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Friday, August 26, 2016

Ninkasi at 10

How do you measure the modern era of American brewing? For me, there was a specific moment when the possibilities of the American tradition yawned in front of me like an almost unlimited chasm. I can date it to an exact moment, back in December 2006. I was attending the Holiday Ale Festival, and this new Eugene brewery with a lot of buzz brought a beer called Believer. Here's how I described it:
It had one of the most succulent aromas I've ever encountered--sweet, citrusy, with a little mint. I had four people give it a sniff and they all did the same thing: sniff, eyebrows up, head back down for another sniff. 
That experience pretty well describes the transition from the second epoch in American brewing into the modern era. In my schema, the first epoch was marked by the pale-amber-porter period, lasting until the mid-90s; the second era was the transitional hops period, when brewers were going crazy for IBUs in their IPAs. The modern era dawned when brewers realized the true, full potential of the hop, one that lay more in the aromas and flavors rather than the bitterness. No brewery seized this flavor terrain as fully as Ninkasi did in its early years. For months, the only beers they had on the market were Believer (a red IPA, now retired), Total Domination (the flagship IPA), Quantum, a hoppy pale, and Tricerahops (a double IPA). Not only did they introduce our palates to this new way of brewing, they basically only made these kinds of beers.

Big tanks
The entire country has gone through palate shift, but each region has its pivotal products that initiated the change. In Oregon, Ninkasi was patient zero. Each one of those early beers bore the DNA of this new way of brewing, and Ninkasi, making a big, splashy debut, was the perfect delivery mechanism. Even though ten years ago seems fairly recent, it was actually the tail end of a long fallow period in beer. In 2006, there were still only 1,377 breweries in the country, and the craft segment of the market was just 3.4%. It was breweries like Ninkasi, bringing an exciting new version of hoppy ales to the market, that jump-started the current boom in brewing.

This had to do in part because of the beer, but the company's approach, ethos, and personnel were also a big factor. Jamie Floyd had been brewing for over a decade in Eugene when Ninkasi launched, and he had always been a huge proponent of hops. (I recall a heated debate in the late 90s he had with a Colorado brewery who derided hoppy ales--"all you do is throw a bunch of hops in the kettle; anyone can do that.") Floyd has an outsized personality, simultaneously big and gregarious but also small-d democratic. Ninkasi reflects Jamie, and even when it was the cool brewery, there was something approachable and everyman about it. Ninkasi has never been twee or hipsterish, and this was probably one of the reasons it grew so fast so early.

Their initial phase took Ninkasi through two brewery expansions and put them in six-packs on grocery shelves. They fueled that rise with variations on hoppy themes, introducing hoppy seasonals along with their flagships. Of course, no brewery stays in front of the novelty curve for long. Ninkasi therefore needed a second act, and it was a surprising one: traditional European lagers. It turns out that, in addition to his love of hops, Floyd also had an abiding love of classic, balanced lagers. (He may have shown his hand when Ninkasi put Schwag out early in their life; a light lager with a throwback style, it was a decade ahead of its time.) So while they were at the apex of their popularity, and still growing so fast that there were occasional diacetyl problems, Ninkasi released a pilsner and a helles, both straightforward, un-Oregonized examples, that seemed entirely at contrast with their brand.

I think the most startling was Helles Belles, the helles they released in the summer of 2011. It was a 5.1% beer with just a scant 22 IBUs of Hallertau and Spalt hopping. I loved it (of course), but it really threw people off. Drinkers were used to pulling whatever Ninkasi released off the shelf, assuming it would be a hoppy ale. I watched more than a few confused friends crack open a bottle of one of their lagers and wonder what they were drinking. But there was a perverse genius to it, too. Ninkasi has brought a lot of people into beer over the past decade. By offering a pilsner, helles, and Dortmunder, they introduced those same people back to the kinds of beers they thought they didn't like--and I think with quite a bit of success.

The metal shop.

