Monday, December 31, 2012

Categorically Craft: 2012's Biggest Story Rolls On

When we look back on 2012, no story will better define the year-in-beer from a big picture perspective better than the "craft versus crafty" debate.  Though it reached a full boil in December, the story has been bubbling steadily throughout the year.

In a nutshell, it is a story about distinctions. About distinguishing between craft and non-craft beer. About drawing lines. About separating the "good" from the "bad."

It is also a story that has driven me nuts. Not because it is unworthy of debate. It most clearly is. Rather, I just can't quite get my head around it.  The lines are no longer black and white.

Yet, that's exactly what the Brewers' Association has done with it's communications in the "craft versus crafty" realm.   It is safe to say the BA misjudged the extent to which its supporters - lovers of craft beer - distinguish between "us versus them" when it comes to tasty beer.  It didn't help when the BA released a chart showing who is not a "craft brewer" under their guidelines (small, independent, traditional.) The BA wisely retracted the chart a few days later, saying they plan to replace it with something more positive in the new year.

Reaction from big beer was predictable, but the well thought out responses from those who were both included and excluded from the "craft brewer" list provided excellent reading.  If anything, it demonstrated how multifaceted the debate is and how hard it is to categorize "craft beer" in our rapidly changing landscape.

When Big Beer only made yellow, bitter, highly-carbonated, indistinguishable lagers in their own facilities, separating "craft" from the others was easy.  Then Boston Beer Co. (Sam Adams) rapidly expanded and outgrew the BA's definition of "small." Losing Sam Adams would be a huge blow to the BA's numbers, so the definition of small grew three-fold.

Next Big Beer started staking territory in the craft world by starting their own craft brands, buying others and taking ownership interests in yet others.  Suddenly the debate is even harder.  Big Beer is now making beer we want to drink.  Bourbon County Brand Stout, anyone?

The debate that followed the BA's craft versus crafty piece included a direct, pointed and thought-provoking piece by Jace Marti, a sixth generation owner of August Shell Brewing Company.  August Shell was listed on the BA's chart of non-craft brewers because they allegedly aren't "traditional."  Why? Because of their use of adjuncts, to which Jace responds (in part):
When August Schell emigrated from Germany and founded this brewery in 1860, his only option to brew was to use was available to him, as it was impossible to ship large quantities of raw ingredients from Europe at that time. . . . . .  In order to accomplish this, he used a small portion of another locally grown ingredient he called “mais” as is hand written in our old brewing logs, better known as corn. He didn’t use corn to cheapen or lighten his beer. He did it because it was the only way to brew a high quality lager beer in America at that point.  . . . . . We continued to brew our beer using this small portion of corn because that was the way we traditionally brewed it. . . . . The question we have for the Brewers Association is why are we being punished for brewing with a locally grown ingredient, which started out of necessity, and has continued out of tradition?
That's an excellent question.  (The entire post is here.)

Yazoo Brewing Company weighed in on the issue with a bit of a schizophrenic post, simultaneously appearing to encourage everyone to know who makes your beer (big beer, local craft, and contract craft) while also encouraging people to drink whatever tastes good to them.

John Cochran of Terrapin Beer Co. published a post on his blog from a rather unique perspective.  He sits on the Public Relations Committee for the Brewers' Association and Tenth & Blake (MillerCoors) has a 25% ownership stake in Terrapin. He shares some of the same thoughts that have been rattling around in my head - namely, does this whole craft versus non-craft thing make any sense?    

Yet, John closes with this paragraph, which doesn't do anything to help solidify my thoughts:
So, how do you keep it straight?  That decision is ultimately up to each of you. You have to decide – is it about the beer? Do you purchase and support the beers that you enjoy, or do you potentially ignore great beers from the “non craft” brewers and support potentially mediocre beers just because they are made by the local “craft” brewer? Me? I’m doing both.
Really, this just distills down to the oft cited rhetorical question of "if it tastes good, who cares?" 

