Monday, April 17, 2017

This blog has moved! Please reset your readers to its new site

Hello all....after several years on blogspot, I've gotten my own domain and moved to Word Press where I'm continuing to ramble on.

Hope to see you over at the new site, and think you'll find it to be a better reading experience.  Please point your readers to:

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Session #122: Imported Hazards

Programming Note: This blog has moved and this will be the last post at this location. Please point your blog readers to the new site:

For this month's Session, Christopher Barnes at "I Think About Beer" asks American bloggers: "What place do imported beers (traditional European) have in a craft beer market?"

Hmmmm....I'm not quite sure what this Session is supposed to be about. There are plenty of imported beers that aren't from Europe, and a decent number of imported beers from Europe really can't be described as "traditional European". And of course, we could be here all night just debating what the "craft beer market" is.

Anyway, I like imported beers. Mexican food is better with Pacifico Classico. Sapporo is meant for sushi. Imported beers add an extra note to authenticate these cultural experiences. Unfortunately for beer importers, this often creates a rather limited market. Sapporo released their Premium Black Lager last fall in part to extend their reach in the United States beyond sushi bars, going so far as to tout their beer as "well suited for pairing with a variety of hearty and spicy dishes from around the world, including traditional German, Asian, Cajun and Latin cuisines."  I learned about Sapporo Premium Black recently from a Sapporo representative pitching Sapporo Premium Black as an alternative to drinking Stout on St. Patrick's day. Marketing a Japanese beer to celebrate St. Patrick's Day or to enjoy with Wienerschnitzel seems incredibly desperate. You'd think they'd have a lot more success saying "Sapporo tastes great with burgers" and leaving it there.

As he tends to do with all things these days, President Trump threatens to turn this whole imported beer thing upside down as he contemplates import tariffs. I would not want to be the Director of US Sales for say, a Chinese or Mexican brewery right now. It's probably not easy being a European importer either.

As for traditional European imports our host wants us to talk about, my opinion is they provide a great avenue to learn beer's long European history. I just wish they weren't so damn expensive. Which underlies another problem with imports. Beer is relatively heavy and often sold in breakable glass bottles, neither of which make the product cost effective to ship long distances. Living in Northern California, I can find lots of great beers from local breweries at lower prices. Why buy imports?  

Well, I learned to appreciate how America transformed English Ales by sampling a few English imports. I also learned to appreciate English Ale by taking a short drive to Freewheel Brewing in Redwood City, CA which specializes in cask-conditioned English-style Ales. I've sampled imports from other European countries and think I understand how they taste in their homeland.  I use the word "think" because I often wonder how fresh the product is, travelling all that way and sitting on the shelf until the day I buy it. More than I few times I've been intrigued enough to consider buying an import, only to look closer, notice dust all over the bottle and move on. No point in spending a lot of money on what might be old stale beer.

Our Session host is an import beer manager at a speciality beer distributor. He has a hard job.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

This blog has moved to a new domain

I'll make this short and sweet.  I've gotten my own domain and have moved from Blogger to WordPress.  You'll now find all my ramblings here:

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

AB InBev's Golden Road to Open a Brewery in Oakland - Can they successfully transplant into the Bay Area?

The East Bay Express article seemed ominous enough. Under the headline "Corporate Beer Overlords AB InBev to Open Golden Road 'Craft' Beer Garden in North Oakland", readers were warned  Golden Road Brewing filed permits with the city of Oakland to open a beer garden on 40th Street between Broadway and Manila Avenue. Golden Road became part of the growing empire of A-B InBev brands late 2015 when they were acquired by the multi-national brewing giant.  The short article ends with a quote from Tom McCormick of the California Craft Brewers Association claiming A-B InBev's takeover of breweries like Golden Road is the biggest threat to the craft beer industry. The article seems little more than a call to arms to be spread on social media to rally the masses against big evil corporate beer.

Fair enough. People should be informed what companies are behind beer brands like Golden Road to make informed choices. But the "big beer evil, local beer good" vibe to the article seems rather dated, especially given the tremendous transformation in the brewing industry in just the past few years and the triumphs of "craft" over large corporate breweries. Still, the message still has a lot of resonance given AB InBev is no longer a lumbering giant resorting to using talking frogs to sell tasteless lagers. In just the past couple years, AB InBev co-opted the craft beer playbook, buying up craft breweries to create a local presence in major markets, acquiring Seattle's Elysian, Oregon's 10 Barrel, and LA's Golden Road as part of that strategy on the West Coast.

Notice there are no Northern California breweries on that list. Over the past couple years, Elysian, 10 Barrel and Golden Road six-packs and tap handles popped up all over the Bay Area, and AB InBev has demonstrably built up a following in the Bay Area with their craft brands. But what's going on in Oakland is a step further than that. By building an actual Golden Road brewery in the Oakland, AB InBev is effectively attempting to establish themselves as a local Bay Area brewery, a plan as diabolical as it is smart. Of course, most people are in favor of things like new beer gardens to go to and new businesses which increase employment, raising these sort of positives about AB InBev's investment in Oakland makes sense, but seems like missing the point.

