Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Missoula's Kettlehouse Expands Capacity, Bumps Legal Limitations

This morning's Missoulian newspaper has a story about Kettlehouse Brewing Co.'s  expansion, but also contains a couple of nuggets detailing the problems with Montana's brewery laws. 

On Monday, Kettlehouse swapped out two 40 barrel fermentation and bright tanks for two 90 barrel ones to increase capacity.  With the switch, Kettlehouse now has the capacity to reach close to 10,000 barrels per year which is an arbitrary, but important number in Montana's statutes. Read along below and you'll see the issue:
 16-3-213. Brewers or beer importers not to retail beer -- small brewery exceptions. (1) Except as provided for small breweries in subsection (2), it is unlawful for any brewer or breweries or beer importer to have or own any permit to sell or retail beer at any place or premises. It is the intention of this section to prohibit brewers and beer importers from engaging in the retail sale of beer. This section does not prohibit breweries from selling and delivering beer manufactured by them, in original packages, at either wholesale or retail.
     (2) (a) For the purposes of this section, a "small brewery" is a brewery that has an annual nationwide production of not less than 100 barrels or more than 10,000 barrels.
     (b) A small brewery may, at one location for each brewery license, provide samples of beer that were brewed and fermented on the premises in a sample room located on the licensed premises. The samples may be provided with or without charge between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. No more than 48 ounces of malt beverage may be sold or given to each individual customer during a business day. 
That's the Montana statute that creates the now familiar 48 ounce limitation and requires tap rooms to stop serving at 8:00 p.m.  You might not have known, however, that permission to sell beer for on-premise consumption in a brewery tap room is only granted to "small breweries" producing  at least 100 barrels annually, but not more than 10,000 barrels annually.* 

Thus, if Kettlehouse exceeds 10,000 barrels annually it must stop selling beer at its taproom, something they obviously don't want to do.   The limitation has a chilling effect on the growth potential for some of Montana's best business stories.  Wondering why you can't get enough Cold Smoke Scotch Ale in Billings? Expanding to meet the demand means giving up a tap room. And you don't want to see what happens when Missoula's residents hear that news.

The 10,000 barrel limit was enacted in 1999 as part of the compromise with other members of the three-tier manufacturing/distributing/retailing system to allow on-premise sales at tap rooms.  Perhaps at the time no one expected the boom in Montana's craft beer industry.  Now, that boom is responsible for significant job creation and a great market for Montana's agricultural products. Oh . . and  . . . uh . . . . great beer for us craft beer lovers.  It's time to make legislative changes to help the industry, not limit it.

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*  Note: The Missoulian article has an unintentional error when it says Big Sky Brewing Co. is the only brewery which can legally exceed 10,000 barrels. Other breweries can exceed this limit, but may need to make changes to their operations.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Missoula Winter BrewFest: Sat. Feb 11, 2012


The Missoula Downtown Association is at it again with another winter brewfest in the works.  Last year's winter-time event was a big success - perhaps a bit too successful - as craft beer lovers took over the first floor of the historic Missoula Mercantile building.  With the Merc set for renovations to start soon, many wondered if there was another location in town willing to take on the fun.  Turns out, there is.

On Saturday, February 11, 2012, from 2-8 pm, the Missoula Downtown Association's Winter BrewFest will take place at the old Safeway Building on West Broadway Street nest to St. Patrick's Hospital.  More than 30 beers will be pouring along with a wine bar, food and live music.  Tickets are $10 which gets you a 7 ounce tasting glass and two drink tokens.  Additional tokens are $1 each. Word to the wise: the earlier you get there, the better.

Here's a look at the beer list (click to enlarge):

Sunday, January 29, 2012

406 Brewing Company: Craft Beer Driven By Fans

Tucked between I-90 and the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in a redeveloping former industrial area sits 406 Brewing Co., one of Montana's newest breweries.  It opened in May 2011at 101 East Oak St. in Bozeman, MT and it's not a stretch to suggest it's Montana's most experimental brewery.  It seems brewer/owner Matt Muth enjoys switching things up on a frequent basis and is attracting a cadre of fans who never know what they're going to get.  Eight months after opening, 406 still doesn't have a flagship beer.  It's the customers who are driving the decisions behind what might become the regular standards, but for now, you're as likely to find a brown porter as a double black ipa as a strong pale ale.

