Op-ed about craft beer quality and consistency

Beer quality vs consistencyIn John Holl‘s op-ed (non-anon I might add; so brave!), he lays out an argument that “craft” isn’t synonymous with good. Obvi. But–and I say this with love and admiration for John Holl* as well as others fly this flag–he seems to conflate “consistency” with “quality.”
“At Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis brewery, trained professionals sample the Budweiser brewed at each of the company’s 12 U.S. locations, making sure that the liquid tastes exactly the same. Customers shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the Bud brewed in Newark, N.J., versus the one in Fort Collins, Colo., or Fairfield, Calif.”
He continues:
“…we shouldn’t diminish the skill that goes into making tens of millions of barrels of the same beer each year, at multiple locations, each and every one without defect.”
OK, so here are my two main issues. Chiefly, I absolutely do not care if a beer is consistent in its flavor profile. What I mean by this is: I don’t need a beer to taste consistent because beers like Bud/Bud Light, Coors Banquet/Coors Light, or Heinie/Heinie Light are definitely identical, yet (IMHO) vapid. What I do need is for said beer to be consistently good!

 

Take Orval. This brewery, perhaps as the antithesis of these local guys across the US that pump out dozens of different beers a year and some are never to be replicated, defines the concept of craftsmanship. They make one thing and make it well. But sometimes the lemongrass profile rides higher than the sourdough. Sometimes I get more nectarine than white peach. But whoa-nelly, it’s always glorious. I do not believe I’ve ever enjoyed the same Orval twice and that’s even before considering splendidly cellared bottles. The hops that go into it are allowed to reflect seasonality of the crop. The yeast cells, like the beer, are alive! Granted, there are no fungible American craft breweries that fit this model or approach, but I can give concrete examples of beers from tiny players that bear the same brand name on the label though the liquid always varies (yet is always very good. Off the top of my head: Ale Apothecary Sahalie, Third Window Walkabout, New Belgium La Folie, Double Mountain Devil’s Cuvee Kriek, Craftsman Triple White Sage, Scratch Tonic, and, even among larger-produced beers, say, one you’d find in canned six-packs, Ft. George Vortex IPA seems to change with the weather but I’ve never had one less than deliciously stellar.

When a beer is made this way and allowed to be presented with unique character, it’s like seeing the Foo Fighters or Springsteen or Florence + The Machine. You never want your favorite band to put on a shitty show, but you also don’t want the setlist to sound exactly like the last time you saw them. Drinking Bud is like seeing Nickleback, but worse, because it’s seeing Nickleback lipsynching to a homogenous, immutable pre-recording.
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Please don’t ding me for infringement. Just illustrating a point on a blog.

Oh, and by the way, the last time I had a Coors Light (which wasn’t that long ago), I thought the bartender accidentally pulled a pint from the apple juice tap instead of the beer tap, and this was in Colorado. It was the result of acetaldehyde, which most likely meant the lager was rushed to market (because beer in lagering tanks means beer not being sold). So all that fancy, expensive lab equipment in Golden, Colo. (and Milwaukie and St. Louis, etc) is great for keeping the liquid widgets uniform in much the same way Hostess makes Twinkies uniform but that didn’t keep Hostess from running into trouble a few years back. This is the very nature of the problem of Big Beer: they view beer not as a canvas but as a commodity. I’m not saying all craft beer is art, but I am saying all macro beer is artless.

 

Please do not take this is a knock against John Holl (*or even John Hall. I mention this because my favorite comment posted on Holl’s op-ed reads, “he has drank a lot of beer, he is a professional! Didn’t you google him? He founded Goose Island Brewery in 1988 eventually selling it to AB InBev in 2011.” If only the commenter/Googler deduced his homonymous error). Nor is this intended to be an attack of the mega beer factories. If people enjoy the taste of those beers, that’s their prerogative. It’s also cheaper and I’m a bit cantankerous about the price creep we’re seeing in much of the craft beer segment. I certainly agree that there are some quality issues in the small-craft sector and that they can be damaging to the larger craft industry. But inconsistency in and of itself should not be viewed as a flaw like diacetyl or oxidation.

