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.

Elysian Sells to AB-InBev: Success without Succession

By now every beer blogger, tweeter, consumer, and curmudgeon has volleyed barbs at Seattle-based Elysian Brewing, founded in 1995, via every channel of social media to voice their dissatisfaction with today’s announcement that the Emerald City’s biggest little brewery has sold out, in toto, to Big Bad Bud (NYSE:BUD). By tomorrow we should all shut up about this and continue doing whatever it is we do to further the cause of good brewing either by making great beer, serving it, covering it, or the way that matters most, buying and enjoying it.

This image is blowing up the int-beer-net: Elysian's collab beer with indie label Sub Pop). Ouch.

This image is blowing up the int-beer-net: Elysian’s collab beer with indie label Sub Pop). Ouch.

The bottom line is that the three co-founders, Joe Bisacca, Dick Cantwell and David Buhler, collectively decided to sell their baby to the largest brewing conglomerate on the planet. Terms were not disclosed but it’s safe to assume none of them ever has to work another day in his life yet all of them, at least for now, will continue to work at the company they once owned for twenty years. God bless them. Starting a brewery is hard work. Running one for that long is much, much harder. They deserve to reap their financial rewards. But here is what inspired this whole blog post: they collectively decided to sell their baby and I highly doubt selling to AB-InBev was ever something they’d considered two decades ago or probably even two years ago.

Did they consider its future at all? Did they ever develop a succession plan? All breweries are founded by mortal men and a few mortal women. People perish, but what happens to the breweries–that some people cherish as if they’re living entities–don’t have to die with them.

My next point is one I sincerely wish I didn’t have to bring up or even think about, but in 2012, Dick Cantwell’s son, Nap tragically died from a bike accident suffered while leaving the Elysian brewery he worked at on Capital Hill. As a father, I can’t think of a single worse tragedy than losing your young kid. I can only suspect that Dick, known for espousing independence in all forms, aspired to pass his share of his brewery onto him. (Since this is all conjecture, I don’t know what the cards held for Dick’s daughter Lucy but I know she’s the executive director at the New Belgium Family Foundation. Elysian and New Belgium share more than just their Trip Series of collaboration beers.) Nap’s passing perhaps altered his vision for the company’s future and even if that had nothing to do with this transaction, at the very least it shows that people face much bigger issues and dilemmas in life than crying about the sale of one of your favorite breweries (none of us has one single favorite).

So as the entrepreneurial men and women who’ve created this small but mighty segment of the brewing industry start reaching retirement age or face challenges that impede their ability to further helm the breweries they established, what should they do? Should they simply fold ’em? Should they bequeath them to offspring or employees who possibly aren’t equipped to manage them? (Point of interest: the attrition rate of family businesses shows that 30% successfully become Gen. 2 companies and only 12% make it to third generation, which I wrote about in this 2010 All About Beer story) Or should they cash in their chips? And if so, how much does it matter whether the buyer is a fellow craft beer stalwart, some faceless VC firm, or the evil-doers at the behemoth brewing brands?

I’ve never been nor will I ever be in that position–much like 99.9+% of you–so I don’t know if I’d rather take pride or mounds of cash to the bank. What I do know is this: In my first book, Red, White, & Brew, each chapter focused on a different brewery but it’s really a beer book that’s not about beer, it’s about the people. And one question I asked all of the subjects was about plans for the brewery’s future. Here’s a quick run-down because even when I started working on it in 2005, I didn’t realize how relatively quickly this issue would come to the fore. In order:

1. Yuengling (Pottsville, PA). The full name is D.G. Yuengling & Son, Inc. and for five straight generations beginning with David Yuengling in 1829, a son has always succeeded as the head of the company. Current jefe Dick Yuengling has no sons but all four daughters work there and represent the sixth generation of ownership. They will not change the name.

2. Geary’s (Portland, ME). David Geary and his then-wife started the brewery in 1986. Their daughter Kelly works at the brewery and hopefully still represents its future ownership. Their son Matt currently works in the beer industry for Pilsner Urquell. Considering their longevity, there are far worse places he could be learning the ropes.

3. Bell’s (Kalamazoo, MI). Larry Bell launched his brewery in 1985, making it one of the most veteran companies in the game. Today it’s the 7th largest craft brewing concern; 13th largest overall. His daughter is currently the VP!