This demonstrates something unusual about the brewery. The first is that Jamie Floyd and co-founder Nikos Ridge keep their own counsel. They don't work with outside marketers, brand folks, or PR people. Everything, including the artwork, is done in-house. Indeed, Ninkasi's commitment to the arts extends to sponsorship of local music, hosting an "artist in residence," and metal craft. They have both a music studio and metal shop onsite. If you visit the main offices, you can find a room with artists working on the next label or event art. Even though Ninkasi has grown to become the third-largest brewery in the state, it still has a bit of Eugene's DIY feel about it. In the case of the lagers, there was no one there to suggest this ran counter to brand. The brewery's instinct was pretty solid, though--just at the moment Ninkasi was investing heavily in lagers, craft beer was finding them newly interesting as well.

It's safe to say no Oregon brewery--and few American breweries--have had a better decade than Ninkasi. It has passed through its constant-growth cycle and now has a large and impressive campus in Eugene. It remains one of the strongest brands in the state (more than half the regular line-up date back to the first couple years of production), and acts as a great vehicle for Floyd and Ridge to do the extracurricular activities and philanthropic work they clearly enjoy.

But it's also at an inflection point. The lineup, though solid, is starting to look dated. Most people in Oregon now think of Total Domination as a "classic, old-school" IPA. Ninkasi has added a couple of trendy IPAs to their regular lineup (session and fruit), but debuted them well into the fads. They don't have much of a barrel program and have largely ignored kettle-souring. None of that is bad--and in fact, older breweries never look good chasing trends--but it does put a question mark on the future. A brewery making over 100,000 barrels doesn't have the flexibility to pursue trends and must support core brands, but it also needs to find a way to appear fresh and interesting. What will Ninkasi's third act look like?

Ninkasi has long been mentioned among likely targets for buy-out, and it certainly makes sense on paper. Having toured the brewery with Jamie and Nikos a couple of times, though, I'd be surprised about that. You don't spread your focus to non-bottom-line activities like the arts, philanthropy, and the environment. You do hire branding firms and spend money on strategic planning to boost sales and reach in anticipation of an acquisition. Anything is possible, especially when big enough sums are mentioned, but this doesn't look like a brewery that's looking to sell.

As one more piece of evidence, I'll recount what Jamie told me when I toured the brewery back in 2010. He talked about the feeling of place he got from the old regional breweries that used to scatter the Pacific Northwest, and how he thought that was a good goal for Ninkasi. The NW has a different feel and vibe than the rest of the country, and local companies were the only ones who really knew how to address it, he told me. He wanted to be a part of the region, an institution that both understood it and helped define it. No doubt people can change their minds, but that always struck me as such an unusual, Oregon goal. It put Ninkasi's approach into a context that the brewery has continued to live up to. And I do hope we can continue to write about them at twenty, thirty, and forty years as an Oregon institution.

Happy 10th, Ninkasi--

Beer flowing overhead, from one building
to the next.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Does This Seem Slightly Sexist To You, Too?

See update at the bottom of the post.

On Monday, Patrick and I sat down with five women who work in the beer world to learn how far we've come from those babes-in-bikinis ads from the 80s and 90s (podcast to follow). It was an illuminating conversation, because we learned how far things have come--but how subtle sexism still lingers.

Well, today I got an email that makes me wonder if the more overt sexism isn't still an issue in at least a part of the beer world. AB InBev hired a firm to do some research about attitudes of women and what they drink, and the resulting "findings" are discouraging. Here's the set-up.
Picture this:  Three women walk into a bar.  The first orders wine, the second orders a cosmo, and the third orders beer.  Which woman, do you think, ends up in a conversation with the tall and mysterious stranger?  According to the Budweiser 'Beerpressions' National Survey—a first-of-its-kind study about how beverage choices influence first impressions—your drink may be worth a thousand words.    Based on a representative survey of 2,000 Americans conducted by Learndipity Data Insights, Budweiser asked respondents to match common bar drinks with the perceived personality traits of the people ordering them.
Got that? The research was designed to learn how men assess women in bars based on their beverage choice. At first glance, this appears to be a return to that neanderthal sexism of the ads, where women and beer become accoutrements for men's enjoyment. But surely that can't be right? It can.
Drink Choice #1:  Domestic Beer (Budweiser)
  • 70% say a woman with domestic beer (Budweiser) is "friendly" and "low-maintenance."
  • Conversely, only 36% believe a woman drinking imported beer is "low-maintenance."
To be scrupulously fair, women and men both rated each other, though the characterizations of women had a lot more to do with sexual availability than they did for men. ("Low-maintenance" is an especially freighted term.*) For a company that is trying to stanch the exodus from their brand, I wonder how effective this approach will be. Is this really going to be a winning pitch to a new generation of women drinkers?