Brewery Buyouts Follow Me to Santa Barbara: Epic Bought Telegraph

I remember when AB-InBev bought Goose Island, but that wasn’t terribly shocking since Goose was already part of the Craft Brew Alliance family, which itself was minority-owned by ABI. I remember when the house of Budweiser bought 10 Barrel out of tiny Bend, Oregon and THAT felt like a big deal. I was surprised that such a behemoth in the beer world was interested in an upstart crafty company in a remote pocket of Oregon. As the wheel keeps turning, we’ve seen major acquisitions (Lagunitas, Ballast Point) and some less earth-shattering ones (like when Heineken-owned Lagunitas bought minuscule but mighty Moonlight Brewing or Green Flash bought infinitesimal but incredible Alpine Brewing). So it is with today’s breaking news that Utah’s Epic Brewing, which already has a satellite brewing in Denver’s booming River North District, has agreed to purchase Telegraph Brewing based right here in Santa Barbara.

When I went to school here at UCSB in the mid-nineties, Santa Barbara Brew Co. opened during my senior year. The Brewhouse was a couple years from opening when I graduated. Heck, even Firestone Walker, which in 2015 was folded into the Belgian-owned Duvel-Moortgat, hadn’t started slinging its pale ales (to say nothing of its 805 blonde ale juggernaut). In other words, the last time I lived in this tropical oasis, it was a beer desert. As the Prodigal Gaucho returns, I have found a quaint little brewing scene (keep in mind I moved here via Portland a.k.a. Beervana). SB is home to six breweries (Telegraph, founded in 2006, being the third oldest and arguably the best). North a bit in Goleta there are four good breweries. Down in fire-ravaged Ventura there’s a mini boom going on where the eighth, Leashless, just opened. This reminds me, I hope the unfortunately-named Smoke Mountain Brewery is okay!

Having said that, it’s not exactly like California’s Central Coast is even a burgeoning beer Mecca. The Golden State’s already got San Diego and the Bay Area. Russian River put Sonoma County on the map while even late-to-the-table Los Angeles is now charging ahead as a boomtown. Heck, even East Coast centric BeerAdvocate is hosting its first Extreme Beer Fest-LA this weekend (that I hope to attend but those aforementioned wildfires will likely keep me from being able to make it). So one of the things I’ll be diving into in upcoming coverage is how, exactly, Utah’s four-time GABF winning brewery that produces 27,000 barrels a year singled out Santa Barbara’s six-time GABF winning tiny brewery. From a recent phone conversation with founder Brian Thompson—who I first met when I ambled unannounced into his fledgling brewery in 2006—I gathered he was feeling the heat of today’s beer industry logistics. But when faced with a rumor that his was the brewery listed on an industry board as being for sale, he shot down that notion! Perhaps hearing his name in the rumors got his own wheels turning. Stay tuned for more. And if you’ve never tried any Telegraph Beer, go out and buy some and see what Epic is already hip to.

Here’s the release sent out today:

 Epic Brewing Completes Purchase of Santa Barbara’s Telegraph Brewing Co.

Salt Lake City, UT— On December 6 th Epic Brewing purchased Telegraph Brewing Company, Santa Barbara’s first and original craft brewery, and has announced investment plans to expand Telegraph and broaden the brewery’s reach as an additional brand in the Epic family.

Telegraph Brewing has been operating in Santa Barbara since 2006 when Founder Brian Thompson opened his dream brewery, focused on high-quality, Belgian-inspired, uniquely-Californian beers produced with local ingredients.

