Friday, February 12, 2016

Craft? Independent? Why is it so challenging to describe breweries these days?

There's been much passionate debate among something as seemingly meaningless as what is "craft" beer, and whether the term really means anything.  Some, like All About Beer editor John Holl, declared they would be doing their best to avoid the  term "craft beer", simply calling it "beer".  Now, a new semantic debate has reared its head on whether we should use the word "independent" to describe the small, local breweries that are independently owned, differentiating them from large corporate breweries that either attempt to mimic them ("Shocktop, Blue Moon, 10th and Blake) or smaller breweries the corporate giants have recently acquired (Goose Island, Saint Archer, Ballast Point).  Should we all just call it beer?

Well, maybe. But I think the growing difficulties in using a word like "craft", "independent" or simply "beer" these days shows the world of beer has changed a lot in the past decade and one-word descriptors are problematical.  Part of this seemingly pointless semantic debate is fueled by a growing fear that if consumers aren't educated that, for example, 10 Barrel Brewing is just a front owned global beer conglomerate A-B InBev, the bad guys will win. This is a genuine fear. Of course, stuff like that really doesn't matter to the other 99% of the US population which would just like to drink something they enjoy.  And like it or not, a very large fraction of the rest of the world is still perfectly happy drinking a lager produced by a huge global corporation, thank you very much.

Is one word really enough to describe a brewery these days?  Again, let's take 10 Barrel. Isn't "corporate owned regional brewery" a more accurate description than "non-independent" or "craft" (or "non-craft", depending on your point of view).  What about breweries that have a small taproom and maybe distribute a few kegs to taverns here and there?  Doesn't "small local brewery" describe these breweries better than "craft" or "independent".  Has Boulevard Brewing and Firestone-Walker lost their "craft" or "independent " status simply because they are owned by an international corporation, granted one that demonstrably cares about quality and delivers excellent beer?  Maybe "major national breweries" best describes these two. What about Lagunitas?  Is it "half independent" now that it's half owned by Heineken.  Or is Lagunitas better described as a "national brewery". Aren't large breweries fairly ubiquitous across America like  Sierra Nevada, Deschutes, and New Belgium really "national mass market breweries" rather than "craft" or "independent". I could go on and on.

Can we all just call it "beer"? Somehow, it doesn't feel quite feel right. Given the tremendous differences in scale and business practices at different breweries across the country, calling it all "beer" is like saying McDonald's and your local high end bistro sell "food".  Except that's basically what people say and both are normally called "restaurants".  Perhaps that's because fast food restaurants and high-end restaurants have mutually co-existed for decades. Since beer brewed by the millions of barrels global corporations, and breweries smaller than 100,000th of this size have only existed in parallel only in the last few years of human history, maybe we just haven't figured out the right words we're comfortable in using to describe them just yet.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rambling Reviews 2.10.2016: New beers from 21st Amendment, 10 Barrel and Sierra Nevada

Time once again to ramble on a few new beers that crossed my path.  Here in the dead of a San Jose "winter", these new brews are decided on the lighter side.

Such as El Sully, described as a Mexican-style lager from 21st Amendment. Presumably named after 21st Amendment Brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan, it's a damn good lager. New I realize most of you are probably not breathlessly awaiting the next new lager, but if you ask me, the simplicity of a well executed lager is a thing of beauty.  El Sully's decent malt heft, effervescent crispness with a light grassy hop bite is sometimes exactly what's needed in a beer, nothing more, nothing less. It's not a flavor explosion, but give me a basket of chips, a good salsa and a pint of El Sully and I'd be pretty happy.

Next up, Riding Solo Pale Ale from 10 Barrel Brewing, a single hop beer made with Comet hops which 10 Barrel sent me to sample. Riding Solo is the brain child of "Benny" who, according to a 10 Barrel press release "was on the fast track working for a large brewery, and then it all came crashing down. He made a bad choice, climbed the wrong building in Bend and found himself in the clink without a job." I the only one finding the "large brewery" word choice rather ironic given 10 Barrel is part of A-B InBev's global beer empire? At any rate, we'll assume Benny paid his debt to society and is working hard to turn his life around. If he comes up with more beers like this, it won't take him too long. I enjoyed the unique flavor of this Pale Ale, with a subdued bitter grapefruit peel character with a herbal character similar to mint. It's one nice little Pale Ale.

