Blogs will save us.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Are You Ready for Lifestyle Beer?

My latest post at All About Beer concerns a growing phenomenon in beer--and a brewery that serves as the perfect case-in-point:
The splash page for Saint Archer Brewing Co., a San Diego company founded last year, is curious. On a recent visit to the page, there was nothing but a six-and-a-half minute video that began in grainy black and white and looked something like the early French new wave. It turned out to be a short promo doc about a guy who makes surfboards in San Francisco. Wait, what?
Welcome to the most ambitious lifestyle brewery in America.
What's "lifestyle beer" and why is St. Archer it's patron saint?  Go have a look.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Never Say "Craft Brewery"

Yesterday morning, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers announced that they would be selling 30% of their brewery, Founders, to the Spanish brewer Mahou.  The reason:
With Mahou San Miguel at the table, Founders Brewing Co. gets a partner with access to consumers on five continents and a chance to pay off investors who have helped finance the brewery’s rapid expansion....
Founders is No. 26 and climbing on the Brewers Association list of the nation’s largest craft brewers. It is also in the middle of a $40 million expansion that, when completed, will allow to make 900,000 barrels of beer annually.
The news came out on the same day I saw a nice article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about another large Midwest expansion:
When it hits full production, Surly’s new complex will fill more than 100,000 barrels annually — half of Summit Brewing’s capacity in St. Paul, but triple the capacity of the original Surly complex in Brooklyn Center and way more than any other brewery in town.... The final price tag of more than $30 million soared from initial estimates of $20 million. 
A large, independent, industrial production brewery.
The situations of the two breweries are not identical, and surely Brewers Association is going to have to think long and hard about whether to boot Founders from its membership roll.  But in one key way, I think we can agree that these breweries (and a few dozen more across the US) stretch whatever definition we might assign to "craft beer" beyond usefulness.  They are big breweries designed to produce beer efficiently and consistently--"industrial" plants by anyone's definition.  One passage I particularly appreciated in the Surly piece was a quote by brewmaster Todd Haug: "'Everything about the brewing process is going to be more precise and consistent,' he bragged, staring at computer screens that monitor every facet of his new tanks."  This is not the talk of a man hauling his own grain and whirlpooling his 3-barrel kettle with a canoe paddle.  (And there's nothing wrong with that!  Surly can make far better beer with their new system.)

It all gives me a chance to reprise a post from two years ago, when I argued for new and better definitions of American breweries that makes them consistent with breweries elsewhere:
  • Brewpub/hausbrauerei.  A pub with a small attached brewery that makes beer for onsite sale.  The focus is the pub, with attention to ambiance and a full menu, not the brewery.
  • Production brewery. a brewery that packages its beer for sale largely off-premise.  May have a tasting room, but this is a subsidiary function, unlike a brewpub where eating and drinking are the focus.
  • Traditional brewery. a brewery that employs equipment or processes to uphold a certain tradition in brewing.  Decoction breweries, tower breweries, breweries with open fermenters, etc.  Not a precise definition, but I distinguish these from modern breweries that have been optimized to make any type of beer.  A brewery doesn't have to be old or small to be traditional, and traditional breweries don't always make good beer.  They are distinguished from industrial breweries (below).
  • Industrial brewery. a highly automated and efficient brewing facility designed to produce beer as inexpensively as possible.  Again, nothing to do with beer quality.  They tend to be large, but not all large breweries are industrial and some smallish ones are.
  • Independent brewery. Owned singly by one human or a family.  Nothing to do with beer quality, size, or brewery design (industrial versus traditional). 
  • Nanobrewery. a production brewery with a batch capacity of less than three barrels. 
  • Large brewery. Any brewery with an annual capacity of 250,000 barrels or more a year.  You want to place it at 100,000 or a million?  I'm mostly cool with that.  Either way, it's worth noting that when you look at the tens of thousands of breweries worldwide, only a tiny percentage of them make even as much as 100,000 barrels.  And a 250,000-barrel brewery is necessarily a pretty damn big facility. 

These terms are not mutually exclusive--they cover types of breweries, methods of production, and ownership structure.  Surly is an independent, industrial production brewery.  In no case do these definitions concern beer quality--and this is the really important point.  Americans, due to a trick of timing, have come to fuse the concept of beer quality with the type of brewery making the beer. It is an unexamined habit for many people to think of smaller, newer breweries as the holders of quality, while huge, national conglomerates invariably offer bad beer.  But "craft beer," whatever else it may have once meant, is now just a marketing slogan. With breweries as big as Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium--companies now building multiple plants--the association between quality and size is even increasingly academic.

