Friday, February 28, 2014

Albany Ale: The King Has Left the Building

I'm thinking of mounting a campaign.

Civil rights? Protecting the environment or an endangered species? Oh no, nothing that noble. 

You see, a very important historic and cultural icon has been taken—nay ripped away—from its rightful home in Albany. Like precious art and stolen by the Nazis during during the second world war. Okay, maybe not it's not that important—and there were no Nazis, or really ripping of any kind, involved—but what it is, is pretty cool.

A detail from a Beverwyck serving tray
(c.1900) showing Gambrinus above the
brewery's main entrance.
Back in the late 19th-century there was an architectural trend that was popular in the brewing world—adding an effigy of Gambrinus (the mythical, Medieval, Low County King, and patron "saint"* of brewers) to your brewery building. These figures were based on similar versions found in Europe, showing the king hoisting a tankard of beer in the air, and resting his foot on, or near, a cask. A number of of these statues popped-up across the U.S., during the 1870s and 80s. Breweries like Pabst in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; American in Baltimore, Maryland; August Wagner in Columbus, Ohio; and Krueger, in Newark, New Jersey (just to name a few) all adorned their buildings with versions of the kingly statue.

Not to be outdone by his rivals, in 1878 Albany's Michael Nolan—while building his swanky new lager brewery, Beverwyck—festooned his brewery with a statue from the Brooklyn, New York firm of M. Gelbelt & Bros**. One of three firms in the county to make these models. Cast first in zinc, then enveloped in copper, the sculpture was polychromed to match the building's color scheme. Polychroming was a practice of decorating architectural elements and sculpture with paint. Although the technique waned in the 20th century, it was quite popular in the late-19th century.

The King (and some other
dude) at the Leigh Valley
Brewery, today.
The nearly 12 feet tall King Gambrinus stood in an archway above an entrance to Beverwyck—well past Nolan's death in 1905, through the dark days of Prohibition, and even after the purchase of Beverwyck by F&M Schaefer Company in 1950. It stayed in that arch for a total of 94 years, until Schaefer closed its Albany plant in 1972. Although, and unfortunately, the brewery itself was torn down, the Gambrinus figure was moved to Schaefer's new facility, the Lehigh Valley Brewery, outside Allentown Pennsylvania. Schaefer stopped brewing at that location in 1980, but the brewery has continued to operate, as a satellite brewery for a number of companies—Stroh's, Pabst, Diago and most recently the Boston Beer Company. There, perched on a brick pedestal, the king sits in the brewery's new beer garden. 

David Grinell, vice-president of brewing for the Boston Beer Company, spoke about the Gambrinus statue in a 2010 interview with Modern Brewery Age. He noted.
"You remember the Gambrinus statue at that brewery? It was painted with about 15 colors, I'm not sure why. There about about 5 or 6 of these Gambrinus statues still around that date from the 19th century, when they served as brand icons or mascots for the old family breweries. I think City might have one in LaCrosse, and Pabst used to have one or two. And now we have one. When we showed up, and saw it was multi-colored, we found someone to refurbish it."
Refurbished? I kinda wish they hadn't done that. Us, Albnaninas, would have recognized the importance of that paint. Would they "refurbish" the Mona Lisa by erasing her smile? Would they "improve" David, by adding a fig leaf. No I think not. I'm not even sure the king is safe out in that so-called "beer garden".

So, let's get some letters written, and that socially-based media churring. Hell, I'll even spring for fat markers and poster board for placards, because long story short…


*He's not actually a saint—or a real person for that matter.

**According to Zinc Sculpture in America, 1850-1950, the actual sculptor of Beverwyck's Gambrinus is unknown, but it is a "Fiske" Gambrinus, a version which depicts a more youthful king, popularized by the decorative cast iron and zinc manufacturer, J.W. Fiske, of New York City. Pabst's effigy was an earlier wooden, more well-fed, "Demuth" version, from Wm. Demuth & Co, a pipe maker in New York known for cigar-store figures.

Monday, February 24, 2014

States of Matter

I am not a gastropub guy.

To be honest find them to be the embodiment of everything I dislike about craft beer culture. From their style over substance nature, to the justification and treatment of beer as the "new" wine; and their overly-self indulgent menus. They have a pretentious, hipster-like quality that makes my skin crawl. I always feel self-conscience eating at them, as if my hoodie and sneakers just aren't as cool as tattoos and and ironically ugly cardigan sweater. I get that there are food trends, but, relabeling pizza as "flatbread" isn't fooling anyone, and it sure isn't an excuse to charge $24 for it either.