New Hampshire's White Birch Brewing made an attempt to address this question:
When you buy a White Birch product I can show you how your purchase has created jobs in NH, how your cash has been used to purchase locally sourced goods and locally sourced services. Try that with your made anywhere mass produced “crafty” beers.
It is a good point, but not entirely satisfying. Big Beer has plenty of facilities in the U.S. paying wages to people who spend those wages locally.  Plus, Big Beer contracts with a lot of barley growers in Montana.

Usually, I find my distaste for Big Beer comes down to a question of market dominance. Given Big Beer's general command of the distribution system, it has the desire and means to significantly affect choice.  Creating their own craft brands allows Big Beer to serve both the mass market and the craft market with only their beer, further squeezing out shelf and tap space to a limited few suppliers.

And then craft brewer Boulevard Brewing Co. pops out with this gem - "Accounts that offer 20 or 30 different drafts that all rotate is not a healthy trend for craft beer and craft beer brands.” - and the radar goes up.

This debate isn't easy and the BA would do well to stop trying to tell us that it is. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Blackfoot River Brewing Switching to Style Specific Glassware

Helena's Blackfoot River Brewing Co. announced today that, beginning Wednesday Jan. 2, 2013, they will be serving their beers at the taproom in style specific glassware.  This is a move that has been in the works for quite a while and represents a considerable investment to better showcase their already fantastic lineup.

According to Blackfoot, the move is being made for several reasons:
Style specific glassware accentuates the characteristics of different beer styles to improve the beer drinking experience. The different glasses that we will be using will increase the available hop, malt, and fermentation aromas of each beer and properly display the right amount of head and carbonation level on each beer. 
Blackfoot has been using the standard 16 ounce shaker pint glasses, but will now move to four, twelve ounces glasses for most of their beers.  Glasses include a footed ale glass, hourglass pilsner glass, a weizenbier glass, and a tulip snifter.

Plus, as shown in this picture from Blackfoot River, they look fantastic.

Using style specific glassware can make a considerable difference in your experience with a beer.  It won't make a bad beer good, or ever a good beer great, but can open up a depth of aroma and flavor you didn't know was there in well made craft beer.

For more information on Blackfoot River's plans, head to their facebook page. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Adult Beverage Trends for 2013 Include Plenty of Beer

Food industry consulting and research firm Technomic, Inc. recently released its top ten trends in adult beverages and beer makes the list in several spots.  Technomic used its ongoing research and surveys, interviews and discussions with brand marketers, on-premise and retail operators, bartenders and consumers to determine the major developments influencing adult beverages for 2013.

Checking in at number two on the list is the growing presence of beer in high-end restaurants:
2. Beer comes to the table in high-end restaurants. Extensive beer lists developed with the same care as wine lists take hold at upscale-casual and fine-dining restaurants, where beer’s food-friendly nature further enhances the dining experience.
This isn't a new trend, but it's certainly good to see the trend gaining speed and influence.  Locally in Missoula, Caffe Dolce remains the gold standard for bringing quality taps and a strong bottle list to it's high quality food.  Red Bird's wine bar has made a good effort to carry several unique taps for many years now, but word on the street says they still haven't fixed their draft delivery problems. Blue Canyon, for some reason, persists in serving beer in frosted glasses.

The social nature of beer also makes the list with a strong showing at number nine:  
9. Beer gardens indoors and out. The communal experience of the beer garden goes beyond the major markets. The hottest trends in beer, food and socializing come to life in large open spaces—both indoors and outside—devoted to the casual enjoyment and exploration of beer and food as beer gardens show up in markets from New York to New Orleans and beyond.
In Montana, given our short season of warm-ish weather, we tend to call these places "patios," but I do see more and more news articles about these beer gardens showing up in a variety of places. Based on the descriptions, they bear evidence to craft beer's emergence as a more upscale beverage choice among the trendy and wealthier adult beverage drinkers (not necessarily one in the same). 

Craft beer is indeed a highly social drink and with the dramatic rise in the number of breweries, the variety of offerings, and continually increasing quality, it's no surprise to see it appearing as some of the hottest trends in the adult beverage industry.

To see where else beer makes the list, head to Technomic's press release.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Two Ounce Culture" - Is Sampling Disrespectful of Art?