“So much has changed in the craft beer world since I started Telegraph, back when hazy beers were just called unfiltered and there were fewer than 1,500 brewers nationwide,” Thompson said. “Today, with the number of breweries approaching 6,000, the craft brewing landscape is radically different. We are extremely proud of what we have accomplished, but the increased competition from the likes of AB-INBEV’s “crafty beers” as well as new startups is requiring everyone in the industry to recalibrate their plans for the future. Earlier this year I began looking for ways to strengthen our legacy, and entering into a transaction with Epic was the right fit, both strategically and culturally. This partnership will allow us to nurture our deep California roots, retain and expand our amazing staff, and continue to develop our brand in new and innovative ways. My team and I are excited that Telegraph Brewing will remain a small, independent craft brewery and at the same time have the support and drive provided by one of the nation’s most creative, fearless, and fastest-growing brewery.”

With Epic’s investment, Telegraph will not only continue brewing its well-respected beer, but will begin expanding its brewing operations. There are immediate plans to increase the production capacity and offer new packaging options, including several new 12-ounce cans under the Telegraph brand. Epic will also move seven of their foeders—large wooden vessels for aging sour beer—from their Denver brewery to Santa Barbara, enabling Telegraph to produce more of its award-winning sour beers. California locals can also look forward to a new series of modern IPAs including some juicy and hazy styles, which will be sold fresh from Telegraph’s brewery.

“It’s a long-term dream come true” says Dave Cole, Co-founder of Epic Brewing. “I fell in love with craft beer living in California and that love didn’t diminish when I moved to Utah despite the beer scene at the time. I feel like I’ve come full circle. We have been actively looking for great breweries to purchase for the past 18 months and bringing Telegraph Brewing into the Epic family is exciting. We are investing in the future of Santa Barbara and are thrilled to have a direct and local connection to the amazing California craft beer community, where we share so much history. To be part of such a well-regarded brewery like Telegraph is something I’ve always hoped to do and now it’s finally a reality. It provides us an avenue to combine our teams and build on Telegraph’s portfolio with our innovative vision. This couldn’t be a better fit – including some advantageous distribution overlaps that create opportunities to expand both brands across California and beyond.”

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Epic Brewing Company, LLC was opened in May of 2010 in Salt Lake City and expanded to Colorado in 2013. Epic is 100% independent and family owned and is known for its innovation of style and wood aged beers, currently producing over 27,000 Barrels a year. Epic is distributed in the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Jersey, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia & Washington D.C., Washington, Wisconsin, & Wyoming.

Telegraph Brewing, Santa Barbara’s original craft brewery, sold its first kegs in 2006 and specializes in brewing uniquely American and Belgian-inspired beers. Telegraph uses 100% domestic ingredients and as many local ingredients as possible, capturing in each sip the unique culinary and agricultural traditions of Santa Barbara and California’s Central Coast. Since 2011, Telegraph has won six Great American Beer Festival medals and two World Beer Cup awards.

Too Much Beer!

Photo: Shannon Monson, c/o Girl & the Goat

In this op-ed for FSR (Full Service Restaurant), I tackle the topic of overly long draft lists.  From 31 flavors of ice cream to–more to my point–99 bottles of beer on the wall, consumers want what they want—so, why would any bar manager or restaurateur limit their patrons’ options? And yet, not to throw the good folks at places such as the Yard House under the bus, but the Irvine, California–originated chain with some 60 locations offers between 130 and 250 beers on its tap lists. Typically, no fewer than 30 of them are IPAs. And while bright, fruity West Coast IPAs are miles apart from chewy, richer imperial IPAs, I think the customer becomes bombarded by options and stands a good chance of not being able to zero in on the beer that best suits the meal. Put in idiomatic terms: Sometimes less is more.

How Firestone Walker Learned to Stop Over-serving and Ban the Bomber

bravo_12ozbottle_boxKudos to Firestone Walker Brewing! I just received a release (pasted at bottom) announcing, yes, the return of Bravo Imperial Brown Ale, but more importantly, the announcement about their decision to abandon the bomber and embrace smaller packaging. Publicist Sean Christopher Weir calls this, “The upside of downsizing.”