*In comments, Nick asks about why "low-maintenance" would be especially objectionable. I almost made more comment of that when I wrote the post, so let's correct the oversight and do that now.

Sexism is an innately male-centered way of seeing things. The value of women is assessed based on what they can do for men. "Low maintenance" fits into this because it's not a judgment of the women themselves (like other words that popped up--"predictable," "shallow," or "cautious"), but how well women serve men's needs. Put another way, ff I call you shallow, I'm making a judgment about you. If I say you're low-maintenance, I'm making a comment about your utility to me. And that feeds a very ancient and unpleasant way of thinking.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Sour" Beers, Craft's Dark Secrets, and Yeast--Three Interesting Stories

August is reliably the deadest month on the calendar. The excitement of summer has passed, but no one wants to confront all these Oktoberfest releases the marketing people are trying to promote. True to form, this August started slow, but there have been a few recent articles out there that piqued my interest. I think you'll have thoughts as well.

1. The New York Times Botches "Sour" Beers
Eric Asimov, the wine writer for the Times, has offered more misleading, confusing information about beer to more people than anyone on earth. I know he's an astute guy with a great palate, but for some reason, beer is so far beneath him he can't actually be bothered to report it properly. Last week he did a round up of "sour beers," and made a predictable hash in framing it. I don't mind particularly that he combined every tart style, from gose to lambic, in one category. In sensory evaluation, it's fine to blend categories of like beers. But then he writes this, and my patience evaporates:
Many of these characteristics are a result of a brewing process seemingly derived as much from wine as from beer, in which the beers are aged in barrels after fermentation. As they rest, they undergo additional transformations as bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus interact with the beer, contributing lively acidity as well as tart flavors and increased complexity. Some are vintage dated.
My guess is that few commercial sour-beer brewers choose to allow the sort of spontaneous fermentations that shape Belgian lambics. More likely, they are inoculating their brews with selected yeast strains, including brettanomyces, anathema to winemakers as it can be the source of funky flavors great and small. If unwanted in wine, it can be great in beer styles like gueuze, a Belgian blend of young and old unflavored lambics.
Ugh. To make explicit the crimes here: 1) in the first paragraph, he conflates the production of beers like gose (kettle soured) with barrel-aged beers. Goses (and most Berliner weisses) do not spend months in barrels. People are confused enough about this already; there's an entire debate raging about the cheat of making "quick sour" beers that's fueled entirely by ignorance about style and technique. Asimov inadvertently feeds this. 2) In graf two, he reveals that he's never even bothered to pick up a phone to inquire how the beers he's evaluating are made. Are some breweries inoculating while others are using spontaneous fermentation? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  It's a mystery!

(Asimov's favorite beer was Cascade's Kriek, and he loved it. He also admired a Logsdon beer. So I can't be too disappointed in him, I guess.)

2. Craft Beer's Dark Secrets
An article on Thrillist has gotten a ton of attention as an anonymous insider ("someone who's worked in the industry for six years and currently works in marketing for a well-known brewery") dishes on all the terribleness happening in craft. I have seen it reposted quite a bit with nods of acknowledgement. (Stan, for example: "Many of the points are valid. That some are less valid does not invalidate the story.") It's a pretty long laundry list of stuff, so I'll skip trying to pull representative quotes. A lot of the observations are anodyne or wrong (competition is increasing; consolidation is happening; there's a bubble), but there are others that are more serious and potentially accurate: working brewers get paid badly; the beer world is sexist; jobs in beer are hard and pay badly.

The big problem I have is that we have no idea from where these "secrets" emerge. The beer industry employs hundreds of thousands of people, and it follows that individual experiences vary widely. Some breweries are great to work for, while others are Dickensian hell. What does this tell us about "craft beer?" General, anonymous statements supported by anecdote are rumor, not fact or even reportage. I would bet my life that there are dark secrets in craft brewing--we already know about pay-to-play, as one example--and I would love to read a serious report, backed by numbers and on-the-record accounts. This is not that report--reader beware.