Blogging friend Rob Fulmer of Beer PHXation had an interesting post yesterday taking great issue with what he calls the "Two Ounce Culture."  Stan Hieronymus was so enamored with the phrase that he implored Rob to run out and protect it.

The premise stems from an New Yorker article on art. More specifically, an article examining our distractions -  short attention spans, if you will - and the impact on our ability to appreciate incredible works of art. As the author notes, even when we are arrested or moved by a particular piece of art, there inevitably comes a moment when we stop thinking about the art and start thinking about what we're going to make for dinner.  Art that is merely consumed, discarded and replaced with the next robs us of art's power to remove us from our daily "shallower pleasures."

Rob very astutely likens beer to art and decries those he knows whose experience with beer exists only in sampling form.  Two ounces at a time. Consume, discard, replace. To know a beer and appreciate the art the brewer has created, one must spend time with the beer.  I subscribe to this notion wholeheartedly.

To that idea Rob asks: "What was the last beer that you remember having three in a row of?"

Hmm . . . . . I don't know the answer to that question.  I like to experiment. If I have three or four pints in an evening, you'd be smart to lay odds they will all be different. I don't think that is contrary to Rob's point.

I do remember the last time I had two pints in a row of the same beer.  It was Iron Goat Brewing Co.'s Goatmeal Stout, an oatmeal stout with very well balanced chocolate and coffee flavors in a somewhat creamy package and a surprisingly low 5.6% abv for the great depth of flavor.  In a word, it was fantastic.  We discovered it by getting a taster tray at the brewery in Spokane, WA - both of us enjoying about two ounces each of Iron Goat's offerings.  We got to spend time with Heather, one of the owners, while chatting about the beer, the brewery and more.

That's what Cheryl and I do.  When we head to a new town or a new brewery, we'll get a taster tray or two at a couple of places to try a variety of beers we don't have access to in Montana. We often use it as a way to figure out what we want a full pint of - i.e. to figure out what beer we want to spend some time with.  Some aren't worth a whole pint. Some are worth getting lost in.

I do check all these beers into Untapped.  It lets me keep notes about beers and breweries to help overcome my faulty memory.  It's also fun. Untapped has a nice social element to it, letting friends post comments, ask questions and take part virtually.  Hey, we can't always drink together.

Yet, sometimes we do all drink together.  Friends new and old, that is. In Missoula, we have a loose knit tasting group with about six core members and many more who pop in and out. Sometimes there's a theme, sometimes not.  We taste a variety of beers, two or so ounces at a time.

These tastings last three, four, even five hours.  The beer is the art which brings us together, but it definitely isn't the sole value of the experience.  We talk about the beers, compare them to others we've had, and look forward to the next one. More importantly, we find out what's going on in each others' lives.  We tell stories. We laugh. We've been know to poke fun at each other.  We come away from these experiences enriched.  Enriched by the beer and enriched by the experience with one another.

We've tasted mythical beers which lived up to the hype and some that didn't.  We've found hidden gems which have us scrambling for more.  For sure we've missed out on an artful experience by failing to spend enough time with a beer or two at times, but we're not unappreciative of the art, the brewery or the brewer.

Rather, these experiences often remove us from our "shallower pleasures" a few hours at a time.  

I don't happen to know anyone whose beer culture exists only in two ounce segments, but I suspect I would have the same reaction as Rob.  In my world, I relish the occasional chance to get lost in a pint (or more) of beer, both alone and with friends.  I also take great pleasure in two ounce pours when everyone knows it's not all about the beer.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Yeti Homebrew Competition Recap

Hamilton's Higherground Brewery hosted the first annual Yeti Homebrew competition yesterday in cooperation with Summer Sun Brew Supply.  Forty beers were entered in the four categories, a great number for this inaugural event.  I had the pleasure of serving as a guest judge and can attest to the quality of many of the brews.

When all the scores were tabulated, Matt Miller took first overall with an IPA we all agreed we'd pay good money for.  Dan Lee took second overall with a gingerbread specialty brew.  For his win, Matt took home a 50 lb bag of Malteurop's Montana grown and malted 2-row pale malt, a $50 gift certificate from Higherground and a 5 gallon keg for his next round of homebrew.

