Thursday, July 31, 2014

Study Shows Montana Distributors Support 2,000+ Jobs

Montana's 22 beer and wine distributors support more than 2,000 jobs, says a July 2014 study prepared by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research of the University of Montana. They aren't primarily minimum wage jobs either, with average annual earnings of nearly $54,000.

The study was conducted at the request of the Montana Beer and Wine Distributors Association to research the economic contribution of the Association's members to the Montana economy.

The data, collected from MBWDA's members, demonstrated that in 2012 members accounted directly for:
$356,009,531 in gross sales,
1,173 beverage distribution jobs, and
$57,642865 in employee compensation (including benefits). 
(See page 10 of the study.)

Other jobs supported by the industry include construction, retail trade, state and local government, manufacturing and, of course, the breweries.

You'll find the complete report at this link. A similar study of the economic impact from Montana's craft brewing industry was prepared in 2012 for the Montana Brewers Association using data from 2010-2011, numbers which are certain to be out of date with 14 more breweries added since then.

~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook

Cabinet Mountain Brewing Opens Today, Montana's 45th

After a successful test run for mug club members last night, Cabinet Mountain Brewing Co. in Montana's far northwest town of Libby opens to the public today at 11:00 a.m. Congratulations to owners Kristin Smith and Sarah Dinning and brewer Grant Golding on becoming Montana's 45th operating brewery

Expected to be on tap for today's opening are Libby Lager, Bobtail Blonde, Yaak Attack IPA and Ross Creek Red.  Two more beers, Pipe Creek Pale Ale and Colter Coffee Porter, are expected to be ready soon. 

Visit the brewery on Saturday at 6:00 p.m. and you'll have the chance to meet Ryan Newhouse, author of Montana Beer: A Guide to Breweries in Big Sky Country, and have him sign one of his popular books for you.  I'm guessing Kristin, Sarah and Grant will be happy to sign it, too. 

You'll find the brewery at 206 Mineral Ave. in downtown Libby.
~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Tap Takeover at The Rhino July 30

Sierra Nevada is close to opening its new east coast brewery in Mills River, NC. To celebrate, they've been traveling the county while presenting a multi-weekend traveling beer festival in select cities. Two more take place this weekend (Portland, ME and Philadelphia, PA) before the final stop in Mills River on August 3.

Credit: Sierra Nevada
In conjunction with the beer festivals, Sierra Nevada partnered with twelve other breweries to create a mixed twelve-pack with twelve different beers (ten bottles and two cans). Partner breweries included Cigar City, Russian River, Allagash, 3 Floyds and several other well-respected outfits. The result was a very interesting mixture of twelve styles from a latte stout to a rye bock to a Belgian-style pale ale and an English-style bitter.

The twelve-packs were quick sellers with relatively limited quantities, but if you're in the Missoula area this Wednesday you have an exceptional opportunity to give them a try.

On Wednesday, July 30, The Rhino will have a small quantity of all twelve Beer Camp beers on tap in a Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Tap Takeover.  According to the Rhino, it is the only bar where you have the chance to try all twelve.  The Rhino's Brad Martens reports the taps will start flowing at 4:00 p.m.

The Rhino is located at 158 Ryman Street in Missoula.

~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook

Friday, July 25, 2014

Reminder: Bitterroot Brewfest is Tomorrow, Saturday, July 26

Just a reminder if you're in the Hamilton, MT, area tomorrow or are otherwise looking for a beer event to attend.  The 20th Annual Bitterroot Chamber of Commerce Brewfest takes place Saturday, July 26, 2014, across from Legion Park in Hamilton.

This long running celebration of the Bitterroot community is the Chamber's primary fundraiser each year.  Cost is $20 for a commemorative glass and five taster tokens.  Enjoy live music from Dan Dubuque, Three Eared Dog and Shakewell, food vendors, beer and wine from 3:00 to 10:00 p.m. Be sure to take part in the popular people's choice award for the best beer.

