On Bars And Beer Gardens…

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A folding chair and a patch of dirt is all I need to be happy. Oh, and a can of beer of course. While shiny new gastropubs and deluxe beer bars open from coast to coast, a few choice spots are celebrating a return to simpler times, when drinking needn’t be surrounded by trappings more befitting the QE2.

And so it was that I found myself sitting under a shady oak tree, in a dirt and gravel mixed yard, seeking refuge from the merciless Texas heat. Of all the great drinking moments I had in 2011, chilling at the aptly named Friendly Spot outside of downtown San Antonio was unparalleled. The open-air style bar uses a converted ice house as its core, a throwback to an earlier era when such rudimentary refrigeration operations kept beer cold for customers to take-away. Sitting in what one Beer Advocate called “a park with a bar” while enjoying a Ranger Creek Smoked Mesquite Porter is about as good as it gets. In this glorified backyard, with its laid-back, no frills charm, all of the pretense so perverting modern beer drinking falls away, revealing only the comfortable, essential core experience.

While ice house bars are a particularly Texas invention, other cities around the country have their own dialed back character. In my hometown of Chicago, neighborhood bars have long influenced the city’s unique personality. A place still replete with bars (as opposed to restaurant-pubs where food must be served), where you can stop by for a drink by yourself and not catch side-glances of disapproving judgment, is increasingly difficult to find. But even this history is now under attack, with local politicians and interloping yuppies less inclined to have a hundred-year-old public house mucking up the property values of their just built condos. The loss of the engaging spirit of the neighborhood pub will leave Chicago a new achromatic, dispirited shade of itself.

Community drinking experiences needn’t always start with long-standing, brick-and-mortar operations. As with many ideas that shift from West to East in the United States, San Francisco is engaging in a remarkably simple yet creative civic experiment to bring use to vacant spaces or lots awaiting funds or permits for further development. Considered a placeholder until the construction of a permanent structure, the city’s Proxy project allows creative grassroots entrepreneurs to create temporary and pop-up communal gathering places, ranging from coffee stands to full-scale beer gardens.

Similar in concept to the wildly popular food truck movement, these low-cost operations allow proprietors to quickly open their spots without many of the start-up hassles that plague more established outfits. The concept is brilliant for its revitalization of unused parcels, such as vacant tracts and under-used parking lots, and for its ability to build a communal vitality otherwise absent from urban voids. In a time where temporary is the new permanent, as the Atlantic recently put it, such creative bureaucratic thinking also encourages hard-working entrepreneurs to engage the public in a host of new creative ways.

Moving beyond entrenched pubs and novel new spaces, governments can help create more interesting communal spaces through a relaxation of alcohol licensing. Born of puritanical restraint following Prohibition, America’s liquor laws have long appeared peculiarly prudish to international audiences. Belying the continuing governmental hesitance to allow a relaxation of tight-fisted blue laws, some municipalities, from Asheville to Austin to Denver, have demonstrated that softening restrictions on beer and wine licenses has led to the responsible enjoyment of alcohol in respectful new spaces.

Divorced from community and public culture, drinking becomes less than it should be. When alcohol becomes socially acceptable to consume only when chaperoned by food, going out becomes a near-entirely utilitarian experience, one that is goal driven, namely to eat, drink, and then leave. There’s nothing wrong with sitting on a plastic chair in a shady yard, enjoying a beer, surrounded by other cheerful citizens.

-Article appeared in Issue 62 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Redefining Local In A New Era Of Craft Beer…

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Support Your Local Brewery. Drink Local, Think Global. For more than a decade, brewers have doled out countless bumper stickers, coasters, and stickers with these and similar slogans promoting their community-based beer offerings. And the campaign served them well, helping to build a connection to area consumers. After years of communal camaraderie, things are about to change.

If 2011 was a year for celebrating a return to local beer, 2012 will be a year when consumers and brewers seek to redefine what local really means. This past year saw dozens of breweries, including many well-known names, retreat to their home markets due to supply issues, in what I’ve previously called the Great Beer Retreat. From Allagash to Great Divide to Flying Dog, capacity restrictions and demand in closer-to-home markets has drawn mid-range and some smaller regional players to rethink their growth and distributions strategies.

While these larger breweries were busy trying to send beer to dozens of far-flung markets, a host of smaller, nimbler craft outlets, including hundreds of nano-breweries, have crept into their once safe home markets. Many larger players publicly heralded this new wave of craft brewing entrepreneurs, while some privately questioned their abilities to sell enough beer of sufficient quality to survive. As many have grown and continued to prosper in their hometown markets, the inevitable competition for local tap lines and shelf space has taken hold.

