Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The State of American Craft Beer

I found this article interesting.

Written for The Atlantic.com, the article's author, John Tierney considers the U.S beer industry over the past year and as the piece's subtitle notes, he takes a look at "What's rising, what's fading, and what people are really drinking"

For the beery minded, what Tierney writes isn't much of a revalation—domestically produced macro's have had sales losses; imports have had a slight rise in sales (especially Mexican made beer); and craft beer is on the rise. Tierney specifically mentions the amazing jump Lagunitas had this past year—an 80% plus rise in case sales between 2012 and 2013.

What caught my eye though, was the total sales numbers for the three categories. The top three in each category were: Bud Light in the domestic macro group at $5.94 billion, Corona Extra in the Import category at $1.22 billion, and in the craft category, Samuel Adams at $329 million. But, take a look at the total craft sales—about $1.8—versus just the top two brands in the other categories. There's a $5.36 billion dollar difference between the top two domestic and imported beer labels in the country, and the top 10 best selling craft breweries*.

That's two individual brands versus ten breweries, folks.

So what do I take away from this?  

As usual I'll let my standard sense of skeptism with the craft mantra rear its head. I hear a lot of folks saying that people are demanding locally made and sourced, innovative craft beer. But, is that really the case, or is that what the craft breweries and their fans have led themselves to believe? I have 5.36 billion reasons to think otherwise. Granted the so-called "craft" category has seen growth, but it's one thing to offer a variety of "innovative" beer, but quite another for it to be truly wanted. Add to the mix that micros, nanos and subnanos are opening hand over fist—and yet there is an industry acknowledgement of quality control issues, by some participants. Perhaps, the craft segment's rapid growth is not as healthy as it might seem—or is perpetuated to be.

Here's why I worry. It's one thing to open a small brewery with the intent to stay small—that is to say with no goal to expand. It's quite another thing to use a small brewery brewery as a springboard for larger plans. With expansion comes investment, and with investment comes the demand for return, and in turn the demand for return begets gimmicks and marketing simply to sell beer—and not necessarily good beer. At some point we'll end up having have hundreds of medium-sized craft breweries carrying oodles of debt, and producing marginal beer saddled with gimmicks and ploys, simply to pay down that debt—in a market that doesn't truly demand it.

How sustainable is that? More importantly—are we already there?





*Three of which—Widmer, Kona and RedHook—are partially owned by ABInBev, by the way.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Take Note

Last night I was grilling burgers. The weather has broken (some what) in Albany, and one of my happy place is in front of my Weber cooking various and sundry meat, with a bottle of beer in my hands. Occasionally I read the jibber-jabber on the neck or back label of these bottles—there's not much else you can do in the 4 minutes between burger flips. Usually the tiny, five point type tells me how innovative a brewery is, or how their beer was inspired by pirates or their traditional methods of adding Valentines Day candy to their beer.

The label of the beer in my hand last night took a different approach. At this point, I suppose I should mention what was I was drinking—The Just Beer Project's Anytime IPA, a sessional, and quite quaffable, IPA-like brew. The JBP comes from the minds of Alan Newman and Stacey Steinmeitz (formerly of Magic Hat) now the big cheeses at Boston Beer Company's subsidiary Alchemy & Science, Burlington, Vermont.

So what caught my eye? This:
CONFUSED BY THE STORIES? OVERWHELMED BY THE VARIETY? JUST PLAIN THIRSTY? 
THE JUST BEER PROJECT is a craft-beer company located in Burlington, VT. Our mission is to deliver world-class craft-beer, expertly brewed, without all the complication. You drink it. It tastes great.
That sounds more like something coming from Miller Light or Corona, than a craft brewery, nowadays. So, I read it twice. Let me lay it down for you again, too.
CONFUSED BY THE STORIES? OVERWHELMED BY THE VARIETY?JUST PLAIN THIRSTY? 
THE JUST BEER PROJECT is a craft-beer company located in Burlington, VT. Our mission is to deliver world-class craft-beer, expertly brewed, without all the complication. You drink it. It tastes great.
No orchids from Africa? No essence of unicorn? No attempts to fuse a Belgian Sextuple with an American IPA, then spike it with Captain Crunch Crunch-berries and the sand from the tomb of Nebirau II, Pharaoh of the Sixteenth Dynasty? How can that be? You mean to tell me the plan is just to deliver expertly brewed, world-class beer?

Then what?

You drink it. It tastes great.

Mind. Blown.

Friday, April 4, 2014

PBR Me ASAP

Remember when I wrote, a few weeks ago, about bringing King Gambrinus back to Albany? Well, Milwaukee has trumped me.