3. Yeast, the "God Particle"
Jason Notte has another excellent piece out, this time on the yeasty Dave Logsdon (founder of Wyeast Labs as well as the yeast-forward Logsdon Farmhouse Ales). You should go read the whole article, but one graf jumped off the page to me. This is Logsdon talking about his spontaneous program.
We’ve let those go spontaneously and haven’t tried to isolate and identify them. I don’t see a need to anymore. After spending a career in a laboratory, one of the things I wanted to do was get away from the strict, stringent protocol that was necessary. Even though we have a lab here and do our testing and stuff, it’s done on a more as-needed basis than a controlled management. With the 10 strains we do manage, I’m experienced enough to know what the right protocol is. 
I have written about this before, but there's something very, very different about inoculating wort with wild yeast and letting beer make itself spontaneously. The end results, so similar a NYT columnist can't distinguish them, belie the huge act of will it takes to get out of the way and let nature take its course. Dave has spent a career corralling and controlling yeast. It's a testament to the life transition he experienced when he put down the test tubes at Wyeast and installed a coolship. It may look like an obvious step, but I think it was anything but.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Beervana Podcast Updates and Upgrades

Although it's podcast 27 for Patrick and me, today we debut at our new home on All About Beer. (I heard some chatter about it being called All About Beer On-Air, which I love, though perhaps that moniker didn't stick.) What this means, for the literally tens of you who subscribed to our old feeds on iTunes/Google Play/Soundcloud is that you need to resubscribe at one of the new locations: on  SoundCloudiTunes, or Stitcher.

We're pretty pleased with today's podcast, because it represents our effort to bring more voices into conversation. For this episode, we spoke with Alan Taylor about Zoiglhaus Brewing, the culmination of five years' effort. We wanted to hear from Alan what it takes to found a brewery in the second decade of the new millennium. Alan explored many possible sites before landing on this one; what did he consider in terms of neighborhood demographics, location, and so on? How did he settle on a format and theme, and what considerations went into that? We asked about details like working with the city, designing, buying, and installing equipment, and creating the kind of pubby feng shui that will bring the community in to drink beer.

And of course, we talked about beer. Alan trained in Berlin and made Berliner weisse one of his specialties. We drank the version he makes each year for summer, one that is a year in the making, and learn why brettanomyces is an absolutely essential ingredient to getting the "typical" Berliner weisse flavor profile. (Brewers Association, please take note.)

Please listen, subscribe, and support us in this new endeavor. Thanks!

Friday, August 19, 2016

On Perfection

An article in the NY Times Magazine got me thinking. The subject of the piece is Michelangelo's David, which may in time--like all things--collapse into dust. But what caught my eye was not the fascinating backstory of the statue nor the nature of the physics that threaten it, but writer Sam Anderson's description of the statue's perfection:
When I first saw the David in person, the only word that came to mind was “perfect.” Why hadn’t anyone ever told me he was perfect? I was 20 years old, exhausted, unwashed, traveling for the first time ever, ignorant of almost everything worth knowing. “Perfect,” I know now, is not a terribly original response to the statue, nor a very precise one, but in that moment it filled my mind. It felt like a revolution — urgent, deep, vital, true.
And then a bit later:
I stood there in my filthy Birkenstocks feeling a sense of religious transcendental soaring: the promise that my true self was not bound by the constraints of my childhood — by freeway exits, office parks, after-school programs, coin-operated laundry rooms at dingy apartment complexes, vineyards plowed under and converted into Walmarts, instability, change, dead dogs, divorce. No. The David suggested that my true self existed most fully in some interstellar superhistorical realm in which all the ideal things of the universe commingled in a perpetual ecstasy of harmonizing trumpet blasts. If such perfection could exist in the world, I felt, then so many other things were suddenly possible: to live a perfect life creating perfect things, to find an ideal way to be. What was the point of anything less?
Curiously, Anderson details all the conventional ways in which the statue is not perfect. That's actually the point of the article: "The seed of the problem is a tiny imperfection in the statue’s design" (my bold). The marble itself is pockmarked in places, and one of David's arms was once knocked off and reattached. What Anderson's describing is an artistic and aesthetic perfection, one with such power as to impart a religious experience. He ignores the tangible imperfections and instead locates a mystical perfection beyond the physical object.