In all, Higherground and Summer Sun donated more than $400 worth of prizes for the contestants.  Entry fees raised $150 to be donated to the Glen Hay Falconer Foundation Scholarship.   A great crowd of homebrewers gathered for the awards, enjoying pints of Highergrounds's beer and stone-fired pizza.

A few observations:
  • The IPA group (nine entries) was the most solid group, with several I'd happily take a full pint of with no reservations.  I was particularly impressed with the one black IPA entry which I found to have a great roast level. 
  • The Light group (eight entries) was an impressive group considering how difficult it is to do a light beer well while avoiding harsh and off elements. It's also nearly impossible to get the kind of wow factor necessary to take an overall prize. 
  • The Amber group (five entries) had the fewest entries with a couple good ones, but nothing that stood out.  That mimics my experience with commercial versions, too. 
  • The Specialty group (eighteen entries) was both the most fun and most difficult to judge because of the wide variety of  styles.  Really, anything that wasn't a light, amber or IPA found its way into this category which spanned from a Belgian tripel to a bourbon stout and everything in between.
  • Far too many entries used Belgian yeast and no category was immune. Even the amber group. Brewing anything and everything with Belgian yeast was the number one trend in beer in my "What's Trending in Beer?" post for 2011.  It's obviously a trend that spilled over to the homebrewing world and I think we were all in agreement that it's a trend we hope goes away.  One entry was a most excellent Belgian tripel, for which the Belgian yeast is essential.  Beyond that, it mostly didn't work and was far too prevalent.
Thanks to my fellow judges, Paul and Jasper of Higherground, Jared and Steve of Summer Sun and Tom and Ryan for a fun afternoon and a great event.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher

Inkling, a flexible, interactive publishing platform for digital books online and though mobile apps, recently sent me a copy of Tasting Beer: An Insider's Guide to the World's Greatest Drink by Randy Mosher, a Chicago-based cicerone.

It was my first time on Inkling and the first time I read through an extensive, well-rounded book on tasting beer. Both were a pleasure.

First, let me remark on using Inkling. The ability to pull up this book on the computer, my iPhone and an iPad was convenient. With the ability to bookmark, I could easily retrieve key sections and chapters. With the ability to highlight passages, write notes to myself on the sidebar and click on words to pull up their definitions (via Wiktionary), made the book come alive and serve as a useful study tool. Built into this book was a glossary of perhaps hundreds of terms relating to beer and brewing. In short, it was the most dynamic reading experience I've had with a digital book.

Now to Tasting Beer. Having a book on tasting beer may seem a little pointless to some, as tasting beer can and should be a very personal experience. However, tasting to enjoy beer and tasting to better discuss beer are two different things, and if you are looking for a way to enhance your ability to understand and speak to what's going on inside your imperial pint glass or snifter, then this book has merit.

Sure, when asked if we like this beer or that, we can say, "Yeah, I liked the hops and flavor." But knowing why we like it can help us find other beers like it, and that's where the fun of discovery comes into beer drinking.

Tasting Beer is broken into 14 chapters and is packed full of graphs, charts and illustrations, all of which aid comprehension of the materials being covered and serve a clear purpose in their presentation. The most intriguing chapters, for me, were 4-7 (respectively, The Qualities of Beer; Tasting, Judging, and Evaluation; Presenting Beer; Beer and Food).

Mosher leaves no barley un-turned in this book. As a cicerone, you can tell that he 1) loves beer and 2) knows a lot about it. To address the "why" of such a book on beer, I think this quote at the beginning of Chapter 6 is fitting:

Beer has a generous spirit, so if you make any kind of effort at all, it will reward you with a rich and memorable experience.

Simple, to the point. Beer is brewed to be enjoyed. It can challenge us, cheer us (in a happy, healthy way) and contribute to moments we will always cherish. So if you respect beer, this book is for you. 

But I'm not quite done. One of the coolest features is an interactive Tasting Record, allowing you to take notes right in the book on what beers you've tried. That content will be saved and available on any device you use to access your Inkling library. There's even a printable version you can use to share with others at a tasting party

Have I captivated your interest? Good, because Inkling is currently running a special on Tasting Beer and from Friday December 14 to Sunday December 16 this book is available for 85% off its MSRP and only costs $1.99 when purchased through this link on iTunes

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Is Big Beer Stealing Craft's Authenticity?

