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
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.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What's Your Favorite Beer Bar?, a Brewers Association website, wants to know your favorite beer bar. The first step in their yearly determination of the Great American Beer Bars, nominations are now open for 2014.

It's a popularity contest, for sure, but one that is at least rooted in nominations from knowledgeable (?) beer fans.  To take part, click on this highlighted link and fill in the information for your favorite beer bar. Nominations are accepted through noon MDT on Wednesday, August 13, 2014.

The bars with the highest number of nominations face off in a public vote. The three bars receiving the most votes in each of five regions are named regional winners with the top three across all regions named overall winners.  Richmond, VA's Mekong Restaurant has taken the top spot the past two years.

I enjoy this process for several reasons. For one, it involves nominations and votes rather than some freelancer stringing together the latest click-bait. For another, it's the Great American Beer Bars, not the "Best American Beer Bars," a subtle and perhaps meaningless difference, but I prefer it. For a third, it never ceases to add a new bar to my growing list of places to explore while traveling.

Finally, it's a happier way for a trade organization to promote craft beer than the whole craft versus crafty thing.  (Even if my personal favorites have yet to make the list.)

~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook

Thursday, July 10, 2014

More Montana Brewery News: Openings, Closure.

Not very long ago it seems I only needed to issue one of these "Montana Brewery News" items once every six months or so.  This will be the third in the past two months.  By all accounts 2014 is likely to go down as the Year of the Brewery. If anyone wants to create a cool logo for that, that would be totally . . . well, cool.

Lolo Peak Brewing, Beaverhead Brewing and Kalispell Brewing have all opened in the past month.  Cheers to more Montana beer. 

Great Burn Brewing has beer in the tanks, so it won't be long before they join the ranks.

Same goes for Cabinet Mountain Brewing which dropped its first batch of beer into the fermenter on July 6.  

Meadowlark Brewing is inching closer to completing construction and hopes to be open in late July or early August.

The onslaught in Butte continues at a rapid pace with Muddy Creek, CopperWild and Butte Brewing all proceeding with construction.

Over in Livingston, Katabatic is installing its brewing equipment, having received it on July 2, and hopes to be open around August 20. 

Unfortunately, we've got to remove one from the list.  Fat Jack's Tap Room in Laurel has closed.  That makes two closures in the past year, the first breweries to close in many years.  Desert Mountain Brewing's equipment was purchased by the future Backslope Brewing Co. in Columbia Falls, though no location has been chosen and some of the equipment is on loan to Bonsai Brewing in Whitefish.

I've been counting Kettlehouse's two locations as one, though they are certainly two breweries with technically separate ownership, thanks to Montana's less-than-friendly beer laws.  Ryan over at Montana Beer Finder counts them as two.  Maybe I should do the same moving forward.

Thus, Montana now has 44 operating and open breweries, a number that will change soon, you can be sure. 

Expect more news shortly.
~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

2014 Marathon Beer Run and Missoula Area Beer Guide

A huge welcome goes out to the thousands of runners headed to Missoula this week to take part in the Missoula Marathon weekend. The races follow an exceptional course and Missoula truly turns it in to a community event, thanks to the hard work of Run Wild Missoula and hundreds of volunteers. As always, there's a free Big Sky Brewing Co. beer waiting at the finish, which just might be a little more welcome this year with the predicted temperatures.

The festivities get started with the Missoula Marathon Beer Run on Friday evening, followed by the Missoula 5K and Race Expo on Saturday, and the Half and Full Marathons on Sunday morning. More than 6,500 runners are expected across all three races.

Hundreds of them are again expected to kick off the weekend with the Beer Run which takes place at 6:00 p.m. at the Iron Horse Bar and Grill, 501 N. Higgins Ave. Questionable beer run guides, myself included, will lead runners on three or five mile courses to stretch the legs out a bit.  Afterward, stick around for plenty of beer and food at the Iron Horse and the chance to meet runners from around the world.

The beer run is not the only way to take in Missoula's robust craft beer scene.  Due to a bummer of an injury that has me missing the race for the first time in five years, I've got time to put together a guide to get you started.

Missoula Breweries

Missoula is home to four breweries, with several more under construction or in progress.  Bayern Brewing, 1507 Montana St., became Montana's first craft brewery in 1987 and remains the only German brewery in the Rocky Mountains.

Just a short hop from Missoula's airport is Big Sky Brewing, 5417 Trumpeter Way, Montana's largest, maker of the well known Moose Drool Brown Ale, and long-time sponsor of the Missoula Marathon.  Stop by for some free samples and browse their extensive selection of Big Sky logo gear.  They don't sell pints, but will readily fill your growler with any of their fine selections.

KettleHouse Brewing offers up two very different locations to check out, the iconic south side K-hole, 602 Myrtle St., so named for its . . . um. . . eclectic seating options and austere surroundings, and it's Northside location, 313 N 1st St W, with its comfortable brick and wood interior of a converted warehouse along the railroad tracks. 

The newest addition to Missoula, though not for long, is Draught Works Brewery, 915 Toole Ave.  It, too, is located in a converted warehouse with a modern industrial feel and quite possibly the best outdoor patio space in Missoula. It's a great spot to relax after the race and be sure to grab some food from the Burns Street Bistro food truck frequently parked outside.

Just 8 miles south of Missoula you'll find the brand new Lolo Peak Brewery which opened only a week ago. 

By the time you come back for next year's race there may very well be three more open in Missoula. 

Missoula Beer-centric Bars and Restaurants

Nearby Flathead Lake is home to two breweries which have tap rooms/restaurants in Missoula.  Tamarack Brewing Company (Lakeside, MT), 231 W Front St., is multifaceted with a sports bar downstairs and a more family-centric area upstairs.  Flathead Lake Brewing Company (Bigfork, MT), 424 N Higgins Ave., also has two distinct areas with a full service restaurant on the first floor and a bar with pub food on the second.

The Rhino Bar, 158 Ryman St., is well known around Montana for its 50 tap handles containing many from Montana and far beyond.  Don't let the gruff exterior dissuade you.  Head on in, pull up a bar stool at this quintessential Montana bar and get ready to be entertained by watching some of Missoula's best wildlife. 

For some finer dining, Caffe Dolce, 500 Brooks St., and the Red Bird Wine Bar, 111 N Higgins Ave., offer small, but carefully selected tap selections and interesting bottle choices to pair with excellent food at reasonable prices. Caffe Dolce has a fantastic patio to enjoy the great Missoula summer evenings. 

Missoula Bottle Shops

Need a six-pack of some Montana made beer or a mix-sixer of beers from around the world?  Summer Sun Garden and Brew, 838 W Spruce St., boasts Missoula's best selection and is a very short walk from Draught Works Brewery.  Worden's Market, 451 N Higgins Ave., also has a very nice selection as do Pattee Creek Market, 704 SW Higgins Ave., Orange Street Food Farm, 701 S Orange St., and Good Food Store, 1600 S 3rd St W. 

Missoula Brewery Tours

If you have a little more time, Missoula is home to three brewery tour companies ready to transport you around Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley to show off our beer culture.

Want a great story to tell the friends back home?  Arrange for a tour on the Thirst Gear Pedal Pub, a crazy looking 15-passenger pedal powered bike that will get you from brewery to brewery in style. If riding along with a knowledgeable designated driver is more your style, Montana Brewery Tours and Tap Room Tours offer beer lovers fun, educational, customizable trips and behind the scenes access to the area’s breweries.

~ Follow Growler Fills on Twitter and Facebook