~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook

Billings Brewery District Walking Tour

It may be unofficial, but you won’t get any argument about downtown Billings’ designation as the City’s brewery district. Boasting six breweries and two distilleries along a roughly eight block stretch of Montana Avenue and 1st Ave. N., Billings provides a perfect opportunity for a leisurely pub crawl on a sunny summer evening.

It’s so perfect the Billings Chamber of Commerce put together a Billings Brewery Walking Tour Map to guide you along the 1.5 mile route.

Not that you’ll need it, but you can start your tour with an Anger Management Belgian-style Wheat at Angry Hank’s Brewery to put you in a more mellow mood.

From there the walking tour will take you by Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. and on to Uberbrew, which recently brought home a silver medal from the World Beer Cup for its White Noise American Style Hefeweizen. You’ll then have the chance to take in the locally crafted spirits at Trailhead Spirits or the always creative and award winning lineup at Carter’s Brewing Co., which often includes a variety of farmhouse ales and sours.

Stick to the route and you’ll quickly come to Angry Hank’s second location followed by Himmelberger Brewing. The last stop on the tour, assuming you like a clockwise direction from the original Angry Hanks, will lead you to Montana Brewing Co. a few steps from Skypoint, the center of downtown and the location of many festivals and events. Be sure to stop in for their award winning Custer’s Last Stout.

~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook
A version of this article first appeared in the June/July Issue of Rocky Mountain Brewing News.  If you know of Montana beer stories which need to be told, contact Alan.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thirst Gear Offers Unique Way to Explore Missoula

As the hub of western Montana, Missoula is the home of four breweries, two brewery outposts, and more on the way. Perhaps the most interesting and oddball way to tour them is with a group of your favorite beer loving friends on a strange looking contraption known as the Thirst Gear pedal pub. Sure, residents and visitors alike are certain to laugh and point with amazement as you pedal through the streets of Missoula, but you’ll be too busy laughing yourself to care.

Creators Alex and Tom Snyder call Thirst Gear “a big bucket of awesomesauce” that fits perfectly with Missoula’s active and beer loving lifestyle. “In order to enjoy Thirst Gear,” Tom notes, “one
needs a semi-functional brain, the ability to breath, and the general belief that life improves dramatically when drinking beer and being outside.” “Missoulians were pretty much tailor-made to enjoy a giant brew bike that takes them to all their favorite breweries all summer long.”

Thirst Gear offers set routes and fully customizable tours. “Tours are 3 hours long and offer three stops of the rider's choosing,” says Tom. “If you want beer at Kettlehouse Brewing Co., great. If you want Montgomery Distillery cocktails, let's do it. If you want water, we kindly suggest you stay home until hydrated enough to hit up the Plonk wine bar for some wine.” Since launching Thirst Gear in earnest this spring, they've hosted bachelorette parties, team building exercises, business groups and plenty of locals just looking to explore their city in a new way.

Alex and Tom are clearly enjoying their Thirst Gear trips as much as their patrons. The idea for the pedal pub came as “basically just a way for us to legitimize our own drinking habits,” jokes Tom. “Like 11:00 a.m. football on Sundays. ‘Honey, it's not weird to drink this early if there's football on, I swear!’"

~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook
A version of this article first appeared in the June/July Issue of Rocky Mountain Brewing News.  If you know of Montana beer stories which need to be told, contact Alan.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Who Will Save the "Idea" of Craft Beer?

How much influence can a label have?  

A lot, apparently, if you've followed the "craft versus crafty" debate of the past few years.

Remember when we called new beers from anyone other than Big Beer microbrews?  Those were the days of a few new six-packs from places unknown hitting the grocery shelves. Something unusual with new flavors. Just a faddish annoyance to Big Beer.

Miller Brewing Co. even played along in 1998, plastering billboards, television ads and bar placards with its retro-themed advertising campaign:  "Sometimes you just want a good old-fashioned macrobrew."

From my memory, the term "craft beer" started appearing in earnest sometime after the lull in craft beer that occurred from 1997 to 2003.  As the Brewers Association evolved (it was formed in 2005 by the merger of The Association of Brewers and the Brewers’ Association of America) "craft beer" changed from a concept to a definition.

