really excited. I talked to a lot of people who were adding capacity or more fermenters or building warehouse space. It was my sense that people were feeling pretty upbeat about their future. It kind of reminded me of the early nineties, which is pretty exciting. So I think the small brewing industry is continuing to gain legitimacy. We have passed the point where people wonder if we are just a fad. I think we have a lot of possibility to make a niche for ourselves as small, regional breweries that are being highly engaged in our communities, good corporate citizens, brewing interesting beers, fulfilling peoples’ desires to want to buy something made locally that is more distinctive in taste.

I have also heard industry leaders, such as Jim Koch from Boston Beer and Greg Koch of Stone Brewing, talk about the possibility of craft brewers attaining 15 to 20-percent market share. To hit these numbers, Harry calculates craft brewers would have to produce an extra 30 million barrels of beer. I don’t have any solid numbers on the total capacity craft brewers maintain today, but they continue to build bigger facilities and will collectively produce approximately 8.5 to 9 million barrels this year.

So if my math is correct (and frankly it is not my strongest suit), I think this means the 538 craft production breweries (regional crafts, microbreweries, and contract operations), which comprise nearly 90-percent of the craft beer produced in the United States, would have to spend approximately $5.5 million each in order to reach this capacity point. To date, many regional craft players have spent equal to or exceeding this amount in order to build breweries with a couple hundred thousand barrels of capacity. Many are already servicing substantial debt loads, a whole other issue the industry will soon have to address (especially if growth ever slows), and likely will need a great deal of outside help (be it bankers, distributors, other breweries or beverage alcohol players, or other third parties) to achieve these numbers.

While discussing these goals, many brewers have just been happy to take market share in terms of dollars rather than volume so capacity building became a secondary priority to maintaining higher price points. These are some sobering numbers…

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More BrewDog Ridiculousness…

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This Thanksgiving morning here in the United States brings news of more extreme beer ridiculousness from across the Atlantic. Usually a level-headed place that only gets its knickers in a bunch when discussing gravity taps, cask breathers, and other real ale intricacies, the British beer scene is dealing with news that the BrewDog Brewery of Scotland has brewed what it claims to be the world’s strongest beer. I caught the story from beer writer Pete Brown’s website, and while I agree with the first line, I can’t say as much about the second.

Slag ’em or praise ’em, you just can’t stop talking about ’em.

But it’s nice to be able to talk about Brew Dog for the right reasons again. Today, the brewery announces the launch of Tactical Nuclear Penguin – at 32%, the strongest beer on the planet, beating previous record holder Sam Adams Utopias by 7%.

BrewDog certainly has a knack for public relations and marketing, born in large part out of its close following of the Stone Brewing Company’s playbook. Of the brewery’s beers I have previously written:

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.

So with news of a 32-percent alcohol beer, piggybacking upon the controversy caused by its Tokyo, a 12-percent imperial stout, and its low-alcohol Nanny State, co-founder and lead spinmeister James Watt is beginning to sound a little like the comedian Lenny Bruce, who late in his career spent all of his time on stage railing against censorship instead of telling jokes. Watt himself has invited much of the controversy, including the inexplicable filing of a complaint against its own beer (the aforementioned Tokyo) with the Portman Group, a trade organization representing beverage alcohol producers and brewers in Britain. This act of self-immolation led to the banning of the product from public sale.

While these efforts inevitably raise the brewery’s profile and public awareness of the brand, and perhaps it is even what is required to awaken a staid and conservative British marketplace, it certainly detracts from the brewery’s products and comes across as a manufactured marketing ploy.

So with this mini-jeremiad aside, I imagine the folks at the Boston Beer Company, maker of Utopias, the reigning holder of the world’s strongest beer crown, may have something to say about BrewDog’s claims to that title. Lab analysis and reports will follow and I imagine that the claimed 32-percent ABV TNP will reveal itself to be either a lesser fraction of that amount or mainly comprised of alcohol gained from whisky cask aging, on top of the freeze and water removal process .

