Sunday, November 10, 2013

Craft Beer Continues to Struggle With Size

Just how big is too big for craft beer?  The most recent story of a brewery being too big for its craft business came from a surprising location: Vermont.  Specifically the Alchemist, which shocked the New England beer scene by increasing it's hermit-like withdrawal from the Craft Beer community.  Quite possibly to increase engagement, or at least tolerance within its own community of Waterbury.  With an output of less than 10,000 barrels a year, all a single flavor the alchemist grew too big to maintain its focus on its craft.  The line of case-buyers and growler fillers was too great a distraction, and certainly an irritation to its neighbors.

Heady Topper is a double IPA with such a reputation, and exclusivity, that some guy in Bangor, ME had the audacity to offer a pair of 16 oz cans as a fair trade for tickets to a Phish concert.  The headyness of this coveted elixir is apparently equivalent to a single set of Vermont's finest.  History repeats its self. Just as Hurricane Irene flooded the Alchemist restaurant, and forced the brewer to close shop and narrow his focus on brewing, Beer Geeks flooded Waterbury and destroyed the retail side of the business.   

Something is clearly out of proportion.  10,000 BBLs is too much of a good thing.  That or Beer Geeks are much too tolerant of standing in line, and disrupting communities in search of their coveted elixir.  I'm not accusing the community of wanton drunkenness, and disorderly conduct.  No.  It's the culture of the beer pilgrimage.  Disruptive traffic, crowding, and unnecessary queuing, are the signs of decay and cultural squalor. Beer Geekery is crushing itself under its own weight.

Stories like the Alchemists disruptive effects on a small Vermont town will supply legitimate fuel to arguments supporting the zoning regulations that inhibit the establishment of new, and exciting Nano breweries.  Just before the Alchemist announced its plans to step back, and continue to duck under the radar, the Boston Globe ran a piece arguing that the city will lose its influence in the Craft Beer world because zoning restrictions are making it too difficult for the next-Alchemist or Hill Farmstead to open within the Hub.   

Who would want craft brewers as neighbors if the draws our queuing pedants by day, and drunkards by night?  While appreciation for high quality beer is unlikely to go away, perhaps its time to say so long to a culture that embraces marketing of event beers (Dark Lord Day, I'm talking about you and your demon spawn) and instead focus on community and civic engagement.  Craft Beer is a life-style product.  As consumers we should foster a healthy, balanced life style that's focused on the area community and not just the camaraderie in a line of beards, rejected by the Boston Red Sox.  

If idle queues are a necessary product of supply/demand inefficiencies and the awkwardness of our distribution system, then perhaps it is the calling for brewers to find some social responsible application for the attention.  Perhaps the idle queue should be turned into an active squad cleaning a local park, maintaining or building something for the community they disrupt.  Why shouldn't beer drinkers be as good as their beer?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Craft Beer Is Telling the Wrong Story

An NPR story went wide today describing how American Small Brewers are chipping away at the market share enjoyed by the country's former big 3 brewers.  It continues to spin the increasingly tired David v. Goliath story that champions the little guys as they struggle against the big business establishment.  Is this narrative still relevant?  Is it even appropriate to reduce trends in the free market to simple, two-sided box scores? If we consider, a completely different perspective, this oversimplifies to a story of punk teenagers mugging elderly billionaires to gather nickels.

The David v. Goliath metaphor is breaking down, and fragmenting the culture of quality beer producers.  The  size mismatch is a key feature of this story.  But it's getting awkward as the early leaders of the craft beer revolution grow to enjoy distribution as wide-spread as their acclaim.  The brewer's association, a trade union representing small brewers, has incited a lot of controversy by defining craft brewers as brewing 6 million barrels a year, or less with less than a 25% ownership interest from big brewing.  America's largest wholly owned brewer, Sam Adams produces nearly 2.5 million a year and could conceivably test that limit soon.  Sierra Nevada and New Belgium aren't far behind, and will certainly grow when they open east coast breweries.  Yes, these companies are still much smaller than the global conglomerates controlling the majority of the grocery store shelf space but the established vanguard of craft brewing has more in common with the multi-nationals than it does the boot-strap start-ups struggling to make names for themselves.

That's not intended to be a criticism of beer quality, or recipe ingenuity.  Or a condemnation of craft brewery's like Goose Island or Kona who opted to pursue acquisition as an exit strategy for investors.  Company size does not correlate to quality (at least not once a company is large enough that it can afford, and sensibly choose to send a bad batch to the drain instead of the kegging line).  Consider the world of ice cream.  Some crazy hippies in Vermont decided to start their own ice cream company.  It frightened the Pillsbury Dough boy.  But after more than 30 years in business, they elected to retire and sold the company to massive multi-national Univelever.  The product quality has remained the same simply because Ben and Jerry's is only valuable as a super-premium brand.  It exists because of a combination of product quality, and social consciousness.   Similarly, the transition of craft breweries into brands within multinational portfolio only makes sense  if the intent is to maintain the "brand" as a super-premium contributor to bottom line growth.