According to the Associated Press' Carrie Antlfinger via the Minneapolis Star Tribunes website, a small group of Milwaukeeans have launched, an albeit long shot, campaign to bring back one of the cities iconic breweries—Pabst. 

Milwaukee and beer are indelibly tied to each other in the American collective conscience. SAB Miller's regional headquarters, and Miller's original brewery are located there; the city's Major League Baseball franchise is named the Brewers, and of course how could we forget, that Laverne & Shirley worked at the Schotz Brewery, in a fictionalized version of Milwaukee's Schlitz Brewery, on their namesake television show. 

In any case, as tied to beer as Milwaukee is, over the last 15 years, one of the cities iconic breweries, Pabst Brewing Company, has all but lost it's connection to the city. Pabst has been bought and sold about as much as the U.S. Congress, and has relocated or has been contacted brewed in so many places, I've lost track. It's now now anchored in Los Angeles, California, owned by Dean Metropoulous, who bought it in 2010 for a pittance—$250 million dollars. All that's left of Pabst in Milwaukee is a rotting building. 

So, some citizens of the city have mounted an effort to "Bring Pabst Blue Ribbon Home" Susie Seudleman, an organizer of the effort is quoted in the article.
"When I think about Pabst being anywhere else but Milwaukee, it just doesn't make sense. Milwaukee made this beer what it is. ... It's right on the can.
She also notes that the effort is as much about investing in the city of Milwaukee as it is the novelty of bring back a home town beer. The group is asking for all Milwaukeeans to give as much or as little as they can, in a plan similar to how the citizens of Green Bay, Wisconsin own the NFL franchise, the Green Bay Packers. It will be an uphill battle, though. Potential cost estimates by the Brewers Association, reach as high as $700 million to $1 billion dollars. The BPBRH campaigners, are un-phased. A town-hall-style brainstorming session is planned for April 23. 

Is it going to work? I don't know. That's a lot of semolians.

But I will say this, and not to beat a dead horse, I think an effort to bring a wayward brewery home—a brewery which will could possibly bring jobs, and substantive change to a community—is far more laudable than some of the gimmicks and schemes many craft breweries do in the name of beer.

For all you FBers out there (I heard there are a few of you) check out Milwaukee Should Own Pabst Blue Ribbon, here.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Designing Great Beer...Labels

There was one bright spot in the New York Times Magazine article about the Bjergso brothers. Thankfully it didn't have anything to do with them. Embedded in the article was link to a sidebar—or as the magazine calls it an "Interactive Feature"—in which, graphic designer Milton Glaser takes a critical eye to beer label design. Being a graphic designer, I'll admit to having my worlds collide here.

You might be asking, "Who the hell is Milton Glaser?"

At 84, Glaser's career spans from the era of skinny ties, cigarettes, and the Madison Avenue scene, to Adobe Photoshop and the digital revolution. He has designed some of the world's most recognizable "identities" (that's graphic design talk for logos), including I Love NY, Fed Ex, Target, and of course Brooklyn Brewery. He's most recognized however, for a poster he designed, entitled Dylan, which accompanied Bob Dylan's 1967 Greatest Hits album. More recently, AMC has asked Glaser to design the promotional material for the final season its 1960s, advertising-themed series, Mad Men. I gotta' say, that seems like a perfect match.

In any case, Glaser gives some insight into why some beer labels work—like Left Hand's Nitro Stout—and why some don't (sorry DogFish Head.) If you want a peak into the mind of someone who is really creative—and it sure ain't the bearded, brothers Bjerso—check out what Mr. Glaser has to say.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Celebrity of Beer

Fred McMurray for Blatz.
Now, he was a beer celebrity.
This past Saturday I was lucky enough to get invited to the Craft New York beer fest in Albany, by Ethan Cox, from Community Beerworks. It was fun. I had some great beer, some really fantastic food, and I got the chance to meet some new folks for the first time. In fact, Ethan myself and Matt Whalen from Hamilton New York's Good Nature Brewing had pretty fantastic conversation about farm breweries and the New York Brewer's Association (the organizer of the event) role in helping to move that initiative along. All in all it was a great evening

But I was struck by something I overheard.

A rather well known, local beer blogger was asked by someone what he was doing after the festival to which he responded that he was "just gonna hang out with some of the brewers" at the hotel bar. But why would he want to do that? He just spent three hours sampling beer, with the very same people he was going to sit at the bar with. Granted some of those brewers may have been friends—friends, perhaps he hadn't seen in a while. I suppose that they may have been to busy during the festival to really catch up. Maybe, but maybe not.

Now, I want to make this clear, what I'm about to write is in no way, shape, or form an indictment of this fellow. I don't know him and I don't care one way or the other what he wants to do with his time, but observing from a close distance, he seemed a bit like a groupie—a brewer groupie.

I've starred to notice that brewers are being diety-ized deified. I'm not talking about a generalized noting of the accomplishments of say Fritz Maytag or Peter Celis. I'm not even talking about acknowledging the business prowess of Peter Swinburne or Jim Koch. I mean there is a celebrit-zing of brewers. The New York Times, just yesterday, ran an article about the rivalry between Mikkel Bjergso of Mikkeller and his twin brother Jeppe, the founder of Evil Twin. Apparently these two jut can't get along and we're supposed to care. I'm not sure why we're supposed to care, but we are. Isn't that tabloid fodder? Sam Caligone had, and Martin Dickie and James Watt, from Scotland's Brew Dog, have a TV show for fuck's sake! Brewers went from simply being a folks who make beer, to some kind of beer making gurus. But like Frank Zappa said, what kind of guru are you? More importantly, this whole nonsensical adoration has going to some of their heads—and I'm not talking about beer foam.

The food world has been going through this for a while (actually I like Guy Fieri). But be it beer or food, the focus is being shifted away from the product to the producer. When that happens, guess who suffers?

You and me.

Coincidentally, Alan Richman has an article on GQ.com about how a new breed of—as he terms them—"Egotarian" chefs are more interested in making food for their own enjoyment rather than the customer. I've pilfered the articles intro paragraph for my own beery needs. See if it rings true.
Something has gone wrong in our restaurant kitchens breweries lately. Suddenly, a new breed of chefs brewers seem to have decided that they should be cooking brewing beer not for your pleasure but for their own. In this competitive, male-dominated school of cooking brewing, the dishes beers that customers are served may be highly inventive and intelligent, but as Alan Richman notes, too often they are more self-indulgent than inspired. The result? Restaurants Breweries where the only person who needs to be pleased is never you, just the chef brewer.
What did I tell you? Not that far off, right?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Yeah...So...If You're Not Doing Anything Later...

...Maybe you can stop down at the Albany Institute of History & Art for their Hudson Valley Hops  (click here to buy tickets) event on April 12!

I'll be there. Alan will be there. Dieter will be there. Roger will be there.

Most importantly, beer will be there.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Albany Ale: Lack of Lager - Part II

Something has bothered me since I last wrote about the lack of lager brewing in 19th-century Albany.

We know that there were a fair number of Central European brewers in Albany as early as the mid to late 1840s and early 50s, operating small breweries. Some of these breweries continued to operate through the 1850s, 60s and 70s—and some for much longer than that. But there doesn't seem like they were making much lager.

It's not that Albany was devoid of lager, quite the opposite. As the 19th century progressed, more and more lager starts to be imported into the upper Hudson Valley. In 1857, Templeton's—a furniture store on Albany's main drag, Broadway, advertised refrigerators for sale. Suitable for, as the ad expresses, "Grocers, Butchers, and Lager Beer purposes." Around the mid-1860s we also begin to see advertisements for lager being imported into the area—like Rochester lager.

As I mentioned in my original post, there is however, very little advertising evidence that German brewers in Albany were producing lager before the 1860s. This was from my original post:  In 1860, Daniel Ayer began advertising one acre of land for sale on the Burt Farm "For A Lager Bier Brewery", what became of that acre, is unknown. There was also an 1865 attempt by the Albany lager sellers to raise enough capital to build their own lager brewery, but it seems to have failed. It's not until the 1870s that there is any significant newspaper mentions of lager breweries in Albany—and honestly, they are pretty scarce, at that point too. In fact, most references to early-lager breweries in the city are from historical or industrial publications from the mid-1880s.

So what were they making, if not lager? Certainly not Anglo-style ale. A conversation between myself, Ethan Cox of Buffalo's Community Beer Works and Alan McLeod may have shed some light on the these pre-1860 German brewers.

Ethan, came across a reference to a Buffalo brewer, Rudolph Baer, supposedly brewing lager in that city as early as the late 1830s. Looking a little further, it appears that Buffalo stakes claim to a number of brewers making lager during the late 1830s and 40s, all of whom, according to Buffalo, were making it previous to Philadelphia's Johann Wagner. It's generally accepted that the Bavarian-born Wagner was the first brewer in the U.S. to make lager—in 1842. Buffalo seems to not agree with that—and hasn't for quite a while. This beery-rivalry between Buffalo and Philadelphia dates to the the 19th century. 