Of course, the big questions are: "Can AB InBev pull this off?" and "Could they be planning to create breweries in other Bay Area neighborhoods?"  Well, looking at some of the social media comments on the East Bay Express article, success for AB InBev seems like a good bet. While there's plenty of dissent like "Nope, not stepping foot on the premises", I noticed a surprisingly number of counterpoints. "I agree that this seems a great development for North Oakland" wrote one commentor.  AB InBev is muscling into the Bay Area to become a "local" brewery under their craft brand Golden Road, and the questions is not so much can they pull off this audacious feat, but how successful they'll be at it.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Rambling Reviews 3.27.2017: New releases from Magnolia, Sapporo, and Alpine

Enjoying a can of Kalifornia Kolsch
on my back patio
This edition of Rambling Reviews features beers from three breweries who successfully persuaded me to sing the praises of their beer to the millions of readers of this blog tuning in breathlessly to learn what beers they should be drinking. That's right, today's reviews are all about free beers sent to me in hopes I would write nice things about them.

We'll start with long time San Francisco brewery Magnolia Brewing, who want you to know their Kalifornia Kolsch and Proving Ground IPA can now be bought in cans, as they roll out their distribution in the San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles areas. That's right, no longer do you need to venture into the Upper Haight neighborhood full of stores selling bongs and Grateful Dead T-shirts to get a fresh pint of Magnolia. I've enjoyed a few pints of Kalifornia Kolsch and rather than go into a detailed flavor decomposition of the brew, let me just tell you this: It's a damn good Kolsch. As for Proving Ground IPA, Brewmaster Dave McLean describes it in a press release as "showcasing a hybrid approach to IPA, marrying an aggressive, American hop profile with an English malt backbone built around our favorite malt, Marris Otter." And indeed this brew has the wonderful solid biscuit-like malt and subdued, leafy, grass hop character one finds in a good English IPA, with some citrus in the background to remind you it comes from California. Magnolia's website claims this IPA checks in at 100 ibu's, but it seems more like 60 in this refreshingly well balanced brew. At any rate, it's not the usual West Coast hops and alcohol explosion. Instead, Proving Ground is a creative yet traditional dimension to the IPA style.

Then there's Sapporo Premium Black Lager. Now I've enjoyed Sapporo's regular Lager with sushi a few times, but it's never really been one of my "go-to" beers. Unfortunately, lot's of other people feel the same way about Sapporo, and they've faced declining sales in the US as the brand is largely limited to Asian restaurants. Sapporo Black Lager, released last fall, is an effort to reverse that trend, which explains in part why Sapporo touts their Black Lager for pairing with "traditional German, Asian, Cajun and Latin cuisines and crème brûlée". One thing going for it is lots of nice chocolate aromas. It's crisp with very deep roasted flavors on a broad spectrum from a little toasty up until the point burnt notes are detectable.  This good news it's mostly bitter chocolate flavors that dominate in the light brew. Nice beer, but will people choose to drink Sapporo Premium Black Lager with Wienerschnitzel or enchiladas? That seems like kind of a stretch.

Finally, we end with Alpine Beer Company's Windows Up IPA, which debuted just this year.  "I am especially excited for our newest IPA addition, Windows Up, to hit the market," excudes Alpine Head Brewer Shawn McIlhenny in a press release.  "It's got big hop aromatic and a really bold flavor profile with very little bitterness; this beer is a home run." Given that Alpine has made their reputation on big hoppy beers, it's no surprise this one is a real dank monster. The good news is there's plenty of complexity and depth to round out all danky, cannabis-ness character, with as some fruity apricot, light tart cherries and piney finish also in the mix. All those big flavors get plenty of support on a solid malt substrate. It's not just a beer crammed with a bunch of big flavors, it's an impressive composition of all those flavors.  Yes, I do believe Alpine hit one out of the park.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Update on Speakeasy: Back up and running but on life support

March 10th, Speakeasy Brewing stunned the Bay Area brewing world by abruptly announcing they were ceasing operations due insolvency. A week later, Speakeasy announced some good news for those rooting for brewery's rebirth when the brewery declared they were resuming operations under receivership. Earlier today, Speakeasy proudly tweeted out they were brewing up a batch of Big Daddy IPA.

I'm not a bankruptcy lawyer, but what I understand receivership to mean is that Speakeasy is allowed to continue to operate under the ownership of their creditor. That most likely is Union Bank, which funded an ambitious and apparently failed expansion to the tune of 7.5 million dollars in 2015. So while Speakeasy is back to brewing beer, their future is no longer in the hands of CEO and co-founder Forest Gray. Instead, it's largely up to whatever Union Bank thinks is the best way to recover due to them for their unpaid loan. So for the near term, Speakeasy will be running again as Union Bank allows the company to continue to brew again to help pay off their debts. 

But in the long term, I envision three likely scenarios, and two of them aren't going to make most Speakeasy fans happy.

1) Union Bank decides to shut down Speakeasy, and sells off all assets of Speakeasy (the brewing equipment, the tap room) to recover what they're owed on the loan. Speakeasy dies.