It's one of the biggest stories in the beer world these days and it's not going away any time soon.  Big Beer can't ignore craft beer anymore and is getting into the game. Last week we pointed to two articles, both from craft beer with - in some ways - opposite messages about related issues. 

This week, CNNMoney has an interview with SABMiller (MillerCoors) executive chairman Graham Mackay on why the company is getting into the "craft" beer market. You can read it here and it's fairly revealing.

Mackay admits Big Beer can't practically or credibly "incubate" it's own small brands, so, instead, SABMiller is looking to "cozy up" to people who have "incubated good business" and selectively acquire and form partnership with them.

So there's the model. Admit you can't do it and go out and acquire those who can.  It's profit motivated. Solely. It's preserving market share and hoping to take more of it. 

But let's not kid ourselves. I don't know of any brewer - craft or otherwise - that isn't profit motivated.

As craft beer fans, it's too simplistic to disparage Big Beer because it's profit motivated.  Craft beer can sound a lot like big beer when it's being honest about the need and desire to maintain profits and grow. Taking pot shots at Big Beer for comments like these is easy and, frankly, a little disingenuous.

No, we need something more.  Fortunately, the article and Mackay deliver.  In response to SABMiller's plan to cozy up to those who already do well in the craft beer world, CNNMoney asks, "Do you think that the core craft consumer embraces this model?"  Here's Mackay's answer:
There's a huge debate in the craft world about us, all big brewers, because we're like the enemy. We're the other guys. They think we're stealing their authenticity. What we say is, "Let the consumer decide." If we're authentic enough for the consumer, that's authentic enough for anyone.
"Stealing their authenticity."  Wow.  I guess that's one way to put it. And it's flat wrong.

Creating "craft" brands merely to maintain profits and market shares is nothing akin to "authentic." No doubt, it may taste like something I want to drink (and, some of it I do).  But authenticity means disclosure, not pretending Blue Moon is "craft" because it's made by Tenth and Blake Brewing Co, SABMiller's craft incubator.

Authenticity means sense of place matters.  Authenticity means knowing who brews your beer matters.  Authenticity means being proud to display on your label who you are, where you brew, and what you do, matters.

Montana is full of examples.  All 36 of them, actually.  Take Blackfoot River Brewing Co. in Helena.  Started by a few homebrewing friends with a desire to turn it into their livelihood because they actually enjoy making beer for more than profit's sake.  You want authenticity? Sit down in their crowded tap room to a pint of  Single Malt IPA and you can taste it. Want to meet the owners and brewers? No problem. Want to know how it's made, where it's made, and what ingredients are in it? No problem. They deserve to make money crating a product we want to buy and enjoy, and no one is stealing their authenticity.
No, Big Beer isn't stealing anyone's authenticity. It's trying to hide from its lack of it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reminder: Yeti Homebrew Contest is This Week

Now is the time to get your entries in for the Higherground Brewery/Summer Sun Brew Supply Yeti Homebrew Competition! 

It's easy to enter.  Drop off three 12 ounce bottles of your best homebrew with a $5 entry fee at either Summer Sun Brew Supply location (310 1st St. in Hamilton, and 838 W. Spruce Street in Missoula) or Higherground Brewery in Hamilton by this Saturday, December 15.  Categories for this inaugural event are: Light Beer, Amber Beer, Specialty Beer, and IPA.

Judging takes place on Saturday at 1:00 at Higherground Brewery and yours truly will be on hand as a guest judge.  Consider yourself lucky since that prevents me from entering the winning IPA. Prizes will be awarded at 5:00 p.m. and there's $400 worth of  goodies to the winning entries.  Live music, pints of Higherground's great beer, and wood fired pizza follow. Or precede. Your choice. 

