Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Beer From Here: An Observation From the Road

Those of you who follow drinkdrank on FB and Twitter know that I’ve just landed back in Albany after a twelve day, nearly two-thousand mile trek to Pittsburgh via Myrtle Beach. The car was loaded with (far two many in my opinion) bags, bikes, snacks and electronics as well as a four-year-old and an eight year old, and a much older year-old, too. The trip was fun, but I wouldn’t hesitate to also add the descriptor “grueling” into conversation (especially I-79 in West Virginia—yikes!)

As you might expect along with all the vacation normalities—sand, sunburn, cranky kids—I also came across a good bit of beer. Actually I did more beer hunting than I normally do. All said and done I brought back 19 different brews, from 15 different breweries hailing from five states (Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia and western Pennsylvania) All “Beer from Here”—that is to say beer made locally or (close to local) to wherever I was at any given point during the trip. A pretty good haul—and that doesn’t include the stuff I sampled while out and about.

My beery hunt took me to a few beer distributors and bottle shops, a number of grocery stores, and more than a few bar and restaurants. As I wrote last week, the South is really starting to come into its beery own. But I noticed something more interesting, even in Pennsylvania.

“Beer from Here” isn’t wacky or gimmicky.

By that I mean, walking into a store or bar I saw the überbeers, and the barrel-aged bourbon bombs, the hoppy floor polishes, and the mango/lavender/donkey penis infused sours. None of them, however, were local brews*, just domestic “imports’ from Rogue, Southern Tier, New Holland, and the like. All well established north, northeastern and west coast breweries. I suppose those breweries are local to some folks, but they also have a pretty wide range of distribution.

The 19 “Beer from Here” beers I brought back were all pretty simple stuff—pale ales and IPAs, a few ambers and reds, porters, stouts and browns—and that’s all they are. There were no 22% ABV stouts made with imported coffee, or Leychee nut IPAs spiked with pink peppercorns, at least none that came from local breweries—that I saw. Just beer made with regular old beer ingredients. And it’s not that I was actively searching for simple beer, that’s just what was available. In the South especially, there’s almost—as Al said in an email—a “pre-craft” mentality. A microbrewery (rather than a “craft” brewery) frame of mind that focuses on making good, small-scale beer. The Duck-Rabbit and Foothills Brewing Companies are prime examples of this.

So where does the “new, next, better” beer mentality come from? It doesn’t seem to be being spawned at the local level, at least not from the 15 “local” breweries I got samples from. It seems to me with age, comes expansion and with growth comes gimmicks and wackiness—and ever the perpetuating need for “innovation” that fuels the fan-boy mentality and jacks up the price of beer.

But therein lies the rub. Isn’t expansion the goal? Isn’t that what everyone wants to do—grow their business? Are gimmicks and wackiness inevitable?

I hope not.

*Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina’s Westbrook Brewing Companys’ White Thai—a lemongrass and Asian-spiced witbier—might be might be the exception here. Not bad, just an exception.


  1. Craig, the gimmick route isn't inevitable (and it can't really last as the options get used up). The way forward, IMO, is the way pioneered by Anchor and Sierra Nevada: unlike some other of the larger craft breweries, for a good long time they stuck to their knitting, perfecting a core of (mostly) 5-6% ABV, good-tasting beers. That is what made Sierra Nevada Pale Ale the star it is, and Anchor Steam or Liberty Ale so well known. True, in the last couple of years both these shops have made more of a "craft" (vs. micro as you said) range, I guess they felt they just had to to stay relevant. But their good work was largely done. That is the way ahead for the local breweries making the good old styles that history has handed down: perfect them (their taste, stability, appearance), tweak them until they are so good they become indispensable to the market.


    1. You'd think that would be the path wouldn't you? But gimmicks and tricks work a lot faster.