The Brewers Association defines the term "craft brewer" for its own purposes.  It is a trade organization, not a regulatory agency. It produces websites, magazines, and beer festivals, collects and disseminates information, and undertakes many other activities to advance its mission to promote issues of interests to its members. It has neither trademarked nor does it otherwise own the term "craft beer."1 Or "craft brewer" for that matter.2

The worth of any trade association can be measured by how well it stakes out a position of authority in its given field.  Another way to consider its worth is to ask, "how well does it drive the conversation?"

There is little question and ample evidence the BA is masterful at driving the "craft beer" conversation, even when getting it completely wrong.

Take the craft versus crafty debacle.  Apparently feeling the heat from Big Beer's entry into the non-fizzy-yellow-beer category, the BA sought to distinguish the little guys by differentiating between real craft and faux-craft.  RealCraft™ were small, independent, and traditional brewers with "traditional" defined initially as those who did not use too many adjuncts (like corn).

That definition kicked out August Schell Brewing Co. and Yuengling and Son, Inc., the oldest brewery in the U.S.  The BA's chart showing who was not a craft brewer disappeared quickly in the aftermath of appropriate criticism like that from Jace Marti, asked why August Schell was being punished by the BA for using an ingredient (corn) which started out of necessity when the brewery was founded in 1860 and continued out of tradition.

Fair question. 

Yet, even in the craft versus crafty misstep, the BA was driving the conversation about craft beer.

But is it the right conversation? Or is the BA merely enjoying the spoils of our misinterpretation of the conversation?

Late last year an app appeared on the beer scene that allows beer fans to check whether the beer they're buying is craft or crafty.  Scan a barcode or enter a beer into Craft Check and you'll get one of two messages.

Pick "right" and you'll get this one: “Congratulations! What you’re looking at is a genuine craft brew from a genuine craft brewery. This is as good as it gets (when it comes to beer).”

Pick "wrong" and look out: “Careful! What you’ve got there is an imitation craft brew from one of the big guys. It’s got all the soul of a spreadsheet. Crafty, but not Craft.”

It's momentarily funny, then embarrassingly simplistic. It also demonstrates why this conversation has been so wrong.

Not long after the Craft Check app came out, the Brewers Association changed its definition of "craft brewer." Principally, it changed the definition of "traditional" to now include brewers who use higher amounts of corn, rice and other adjuncts.

Traditional is now defined as: "A brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers whose flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation."  I guess they decided to change from exclusionary to confusingly contradictory.

With that flip of the switch, breweries such as August Schell and Yuengling and Son suddenly went from crafty to craft.  Or, to us the Craft Check language, August Schell and Yuengling went from having "all the soul of a spreadsheet" to a "genuine craft brewery."  That's as good as it gets!


When the BA announced the definition change, I contacted Jace Marti to see if August Schell had been invited to be part of the process.

"I had talked to a few of the new members on the BA board that I knew, and had asked them if they were ever going to do something about it," Marti responded in an email in March. "They told me they were going to try and get it changed, but that was the extent of my involvement in the process."

"Ken Grossman from Sierra Nevada called my dad on Monday morning to tell him that they had a board retreat and changed the definition," Marti noted.  "I thought it was was pretty cool that he did that."

"The reaction at the brewery so far has pretty much been 'So… I guess we’re a craft brewer again?'" Marti explained.  "We’re all glad its finally over with and can just try and move on from the whole thing. We’ve felt we’ve always been a craft brewer, even if we didn’t meet their exact definition, so it’s nice to be recognized as one again, even though we’ve been doing everything the same the whole time."

It's the reaction you'd expect someone in Marti's position to have. Perplexed that August Schell was ever not in the club, appreciative of the change for whatever it's worth, and carrying on business as usual.

But business as usual in the craft beer discussion has not improved in the wake of the BA's change of heart.

Perhaps no single article demonstrates this more than a recent one appearing in the Huffington Post by Associate Business Editor Kevin Short discussing the BA's new definition.