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Welcome to the Age of Craft Brewery Consolidation: Long Trail To Buy Otter Creek Brewing…

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In recent years, craft beer industry folks and beer geeks alike have been focused on the efforts of big breweries to co-opt the mojo of craft brewers or worse yet, take over their operations entirely. About a year ago, in the context of the sale of the Old Dominion Brewing Company, I wrote about how craft beer enthusiasts should get used to an era of consolidation, not involving big brewers but other craft brewers. Around that time, I also wrote about Magic Hat’s purchase of Pyramid Breweries and the consolidation of the efforts of Widmer, Redhook, and Goose Island. I also counseled that craft beer fans should get used to a new age of brewing operations.

But the nature of the industry itself is also changing in other ways. Many craft beer pioneers are now elder industry statesmen. Fritz Maytag bought Anchor Brewing 43 years ago; Ken Grossman started Sierra Nevada 28 years ago; Jim Koch toted his briefcase from bar to bar 24 years ago. Beyond these well-known figures, many founders of regional breweries have been in the business for 20 years or more now. And as with any other small business, many are owned by one person or a small group of aging entrepreneurs who’ve long been toiling in the brewhouse, glad-handing distributors, and hawking product every weekend at beer festivals. For these hard working individuals, vacations are few and downtime almost non-existent.

Consolidation, either with other craft breweries or with larger brewing concerns, will be the norm not the exception. And while we can all appreciate how far craft beer has come since its early days, it’s time to contemplate the business realities that lie ahead.

It is with this shifting paradigm in mind that I report that the Long Trail Brewing Company of Bridgewater Corners, Vermont, is in the process of purchasing the Otter Creek Brewing Company, of Middlebury, Vermont. The parties are in the process of perusing all the relevant financials and a deal would give Long Trail access to necessary additional capacity, while leaving Otter Creek and its brands in an unknown position. Details regarding the actual sale remain pretty closely held.

Opened in November 1989 by the somewhat elusive former owner Andy Pherson, Long Trail produces an eclectic array of mainly German influenced beers. In writing The Good Beer Guide to New England, I said of the brewery’s location:

The former hay field where the new brewery sits is a beautiful place, but a logistical nightmare for an industrial business. In the small town of Bridgewater Corners, there is only a general store, a post office, and a brewery. Beyond the natural beauty, it’s hard to see what Pherson saw in the place. The staff had to install three power poles to provide electricity to the site and drill two bedrock wells 200-feet deep to secure brewing water.

Opened in March 1991, Otter Creek is also one of New England’s oldest breweries. The Middlebury brewery was purchased struck an important business deal in 1998 to begin producing the Wolaver’s line of certified organic ales. In May 2002, the Wolaver family purchased the Otter Creek Brewing Company and kept its name and products.

Comprised of two very different beer brands acting in concert, the Otter Creek Brewing Company was originally founded by passionate homebrewer Lawrence Miller. Starting as a one-man operation, Miller released his signature Copper Ale on March 12, 1991. Rob Tod, of Allagash Brewing, got his start here washing kegs and soon decided he wanted to dedicate his life to beer.

I interviewed Miller several times early in my work for Beverage Magazine after moving to Boston. Characteristic of Otter Creeks spirit, he was a passionate advocate for turning consumers on to craft beer. Some of his memorable quotes include:

I think beer education starts with me. I continue to go to a lot of beer technical conferences. I drink a lot of other peoples’ beer, both domestically and abroad and try to keep learning. The wonderful thing about brewing is that, depending on how much detail you want to get into, it can be as complex as you ever want it to be. So it is really neat in that respect. You can virtually continue your education forever.

And perhaps this one, which celebrates all beer.

Lawrence Miller also focuses on the importance of tact in field representatives. “Our field reps are expected to introduce not only Otter Creek, but also to place the other brands that restaurants sell in context in a positive light when they go to do server education.” In restaurants, the field representatives should talk about the beers and how the styles compliment certain foods. Miller notes that if field representatives do their jobs well, their education efforts should pay off in higher gratuities for the servers.

This interview was given nearly ten years ago. I’m not sure we’ve yet even met this standard.

In the coming decade, craft beer fans should indeed expect to see many of their favorite breweries change hands. In some cases, that may involve a transition from father or mother to son or daughter, but in many others, as with many other closely held corporations, outside suitors will be the best or only possibilities. While we do not know what the purchase of Otter Creek holds for its brewery, employees, and brands, let alone those of Long Trail, this sort of business consolidation will quickly become routine in this industry of nearly 1500 small, often family run breweries.

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