The story behind the distribution of the American craft beer market is a story of changing tastes, not brand marketing.   American cuisine is outgrowing its bland youth. Long term storage and kitchen convienence are no longer the most important attributes for a food stuff.  Quality, flavor, and the sustainability of it's production are key.  Organic food sales are outgrowing other sectors of the food market.  Super premium grocery stores like Whole Foods are growing everywhere.

Craft brewers are simultaneously innovating, and restoring tradition to provide American consumers choice in beverage flavor and quality.

Rooting for one brewer over another is about as sensible as rooting for a gear in your car.  There's a beer for every occasion. It's time for Craft Beer to embrace a narrative celebrating diversity, and the richness of culture.  The David v. Goliath story can only be re-purposed so many times before people start to wonder if Craft Beer has anything to offer beyond another IPA with the distinction of being smaller, and even more local.

So Much Changes in So Little Time

This past Saturday, I returned to the Seacoast NH beer circuit I'd too neglected.  When Kate became pregnant, we decided to let our Smuttynose big beer subscription lapse.  What would I do with all of that delicious beer and a jealous wife?  Clearly, no good could come of it.  Should I have been suprised that the Saturday social held for the Scotch Ale's release drew a larger crowd than I recall from the mostly after-work Friday socials?  Probably not.  The fact that barrels and tankage are squeezing out every last but of available space only amplified the sense of crowdedness.  It was cool to see a couple little kids at the social.  We weren't the only ones dragging our youngster around.

The suprise is the depth, vibrancy, and frankly economic scope of the Sea Coast's beer scene.  Yes, there's now a beer bus tour.  And I've been keeping tabs on the nanos popping up like weed's along route 1.  It just didn't resonate as a success, until I walked into my favorite NH brewing story, Throwback, a few minutes before scheduled close to find not only a sizeable crowd but a staff.  Yes, it was GABF weekend, but there was a staff.  I remember when Throwback was Annette, Nicole, and a handful of fermentors named after muppets.  The brewery still operates out of what's effectively a shed in a charmless industrial park.  I know it's moving to a postcard, but the concept that the small brewrey who's only touted expansion to distribution is a couple farmer's markets has grown to support not only the acquisition of property but also some significant combination of volunteer and paid labor is just staggering.  NH is definitely taking care of it's own.

The vibrancy of course continues with Blue Lobster, who is doing a good trade in growler fills while focusing on brewing which ABV beers that seem just a bit too boozy for mass consumption of a 64 oz fill. 

Its also quite impressive that the scene is supporting some expansion into higher end dining, via Kittery, ME's Black Birch while Portsmouth adds more and more tap space with a British Beer Company, and Whym.  The food and tap list at Black Birch were both excellent.  The quality is excellent, modern, and entirely unpretentious.

I was quite cynical about a craft beer having a bit of a bubble, especially along the 19 or so miles of NH's seacoast.  Given the vibrancy we witnessed on a mild fall Saturday, I'm happy to find myself so pleasantly incorrect.  Cheers!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Holiday Gift Ideas for The Beer Lover

Has the beer lover on your list has neglected to drop any good hints for gift ideas? Are you looking to surprise? Here are some ideas to consider.

Give the Obvious With Style


The gift of beer itself may seem obvious, but it is fraught with pitfalls. Especially if the gift giver is not as knowledgeable, experienced, or perhaps as jaded as the intended recipient. Craft beer lovers tend to have promiscuous taste buds. They crave new and exciting, and occasionally hard to find beers. How can anyone hope to keep track of another person's sense of new. You may have an advantage if you live a few states away and distribution agreements give you unique access to a hot new Nano, or even a New Belgium scale microbrewery. That's a great in if you have a little guidance. A beer lover that's a bit of a hoarder may enjoy an annual gift of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, or Sierra Nevada Bigfoot for their cellar. However, the safest bet for a beer gift is the somewhat corny Beer of the Month Club.

I'm not an advocate of the cheesy mail order companies that may think they are doing subscribers a favor when they send three bottles of Cave Creek Chili beer. If they are great. The exciting development in beer of the month clubs is occurring much more locally. Great beer stores, like Massachusetts' Craft Beer Cellar are running subscriptions a bit like a CSA. Here the club is curated by a highly knowledgeable staff, and may be tweaked a little bit to the individual tastes of the members.

Educate and Entertain, Inspire Conversation 


Beer is consumable and fleeting.  While there's poetry in transience, more premance may be found in prose.  Contemporary beer writing tends to break into a handful of easy categories travel writing, home-brewing, and general food and drinks reference.  It's almost too easy to get trapped in these styles.  However, great creatives, be they brewers or writers, artfully bridge, or ignore stylistic bounds.  Pete Brown has been called the "Beer Drinker's Bill Bryson" and his two most recent books are must reads for anyone who is interested in beer, and enjoys a good chuckle. Hops and Gloryexplores the history of the famous beer style from the perspective of a beer writer, out of book ideas, desperately trying to recreate IPA and experience it as it was after it arrived in India.  You'll have to order his most recent, Shakespeare's Local, from the UK to read how 600 years of English history unfolded around a single charmed pub.  