Three paragraphs in, Short drops this line:
To use the term "craft beer" in marketing, brewers traditionally had to be three things: small, independent and traditional. The BA also required that brewers use only barley malt for their flagship beer, rather than rice or corn.
Stop right there.  "Craft beer" is neither a trademarked nor well defined term. No one "owns" it.  So, who gets to decide which breweries can use the term "craft beer" in marketing?

While you're pondering that question, consider this passage from Short's article which he uses to demonstrate the fear that widening the definition of craft beer "could render the distinction meaningless:"
"They’re concerned – rightfully concerned, in my humble opinion – that this will compromise the quality of beer produced and sold under the craft beer umbrella," writes Caleb Houseknecht on the blog for Keg Works, a leading beer equipment seller.
It's an incredible line which demonstrates exactly what has been wrong with this conversation from the start.

With the BA driving the conversation about "craft beer," the idea that "craft beer" equals "quality beer" has become firmly entrenched without question. It's a point so fully accepted that people actually believe changing the definition of "traditional" will "compromise the quality of beer produced and sold under the craft beer umbrella."

Whose umbrella? 

Charlie Papazian, President of the BA and the man from whom scores of us learned to homebrew, disagrees. "The term 'craft' is not about snobbery or being an elitist as some have suggested," Papazian wrote in the September/October 2013 edition of The New Brewer, and republished on  "It is not a claim about the quality of the beer. It is about giving the beer drinker a tool to identify who makes the beer they enjoy."

It's not a claim about the quality of the beer?  Papazian may truly believe this, but it's a point belied by nearly every message the BA delivers.

Papazian writes, "The term 'craft brewers' is an effort by small and independent brewers to differentiate themselves. It is not an effort to denigrate those who are not craft brewers."

It's a fair point, but determining who and what they are attempting to differentiate is perhaps the bigger part of the problem.
NPR tried to decipher that mystery in an article heavily quoting Bison Brewing Co. owner/brewer Dan Del Grande.  Del Grande has been outspoken in his disagreement with the BA's decision to change the definition of craft brewer:
"To me, craft means artisan," he says. "Once an enterprise scales up, the beer is no longer craft. It becomes a brand with lots and lots of employees, and you can't point to a small team of individuals who are responsible for the art."
Del Grande's preferred definition is a good example of the problems inherent in defining any subset of a larger group.  For him, it's a scale issue. At a certain point a brewery loses that human to beer connection.  But what number represents this change?

Such a distinction is not reflected in the BA's current or previous definition of "craft brewer." It is, however, reflected in Papazian's piece.

Papazian explains that "craft brewer" is an "idea" and admonishes us for reading too much into it: 
The argument against the definition of craft brewer gets messy and off track if the term is taken literally. . . . . The point that the definition of craft brewer tries to establish is not about using the word 'craft' literally. 'Craft brewer' is an idea. Sure, there are brewmasters throughout the world who take pride in skillfully brewing their beer. But I don’t think the craft brewer definition was meant to demean anyone’s skills, expertise, or the integrity of any company.
Papazian is exactly right. A "craft brewer" is a subjective idea, something nebulous left to each of us to define as relates to our own experiences and values.

But Papazian's organization defines it anyway.  The BA chose to adopt cutoff points and most definitely turned "craft brewer" into a literal definition. Remember the BA's chart showing who did and did not qualify under their definition?  Sorry, Charlie, but your idea got hijacked.

Other industries are not having this battle.  Grocery store giant Safeway sells an Artisan™ line of breads baked daily at its stores.3 Some of it is even pretty tasty.  Yet, we don't see hoards of local bakers crying foul over corporate America hijacking a term that "should" be reserved for small, independent, and traditional bread makers.  You know, the community folks who are having to compete on price, location, convenience, distribution channels - and quality - with the big boys.

What do these local bakeries offer? A way to support local business, of course, but they also enjoy the presumption - though not necessarily the reality - of better quality.
Papazian can argue the term "craft brewer" is not about quality precisely because the BA has already driven the conversation in such a way that "craft brewer" is synonymous with it.  Don't believe it?  Re-read the above quote from Caleb Houseknecht as reported in Short's Huffington Post piece.

The acceptance of "craft beer" as quality beer is pervasive in beer reporting, writing and blogging. Yet, there remain many a "craft brewer" punching buttons in the mechanical production of beer, disconnected from the art, to use Del Grande's language.

Again, Papazian is right. There is no possible way to define cutoffs which encapsulate the subjective nature of quality.  If you think non-craft = low quality, you have not sampled a Bourbon County Brand Stout.

Quality, it must be said, has been but a phantom ideal on the drive through the craft beer conversation. 

So it was no surprise and certainly not the least bit coincidental to see the BA make quality the primary focus of its message to brewers at the most recent Craft Brewers Conference in April.

Chris Crowell of Craft Brewing Business reports BA's Director, Paul Gatza, told the crowd "If a lot of newer brewers are not focusing on quality, that reflects on the overall community. Sending beer samples to a lab, or counting bacteria in beer… these are the things new brewers are just not doing. We need to get more science behind the art.”  Really, Gatza seemed to be saying "We've got everyone convinced that craft beer is better beer so don't screw this up."

Except Gatza only got it half right.

Why do "old" brewers get a pass?  Just last week I drank a sour oatmeal stout from a "craft brewer" that opened in 1996. It was not intended to be sour and most definitely should not have been sour.

This experience makes my point more than any words I could write.  The label "craft beer" is only theoretically about quality.  Papazian got it right.  It can not be about quality no matter how many reporters, brewers, writers, and fans butcher the point.

Accepting Papazian's basic tenant, that "craft brewer" is meant only to distinguish the truly, small, independent and traditional from . . . . . . the few who don't meet the definition, still leaves much unanswered.

If the "craft beer" label is not about quality, why should we care so much about the distinction between craft and non-craft? Why do certain members of the beer industry get so angry about Big Beer masquerading as one of the little guys (a phenomenon not unique to beer)?

There are legitimate reasons to dislike Big Beer that have nothing to do with quality.  Take Big Beer's undue influence on distribution channels, for example, which has an unacceptably large impact on everything from the beer you can buy to the politics behind it. But if you're going to argue that point,  you should also know that today's plethora of hop varieties can be directly tied to Big Beer's investment of significant resources into hop breeding programs.

It simply isn't that . . . . simple.

Beer drinkers who have been around a while are tired of the simplistic categorization created by defining craft beer. Beer writers are increasingly uncomfortable using the term because it feels more like an agenda than Papazian's "idea."

Defining "craft brewer" and "craft beer"4 is useful only for something which can actually be measured: market share.  By defining who is a "craft brewer" the BA can count production and sales volumes and compare them to the whole.  The BA can even change the definition to help maintain (or even boost) the category's market share.5

The reality is, for the BA's internal purposes "craft beer" means nothing more than beer that is not tied too closely to A-B InBev, MolsonCoors, or SAB Miller.

That's a perfectly acceptable definition for a trade organization trying to establish a metric for measuring its success. 

For the rest of us, "craft beer" can only be something much less definitive. The brewers, their beers, and the experiences we get by vising our local breweries are driving its success, not artificial labels and useless arguments.

No one owns the term "craft beer" any more than the label "craft beer" guarantees a quality product.

Only one real question remains. Can the "idea" of "craft beer" be saved?

~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook

A final note:  Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey are excellent bloggers (Boak & Bailey's Beer Blog) who occasionally encourage fellow beer writers to "go long" by providing meatier material than the standard short blog post. I'm not usually accused of going short, but thanks for the extra effort it took to ponder this discussion. 
1 A quick check of records at the USPTO shows 42 registered trademarks and 32 pending applications using the term "craft beer," demonstrating the term itself is not protected.  Many of these specifically disclaim any exclusive right to the term "craft beer" except as combined with other words.
2 The term "craftbrewer," all one word, is trademarked in the category of hot beverage makers.
3 Yes, Safeway claims a trademark to its use of the word Artisan.
4 The BA will point out it does not define the term "craft beer" but the terms are so intertwined/interchanged in the BA's writings/marketing/products that any distinction has been rendered meaningless.
5 The BA appropriately acknowledges the 2010 definition change was made, in part, to prevent the loss of Boston Beer Co. from craft beer's market share.