Send your questions to:

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Session No. 70: The Hype

This month's Session* topic is hosted by David J. Bascombe at Good Morning. A blog about beer, mostly. He raises the topic of beer hype and writes:
Back in the summer, I shared a bottle of Westvleteren 12 with my brother and my father. Whilst I was aware of it’s reputation as “best beer in the world”, they were not. Whilst we all enjoyed it, we all agreed that we much preferred the other beer we had that night. The question that came into my head was this…
If I had told them it was the best beer in the world, would their perceptions have changed?
How much does hype have an effect? Are we much better off knowing nothing about a beer, or is it better to have the knowledge as to what the best beers are?
Which beers do you think have been over-hyped? How do you feel when a beer doesn’t live up to it’s hype.
Is hype a good or bad thing for beer?
Hype is unavoidable. It's ingrained in our nature. We hype our favorite teams and sporting events. Our favorite restaurants. Our cities and towns. And of course, our favorite breweries and beers. If there's even a hint of subjectivity to the subject, we'll turn it into a top ten list. 

For starters, I'm not interested in answering the question about which beers I think have been over-hyped.  Take a look at the side bar on the right and you'll find the mantra that forms the basic attitude here at Growler Fills:
My favorite beer might be your favorite beer. Your favorite beer might be my favorite beer. More likely, we have quite different tastes, but can gather round the bar stool and enjoy a good debate about the "best" beer - and both be right.
I've had eight of the current top fifteen beers in Beer Advocate's top beer list (as of Friday, December 7, 2012).   Conversely, I've only had five of top fifteen in Rate Beer's list.  See, we can't even agree on which beers should get the hype.  Plus, while certain beers are generally considered to be the best in their class, whether a beer deserves the hype is directly proportional to whether it's a style you gravitate toward.  I'd be a poor judge, for example, of how a Cantillon stacks up against the best lambics in the world.

Is hype a good or bad thing for beer?  Both.  Hype helps build brands. Hype creates interest. Interest creates discussion, debate. Interest provides the impetus for continued experimentation, refinement, contemplation.  Hyping the craft beer industry helps gain new fans and supporters which increases influence.

But hype has a downside, too.  It's a topic I pondered recently, before knowing it would be the topic for Session No. 70. Pondering it again, I think the same thoughts apply:
There are beers with mythical status like Dark Lord, Kate the Great, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, and Pliny the Younger which require good fortune merely for the chance to try them.  Many live up the hype, but I've often wondered at what cost.  The hype creates black markets, undue competition, and hard feelings.

Worse, it may leave you feeling like your local brewery - far removed from the fame and hype - doesn't measure up.
The recent GABF competition results demonstrated that fantastic beers can come from your local brewery just as likely as they may from the Founders, Three Floyds and Russian Rivers of the world. It's a lesson well worth remembering as we chase the mythical beers on our horizons.

I am not immune to the hype. While I'm pretty good at trying anything and everything on tap, I admit I'll sometimes sneak a peek at various ratings before I plop down significant cash for a bomber or six pack I've never seen. I've probably missed out of a few "new favorites" because I've bought into the hype - or lack thereof.  To combat that problem I've started picking up a few bottles I know nothing about whenever I go on a beer buying spree.

Exploring craft beer is what got me into this whole blogging thing.  It's what binds us all together in our common quest.  So let's gather 'round that bar stool, chase the mythical beers with all the hype, and remember the next "best" beer might be the one-off at our favorite neighborhood brewery.

*Today is the first Friday in December which means it's time to take part in The Session, a collective effort of beer bloggers around the world to write on a common topic once each month.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Competition: Do Big Beer and Craft Beer Have Something In Common?

What's more important to AB-InBev and MillerCoors, taste, or image? Even the most casual craft beer consumer knows the answer.  Big Beer spends gagillions of dollars a year making sure you know their brands.  Bud Light, Coors, Miller Light - their advertising is iconic to the point of being a part of our culture (Tastes great! Less filling!) and we all recognize their tap handles, box designs and bottle labels.

Keeping the empire going is job number one.  It's business. I get it.

One of the big topics in the craft beer world recently is the extent to which Big Beer is making efforts to cash in on the craft beer rising tide.  Or, perhaps more accurately, to help replace declining sales and interest in their flagships.  AB-InBev's purchase of Goose Island is well known.  You probably also know Shock Top is AB-InBev and Blue Moon is Miller Coors.  Did you know AB-InBev also has stakes in Craft Brew Alliance (Red Hook, Widmer and Kona)? That Leinenkugel’s is Miller Coors?