A publication put together by the U.S. Brewer's Association in 1896 might just answer what those Buffalo brewers—and those early Albany Germans—were making. Here's what Documentary History of the United States Brewer's Association says about the whole matter: 
Philadelphia, as has already been stated elsewhere, is generally regarded as the birth-place of the lager-beer trade. In the absence of authentic information to the contrary we may accept this statement by which both the exact date of the first introduction of lager-beer and the name of the first American lager-beer brewer have been definitely established. It is upon the authority of Lauer, who brewed lager as early as 1844, that trade historiographers hold that Wagner, a Bavarian brewer, established in business at Philadelphia, first brewed lager-beer in 1842. This claim is controverted by local historians of the city of Buffalo, who assert that as early as 1838 Jacob Roos brewed lager-beer in his establishment upon the site of the present Iroquois Brewery. Without going back quite so far, the same authorities present a still stronger case against the Wagner claim in the statement that Schanzlin & Hoffmann brewed "lager" in 1840, and both Joseph Friedmann and Magnus Beck, previous to the year 1842. The earliest German brewers of the city of New York certainly do not claim priority in this respect. In Sommer's brewery, for instance, which in 1840 was located on Broadway, near 18th Street, only small-beer was brewed. And when the Schaefers, Fritz and Max, two venerable pioneers of the trade, bought this brewery in 1842, this mode of brewing was retained and continued for several years, probably as late as 1849. Fritz Schaefer is the gentleman whose name occurs in nearly every chapter of this history in connection with the financial status of the association, as he held the treasurership for many years. It would be an unprofitable and useless task to scrutinize the testimony presented for and against Lauer's assumption, or to enter into a methodical discussion of the matter. There is this to be said however. If the Buffalonian claim rests upon a solid foundation concerning the dates and the brewers named, a closer enquiry, if it were at all possible, would probably reveal the fact that the malt-liquor brewed prior to 1842 was not lager-beer, but of a kind generally known as "Schenkbier." If it were really Bavarian lager-beer, then Lauer's version as to the date of its introduction becomes clearly untenable; but right here we are confronted by certain facts as to brewing in the city of New York, which justify a strong presumption in favor of our explanation as to the nature of the beer in question. It is known that Gillig, the founder of several "dynasties of brewers," when beginning his business, in 1840, upon the very spot where now stand the Vanderbilt palaces, did not brew lager-beer. He continued to brew an ordinary Schenkbier until 1846, when, after removing his establishment to Third Street, he obtained from Philadelphia the necessary yeast for brewing lagerbeer, and thenceforth manufactured this beverage. In like manner every available bit of information obtained by the writer in this and other cities seems but to confirm the Philadelphia claim to the effect that "lager" was introduced in 1842. Before the end of the decade— German immigration having in the meantime assumed unprecedented proportions—a considerable number of lager-beer breweries were established there as in every city having large German populations. Charles Engel, C. W. and Gustavus Bergner, C. C. Wolf, L. Bergdoll, C. Psotta, John Klumpp were among the more prominent pioneers. In the city of New York we have in addition to Gillig, the forty-eighter A. Schmidt, founder of the Lion Brewery; the two Kupperts, Franz and Valentine, A. Huepfel, John Bechtel, John Kress, Traudtmann, Rosenstein, Greunewald, Kirchhoff and a few others, whose names are not as familiar to the present generation.
Today, "Schenkbier" or "Schankbier" are low ABV, top-fermented brews—Central European-style "ales"—and definitely not lager. The name Schankbier literally translates to "draft beer", and is a term used for German beer taxation purposes—its low ABV denotes a lower levied tax. The taxation bit would not have traveled with the style, but it makes sense that those early Buffalo and Albany brewers were making something more in line with Schankbier rather than lager, or for that matter Anglo-style ale. The breweries were small—especially compared to Albany ale breweries at the time—and Schankbier at 2% (or lower) would have been far cheaper to produce than standard Anglo-style ale; they wouldn't have needed refrigeration or lager yeast; and brewers from similar ethnic backgrounds in New York City were also, commonly, making a similar product. 

Here's one more interesting connection. The Weber family opened a small brewery in the now defunct area of Kingston NY in 1858. By 1872 the Weber's had relocated to Albany. The Weber's didn't make lager however, they made Weiss bier—and became fairly well known for it. Maybe—and this is pure speculation—those Weber Weiss Biers weren't so much like a Bavarian Weiss, but more like a 2% ABV, Schankbier-esque, Berliner Weiss?

Nur etwas zu denken.