4. Leinenkugel (Chippewa Falls, WI). I got some guff for including them in my book but at no time did I state it was about the craft brewing industry or exclusively craft brewers. Leinies had been an independent brewery in the Northwoods of Wisconsin for 121 years from 1867 to 1988. Today it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of MillerCoors. For what it’s worth, Jake Leinenkugel and his sons, the great-great-great-great-grandsons of Jacob Leinenkugel, still have jobs at the company.

5. Free State (Lawrence, KS). Chuck Magerl opened this brewpub in 1989 and fairly recently launched a production brewery. He told me during the interview that he envisioned going the employee-owned route as the succession plan.

6. New Belgium (Ft. Collins, CO) Co-founded in 1991 by Kim Jordan, she remained the majority owner until the tail end of 2012 when the brewery became 100% employee owned through an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). It’s one of the very few breweries I’ve ever dreamt of working for. Fort Collins is a rad place to live and work.

7. Grand Teton (Victor, ID) Formed as the Otto Bros. Brewery in 1988, one of the Otto brothers died and the other, Charlie, sold it to the current owners–a husband and wife–in 2009. Well worth a road trip to visit no matter where your road starts.

8. Widmer Bros. (Portland, OR). Around here this story is already legend. Kurt and Rob Widmer started a tiny little brewery in 1984 helping to kickstart our whole Beervana thing. Neither has kids. They sold a minority interest to Anheuser Busch–more than the arbitrary 25% that the Brewers Association defines as sufficient to remain independent and “craft”–and now the parent corporation, Craft Brew Alliance, owns breweries from New England to Hawaii.

9. Anchor (San Francisco, CA) The makers of Anchor Steam Beer led the charge for craft brewing in 1965 when Fritz Maytag (yes, that Maytag) bought the funny little brewery that had existed, barely, since 1906. America wouldn’t see its first post-prohibition brewery open for another eleven years. Like a lot of people, I suspected his nephew who ran much of the operation would take over but in 2010 Fritz sold it to the Griffin Group (Sky Vodka). They don’t run it exactly how Fritz did, but it remains an integral player in the industry IMO.

10. Electric (Bisbee, AZ). I think the chapter on “Electric” Dave is everyone’s favorite in the book  Arizona’s still a literal and figurative beer desert, but bless ol’ Electric Dave, he tried to change that back in 1988. He actually did sell the company to a couple guys who seemed like Jimmy Buffett “parrotheads” back around 2010 who couldn’t keep it afloat. Russian River‘s Vinnie Cilurzo can also tell you some stories about this guy!

11. Spoetzl (Shiner, TX). Not many breweries ever make it to their 100th anniversary but this one did. Granted, by that time it was owned by the Gambrinus Co. based not in the tiny town of Shiner but over in San Antonio. FYI, it’s the same company that owns “Oregon’s oldest craft brewery,” Bridgeport.

12. Dixie (New Orleans, LA). This one’s just sad all around. Another heritage brand that may not have been terribly relevant in today’s beer culture, but their Blackened Voodoo black lager was my A-HA beer back in the ’90s and the latest (and technically still current) owners lost it to a bunch of down-south, back-room bureaucracy and hypocrisy after the building was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and subsequent looters. Any bottles of Dixie you see on shelves anywhere are brewed up in Wisconsin or Minnesota or something.

13. Alltech’s Lexington (Lexington, KY). This was really just a side business when I was there but I wanted to an excuse to visit Kentucky and drink bourbon and their excellent bourbon-barrel ale gave me that. Now it’s one of the biggest brands in Ireland. Read the chapter.

14. Dogfish Head (Milton, DE). Huh, whatever did happen to this guy? If you hear about ‘im lemme know. (But seriously, Sam does have two young kids and I’d love it if they run the brewery and accompanying Annual Intergalactic Bocce Tournament.)

So cry in your beer today for the “loss” of Elysian. But at least we know they won’t be the next to close and that someone’s looking out for it in the long term to get their investment’s worth. I think it’s safe to predict we’ll start seeing “shocking” news like this breaking on the order of once a month for the next few years. Who’s next? And when it’s not them, let’s not pretend we’re stunned when we find out who it is.