Finally, we come to Otra Vez, a Gose with prickly pear cactus and grapefruit, released with much fanfare from Sierra Nevada. The Gose has emerged from near extinction to become the fastest growing craft beer style and this addition to Sierra Nevada's year 'round line-up has cemented the Gose's status status in the craft beer industry. Having enjoyed many a recent Gose, when I saw a six-pack of this in my local bottle shop, I snapped it up. Unfortunately, it left me wishing Sierra Nevada just brewed a regular old Gose without dumping a bunch of exotic fruit into it and dialing back the sourness. A more traditional Gose is a study of yin-yang balance between the interplay of salt and sour in a light wheat ale. Otra Vez is basically a light fruit ale with a little salt and nary any sourness. It's reasonably enjoyable but comes across as a missed opportunity, the fruit becoming a distraction rather than an enhancement of the Gose style. I'll even go so far as to say if there was ever such a thing as a mass market Gose, a profit driven modification of the style to better conform to more general tastes, it would taste something like this. Sorry, Otra Vez just isn't my idea of a Gose and I just wasn't turned on with what really was just a light fruity ale.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Which of these four breweries is the most local to the San Francisco Bay Area?

Here's a little test.  Which one of these four Northern California breweries is the most local to the San Francisco Bay Area? Is it:

a) Russian River Brewing
b) Lagunitas Brewing
c) Sierra Nevada Brewing
d) Anheuser-Busch InBev

Yes, it's meant to be a trick question. I argue d) Anheuser-Busch InBev (A-B InBev) is a very valid answer, and arguably the best answer. That's because A-B InBev has a Bay Area brewery right here in Fairfield. All the other beers from the other breweries travel much further to get to get into the hands of Bay Area beer drinkers. A-B InBev's employs more people in the Bay Area than any other brewery and while foreign owned, clearly brings more money into the Bay Area than any of these other breweries . True, not every A-B InBev beer is brewed in Fairfield, but if you live in the Bay Area and are drinking Bud, Bud Light, Shocktop, Busch, Busch Light, Keystone, Keystone Light, or Rolling Rock, your beer was made right here in Fairfield.

You could make a case for Russian River, but I consider Russian River really local to Santa Rosa/Sonoma County and not really the Bay Area. Despite Russian River's popularity in the Bay Area, it's remains a cultural import from the north. Petaluma's Lagunitas has become a national brand, with another brewery in the Chicago area and another pending in Southern California and 50% of Lagunitas is owned by Heineken, headquartered almost on the other side of the planet. Sierra Nevada headquartered in Chico is a 3+ hour drive from the Bay Area, and while it remains independent, has also emerged as a national brand and operates another brewery in North Carolina.  Do any of these three breweries really strike you as "local to the Bay Area".

Do I really consider A-B InBev the most local brewery to the Bay Area from the four on this list? Emotionally, I just can't bring myself to say yes, yet logically the argument makes a lot of sense. I'm not sure there's any right answer, just a little test to make you think about how slippery the concept of "local brewery" is these days.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thoughts on fears of a "Beer Bubble" and why we probably won't see one

People still kick around the idea the craft beer might hit a bubble.When I say "bubble", it's about a concern that somehow, all these new and growing breweries might somehow fail. During the dot-com bubble fifteen years ago, we saw so many Internet based firms proliferate and spectacularly flame out. With the housing bubble, we saw housing prices increase and housing construction reach a crescendo, only to screech to a halt as the easy credit fueling the market became unsustainable. So it's not too unreasonable to look at the exceptional growth of breweries in American, couple that with our experience of previous, and conclude something similar could easily happen in the brewing industry as well.  On this, I have a couple thoughts to add.

There is psychological side to these beer bubble concerns. For such a long time in the United States, there was only a handful of breweries. We're just not used to seeing so many breweries in operation which can cause us to think something can't be right and all these breweries simply cannot be sustainable. I used to think this way myself. Those thoughts ended for good last fall when I visited some friends in Bend, OR, a town of only about 85,000 easily supporting more than ten breweries.  Yet, when I went to the local grocery store, I noticed plenty of people rolling through the check out line with stuff like Bud or Coors's Light in their carts. Given all the crowded brewpubs all over Bend while there were still plenty of people who could still convert to craft beer consumers, in no way did the craft beer market in Bend seem saturated.

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.  Breweries like A-B InBev sell beer by the millions of barrels. That's a little less than the annual output of Sierra Nevada.  Ten brewpubs, each selling just a few thousand barrels of beer a year is still pretty small for total beer sales in city of 85,000. The market can easily absorb that many small breweries and certainly a few more.

The second thought has more to deal with mathematics. If there will be a bubble, it will depend a lot on how fast the growth of craft beer's market share declines. Right now, craft beer is growing at a rate of 15-20% per year. Given that craft beer is only about 11% of the overall market in terms of volume, these torrid growth rates are actually sustainable for a number years.  But of course, they cannot last forever.

How will all this growth end? Will it be a gradual decline as the adoption of craft beer slowly reaches equilibrium or will things just hit a wall when everyone is converted to craft who can be and the rest of the market stubbornly sticks to their macrobrews?  This matters because a lot of future growth is built into the beer industries. I don't need to tell you hundreds of breweries are coming online each year. But more importantly, lots of established breweries are investing in major expansions. As more money is being invested to produce more beer, if the market demand suddenly stopped increasing, it could no longer absorb all the beer produced by this expansion. People who paid a lot of money based on future expectations could find themselves in a lot of trouble if they could sell enough beer to pay off their loans. That's how bubbles happen, folks.

My take is when craft beer's growth rate inevitably slows, it will do so at a rate that breweries can adjust to.  Suppose in 2016, the growth rate is 15%, and then in 2017, it's 12%, with 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively being 10%, 8%, and 6%. Breweries will have time to reign back in their investments and adjust to changing market realities. On the other had, if the growth rate in 2016 is 15% and then it drops to 3% in 2017, there will likely be a whole bunch of extra unused capacity with costs and lost opportunity that could cause some breweries to fail.

My guess is that we'll see the former scenario rather than the latter. Habits like beer drinking tend to change over years, not overnight. Craft beer isn't some new fad, it's been around arguably for fifty years, and started becoming firmly established 20 to 30 years ago. As such, craft beer isn't going anywhere. While breweries will likely see more a more difficult business climate moving forward than the current go-go times and breweries will fail as any businesses do, the idea of a devastating craft beer bubble seems less and less likely. I certainly hope to be right.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Typology Tuesday #1: American Barley Wine Hits and Misses

I'm just not a big fan of American Barley Wines. Sure, I'd rather start Jay Brooks's wonderful Typology Tuesday project with a more upbeat opening. But then, he invited us to write about the American Barley Wine style and that's the first thing that leaped into my mind.

I think the issue with  American Barley Wines are that are very challenging to brew. All that rich, toffee and caramel malty goodness has to be balanced with copious amounts of hops, and lots of breweries get tripped up trying to pull that off. I've had some good American Barley Wines, but found a fair share of them to be either unbalanced palate assaulting monstrosities or bloated, muddled concoctions struggling beneath the weight of all their heavy flavors. Since Barley Wines are typically priced at $10-$20 per 22 ounce bottle, I rarely take a flyer on an American Barley Wine, even if it's from a brewery I have a lot of respect for. I've just been burned too many times.

I suspect this is part of the reason we seem to be seeing fewer and fewer Barley Wines in America despite the proliferation of new breweries. Not only is the style hard to brew, it is both time consuming and more expensive to produce than other styles. What was likely biggest Barley Wine event in the United States, the Toronado Barley Wine Festival in San Francisco, has recently been cancelled, with Toronado owner Dave Keene citing business concerns and changing tastes as the reason. Economics is slowly working against Barley Wines and I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Shouldn't breweries avoid making beers that drag down their bottom line? Do we really need lots of American Barley Wines if only a few select brewers can really deliver on the style?

Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed some of the major American Barley Wines like Anchor's Old Foghorn, Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot Barley Wine and Stone's Old Guardian. However, with Old Guardian, I must keep it in the refrigerator for least a solid year to take the edge off the hops before I can enjoy it. Now some people are into really cellaring beers and find the transformation of Barley Wines over time to be one of their alluring qualities. I'm not one of them. I just wish the brewer had dialed back the hops so I wouldn't need to go to all the trouble of storing the beer for an entire year before I can finally drink it. For me, that's just more trouble than it's worth.

One of my local breweries in San Jose, Santa Clara Valley Brewing recently released their excellent Big Moody Barley Wine which I really like. But then, Santa Clara Valley Brewmaster Steve Donohue has won four GABF medals, so the guy demonstrably knows how to brew good beer. Perhaps it's telling that Steve Donohue told me he tried to keep the hops profile low with Big Moody, so maybe it's not a true American Barley Wine after all.

To end this on a positive note, an American Barley Wine provided a nice moment the time my parents, my sister and her husband were in town for Thanksgiving a couple years ago. A bottle of Sierra Nevada Barrel-Aged Bigfoot Barley Wine had been sitting in my fridge for about eight months and I figured the moment was right to pop open the bottle for the occasion. We were all chatting away as while we all sipped from small glasses poured from the same bottle, enjoying all the wonderful flavors enhanced by time and careful barrel-aging. A slight hush fell over us as we all realized we were sharing a special, rare experience. Then, the moment passed and we all started chatting away again. Chalk up a small victory for the American Barley Wine.

Update - Santa Clara Valley Brewing co-owner Tom Clark confirmed on this blog's Facebook page that Big Moody was designed as an English style Barley Wine.

Sierra Nevada's Barrel-aged Bigfoot Barley Wine in the fridge
just before the big Thanksgiving moment. My mom's favorite beer is 
Stella Artois, that's why it's there

Monday, January 25, 2016

Blurry Thoughts and Images from the 2016 SF Beer Week Opening Gala

What to say about Friday evening's SF Beer Week Opening Gala? Well, there are a lot more Bay Area breweries than I realized. Cruising up and down the aisles, my alcohol addled mind making critical calculations on what beer to have next, I kept in internal running dialog on each brewery as I'd make my next selection like "Never heard of that one....I heard they're good...the one beer I ever from them was just OK". There was a time not too long ago you could reasonably know all the Bay Area breweries without dying of alcohol poisoning. Today, that's completely impossible. So when contemplating your next beer from what the entire Bay Area brewing scene has to offer, I suggest you do what I did that night. Just try whatever you feel like having.

I had a lot of good beers that evening, but none of them had the real "Wow!" factor. I'm beginning to think that's not so much an indictment of today's breweries as an indirect compliment. So many talented brewers have raised the bar so high yesterday's "Wow!" is today's "quite good".  In fact, most of the beer I had was in the "quite good" category. A small few were, in my opinion, just "good". One was a very interesting experiment, I might really like if I got to know it better, but at this point I'd call it an eclectic acquired taste. Only one beer seemed like a real misfire, although it was still drinkable.

Stuff I particularly liked, in no particular order was Valley of the Hearts Delight by Almanac, SMASH Mosaic by Black Sands, Pipe Tobacco Porter from New Helvetia, Shoeless Joe Imperial Brown from Strike Brewing, Big Moody Barley Wine from Santa Clara Valley Brewing, Citroen Farmhouse Ale from Baeltane Brewing, Briny Melon Gose by Anderson Valley, 10 Lizzy Scotch Ale from Dust Bowl Brewing and Tommy Time IPA from Alpha Acid. I'm probably missing one or two from that evening. Sorry, as you can tell, I had a lot of beer that night.

I'll leave you from a few, slightly blurry images from an evening with its share of blurry moments.

(And in case you were wondering, I took public transportation all the way home.)

Monday, January 18, 2016

Some Lesser Known Beers to Look Out for During SF Beer Week

San Francisco Brewers Guild Executive Director
Joan Marino addressing the crowd
Last week I wandered out of the beer Siberia of the South Bay into San Francisco's Thirsty Bear for small pre-SF Beer Week media event. There, a number breweries sampled beers to be featured during SF Beer Week, with many of the brewmasters on hand to talk about them. As you might expect, the heavy hitters you've come to know and love like Anchor Brewing, Sierra Nevada, 21st Amendment, Almanac, Magnolia and Speakeasy all pouring both the old favorites and some interesting new concoctions. What I especially wanted to find were some of the new, smaller breweries that hadn't quite hit my radar screen. Given so that many breweries continue to re-invent beer, I was not surprised to find number of little known interesting and innovative beers to look out for during SF Beer Week. Maybe you've heard of them, maybe you haven't. Either way, let's get right to some of the lesser known beers I think you should be looking out for during SF Beer Week.

SMASH Citra IPA from Black Sands - The SMASH series from Black Sands stands for "Single Malt and Single Hop" and Black Sands has no fewer than six of these SMASH series beers ready for SF Beer Week. As for SMASH Citra, it uses Weyermann Pilsner Malt to create a platform for the Citra hops to do its grapefruity, lightly resinous thing. The simplicity and restraint, at only 64 ibu's and 5.9% abv, works to this brews advantage.

Dark Bullitt Imperial Porter from Bartlett Hall - Brewmaster Wynn Whisenhunt described this beer as chocolate coffee milkshake beer. Thankfully, Dark Bullitt didn't taste like a chocolate coffee milkshake beer. Instead of the horrible syrupy sweet mess one might expect with that introduction, what I got instead was a dynamite combination of coffee, dark chocolate, vanilla beans and lactose sugar giving it a surprising light, complex, dark chocolate and milky coffee quality with very little sweetness.  At 8.8% abv, it hides its alcohol well and all the strong flavors find a way to meld comfortably together to all pop without becoming too intense. A real pleasure to drink.

Lightship Sour Solera from Headlands Brewing - Headlands Brewmast Phil Cutti takes his GABF Medal winning Point Bonita Pilsner, ages it in Cabernet barrels, and then adds various bugs to sour the brew, transforming it into something lively, lightly sour and surprisingly fruity despite no actual fruit additions. At 5.4% abv, it's an almost sessionable sour and a rare sour you can enjoy without thinking too hard about it....or enjoy by thinking real hard about it.

Park Hoppy Wheat Beer from Fort Point Beer - Wheat beers and hops is a tricky combination, and Fort Point really pulls it off with Park. A smattering of Citra hops creates an extra grapefruit dimension to the underlying wheat beer, producing a rather refreshing and at 4.7% abv, very sessionable brew.

A big part of SF Beer Week is discovery. Here's to your discovery of these beers, or those just as good, during SF Beer Week.