Since writing about these brewery categories a couple years ago, I would now add something about products, which is a distinct realm.  In this sense, "craft beer"--in the U.S., anyway--does have some utility.  More terms:
  • Mass market lager.  Pale lager beer produced by national brands to satisfy mass tastes.  This is by far the most popular beer in the world, and most countries have at least one brand--Budweiser, Beck's, Asahi, Heineken, Corona, Snow, Panama, San Miguel--and on and on.  The beverage industry distinguishes between beer like Budweiser (domestic) and Corona (import), but that term doesn't have a ton of utility when talking about the actual products.  
  • Alco-pops/flavored malt beverages.  Ever since Zima, a fringe of the beer market has been devoted to various sweet concoctions aimed at people who don't like beer.  It's not a big part of the market, but it continues to drive a lot of what the big companies are doing.
  • Craft beer segment.  Contrasting mass market lagers, the U.S. market also has "craft beer segment" which is essentially anything that's not a mass market lager or flavored malt beverage.  Regular human beer drinkers understand it to mean everything from the corner brewpub to Sam Adams to Blue Moon and Shock Top. 
I've been getting better about talking about beer in terms of which segment it occupies, but less good about talking properly about categories of breweries.  Breweries themselves have always had a huge interest in defining categories in ways that help them sell beer, but as consumers and journalists, we should resist this.  Clear, unambiguous language about what breweries are and what kind of beer they make, unsullied by the jargon of marketing departments, is what we should aspire to use.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Google released their "year in search" today, which charts the trends in every conceivable area of interest.  That includes a top ten list for beers searched, but it isn't particularly illuminating.  They also have an interactive tool that allows you to plug in search terms and see how they've performed over time--and using that, we can glean more interesting trends.  It's that time of year, so I don't have hours to sit and play with this tool--but here are a couple interesting findings.*

 Let's start out with a comparison I did to track the two currents in the beer market.  The red line tracks searches for "Bud Light" (the country's most popular mass market lager) and the blue tracks "craft beer."

There are a couple things to say here.  The first is obviously to acknowledge a pattern we see in real life--craft beer is gaining while mass market lagers struggle to stay relevant.  (Coors Light, which is fading and less popular than Bud Light, is now trending below craft beer.)  But there's another possible interpretation.  Our minds tell us that if craft beer commands 10% of the beer sales, it must similarly command only 10% of all beer drinkers.  But that's always been wrong.  The heaviest users of beer (a small group) drink the large majority of all beer sold.  So when we see craft beer beginning to eclipse Bud Light in terms of search terms, this may be a better reflection of the actual number of people drinking craft beer than sales numbers.

Now have a look at generic search terms.  This is also interesting.  Among drinkers, the majority still prefer beer.  Wine is second and liquor third.  But search terms don't reflect consumption patterns.  Below are "wine" (red), "beer" (blue), and "liquor."  (I tried "whiskey," "bourbon," and "vodka" in place of liquor, but the trends were almost identical.  Also, essentially no one searches for "hard cider.")

What's more interesting is that "beer" is ticking up while wine has been in a slow decline.  (Also interesting: the annual end-of-year bumps that wine and liquor enjoy correspond to a drop in beer searches.)  This is harder to interpret, but worth a few minutes trying.  Theories? 

Last one.  This sort of speaks for itself.  I plugged in "Sierra Nevada Pale" (blue), "Lagunitas IPA" (red), "Sam Adams" (yellow?--colorblind), and that last one is "Angry Orchard."  No wonder AB InBev and MillerCoors jumped on the cider bandwagon, eh?

*Google searches are a proxy for interest--and therefore don't reflect reality perfectly.  Not everyone uses the internet, and those who do have idiosyncratic interests.  They're just Google searches, and it's easy to add meaning where none may be. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lessons From a 25-Year-Old Beer

Last night a group of friends and I cracked open the first bottling of Old Knucklehead from BridgePort--a beer dating back to 1989.  Back in the day, Old Knucklehead (OK) was a wonderful tradition.  The brewery honored a local codger (some famous, some not) by putting his visage on a little nip bottle.  It combined localness, particularity, and tradition all in one lovely little package.  (The brewery would do well revive the tradition, methinks.  It's hyper local tradition and wouldn't account for many barrels in absolute terms, but it would get a ton of press and continue a beloved tradition.  It's also perfect for the social media age.)