The Session 93: Why Travel

3664495894_75dbf1b0bf_mOhboy has it been awhile since I’ve partaken in The Session (July, 2013 #73 to be specific), but I have a new blog and a new take on beer travel, both as a result of just having lived in Europe for a year as well as having a beer travel guidebook coming out in 3 weeks. Fittingly for this edition of the monthly beer blogging Session, Maria and Brian Devine over at the Roaming Pint ask:

Why is it important for us to visit the place where our beers are made? Why does drinking from source always seem like a better and more valuable experience? Is it simply a matter of getting the beer at it’s freshest or is it more akin to pilgrimage to pay respect and understand the circumstances of the beer better?

Why go out of your way to visit breweries when, if you’re me, there’s a growler filling station in the supermarket directly across the street next to a beer aisle that’s roughly 30 yards long? Because drinking beer is not a solo sport. It’s also not the type of sport I prefer to armchair quarterback. Like John Fogerty, I wanna exclaim, “Put me in, Coach.” I think, collectively, we like visiting breweries because we all want to be where the action is in center field.

As a beer lover, there’s nothing more sacred than supporting your local brewery, except, perhaps, going on a beer trip to explore and support someone else’s local brewing establishment. It connects you to that place in a way visiting some other “must see”s don’t. Meet me in St. Louis? That arch thing is pretty cool, that’s like lemmings jumping off a cliff; you only go because everyone else does. Touring the Budweiser factory is certainly a worthy expenditure of time but, allow me to make this crack, getting to sample Bud afterward is hardly a reward. No, instead go to the Schlafly Tap Room or, better yet, the Urban Chestnut taproom. You’ll get much more than a pint of Hopfen IPA, you’ll get a taste of what the locals are like (at least the ones who don’t work for AB-I). On the flip side, I recently (finally) made it to Brussels and to its most famous brewery among the geek set, Cantillon. You don’t really meet locals sipping Gueuze at the bar but knowing that you’re among the billions of critters adrift in the air you’re breathing that are responsible for making that world-class spontaneously fermented ale is momentous. (The fact that I met Jean-Pierre van Roy and his son Jean van Roy didn’t hurt.)

Ultimately, beer is more than beer. It’s people, it’s place, and it’s personality. And just like you can read a beer review and gather what it’s like to try it but it’s better to crack open a bottle or can and experience it for yourself, the exact same applies to drinking said beer where it was made. Why settle for reading the marketing spiel about the birthplace of your favorite brew printed somewhere on the label or six-pack carrier when you can submerge yourself in the entire experience. The smell of malt lilting in the air as you approach a production brewery never gets stale. Magpies aren’t the only ones who like bright, shiny objects; the way one’s eyes light up upon seeing the overhead lights bounce of the stainless top of a mash tun rings true for every devotee of flavorful suds. And, if you’re lucky, you might get to shake the hand of the man, woman, men, or mixed nuts responsible for making that liquid, fermented dream come true. Sure they appreciate it when you buy their beer from a bar or bottle shop wherever you live, but they really love it when you take your valuable time to make that pilgrimage to thank them in person.

I’ve been to hundreds of breweries and I never tire of it. And I always look for someone wearing rubber boots in the tasting room because a big part of enjoying beer is sharing, or listening, to stories whether they involve beer or not.

 

Bend, Oregon > Bend, Belgium/Brazil

Bud Apricot Crush?

Bud Apricot Crush?

Opinions are like assholes AND beer: Not only does everyone have one but some are industrially large while others are artfully crafted.

The news is still sinking in that adorable, warm, fuzzy 10 Barrel Brewing, the homegrown brewery in the quaint, high-desert town in Central Oregon, has been acquired by beer behemoth Budweiser (ABI). The name 10 Barrel had already become outmoded considering the company ramped up to a 50-barrel system in Bend while keeping its original 10-barreler for R&D, added a 10-barrel pub in Boise, and will soon open the doors to its Portland pub* with a shiny new 20-barrel system thereby brining the total to 90 barrels already. Combine this with AB-InBev’s and it’s something on the level of 10 Million Barrels (give or take a few hundred million in overall volume).

Whether you, dear reader, personally take the “Sellouts!” side or fall into camp “Good for them,” and whether your BuyLocalism will lead to you never buying a drop of beer from this brewery now under the Bud-brella or you think that crowd’s just butthurt and it won’t affect your purchasing decision since good beer is good beer no matter who cuts the paychecks, one thing is clear: Oregon beer will never be the same again. Exactly the way it was never the same again when they bought a 30+% minority stake in Widmer Brothers and the Craft Brew Alliance. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just ask the folks who worked at and drank beers from Chicago’s Goose Island, New York’s Blue Point, Hawaii’s Kona, Seattle’s Red Hook, and, undoubtedly, Anywheresville, USA’s next AB takeover.