Is he looking for the perfect beer?
Perfection is a weird concept. It suggests both an empirical and  subjective quality. Like a perfect ten in gymnastics, it's the way we attempt to codify in concrete terms our certainty of a surpassing aesthetic triumph. The perfect moment, the perfect man/woman, the perfect job. It's a self-defeating concept, though, because there's no way to actually measure the subjective, which is by definition a judgment based on non-quantifiable criteria like taste, opinions, or feelings. And that unverifiability is exactly why we want to have a concept like perfection. Calling something perfect is the act of desperate hyperbole, when we try to end an argument with the maximal rendering of judgment.

The reason "perfection" is a paradox is because the elements that compose it are always open to debate. We can't arrive at perfection because we can never agree to the rules of debate. I mean, when I look at David and see that bizarrely mannered tuft of pubic hair riding David's junk like a pair of furry chestnut burrs, I have a hard time moving on. And because perfection suggests a Platonic ideal, one which is so manifestly obvious that even a philistine like me can see it, David must not be perfect. In these matters, the doubters get the final veto.

In art, the idea of perfection is thrown around a lot. Maybe this has to do with the money involved. If you just spent a half a billion dollars on a Van Gogh, you don't want anyone telling you it's not perfect. In lower forms of expression--beer, let's say--perfection is generally considered a quality to aspire to, not one to attain. I've seen this over and over again. In homebrewing competitions, no one gives out a 50, the highest score. You're lucky to get a 40. It seems like the reasoning is encouragement: no matter how kick-ass your bock is, the theory goes, there's always got to be some room to make it more kick-ass. Homebrewing is a journey, and a natural 50 would abruptly end things at the summit. Best to think there's another, higher mountain beyond the one we're just about to crest.

When I sat in on the tasting panel at the Widmer Brothers brewery a few years back, they rated the beers on a five point scale. Four was the maximum any beer ever received, which seemed odd to me. I assumed five would represent the best quality the brewery could produce, since they were evaluating the beer before it shipped. Nope, four was the highest score I heard that day. I asked about that and they said five was reserved for a truly exceptional beer, one that, like Anderson's David, truly deserved the title of "perfect." They had never encountered such a beer but, like hopeful Sasquatch-hunters everywhere, wanted to believe one existed.

I sometimes use perfect casually (so please don't dig around the archives to disprove the following clause) but I've abandoned it as a useful concept. Whether we're talking about beer or art, perfection is a unicorn. We can describe it in rich, vivid detail, but no one has ever actually encountered it. Worse, the existence of this fictitious state denigrates the excellence we find occasionally in the real world. We hold open the possibility that there's something better than a Usain Bolt hundred-meter dash, or a 1966 Jaguar E-type roadster, or a Saison Dupont, but in pining for the impossible, fail to apprehend the real genius in front of us. The notion of "perfect" is what leads to hundred-dollar bottles of Cantillon and a veneration of mythical "whales" (or worse, "whalez"). There are a staggering amount of exceptional beers out there, more than the earth has ever seen, and settling into their enjoyment seems like a far better use of time than waiting interminably for perfection to come along.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Amazing Predictions

Maine writer Josh Christie was perusing some old archives today and tweeted out two fascinating articles that illustrate why we should regard current doomy proclamations with some skepticism. They date to the 90s, and were written in a now-defunct weekly. Article one (1994) poses the compelling question: with four Portland (ME) breweries, can the city absorb yet a new one opening up?
"That's a lot of new brewing capacity, considering local beers still account for only 1.5 percent of beer sales in Maine. And if the growth curve starts to level off, LaCharite and his competitors could end up fighting each other to survive."

 Five breweries??? Mon dieu!--it's a bubble!

In article two (1998), the thesis is that craft beer microbrewing has become too boring. This isn't exactly the same as the complaints we hear today--though IPA weariness is similar--but it illustrates that complaining about what looks like a stable situation in beer is pretty foolish. Don't like things now? Give it five minutes.
"Most of the supermarket survivors fall into the traditional categories of the tried and true: pale ales, wheat beers, lagers. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Many of these brews taste just fine. Some of them are personal favorites. But after more than a decade of innovative brewing, the spirit of imagination seems to have seeped out of the bottles. There are too many beers with taste profiles that are all too familiar. Even worse, there are too many beers with too little taste. Just as it's tough to tell Bud from Miller from Coors, it's slowly becoming more difficult to distinguish among the micros."

