Celebrating The Success Of Craft Beer…

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Craft beer is an amazing thing that we too often take for granted. For many younger drinkers, there has never been a time when they couldn’t buy a pint or sixer of craft beer. The selection may have been limited and its availability far less than today, but it was still there, creating a whole another level of consciousness for a new generation of imbibers.

So much of modern day craft beer, especially among beer geeks, is about looking forwards, all the time searching for the new, the elusive next big thing. We have entire websites dedicated to scouring new label approvals from the federal government even before breweries have decided to announce their plans. We have beer trading lists that allow us never to have the same beer twice, as if opening a second bottle were some sort of social faux-pas or a sign of the dreaded brand loyalty of our beer loving elders.

While we should certainly celebrate the new, to herald advances in palates and processes, this year is also a good time to reflect upon where we’ve been as a craft community and how we came to have such a bounty of excellent beers in front of us. For this year we celebrate several impressive anniversaries of craft beer pioneers. For it was thirty five years ago that Fritz Maytag took interest in the near folding Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco and laid the groundwork for a movement to follow fifteen years later.

It was thirty years ago that avid homebrewers helped Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi cobble together a rag tag brewing system, made from dairy tanks and a soda pop bottler. And so in the small town of Chico, California, Sierra Nevada was born, in turn giving birth to its eponymous and style defining Pale Ale. Sierra Nevada is rightfully celebrating this milestone and brewing anniversary with the industry at large, cognizant of the truth that craft brewers are not competitors so much as compatriots in the revolution of better beer. From fewer than fifty breweries to more than fifteen hundred today, Sierra Nevada is embarking on a series of collaborative beers with several of the people who helped American craft beer from its earliest days, including Fritz Maytag, Charlie Papazian, Jack McAuliffe, founder of the now-defunct New Albion Brewery, and writer Fred Eckhardt. These beers will be released throughout the year and continuing through the company’s anniversary on November 15, with proceeds going to select charities.

On the opposite side of the country, a business man clad in a dark navy suit and carrying a small briefcase started visiting bars across the Boston area to tell them about his dream. With its debut on Patriot’s Day in April of 1985, the now ubiquitous Samuel Adams Boston Lager and its founder, Jim Koch, celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. Growing from a few bottles to 500 barrels the first year, it is entirely doubtful that Koch ever dreamed his brewery would live to become the largest such American operation, and within just a quarter century’s time.

As with Sierra Nevada, Anchor, the Boulder Beer Company, and many other craft brewing pioneers celebrating their anniversaries this year, the Boston Beer Company has never lost its passion for beer, even while growing in size. This year it will team up with the world’s oldest brewery, the famous Weihenstephan of Germany, to produce a collaborative, Champagne-style beer with 10-percent alcohol, all within the Reinheitsgebot.

Even amidst the constantly buzzing news of special release beers from exciting new breweries from Dallas to Denmark, let’s take a moment to remember the craft brewing pioneers and help them celebrate their achievements. We are fortunate to have such a rich and growing culture of craft beer in America, all a direct result of the hard work from these generous brewers.

-Article appeared in Issue 36 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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The Philly Beer Raids, Part Deux…

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With news that agents of the Pennsylvania State Police have visited/raided a local Philly distributor, Origlio (named 2009 Craft Beer Distributor of the Year by the Brewers Association, by the way), I finally looked at the governing laws for this growing fiasco. For starters, if you are a distributor or a brewer who works in the Philadelphia area, or frankly, anywhere in the state, you might want to have a gander at the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s website. Say what you will about the agency’s involvement in the recent news, it offers a pretty detailed and accessible site for those it regulates. For starters, here’s the language at issue with the registration of beer brands:

SECTION 4-445. Brand registration

No brand or brands of malt or brewed beverages shall be offered, sold or delivered to any trade buyer within this Commonwealth unless the manufacturer thereof shall first submit an application in the form and manner prescribed by the board for the registration of the said brand or brands of malt beverages, together with an annual filing fee not to exceed twenty-five dollars ($ 25) for each brand registration requested. In the event an out-of-State or foreign manufacturer of malt or brewed beverages has granted franchise rights to any person for the sale and distribution of its brand products but which person is not licensed to sell and distribute the same in this Commonwealth, said such person shall nevertheless be required to register the involved brand before offering the same for sale in Pennsylvania. It is further conditioned that the person holding such franchise rights shall, together with its application for brand registration, file with the board copies of all agreements between it and the Pennsylvania importing distributor appointed by such person to sell and distribute the brands of malt or brewed beverages as provided by sections 431 and 492. Such agreement shall contain the manufacturer’s consent and approval to the appointment of the Pennsylvania importing distributor and the rights conferred thereunder.

And here is the required paperwork at issue, the Application for Malt or Brewed Beverage Brand Registration. The simple 1-2 page form should be filled out by the brewer in conjunction with the distributor (or better yet, by the distributor who likely has greater administrative resources).

In filling out the form, the brewer or distributor agrees, under signed affirmation, to keep the PLCB informed of brand changes and additions and to otherwise follow the state’s liquor code.

And while the retailer might have its stock confiscated for selling unregistered brands, the distributor is the one that should really be sweating in these cases as the penalties, adjudged through an administrative law process, for failing to get its brands registered could be a fine or suspension and revocation of its distribution license.

And, of course, the Board handily posts its daily list of registered brands in the state for all (retailers, distributors, brewers, and the public) to see. Of the 2856 brands registered ($214,200 in registration fees), there are inevitably going to be some mistakes. And now distributors are going to be sure and get them fixed as Pennsylvania appears to take a strict liability approach to violations. The penalty for failing to do so is just too high.

And by way of note, good for the PLCB in putting its administrative law decisions on-line. If you want to see how one of these cases pans out in the legal process, as this one likely will against the retailers and distributors involved in this case, check out this short decision.

On a lighter note, a quick perusal of this list turned up some notes of interest. My old favorite subject, the Old Dominion Brewing Company, ye of troubling history, has several brands represented in the state. And they are registered by…Anheuser-Busch, even though they are produced by Coastal, a joint venture with another craft brewery. Unless there has been a fundamental change in ownership in the last year that I have somehow missed, I wonder if the registration for these brands follows the letter of the law for identifying the producer.

-The above information does not constitute legal advice. If you have questions regarding the application and nature of the Pennsylvania Liquor Code, please contact an attorney.

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McCarthyism and Eliot Ness This Is Not…The Hysteria Over Beer Raids In Penn…

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I’ve somewhat distantly followed the developing story/drama out of Pennsylvania following police visits/raids (everything has two distinct sides here) to a small number of beer bars in the Philadelphia area. Others are pretty worked up about the situation, which revolved around a report that the bars were selling beers that were not registered with the state, and for some understandable reasons. First, the caveats: I can certainly appreciate the argument that requiring breweries to register their brands with the state liquor board is not a particularly meaningful regulation, but I can also appreciate the role such registration lists play with respect to both taking in taxes and keeping track of products with an eye towards consumer safety. It’s not a particularly unusual practice and breweries certainly have to deal with odder state regulations. I can also understand the concern that these regulations discourage brewer creativity and increase the regulatory burden on them to have their products registered.

But with these points said, most of the accounts I’ve read tend to hit hysterical hyper-speed all while quickly glossing over the underlying facts, few of which appear to be in dispute. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) and the police apparently received a report(s) about bars selling beers that were not registered with the state. At least one of these bar owners acknowledged having run afoul of the law by procuring a keg from outside the state and driving it back to their bar and putting it on tap. Now this bar owner, and all others who frequently rotate their products, likely knows that a few of the brands they sell, especially specialty one-off releases, have not been properly registered with the state and that they are therefore violating the law in selling them. Someone, somewhere along the way, could very easily have noticed that a beer such as Pliny the Younger does not appear on the state’s list. Be it the distributor or the bar owner, rules are rules, stupid or not. And these bar owners know how heavily the beverage alcohol business is regulated and they well know the rules in Pennsylvania and they’ve cleared flouted them on occasion.