As these smaller players continue their dueling dance for hometown beer dominance, another force looms large in several markets across the country. In many industries, cash is king, but not so in the beer business. For brewers, stainless steel reigns supreme. That and the warehouse space in which to install shiny new fermenters or dinged up, used conditioning tanks. In this age, if a brewery can leverage the debt load and possesses the physical space to support growth, it has a good chance of dominating the game. And there are a few breweries that have amassed sufficient size as to wreak some havoc with the whole concept of what is ‘local.’

The issue is coming to a head in the little town of Asheville, North Carolina, where two western craft brewing giants will be opening new breweries. With its growing craft beer reputation and excellent garage breweries, Asheville is making a lot of noise for such a small brewing town. But when word started leaking out that the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and New Belgium Brewing were visiting sites around the town, the local brewers started to worry. Talk of tax credits and development deals started to swirl around as attempts to entice the two brewing giants, whose combined production is well north of 1 million barrels annually, to make North Carolina their second brewing homes.

Trying to hawk the localness of beer has always struck me as an odd selling point as next to none of the raw materials involved in production actually come from the region and nearly every production brewery sends beer far from home. The hyper-vigilance of some local brewers also seems misguided at times. In the case of Asheville, it’s understandable that local brewers grumble when a seemingly carpet-bagging West Coast brewery swoops into town and charms millions in tax incentives out of county representatives. But who’s to say that setting down roots doesn’t make Sierra or New Belgium ‘local’, especially when they’ll employ hundreds of North Carolinians?

As the credit and stainless steel crunches hit breweries bent on expansion, the stratification of craft brewers will grow deeper, likely straining the communal ethos that has been so central to the craft beer industry’s identity. Already big breweries will expand quickly, while smaller operations beat retreats back to their home markets and dream of stainless days to come. It may be time to redesign some bumper stickers.

-Article appeared in Issue 61 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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A Love Of Garage Drinking…

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I like drinking beer in garages. I’m not talking about sitting next to lawnmowers, beat up Ford Escorts, and discarded tools in your buddy’s man cave. I prefer brewery-garage outfits where the drinking environment is about as deconstructed and scaled down as you can imagine. In most cities around the United States, breweries exist in functional if interchangeable industrial buildings, often characterless warehouse spaces with ample drainage and vertical height. But in a handful of edgier locales, brewers turn old mechanic shops and garage storefronts into funky drinking experiences.

Now brewing in garages is nothing new. Thousands of homebrewers do it every day and many commercial brewers turn to garages when other spaces prove too expensive. With the rigors and restrictions of modern zoning ordinances and the scornful, watching eyes of alcohol licensing bodies, few of these brewers can convert their ordinary repair shops into welcoming beer Mecca’s. The key, my friends, is the brewery taproom.

For those beer geeks living in repressed towns and states, prepare yourselves for a shock: there are places in this country where you can visit a brewery, sit down, and have a pint or two instead of just a two-ounce thimble sample. On a recent trip to Asheville, North Carolina, I visited brewery after brewery, each housed in converted garage spaces. I bought pints, sat in lawn chairs and picnic tables, and even heard live music, with guitarists and drummers banging away amid pallets of grain and kegs.

As someone who has never lived in such a free society, I’m supremely jealous of these fortunate beer lovers. For them, a visit to the local brewery isn’t limited to a rote tour of ubiquitous industrial vats, followed by the requisite short pour of a beer or two. Instead, the brewery becomes a community meeting spot, fully integrating into neighborhoods and inviting consumers to become regulars.

The importance of being able to invite consumers into these breweries cannot be overstated. Otherwise kept at arms length, brewery patrons become more than consumers as they sip pints a few feet from bubbling fermenters and brewers working the kettle. A connection is built and a sense of belonging and place develops, tying the brewery and consumer together.

To be sure, these garage breweries aren’t brewpubs in any traditional sense. You won’t find any food, beyond peanuts or popcorn, and the beer is usually sold off-site as well. And you’re always aware that the brewery hovers around you, not hidden away behind glass partitions. It’s like you’re part of a club whose membership privileges include sneaking into the brewhouse after hours.

Beyond the unique character garage breweries offer to visitors, brewery owners also derive several benefits from such operations. Beyond the obvious advantage of providing a much valued source of income for folks operating on tight margins, garage breweries offer brewers and owners a level of direct contact with consumers that elude more traditional industrial operations.

Sadly, most states preclude breweries from operating tap rooms, let alone ones so devolved to the point where the line between brewery and tap room virtually disappears. Visit at the right time and you may be asked to help move a tank hose or add some late boil hops to the kettle.

Returning to Asheville, it’s easy to see why the garage brewery model satisfies both beer lovers and brewers. Whether it be strolling through French Broad’s old school fermenters with an inexpensive pint of Rye Hopper in your hand or leaning against the brew kettle at Craggie, sipping an Antebellum Ale, and listening to a jazz combo band, the charm and vibe are infectious. You want more of it. You demand more of it. And then you remember that your town doesn’t have anything like it. And that’s why you travel.

-Article appeared in Issue 54 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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