The reaction from the breweries when Big Beer steps in is predictable: It helps infuse cash for capital expansion so we can make more beer. It gives us access to a distribution network we could never have on our own.   Goose Island is a prime example.  Their 312 Urban Wheat is showing up in multiple new states thanks to AB-InBev. These explanations sound reasonable, right?

Yes, they do at the level of growing one's business.  It's a common dream.  Start a business with passion and grit, pour everything into it, watch it grow bit by bit and, one day, cash in and enjoy retirement.

What is rankling the beer world is the lack of disclosure as Big Beer takes a bigger stake in craft beer-esque endeavors.  Take a look at any one of these products and there's no mention of who really owns them and where they're brewed.  Think Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat is brewed in Chicago? Think again. Try AB-InBev facilities in Fort Collins, CO. and Baldwinsville, NY.

Why isn't that information on the package?  Actually, the question that I read, hear, and even ask myself at times is, "what does it matter, so long as you like how it tastes?"   

Charlie Papazian tackles that question in his recent article "Do You Give a Damn About Who Makes Your Beer?"  In discussing what's changed over the past four years, Charlie explains:
For one thing craft beer has solidified its position of offering choice, flavor and value to the American beer drinker. Something that the large brewing companies have mostly ignored for 30-plus years.
He proceeds to articulate a variety of reasons why it's important to care about who makes your beer.  Give it a read.  It helped me make sense of some of the questions rolling around in my head I couldn't quite figure out.  On the distribution front, Charlie provides this rather interesting nugget:
In early November 2012 in a presentation to beer distributors during the Anheuser-Busch Sales and Marketing Communications meeting in Chicago, top executives made it clear: "[Anheuser-Busch Inbev is] committed to giving you the brands and the tools you need to succeed…we do believe that at some point…having a non-AB portfolio [brands/products] becomes a distraction."
Big Beer putting the squeeze to distributors whom we hope will carry our favorite craft brands isn't particularly new news, but seeing it articulated that way brings it a little closer to home.

Craft brewers, our champions of choice over the past four years (and well before), have much work to do. 

Yet, craft beer isn't just competing against big beer, it's competing against itself, too.  There's limited tap space, limited shelf space, and limited opportunities to get products out in the market place.  "Building brands" isn't exclusive to Big Beer.

On the same day Charlie Papazian's article hit the newswires, Shanken News Daily popped out with an article titled "Craft Controversy: Rotating Drafts Spark Concern Among Brewers." It contains quotes from Bob Sullivan, vice president of sales and marketing at Boulevard Brewing. While his comments make perfect business sense, they frankly frighten a beer explorer like me.  Take this passage:
Bars that refuse to dedicate draft handles to particular brews, but rather regularly rotate beers in and out are “becoming more prevalent,” remarks Bob Sullivan, vice president of sales and marketing at Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Missouri, the tenth-largest craft brewer. The tactic—while often a successful strategy for on-premise operators—is damaging to all craft brewers, new and established, Sullivan says, as it doesn’t give brewers a chance to build their brands. “The on-premise is a critical place to engage our consumers and build brands,” he adds, and the “in and out” or “one and done” approach to draft brews by an increasing number of bars has begun to “dramatically impact our share.” Sullivan adds that other craft brewers report similar concern.
So, is the rotating tap really more damaging to craft beer, or is it more damaging to Boulevard? Are these just protectionism comments clothed in a general concern for the greater good?  Is Boulevard willing to give up some of it's non-rotating taps to make room for some craft beer start ups?

In other words, at one level, isn't Boulevard saying exactly the same thing as the AB-InBev executive?  Don't mess with our tap space? 

Again, it's business. I get it.  Boulevard and all the other craft breweries need to sell beer to survive, grow and prosper.  Frequently rotating taps may not help grow any particular brand, but it does give better access to all.  To that issue the article says:
Sullivan concedes that the growing concern is one that brewers themselves have had a hand in stoking. “We, in part, created this, due to seasonals,” he says, “and now some retailers have taken it to the extreme. Accounts that offer 20 or 30 different drafts that all rotate is not a healthy trend for craft beer and craft beer brands.”
I truly enjoy some of Boulevard's brands and have some of their Bourbon Barrel Aged Quad in my beer cellar.  But I learned about them precisely because of a bar with frequently rotating taps.