Brewmaster Matt Brynildson said, “It’s something that a lot of people have been clamoring for, and we decided to finally pull the trigger.” The primary benefit of such a move, the release added, is “the ability to enjoy a high-gravity, barrel-aged beer without committing to consuming a full 22-ounce bottle.” In conclusion and in Brynildson’s words, “The per-bottle price point becomes more palatable, and we can spread the same amount of beer farther so that more people can try it. It also makes it easier to drink one now and age another for later.”

This is EXACTLY what I first preached in the print pages and the webpages of All About Beer (beginning here. here,, and here in June, 2011 and with In Support of Small, AAB Vol. 32, Iss. 2 from May, 2012). Nips (or pony bottles) are a subject also covered by Punch Magazine’s Megan Krigbaum last August and veteran beer scribe Lew Bryson online at The Full Pint just a couple weeks ago. They’re even one of my silly Twitter handles: @WeLoveNips.

Now, Firestone’s move sees the company abandoning 22-ounce bottles for regular 12-ounce bottles, akin to downsizing from 750s to “splits” (375-ml). As the release notes, “A 12-ounce bottle is perfect for two reasonable servings.” While I’d personally love to see this movement lead to the full mini-monty—meaning traditional third-liter nips or between 166 and 250 ml—even the move into 355-ml like a twelve is a victory. It will result not only in more people actually being able to afford beers like Bravo and their stellar anniversary beers, but more people actually drinking them since we no longer will have to wait for just the right moment when just the right people are over to crack and enjoy it. After all, you are the right person and this move makes it feasible to enjoy with the best person you know: yourself.

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Paso Robles, CA: For the first time since its brewing inception more than a dozen years ago, Firestone Walker’s “Bravo” imperial brown ale is finally finding its way into the bottle, with a limited release set for early February across all Firestone Walker markets.

Along the way, Bravo ($9.99) launches the transition of all Firestone Walker Vintage Reserve barrel-aged beers from 22-ounce bombers to individually boxed 12-ounce bottles in 2017, to include longtime stalwarts such as Parabola and the annual Anniversary Ale.

Bravo: Back to The Future

Bravo was the first beer matured in retired spirits barrels by Brewmaster Matt Brynildson in late 2004, during the experimental stages of what would become Firestone Walker’s inaugural Anniversary Ale.

From day one, Bravo has epitomized Firestone Walker’s approach to barrel-aged beers. “At the time, most barrel-aged beers veered toward the sweeter side,” Brynildson said. “We wanted to make something more dry and lean that would really allow the true bourbon barrel character to pop.”

Bravo has remained one of the driest beers in Firestone Walker’s Vintage Reserve series of barrel-aged beers, and since day one has been considered a vital component in the annual blending of the Anniversary Ale, balancing out some of the stickier components.

“Coming out of stainless steel, Bravo is pretty bracing,” Brynildson said. “But when it goes into the barrel, it really mellows out, and the barrel character comes to the forefront.”

Another signature of Bravo is a lively malt quality that is maintained through Firestone Walker’s cold-storage of its barrel-aged beers. “It has this malt character that is surprisingly fresh,” he said. “There’s a ton of barrel character, and a lot of toffee and caramel. It has the flavor of things sweet, but without being cloying or oxidative.”

The Upside of Downsizing

Henceforth, all beers from Firestone Walker’s Vintage Reserve line of barrel aged beers will be bottled in the 12-ounce format, although total production of each beer remains the same.

“We’ve been thinking about doing this for a while now,” Brynildson said. “It’s something that a lot of people have been clamoring for, and we decided to finally pull the trigger.”

Brynildson noted that the primary benefit is the ability to enjoy a high-gravity, barrel-aged beer without committing to consuming a full 22-ounce bottle.

“With beers like this, a 12-ounce bottle is perfect for two reasonable servings,” he said.