I also can be proven wrong.

Here's the set-up. My wife and I spent a much need 36-hour, overnight away from the kids in Lake Placid, New York. We did our fair share of eating and drinking but one place stood out—even though it falls squarely into the gastropub wheelhouse. Funky artwork on the wall, farm to table-this and that, and a meticulously thought out beer pairing menu. Everything that I dislike about what makes gastropubs, gastropub-by.

In all fairness, it was my idea to go there in the first place. We had just been in the Lake Placid area the weekend before (with the kids), and as we were heading out of town I noticed a new sign on what I remembered to be a pretty dive-y place. The sign read: Liquids and Solids at The Handlebar. I was intrigued.

So we went this weekend.

Yes, like I said the place had the funky artwork on the wall, farm to table-this and that, and a meticulously thought out beer pairing menu—but it was cozy. There were no ironic cardigans and I didn't feel judged by my lack of tattoos. In fact I might argue that in our late thirties (as late as you can be without being 40) we were the youngest couple in the place, although a few younger folks may have headed in before we finished. The place had been, as I thought, a dive bar—The Handlebar—but four years ago that place closed and, the now proprietors switched things up a bit with better food and better booze. Oh, and a year ago they added a butcher shop right next door. They have a great selection of bottled beer and five or six on draft. The beer list was approachable, not all a bunch of Belgian Quadruples and palate erasing hop bombs, although some of those were available. I had two from the drafts—a Jack's Abby Lashes Hopbock and Stillwater Artisanal Folklore.

The food—oh, the food—was really the star. We started with a lamb rilletes, served with sweet gerkins, pickled onions, cranberry Dijon and toasted bread. Yum. Amy had Salisbury steak (formed into a meat ball with a soft boiled egg in the middle), served with a Bordelaise sauce, and sweet potato and kale hash. It was spectacular, with just enough "Salisbury steak-iness" to harkened back to those frozen TV dinners we all had as kids. I went with the partridge leg served over gnocchi and spinach, in a light-cream sauce of bacon, and more shredded partridge meat. All I can say is holy-moley. Do you remember the Brady Bunch episode when Bobby gets kissed by a girl—for the first time—and he spaces out thinking of fireworks? That's what it was like eating the partridge. 

So, for now at least one gastropub is okay in my book. But I'm holding off on buying skinny jeans and a scarf. 

By the way—the two beers, the rillettes, and our two entreés was a whopping $48...

...and I am hip to that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Turning Beer Into Water

I think CNN might be being a tad hyperbolic with a headline of "Beer Saves Town From Drought", but kudos to Bear Republic for coming up with a mutually beneficial solution.

Click for video.
Video courtesy of CNN.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Reality Check

You may not like the big boys of brewing, but you have to admit, they are great at making money.

Goldman Sachs' analyst, Robert Boroujerdi, looked at the past ten years of merger trends in the global beer industry (among other industries) this month, and sent a cheery little note along to his clients:
The global beer industry has undergone a steady process of consolidation. Ten years ago the global beer industry was highly fragmented with Anheuser-Busch’s 8.5% market share enough to make it the global leader. Since then, a steady process of consolidation via M&A (Merger and Acquisitions) has taken place – often focused around cost-cutting opportunities (e.g. the $60 bn merger of Anheuser-Busch and InBev completed in 2008) or geared towards acquiring attractive emerging market assets (e.g. Heineken’s $24 bn acquisition of Asia Pacific Breweries completed in 2012).
Today’s AB InBev, with an estimated 21% market share, has been the driving force behind much of this consolidation. Interbrew’s acquisition of AmBev in 2004 created a new global leader, InBev, with 11% share and the subsequent Anheuser-Busch/InBev merger in 2008 again created a global leader, AB InBev, with 20% market share. Today’s top 5 companies represent more than 50% of the global market (versus 32% for the top 5 players in 2003), and the industry’s HHI* has risen to 725 in 2013E from just 276 in 2003.
As fun as it is to read all that jibber-jabber, Business Insider's Matthew Boesler, was kind enough to compare the merger trends and market share for the industry, between 2003 to 2013, in two handy-dandy, pie charts (Yea pie!) 