I can only imagine what a boring landscape awaits this city two decades hence, after the imminent demise of microbrewing.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Vignette #1

Nick Arzner, Block 15

“I literally think about beer all the time. I have a list on my phone of ideas, and those ideas can come from wherever. They can come from even a name; if I think it’s a good name I’ll build a beer around it. It can come from an ingredient; I’ll build a beer around that. It can come from [events]. People ask me to do an anniversary beer; it can come from them. I look at some breweries, they say, ‘I’m a lager brewery,’ or ‘I’m a Belgian-style brewery, I won’t do hoppy beers’—I don’t know why you’d limit yourself to that. I dunno, I just really just like beer. I like all styles, I enjoy drinking all styles of beer.”

Monday, August 15, 2016

When the Original is the Outlier

Beer styles, like grammar, are at best uneasy agreements about what is considered "typical." English grammar comes with so many asterisks, exceptions, and disclaimers that it seems to have been invented solely to thwart non-native speakers. Beer styles aren't as bad as that, but the curious fact remains that in several cases, the original, classic example of a style is out of step with all the other beers that followed. Schneider's weisse is substantially darker than is considered typical; Dupont is hoppier, more stripped-down (no exotic grains or spices), and more phenolic than most saisons; and Pilsner Urquell is far less attenuated and in possession of far more diacetyl than would be accepted in any other pilsner. Which is why when I came across this "pilsner showdown," I was amused to see poor Urquell coming in 23rd of 24 pilsners sampled:
A reference pilsner entered the showdown, and thankfully wasn’t in a green bottle. We thought it looked great, like a bar of GOLD!! Smelling it, we caught diacytel. While that’s to style when it’s “restrained” we thought it was not restrained at all and it really put us off the beer. Matt successfully nailed it and called the beer, but the off flavors put the whole group off enough to rank it one of the lowest in the showdown.
It even fared more poorly than several lightstruck examples. The indignity!

Diacetyl factory.

Truth is, writers of style guidelines don't know how to handle Urquell. This is the "Bohemian-style pilsener" entry from the 2016 Brewers Association style guidelines, the one used to judge beers at the GABF (bolds mine):
Very low diacetyl and DMS aromas, if perceived, are characteristic of this style and both may accent malt aroma.... Very low levels of diacetyl and DMS flavors, if perceived, are characteristic of this style. 
The folks judging pilsners may well have been looking at these very words while they sampled Urquell, because one thing is for sure: the diacetyl note* in that beer is not "very low." It's huge and aggressive, and because Urquell, a světlý ležák (12° beer), is so under-attenuated--it's just 4.4% ABV--that diacetyl really comes through as sticky and sweet. Budvar, by contrast, is also a 12° beer, but it's 5% ABV. 

Writers of style guidelines have never known what to do with this, because breweries typically don't like their beers to taste of diacetyl. And no one would roll out a beer like Urquell now--it's just too weird and un-pilsnery. Indeed, German pilsners, which form the far more common template for international pale lagers, are specifically prohibited by style guidelines from having diacetyl. In my two trips to the Czech Republic, I managed to sample maybe two dozen pale lagers. I would not therefore forward myself as any kind of authority, but within that sample I rarely encountered diacetyl, and never anything like what you find in Urquell. The Czechs are very deferential to the first pilsner, and my guess is that they don't want to appear to be aping the original.

In conclusion, we should probably write style guidelines that say things like, "if your pilsner is awash in what seems like inappropriately slicky, buttery diacetyl, we'll consider it a fault unless the sample came from Pilsner Urquell." Splitting the baby and saying it's okay in low levels accounts for neither the way diacetyl appears in Pilsner Urquell (where it's massive) nor in most other pilsners (where it's absent). Otherwise you end up in a situation where people are eliminating the original pilsner from pilsner competitions because it's not brewed to style.