Take the Session #5 Pale Ale, for example. It's their fifth attempt at a session ale, a light, easy drinking 4.0% brew with some good hop bitterness that won't weigh you down.  But chances are, by the time you're reading this, they're on to #6.

Step through the heavy wood doors into this modern industrial space and you'll find huge chunks of wood forming the bar stools and the bar itself.  It's all reclaimed wood, including beams from a nearby lumber warehouse. The foot rest around the main bar is a heavy, old chain used in logging operations. Big sunny windows in front let natural light fill the space.  Large windows between the tap room and the brewery space let you check out the brewing operation.

On my short visit in mid-January, 406 had five beers on tap: Double Black IPA, 9%; Snowy Owl Scotch Ale,  6.2%; C-4 Strong Pale Ale, 6.0%; Session #5 Pale Ale, 4.0%; and Red Hop Imperial Red Ale, 8%.  The double black ipa had great piney hop bitterness with some dark chocolate flavors and fairly apparent alcohol.  The snowy owl scotch ale had smooth caramel flavors dominating the profile, as all good scotch ales do, with a touch of bitterness in the finish.  

406 Brewing is suffering the same problem many of Montana's craft breweries are experiencing. They can't keep up with the demand. It's a great problem to have, though patrons' growlers tend to leave empty as brewers try to keep the taps flowing for visitors to the tap rooms. Perhaps we just need more craft beer in Montana?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

January Beer Run: Draught Works Brewery

Run Wild Missoula's monthly Beer Run takes place tonight, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 at Draught Works Brewery at 915 Toole Ave. in Missoula.  The Run starts at 6:00 p.m. at the Brewery followed by plenty of good beer to go around.  The planned run is approximately 4.5 miles through the center of town and along the riverfront.  As always, all skill levels are welcome and you can cut the run short or go long.  Here's a map:

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Most Overrated Brewery: A Hype Worth Discussing

About a week ago, a Beeradvocate (BA) member started a forum thread asking other members to weigh in on his nomination for the most overrated brewery. His initial post said:
What brewery out there gets too much hype for what they bring to the table? My money goes to Dogfish Head. Their IPAs are solid but most of their "big" beers really aren't anything special and some are downright bad.
Listed among the nearly 500 replies which followed were a wide variety of breweries, each collecting a fair amount of agreement and disagreement. If nothing else, the discussion once again proved how varied our palates are.  Dogfish Head Craft Brewery was one which made the list a number of times.

Things got a bit more interesting when Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head, added his two cents, decrying the thread as a far too frequent attack on those breweries who "dare to grow."  Here's part of his response:
Yet so many folks that post here still spend their time knocking down breweries that dare to grow. It's like that old joke: "Nobody eats at that restaurant anymore, it's too crowded.” Except the "restaurants" that people shit on here aren't exactly juggernauts. In fact, aside from Boston Beer, none of them have anything even close to half of one percent marketshare. The more that retailers, distributors, and large industrial brewers consolidate the more fragile the current growth momentum of the craft segment becomes. The more often the Beer Advocate community becomes a soap box for outing breweries for daring to grow beyond its insider ranks the more it will be marginalized in the movement to support, promote, and protect independent, American, craft breweries. 
Calagione went on to explain how Dogfish Head has focused on created "weird" beers it knows will please some and disappoint others. He says the Brewery puts no more marketing or hype into its regular lineup than its occasionals.  As for hype, Calagione said they only advertise in a few beer magazines and through social media.

Breweries and beer fans linked to Calagione's response and cheered his attack on beer snobs. As a member of BA, I get it.  I have a love hate relationship with the site.  I find parts of it valuable and parts of it infuriating (or at least rather disappointing).

Many of the forum discussions on BA are quite useful.  Headed to a new city and want to know where to go to find good craft beer?  Post a request for info and you'll usually find helpful responses.  BA has also proven useful for finding other local craft beer fans and beer trading partners.