That's not very many companies on the right side of the 2013 map.

We've all heard that craft beer is booming in the U.S. It's production was up 15% in 2012, and sales were even higher at 17%. But, let's jump back to a line from Mr. Boroujerdi's note, "… or geared towards acquiring attractive emerging market assets." In light of ABInbev's most recent acquisition—Patchogue, New York's, Blue Point Brewery—that snippet takes on a slightly different meaning, doesn't it? 

Guess what. 

The craft beer industry in the U.S. is an "attractive emerging market." As much as everyone might not like it, this is the reality. ABInbev, is going to continue to "merge or acquire" as many craft breweries—or at least as many of the profitable ones—as they can. 

Guess what, again. 

The idea of brewery consolidation in the U.S. isn't all that new—it's been happening in our beer market since the 1890s—and probably earlier.

Guess what—one last time.

It's a two way street.

*"HHI" stands for Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, a common measure of industry concentration

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Albany Ale: The Curious Case of Mr. Delavan

John Taylor was a pretty important figure in 19th century Albany. He was a brewer, a businessman, water commissioner, canal boat magnate and Mayor. Hell, he'd eventually own the largest brewery in the country. But he may have done more for the U.S. temperance movement, in the early 19th-century, than anybody else in the country at the time.

Courtesy of the Albany Institute of History & Art
You might ask yourself why would a brewer help the anti-drink movement? Truthfully, he didn't mean to help them, it just sorta worked out that way.

Calls for state-wide or national temperance of alcohol began in the U.S., well before the time of John Taylor, but during the first part of the 19th century, New York was becoming a hotbed for the anti-drink stance. It was being fueled by the absolutist ideals and social activism of the Second Great Awakening as well as the pro "American" and often anti-ethnic views of many political parties during the antebellum period. By the late 1820s however, politics and infighting had fractured the movement and its progress had stalled.

The movement had split—with temperance moderates allowing some, responsible drinking on one side, and teetotaling prohibitionists, like the Connecticut preacher, Lyman Beecher, advocating against the use of any and all liquor, on the other side. It would be the later group that that would set their crosshairs on the brewers of Albany—led by the Edward Cornealius Delavan.

Delavan, a one time wine merchant in New York City, benefited from the success of the Erie Canal, and profited so greatly in the real estate market that by 1827 he had amassed enough of a fortune to retire—at the age of 34—to the outskirts of Albany. It was at this time that the young Mister Delavan, denounced his previous boozy employment, and took up the cause of temperance. Within two years he and his like-minded cohorts had founded the New York Temperance Society. Delavan evangelized the virtues of non-drink to the wealthiest of Albany society, asking them to lead by example, by discarding their expensive, imported wines. His zealotry however, hit a ever pitch when he mounted a campaign against Eucharistic wine in the mid 1830s. A position seen as tenuous, even by his own society members. But that didn't stop Delavan.

The number of breweries in Albany made the city's brewers an easy target for Delavan. In the 1830s, he began an all out war on beer in Albany. He publicly denounced many of the city's breweries, but in a February 12, 1835 article in the Albany Evening Journal, he took it one step further. Delavan claimed that John Taylor was drawing water, by which to malt with, from a pond contaminated by the rotting corpses of animals dumped there by slaughterhouses and glue factories; and from a stream which passed through the cemetery of the city's Almshouse. Although the claims against Taylor were the worst, Delavan targeted a number of brewers, and $300,000 worth of libel damages—from seven other of the city's brewers—would be brought against him, ultimately though, only John Taylor's suit was prosecuted.

Taylor, arguably the city's most well-known brewer, and therefore the one with the most to lose, filed his a libel suit against the prohibitionist in 1835, but it would not go to trial until five years later. The trial itself lasted six days, with some seventy witness testifying on both side. Try as they might to discredit Delavan, Mr. Taylor's lawyers fell short in that task—most likely since Taylor had indeed been using putrid water. Delavan proved this without a shadow of a doubt, was acquitted, and Taylor was ordered to pay cost.

Now, you'd think that Delavan's damning revelations would have collapsed the Albany brewing industry, but as George Rogers Howell so eloquently notes in his 1886 publication of the Bicentennial History of the County of Albany: "Higher ground was taken; and more aggressive and stringent methods advocated…" Everyone seemed to have washed their hands of the whole affair. The city's brewing industry didn't collapse, in fact it boomed, and Taylor continued brewing and became infinitely wealthy —and was elected mayor!

