Monday, June 20, 2011

Beer of the Month: Immigration Red Ale by Knee Deep Brewing

The Beer of the Month of June is bestowed upon a beer from Knee Deep Brewing I discovered at the Santa Rosa Beer Festival this June 4th. Whenever finding an unfamiliar beer at a festival, I make a point of asking where it's brewed. After inquiring the festival volunteer pourer the bottle in front of him with the initials "IRA" in big colorful letters, he picked up the bottle, squinted at the label, and finally informed my wife and I, "It says Belmont, California." That was a surprise to us, since Belmont happens to be our home town on the San Francisco Peninsula.

As I suspected, the beer is contract brewed by Belmont's Devil's Canyon Brewery. Knee Deep collaborated earlier this year with Devil's Canyon and The Beer Wench to produce Ryedentity Crisis, a sensational Saison brewed with rye with great subtle berry flavors. It's one of those special beers that on the first sip, made me freeze, raise my eyebrows, and exclaim "Wow!" out loud. It could've easily been Beer of the Month a few months ago.

So I decided to give whatever was in the bottle labelled "IRA" from my home town a try, never mind the fact that the whole point of driving nearly two hours to Santa Rosa was to sample all the great beers brewed in Sonoma County. But then, just where is Knee Deep located anyway? Best I can tell, it's contract brewed at Devil's Canyon and possibly other locations given its scattered distribution along the West Coast, so there doesn't appear to be a definitive "there" for Knee Deep.

As for Knee Deep's beer, it turns out the initials "IRA" stand for Immigration Red Ale, the name Knee Deep has given their Irish Red Ale. It's a curious label choice, as "IRA" are also the initials of the notorious Irish paramilitary resistance group the Irish Republical Army that fought in an often violent enthno-religious-political conflict in Northern Ireland that started in the late 60's and lasted thirty years known as The Troubles. An Irish Ale with "IRA" on the label may seem like an act of defiance, but more likely is merely a sign of the forward march of civilization, as the largely pacified and disbanded paramilitary group is but a distant and increasingly forgotten legacy of more contentious times, with "IRA" signifying nothing more than a beer's name.

Oh yes, this is supposed to be a beer review, which means I'm supposed to tell you how it tastes. Tasting is always a bit of a challenge at a beer festival, where brewers often try to one up each other with hop monsters, barrel aged specials, and unique beer styles full of strong flavors and sampling just a few of these beers inevitably leads to palate fatigue. And yet the straightforward composition of roasty toasty and earthy flavors that somehow blended seamlessly into a very smooth drinking beer distinguished it from a very distinguished group of beers at the Santa Rosa Beer Festival. But this time I didn't freeze and say "Wow!". It was more like a pause, and then I exclaimed to my wife "Mmmmmm", which is still good enough to earn Beer of the Month status.

Knee Deep Brewmaster Jeremy Warren is a pretty young guy, having graduated from University of Nevada-Reno in 2006, but he's already won a bunch of awards and can demonstrably brew some excellent beer. If he ever decides to settle down and establish a brewery somewhere, I hope he builds it in Belmont, California.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Is Greed Environmentally Good and Other Questions from "Yes We Can!"

The history and business stories of canned beer discovered while writing Yes We Can! pretty fascinating, and raise a number of interesting questions. Here are few that came to my mind as I wrote it.

Can greed be environmentally good?
I couldn't help notice that every brewery I talked with distributed their beer into cans primarily as a business decision to expand their markets. Reducing their environmental impact was a secondary motivation. I believe each brewery's management genuinely cared about the environmental consequences of their operations, and certainly many of these business are quite "green" but at the end of the day, the old business objectives of increasing revenue and cutting costs drove the decisions. Maybe if environmental awareness becomes part of a business's DNA, good business decisions are by extension, good environmental decisions.

Is "The Innovator's Dilemma" alive and well in canned craft beer?
I absolutely love the story of Cask Brewing Systems stumbling into a successful business by developing a small, manual canning system that was originally designed to serve an extremely limited market. Today, they can't build their canning equipment fast enough for all the small breweries looking to get into canned beer. These simple, cheap canning systems that seemingly had no market, yet became a lucrative business recalls the idea of "disruptive technologies" as described by Harvard business Professor Clayton Christensen in his ground breaking book, The Innovator's Dilemma. Christensen noted that many disruptive business technologies take root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors. Craft beer itself can be considered a "disruptive technology" an idea I outlined in an earlier post, and this certainly sounds a lot like what is going on with Cask Brewing Systems.

Cask Brewing's small manual canning systems would seem to have a very limited market 10 years ago that no larger manufacturer of brewing equipment would likely have any interest in. But now, their small scale approach seems well positioned to grow in a North American brewing industry where most of the growth is in small craft breweries which looks at bottled beer increasingly less favorably. Perhaps the fact that Sierra Nevada will be using a European competitor that manufactures smaller scale canning systems in European breweries suggests a certain limitations to Cask Brewing System's growth.

Did Dale Katechis bet his company putting beer into cans?
I unfortunately never got to speak with Dale Katechis for this article, and my questions were referred to his marketing person instead. I really want to know what drove his seemingly risky decision in 2002 to put Oskar Blues Pale Ale in a can. Given the highly negative perceptions of canned beer at the time coupled with what had to be a serious investment of time and money for a brewpub to install the first automated small scale canning line, it certainly seems like a "bet the company" move. The was actually no guarantee that Cask Brewing Systems could pull off an automation line in the first place, since they had no prior experience with volume manufacturing equipment. Of course, it's quite possible Katechis simply predicted the future a lot better than everyone else, but its hard not to conclude it was a big gamble. There seems to be a lot more to the story than just the "Dale likes to go against the grain" statements plastered all over the Oskar Blues website that his marketing guy answered repeatedly to virtually every question asked. Maybe someday we'll find out something more.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Yes We Can! My Canned Beer Article Written for Adventure Sports Journal Hits the Street

When I started writing an article on canned craft beer for Adventure Sports Journal, I figured it would turn out to be another one of those, "it's good for the beer, it's good for the Earth, lot of brewers are doing it, yadad-yada-yada" kind of stories. But it turned out to be more of a business innovation story that took a few surprising twists and turns.