On the other hand, like any such site there are the "trolls" - those who incite inflammatory discussions for the pure enjoyment of it.   The "most overrated brewery" topic trends toward such an effort.  You'll also find members who rate a beer poorly (say, a 1 out of 5) while simultaneously acknowledging it isn't a style they like.  Huh? You tried a beer of a style you admittedly don't like and took the effort to write up a review to give the beer a low rating?  That defies common sense.

Fortunately, if you've got a decent head on your shoulders, you can separate the useless from the useful on BA with relative ease.  Ever read the comments to a controversial topic on your local newspaper's website?  Yeah, it's kind of like that.  Really, it's a certain category of members and discussions I take issue with, not the site itself.

But I also don't believe Calagione's response deserves a universal pass, either.

From my distant viewpoint, Calagione is a master of hype.  Dogfish Head is well known for creating "weird" styles of beer.  I've got some in the beer fridge. Their penchant for creating unique styles of beer and their constant experimentation generates an impressive amount of press on its own.  Dogfish Head doesn't need to advertise; its business model paired with its success generates the press.  Plus, ever seen Discovery's television show "Brew Masters"?  Here's Discovery's description of the show:
Sam Calagione, craft beer maestro and founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, and his partners in suds travel the world searching for exotic ingredients and discovering ancient techniques to produce beers of astounding originality.
Okay, so maybe Dogfish Head doesn't do much direct advertising, but don't insult us by suggesting the brewery doesn't engage in significant "hype" from a variety of sources.  I'm not bothered in the least by the hype. Many of Dogfish Head's beers I've tried deserved the praise.  It is a fun brewery to follow and it's the nature of the art that there will be misses among the hits.

What bothers me is the underlying message in Calagione's response.  Yes, some people on BA and elsewhere spend too much time "knocking down" various beers and breweries.*  Yes, craft beer as an industry segment is still a small percentage of the whole.  But we do get to criticize.**  Some breweries aren't making good beer. Some beers aren't worth the hype. Our criticism of them isn't going to damage the craft beer industry or its potential for growth.  After all, a mountain of criticism hasn't taken down Bud Light or any of the other "adjunct lagers."

Big beer is losing market share because people are recognizing the vast quality and variety available with craft beer.  Big beer is turning to craft-like products to try and stem the tide.  Conversely, the majority of tap rooms for Montana's 30 breweries are wildly popular gathering places to enjoy good-to-great beer with friends and family.

We should complain when poorly made craft beer is taking up room on our tap handles and in our beer aisles.*** We don't need to hand out "attaboys" to every craft brewery just to maintain an all-for-one, one-for-all hype of the craft beer industry.  With 1,700+ craft breweries in America and 800+ more in planning, some aren't going to survive. Poorly made craft beer is not going to bring in new craft beer lovers any more than it will help maintain and grow the craft beer industry. Constructively directing new craft beer fans to well made craft beer will do far more good.

No brewery gets a pass because of the hype it has generated.  No beer gets a pass because of who made it.  The trick is to make the criticism constructive, something not common enough among BA and similar sites. It takes critical thinking to decide for yourself. Ask yourself why do I not like this beer.  Is it not my style?  Do I not like this hop? Is it poorly made? Was it handled wrong?  On the other hand, take a moment to ask yourself why I do like a particular beer, too.

Enjoying and experimenting with craft beer takes a recognition of your own palate and an appreciate that others have different tastes.  It also takes critical restraint when describing a beer you don't enjoy.  As we like to say on Growler Fills:  Like what you like, explore something new wherever you go, and enjoy the journey.

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* Truth be told, a BA member started a "most underrated beer" thread four days prior. Another member started a "most underrated brewery" thread twelve days prior.  Seems there should be room for discussing the most overrated if we're going to be fine with discussing the most underrated.  It's the manner in which things are discussed that deserves the criticism.  The devil's in the details, as always.

** A point with which I'm sure Mr. Calagione agrees.

*** An experimental or seasonal beer that doesn't hit the mark, or one that is significantly different than recognized beer styles does not meet my definition of poorly made.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Draft Magazine's 100 Best Beer Bars for 2012

This week Draft Magazine issued its annual list of America's 100 Best Beer Bars. It's a fun look at who is doing a great job with craft beer and a useful guide whenever heading to a new city.

Although the 2012 list marks only one establishment in the western region as "new to the list" there are three changes among the 29 entries in the region.  Unfortunately for fans of Missoula's The Rhinoceros, it is one of three western region bars dropped from the list.

Out for 2012 are The Rhino, Concordia Ale House (Portland, OR), and Uber Tavern (Seattle, WA).  In for 2012 are Blue Palms Brewhouse (Hollywood, CA), Hopvine Pub (Seattle, WA), and The Mayor of Old Town (Fort Collins, CO).

My prediction for 2013?  The new Manito Tap House in Spokane, WA, will make a strong run at the list, making it harder for The Rhino to make it back.  They both have 50 taps, but all 50 at Manito are devoted to craft beer and I understand at least 34 of them rotate.  By comparison, The Rhino has 8 or so "macro" taps and far fewer than  half of the taps rotate.

What's your favorite beer bar? 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Upcoming Winter Beervents

Just because it's winter doesn't mean the craft beer fun takes a hiatus.  Take a look at these upcoming beervents for your craft beer pleasure.

1. Cool Dog Ball and Microbrew Review. Friday, January 27, 2012, Helena Civic Center, Helena, MT.  This annual fundraiser for the Race to the Sky dog sled race has been going on for as long as I can remember.  I even helped pour beer at the first one back in the mid-90s.  More than 30 craft brews from Montana and the northwest will be featured along with entrees and appetizers from Helena's Bert & Ernie's and Chili O'Brien's Catering. The event begins at 6:00 p.m. and continues until 11:30 p.m.

Music is provided by the father/daughter combo of blues' great Johnny and Destiny Rawls.Tickets are limited to 1,500 and are available at Bert & Ernie's, Topper's Cellar, The Overland Express, Staggering Ox, The Man Stores and the office of Downtown Helena Office. They are $18 in advance.

2. Black Star Barter/Whitefish Winter Carnival.  Saturday, February 4, 2012, Whitefish, MT.  The annual Black Star Barter takes place right after the Whitefish Winter Carnival Parade from 5 to 7 p.m. in front of the Great Northern Brewing Co. The Black Start Barter is an event where contestants barter to win a year's supply of Black Star Beer (52 cases.)  Contestants must register their submissions between 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.  For more information, head to Great Northern's website.

Following the Black Start Barter, Great Northern Brewing Co. will celebrate it's 17th Anniversary.  Brewmaster Joe Barberis has brewed an Anniversary Black Lager which Great Northern describes as "a smooth brew with light roastiness and noble hop aroma."

3. Bigfork Brewfest. Saturday, February 25, 2012, Bigfork, MT.  The 3rd annual Bigfork Brewfest takes over a portion of Electric Avenue with music, food and great craft beer from 3 to 7 p.m.  Tickets are $20 in advance. The weather for the first one was in the low 40s.  Last year's was a tad colder, reaching the single digits. What will this year bring?

4. SNOW Bus Brewfest. Saturday, March 3, 2012, Whitefish Mountain Resort, Whitefish, MT. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 on the day of the event.

Rumor has it that another Missoula Winter Brewfest is in the works and scheduled for February 11, 2012.  Hopefully confirmation and additional information will arrive soon.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It's 2012: Time for More Craft Beer

2011 was a great year for craft beer in Montana and beyond.  While overall beer sales were down across the country, craft beer continues to capture more of the market.  There's no question the "buy local" movement is alive and well in the craft beer industry. With more than 1700 craft breweries in the US (and 30 in Montana) the choices continue to expand. I love trying new brews where ever I go and 2012 should be a banner year.

I thought about doing a post full of predictions for the craft beer industry, but I really have no idea.  Black IPAs were the biggest trend two years ago and continue to be hot (thankfully).  In 2011, it seems no style of beer was safe from belgian style yeast experiments, often with very good results.  Sour beers are gaining much traction and it's a safe bet we'll see much from these creative styles in 2012.  Care to weigh in on your predictions for 2012?  Leave a comment and we'll discuss.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite beer pics yet. It's a Kettlehouse Brewing Co. Brick and Mortar Imperial Porter which I shot on a rare sunny, winter day in Missoula.