But the effects would be felt. Eventually.

You see, Edward Delavan was sneaky—or more to the point a propagandist. His intended goal was not to destroy the brewing industry in a single upstate New York city, but rather to seed the prohibitionist mantra across the country. What better way to do that than to involve himself in a legal case that garnered national headlines? A court case, in which he was acquitted—to add insult to injury. The mighty John Taylor, played right into Edward Delavan's hand. Albany's biggest brewer was a patsy in the very best sense of the word—and he was never the wiser. Delavan continued to use guerilla techniques to spread the word of prohibition into the 1860s. The Taylor case, however, would be the first salvo, and it was lauded amongst prohibitionist into the 20th century.

Taylor versus Delavan was the first, wide-spread, mainstream, dissemination of the anti-drink message. A message that would gain so much momentum in the 80 years after the trial, that it would result in a thirteen year ban on alcohol in the United States.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Passing the Bar

This past Monday night I stopped by Albany's newest craft beer destination, the Madison Pour House. This new pub is in the exact location of one of the Northeast's former beer Meccas, Mahar's Public House. Purchased a year or so ago, by BM&T management—a local restaurant group—the location received a full gutting and was re-launched as a beer-focused pub.

I have to say, it looks great, and even though I know it was a compete reno-job, it still retains a cozy, hand-huned charm. It was packed—as was expected for its grand opening—but the service was great, the pub-grub looked good, and their 40 taps, plus another bunch of bottles was impressive.

Is that enough? And by "enough" I don't mean more beer, either.

Is it sufficient in this day and age—and into the future—to simply be a nice place with a big beer selection, especially in a small market?

Albany is a small city. It has a population of just a under 100,000 people in a 21.8 square mile area. So let's impose a few national averages onto our microcosm. Rounding the number of "of age" drinkers in Albany to meet the national average of 70%, drops our pool of possible beer drinkers to to 70,000. Gallop's 2010 poll question "Do you most often drink liquor, wine or beer" puts beer at the top of the list, nationally, at 41%. Using that percentage, moves Albany's beer drinking numbers to 28,700. This number though, assumes all beer, not just craft. Figuring that craft beer holds about 10% of the total U.S. beer market (by sales) today, and assuming sales are similar in Albany to the national level, then of the 28,700 possible beer drinkers, about 2,870 are buying craft beer.

Now, I'll admit math is not my strong point—so don't quote me on any of these numbers—and not everyone drinking craft beer in Albany lives in Albany, but I think that 2,500-ish, plus, craft beer drinkers in this area sounds reasonable.

By my count, there are at least eleven beer-focused bars within the city of Albany (including the soon-to-open World of Beer at Crossgates Mall). To clarify beer-focused, my criteria is:

Any bar with more than eight taps featuring craft beer, excluding brewpubs and generic chain restaurants. Food may be served, as well as liquor.
Using that very scientific approach, it works out to a beer-focused bar for every two-square miles within the city's limits. Dividing those eleven bars among our our earlier population number of about 2,870 craft beer drinkers, totals just about 260 available craft beer buyers per bar.  

Here's where I think it gets hinkey.

It used to be the rank and file bar/restaurant stuck with the major beer brands—with a Sam Adams or Guinness tap to satisfy the "dark beer" drinker. The times they are a changing. A lot of locally owned restaurants and not-necessarily beer-minded bars are are jumping on the craft bad wagon—not to mention the chain restaurants. Although I excluded them earlier, we do need to include them, now. More and more national restaurants are offering extensive selections of great beer. Places like TGI Fridays, Red Lobster and Pizzeria Uno are selling, not just national, but also local craft brands—and quite a bit of them, too. 

Aside from the sheer volume of good beer being sold in not-beer minded establishments, what about the potential "good beer" drinkers themselves? Of the 260 potential patrons per bar, how many of those folks regularly frequent the city's eleven beer-focused bars? And don't forget, the rest of the Capital Region also has number of great beer venues competing with Albany for those punters, as well. 