I really have to thank editor Pete Gauvin for going to bat for the story, and making sure it would run in the June/July issue, as evidently there was some talk about waiting until the August/September issue to run the story. Pete also added a few facts and flourishes to the text, and re-wrote my rather horrendous ending to the article. Pete modestly claimed he was only patching a few holes in the walls of the house I built, but he did a lot more than that, and I asked him to give himself co-author credit. I'm rather proud of what we accomplished, which you can find online here.

The story raises a few interesting questions, which I'll discuss in a few days in an upcoming post.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Session #52: What Does the Stuff Lurking in our Closets Say About Us?

For this Session, Brian Stechschulte of All Over Beer has asked us to write about our beer collectables. I danced around the question.

I find this months Session on beer collections putting me in a surprisingly self-reflective mood. Perhaps considering how little we can carry with us travelling through this world, our collections of non-essential items represent the things we cherish and value, the things we don't want to leave behind. Some proudly display their collections in a prominent place for the world to see, but most often these collections spend most of the time in a dark closet, possibly for reasons of storage convenience, but more likely to hide a certain obsession or fetish from others we only want to reveal to a trusted select few.

So what do I have collecting in my closet? Running T-shirts heaped in a big pile. Most are from races I've run over the past 5-10 years. There's the few odd ones, like my bright red Jolt Cola T-shirt I've kept from my college days back in the 80's. Whenever it was time for a big workout or long run at a key point in my training, I'd put on my Jolt Cola t-shirt to give the workout a needed "Jolt". I scammed this shirt from the Jolt Cola company by sending them a letter, saying my first name was "Joe", telling them my friends called me Jolting Joe because I drank so much Jolt Cola and suggesting it would be in Jolt Cola's best interest if they would send me a T-shirt and get a little free publicity. A week later, a package came back in the mail with the Jolt Cola t-shirt with a letter from a nice marketing lady telling me she loved my story. If it were only true.

My name isn't Joe, and my only claim to fame with Jolt Cola was creating a mixed drink called a "Gin and Jolt" which consisted of one can of Jolt Cola with a nearly equal quantity of Gin. I became a bit of a legend in my dorm, or at least I thought I was, by guzzling this stuff on Saturday nights with a bunch of other guys on my floor who didn't have much going on that night either. Gin and Jolt was every bit as mind-bending and nauseating as it sounds, a precursor to the currently notorious Four Loko, except it tasted a lot better. The Jolt Cola T-shirt is a product of a brief, happy time where I both ran and drank pretty hard.

Another notable shirt in my collection is my 1992 USA Olympic Trails Marathon T-shirt. The Olympic Trials Marathon involves over a hundred really fast American marathoners who've run a certain marathon time to compete for the honor of representing the United States in the Olympics. In 1992, this race was held in Columbus, Ohio where I was going to graduate school and on that day I rode after the runners on my bike as they raced all over the city. I was so pumped up from the experience I decided right then and there to make a four year commitment to qualify for the 1996 Olympic Trials Marathon, never minding that I hadn't even run a marathon yet. Understanding I had zero chance of making it all the way to the Olympics, I just wanted to be in the big race and technically have a shot at being an Olympian. Two years later with three marathons run in times nowhere close to the Olympic Trials qualifying standard, reality started setting in about my Olympic Dreams, and I reluctantly gave them up. I did plenty of runs in that t-shirt, and those big Olympic dreams carrying me to more modest running accomplishments. This stretched out, faded and worn t-shirt is as shot as my Olympic chances were, but it still reminds me of certain audacity and innocence of that time.

The rest of the T-shirts in that big pile are from various races, big and small that I've ran over the years. Each one represents a running milestone, a small story. Some represent a major running effort and focus for a big race, others just a early season fitness test, and still others just some fun Sunday morning spent running around some neighborhood as part of a local fund raiser, one of those small races that have a neighborhood intimacy that large races like the Boston Marathon or Bay to Breakers cannot capture.

But this Session is about beer collectibles, not running collectibles, and as you might have guessed from my lengthy avoidance of the actual Session topic is that I have no beer collectibles to speak of. Just a couple glasses from beer festivals, 3-4 beer T-shirts that were gifts, and I had a stack of beer coasters from different bars and brewpubs stashed in a kitchen drawer but I think I must have recycled them, since I can't find them anymore. I suppose I could trot out of few of these random beer trinkets as my "beer memorabilia collection", but that just didn't seem all that interesting.

Maybe it's because these race t-shirts represents a small running story, often associated with a lot of hard work and effort while a beer trinket represents, well, drinking a beer, which in most cases, doesn't require much work.

OK, I admit my choice of collectibles seems a bit odd. Most of us want to remember all the good times, even if those times involved nothing more than drinking a beer, and most recall their running experiences about as fondly as a trip to the dentist. Looking back at what I've collected, the good times were those when I experienced extreme fatigue, felt like puking, and ended up smelling really nasty. But come to think of it, a couple of beer festivals also turned out to be like that.

Now I don't want to veer too deeply off into self-psychoanalysis, especially since I paid a pretty good therapist a lot of money for that a few years ago during a particular tough time in my life, and I'd rather not go back there. But I recognize my peculiar personality and when I look at the things I've collected over time, it's more than a little bit like looking in the mirror.

So I ask for this Session, take a good look at your collections, beer related or otherwise. Is that you?