2) Union Bank decides to sell Speakeasy to a private investment group, mostly likely one that invests in breweries, wineries, and/or distilleries. This investment group takes over the brewery and gets it up and running again to get the best return on their investment.  Yay! Speakeasy lives!

3) Union Bank decides to sell Speakeasy to a large industrial brewery like Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, and some other large brewing concern eager to to pick up a strong Bay Area brand at a fire sale price. Speakeasy lives, but it becomes part of big, corporate industrial beer. I suspect for a lot of Speakeasy fans, becoming part of big beer is a decidedly unappealing outcome.

For those of you thinking "No way would Speakeasy ever sell out to Anheuser-Busch!", I'm afraid it's highly unlikely that Speakeasy has much say in the matter. Notice I started each possible scenario above with "Union Bank decides...". Assuming they are the major creditor, they effectively operate Speakeasy now and their priority is finding the best way to get the money Speakeasy owes them.

Whether someone like Anheuser-Busch would want to buy Speakeasy at this point is rather interesting to consider for brewing industry wonks like myself.  For what it's worth, Anheuser-Busch seems to have the West Coast covered pretty well with their acquisitions of Oregon's 10 Barrel, Seattle's Elysian, and Los Angeles's Golden Road. Do they think a Bay Area brewery will significantly improve their West Coast market share? In addition, Anheuser-Busch's parent company, ABInBev's recent acquisition attention seems to be overseas with recent brewery acquisitions in Europe. My guess is that Anheuser-Busch takes a pass on Speakeasy, a strong brand in Northern California, but comparatively unknown elsewhere. 

At any rate, I hope Speakeasy finds a way to survive and I continue to root for them.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Thoughts on the closure of Speakeasy Ales & Lagers

In a time when hundreds of new breweries open each year, long-time San Francisco brewery Speakeasy Ales and Lagers has abruptly announced its closure.

On their website and in social media, Speakeasy declared they were ceasing operations due to insolvency, stating "Difficulty securing capital investment and outstanding debt obligations led to this difficult and painful decision."  Speakeasy founder and CEO, Forest Gray, further elaborated, explaining "The brewery has worked with multiple investment banking groups and have had numerous meetings. One fact has become central to the process, and that is the company is financially insolvent and requires new capital to move forward. Whether that will happen is unclear, but I do hope the brewery and brand will persist."

Now back what seems eons ago, circa 2008, Speakeasy was one of about six breweries in San Francisco, and one of the most prominent members of the San Francisco Brewers Guild. Founded in 1997, six-packs and tap handles featuring Speakeasy's Roaring 20's Mafia-themed branding with its piercing eyes was pretty ubiquitous wherever beer was sold in the Bay Area.  Their beer, while not always excellent, was pretty solid, and Bay Area beer geeks have plenty of fond memories surrounding Speakeasy. I was a fan of their Prohibition Ale (a 2013 GABF medal winner) and their Payback Porter ranked as one of all time best porters I've ever had. Given all the changes in beer over the last decade, Speakeasy was a rock of a brewery in Northern California and its apparent passing is a real death in the Bay Area beer family.

It's unlikely Speakeasy's downfall was about the beer. As Jeff Alworth noted on his Beervana blog, Speakeasy embarked on an ambitious expansion in 2015, to increase their capacity five fold from 15,000 to 95,000 barrels a year, at an estimated cost of 7.5 million dollars. It's a pretty safe bet those plans didn't go well. And looking back, given such an increasingly crowded and competitive beer market, it's a little hard to figure out why Speakeasy thought they could simply march into new territories and unload tens of thousands of barrels of beer in already saturated craft beer markets full of strong breweries. More than one brewery has told me finding new markets is getting to be a real challenge.

Now virtually every brewery I've been in contact with in one form or another is investing in some level of expansion. Usually it's something like a new 7 or 10 barrel system, expansion plans into an adjoining county, or embarking on a modest packaging operation to expand their distribution footprint.  Whatever their plans entail, they might result in doubling annual beer sales in a year or two if successful. Speakeasy comparatively went "all in" on their expansion and appears to have paid the price.

Does the closure of Speakeasy signal an ominous trend in the industry? It's a bad idea to predict a trend on a single data point, so I won't do that. What I will say is this is what a market correction looks like. Multiple firms in the same industry all expand at the same time to capture a growing market which cannot grow fast enough to absorb all the excess inventory. Weaker or poorly positioned firms are unable to sell enough to pay off their loans, and go out of business. Only time will tell if Speakeasy is an outlier that just poorly executed their expansion or is the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Could an investor or another brewery come to Speakeasy's rescue?  Hard to tell, since we don't know what the problems actually are. Given that craft beer enjoys a pretty hot investment climate and they still couldn't do a deal behind closed doors, it's not looking good that Speakeasy is going to find a good suitor.  Especially now after they've told the world how desperate they are.

But enough about the beer industry crystal ball gazing. Speakeasy looks to be leaving us and I'm sad to see them go.

This may have been my last taste of
Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA