The Good Old Days of Craft Beer…

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A new era of craft beer is dawning before our very eyes. While craft brewers celebrated continuing good fortune at their annual conference in San Francisco, brewery owners, executives, and accountants in St. Louis, Chicago, and Belgium were putting the finishing touches on a deal that would send shock waves through the beer industry. Whether you think the headline should be “The Killing of the Golden Goose” or “A-B InBev Signal Defeat,” we can all be sure that things won’t ever be the same again for craft beer.

Passionate enthusiasts often have a difficult time accepting that, at its core, craft beer is a business. While the community aspect of craft beer is a wonderfully inviting quality, brewers ultimately run their operations, not as non-profit beer funhouses, but as companies with bills to be paid. Brewing remains an incredibly capital intensive business and one grows more expensive as the industry’s production numbers continue to explode.

Two years ago, I warned in these pages that the expanding reach of small craft brewers into far-flung regions of the United States was not sustainable. While beer lovers from Indiana to Rhode Island were understandably elated at the chance to sample beers from Dogfish Head, Great Divide, and the Shelton Brothers’ international portfolio, few appreciated what such an incredible selection actually signified for the industry.

Sending a few pallets of beer far from home to little known distributors in distant states was easy money. As local demand continued to soar and popular beers ran short in key markets, many craft brewers were left with the disheartening but necessary prospect of pissing off a lot of newfound fans in these remote states. And while Three Floyds and Dogfish Head may be the biggest names in the market withdrawal game, it’s time to brace yourself for the inevitability that many of your favorite brands will eventually have to pack up and move back home, leaving you with nothing but distant memories of hops and malt and a taste for the past.

I know it’s not a popular view, but the Great Beer Retreat is actually going to be good for the industry. We are entering a new era of craft beer, one in which selection around the country may shrink but where local beer will grow increasingly strong and entrenched roots. And that is exactly what craft brewers need to compete in the cutthroat world of beer.

This kind of strategic retreat is a sign of strength and not weakness for craft beer. Look no further than New Glarus Brewing of Wisconsin for reassurance of this point. Founded in 1993, the brewery grew steadily, expanded into neighboring Illinois and even sent some of its specialty releases to a few other states, including Massachusetts. By 2002, the brewery decided to exclusively focus on its home market. Nearly a decade later, New Glarus still only distributes beer in one state and it’s grown to become one of the nation’s biggest craft brewers.

While we’ve been blessed, perhaps even spoiled, with unbelievable selection, consumers should actually appreciate losing a few brands. Dedication to local markets will define the next generation of craft beer, which will result in lower shipping costs, fresher beer, more direct attention from the brewery and its staff, and deeper and stronger distributor relationships. So while disappointment is understandable, craft beer will be better for it.

One brewer recently told me that these are the good old days. And indeed that’s true. Unless you live in major cities on the Eastern Seaboard, change is coming for you. Craft beer will never be the same again so enjoy this golden era. Even with the inevitable advance of major change, one thing remains clear: great, local craft beer isn’t going anywhere.

-Article appeared in Issue 51 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Why Midwestern Beer Rocks…

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When beer enthusiasts ponder great American craft breweries, their minds often wander to the coasts. West Coast brewers are deservedly renowned for their experimentation, especially in all areas hoppy. On the East Coast, craft brewers boast big reputations for their extreme acts and style defining efforts. But when it comes to dishing out respect, Midwestern breweries get very little for their impressive efforts.

I have a public confession to make. I think Midwestern breweries make the best beer available in the United States today. That’s a bold statement to be sure, but let’s take a closer look at this underappreciated beer region to test its accuracy. For starters, the Midwest has some of the strongest and longest operating craft breweries in the country. While names such as August Schells, Boulevard Brewing, Great Lakes, and Summit may not ring in the ears of ardent beer geeks, these breweries have provided strong leadership for the industry and solid, diverse beer lineups at reasonable prices. In stark contrast to their brewing compatriots on both coasts, these Midwestern breweries, and many others, appreciate the worldliness of beer. In contemplating their portfolios, these brewers recognize that the brewing playbook extends beyond the comfort zones of brewing and the hum-drum ubiquity of the big three: blonde, pale, and wheat ales. The lineup of top-notch lagers produced by Midwestern brewers, such as the Capital Brewery with its four seasonal doppelbocks, is unparalleled elsewhere in this country.

I’m not saying that the Midwest lacks its share of beer geek friendly breweries, far from it. Some of the region’s leading breweries, including Bell’s Brewery and New Glarus Brewing, bring a reserved, steady hand to the idea of extreme beer. From Larry Bell’s anniversary batch series and his former ’10 Stouts of November’ campaign to Dan Carey’s classic fruit beers and his phenomenal ‘Unplugged Series,’ Midwestern brewers know that pushing the envelope means more than simply turning the hop and alcohol dials up to 11. If the edge is where you need to live, then you can always try Three Floyds, Surly Brewing, and Kuhnhenn Brewing to get your adventure fix.

When I think about beer in the Midwest, one state clearly comes to mind, and I don’t mean Wisconsin. While the Badger State boasts dozens of excellent craft breweries, Michigan is perhaps the region’s most impressive brewing state. While it has but one brewery (Bell’s) in the top 50 craft brewers by volume, Michigan is home to more than 70 breweries and brewpubs, just behind Wisconsin for sixth most in America. The litany of Michigan’s small, local breweries and pubs include Short’s Brewing, the Livery, Dark Horse, Founders, New Holland, and of course, Jolly Pumpkin. With perhaps less flash than their coastal counterparts, these breweries produce beers that are anything but reserved.

Midwestern breweries also appear to better appreciate the value of providing fresh beer close to home. While many fledgling craft breweries struggle to contain their wide-eyed expansion plans, many of the breweries mentioned here practice a very different distribution system. Beyond the small breweries, which service their local communities, even the big guys do things a bit different. The Summit Brewing Company of Saint Paul sells nearly 90-percent of its beer in its home state of Minnesota. Boulevard Brewing was modeled on the historic local brewery system and limits distribution of its 130,000 barrels to the Midwest. The best example of this careful growth method is New Glarus, which famously pulled out of all other markets, including Chicago, because it could not make enough beer for its home state of Wisconsin.

With all of the region’s successes and the outstanding and diverse beers available, I think it’s about time we give Midwestern brewers the praise due to them. They’ve got my vote for best in the industry.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue VI of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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