He added, “The per-bottle price point becomes more palatable, and we can spread the same amount of beer farther so that more people can try it. It also makes it easier to drink one now and age another for later. It’s just a lot more flexible.”

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Draft: Craft Lightens Up

Funny where inspiration will hit. For me, it was at a G. Love concert at a music venue that serves beer from such dirty tap lines I’d vowed never to drink there again. Until I made a valuable discovery. Actually, it was a $2 discovery.

For an industry defined by its antithesis to cheap, macro light lagers, does its growth hinge on emulating that model?

Lush Life: Tiny Wolf and Portland’s Nanos

I’m forever deliberating over the impact nanobreweries can or do have on a city’s beer culture. For every Commons (nee Beetje) brewery in Portland or Hess in San Diego, there are seemingly a dozen more that think they can emulate that level of success. To find out what these nanobrewers want to get out of the brewing industry, and what they think can have to contribute, I went straight to the teensy-tiny sources in my August turn at the Mercury’s Lush Life column.

The Session #107: Are Breweries Your Friends?

sessionAs a precursor, to put this briefly, I’ve been a bad beer blogger. And when it comes to The Session, if I were Catholic, I’d type something like “Forgive me Father, it’s been 30 Sessions since my last participation.” (Click here if you care to see old contributions from my initial blog, Red, White, & Brew) My New Year’s resolution is to be better.

For the 107th ed. of The Session, Dan Conley of Community Beer Works in Buffalo NY asks, a bit self-servingly (wink-wink foreshadowing), “Are breweries your friends?

I say self-servingly because his blog is his brewery’s blog. And it worked. I really wanna try Community Beer Works beer now. And drink their beer and be a part of their community at least for the day. The topic, and hosting this Session, makes them seem, well, friendly. Conley expounds:

“To be in business nowadays you pretty much have to have a social media presence. This is especially true in the beer world, where some breweries have basically built themselves on their personality. And yet, at the end of the day, we’re selling you something.”

Conley continues, “Do you want your feeds clear of businesses, or do you like when a brewery engages with people? …As the person who does our social media…I struggle with this problem.”

My answer is: No.

Breweries are not our friends. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself and should say breweries are not my friends. But unlike Mitt Romney who famously said, “Corporations are people, my friend” (thanks in part to Citizens United), brewing companies are companies and therefore incapable of playing air hockey with me, taking me to a Portland Timbers game (except I suppose their sponsor Widmer Brothers Brewing could), or giving me a card that makes fun of my age for my next birthday. These are things friends do. Friends buy me beer. Breweries make the beer. And even then, what we love about craft beer is that brewers make the beer and, in the best of cases, we know their names and faces. And if you’re lucky, you’re friends with your local brewer(s).

Friendship is a relationship. Indeed, we have a relationship with the breweries that make the beer we choose to drink. And no doubt we have emotions surrounding breweries. In the case of local ones that we support, that emotion may be love. We are passionate about their beer. Given that most of us will never even have a beer from thousands of the 4,300 breweries that exist in the US alone, the emotion we feel for them may be indifference or lack of emotion. And in a few cases where folks feel they’ve been betrayed when a brewery sells out to ABI, a darker emotion courses through their bloodstream. Think about this: would a friend ever sell himself to the house of Bud and leave you high and dry (not that any of us would give up drinking beer altogether, mind you).

Heck, to Conley’s point, we “like” breweries on Facebook, and we delight when we see shiny new fermenters delivered just as we dote over actual friends’ newly delivered bouncing babies. But ultimately, no, breweries are not our friends. They are places we go with our friends. They are places that provide us beer to enjoy as part of our friend rituals. And to succeed, they need to have friendly service. But in the case of social media, I think it’s weird when they have actual personal profiles instead of business pages. I am on the fence about when I see a local brewery’s FB page “like” my pictures. But I’m still happy to tag them by checking in when I’m drinking at them with my friends.