I have no idea who's on that first bottle--I think it was a regular at the old brewery.  Labeling standards were different then (no government warning, for instance), and the ABV isn't listed.  If memory serves, OK was a relatively low-alcohol barley wine--nine percentish.  All of which made analyzing it more dependent on what our senses could tell us. 

One thing you could tell right away was the clarity--even in the bottle.  That was a good sign.  When we cracked it, the bottle let out a nice pssst, and bubbles sprang to the surface.  Old Knucklehead was bottle-conditioned, and there was a thick layer of now-black yeast at the bottom.  Bottle conditioning is great for aging beers in the shorter term--the yeast harvests oxygen while refermenting in the bottle.  But it also raises the risk of autolysis (yeast cell degradation). 

 Twenty-five years is a long time, but amazingly, the beer had little flavor of autolysis and also not a ton of oxidation.  For those who like the effect of oxidation on high alcohol beers, this was an argument for the prosecution.  A tinge of paper, but mostly a rich, sherry-like note.  There were no hops left, but the beer was not overly sweet.  Some bread pudding and raisin, but balanced by the sherry note. 

The beer probably would have been better a decade or two earlier, but it was still surprisingly fresh and tasty.  People often ask me how long you can store beer before it's a lost cause, and I've always been reluctant to answer.  My data set--like most people's--is not flush with examples.  But 25 years is quite a test.  And this bottle, which was well cared-for in that quarter-century, held up remarkably well.

Bright and effervescent after 25 years.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Your Controversy of the Day

Submitted for your discussion: Maine, not Oregon or California or Colorado, is brewing the country's best beer.  That's the thesis of my latest post at All About Beer, and I'm only being very slightly hyperbolic.
Maine obviously can’t compete on numbers. The population is the lowest of any least-densely populated state east of the Mississippi, and most of the towns are crowded down in the south and along the coast. It’s only got 47 breweries. People acknowledge that it has good beer, but it’s never placed among the most glamorous and it won just a single GABF medal this year. Nevertheless, in the ways that matter, Maine is at the beery vanguard. Good beer has saturated the culture and pubs—as Bray’s demonstrates—regularly have interesting, unexpected beer. None of this was unfamiliar to me—it’s been this way for years. What was striking was the degree to which breweries are now pushing the envelope on innovation and quality. As an Oregonian, I’m used to measuring cities by the number of years their beers trail ours. Maine’s scene isn’t trailing anyone, though, and their Portland may now be the equal of Oregon’s Portland. Seriously.
Go read the whole thing.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

We Like IPA and Other Findings

In the past couple years, the Brewers Association (BA) has really stepped up their stats game, a development I heartily welcome.  Today comes a quickie update on the year in beer, and three data points are worth closer scrutiny.

We Like IPAs
Sez the BA: "According to retail scan data, IPA is up 47 percent by volume and 49 percent by dollar sales, accounting for 21 percent volume share of craft."

One in every five beers we drink is some version of an IPA--and there's a good reason to believe this understates matters.  The BA relies on supermarket scans for these data (Symphony IRI and Nielsen), so they're not seeing what people drink in pubs or what they buy from specialty stores.  The figure is probably closer to a quarter of the craft beer sold rather than a fifth.

More interestingly, keep in mind that this is a new trend.  It was only three years ago that IPAs finally eclipsed long-time leader pale ale.  The ascendance of IPA is still an incipient trend, and who knows where it will finally level off.

A Lot of Breweries
BA: Breweries are opening at a rate of 1.5 per day. In addition, there are more than 2,000 breweries in planning....  In November, the United States passed the mark of 3,200 brewers in the country."

I continue to believe that, on the whole, the craft beer segment is positioned for strong growth over the coming decade.  But holy moly, that is one king-hell lot of breweries.  I suspect that there's more than a few poor business plans among them.  I wouldn't be surprised to see brewery closings start to spike soon.

Women Will Save Us
BA: "Additionally, women consume almost 32 percent of craft beer volume, almost half of which comes from women ages 21-34."

This is one of the reasons I've long been so bullish on craft beer in the US.  Despite occasional transgressions, craft breweries have been really good about offering a gender-neutral product.  They have neither alienated women with idiotic babes-in-bikinis ads nor condescended to them with idiotic products.  They've just made good beer and assumed women would like it.  Not-so-magically, that's what's happening.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Millennials and Beer - The Sky is Not Falling

The Washington Post's Wonkblog has a piece that is creating a bit of discussion amongst beery types: millennials don't like the beer so much.  (It's a post based on old numbers from a Gallup survey--apparently those ignorant of old poll numbers are doomed to repeat them.)  Actually, they do--beer is still millennials' preferred alcoholic drink--they just prefer it less than young people have in decades past.  And, actually, that tracks closely with general trends, too--beer consumption generally has been falling for decades.  We have known for at least five years that fragmentation is the way of the 21st century, as mass markets get ever tinier.

What we really care about is whether millennials are moving away from the craft beer segment.  Gallup's numbers didn't say anything about that, so of course Wonkblog can only offer a bit of throat clearing:
Even the beer world's coveted corner, craft beers, which has been gaining market share for many years now, might be on the verge of hitting their peak. "While we're not there yet, we're definitely approaching bubble territory,"  Spiros Malandrakis, an industry analyst at Euromonitor, said this past summer.
In other words: move along, nothing to see here.  We have known for years that the drinks market is getting more crowded as it matures, and that cider, micro-distilled liquors, and craft beer are increasingly grabbing market share from mass market beer.  Millennials are the first generation to be raised post-mass market, in the fragmented world of the internet.  They divide their love on all matters, not just alcoholic beverages.  That does not mean so few of them like craft beer that they can't support the segment's growth as it doubles or trebles (which would still leave it a decided minority of overall beer sales).

I'm also tired of lazy commentary like Malandrakis'.  His full quote continues: "There can't be a massive craft brewer. That's just an oxymoron. The moment a craft brewer makes beer on a mass scale, it's no longer a craft brewer."  He is a Londoner, and the word "craft brewer" has a different meaning there--so possibly we can chalk this up to cultural misunderstanding.  But on the face of it, that's an absurd statement.  We already have several massive craft breweries, and they are growing impressively.  Aside from a gut feeling he may have, there's nothing in the trends or data to suggest craft brewing is at or near a bubble.  None.  I know people feel that way, but there's no data to support it.

Sales of jug wine constituted two-thirds of the market in 1990 and are marginal now.  If you looked at the sale of good wine in 1995, you might have called it a "bubble," too.  But some times, trends just shift.  Nothing says mass market lagers have to remain popular.

Beer is fine, and millennials drink plenty of it.  In the immortal words of Aaron Rodgers, "r-e-l-a-x."

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Good Pours at the Holiday Ale Fest

There are no absolutes in the subjective realm of taste.  "Good" moves along a sliding scale, depending on our preferences.  So consider the following beers provisional recommendations.  But you knew that, right?
  • For me, the pick of the fest was Gigantic's Red Ryder BB Gun, a cranberry-infused saison.  The fruit choice was inspired: cranberries both offer a note of acid but also a fruitiness, so that the contrasting favorable qualities of the yeast--esters and attenuated dryness--are both accented.  With all the heavy, boozy beers, it also serves as a very welcome palate-cleanser.
  • Cranberries were also put to great use in Burnside's Jingleberry, a hugely-thick imperial stout.  Again, the acid in the berries help cut through the dense folds of black malt (though they're nearly consumed by them).  Unlike some of the heavy beers, it wears well, too.  I could easily have enjoyed a pint.
  • While we're on the porter-stout continuum, another winner was Coalition's Big Maple.  If you know its smaller incarnation, Loving Cup Porter, big brother will be familiar.  The maple is less obvious, which works to the beer's advantage by keeping the level of perceived sweetness down.
  • A beer you might otherwise overlook was quite nice: McMenamin's Lord of Misrule.  It's called a stout, but tracked more like an old ale to me.  Anyway, the use of habanero peppers gives it a ton of spicy flavor and only the tiniest hint of heat.  (I suspect that only two of ten people would even make the ID if they tasted it blind.)  The beer is very sweet and I don't think I could do a pint.  Still, it's well-done and clever.  Definitely worth a pour.
Overall, the fest is studded with a ton of great beers.  I was not in love with Ex Novo's Moonstriker, a mole Baltic porter (too thin; the flavors didn't come together) or Viking's Aurora Braggot (I may not be a braggot guy), but those are mostly matter's of preference.  I didn't encounter a single beer I'd warn people to skip--though in the usual manner of trading recommendations, I was guided away from one or two.  (For obvious reasons, I won't be passing that info along second-hand.)

Gentlemen excited to pursue MORE BEER.

If you care for other picks and pans, check out the New School, Beer Musings, Not So Professional Beer Blog and Beervana Buzz for alternate run-downs.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Bird-Dogging the Best at Holiday Ale Fest

Holiday Ale Fest
Pioneer Courthouse Square
Wednesday 12/3 to Sunday 12/7
Full Details

The Holiday Ale Fest begins on Wednesday in its too-snug venue at Pioneer Courthouse Square.  A force of nature, the Fest has evolved into an event in which most of the beers are specialty one-offs, which makes it one of the most anticipated fests of the year.  And also makes recommending beers a total crapshoot. If you like red-hued beer, coffee, chocolate, and bourbon, you're in luck.  Lots of that this year.  There are a number of black ales to go with the usual complement of IPAs, and there are even several sours.  Overall, a nice variety.

It's a fool's errand to predict which beers will emerge as the big faves, but equally, the wide range also demands that the savvy get together a list of target beers.  In the interest of generating discussion, below are the beers that intrigue me.  I plan to head down the first day, so look for a report back on Thursday. 
  • Base Camp Dunkelrauch Weizenbock (8.9%) and Old Town's Bluth's Original Chocolate Banana Hefeweizen (5.5%).  Base Camp's is all right there in the name--a smoked dunkel (dark) weizen.  What more can you ask from a winter beer than smoky, clovey, banana? Old Town's, which makes the list owing to the "Arrested Development" reference, is a lighter hefe with cocoa nibs.  Not so many sub-6% beers, so it might be a welcome pace-setter.
  • Bear Republic Do Yo Want to Build a Snowman? (6.8%).  A melange of four barrel-aged beers I've never heard of, the result of which is billed as fruity and slightly tart.  Two or three years ago, Bear Republic had the best beer at the fest, and I'm hoping for a repeat performance.
  • Burnside Jingleberry (8.3%).  Of all the stouts, this one most beguiles for the addition of fresh cranberries.  Fruit stouts are often lovely, and cranberries seem like an inspired choice.
  • Cascade Gingersnaps (12.1%).  A gigantic blend of 2-year-old quads aged on bourbon and rum barrels.  Ron Gansberg usually sends over something special, and I like special things from Ron Gansberg.
  • Coalition Big Maple (9.0%).  When she co-founded Coalition, Kylie Hoyt wanted to express a bit of her native Vermont and turned to maple syrup.  Coalition generally sends their wonderful winter strong ale, Lost Glove, but this year it's the big brother to their maple porter.  I love the little brother (Loving Cup), so this is a pretty sure bet.
  • Ex Novo Moonstriker (8.0%).  A mole Baltic porter made in collaboration with Moonstruck chocolates.  This seems like such an obvious idea, and yet I've never encountered a mole porter/stout that really sings.  Let's see if Ex Novo pulls it off.
  • Hopworks Incredible Abominable of the Enchanted Barrel Forest (9.0%).  Pretty much the only bourbon-aged IPA I've ever enjoyed was one made for this event by Hopworks, Kentucky Christmas.  It has heretofore been a tradition at the Fest but in its place we have a different bourbon-aged IPA.  I'll take a flyer on it.  (Also, standard Abominable is my fave beer from Hopworks.)
  • New Belgium La Folie (7.0%).  Because New Belgium La Folie.
  • Ninkasi Doppelbock (7.5%).  After having established their rep based on hoppy ales several years ago (I sampled my first Ninkasi, Believer, at HAF), Ninkasi has quietly been building an inventory of wonderful in-style German lagers.  I'm looking forward to test-driving this doppel and have high hopes.
  • Oakshire Prestidigitation (7.0%).  This is not the first pale stout, nor even the first recent pale stout (or in Oakshire's locution, "white stout").  But it may be the first pale chocolate milk stout.  Coffee, cocoa nibs, and star anise are harnessed in service of wrapping a stout-y flavor in a pale wrapper.
  •  Sixpoint Lump of Coal Porter (7.9%).  The reasons to be interested in this beer are two: 1) Sixpoint is located in Brooklyn and is unavailable in the Beaver State, and 2) it was a collab with the Beer Goddess, Lisa Morrison.  Not bad as reasons go, eh?
There are, incidentally, two beers that use mint: Slanted Rock Cordial Tease and Widmer Brothers Frostie the Munchyman.  I hate mint, so they got struck from my dance card, but if you like them take note.  The fest also has two-ticket (usually vintage) rarities that pour at designated times on each day of the event, but the Fest hasn't announced the line-up yet.  Watch this page for updates.

I'll leave you with the latest "pin-up" for further consideration.  Why on earth does the fest continue this bizarre tradition?  Consider it a provocation for a discussion in comments.  See you Wednesday--

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

May you all enjoy good food, company, and of course, beer this fine Thanksgiving Day. I intend to go indulge in all three.

See you next week--