Travel writing takes either the form of personal narrative or guidebooks identifying the great breweries and taverns in a region.  Basic names, addresses, and reviews are commonly available on the web.  However, a well constructed guidebook like the Good Beer Guide 2012 is easier to use than most websites (and much cheaper than data roaming).

It's easy to recomend homebrewing books.  It's hard to pick one that a home brewer wouldn't have.  There are plenty of great texts that provide all the technical details necessary to brew many classic styles in the home.  Most books offer some historical context for the styles, and quite a few perpetuate the much loved (and maligned) myths.  My recomendations are on the right.

In terms of general refference, the encyclopedic The Oxford Companion to Beer is an insightful annd stately tome.   Good beer and food pairing can add a lot of depth and character to a meal.  Highly opinionated books like The Brewmaster's Table or Beer, Food, and Flavor are excellent and informative reads.

Experiences Are Excellent,  Even If They Just End As A War Story


Beer Festivals are the rock concerts and football games of the craft beer movement.  Lots of like minded people gather, and share a collectove experience.  However, unlike sporting events and concerts, the headliners and locals are rarely the stars of the show.  The big guys know this and tend to bring something rare or at least weird to get geeks' attention.  The big hits are usually small brewers debuting something surprising, or a mid-size craft brewery making its debut in the area.  There are craft beer festivals everywhere.  The only pitfals are a few festivals that market themselves more for over-consumption than exploration.  A lot of great festivals like the BeerAdvoacte fests sell out early.  A pair of advanced tickets will be appreciated.

If crowded festivals aren't your thing, you can always plan a weekend get together in a great beer city or town.  (Portland, Portsmouth, Boston, Denver, Seattle, Burlington, Prague, etc).  Share in the experience.  It will be fun!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dear Science: Where Does This Lead?

Let's face it .  Beer is a commodity.  Throughout the history of brewing, the content and character of beer has been influenced by the costs of ingredients, brewing processes, and direct or indirect costs associated with batch inconsistencies.  Even though 21st century propserity allows the resurection of higher cost/higher flavor brewing.  It's silly to think that the embrace of brewing tradition will always ignore the tradition of embracing sciencentific advance to improve brewing economics or beer character.  

In fact, scientific advance is clearly needed to improve the economics of organic hop growing.  There's a growing market for organic beers as craft drinkers like their occasionally unique character, and this type of farming's sustainability.  However, Hops are a challenging crop.  Just ask any north eastern hop grower.  If you can find one.  Growers have long suffered from blight, and weather which has encouraged farmers to listen to Horace Greely and "Go West, young man". 

Farming hop heaven in the Yakima valley, or Žatec, is no guarantee  As sexed perennials, often grown from root cuttings, humulus lupus plants tend to lack genetic diversity.  They are more inbred than any crazy royal or country bumpkin.  Hop fields are practically armies clones.  If one plant gets sick there's a good chance that its neighbors will be equally susceptible.   Hops are sickly.  However, like any rapid grower, they are hungry and thirsty.  There's a great opportunity for science to improve fertilization techniques and balance the nitrogen replenishment provided by ground cover without competing with the thirsty hop.  Craft beer drinkers can expect to see near term benefits from this research.

Those with a longer view, may start looking at brewers chasing the holy grail of process economics continuous production.  Beer is brewed and it sits in one or more tanks for weeks or months of fermentation and conditioning.   This same stodgy old-fashioned batch process is used today by home brewers and commercial giants, alike.   Just imagine a process where grain goes in, and beer comes out at the same rate.  In brewing there's really two pieces to this puzzle:  continuous fermentation, and continuous wort production.

Continuous fermentation is real.  Its used today Dominion Breweries, and was after a fashion done by Bass in the 50s.  The process can be improved by immobilizing yeast cells on some sort of substrate ginger, wax, whatever.  Since alcohol is lower density than the sugar liquid feed, it self separates.  A fgascinating application of continuous fermentation is to make mead making a viable, low capital, enterprise in sub-Saharan Africa..  The same techniques have been co-opted by Maine Meadworks, and presumably others to generate quite respectable craft mead.    This could even been done with multi-cellular mega-yeasts.  Recent studies of nature's microbrewers have shown that the traits related to flocculation and settling are linked to mutations that promote evolution into multicellular organisms.  The trade-off with continuous systems is that they are great at making one flavor, but can be very challenging to changeover to another.    

The tricky part of continuous brewing is continuous mashing.  There's a of biochemistry in this short step.  Starches are extracted from crushed grain.  The starches are then broken into fermentable sugars by various enzymes.  Different amylase enzymes break the starches in different ways, at different temperatures.  Brewers control their mash to balance the alcohol content, body, and even head retention of their finished beer.   In some nightmarish scenario from a chemical engineering textbook, continuous mashing could use a series of vessels each.  Plug flow through heated tubes, or a similarly temperatures controlled auger/extruder could also work.

Is continuous brewing scary?  Yeah.  But it's probably key to getting brewing in space.  If science promises anything for our future it is beer from space.