Now there is certainly another argument that the theatrical nature of the raids, from the undoubtedly one-sided reports we’ve been hearing, was over the top and that governmental (and certainly police) priorities could likely be better placed elsewhere. And there is without question room for criticism where the police confiscated beers whose names are somehow slightly altered from that found on the state’s lists and are actually lawfully registered. The parties, including distributors and breweries, should quickly work with the PLCB and the police to make these determinations, separate the violators from the properly registered, and return the stock

As usual, I don’t mean to be intentionally contrarian here. Instead, I’m just considering the full picture here. This situation will hopefully lead to a fuller discussion about the purposes of particular laws and state agencies and their relevance and responsibilities in a new age of craft beer (and spirits…and wine).

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Drinking Imperial Stout in Summer…

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A few months back I wrote a column bemoaning the creeping extension of seasonal beers into months of the year where they previously were unseen. I suggested that such stealthy seasonality might result in the lessening of the excitement that surrounds these timed release offerings. I still agree with that opinion. But over recent months, I’ve spent some time contemplating seasonal beers and thought it time to address my other take on the issue: in the modern age, seasonal beers are just weird.

As the story has been told from beer historians, both professional and amateur, seasonal beers developed from both need (the lack of refrigeration) and practice (religious and political events). And while I can certainly appreciate the genesis of Bock beer and Octoberfest styles, it’s a true curiosity that in the United States, a country largely divorced from these religious, historical, and political traditions, that American brewers have chosen to adopt and preserve these ancient brewing rituals. And in the absence of technological obstacles, such as sufficient cooling resources, it’s more than a touch peculiar that we can’t enjoy year-round examples of many classic beer styles, some of which are lager beers.

Beyond this curiosity, I have personally experienced an unusual pattern of response to the changing of the seasons. As the weather turns chilly, I, like all good beer geeks, dash out and fill my fridge with a wide array of soul soothing dark beers, ranging from Baltic Porters to Imperial Stouts. That’s when strange things start to happen. I find myself quietly sneaking out of the house to meet up with some old friends, including zesty German Pilseners, sharply hoppy India Pale Ales, and airy, fragrant Kolsch beers. Like long neglected family members, cast aside for the acquaintances of work, these beers quietly weep on the shelves of my fridge. The condition only gets more pronounced as the cold lingers, finally arriving at a point that I can’t even bring myself to consider opening a classic winter seasonal beer.

As the clouds pass and the snow gives way to the first sprouts of a green spring, the process repeats itself. I head out and buy the few Bock beers and other seasonal releases that I can find. With my stock full again, my mind quickly returns to those long-languishing dark beers. As spring develops, I think about their plight, having survived winter’s frigid temperatures, virtually abandoned and uncared for. It takes until about the first warm day in May for my interest to be piqued by what I missed the previous season and within a few weeks, these patient winter vessels are all emptied.

When this cycle repeats itself throughout the summer and fall, I begin to think that somehow my internal seasonal beer clock has become disrupted, in a kind of seasonal affective drinking disorder, but in reverse. And then I start to question the entire idea of seasonal beers and come to fully appreciate the pleas of ardent beer enthusiasts who want to sip cool Octoberfests in the budding warmth of June, Imperial Stouts in humid August, and Hefeweizens in chilly January. I also wonder about whether the seasonality of these products has adversely impacted the development of many lager styles in the United States, as the few examples of such seasonal beers are only available in limited quantities and restricted times during the year. And while I fully understand and appreciate how important that seasonal beers have become to craft brewers in a business sense, I think that the further we get away from the origins and traditions giving rise to the creation of such timed offerings, the more I question the absence of a good Marzen when I want one.

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