What I fear Boulevard's comments fail to appreciate is that more bars are moving to frequently rotating taps because more of us are demanding it. We are the consumers.  We are the ones fueling the growth. We know beer.  We remember beer. When we find a brand we like, we seek out more of it.

Places which don't rotate their taps are virtually assured of losing my business.  One rotating tap out of 15 isn't enough to keep my attention.

I don't think Mr. Sullivan is suggesting Boulevard or anyone else should stop trying to meet the craft beer consumer's needs. He's not saying anything most other craft brewers - big and small - haven't at least thought to themselves while fighting for tap space.  Still, his comments raise significant concerns for the consumer.  If choice is harming their bottom line, what do you think is the easiest way to "fix" the allegedly unhealthy trend?

Less choice benefits the craft brewery, but harms the craft consumer.   Quite the conundrum, don't you think?

Garden City Community Brew Raises Funds for Families in Need

Not since this year's Missoula Craft Beer Week has there been such a prominent collaboration of support between Missoula's breweries and bars. And just in time for the holidays, Missoula's craft beer scene has established the Garden City Community Brew, a program that will have all local breweries brew a one-of-a kind beer bi-annually. The beer will be distributed exclusively to Missoula County Tavern Owners Association (MCTOA) members’ taverns and proceeds from the sales will benefit Missoula's local charities.

Already over $4,000 was raised by the MCTOA and its member taverns and bars, which was presented on November 30 to the Missoula Food Bank. This money also benefited the charity because it was matched by Town Pump through another commitment

On December 5, the first incarnation of the Community Brew was made at Draught Works. It is a Black IPA set to be released on December 21 and only available at Missoula's 20 MCTOA member taverns. Each tavern will get one keg of the beer and in return that tavern will donate $100 to the Missoula Food Bank. The taverns are:

Al’s & Vic’s
Brooks & Browns
The Depot
Double Front Lounge
Elbow Room
Iron Horse Brew Pub
James Bar
Joker’s Wild
The Keep
Missoula Club
Montana Club – Brooks
Montana Club - Reserve
The Mo Club
Paradise Falls
Red’s Bar
The Rhino
Sean Kelly’s
Stone of Accord

Each time a new beer is brewed, as it was a Draught Works, brewers from Draught Works, Big Sky Brewing, Kettlehouse and Bayern will come together do what they do best: brew good beer. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

New Homebrew Shop/Association Forms in the Flathead

Montana's Flathead Valley has gained a new homebrew shop and homebrewing association according to this article in the Flathead Beacon. Junior Szklarz and Karen Witt have opened The Beer Store which shares space with their other business Brass and Bullets.  The shop is located at 2703 Highway 93 S, south of Kalispell.

Junior and Karen have also started the Flathead Valley Homebrewers Association to bring together area homebrewers for networking and education.  Their first meeting, held at the Somers Bay Cafe, had twenty attendees and the next meeting is planned for January 2013.  For more info, keep taps at the Association's website

Check out the Beacon's full article for much more detail.

Despite having three strong breweries, the Flathead Valley's beer culture has been a tough one to figure out. Top notch craft beer taps are few and far between outside of the breweries and store selections have been less than inspiring. 

That's all changing, though, with new stores and breweries forging ahead.  Hop's Downtown Grill in Kalispell has done a wonderful job of advocating for great craft beer paired with great food.  Brix Bottleshop is set to open any day at the Historic Loading Dock in Kalispell on East Center Street. Desert Mountain Brewing & Draughthaus is getting closer and closer to their opening in Columbia Falls.  Up in Whitefish, Markus Foods always has a nice selection of bottles, and Ryan Zinke is working through the planning/permitting processes for his new Double Tap Brewing Co.

Having an active network of homebrewers and a shop with great supplies and expert assistance will only strengthen the craft beer tide in the Flathead.