*Diacetyl is slick on the tongue, a bit full, and tastes like butter or butterscotch. It's so buttery, in fact, that it's commonly added to foods to make them taste like butter.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Awkwardness of Middle-Aged Breweries

As a gentleman now past any reasonable definition of "young," I am sensitive to ageist derision. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that once you've been around awhile, you do get stuck in your ways. You can start to look a bit fusty. And so it is with breweries. The ultimate reward for building a successful brand that stretches out across some or all of our broad country isn't public admiration for your portfolio of stable, popular brands. No, it's yawns. In the craft beer biz, the question is always, "what have you done lately?"

This became a topic of discussion on Facebook and Twitter earlier in the week following my post about Sam Adams. To the thesis "the flagship brand needs to be refreshed," I don't think I heard a single voice say, "no way--it's a perfectly current classic!"  And this is just the problem. The successful old-school breweries (let's say pre-1990) all became successful because they built up a popular brand. Sam Adams had Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada had Pale, Widmer had Hefeweizen, and so on. It's very hard to keep a beer exciting for 30+ years. The best breweries can do is try to transition these older brands into a "classic" slot and hope to keep the brand of the brewery alive and vital.

One of the reasons I declared Boston Beer doomed was because as a brewery it does not seem vital. The brewery does have a barrel program, but it's pretty anemic. They still roll out the Utopias from time to time, but it's been a long time since beer geeks swooned over anything but its price. The recent nitro line was curious at best--a fifty-year-old package dispense system is not exactly the cutting edge. Meanwhile, one of the main trends in craft beer right now is lagers, a concept Boston Beer should absolutely own, but they seem to be missing the boat.

Contrast that with Sierra Nevada, which is one of the most active and interesting breweries in the country right now. Their core lineup is as always anchored by Pale Ale, but they've added a great pilsner (not missing the current trends), a gose, and two IPAs, Hop Hunter and Torpedo, which use innovative new techniques to produce vivid hop flavor. (Sam Adams' Rebel series of IPAs seem, by contrast, pro forma at best). They have managed to serve both their tradition--they exalt in it, in fact--as well as trying to remain current with the styles and techniques that are driving new sales.

And that's without mentioning the incredibly successful Beer Camp project, which makes this venerable grandfather of craft beer look anything but stodgy. It not only integrates them into this vital world of brewing they've honestly sort of outgrown, but allows them to both be a leader and a participant in building the notion of "craft" (which, admittedly, is a lot more spin than reality these days).

It's a difficult trick to pull off. Most of the middle-aged breweries have had their share of failures and miscues. You don't want to end up looking like the dad who's dropping middle-school slang into conversation, but you also don't want to just slowly go to seed. And so far, we really only knows what this looks like for breweries in the middle-thirties. Imagine what they'll look like when they're truly middle aged (like me).

As a final, related thought, it seems like that in one of these decades pretty soon we're going to see the failure of some large craft breweries. Maybe they won't outright vanish, but like regional breweries following Prohibition through the 1970s, they might get absorbed into a giant corporate entity, become mere SKUs in a company's bottom line, and eventually mostly fade out. When I came of drinking age in Oregon, we had brands like Lucky Lager and Heidelberg that soon vanished. Could Bell's or Rogue go the way they did? Eventually, some will.

Anyway, this rumination has been brought to you by Metamucil and old farts everywhere....

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Year Ago

A year ago today, sometime around 8pm, I stopped into Powell's Books in downtown Portland and located The Beer Bible on the "new releases" shelves. To my joy, there was only one copy left. Not bad for the first day of sales!

It's been a pretty good year for the book. Sales have been brisk, the Cicerone Program added it to their list of recommended reading, and it won an apparently prestigious IACP award. I try to refrain from flogging the book too much, but allow me to do so on this one-year anniversary. If you haven't picked up a copy, consider doing so. I guarantee that you'll find at least some new tidbit in there you haven't encountered before, and I really do think it's a good reference. (I think this because I have a crap memory for details, and so I end up pulling it out on a fairly regular basis.) Consider buying one for the whole family!

I'd also like to thank everyone out there who said kind words, bought a copy, or was otherwise supportive and kind. I can't tell you how many of you I've encountered, and you've all been wonderful. I hope the ride never ends--

You'd buy a book from this man, wouldn't you?