*Even more than my curiosity how this will impact the forthcoming Portland outpost, I’m more curious how other brewers in the tight-knit community of Bend brewers will handle this in the short and long term. Naturally, in the now, they’re all ShockTopped, er, shocked. But will it really have any implications for them, financially? The original and graddaddy, Deschutes, is already tracking to brew 2 million barrels by 2020. Worthy just opened with a hefty pair of deep pockets. Add in Boneyard and those four already factor into Oregon’s 14 largest brewing companies. The money’s already there. We still call it “quaint,” but beer is already big business in Bend, also home to a few others.**

**Ale Apothecary, Below Grade, Bend Brewing Co., Bridge 99, Crux Fermentation Project, Good Life, North Rim, Oblivious, Old Mill Brew Wërks, Old St. Francis (McMenamins), Platypus,  Rat Hole, RiverBend, Silver Moon, and soon a few more, not counting their neighbors throughout Central Oregon.

In the end, unless the guys from St. Louis, er, Leuven, Belgium, er, São Paulo, Brazil decide to expunge the firepit, revoke the welcome sign to dogs, stop serving kids meals on frisbees, and turn the beer from delicious to disastrously flaccid like some others in their portfolio, this game-changing news will, ultimately, result in a collective yawn like the one yawned every time a beer geek gets his mitts on one of the various bottles of Bourbon County Stout. Or, locally, Widmer Bros. Marionberry Hibiscus Gose.

Y’know what else this means? The Big Boys are really, really paying attention to what Oregon breweries are up to. And they, like us, like what they see.

San Diego is the Greatest Beer City. San Diego is Not the Greatest Beer City.

I might have been inclined to call pitting San Diego against Portland a fool’s errand, since both of them are clearly so awesome. But my editor Ezra Johnson-Greenough gave me explicit instructions: “don’t pull your punches (and) at least take off your gloves and slap someone with them.” Hence the above-linked blog from March 2014 in The New School.

So as a solid to him, rather than bring up, and then put on par, places like Boulder/Denver/Ft. Collins, the Bay Area, Asheville, Grand Rapids, Philly, Austin, Vermont, and others that all make reasonable claims, I will do what Portlanders are too polite (or dismissive) to do during Charlie Papazian’s annual BeerTown USA poll. Bottom line: in terms of volume and global awe and respect, it comes down to Portland, Oregon, and San Diego, California. And as everyone who’s seen The Highlander knows, there can be only one!

It’s a debate I didn’t start. And one I didn’t finish. It’s blazing ever brighter today. A half pint for your thoughts on the matter in the comments.

Death Rides a Pale Horse Brewing

In the span of traversing the state of Oregon researching veteran as well as rookie breweries, it stands to reason some soldiers will fall on the battlefield. But are they squeezed out of the marketplace or does their ticker simply stop…ticking? I found myself in Salem anyway, so I took the time to pop across the street from one that was still under construction to visit the not-young owner of one that was in the midst of selling off parts. Here’s that story for The New School on Pale Horse Brewing and the intriguing discussion about what leads a brewery to fail in the comments section.

95% Asshole Free

I don’t recall the specific conversation that inspired this post for The New school, but that’s probably the point–that it wasn’t one straw that broke this camel’s back.

It used to be said that the craft beer industry was “asshole free.” Then someone made that figure a bit more realistic and many now refer to it as “99% asshole free.” For years, that was entirely true. Now? I begrudgingly consider it 95% asshole free. That’s still amazingly better than you’re apt to find in any other industry, social scene, or grouping of any sort. Look at the people in the last classroom you were in. In the last office job you have/had. In your family, even. The fact is, whether you’re a brewer, a beertender, an avid beer fan, or in some way connected to the craft beer milieu, odds are you’re a pretty great guy or gal. I look forward to our next or first beer together. (Unless you think I fit into the 5% of jerkwads, in which case go eff yourself.)

For a long time, there was a sense that it was one-for-all and all-for-one among the band of brewers, at least all the little guys versus the few big guys. That’s changing. Not on the whole or in giant leaps, but I’ve noticed some disparaging comments here, or there some snide remarks pointed at a new or neighboring brewery. Obviously those utterances don’t make the utterer an asshole in any overall sense—there’s a big difference between being an asshole and just acting like one—but brewers are saying some assholish things about their colleagues.