But, here's where I see the biggest pitfall—all eleven of those bars are buying the same beer from the same five or six vendors. The beer itself is great, As great as the Madison Pour House is, realistically, I struggled to find a draught beer I hadn't already had. The Pour House serves the same beer as the City Beer Hall and the City Beer Hall has the same basic selection as the Lionheart. The themed, or niche beer bars—like the city's German (Wolff's Biergarten), English (the Old English) and Belgian (The Merry Monk) establishments seems to be on to something. I think that's what played into Mahar's success for so long—it's uniqueness. It surely wasn't the service, but Mahars had something—for a very long time—that simply wasn't available anywhere else in Albany, or the Capital Region for that matter. That can't be said about any beer bar in the area anymore. 

Now, before everybody gets all crazy, I'm not seeing the collapse of the beer bar in Albany anytime soon—although there have already been two casualties—Savannah's and the Excelsior Pub (although I have it under good authority that "the Excelsior will rise again") . I'm also not waving the "End is Nigh" banner for the craft beer bubble, or revolution—or whatever you want to call it. I'm just making an observation. The beer-bar-for-craft-beer's sake, might start seeing the squeeze—in Albany—as more of those types of place open—and more will open. 

I suppose my real question is, what's the beer bar saturation point? When will the sponge take no more?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

American Beer Hates Chuck Todd

Yesterday morning, in response to Bob Dylan's Chrysler commercial which ran during Sunday night's Superbowl broadcast, Chuck Todd—NBC News' Chief White House correspondent and and host of the network's long running Meet the Press—took to the Twitterverse to say to American beer sucks.

And, oh how the butts were hurt. Mobs may have formed, and torches lit. There may have been a plan hatched to waterboard him with Sixpoint Resin, and a bar towel. That last bit may have been a rumor though.

The only problem is, Todd wasn't actually indicting the American beer scene. If fact quite the opposite. What he was getting at was—it's Chrysler who seems to think brewing should be left to the Germans, rather than to the Americans.

Heading back into the Twittery fray, two hours after his original post, Todd tweeted, first:
Folks didn't quite get my Dylan tweet; Didn't say I THOUGHT American beer sucks... was noting the ad implies Chrysler/Dylan think that
Then added a few minutes later:
Again, folks, was not criticizing American beers...was noting that Chrysler Dylan ad was implying it. Calm Down. Am a HUGE craft brew fan
Whew! The guillotine can be placed back into the closet. I guess Chuck Todd is not an asshole after all.

Seriously though, who cares?

Every time—and I mean literally, every time—someone says something misinformed, misleading, or in this case misinterpreted about craft beer, they get jumped on like the last bit of flesh on a dead animal surrounded by hyenas. What difference does it make if Chuck Todd did intend to say American beer sucks? Did Bells, or Hill Farmstead loose any market share? No. Did Jim Koch's plane fall out of the sky. No. Were babies poked with sticks. No. And yet the beer nerds everywhere felt the need to swoop in, like Errol Flynn, on a rope of snarky tweets—a thunderous calvary upon high horses, riding in to save beer's beseeched character.

I don't understand the need to defend beer—especially craft beer. The craft beer industry isn't fragile. It's not going to collapse at any moment. It doesn't need to be coddled and protected like some endangered species. It's okay to criticize craft beer. Just because you're an American craft-brewer, or local, or small, or only use free-range chickens and fair-trade snozzberries in your beer, doesn't make you better anyone else out there. It's your beer that makes you better.

Not always agreeing with "craft" doesn't make you less of a fan of beer, it just makes you less if a lemming.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Sup****owl Commercial

Tomorrow evening the Seattle Seahawks go head to head against the Denver Broncos in Superbowl XLVIII (that's 48 to all those non-Romans). As most of us know the game has become almost as famous for it's commercials as the gridiron war on the floor. A good number of those ads are beer commercials, mostly from the usual suspects—ABInbev, MolsonCoors, SABMiller, with maybe a spot for Guinness and Corona thrown in for good measure.

Who you might not have guessed would get in on the action is Newcastle. But, with Hieneken's purchase of Scottish & Newcastle back in 2008, the "Dog" has been coming on strong stateside. It's made appearances on the hit CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory and on House of Lies, the Don Cheadle led comedy/drama on the cable network Showtime. It's also being advertised in print, radio and on television far more than it had previously been in the U.S. I suppose an infusion of cash from the world's third largest brewery will help to do that.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll admit that I'm not the biggest fan of Newcastle. I find it a bit thin, truthfully. I am however, a fan of their new commercial starring Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick.

    Suck it.